Mardi Gras was put on hold for a while last week while New Orleans (and the rest of the world) focused on the Super Bowl, but it takes more than the NFL's biggest event to derail Carnival. More than 20 parades are scheduled to hit city streets between now and Fat Tuesday, and there's something for everyone, whether your taste runs to pageantry or creativity, major spectacles or charming homemade processions. (See Rex Duke's Carnival preview, page 32.) Judging from the throngs that came out for the first weekend of parades, this year's Mardi Gras promises to be huge and festive. As we do every year, we offer our thoughts on how to keep Mardi Gras fun and safe.
Judging from the response to our recent story about the proliferation of ladders and other paraphernalia on parade routes ("Ladder control problem," Jan. 22), locals perceive a growing lack of courtesy at parades — much of it borne by people who become territorial over public space. A little common sense goes a long way here. If someone has spent hours waiting to see a parade, he or she deserves a better spot than someone who came along just when the floats began to roll.
On the other hand, many of our readers who grew up with Mardi Gras are perturbed about the increase in sofas, tents, staked-off spots and other attempts to hog space. (Don't even think about using spray paint on grass.) That neutral ground belongs to everyone. People are not only going to walk through "your space" — they have a right to do so. Calm down. Smile. It's Mardi Gras.
As for ladders, there's a law: They must be as far back from the street as they are tall. That's not an arbitrary rule; the law came about after a child fell off a ladder into the street and died. Besides, "walls" of ladders directly on the street block the view of everyone behind them — and they're obnoxious. Your child will still catch plenty of beads on top of a ladder set 6 feet back from the curb.
The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), as always, is out in force during Mardi Gras parades (Chief Ronal Serpas says his officers confiscated guns during the first weekend), and cops' primary objective is safety. Though it's probably unrealistic for cops to enforce every Carnival-related camping ordinance, we like the idea that one reader suggested: Have NOPD officers walk down the block before the parade arrives and politely tell people with ladders to move back. One warning should be all it takes.
Speaking of police: Theirs is the toughest job of all during Mardi Gras. Still, the vast majority of officers are great when it comes to crowd control and tolerating harmless fun — all while working long, exhausting shifts. They have no patience, however, for fools who think Carnival is a pass to break the law. Urinating on a building is guaranteed to get you arrested (cops rightly consider it disrespectful to their city, in fact). Same goes for the use of any illegal substances, as well as "flashing" — no, it's not legal, though police may look the other way.
The best rule of thumb during Mardi Gras is to do whatever a cop asks you to do — without argument. If another member of your party should run afoul of the law, don't attempt to intervene. He or she will need someone on the outside to negotiate a release. Just don't count on it happening too quickly. Those masked riders on the floats? Many of the city's attorneys and judges are among them. Court schedules are slow during the weekend before Fat Tuesday. Behave accordingly.
Other tips borne of experience: Don't squabble over beads; most are cheap plastic. Don't pick up beads from the ground without stepping on them first, or it may be your hand that gets stepped on. Hydrate: one bottle of water between each alcoholic drink is a good rule. Food is a necessity if you want to keep going all day and/or all night. While you're in a restaurant or club, make sure every member of your party uses the bathroom before leaving, so you won't get caught on the street with no place to "go."
Above all, have fun. The vast majority of Carnival revelers get through the season with nothing worse than a hangover. Follow our simple tips and you'll be among them. Have a wonderful Mardi Gras — and we'll see you on the streets.