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Mardi Gras in New Orleans: The greatest free party on earth 

It's always someone's first Mardi Gras. For those who grew up in New Orleans or who have lived here for many Carnival seasons, it's hard to remember a time when New Year's wasn't soon followed by purple, green and gold, by parades and parties and marching bands. But judging from the letters Blake Pontchartrain receives — What is a krewe? Why is there a baby in a king cake? — there are plenty of people for whom Mardi Gras and its folkways are a fascinating mystery.

  But Mardi Gras has some new wrinkles this year. The New Orleans City Council passed several ordinances changing the rules — the most significant of which is a ban on roping or taping off public property along parade routes. Whether you have an attic full of beads or are attending your first parade this year, the basics are worth reviewing.

  First, the new rules. Besides a ban on reserving space (an obnoxious practice that's gotten out of control in recent years, with some people practically moving their living rooms onto neutral grounds), there's also a ban on planting port-o-lets on neutral grounds and other public property. The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) says it will enforce both of these rules. Cops get very busy — and are mostly tolerant — during Mardi Gras, but it's best not to push things.

  What else is new? Throwing anything back at a float or rider has always been a no-no, but it now carries a potential $250 fine. "Snap pops," the little hybrids between caps and firecrackers, are now outlawed. And parade-viewing ladders (as well as grills or any other bulky items) now must be at least 6 feet back from the curb. That one should be easy to enforce by cops walking the route, and if it keeps people from forming ladder barricades, it'll be a welcome change.

  The rest falls in the overlapping categories of laws, good advice and common sense — chief among them being: Don't get arrested. That means don't get into fights or attempt to intervene in squabbles (cops will remove everyone involved and sort it out later); obey law enforcement requests; remove yourself from any situations that threaten to become heated; and don't fight over throws.

  An absolute don't: Don't even think about relieving yourself in public. If you do end up in jail, don't count on getting out any time soon — the courts are very busy, and many judges and lawyers are out having fun on those floats.

  There's a song called, "Ain't Nowhere to Pee On Mardi Gras Day," but it's only half-true. There are public portable toilets along most parade routes and in the French Quarter, and you can always use the bathroom at a nearby restaurant or bar as long as you buy something. Good rule of thumb: If you're leaving a bar, restaurant or private home, make using the bathroom the last thing you do. Smart paradegoers also tuck a "shorty" roll of toilet paper and even some wet wipes into their bags. (If you think it's tough finding a place to use the bathroom, try finding a place to wash your hands.)

  Try to alternate alcoholic drinks with bottles of water; you'll last longer. Same with food — don't get caught having one too many drinks on an empty stomach. If you're not up for a restaurant, plenty of corner stores are open with quick food to go. And if you're in recovery, Mardi Gras can be a hell of a shock. Lambda Center (1428 N. Rampart St., www.nolambda.org) is one block out of the French Quarter and can be a sanctuary (and it has Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and other recovery programs); check with the center for Carnival hours.

  Make sure everyone in the group has a meeting place in case you get separated. (Cellphones are great, but the network often goes down during big events when everyone is calling, texting and uploading photos.) Make sure guests have several numbers they can call if they get lost or in trouble. Don't take a wallet or a purse — an ID, a credit or debit card and some cash is all you need.

  Above all, have fun. Dress up. Make new friends. Give a stranger those great beads you just caught. Mardi Gras is still the greatest free party on earth, put on by the people of New Orleans for themselves and their guests. Whether it's your first Carnival or merely your latest, it's a celebration that welcomes everyone.

  See you on the streets.

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