Not only was my trip to New Orleans during Mardi Gras fun and fascinating, it was also educational. I learned about hierarchy and power through the glorification of strands of beautiful, plastic, beads.
Mardi Gras beads come with rules. The beads with the name of the Krew throwing them are more desirable than just plain beads, even if the plain beads are a more beautiful color. And the ones with medallions are even more valuable. People will brawl over a strand of gold beads with a Bacchus medallion. I kid you not. A woman gouged my hand with her long, lethal finger nails to snatch a strand of beads from me. But there is also a wild camaraderie in the crowds begging for beads and people will often congratulate you for catching a good one. Someone draped with 20 pounds of beads is viewed with cheerful respect (25 pounds is not an exaggeration. Real Mardi Gras beads are heavy!). The Krews earn respect by the amount and variety of beads they throw.
The cost of those beads determines who gets to throw them. The wealthy can afford a seat on a float in a Krew while the poor either march in one of the marching bands or stand on the road begging for beads. Young, blond women get the most beads because most of the riders on the floats are wealthy, white men. Not all, and the Krews are becoming more egalitarian as times change in New Orleans. Sadly, I witnessed two young black girls, probably about 10, become heartbroken when they weren’t thrown beads like all the other, whiter children. I talked with their grandfather who explained how black people get fewer beads. He grew up in New Orleans and was now in his late 60’s; his entire family has dealt with the reality and now his granddaughters were feeling it first hand.
The power of the beads extends throughout the French Quarter. Bourbon Street is notorious for young women showing their breasts for strands of beads. This year, the police were writing tickets to anyone who bared her breasts, but women still did it. On one night, I stood on a balcony far above the chaos and watched the people beside me toss beads at partiers below. One young man had a huge strand of large beads and he waived it above the crowd like a fisherman waiving bait at a trout. A young girl stood below him and danced for the beads. He demanded she show her “tits”. She didn’t want to, but the young men she was with on the street coaxed and teased until she hesitantly lifted her shirt. Everyone cheered. The man on the balcony smiled and then tossed her a strand of thin, cheap beads, not the ones she had shown her boobs for. He laughed at her disappointed face. I turned to him and said, “Wow. You’re an asshole.” He called me a bitch. I walked away before I hit him with his giant strand of plastic beads.
The fight for beads was more intense this year because of the dockworker’s strike in Los Angeles. The city of New Orleans had ordered an extra shipment of beads from China, but the container holding millions of strands of beads was stuck in the LA harbor while the dockworkers and the port fought over a labor contract. That meant many of the people in the crowds were from other Krew’s hoping to fill up their bead stock before their parade the following day. No Krew wants to be known as stingy with beads. A group of women in matching yellow t-shirts held a large basket hoop with a box attachment to encourage bead throwers to aim for them. I was told they were from a rival Krew.
After four parades and numerous tours around “the Quarter” I had about 40 pounds of beads to haul home. I tried giving some away but was told by my husband (a native of New Orleans) “No!” Our beads were our booty, something to brag about and hang proudly in the window of our living room. The more you have, the better.
I wonder what will happen to the shipping container of beads now that Mardi Gras is over?