I bought my first car two weeks ago from an old Cajun mechanic named Dub. For $2500 I got a gigantic white 1997 Lincoln Towncar with a plush burgundy interior, a cassette player, and the phrase ‘Executive Series’ written in cursive on the side. This thing turns heads, particularly when I attempt to parallel park. On Mardi Gras day, I foolishly attempted to drive across town. As drums and horns boomed from all directions, I ran into closed road after closed road. Some were officially barricaded or blocked by a patrol car with flashing lights, others were filled with people, lawn chairs, and barbecue grills. Soon I was trapped in my ridiculous piece of Detroit metal on a side street in the Treme, swal-lowed up by feathers, umbrellas, and cheers as the Zulu parade began to roll.
At its heart, Mardi Gras is a citywide pedestrian revolt against the car. When I first moved to New Orleans, I spent my first Carnival marveling at the parades. The elaborate costumes and wild music, the soaring floats and flying trinkets — but really, it was the simple thrill of being lost in the heat of the crowd as we swarmed down the middle of boulevards, the surreal acoustics of bands marching beneath a highway overpass usually tangled in traffic. We walked and danced through the city, seeing it from brand new angles, and I was reminded that cities are wild, emotional things and that we get along much better with one another when we’re not isolated behind two tons of metal armor. Why don’t people take to the streets like this more often?
Consider the May Day protest in 1971, when 35,000 citizens gathered in Washington, D.C. to shut down a government that refused to shut down a war. They snarled traffic by blocking 21 bridges and intersections to prevent government employees from getting to work. But the police were prepared, and so was the National Guard. Armed with tear gas, they swept the protesters into a makeshift detention center. Nearly 13,000 people were arrested, the largest mass arrest in American history (only 79 were charged and convicted). This is the dark counterpart to the ritualized revelry of Mardi Gras.
What does the middle ground look like? Are festivals and outrage the only causes for people to reclaim the streets?
Back in the Treme, I sat in my Lincoln, enjoying the parade yet worrying that I might be sitting here until sundown. Behind me, a woman in a pick-up truck honked her horn and made ugly faces. An old man in the Honda in front of me got out of his car and walked up to my window. “Nowhere to go,” he said. “We’re all boxed in, so we might as well park here a while and go enjoy the parade.” And we did.
James A. Reeves is a writer, educator, and designer. He’s a partner at Civic Center, a creative studio in New Orleans, and he writes at Big American Night. His first book, The Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir was published by W. W. Norton in 2011.