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The Mobile Mardi Gras Experience

The Order of Inca parades down Royal Street in 2018

“It’s time for the boom boom” is something you hear people say in Mobile this time of year. What they mean is it’s Mardi Gras time. The boom boom is the echo of the marching band’s drums reverberating off of buildings downtown. No matter where you stand, you can smell sweet fried funnel cakes, smoked meat, and koozied beer. The music gets louder. The barricades are closed, and peddlers with carts full of oversized bead necklaces, nets for catching throws, gold, purple, and yellow jester hats, horns, and feather boas hurry to make last-minute sales before scuttling away.

A brigade of motorcycle cops cruise down the streets. People lean over the barricade looking for the first float. Anticipation is high. Boom. Boom. The parade is coming. Cheers ripple through the crowd as the float makes its way toward them. Now children are being hoisted on their parent’s shoulders, so they can get a better look.

The best throws go to the children. From the age they can speak, parents tell their children to shout, “Throw me something, Mister!”  It’s a time-honored tradition that means next to nothing because over the cheering crowd and the bands, no one can hear the tiny cries, “Throw me something, Mister!” But that’s okay. Chubby little hands wave in the air, and tiny voices get lost in the cacophony of, “Whoooos!” and boom, boom.

Costumed horsemen with plumed hats precede the first float. The order’s name Inca glows green, flanked by larger-than-life decorative tigers with green-glowing eyes. Adorned in silk and sequined costumes with masks obscuring their identities, the riders throw throngs of beads to the revelers below. Hula-hoops ring the arm of one rider, and the crowd clamors for his favor.

The parade rolls on. There’s another marching band; the yellow-vested police officer on the beat at Dauphin and Royal Streets dances along with the flag girls to the delight of the crowd. It’s Carnival season, so anything goes. On another float, a rider takes a heroic swig from the squirt bottle hanging around his neck before taunting the crowd with a stuffed teddy bear. It’s a particularly nice teddy bear, and the crowd responds, waving their hands harder and whoooing more loudly. Everyone flaps their hands for the coveted teddy. Nets are raised. The man continues his taunting until the crowd’s been worked into a real lather. He points at a kid and lobs the teddy in the kid’s direction. The kid catches it. His parents cheer. The kid was lucky.

I’ve seen more high-quality loot get picked off on its way to its target or get missed entirely. When the thing is missed, it’s a feeding frenzy. People clamor to the ground to be the first to retrieve it. The rules are simple: whoever gets it first gets to keep it. Everyone’s in it to win it. Some adults will give something as sentimental as a teddy bear or a faux rose or a foam football to a nearby child; others keep the thing for themselves. There seems to be a measure of personal value based on how much one can catch, like when we were children and during Halloween and there was always that one kid at school the next day, bragging about the pillowcase of candy he collected. I assume that kid grows up to be the kind of adult who’d nab a teddy bear out of the air as it sailed toward a child’s outstretched hands.

More floats and more throws flow down the city streets. Plastic-wrapped Moonpies soar through the air. These replaced boxes of Cracker Jacks, which were thrown until the ‘70s when it was determined the boxes were hurting members of the crowd. And, actually, just as actual boxes of Moonpies still sail off floats though that’s not really allowed, it was much later before Cracker Jacks disappeared from the parades entirely. I remember being a kid in the ‘80s and loving the sweet crunch of coated popped corn and peanuts in the Cracker Jack box. I even loved the way the box smelled—of musty cardboard dusted with sugar. But those are long-gone. Now, beads, balls, roses, plastic cups, doubloons, lacy garters, stuffed toys soar through the air. Almost anything goes when it comes to the throws. After and between the floats come the marching bands.

High school students from Mobile and surrounding counties look sharp in their uniforms, marching in unison and playing their instruments while flag girls and dance teams march along and perform. Boom boom go those drums. I cheer when the iconic Excelsior Band passes by. The band was formed in 1883 in celebration of band founder John A. Pope’s son’s birth.

Mingling throughout the crowd this evening, there are plenty elegantly-dressed women in full-length silk and sequined gowns, and dapper men wearing tuxedos alongside the throngs of casually-dressed parade-goers. The finely attired will attend the Order of Inca ball after the parade. Only organization members or their special guests are granted access to Mardi Gras balls. I watch as a particularly fine-looking couple wave knowingly at a masked rider. Though the rider’s identity is obscured, it’s obvious he and the couple know each other. He reaches down and throws a few strands of exceptionally nice beads. They’re expertly swiped from the air by the tuxedoed man and are donned by the couple. The man sips his koozied Bud Light (such a contrast to his tuxedo), and she takes a sip from a small plastic cup that has the Titos logo on it. They’re having fun, but they’re pacing themselves for their evening is only just beginning.

After the parade ends, the ball begins. The rest of the parade-goers will crowd into Heroes, T.P. Crockmiers, Loda Biergarten, and the like for burgers and brews. Others will head to Boo Radleys to hear a band or the Haberdasher for a craft cocktail while the masqueraders, organization members, and their guests migrate to the Civic Center for the ball.

The floor of the Civic Center arena features an arrangement of clothed tables, festive centerpieces, balloons, decorative busts, and ornate lighting. In the middle of the room, a makeshift dance floor has been assembled. On stage, there are the decorative remnants from the parading organization’s tableau, a song and dance the organization’s members put on for the audience before the revelry of eating, drinking, and carefree dancing begins. My first Mardi Gras ball was the infamous Endymion ball held at the Superdome in New Orleans in which there is no tableau, and it’s still a curious indulgence to take in the milieu of Mobile’s balls.

Here and now, the band is on stage, and the bars are open. It’s open bar throughout the arena and in the surrounding rooms. In each of the rooms is a bounty of food provided by the group members in charge of that room. Guests at the ball mingle with the friends who invited them, but let’s be honest. It’s Mobile, and everyone knows everyone else, and it’s not long before old friends are catching up and lovely ladies in ball gowns are taking photos with their costumed friends who rode in the parade.

The friends and couples migrate to and from the dance floor to the better-lit rooms with food occasionally stopping at the bar—there’s a bar in each of the rooms as well, for a refill.

The simplest way to describe the ball is like saying it’s prom with alcohol, however, such a crude description doesn’t do the occasion justice. It fails to capture the vibrancy and the culture of the experience. Also, if you had a questionable time at prom like I did, this isn’t exactly an endorsement for Mardi Gras balls. As I’ve matured…aged (whatever) I’ve come to realize that the balls are somewhat symbolic of Mobile’s character. There is an abundance of food and drink from all corners of the world (jambalaya, chicken salad sandwiches, and charcuterie boards can exist on the same table). There’s a sense of camaraderie; everyone is everyone’s friend, and everyone is having fun. It’s a new year, and we’re celebrating life. We’re celebrating each other. We’re celebrating our identity. Our elation is heightened by the pulsing music, the flashing lights, the signature hues of gold and purple, and the energy of the shared exuberance. You understand why during Mardi Gras we say laissez les bons temps rouler or let the good times roll.

This story was first published February 5, 2018

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