A naked man gyrates his arse in front of two masked men dressed as bishops, the tassles of his fig-leaf flapping as he goes.
A placard held high above the crowd spells out that “Roman Catholicism is of the devil”.
In what appears an ordinary, family restaurant, the television shows a woman suckling a young kitten.
A man lies prone, head back on the concrete step of the bar door where he passed out, his friends unable to move his drunken bulk.
Hulks of men, bedecked with enormous feather-dress fascinators trundle past in a parade fuelled by an ecstasy of plastic beads-necklaces and crowd-led cheer.
School bands march past, drummers swinging wildly at instruments battered near to broken, their rears followed by sequin-dressed women, their fronts proceeded by banners proclaiming school and state.
This is Mardi Gras, New Orleans: a melange of colour and noise, where crowds fill every street, every pavement and every bar. It truly is a place of wonders.
There is food aplenty to match the crowds. Soupy seafood gumbo; stewy seafood etouffee; seafood sandwiches called po-boys; boiled spicy crawfish known as crawdads, the heads of which must be sucked out for a shot of hot spice in a display of local manliness; deep-fried, creole-spiced prawns, alligator and chicken; and oysters – plenty of oysters.
The drink, too, is as varied as the crowd. With New Orlean’s open carry laws – referring here to the unusual ability to carry opened alcohol in the streets, not its relaxed attitude to guns – people slurped cocktails from large plastic beakers shaped to give rise to a puerile play-on-words. Mint Juleps, with real southern bourbon, were served up by long-time locals, whose closed-lipped half-swallowed accent formed words quite impossible to understand. A Tom Collins was easily ordered from many a local place, quickly made and packing punch.
But as New Orleans Louisiana (NOLA to those who know) traipsed from bar to bar, restaurant to restaurant, balcony to balcony, and crowd-filled street to crowd-filled street, a darker side could be seen despite all the superficial gaiety. In a bar that could have been plucked from the pages of Faulkner, Civil War-style muskets bedecked the hallway ceiling and blonde-haired southern women took turns in playing at a pair of copper-clad pianos while the crowd cheered to such staples as “Sweet Home Alabama”. But a quick peer through the atmospheric gloom at bar staff vs customer could lead the innocent to wonder if segregation had ever ended. It hadn’t in these crowded halls.
On the streets, too, there were signs that Mardi Gras might mean different things to different people. As if powered by the electric current, young men would leap to their feet to tap-dance jerkily on the pavement in front of a plastic bucket-begging bowl whenever someone passed. Elsewhere, young boys played drums on upturned buckets, their furious banging sometimes catching the ear of the swirling mass…and sometimes not.
For all of this, New Orlean’s French Quarter presented a most magnificent stage. Old, balconied houses with wonderful interiors provided a welcome contrast to the grim concrete blocks of the surrounding districts. This was a different slice of America to what I had seen before, but sitting in a café near the water I was reminded that this still was America. Where else would one order a plate of sugar-drowned, greasy, deep-fired beignet and be embarrassed not by one’s gluttony but by one’s restraint?