“Welcome to Nawwwlins,” the cabbie says as I shut the dilapidated white taxi door outside the Louis Armstrong International Airport. It’s Monday night, and tomorrow is Mardi Gras. My plane departs again in 24 hours but that’s all one needs to experience New Orleans, as long as you’ve got an itinerary from a native and the ability to fend off sleep with a little voodoo. Most visitors to the Crescent City head straight for Bourbon St., but any local resident knows there’s a whole lot more than a Hurricane at Pat O’ Brien’s.
The cab driver drops me off uptown at the Columns Hotel, a historic 19th-century era home along St. Charles. Trolley cars trundle by the hotel, which is held up by the tall white columns that you’d expect to see on a plantation home. Humidity hangs heavy in the air along with draped Spanish Moss on oak trees, providing a spooky atmosphere unique to the city. I walk through a tall and elegantly engraved doorway, joining the small crowds that have gathered in a mahogany-walled smoking room drinking Sazeracs in front of a mirrored bar. The Columns is a great hotel to rest your head, but on this night of the year, sleep isn’t on the agenda. At least that’s the mantra of Frank Purpera, a local physician and my wingman. We’ve known the city and each other for years, having grown up on the bayou. And each year we unite for a few hours that can often seem like days.
Walking just a couple blocks north along the steel trolley tracks, we find the door to Cote Sud, a small, cash-only French bistro on Maple Street. We order steamed mussels swimming in garlic and white wine butter, baked oysters with a side of blue cheese butter, baked frogs legs, salmon with creamed spinach and grilled hanger steak served with Dijon mustard and mixed vegetables. Fat Tuesday is a celebration of decadence before Easter fasting or Lent begins. In New Orleans, the restauranteurs are experts at indulging the local practice pretty much year round.
After dinner we visit the laundromat, Igor’s. I don’t have any clothes to wash (yet) but the combination pool-hall, laundromat and bar serves the best Bloody Mary’s in the country. Maybe the world. Home to several scenes from the movie, The Pelican Brief, Igor’s offers great drinks at reasonable prices and drink specials from 5 AM until 7 AM. For a second I wonder if it’s weird that a laundromat is also a bar. But on second thought, shouldn’t that be the norm?
At around 9pm, Frank and I wander from St. Charles to Tchoupatoulis [Chop-a-too-lis] Street to Tipitanas, a music venue where many local and national bands cut their teeth and get their big breaks. Tonight, the Raw Oyster Cult is performing, and The Radiators’ front man and guitarist, Dave Malone and Papa Grows Funk’s founder John Gros are leading New Orleans style blues vocals. Gros plays his monster Hammond B-3 organ like the Muppets’ Animal at a church rock wedding. On any given night at Tipitinas, you might hear rock, blues, jazz or any number of local or international favorites like The Rebirth Brass Band or The New Breed Brass Band. The lineup is always changing and you can usually get a front row standing spot.
After the show we stop by Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge . It’s a “club/lounge” in the sense that someone’s decided to convert their uptown garage into a Christmas themed bar well over a decade ago. The fat tabby cat is lounging on the bar as mixed breed dogs wander around the pool table. The black and white TV is plugged into an old school Atari, which was not placed there for hipster irony. I dig in a bin for the paddles to play Pong and survey the scene. It’s rumored that if you show up in a birthday suit at Snake and Jake’s, everyone drinks for free. We don’t stick around to see that. After a two-dollar Schlitz, we move on.
Ten PM is quickly 2AM, and at 6AM sharp Mardi Gras will kick off. Not in one place, but in hundreds across the Pelican State. The most unique site is the Courir De Gras Festival, in a town southwest of New Orleans named Mamou. There are only about 3,500 residents in Mamou, but their Mardi Gras celebration is one of the most interesting and historically rooted in the world. There’s no time to drive the 80 or so miles west so we ring up a local helicopter pilot and friend, Beau Randall. Beau’s father made a living flying blue crabs from the Gulf up to Maryland where they fetched top dollar in the 80s. These days, he’s carrying on the family tradition as a private helicopter pilot to the big players in the oil and gas industry.
After a quick flight over the Atchafalaya Basin, we touch down in a Mamou rice field. Down the gravel lined street the Courir de Gras is getting under way with a whip yielding costumed man atop a horse instructing eager participants on how the race will be run. Masked men and women listen to his commands before chasing chickens and pigs through the muddy fields, collecting ingredients for what will become a celebratory gumbo dinner. The tradition, which originated in Europe, was carried to Louisiana by the French Acadians in the late eighteenth century.
As the festivities carry on, Beau and I walk back over to the Robinson R22 that’s parked in one of the nearby rice fields. He powers it up and we’re back in the sky on our way to New Orleans once again for the pièce de résistance of my twenty-four hour stay: The Zulu Parade.
But before heading to the parade near the French Quarter, we stop for breakfast at Café Du Monde. Its famous powdered sugar beignets are the perfect breakfast on pretty much any day, not to mention Fat Tuesday. Frank, Beau and I match them with hot chocolate topped with whipped cream and Irish Coffees. We talk about Zulu and about our chances of catching an elusive coconut, careful not to inhale the powdered sugar, a rookie Café Du Monde mistake.
Early in 1909, a comedy at the Pythian Theater in New Orleans included a skit entitled, “There Never Was and Never Will Be a King Like Me,” about the Zulu Tribe. That comedy evolved into an African American Mardi Gras crew in New Orleans that each year celebrates Fat Tuesday with a parade and the most coveted throws of all: a hand-painted coconut. The jungle beat of drums thud through the crowd, people scream for coconuts and beads, and I’m attempting to call an Uber to get back to the airport when Frank inexplicably catches the prize. It’s all a bit hard to believe, but that’s just New Orleans done right. Feb 9, 2016, it all happens again.