BATON ROUGE, La. —The day starts about 7 a.m. and innocently enough: just one little beer.
It's February and a little chilly — not too chilly for an Abita seasonal Mardi Gras Bock beer — and the streets have been closed to traffic. Locals are emerging from their homes, usually in the day's signature pink, to wander, drink, smile, laugh and travel between early-morning parties. The visitors will be here soon. Many are already tailgating in nearby parking lots.
Gumbo and jambalaya won't be ready for hours. Right now, it's bloody marys, Cajun-spiced eggs and king cake, that deliciously gooey circular pastry in which a small baby figurine has been baked. Beads have yet to fly, but they will. It is the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, and 80 miles north of New Orleans, the best parade in the state is about to happen.
The Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade is named for the neighborhood where it starts: Spanish Town, a patch of narrow tree-shaded streets and the traditional home of artists, boozers, cross-dressers and any free spirit in this conservative town. It is the city's oldest and most eclectic neighborhood, appropriately listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The parade begins on its main artery, Spanish Town Road, before heading into Baton Rouge's downtown of midrise office buildings.
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I've seen New Orleans parades, small-town parades and rural horseback parades, and Spanish Town's is the perfect amalgamation: rocking like New Orleans, intimate like a small town, with a dash of the country's carefree calamity. Remember your birthday as a kid? The glory? The excitement? The knowledge that for one itty-bitty day, no one was more special than you? That's what the Spanish Town parade feels like. Except that on Saturday, it's everyone's birthday. No, it's not New Orleans, but that's part of the raunchy, beer-soaked fun. Spanish Town Mardi Gras is tightly packed and joyfully unhinged without the expectation of being New Orleans.
By 10:30 a.m. breakfast is finished and houses start opening their doors, releasing the smell of gumbo. More R-rated costumes arrive, more beers are opened, and a 300-pound man dressed as the Octomom exchanges warm greetings with a uniformed cop. Turns out that 300-pound man was once a higher up in the governor's office. In the costumes, the floats, even the theme of the parade, you learn that nothing is sacred, particularly power and politics. Months after Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana, the 2006 theme was "FEMAture Evacuation."
The Spanish Town parade starts rolling at noon sharp, led by the grand marshal and, in recent years, the motorcycle-riding Baton Rouge police chief, who gladly poses for photos with drunken revelers.
The floats start inching by, and hands fly into the air. In pursuit of beads, women shake what God gave them. So do men. The roar is steady, cacophonous and endless. People load themselves with beads, load their neighbors, load their friends. Despite beer and homemade drinks aplenty, things don't get out of hand. Everyone is a friend here.
Time stands so still that it's hard to say how long the parade lasts. Maybe 90 minutes. Like most, it ends with an inglorious thud, street sweepers trailing the last float but doing little good against the quilt of beads. Beads are everywhere. In bushes, in trees, on power lines, and kids invariably try to shake them loose while adults wobble around them.
Then the house parties start again. Bands play in front yards and backyards. Gumbo and jambalaya steam in cast iron pots, and beer is everywhere. The partying goes on like this until about 5 p.m., when everyone starts hitting the wall. At 6 p.m. you're done. The wobbliest are still trying to find which house they left their coat under, and everyone else goes home.
For the first time since being a kid, going to sleep at 7 p.m. doesn't seem so bad. Make that for the first time since the last Spanish Town Mardi Gras. And, Lord willing, it will happen next year too.