NEW ORLEANS — Stay off Bourbon Street.
No, really. If you want more than the most obvious Mardi Gras experience, stay off Bourbon Street. On Fat Tuesday, Feb. 16 this year, and the gloriously chaotic days prior, that fabled party route is tacky, loud, crowded and aromatically foul.
There is no question that New Orleans is worth a Mardi Gras visit. But there also is no question that it is a waste to experience it in the same drunken manner on the same drunken street as a bunch of drunks.
So what is a better Mardi Gras? There is no one answer, but here are a few tips that presume a trip beginning Saturday and ending Wednesday, when the real world calls once more.
You will be less inclined on Monday and Tuesday, so watch a parade or two from the residential streets of Uptown and the Garden District. Magazine Street (cozy and eclectic) and St. Charles Avenue (stately and regal) are good bets to watch the parades that roll a few miles southwest of the French Quarter.
The weekend also is a time to acclimate. The Quarter is the hub of the action, so walk those fabled streets and watch the masses: a card-twirling street-corner magician, a woman on thumb piano, men bearing signs promising hell for "drunkards," "rebellious women" and "liberals," among others. It's all part of the show, so enjoy.
A trip to New Orleans ideally includes live music, and these are good days for that too. Last year, at One Eyed Jacks in the Quarter, I saw a late performance from The New Orleans Bingo! Show, a ludicrous amalgamation of rock and bingo led by showmen with face paint and a Theremin, that Space-Agey instrument of wheezing heaves.
Lundi Gras is a wonderful day of slow-burning joy (as opposed to Tuesday's full-tilt joy). Last-minute touches are under way in all directions, such as at Fifi Mahony's, one of the nation's finest costume wig shops, where saleswomen fluidly unpack wigs of every color and shape for customers who slide into salon-style chairs for primping.
Mardi Gras veterans usually don't settle for beads; they assemble costumes that rival Halloween.
Every gay guy "worth his salt will have his glue gun out tonight," said Joel Dyer, 64, who has lived in New Orleans for 23 years and planned to practice what he preached. As we pushed through the Quarter toward a novelty shop for last-minute costume adornments, we passed a woman lifting her shirt to bead-dangling men on a balcony.
"A lot of tourists don't see beyond that," Dyer said. "The amateurs will get drunk tonight and get up tomorrow at noon. They think Mardi Gras is a night party. It's not. If you're up at noon, you missed the party."
After watching the Orpheus parade on Tchoupitoulas Street, a favorite for its dazzling lights, I walked through the Quarter and came upon a group of Alabama teenagers singing praise songs in Jackson Square. Their stirring a cappella faith was a well-timed antidote to the men with hateful signs.
I wound up in the Marigny neighborhood, east of the Quarter, for one of the weekend's great performances: the Noisician Coalition. Dressed in red and black, this percussive band of noise-makers usher in Fat Tuesday most years on instruments ranging from toy tambourines to PVC pipe.
They started about 11:30 p.m. at R Bar on Royal Street and spent nearly two hours invading bars and restaurants to stand on chairs, tables and counters and make their blessed racket. But, as Dyer said, it was best not to stay too long because Tuesday deserved an early start.
On Mardi Gras day, the most adventurous rise with the sun and the Mardi Gras Indians, a band of black revelers who dress in feather-rich and handmade costumes and wander the streets with their various tribes. The other great African-American tradition starts soon thereafter, when the Zulu parade leaves Central City. It's one of the largest and most beloved Carnival parades, where beads are plentiful, but the most prized throw — the things float riders throw at the masses — is a painted coconut.
After catching a snippet of Zulu where it brushed past the Quarter, I headed to the nearby Bywater neighborhood for a dizzying highlight: the St. Anne walking parade. The costumes are precise and ostentatious — duck suits and chicken suits, kings, queens and court jesters, Dr. Seuss characters and blue wigs beside green wigs beside purple wigs. Some people are barely dressed at all.
It's a joyful walk through largely residential streets and the French Quarter. It's one of the few parades to journey through the Quarter, and it is there I saw one woman turn to another and say, "Wow, this is the place to be." They were both locals, but neither had seen St. Anne before.
I peeled off from St. Anne to meet up with friends at Pirates Alley, a bar and cafe on a pedestrian walkway tucked beside St. Louis Cathedral. A crew of Scottish bagpipers was moseying through "When the Saints Go Marching In" when a guy on banjo started jamming with them. One of the bagpipers told some dirty jokes and smacked one of my friends in the family jewels — and not accidentally.
"Did that hurt, friend?" the bagpiper asked.
"It sure did. You need to buy me a drink," my friend said.
The bagpiper did what any self-respecting Fat Tuesday bagpiper would do: He bought my friend a $10 absinthe with a smile.
After a muffaletta stop, we wandered for a bit and refilled our cups as necessary (remember: no open-liquor restrictions in the Quarter) until coming across four musicians with tattered clothes and dirty fingernails who spun a mournful tune. When they finished, the accordion player said, "I'll play you a song for a quick dollar. I'm trying to buy a van." He'd been in town less than two weeks, found the guys he was playing with and taught them his songs.
He removed his fedora, flipped it over and held it out. I dropped a dollar and they ran through "White Freight Liner Blues," then a randy tale about what he missed doing to his darling. I asked them to play that mournful song again, which the accordion player said was an original called "You Belong to Me."
"The accordion sounds better when it's sad," he said.
Night was falling, and two blocks over, Bourbon Street was a disaster of humanity. But the 10 of us raised our bottles and cans while the accordion player smiled and went to work.
FIRST-TIMER'S PARTY GUIDE TO CARNIVAL IN NEW ORLEANS
Mardi Gras is Feb. 16, but the parties and parades begin at the end of January. Here's how to get in the spirit:
1. Don't wear beads everywhere you go. It is OK not to wear beads while out for dinner. Just because you're not wearing beads doesn't mean you're not having fun.
2. Catch, don't buy, beads. Every shop in the French Quarter will try to sell them to you, but resist. There is a reason the people on floats spend thousands of dollars on that plastic junk. They want to throw them to you, and that exchange between tosser and receiver is among the holiday's great joys.
3. Venture beyond Bourbon Street. Bourbon Street is worth a brief visit for sociological reasons, but the few famous blocks northeast of Canal Street are the tackiest real estate in New Orleans. The most interesting things during Mardi Gras happen away from Bourbon Street.
4. Venture beyond the French Quarter. The vibrant Uptown, Garden District and Marigny neighborhoods are good bets.
5. Don't watch the parades from Canal Street, on the edge of the French Quarter. You could watch Zulu there (the stunningly elaborate and fervent parade), but the neighborhoods it passes through offer a richer experience.
6. Stay in a smaller hotel. While it is worth staying in the French Quarter, the smaller hotels are cheaper and more intimate. And the odds of hearing a fool yell, "What happens at Mardi Gras stays at Mardi Gras" are lowered significantly.
7. Don't call the whole weekend Mardi Gras. The event actually is called Carnival. Mardi Gras is just Fat Tuesday.
8. Don't call the whole weekend Party Gras. That's worse than calling it Mardi Gras.
9. Listen to WWOZ. "New Orleans' Jazz and Heritage Station," 90.7 on the FM dial and streaming at wwoz.org, chronicles the Crescent City's musical roots all year, but during Carnival, the city has no better soundtrack.
10. Don't drink too much. Just kidding!