No matter where I have lived since I left New Orleans long ago, every time I go back home, I feel as if I have returned from exile. It happened again just now, as the plane door opened and I stepped into air as moist as mist, smelling of old seafood. It was the dead of winter, and temperatures had plummeted into the 50s. All good!

I had returned home this time for Mardi Gras. I tried explaining the importance to another Manhattanite before I had left: “Have you been to Mardi Gras?” I had asked.

“No, but I’ve been to a few parties,” he had replied.

“The hell you have.”

I arrived at the Hotel Monteleone, in the French Quarter. In his new book "One Step Over the Line," my brother Ken recounts how Frankie Monteleone had been his closest childhood friend and that the family had come around the property so often, the Monteleone, a staple of luxury in “the Quarter” since 1886, was known to us simply as “the hotel.”

I rolled my light bags into my agreeably spacious room, went back outside and just followed the sound of the nearest jazz band until I came upon a Mardi Gras parade, heading toward up Canal Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.

It is like that annually in Carnival season, which starts on Twelfth Night (Jan. 6) and ends the night before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras is French for Fat Tuesday, and its unique form of controlled chaos has been going on since 1699. It worked like this: If you had not sinned enough in those weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday to make getting that ash on your forehead worth the trouble, why did you disturb the priest?

This was the Sunday before Fat Tuesday, and I followed a traditional schedule. First, it was off to a party and then a private reviewing stand on Canal Street to see the colorful, booze-themed Bacchus parade. Like the other parades, it is run on an appointed day each year by a private club known as a krewe. The krewes have their own parade rules, and there are also city ordinances and rules that require “riders” (as they are called) on floats to wear costumes, masks, hoods and (these days, fingerless) gloves.

All parades are interactive. Riders pitch “throws” — most often plastic beads, but also plush toys, Frisbees and, in generally progressing order of desirability, glass beads, tambourines and specially minted coins known as doubloons. People along parade routes shout with raised arms, yelling “Throw me something, mister!” and scramble for whatever flies in their general direction.

By long tradition, the most prized throw in all of Mardi Gras is a coconut from Zulu. They are tossed out during the Mardi Gras morning parade put on by the Krewe of Zulu, which was founded by Black men and first rolled in 1909. To win a Zulu coconut — also known as a golden nugget — you must be someone special or know someone more special than you, or just get plain lucky. Over the years, I had never succeeded.

I had participated in a Mardi Gras marching parade long ago, but this time I was going to ride with the Krewe of Orpheus. Unlike most krewes, Orpheus includes both men and women, and if you work it out enough in advance, you can pay to be a guest rider. As a New Orleanian living far from home, this chance to ride with Orpheus was the foam atop my lifelong bucket list.

At the appointed time, I arrived at the Convention Center. In the changing room, Mr. Johnson, a patient and skilled valet, helped me suit up in my costume. I would be riding on the Uranus-themed float, and my outfit made me look like a miscreant snowflake in its party clothes.

There was also the three-part Leviathan, a smoke belching, tail-waving dragon; and we had Smokey Mary — a train featuring a fanciful steam locomotive pulling eight linked cars. Literally tons of throws were loaded aboard, and then the riders mounted. It looked like one of those WWII scenes of an amphibious landing, only a Mardi Gras parade “rolls,” and that is what we did, in line formation, to our starting position.

At 6 p.m., as the sun set, we turned onto St. Charles Avenue, and the good times went rolling along with us. I was stationed on the “well” (lower) level, which meant people were able to come up close. Children on the shoulders of their fathers came down the length of the float, picking up throws like blossoms from a moving cherry tree — because all of us riders gave priority to kids.

By another “NOLA” tradition, a young woman, hitched atop the shoulders of her boyfriend, did the same, flashing her bare breasts. She made out just fine too.

The Uptown Route, as it is known, ends where it starts — in the Convention Center — only when you arrive, there is a black-tie ball in progress. The floats twice circled uncountable hundreds of revelers in evening wear, shouting and waving their arms the same way the people on the streets had done. Harry Connick Jr., a native treasure, took to the stage with a band to play a set. If there was a young woman in a gown and Carnival beads that night who did not look New Orleans hot, I failed to notice. The party whooped and danced into the wee hours. In any other city, it would have been the blow out of the year. In New Orleans, we just call that a Monday.

With the rising sun came Fat Tuesday. In the “Big Easy” (another nickname), I am about as close to being a dignitary as I ever will be. I was a guest at the reviewing stand at the city’s Neoclassical Gallier Hall, along with the mayor and assembled VIPs. The mayor’s office had thoughtfully laid out a welcome breakfast of gin, rum and tequila — and power bars for those who prefer a solid chaser.

The first parade was run by the Zulu Social Aid and Social Club — a tradition since 1909. The theme was Africa, and instead of wearing masks, riders were made up in blackface, which dates to a bygone vaudeville practice of both white and Black performers. It remains a thumb-in-the-eye, “Yes, we’re Black and what’s it too you?” parody that celebrates African American culture the New Orleans way. 

The Zulu King paid his respects to the VIPs, and then it happened. From a float, a woman — an angel in blackface — leaned over and handed me a Zulu coconut. It was painted black and charmingly decorated with "Zulu 2024" written in golden glitter. A decades-long dream had finally come true.

The parade that followed Zulu, Rex, was supposed to be the most splendid and important of Mardi Gras, but trying to follow a parade like Zulu is like trying to sing on a Vegas stage after Sinatra. And I had my coconut! 

Near the end of Rex, a beautiful young woman pulled up her top, revealing a red bra. An officer wearing a chartreuse sheriff vest voiced his approval.

There was so much more that was personal to me. One of our oldest and dearest family friends was riding, at age 87, in another krewe; by luck, I managed to catch a glimpse of him on roll-out. 

During Rex, my high school’s marching band came high-stepping by. The next day, back at the Monteleone at the Criollo restaurant, I had lunch with my senior prom date and her sophisticated boyfriend. 

And the moment I arrived back in my New York City apartment, I took my globe off its stand and tenderly replaced it with my Zulu coconut.

Even by New Orleans standards, Mardi Gras is exceptional, but all year long, the city puts on big and small events that demonstrate why it is called "the city that care forgot." You have not yet been to New Orleans? Y'all have not yet been to a party. 


If you go

Hotel Monteleone, 214 Royal Street, New Orleans, LA 70130, (504) 523-2241, 

For Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest or anything else worth doing in town, book early and let the good times roll. The 2025 schedule is already posted:

For information about riding with Orpheus (and it is never too early to start asking): Krewe of Orpheus, P.O. Box 19265, New Orleans, LA 70179, (504) 822-7200;


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