In some of the media reports on this year’s Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans there was a distinct and unmistakable tone of scolding. How can you have a frivolous party, how can you celebrate and be happy when so many neighborhoods are still in ruins, when so many New Orleanians are still unable to return, when so many will probably never return, when so many peoples’ lives have been disrupted, ruined or ended?
A dour national reporter we heard Monday ended his report with an ominous, “but will it be here next year?”
And one bitter New Orleans refugee still in Houston put it succinctly: “With them putting on Mardi Gras, without still having not addressed the basic needs in this city (New Orleans), why that’s just a slap in the face.”
It rather misses the point of Mardi Gras, New Orleans, and the resilient spirit that a celebration of Mardi Gras, even though not as large-scale as in the past, suggests. It’s not a slap in the face. It’s a symbol of defiance and perseverance in the face of what has truly been a tragedy of devastating proportions. When tragedy hits you can become bitter, or you can decide to carry on.
Many residents of New Orleans have decided to carry on, to continue a tradition that started back in 1699 and has built to one of the largest, most raucous and joyous parties in the world. And it’s a concrete part of the rebuilding.
There are fewer hotel rooms available than before — 15,000 rather than 25,000 — but they were filled for Mardi Gras. There are 506 restaurants compared with 1,882 before Katrina, but they are doing brisk business.
Those busy hotels and restaurants represent jobs and hope, the beginning of a process of putting together the resources needed to rebuild other businesses and homes and lives.
Then there’s the truly local side of Mardi Gras. Some natives told a reporter from NPR, “Please go back home and tell folk the Mardi Gras they see on TV, with the drunks and flashers, that’s NOT our Mardi Gras.” Parades snake through the city and the celebrations are neighborhood and family affairs, with plenty of drinking, perhaps, but nothing that parents would want to hide from their children.
New Orleanians know better than most people that you can’t depend on government when disaster strikes, so you have to depend on yourself, and you might as well enjoy yourself while you’re at it. One T-shirt catches the curiously Orleanian spirit of bacchanalian realism: “Show us your (breasts). FEMA will send beads in six to 10 weeks.”
Party on, New Orleans. It lets us all know you’re coming back — maybe not the same as before, but maybe better, with the old spirit still intact.