Friday, February 23, 2007

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

Mardi Gras Parade Was One
Cold Day In You Know Where

There are few times I am happy to say, that I’ve felt my life was in mortal danger. One of those came last Saturday when my wife and I joined a hardy Krewe for the annual Mardi Gras Parade in Soulard. Mardi Gras is how St. Louis celebrates its French heritage. In this case that would be the heritage of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.

It wasn’t that we didn’t know it would be cold. We had more layers than the paint on my house. My wife even tested her costume the day before by standing outside…in the shade. A lot of time and effort went into perfecting the perfect pirate costumes. I just think people weren’t use to seeing pirate Eskimos.

Hundreds of man hours had gone into the construction of the pirate ship that served as our float. It was a three masted affair, complete with sails and menacing cannon bristling from gunports. There was even a crows nest on a third level where fair damsels could take refuge and a skeleton lashed to the ship’s wheel. It was a beautiful float, built by the Bone Daddy & The Blues Shaker’s Krewe. Had the cannons been loaded and our swords cold steel instead of plastic, we might have even persuaded the judges to give us the first place trophy.

Instead the top honors for best float and best costumes went to our now sworn enemies the Mystic Knights of the Purple Haze. I thought on their name alone the police should have pulled their float over and done a random drug search. The theme of the parade this year was “novels” and our Piratical entry was for Captain Blood. The Mystic Knights of the Purple Haze (sorry, I can’t stop laughing when I have to write that) chose George Orwell’s 1984.

I didn’t see the latest remake of 1984 packing them in like Pirate’s of the Caribbean. We were the crowd favorite, not a bunch of guards trying to look menacing in jump suits and yellow hardhats telling people war is peace. We all know that if peace broke out in the world we wouldn’t know what to call it. Aaargh! Just wait till next year Mystic Knights!

Now the Mardi Gras Parade in Soulard has a reputation for going on rain or shine. But with the early date for the start of Lent this year, they can now add “blizzards” to the list of meteorological disasters that don’t stop the parade. We arrived at the staging area at 8:30 in the morning to wind gusts of 30 miles per hour, driving snow and a wind chill factor so low they use it to describe temperatures on Pluto.

When you are twenty years old, you don’t feel the cold. When you are thirty years old, you walk it off. When forty, you open another beer. But when you’re fifty years old, you huddle in front of the truck as a wind break and try to gather as much warmth from the engine as you can. I now know why the show Survivor only films in tropical locations. You can’t survive in temperatures this cold without killing your own tantaun and climbing inside like Han Solo.

You have three hours to kill or be killed waiting for our section of the parade to pull out. At one point Sue and I found ourselves huddled on the deck, our backs to boxes of beads. Looking up at the pirate flag flapping in the wind, the shouts of the crewmembers lashing down the sails and the costumed characters scurrying about the decks, I began to think what a great novel I could write about some crazed pirate captain forcing his desperate crew ever northward to bury his treasure in the snows of Greenland.

Then I looked out at the float across from us. Through the blinding snow I could just make out the Hooter’s bikini swimsuit issue float. Unfortunately the Hooter’s “models” standing around the float looked more like MoDOT workers in their insulated orange jumpsuits. My day was starting to turn into a Russian novel.

Once the parade started, throwing five gross of beads helped warm me up a bit. Crowds were down from the cold, but there were still seas people around the heart of Soulard. Surprisingly, given the cold, there seemed to be just as many “costume failures” among those in the crowd as last year, though most looked like they had a little natural insulation to spare.

It seems to be the goal of parade organizers to keep the crowd as far away from the floats as possible with the way they set up the barricades. This made it nearly impossible for those throwing beads from the windward side of the ship to reach the crowd. It took my best angled Frisbee style pitch to reach the front rows. Many beads thrown by others simply blew back onto the boat or fell tantalizing close, but out of reach, of those stuck behind the barricades.

It would seem that in an event, where the primary purpose seems to be to put beads and people together, that Soulard Mardi Gras organizers would figure this out. The situation did help one of the more hardy walkers with our Krewe to become an instant celebrity. Dressed in a billowing red silk pirate shirt, he used his plastic sword to deftly flick the fallen booty to the screaming throngs.

My near freezing to death experience gave me renewed respect for all of those professions that work outside. As we hung on to rails for the chilly ride back to the hotel, one person quipped, “Well, at least it can’t be any worse next year.” We all rolled our eyes to the clouded skies. Lent, and therefore the Soulard Parade, is a week earlier next year! Pass the word to the crows nest to keep a sharp eye out for icebergs! Aaargh!