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Storyville: When Jesters Have Their Day

Adam Karlin

The guy next to me is wearing an orange fur coat and a red feather boa; his wife is dressed as a giant grape. Someone playing the trumpet looks like a cross between a post office employee and a Mad Max road warrior. I'm wearing an inflatable alligator on my head.

This is the Bayou Boat parade, which happens on Lundi Gras, the Monday before Fat Tuesday. It's simple: folks get in boats and have an aquatic second line up Bayou St John. Anyone can join, as long as they have a floatable water craft. Or not so floatable; the trombone player's kayak is starting to list.

I'm with a bunch of misfits, poets, lunatics, artists and general quirks. Some of us run non-profits, some are professional musicians. One is a bartender, one is a lawyer, and one is working his way through law school as a bartender. There are about two dozen boats, paddling away, accompanied by a brass band that's desperately trying not to sink under the muck.

This is the Mardi Gras I love. The one where the whole social order is flipped on its head. I don't like the old line parades much. I'm put off when krewe members wear masks and hats to conceal their identity, even as they toss beads to the crowds they're hiding from. Everyone screams and pushes for a bit of worthless plastic thrown by someone who won’t even show you their face. I find this kind of… medieval. Feudal even.

I prefer the Mardi Gras where the jesters rule the kings. In medieval times, the rulers knew something like this needed to happen at least once a year. The common folk, especially the agitators, needed a day when they felt like the world was theirs.


I love that in New Orleans, the agitators often have the run of the place. Mardi Gras and carnival season is the time of year when this sort of thing is most evident, but the jester is always a threat to the monarchy here. The misfit toys who just don't fit in anywhere else, they find a home. They find tolerance, and creativity, and the best of Southern hospitality and warmth at the same time. That's a heady combination to drink off of, and not to engage in New Orleans clichés, but we drink a lot down here.

But we're also — and this may shock outsiders, even if natives know it — pretty religious. Old time religion. And that's not just the Catholics. The jesters and the weirdos live for the rituals as well. Because rituals are a binding thing, and I think that cohesion is more important than the laissez-fare "do whacha wanna'" vibe. I mean you can do whacha wanna anywhere really, but where else are you treated like family when you do?

For all that community, this city celebrates individuality like nowhere else. You come to the party in costume: as a Mardi Gras Indian, or a purple and gold king, or a leather queen, or a jester with an alligator on your head. But ultimately, all that disparate lunacy gives way to a combined voice. You hear it in this song, out on the bayou. It can't decide if it wants to laugh or sing, so it does both: loud and long and echoing across the water.  

Adam Karlin came to New Orleans to write the Lonely Planet guide to the city in 2009. He immediately fell deeply in love and convinced his then-girlfriend, now-wife — who he proposed to in City Park — to move to the mouth of the Mississippi with him.

Adam writes for a variety of print and online media and has since penned three editions of Lonely Planet's New Orleans guide. He is also the editor of New Orleans & Me, a website dedicated to travel and culture in the city. He is pursuing an MFA at the University of New Orleans.

Storyville is a new collaboration between of the University of New Orleans and WWNO. These are true stories about New Orleans written by the students in the University’s Creative Writing Workshop — our next generation of writers. The stories are as diverse, original and colorful as the city itself.

Produced by Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

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