I Threw Myself a Parade in New Orleans — and the City Joined In
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because all the world’s a stage.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
From the outside, the New Orleans Police Department looks like a dungeon. Gloomy. Depressing. But sauntering into the cinder block fortress and taking the elevator to the third floor, you will find yourself in the Special Events Section — better known by its stripper name, the Party Division.
Officer William Johnson glances at my jargony forms — now “approved for handling” — and gives me a hearty thumbs-up. “Have as much fun as possible,” he tells me, a phrase that hardly ever leaves the lips of law enforcement. But we’re in the city of fried alligator and cocktails to go, where you can throw a debaucherous parade for yourself on a day’s notice, drunk passers-by included.
First off though: I lead a puritan life. I drink eight glasses of water, eat my kale and run religiously. My go-to dance move is the Twist. But on this hot, sweaty morning in New Orleans, I want to let loose in the Big Easy. It’s May, and I’m a few months late to the motherlode of parties — long gone are the festive floats, calorific King Cakes and Spring Break–esque revelers that teem the open streets during Mardi Gras.
But I’m in luck. You see, New Orleans is the one and only city where you can conjure up your own fête. In fact, for around $500, you can get your hands on a city parade permit and hire a police escort to legally stop traffic for you. So, as a boring, blah Goody Two-shoes, I’m holding a booze-filled parade with three gloriously depraved themes: me, myself and I.
Sure, drinking yourself silly and stumbling through downtown sounds like a scene out of The Hangover. But the South is actually chock-full of many bizarre, old-timey laws. In Georgia, slapping a man on the back is against the law. In Florida? Men can be arrested for wearing strapless gowns in public. And in New Orleans, parades have long been used to honor the dead during Black jazz funerals, says Michael White, a professor at Xavier University of Louisiana. He’s the in-house expert on traditional New Orleans music. During the birth of jazz in the late 1800s, he tells me, “second line” parades celebrated the life of the departed, immediately after the main “first line” parade delivered their casket to the grave.
That would be ridiculous. It makes you look like you have no friends. Who wants to pay to look pathetic?
Here, rambunctious dancing ensued, as people strutted their stuff in a flurry of boldly colored suits, twirling parasols and banners, like a breathing, heaving block party slowly moving through the streets. They also have deep roots in the lively French military processions of Louisiana’s colonial era, as well as free-flowing West African circle dances that were banned during the slavery era. More than a century later, the culture of New Orleans isn’t holed up in some museum. It’s pulsating in the streets. Few cities on earth come close to New Orleans’ flair for pizzazz and pageantry — and these pop-up parades are one of New Orleans’ most time-honored traditions.
But now, second line parades have morphed into an entirely different beast, laments White. Today, everyone and their mother can throw a second line parade: sloshed brides-to-be, frat boys shotgunning Natty Lites and thirtysomething birthday divas who all want a piece of the Big Easy. Even big corporations have co-opted the century-old tradition for product promotions, including Sonic Drive-In, which paraded for the debut of its Saints-themed “Who Dat” burger. In recent years, outsiders have carved out a bustling multimillion dollar industry of second line parades on demand. And just like Miley Cyrus’ twerking and Justin Bieber’s dreadlocks, Black culture is being, er, modified. For fun, and yeah, profit. And I feel like a tourist at Machu Picchu trampling the lush landscapes I came to see, complicit in the erosion.
Now I’m having a crisis of conscience. Could be buyer’s remorse. I look in the mirror and ask myself, what kind of person drops hundreds of dollars to throw a parade in their honor? I nearly fall in love with my reflection. Oh, yeah, that’s right: me. And there’s the answer — narcissism. I consult an expert to confirm my completely genius self-diagnosis.
Dr. Sam Vaknin, the author of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited, is a proud psychopathic narcissist — his words, not mine. He’s been diagnosed not once, but twice, with narcissistic personality disorder, and this Achilles’ heel is also his field of expertise. As the days before the parade dwindle into hours, I call up the egomaniacal doc and ask him point-blank, have I gone too far? He first pummels me with a series of probing questions: “Do you crave the attention? Do you feel somehow transformed? Do you feel more powerful? Do you like the gaze of others?” (Sometimes, no, no, only when I’m naked.)
A little bit of narcissism is considered perfectly “healthy and instinctual,” he says. We all want to be noticed, to be seen as unique. But things turn pathological when people “cannot self-regulate their sense of worth and self-esteem. So they have to ask others to do it for them.” Narcissists are addicted to attention and demand more, just as they would any drug, in order to buttress a grandiose image of themselves. In this fantasy, they are godlike, endowed with omnipotence.
In Dr. Vaknin’s mind, the act is irrelevant; motivation is what matters. “You chose an unusual method of distinguishing yourself from the crowd — throwing yourself a parade. But you are not elevating it to a religion.” Phew. “In your case, I would not diagnose you with narcissism, except only a modicum of healthy narcissism.” Before Dr. Vaknin hangs up the phone, he gives me my prescription: “Throw yourself many parades. You deserve them.”
So, first stop: City Hall. To plan my hourlong parade route.
It takes 60 seconds for Clare Cahalan, a parade permit specialist, to help me outline 13 city blocks to take over during happy hour in New Orleans’ bar-filled and famous French Quarter. Clearly, she’s done this before. She points to the exact streets to pick up the “wild and crazy” drunkards who are already in full swing before nightfall. Still Cahalan, probably worn down from the week’s hundred-plus parade permit applications, seems disgruntled at my last-minute request. Second lines are meant for people’s deaths, and since “people don’t schedule their own demise,” applications are rarely denied, she says. The hardest part? Making “sure that [the parades] don’t collide” into each other, like traffic control. I ask her if anyone’s ever thrown a parade for themselves.
“That would be ridiculous. It makes you look like you have no friends. Who wants to pay to look pathetic?” she scowls. I sink into my chair, hoping someone — really, anyone — will carouse the streets with me. Afterward, I rush to the liquor store and snag a few cases of Bud Light to entice the crowd. After all, who would turn down an ice-cold beer?
All that was left was a pit stop at the Mardi Gras Spot, a cavernous warehouse where you can get all the plastic beads, plumed hats and rhinestone masks that your heart desires. Step inside and you’ll feel like you’ve gone to Mardi Gras purgatory, where gaudy party supplies wait for February to roll around again. As the only customer, I was surrounded by dozens of bored employees who had nothing better to do but to fluff up rainbow-colored boas. I throw hundreds of plastic beads in my basket, an obscenely small bedazzled hat, a floofy tutu that I normally wouldn’t be caught dead in and, the crème de la crème, a garish metallic gold crown that doubles as sunglasses. I spend the rest of the night making posters emblazoned with my name and book a jazz brass band for the parade, so I won’t have to toot my own horn. Yet when I glance at the weather forecast for the next day — scattered showers and thunderstorms — my heart sinks.
It might literally rain on my parade.
My parade is hours away, and things are plummeting fast. This morning, I awoke from dreams of my name written in lights and handsome shirtless men on the street crying out for me in ecstasy. But when I peer out the window, I see only a gray sky with pregnant rain clouds on the horizon. Making matters worse, I stub my toe, leaving a big bloody gash where skin used to be. Now I’ll be limping like a fool during my parade. Just great.
I arrive five minutes late — ahem, fashionably late — to my own parade. On the French Quarter’s historic cobbled streets, the scent of fragrant magnolia trees mingle with the stench of piss and cheap beer. People are slowly filing out of crawfish restaurants and into bourbon bars, already buzzed from their tropical rum Hurricane cocktails; the city’s open-container laws allow them to continue the party in the streets.
Meanwhile, I glance at the time — only two of the five jazz musicians have shown up; the drummers and trumpeter are nowhere to be found. The three officers on paid parade patrol are pointing at their watches, growing anxious. I have to start marching — rain or shine, band or no band. Glen David Andrews, the tall and lanky trombonist, waves away my worries: “The rest of the band will join us along the way.” Well, here goes nothing. Just as he lifts his golden horn, the clouds suddenly vanish and the sun comes out, right on cue. Dressed in my Mardi Gras finery and ever-so-regal plastic crown, I’m ready for my parade.
Ears perk up at the sound of bellowing jazz music blaring from my direction. I place beer cans in strangers’ hands and fling beads at unwitting bystanders, beckoning them to come over. At first, no one does. But then, people start flocking to the spectacle taking over the open streets. Tourists from all around the world dance with me — a dizzying mix of people from Honduras, Los Angeles, Ohio, Barcelona, who all just want an excuse to block traffic and party like there’s no tomorrow.
Sure enough, the rest of the band arrives midway and now the titter-tatter of the snare drum echoes throughout New Orleans’ narrow neighborhood streets. The music blares and the alcohol flows. Some are confused — “Is it your birthday? Are you getting married?” Nope! It’s just for me, I’m celebrating myself. Someone behind me yells, “Hell, yeah! This is for you!” and the crowd grows even louder and bigger. My parade swells to some 50 or 60 people, picking up more and more steam as we turn on each city block.
Strangers hug me tight, knowing nothing about me or what they had gotten themselves into. But all the while, something feels off. The crowd cheering my name sounds shrill. The band serenading me feels forced. My crown keeps slipping off. The spotlight is searing my skin. I feel exposed, literally being paraded for all to see. Soon, we reach the end of the road and the parade comes to a halt, without any pomp or circumstance. The musicians lower their horns as we make our way down the last solitary block. When the final note of Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In” fizzles out, I bid farewell to the cops and the band. As the supply of alcohol dries up, the crowd slowly scatters into the sultry spring evening.
Tepid beer in hand, I turn toward my hotel and march back, alone. And before disappearing into the crowded streets again, I chuck my crown in the trash.