Leading the Saint Anthony Ramblers through the French Quarter, 2016.

Missing Mardi Gras

Five thousand miles from home on my favorite day of the year.

There’s no substitute, and I knew it when I set out the door on this trip. I knew that Mardi Gras Day would eventually roll around and, although I’d be neck deep in the trip of a lifetime, although I would be watching another culture celebrate a version of Carnival completely unfamiliar to me, the pull of my former home would lay me out flat.

And so it is. I write this from a beautiful place on a beautiful day. I’m on the third floor in a building in Montevideo, Uruguay. The sun is shining and the wind is at my back. There’s music playing, courtesy of my host here. I’m a free man on a great adventure, and I have absolutely nothing to complain about.

But for today, I’m giving myself permission to feel heartbroken.

For the last few years, my Mardi Gras has consisted of a pretty set routine. I would wake up around 4:30 in the morning, down some water and don my costume, and head into the Treme neighborhood. There, I would see the North Side Skull and Bones Gang kick off the celebrations, walking through the streets wearing oversized papier-mache skulls and skeleton suits, chanting about how our time is running out — a warning to get ourselves right before the hammer comes down. And also, a hell of a cool spectacle.

And from there, with coffee and breakfast and probably a couple Bloody Marys in my system, I would make my way to the starting point of the Saint Anthony Ramblers parade, a massive collection of friends and strangers fronted by the extraordinary Panorama Brass Band. For the past three years, I’ve served as a flagbearer for this parade, and of all the things I’ve done in New Orleans, there are few things I’m more proud of than the role I served marching at the head of that chaotic collection of souls, helping to guide it through the streets with the rolling thunder of a marching band pushing us forward.

There are few experiences in the world to compare with the transcendent feeling of being in the middle of a Mardi Gras parade. Specifically, the walking parades that, by their nature, invite anyone to join in at any moment.

One of my favorite moments in the city came during my first Mardi Gras. I’d moved to New Orleans fresh out of a divorce, and was still desperately trying to find my footing in a city that overwhelmed and eluded me. I didn’t have enough of a road map to know what I should be doing on Mardi Gras Day, so I wandered aimlessly around the Marigny neighborhood.

Luckily (luck plays a big role in most Mardi Gras stories) I happened to run into my friends John and Sophie, out with their infant daughter. They encouraged me to follow them, and within minutes I was swept up by a mix of two parades (one of them being the Saint Anthony Ramblers) and soon found myself dancing through the Quarter, past sidewalks lined with tourists, photographers, and other revelers simply watching us go by. And in the middle of the chaos the thought hit me that all of those people were there to look at this very moment, and that I was part of it. Here was this celebration that felt like the purest expression of the spirit of a city I was trying to start my life over in. And in my own, almost insignificant way, I’d become a tiny part of that expression. And that was more than enough.

It was the moment the city became my home. The moment I stopped doubting my decision to move there. And, quite possibly, the moment I began to get over my divorce.

As my years in the city ticked by, Mardi Gras became a marker for the position of my life. There was the first Mardi Gras I led a parade, when such a freezing rain came down that people had to knock the ice off their cans of beer between sips. There was the Mardi Gras where I was so heartbroken that I staggered home in tears. And all the Mardi Gras (plural) where everything in my life seemed to be set right. Every rivet in every wheel clicking into place, and a door opening from which I could see everything I wanted in my life going forward.

More than anything, that is what I’m missing this year. The strange feeling of order in that madness. That feeling of being helplessly afloat in a sea of humanity and giving in to the tide. The thrill of being at the head of one of those endless parades criss-crossing the city, leading the charge. The strength that comes from feeling like the most centered version of yourself in the middle of complete chaos.

Talking about Mardi Gras remains a handful of sand for me. The harder I hold on, the more I find it slipping through my fingers. And it’s easy to romanticize as well, which is its own kind of bullshit. New Orleans, as anyone who lives there can tell you, has plenty of problems that one day doesn’t even come close to covering up. As I often tell people, it’s a hard city to live in, but it’s worth it.

Maybe it’s easier to only see the good when you’re far away. To dream of dancing with gas lamps and spinning out into the stars on the back of a waltz. It’s entirely possible that if I was there right now, I would be exhausted and struggling like I was when I left town a couple months ago.

But it’s hard to imagine anything bad when I see the photographs and, in the distance, hear the sound of a parade. And just like that, I’m back. The sound of my friends calling to me from a doorway to come out and play. The sounds of the skeletons reminding me that I only have so many of these days to enjoy. And everywhere, the feeling that we are all making this happen together — a reminder of how loved we are, and how much love we are capable of. To remember that it all ends. And thank god for that. Or else it wouldn’t mean a damn thing.

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