The measure of Mardi Gras and the spirit of rebuilding New Orleans isn't found in the French Quarter or even on Canal Street. The mystique of Mardi Gras and the energy to rebuild comes from the thousands who pack the neutral ground on St. Charles Avenue or line the sidewalks of Napoleon.
I have come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras off and on over the last 10 years. I rode on an Endymion float just a few months before Katrina and I rode in a boat down the same route and on the same streets after the city flooded. On this trip I have noticed one thing: The crowds — and not the ones in the tourist friendly French Quarter.
The locals I know are people like the Laiches: they've been here for years, evacuated during the storm. Some made it back to dry homes. Others, like my good friend Paul, live in their second stories — the first is still gutted down to the subfloor. Sheet rock cut out three feet up the wall.
In this area of Metaire, nearly every home has a white trailer parked on what was once the front lawn, plastic pipes run into the sewer holes and pipes come from the water system. This is home for now; many say they'll likely buy the trailers off of the government once the work is done.
What strikes me as I sit here on the packed common ground watching parades pass and beads pelt the crowd below is the determination to go along with life. The attempt to make things as normal as possible.
In this case, the version of Mardi Gras you never see on TV, the crowd and enthusiasm is much larger than anyone has seen in years. Barbeques smoke the crisp air, couches, lawn chairs and tables blanket most of the avenue and sidewalks that border. Kids of all ages, some adults included, scale ladders that stretch four rows deep. On top of the ladders, wooded boxes, with seatbelts. The boxes are bolted to the top step of the ladder, you know, the one that says: This is not a step.
In actuality it is a step. The youngest generation is perched here to see a tradition overcome so much adversity. They are learning a valuable lesson that will keep this city vibrant for years to come. This step is as small as a wooden box, bolted to a ladder, spread along a street, with kids strapped in.
If you told me a few months ago while experiencing Katrina that I would see this now, in this place, I would have never thought it possible.