NEW ORLEANS – Douglas Barry stood on Bourbon Street Tuesday holding a huge sign that warned those around him of the danger they were in. Mardi Gras, Barry and his colleagues cautioned the fantastically costumed crowd, was the doorway to hell.
"Not everyone welcomes our message," said Barry, a member of the Bible Believers, a Christian group that travels to large gatherings to preach. "But people never need to hear it more than today."
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Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday — is the often raucous end to the pre-Lenten Carnival season. The celebration characterized by family friendly parades uptown and in the suburbs, and by heavy drinking and lots of near-nudity in the French Quarter, is highlighted by 12 days of parades and parties.
So as men in pink baby-doll pajamas, leather loincloths and feathers paraded past and women flashed glimpses of flesh for strings of beads, Barry and other Bible Believers labored to deliver God's word.
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"We're pretty aggressive in our approach," said Philip Johnson, 26, of Spokane, Wash. "We've had members beaten up here before."
But for the main part they were simply ignored.
"He told me I was headed to hell, but all I'm doing is wandering around taking in the sights," said Larry Carpenter, 48, of New York. "He said that makes me a dirty old man, which is probably true, but I'm a happy one today."
With temperatures in the 70s, crowds that had begun staking out spots on the parade routes as early as Friday night spent the day collecting beads and other trinkets thrown from floats.
The final weekend of Carnival seemed a bit more subdued than usual, said Kevin Kelly, who lives on the parade route. He credited the early date for Mardi Gras for the quieter crowds. It was too early for college students on spring break to join the party, Kelly pointed out.
"And frankly, it's a good thing," Kelly said. "The city smells better without a bunch of drunken kids using every doorway as a toilet."
Clarinetist Pete Fountain, dressed in a tunic as one of King Arthur's knights, kicked off the day leading 100 members of his Half-Fast Walking Club through the streets for the 47th time.
Zulu, the predominantly black parade with 27 floats and 1,200 riders, was one of at least 10 parades that rolled in the metro area on Tuesday. It was delayed frequently as it made its way down St. Charles Avenue. Mayor Ray Nagin, dressed as an Indian chief with white, feathered headdress, waited on horseback as the first breakdown was cleared away.
In a sign that New Orleans has yet to recover fully from the hurricanes of 2005, businessman Frank Boutte, this year's King Zulu, is still living in Houston. Hurricane Katrina's floods damaged his Lakefront home.
Rex, king of Carnival, followed Zulu.
"We do this every year," said Carol Cook, 64, who was costumed as a herd of black and white cows. "We brought out kids and now they're bringing their kids. I don't plan to miss it until they put me in the ground."
The smell of charcoal and sizzling meat accompanied the sounds of people urging float riders to "throw me something," and band music, as cooks prepared everything from burgers to crawfish along the route.
"We had beer for breakfast, but we're making it a side dish now," David James said. "You have to pace yourself when you get here at dawn."
In the French Quarter, costumes were more gaudy and frequently much skimpy.
"I've got it and I intend to flaunt it," said Joe Wilson, 33, of Dallas, who wore only a pair of underpants and was covered with gold paint.