Tuesday, February 28, 2006
'Hey Anderson, throw me some beads'
New Orleans has always been a complex city, a gritty gumbo town, not quite here, not quite there. Now, that is especially true.

Reporting here, you spend your days in the lower Ninth Ward, or in Saint Bernard Parish, where there are still miles of mud and acres of ruin, only to come back at night to Bourbon Street, where we stay, and see thousands of revelers, drinking and tossing beads, occasionally baring their breasts.

Bourbon Street is probably what most people think of when they think of Mardi Gras. Crowds of college-age kids, and those still wishing they were, take part in a raunchy, round-the-clock carnival of chaos, reveling amid piles of trash. It's mostly tourists, of course, though locals do occasionally drop by just to see what the visitors are up to.

Bourbon Street, however, is not what Mardi Gras is really about. At heart, Mardi Gras is a family affair.

Sunday night, I rode in a parade with Endymion, one of the major carnival organizations. I was a guest on Dan Aykroyd's float, and I was honored to ride with a half-dozen first responders -- police officers and firefighters -- the real heroes of the storm.

It was an experience I will never forget. Some of you have seen pictures of these parades, but they don't really capture the emotion of the moment. Tens of thousands of people line the parade route. Many haven't seen each other since Hurricane Katrina. They are young and old, black and white, a sea of smiles.

I found it impossible not to keep smiling myself, and after a few hours my face literally hurt from smiling. On the float, your job is to throw out beads, thousands of them, and everyone it seems is screaming for more. Dan Aykroyd, who truly loves New Orleans, told me his strategy, "I like to lob them in the air, so they have time catch them and don't get one in the eye." I used his method, because it's easy to hurt someone with all the projectiles flying through the air.

It's a very public event, of course, but there's something intensely personal about the throwing of the beads. You make eye contact with someone, toss them a necklace. They say thank you, and you roll on. The only beads people want are the ones they catch themselves. I find that very telling. The beads that fall on the ground are rarely picked up. They lack the personal connection, the bond has been broken.

I was on the float for at least four hours, but the truth is that after a while, the screaming seems to disappear, so do the crowds. All you see are the faces, one after the other.

I've come to Mardi Gras before, always for work, but for the first time I realize what it's all about. It's not Bourbon Street, and it's not the beads -- they are plastic and not worth much at all. It's about making a connection, one person to another, the present to the past. Like catching the beads, Mardi Gras is an act of luck, a reach of faith, a fleeting moment, in which everyone, young and old, rich and poor, housed or homeless, can reach out and hope for a better day.
Posted By Anderson Cooper: 10:31 AM ET
It's quite refreshing to read something positive regarding New Orleans. Even though we shouldn't forget about everyone who has lost, people need something to look forward to, some new goals and to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I hope that this can finally be the beginning of that new light.
Posted By Anonymous Nicki Ferguson, Calgary, Alberta Canada : 11:03 AM ET
Now do you get it?

So many folks have the wrong idea about what mardi gras is about, what you saw is the real part.

You should try next year to go on the rural mardi gras runs in the Cajun Praire, towns like Ville Platte, Eunice and Mamou, you can even come ride with me and my friends.
Posted By Anonymous LUKE, Baltimore, MD (displaced from South Louisiana for school) : 11:16 AM ET
Hey Anderson,

Thank you so much for going back to NOLA and the surrounding areas. My parents honeymooned in NO and they only talked about the French Quarter, Jackson Sq and St Charles Ave, and that is how I preceived NOLA. It always seemed like a beautifully, magical place where nothing bad could happen. But when Katrina hit I saw another side of NO, a side I never knew existed. But thanks to you and CNN we, the public were able to see that there were living, breathing people living there, people who lost everything in a few hours.

Some say that the Mardi Gras should not have taken place, but my feeling is everyone deserves a little happiness in their lives. Even a small ray of hope as a parade can make a difference. The old NO is gone, but her spirit lives on and because of people like you she will rise again bigger and better. Again thank you.

True we don't know these people, but we are all part of the human race, the family of man and where ever we live we should care about thse people.
Posted By Anonymous Marcia, Warren MI : 11:26 AM ET
Working on the Katrina disaster from another stand point, and being in FEMA HQ and not in the field, I can only imagine what it is like down there. I get all the behind the scenes action now that I am back in my office in Alabama, but the one place I have always wanted to be was at Mardi Gras. I want it more now than ever before. I want to see the smiles of the people after reading the stories of death and destruction. I want to see these people happy again. They deserve so much more than they are getting. These peoples lives have been destroyed and here they are amongst the many trying to go on and continue with the family traditions and the way of life. The way of life in southern LA is comparable to nothing anywhere in the USA. These people are proud, they are strong and they will rebuild and continue the traditions and their way of life. (I would love to have been there to make a connection like you have, you are a very lucky person.)
Posted By Anonymous Jenifer A Adams-Stephens, Pell City, Alabama : 11:28 AM ET
Thank you, Mr. Cooper, for the eloquent words and emotions. I'm glad that you could see beyond the booze and beads and see the HEART of Mardi Gras.
Posted By Anonymous Lisa, Lake Charles, LA : 11:30 AM ET
Hi Anderson,
Thanks for posting this perspective. Having never been there,I have definitely been one whose view of Mardi Gras was that it was all about a tradition of raucous partying and parading and not much else.Thanks for broadening my horizons a bit!
Posted By Anonymous Jennifer Durham, NC : 11:33 AM ET
I really liked this story. We have a smaller Mardi Gras in Galveston with only a 100,000 people. Just like NOLA, the beads stay on the ground, unless 'contact' is made!
Posted By Anonymous Mary McKinney, Houston, TX : 11:34 AM ET
Hi Anderson,
As the saying goes, you had a "lightbulb moment." I think your posting really says it all..In the end human beings are the only thing that really matters.."People"...Will rebuild the Gulf Coast..I have no doubt.
Posted By Anonymous Lorie Ann , Buellton,Calif : 11:45 AM ET
I am missing my Mardi Gras this year, having relocated to Phoenix, Arizona 2 months after the storms...BUT I am wearing my Mardi Gras shirt, brought some beads to work and tossed them about to fellow co-workers. Even flew in a King Cake to eat! I called friends this morning who are in New Orleans to wish them Happy Mardi Gras as they were out the door to go to parades. Tomorrow I'll go to Mass for my ashes. I'm glad the Mardi Gras festivities have marched on. It's a great morale booster to those folks who are trying to gain some type of normalcy in an otherwise crazy nightmare.
Posted By Anonymous Cindy Harris, Phoenix, AZ : 11:52 AM ET
I admit that over the years, I never paid much attention to Mardi Gras, or ever took the time to learn the history behind it. All that changed this year. There is such a great purpose and value to this event way beyond the partying and debauchery. And that purpose was especially important this year. Party on New Orleans! You all deserve it!
Posted By Anonymous Ann, Ames, IA : 11:57 AM ET
I just want to know what you had to flash to get all the beads you were wearing on that float!
Posted By Anonymous Courtney, Chagrin Falls, OH : 11:59 AM ET
Anderson, you have had a unique experience and you are absolutely right. I am from Louisiana and have been to Mardi Gras quite a few times and although most see it as an excuse to drink and act like children, it is much more. I have never heard anyone articulate the spirit of Mardi Gras so well. Thank you for enlightening the people that have never had the opportunity to go to Mardi Gras and the people that have, but just didn't get it. Also, thank you for your continued coverage of the disaster in the Gulf Coast region. CNN and you especially have done a masterful job of covering the sorrowful and the uplifting. Keep up the great work.
Posted By Anonymous Jason, Alexandria, LA : 11:59 AM ET
Your post was "bittersweet". Also, you didn't say anything about "flashing!" What are you shy?
Posted By Anonymous Tina Chicago, IL : 12:02 PM ET
Beads must be significant that can foster ties between the giver and the taker.
At that moment,they should share mutual sympathy.
Actually,I'm a south korean.
So I've never seen that before.
But I could sense that.
and I really hope they could overcome obstacles and build their own place.
Posted By Anonymous KimGoWoon : 12:05 PM ET
You made me cry. You got it right! It is all about the connections and comraderie. Thank you so much. I've been on those floats throwing beads. Nothing like it! I hope you ride every year. You are now a New Orleanian!! Welcome home.
Linda H. Baton Rouge, LA
Posted By Anonymous Linda H. Baton Rouge, LA : 12:07 PM ET
Anderson i think its wonderful your down in new orleans covering mardi gras. People seem to be overlooking the fact that many people are still homeless and unemployed because of katrina. i think it was really cool that you showed what else was going. i think its good that mardi gras is happening because of the joy it has brought to many, but we need to realize as a country we all need to help our fellow citizens.
Posted By Anonymous stefanie, stony brook, ny : 12:17 PM ET
The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself.... and now you know the real secret of the joy of life as well as Lent, the start of which this holiday honors. Keep smilin'!
Posted By Anonymous JG, Michigan : 12:30 PM ET
Glad to hear you were able to ride. It is an amazing experience, isn't it? It is an experience that words can not do justice to. I encourage everyone to come experience the REAL Mardi Gras. Not the drunken stupidity of Bourbon Street(90% tourists exposing themselves, not locals), but the wonderful social pleasures of St. Charles Avenue. Where families of all colors, visit, share great food, and "participate" in the cultural experience. My favorite part of the season is "waiting" for the parade. How often do we in these crazy times do nothing but relax, visit, and share time with our kids? Very rarely. It's not the much promoted "idiocy" that makes Mardi Gras so neccessary. It's the shared experience of family, and of tradition that makes Mardi Gras the Gumbo for our New Orleans soul. Without this, we would not be the special people we are. Thank you for telling the real stories Anderson. Thank you for peeling back the onion and pointing out to the world the true realities of New Orleans. The Nouvelle New Orleans will be impressive in about 10 years. I encourage everyone to come play a part in our rebirth.
Posted By Anonymous S Lundgren New Orleanian-in-exile Dallas, TX : 12:32 PM ET
Right on Anderson, so much gets missed in the news and you captured it in this blog entry. You have been on the forefront of keeping us outside of the Gulf Coast "in the know" on what has been going on there since. You have not let the story die like so many others have. Good job!
Posted By Anonymous Mr. Stacy Nicholson--Leesburg, VA : 12:35 PM ET
New Orleans needs this celebration. I am glad that you are doing 360 there. I watched Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu on the news and he hit the nail on the head. This is an American tragedy and we need to stand behind and help one of our great cities.
Posted By Anonymous ginger, colby , kansas : 12:35 PM ET
Growing up in New Orleans (from Delacroix Island, West Bank, East Bank, French Quarter, Warehouse District, & finally Uptown), I've experienced 35 Mardi Gras seasons. I must say, Anderson, you described the experience perfectly. It is about the connection, the fleeting moments, and the family affairs. It was such a regular part of life that I never thought I'd miss a single Fat Tuesday (or Lundi Gras, or Bacchus, or Endymion). Now after living in New York & Boston for a few years (lack of professional opportunity in NOLA), I miss my home. I miss what it meant to me. I miss the lifestyle. Thank you for putting into words that which I could not until now.
Posted By Anonymous Vanest - Long Island, NY : 12:39 PM ET
The REAL heros are the POOR people who no one cares about .!!!
Posted By Anonymous john C boston : 12:41 PM ET
Initially, I thought the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans should have been postponed this year. However Anderson your blog entry captures the exact reason why this year, more than ever, Mardi Gras needed to happen. Not just for the residents of the tattered Gulf Coast, but for all of America. Thank You for your continued honest and heartfelt coverage of what is to be a lifetime of recovery for many people.
Posted By Anonymous Renai Cardillo, Harleysville, PA : 12:41 PM ET
It has been several years since I was at Mardi Gras. You're right Anderson, the only beads that really meant anything to me were the ones that I got personally from eye to eye contact with the bead thrower. The strands of beads are since all gone except for 2, these were the ones I got personally. During the 'old' Mardi Gras parades, you were lucky to make eye contact as the streets and sidewalks were crammed with people so you were lucky to even move, let alone catch the 'special ones'. I have to say that if the bead thrower threw one especially to you and you didn't catch it and someone else did, the thrower would make a motion to the wrong catchee, to give up the beads to the one he threw it to.
Posted By Anonymous Wynona, San Diego, CA : 12:44 PM ET
Thank you, Anderson. It is truly wonderful that among the stereotypical drunken revelers and flashers, someone has found the human connection and the true spirit not only of Mardi Gras, but of New Orleans itself.
Posted By Anonymous Amber, Boston, MA : 12:44 PM ET
Un grand merci, Anderson, for accurately contextualizing Mardi Gras for the rest of the world. For the great majority of Louisianians, Mardi Gras is a tradition-drenched celebration of connections--with family, with community, with life.
Posted By Anonymous Marcia Gaudet, Lafayette, LA : 12:56 PM ET
Thank you so much for such a personal view of the Mardi Gras experience. It helps those of us who have never went through it first hand before understand how important it is for the people down there. I truly hope they all find that better day they are longing for. Keep up the amazing work!
Posted By Anonymous Victoria Pittsburgh, PA : 12:56 PM ET
Sounds like you caught something yourself, Anderson, you caught the moment. For every thing there is a season, a time to laugh, a time to cry and you've captured both in New Orleans.
Posted By Anonymous Kathleen, Shreveport, Louisiana : 12:59 PM ET
Hey Anderson, CNN's coverage of the Mardi Gras has been awesome. I have never been to New Orleans and really have not had an interest in this big bad party, but do to your in depth (including the history) coverage I have a new appreciation.
I also appreciate you and your, "Keeping them Honest".
Posted By Anonymous Judy Stage Brooklyn Michigan : 1:14 PM ET
As a native St. Bernardian, a current Houstonian, and a long-time spectator (and occasional krewe member) of Mardi Gras, I can say that you have captured the spirit of the season better than any non-New Orleanian I've ever heard or read.

Thanks for clearing up the misconception that debauchery rules at Mardi Gras -- it truly is about family, friendship and the often unspoken personal connections made between complete strangers.

While you're at it, perhaps you next can clear up the misconception that there should be a limited federal contribution to the recovery of New Orleans. This tragedy was not the result of a provincial stubbornness to live in an unwise geographical location. Rather it was the failure of a federally-controlled levee system and the federal construction of a waterway (the Mississipi River Gulf Outlet) that destroyed the coast that once protected my hometown and my extended family from the wrath of hurricanes like Katrina.
Posted By Anonymous Victor Aguiluz, Houston, Texas : 1:15 PM ET
For the first time since the storm I think I have hope that the city will rebuild. For the past six months I have watched and waited for some sign that the city my mother loved so dearly twenty years ago would be able to rebuild. I have listened to her stories and heard the emotion in her voice. You have captured the feeling that she always tried to convey about New Orleans and Mardi Gras, it is the human connection that took her there so long ago and it is that memory that calls to her today. I wish that I could have traveled to New Orleans with my mother before the storm, but now the pull to go is even stronger. I hope that some day soon so we can experience the devastation and the hope for ourselves.
On a lighter note: Great tux! Now, it seems that you have quite a nice bead collection, so- 'Hey Anderson, throw me some beads'=)
Posted By Anonymous Kim Miller, Lancaster, PA : 1:24 PM ET
Anderson, it was great to see you riding in Endymion (my husband's krewe). I really want to thank you for keeping your promise that you wouldn't forget about us down here and wouldn't let the rest of the nation forget either. Keep on keeping on and MISTER, THROW ME SOME OF THEM CNN BEADS!
Posted By Anonymous Theresa, Petal, MS : 1:44 PM ET
Andy ... catch the beads for me, please! Please ... I miss this year's Mardi Gras and I completely agree with you on how magical the moment is. Forget about the sad and bitter moments casue by Katrina and Rita, New Orleans. I used to live two blocks from St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District area and Mardi Gras always gave me the true taste of New Orleans, an unsurpassed one, that I will always be in trouble explaining it to other people who has never been there. I think Mardi Gras is the only event on earth that everybody could become a pure child. Proof? My normally-very-reserved English father-in-law was melted entirely by Mardi Gras. He enjoyed himself so much, cathing loads of beads and, because he's tall, he catched beads that were supposedly for those screaming children. I was speechless! I guess, I do miss New Orleans.
Posted By Anonymous V.A. Churchill, Houston, TX : 1:47 PM ET
Did my eyes mistake me or did you have special CNN beads? and if so, what does a girl have to do to get some?

It was great to see you and Sean et al have reason to wear tuxes. May there be many more such occasions.
Posted By Anonymous Arachnae, Sterling VA : 1:54 PM ET
There's another probable reason why people don't pick up beads off the street, and it's a reason with which Adrian Monk would definitely agree. Especially during Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street is really messy. Imagine what spilled beer, discarded trash, dirt from thousands of shoes, and the occasional drunk man relieving himself in an alley does to those sidewalks. Really, would you want to retrieve a string of beads from that, and then put it around your neck? Man, I hope not. :)
Posted By Anonymous Katrina, Raleigh NC : 1:55 PM ET
Thank you for this beautiful reflection of Mardi Gras. People that do not call the city home can rarely grasp the sacredness of the celeberation and that it is not about just beads and boobs, but a "reach of faith" and "families."
Posted By Anonymous Alexis Yankowski, Pittsburgh, PA (post-hurricane Katrina) : 2:11 PM ET
I lived in New Orleans for a few years, and Mardi Gras was my favorite time of the year.

I worked in a hotel, and most of the people there dreaded that time of year, but I enjoyed all the chaos, and the chance, as you so aptly put it, to "connect" with such a wide variety of people. (I also worked in the accounting department, which could explain why I found it a lot more exciting than the people at the front desk!)

I know you have heard this many times, but thank you for your continued coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It is a story that needs to continue being told, and one that all of us need to continue responding to.
Posted By Anonymous Phyllis Lancaster, PA : 2:14 PM ET
I'm so glad to see someone from outside New Orleans finally understand the meaning behind Mardi Gras. While a lot of people view it as some drunken debauchery laced in gluttony,they don't seem to grasp the reason WHY it's so important to us. It's about history, culture, enjoying life, and community. I'm working in STL for the year, and they claim to have the "3rd largest" Mardi Gras, but it's just not the same sense of culture and meaning.
Posted By Anonymous Tina, St. Louis, MO : 2:56 PM ET
It is truly a herculean leap that a city 80% underwater just six months ago can now be absorbed in the partying, comardie, and bead catching that has made New Orleans a treasure for generations. There will be time to rebuild, grieve, and reflect on all things Katrina, but for just one day New Orleans is shining above the tragedy.
Posted By Anonymous Chris, Montgomery, Al : 3:05 PM ET
We were having a GREAT Mardi Gras, until a man was crushed by a truck float right in front of us. There is no possible way that he survived. This was on the sidewalk side of Constantinople St. and St. Charles. We thought that this would be a nice Katrina relief, but this brought an unusual sadness to our happy day. This happened three hours ago, but still no news locally.
Posted By Anonymous Paul Distler, New Orleans, LA : 3:13 PM ET
I live in Texas and I have never gone to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I'm not interested in all the booze. But you convinced me to give it a go next year!
Posted By Anonymous Michelle, Austin, Texas : 4:05 PM ET
Boo to you. All the true residents are either scattered about the nation, desparate, or thrown out of hotels so that wealthy folk could boogie and pleasure themselves. Boo to you.
Posted By Anonymous Patrick, Ann Arbor, MI : 7:58 PM ET
I'm not much into wondering around in enormous crowds of tightly-packed drunk people, but I want to go to Mardi Gras because it's an "experience." It's celebration, tradition, color and sound, but mostly, yes, it's about connection. I'd have gone this year, if I'd stepped out of the shell long enough to do it.
Posted By Anonymous Nancy, Austin, Texas : 10:35 AM ET
I was down in New Orleans last year for Mardi Grah. I'm not much of a drinker or partier and I was much more interested in the historic value of the area. I stayed in the French Quarter, took a bus tour of the city and cemetarys and traveled on foot to local destinations, (of course walked up and down Bourbon Street) and I loved it all. I came away from there with such a wonderful feeling and wished right there and then that I could stay and not leave that wonderful city. This year I was not able to go back but lived vicariously through the CNN Pipeline (thank you so much for making it free for Fat Tueday) and watching it brought back to me a ton of wonderful memories of my own vist last year. How I wished I was there again. I also wonder (as many other women have)what you had to do to earn your beads???? On another more serious note, Mardi Grah is also a time when local vendors and places do their best business. I think it would have been nice if those business set up a fund for their neighbors of the 9th ward and donated part of their earnings.
Posted By Anonymous Lynne, Peckville, Pa : 10:53 AM ET
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