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.