Through the Mask

Travel Editor Kim Cross describes the view from the other side of a Mardi Gras float.
Kim Cross

Behind the mask, on a chariot of plywood and paper flowers, I am floating through a sea of supplicant arms, drunk on the power of beads. I am dressed in clown-colored satin and sequins, but I feel like Hera on Mount Olympus, smiling down upon the mortals.

It is twilight now on Lundi Gras, and the Orpheus parade snakes down St. Charles, floats glowing with their mystical beauty. Beneath Live Oak branches glittered with beads, a hungry crowd blankets the neutral ground and the sidewalks in front of old mansions. What they want, I have, in heaps at my feet. And tonight I have a sacred job: giving it all away.

The act of throwing is not random, but neither is it methodical. It is an intoxicatingly magical moment of choice, a moment that happens over and over, but never the same way twice. Sometimes it is a child on a ladder box. Or a silhouette in the shadows. A sign, or a movement, will catch my eye. And that is how I choose.

Somehow, in the chaos, our eyes will lock, two strangers who meet through a mask. For one brief instant, we have a connection. I point. She nods. We become a team. I crumple the beads into my fingerless gloves, and throw. Time slows as the gift unfurls in the air and lands with a grateful rattle. She waves. I nod. We move on.

Five hours of this leaves me bruised and sore and reeling with anonymous celebrity. The 35-pound bags of shiny plastic at my feet have vanished into the night. Our floats glide into the cavernous convention hall, where revelers in tuxedos and shimmering gowns welcome us to the ball.

Off the float, I am once again ordinary. Except for one souvenir. I have kept a handful of paradox—a few strands of something both worthless and priceless, whose value only comes to be in the moment you throw it away.

 

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