Indulgence in New Orleans takes many forms, but this day is called Fat Tuesday for a reason.
Rick Bragg
Credit: John Cueno

Someone should have warned me about that third Lucky Dog.

Someone should have saved me from myself in that long-ago carnival, on that crumbling street corner. They should have just slapped it out of my hand and driven me back to the old Pontchartrain Hotel for a bicarbonate and an intervention.

But sometimes people just don't show good sense when the big floats start to roll down lovely St. Charles Avenue or through the teeming Quarter. They forget their finer natures, and sometimes pants.

When I was a boy, I loved stories of carnival in New Orleans, loved pictures in the history books of the elaborate floats lit by throngs of flambeaux carriers, the costumes of the revelers cut and pieced from another time. You could almost hear the music coming off the page.

I could not wait to see it, till I heard the marching bands and stood in a shower of beads. There is nothing like it, people told me. Go to Zulu, they said. Snag a coconut. Discard your dignity and scream, "Throw me something, mister!" Enjoy the unbridled excess of Fat Tuesday, and wake up, morbidly hungover and dehydrated, and get smudged on Ash Wednesday.

"But I am not Catholic," I said.

They told me it was a little like Saint Patrick's Day.

"Everyone's Irish?" I said. Yup, they said.

But they should have warned me about…stuff. They should have told me about beads. They should have told me that 32 floats will pass you by and not one soul will even look your way, because as a grown, somewhat nondescript man, you are far down the list of targets. You rank behind all women of all kinds, all grandpas on stepladders with catch nets and knee-high compression socks, all children, all men in Dr. Seuss hats (because you could not get snockered enough for a Dr. Seuss hat, even if you had not grown up Congregational Holiness), and tree limbs. Live oaks will catch more beads than you.

Then, at the precise moment that you have given up, the instant you stop paying attention, someone will slap you in the face with a 6-foot string of artificial pearls manufactured in Malaysia for $13 a ton, or almost put your eye out with a shower of purple aluminum doubloons. And the odd thing is, you'll be grateful. You'll out-leap a sweet lady on a Rascal scooter for a plastic cup.

They should have told me about traffic, and that special New Orleans alchemy called "parade routes," which seem designed by astrologists and can be boiled down to one simple line: "Don't try to go nowhere." They should have told me, if I wanted reservations at my favorite restaurants for the week of carnival, to make them on Lundi Gras…of 1943.

Which is why— hungry, stranded, and slapped stupid—I was seduced by the Lucky Dogs cart in the first place, seduced by the smell of chili, mustard, and onions, and why I had another, and…I had quit drinking, and I guess I needed to do something to great excess, to belong.

When I make it back, and New Orleans always calls me back, I will cut myself off after one, and I will be lighter, so as to be a bead-catching fool. I will get myself a stepladder and a stupid hat…and goggles, in case my attention strays. I do not expect to do much better, but I would like to beat the trees.

RICK'S LATEST BOOK: My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South, $26.99;