Immediately after college, I returned home to live with my parents again in Point Clear. I didn’t have a detailed life plan, but I knew I wanted to live in the Bay area. And my new job as a computer programmer for a Mobile company seemed like a good start. My boss had even given me a cellular phone, in those days an expensive accessory that made me feel I was destined for great things.
While my professional life seemed to be on track, my social life was lacking. Now my college friends were scattered across the country, and I’d lost touch with my high school buddies. I was the youngest person in my office, and there wasn’t much nightlife to be found in Point Clear. I went to work and came home each day, hoping that somehow the rest would work itself out. But little did I appreciate the eagerness with which Southern women will steer your social life for you.
I was coming home from work one evening, driving across the Causeway, when I answered a call from Mom on my cell phone. She said my older cousin had gotten me into a Mardi Gras organization.
“Should I do it?” I asked her.
“Of course!” she said. “Your grandfather and lots of your Mobile cousins are in it. It’s lots of fun.”
Unless Mom had put them up to it, I couldn’t imagine how anyone would have suspected I’d consider joining a Mardi Gras organization. As a family, we’d never participated much in Carnival. Dad wasn’t involved, and we had always gone to Disney World during the break. I only recalled going to a couple of parades when I was a child. I held lingering memories of a cold, damp Bienville Square packed with people. Colorful confetti and tremendous floats moved under oak limbs in the wet dark, and hard candy rained down over me in impossible quantities. Then there was the memory of a giant, terrifying skeleton stalking me through a crowd. When he was looming overhead, he tilted up his mask, and I saw another cousin’s face behind it. The sensory impact of the experience was so overwhelming that it stayed with me — almost dreamlike.
Considering my other social outlets though, I didn’t really see a downside.
“OK, ” I said. “I’ll do it.”
I called my cousin, and he gave me the time and place for my initiation ceremony. On the appointed evening, I met him outside the clubhouse, or “den” as they called it. Then, he slipped a hood over my head and led me inside. As I suspected, the initiation ceremony was nothing more than about 10 minutes of silliness before I was unmasked and ushered into the crowd of onlookers. I immediately found myself amidst more of my older cousins, people I only knew from summers on the Bay and trips to the hunting camp. And I had a revelation that this is what they all did when they went back to Mobile.
I was one of the youngest in the club. Over the months leading up to Mardi Gras, I went to the meetings and stood against the wall and soaked up the noise and chatted with the few people I knew. I didn’t feel my social life had gained the traction I was looking for, but it was better than spending the evenings alone in Point Clear.
The day my parade finally arrived, I left Baldwin County to make the journey Downtown where I was to board my assigned float. I still drove my grandfather’s old F100 with a three-speed column shifter. While it wasn’t much to look at, it had always been reliable. In fact, it was so simple that I’d never had anything go wrong that I couldn’t limp home with.
Having misjudged traffic and the challenges of navigating Downtown during Carnival, I soon found myself running dangerously late. I was somewhere in the mad ant bed of Downtown when, in a state of anxiety, I snapped the shifter off at the column. I found myself in the middle of the street holding it up in disbelief. Cars were soon honking behind me, and all I could do was helplessly rev the engine. I got out and dug around in the bed for a screwdriver. I soon found one, jammed it in the column and managed to get the truck into second gear.
Unable to get out of second gear, I lurched and sputtered as close as I could get to my parade. Then I pulled up on a curb, shut off the truck and started running. As I came to the lineup, it appeared that it was leaving at any moment. The generators were running, and the floats were full of maskers. I rushed into the costumes room. Most of the racks were already empty, and I couldn’t remember exactly where my section was. Fortunately, someone I knew came rushing through to get something he’d forgotten.
“Which one?” I frantically asked.
“You’re probably a Chinaman, ” he said. “Geez, you better hurry up.”
“Where’s all my stuff to throw?”
The man was already hurrying away.
“I don’t know, ” he said over his shoulder. “They probably already loaded it up.”
I grabbed the last Chinaman costume and got into it. It was so big that I felt I’d been draped in bed sheets. Then I pulled on a mask and jammed on the Chinaman hat and bolted out the door somewhere in the middle of the lineup. The scene was already riotous with maskers high above me yelling and rocking the floats with anticipation. I hiked up my pants and searched for fellow Chinamen but didn’t see any.
I desperately looked about for assistance, but everyone was masked and I didn’t recognize a friend in the bunch.
“Where do I go?!” I yelled up at someone.
The man pointed dismissively up the line of floats and took a swig from a bottle. I held my pants with one hand and started running. Vikings. Penguins. Cowboys. Eskimos. Finally, I was at the beginning of the line, staring up at a float full of fish.
“I don’t know where to go!” I yelled up. “Just come on, ” someone shouted.
“But I’m a Chinaman!”
“We need a Chinaman. Get up here!”
My first ride certainly got off to a bad start. I’d lost my family and had no throws. But once the marching band started beating their drums and the parade began to snake its way through a sea of cheering spectators, the incomparable thrill of celebrity fell over me. And there was one happy Chinaman dancing amongst the fish.
Watt’s latest novel, “Hideout, ” is now available wherever books are sold.
text by Watt Key • photo by jeff and meggan haller