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Unmasking the magic of a Carnival den

Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Bruce E. Fleury

Where else but in New Orleans could you see a 20-foot-tall naked lady on your way home from work?

The first time I saw her smiling down from a warehouse door, I did a double take, but soon she became a familiar sight on days the warehouse bay was left open. I quickly realized I had stumbled upon a Mardi Gras den. Every krewe has a den or two hidden away in vast garages or the secret shuttered warehouses that dot our urban landscape.

They do not proudly announce themselves but blend quietly into the background. Outside may be nothing but tall weeds and stray cats, but inside is a world of magic, where gods and goddesses rub elbows with skeletons and pirate queens, where mighty dragons sleep beside flowered meadows.

Speaking of dragons, I saw one in my neighborhood just the other day.

My wife announced as she came home from work that the end of our street was blocked with floats. Looking down the road, I could see an enormous dragon coiled across the pavement. The Knights of Hermes had thrown open its doors to flood the street with floats. I hurried down the street toward the den, weaving through a flotilla of red and blue tractors, waiting their turn to haul another wonder from the treasure trove inside.

As I approached the den, I noticed that the dragon had stopped moving. Apparently, a parade can break down before it even leaves the barn.

Unpacking a Mardi Gras den turns out to be a far more complicated affair than you might expect. It's like the world's biggest sliding tile puzzle or a life size version of "Rush Hour," that little game where you slide the plastic trucks back and forth to release the little red car that probably shouldn't have parked in such an awkward spot in the first place.

Turns out you can pack an amazing number of floats into a small warehouse, kind of like packing clowns into a Volkswagen.

Everything had apparently been going smoothly, until the dragon emerged, inch by inch, scale by mighty scale. The combination of too much dragon and too little street had resulted in a colossal jam. Somebody must have been napping in driver's ed the day they taught how to make a K turn with a dragon.

No amount of backing up, cutting the wheels, or waving of hands could get the dragon out the door. After several failed attempts, every guy within 50 yards was rushing over, brimful of advice on how to resolve the situation. There is something about the sight of a dozen men peering into the heart of a sticky situation, waving their hands about and hollering helpful advice -- you somehow know that no good will come of it.

Fortune smiled on the brave Knights of Hermes, however, faced with the fundamental physics problem posed by the giant dragon. Some bright soul out-waved the rest and pointed out the obvious. Simply unhitch the tractor and hook it back up at a sharper angle. Soon the dragon was lurching its way toward the safety of the seawall, bearing under its chin a gash from the tractor's sign frame, a small souvenir of a painful and protracted birth.

I'm glad I stuck around, for the next float to appear was my buxom companion, a strange but welcome landmark in my journey home each day. She rolled out in flawless and stately fashion, befitting the haughty bemusement in her sculpted face, seemingly indifferent to her lack of attire.

Soon the barn was all but empty, its world of wonder reduced to a cavernous and dusty interior. Except, of course, for the shelves of spare skulls and giant demon heads.

The last float to emerge was the gem in the crown, a minor masterpiece from the Royal Artists in a parade well known for its craftsmanship and imagination. It was encircled by the strange but compelling iconography of Hieronymus Bosch, from his "Garden of Earthly Delights."

Beautifully rendered, in colors that glowed with the setting sun, it reminded me of the unsung army of artisans who conspire each year to help us forget our earthly troubles for an hour or two, and join them in a world of myth and magic, the enduring fantasy that is Mardi Gras.

So let us make a toast to those masters of brush and papier mache, and to the noble Knights of Hermes.

Long may they roll.

. . . . . . .

Bruce E. Fleury is a professor of biology at Tulane University. His e-mail address is



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