Every year, GAMBIT reviews Mardi Gras rules, laws and customs — for veteran Carnival-goers and newbies alike. This year, there's a big change that affects just about everyone celebrating on the East Bank of New Orleans: The first weekend of Carnival festivities (this year, Feb. 17-19), traditionally a warm-up to the big weekend and Fat Tuesday (Feb. 28), also will see the NBA All-Star Game in the Smoothie King Center on Feb. 19, with attendant events taking place all weekend long. That means hotel rooms will be even more difficult to come by; be prepared for traffic delays and parking issues downtown.
On the day of the game, four krewes are set to roll on the traditional Uptown (St. Charles Avenue) route — Femme Fatale, Carrollton, King Arthur and Alla (see p. 35 for route maps) — passing near the Smoothie King Center as they march through the Warehouse District. It should be exciting for visitors, but locals might want to pick a parade-watching spot away from downtown.
Some things never change, though. Flashing for beads is illegal everywhere, and doing it anywhere outside the French Quarter probably will land you in jail. (Don't even think about dropping your pants.) New Orleans cops are famously tolerant of minor infractions during Carnival, but don't count on being let off with a warning. They also tolerate various degrees of intoxication, but if you're out of control, you may run afoul of the law.
Cops as well as locals abhor public urination — it's a crime for which you will be arrested. Despite New Orleans' party reputation, state law says you go to jail for weed. Since last Mardi Gras, however, local cops may issue a simple summons for possessing a small amount of pot, even if it's not your first offense. Still, don't take chances in public. And if someone in your party does go to jail, he or she may not get out until Ash Wednesday. Best advice: Don't break any laws during Mardi Gras.
For the record: It's illegal (not to mention obnoxious, and unnecessarily provocative) to block off public space on neutral grounds. Tents and other large structures (including portable toilets) are prohibited along parade routes, and ladders must be set back at least 6 feet from the curb. "Ladder walls" along the street are illegal and selfish — then again, not letting kids get the good throws is selfish, too.
Finally, there's street wisdom: Do wear a costume. Don't wear good shoes. Do bring your ID, cash, one credit or debit card and a phone. Don't bring a wallet, purse, expensive watches, jewelry or anything you'd hate to lose. Do designate a meeting place with your group in case someone gets separated. If you have small children, write your cellphone number on their arms. Do step on any beads you plan to pick up before reaching down or risk getting your hand stomped.
Mardi Gras is the greatest free party on earth, but you have to make it that way — so, above all: Have fun!