Not every stretch of New Orleans’s Mardi Gras parades is dominated by booze, beads and breasts. There are places on St. Charles Avenue where the sidewalks fill with something more humble: ladders that come dressed for the occasion, decked out in purple, green and gold. On their tops, far above the kegs and coolers, sit elaborate boxes where kids perch to watch the parade, forming a Mardi Gras society all their own six feet above the ground. Secured by metal bars, their legs dangle through holes in the ground as they sit in custom-built crow’s nests bearing their names, or that of a sibling who outgrew the box long ago.
Although some parents purchase their boxes pre-made, George Brower would never let someone else do his parade work for him. This New Orleans transplant has built around 100 ladders since 1986, many of them deluxe models that can seat up to four children. On parade day, he will line up about twenty ladders, occupying a stretch of oak-lined sidewalk that his wife’s family has claimed for fifty-eight years. Gentle, with deep-set eyes and a bare head, Brower is nearly sixty, and takes a quiet pride in making sure his friends’ kids have a good view.
“Mardi Gras is not just to be with your family, that sort of happens naturally. It’s to include all of the friends you’d like to be with for other holidays that you can’t,” says Brower.
Last month, Mardi Gras ladders came under fire with a new ordinance passed in the City Council, mandating that they stand at least six feet from curbs. While the language cites public safety, it is largely concerns over territory that push such bills into the Council chambers every few years. Although they are convenient for some parents, Mardi Gras ladders form a wall, a blockade stopping ground-level parade-goers who want to approach the floats. If enforced, the new regulations will push the wall back, opening up a more egalitarian arrangement along the route.
Since ladders emerged in the 1960s, regulations have popped up every few years regarding where and when ladders can stand on the route. Such laws are rarely enforced, and parents park their ladders along the edge of the curb with impunity.
“They always pass those laws,” says Brower, who expects to line up as close to the parade route as he always has. Three decades after moving south from Long Island, he is as immersed in the city’s culture as any non-native can get. But it wasn’t until recently that he truly felt like a local.
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Brower’s Carnival began in 1982, when he stood on Canal Street and experienced the season as a bachelor. Canal is a four-lane road, littered with tourist traps and T-shirt shops, connecting the French Quarter and the hotel-heavy Central Business District. But Brower found solace amidst the raucous crowds and stale beer, as the floats of Iris, the city’s first all-female krewe, rolled towards him. A ladder would have come in handy as he strained to see a particular float, and a particular woman: Lauren. In a crowd of thousands, Brower was concerned with only one.
“We didn’t know each other that well yet,” Brower reminisces. “So I would stand on Canal and find her on the float.”
Brower’s relationship with Lauren Brennan, part of a dynastic restaurant family that owns a handful of famous fine-dining spots in the French Quarter, flourished. Soon, Brower met Lauren’s mother, intrepid matriarch Lynne Brennan, who told him, “George, you know I love you in equal proportion to how much you love my daughter.”
“She really has a way of saying things,” says George. “I was twenty-six and met Lauren and dated for a few years and married. I think I had a longer engagement to make sure I didn’t take her back to New York.”
The newlyweds ultimately settled in the Brennan family house, a stately two-story Greek revival in the city’s historic Garden District. Soon there were children, and the children needed ladders.
Most parents personalize their children’s seats, whether through painting, gluing or accommodating for bead storage. But Brower takes it farther. Calm and intense, he blocks out all distractions when he is sanding down the sides of his freshly cut wood, careful not to leave any splinters for their young inhabitants.
“It takes a couple of days,” he says.
The boxes start with a long piece of wood sawed into four smaller pieces and reattached with a few nails and a drill. The longevity of the ladders is about fifteen years, but Brower finds they need to be repainted every three or four. He currently has about twenty-five ladders in his workshop, and Brower, who works as an investment broker, spends most of the broker’s extracurricular maintaining them.
In addition to his forays into carpentry, Brower and his paternal peers have also occasionally taken on roles as solo parents. When Lauren and the other moms in Brower’s group would ride in Iris, the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, the dads were left to their own devices. “Suddenly you have thirty-five kids all with dads and a few frantic moms who don’t participate in the parade picking up all the slack,” Brower laughs.
Fortunately for hapless dads, ladders keep kids contained and entertained, at least until adolescence pulls them into the crowd. Teens begin to weave through the periphery, carefully passing water bottles full of the their parents’ least popular booze, often plundered from liquor cabinets hours before parades.
There are spots along St. Charles known for teenage pursuits, olfactory pockets where marijuana smoke penetrates the standard layer of beer-soaked grass and exhaust fumes from parade vehicles.
“During Mardi Gras, sixteen-year-olds are the worst,” says Brower, lowering his head and tilting his eyes up in emphasis. Brower lets out a sigh of relief after explaining that his sixteen-year-old son is going scuba diving for Mardi Gras vacation this year.
While their big siblings sneak cheap vodka, the little ones are content to wave their arms, thirsting for someone to toss them beads, which they store in a bag attached to the front of their box. Such frills are still permitted by the new ordinance, but drawing ladders six feet back from the curb will take most toddlers out of prime bead-catching distance. Most parents seem to be planning on asking for forgiveness rather than permission, as they continue to demarcate spaces three-to-four, rather than six, feet from curbs.
Brower’s fourth child climbed down his ladder for the last time in 2005. That fall came Katrina, bringing problems much larger than ladders, and calling into question whether or not parades would roll down St. Charles Avenue at all.
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The storm displaced 150,000 people, many permanently. Like many who did not “get water,” the Browers felt a responsibility to help others in the community. The family lent their home, virtually unscathed, and generator to the Red Cross.
“We donated from the day we got back,” Brower says. “We called from Florida [where the family evacuated] and they agreed it would be good. We felt that we didn’t flood and they really needed the spot.”
The storm hit on August 29, 2005; Mardi Gras fell on February 26, 2006.
Even though most of the streetlights were still down, the city decided Mardi Gras would still go on. The Carnival immediately following Katrina was the one in which Brower finally decided to ride for the first time in the Krewe of Rex.
The prioritization of Mardi Gras was a politically-charged issue even for locals. Many who were still unable to access their homes, or who no longer had homes, resented the time and energy poured into something that is by definition an indulgence.
“When Mardi Gras came along, the press was giving us a hard time, [saying] ‘They should be rebuilding,’” says Brower. “But I rode Mardi Gras Day, and, people thanked me for riding and coming out, because it was such a pressure on these families. When seventy-five percent of your city floods, you have to find some fun. Mardi Gras honors that privilege.”
The Browers’ spot along the parade route hosts the same group of families to this day. Adults can find a cold beer as easily as kids can find a perch to sit on. All who refuse a bite to eat or a drink from the house will encounter repeat offers from George or Lauren.
“Lauren still tries to never miss a float,” says Brower, who is content to sit out a few parades after several decades in their spot. Although he keeps the bigger models on reserve, there are still at least ten ladders lined up for each day of Carnival.
As the adults mingle below, children compete to find out who can scream the loudest at the floats; who can win the most throws through sheer enthusiasm. Brower’s family photos show Lauren beaming at the camera, oblivious to the range of emotion displayed in front of her. As one kid smiles triumphantly, another scowls, longing for a missed stuffed animal or prized pair of beads.