The four University of New Orleans students sitting under a shade tent on Orleans Avenue waiting for the Endymion Mardi Gras parade were a little wide-eyed. They said some lady in a black Lexus had just threatened them, because she believed they'd stolen her annual parade spot. As she drove away, they said, she gave them the finger. But they weren't going to back down. No way.
Before we proceed, this requires considerable scene setting. Here goes.
The lady-in-a-Lexus incident took place on Thursday afternoon which is a full 48 hours before Endymion rolls. Staking a claim to a patch of neutral ground along Orleans Avenue near the start of the lavish parade is a Crescent City custom, albeit a controversial one. But some of those seeking to experience a blizzard of the most beads and baubles of any Mardi Gras parade say it's worth it.
On Thursday, the grass near the parade route was patched with plastic tarps and spray painted with an erratic grid of boundaries. Here and there, early Endymion stalwarts sat on camp chairs chatting and sipping beer.
"This is culture; this is what we do," said Randy Traylor. "It's about saving your spot. It's about real estate, because we're probably going to have about a million of our closest friends out here on Saturday morning for a pretty big show."
According to Traylor, city officials made periodic sweeps to clear away unoccupied campsites and other obstacles.
"They started at about eight o'clock this morning and they come by about every thirty minutes," he said, "and if you're not sitting in it (camp furniture), they take it. It's a city ordinance. We're squatters. We're Endymion squatters."
Rhea McCarthy hung a Mardi Gras flag over the galvanized parade barrier to herald the procession that was still two days off. For three years, McCarthy has traveled from Slidell to save a 30-by-30-foot spot for her extended family. She calls herself The Mayor of Endymion. The honorific was spray painted in large green letters in the dirt in her shady parade spot.
Nearby sat Elmo Price of Gentilly, who was passing the time by reading an Elmore Leonard western novel. Price said he did not plan to spend the night to guarantee his family's spot. Instead, he and McCarthy planned to hire a trustworthy someone to watch out for claim jumpers. They expected to spend $80 to cover Thursday and Friday nights.
"Bayou Al" Graffier of St. Bernard Parish, who had arrived on Orleans Avenue at three a.m. Thursday, said he would stand sentry personally until the day of the parade. He'd brought a car battery-powered electric heater to ward off the night air.
Just about every early bird you talk to on the neutral ground says it's not a territorial thing. Anybody's welcome to cozy right up in anybody else's spot.
"It's not like if anyone comes, I'm going to say, 'You can't stay here,'" said the Mayor of Endymion.
The four UNO students were the vanguard of a larger group of maybe 100 friends who would be counting on the curb-side spot they had staked out. Members of the group would camp out in a small tent to insure the patch of earth remained in their hands.
Families and friends have returned to the same spots for years on end. The four UNO students said that their spot has moved from place to place, but essentially remained in the same vicinity. This year they staked their claim especially early to be as close to the barricades as possible. At first, the students said, the Lexus lady thought they had been temporarily employed by her husband to hold the spot. When she realized they claimed the spot as their own, she became outraged.
"It went downhill from there," said Brandt Daniels.
According to the UNO students, the Lexus lady warned them that her husband "knew people" and that they should "be afraid." Which was a little disconcerting. But there was a really great parade to consider. So they wrote down her license plate number and planned to hold their ground.
"It's a tradition every year," said Nicholas St. Amant, "and we can't do it the way we want to do it without camping out for the spot."