2009 carnival season comes to an end

Published 1:35 am Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mardi Gras madness gave way to calm and serenity as many of those who closed out the Carnival season began their trek into churches Wednesday to have ashes daubed on their foreheads, marking the 40 days of prayer and self-denial leading up to Easter.

Police, followed by street sweepers, moved down Bourbon Street at midnight announcing that Mardi Gras was officially over and Lent had begun.

In the hours leading up to that moment, revelers took in the final sights and sounds of Fat Tuesday.

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“Mardi Gras is my favorite time to play music,” said Rob Espino, a tuba player dressed in a feathery, yellow chicken suit while performing with the Storyville Stompers brass band in the French Quarter. “Mardi Gras is all about making people smile and helping them have a good time. There’s just nothing like it.”

Espino was among thousands in costume, some wearing elegant gowns and others with little more than body paint for coverage.

“It’s fun to just look at all the costumes,” said Corie Pearce, who with her husband walked the French Quarter in grass skirts. The couple, from Meridian, Idaho, said this was their first Mardi Gras, “but we knew to dress up.”

The day’s celebration, however, was marred by violence.

Police said at least seven people — including a toddler — were shot Tuesday afternoon on St. Charles Avenue, an historic parade route where families traditionally gather. Three men, ages 50, 33 and 20, a 20-year-old woman, a 17-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy were also wounded.

The two most seriously injured victims were shot in the stomach and underwent surgery, said Officer Janssen Valencia, though he didn’t know the men’s conditions. The others were listed in stable condition Tuesday night with injuries not considered life-threatening.

Two men were in custody, though police still weren’t certain of a motive.

Still, people drank, sang, laughed and waited for the trinkets tossed from floats as if nothing had happened.

“They had an ambulance out here picking the guy up off the street and people didn’t stop vying for throws,” said Beau Beals, 45, who helped usher children to safety as the gunfire erupted near a house party he attended on St. Charles Avenue.

During the day’s festivities, many revelers turned the tables on the recession, dressing in costumes riffing on bailouts, the federal stimulus package and busted budgets.

Take the sign in the French Quarter that read: “Show me your stimulus package!” Men in the Quarter traditionally ask women to lift their shirts in exchange for beads or other trinkets.

An elderly man in plain clothes wore a cardboard sign around his neck that read “My Stimulus Package Works.”

Suzanne Gravener, 59, dressed as the Statue of Liberty — without a crown. That, the New Orleans teacher joked, had to be sold for cash because of the hard times. Her husband lost his job as a dairy salesman.

“I still have my torch, though,” she said, adding Carnival was one luxury the family could afford. “This is the greatest free show on earth.”

Lisa Ingraham, 33, of Metairie, wore a beekeeper’s suit. She said she used to help her family tend six bee hives in Picayune, Miss., and though she no longer works with the bees, she’s having fun with the suit — complete with a yellow netted veil.

“We love to come out and enjoy ourselves every Mardi Gras,” said Ingraham, pushing a stroller with her 10-month-old daughter, Emily, dressed in a yellow and black bee costume. “I love bees. They really are amazing little creatures.”

Vincent Catalanotto made fun of Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps by wearing tiny, blue swim shorts over a nude-color body stocking and carrying what looked like a bong.

“It’s like Christmas to New Orleans,” said Sara Ford, a 30-year-old software engineer from Seattle, who was in town with family and friends. Asked whether the economy was a major consideration in whether to come, she shook her purple and white wig: “Pff, no. You come to Mardi Gras.”

Business owners hoped the recession would not affect the 24-hour party, one of the first major events of the year for a city that thrives on tourism and conventions.

Tourism officials hoped to match last year’s crowd of about 750,000 during Carnival. Before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Fat Tuesday typically brought in about 1 million people.

The day started with clarinetist Pete Fountain leading his Half-Fast Walking Club — for the 49th year — into the streets, marking the unofficial opening of the day.