If you have a birthday in late February, like I do, sometimes it falls near either Chinese New Year or Mardi Gras. My 39th birthday was so close to Mardi Gras, in fact – it was the day after – that I decided that was as good an excuse as any and flew myself down to New Orleans. And hell, I’d observe my birthday on The Day itself. Who knows, Mom probably went into labor then; it should count.
I actually started reaping the city’s largesse a few days earlier, when I first arrived – after two days, I’d already accumulated five pounds of parade throws, including a cuddly stuffed doll I sent to my best friend’s daughter (who shares a birthday with me). Some of that swag came from a pair of Japanese girls who’d stood in front of me in one crowd, screaming and cheering and catching as many beads as they could – I was hanging back, as I’d already caught plenty at that point, but they saw me beadless behind them, and spontaneously both draped fistfuls of their beads around my neck before turning back to the parade for more. A gloriously drunk young man tried to offer me some of a cocktail he’d mixed up in a flask (I can’t remember how I dissuaded him). I got a jar of spice mix as a lagniappe from a spectacular bookstore run by the friend of a friend. And after striking up a conversation with a cop (I was asking him for a lunch recommendation), he gave me a set of official New Orleans P.D. beads – they’re blue and have a little model squad car dangling from them – and he even gave me a ride back to my hotel later.
I’d been to New Orleans once before, so I’d already hit a lot of the big sites – I was going more for the party and the food. I’m not a huge drinker, and – as I joked to friends – turning 39 meant that I was old enough to know you can buy yourself some damn plastic beads, so there would be no flashing parade floats, thank you very much. But what I didn’t know, until I got there, is that there’s another separate birthday custom – you declare your status to everyone by pinning a dollar bill to your shirt. And in New Orleans, a dollar bill on your shirt means three things happen:
- Everyone knows it’s your birthday, so strangers are wishing you “happy birthday” all day.
- The bars in the French Quarter all comp you your first drink.
- Periodically, strangers will also add money to what you’ve pinned on to your shirt.
…Let me remind you, I was observing my birthday on Mardi Gras.
I hit the famous Zulu parade first thing that morning, and even managed to get one of their coconuts by pleading “it’s my birthday, see?” Then after a picnic lunch with friends – during which I even got some birthday cake – I head into the French Quarter for the real mayhem, with a new friend I’d met in the hotel as my “date”. I’d been picking up the occasional dollar bill here and there, but just before the Quarter we stopped into a bar and I got my first free drink – and a gushing birthday wish from a woman who looked like she’d been there since ten that morning. “It’s your birrthday! Yay!” she slurred. Then she raised her pint glass, and toasted me – with the kind of grave dignity that you only find in the very, very drunk: “Any day you wake up alive is your birthday.”
My date and I spent the whole night in the Quarter, but managed to hit up only about three or four bars – pushing our way through the crowd was just that complicated, and four bars was plenty. I got the occasional extra cash from passersby, free cocktails whereever we stopped, birthday wishes from all who saw me and even picked up a feather boa from a bathroom, draping it grandly around myself before joining my date. I also got a few strings of beads tossed to me from strangers on balconies. But I was having a good enough time just watching the huge swell of people around us, listening to the music spilling out of every bar mixing with the music coming from a few musicians on the street just playing for the fun of it, flirting wildly with my date. At some point we split up a bit – I stayed put in one bar while he ventured into the crowd for a bit longer, and I ended up literally dancing on a bar top, doing The Time Warp with three girls from Minnesota. “I can’t believe you know how this dance goes!” they kept saying, and I was too full of drunken good will at that point to say that “uh, it tells you how to do it right in the song…” My date joined me back in the bar just before midnight, and together we watched the storms of mounted police officers sweeping through a moment later, driving the crowd ahead of them and urging them to disperse. At the end of the day I’d made ten dollars, hadn’t had to pay for a drink all day, and my date and I celebrated a bit in our own fashion back at our hotel.
Best birthday ever.