Recession Raining on Mardi Gras Fun? Fat Chance

By: By MARY FOSTER
By: By MARY FOSTER

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The economic downturn couldn't overshadow the Mardi Gras revelry Tuesday as partiers jostled for beads on parade
routes and the French Quarter swelled with boozy fun and masked
crowds.

Many revelers turned the tables on the recession, dressing in
costumes riffing on bailouts, the stimulus package and busted
budgets.

Suzanne Gravener, a 59-year-old New Orleans teacher, dressed as
the Statue of Liberty - without a crown. That, she 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, and Carnival was
one luxury the family could afford. "This is the greatest free
show on earth."

The day started with clarinetist Pete Fountain leading his
Half-Fast Walking Club into the streets, marking the unofficial
opening of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday.

By dawn, spectators crammed parade routes and costumed revelers
mingled with all-night partiers in the French Quarter's narrow
streets.

The first parade of the day was Zulu, the traditional
African-American parade, followed by Rex, the king of Carnival, and
hundreds of truck floats.

At 4 a.m., Zulu members got into costume, which for them means
blackface, huge afro wigs and grass skirts.

"Oh, my God, if my family could see me now, the only good news
is that they wouldn't recognize me," said Zulu member John Rice
after his face was painted. "This is the only city in the world
where you can get away with this."

Mayor Ray Nagin rode on horseback dressed as what he called a
"recovery gladiator" in honor of the city's rebuilding from
Hurricane Katrina.

Katrina was on the mind of Cherry Gilbert, a 42-year-old Seattle
bus driver who helped organize a reunion for about 80 family
members, many displaced to cities like Dallas and Atlanta by the
2005 storm.

"This is the first time since Katrina we've all gathered here
and it's a beautiful thing," Gilbert said. "There's nothing like
New Orleans ... and family."

Despite the economy, tourism officials hope to match last year's
crowd of about 750,000. Before Katrina, Fat Tuesday typically
brought in about 1 million people.

Many visitors gather in the French Quarter area, where
Carnival's more ribald side takes place.

"I just keep calling my friends at work and telling them what
they're missing," said Bud Weaver, 31, of Philadelphia. "It's 40
degrees colder there and none of them had beer for breakfast."

Mardi Gras ends at midnight Tuesday. In heavily Catholic New
Orleans, many revelers will be in church Wednesday to have ashes
daubed on their foreheads as they begin 40 days of prayer,
penitence and self-denial leading up to Easter.
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Associated Press writers Stacey Plaisance, Mike Kunzelman and
Becky Bohrer contributed to this report.


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