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They are the epitome of excess, a fitting symbol of New Orleans. At any time of year they are strung up on streetlights and telephone wires, losing their foil exterior and bleaching out in the sun any color of merriment. There are so many Mardi Gras beads to go around that besides using them in every other parade held in the city, you'll often get beads during Mardi Gras that are surreptitiously dated a few years back. The medallion ones are the most prized, ones with the name of whatever krewe threw them. Bacchus, Isis, Rex, Zulu. And since the tourist season is nine months out of the year, you'll see them on necks of merry makers all year long. It can get more than a little annoying. You know that those wearing them may not have even suffered through a Mardi Gras season, and because of that, they didn't "earn" them; they simply staggered into some tourist shop and bought them. Ones bought in stores are also far more gaudy than those thrown at parades, so you can always tell which are real.

In addition to beads, attendants of Mardi Gras floats throw doubloons, large brightly colored aluminum coins that also have the krewe's depiction on both sides and usually the year of that parade. I have been told that the tradition of throwing money, toys, and beads came from when, on these festival days, the poor would beg for baubles from the rich, who were the elite few who had memberships to krewes and therefore were on the floats instead of on the street. And so, in keeping with tradition, beads are a sort of currency.

Now, despite rumors, you can't really buy anything with them. Like money, they are symbols of accumulation. The more you have and the longer the strand, the more important they are because it means that you were able to get the good beads thrown at you. Sometimes this means showing your tits, but rarely do you have need to do that, since all parades are first and foremost, family events. Unless you're right on Bourbon Street and directly below a balcony of drunk men and in the midst of drunk passersby and therefore shielded from much public view, exposing yourself is not looked upon kindly. As a female, you may feel inclined to ascend a ladder, bat your eyes, wink, stick out your unexposed chest a bit, or do whatever you think will work to get the attention of the masked float riders who are throwing out this little gems by the gross for miles at a time at a very slow pace. The common beads are the shortest strands, clear plastic in various colors that barely fit around your neck and have a cheesy tube that fits the ends together. The more prized beads are those that have no ends but are long enough to slip over your head and nestle between your breasts, should you have them. Instead of mere round beads, the strands will have designed beads, shaped like hearts, dice, diamonds, or, in rare cases, crawfish. If these manage to not slip off, get trampled on or lost in your drunken stupor for the night, the beads often find themselves in the spot of daily reverence, the rear view mirror inside your car. For my own crusty cynicism, I could not bear to imagine myself dating a guy who has Mardi Gras beads in his car at all, let alone hanging in front of my face, knocking into the windshield at every turn.

Before I hated Mardi Gras, I had my first, and I kept every strand I got my hands on that year. My ex and I would comb the neutral ground for leftovers after the floats were done and the waste management crews, who were close behind the parade's end, began swiftly cleaning up the mess. I fashioned a curtain out of all the common beads, joining the tubes to make long strands. We had trashbags full and had no idea what to do with them, and eventually, we threw them all out. Of the four Mardi Gras I have lived through, I have one single strand of beads that have survived, a rare set of beads shaped like dice. I keep them in a cigar box, next to my stash of condoms.

I don't go to the parades unless company is in town, when Mardi Gras is actually fun for me. I never wear them, even when I went on the Haunted History tour in the Quarter and we were all handed pearl beads that were supposedly blessed by some voodoo queen to protect us from evil spirits. And if I'm out in public during that season, I won't strike up conversations with people who wear them unless they need directions somewhere. We're coming from too far away, I think, to really make much contact.

There are few sounds more grating to me than the sound of car tires crunching over millions of discarded Mardi Gras beads after St. Charles is open again to vehicular traffic. If there weren't so many of them, they would mean more to me.

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