The Great Bead Debacle

By. Wynter Freeman

It’s thrilling to take it all in. From the grandstands rising above the streets, eager parade-goers, decked out in their finest purple, green, and gold, can see the oncoming marching bands, their golden instruments and shiny buttons sparkling in the glint of the streetlights. Trucks loaded with enormous speakers follow behind dance troupes who shimmy and twirl in their spandex to mid-2000’s hits. But it is the floats that capture people’s attention. Everyone scrambles to be noticed by krewe members, who tipsily toss beads into greedy, outstretched hands. Caught beads are worn around necks as symbols of success. The others are kicked aside and slide down the gaps of the metal beams onto the street below. When Mardi Gras is over, and the stands are dismantled, the beads do not reappear. Not until the Department of Public Works recovers them from the catch basins underground. But those 3-ounce beads that slid through the cracks have multiplied.

Into 93,000 pounds worth.  

“That’s a lot of beads for 5 blocks,” remarked Aunt Sally’s Pralines employee Gail Bickham.

In early 2018, cleaners purged the city’s catch basins of debris. Among that debris was 46 tons of Mardi Gras beads found on St. Charles Avenue between Poydras and the Circle formerly and currently known as Lee. In a city that is prone to flooding, it is almost comical to think that a contributing factor could be something as frivolous as missed or unwanted Mardi Gras catches.  No one knows how long the beads were accumulating under citizens’ feet and under the Sewage & Water Board’s noses; but when any parade bystander can clearly see the absurd amount of trash on the streets, it is disconcerting to find that Public Works could not foresee this.

“After Mardi Gras and certain times of the year, I think people should come out and make sure that those drains are clean of clutter because they know we flood down here so much,” said the hostess of Marcello’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, located on the parade route. “I think they would have enough of sense to come clean those drains out.”

After flooding in August 2017, the City Council signed off on a plan to clean the basins. The initiative to unclog the basins, however, is somewhat of a second thought when it comes to the impact on Mardi Gras. Workers at businesses along St. Charles believe that the throws of Carnival contribute to flooding at their work, not to mention the unsightly piles of trash engulfing the sidewalk. During Mardi Gras 2018, Public Works installed fixtures to the drain openings to prevent debris from spilling in. “This [system] is effective,” assured a security guard at Emeril’s Homebase, who has faith that the department can fix this issue now that it has been brought to its attention.

The temporary solution received a more pessimistic opinion from others. “I thought it was a horrible idea,” said Stefan Culotta, owner of the Swiss Confectionery. “They used some type of cloth or something over the main drain and it was not draining water so eventually the weight pulled it in, so beads were going straight into the sewer again… I don’t think they have it in them to plan and spend wisely.”

In line with Culotta’s attitude, there is a collective calling that could heavily impact the parade festivities. In early February, a Care2 petition emerged online to ban beads from the parades, bashing the use of the beads’ toxic materials and calling them “parade-filler”. The petition, currently boasting over 14,800 signatures, is close to reaching its goal of 15,000. However, it remains unclear how much attention city officials are giving to the cause. “Do I think the petition they’re trying to stop throwing beads should pass?” asked Omar Gat, employee at Desi Vega’s Steakhouse. “No, I don’t because what’s Mardi Gras without beads?” he questioned. “I don’t see the point of a parade without beads.”

Beads certainly do define Mardi Gras for some. What are parades filled with if not for “parade-filler”? Butler, a Price Busters employee of 17 years, stated, “You cut the beads out, you cut Mardi Gras.” Though most citizens are vehemently against the bead ban, they have something in common with the petition: biodegradable beads.

“That would be great! I would love it if the city would mandate stuff like that,” said Culotta. When asked about the cost of these beads, he reasoned, “It possibly would be [expensive] but if you got money to ride in one of these parades, you got the money to buy some biodegradable beads.” In fact, many residents along the parade route were very interested in the prospect, and it could be the answer if the city found a way to standardize it. Until then, it seems people will have to deal with the abundance of beads littering the basins.

Following Fat Tuesday, Price Busters collected a weighty bag of beads that were disposed of in and around the store. The prized catches of the parades become someone else’s trash, and business owners along the routes are used to seeing beads decorating their premises. “You know where the beads come from?” Butler asked “I think they come from China.”

And they do. Director David Redmon examined the origins of the beads in his 20005 documentary Mardi Gras: Made in China. Bead factory owner Roger Wong strictly managed his workforce made up primarily of teenage girls who worked 15 hour days carefully sculpting, painting, stringing, cutting, and packaging 7,000 pounds of beads per day only to earn a measly 10 cents an hour. Wong proudly showed how they meticulously packaged the beads. “[We] don’t want these [colored beads] mixed together, looks like rubbish, looks like trash.”

Wong would certainly have a heart attack to see his precious final products become literal trash in the city’s streets and basins. While scientists discover the perfect biodegradable compound, city officials have been training residents to prevent spillage into their own basins. Whether the spirit and tradition of Mardi Gras lies in beads or not, citizens recognize that it takes a responsibility and a considerate community to keep the city healthy and thriving. “We have pride in our building and the city…you should take care of everywhere,” insisted the Emeril’s guard. “When I see stuff, I pick it up and I throw it away, but everybody should do that.”

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