by Julie A. Russell
When to curtsy, how to bow. These are things Julie Russell had to learn as a maid in the Royal Court during a New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration. Julie, a blind teacher of sighted children in the public schools, was selected for this honor while she was a student at the National Federation of the Blind's training center in Louisiana. Here is how she tells the story:
Three blocks from any parade route one can hear the crowd cheering, the bands playing, and the noise of Mardi Gras trinkets falling to the ground. At the parade one can see two groups of people: those in the parade and those scrambling for the trinkets and dancing to the music that beats like the heart of the city.
It was in January that I discovered I would be one of seven members of the National Federation of the Blind to ride in a Mardi Gras parade. I was to be in the Royal Court as a maid.
I had heard hundreds of stories about riding in a parade in the dozen years I have lived in New Orleans, but very few about being a member of a Royal Court. I asked friends, but few knew about the events of the court. I knew it would be an extraordinary day, but I was unsure how. As the next few weeks unfolded, my excitement built as I gained more and more information.
On February 10, 1997, I served as a maid in the Bards of Bohemia's Royal Court. Now I have my own thrilling story as part of one of the most exciting events on earth.
Within the intricate structure of Mardi Gras Krewes lies the Royal Court. King, Queen, Captain, and maid are only a few of the titles that a handful of individuals prize so highly. "I have waited years to be a maid," said one maid. "First I was a page, then a junior maid, but this year is really it."
It was a full day, and a day which will become a treasured memory. "Remember ladies, this is your day," said Captain Larry Smith at the day's inception. And it was.
I met the other six maids at a rehearsal early Monday morning. Our day had been mapped out for us, from the rehearsal of the presentation of the Royal Court through the breakfast served at midnight during a magic show; the day was packed with promising events.
The rehearsal went well, learning where and when to curtsy to the other members of the Royal Court. My biggest worry, and that of the other women, was whether or not we were going to trip on our floor-length, white gowns as we climbed the stairs at the center front of the stage. Together we shared the fear of forgetting our role or forgetting which song each of us was to march to. We were truly acting a part, that of a maid in a Royal Court.
After rehearsal we rode to Commander's Palace, a world famous local restaurant, where the Queen's Luncheon was to be held. We opened our party favors, but more importantly we received our crowns, which were to be worn for the remainder of the day! Throughout lunch, we listened to the jazz band and toasted one another and the Krewe, which had been rolling since 1932.
A television station came to the luncheon and interviewed me for the evening news on what it was like to be blind and in the Bard's court. I do not think it was a different experience from the other women's, but I am not sure if I conveyed that to the ABC reporter. My concerns were not unique to a blind person, but were characteristic of anyone in my position.
The interview with the journalist brought up a previously untouched topic. . .my blindness. Now I felt as though I should say something to my fellow maids. "A bunch of us from the National Federation of the Blind are in the parade," I said. One maid said she had read an article in the Times Picayune that morning about me, referring to a piece that ran that day. I spent about five minutes answering questions before we moved on to other more immediate topics, such as the ball to be held that night.
After the luncheon we raced back to the hotel for a toast to the King and Queen with all the other riders. We then awaited limousines to bring us to our float, some six miles away in uptown New Orleans. Soon we were out in the wind, wondering how we would ever stay warm in the unexpected cold.
As we waited for the parade to roll, we organized our boxes of throws and shared excited comments about the day. It was adrenaline that kept us warm, as the business suits we were instructed to wear on our float offered little protection.
I had beads and cups to throw to the eager masses. Soon their wall of cheers engulfed all those who rode. The crowds desired any trinket, and I had many. The throws of Mardi Gras are both prized and collected. Beads are pushed to the backs of closets, and cups are stacked in high piles at the fronts of many kitchen cabinets.
The cups I threw proudly bore the logo of the National Federation of the Blind, complete with address. I showed one to the maid next to me. "You are not what I think of when I think of blind people," she said.
Before I could ask her why, a mother of a blind 8-year-old came to my float. She had seen the article in the paper that day. I invited her to our next local meeting. She had come in from an area called Violet, far from the beginning of the parade just so she and her son could see me on the float as we began to roll.
Another news reporter came on the float. She had seen the article in the paper. She and her cameraman filmed a small piece and rode with me for a few blocks before dropping behind to the float which held other members of the National Federation of the Blind.
The parade itself is beyond description. We threw Mardi Gras merchandise to the screaming mobs up to ten people deep. "Hey, Miss, throw me something!" was heard again and again. Many of these people now drink from a plastic cup that bears the National Federation of the Blind's logo and address.
Less than an hour after the parade halted at the end of Canal Street, the maids congregated with the rest of the Royal Court behind the stage in the ballroom. Long white gowns hid the tennis shoes of two smart women. We all laughed with one another nervously.
Soon we were lined up with our escorts to walk one by one down the center of the room in a bright spotlight. My escort had to be on my right, the hand in which I usually hold my cane. I transferred it to my left hand. No one suggested I leave it behind.
I represented the "World of the Circus" that night. When my song began, I started my walk, curtsied four times, then took my position on stage.
I stood with the other members of the 65th Royal Court. Our theme was the world of entertainment. Finally we marched down the stage in the Grand March with confetti canons sprinkling the ballroom.
What the last news reporter had trouble understanding was that I enjoyed the day no differently than anyone else. I do not remember what I had thought of the blind and how they enjoy things before I became blind. What I do know now is that my blindness defines neither my activities nor the manner in which I enjoy them.
I was lucky though. I met with the National Federation of the Blind soon after losing my sight. Finding an environment in which I can continue to dream and learn the skills to pursue those dreams has made the difference in my life. The training at the Federation's Louisiana Center for the Blind allows me not only to continue my life but to push onward into unknown areas such as Royal Courts.
Without the news article and the two TV reporters, my day would have been identical to that of the other maids. Won't it be a grand day when a blind person in a carnival parade is not newsworthy?