Chewbacca joined us on Bourbon Street. We'd beckoned him over on Royal Street a few minutes earlier, but, pointing to a satchel marked "Tips," he refused to march in our parade without cash coercion. A half-dozen dancing women had just joined us from the throngs on the sidewalk, though, and paid him for his troubles. So as we approached St. Louis Street, brass band at our backs, our seven-man parade had doubled in size, now including a full bachelorette party and a Wookiee.
The French Quarter is one of the United States' greatest testaments to hedonism, but largely, what you see there is what you get. After a day or two, partying for the sake of partying gets old. Pry around a little, though, and new adventures will reveal themselves.
So six of us threw a parade on the streets of New Orleans for our pal Chris's bachelor party. Two uniformed police officers on Vespas coaxed crowds and cars off the road, clearing a path as Chris, in a top hat, led the way with a plastic baton. Behind us, a five-man brass band announced our presence, tailed by a police cruiser. The roads were ours; this was a fully legal, licensed affair, and for 30 elating minutes, the cops made sure we could dance and drink as much as we wanted as we marched past swarms of onlookers.
Brass-band parades have a rich history in New Orleans. The city's tradition of celebratory jazz funerals have made them streetscape staples, and they are welcoming affairs. Most parades are led by the organizers, followed by a "second line" of dancing passersby. But here is a secret: You can book a second-line parade of your very own. You can be the main attraction. This is not heavily advertised, and perhaps that's wise, because it's strangely simple to throw a parade on the streets of New Orleans. You get a licence, you get a band and you show up.
There is no greater feeling than owning a city street; there's a high in having crowds of hundreds part for your whims. In the 40-degree heat, we cooled off with cans of Miller High Life pulled from our backpacks, pouring them into plastic cups to abide by minimalist public-drinking laws. We chomped on cigars and full-flavoured American cigarettes. The band we'd hired played old standards and new hits, from When the Saints Go Marching In to Uptown Funk, as we cheered with the Sunday afternoon crowd. Photos of us showed up on Instagram's French Quarter location tag for days.
Inspired by a Hannibal Buress stand-up routine, I pitched the possibility of a bachelor-party parade within weeks of Chris getting engaged. Our ragtag band of Maritimers-turned-Torontonians had been hoping to visit New Orleans for years, but we were wary of tourist cities after an earlier existential crisis in Nashville. A parade through the city, it was decided, would let us trade cliché tourism narratives for our own.
Of course, keeping it secret from the groom had its own difficulties. We plotted with hushed voices for a year, figuring out how to apply for the permit, how to pick a route, how to find a band, and we'd vent about it on weekends at bars and parties, sometimes forgetting Chris was nearby and coming close to wrecking the surprise.
In the months leading up to the parade, the best man pulled some strings. He got a retired New Orleans police officer to suggest a route, applied for a permit with the city and hired the Big Fun Brass Band through the booking website Gigsalad.
Our squad arrived in New Orleans on a Friday. First we sought po-boy sandwiches – at Domilise's, uptown – then spent the rest of the day wandering Bourbon and Frenchmen Streets, taking in blues at Bamboula's and dinner at Coop's Place. Saturday held a swamp tour and a show by legendary trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, followed by more music at the Blue Nile. The groom, oblivious of what was to come, had a blast all weekend; the rest of us, meanwhile, worried about the parade – specifically, about the threat of rain or a band cancellation.
We went to bed fearing the worst, with 10 millimetres of rain predicted for Sunday afternoon. But we awoke to a miraculously sunny day. As the group gathered before lunch, I said that I wanted to see a member of a garage band I like play in a brass group at Pat O'Brien's bar at 2 p.m. Suspecting nothing, the groom agreed.
A few of the guys went ahead to meet the band and the police escorts, while another groomsman and I held Chris back, taking forever to put on sunscreen. We arrived at Pat O'Brien's, picked up some to-go cups and told Chris to go back outside to grab the rest of the guys. At the doorway, the best man put a top hat on his head and told him to turn around.
As he did, the band struck up and the cops turned on their sirens. The best man looked at Chris: "Well," he said, "start marching."
He did. We followed, and marched, danced, drank and high-fived our way along Bourbon and Royal Streets. Chris didn't stop grinning; none of us did, including the onlookers who joined us as we wound through the quarter. For half an hour, the streets were ours. And, I guess, Chewbacca's.