Outside the rain comes down in thick, sideways sheets, and I can barely see anything besides RVs lining the seawall and barbecue rigs abandoned to the elements. Beyond them the Gulf is barely detectable, except that it roils like a washing machine and is potentially full of what my friend has warned me is “flesh-eating bacteria, but depends on the tide.” Thus, I arrive in Galveston for Mardi Gras.
At my hotel, a cover band is setting up in the bar, a few happy hour patrons smoking under an awning, looking soggy in jean jackets and beads. The hotel staff hands my cohort and me a Mardi Gras schedule. Tomorrow, Sugar Ray, a pop act from the late 1990s whose sound I’d classify, along with fellow MTV TRL contemporaries Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind, as easily inducing the urge to kill, will be performing at dusk.
Tonight there’s supposed to be an umbrella parade, though judging by the heavy winds doing horrible things to the pool area, I suspect it might take to the sky Mary Poppins style, so we venture on toward dinner.
I’ve been advised to head to Gaido’s. Even in the pouring rain, there’s no missing it. It's home to the second-biggest kitchen in Texas, according to our server anyways.
“It’s really nice in here,” the cohort notes. You wouldn’t know it from the outside, because the windows of the Gaido’s gift shop are filled with hundreds of lemur-eyed stuffed animals. But Gaido’s is swank, if in a beach town type of way. There is the gift shop, sure, but there is also the cocktail lounge with its velvet seating and glass-paneled shelving. Our dining area is carpeted, and filled with humans of all inebriation levels and ages. The menu has a martini section. Our server has a voice meant for radio, or choir.
“The churches always come after me at Christmas time,” he says. “Don’t tell them you’re not Catholic, a priest told me once.”
I am not Catholic but I am here, in Galveston, for Mardi Gras, the religious tradition of pre-Lenten indulgences, which I've spent the past ten years enjoying in New Orleans, my former home. I know red meat is a Mardi Gras must, but I’m in a seafood dining institution dating back to 1911.
It’s busy. Our server disappears for long stretches of time, returning to tell us about the daily specials (they’re abundant) or to joke about his massive, declawed Maine Coon (it died). We go for a special mahi mahi plate with scallops, crabmeat and shrimp over dirty rice. The seafood is just-so spicy, a hint of blackening seasoning, or perhaps just Tony Chachere’s in every bite. There are slices of tomato covered in melted Parmesan, kind of strange, but pretty good at concealing the fact that tomato never tastes like tomato anymore. A side of shrimp scampi with garlicky, crouton-hard toast, which arrives in enough butter sauce to baste several turkeys, sends me reeling back to freshman year of high school when I’d slather Country Crock on graham crackers and call it a snack. A requested Greek salad mysteriously never arrives on the table or on the check, as if our server is well-aware that this isn’t the weekend for anything healthy, even if we’ve requested it.
If one were to attach a pecuniary quality to indulgence, this $100 seafood dinner is…well, just that.
After dinner, the rain subsides and the wind settles down a tiny bit, and a ride to The Strand, where the main Mardi Gras action takes place, is arranged with the front desk of my hotel. We are referred to the driver, a kid named Geo who cannot be more than 18 years old and is adorned in chartreuse-colored polo, Ray-Bans and hair that has actual geometric designs shaved into the sides.
He informs us that the shuttle does not leave for ten minutes, so we retreat to the bar, where the cover band is now playing to a packed house of fiftysomethings, all singing along to a Pat Benatar. Shots of Jameson are necessary. $8 each. I am now two hours into Mardi Gras! Galveston and about $250 down.
An ancient smoker in a leather jacket and cheap beads follows us back outside.
“We should steal that thing,” he says, pointing to the shuttle, leaning in close, a little too close. I notice some form of blistering situation on his two good cigarette fingers. “I been in prison before. It ain’t that bad.”
Downtown, where we are dispensed at 23rd and Market, folks are being patted down to enter what looks like a quarantined area, fenced off, void of sobriety. This is The Strand. Zombies in beads lurch beyond us in the night.
We’ve missed the umbrella parade, but skull people and tutu-frilled women are still walking around in costume during the Pride parade, or at least I think it's the Pride parade. I can’t tell, honestly.
We head to Daiquiri Time Out (a.k.a. DTO), which is Galveston’s best-kept secret. It was opened by Houston transplant Brad Stringer in fall 2016, and the drink menu runs a couple of pages deep with signature and classic cocktails that are as good as they come. There are no pictures on the walls. No flowers on the tables. An outside area has some lights strung up and hot pink neon signage, but otherwise, it’s just a bare-bones operation with a beautiful brick bar-back, a walk-in cooler, a trio of great bartenders and a small crowd of locals who gather here for island-inspired drinks.
I order the Queens Park Swizzle, which tastes like a better variation of a mojito, minty and refreshing without all the overt, teeth-rotting sweetness. It’s a gorgeous three-colored quaff with red bitters fading into light rum fading into the muddled green mint at the bottom of the tall glass. Costumed revelers line the bar: ladies in ball gowns and colorful wigs, a couple of Day of the Dead skeletons, a couple in white fur coats and neon squiggly-patterned leggings. I am getting the Mardi Gras vibes here. Just like in New Orleans, it’s always the locals that do it best.
But Mardi Gras! Galveston is nothing like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The floats and beads and krewes and costumes are not on the same level, not even remotely, with the Big Easy’s Carnival. Still, it isn’t a bad thing. As my friend points out to me, “This city has been through some really bad times” and deserves a chance at some fun and an opportunity to cash in on tourism, no? Plus, Mardi Gras has also been taking place here for well over 100 years. It's just that with the gate fees going to Yaga Entertainment, which runs the actual event, and food and beer available on the street, it's not all too clear how much local restaurants actually take in.
Saturday morning is a scene on the seawall with RV people and street vendors and giant hotels blocked off by parking cones. Two gangly men bike by with googly-eye glasses on. Uninitiated, I make my way to The Strand, wandering around aimlessly, unsure of where the action is or what I’m supposed to do. I am in full tourist mode, ducking into a Beef Jerky Store and a T-shirt shop much like those along Decatur and Bourbon in the French Quarter, where cheesy shirts state very bad things: I Just Farted, for one. You can even get matching stand back I just farted underpants. Out on the street, I notice more than a handful of older ladies have instead purchased the shirts that are supposed to insinuate nudity, primarily in the bosom region.
The crowd is composed of families and indecencies. Bros in marijuana-print jester hats. Women half-clad in booty shorts or mom jeans with beer stains. Everyone is vaping. A Randy Savage-esque man keeps opening his blazer to reveal his waxed chest whenever the bosom-shirt ladies ask to take his photo. In a blazer, fur hat and polyester blend pants, he’s likely roasting.
My soft serve ice cream, $8 with a bottle of water, melts instantly in the sun, plops of rainbow sprinkles all over my shoes and the sidewalk near the spot they’re selling $4 beads. There are even more expensive beads for sale featuring fake boobs, or ducks, or giant shiny balls, or giant shiny balls with ducks and fake boobs. In New Orleans it’s a sin to buy beads, but I’ve noticed the ones being thrown here are all on the lackluster side. People keep trying to pick plain beads off the ground, which is also taboo in New Orleans, unless you’re still walking around in diapers, which, granted, I haven’t seen an adult doing here yet.
We mosey through the food areas. Houston food trucks are here. Happy Endings Asian fusion, Off Beat Eatz, Comida International, Buttz Catering, Nom Mi Vietnamese. Cousins Maine Lobster is hocking a lobster roll with tots for $18. The Cuban Spot blasts music so loud that I actually plug my ears.
Among the myriad fried and grilled foods, there are corn dogs and chicken on a stick and fried pickles and funnel cakes and tacos. There are boudin balls and gator bites and garbage fries and nachos. A man eating on a bench looks up to tell me, “This is the best Philly cheese steak I’ve ever had,” a look of true astonishment in his eyes.
I go for an onion cheeseburger. It’s grilled to order in front of me with thin-cut onions on top, and is one of the best things I’ve eaten since moving to the great state of Texas a month ago. The side of fries, handcut and skinny and promising, weren’t crisp anymore, sitting around — much like the mass of people waiting on parades or Sugar Ray — to the point of sadness. The burger sets me back only $10, which, if not for the fries, I’d say is one of the best bargains here. My cohort opts for a plate of chicken tenders and crinkle cut fries, perfectly fine, but with a $12 price tag. Add in lemonade and you’re looking at $17 total.
The food is exorbitant, but there isn’t much more to do but eat. The parades run short and there are large stretches of time in between, which most people spend barking up at balcony dwellers who’ve spent a lot of money to be up there. They occasionally throw down beads. There is some live entertainment, primarily cover bands of the Motown and classic-rock-meets-hair-band variety. But I don’t care for Rush, or worse, covers of Rush, so the cohort and I retreat back to the beach, about a 20-minute walk.
We pop into Galveston Coffee Roasters on the way, where the owner greets us with a warm smile and the caveat “we don’t have mochas or lattes,” in the tone of somebody who has been asked for mochas and lattes all day. He’s from Oahu and roasts coffee and does offer an array of samples. I try the cold brew and it’s delicious.
Back at Pleasure Pier, out beyond the huge pipes where the beach is being dredged, there are a number of people swimming and riding roller coasters, none of it appearing safe in any way. The gangly men in the googly-eyed glasses bike by again. I go to another touristy shop but don’t buy anything.
We return to The Strand to find Mark McGrath, lead singer of Sugar Ray, getting on the microphone to inform the crowd that they are having technical difficulties and will start soon. They do start soon and there is a bit of feedback, but then McGrath is doing a dance onstage like he’s dribbling an invisible basketball and he’s talking sweet to “you Galveston girls” and inviting the crowd to light up joints for the band’s next song, a hit you might remember, he says, though I have long blocked it from my memory lest it clog one of my fleeting, vital brain cells.
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A parade that is supposed to come does not come, so we spend another $10 on chopped brisket, which cohort deems a little too chopped for his liking, though the spicy sauce is delicious, and the accompanying pork and beans (on the sweeter side) are also a tad fiery and great, though prompting another purchase of a $5 iced tea. We select a $7 corn dog as our parting gift.
On the walk over to Daiquiri Time Out for a final beer, a small second line of costumed revelers parades down Market with a drum line and colorful ribbons like the Krewe of St. Anne carries through the Marigny and French Quarter on Mardi Gras Day, the most authentic Carnival revelry I've seen the entire time. We stumble upon a boiled crawfish stand that’s been set up in the lot across the street, but we are without cash or any room in our stomachs. Kind of a bummer, but people always make mistakes at their first Mardi Gras — where to eat, where to parade and people watch, what not too miss — whether it’s in New Orleans or, say, Galveston.
But, whatever. I ate some decent food. I drank some incredible drinks. I tried on the funny little hats in the T-shirt shop. It’s not my fault if none of them really fit.