I’m not sure when this happened, but it’s time someone makes a formal declaration:
Mardi Gras on South Street now ranks right up there with Philadelphia’s greatest celebrations of depravity.
When 50,000 people show up on a cold February dawn and commence immediate and prolonged consumption of alcohol and drugs, you know it’s an Official Philadelphia Event.
This is no faint praise, not in a town whose calendar is already filled with spectacular displays of drunken excess:
The Greek Picnic. Eagles tailgaters. Wing Bowl.
Mardi Gras can hold its own against all of ’em.
It boasts almost as much sex as the Greeks. It huffs nitrous oxide just like the Vet Stadium parking lots. And there are nearly as many wrestling dwarves as the Wing fest.
Throw in a few hundred kegs of Bud Light and a little public urination, and you’ve got yourself a party.
Like it or not, this is a Philadelphia institution.
The tourism people hate it, I’m certain. They’ve been spending zillions in a vain attempt to shape our image as a historically certified, Rocky-ized, all-American family tourist destination.
Then, with a few bucks in cheap beads, Mardi Gras gleefully undermines it in a single day. Those corny colonial costumers at Independence Mall don’t stand a chance next to the dazed, tattooed 24-year-old I saw proudly pulling off her T-shirt while riding down South Street in, yes, a horse-drawn carriage.
Of course, if the Liberty Bell drew as many people as Jon’s at 3rd and South, you’d have tourists quoting Franklin instead of screaming “Show us your tits! ”
Come to think of it, ol’ Ben probably would have been right at home on South Street yesterday. Life, liberty and – Yo, pass me another beer! – the pursuit of happiness.
It’s our dirty, wonderful, little secret: Deep down, we’re just a gritty, in-your-face town where you can get wasted without getting thrown in jail.
It’s always been that way in the city, hasn’t it?
Visitors – mainly nearby suburbanites – fill the streets and behave exactly the way they’re not allowed to back home.
In their boring, manicured subdivisions, they get their wrists slapped for barbecuing with charcoal. Here, they light up a doobie in daylight and laugh at the cops.
A year ago, I might have wondered: Why Mardi Gras?
How is it that an event with absolutely no tradition outside of New Orleans has yet evolved into an Official Philadelphia Event?
After my first Wing Bowl last month, I don’t ask anymore.
Here is an event in which 23,000 people jam an arena at 6 a.m. to watch two dozen heavyweights wolf down hundreds of greasy chicken wings.
Like Mardi Gras and the Greek Picnic, the Wing Bowl now outdraws that most venerable of Official Philadelphia Events, the Mummer’s Parade.
It’s no wonder.
The city, in recent years, has cracked down on the parade. By comparison, the Wing Bowl and Mardi Gras and the Greek Picnic are free-for-alls.
And I’m not just talking about the booze.
By forcing the parade onto Market Street, by controlling its pace, by formalizing and packaging it into a TV event, the city has homogenized the Mummers.
Mardi Gras is exactly the opposite.
It is precisely the reason we love the city – it is different from every other place. It has character and spice.
And lots of beer.