The Braille Monitor                                                                                               _June 1997

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[PHOTO: Julie Russell is standing, holding her cane, and wearing her Bards of Bohemia crown. CAPTION: Julie Russell]

Carnival Magic for a Federationist

by Julie A. Russell

From the Editor: The lead photographs in the March issue of the Braille Monitor were of the Bards of Bohemia parade and ball at the 1997 Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans, in which Federationists took part. Julie Russell of Louisiana was one of the maids in the Bards of Bohemia court. Here is her account of that magical day:

Three blocks from any New Orleans 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 observes 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 of 1997 that I discovered I was to be one of seven Federationists to ride in a Mardi Gras parade. I was to be a maid in the Royal Court.

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 not sure what form the surprises would take. During the next few weeks my excitement built as I gathered 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 maids 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."

That Monday was a full day that will become one of my treasured memories. "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 all the way through to the breakfast served at midnight during a magic show. The day was packed with exciting events.

The rehearsal went well, learning where and when to curtsy to the other members of the Royal Court. My biggest worry, in common with the other women, was whether or not I was going to trip on my floor-length white gown as I climbed the stairs at the center front of the stage. Together we shared the fear of forgetting our roles or forgetting which song each of us was to march to. We were truly acting the part of maids 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 important, 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 mine 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 characteristic of anyone in my position.

The interview with the journalist brought up a previously untouched topic, my blindness. As a result I felt that 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. "We show people that we can compete on an equal basis with everyone else." One maid said she had read an article in the Times-Picayune that morning about me,
referring to the piece that had run that morning and that was reprinted in the March issue of the Braille Monitor. 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 since the business suits we were instructed to wear on our float offered little protection from the cold.

I had beads and cups to throw to the eager masses. Soon the wall of cheers engulfed all those who rode. The crowds desired any trinket, and I had many. The Mardi Gras throws are both prized and collected. Beads are pushed to the back of closets, and cups are stacked in high piles at the front of many kitchen cabinets.

The cups I threw bore the proud logo of the National Federation of the Blind, complete with our 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 eight-year-old, came to my float. She had seen the article in the paper that day. I invited her to our next chapter 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 reporter came onto 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 back to the float which held other Federationists.

The parade itself is beyond description. We threw Mardi Gras merchandise to the screaming mobs, up to ten people deep. Again and again I heard, "Hey Misses, throw me something!" Many of these people now drink from a plastic cup that bears the National Federation of the Blind's logo and address. Unlike the maid next to me, when they think of blind people, perhaps they will think of the National Federation of the Blind.

Less than half 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 the two smart women among us. We all laughed nervously with one another.

Soon we were lined up with our escorts to walk pair by pair down the center of the room in a bright spotlight. My escort had to be on my right--the hand with which I usually cane, so I transferred the cane to my left. I am pleased to report that 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 sixty-fifth Royal Court; our theme was the world of entertainment. Finally we marched down the stage in the Grand March with confetti cannons sprinkling the ballroom.

What that final reporter had had trouble understanding was that my enjoyment of the day was no different from anyone else's. I cannot remember what I thought about the blind and how they enjoyed things before I became blind myself. 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 the National Federation of the Blind soon after losing my sight. Finding an environment in which I could continue to dream and learn the skills to pursue those dreams has made all the difference in my life. The training at the 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. Today we need to broadcast news like this so that even more people will know about the Federation. But won't it be a grand day when a blind person in a carnival parade is not newsworthy?