Mary S. Palmer’s short story “Raisin’ Cain” is the first place winner of the Mobile Bay SELTI Tourism Writing Contest, sponsored by the Southeastern Literary Tourism Initiative and the Alabama Tourism Department. Please visit the Tourism Guide beneath the short story below to learn more about the unique tourism opportunities in the Mobile Bay area and Mardi Gras. This was the third annual SELTI tourism fiction writing contest. Check out the links at the end to read more short tourism fiction stories about other unique places to visit in Alabama. Thank you to the Alabama Tourism Department for providing the $500 prize to our first place winner. Many thanks also to Mobile Mask for providing many of the photos in this feature, along with Denis Palmer from Palmer Studio. Click any photo to enlarge. Please visit Mobile Mask for many more photos, videos, and information about Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebration.
by Mary S. Palmer
Mamie was ninety-three when she stepped onto the Cain Raisers’ float on Joe Cain Day, the Sunday before Mardi Gras a couple of years ago. But that didn’t stop her from throwing beads and Moon Pies and enjoying every minute of the ride through downtown Mobile, Alabama.
A transplant from Yankee Land, Mamie saw things about Mardi Gras that native Mobilians often miss. “When do you ever see a crowd of over a hundred thousand people this happy?” she asked me during the hour we parked beside the Mobile Municipal Auditorium, waiting in line with thirty other floats for the Joe Cain Parade that began in 1966 to start.
I mulled over that as our float finally moved forward. Chief Slacabamorinico, IV, pastor Bennett Wayne Dean, who’d held the position over twenty years, led the parade decked out in his colorful feathered headpiece. We eased through downtown streets of Mobile, all blocked off for the duration of the parade. The crowd’s glee was evident as our float passed Bienville Square, packed twenty rows deep with smiling faces looking up at us.
Children and adults with outstretched arms screamed, “Throw me something, lady.” Some had signs with a rider’s name, or their own name, held high. Others had jar retrievers to scoop up throws, or upside-down umbrellas they hoped to fill.
One elderly lady in the front row sat in her wheelchair in a wide-brimmed hat. She could barely hold up her hands to wave at riders. But she didn’t have to beg for anything. Maskers generously showered that person, probably a long-time parade-attendee, with full packages of beads, doubloons and anything else they could aim her way. Her lap was full.
Mamie was right. Where else are people so pleased to catch those trinkets? The float slowed to a stop and Mamie nudged me. “They even say, ‘Thank you’, and they share. Look over there.” She pointed to a unkempt man in tattered clothes with a scruffy beard handing over his loot to the nearest child. I saw another person four rows back with a sign saying, “We’re from Missouri. Show us what you’ve got.” Next to him, a teenager held a big net. I barraged them with Moon Pies and beads, but missed my mark. Not one item fell into his net.
As we turned the corner on a narrow side street, our float was within inches of the crowd. It stopped again and a lady holding a child’s hand spoke directly to me. Wide-eyed, she leaned across the barriers put there for safety and asked, “What’s going on?”
A tipsy sailor next to her slurred, “Say, do you do this every weekend?”
As the float pulled away, I shook my head but I wondered if he believed me. I didn’t have time to respond to the lady’s question. I wasn’t sure how to answer it anyhow. Couldn’t she tell this was a parade?
We rounded another corner to a packed Government Street. As a main artery, traffic from Bankhead Tunnel usually flows down this street. Not today, and not before or after any Mardi Parades. Some days, we have as many as five parades. During this two-week season, vehicles are diverted to our other tunnel, the Wallace Tunnel on Interstate 10.
A policeman on horseback made his way to the beginning of the parade, evidently to bring it to another halt because we stopped again in front of the Admiral Semmes Hotel. Guests on the balcony screamed out their presence. Though it was a good distance away, some caught throws from maskers with strong arms. Gleefully, others snatched beads from outstretched hands of their companions and put them around their necks.
On the street below, men and women gave trinkets to people they’d probably befriended as they patiently awaited the grand spectacle. Many handed over things to people they never saw before and they’ll never see again. Some stepped out of the way to watch the joy of a child catching a stuffed animal and hugging it close.
Mamie looked at me and remarked, “It’s not the trinkets they want, it’s the thrill of the chase.”
It’s all free, too. The only expense may be for parking if no spots on the street are available. Homeowners or business establishments nearby fill their yards or parking lots with cars. At five or ten dollars a space, depending on how close they are to the parade route, they can pick up quite a few dollars during the two weeks of festivities.
While people await the colorful pageantry, they chat with each other. There are no strangers. The crowd of all ages is composed of every ethnic group, race and religion, from the very rich, such as a former Mardi Gras queen, to the very poor, even the homeless. During this equalizer, camaraderie abounds. In addition, all are entertained by vendors rolling squeaky carts down the street, hawking their wares. “Balloons, stuffed animals, hot popcorn.”
Some entrepreneurs pull wagons with ice chests full of drinks. Others set up shop in tents and tempt potential customers with the scent of onions frying, and hamburgers, hot dogs, and sausages filling the air. Children beg for cotton candy when they get a whiff of its sugary aroma. Vendors flock to Mobile to make money. And they do.
Mardi Gras is also a big tailgate party. Near the auditorium, under the interstate, people with RV’s and trailers rent spaces for the season. Other families gather on street corners, in parking lots, or at friends’ houses. Setting up their own grills, they barbeque chicken, cook corn-on-the-cob, bake potatoes and munch on King Cake, feasting on the sumptuous food often washed down by beer, wine or mixed drinks that flow freely.
Children, who’ll enjoy school holidays on Monday and Fat Tuesday, sip on soft drinks from decorated plastic cups caught the previous year, frolic around on the sidewalks, and climb ancient, huge oak trees until the parade arrives. Then, they’re ready to do what they do best–yell out, “Moon Pie; beads!” and scramble.
On streets off the parade route, carnival rides like Ferris wheels go round and round. People stand in line awaiting their turn to ride and scream, sometimes in mock fear. Like other things behind the scene–such as the float-building, the costumes, the formal rentals, sales of ball dresses, photography of events–all promote Mobile’s economy.
Mardi Gras has other, long-lasting benefits, too–sentimentality. Many memories are made by people who are lucky enough to live in Mobile or to come here to attend the festivities on a regular basis. When Mardi Gras is in session, ghosts of the past surface in the minds of people remembering times long gone. They hear echoes of those who marched these streets in bands to the cheers of the crowd. Or of maskers riding in parades year after year as members of Mardi Gras Societies, responding to the crowd’s pleas.
It has happened ever since 1867 when Joe Cain rode down Government Street in a decorated charcoal wagon pulled by a mule. Despite Union soldiers’ efforts to stop him and his six fellow Confederate veterans, they made noise dragging rakes against iron work as they trekked down the main street of the city.
As is customary, in honor of Cain’s revival of Mardi Gras after the Civil War, the parade came to a halt in front of the Church Street Graveyard. It stopped long enough for the black-clad and black-veiled Merry Widows to place a wreath on Joe Cain’s grave where he was reburied in the 1960’s.
Planning for this event is extensive. Artistic paper-mache floats conforming to the theme are a year-long in the making. Costumes of riders also match. Discipline is needed. While police cars and motorcycles with sirens blasting clear the road, bands–including the hundred year-old Excelsior Band, some descendants of the predecessors–march between floats to slow down the parade. They always get a huge round of applause. Strutting drum majors’ moves become contagious. Bystanders dance or tap their feet to the beat of the marching tunes, especially “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
One other place the parade almost comes to a standstill is a section set aside for those mentally or physically challenged. When we approached, Mamie said, “I can’t wait for this. Catching throws makes them so happy; they’re so easily pleased.” Along with other maskers, she bombarded them with throws. “Look at that,” she said, “even the most solemn crack a smile when they’re handed an unwrapped moon pie or when beads are draped around their necks.”
Mamie was right. For all involved, fun, fellowship and good times prevail. Few can resist. People get caught up in the frivolous event and forget their problems. Time stands still for Mardi Gras.
However, it comes to an end. After traveling an hour and a half long route on the streets of downtown Mobile, we pulled to a stop near the bus that transports us to our Mardi Gras Ball. Mamie looked at me. I saw a sparkle in her faded blue eyes when she was being helped off the float.
“You know,” she said, “This may be my last time to ride. But I’ve enjoyed every minute of these ten years.” She raised her brows. “Before I moved to Mobile, I thought Mardi Gras was a drunken brawl. I know better now. I don’t even drink, but I do have fun. The best part of it is giving others pleasure. It’s amazing that one moment, one throw, such a small, insignificant thing like a string of beads, a Moon Pie, a cup, or a bag of peanuts can bring so much pleasure. It does. You can see pure joy in their eyes. Do you know what I mean?”
I nodded because I understood.
She took me by the arm. “My husband was military and we moved around a lot. Every place we were stationed, I studied the history and the culture. I soon learned that Mobile has a ton of history and a culture all its own. It ranks with the best of all the places I’ve lived. Somehow, I feel like I fit in here.”
“My mother always said, ‘If you get Mobile dirt on your feet you can never shake it off.'”
“Well, I guess she was right. Once I got here, I planned to return to retire, and I did.” Mamie folded her arms and paused to face me. “Since I made Mobile my home, I researched even more of its history. I found out some things, too. In the past, like a lot of other people around the country, I thought New Orleans had the first Mardi Gras. But, I soon discovered Mobile has the oldest annual carnival celebration in the U.S. It started in 1703, fifteen years before New Orleans.”
I didn’t tell her I knew that. She smoothed back white hair set askew in the wind. As she slipped her arm back into the crook of my elbow, I slowed down to match my speed to her shuffle. Her heavily-sequined costume in Mardi colors of purple and gold rustled as the pants legs rubbed together. Since we were behind the crowd, except for the buses rumbling away from the scene, it made the only sound on the now nearly silent street.
We reached our bus, and a teary-eyed preschooler without any beads hanging on his neck caught Mamie’s attention. As the boy’s mother watched, she took all of the beads from around her own neck. “Here.” She slipped them over his head. “Happy Mardi Gras.”
“I couldn’t find a place to park, so we missed his first parade,” the mother explained. “Thank you so much. You made his day.”
I glanced back at the emblem on the side of the float, a sketch of a tombstone reading, R.I.P. Joe Cain.
“Mamie,” I said, “only Joe Cain’s entitled to Rest in Peace. You’ll be here next year.”
Mobile Bay SELTI Tourism Writing Contest Official Results
First Place – “Raisin’ Cain” by Mary S. Palmer
Second Place – “Remembrance” by Natalie Welch
Third Place – “The Mother of Mystics” by Steve Joynt
Fourth Place – “The China Doll Heads” by Susan Milling
Fifth Place – “Henry and the Ren Faire” by Carroll Dale Short
Sixth Place- “An Unlikely Hero” by Cindy M. Jones
By Patrick Brian Miller
There’s a flavor in the city of Mobile that is unique among southern cities, but nothing brings that flavor out like the two weeks of Mardi Gras parades and balls each year. Both of the finalist stories that focused on Mardi Gras emphasized the family-friendly nature of Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebrations v. the ones in New Orleans that are for a rowdier young adult crowd. Two other finalist stories focused on the beautiful Bellingrath Gardens just south of Mobile, another focused on the USS Alabama Battleship Park, and a final one brought to life Mobile’s annual Renaissance Faire (a popular event for Game of Thrones fans). Visitors to Mobile Bay can also visit nearby Dauphin Island for very unique tourism opportunities from Native American shell mounds to Civil War forts to quiet beaches and nature hikes.
The best guide I found for learning about Mobile’s Mardi Gras from an outsider’s point of view was the Mobile Mask, a website with information, photos, videos, and an annual print magazine about the two-week event. Steve Joynt’s (editor of Mobile Mask) short story “The Mother of Mystics” also placed third in this contest, and he generously allowed use of Mobile Mask’s photos for “Raisin’ Cain.” Steve’s story can be read on his website, the Mobile Mask.
There are two great museums related to Mardi Gras in Mobile; one is part of the larger History Museum of Mobile and the other is the Mobile Carnival Museum. Visiting both is highly recommended. Mobile has a range of luxury hotels and intimate bed & breakfast accommodations that are within easy walking distance of most of the city’s major tourism sites, shopping, and restaurants, including the Admiral Semmes Hotel mentioned in the story.
Please browse the tourism links below to learn more about everything Mobile Bay and Alabama have to offer. Remember that these types of links can be embedded into Kindle and iPad novels, allowing readers to use their devices as both an e-reader and online tourism guide all in one. Hopefully, future modern tourism novels can highlight the many attractions in the beautiful Mobile Bay area. If you represent a city or state that would like to discuss sponsoring a tourism fiction contest in your area, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More about Mary S. Palmer
Mary teaches English in the Mobile Bay area for Faulkner University, Faulkner State Community College, and Huntingdon College. She graduated with an MA in English with a concentration in creative writing from the University of South Alabama. Her most recent published books are Chance for Redemption, Time Well Tell, A Question of Time, Baiting the Hook and To Catch a Fish (the latter two with co-author David V. Wilton). Her play Murder Most Southern was produced by Mobile Mystery Dinner Theater in 2012. Mary loves to travel and has visited all 50 states and every continent except Antarctica. She has also won awards with the Baldwin County Writers Group and the Eugene Walters Writers Fest with the Department of English at the University of South Alabama. Please visit Mary’s website for a full listing of her books and works.
Patrick Brian Miller
Patrick Miller is the founder of SELTI and the author of Blind Fate (set in Montgomery), the first tourism novel in the nation with an interactive tourism guide. Blind Fate was featured in USA Today for its innovation of adapting modern publishing technology for tourism-related fiction.
Kathryn Lang’s short story “Digging Up Bones” (set in the mysterious Moundville Archaeological Park) won the Inaugural SELTI Writing Contest in 2012. Kathryn’s novels and inspirational nonfiction articles and books have also been published. Kathryn joined SELTI recently as executive director. Learn more about Kathryn’s books by visiting her website Growing H.O.P.E. Patrick and Kathryn were also interviewed on Alabama Public Radio about literary tourism with Senator Clay Scofield at the Moundville Native American Festival.
Natalie Cone’s short story “The Totem” (set in beautiful Desoto State Park on Lookout Mountain) won the Lookout Alabama SELTI Writing Contest in 2013. Natalie is currently working on her first novel and has also had articles and short stories published in magazines. Follow Natalie on Twitter.
Wintzell’s Oyster House (mentioned in more than one SELTI story)
Eastern Shore (the other side of Mobile Bay)