The Mardi Gras crowd was thinning out, and drunk revelers zigzagged in the middle of the street, kicking cans and shivering in the 35-degree weather. As they left the big party, Donald Antonio Brewer meticulously raked bits of confetti, beads, and plastic cups from the median onto Seventh Street for the street sweepers to catch later that Saturday night.
A thin blonde woman in a purple and gold tank top careened across the street to Brewer, screaming “Hey! Do you have a lighter?” As she handed him a pack of cigarettes to open, she smiled. “If you light one for me, you can have one.”
She was the first in a parade of intoxicated people who would interrupt Brewer’s work cleaning up after the hours of Mardi Gras partying. While drink sales and local enthusiasm for the holiday have helped — it's workers like Brewer who handle the largely unseen labor that has kept one of the region’s favorite celebrations coming back for 38 years.
Before anyone shows up to celebrate, about a year’s worth of planning goes into St. Louis’ largest single-day free public party. Outside of New Orleans, the city claims to have the second-largest Mardi Gras celebration in the nation — a $1.5 million party that needs at least 250 volunteers, three miles of aluminum bike rack and 17 million beads.
“Oh, and I don’t know how many 55 gallon drums of hurricane mix,” said Mack Bradley, the president of the Mardi Gras Foundation. ”It takes at least all of those things.”
With 100 grand parade floats, 1,500 portable toilets and at least four security details, the 38th Mardi Gras parade and the party afterwards required a lot of coordination. But a big part of the event is returning everything back to normal.
“This is a lot of work for hundreds of people,” Bradley said. “Doing a community based event means you’re making certain promises to the community. We have to be able to deliver on those promises and do so consistently. That’s why we have to have professionals doing the really important stuff like clean up.”
Those professionals include Charlie Brown, a New Orleans native who owns Regency Enterprise Services, a local clean-up company that handles many of St. Louis’ largest events.
“I’ve been in trash all my life; I’m a second generation trash guy,” Brown said. “When I left New Orleans, I never thought I’d see another Mardi Gras, didn’t care if I saw another Mardi Gras in my life. I was so done with it, but this opportunity came up probably two years after I came to St. Louis.”
Brown cut his teeth working for his father who served as the director of refuse for the city of New Orleans for more than 35 years. In his hometown, he helped direct cleanup crews after the big event there.
For nearly two decades, Brown has been responsible for restoring order after St. Louis’ Mardi Gras, which presents a different kind of challenge.
While the New Orleans’ celebration takes places on public streets and walkways, St. Louis’ Mardi Gras is in the heart of Soulard, a residential neighborhood.
“I would never want to live here,” said Allyson Lough, a Mardi Gras participant on Saturday morning who lives in Dogtown. “I would never want people banging on my windows or trying to use my bathroom. It’s going to be a mess, it’s going to be a rough aftermath when everyone leaves.”
Many of the people involved in the Mardi Gras planning say Soulard is split into two groups: people who live in the neighborhood because of Mardi Gras, and people who live in the neighborhood despite Mardi Gras.
“Certainly what we do is important for the city and people living in Soulard to feel good about this event coming back every year,” Brown said. “We’re doing a job nobody else wants to do, so we don’t get beat up on too much unless we leave trash down, but we do our best to get it up as fast as we can.”
Unlike its southern big brother, St. Louis’s Mardi Gras big event is only one day long — but it generates the kind of trash that only professionals can handle. Brown says last year’s clean up yielded 14 tons of trash.
Most of it comes from a seemingly endless stream of plastic beer cups — perhaps well over 1 million.
It takes a small army of workers to restore the neighborhood to order. After the crowds started to die down late Saturday, Brown corralled workers and managers to assess the damage of the notoriously sloppy holiday.
Most of the 75 people doing manual labor on the streets were Regency employees. But a good chunk of them were people like Rene Henderson, a St. Louis native who has a passion for cooking.
Henderson worked in kitchens across the St. Louis region before 1987 when he became homeless. That’s when he saw his first Mardi Gras, while staying in the Peter & Paul Community Services shelter in Soulard.
For Henderson, cleaning up after Mardis Gras is an opportunity to pick up some extra cash.
“I’m trying to move,” he said. “I’m 61 years old and I’m getting ready to retire this year so I’m trying to build my money up.”
Henderson came to work Saturday because of the St. Patrick Center, a local nonprofit that helps people find affordable housing, employment and health care.
“It’s a job,” Henderson said flatly while raking cups and bottles outside of Social House Soulard. “I was assigned to come here; it’s my task. I want to go out there and do it and get it over with so I can move on to the next thing.”
Last year, St. Patrick Center's workforce development program served 254 people; more than half subsequently found permanent jobs.
“We work with a lot of veterans, a lot of people who have been living in poverty, dealing with substance abuse, mental illness, or both,” said Shawn Thomason, St. Patrick’s manager of workforce development. “A lot of them have had prior convictions, and that has made it hard for them in the job market. So we’re just helping them make a change.”
For Mardi Gras this year, Thomason brought 14 men to work.
While cleaning up trash may not seem like rocket science, on the city streets it's not without challenges.
By the time the crews headed out to start cleaning, it was 35 degrees. When they finished hours later, the temperature had dropped to 29.
Although the trash itself is not so hard to collect, doing a sweep that covers over a mile radius takes serious planning.
Then there are the drunks. Just ask Troy Johnson.
“Oh yes, today, many people came up to me saying, ‘Hey man you want a beer? You want a shot, let’s go get you a hurricane,’” said Johnson, one of the workers from St. Patrick Center.
“I’ve been struggling with alcohol for years, and for me to come to Mardi Gras, it’s been really tough because there’s a lot of drinkers out,” the Arkansas native said.
Johnson, who was working his second year at Mardi Gras, arrived to see the revelries at 9 a.m. Saturday. He was there the entire day before clocking in for work at 6 p.m.
“It’s helpful for me to be around other people to keep from isolating myself,” Johnson said. “I like to see people throw beads, have fun, I love the floats, the beautiful folks, and the people just being ignorant. That's fun in its own way.”
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