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Beads, Booze, And Breasts

Kings danced with crawfish, brides wore beards and plastic beads were the currency of the day Tuesday as thousands of revelers shed their inhibitions and some their clothes for Mardi Gras, the traditional fling before Lent.

A record three million revelers, many in elaborate costumes have descended on the Crescent City. Most of these normally reserved folks are here for a chance to let loose.

"I've seen things I never saw before, ate things I never ate before, and drank things that I'm sure will be lethal," said Larry Ward, 34, of Detroit. "But I'll sure die happy."

Families lined St. Charles Avenue, gathering before dawn to stake out spots for a day full of parades. While children along the mansion-lined street simply held up their hands to get beads from the masked float riders, in the French Quarter a rowdier crowd traded the gaudy trinkets for flashes of flesh.

"I haven't had a shirt on in five days," said Ashley Kennedy, a New Orleans bar tender. "It's Mardi Gras and a little flash of flesh adds to everybody's fun."

Although police announced a crackdown to stop people from baring breasts or genitals for beads, they seemed disinclined to make arrests Tuesday. Four officers stood across the street watching as an artist painted designs on Kennedy's breast.

Judi Jones, 24, of Dallas, had her breast painted but uncovered as she strolled down Bourbon Street carrying a sign that read "The right to bare breasts."

"I have them covered, they're covered with paint," Jones said. "They cost me a fortune so why shouldn't I show them off?"

The narrow streets of the French Quarter were jammed by midmorning, people strolled through ankle deep trash or clustered under balconies to grab beads dropped by those above. Booze flowed with revelers sipping from plastic cups as the walked. Strangers danced to music that blared from bars or posed with each other for pictures.

Neil from Los Angeles, who did not want to give his last name, wore only a leather G-string, leather hat and boots. "At least five groups of police have asked to have their pictures taken with me," he said.

Along the parade routes, people stood 25 or more rows deep as Zulu, the traditional black parade, then Rex, the king of carnival's parade, and finally a long line of tractor-trailer trucks, each one decorated like a float, inched past.

A later-than-usual Mardi Gras, coinciding with spring break for many colleges and 80-degree weather, were expected to produce record crowds in excess of the million or so that usually jam New Orleans and its suburbs.

Mardi Gras, literally Fat Tuesday, is the final fling before Ash Wednesday, which starts the Roman Catholic period of repentance of Lent.

"This is my sixth Mardi Gras and it's the largest crowd I've seen," said police chief Richard Pennington. "I'm sure we'll set a record. I'd estimate we have well over million, maybe a million and a half people on the streets."

There had been no problems, Pennington said. Despite the crowds, the annual celebration is normally trouble free. Most arrests are for drunkenness, which police say usually means a drunk who bothers those around him, and public urination.

It's a matter of policy that arrest figures are not made released until after Mardi Gras, which ends sharply at midnight Tuesday.

"The thing about Mardi Gras is that you can find any kind of party you want," said J.R. Sullivan who had camped out along the parade route with about 30 family members he said ranged from six-months to 70.

"For us it's a family reunion, a picnic and a nice party to boot."

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