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Welcome Bacchus, It's Mardi Gras!

Parade fans camped along St. Charles Avenue, beer trucks lined up on Bourbon Street and revelers milled from bar to bar — all signs that this city's Carnival season was rolling toward its annual Mardi Gras climax.

"This is it, baby," said 22-year-old Paul Perrin of Dallas, part of a group sleeping in lawn chairs and debris along the St. Charles streetcar tracks. "You're either ready or you stay home. It's no place for the weak."

Thousands lined up to watch Monday night's Proteus and Orpheus parades, which are two of the biggest, headed by entertainer Harry Connick Jr. The French Quarter was crowded with revelers, strolling along Bourbon Street with beers in hand, trying to grab the strings of beads tossed from partiers in the balconies above.

Later in the evening, the King and Queen of Zulu met the King and Queen of Rex. Both royal courts arrived on a Coast Guard cutter juts one day before the annual carnival wraps up tomorrow at midnight.

Business was down from previous years, merchants and bartenders said. They blamed both the gloomy weather consisting of thick clouds and the fact that the annual pre-Lenten bash falls early this year.

"It's definitely off," said Fallon Daunhauer, a bartender at Johnny White's in the French Quarter. "I think both things hurt. It's not the best weather and it's so early. Too close to Christmas, not close enough to spring break to get the college kids in."

Beads, beer cans and trash littered the grounds outside the stately Louisiana Supreme Court building as workers rushed to clean up the streets for the final time.

Beverly Lott and her husband munched beignets after watching five parades and street theater. "We love it. It's the best time you can have anywhere," said Beverly Lott, wearing a huge orange wig. "We came for the first time last year, and plan to be back every year."

Officials say that although the crowd size is down from previous years, party-goers are pouring into the Quarter. Many are in costume with beans, feather boas and masks.

Some partygoers took up the festivities away from home. Soldiers from Louisiana's 256th Brigade toss beads from a float to the roof of their headquarters during a Mardi Gras parade at Camp Liberty in Baghdad, Iraq on Sunday.

The National Guard soldiers celebrated Mardi Gras two days early so that the maximum number of soldiers could participate. The parade was followed by a meal of chicken and sausage gumbo, red beans and rice and King

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