The town that I grew up in holds what people like to call, with a kind of pride in poverty, the World’s Shortest Parade on the fourth of July. A number of small towns make similar claims, but our parade, next to the beach on Maxwelton Road in Clinton, Washington, deserves it. From the field by the old Steiner farm it continues just two blocks, ending at Dave Mackie park, where a series of foot, sack, and three-legged races are run and the national anthem sung. It’s not required to register in advance to march; one simply arrives and lines up in either a motorized or non-motorized line. This year, the parade’s ninety-seventh iteration, the lineup included a number of dogs, a few Republicans, one guy in a gorilla suit, many bikes (some of them “Occupied”) and a truck full of violinists. As we waited for the start, a bored-looking high school baseball team called the Crabs slouched, chins in hand, on their hay bales, and a grandmotherly woman in a mermaid costume had her picture taken with one of two groups of pirates.
The elderly mermaid recalled the parade I’d been to at Coney Island just a week or two before—a different sea creature altogether, though the two shared a spirit of outlandish regionalism, that freak-flag-flying of place. I tried to cross Surf Avenue behind the parade and found myself buffaloed into a series of barricades, pressed between a big man in a too-small thong and an overwhelmed trash can. Watching the floats inch down the street over someone’s wig, I began to wonder what it was we saw in this custom. Certainly the metaphorical use of the word parade—as to describe, for instance, a haughty way of walking through a room or any series of nasty things (vices, celebrities, horrors) being overtly displayed in succession—points toward an underlying cultural ambivalence about the whole thing.
Summer is parade season, though we also parade on Canada Day, Easter, Christmas, New Year’s, St. Paddy’s Day, Puerto Rican Day, and, in Binghamton, throughout all of Parade Week. Pride parades provide a jubilant combination of celebration and protest. Various arts parades and demonstrations keep the papier-mâché and giant-puppet industries booming. Brooklyn’s West Indian Day Parade—referenced in several songs, including “Gunplay on the Eastern Parkway” by Calypso Rose and “Melee on the Eastern Parkway” by Maestro—attracts millions with its chaotic exhibition of overpowering sound systems and shaking booties. (Of this parade Jay-Z commented, cryptically, “Three dice cee-lo, three card monte, Labor Day Parade, rest in peace Bob Marley.”) Yet like Disneyland, itself a kind of continuous parade, these occasions enclose a certain sadness. Standing curbside while the exuberance of life—a defile of high school marching bands, floats, politicians, celebrities, and fancy cars—passes by, vainly hoping to be thrown a piece of candy, we holler, clap, or throw our hands in the air, rarely pausing to consider the cheerless existential metaphor in which we’re taking part. Cassius spoke for all parade-goers when, watching a parade in the streets of Rome, he noted of one participant how “he doth bestride the world like a Colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves.” Who rained on our parade? To borrow a phrase from academia, it’s always already been rained on.
For the Fourth of July this year, Dan Snarr, the mayor of Murray, Utah, gave paradegoers the chance to vote on whether he should shave his eighteen-inch handlebar mustache by flashing a thumbs-up or –down as he marched by. His wife told local reporters that she was tired of living with a “freak”; the thing not only poked her in the eye but damaged Dan’s credibility besides. In the parade she carried the giant pair of wooden scissors used for ribbon cuttings by the Chamber of Commerce.
Only Guy Debord, a parade-rainer if ever there was, would accuse Murray, Utah, of a passive identification with spectacle. Yet in parsing the enthusiasm with which we tend to watch people in costume walk by, one might, Debord-like, begin to suspect that what appears to be a harmless détournement is in fact a form of repressive pseudo-enjoyment invented by marketing professionals to sell us something, be it only a kind of lighthearted parade-route cred.
An Edo-period woodblock print by Suzuki Harunobu, Courtesan Parading with Attendants, documents an early version of this sort of thinking. The Macy’s Day Parade, which more or less trademarks the holiday, carries on with a larger, less sexy one. And consider this: in a paper published in 2011, Bocconi University’s Andreas Madestam and Harvard’s David Yanagizawa-Drott concluded that attending one Fourth of July celebration before age eighteen increases the likelihood of identifying as a Republican by at least 2 percent, voter turnout by 0.9 percent, and political-campaign contributions by 3 percent. Our popular County Commissioner (Democrat), who’s running for reelection, marched with an entourage that included a pug holding a sign in its mouth (I’M WITH HELEN!) and a beribboned couple toting a placard that read BE THE PARADE YOU WANT TO SEE.
Politicians and military types have been parading since time immemorial. Ancient Mesopotamian murals show a victorious leader marching his army over the heads of the conquered. The Marching Warriors (ca. 7000–4000 BC), a painting in the Gasulla barranco in Cingle de la Mola Remigia, Spain, shows five male figures, legs wide as though parading along the wall. That the cave also depicts battle scenes and prehistoric executions suggests that parades may have developed in concert with humanity’s darker virtues to either impress or strike fear, which is really two sides of one coin. (The fascists were great ones for parades.) Yet our desire to watch is motivated as much by curiosity as by military or political zeal. One can imagine, for instance, the hunter Ugg carrying home a saber-toothed tiger and other cave people standing on the path to watch him go by. The next time he passes, Ugg self-consciously waves or dons a silly hat. He feels his stride lengthen, holds his head erect. Suddenly, he is on parade.
It may be that the meaning of the person watching the parade is dependent on the meaning of the person in it; the higher their prestige, the higher our mundanity, and the more likely we are to do or buy or vote as requested. As the self-satisfied parader passes, the viewer, impressed, may feel close to the center of power (not being, I suppose, the parade we want to see but only the one we do). The masses offer Caesar the crown. The reverse must be true as well: the king, watching his army parade before him, no doubt felt a kind of smug benevolence and was awed by his people’s admiration.
Our desire to process reflects religious tendencies as well. Hittite stone carvings at Boghaz-Keui in Turkey show two long lines of figures in relief running along the sides of the room and eventually meeting at the far wall. The grand marshals of this parade, if that is indeed what it is, seem to be a god with a goat, standing on the heads of his priests, and an Asiatic goddess riding a panther. The Fremont Solstice Parade in Seattle, like the Mermaid Parade to some degree, continues in this religiohumorous vein. It ends with a papier-mâché sun being carted to the top of the largest hill in Gasworks Park and hoisted aloft by a cortege of seminude revelers to toast the summer. Nudity is a baseline of this parade—naked bikers every age, shape, and size in nothing but body paint (if that) are a beloved institution. In general, nudity seems more common—and acceptable—in the context of a parade than in any public function I can think of. Few mermaids wear much more than cockleshells; Labor Day masqueraders have more feathers and less clothing than certain birds. Nudity, too, is a costume—comic or empowering, depending on how one wears it—an expression of celebration, subjectivity, or subversion. As in the very act of marching, the naked parader is both exposed and elevated.
Noise, drunkenness, and minimal clothing have, the military notwithstanding, been historically central to the parade. In ancient Greek phallic processions, a Dionysiac tradition, participants processed with giant, stylized penises to a cult center, cursing and shouting obscenities and making fun of the audience as they went. (This kômos, or group of drunken partygoers, would seem familiar to anyone who’s been in New Orleans at the crucial time.) Aristotle reckons that these processions were the origin of comedy. But parades also seem like a way of publicizing any human impulse at all: to power, to prayer, to waste and get wasted, or take power and prayer to task. We love a parade in part for showing us, in the most vulgar way possible, all of the things we are, for better or worse.
People were clustered on the grass shoulders of Maxwelton Road, leaving the lanes free for marchers. The road is narrow enough so that people on the sidelines can talk to those in the road, asking for candy personally, or assuring someone that they have their vote. I was trying to get in front of the parade, so I hopped into the road and walked up alongside the violins. A couple of old friends called out to say hi, and I found myself stopping to wave. From a truck, a toddler threw some saltwater taffy. By the end, the sun was finally out, and a very small boy with stars painted over his eyes had won a red ribbon in his race. For whatever reason, none of the eggs were breaking in the egg toss.
Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.