Watching People Walk
On a recent day in November, hordes of thrill seekers gathered along a major thoroughfare to watch a bunch of people pass along the street. It’s true. The annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a big-deal annual tradition here in New York. People come from all over the country just to witness the event up close. Like many of the more sensible natives, I chose to watch it on television from the warmth and comfort of my home. Yes, I watched. But as I watched, I began to ponder the whole idea of parades—a strange ritual we’ve all somehow accepted as normal.
The small town parades are the ones that strike me as oddest. Often, the spectators and the marchers are neighbors, many of whom know each other. So essentially, people are lining up to watch people walk by who they could probably watch walk by on just about any day of the week. Nevertheless, there’s inexplicable excitement in the air. “Look!” parents shout as they hoist their kids up onto their shoulders, “It’s Ms. Johnson, your math teacher! Yoo-hoo! Ms. Johnson! Oh look! She sees us!” The paraders, meanwhile, wave grandly to the crowd of onlookers as if they don’t know them, instant celebrities simply by virtue of configuration. The more I think about it, the stupider it sounds.
But the Macy’s parade—at the opposite end of the spectrum—is a high-profile, well-orchestrated to-do that poses its own collection of brain benders. Organizers spend the better part of the year planning the thing and it costs Macy’s a bloody fortune. Mind you, that bloody fortune is offset by the bloody fortunes spent by advertisers who, guaranteed an audience of millions, are only too happy to spend them on floats emblazoned with their brands. And after all, nothing says Thanksgiving like Mass Mutual, New York Life, and The South Dakota Department of Tourism.
Fortunately for Macy’s, many of the entertainers perform for free. Marching bands, cheerleaders, flag twirlers, and other performing groups from all over the country plunk down their application fees in the fervent hope of being chosen to participate. Those who make the cut must immediately swing into fundraising mode since they’ll have to cover their own costs for transportation to and accommodations in one of the most expensive cities in the nation. Of course, the families and friends will come too, so they can be there in person to watch Heather march down a real New York street with her cheer squad.
The whole event is televised nationally on several networks, with the broadcasts narrated by C-list celebrity hosts who, glad for the exposure, stand there in the cold desperately trying to look happy and excited as they tell the viewers how much helium is required to get The Jolly Green Giant to stay afloat for the entire shebang. The level of forced hype is palpable, especially in the half-hour before the parade’s start time, when hosts have to tread water, insisting to each other that they’ve never felt quite this level of anticipation.
Meanwhile, viewing spots are in high demand, so much so that many camp out starting at the crack of dawn to get the best view of the lip-synched musical numbers. But the group that inspires my greatest curiosity is the volunteers—thousands of them—who, clad in the most demeaning of costumes, flank the parade, accompany floats, and keep Pikachu from floating away. These dedicated souls receive neither pay, nor exposure, nor promotional opportunities, and one supposes they don’t have much say in costume selection. This year, there was a contingent dressed as breakfast: fried eggs, pieces of toast, and sticks of butter (one of which had some notable interactions with parade commentator Al Roker). I'm still not sure why they were dressed as breakfast. Presumably, there were meetings about costume themes. Somehow, everyone signed off on that one.
And so—bottom line—after months of preparation, some people lined up, then marched from one end of a parade route to the other with other people watching them. Then, three hours later, everyone dispersed, leaving behind a big mess of confetti and trash.
To be fair, though it pains the Curmudgeon to confess it, much of the Macy’s parade is really quite enjoyable. The wonderfully clever float designs, the complex routines flawlessly executed by cheerleaders and marching bands, the numbers from Broadway shows, the huge balloons, and yes, dammit, the sweetness and enthusiasm of the whole thing. And then of course, there’s Santa Claus, who wraps up the procession, which is always irresistibly thrilling. It would be perhaps too curmudgeonly to dismiss the entire thing as no more than a series of advertisements. Honestly, it’s all . . . heaven help me . . . fun.
Still, my hero of the day was the ten-year-old kid stationed on a float, ridiculously dressed as a piece of chocolate candy, one of about a dozen. While the other chocolate candies grinned like mad as they dutifully executed their painfully simple choreographed dance moves, this little curmudgeon, no doubt seeing the folly of it all, abandoned the whole endeavor and rested his head on his arm on one of the float’s railings, unapologetic in his disgust, thereby acting as the perfect representative for curmudgeons everywhere. And so we thank you, young sir, wherever you are. Because of you, we got to be in a parade.