Wednesday, November 24, 2010

New York on Parade

Growing up, every Thanksgiving in memory started with watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on television. Live television is fine, but I used to wonder what it would be like to experience the whole parade thing in person. So when I was living in Manhattan, one year I decided to do just that.

Most people think the parade is just that: a parade. Floats, bands, drill teams, clowns, and Santa bringing up the rear. And while the Macy's extravaganza usually has all of these components, their flagship store at Herald Square was still the largest department store in the world back when I lived there (South Korea's new Shinsengae Centumcity Department Store, opened in 2009, is now the title holder) so they're compelled to do things over-the-top.

During Thanksgiving week, Macy's bombards the city with reminders of the parade, either to drum up support among the locals so the parade route will be stuffed with cheering throngs, or to warn the locals to git outta Dodge before the West Side and Midtown become gridlocked Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, the media machine in North America's largest metropolitan area publishes routes, recommends viewing areas, gushes about the newest balloons, runs poignant nostalgia stories about the parades of yore, and banters trivia about the Big Apple tradition. If it wasn't for the fact that this was New York City, it would be easy to wonder if the original holiday for being thankful wasn't being co-opted for a dazzling marketing barrage. After all, just how do the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes commemorate the Pilgrims?

They don't, of course. They're just advertising the season's mega-show at the storied Rockefeller Center performance hall, the Christmas Spectacular. Which, all kidding aside, actually is a must-see and so moving, I teared up both times I experienced it. If you travel to New York between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, the Christmas Spectacular is just that - spectacular. And you know I don't use that term lightly.

Backstage Before the Parade

After the traditional Thanksgiving Eve service at Manhattan's Calvary Baptist Church on West 57th Street, I walked with some friends through Central Park to the American Museum of Natural History at West 77th Street. A heavy, cold mist shrouded the park in a dark suspense, enhancing the glow from the Tavern on the Green's twinkling lights wrapped amongst its garden's trees.

Within earshot of Central Park West and the museum, we could hear the gleeful chatter of children and see the hazy glow of spotlights. Emerging from the park, we were swallowed up in a good-natured crowd of parents with children propped on their shoulders, video recorders drinking in the memories.

Memories of what? Of blowing up the famous balloons, of course! Every year, Macy's spends the entire night before the parade inflating Garfield, Betty Boop, Snoopy, Superman, and other icons of Western society. Beguiled by the scene of so much taking place so effortlessly - humming inflation machines were doing all the work - my friends and I strolled among the sprawling lumps of Mylar that were slowly taking shape, noses lifting off the pavement, fingers getting fatter, wrinkles vanishing from faces. On the balloons, I mean; not us.

For generations, families have made a tradition of watching these creatures take shape on the streets and lawns around the Natural History museum. On Thanksgiving morning, the parade belongs mostly to tourists and the rest of the country via television. But this ritual of the balloons' inflation, however, is New York's own little celebration, and some quirky sentiment inside me appreciated this backstage revelry.

Indeed, none of my friends from church who were admiring these misty, serene transformations with me were planning on attending the parade the next morning. For Gotham denziens starved for intimacy in America's most congested yet isolating city, these up-close-and-personal encounters with creatures which would later float above the crowds had become the part of the parade they most treasured.

Show Time

Thanksgiving morning didn't so much dawn as emerge grimly from the night, still chilly, and now drizzly. Being a vacation day, I slept in and watched the beginning of the parade on TV. As it begins on the Upper West Side, I had time before the real show arrived in Herald Square, a mere 15-minute walk from my apartment, where I planned on taking in the festivities.

Walking westward down a nearly-deserted 34th Street, I could see Pluto bobbing around the corner above Broadway four blocks ahead. If New York didn't already have enough bizarre sights, that would probably have been quite funny. As it was, with the raw breeze and spitting rain, Pluto's handlers probably didn't want him to get as high in the air as would be necessary to look really thrilling. It would have been nicer if we had the cold temperatures counterbalanced with bright sunshine and calm air. Oh well, this was still the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, I told myself.

In Herald Square, grandstands towered over the sidewalks, but television cranes and on-location RVs blocked most of the good views. Hundreds of people were milling about, no one seeing much of anything except probably those at the tops of the grandstands. Plus, since it was raining, we had to dodge umbrellas. So much for not arriving early, I chided myself! I could tell the crowd must have been mostly tourists - despite the weather and poor views, few people were as grumpy as I was. I kept forgetting this was the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Finally, I found a good spot in a corner near 35th Street that police had barricaded, but were letting spectators occupy anyway. Remember, this was before 9/11, back before terrorism lurked around every New York corner. I found myself near one of the on-location RVs, and when I couldn't see the action in front of Macy's, I watched the action as people who probably were famous came and went. Although I didn't see anybody I actually recognized as being famous, by the way they acted, a couple of people apparently thought they were anyway.

Before long, yet far sooner than I expected, Santa Claus suddenly rolled through Herald Square, and without any fanfare, the parade was over. No announcer wishing the crowd "Happy Thanksgiving!" No encore. No scrolling of credits. Santa's sleight turned the corner headed to Madison Square Garden, and that was that.

Turning Towards Home

I turned around and went back to my apartment, the excitement of the parade fading with each block I walked. I couldn't escape a nagging disappointment that watching the parade on TV is actually better than being there live. The weather didn't make that much difference, the crowds didn't make that much difference. Even the lousy amplification - we could barely hear what was going on - didn't make up for the sheer confusion taking place within one short block in front of Macy's east entrance. So many acts, so many people, so much activity was churning through this small piece of real estate, that you didn't know what was what. Things were obviously being orchestrated for the TV audience, and those of us in the crowds were part of Macy's window dressing.

But did that mean the morning was a waste? Surprisingly, I didn't think so. Sure, it's all part of the commercialization of a holiday whose original intentions were faith-based. But considering how garish Christmas has become, a parade down the west side of Manhattan's Midtown seems almost tame these days.

Besides, as I turned to walk up my block, my mind shifted to the Thanksgiving feast I would be joining later in the day in Brooklyn with my aunt and family friends. Delicious food, loving family, good friends, a warm house...

Thankfulness has its privileges!

Enjoy your Thanksgiving weekend! See you back here on Monday.

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