State fair week reminds me why I hate a parade
August 20, 1987
My contribution to the hey-kids-get-off-of-my-lawn genre. It offered me a chance to use all of the parade anecdotes that were piling up in my files, though. Can’t be bad. For more about the fair (there is always something more to say about the fair) see here and here.
"I gotta tell the guys in New York about this," I said to myself. New Yorkers are pretty vain about the zaniness of their street life. But when, I planned to ask them, was the last time they had seen grown men and women wearing brown trash bags marching behind a portable outhouse bearing the legend, "U-Dump-It" smack in front of their house?
I admit that this is livelier stuff than I usually see on my block, which on most Wednesday evenings is filled with raspy-throated Baptists heading home from choir practice, the kind of upright people who, if they wear trash bags, do it at home. On this night, however, my block, like a dozen or more like it on Springfield's downtown east side, had been commandeered for use as the staging area for the preview night parade which kicks off the Illinois State Fair. The staging has become an annual inconvenience. Kids pester you to use your toilets, and the stink of horse manure is never quite removed from your curbside by the street sweepers; two years ago I came home from work testy and tired, looking forward to dinner and quiet conversation, to find a drum and bugle corps blaring away within fifteen feet of my living room window.
To many of my neighbors, the use of our residential streets to stage the parade is another instance of being (literally) shit upon by city hall. I lived for twelve years practically next door to Governor Thompson; had he asked to borrow an egg, I would have been happy to oblige him. But when the governor asks Mayor Houston—the governor's neighbor, governmentally speaking—if he can borrow a neighborhood, he counts too much on our good nature. Even my Republican neighbors get testy when they find a baton troupe among the marigolds.
Usually I have a high tolerance for organized childishness. I still occasionally vote, for instance, and eat in restaurants. As a boy I watched uncounted parades, my father then being in the marching band business. I thrilled to the sounds of a brass band for years, until the public schools began cutting back on music instruction. But I am a grown man now, wise enough about the world to have drafted Krohe's Rules of Promotion, one of which is that any event which needs a parade to drum up interest probably shouldn't be held in the first place. This rule applies universally to wars and circuses, and to state fairs when they are held in the Midwest.
I did not in truth have much time to study this year's marchers comprehensively. I was too busy dodging sheriffs deputies in golf carts, and preparing my evening's escape to a ball game. I had noticed in the paper that the parade theme this year was "A Trip Through Candy Land." Considering the parade route—up Ninth Street, through two dozen blocks of cityscape so drab, so ugly that a tornado might sweep through it and qualify for a beautification award—the choice of theme went beyond irony into the surreal.
The parade's route, however, had nothing on the entrants themselves. One category was won by a White Hen Pantry, another by an upstate Chamber of Commerce which chose to represent hometown pride with a riverboat called the Pride of Ottawa—a craft which no longer exists on the Illinois, practically speaking. David Byrne would have loved this parade, I thought; the next day I was convinced that he had judged it. The Lincoln Award was presented to a walking Crimestoppers demonstration for what the papers called "the best characterization of the romance of Illinois."
Being the state capital, Springfield has endured more of this kind of thing than any Illinois city save Chicago. (I was having lunch this spring at a sidewalk cafe on Michigan Avenue when the Greek Independence Day parade passed by, in costumes which were as resplendent as the political slogans were bloodthirsty. In Chicago, you don't go to parades, they come to you.) As long ago as the 1850s, torch-light processions complete with German bands led people to political rallies. In 1907 we saw a parade of a more sinister sort, when white trash marched through the old black belt and used those torches to burn down homes and businesses.
Passion for processions of all sorts seems to have spent itself, however. The typical parade these days consists of a handful of shuffling old men barely able to hoist the flag they once were willing to die for in wars which baffled passersby don't remember.
Parades will be a little passé, of course in an era when pre-teens while away the hours between visits to the orthodontist watching cable movies like Bachelor Party, whose party scene featured a sprightly bit of pervertus interruptus when the donkey with whom the hooker was intended to have sex died of a cocaine overdose. This would explain why the only people who seem to actually enjoy parades are either very young or old.
Parades have, however, recently acquired a certain camp appeal among us jaded thousands in between. In what we might call the New Wave parade, self-parody is conscious and deliberate. I have not researched the point, but I suspect the style began in the 1970s among Ivy League marching bands. Yale, for example, would typically visit Harvard and announce a musical salute to the Crimson homecoming queen—then spell out the name, "Sue Pine." According to one report, the Yale "band" which once visited West Point included percussionists beating on teddy bears with sticks; a quick-witted cadet was overheard to ask, "These guys don't look like music majors."
Whatever its genesis, that spirit is alive in central Illinois. The state fair parade included a lawn mower drill team, and Citizens United for the right to Bare Arms, who carried the limbs of mannequins. (I was not there to see it, but I would have cried tears of delight had those marchers lifted their arms in salute—"Arms, left!"—as they passed the prosthetic clinic located a bit west of Ninth at Carpenter.
I saw the best of that bunch warming up a half-block from my front door. They were the Earle Clements Jobs Corps drill team. Dressed in spiffy military garb down to their combat boots, the unit performed a deft and witty parody of military drill exercises incorporating moves borrowed everywhere from hip-hop to slap dancing. In the process they did what any good parody is capable of: Immensely pleasurable for its own sake, the dancing made it impossible to watch another military drill, with its sodden cadences and robot-like routines, without being reminded that war is all about organized mindlessness.
As I drove slowly past police barricades trying to leave my own block for the ball game, dodging militant Christians and midget horses and cops on horseback, I wondered again why next year's parade couldn't be staged on, say, Glenwood Avenue, where the mayor lives. And I recalled—again—that Glenwood is much too far from the fairgrounds, and besides that, the west side has rather more dedicated vandals than does my neighborhood, and some bored freshman-to-be would probably BB the drum majorettes or something.
I decided further that this year I would not give way to irritation, but would contrive a constructive suggestion to my and my neighbors' problem. There are whole blocks in the downtown business district where one could park tuba players by the bunch and not disturb a living soul. This probably would be resisted by city fathers. (It is one thing to have a loved one die after an expensive illness, quite another to use the bier for a ping pong party while the body is still warm.) However, there are enough acres of parking lot along Ninth and Eleventh streets downtown to stage another Battle of Bull Run, much less a parade. Each of these lots is as empty as a commissioner's book bag by four minutes after five every day.
Until I hear news of such a relocation, I intend to console myself with the thought that hosting this year's preview of the preview parade could have been worse. Ernie Banks was the parade grand marshal. In his enthusiasm he might have said, "Let's have two!" ●