I am a lifelong professional parade-spectator. Taken to my first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans at barely four months old, my parents placed me atop a ladder as “bead bait”, my round cherubic cheeks sure to attract loads of plastic loot. Later I watched Fourth of July extravaganzas in that birthplace of stubborn American independence, Boston, and held a sparkler in my two-year-old fist, fixated by its fiery glow. By the time I was in elementary school and back in Louisiana, I had absurdly high expectations for ambulatory celebrations: no less than a dozen floats stacked with costumed revellers and decorations; music, of the jumping, dancing, heart-thumping variety; delicious food and drink on sale from carts and card-tables; flashing lights and/or fireworks; and confetti or beads or other flying debris, at a minimum. I’d also developed strategies for proper parade-watching, which sometimes involved ladders and butterfly nets.

Nowadays, away from my home state, these skills are more rarely used, but I can still pick out the sounds of a brass band from half a mile away.  Give me a lamppost or a fence and soon I’ll be perched at the top, overlooking the crowd’s heads.  I can insinuate myself into the middle of an anarchic march, wind my way from the tail end to catch up with the beginning again, or second-line-dance with the best of them.  I have witnessed festivities at Halloween as a lone pirate in Greenwich Village, welcomed Years of the Pig and the Rat, celebrated Gay, Portuguese, and Latino pride, partied down with the Krewes of Gemini, Centaur, and Apollo, and even watched a homegrown procession involving tricked-out, dressed-up bicycles and their equally colorful riders.

Maybe this is partly why I don’t like six-lane highways and suburban warrens: they make parades impossible, put the pedestrian behind barriers or into cars and block out the noise that comes with a living city.  Personally, I like the chaos of a busy corner or square.  And I love these moments when human feet retake these paved streets, when we can show off our feathered boas or headdresses or saints’ costumes, when it’s okay to watch one another and talk to strangers, even receive gifts straight out of the sky.  When we mark our allotment of urban turf and proclaim our collective difference, but everyone can attend, and it’s free.  All I have to do is listen to the drums, and let my own feet loose.

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