I was offered a rare volunteering opportunity, when my local church ran a designated water station for the Gay Pride parade in Manhattan. I initially went for the guaranteed eyeful of entertainment, and the church’s participation suggested that perhaps my reform beliefs were shared. I denied the possibility that I would be amongst a group of opportunists, ready to give out cupfuls of judgment at any occasion.
I assumed there was no risk for shell shock. I had already experienced an AIDS Walk in the late 80s and had grown accustom to barrel-chested men in Speedos and angel wings throwing condoms at me, at a young age. But my impression was that this parade would be on a much deeper level of inner-subculture than anyone exposed me to in the past.
While I was arranging paper cups on the table, a man wearing pearl earrings approached me without warning and stuck my shirt tag in to help me avoid “tag tan” as he put it. His fragrance was of a sweet red plum wine gone spoiled, often worn by elderly women. It was surprisingly quite refreshing and far less potent than the Chanel Number 5 projecting from the gentleman to my left.
For a while, we just stood there, anticipating their arrival with thousands of others crowding the sidewalks on both sides. Looking up 5th Avenue, I saw a flash of color in the haze and heard scuffling sounds of a marching band and motorcycles. I was expecting the most outrageous surprise, a vision that I’m sure I had blocked out as a child in my AIDS walking days. I couldn’t pin-point an exact image, but I was sure it had something to do with my mom freaking out over a collection of “free samples”, she had discovered in my hand after we passed our first water station.
When it was clear that they were coming, we frantically poured water into paper cups and arranged them onto trays, where they would be taken, ferried out to the thirsty marchers and returned for refueling in a constant cycle that went on for hours. I missed the first arrival of the parade. I was delegated as the water pourer and tended to my assembly line, keeping my head down. After I had determined that my simple job was hurting my wrist, I decided to rotate myself out and deliver the water.
I grabbed a tray and shuffled into the forbidden street reserved only for parade marchers and water distributors. A zoo-cage themed float was heading our way, so I followed the water carriers ahead of me. Preceding the float was a team of street marchers, women (perhaps?) in detailed mermaid dresses, bright yellow sun dresses, stunning silver halter dresses, and matching four inch heels. They waved and smiled at clicking cameras. We must have been the first water station, because our operation had brought the parade to a complete stop several times.
A 7-foot tall diva in a gold sequin gown had been making eye contact with me for two blocks and made it very clear that she was thirsty. Her eyes got wider as she approached me, and exclaimed “God bless you, child” as she took two cups of water and poured one over her wig and drank the other. I was convinced she believed her march was a virtuous obligation, but I was struggling to understand what message she was trying to send. I was both confused and star struck by her appearance. She returned to me two empty cups with dragon red lipstick stains and then snapped into a model pose, which I didn’t realize until I stepped away to view her full stature and discovered someone from the crowd was taking her photo.
I could hear the underground jungle music getting louder. Someone from inside the cage spotted our trays and forty hands stretched out. As we approached, we held our trays as high as we could. I realized the great difficulty in transporting water on an elevated moving float to tanning oil-covered bodies that refused to stop dancing. Still, the obstacle was surpassed and the water went quickly. The caged men continued dancing, and I continued to wonder what the point of this parade was. The crowd applauded and verified that I was the only one in the dark.
As quickly as the parade came, so did the dark clouds, and the flash, and a long deep growl.
The crowd roared back as if the howling thunder was part of the show. A hint of cold moisture hit my shoulder. Then I saw it. A hearty raindrop landed on the cheekbone of a pop diva and streamed down to her chin, taking her hot pink face with it. Shortly after, the heavens voiced an opinion of the event with a blanketed downfall. Cold pelting comments were received quite well with further applause, with the exception of a few women sobbing over a puddle of gold glitter, revealing masculine features, weathered from a lifetime of unknown factors and the occasional use of oily foundation, apparently non-waterproof.
The persistent chilling rain eventually reached inside us all and stripped away any extraneous color. The lively street retracted back into its gray reality. The head dresses came off, the nearly naked had acquired clothing, and the parade was over.
I huddled closely under someone’s umbrella, watching others scatter to the closest storefront awnings. Our water distribution team started packing up, acknowledging that a higher power had taken over. I was preparing a B-line from one umbrella to another, when I saw a group of girls shielding the rain by holding a banner above them, which read, “Be proud of how God made you.”
I stepped out from under the umbrella and let the rain soak into me as I walked home.