My quiet little West Village weekend began with a Swedish Midsummer celebration given by neighbors on Perry Street, just a block from my building on West 11th. I knew next to nothing about Swedish Midsummer celebrations, which include a maypole, and I didn’t know the hosts of the affair, but when I got an invitation stuck under the door in my vestibule, I thought it a gracious gesture on their part and sent an e-mail saying I would be glad to attend. I offered to bring a Magnolia cupcake, but the hostess, Yasmina, advised me by e-mail not to, since ten kids would be on hand, and only one cupcake might provoke a war. So at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 24, I went without a cupcake, armed only with the best intentions and a touch of curiosity. I don’t have a drop of Swedish blood in me, and know not a word of the language other than"glögg," a hot spiced wine that I once imbibed at a party where I exchanged a New Year's kiss with a newly crowned and very blond Bride of Light. No matter, I was ready for a bit of adventure.
|The Swedish flag.|
The host met me at the door, recognized my name from the e-mails, and led me through their ground floor apartment to a door in back that opened onto a garden area shared with all the buildings on Bleecker Street between West 11th and Perry. Adorning this huge open space was a ribbon-bedecked maypole topped with Swedish flags, while more than ten kids were running about, some of them wading barefoot in a little pool at the far end of the garden. My hostess Yasmina, crowned with a flowery wreath, now greeted me in turn, promised me a white wine, and introduced me to several other guests. I talked for a while with an older gentleman who said he was originally from Montreal. “Do you miss Canada?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “it’s calmer, more laid back.” “And saner,” I suggested, having always thought of our neighbors to the north as being more reasonable and orderly than Americans, though perhaps just a little bit duller.
|Not my hostess, but the kind of wreath that she and several other women wore.|
More guests appeared, and I talked with several. Having been told that one guest had come all the way from Bali, I approached an elegantly dressed young Asian woman, introduced myself, and asked if she was from Bali. “Oh no,” she answered in perfect American English, “I’m from Ohio.” I then identified myself as an immigrant from Illinois, and we found that, Midwesterners though we were, we shared a love of New York City, where you could find everything you wanted within walking distance, without the need of a car. And when I told others that I thought of Sweden as a country I wouldn’t mind living in, should I be granted another life, I was informed that Sweden had more to offer than universal health care and other such benefits – namely, tall blond women. Which, for another life, didn’t sound so bad.
|My next life?|
All the adults were now summoned to form a circle around a stash of bottles stuck in a heap of ice cubes to keep them appropriately cool. Once we had all been given a tiny plastic cup full of Schnapps, a lady wise in the ways of the Swedes sang something in Swedish, joined by several others, while I discreetly hummed along. Then, suddenly, everyone simultaneously lifted their little cup and drank the contents in one gulp – in other words, to use a very American but very un-Swedish term, we chugalugged it. This was my first experience of Swedish Schnapps, which my hostess by e-mail had assured me would be served. For me, “Schnapps” was a German word for almost any alcoholic drink, but in Swedish it apparently means something more specific. “Hey, that stuff has bite!” I immediately announced, and was greeted with knowing smiles. Indeed, there was fire in my throat.
If Schnapps was for the adults, the maypole was for the kids, who, I might add, were amazingly well behaved throughout: a good bit of running about, but so far as I could tell, no temper tantrums, jealousies, or fights. Now, guided by the Swedish lady, the kids formed a circle around the pole, each holding a ribbon attached to the top of the pole. Then they started walking around it, while their guide sang a song in Swedish, showing them how to hold their hands up to their ears and wiggle their fingers, then hold their hands behind their bottom and do the same, and then all jump together. Adults then joined the circle, performing the same rites, whose meaning totally escaped me. Later Yasmina explained to me that there were many silly songs in Sweden, and this one was about frogs: they have no ears (hence the gestures by the ears), and have no tails (hence the gestures behind), but they like to jump about (hence the collective jumps at the end). “That’s good,” I said. “We should all at times get just a bit silly. It keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously, and it’s healthy, we’ll all live longer.”
|Dancing around a maypole in Sweden.|
Our hosts now invited us inside to have a Swedish meal. Awaiting us on a counter were two kinds of salmon, some kind of white sauce to go with them, beets cut up into tiny cubes, potatoes cooked in some way that made them utterly delicious, a stiff sheet of bread from which each of us broke off a bit, and later, by way of desert, rolls that were also delicious. This was my first experience of Swedish food (minus a few encounters with Swedish meatballs), and I feasted greedily.
When, after two hours in Sweden, I took my leave, having responsibilities at home, the party was still going strong. Yasmina saw me to the door, insisted that I fulfill my promise to do a post for my blog about the party, and promised in return to invite me to the annual celebration again in a year. I went home in a gentle state of euphoria, nursing wondrous thoughts about Sweden and the Swedes, with fond memories of a celebration that was not only traditional, but also quiet, civilized, and sane. Which was my last experience that weekend of anything quiet, civilized, and sane.
Before chronicling the madness that followed, I’ll report that as a follow-up to the party I did a little online research and learned that the Midsummer celebration, which is really a summer solstice event marking the end of spring and the onset of summer, is celebrated throughout northern Europe. As for the maypole, it dates back to pagan times and was originally a phallic symbol, its penetration of the earth enhancing fertility and growth. Ah, those pagans, so naughtily obsessed with sex! But the maypole dancing I had just witnessed was innocent in the extreme, a charming festival for kids.
* * * * * *
Sunday, June 25, began routinely enough, with my housebound partner Bob and I sipping white wine and nibbling a sharp cheddar cheese. Then, as usual, leaving him with our home-care aide, I set out for my weekly lunch in a restaurant. Having witnessed the joyous mayhem of the Gay Pride Parade a number of times in the past, I felt no need to witness it again, and wanted only to avoid the brouhaha and lunch quietly at a safe remove. Since our building at the corner of West 11th and Bleecker would be in the hurricane zone, with the parade almost reaching the Hudson River a few blocks away, and the parade aftermath spilling over into the whole West Village near the river, I knew to head away from the parade toward a Chinese restaurant on Greenwich Avenue near Sixth, well away from the parade route along Fifth Avenue. There, I thought, I could dine quietly and then cross Greenwich to the Jefferson Market Library, my branch, where I could return one book and get another. With this sane and rational plan in mind, I set out about 2:30 p.m.
The stack of police barriers piled up against the Magnolia Bakery should have tipped me off, not to mention the frequent sound of helicopters zooming overhead. But we all have our illusions, and mine were soon deflated. Just walking down West 11th toward West 4th Street (yes, they do intersect; such is the Village), I found this usually tranquil residential street surprisingly busy. And when I turned right onto West 4th, heading toward West 10th and, just beyond it, Seventh Avenue, I found the crowds getting thicker and spilling over into the street, where no traffic presumed to intrude. And the closer I got to Seventh Avenue, the thicker were those crowds. Rainbow flags and crazy T-shirt sayings multiplied, and a familiar wildness set in. Seeing three girls with bright-colored leis sitting on a doorstep, I stopped, gestured toward their leis, said, “I love it!” and reaped a trio of smiles.
From then on, it got crazier and crazier, and the noise of drumbeats in the offing got louder. There were rainbow flags galore, and rainbow T-shirts, hats, ties, garlands, capes, and shorts. And everywhere, T-shirts flaunted mottos and quips:
· ROUGH TRADE
· TOM / BOY
· SANCTUARY FOR FAMILIES
· BEAUTY (marching beside BEAST)
· LOVE ALWAYS WINS
· CONTINUING THE POLITICAL REVOLUTION (on an older man)
· I LIKE GIRLS (on a woman, of course)
· SOUNDS GAY / I’M IN
· HAVE AN EPIC DAY
· NOBODY EVEN KNOWS I’M A LESBIAN (on a presumably straight young man)
It was a festival of youth, but lots of the rainbow flag wavers looked hetero and must have been playing queer for the day, just as the non-Irish go green on Saint Patrick’s Day. Wild colors were the rule, though mixed in with the celebrants were a few strays who looked like they didn’t know what they’d got into and desperately wanted out. There were bearded men with fans, leather guys, garlanded young men, lesbians of every stripe and hue, and one seemingly unperturbed Orthodox Jew who was most definitely not seeking out the parade.
Though the parade was coming down Fifth Avenue, as I approached Seventh on West 4th Street, I found a jam-up of people ahead of me, and when I turned left on West 10th Street and headed toward Greenwich Avenue and Sixth, the police were heavily on hand and guiding pedestrians into separate walkways for those coming and going, so as to avoid a crush of people and the possibility of panic. I was puzzled to see a long line of people extending well out into 10th Street, and then grasped it: they were in line for the porto-potties.
Parked police cars and sanitation trucks had blocked off Greenwich Avenue, and to reach my restaurant on Greenwich I had to ask New York’s Finest for permission to get through their barriers. Up ahead on Sixth Avenue, which I thought would be free of the parade, I could see rainbow banners and Old Glory marching by, to the steady beat of drums. As for the Chinese restaurant that I thought would be a quiet sanctuary removed from the turbulence of the day, it was packed like I had never seen it packed, with a steady murmur that rose at times to a roar.
Luckily I got a seat in front by a window, where I could see people streaming back from Sixth Avenue, where they had seen whatever was there to be seen. Seated near me in the restaurant was a group of young men and women, one of the women, her hair half curly blond, half dark, with two stripes under each eye. And at the table right next to me was a young African American male in the skimpiest striped bikini, garlanded, with a rainbow flag stuck in his backpack, and his nose in his mobile device.
When I left the restaurant and headed across Greenwich on West 10th toward the library, I once again found myself guided into an eastward flowing crowd, and to get to the library itself I had to ask the guardians of order to once again open their barriers. “Come out the same way,” the cop instructed me, as he moved a barrier just enough to let me through. The library itself, though open, seemed deserted, but on the second floor, where I returned a book and took out another, a few quiet souls sat docilely at tables, their nose in a book, newspaper, or computer, seemingly immune to the frenzy outside. Calm should of course prevail in a library, but this calm was the calm of a tomb.
Leaving, I plunged back into the frenzy, heard police sirens in the distance, saw parked police cars flashing lights, and a Fire Department ambulance honking its way down West 10th, parting the crowd as it slowly advanced. More flags, more crazy T-shirt messages, more lines for porto-potties, more glitz and glitter, and when I flashed a sign of solidarity at two gay guys in flowery attire, they answered with smiles and a wish of “Happy Pride Day!” The farther I went down West 4th, the quieter it got, and I even saw a vehicle or two presume to crawl down the street. As for my street, West 11th, it was now so calm as to seem, for the day, unnatural. So ended my experience of Gay Pride 2017, or so I thought. Need I say that I was joyously exhausted and in desperate need of a nap.
Some parties never seem to end. When I went to bed that night, I still heard helicopters zooming overhead and, for a while, the BOOM BOOM BOOM of fireworks. And as these noises finally faded, a sudden revelation flashed in my sleep-hungry brain: coming down Fifth Avenue and then west on 8th Street, the parade had made a short zig to the right, going up Sixth Avenue to access Christopher Street, which it then followed west toward the river. As I walked toward Greenwich Avenue on West 10th Street, I was just one short block away from Christopher, which parallels West 10th. And what is there on Christopher between Sixth and Seventh Avenues? That holy of gay holies, the Stonewall Inn, where, years ago, all this madness began. Of course Christopher between the two avenues had to be the wildest, craziest, most congested and crowd-controlled stretch of the parade. Far from avoiding the brouhaha, my route had taken me right into the eye of the storm. What was going on at the end of Greenwich Avenue, when I entered the Chinese restaurant, was indeed the parade, doing its little zig to get from West 8th Street to enter Christopher. Which explains the heavy police presence, the blockaded streets, the not-so-distant drumbeats, even the porto-potties and the scrupulous control of the crowds. I have great respect for the Gay Pride Parade and all it represents, but can gladly wait another year before its joyous mayhem disrupts my life again.
|Stonewall Inn on a quieter day.|
No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015). Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016. All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe. In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City." If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you. Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series. New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder. Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.
For six LibraryThing prepublication reviews of Bill Hope: His Story, go here and scroll down.
The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client. Gay romance, if you like, but women have read it and reviewed it. For Goodreads reviews, go here. Likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: Martin Shkreli, the Bad Boy of Finance
© 2017 Clifford Browder