Revelry That Serves The Soul

8 Jul
Helping led the way.

Defying categorization early in Santa Barbara’s mind-bending Summer Solstice Parade.

A few weeks back, a friend and I wandered Bourbon Street in New Orleans, ultimately climbing to one of those second-story wrought-iron verandas from which people study the comic hedonism unfolding below, pretending they are above what they see below, even as they obviously aren’t.

My friend fixated on the silver man: Lean and angular, he’d painted himself silver from the toes of his shoes to the hair on his head; since he was shirtless, that would mean a lot of scrubbing later.

This sacrifice I had to respect.

His one talent, however, turned out to be simply standing on a platform and extending his middle finger in a defiant “up-yours” – hoping people would not only take photos, but throw a few dollars into his box. Unfortunately, people did the first, but not the latter. His action only picked up slightly when two other “performers” – two young women who got away with their topless-ness because of the body paint spread over their breasts, belly and back – joined him. Even then, the money went mostly to the women, happy to pose with male tourists already drunk at 5:45 on a Saturday evening.

When we descended into the stench and noise of Bourbon Street, we gave money to neither. Instead we veered off Bourbon to Royal, lined with art galleries and antique shops, where we finally tipped generously a single young man on a stoop, playing steel guitar and singing old delta blues songs with the heartbreaking authority of a true artist. We sauntered on to a splendid evening of great and diverse music in the smaller and more subtle clubs on Frenchmen Street.

Don’t get me wrong. While Bourbon Street is hardly my favorite part of New Orleans, I do honor this hedonistic acting-out as part of a celebrated wackiness that I generally approve of.

One annual tradition is this float containing acrobat dancers.

One annual tradition is this float containing acrobat dancers.

As evidence of how dearly I value such silliness, I cite where I found myself less than four weeks later: Even though I had just arrived in Santa Barbara, where I could hike seaside cliffs or just sit with my friends on their deck and stare out at the Pacific Ocean, I instead insisted they drop me me off at an event they wouldn’t be caught dead at – the annual Summer Solstice Parade.

Even though the “negative energy” of the silver bird-shooting man was a few thousand miles away, I couldn’t help thinking of the City That Care as I hustled to the legendarily comic and creative proceedings – which is claimed to bring about 100,000 people to the city every year. (How they would count this is anyone’s guess, since many of the participants wear costumes designed to conceal their membership in the human race.)

As soon as I hit State Street, I found a retired gentleman positioning himself behind a row of mailboxes and newsstands, perfect for preventing onlookers from blocking his camera’s view of the proceedings. Learning I was from Massachusetts, he immediately identified himself as a former Bostonian, a software engineer, who “woke up one day in February with a foot of snow and ice on the ground and said, ‘What am I doing here?’” While perhaps his New England reserve kept him from being in the parade, he’d shot it faithfully for 20 years. He gave me the impression that the city draws more of a line between liveliness and depravity, even if these are obviously subjective terms. He told me that in the 1990s one year there was some nudity, which the civic leadership then tried to rein in a bit, since this was a family event. He related this with seeming respect for family concerns, but then shrugged. “I don’t know: It is Santa Barbara, after all.”

The Creatures From The Black Lagoon, mother and son.

The Creatures From The Black Lagoon, mother and son.

Of course, Santa Barbara, like New Orleans, is more than one thing – so much is in the eye of the beholder. My particular lens found no topless women – and no signs of angry defiance. But the Summer Solstice parade made the colors of Bourbon Street seem pale in comparison. From the sidewalk chalk wishing the sun “happy birthday” and the scores of observers wearing fairy wings to the imagination and hilarity of the costumes and floats, my surroundings kept me in alternate states of wonder and amusement for two solid hours. The parade’s theme was “Creatures,” and there certainly were some, from Mrs. Creature from the Black Lagoon (cradling her Baby Creature from the Black Lagoon) and a rooster fish to a colorful lost whale shark and the Wizard of Odd. True, there was also joy in the recognizably human forms, particularly the pulsating bodies of dancers, moving mostly to festive Latin beats, while working in some gymnastics along the way. But the happiest moments came when the parade transcended the realm of the identifiable – floats and costumes that were such flights of fancy, I couldn’t easily name them, or guess the rationale behind what I was seeing.

Which I think gets at the difference between the revels of State Street during Solstice and Bourbon Street during, well, almost every night of the week. The latter simply doesn’t serve the soul as well as the former, because many of the aspects of Bourbon Street are all too easy to label – you could cite the list of the seven deadly sins and be done with it. Indeed, perhaps Bourbon Street is simply a cheerful admission of our sinfulness, before folks go back to the grim gray business of being good Christians in their respective towns.

But the communal revelry of Solstice feels fundamentally different. Instead of embracing traditional categories of sin, Solstice seems to shrug off notions of normalcy altogether. Sure, Bourbon Street gives me permission to carry an open container of alcohol – but Solstice tells me it’s OK to wear fairy wings and a rooster head while playing the accordion. (Not that I’m planning on it.)

Big fish, little fish pass in the parade.

Big fish, little fish pass in the parade.

And in this I couldn’t help but feel there is a broader social vision informing the Solstice Celebration. In celebrating every kind of creature the volunteers could possibly conceive and construct, there is an obvious argument for tolerance. There also was a more overt social consciousness: Roughly 70 percent of the float materials are recycled, and every float is propelled by walking humans, part of the thousand or so volunteers who make Solstice happen. Some even sneaked in social messages; the mermaids, for instance, reminded us of the need to respect the ocean.

Everywhere I looked, I saw more than mere entertainment – I saw a celebration of the richness of a community.

Of course, New Orleans has this thing called Mardi Gras – a more appropriate comparison of forms of community expression. Indeed, I neglect it here simply because I’ve never been. Ironically, Santa Barbara’s Solstice Parade suggests that maybe I should give that a try, too.

Mermaids with a message proceed down State Street.

Mermaids with a message proceed down State Street.

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