Seattle solstice parade
Saturday, June 20 2009
setting: Roosevelt Neighborhood, Seattle, Washington
Unlike some non-coffee-drinkers we've visited, Mary and Keith (they live together) are considerate enough to keep coffee on hand for guests. The trouble this morning was finding the filters, but eventually I had my first cup of the day, my first cup in Seattle, although the grounds were old and had lost key notes of their flavor (something only a coffee snob would have been able to recognize, though I'm an unintentional coffee snob).
The plan for today was to go into Fremont to see a Summer Solstice Parade. In Fremont, Mary assured us, we would see Seattle in all its wacky off-beat glory.
Keith drove us to the vicinity of the parade in his bio-diesel-powered VW Golf (he has one too). He dropped us off next to Mary's old house near the corner of Latona Avenue and NE 40th Street. From there we walked along the Lake Union waterfront on a bicycle/pedestrian path, eventually passing through Gas Works Park, a grassy southward-pointing cape on the lake. The park surrounds the ruins of massive rusting Industrial Age equipment, remnants of a coal gasification plant. According to Mary, the site is considered irredeemably polluted and visitors are discouraged from eating any berries they might encounter. As we passed through, swallows swooped in close around us catching insects we'd scared up from the grass. On a knoll above the lake, children flew kites.
West of Gas Works Park, people kept asking us if things had started up yet in the park. We told them things were still getting ready because that's how it had looked. (For example, though it was 10:30AM here and five o'clock somewhere, the "beer garden" had still been closed.)
At a intersection crowded with spectators, we heard a commotion and turned to see two naked gentlemen on bicycles. They were riding off toward the start of the parade, which I didn't yet know they were in the process of joining. My first impression was that they were simply rogue celebrants.
Eventually we found a place among the spectators at the corner of Phinney Avenue and North 36th Street. There was a chainlink fence here (see this Google Street View link), atop of which we could climb and uncomfortably sit.
The parade was led by naked people on bicycles. They came in waves. At first it was a little shocking to see such casual nudity in public, but (as with all forms of human exposure), it quickly transitioned to familiar and then commonplace. Most of these cyclists had painted their bodies and so didn't "read" as completely naked. Indeed, some of the cyclists had painted virtual clothing onto their skin, imitating, for example, the detailed cartesian pattern of plaid or the seams of pants. Aside for the few women who had hidden pairs of actual shorts in the patterns of their body paint, the cyclists were all still completely naked and penises and boobs are rarely so apparent through actual clothing. I'd have to say that this was not the most favorable medium for the presentation of penises, which all appeared to have shrunken in the refrigerator of public spectacle to the size of thimbles. As for pubic hair, there are probably better ways to showcase it than to frost it with paint.
After about a half hour we grew tired of sitting on the chainlink fence, so we bypassed the parade and found our way to vegetarian restaurant called Silence-Heart-Nest. It's run by a Hindu spirtual community whose guru is gentleman named Sri Chinmoy. The staff appeared to be almost entirely white women dressed in pastel blue Indian sarongs. While we waited for our food, the parade was still happening outside. But when Gretchen did as the staff was doing, that is, standing on the window sill (which was low and wide) so as to see over the crowd outside, she was told that she had to get down.
I ordered some sort of veggie burger, but unfortunately it didn't come with French fries. French fries are a simple, delicious form of vegan food, yet all too often restaurants consider them too downscale for the fancy customers they hope to attract. This was how yam fries came to be. I hate yam fries. Silence-Heart-Nest doesn't have yam fries, thankfully, and their home fries are actually pretty good. But they're not French fries.
As we headed home, we passed a large and completely unexpected statue of Vladimir Lenin, which was actually a little more shocking than the naked cyclists had been (even this many years out from the Cold War).
The Solstice Parade had ended in Gas Works park, and now the naked cyclists were milling around with spectators. Things were being sold and people were smoking pot, although all the alcohol consumption had been ghettoized to the confines of the fenced-in beer garden.
Eventually we caught a bus back to Mary's place, and two doors down from her house on the walk from the bus stop, a partially-tribally tattooed gentleman came off a porch and struck up a conversation. He was unusually friendly, even given the fact that there were two ladies in his audience. I asked him a few questions and he said he was an electrician at the nearby Boeing Plant and that work was good despite the economy. Eventually, after one of us referenced the Solstice Parade beer garden, it came out that his house is a group home for men trying to kick various addictions. Mary had been wondering what the story was with ten youngish guys living together in a big house but somehow not causing noise complaints.
Tonight Keith would be performing his one-man show entitled Muffin Face in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, but before that Mary, Gretchen and I went out for dinner in a neighborhood called Madison Park, eating at an upscale vegetarian restaurant called Café Flora. The notion of French fries is definitely gauche in a place like this, but there was no way I was getting the yam fries. Instead I got two starters and a beer. The coconut tofu balls were delicious if a little weird, especially after the waitress suggested that I wrap them in leaves of lettuce that had been supplied with them. There was a dipping sauce that was watery and sweet, though of course I would have preferred soupy and peppery, which actually would have worked with the gluten-free coconut breading.
At the venue for Keith's performance of Muffin Face," Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cost only $2 per can. This was the first real evidence I had of Seattle's penchant for things deliberately down-market. After a little pre-show standing around and talking in the bar area (where I felt out of place, since everyone seemed to have someone to talk to except me), we filed into the room where the show would begin and took the seats that had been pre-assigned. Some sat at a table in the center of the room, others at chairs around the edge.
Suddenly the lights went out and a sharply-dressed Keith appeared sequentially in all four corners of the room, illuminated briefly as he said "This is Muffin Face!" over a dramatic chord of symphonic sound effect.
But this wasn't Muffin Face, this was actually, we were told, the pre-Muffin-Face show (a slide on the Power Point presentation projected on the back screen was immediately corrected with the addition of the prefix "Pre-").
The show opened up into a quirky post-modern, self-referential, 4th-wall-warping mix of gags and visual red herrings beginning with a standing ovation for the show we were promised. Next came the selection (and unanimous agreement upon) an audience representative to guard our interests as an audience.
In this post-Borat world, I tend to be comically-suspicious, so I naturally assumed the audience representative was a plant. I also assumed that when Keith kept interrupting the show to flirt with a young woman in the audience, she was also a plant. But later I learned that these were not plants and that much of the dialogue here had been improvised.
Every now and then Keith would load bread into a vintage toaster, replacing bread that had already been toasted. The toast gradually accumulated in two piles on a table.
There was much meta-show banter, including the addressing of various "elephants in the room" such as the fact that the audience existed as two groups. We were given many generic and non-generic metaphors for Muffin Face and even shown video clips of people saying how their lives had been changed by Muffin Face. We were also promised that our lives would also be changed. But what of the substance of Muffin Face itself? It seemed increasingly like the nature of matter itself. The closer you look at it, the more you divide it up (presuming you can) the more you find that it is just empty space.
[Later on in this vacation I would do some pop-philosophical reading on Zen Buddhism, which has always frustrated me for its lack of essential substance reachable through intellectual pursuit. These readings would help me realize that this lack is precisely the point of Zen Buddhism, and it was apparently also was the point of Muffin Face. I didn't know it at the time, but Keith is something of a practicing Buddhist and might well have designed Muffin Face as an allegory.]
I won't spoil the fun with how it all ended. Suffice it to say, it was an entertainingly weird show, and Keith showed himself to be a masterful and hilarious showman.
After the show, there was a stack of toast out in the bar area, and once more people could belly up and order drinks. Five or six members of Keith's extended family had been at the show, and (after an initial feeling of social awkwardness) I found myself sitting at a table talking with some of them. Keith's brother is a user interface designer for a company that does contract work for Microsoft (a local employer), and I got to talking tech with him while his wacky aunt and cousin looked on with unexpected interest. Somehow I found myself providing, in layman's terms, a metaphor-heavy account of the sort of programming work I do. The conversation drifted from there to the topic of karaoke and the difference between left brain and right brain thinking, particularly as it relates to articulating ideas. At some point Gretchen looked up from her table (which was different from mine) and realized her introverted husband was being the most social person in the room. It's something that can happen, she later noted, when we separate in a social situation.
On the way back to Mary's place, Gretchen had Mary go a little out of her way so we could see the guys milling around the gay bars of Capitol Hill. Unlike a real city, everything in Seattle closes at 9pm, but this isn't true of Capitol Hill. The fashion among gay men in Capitol Hill these days is the completely shaved (perhaps even waxed!) head. This gave a strangely futurism-by-way-of-fascism appearance to the Saturday night sidewalk spectacle as we cruised past.
Gas Works Park on a point in Lake Union, Seattle. Click to enlarge.
Waiting for the parade in Lake Union, Seattle.
Waiting for the parade in Lake Union, Seattle. Click to enlarge.
The Fremont Troll. (Also see the Google Maps version!). Fremont is a neighborhood in west-central Seattle.
Naked cyclists in the Solstice Parade.
People watching the parade in Fremont.
Mary Purdy (in brown on pole) with random onlookers at the Solstice Parade in Fremont.
Orange float in the Solstice Parade in Fremont.
Vintage dresses made of folded paper in the Solstice Parade in Fremont.
A naked (if painted) cyclist talks with a Seattle policeman.
Back in Gas Works Park.
The old rusty machinery towers over people in Gas Works Park.
Looking toward downtown Seattle from the corner of Latona Avenue and NE 40th Street.
Pole hardware near that same corner (See the Google maps version...)
A fire hydrant near that same corner. (See the Google Maps version...)
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