New York is a city of superlatives: We have the tallest apartment building in the Western hemisphere (104 stories); the most professional sports teams of any U.S. city (8); more people than any other metropolitan area in the country (8.25 million); more billionaires than anywhere else in the world (103); and our restaurants have earned more Michelin stars than any other city in the country (85). (We also have more 2 a.m. traffic jams, adults dressed as Elmo, dirty-water-dogs, and overflowing trash cans than any other city, but this list can only be so long.)
And, of course, we have what is surely the biggest parade in the world: The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, watched by 3.5 million spectators along the 3-mile route and another 50 million people at home. Over 8,000 volunteers participate in the parade itself, along with countless more behind the scenes. Then there are the Macy's employees, including painters, carpenters, sculptors, welders, and engineers, who handle everything from dreaming up the fanciful costumes to designing and building the dozens of floats, balloons, and props. All in all, close to 10,000 people participate in the parade, and each and every one of them shows up no matter what, since the parade takes place no matter what. Raining, snowing, sleeting, freezing? Throw on an extra-thick trash bag and some hip waders; the show must go on.
Which explains why, even though my weatherproof husband has been participating in the parade for over a dozen years, I have steadfastly declined to join him. I don't do the parade for the same reason that I don't ski, camp, hike, or leave the house without a snowsuit from November through March: I hate being cold.
Plus, I was harboring the most un-American of secrets: I don't like parades. I don't like the banners. I don't like the marching bands. I don't like the announcers, all smug and cozy in their press box while everyone else freezes their extremities off. And I really don't like clowns. Throw in that draconian all-weather policy, and you can see why I'd choose to cheer Angel on from the comfort of my living room with a hot toddy in hand.
But over the course of 13 years, Angel has worked his way up from balloon handler to head pilot ("One of only 16 large-balloon pilots in the WORLD!" he likes to remind me). And every year more and more friends and family -- including one friend who drives through the night from Portland, Maine to arrive on time -- get involved with the parade, and then sign up to do it again the following year.
Now, Angel is a naturally charismatic leader, but he's no Jim Jones. And so, as more and more people I knew drank the Kool-Aid and became parade converts, I knew there had to be something to this thing.
I mean, who foregoes a few extra hours of sleep in a nice, warm bed for a 5a.m. wake-up call and hours standing around in the cold, rain, snow, or a hellish combination thereof?
Worn down by everyone from my husband to my sister-in-law to one of my best friends, I finally decided that 2014 would be my year. I'd set my alarm for 5 a.m., trudge to 34th Street before dawn in order to suit up, then board the bus to Central Park & 81st, where I'd wait, and then wait some more, for the parade to finally get under way.
But first I had to survive basic training.
Training for balloon handlers begins in early fall in a parking lot at MetLife stadium in New Jersey, which is bad enough right there. Throw in chilly temps and the threat of rain, and I was already starting to rethink my decision.
Around and around and around we went, learning to handle curves and corners and to operate the "bone," a plastic spool that the rope attached to the balloon is wound around, allowing the handlers below to raise and lower the balloon as needed. In light winds, the balloons can fly higher; in high winds, and at intersections where Manhattan's canyons of buildings create powerful cross-winds, the balloons must fly a little lower.
Afterwards, each balloon is deflated much as you might expect: After running around in circles in a parking lot for a few hours, we all collapse on top of it. But not before inhaling a little helium on the sly.
The balloons are then rolled, jelly-roll-style, back into their crates to await the big day.
Although Sixth Avenue (which comprises the bulk of the parade route) is six lanes across, the large balloons, plus the 60 to 90 handlers and two anchor vehicles under each one, take up the bulk of those lanes. Angel's job is to manage his team of handlers to ensure that the balloon is flying straight -- not too close to any trees, lightposts, flagpoles, spectators, or other obstacles along the route -- and to ensure, through constant communication with NYPD, that its height is appropriate for the day's winds.
And, as he will not miss an opportunity to remind us weaklings who have the luxury of walking forward, the only way to do all that is by getting far out ahead of the balloon as it makes its way down the avenue and, in order to keep an eye on it at all times, walking the entire 3-mile route backwards.
In the weeks leading up to the parade, I began praying nightly. I knew better than to ask for good weather, so instead I just begged for not-hellish weather. I laid out a series of negotiations in my nightly chats with the big guy, noting that I'd take snow over rain, chilly over windy, cloudy and warm over sunny but cold. I slept with Angel's photos of past parades, with their vibrant blue skies and light winds, under my pillow.
As it turns out, however, the Wrath of God is real, and my years of behaving like a heathen came back to bite me: It was cloudy, cold, and drizzly, with a few snow flurries thrown in for good measure.
The day begins at 5 a.m. in the basement of the New Yorker Hotel near Macy's on 34th Street, where participants gather to don their costumes, guzzle some coffee, and shake each other awake.
For those of us handling the balloons, those costumes consist of a pair of overalls, a bib, and, thankfully, a warm hat and gloves.
Everyone is then bussed to the parade lineup, which begins uptown near Central Park.
To start the parade, the balloons line up along 77th and 81st Streets, while the floats, marching bands, dancers, and other entertainment line up along Central Park West. Once the parade kicks off, the two merge at Central Park West and 77th, resulting in an assorted lineup of floats, balloons, and bands.
The balloons are kept low to the ground under their nets until launch time, when the parade announcer calls out over the loudspeaker for the balloon to "Join the Parade!"
Angel has piloted various balloons over the years, from Big Bird and Kermit the Frog to the Pillsbury Doughboy and Pikachu. This year it was Papa Smurf. Do you know how many people know and love Papa Smurf, who will chant his name ("When I say Papa, you say SMURF!") and even paint themselves blue in his honor?
Approximately 3.5 million.
And that was the point at which I took a big ol' glug of the Kool-Aid. Because as much as I wanted to complain about being cold and wet, it finally dawned on me that those 3.5 million spectators were cold and wet too, yet they'd gotten up just as early as we had to stake out their spot on the sidewalk, and then they waited hours . . . just to see us. The parade brought together folks of every race, color, and creed, both young and old, and each and every one of them smiled and clapped and chanted for each and every float, balloon, dance troupe, and band that passed by.
They crammed into windows and onto balconies. They used their gym memberships to get a bird's eye view. They crowded onto church steps and into delis and 24-hour pharmacies and stood hundreds deep at every intersection.
They screamed themselves hoarse to wish us a Happy Thanksgiving, and it was all so overwhelming that the Grinch who hates parades found that her small heart grew three sizes that day.
As we neared the end of the parade route, I spied one little girl, whose face lit up as she tilted it skyward to take in the immensity of Papa Smurf. Then she caught my eye and called, "I love you, Papa Smurf! Don't forget me!!!"
As if I ever could.
Look for Angel in this year's parade! He'll be piloting the Diary of a Wimpy Kid balloon . . . backwards.