This is an old piece I wrote in 2011 for my Our Lady of Discord Tumblr. I’m re-posting it because we’ve hit Parade Season in AZ: this Sunday I’m going down to Tucson for the annual All Souls Procession and then next Saturday the 14th will be the 10th Phoenix Annual Parade of the Arts! If you live in AZ and haven’t experienced either of these carnivalesque romps, you’re missing out.
“Carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectactors. In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act. Carnival is not contemplated, and, strictly speaking, not even performed; its participants live in it, they live by its laws as long as those laws are in effect; that is, they live a carnivalesque life.”
“We’re under the inverted vagina”, Mr. Frip says on his cell phone. A poet/actor friend wearing a $2 Justin Bieber wig and a white suit that makes him look a Bee-Gee, Mr. Frip is trying to explain where our group is standing in Civic Space park, waiting for the 6th Phoenix Annual Parade Of The Arts to start. The vagina in question is Janet Echelman’s “Her Secret Is Patience”, a sculpture of painted galvanized steel, polyester twine netting & colored lights that hangs above Civic Space park and looks like a jellyfish uterus. “Her Secret Is Patience” is an enduring mystery: just staring at it for more than a minute provokes the question “why did the city pay to put a giant’s diaphragm up in the sky?” For a country as relentlessly sex-negative as the U.S. is, its refreshing to see that Arizona is on the avant-garde edge of birth control, making sure that should giants in their cloud castles decide to get down, they got their contraceptive needs taken care of.
Not even 15 minutes after our carpool arrives in Tucson and finds a parking spot, one of the members of our party has drunkenly ran off, been retrieved, and takes a long piss on the front-yard of a stranger’s house as we gather our supplies on the sidewalk. The sun is setting and folks walk past, their faces painted as skulls, wielding LED umbrellas and canes. Skull face-painted Enki, the very young son of Michael and Joanna 23, our carpool’s organizers, totters over to our associate pissing on the gravel and says “you shouldn’t do that”. I never thought I’d live to see a grown man getting admonished by a child in the midst of taking a piss. The moment was so hilarious I feared, as I roared with laughter, that like Cartman in that one episode of “South Park” I would blow a fuse in my brain and find nothing else to be funny ever again. In retrospect, if that one moment had completely destroyed my capacity to find anything funny ever again, it would have been worth it.
This is the 3rd P.A.P.A I’ve participated in, and the first in which I’ve gone out in make-up. I ended up marching in the parade with friends involved in a local performance art group, The Arcana Collective, that I occasionally perform with. We have a theater show, the Arcana Cabaret, to do later in the evening, so the costuming and makeup we put on now will stay on us til the midnight hour when the Cabaret wraps up. Collective ringleader Ernesto Moncada paints our faces into skulls; some random dudes notice the face-painting and pester him into doing them too, not taking the hint that this was a theater thing and Ernesto wasn’t about to waste his dwindling supply of white face paint on some random dudes. The plan for the parade is for us to carry a very long paper banner with the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl drawn on it, while also carrying large foam letters around that we would randomly reconfigure to form words. This part of the plan didn’t quite work out, considering that the only letters we had to play with was a C, a D, 2 As & 3 Es. Surrounding us on the park (whose grass is cordoned off with tape, as though winter-grass was such a fragile and precious commodity the city couldn’t bare the thought of revelers shattering that tiny civic ecosystem with their smelly feet) are stilt-walkers, folks wheeling up their floats (one gentleman is sitting astride a float that looks like a mobile cannon from a “Mad Max” film), kids, marching bands, folks in duck suits and a tap-dancing troupe wearing red flapper clothes and skull face-paint. They have the greatest name in the history of ensembles, Tap That Ass, and will be performing in Ernesto’s Cabaret show later in the night. The parade was supposed to start at 6; I think it finally started rolling out around 6:40. For once living on Artist Time worked to our advantage: the half hour delay gave us enough time to finish applying our makeup.
This is the 2nd All Souls Procession I’ve been to. Like last year, I march out with no costume or face-paint, stunned by the massive scale of the event. The streets of downtown Tucson are packed shoulder to shoulder with revelers. Steampunks, couples dressed in bride and groom wear with giant paper mache skull heads, at least half a dozen different marching bands, bagpipe players, folks dressed up as ninja turtles, other folks dressed up as giraffes, grim reapers, the sheer spectacle of being surrounded by the towering floats and people dressed to the nines as mourners or as celebrants of their own strangeness blows my mind. It’s the sort of event that makes you wonder why life isn’t like this ALL THE TIME, makes you wonder what sinister forces are at work to drain our lives of the kind of vitality that flows so freely and generously on a night like this. And speaking of flows: as the parade nears its end point, a few of us break off to a nearby Circle K for a bathroom break. The line to use the restroom is so long Circle K employees have to step in and redirect foot traffic around the line. A grim reaper strolls into the Circle K, one blackened eye gazing at the donuts, intoning in a dark voice: “Death has come to the Circle K!” before shambling off towards the beer. It turns out that not even Death can resist the lure of a cheap tallboy.
It’s unfair to compare the size of the two parades. The All Souls Procession could swallow up at least 2 or 3 parades the size of the 6th P.A.P.A. and still have room left over for more to march. It’s unfair because the Procession has had over 2 decades to build up the infrastructure and the local following to flourish to the degree it has. Part of the joy of P.A.P.A. is marching and dancing past local businesses and banks and seeing folks on the sidewalk, watching mouth agog, having absolutely no context for what had erupted in front of them and was drifting away. Later in the evening, riding the lightrail in downtown and still wearing Arcana makeup that made me look like a Juggalo, I had people ask me why I looked the way I did. When I told them about the parade, the look of surprise on their face shocked me. It made me wonder if ANYONE in Tucson could be as ignorant of the existence of the Procession as folks in Phoenix are of P.A.P.A. It made me feel sad for those surprised folks on the lightrail, missing out on a fun night. A night of possibilities; no matter the occasion, there’s something liberating and subversive about people walking down the middle of streets meant for cars, for just once putting the cops into the position of having to actually serve our needs, having to sculpt and remake the city, pinching the arteries of traffic, just to accommodate our presence.
We stood in a field surrounded by people, a field whose mood and appearance prompted one of my Phoenician companions to describe it as “a mini-Burning Man”. A crane hoisted up a large urn that was almost the size of a car, an urn filled with people’s prayers and wishes and remembrances. The performance group Flam Chen did an aerial performance, spinning over the crowd at bone-shattering heights clinging to silk ropes. One of them dropped a handful of dust into the urn, igniting it and reducing it into a charred and blackened husk. As the crowd disperses, we Phoenicians begin the second Procession of the night: the hunt for a decent afterparty. My mind is haunted by the images of dog coffins that I saw being carried during the procession, small black boxes with flowers strewn on the lids with signs affixed to them that say “Mistaken For A Coyote” and “Shot By Accident”. It makes me think of a man I saw at last year’s Procession, who marched through Tucson with a plaque that had his dead, rotting cat affixed to it. I couldn’t then and can’t imagine now the level of grief someone must feel to do a thing like that, to openly carry the corpse of one’s love in the company of strangers. This is what the afterparties are for: for drinking, for dancing, for chasing away the ghosts of the dead that marched alongside, us whose bony shoulders brushed ours through the thin membrane between the worlds. A membrane that felt paper thin and cracking open on a night like this.
Quetzalcoatl lasted longer than any of us thought. My guess is carrying that paper snake, twisting and turning throughout the parade, would have lasted about 5 minutes before someone stepped through it or it would be torn in half by the many silver waist-high poles jutting up from the sidewalk on our march. It lasted for almost the entire parade, not getting the King Solomon treatment until the last 5 minutes, as we rounded the bend and the parade headed back to the park. I don’t think anybody walked through it, either; it was probably a stray foot stamping on the bottom of the banner that finally tore it apart. The best part about carrying the banner was that it was a source of unlikely music: the crinkling of the paper as the group of us grabbed at it and tugged back and forth on it sounded lightly percussive, like we were playing sandpaper tambourines. With the parade over, I drifted off to watch my friend Shawna Franks tell improvised monologues at the Torch Theatre, riding the lightrail in my skull makeup, trying to look grim and serious as kids riding across from me were cracking up laughing at the sight of my black eye sockets and drawn on skull teeth across my lips.
One of our party members (to borrow D&D terminology), Hans, used to live in Tucson. Hans seems to know everybody, and has become our guide, our spirit animal, the Johnny-On-The-Spot with the afterparty suggestions. After stocking up on beer and walking on the side of freeway on-ramps and down past run-down Tucson neighborhoods where dogs never stop barking, we find the Dry River benefit show being held at The Boxing Gym. Another member of our group, Haley, bought a frozen pizza when we got our beer. At the time, it seemed like madness: where on Earth would she cook the thing before it thawed out and became inedible? The first thing that happens when we arrive in the house venue is that Haley heads straight to the kitchen and cooks the pizza, which makes her look clairvoyant, as though she knew we would end up somewhere where strangers wouldn’t give a shit that random Phoenicians are using their ovens. We dance to some amazing Latin music being played by the band in the house. I say Latin cause I’m not sure if it was cumbia or samba music, and I was too embarassed to admit to my white-ness by asking anyone else what kind of music it was. Not just white-ness: how could I live on the border of Mexico, so close to Central and South America for 28 years, and not know what the difference was between cumbia and samba music? Better to button my lip and dance.
Make-up remover wipes are a godsend. In less than 4 minutes, I’ve got my face back, excavated from beneath a layer of clown-white and inky-black brush strokes. I can touch my nose again without fearing of smudging the makeup. It’s close to midnight. The parade has ended hours ago, and our cabaret show ended 20 minutes ago. We drift towards FilmBar to drink, and to be filmed: the theater that night is hosting “Staring At Andy”, a video series where Bryn Corbett films people for 2 minutes staring into a camera and then mines that footage and stretches out, to the point that a single blink seems to take an eternity, where a yawn can swallow up a whole minute. This is the 2nd time I’ve sat in for “Andy”; the first time was when Corbett did it at Practical Arts. The first time I sat in, I was exhausted after a night of performing. The 2nd time I sat in, at FilmBar, I was drunk and full of anger that the bartender had just accidentally gave my credit card to somebody else. I wonder what spasms of rage Corbett’s camera will catch on my face.. and to be honest, I’ve never SEEN myself angry, it will be interesting to finally see myself at my ugliest. But in spite of the lost card, the night ends on a lovely note, surrounded by fellow paraders: friends, poets, dancers, artists & actors. We watch each other’s past video portraits play out on a movie screen, for a brief moment feeling like stars in our own private universe, openly cheering when one stoic friend finally blinks after 40 seconds of staring dead center into the camera, marveling at how vulnerable or strong or dapper or foxy or mysterious the faces of the people we know really are, magnified and slowed down on a giant screen. Like we were seeing each other for the first time in the best possible light. Ah, the genius of Andy Warhol: why have a celebrity system populated by inaccessible superstars when you can create your own superstars and frolic with them in your own backyard? Who could possibly want the alternative? Only the living dead, perhaps.
We left the Boxing Gym to sit in a living room with the living dead for awhile. We headed to the house of some Burners, hoping to crash at their place, only to step into some bad vibes. Their living room is sparse, decorated with framed Egyptian prints on the wall. The wallpaper that the ancients lined their tombs with, entombed beneath glass and hanging on a wall. Our hosts seem like they’re already living in tombs. Friendly enough, but their eyes are sunken and hollow. No one has to say the word “junkie” but you can see it written in the pallor of their skin, in the heaviness of the silence that slices through the conversations. There is no party here; we have intruded on their rituals. Whether the necromancy they practice involves burning pipes or needles in veins doesn’t matter, what matters is that our presence in their house keeps them from doing it. We make our exits, driving past baffling local oddities like Walmarts with green signs instead of blue and Fry’s open 24 hours while Circle Ks lock down and listening to unfamiliar DJs bantering on the radio, until we find and end up crashing at more hospitable digs, a cozy house where we mix bubblegum vodka with cranberry juice and marvel at how it tastes like drinking liquid Bazooka Joes. In the morning we drink coffees at the Safehouse, an espresso bar that also sells cigarettes and allows indoor smoking (the thought of something like this existing in Phoenix is inconceivable). Tucson is a strange place: Hans says there’s a bar here called the Meat Rack run by a man named God, where you can get branded with an actual hot iron brand and get 50 cents off your drink for the rest of your life after doing so. I wonder if Phoenix is a better or worse place for not having a place like the Meat Rack in it.
The parade season is over, and I’m already thinking of what to wear and do next year. And I’m thinking about how the two events complement each other in a yin-yang fashion: for if the Tucson parade is a night to honor the dead, what other purpose does an art parade in Phoenix have than to honor and venerate the living? And I’m also thinking of a less cliched person to quote on the subject of parades and carnivals than Bahktin, for the next time I write about P.A.P.A. and the All Souls Procession.