A Parade on Parade: Reporting live from Erie's oldest tradition

Category:  News & Politics
Saturday, January 7th, 2012 at 12:00 PM
A Parade on Parade: Reporting live from Erie's oldest tradition by Cory Vaillancourt
Erie Reader / Todd Scalise

In your nog-induced post-Christmas stupor, you may have missed Erie’s oldest tradition, held the day after Christmas each year since 1795. Don’t worry, I had never heard of it either.

As I sat in the Erie Reader Tower one bleary-eyed bloody-mary morning last week, I was subjected to the tyrannical Editors-in-Chief of this fine fish wrapper shouting something to the effect of, “You ought to know that if we were you, we’d get some random shots and outside voices in the fields of the bored,” which made little sense to me. They needlessly elaborated. “Once these street fashionistas train their eye on city council and get down off their street-corner soapboxes in support of the local scene behind the scene, it’s a lock to make a great movie nugget for the serial gamers on tech watch. Or, at worst, it will be a great visual experience.” Clearly, these men are insane.

Although I realized I would be stuporous from nog, I foolishly agreed to cover this massive holiday event for the Erie Reader, not fully realizing that it involved standing outside. In the cold. From just before sunrise to just before sunset. On the day after Christmas.

By the look on your face, I can tell that you are unfamiliar with this holiday parade, even though you are probably one of those people who’s always spouting off about how you’re proud to have lived here all your life; or, you are prouder still, spouting off about how you’ve been to the big city and chose to return to the land of your forefathers, disenchanted, because New York and New Orleans and New Mexico and New Delhi and New Anywhere is too bustling, too balkanized, too backstabbing, too barbarized, and too boring.

But even I, as a lowly “foreigner” with roots in the west and a heart in the south, learned quite early on that cold, windy December morning that if there is one thing the Gem City loves to do, it is hate itself – which is the essence of the 2011 “Erie Parade of Horribles.” Although similar parades have been taking place in New England for almost two centuries, Erie can lay claim to the first ever Parade of Horribles, occurring so early in infant Erie’s life that it predates the city’s birth by almost 60 years; indeed, Parade Street derives its name from this ancient Erie tradition. The parade started at the urging of Erie’s first settler, Colonel Seth Reed, who organized Erie’s well-to-do in a “parade about the Garrison whilst attir’d gaily, for the Amuse-ment of Erie’s orphans, worker-men, indians, females, coloreds, poofters, chamber-maids, and Divers other of almighty God’s lesser Creations.”

Almost every leading resident of Erie has participated in the Parade of Horribles at some point over the centuries. Even Horace Greeley, former State Street resident, spoke fondly of fair Erie when he said, “May grass grow in her streets.” Greely, in addition to becoming the esteemed editor of The New York Tribune, was also a visionary proto-environmentalist who advocated turning all of Erie’s downtown streets into green pedestrian malls. Oh wait, that’s not right –his real quote was, “Let Erie be avoided by all travelers until grass shall grow in her streets, and till her pie-men in despair shall move away to some other city.” Greeley served as Grand Marshall of the parade in 1872.

Much has changed since that epic day of December 26, 1795, and unlike Erie itself, the Erie Parade of Horribles has evolved to be less racist, sexist, classist, and elitist over the past 216 years. The parade has also evolved from a gay stroll of rich old white men taunting the other 99% of us and instead has become a literal parade of the most horrible things about the preceding year, compete with floats, balloons, and bands.

Almost 140 years later, I follow the footsteps of generations of Erieites and stand on the shoulders of giants, like Newton only smarter, as I cover this event. Accordingly, I thought it best to present to you, dear Reader reader, my upfront, unsubstantiated generalizations about the 2011 Erie Parade of Horribles in their unadulterated, unaltered form: my field notes from the parade. Below are these notes, in chronological order.

Editor’s Note: While given plenty of time to finish this assignment, which included crafting a well-thought out 500-word narrative of one of Erie's most popular parades, Mr. Vaillancourt faxed the following hand-written, liquor-stained, barely-legible notes to our office in the Erie Reader Tower in the heart of beautiful downtown Erie seven days after deadline, thus forcing us to run his observations, thoughts, and notes un-edited—aside from redacting a few words here and there. We hope we didn't make a mistake.

5:02 AM – Cold. So. Cold. Want. Bed. This better be good. It’s pitch dark out here. Normally I haven’t even gone to bed by this time. They’re just getting started, with their tattered pageantry. Must. Finish. Article. Quickly. Must start article first. Must stop writing like this. Must write things that are usable. Must acquire parade guide to plagiarize from.

5:49 AM – As the dark night begrudgingly gave way to a slightly lighter shade of black, a mile-long column of participants in Erie’s 216th annual “Parade of Horribles” began assembling on Wallace Street. Elaborately constructed floats awkwardly aligned near the head of the line, on East Second Street, and huge hot-air balloons brought up the rear all the way down Wallace near 12th Street. As dawn broke in earnest, this serpentine procession snaked its way from Second onto Parade Street, slithering south.

6:37 AM – Floats flanked by feet; marching bands on foot sandwich floats, with floating, flying flair in the atmosphere – huge, comically oversized balloons – bringing up the rear of this extraordinary column; you can see them near the end of the line, over a mile away, like pigs on the wing.

6:48 AM – Rio de Janeiro has nothing on Erie today.  Men and women in costumery that costs more than my truck are walking down the street, on stilts, hula-hooping as they stride to their appointed slot in the elaborate pecking order that is the Erie Parade of Horribles. One of them stops, stoops, and asks me why I don’t have a drink.

“Coffee,” I tell him. “Finished it on my way over here.”

He laughs a Louie Armstrong laugh, and transmits from his half-black, half-white painted face an equally unique Caribbean twang. “Nah mayun, a drank!”

“Wait, what?” I say, incredulously.

From beneath his golden cloak, he hands me a plastic cup half-filled with some sort of personal potion poured from an ornately decorated pig’s bladder hip flask.

“A drank. Hahahahahahahahahahahahah!”

Apparently, this is an open container event.

7:37 AM – The first of the floats is finally here. And dangit, this mystery brew the nice 10-foot-tall man in the golden cloak and voodoo jewelry gave me sure is good. I hope he passes this way again.

8:10 AM – The parade finally begins with an army of young college graduates heading up the column. In skinny jeans and hipster specs, wearing only T-shirts with ironic slogans, they march lockstep, following, mimicking precisely the actions of every other member of their class. The ones at the front of the formation carry a banner that reads: “Brain Drain.” I’m not really that smart, so I don’t understand what that means. But they march on. And on. And on…they were supposed to head south on Parade Street after rounding Second Street, but they missed that turn. They just keep heading west. Towards Cleveland. Not a good start to the parade.

8:59 AM – The guide to the parade says the Barry Grossman Erie Community College float is supposed to be next, but I don’t see it. Maybe those kids that missed their turn will find it on their way to Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Buffalo or wherever it is they’re going.

9:28 AM – The next float is flanked by what must be a few thousand Erie County residents. It’s hard to even see the float, buried in this crowd of people who have nothing better to do today except walk down the icy streets for 10 hours. Ah, I see it now – it’s the Erie County unemployment float. Well, that explains that.

10:20 AM – The first balloon of the parade appears. It is a huge, pale, unidentifiable white blob, and it doesn’t seem to be as high in the air as it should be; it’s scraping the tops of trees, streetlights, and building rooftops as it slowly releases a cloud of fluorescent orange dust…what is this stuff? It tastes like…Doritos? The parade guide says this balloon represents the obesity epidemic in America, an epidemic that has obviously not spared Erie. 

10:49 AM – A hail of gunfire precedes the next balloon, which is now deflated and being dragged on the ground. Appropriately, this balloon represents the gun crime spree that plagued Erie over the summer. More than 50 people caught lead this past year, at least four times the usual number. I wonder if any of the previous parade entries had anything to do with this? Possibly, although I attribute it to either better marksmen, better marksmanship, or slower, fatter targets.

11:18 AM – I’m loving this drinky-drink! And, I can say without exaggeration that I will attend this event every single year forever and ever. Nearly Erie’s last call on the dwindling year, it is always a marketplace, or rather a showcase of the worst of Erie, the times, and the news of the passing year; a gazette of the awful, the last word on the solar cycle. I’m so glad I came; I’m having a great time, even though my cup is almost empty.

11:49 AM – Thank goodness that stilt-walker man is still around! He produces an overflowing stein and hands it to me. A few more floats and some marching bands come by, but I’m having trouble paying attention.

12:10 PM – Next up is a procession honoring a painting. "Summer Afternoon, Isle of Shoals" by American impressionist Childe Hassam is on loan to the Erie Parade of Horribles from the Blasco Library, and is being carried on a pedestal by Howie Mandel; 40 female models in white miniskirts bearing numbered silver briefcases follow him. Weird. I think this jungle juice may be clouding my perceptions; I’m starting to feel a little, well, “altered.”

12:35 PM – This next float is a little strange. It looks like they didn’t have the money to finish it because it’s half-bare. Oh, that’s right, the city of Erie shamefully possesses a 15.1 percent poverty rate, almost double the national average…this must be their shabby entry in the parade. These floats just get more and more depressing as this parade wears on. I’d better slam the rest of my drink.

12:56 PM – Here comes the voodoo stilt walker man again. That’s bizarre, I don’t remember him having horns. Pleasant Ridge Manor’s balloon is next. It is decrepit, coming apart at the seams, held together with duct-tape and what appears to be denture adhesive. It also seems to be leaking cash. They need a new balloon…fixing this one doesn’t seem to be a good idea…or they need to sell it to a private investor and get it out of this parade altogether.

1:29 PM – The official parade guide says a float for Rosa’s Legacy, a restaurant on Brown Avenue, is next. Oh wait, it’s not here either. Some [REDACTED] robbed the restaurant and the owners threw up their hands in frustration and closed their doors forever. Can’t say I blame them. Thanks a lot [REDACTED]. It was good.

2:10 PM –  The tires-for-energy plant, or as I like to call it – the cancer-for-everybody plant was scheduled to appear next, but the program says this float is scheduled for the Crawford County Parade of Horribles instead. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

2:48 PM – [ILLEGIBLE] Next comes a giant balloon, courtesy of Pennsylvania’s energy lobbyists. It looks like “Rich Uncle Pennybags” from Monopoly, except he’s trickling greenish fracking fluid all over the jubilant crowd. They tell us it’s safe, which is good, because some of it landed in my cup of magical mystery voodoo brew. It tastes, ummm, frackalicious. It’s full-bodied but not overpowering, with notes of arsenic and lead on the nose, copper and strontium on the back end…It’s obviously been a very good year for these fracking [REDACTED].

3:15 PM – Some [REDACTED] guy is walking down [REDACTED] Parade Street selling pie. And I hear music. [REDACTED] awful music. Live music, but awful music. It must be coming from somewhere down near the end. Does that mean the end is near? And here comes another float. There’s a college football coach perched atop, offering to teach young boys wrestling moves. In the shower. Sounds legit.

4:01 PM – Nearly finished; just a few more entries to go. The float bearing the Grand Marshall is about to make its long-awaited appearance, sponsored by Samsonite. It looks like a [ILLEGIBLE]. I mean, it’s just a float, with nothing on it. Wait, there is something on it, some small, black square-ish thingy. Is it…It is…Oh God.

[REDACTED] suitcase baby [ILLEGIBLE] are you serious? Are you [REDACTED] serious?!

What the [REDACTED] have we come to as a society when some [REDACTED] piece of [REDACTED] leaves a baby to starve, and puts it in a [REDACTED] suitcase on the curb, like common [REDACTED] trash? What the [REDACTED] have we become? Any [REDACTED] society is measured not by its great works, but its small works; not by creation but by compassion; not by how it treats its greatest persons, but by how it treats the least of its persons: the infirm, the elderly, the young, the disadvantaged. What kind of world do we bequeath to those who walk behind us when the evil, the sadness, the sickness in every [REDACTED] one of us festers, and oozes, and infects the rest of our society? Our [REDACTED] society that could allow such a thing to happen to a [REDACTED] innocent [REDACTED] blameless [REDACTED] precious child? [REDACTED]! No [REDACTED] Community College, a wild-west gun crime spree, [REDACTED] brain drain, double the national poverty rate, ridiculous [REDACTED] unemployment…put that on your [REDACTED] marketing materials, Erie Chamber of Commerce!

[REDACTED] this [ILLEGIBLE] parade! I’m never coming to this stupid [REDACTED] thing again. I can’t wait for the last [REDACTED] float to arrive. [ILLEGIBLE]. [REDACTED] editors!

4:20 PM – [ILLEGIBLE] Last float…finally here…[ILLEGIBLE] [REDACTED] Kansas? The band Kansas? [REDACTED] Kansas?! [REDACTED] Kansas! Dust in the Wind. [REDACTED] Dust in the [REDACTED] Wind! [REDACTED]! [REDACTED]!!

4:50 PM – The parade is over, but I’d love a [ILLEGIBLE] refill. I don’t see that strange voodoo man anywhere though.

4:59 PM – As I stumble back to my vehicle, cup almost empty, I am approached by one of Erie’s fine motorcycle cops.

“I hope there’s no alcohol in that cup, boy,” he says, rocking back onto the heels of his jack-boots.

“What, oh, this? I thought this was an open-container event. One of those 10-foot tall stilt-walker voodoo guys from the parade has been refilling me all afternoon!”

“There were no stilt-walkers in the Parade of Horribles. And this is not an open container event.”

Related: Upfront: Looking back at 2011

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