I had an experience I didn’t expect this weekend.
It was a bright, sunny summer day, and my fiancee was going record shopping with some friends to commemorate the closing of several well-beloved old record stores. As you can probably guess from the banner, I decided to go to Coney Island instead.
When I got there, I saw people in colorful costumes and makeup, and I started to get worried. Then I saw the police barriers set up, and I was dismayed to realize I was right: I had arrived on the day of the Mermaid Parade.
For those who are unfamiliar (and who didn’t follow that link), the Mermaid Parade is New York City’s Mardi Gras, a celebration of the beginning of summer at Coney Island, a tradition that goes back to 1983.
I’d been to the Mermaid Parade before, once on purpose and once by accident, and resolved to never go again. Way too crowded for an introvert like myself to enjoy. But after this weekend, I may need to make it a yearly thing.
While I would still want to avoid the parade route itself, Coney Island that day was filled with the strange and beautiful creatures of New York, with their makeup, their colored hair, and their costumes. See here, here, here and (for this year’s event) here to see what I’m talking about, but be careful – those links are very NSFW. It is legal for women to go topless in public in New York, and the Mermaid Parade is one of the few times you’ll see any significant number of women actually exercise that right. Seriously, so many bare breasts in those links, you guys.
One of the Strange Beautiful Creatures you don’t see in those pictures is the Snake Guy, who was walking the boardwalk with his pet boa constrictors wrapped around his shoulders. I didn’t pet them, but others did.
I was out on the Steeplechase Pier getting ready to leave – more specifically, to head to the Violent Femmes concert in Prospect Park where I spent the evening with my fiancee and some friends – when I noticed a bit of commotion down on the beach.
I looked down, and who should I see but Dick Zigun himself, founder of the Mermaid Parade and unofficial mayor of Coney Island:
That’s when I realized I was present for the annual Opening of the Beach! This is the ceremony that marks the traditional beginning of summer at Coney Island.
I don’t know if this happens every year, but this year they had a houngan perform a blessing: there was drumming and chanting and shaking of an asson gourd rattle; rum was sprayed all around, and a tall, strong fellow placed a basket of fruit on his head and walked out into the water until the fruit floated out of the basket, which I believe is an offering to Agwe, the loa of the Sea.
I’ve written many times and in many places of the spiritual connection I feel to the waters, to Coney Island in particular. To see someone else, even from a distance, even from a tradition I don’t understand very well, recognize and honor that holiness was a powerful and moving experience.
So I think I’ll go again next year. Avoid the worst of the crowds as best I can, mingle with the strange beautiful creatures, and take a more active part in blessing the waters that have so blessed me. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday in June.