By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
“Yay, kitty cat!” the little girl in front of us yelled. The woman in the parade stopped and smiled. She was wearing a brown fur costume—perhaps too warm for this sunny June day—and a button nose. Whiskers striped her cheeks.
“She’s a friendly sea lion,” another woman said. Of course! The friendly sea lion danced over to the line of kids. “Would you like to pet my flippers?” she asked.
Shyly, the kids did. Then they went back to shouting at the weird, wacky, and wonderful array of costumed creatures before us: “Yay bunny rabbit!” “Yay green lady!” “Yay guy on stilts!”
We were at the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, an annual festival celebrating Coney Island (“America’s Playground”)—and more generally, celebrating Brooklyn, New York City, sunshine and summer, the ocean, gays, straights, recovery from Sandy, families, friends, and fun.
It almost didn’t happen this year. Hurricane Sandy devastated Coney Island, and the not-for-profit that has run the parade since 1983, Coney Island USA, was over $100,000 in the hole. The nonprofit used to get most of the funds to put on the parade from its museum and performance studio, which was demolished by Sandy.
In a last-ditch attempt to keep the parade going, Coney Island USA launched a Kickstarter campaign—which netted over $117,000. Enough to keep the show going on.
And enough to generate a wonderful sense of celebration. Coney Island is back, bigger, better, wackier, and wilder than ever. This year’s parade really spotlighted the reinvention of Coney Island from nostalgic landmark to au-courant hotspot—perfectly blending the traditional and the cutting edge. (Exhibit A: The only float sponsored by a national brand was sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon—the lowbrow canned brew favored by Brooklyn hipsters everywhere. Go figure!)
The kids in front of us had certainly gotten the message. They loved everything about the parade, and weren’t shy about asking the paraders to perform: “Burn some rubber!” they shouted at the vintage cars, glittering in the early-summer sun. (The drivers obligingly did.)
“Play your horn!” they shouted at a saxophone-wielding participant. (He did.) And of course, “Over here! Over here!” they shouted at the paraders who tossed beads, candy, and toys at the onlookers.
And the kids didn’t seem to be too impressed by the eye-boggling array of nipple pasties, codpieces, and jiggling buttocks. Mermaids and their consorts require very little clothing, so creatively embellished nudity is one of the hallmarks of the Mermaid Parade. But it’s not something the kids seemed to care much about, one way or the other.
Instead, they applauded anything and everything, indiscriminately.
“Yay police!” they shouted out at one uniformed NYPD officer, who shot them a puzzled look, then grinned and waved. Although the parade was well-patrolled, the officers almost seemed unnecessary—I’ve never been in a crowd that large where the overwhelming mood was so cordial and friendly. (The day of the parade is informally called by the NYPD “Coney Island’s Crime-Free Day”.)
Vlad took almost 2000 photos during the two-hour parade. See below for a gallery of the best photos.
And when it ended, we made our way onto the packed beach so I could dip a toe into the ocean, then headed back for the subway ride home.
At the gates to the Coney Island–Stillwell Avenue subway stop, we got one last surprise: As we went to add more money to our metro cards, a cop waved us through the open gates next to the turnstile. “Subway’s free today,” he said.
“Yay, police!” indeed.
And YAY Coney Island Mermaid Parade!