(Wrote this for a writing class I had with Sam Eisenstein at LACC in 1982. Pardon the lack of maturity….. The time sense, btw, is very epileptic. In fact the whole thing has a very strong epileptic vibe. I think I’d been diagnosed by this point, but they were still messing with the right meds and dosages–it takes a while to figure out what works best–and the whole story here has a tinge of the Geschwind Syndrome to it. Interesting. But I still wanna apologize for the comic book heroine there…..)
One time Joe’s wife had dragged him off to some such parade somewhere—aren’t they all the same?—and along came a float covered with some semi-naked cheerleaders flipping and flopping to some disco music blasting from tinny speakers—like enormous transistor radios, buzzing and snapping and the thing had broken down right smack in front of them. Just stopped, jerk jerk then dead. Everything stopped but the music. And goddamn if the stupid pompom girls didn’t keep dancing to that beat—BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM—he thought he’d go mad. They were holding up the entire parade—not that it really mattered; in fact he would have found it funny if it hadn’t happened right in front of him—just fifteen feet in front of his place on the curb. The crew crawled out of the hatches and tinkered with something in the beast’s rear, stood around, kicked the tires. The cops came up too on their horses, like cavalry, sure, horses dropping big road apples and pissing streams.
But that disco—it wouldn’t stop. The girls kept dancing and smiling. How could they be so stupid. He almost felt sorry for them, but those gleaming idiot teeth and whirring brown legs. Jeez…. Time for a joke, something sarcastic just to make them feel uncomfortable. He wracked his brains, but the crowd around him was quicker, yelling “Fix it!”, “Get this show on the road!”, lewd suggestions, outright obscenities. Joe was somewhat taken aback by the tone; all he wanted to say was “Take five, girls!” but now he kept it to himself. Without warning, beer bottles, half-eaten hot dogs, at first one, two, then a barrage rained down on the hapless float. The girls kept dancing, even undertaking some admirable footwork to avoid foreign objects. Close, but no direct hits. One girl got chili sprayed up her leg. She smiled stiffly but didn’t miss a beat.
It was getting nasty. The road crew, stripped of the armored protection of the float’s innards, took the crowd’s behavior personally and yelled back, snarling, swearing. Counter fire. Joe ducked an empty Miller can. The air was filled with flying objects. A group of young thugs pushed their way to the front and began fastballing hot dogs at the crew and cheerleaders. They wore now nervous smiles but kept dancing, inanely, and the music seemed louder than ever BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM, its steady bass throb completely out of kilter with the scene’s anarchy. Joe heard a cacophony of sounds—shattered glass, yells and squeals, the snap and sizzle of police walkie talkies, sirens, howls of laughter and rage. “Fuck!” someone yelled, “Fuck!” Behind him a group of obviously college kids began a lusty rendition of “I Love A Parade”. Joe had never seen so much flying glass, so many aerial hot dogs. The street was littered with broken splattered gunk. Police horses reared, the young thugs were in open combat with the cops and crew. A parade official, in frilly blue, fell backward off the float, face a mess of mustard. “Oh my God!” Joe’s wife screeched, nearly breaking his arm in her grip and giggling maniacally. Slow motion it dawned on Joe—this is a riot, and even slower, you are in the middle of it—and then it was a series of slow, slower, almost still shots—Joe, his wife and friends trapped, packed immobile into the crowd. The spectators that he could see, those on the opposite side of the street, roiled in sickening waves this way, that way, away from the exploding bottles and hot dogs. The casualties, standing up, wiped off the mustard, ketchup; clutching their broken skin, showing it to those around them like a prize, or a starfish picked up on the beach—then ducked the next bottle.
Seconds froze, split into smaller fragments that ticked away slowly, almost not at all. Joe seemed to feel little except a dull, incessant urge to protect his wife. Instinctively he wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close, yet she resisted—she wanted to see, to gawk, like the rest, protected by the mass of flesh about them. “Joe!” she screeched, “Look!” He looked, though at what he didn’t know. So many actions, so much expended energy. Cops and kids battled like gladiators right before him, nightstick against switchblade, circling, jabbing, ducking bottles and food. More figures appeared on the street, jumping from the sidewalk throng, for the immobile float with its terrified, highstepping cheerleaders was a magnet, pulling them out, ion by ion, cop vs. kid vs. onlooker vs. float crew vs. who knows what the street is such a mess. Joe’s heart pounded with excitement all the people running around like mad to the incessant disco throbbing from hidden speakers. Joe’s wife screamed in his ear “It’s like they’re dancing!” and giggled and it was true, Joe nodded yes! yes! “They’re dancing!” and he turned around to the group behind him still singing a broken “I Love A Parade” and shouted “They’re dancing!” and a long haired type sucking on a huge joint almost exploded into laughter, sending up huge clouds of heavy rank smoke and coughed coughed coughed, blindly handing the joint to Joe. The group rocked back and forth with laughter, shouting “Let’s Dance” and “Trip the Light Fantastic!” and Joe had no idea what else, for he stuck the huge bomber between his teeth and sucked in deep, like he had been shown by a friend from work and Oh Boy he could feel it right away. Weird weird weird. His wife screamed and jumped up as a hot dog splattered the seat next to her. “I’m hit” she yelled and Joe couldn’t believe it. He looked into her face and she was wild eyed, laughing, shrieking, gesticulating and taking her mustard splashed arm she rubbed it across his face at the same time he exhaled pot smoke into hers, and she rolled her eyes and fell backward into the stoned freaks behind them, who set upon her pushing and pawing.
The mustard stung his nostrils. Tears welled up and rolled down his cheeks, and he looked downward to see them drop, watery yellow, onto his shirt. He wiped his face on his sleeve, spreading the yellow further, and then, in a frenzy of contagion, rubbed his face across the backs of the people beside him who, far from drawing away from his contact only seemed driven to a higher state of agitation, squirming and jumping about on their seats. Everything stunk of mustard, Joe was making sure of that as he rubbed his stained hands up and down his pants. Then, tears subsiding, he turned his blurred eyes to the street.
It was a complete melee now, with more kids than ever. They leaped from the stands, pushed through the sidewalks, came rushing up from both ends of the street. They were black, white, brown, all ages, boys and girls. They had bottles, sticks, food, knives, their bare hands. Flailing, shoving, falling, screeching. They swarmed around the float, climbing its sides, yanking each other off. Pockets of authority stood awash in the flood, swinging and beating, going under in a hail of kicks and punches. Joe saw blood—unmistakably crimson on faces, scalps; staining shirts. The torrent rushed against the sidewalks, pulling some spectators under, sending the rest pressing backward, setting off ripples of pushing and shoving that took hold of Joe and swung him back and forth, trapped in the crowd, powerless to stop.
He was a stalk of kelp, he thought, swaying one way then the other with the ocean currents, pushing this way slowly and then pulled back so that he should fall completely if not for the packed flesh holding him in place. It occurred to Joe in a flash that if he lifted his feet he would remain suspended, airborne. Lifting his eyes he watched the fighting across the street, people grabbed at random and beaten, others on their feet trying to ward off attackers, till the once placid rows of spectators whirled and spun like the frenzy in the street.
Joe’s memory here loses all sense of fluidity and flashing before him was a sequence of stills, some quickly, some slowly, some remaining before him forever, some flickering by so quickly he could barely recall what they showed. There was the teenaged gang member, hair in a net, and evil crescent dangling from one ear, with a hot dog vendor’s basket hung askew from his neck, throwing whole handfuls of wieners into the crowd. Then close up of the face—a young, clean face scowling, twisted. A nightstick raised aloft like a naked flagpole, surrounded by a mass of kids, kicking, punching. Close up of bloodied face, tongue touching busted lip lizard-like. Eyes—staring staring. The crowd itself in the street in constant change—one second like this, then like this, always running, jumping, colliding. Joe was transfixed. Synapses ceased firing logically—his head locked into place, he couldn’t turn away—the slide projector flashed image after tortured image. Joe just gawked. He lost touch with his wife. The joint burned down to his fingers and dropped away. He was pushed shoved back forth; stalks whipped about by the storm but held fast in the rocks. The stench of mustard, the BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM of the disco, the tingling of the dope, the nagging urge to find his wife, the frenzied violence only a few feet away; pelting glass and bread and mustard, the screams, the whistles, sirens, yelps, random scuffling on the pavement—image after image, fast, slow, close, far, in vivid color. The swarms scaled the float. An army rushing the castle walls. Ladders flung backward. Boiling oil. Vicious grappling on the ramparts. The cheerleaders fled to the highest point where they huddled like rabbits, surrounded by flowers and framed by a set of goal posts. The last of the defenders disappeared beneath the mob. The cheerleaders shrieking held out their hands stop! stop! They wouldn’t. On they came, on IT came, the thing sprouting its clutching, tearing hands. Skimpy dresses torn, pulled off. Girls balling up in fear and humiliation. Tears. Please. Don’t. No. Wild eyes. Hysteria. More hands. Cheers, deep and lusty. Feeble blows. boys, terribly young boys grabbing, manhandling, scratching. Pulled hair, bites, kicks, shreds of clothing waved liked flags. A barrier had been crossed, a fragile outer shell broken and the contents within, held under such pressure, found sudden release. Joe heard feeble shouts of protest, but this was not the time for upraised thumbs. The thumbs down have it.
The float was covered with crawling, scaling, grabbing forms. Swarms. The girls disappeared one, two, three into the crowd. Howling, hooting, shrieking, whistling. Joe was frozen. He wanted to move but nothing worked. Two, three cheerleaders fight viciously. One has a bottle, broken, glittering in the sunlight. She waves it, swipes at a head. It spins around and Joe stares into its face. Jagged bleeding. A sudden wave of nausea. Good God. She hits another. He falls, wounded. Another. She is a gladiator, a Horatio, daring the others forward. The crowd draws back. Howling. A ragged cheer. It surges forward, grappling, pulling, yanking, wanting possession. She holds on, head high, jaw set. Joe can see the perspiration streaking her bare arms and legs. A mighty, blonde She-warrior, a thousand ancient dreams fulfilled—a crowd driven to frenzy. Joe wants to turn it off. He knows how it will end. His insides feel like a meatgrinder.
Joe was new to such mass feelings, he thought, never himself been privy to anger turning so quickly to rape, and on some foolish impulse he turned to his wife to show her, possibly, that he was not a part of it all, was not even watching, he did not lust after the She-warrior, that he really loved you, wife, and he pulled his eyes away in time, looking, looking, a series of shots from the battle before him to where his wife should be and there she was, again, mussed, frightened, spattered with mustard and bits of meat. Oh no, he thought, “Are you OK?”, shaking her, grabbing her thigh in his big hand and squeezing the recognition squeeze. She turns to him and pulls her leg free. He was astounded by how fast the muscles of her thigh retracted with a fear deep and ancient. She turns to him, staring amazed, aghast, alone. Those eyes. And his own? He turns away.
He sees the bottle with its burning rag hurled high over the crowd trailing a thin wisp of smoke, falling falling in a beautiful arc when splat, a perfect hit on the end of the float, the sound of the impact smothered by the din of battle, but the flames instantly visible, licking outward, devouring the papier-mache frame, dancing around the feet of the maddened kids. They don’t see it. Fire spreading about them but their eyes remain transfixed on the She-warrior at the top of the float. She holds them at bay with her broken bottle, mouthing unheard threats. Joe wanted to say something but couldn’t. Behind him a voice drawled “Now who would bring a gas bomb to a parade?” and everyone else making incoherent noises; gawking, pointing, giggling, weaving back and forth with the struggle in the street.
Joe watches the fire race up a kid’s pants. The kid starts, gestures, jerks open-mouthed and no doubt screaming, dances wildly, soon joined by others, a fire dance, leaping about, jumping right off the float into the street streaming smoke. More smoke, rich, black and oily, boiling up beautifully and the crowd goes berserk. The float-top fight slows, stops, and the combatants stare at the flames in temporary disbelief, then, comprehending they leap and scramble down to the pavement. Some spurt tiny flames from their pants and shirt tails and spin madly, fanning the little fires as they try to squelch them. At last the steady BOOM BOOM BOOM of the disco fits in with the fire dance, but only for a few seconds, for the flames reach the speakers and with sizzling crackling pops they shut up, and now the pandemonium is complete as the float is engulfed in roaring, snapping flames—poles are reversed and the ions are repelled, sent flinging backward with the waves of sudden heat. Assailants turn saviors as the battered cheerleaders are helped off the doomed ship, limping, crying. And She-Warrior, now magically transposed into the brave Captain, is the last to leave. Disdaining help, she throws her weapon into the street, where it shatters into fire sparkled fragments, steps down a rearward ladder slowly, without a hint of panic. Once on the street, she turns to face her vanquished foe, then motions for the crowd to grant her entry. Joe watched her from behind as she stepped onto the sidewalk, and followed her sweat streaked hair till it disappeared into the throng.
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