Behind the Banner

At 6:00am, my parents woke me and my brothers up. We were leaving for the parade in roughly half an hour and had to be clothed and dressed by then. I was ten years old and this was the first parade we were going to ride in as members of the unicycle club of one of Detroit’s suburbs.

I had asked my parents to let me join the club a few months earlier; we’d stumbled upon the group practicing in a gym at which I was scheduled to have a YMCA basketball game. I loved everything silly and different, and the unicycle was the only one of the big three (pie in the face, rubber chicken, unicycle) that I had yet to experience, let alone conquer. I was a fast learner, and a after few weeks in my parents that they and my brothers would also join and we would unicycle as a family activity, a subtle fuck you to Monopoly and board game nights.

And here, after a few weeks of riding, we had been invited to join the club’s ride in a parade around Hamtramck. I didn’t think parades were particular interesting as a spectator, but I thought that was because those involved weren’t playing to the crowd. Honestly, you’re pretty limited in your actions while playing the bagpipes or waving on float. I was young, but I knew that scene from Ferris Bueller was bullshit; no crowd is going to go crazy with joy to watch a stranger lip synch. But that wasn’t me. I was on a unicycle and I was going to play to the crowd. Maybe they couldn’t see the golden dice cap I had on my air valve as I rode around, but I was still the type of kid to put that crap on his tire. Gimme dat attention, I’m gonna work for it.

Our outfits were folded up on our dressers. Blue and white striped long-sleeve button up, red suspenders, a red beret, and white pants. I thought the red beret was the worst part, until I slid on the pants and realized that they were not of a cut I was accustomed to. When I got downstairs, I asked my dad why my pants were so wide around the foot-holes. He said they were called flares and confessed that he could only find white pants my size in the ladies section at Target. Great, I thought, now I’m going to look like a loser on this unicycle. We ate, bundled up in our winter jackets (early November in Michigan), and left.

We parked in the parking lot of a strip mall a little ways from the mouth of the parade and rolled our unicycles to where our crew was setting up. It was to be a typical parade set up: two people walking up front holding a banner with our name on it, someone driving a car behind us, and the rest on the moving main stage. People were checking tire pressure, adding colored foil to the spokes of their tire, adjusting their seat heights. I sat with my brothers, freezing, waiting for the parade to begin so we could start riding and I could do my thang. The girl in charge of our crew came to debrief us on what was to go down.

“We’re all going to ride in a single-file line arranged by height. Alex (my brother), you’ll be last because you’re the smallest, then Harry. Everyone will follow my lead.”

She left before I could state my disapproval in that plan. Most of the bigger riders were terrible at riding and had to stop frequently, and we were just supposed to follow them in a line? How lame is that!? We’re on unicycles, for Christ’s sake, we’re supposed to be the coolest people in this thing, just ahead of the Shriners with their silly little cars and the people who throw nearly inedible candy! Who was going to be impressed with a bunch of shmucks in a line attempting and failing frequently to balance? I wanted to join this crowd to stand out, not to blend in like some sheep in a circus.

If I’m going to be in the back, I thought, then I’m going to show off. I’d been practicing tricks that I felt moderately comfortable revealing. That’s what people come to parades to see, and baby, I was gonna feed em. I was also extra worked up because I was freezing my butt off, as the chilly weather had no problem infiltrating my flares. Women are way tougher than I previously thought, I silently noted.

The parade began, and a mere thirty minutes later, we took off from the gates. For a while, I fell in line and participated in the glorified Uncle Worm that we created; my act was to be a covert operation that was not to be put to an end right at the head. A few people clapped as we approached, but rightfully ceased when they were held witness to our performance. We looked like a bunch of Yankee Doodle Dandies on wheel.

After ten minutes of “falling in”, I picked my moment. As we rounded for a turn, I faked getting twisted around, separated myself from the others, then rotated and rode my unicycle back to the group. The crowd ate it up and I ate them up. For the rest of the ride, I would “accidentally” break free from the line, mug to the crowd, use one foot to peddle, ride with my stomach on the seat, and hop around on the unicycle, and throw my arms out for a response. It always came, and I reveled in it. Once, during one of twists in the line, the head girl made eye contact with me with a stare icier than my boogers. It was clearly bad news, but I was not about to deny the people a show.

I became less enthusiastic as the parade continued. I’d never ridden for so long and my groin was beginning to feel as though I was a seasoned roshambo veteran. Falling back into the line full time, I finished out the last few legs of the parade. There was no big finish, no fun ending, no tunnel to ride through. We simply stopped and got out of the road. The head lady stalked directly to me and berated me for breaking the unison of the unicycle club. I held my head low and said nothing as she laid in to me. “The parade performance is all about everyone being in synch and us looking like a group!” In my head, I couldn’t stop thinking about how she was making us look so uncool even though we were on unicycles. My pants and beret already make me look uncool, don’t put a governor on my ride too!

After she’d made her point, she left and congratulated everyone else on a great parade. I was frustrated, cold, tired, and rubbing at my groin like it needed to be polished. I thought parades were going to be glamorous from behind the scenes, but I found the reason that I found them so boring from the sides of streets was because they are boring groups doing boring things. This parade was nothing more than a long line of public access tv commercials for odd groups of people in the surrounding area, combined with some big balloons.

I did a number of equally dull parades after that day (my parents weren’t giving up our family activities), but I loathed participating. I never thought that was how a unicycle was meant to be ridden or shown off to people. Everything that I found exciting and, dare I say, sexy about the unicycle was being tied down and constrained by red suspenders. Though I would one day go on to discover incredibly talented and entertaining unicyclists, I was heartbroken by the disillusionment of this majestic group of riders.

I vowed to one day quit the club, don a leather jacket, slide on my cheap shades, and ride my 24″ wheel off into the sunset, never to look back. This city wasn’t ready for unicy-cool-ing, but maybe somewhere out in the world, the people would welcome me.

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