That time I led the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade by accident:
“Through my sheer skinniness and the single-minded determination of the utterly oblivious person that I can be, I made my way to a wooden sawhorse employed to keep people off the parade route. The line of sawhorses stretched north and south, unbroken, all stamped, “NYPD.” Of course I could move one, anyone can move a sawhorse, right, but wouldn’t that constitute me, you know, ‘starting something?'”
* * * *
Each Thanksgiving morning I experience the flutter of a memory of a moment in which my own experience of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles almost came true. Mine was going to involve accidental participation in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade between a bus and a train, however, which is a notion that even John Hughes might have rejected as far-fetched.
Despite my lifelong proximity to New York City, I do not have vast experience within the city, and I think most of my time in Manhattan has been spent on foot as I walked from either a bus or train station to my destination. And then back. The secret reason for this is I do not trust myself on subways—one must know the subway system through experience and the only way to gain that experience is … experience. The one and only time I rode the NYC subway alone, I did not know how quickly we would reach my destination, nor how briefly we would stop there, nor how long it would take to get back from Brooklyn, which was far, far past where my destination (a job interview somewhere in the Financial District) lay. That one experience led me to a decision I still stick to: walk (nowadays, with a cane, slowly; I have not been in NYC since 2015) to my destination, no matter how far.
In the early 2000s, I worked and lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and would travel east twice a year. I usually would visit friends in the Hudson Valley, in New Paltz and Poughkeepsie, and then travel to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where my parents and sister were, or sometimes I’d start in Boston and work my way to New Paltz.
One Thanksgiving, in 2002 or 2003, I visited my family on Cape Cod first, then planned to travel by bus and train to upstate New York. I was going to do this bit of travelling on Thanksgiving Day, which was a dumb enough idea that if any family member or friend brought it to my attention how dumb an idea this is I have blocked it out. Given that one of the saddest facts of my life is I have not blocked anything out, even the memories I wish I no longer possess, it must be that no one said anything.
“That’s Mark,” sighed in four or five syllables, accompanied a great many of the reactions to my decisions in the past, from both family and friends, I believe, so often that I do not even remember this reaction if it was said that night, the night before Thanksgiving.
What would make this a terrible decision? First of course is the idea of travel between any two places farther apart than next door on Thanksgiving Day. I think my thought was that travel on the day before and the day after Thanksgiving would be reckless but the morning of? Not so bad. I bought the earliest bus ticket out of Hyannis, Massachusetts, and headed away from the sunrise, towards the southwest and New York City.
The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade took place in 1924 and it has been held every year since, except for the years between 1942-’44 during World War II. Marching bands, balloons, floats, celebrities, thousands of people walk south down Eighth Avenue along Central Park and then over to Sixth Avenue and down to 34th Street and finally to Macy’s storefront. An even greater number of thousands line the entire parade route—two-and-a-half miles!—on both sides of the avenue, at some spots fifteen to twenty people deep on the sidewalks. For three hours, from 9:00 a.m. till noon, Midtown Manhattan is at a standstill in the most NYC way: it’s a standstill that is all energy, all crowds, in motion unless you need to get anywhere … especially across Sixth Avenue.
I knew all of the above, of course, except the exact details of the route. “9:00 a.m.? I’ll be on my way up to Poughkeepsie out of Manhattan by then, according to this ticket in my hand,” I thought out loud to my parents, gamely.
Some cities have their various transportation needs met in one building. New York City is not one of those. Subways and Metro-North commuter trains (Poughkeepsie is the northernmost station for Metro-North) converge and disperse out of Grand Central Station, one of the most beautiful buildings on the planet. Busses, including the various companies that comprise the Greyhound universe, arrive and depart from the New York Port Authority station, as do New Jersey Transit vehicles. Amtrak is serviced out of Pennsylvania Station.
My bus would arrive at the Port Authority early in the a.m., according to my ticket, and I would walk quickly over to Grand Central and grab the next train north. Easy as anything that you’ve never done before can ever be. I slept the sleep of the unaware.
Now, a bus schedule is only as good as traffic will allow, to quote a song that is not at all about bus travel. Thanksgiving travel on I-95 is not completely inadvisable, as I made it to the Port Authority the same day as I left Boston, even the same morning, but it was not early, not the expected time.
I grabbed my backpack and my one soft suitcase, departed the bus, which had been unsurprisingly uncrowded, and looked at a map to see which direction I needed to walk to get to Grand Central Station. The Port Authority is on 8th Avenue (mentioned above) and 42nd Street, and Grand Central is several long city blocks away to the east, across 7th, Broadway, 6th, 5th, then Madison Avenue, and finally Park Avenue. It’s a long walk, but it’s one I’ve done before and it’s in one of those parts of Manhattan that can make you feel like you’re a star in a Hollywood movie about New York City, so who cares how long a … by 7th Avenue I noticed that I was in a crowd and we were all walking in the same direction and some folks had lawn chairs in their hands.
Moments later, I noticed the sound: the sound of thousands of people in one small area, and worse, far in the distance, the live music of a marching band or dozens of marching bands combined. The parade itself.
Through my sheer skinniness and the single-minded determination of the utterly oblivious person that I can be, I made my way through the already fifteen-to-twenty deep crowd of parade viewers to a wooden sawhorse employed to keep people off the avenue, out of the parade route. The line of sawhorses stretched north and south, unbroken, all stamped, “NYPD.” Of course I could move one, anyone can move a sawhorse, but wouldn’t that constitute me, you know, “starting something?”
To my left, the north, I could see the parade, the head of the parade, but it was still many blocks away, maybe ten or even more. (I could hear it.) To get to Grand Central was far more important to me than to watch the parade, which would have reached our spot maybe a half-hour later and then continued for the next three hours. Now that I phrase it THAT way, I still think Grand Central was the correct desire.
A female police officer spotted me before I saw her. She saw my luggage, and then when I noticed her, I displayed my backpack and bag in a pantomime gesture to declare that I was not here for the parade and somehow was dropped in the middle of all this. She moved a sawhorse aside, made the universal gesture with her head to tell me to get going before she thought otherwise, and I slipped out onto an empty 6th Avenue. I see on the map that I must have been just uptown from the television broadcast location, which leads me to wonder if I may have been a brief object of wonder for the television producers as I quickly marched alone across the avenue.
She had not radioed a police officer on the other side of the avenue, however. There I was confronted by that same unbroken line of sawhorses, and instead of people walking along in the same direction as me, I saw a crowd of faces, fifteen to twenty deep, staring at me as if I had started something.
No longer oblivious, but still single-minded, I crouched down and walked under a sawhorse and plunged into that crowd of parade-viewers. I made my way through them, and then continued on my journey.
It must have been a traumatic experience, because I did not speak of it with my friends later that day, or I said something to one of them in passing that elicited no response. I guess it felt like if there were no consequences or delays, then there was no punchline, and thus there was no story.
On my long list of near-misses in life, though, this one had the loudest drums.
Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning humor columnist, and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirty-second season:
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Good to see you here again, Mark!!! Long time…