The bus driver didn’t have a beer. At least that’s what I’d say if you asked me on the record.
It was just after 6 p.m. on New Year’s Day 2011, and I was squeezed between two other fellas dressed in black sharing a vinyl bench on a yellow school bus that was careening above Center City Philadelphia by way of I-676. The bus was full, half with other mostly 20-somethings in black and an older crowd in flamboyant and flowery costumes. Every inch of the bus that wasn’t stuffed with human was reserved for coolers of canned beer and, judging by the frequency of offerings, either a dozen or one-well-circled bottle of liquor.
I’m sure most of that made its way up to the bus driver, flashes of yellow street lights and a city skyline coloring his face in his wide bus rear view mirror, otherwise darkened by the cold, black winter night. I just can’t say what happened when it got there or what happened to all the bottles I had to turn away.
One was a blackberry rum.
I can’t remember the others because the singing was just too loud. I’d never sung along to so many songs I didn’t know. Their words, their meaning, their origins.
This was halftime of the 2011 Mummers Day Parade from the eyes of someone who was in it. Or, in my case, someone who was temporarily welcomed into the century-old Philadelphia tradition. A tradition so outrageous and beloved that only Philly could keep it so well unknown (despite small attempts to spread).
A friend is a Mummer with Hegeman, one of the more historic string bands, one of four Mummer distinctions from 44 sanctioned social clubs. The band needed a few more marshals — the sad saps who push up South Broad Street the props that Mummers perform on and around — and I was in the mood for an experience. The bus ride was reason enough to think I had made it passed — if only slightly — the first step in my Mummers education.
By then, it was almost 12 hours after I woke up that very first day of 2011, slowly.
I didn’t wake up so slowly because of that second whiskey I had the night before. …I think it was the third.
No one who knows me would describe me as much of a drinker. But most might not expect me to be perched on top of scaffolding with a canvas backdrop hung to its side as it blocks a South Philadelphia intersection, sitting in a disorderly line of 10,000, with three times as many people on the sidelines watching. And that much was true for the day.
So anything is possible with a new year.
That early morning, after trying to convince logic that I had a few more hours left to sleep, I quietly put on every warm piece of black clothing I set aside the night before. I left my house, walked to the El in the dark and slid through a chilly turnstile without waking up the SEPTA employee asleep inside the glass enclosure to my left.
Twenty minutes and a transfer later, I was outside the Guerin Rec Center at the corner of 16th and Jackson streets in the Melrose Diner parish. Two cars were being towed from their comfortable, South Philly double-parking already, and the portly, balding dago with the stogie in his mouth was shouting for the cop to make it three.
How the fuck else are we gonna cart the Oregon Trail-style prop wagon out of the rec center parking lot onto tiny Wolf Street?
As the third car was threatened with a tow before its owner made a move, the 7 a.m. hour pressed on with three giant Ryder trucks being emptied onto the parking lot ground, the last remains of a recent snowstorm melting away in the morning 40s. We pulled out scaffolding, giant six foot by 10 foot canvases, tools, some props that were already built and the parts of others.
Every year, each of the dozens of Mummer troupes choose a theme. Hegeman went with a cowboy theme in 2011, which explained the wagon, and the bar on wheels and the mountain scenes. The next three and a half hours were spent assembling this expansive, mobile theater set.
It was like putting together a giant, multi-platform puzzle with your grandmother. Assuming you had no box to judge by and your grandmother chain smokes, can’t keep her pants from showing her ass crack and is a member of Glaziers Local Union 252.
As the clock passed 10 a.m., after I had more than my share of Acme donuts and Sunny D, what we pulled off Ryder trucks began to look like something. They were arranged orderly to welcome my first sight of a yellow school bus that day.
Out piled 30 Mummers, in bright purple, orange and blue costumes. Many were sweaty, big-bellied men, but some, unlike what most of the other clubs allowed, were women. Others were young, but most, it seemed, had been at this for a long time, middle aged with the bellies of more significant years. After a few practices, we pushed a high school auditorium-worth of props on wheeled scaffolding to Oregon Avenue and Broad Street, the parade’s start six or seven blocks away.
Along the way, Italian-looking families poured out of rowhomes in a way I didn’t think still existed, what looked like a half dozen different generations hooting and hollering on tiny stoops. At least one toddler strutted.
Through the tight, tunnel of 13th street, we turned onto the cavern of Oregon Ave. I saw a teenager in a bright sweat suit and a white t-shirt with finely gelled hair puking into some bushes on Marconi Plaza. We had arrived at the Mummers Parade.
The parade is a rather nice Philadelphia symbol. It’s actually quite impressive and historic, not that anyone there or anywhere else knows it. Most wouldn’t defend it because of that, but rather a vague sense of its historic entitlement to existence, despite the faded tinge of racial divides (black face having a prominent presence in the past).
All told though, it’s colorful and has flashes of being as captivating, original and compelling a public display as anything on the planet but it’s all start and stop. In the end, despite all of the promise, the Mummers Parade can’t much keep the attention of anyone under 10 or anyone who doesn’t have his mitts on a working case of Miller Lite.
So it may be that or just tradition that made sure that nearly all of the several thousand people lining Broad Street on our five-hour, two and a half mile crawl were in one of those two camps: a child or just drunk, and they often had examples of both in the same group.
But God damn it if it wasn’t a pisser of a good time.
Despite being part of a South Philly team, my marshal brethren weren’t as tied. I was paired with a couple of teenage boy scouts from Mayfair up in the Northeast who were sneaking sips of beer and a UPS union packer from Byberry, a neighborhood not much farther north. Together, we wheeled the piece of scaffolding and its attached mountain scene to a half-dozen performances in the middle of various Broad Street intersections amid screams, bellows and children spraying confetti in our direction.
When a performance ahead of us slowed our progress, I’d climb to the top of the scaffolding, maybe 10 feet above Broad Street and peer up and down and around and catch small slivers of someone else’s first day of 2011.
The precious little girl is thrilled by the costumes. The sweet old lady is drinking something out of a brown paper bag. The two dudes are in matching tie-dye spandex suits and wigs. Strangers are high-fiving. Men, of various backgrounds and looks, are peddling trashy trinkets and loud toys. Someone is throwing empty Coors Lite cans from out the open window of a big, bowl-faced South Broad Street brownstone. A pack of boys are cheering and yelling at absolutely nothing, and their maternal accompaniment looks to have given up corralling them by 11 a.m.
During each of the few practice performances heading north, those in the street crowd who could see would cheer, and those who couldn’t would grumble, and people would dangle out of windows, and moderately official looking men with badges would peer sternly and seriously at the performance from all angles. Eventually, we made it to City Hall, the gorgeous, Gothic Philadelphia centerpiece that has served as backdrop for the parade’s official performances since judging began generations ago.
There, my contribution to what would be ranked a respectable seventh of 17 string band performance came true, by helping to move a canvas mountain 10 feet in all of three seconds, along with a dozen other pairs of hands. In the official video, it looks remarkably insignificant. [The top string band was another South Philadelphia team, Quaker City, a video of which you can see here.]
Gosh, how I got caught up in the group effort, only to notice later how truly small my portion of it was. Some hyperbole to Democracy and Philadelphia’s setting as the place where those notions were cemented could be made, but there was no time. I was told there was beer drinking to be done.
After the performance, we hurriedly pushed our set down Market West in an excited frenzy, of high-fives and shouts and cheers. We were celebrating all the hard work we had done in training, set-creation, planning, practicing, building and the rest. I showed up this morning, drank some Sunny D, lifted a few canvases and pushed a scaffolding, but Hell yes, I was proud of the, uh, months of preparation we had done.
Down 16th Street, we landed onto the Ben Franklin Parkway, the long, wide destination promenade on which many of the city’s biggest, more prominent museums sit, but on New Year’s Day, it’s mostly ignored by fans and tourists. There, dozens of charter buses sat for the big, institutional South Philly string band teams that would spend more than $100,000 all told in preparation, in addition to packs of yellow school buses for the bigger, relatively old South Philly teams like ours and a smattering of other transport vehicles for the rest.
But first, we stopped our caravan of colors at a pack of Ryder trucks, in a way similar to other teams as they poured onto the parkway from performance, some dejectedly, some thrilled. Many embracing across different teams.
“YO TONY, how’d youse do this year? Oh, fuckin’ tell me about it. The wind was freezin’ my fuckin’ nuts the entire time there at the end, I thought we were gonna lose one of the sets. Nah, I’m sure youse did great. Yeah, yeah, don’t be ridiculous, we’re feelin’ really fuckin’ good about this year. True. I love ya, brother, I’ll see ya down Two Street.”
The afternoon was waning and dusk was enveloping. A massive apparatus of Mummers with smeared face paint and marshals with unshaven faces were establishing team lines to breakdown the sets and instruments with military-like precision.
“You fuck head, take the pins outta the scaffolding and put ‘em there. Take the poles and put ‘em there by Johnny, that faggot would love a fuckin’ pile of poles… No, no, no, fuck you! Let’s get down Two Street!”
It was like a disaster relief project. I was teaming up with other marshals I hadn’t even met yet, others whose names and faces I was coming to know. There was very little order by design, and plenty of it by urgency. The canvases were going in the first truck, and the drums will go in the second. And, please, will somebody get all those scaffolding pins together in the third one?
“You took my fuckin’ bottle of bourbon,” one of the older marshals screamed, starting a verbal spat that was calmed by another leader as I walked to somewhere calmer.
But then we were done.
Two of the marshal leaders, one younger, in his early 30s, with blonde whiskers and bad teeth, who ran a new franchise cheesesteak shop, and another, more reserved, in his later 30s, wearing a dress hat and a cigar in hand, grabbed a big cooler and landed it on the freight lift on the back of the second Ryder truck.
“The first round is on us, boys,” the reserved one said, opening a giant cooler, overflowing with ice, cans of lager and Miller Lite. Insert your own vulture comparison here, as hands swarmed. I grabbed two lagers and felt a little greedy for a moment, before I saw a bigger, older, meatier guy cramming them into the front pocket of his sweatshirt.
We popped them there in cooling night of the parkway, hundreds of us across teams, walking toward busses.
I talked to a 40-something with a light goatee and a balding lawn of black hair, he had been kicked out of another team for getting into a few too many fights. From the cooler to the bus, a few hundred yards of walking, I found I was already at least a beer behind.
Contrary to some knowledge, there wasn’t much drinking during the day for the string bands. The comic Mummers? Sure, those guys a bunch of drunks, they’d say. We are the fuckin’ artists, the string bands always note. They play instruments, and dance, and spend at least $40,000 on their presentation. They come last and are most people’s favorites. A lot of packs of cigarettes were downed that day, but the beer only really flowed after everything was put away.
And flowed it did. (I was handed at least two more beers on the 10 minute bus ride.)
I’m not sure if we had all made it onto the bus by the time the singing started. They were the kind of playful songs you’d expect on a yellow school bus, en route to a summer camp with packs of friends who only see each other for a few days a year. And that blackberry rum kept being offered to me, as one of the bigger mummers, with a saxophone in his lap, tried to open one of those bus windows that never actually stay open.
We drove to Two Street, which, of course, is Second Street south of Washington Avenue, where the Mummer Museum sits. It is called Two Street instead of Second Street here because, as one of the more direct, more leader-driven of the late 20-something marshals told me, “it has always been fuckin’ called that, now do you want this blackberry rum or not you fuckin’ pussy?”
We stopped traffic. All of us. The dozen busses that managed to arrive at the same time, and we piled out.
I had been singing particularly fervently with one of the female mummers, who happened to be close friends with my contact (who I hadn’t seen all day in the chaos). Her father was a string band member in the South Philly team that his father had been a part of, but they didn’t allow women, and, since the father had a daughter who wanted to join, and the Mummers, like all old, labor-intensive cultural institutions, are facing real attrition and retirement concerns, the pair joined Hegemen. She found me amusing and, because that saxophonist couldn’t get that bus window to stay open and it was getting warm in that bus, she offered me, a first-time marshal, her big, Mummer hat to wear for the moment, which is, like, a really drunk version of breaking the caste system of India.
And now we were surely in the second half of this day long adventure. The first half is South Broad Street. The second half is Two Street.
Second Street south of Washington Avenue really mostly looks like a fairly normal, rowhome-lined stretch of South Philadelphia under normal circumstances. Street parking, just a couple sidewalk panels separated the street from neat, clean, brick, two-story rowhomes. Some had been built up as bigger families tried to stay in the neighborhood, despite enlarging expectations for personal space.
But along this stretch, a handful of the larger, mostly corner rowhomes had been converted decades ago into private clubs for the bigger Mummer teams. So, in the second half, after parading for the entire city, the entire region, the Mummers would come back to their South Philly roots and perform for the neighborhood.
Everyone would strut, though that was a Fancy Bridge tradition, and the String Bands would play their instruments, amid shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. It was Mardi Gras with families. Packs of teenagers, children being held on their father’s shoulders, and red Silo cups everywhere.
The music was deafening. My little pack of marshal friends who had been doing this for years eyed the Mummer hat on my head like I had been gifted crown jewels. We took photos, before an older Mummer demanded I give the hat back as if I had stolen it. Touchy subject.
But onward, we went. Peeling through people in the streets like they were icebergs in northern waters, we marshals led the way to offer our brute force for clearing the path for the music playing behind us. Up a distance was another string band, far behind us another. It was a party, and we were the entertainment.
In front of the Hegeman club house, our team performed outright, to the cheers of the masses. At which time, we piled into the three-story row-home: first floor, bar, with framed pictures of each year’s team; second floor, open area, that had been made tonight into buffet-style food and cafeteria tables, and third floor, dressing room for the Mummers.
We ate, and drank. I downed roast pork, potatoes and rolls with gravy poured evenly and charitably by a tiny gray-haired lady. A middle-aged woman who was carrying, yes, a bottle of blackberry rum, took me in her arms and walked me to a table, where we ate, and she offered me shots and thoughts on our performance.
There was a lot of milling about, some Mummers ate, others changed into street clothes, many more waiting anxiously for the news. And then it came.
Hegeman Captain John “Barron wants everyone downstairs, the results are in.”
People through themselves down the wide, angled staircase. We were now belly to belly on the first floor, men in the bathroom doorway, Barron on top of the bar, with makeup still on. We had come in seventh, a respectable place that earned more cheers when we found we had beaten some of our rivals.
And then the drinking and eating took hold.
I left soon after. I felt gorged, and my curiosity was feeling nearly as satiated. A few Silo cups fell, the crowd was intense, and I felt it was my time to leave what felt like a great, big, drunken family party.
They were welcoming and warm and as loving and squabbling as any family get together on the order of 100 people in a rowhome.
I walked outside the club house into the masses, which had turned more into an adult kind of feel, more cups, more circles, more screaming, less high-fiving. It was before 8 p.m., and I walked a bit more of Two Street before I truly couldn’t move anymore, the packs of people too thick, the music too loud from a truck leading another team ahead.
I walked down a quieter side street and tried to think back on where that bus driver, who sang with us and screamed with us, was now.