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Rant #61
(published Late in the Year, 2001)
On the Difficulty on Ascertaining Normal and Recognizing Costumes (a field study)
a thirty-three dollar rant
by Morgan Johnson

$15 dollars for a long red cape.
$4 for hair pomade.
$6 for vodka
$5 for Red Bull.
$3 for red tape

On Halloween this year I dressed as Superman and went to San Francisco's Castro district Halloween "parade."

Immediately the irony of this name becomes apparent to anyone who has been to this parade. To me a parade connotes shriners in little cars, firemen throwing candy from their trucks, high school marching bands playing pop favorites, and oversized inflatable floats. "Parade," to me then is typically and enduringly the Detroit Thanksgiving day parade. What one does then at this parade is stand still for hours in the biting wind and bone-gnawing cold, and watch spectacles pass you by. It always seemed, too, that the bands played just before they reached my spot on the concrete, or just after they passed me. At the Detroit Thanksgiving day parade I was always stuck with the idea that I was in the wrong spot, that there was some golden marker a 100 feet further down the road that was the ideal vantage point.

The Castro Halloween parade is in every way the opposite. In the CHP, you are the spectacle. The halloween-goers walk in two lanes down Market st, a grassy median dividing, and watch each other. You are at once observer and observed, parade goer and parade.

But this sounds too passive. What there is, is a crush of bodies. A sea of people. Blocks and blocks of Halloween.

The castro parade stretches for a few blocks down Market st, and curves abruptly down Castro st. Here it feels more like being in the front row at an SRO concert: the people move in tides and swells and streams.

The costumes, of course, are the real reason to go to the Castro. The Castro is the gay district of San Francisco. And the costumes are fantastic. I saw a couple dressed as the Golden Gate bridge. A thousand and one drag queens in full regalia. Superheroes, soldiers, nurses, whores, animals of various hue and specie.

I went last year too, when I first moved to this city. I was still freaked out and culture shocked. The fair unnerved me and unsettled me. It didn't behave like Halloween should.

This year, I saw a difference though: more people were costumeless. Which is not to say naked—though I saw that too. A man wearing a cowboy shirt and chaps with his penis hanging out; a woman on a fire escape bearing her breasts to the hooting and roars of the crowd; a woman doing a slow striptease in an upstairs window. But the costumeless crowd bothered me. In some areas they outnumbered the costumed.

Were they tourists? Locals who came to watch the parade of humanity? Were they lost? I saw one German couple frantically contemplating a map and glancing around horrified. The presence of so many uncostumed people seemed to me a violation of the rules. This party, this parade was not for them, not to entertain them—they had ordinary parades for that. This parade was for us: the costumed and those who have what my mother calls "the spirit."

But then I caught a glimpse of a slight smirk on the face of one of these non-costumed participants. At first I thought I thought it was just a short man in a suit, but when I looked closer it became clear that it was a woman in drag.

Last year, my friend Jason went out as "Gentle" for Halloween. He wore a black turtleneck and carried a flower. He had a costume; this was not the way he usually dressed. His costume was subtle, and probably fell below the radar of many of the parade goers.

How many of the other people whom I had been silently chastising in my head had been dressed similarly subtly? There were a 1000 flamboyant drag queens walking around, but how many went the other route and cross-dressed to pass? How many of those guys in suits weren't really guys? How many of the lost looking tourists were really costumed San Franciscans dressed as the ever-present lost tourist? And I'll also bet that some of the just plain normal looking people walking around are secretly head-shop owners or aging punks, who for day of the year hide their plumage under baseball caps and dress like everyone else.

While walking around, my girlfriend saw a guy who looked again entirely plain and uncostumed. As we passed she heard him say with a sneer, "I can't believe he thought I wasn't wearing a costume."

On Halloween in San Francisco, you can never be sure if someone you see is in costume or not. That glittery girl with the fairy wings? Oh she wears those every day. That man dressed in breeches and leather knee boots? Again, every day.

By the end of the night I gave up trying to guess what people's costumes were. We were all here and enjoying ourselves. Nothing else really mattered. So I let myself be pushed with the crowd, drank my flask of vodka and Red Bull and thoroughly enjoyed my $33 Poormojo dollars.

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