Wednesday, July 11, 2012


As an official of this large and important city (a hub of both commerce and culture, situated on a major inland waterway), my duties include the planning and coordination of an annual parade that has become a community event of some magnitude. This city is, for the most part, a modern city - not one of those decaying shells of turn-of-the-century urban life with scarcely habitable tenements and row houses, narrow, crumbling streets, dust- and soot-encrusted shops covered at night with grill-work. No, this is a contemporary city; people don't live here. They live outside the city and come here only to work or to shop or to amuse themselves. The jig-sawed cityscape rises against the sky like cliffs and pillars of reinforced concrete, plate glass, and steel: solid as granite, brilliant as crystal, sharp-edged as a sword. A highway nexus joins knots of high-rise apartment buildings and shopping centers that form islands in the sea of single houses spreading out from the city's core.
As I was saying, I have spent considerable time during the past few months occupied with planning and preparations for today's parade: setting the date, contacting fraternal organizations and colleges to arrange for floats and musicians, contracting for vehicles, communicating with departments of Public Safety and Sanitation for permits and personnel. I have come into the city early today to do the last-minute phoning required for everything to run smoothly. The parade route has been closed to cars by the traffic control division of Public Safety. Uniformed policemen are stationed throughout the area to keep people off the streets and the cross-walks overhead. The general functioning of the city, particularly that part of it around City Hall, has been disrupted for several hours, but few are inconvenienced on a Sunday afternoon.
After parking my car in a new underground parking garage, I go to my office by way of an overpass blocked by a policeman. He obviously recognizes me without identification and nods to let me pass. People have begun to gather early for the parade; children and their parents line the streets along the parade route, sitting on camp chairs and blankets; vendors sell candy and roasted chestnuts from sidewalk carts. Beyond the cement side-walls of the cross walk rise yellowed and browning maples, bare-branched elms, green and gold sycamores. And beyond them range multilithic skyscrapers like a giant histogram against the gray glow of the sky, like a solid, three-dimensional, population-growth bar-graph.
I walk alone along the empty overpass toward my office in the new City Hall building, I notice a cloud of leaves flying through the air in front of me as if borne up by a vigorous wind. Large, yellow and brown leaves float and swirl--turning, gliding, somersaulting erratically, some even landing on the cross-walk in front of me near the tops of some maples. I peer over the edge of the wall toward the trees and view an intriguing spectacle.
Children are tossing leaves into the updraft of a vent above the underground parking lot. Several families, speaking different languages, skin of various earth hues, have gathered around the vent. Children run and squeal and pick up piles of leaves that, when thrown, fly from their hands like scattering pigeons. The leaves catch in the up-rush of air and rise as if by magic: floating higher and higher into the sky, tossing this way and that, tracing graceful arabesques, and then, the magic spent, drifting indecisively back to the ground. The children, watched by mothers, abetted by fathers, gather leaves and throw them into the air over and over again, laughing, jumping with each toss, heads thrown back to see the leaves climb skyward. I stand and gaze awhile, and then, not wishing to squander more time (since I have several calls to make), I walk briskly toward City Hall.
I take the elevator to the fourteenth floor; once in my office, I glance out the window. Down and far off to the right, yellow specks rise like a swarm of bees above the cross-walk. From the window, I can also see the gathering spectators, diminutive at this distance, that line the parade route. I establish radio contact with my assistant in East Side Park at the start of the parade route where floats and bands have gathered. The organization and order of the parade are proceeding smoothly. As the time draws near for the parade to begin, I put on my coat carefully and leave the office; I am to be one of the officials on the dais observing the event. I glance in the long mirror near the elevator and feel reassured that any TV camera trained on the official box will find me befittingly attired and groomed. When I arrive at the viewing stand, I greet everyone pleasantly.
I give the signal by radio for the parade to begin. At first, only the faint pulse of drums and tubas can be heard dimly in the distance; soon the sharper, more brazen din of other winds pierces the air. Crowd noises diminish; small children are hoisted onto their fathers' shoulders; people turn expectantly toward the sounds.

The parade arrives, all trumpets and glitter. Pigeons waddling on the streets scavenging cast-off fragments of food fly before baton-twirling majorettes in short skirts. Behind these come brassy, strutting musicians; lurching, stilted, high-stepping figures; fragile floats topped by bobbing, oversized fantasy images and waving figurines. All flow by in slick succession - smoothly, almost flawlessly - enthralling the children. I stand ceremoniously, hoping that no engine stalls, no child runs into the street to be struck by an oncoming vehicle, no aging clown collapses of a stroke to mar the procession. The multitudes have waited hours for this parade; the spectacle is over in minutes, winding, serpentine, down other streets, past other spectators. Once the parade has passed, the crowd throngs the streets.
I walk back toward my office to make sure the parade's dispersal goes smoothly (and to wait until traffic thins before driving home). No leaves now fly across the overpass as I walk along it. I take the elevator to the fourteenth floor of City Hall, traverse the deserted hallway and enter my office. I gaze for a moment out the window at the emptying streets and dimming sky and then turn to my desk and to the telephone to discharge the rest of my immediate duties, a sense of relief and exhaustion, perhaps even melancholy, overtaking me.
It's dark outside when I leave the building. The park around City Hall is quite silent. Leaves swish and crackle with each footstep. I notice as I pass the vent that it's still surrounded by mounds of leaves. Looking quickly around and, seeing no one nearby, I stoop and gather up a crisp and fluttering armful. I toss the leaves into the air and throw my head back to watch them rise in the soft orange glow of the park lights, see them fly up and up and up, catching gusts of air, tumbling, and twirling, and careening, and then gliding widely as they zigzag gently back to earth.

[Published in Kansas Quarterly (1992) v24, No 2&3, p167]