My brother was standing in his hallway, holding two folding chairs, with a three-foot long Coleman cooler stationed at his feet. It was four o’clock in the morning, and he was waiting for us to leave so we could secure front row spots along Central Park West for our families to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was way too early to start drinking, but I asked, “Is there beer in that cooler?”
My brother said, “No, idiot. It’s empty. We need to bring it to prevent people from encroaching on our spot. People get aggressive, so we’re going to use the cooler as a barricade. Are you ready?”
I was ready for a coffee, but I was not prepared to defend a small section of sidewalk against the New York masses. Nevertheless, I donned my jacket and toque, and we hopped into a taxi with our cooler and chairs. I said to my brother, “The things we do for our kids.”
We found a perfect spot on Central Park West and 73rd Street, next to a street post (a natural barrier), to set up camp. We got there just in time, because by 5:00am, all of the front row spots on our block were taken. Five minutes after my brother and I arrived, three strangers walked toward us. With a friendly pit-bull smile, one of the guys, named Patrick, informed us that he had grown up on the Upper West Side and that he had been coming to the parade since he was a kid. He said, “You took our spot.”
I thought, “Here we go.” But instead of causing a scene, Patrick just introduced himself, his sister and her boyfriend. Patrick set down some blankets on the other side of our street post and said he was saving places for his wife, his 20-month-old daughter, and his brother’s family. He appreciated our commitment and welcomed us to his neighborhood.
Patrick was gracious and funny. Based on his jovial mood, I guessed that he had not woken up early, but instead had just left some Amsterdam Avenue establishment. He told us a few stories about his years at the Thanksgiving Day Parade. My favorite was the year his mother surprised him and his siblings by taking them to a random building on Central Park West, where she had a key to a vacated apartment. From the front windows of the apartment, their family had a perfect bird’s eye view of the parade.
Patrick said, “My Dad thought we were going to get arrested, and I still don’t know how my Mom got us in to that apartment, but I will always remember those giant balloons floating by almost at eye level.”
By 8:00am, the crowd was encroaching, but we held our ground. My brother’s family, Stacie, and our kids navigated their way through the horde to meet my brother and me at our corner. The wives sat on the cooler, and the kids hung over the police fences anxiously waiting for the first float to make its way down Central Park West.
The parade started at 9:00am, and for the next hour and a half my kids turned around every few minutes with big smiles pointing at the giant balloons, marching bands, and floats. The four-year-old shouted each time a giant balloon rounded the corner of 77th Street.
Just at the time I was feeling most proud of my early morning efforts, I saw Neil Diamond standing on top of a float waving to the crowd. You could tell that he wasn’t there for publicity – he was truly enjoying himself. Neil has sold more albums in the U.S. than U2, so he doesn’t need to ride on a float in a parade. But Neil is a New Yorker, and what kid growing up in New York doesn’t want to be center stage on a Thanksgiving Day Parade float? The crowd was happy to see Neil, but it was Neil who was happiest.
It suddenly occurred to me that I had missed part of the purpose of our morning. My brother and I wanted to give our kids a lasting memory. But I realized that our efforts were not only for our family’s entertainment, they were also selfish. Seeing Neil Diamond relish in the morning’s festivities made me realize that I was enjoying watching my kids as much as they were enjoying watching the parade. The things I do for my kids are often the things I do for myself.
I looked over at Patrick and his family. His hangover must have been settling in, but I couldn’t tell. He was laughing and joking with his brother, and their kids were all smiles. Patrick returned every year to the Thanksgiving Day Parade not because he had to, but because he loved it, and he wanted to share it with his family. I bet Patrick’s mother negotiated with the superintendent of that building, not only so her kids could have a unique experience, but also so that she could see the joy on their faces when those giant balloons floated by, close enough to touch.
Santa Claus is the star of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and he rides on the last float. As he chuckled and waved, I thought, “Even Santa Claus is selfish.” After all, how could that jolly old soul spend all year making toys, if delivering them to little girls and boys on Christmas didn’t make him happy? So as Christmas approaches this year, I’m going to remember to be selfish.