Grab your pasties, slap on some glitter, and don’t worry if your bathing suit and skirt don’t match or fit. You know what? It’s better if they don’t. Your only requirement at the Coney Island Mermaid parade is to have some fun and let it all hang out.
I love parades, especially ones with character. The best parades are rooted in some deep tradition no one can really remember, but morph each year as new twists are added to keep the crowds coming back. Two parades had a big impression on me.
I was hypnotized the first time I saw Hare Krishnas march down a Boston street, and I was a regular at the Mummers Parade when I lived in Philadelphia. The parades may seem very different: one celebrates religion, the other blue-collar union pride; but the differences end there. Participants of both have far-out clothes (drapey robes, feathers and parasols), play indigenous, folksy music (gongs and hand cymbals, string-band renditions of “Golden Slippers”), toss things at crowds (marigolds, beaded necklaces) and can be seen as gateway events to other cults.
I can’t remember how I first heard about the Mermaid Parade, but I’ve wanted to go for ages. Two years ago I went for the first time, and my parade holy trinity is now complete.
The Mermaid Parade is a state of mind that turns into a parade each June to kick off summer in the City, and its roots are vague and fun. I heard on the news that it “celebrates mythology,” but that might be overthinking it. I’m guessing a bunch of screwballs got together, made costumes based on the nearby avenues, and walked around the beach having a blast. When it got too big I like to think city officials told them to get a permit to keep it legal, and a tradition was born.
Even though I didn’t grow up in New York, Coney Island had some influence on my youth. I was first introduced to Brooklyn’s beach oasis courtesy of my hometown. Coney Island Hot Dogs is a Worcester institution, thanks to its incredible neon sign. It’s also in a really sketchy part of town, which only heightens its appeal and strengthens its ties to the real Coney Island.
I didn’t know it then, but another influence was Hampton Beach, NH. My father’s sister’s family would get a big house there every summer, and we’d rent a house there the years we didn’t go to the Cape.
Hampton is the anti-Cape. When we joined forces with our cousins it became a magical time when reality was suspended, and the only rule was to get tan and listen to disco on the beach. I can see my aunt in her beach chair singing along to Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” as I type this. Hampton had not only sand and sea but a fabulously trashy boardwalk where I got my first taste of video games (still gong strong!), and we all got daily tastes of penuche and chocolate fudge. I will bet all kinds of money that my older cousins and assorted friends had their own Mermaid Parade on the boardwalk after we, the younger kids, went to bed.
And I can’t be sure of this, but I think my first glimpse of the real Coney Island was courtesy of the pre-release commercials and general hysteria that surrounded “The Warriors” when it first came out. “The Warriors” was supposed to be a terrifying, ripped-from-the-pages account of an unhinged New York City ruled by gangs (side note: this was in the authentic scary New York era that everyone pines for these days.). But, when it was finally released and reviewed, it became the “Mommie Dearest” for the gang life. If you haven’t seen it stop reading this right now and stream it on any device you have handy. It is a classic.
I don’t know how I got here, but all of these roads eventually took me to the Mermaid Parade, which celebrates all of this somehow. No heavy cause or messages here, just a good time for those who want to kick off summer with some fun in the sun. So get your imagination going and hit a fabric store—you have eleven months or so to get your costume ready. Toot toot, hey, beep beep!