I grew up a few blocks from the Tournament of Roses madness on Colorado Blvd. The parade has its history and draw, but locals know the real action lies in everything leading up to the televised event.
There’s the ritual of sleeping out on the route the night before, which is huge when you’re 14. You grab your sleeping bag and a few friends, plus four bags of Nacho or Cool Ranch Doritos, and you find the ideal spot like a cat circling for the perfect perch. In theory, you’re there to secure a space on Colorado for your family, but in reality, you’re there to witness the one night of near-lawlessness, near-Mardi Gras that Pasadena has to offer.
Thick lines of happy drunks kiss and holler past. Sleepless kids aim their silly string at cars, especially convertibles. Retirees in their RV bunkers form a long, secure caravan for miles along the side streets, so inevitably it’s important to harass the old timers out of their nests by knocking on their plastic doors at 2, 3, 4am. Firecrackers pop up into the cold, clear night. Grilled onions and chorizo on small outdoor barbeques abound, and the smell wakes you up hungry.
Long before daylight people start to claim their spots on the route, armed with blankets and folding chairs. They line up three, four, five deep along the incredibly long street, and the bottles from the night before get swept to the side. The cameras all get set up on the westernmost corner of Orange Grove and Colorado, but the further east you go the less polite the jostling tends to be. People like an unobstructed view.
My family refuses to go in person anymore (unless we get out-of-town visitors, which poses a dilemma). They still wake up early on New Year’s Day and watch the sky for the high-tech bomber that buzzes the route (a worrisome ritual) and catch the first telecast of the parade, with all its awful announcer-chatter.
To grow up in Pasadena is to watch the parade on someone’s shoulders when you’re little; to mock it in person when you’re a teenager; to roll the more mobile trash at the wheels of passing RVs on Jan 2nd. In short, the parade is such a manicured, family-friendly delight that it takes a lot of effort to not subvert it.
Which brings me to the other unseen part of the Rose Parade: people volunteer to build the floats. Unqualified kids and adults immerse themselves in a process so laborious and painstaking in its application of individual rose types and minute seeds that it’s a wonder the floats emerge on time at all.
In honor of the New Year, a poem I wrote when I was 19.
Pasadena turns on men, arouses
with roses. Blisters each new year
with gobs of American Beauty.
In warehouses the night before,
we scramble, shove puffs of Paradise
through chicken wire and plywood,
string up White Lightnin’,
Red Devil. The foreman
for a day drawls “Don’t forget
they’re worth more than you”:
the exotic shipped, sprayed
to last, arrayed with precision.
Our float, pelted with Simplicity,
“the largest mobile possum
in the parade’s proud history.”
Complete with leering wink
and waggle, my friend finds it
cute, wants hot pink Puppy Love
flanking its revolving eyes.
The supe barks for Buff Beauty
and I run to the platform
built for fourteen
bovine ex-Queens; on their
girdled trash can risers (the theme
tomorrow being Fun
in the City), the Strumpet
and Cupcake keep wilting.
Our rodent starts to throb and quiver,
shakes thick scent across the workers,
cautiously extends its tail as it heads
toward the route. Starglo snout
to the night sky, it squeaks and winks,
warming up for tomorrow’s prance
under the scrutiny of cottony
crowds, cameras, stripping souvenir
Charisma. Our opossum will proudly
chug past the pimply bands and albino
ponies; it will take its place
in the unfailingly bright California
morning as we sleep through the newest
day, dreaming of Voodoo and Shot Silk,
Camelot and Bronze Masterpiece.