On Saturday, June 20th, I spotted Poseidon on the F train platform in the Coney Island terminal and started to follow him down into the station. Hundreds of mermaids, Jack Sparrows, jelly fish, and assorted sea creatures walked quickly between and around us. I kept my eyes on Poseidon’s three-pronged trident—made with black tape and two upside down coat hangers—as he maneuvered through the crowd.
Outside, it had just started to rain, lightly at first and then in sheets. Unperturbed, Poseidon paused for a photographer, giving his best steely look. Next to him, a twenty-something man stood on a foldable, plastic footstool. “Repent and obey Jesus!” he yelled out. We were all at the 33rd annual Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, which was scheduled to start marching down Surf Avenue (from around West 23rd) at 1pm before turning to make its way down the boardwalk. A blanket of cold clouds covered the sky, but no one seemed to care. The parade must—and would—go on.
The crowd was split along either side of Surf Avenue, with spectators staking out a spot behind the NYPD’s metal barricades. Some just had umbrellas, while others came with camping chairs, tables, food, and drinks. Along the edges, vendors hawked mangoes, t-shirts, body paint, and “mermaid rain ponchos” in pink, blue, and green (“Don’t get wet; get a poncho!”). The police were out in droves, lending an air of gravitas to what was otherwise a scene of light-hearted revelry.
Each year, and on the sunnier days, the Mermaid Parade typically draws hundreds of thousands of people, some who march and some who come just to see the marchers dressed in giant pirate hats, bedazzled crop tops, impossibly high stilettos, cardboard tentacles, or any other sea-inspired gear. The costumes are usually colorful, made-at-home, and creatively low-budget. This year, the crowds looked thinner—a few thousand at most—but not any less enthusiastic.
First founded in 1983 by Dick Zigun (the unofficial “Mayor of Coney Island”), the Mermaid Parade celebrates the the beginning of the summer season and pays homage to the Coney Island Mardi Gras parades of the early 20th century. Over the years, the parade has attracted worldwide attention (and admiration) and has at least one copycat: The Dutch throw their own version in a seaside district in the Hague.
During the parade, drinking alcohol is allowed on the boardwalk and in front of the establishments that sell the beverages. Partial nudity is also allowed—women can legally go topless in New York, though most march in pasties, body paint, and bras decorated with seashells in lieu of baring it all—but the parade remains family-friendly. By 4pm, I had seen jelly fish made out of umbrellas, little dogs with mermaid tail jackets, an Uncle Sam on stilts, a black sports car that had giant shark fins and teeth, and people with armfuls of handheld bubble makers coming out of a trailer with Vermont plates.
I had also caught a glimpse of King Neptune and Queen Mermaid—this year, actor Mat Fraser and his wife, burlesque star Julie Atlas Muz—smiling for a throng of photographers before they were pulled away on their chariot. And, briefly, a redhead with a live snake wrapped around her head had stood next to me and we had watched part of the parade together: Penguins Protesting Pollution, Irish Mermaids, the Gotham Girls Roller Derby, the Kings County Pipes and Drums, and a woman wearing a box of fish filet as a headband.
When a float of tatooed mermaids rolled by dancing and singing the lyrics to Pink’s hit song “Funhouse”—“this used to be a fun house; but now it’s full of evil clowns”—two solemn spectators who had been holding signs about repentance started to bob their heads and dance along. How could anyone blame them? By the time I saw Poseidon again, this time as marcher #525 in the parade, I was also dancing in the rain that was now coming down in drizzles and drops, dampening my shoes, my notebook, and my hair, but definitely not my spirits.