Since its debut in 1924, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has only missed three years when helium and rubber were needed to stop Nazis. In 2020, the coronavirus was threatening the annual spectacle again. Children everywhere wondered if a version of the parade would happen and adults everywhere wondered if the joy was worth the risk. Macy’s compromise was a “limited parade” with “no spectators allowed.” I’m not a parade essentialist, but isn’t a parade without spectators just traffic? And how exactly can one hide a 30-foot-tall Pikachu?
Since making New York my home, I’ve wanted to make a pilgrimage to the Macy’s Parade, long before this experiment to fall back in love with New York by being a tourist. Ideally, I’d befriend some wealthy benefactor who had a warm penthouse that would put me at eye level with Spider-Man, or I’d become a mildly-tolerated pop star and be booked to lip-sync on a winter gazebo by a brand with whom I have no affiliation. But each year on Turkey Day, I found myself guilted into traveling south to be with my family. I’ve tried to stop saying “going home” since my parents’ home is no longer mine. In 2020, for the first time in my lifetime, I was in New York on Thanksgiving Day, a train ride away from fulfilling a childhood dream.
“Unfortunately, there is not an onsite press opportunity as the entire event will be for broadcast only and essentially a backstage/set,” wrote a Macy’s rep back to me. Her message was clear, but I know subtext when I see it: “Zach, we absolutely definitely totally want you here! Come get yourself some damn Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Give. Love. Believe, Macy’s.”
I donned my gay apparel (a black winter peacoat), packed hand sanitizer and an umbrella, and adjusted my mask and expectations: I might see no parade. In fact, it might be a very sad experience: 3 million giddy spectators replaced by empty, lifeless streets and 16 soaring balloons cut down to a handful. But when nostalgia is involved, things don’t have to be perfect, and when you’re lonely in the middle of a pandemic, the company of a balloon or two might have to do.
Rain and an army of production trucks welcomed me to Herald Square. In the distance, I heard a trumpet playing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and my face broke into a smile. I followed the sound, assuming pimply kids from Dallas or Omaha were warming up for the social event of senior year. It was just a sole busker. Like a mouse in a maze, I traced the perimeter of a labyrinth of silver barricades searching for enough spectacle to justify my commute. Everything was blocked off. It was raining. I was cold and disappointed.
I’d all but decided to leave when I spotted a small crowd in the distance staring at something. I made my way over to join the other folks standing at an intersection designed for the stoned (a McDonald’s and a Taco Bell Cantina). I didn’t know if they were the crowd that queues to buy concert tickets or the bloodlusty crowd that forms in a field when a train has derailed. I joined them between two garbage trucks and a barricade to see it 100 feet in the distance: a balloon.
“Love Flies Up to the Sky” was a new float designed by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. It looked like an octopus and a fireball had sex and didn’t use a condom. Unaffiliated with a TV show, the balloon had no chance of inspiring children at home to say, “Mommy, I want! If you love me, you’ll get.” “Love” wasn’t flying up to the sky yet, either; it was tied to the ground, like a circus animal being kept from enjoying life. It had a face, I’d later learn, but like so many faces in 2020, I couldn’t see it.
“You can take your pictures, but I need to keep this area clear,” a cop on the other side of the barricade said. “They don’t want virus. They don’t want us congregating.”
There were about 20 other folks scattered on the asphalt around me. An older man with a tripod and his phone filming a short video. A man in a red Santa hat whose hair was just as spiked as his Red Bull was holding a woman in a green onesie with Christmas tree lights and a leopard print facemask.
“The scene is something like Judgement Day mixed with Sesame Street,” I overheard a man say.
Hiding in the tentacles of “Love” was a big red Macy’s “Believe” star, held down by ropes and handlers in red masks. Behind that was a balloon of a character: Boss Baby. While I didn’t grow up with the Boss Baby, I have become increasingly aware of his oeuvre in recent years. The gigantic baby in a suit with a briefcase was being pressed into the cement by a thick net like he’d double-crossed the wrong guys.
All these balloons were facing away from us, backs turned to scorn us for violating the rules, while their handlers milled about and got coffee. I wasn’t sure what we were all waiting for. One of them to pop? More balloons to appear? A vaccine?
“It’s gonna be another hour or so til they go up,” a cop told a family. That’s what we were waiting for. A balloon on the ground? Tragic and sad. A balloon in the sky? An inspiration to us all.
I’d already abandoned my standards of what was worthy of being watched, so I used the extra time to explore nearby. I came across a row of white trailers in the distance and watched them for the length of a sitcom. I wasn’t sure I’d recognize anyone who might come out—my pop culture knowledge is quite limited and Macy’s definition of “star” is quite broad. It didn’t matter: no one came or went. I abandoned this dim constellation and headed further west where I saw something no one should see, the type of dream-shattering, illusion-ending, behind-the-scenes sight the rep at Macy’s was trying to shield me from.
Tom the Turkey, the animatronic turkey that kicks off the parade each year with his dumb, carefree joie de vivre, had been decapitated. His head–cleanly removed by some off-screen guillotine–laid next to his thin neck on a truck bed. Had my mother been there, she would have shielded my eyes. Momless, I stared and the image seared into my psyche. The seams of my childhood dream were clearly visible. Scarred for life or at least the afternoon, I returned to balloon alley hoping for a Christmas miracle. Perhaps it was all a nightmare: the parade route would be filled with millions again, huge balloons, the skies opening to sun.
A three-person film crew from CNN, a reporter, a camera operator, and a man whose job seemed to be to say, “I’m on the phone with Atlanta,” had hijacked my spot. I had no desire to be on television (I hadn’t showered or spoken to a human that day), so I let him capture someone else.
“I have a very festive woman here,” he said to the camera. He’d selected the woman dressed for Santacon, although it had been canceled—and wasn’t on that day.
“One of my dreams was to be at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and here I am. 2020.”
Suddenly, a voice blared over a bullhorn.
“Boss Baby, we’re on deck.”
“Which baby is it?” a woman in the crowd asked her friend.
“On three!” the garbled voice announced, and a team of 10 started to pull the net off. “Up! Up! Up!” he chanted.
Would the balloon go up? Pop? Not move? Take a handler with it? Were we waiting for a show or a bloodbath? The net fell as intended, and Boss Baby shed his netty coil and ascended to the heavens, just a few feet off the ground. I looked up at the gigantic baby that rendered me an infant in its almighty shadow. Nineteen tourists and I clapped.
Whatever high I got from watching Boss Baby go up didn’t last long so I waited another hour for “Believe” to rise and another hour to see if “Love Flies Up to the Sky” would live up to its name. The balloons rose and moved away from us around the corner, but the small crowd stayed. We’d already been looking at almost nothing, what was another dozen minutes of actual nothing.
Eventually, I needed to pee. Long before Marvel and Scorsese tested the bandwidth of the human bladder, Macy’s decided Americans can stomach three-hour experiences. I decided to make one final lap to see if I could see something more spectacular or more inspiring. All I found was disappointment: a mom telling her kids who were playing in a puddle that they should have stayed home. Another man, seemingly a local, said the unspeakable, “This was the most pathetic parade ever.”
I posted up from a different barricade where a man turned to me and asked if it was my first parade. Without warning, I was on camera. Due to my star power or the fact that there were as many spectators as camerapeople, the lens was drawn to me.
“Did you see anything?” the reporter asked.
“I saw the backside of Boss Baby,” I said. “What greater balm to the wounds of 2020 than the backside of Boss Baby.”
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He laughed, the camera was cut, and I rode the temporary high of human interaction. I was suddenly in no rush to get back to my empty studio apartment, so I struck up a bit of small talk with the man and asked what the parade is usually like.
“A disaster,” he joked with a twang.
He detected my accent, too, and we learned we are both from Virginia. His name was Antoine and his beat for Fox 5 seemed to be covering chaos: the parade, Yankees wins, New Year’s Eve in Times Square.
“I secretly love Times Square,” I confessed.
“Me too,” he said. “I even used to live in Hell’s Kitchen to be close to it.”
“Why do you think we like it?” I asked.
“It’s cause we’re not from here. We’ll always be tourists.”
I headed home, outed as a tourist in my own town, and got drunk on old limoncello and fulfilling a dream. It was nothing like the parade I’d seen as a kid, but it was never going to be. Things look different when you’re more Boss than Baby.
But maybe it was the parade that needed me. Although Macy’s played a non-zero role, spectators make a parade; so me and a merry band of misfits—a haphazard family of rule-breakers, adventure-seekers, Mr. and Mrs. Santacon, and a reporter—came together in unprecedented times to make sure a New York tradition wasn’t missed.
Zach Zimmerman is a queer comedian, writer, and author of Time Out New York’s “Pretend I’m A Tourist” column. A regular at the Comedy Cellar, Zach has appeared on The Late Late Show with James Corden and had a debut album “Clean Comedy” debut on the Billboard Top 10. Zach’s writing has been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and The Washington Post; and Zach’s first book Is It Hot in Here? (Or Am I Suffering for All Eternity for the Sins I Committed on Earth?) (April 2023) is available for pre-order now.