Huddled figures in long coats dart out of parked cars and in and out of doorways like rodents searching for the remnants of a forgotten banquet. On one dark corner, the sharp scent of Old Crow asserts itself over the subtler aroma of malt liquor and the awkward voices of three teen-age boys. "We'll just finish this bottle off and stash the other one." The bottle is passed and the recipient shudders audibly as the liquor sears his throat.
"That shit's nasty," he says through clenched teeth. "Let's get going." Cupping their cigarettes against the rain, the three make their way down the street toward a warehouse fronted by a roofless foyer of plywood and plastic. "The Feast" is scrawled across the streetside boards with a large dripping arrow pointing the way.
"This is it," says one of the boys. "Crash Worship's Thanksgiving free-for-all." Two of the teens split a small tablet in half and place it on their tongues as a brawny gent in work boots and overalls greets them.
"You'll have to be searched," says the man. He escorts them through the door, where two security guards wait to pat them down. The space, called Nomad's Land, is dark and the folks working the ticket table have to squint at the money handed them, holding the crinkled bills up to candlelight to determine denominations. Huge plastic drapes hang behind them; a mass of humanity can be felt on the other side. Downtempo and trip-hop beats send vibrations through rubber-soled shoes.
"You have to know what you want before you can know what you're thankful for," says Penelope Miskis, a 16-year-old cream-complected urchin who wears her fuchsia belly-dancing outfit with aplomb. "I just wanted to dance and get naked this Thanksgiving." Miskis twirls off to wrap her willowy arms around a tall man wearing a long pink housecoat and a Santa's hat. This is not a costume party per se, but the crowd -- both old and young -- is extravagantly dressed. Vegas showgirls, jesters, buccaneers, Zorro-cum-Stevie-Ray-Vaughan guys, tie-dyed hippies, industrial mechanics, and neo-pagans all mingle together. Even the less extravagant types who limit themselves to baggy jeans, opposing patterns, and teddy-bear backpacks seem to have a shtick or a symbol to set themselves apart. There are those who carry 2-foot ankhs or battery-powered eggbeaters; others just walk around like unhinged marionettes.
"Symbols are very important," says 36-year-old Mary Comes, who sports a Linga -- the most potent symbol of the Hindu god Shiva -- in the middle of her forehead. "People need symbols to remind them of things that are meaningful."
Time spins by. Beyond Race perform and Doo Rag mislay their drummer. Una Di Saturnali hangs by her head on a spinning trapeze. After midnight, there is a fire-bearing procession, but a slightly disappointing one. While it had many of the qualities a young person might look for in a fire-bearing procession -- breathing, twirling, writhing -- it was not accompanied by the hypnotic drumming of Crash Worship or free-flowing wine, two very essential characteristics for any pagan feast.
A slender boy wearing a Cat in the Hat hat passes a small blinking red emergency light to a friend, who takes it on a pilgrimage through the crowd, showing it to anyone who will pay attention. "The fire is coming," he promises.
The young man with the light is right: This fire-bearing procession -- it begins in the wee hours of the morning -- has it all. It's led by none other than the drummers from Crash Worship, the neo-tribal industrial collective from San Diego. But there're also hula hoops of fire, four-man litters carrying lovely fruit-bearing women, bags of wine, fireworks that streak through and over the crowd, flaming nunchucks, a ceremonial boat conveying the string section from Amber Asylum, and a tall guy in a white frilly dress with a flamethrower on his back blowing fire through the crowd.
The throng has been waiting for this moment, when everyone is sticky with wine and the heat of the flames dances across their faces. There are howls and hoots and mountain trills. Smoke fills the air. The Old Crow threesome strip down to shorts and boots and pound their chests like banshees. Even when the cops come and turn on all the lights, the drummers don't stop and the dancing continues. After all, the roast pigs haven't been served yet, and the older, more traditional Thanksgiving day events hold little appeal for a mad Cat in the Hat and a tribal cosmonaut with a blinking emergency light.
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By Silke Tudor