The Big Red Machination

Riding shotgun in 24 feet of honkin' flatbed truck with musicians Jake Speed & the Freddies jostling in the back, on its surface the 2003 Opening Day Parade looked like its usual annual self. By 11

Riding shotgun in 24 feet of honkin' flatbed truck with musicians Jake Speed & the Freddies jostling in the back, on its surface the 2003 Opening Day Parade looked like its usual annual self.

By 11 a.m., some neighborhood fellas nursed double deuces in wrinkled brown bags. They didn't look once at our memorabilia, appearing oblivious to the impending festivities.

Merchants of the Findlay Market Association organize the parade, so participants gather deep in Over-the-Rhine on Elm Street and wait to be signaled into line. It makes for a forced seating chart.

We were all at God's table — black drill teams, white beauty queens, incoming black City Councilwoman Laketa Cole, a bevy of community groups, small businesses, Cincinnati Reds mascots Mr. Red and Gapper and Country radio stations. And me, a non-fan spying in the house of baseball.

Helium hissed into balloons. Children ran around. Teenagers banged on bass drums in formation warm-ups.

A man on rollerblades wearing a Cincinnati Reds jogging suit with Pepsi logos made semi-circles and mimed a moonwalk.

The promotional van of an annoying Country radio station blasted Ray Charles' version of "America, the Beautiful" in a ploy to elicit patriotism. Nobody looked around.

I spotted Cole across from our truck. A white Ford Explorer was festooned with a banner proclaiming, "The Cole Train Headed for City Council."

"This is just what we need," Cole yelled to me in excitement. "Somebody unique on City Council! No councilwoman has this."

Then she played her theme and pummeled us with her noisemaker. Sung to the tune of the "Soul Train" theme, "Cole Train" blared from four speakers atop the Explorer.

A parade organizer squeezed in eight more cars. Back in the cab of the rented CityBeat flatbed, I watched another corps of black teenagers on drums storm past. Parked at Elm and Henry streets, we were No. 133.

Two young black women with several children crowded the doorway of a brick Section 8 building. They turned occasionally to watch the white owners of eight low-slung Plymouth Prowlers, the cars like futuristic insects. One man pulled a soft-headed mop-like brush from the trunk and carefully swept it across the car's rear.

"My team is Reds hot/ Your team ain't doodily squat," went the song played by the annoying Country radio station van.

At 11:35 a.m., Mayor Charlie Luken got into and out of the rust-colored Prowler. At Cole's camp, he shook a hand and patted a baby. Then with City Manager Valerie Lemmie, Luken walked up Elm, pausing briefly to wave. Lemmie blew kisses.

At 11:40, an Elvis impersonator with the annoying Country radio station van warbled his way through a terrifying rendition of the national anthem. A mixed double of four black neighborhood men — two older, two younger — strutted through, laughed and turned down Henry Street.

From our flatbed, Jake Speed & the Freddies jangled up on washboard, harmonica, kazoo, guitars and banjo but were soon drowned out. Contrary to parade rules disavowing political statements, Lee Greenwood bellowed, "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free..." from the annoying Country radio van.

Marge Schott whizzed by in a golf cart looking smaller, frailer and less frightening than on TV. The Chick-Fil-A cow wore its threadbare "Eat Mor Chiken" sandwich board, and people accosted the mascot for photo ops.

We chugged into formation at 12:45 and eased out of it at parade's end shortly before 2 p.m. All along Race Street, the faces were predominantly black with a few white families, and there were hoards of schoolchildren of all races who were responsive to my calls to "make some noise."

By the time we crossed Central Parkway into the boycott zone, the revelers were white families and hooky-playing businessmen.

Turning onto Fifth Street and heading toward Fountain Square, the crowds were thickest, but also the least enthusiastic.

Being in a parade is akin to being a clown. It's scary fun.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

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