A native New Yorker wrangles a balloon in the Thanksgiving parade.
The first sign I was doing my job right came when a woman on the Upper West Side recognized me as a balloon handler in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Decked in a white jump suit, with Pokémon written on the front and two of the characters on the back, I headed to meet my fellow wranglers for the Pikachu balloon.
I felt funny in the garb. My doorman did not even flinch when I walked by in the early hours of dawn on Thursday. What does he think of my daily fashion choices?
The woman, on her way to snag a viewing spot, stopped me on West 81st Street.
“I’d figured you were a balloon handler based on your outfit,” she said. She said she was eager to see the Baby Yoda balloon. (“And yours,” she added, perhaps insincerely).
My team had more volunteers than lines to steer Pikachu. So I thought I would be on the sidelines, getting the crowd energized. By some accident of fate — I often describe myself the Forrest Gump of The New York Times thanks to my random career opportunities — I was near the front of the balloon when we got the signal to get ready.
I ended up steering the giant cartoon character until its final destination: the deflation station on 40th Street and Seventh Avenue. (Pro tip: Consider watching the parade from there! From 36th Street up, it felt like an abandoned amusement park.)
The journey was like an intense workout. Towing the line requires some strength and coordination as you respond to shouts to lower or raise the balloon. We also sometimes had to quicken our pace to close the gap between us and the float ahead. I can’t imagine doing this in windy weather.
I’ve done the NYC marathon and that day strikes me as New York at its best. People cheering strangers on. And it is the only day in the city when someone could hand me a cup of water, a piece of candy or a slice of fruit and I would take it and not think twice about eating it. Today was similar. This will be something I look back on with fondness.
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