You want me to what?
That was my initial thought after being asked by Kaiser Permanente to be a representative on their float at the Rose Parade. I never, ever thought of going to the Rose Parade, let alone being on a float. It’s not like I volunteered to help with the homecoming float during high school. I never even marched in a Parade. (Okay, maybe once with my 6th grade band, blowing my saxophone down the main street of my home town, but that was rinky-dink.)
I grew up with the Rose Parade on TV every New Year’s Day and remember glancing over on occasion to see over-sized creatures wheeling slowly through crowd-lined streets. I was familiar with the iconic history, but the parade always struck me as a very distant event, and a little strange, Dr. Suessian even, yet undeniably festive. So, when given the unique opportunity to participate in the parade and actually be on a float I thought, “well, why not?” And with Georgia unexpectedly competing in the Rose Bowl, I was even more honored to represent Kaiser Permanente Georgia and Georgia Organics.
After a flight comprised of red-cloaked Bulldog fans, I touched down in Los Angeles and headed to meet the costumer to outfit me. The Kaiser float consisted of an edible garden and was themed Inspiring Healthy Communities. Kaiser is a long-time partner and supporter of Georgia Organics’ farm to school work thus the reason they asked me to participate. Ironically, most of the float riders would be dressed as gardeners, which was not far from my usual weekend wear. However, dressing for a parade and television is an entirely different affair and a question of scale, visibility and color dominance. The costumer had a rack of hanging clothing, hollywood style, and after sizing me up, she had me try on various outfits of loud color combinations before settling on orange pants and gloves, a blue shirt, a purple smock and a straw hat. My usual urban aesthetic of black and grey went by the wayside.
New Year’s Eve morning, I met the other seven float riders and we were whisked off for Judging Day. My cohorts were comprised of Kaiser Physicians and nurses, two chefs and community representatives from around the country. We experienced the LA standard in event logistics, “hurry up and wait”. After standing around on cold asphalt in a dark tent before the sun rose, we finally were herded into a large warehouse. This is where the curtain was finally pulled back and I had my “ah-hah” moment.
Before heading to LA, my friends and coworkers peppered me with questions about the parade – what was on our float, what would I be wearing, etc.. I confessed that I knew few details other than my flight time, hotel location and that I must be prepared to get up very, very early to meet the shuttle. The only significant detail I did know is that I had to be prepared to stand on a float for five hours with no food, drink or bathroom breaks. When was the last time I stood for five hours? I couldn’t recall. Being so uninformed in the Information Age was unsettling but oddly gave the whole float business an air of mystery. So, when we walked into the float hanger, it finally hit me. Wow. This is why people put the Rose Parade on their bucket list.
It was fantastical! The eight floats inside the warehouse were astounding in size, color and design, but it was the fine detail that was the raison d’etre. This is something you can never grasp from a television set. The 50-foot long floats were made for seeing up close, for standing next to and leaning in with a close eye. They were exquisite, made of hundreds of pounds of natural material delicately affixed and layered by an army of volunteers over a period of five days. The Kaiser float showcased garlands of fresh vegetables, a bed of green roses, manzanita leaves, orange lentils, palm fronds and other organic supplies to make the garden come to life. Because all the floats had to be made with compostable material, there is no paint used. Let me repeat, no paint is used to make these dazzling displays of color. It is all natural material. This is what the Rose Parade is about – making the small, large – with seeds, spices and herbs. And the roses . . . I have never seen so many roses in my life.
After much astonishment and photo taking, we were positioned on the floats with care not to trample the sea of flowers surrounding us. We each stood on a one-foot square block and were belted into a metal post to keep from falling off the float. Here we waited for the judges to make their way to our float for their formal assessment. Once they arrived, our song Walking on Sunshine blasted and 46 dancing vegetables were activated as we waved and smiled to the nonexistent crowd for five minutes until the judges moved to the next float. Unfortunately, our float didn’t win any awards but the dancing carrots, turnips, pumpkins and cabbage became a crowd favorite!
At 6 a.m. the next morning, we arrived at the parade staging area. Here, my fellow honorees and I glimpsed the other astonishing floats lined in position and found a port-o-potty for last call. Bands amassed on side streets to enter the parade and equestrian units positioned themselves between floats. An old car from 1919 passed by that Jimmy Stewart once drove in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. It was to carry actor Gary Sinise, the parade’s grand marshal.
Excitement continued to build and we were finally on our way at 8 am. We coursed through the 5 ½ mile route passing grand stands of thousands of people who paid $100 for a seat to narrow spots lined with families who had arrived before the sun to score a front row seat. As a float rider, I spent the majority of my time simply waving and smiling but I did try and rally folks to “eat their vegetables”. My favorite assignment was to single an individual among the passing faces and hold their gaze to wish them “Happy New Year” and maintain eye contact until they mouthed the words back to me. Those were brief, beautiful moments of connection that made standing on a float in a crazy colorful costume worth every second.
As we neared the parade’s end, my final Rose Parade takeaway was the astonishing diversity of the crowd. Mile after mile I witnessed individuals from different backgrounds, ages, races and nationalities – all enjoying a historic and iconic American event together. These faces represented the face of America, not what we see in the media or on Capitol Hill. Just like the individual lentil seeds that made the huge sunflower behind my head, it was the small writ large that I realized was the Rose Parade’s secret ingredient.