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Parade Has Carnival's Spirit, but New York's Rules

September 4, 2001

Parade Has Carnival's Spirit, but New York's Rules

By SOMINI SENGUPTA

Carnival blossomed in the heart of Brooklyn yesterday under unspoiled sunny skies. For the 34th year in a row, Eastern Parkway turned into a festive thoroughfare of lavishly plumed, sequined masquerade bands. An unusually crowded pack of politicians came to woo the West Indian vote. And the wide sidewalks turned into an open-air bazaar, with enterprising vendors hawking everything from codfish cakes to pirated CD's to shaved ice.

One thing they did not hawk this year, bowing to a new city law, was alcohol. There was no lip-staining red rum punch to be found along the parkway yesterday. No Red Stripes or Heinekens. No pi˜a coladas with white Jamaican rum. The only signs of booze to be found along the parade route were, well, the signs of booze: a poster that declared Hennessy to be "the essence of Carnival," a sound truck, sponsored by Guinness, carrying dancing girls in Guinness-print bikini tops.

And so Myrick Jackson, a Crown Heights man with a tooth of gold and a dream of making big money at the annual West Indian American Day Carnival Parade, found himself standing on the sidewalk yesterday with a blue plastic trash can stuffed high with Coors nonalcoholic beer. He had hawked for three hours, but sold no more than 20 bottles; his voice was hoarse and his enthusiasm was waning. "Half of them think it's alcohol and they're scared," Mr. Jackson, 46, lamented. "The first thing they ask is, ĀCan I get a bag?' "

For some, a Carnival without spirits is hardly a Carnival at all, a Bacchanalia without the bacchanals (unless you count the politicians, which many people on the parkway decidedly did not). But then again, this is Carnival, New York-style. And the alcohol ban is only one of many ways in which this Caribbean ritual, a singular blend of African, American Indian and European cultures, has been reinvented here, this time melding the nostalgia of Caribbean immigrants with the rules and regulations of New York.

It is an American-style parade, not a series of free-floating streams of costumed, spirited dancers and steel-pan players as in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, where this Carnival was born. Giant corporations, from Budweiser to Western Union, sponsor floats. The police keep revelers from jumping on to the parkway when the music moves them, a vigilance that has only intensified since 1999, when three parade participants, including two small children, were run over and killed in two traffic accidents. Yesterday, teams of officers hemmed in the crowds in a blue maze of sawhorses, as they do on New Year's Eve in Times Square.

The annual West Indian procession is the city's largest parade, usually attracting two million people. The police said the parade was relatively peaceful. However, two 23-year-old men were stabbed on the parkway during the event in a fight with three others who fled. One of the victims was stabbed four times in the upper torso, and the other once in the stomach. The men, who were taken to Kings County Hospital Center in stable condition, were not immediately identified.

To Leslie Sanchez, a Trinidad native who wore her flag like a cape down her back, a Carnival this was not. She missed dancing in the street. She felt homesick.

"It's not what I'm accustomed to," she said, sipping a drink from a black plastic cup in the shape of a man. "We have a lot more bands, a lot more music. We like to get in the street and jump up with the bands. Here they don't let you. It's not cool."

Homesickness, of course, is what this parade is born of. And this year, as in the past, it was a day to show off the colors of home. Flags -- the green of Jamaica, the blood-red of Trinidad, and the French Revolution- inspired blue, white and red stripes of Haiti -- were on gorgeous display along the parkway. Flags doubled as do-rags and sarongs, as handkerchiefs tucked into tight blue jean pockets and as bright plumes of patriotism to wave in the air.

Monique Bishop, 17, had fashioned a two-piece out of the flag of Guyana. "That's where my parents are from," she explained. "I'm representing."

Caribbean or not, profit-minded New Yorkers of all stripes came to try their luck at the parade. Mexicans rolled their shaved-ice carts along the sidewalk. Gambians spread out tables chock full of beaded chokers. Italians sold their ubiquitous street-fair sausage. Women with strong arms and sweaty brows rolled out one roti wrap after another.

Brenton Stanley, joined on the parkway by his wife and two children, chopped chicken thighs under a Heineken tent. For years, he did a brisk business of jerk chicken and bottled beer. Some years, his family pocketed $5,000. This year, he bemoaned what struck him as unusual thriftiness among the paradegoers. He said he would be lucky if he made $2,000.

"People are leaving their money in their pocket today," he said. "They aren't spending. The economy is getting worse."

There was another kind of hawking on the parade route yesterday: with barely a week to go for the New York City primary, a host of City Council candidates, many competing for Brooklyn seats, were pitching themselves to the crowd. All four of the Democratic candidates in this year's highly competitive mayoral race -- as well as one of the Republicans -- were there. But if the candidates were hoping to make themselves known to the crowd, a few spectators were unimpressed.

"There are way too many of them," complained Marcia Walters, 46, a native of Jamaica and a resident of Long Island. "This is a celebratory parade, not a political forum. They need to understand what Carnival is."

In the spirit of Carnival, Peter F. Vallone, one of the mayoral candidates, had donned two colorfully beaded medallions around his neck before stepping out onto the parkway yesterday afternoon. But asked if he knew whose flag colors he was wearing, Mr. Vallone seemed unaware.

Then, picking up a cue from a supporter nearby, he told reporters, "Jamaica, West Indies, symbolic of what this parade is all about." He then told the story of how his grandfather came to the United States from Italy aboard the Southern Princess in 1904.

Mr. Vallone was correct about the green-and-yellow beads representing the Jamaican flag. The other set of beads, red and black, stood for the flag of Trinidad, the birthplace of Carnival.

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