George Bliss, who lives in the West Village and builds tricycles, was lamenting the fact that New York has changed. “It used to be much more surprising,” he said. “You never knew what you were going to see walking down the street. Everyone was an individual. Now, most people are trying to conform.” Exactly at the moment he said this, a tall, bearded man wearing a long-sleeved tiger t-shirt, red suspenders, zebra pants, and bigfoot slippers walked past. His mustache was styled into two upward curls on which it looked like you could hang a very small coat. Gold sunglasses in the shape of hearts covered his eyes. He had a ring through his nose. Items spilled off his top hat, including a unicorn horn, bunny ears, bull horns, and one antler. On his belt loop, several tails—including a crocodile, beaver pelt, and fake felt dragon—swung from his waist, next to mug that said, “I’m famous in Bushwick.” George regarded the bearded man in bigfoot slippers. “You see,” said George. “There used to be many more like him.”
“I need to go talk to him,” I said, walking over to the man of tails, who was leaning against a fence. “Can you tell me about your hat?” I asked.
He removed it. “At the center of everything, is the unicorn,” I remember him saying. “That’s where I start, because fantasy is always mixed with reality.” (This and other quotes are as I recall them.) The other items were from his various collections. “Then I added the other horns, mostly because I woke up this morning feeling horny.” He said he was part of a group called Kostume Kult, which hosts costume parties and keeps a camp at Burning Man. “It’s spelled with 2 Ks,” he told me. “But don’t put another K on the end. That’s a very different cult.”
“Where do you find your collections?” I asked. “Thrift stores, or on the street?”
“Almost never on the street,” he said, and suddenly I worried I’d offended him.
We were standing on the corner of 9th Street and Avenue C, in the East Village. Just a few feet in front of us, three young women, covered in trash, were lying on top of soil spread on the sidewalk. They were twisting and bending their bodies on the soil, doing a choreographed dance that, from what I could tell, represented a struggle to grow despite the trash around them. Their performance was one stop—the sixth stop—in an annual parade called Earth Celebrations’ Ecological City: Procession for Climate Solutions, which snaked through the streets of the East Village yesterday beginning at 11am. The mission of the parade is to gather together people who care about climate and sustainability initiatives throughout the community gardens, neighborhood, and East River Park waterfront
Most everyone in the parade was dressed in a costume representing elements of the East River ecosystem, or something that is threatening it. One man, for instance, was wearing a cape with two wings. He also had on a gas mask and a crown of thorns. The right side of his body was painted blue with waves, while the left side had red flames. “I’m the Consequences of Climate Change,” he told me. He flapped his left wing and then right. “There’ll be more fire and more floods.”
Another woman, whose face sparkled with light blue paint and glitter, wore a skirt made of a fishing net with two dozen oyster shells tied on. “I’m an oyster shell caught in a fishing net,” she explained. “Well, a bunch of oysters caught in a fishing net.”
A man with dreadlocks dressed in all white blew on a conch shell to alert the paraders it was time to march to the next stop, where I eventually made my way back over to George, who was standing with his hands on his hips, next to his red tricycle. The sun reflected off his sequined shawl, which was in the shape of a butterfly. He wore a forest-green floppy hat and hiking boots that matched. A kudzu vine crawled up and down his black capris pants. He was short on teeth, but it didn’t affect his smile.
George told me that he’d been living in New York for four decades and before that, he’d gotten to see much of the country by hitchhiking. “Hitchhiking is a great way to see the country,” he said. “You never know who’s going to pick you up.” He says he tries to stay active in neighborhood events. In the ‘80s he was arrested while trying to prevent the demolition of the Garden of Eden, a 15,000-square foot garden in the Lower East Side run by a legendary squatter called Adam Purple. “Adam was great,” said George. “He used to ride his bike up to Central Park to collect horse manure for the Garden of Eden.” (In 1986, the city bulldozed the Garden of Eden, and Adam Purple died a few years ago.)
Behind his tricycle, George pulled a sculpture of twigs on a raft. At the parade’s closing ceremony, the so-called Bio-Remediation Gaia Sculpture would float into the East River.
It was now close to 2pm, and the parade had a dozen more stops until the closing ceremony at the East River. I said goodbye to George and a few other new friends and walked a block in the wrong direction before turning west on 9th Street, where I ran into the three young women who’d done the trash dance. From rolling around in the soil, their faces were covered in dirt. Tear marks traced their face. “We got so much dirt in our eyes,” said dancer Miu Soda, who had a plastic fork, a bottle cap, and green tinsel pinned to her chest. “My eyes were watering the whole time.”
They are part of a dance collective—Dance to the People—that does public performances where they pick up litter in the street and dance with it. Think garbage patrol meets flash mob. “What do people say,” I asked, “when you tell them you dance with trash?”
“In New York, it’s not that bad,” said dancer Jo Stone, shaking soil from her black boots. “But I’m from Texas, and people there are like, You do what?”
The collective director Maira Duarte, narrated her dance costume. Her headpiece was made of newspaper. Swinging from her hip was a plastic bowl. “That was from my salad yesterday,” she said. Several plastic bags were tucked in her skirt, along with neon green construction tape. I asked where they found their trash. “Oh it’s very easy to find trash,” she said. “You just walk down the street.” On the way to the performance that morning, they’d found a chandelier lying on the sidewalk. They quickly worked it into the show. All of them seemed deeply happy—the kind of happy that made me feel like the weirdo for not knowing how to derive joy from dancing with garbage.
Laura Lee Huttenbach, an Atlanta native, is the author of two books, “The Boy is Gone” and “Running with Raven.” She graduates from NYU Journalism’s Literary Reportage Program in May 2019.
Correction: This post was revised to correct the spelling of Maira Duarte’s name.