Friday, February 7, 2014

The 700,000

©2014 by LeeZard
Let’s see, the last time I was in a crowd of any size was November 1999. It wasn’t nearly as much fun; the air was filled with pepper spray and I was dodging rubber bullets fired by the ill-prepared Seattle Police Department during the WTO riots – but that was “only” about 50,000 people.

In 1979 I joined 300,000 to cheer the NBA champion Seattle Supersonics. I’d have to go back another 30-years to the original Woodstock and a pair of massive anti-war marches on Washington, D.C. But those crowds were “only” about half-a-million.

This week I was at the heart of The 700,000, The Seattle Seahawks screaming, cheering, adoring fans, their storied 12th Man, massed for the team’s Super Bowl parade through downtown Seattle. I love big events. I go as much to observe – and write about – the people as I do for the event itself. This one provided plenty of fodder; it was a singular life experience.

I knew as soon as the final whistle blew on Seattle’s thrashing of the Denver Broncos that I would go to the Hawks’ parade. In 1979 I casually arrived about two hours before the Sonics’ parade started and ended up about a block from the route on Fourth Avenue. I saw nary a Sonic but screamed and cheered with everyone else. This time, I would not be thwarted. I had The Plan.

I popped out of bed at 5am Wednesday, ready and rarin’ to go. Phase One of The Plan was the dress code. It’s unusually cold this week but I was ready with long johns, two pair of wool socks, two layers of shirts topped by a heavy hoody, my winter hiking boots, heaviest jacket, knit cap, and a thick pair of ski gloves.

Phase Two of The Plan was to drive south, away from Seattle, and park for free at the regional transit light rail station in Tukwila, eliminating certain traffic and parking distress. I wasn’t alone in my foresight; even at 5:45am I was lucky to grab one of the final slots in time to catch a 6am train. Regular commuters were drowned in a sea of blue and Hawks green. It was standing room only.

By the time I arrived at the downtown Westlake Station 40-minutes later the streets were already abuzz but not overly crowded. Addressing Phase Three of The Plan, I quickly scouted out a choice curbside spot in front of Westlake Park at the corner of Fourth and Pine next to a KING-TV news crew and up against the temporary steel crowd barrier. After chatting up the crew for a few minutes and dropping a few names of former colleagues still at KING, my spot was safe and secure.

The Starbucks right across the street at Westlake Center was already slammed with a line snaking out the front door. This being caffeine-fueled Seattle, I strolled a short two blocks, passed two other jammed Starbucks and walked right up to the counter at a third store tucked away on a side street. It was but 16 degrees and my first thermos of hot java was gone.

I nursed my coffee and read the newspaper for about 45-minutes before taking up my frozen vigil. It was a few minutes before eight, only three hours until the scheduled start of the parade. The crowd was starting to build, by now about six or seven deep.
Everywhere I turned there were flags, banners, posters and blown up pictures of favorites.

Traffic was still flowing north on Fourth, most of the vehicles sporting Seahawks colors and/or flags and honking their horns to the raucous delight of onlookers. 
By nine o’clock Phase One of The Plan unraveled; the tips of my fingers began to go numb. Thirty minutes later my toes also numbed, painfully so. The minutes began to drag by and at about 9:45 I ever so briefly considered bailing as the cold slowly seeped deeply through my entire body. I quickly rejected the idea, even before I turned my head and saw there would be no escape as the sidewalk was now shoulder-to-shoulder full from the curb to the building line. Luckily, Hip Hop fate intervened.
At precisely 10 o’clock the large speakers at Westlake Center boomed, “Hellllllooooo Seattle!! I am Supreme La Rock, official DJ for Seattle Seahawks.” He immediately followed with the familiar call and response chant that haunts opposing teams at Century Link Field, “SEEEEEEAAAAAAA – HAWKS, SEEEEEEAAAAAAA – HAWKS.” And the real party started.

As if he couldn’t drive the crowd any wilder, La Rock boomed, “I just got a text from Beast Mode, Marshawn Lynch, with a request for his favorite song,” and spun into a rap about Lynch’s now famous quote, “’Bout that action, Boss.” Before I knew it my frozen feet were dancing and my bones were rattling to the beat. I could hear my kids’ voices in my head, “Dad, you are such a dork!” I didn’t care; I could feel the feeling coming back into my frigid digits.
La Rock continued to DJ tunes I’d never heard before while the surrounding (and much younger) crowd mouthed every lyric. But, there I was, the 66-year old dork rockin’ to the Hip Hop beat with many thousands of my new friends. What a blast!!! It was a good thing too; what we didn’t know at the time was that the parade would step off more than 90-minutes after its scheduled 11 o’clock start. Not that it mattered. The beat gave us the heat with all discomfort forgotten. Party on, Dude!
Finally, at 12:30pm, even louder roars from the crowd to our north signaled the parade was approaching and my front row spot suddenly became about a tenth row spot as hundreds started climbing the waist-high steel barriers and filling the Fourth Avenue roadway. Seattle police, with help from surrounding jurisdictions, tried in vain to firmly/gently move people back toward the curb. Eventually they were able to make enough room for the caravan to move by. Thankfully, they also got the people in the street to sit down so my prime viewing lines were preserved and I prepared my trusty old Nikon CoolPix digital camera to record it all.

And, this is one of those rare times when words nearly fail me. The players/coaches were riding atop both military vehicles and in those high amphibious vehicles that usually haul tourists around The Emerald City hither and yon. The collective euphoria, joy, love and gratitude enveloped everyone there. While the aroma of semi-legal marijuana wafted through the air (it is not legal except in private settings) this was not a drug-fueled Woodstockian Love-In; this was pure and raw mass emotion and it was thrilling.

Suddenly, just a few yards in front of me was a hatless and black overcoat-clad Pete Carroll pumping his fist and grinning like a Cheshire Coach, Beast Mode standing on the hood of an amphibian tossing skittles into the mass of fans and Russell Wilson waving necklaces of shiny blue and green beads. The Legion of Boom took up two vehicles but, of course, Richard Sherman stood out with his trademark dreadlocks. 
As each position group rolled by I snapped away as quickly as I could to capture as many memorable moments as possible. In return the players were taking pictures, shooting videos of us and joining the dancing party. WOW! DOUBLE WOW!

Then, like a finely cooked gourmet meal that took hours to prepare, the historic moments were much too quickly consumed and digested.

Phase Four of The Plan was getting out of Dodge as quickly and safely as possible. Again, using past experience, I knew the bulk of the masses would linger to revel and party some more. A good number of us, though, quickly turned east as soon as the last amphibian passed and tried to move away from Fourth Avenue – no easy feat even with fleet feet. We were salmon against the flow of a powerful human river and it took about 20-minutes to get from Fourth to Fifth Avenue.

Along the way, I noticed what I consider a brilliant crowd control tactic by event planners and/or law enforcement. Halfway between Fourth and Fifth several rows of police buses were parked tail-to-nose with about two feet between each row, forcing the masses to separate into orderly lines with little or no shoving/pushing that could cause skirmishes and injuries. Miraculously, there were no arrests the entire day. Think about that! Almost a million people crammed into downtown Seattle without a single arrest. Only the 12th Man could pull that one off.

It was jam packed standing room only on the light rail ride south to Tukwila but nobody cared; the euphoria of the day drifted through the air like intoxicating incense with ongoing whoops, chants and camaraderie. For me, it was time for a quick reflection to organize and gather my thoughts for this piece. It wasn’t very difficult; every image, sound and emotion is seared forever in my mind. The Plan was beyond successful.

Finally, I want to offer a couple of quick props. First, to all the policemen/women assigned to crowd control. It could’ve led to a near impossible, if not disastrous, conclusion with one overzealous nightstick swing or harsh command. Instead, the police presence was there but not overwhelming, maintaining a balance between firm control and threatening micro-control.

Finally, join me in a round of applause, please, for my 66-year old prostate. I remembered reading stories of people in Times Square for last New Year’s Eve wearing adult diapers because they would be standing for hours with no place to go – literally. Thank you Mr. Prostate for standing down, at least for one amazing and historic day.