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685: We Come From Small Places

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Prologue: Prologue

Neil Drumming

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Neil Drumming, sitting in for Ira Glass. Every so often, I'll be talking to another black person, usually someone with an accent. And they'll stop mid-conversation and ask me where my family's from or if I'm from the islands. And I'll say something like, "I'm not sure. I think I'm West Indian on my dad's side." I've said this 100 times without any actual proof. I don't know where I got it from, and there's no evidence that I can find. I asked my dad recently, and he wasn't sure. He said, maybe. Going back generations, someone stopped at some island between Africa and South Carolina.

My cousin Yvonne, though, her dad was definitely born in Panama. A few years back, she invited me to come stand on the road with her and watch the big party Caribbean people throw here in New York every year, the West Indian Day parade-- technically, the West Indian American Day parade. I still remember how excited she got when a group of Panamanians came marching down Eastern Parkway.

My cousin is tall, over six feet, and loud. And she really made a show of jumping and shouting and waving her flag. I envied her in that moment. This is uncomfortable for me to say, but I've sometimes felt a sense of vagueness just being black in America.

That's the thing about the West Indian Day parade. There's all these black people who seem to know exactly, specifically, where they're from. And on this one day, they tell everyone. Like, this guy, for example. It's not just where he's from, but it's how he says it.

Neil Drumming

Where are you from?

Man 1

Jamaica.

Neil Drumming

You live in this neighborhood?

Man 1

No, I'm not living in this neighborhood. I'm living in the Bronx.

Neil Drumming

OK, so you came all the way down here?

Man 1

Yes, mon...

Neil Drumming

He and his friend came down from the Bronx and had been partying nearby. I ran into them on Eastern Parkway early that morning. The parade hadn't even started yet, but they were already repping their country.

Man 1

Jamaicans control-- control the Parkway.

Man 2

And go on like saying, Jamaican our own things. But we have the best artists, we have the best food, we have the best culture.

Man 1

And we have the best [INAUDIBLE], too.

Man 2

We have to say no more.

Neil Drumming

These guys, they don't even talk like this all the time.

Man 2

So later on, around 10 o'clock, the parade will actually start. That's the big, big thing. You'll see a lot more people flooding the streets.

Neil Drumming

A few years ago, I moved just a few blocks from the parade route on Eastern Parkway, the broad tree-lined corridor that passes through the neighborhood of Crown Heights. The parade is actually part of a week-long celebration in Brooklyn called the Labor Day Carnival, which is itself just the New York version of Carnival, which is celebrated all over the Caribbean and the world.

Most days, Crown Heights feels a lot like other neighborhoods I've lived in-- a corner bodega here, a liquor store there, gentrification creeping in. But one weekend every year, I wake up to reggae, and soca, and feathers, and floats, and people waving flags from all over. There's barely anywhere to stand. There's guys on stilts, and there are police everywhere. It feels like the neighborhood's been completely transformed.

But of course, that's not what's actually happening. It's more like the neighborhood is turning inside out, letting you see what's at its core. So many of the people who make their homes in Crown Heights also carry pieces of another homeland with them-- the Bahamas, Grenada, Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia, Trinidad. Every year, anywhere between 1 and 2 million people show up. It's pretty thrilling just to stand on the sidelines and watch it all pass by you, you know, like a parade.

But I wanted to live inside it more, to understand as best I can how my cousin felt that day, to know what it means to have a flag to wave. So that's what we're doing this hour. A bunch of us went out that weekend, dove in headfirst. Some of us even got pretty wet. Stay with us.

Act One

Jessica Lussenhop

So explain your costume. Which costume is this?

Woman

So this is Kill Bill. I regret these big feathers. I don't know where I'm going with this. But this is Kill Bill and--

Jessica Lussenhop

Why do you regret them?

Woman

Because they're-- do you-- girl, I'm going to need you put on a costume and try to walk down the Parkway with big feathers on it. It was a bad mistake. Feathers coming out of this, some stones came off.

Jessica Lussenhop

What's the experience of putting on an outfit like this and coming out--

Woman

It's hell. It took me two hours, and a lot of people's breaking down already. We didn't even hit the Parkway. Just know if you're going to do it, just carry a lot of-- not a lot, but carry some Krazy Glue with you. And you're going to be putting yourself together once you get out here.

Jessica Lussenhop

What made you decide on Kill Bill?

Woman

To be honest with you, I'm chubby. So Kill Bill had a monokini, and I liked it, so I went with that. And me and a two-piece, we ain't friends right now. And we ain't hit the gym. So Kill Bill it was.

Neil Drumming

For many people, playing mas starts even earlier than the parade, at the parade before the parade. It's called J'ouvert, and it's a celebration with deep, deep roots in the Caribbean. J'ouvert's mythology is populated with outlandish characters, like the menacing Midnight Robber with his wide-brimmed hat, the insanely voluptuous Dame Lorraine, and the many devils.

Writer Imani Brown grew up with J'ouvert, but she didn't actually start going until she got to Brooklyn. Her story starts over 2,000 miles away.

Imani Brown

In Trinidad, Carnival is so big that you study it in school. The year I turned 10, we were given an assignment to pick one of the traditional Carnival mas characters we just learned about, create a costume, and put on a performance in front of the rest of the school.

Picking my character was a struggle. But in the end, I settled on the jab molassie, sometimes called the Blue Devil in Trinidad. I picked it mostly because I knew the costume would be one of the easiest to make, and time was running out. I cut holes into an old pair of shorts and a thin T-shirt. I fashioned horns from paper towel rolls and looped strips of paper into a chain that I could wrap around my body. A pitchfork I fabricated from tree branches from my backyard completed the look.

On the day of the performance, I changed into my costume in the classroom, smeared myself all over with blue paint, and then headed towards the auditorium. I was the kind of child who avoided attention, and everything in me was fighting the idea of being onstage. When I stepped out alone in front of the whole school, my heart was racing.

My teacher told us that the jab molassie was a demon that terrorizes, a creature barely kept on its leash. So on the stage that day, I might have crouched, or jumped, or hissed, or bared my teeth at the crowd-- I'm not sure. I just remember my anxiety wasn't painful anymore. It was exhilarating. I felt wicked, and nasty, and playful, and tricky. So completely out of character and still so utterly myself. Deeply inside my body and yet somehow floating above it. When it's good, that's what it feels like to play mas.

For a long time, mas didn't really feel like mine. I grew up in Trinidad, but my father and mother are from Jamaica and Guyana respectively. Carnival in those places simply does not compare to the space the festival takes up in Trinidad, where Carnival is king and its influence swirls year round.

Everyone, my mother would say, laughing and shaking her head, everyone from the biggest partier to the most religious church mouse is out on the road come Monday. My family didn't go to church regularly, but there was no way my parents were going to let me participate in Carnival proper as a teenager. That was for grown people.

When I left Trinidad for college in the States, the loneliness took me by surprise. I was 18, and homesickness was a physical and nearly constant ache. It was then that I played J'ouvert for the first time at Brooklyn's Labor Day parade. There, I finally felt at home again. And in the year since, the parade has become a spiritual practice.

J'ouvert always begins in the dark. This year, climbing up and out of the subway at Grand Army Plaza, the sky isn't quite pitch black, but it's close. Against the glare of police floodlights, I can just make out a stream of people trickling down the road in clumps. My friends and I join the stream, moving towards the NYPD metal barriers that narrow into a checkpoint. We are patted down and our bags opened.

Officer

How're you doing, ma'am? Can you just open that up and just show me all what you got in there?

Imani Brown

J'ouvert is derived from the French Creole word for daybreak. And traditionally, Brooklyn starts at around 4:00 AM, ending not too long after the sun rises. But this year, the rising sun is what marks the beginning of the parade. At 6:00 AM, the parade is starting much later than usual. The reason given is that it will help curb the violence that many have come to associate with the event.

In 2015, a young lawyer in Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration, Carey Gabay, was hit and killed by a stray bullet along the route. The next year, it was reported that four people were shot at the parade, two of whom died. Here's what's rarely mentioned in those news reports. The violence that black people experience in these long neglected neighborhoods is year round. It doesn't end when the cameras leave the parade. And in some cases, the incidents that the media have connected to the parade happen away from the parade's actual route.

The news coverage J'ouvert typically receives is frustrating, but not surprising. No matter what part of the globe you're from, you know that this is part of what it means to be black. The things you do to secure joy for yourself in a world that would rather see you dead become the way the world then rationalizes your suffering.

For the media, for everyone outside of our community, the story of the parade is the story of the violence. This is why it feels impossible to smile back when the officer checking our bags grins as if we're sharing an inside joke and comments, "Just need to make sure you don't have a gun," before letting us through.

Once we're past the checkpoint, the crowd thickens. It's clear that for some people, the morning is just beginning, and that for others, a long night of partying is simply stretching itself a little bit longer. Everyone is drifting, tripping down the street in no real hurry.

No one is wearing anything they wouldn't mind sacrificing to the J'ouvert gods-- old tanks and short shorts, ratty T-shirts, and strappy dresses that ride up the thigh. Flags are everywhere, tied around waists, worn as capes. The red, green, and gold of Grenada's flag in particular can be seen near and far.

The closer we get to the front of the route, the more clearly we can hear the sound of whistles and conchs up the road. The tinny sound of somebody beating out a rhythm on a small metal pan is joined briefly by the heavy beat of a cowbell. Both are swallowed up by the sound of the steel pan band warming up.

And the devils are out. The Grenadian jab jabs are covered from head to toe in slick, black oil. The whites of their eyes and teeth seem to jump out of their skin. Locks and wigs and braids are wrapped up tightly in plastic bags. Sacrificing old clothes is one thing, but getting oil and powder out of a new sew-in is quite another.

The devils wear hardhats and helmets crowned with black horns. I narrowly avoid getting hit by one of the many shopping carts many of the devils are pushing down the road, most of them full of plastic bags and buckets-- and in some cases, other passed-out devils.

The smell of grease and smoke rose heavier. Two young devils spot my friends and me and loudly proclaim that we're too clean. One of the devils dips his hands into a bucket of oil, and the other beckons us closer. He smiles wide, and it's both a dare and a promise, an invitation and a threat. We shake our heads, but we're all laughing as he walks up to us and starts rubbing us down with the oil anyway. You don't come to J'ouvert if you're not prepared to get dirty.

The U-Haul vans pulling along the rhythm section and steel pan bands, who are now in full swing, start inching down the road. A woman climbs on top of the bumper of a van, winding her way slowly in a smooth, rippling motion that extends from her shoulders down to her legs. A man hoists himself up behind her, and she picks up the pace.

We flag down a young woman selling Nutcrackers, sweet drinks mixed heavily with rum and vodka, despite reports of a crackdown on the sale of these drinks. She asks if she can take a picture of us that she then posts on her Instagram to promote her business. We all giggle like we've known each other for years as we pose.

Trying to mark the moment the parade slides from darkness into daylight is like trying to track the ripening of a mango. It happens slowly and then all at once. Suddenly, I'm squinting into the sun, and everything that felt clear in the night looks and feels strange to me now. This is a part of it, too. Within this space, what is real and what is a hallucination?

Moko jumbies, sure-footed performers on six-foot stilts, drift by like clouds without looking down. Three devils covered in white paint are on the roof of a nearby building, winding and waving a huge Trinidad flag over the crowd, as if claiming territory. How did they get up there? I have no idea. But somehow, in the moment, there's nothing that doesn't make sense.

J'ouvert began as a way to celebrate surviving the most brutal aspects of slavery. In J'ouvert, you can see out of the eyes of the demons that once drove you with the whip. You can embody the worst thing that ever hurt you and come out the other side invincible. When our people were enslaved, they were driven into burning cane fields to harvest the land. Those that survived came out covered in soot and ash. The horror defies imagination.

But at every turn, we have been taught that we are weak, that we are cowards, that we are less than human. So we play J'ouvert to remember that no one has the power to make monsters of us but ourselves. We play J'ouvert, and in that time, we become more fearsome than anything that could ever terrorize us. In a world that asks us to be quieter, to do less, to accept the worst of everything and to pretend to like it, J'ouvert becomes the altar where we can finally fall to our knees and worship ourselves.

I am two Nutcrackers in when the brass of the rhythm section really gets going. Something deep and sweet fills me. This year has been harder than most. I haven't had the money for a plane ticket, and it's been over a year since I was in my backyard, pressing my feet into the grass, watching the sunset, feeling the wetness of the air hug my body. There is a person I am when I am home, and I miss her desperately.

Now, a current runs through my chest, my belly, my legs. I am not home, but I am home. I'm home. I swing my hips and roll my waist and slow dance, and for a moment, feel the way I did when I was 10, jumping back and forth between fear and exhilaration, getting low to the ground, feeling something like awe and pride start to crack my chest open.

Neil Drumming

Imani Brown is a Jamaican writer and poet whose work focuses on race, gender, and Caribbean folklore. She lives in Brooklyn.

Act Two

Angie

You know, when I say to people, "I practice every night," like, they'll say, well, can you do this? And I'm like, no, I have practice. You practice every night. I'm like, yeah, I say I practice every night every time.

Jona

Even members of our family.

Angie

Even members of our family are like, you're going to practice? Yes, we're going to practice. It's what we do.

Neil Drumming

That's Angie and her daughter Jona. This is the thing they do together every year, all summer long. And they were really hoping their band would win this year. The competition was basically going to be the last thing they did together as mom and teenage daughter. As soon as it was over, literally hours after it was over, Jona would get on a flight and leave home for her first year in college.

I don't know anything about steel drums, or pans, as they're called. But we found a reporter, Marlon Bishop, who is also a musician and who loves this instrument. He followed Angie and Jona as they prepared, and one of our producers, Nadia Reiman, went with them to the competition.

Marlon Bishop

The band Angie and Jona play in is called Radoes. The name comes from this famous band in Trinidad called Desperadoes. The US branch of it was called Despers, but then there was a rebellion in the ranks and the band split. It was like a divorce. The rebels were like, you want to be Despers? Fine, we'll be Radoes. That was years ago, though, and it's all good now. Well, kind of. They're rivals-- friendly rivals.

Angie

We don't want them to win.

Jona

Not necessarily we don't want them to win, but we want to win on our own.

Angie

No, no, no. We don't want-- I don't want them to win. Not really--

Jona

Right, no, it's not that we don't want them to win. It's we want to win.

Angie

Yeah, no, no, no. I'm going to say I don't want--

Jona

Really?

[LAUGHTER]

Angie

Like, you can want to win all you want.

Jona

I'm like, I want to win. Like, I don't want just anyone to win. I want Radoes to win.

Marlon Bishop

Their band Radoes has a reputation for being a vibes band. Maybe not as tight as some other groups, but compensating with spirit. On the stage, they play loud and bold. And for a while, Radoes did win, three years in a row. But then last year, Despers--

Angie

Despers won last year.

Jona

They won last year.

Angie

It was very troubling.

Jona

It was the most heartbreaking thing ever.

Nadia Reiman

Can you talk about that?

Jona

I was so sad.

Nadia Reiman

Why?

Jona

We worked so hard.

[LAUGHTER]

Marlon Bishop

I first met Angie and Jona at the big lot where the band practices. It's in an industrial part of Brooklyn next to a bus depot-- you know, less neighbors to complain about the noise.

Angie

You're coming a little up, a little up.

Marlon Bishop

Jona is trying to nail down a section in the music that's been giving her trouble.

Angie

Ba dum ba dum ba bum ba dum. No, no, no.

Jona

No, you're changing it.

Angie

Ba da dum ba dum. You're changing the phrasing. Play it again. Ba da dum ba dum.

Marlon Bishop

What's this pan called?

Jona

This is the--

Man

This is the quadraphonics.

Jona

I'm sorry, was he asking you?

Man

He asked both of us.

Jona

This is a quadra pan.

Marlon Bishop

That's a really hard one, right?

Jona

It's very hard, yeah. But it's fun. It's really exciting to play.

Marlon Bishop

This yard is like their second home. Angie, the mom, left Grenada when she was three years old-- grew up in Queens.

Angie

When I told my mother I was going to play pan, she looked at me and she shook her head. And she said, you are the bane of my existence. Just like that. I was like, it's not that deep. I'm going to play some music. But it's male dominated.

Jona

Basically. It's just music.

Angie

Yeah, I know.

Marlon Bishop

Women didn't really play pan back in the day. They do now, though. Angie played pregnant with Jona. And after Jona was born, as a baby, she'd ride on Angie's back as she practiced. Jona started playing in the band when she was eight years old-- played every year since. She loves it-- so much so that in this last summer before she leaves for college, she's choosing to spend every night right here with her mom, getting ready for the competition.

The way the Panorama competition works, each band plays an eight to 10 minute long, incredibly complicated arrangement of a popular soca song. The arrangements are filled with crazy runs and breakdowns, which, in a kind of Calypso arms race, get more and more virtuosic every year.

Everyone will tell you the key to winning this thing, it's having a good arranger, the person who comes up with all the parts. Most bands use local arrangers from Brooklyn, but Radoes hires a ringer from Trinidad, a guy named BJ. Normally they'll bring up BJ for the whole summer to teach the song, but this time, there's a problem. He had trouble getting a visa, so he's been teaching over the phone.

Every night, someone gets their cell phone with a cable, and they connect it to this giant speaker that everyone gathers around. BJ teaches the music by calling out the notes one by one through the phone, which this other guy, called the drill master, then repeats to the rest of the orchestra.

Man 1

It's C and F, F and G sharp, E and G.

Man 2

It starts on B and F then?

Man 1

C and F.

Woman

Yeah, C and F. C.

Man 1

F and G sharp.

Man 2

OK, E and F?

Man 1

C!

Woman

C! Cat, cat.

Marlon Bishop

BJ has to teach every note of a 10 minute song this way. And there's not just one part. It's an 100-person orchestra with different sections that play different notes and rhythms. No sheet music involved. This is music learned entirely by ear.

Man 2

Another thing here.

Man 1

F and G sharp.

Man 2

F and G sharp.

Man 1

Right.

Man 2

E and G.

Man 1

I will be telling you.

Marlon Bishop

The yard feels like an extended family barbecue that happens every single night. There's a makeshift bar in the back that serves beer and food. That's where all the good gossip happens. Overall, it's about half players and half people who are just there to hang out-- lots of kids running around, significant others of band members, plus a contingent of old guys smoking weed in the back. People said it feels kind of like being back home in the Caribbean.

During breaks, Jona hangs out with her best friend, Z, and some of the other girls her age, on a set of wooden bleachers. I notice at one point they're talking about neighborhoods in Trinidad. And they don't say, my family lives in such and such a place. They say, I live there.

Girl 1

Where do you live?

Girl 2

Arima.

Girl 1

You live in Arima?

Girl 2

No, I live in 'Bago.

Girl 1

I live in-- my dad lives in 'Bago. I'm over there.

Marlon Bishop

You guys all live in Brooklyn.

Girls

Yes.

Marlon Bishop

But you're talking about Trinidad.

Girls

Yes.

Girl 2

You would swear we grew up there, though.

Girl 1

You don't really think that we grew up in some of these--

Girl 3

Honestly, when we turn on our fake ass accent-- because we wasn't born there, we just turn it on.

Girl 1

My mom be like, you swear you're Trinadi.

Marlon Bishop

The high school Jona just graduated from, there weren't a lot of West Indian kids there.

Jona

I don't talk to my friends about pan and that at all because I don't think there's a good enough way for me to explain it without people thinking I'm crazy. Like, I'm so serious. I mean, I can't explain to them that I'm standing up for hours a night, just playing music and coming home at 3 o'clock and having to wake up the next day. I can't explain all the riff raff that happens. I can't.

Angie

There are fights.

Jona

There are fights.

Angie

Right, as an example. It's a family, and it has arguments. To me, it's like-- I keep on saying it's like the epicenter of forgiveness. Because you can do anything--

Jona

You can literally do anything.

Angie

You can literally do anything, and then you can come back.

Jona

And then cool off a year and a half or so, and then come back, and people will be like, oh, hi.

Marlon Bishop

They're alluding to something specific here. One year, one of the Radoes players got into a beef and brought a gun into another pan yard. And someone ended up getting shot. It was a bad time, Angie said. The guy went to jail. But when he got out, he came back to the band, and people said, OK.

Angie

It's a place of redemption. You belong to us, right, and we belong in the same environment. And we know how to make peace with one another. That's not something you see all the time. That's not something you see all the time.

Marlon Bishop

I come back a few weeks later and BJ, the ringer, the arranger from Trinidad, his visa has finally been sorted out. He's here in person. You can feel the change of energy in the yard. There's way more players, and the music is starting to sound really good.

As I'm recording the band, a guy calls me over and tells me, in no uncertain terms, that I am not to share the recordings with any rival bands.

Announcer

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a competition. And therefore, we must have judges. Our judges this evening are--

Marlon Bishop

This finally is the night of Panorama, Labor Day weekend. My colleague, Nadia Reiman, was there for that. She's going to take it from here.

Nadia Reiman

The competition takes place in the parking lot of the Brooklyn Museum. The streets are blocked off. There's tons of U-Hauls filled with drums and racks, tons of people setting up pans, rolling them about. It's like being backstage. When I get there an hour before showtime, Angie is dashing from place to place, setting up drums, making sure people have their shirts. The Radoes are all wearing T-shirts that say, "Hookin' Meh" on them. That's the song they're playing. Oh, also, she's getting people rides who are supposed to be here, but aren't.

Angie

Are you ready now? OK, get up here as soon as you can, because they want you to start hooking up the drums. Tell me the address of the place. I'll send you a car.

Nadia Reiman

She sees Jona walking toward us in the distance. She can tell just from her walk. Radoes is going to play second, which is stressing Angie out. You want to play last. That way, the judges remember you. Most of the bands that are going first are pretty set up, starting to run through their songs. But Radoes is still not ready, still not practicing. Despers is. Jona seems not concerned, like at all. Really, she's not. Stop talking about it.

Jona

Despers USA, the one who won last year, that's them right now.

Nadia Reiman

That's like your rival?

Jona

Ah, they just won last year. It's nothing special.

Nadia Reiman

I like how every time I ask, you're like, nah, I don't care.

Jona

No, it's not that I don't care, but they just won once. That was the first time they've won in a really long time, 'cause I think the last time they won was, like, in the '90s or something like that. So it was a big deal for them. But other than that, they're not a rival.

Nadia Reiman

You're, like, very politely [BLEEP] talking them.

Jona

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's nothing special.

Nadia Reiman

Finally, everyone shows up, and they run through their song a few times in practice. And then, for real.

Announcer

Ladies and gentlemen, on stage, we have band number two. They are the Radoes.

Nadia Reiman

They roll up on stage. There's about 100 of them. They've built out a float that looks like a tin spaceship, kind of. It's even hard to tell it's a spaceship, but Angie says it is.

I have to say, to me, standing in the front few rows of the audience with my untrained ears, they sound a little rushed and messy. It's honestly hard to tell. As they play more, though, they get a little more sure-footed.

It takes nearly an hour to get each band on and off the stage. When Despers comes on, hours later, they look like professionals, definitely more polished. Their bandleader has this confidence and a little bravado, as if they've already won.

Angie's not feeling good about this. And as the night goes on, she goes through a kind of pre-emptive expedited grieving process. Here she is an hour later, depression.

Angie

My grandmother used to say kingdoms rise and fall all the time. And so, I wonder if the kingdom is falling. It's hard to know.

Nadia Reiman

And at around 11:00, when we're getting closer to the end, acceptance.

Angie

We're not going to win this time around, I can see that.

Nadia Reiman

You're like, we're not going to win?

Angie

No, I don't see that happening. I don't see that happening.

Nadia Reiman

The Radoes' reign could be over. Things change, people move on. Jona is about to move on. But people from different bands keep coming over to Angie to say hello. She honestly seems to know everybody here.

Angie

It combats the anonymity of America. Like, America is just one big place that you could be lost in. And we come from small places, right? And this is, as you know West Indians say, a kind of catch ass place. People don't have the kind of luxury of time as they do in the Caribbean, but they figure out a way to be together. And this is just another way to figure out how to be together, how to be together the way we are.

Nadia Reiman

How to be together the way we are. Angie says when she was little, she couldn't stand Labor Day Carnival. She'd get tired and want to go home. And her dad would always try and linger, stretch it out a little longer. Now she gets it. There's a homesickness, even in Angie's case, if it's for a place where she hasn't really lived.

Announcer

Is the president here? Please come on stage for the results.

Angie

Duh duh duh.

Nadia Reiman

It's now past midnight, or 1:00 AM. Honestly, I don't remember. But it's the moment they've been waiting for. They're about to announce the winners. Everyone gathers closer and closer to the stage. The announcer starts with the last place band.

Announcer

Placing eighth, we have Harmony. Placing seventh, Cross Fire.

Nadia Reiman

This is all good news. It means Radoes hasn't lost yet. In sixth place, Philly Pan Stars. The crowd does not like that.

Announcer

So I'm just reading what it said, OK?

Nadia Reiman

Fifth place, Chasm. At this point, each time the announcer doesn't say Radoes, Angie lets out an involuntary scream.

Announcer

Fourth, Despers USA.

Nadia Reiman

Despers, their rival, took fourth.

Announcer

Third, Pan Evolution.

Angie

OK, so now my hands are shaking.

Announcer

Placing second with a score of 458 and the winner, 459, placing second, Adlib.

Nadia Reiman

So that's it. Radoes won by a single point, 459 to 458.

Announcer

The Radoes.

Angie

I got to go. Come.

Nadia Reiman

Come, Angie says. She grabs my hand and drags me on stage. We are running up this ramp, tons of people pushing through. Someone loses a shoe, but keeps going. They're screaming, dancing-- tons of hugs. And in the middle of the stage, Angie sees her daughter, surrounded by her friends. In a few hours, she'll be on the plane to college in California.

Jona

I'm so overwhelmed.

Z

I don't want you to leave.

Jona

'Cause I'm going to leave, like, now. But then we also won.

Nadia Reiman

The person saying, "I don't want you to leave," that's Jona's bestie from the pan yard, Z. Jona looks at her and starts to cry. She told me later that she's known Z since she was 10. That every year, days after Panorama's over, they keep going to the pan yard anyway and hanging out until it got too cold to do it. And so this moment, standing on stage looking at her friends, that was when it really hit her. This part of her life with her mom and these friends in this world, it's over.

[MUSIC - FARMER NAPPY, "HOOKIN MEH"]

Neil Drumming

Marlon Bishop produces podcasts for Futuro Media Group, which makes Latino USA. Nadia Reiman is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - FARMER NAPPY, "HOOKIN MEH"]

Coming up, we're going to need a mop in aisle seven. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three

Ira Glass

Walking up to Hasids on the street felt like walking up to people from another planet, people who had a general air of hostility-- or at least, suspicion-- towards outsiders like me. They waved me off. The best I got was from a young man who took pity on me and gamely mustered this non-committal quote about the parade.

Man

Every person has a right to do what they want, what they feel is right.

Ira Glass

But I finally found one Hasid who would actually talk to me by marching myself over to 770 Eastern Parkway, the worldwide headquarters of the Chabad movement. Chabad is the biggest Hasid organization.

And 770 is such an important spiritual site for them that a replica of the building at 770 Eastern Parkway was built in Jerusalem, nearly a brick-by-brick copy, with other replicas in cities around the world, which include the number 770 on the building. The number has mystical significance, meaning, among other things, depending on who you ask, Beis Moshiach, House of the Messiah.

Yehuda Menasha Goldstein

The 770 is not just a three digit number on the door and the address at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York. It is the house of our leader, the leader of the entire human race.

Ira Glass

Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Yehuda Menasha Goldstein

Right.

Ira Glass

The man telling me this is Yehuda Menasha Goldstein, a middle-aged fellow with a very kind face, long graying beard, wire-rimmed glasses. And he's talking about the last great leader of the Chabad movement, who died in 1994, has no successor, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Some, like Yehuda, believe Schneerson was the messiah.

Yehuda spoke with me because he's taken it upon himself to be a schliach, which is a kind of emissary or missionary spreading the word about God's laws. And what that meant was that when I strode up to 770, he seemed just as glad for somebody to talk to as I was. Like, he walked up to me. Like, God had sent us both out to talk to strangers on this day at the parade, and now, here we were.

He admitted he'd put up a handmade sign across the parade route about the seven laws of Noah. And he was kind of hoping that the sign would do a lot of the proselytizing for him today, and he wouldn't have to engage too much with the crowd.

Yehuda Menasha Goldstein

Due to the weakness of the eyes, I try to put signs over there to do my work for me. Because if I see what's going on over here, it really triggers a lot of emotional prohibited thoughts that you have to really not let play out, get played enough to guard your eyes in this.

Ira Glass

What do you mean?

Yehuda Menasha Goldstein

Well, the distracting, sexually explicit, beautiful women. They are very arousing and provocative.

Ira Glass

Remember, we're standing on the street with literally hundreds of women in bikinis going by, lots of bare skin.

Ira Glass

So the women on top of that float going by, you're not supposed to even look at them?

Yehuda Menasha Goldstein

I plead the fifth, man.

Ira Glass

It didn't occur to me. I didn't realize, right, to have a parade like this right in the middle of the Hasid neighborhood, right here in front of 770-- it's a challenge.

Yehuda Menasha Goldstein

Right, and I had prayed about it last night. And I was 50/50 with God because that was full on winding it. And I was full on asking for help to overcome and not sin because I know my weaknesses. I'm very human. I'm very masculine. And when you see that very feminine, it's a little more than a challenge to. But when God is blessing you, God is with you, you can still manage to not sin.

Ira Glass

What did you pray for?

Yehuda Menasha Goldstein

Prayed that God would prevent me from sinning.

Ira Glass

Prevent you from looking even.

Yehuda Menasha Goldstein

Well, yeah. I have to admit that I asked that. But obviously, whatever. It's a fight. I mean, you seem to be quite uninterested to look yourself. You seem to be more interested in getting a story and talking and writing material for--

Ira Glass

I have a job I'm supposed to do, yeah.

Ira Glass

Also, I'm a secular person who is allowed to look at women walking by in a parade. God wants us to be holy, Yehuda said. He wants us to elevate our souls. And really, he said, the right thing to do today would be to guard his eyes. He admitted for all his praying last night, today--

Yehuda Menasha Goldstein

A couple of times, I was looking a little too long at some nice shapes. Mentally, I have to work on that because it's not right. And I even pointed as they walked by. And then some people caught me pointing and said, oh, see that Jewish guy? He's even into the looking, and laughing at me. Look at that guy. Look at that rabbi. He's copping a look. Yeah, well, I admit it. Well, Yom Kippur is coming in 40 days.

Ira Glass

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when once a year, through repentance, prayer, and charity, Jews get their chance to make things right again with God, for the moments we strayed.

Two blocks west of 770, a block south of the parade route on Union Street, I spot two Hasidic boys in front of their apartment building with a cooler and handmade signs that read "Cookies for Sale" and "Ice Pops for Sale."

Ira Glass

And so how much are they?

Boy 1

They're $0.15 each.

Ira Glass

Have you sold many?

Boy 1

Yeah.

Ira Glass

How many have you sold?

Boy 1

Two.

Ira Glass

How long have you been here?

Boy 1

A half hour.

Ira Glass

OK, that's pretty good, so $0.30. What's your name?

Boy 1

I don't want to say.

Boy 2

Can I say my name?

Ira Glass

Ah, little brothers, clueless. This one's seven, the other guy's 12. The little one proceeds to tell me his name, which, later, his older brother asked me not to put on the radio. They're used to the parade. It's every year.

Boy 2

They woke me up at 3:00 AM in the morning.

Boy 1

There was a bunch of people with symbols and then just marching down that block.

Ira Glass

Do you like that this kind of thing happens in the neighborhood?

Boy 1

No.

Ira Glass

Your brother is shaking your head no. You don't like it.

Boy 2

No.

Ira Glass

How come?

Boy 2

Because it's very noisy and dangerous.

Ira Glass

What's the dangerous part?

Boy 2

People are walking around crazy.

Ira Glass

Have you seen anything crazy?

Boy 2

Yes.

Ira Glass

They described to me some people yelling, threatening each other a couple of doors down from them about an hour before this. I asked for another example.

Boy 2

People are walking around with knives and guns.

Ira Glass

Wait, have you seen knives and guns? You're just here.

Boy 2

Yes. Wait, hold on, I don't want to say it on there. Do you want me to say what I have in my pocket?

Ira Glass

His older brother explains it's just because he's scared.

Ira Glass

What does he have in his pocket?

Boy 1

Scissors.

Ira Glass

You have scissors in your pocket because you're scared?

Boy 2

I had scissors in my pocket just in case anything happens.

Ira Glass

He fetches them and shows me. To be clear, these scissors are kid scissors, like safety scissors like you use in second grade.

Ira Glass

What were you going to do with the scissors?

Boy 2

If someone were to come with a knife, I would tell them look over there, and grab the knife, and then stab them.

Ira Glass

Your brother's laughing. You don't think that plan would work.

Boy 1

No, it wouldn't.

Boy 2

I think it would work.

Ira Glass

We start discussing how scary the parade seems to them and the people in the parade when a bunch of women amble up to us.

Woman 1

Hi.

Ira Glass

Hey, guys.

Woman 1

Hi.

Woman 2

This is our old building.

Woman 1

We want to take a picture right here.

Woman 2

So we needed to take a picture here.

Woman 1

We lived here 20 years ago.

Woman 2

Yeah, that's my old room right there. So we're just going to do a picture because we were here. This was my old room.

Ira Glass

I tell the women that these boys live in the building.

Ira Glass

Well, maybe these guys live in your apartment.

Woman 2

I don't know. What apartment do you guys live in?

Boy 1

We're on that side.

Woman 2

No, we lived on that side. But we always take an annual picture, and we just need to do that. So I hope you don't mind.

Ira Glass

So you guys used to live in the neighborhood.

Woman 2

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Where did you move to?

Woman 2

All over.

Ira Glass

All over. And then you come back every year for the parade?

Woman 2

Yeah. And then we take a photo shoot here.

Ira Glass

They line up in front of the door with the building number above it. The friend frames the shot in her phone.

Woman 3

Say Guyana.

Women

Guyana.

Woman 3

Ah.

Ira Glass

They do a Boomerang.

Woman 2

What's a Boomerang?

Ira Glass

And then the important business finished, they chat. They explain to me that their names are Denille and Charlene.

Woman 2

Perfect. Yeah, this is our old block.

Ira Glass

That's so sweet. Has it changed much?

Woman 2

Well, with the new neighbors, yeah. But there's still people across the street that still have the same house. My room used to be right there-- Mommy's room, Keisha's room, my room, the living room. This is a great building. It's only seven apartments in this apartment building, and they're so huge--

Ira Glass

That's nice. That's nice.

Woman 2

--at $350 a month. Can you remember?

Ira Glass

It was the '90s.

She turns to the 12- and 7-year-old-- they're sitting there, stone silent-- and talks to the little one.

Woman 2

Matter of fact, my little sister, matter of fact, was your age. And she's like 40 something now, and I'm 50.

Ira Glass

And then were there Hasids in the neighborhood on the block back then?

Woman 2

We used to live in the building with them. We have no problem with the Orthodox Jews, never. We played with them. There was great houses down there. We were friends with them. Never a problem. Never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever a problem with the Orthodox ever.

Ira Glass

They stroll off. The 12-year-old tells me that one of them slipped him a dollar when I wasn't watching. Biggest sale of the day. Those ladies, so nice. New Yorkers can be so friendly. I know that's not the stereotype of New Yorkers, but I find often the case. Little brother didn't even have to pull out his scissors.

Neil Drumming

Ira Glass.

So the parade, it involves an incredible number of feathers. And there's this kind of funny thing that I learned. A lot of them come from this one shop on West 37th Street in the Garment District. So I want to leave Eastern Parkway for a minute and take you there. We visited a couple of weeks before the parade. It's like a candy store inside, except the bins that line the walls are filled with different colors of feathers, sequins, and rhinestones.

The owner is not from the West Indies. He's never been to Brooklyn Carnival. His name's Hai, and he's originally from China. And he showed my co-producer Jessica some of this year's costumes, including an outfit with about 1,000 rhinestones sewn into it.

Jessica Lussenhop

I don't know. Is that clear or white or what--

Hai

AB.

Jessica Lussenhop

AB, what does that mean?

Hai

Aurora Borealis color. These are all AB color stones.

Jessica Lussenhop

What does that mean? What does--

Hai

It color changes based on the light. There's a lot of colors in it.

Neil Drumming

When Hai first opened his shop, his main customers were figure skaters, ballroom dancers, and drag queens. He'd never heard of Carnival. Then about 12 years ago, a Trinidadian man walked into his shop and asked for 400 identical sequined appliques. It turns out the guy was buying them for Carnival for one of the big costume groups you see march in the parade. They're called mas bands, or mas camps. Again, the mas is for masquerade.

Now Hai is the go-to guy for Carnival feathers for so many bands, not just here, but all over the Caribbean. Everyone knows Hai, one Trinidadian told us. While Jessica was in Hai's shop, the leader of one of the biggest mas camps in Brooklyn stopped by. Her name is Reishelle Maynard-Richards. She runs a camp called Ramajay.

Hai

And half will be leg pieces, arm pieces. Ramajay.

Reishelle Maynard-richards

How are you?

Hai

Yeah, your stuff is here. Wow, you guys are so lucky.

Reishelle Maynard-richards

Hi.

Jessica Lussenhop

Hello.

Reishelle Maynard-richards

How are you?

Hai

That's the Ramajay bandleader. Yeah, sure. They accept us.

Reishelle Maynard-richards

Oh, this is pretty.

Hai

Yeah, right?

Reishelle Maynard-richards

It is pretty.

Neil Drumming

Hai is pulling bra tops out of big boxes and showing Reishelle.

Jessica Lussenhop

What color is that? Like, sherbet or what would you call that?

Hai

Coral.

Reishelle Maynard-richards

Coral.

Hai

Coral or shrimp color.

Reishelle Maynard-richards

I came to get the feathers for today. Are you getting the feathers for that one today?

Hai

All these are your feathers, no?

Reishelle Maynard-richards

Yes.

Hai

All these are your feathers.

Neil Drumming

Reishelle went off to pick out more ostrich plumes, which are some of the most expensive feathers in the shop. It turns out that all these feathers are real. Hai gets his ostrich plumes from farms in South Africa. The turkey feathers, mostly from Missouri. And there are also these really long, striped pheasant tail feathers. Those are from farms in Vietnam and Cambodia. Each individual feather or piece costs $25.

Hai

And sometimes you'll see individual masqueraders having over 200 pieces on their backpack, and just imagine how much money he spent on that one backpack.

Jessica Lussenhop

Wow.

Hai

Yeah, but those are very Carnival and this is what they love. And so they save up for that one costume, right?

Neil Drumming

When the actual finished product walks down the Parkway, you're looking at almost a year's worth of work by everyone from peacock farmers in Cambodia to the designers in Trinidad and the seamstresses in southern China to Reishelle and her family in Canarsie, where her father actually hand glues feathers onto wire and bends them into headdresses and wings.

One other important thing that you should know about Hai's feathers is that people tell us that, because they're real, they're waterproof. Which is fortunate, because this year, it started pouring down rain early Labor Day morning. And Jessica and I found maybe 100 masqueraders hiding out in a nearby Walgreens. In the cosmetics aisle, I saw a woman posing for a picture like some odd winged supermodel underneath the fluorescent lights.

There was a long line to the bathroom, women in sequined bikinis crowding in two at a time. Even though everyone's feathers were soaked through and drooping, they were trying to stay in good spirits.

Woman 1

It ain't going to stop. And we're drying our feathers.

Woman 2

I took my feathers off to dry.

Jessica Lussenhop

It's wet. They are hanging up behind me in a bunch of school supplies. Yeah, I don't know. I guess, I'm curious, like, does the fact that it's raining, like--

Woman 3

No, it don't stop us.

Woman 4

No, it don't stop us.

Woman 5

It don't stop us. We could party in the rain.

Woman 6

It don't stop us, and the party don't stop.

Woman 7

I'm still running the Parkway.

Woman 8

It's our culture. We're here to pick up our culture, you know what I mean? Like, rain or shine, tornado.

Neil Drumming

Eventually the rain stopped. People put on their damp costumes and rejoined the parade. Mas players pay hundreds of dollars to join mas bands. For their money, the masqueraders get a costume, food and drink, and a chance to dance behind a truck with an obscenely loud sound system.

The folks at Ramajay, they say the number of masqueraders has been dropping over the years. This is Darryl Cox. He designs costumes for Ramajay. He was wearing a jewel-encrusted ski mask at the time.

Darryl Cox

So there's a whole bunch of factors that play into part. But overall, I think it's just people may want to do different things with their income. They may not necessarily want to be half naked on the road for a couple hours, so.

Neil Drumming

What Darryl means is they'd prefer to be half naked on the road for considerably more than a few hours. He says the mas play business is suffering because people feel like the city is getting more and more strict every year about when the parade is supposed to end. Everyone's supposed to be off the road by 6:00, so masqueraders are less inclined to pay a band like Ramajay for the experience.

Reishelle Maynard-richards

And one of our biggest battles is why should I spend $600 for a costume in New York when I can spend that on a flight and go to St. Lucia, or go to Jamaica, or go somewhere else and play mas there?

Neil Drumming

That's Reishelle, the woman we met in the feather shop on 37. She founded Ramajay about a decade ago and turned it into the family business. Her father played mas in Trinidad, and to this day, still spends months helping her make the band's lavish costumes by hand. For Reishelle, these days, not enough people are willing to commit to the masquerade, to the tradition of playing mas.

Reishelle Maynard-richards

When you walk, what you see now, you don't see much costumes anymore. You see a lot of T-shirts and just flags. A lot of people don't get to witness the beauty of the costumes anymore, because they just see flags, and rags, and short pants, and they don't see the beauty of a lot of the costumes anymore.

Neil Drumming

Within Caribbean culture, not everyone is steeped in the same traditions Reishelle was taught. They celebrate however they can. Though there's one way of cutting loose that seems to be happening more and more, and it drives Reishelle and her staff crazy. When Ramajay rolls down the Parkway, speakers blasting, some bystanders hop the metal barriers and flood the band's ranks, dancing and waving their flags. People call this storming. Some mas players welcome it, like the more, the merrier.

But it doesn't look great. The traditional mas players in their feathers and jewels, jostled and crowded by stormers in shorts and T-shirts and everyday street clothes, it's just messy. And it can also be dangerous. People get harassed, even assaulted. Fights can break out. The DJs kept trying to separate the non-paying civilians from the costumed players.

Dj

But make way for the masqueraders, please. We ask that all the people who are not playing mas to step to the right side, far, far right side of the truck, please, and make space for the masqueraders. And ladies and the men, stop winding with the outsiders and encouraging these things now. Stop winding on the outsiders, OK?

Neil Drumming

They made this announcement over and over, without much impact. And the band security got pretty fed up trying to enforce it.

Security

I need the costumes to come through. Anybody that have on costumes, come through. Costumes, come through. Anybody without costumes, you're not coming in. I don't give a [BLEEP] what y'all say. Y'all mother [BLEEP] ain't coming in.

Neil Drumming

Reishelle has had enough. She recently decided that this would be Ramajay's last year in playing mas in New York City. And the stormers are why she's calling it quits. Ramajay will continue to play mas, but Reishelle would rather fly her staff to Miami, where she feels more people embrace Carnival as she knows it. It's big news. Again, here's Darryl, Ramajay's designer.

Darryl Cox

There's a lot of sadness. I haven't really even been dancing because it's almost like I miss this, but I don't miss it. Everyone seems to be happy. And I think it's finally going to hit them when we cross that stage one last time. That's not going to happen again.

Neil Drumming

It's easy to think of a parade as something unchanging, something that passes through the same place at the same time every year. The Carnival is this living thing that goes anywhere it's welcome, picking up pieces here and there, and dropping them off along the way.

Just as Ramajay is reaching the end of the parade route, the sky cracks open again, drenching the procession in steady sheets of rain. Plenty of people flee through the barriers for the safety of open subway entrances or storefront awnings. But a lot of people stay. And then something kind of magical happens. Ramajay's DJs crank up the music. They lead the mas bands and chants of wetted up, and the people want water, almost as if they were taunting the clouds, daring the rain to fall.

The masqueraders, already soggy from earlier, collectively decide, what the hell, and start to jump up in unison, harder and more exuberantly than they have all day. As they cross the finish line, the band is as presentable as it can be under the circumstances. And it's just like Darryl predicted. There's lots of people crying-- Reishelle, her family, her security, and the people who have been playing mas with Ramajay for years.

They pass by a panel of judges who are supposed to be scoring them on presentation. But honestly, the judging seems like it's beside the point right now. Everyone just seems happy to have spent all this time together, and they just want to keep winding and rocking.

Dj

How many people need two more hours on the road? Put your hands up in the sky right now.

Act Four

Woman

Me and a two-piece, we ain't friends right now.

Neil Drumming

I'm Neil Drumming. Ira Glass will be back next week with more stories of This American Life.