Bite My Whimsy

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Back in the old days, most everything my friend Grinch and I did under the guise of the Nihilist Workers Party were what I guess folks nowadays might call "conceptual art." We never thought of it that way, lord knows. All we wanted to do was confuse people with whatever was handy. We did this quietly sometimes, and sometimes not so quietly.

So there were protests without purpose, and imaginary burning puppies and public sales of ignorance at a quarter a pop. We found that it was very easy to confuse people?and when people are confused, they oftentimes get angry. That, I guess, was the ultimate goal.

Occasionally?very occasionally?we did something that wasn't necessarily designed to piss people off. Every once in a while, in fact, we'd do something that actually teetered on the edge of whimsy. And sometimes those were the things that caused us the most trouble. Like the parade.

First a little background.

State St. is a mile-long commercial stretch that cuts straight through the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. It begins at the Library Mall and ends at the steps of the state capitol building. At least it did 17 years ago. State St. is Madison's equivalent of Philly's South St., or New York's St. Marks Pl., except that it's much longer?and correspondingly more annoying. Yet it was virtually impossible to get through a day without spending at least some time there.

Madison was not a town that was much known for its parades. There were a hell of a lot of protest marches, and I suppose those were kind of like parades, but we didn't have much of the real thing. Floats, marching bands, pompoms. Grinch and I figured it was about time that it did?though with a certain Nihilist Workers twist.

Now, here's another little bit of background. There were two different police forces at work in Madison. First you had the campus police. At most colleges, the "campus police" are little more than a crew of glorified security guards?bumbling oafs whose job it is to check IDs and make sure you aren't stealing library books. In Madison they were different. In Madison, the campus cops had extensive riot-control training. It was a holdover from the late 60s but they still needed it, in order to deal with all the protests and building occupations and what have you that continued through the mid-80s. They busted heads on a fairly regular basis. And they hated the students. Of course to be honest, the students didn't give them much reason to feel otherwise.

Then you had your city police. That's where you found your bumbling oafs. They were responsible for dealing with all the crimes that weren't directly student-related. As it stood in a town like Madison, there wasn't much of that to deal with. City cops, for the most part, either turned a blind eye or seemed quietly bemused by student antics.

As a result of this dichotomy, Grinch and I got away scot-free with any number of things, simply because we were lucky enough to run into a city cop instead of a campus cop. It got so's we planned it that way?if there was a big protest or occupation going on in one part of the campus, we'd simply go to another part to undertake our monkeyshines.

The idea behind the Nihilist Workers parade was a simple one. All we wanted to do was take a couple of lawn chairs, maybe a cooler, and set them up on the curb somewhere along State. For the next several hours, we then planned to applaud, cheer and wave tiny American flags at everyone who passed up and down the street?pedestrians, bicyclists, cabs, rollerskaters, delivery trucks.

Hey, it would've made us laugh.

When it came to organizing the parade, we knew first and foremost that we wanted it to be official. Otherwise it wouldn't count. This was going to be a legal, city-sanctioned event, and we wanted the proper forms and permits to prove it, should anyone ask.

We tried to make ourselves look as presentable as possible (which, to be honest, wasn't all that presentable?but I guess it was better than usual) and went down to the police station. That's where we needed to fill out the requisite forms requesting a city permit. We'd done it before, successfully obtaining a permit that allowed our band, the Pain Amplifiers (on the application, we referred to ourselves as a "musical combo" called the P.A.s) to play on the Library Mall for four straight hours one Saturday afternoon. If they'd let us get away with that, we figured, we could surely get away with this.

We filled out the request forms in detail, then left them with the secretary, who told us we could expect to hear something within a week.

Perhaps it had been a mistake, in the space where we were asked to describe what the parade entailed, to explain exactly what we had in mind?but we were just doing what we could to be honest, law-abiding citizens. We weren't even asking for police barricades or anything.

Well, a week came and passed, and we hadn't heard anything. By the middle of the following week, with the date of the parade fast approaching and far too many preparations yet to be made, I figured it would be best to call the permits office and find out what the hold-up was.

I was patched through to a friendly, jovial-sounding police officer, who somehow knew immediately which request I was talking about.

"Yeah, I got it right here," he said. "It's been sitting on my desk. You haven't heard anything back because?I'm still trying to figure this out. I mean?what is it that you guys are planning to do, exactly?"

I explained it all to him again, pretty much exactly the way I explained it above.

"And?why did you need the permit?"

"Because we wanted to do things all right and legal?y'know, so there wouldn't be any trouble."

"Uh-huh," he said when I was finished. There was a chuckle in his voice. "Well, I'll tell you?you don't need a permit for that. You guys just go right ahead and do it. It'll be fine."

"But officer," I said, "we really want a permit."

"No, it's okay," he said. "You don't need one."

"But we want one," I pleaded. He was being much too friendly about all this. He just didn't get it.

"But you don't need one, see? That's what I'm saying. Go right ahead."

"But without a permit," I explained, "there's no parade."

There was a pause as he tried to figure out whether I was drunk or retarded.

"Well you just can't have one," he said, and hung up.

In the end, there never was any parade. If we'd gone ahead and done it without the permit, then it would've just been performance art?and that's the last thing we wanted.

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