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Photographs by Thomas Crone
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You can spend a good deal of your life exploring a city, sticking your head into the hidden, unknown and forgotten corners of your weird, wacky hometown, relishing each new find. Years into your pursuit of the new and the strange, on a cold, nondescript Tuesday night, you walk through a plain door just off of the South City intersection of Lemp and Cherokee.
And then things get good. Really good.
At this portal, you're greeted by tour guide Heather Bell, a cheerful, new(ish) member of the Banana Bike Brigade. Traveling up a flight of steps and around a corner, sounds drift out from behind an average, gray door. This is a mix of music and muted voice. Inside this small, even cramped, L-shaped workspace, the members of the Banana Bike Brigade are working on a half-dozen cycles and just as many representations of the animal kingdom, competing against the clock as they prep their good-natured, multi-piece entry into the Grand Parade of 2014’s Soulard Mardi Gras.
Here, on this formerly "whatever" Tuesday, you've unexpectedly just entered the happiest place in St. Louis, while being offered stickers and candy and beer and goodwill, all within the span of, oh, about a minute.
Wow. How fun life can be? Here, above a restaurant called The Table, a tiny, self-contained world exists. If a group of people could be more accommodating and welcoming, that would be a special group, indeed.
It's foolish to think that the Banana Bike Brigade's workshop would be anything but a place of whimsy. After all, every time that the group takes part in a parade or public gathering, it draws smiles and wins applause. Riding well-worn bikes that've been repurposed (multiple times) into one-of-a-kind creations, the Bananas are a staple at Soulard Mardi Gras, where they'll be appearing in the 38th position of the Grand Parade on Saturday morning. This time, they're repping the animals of the St. Louis Zoo, as all krewes celebrate the 250th anniversary of the great City of St. Louis.
In getting set for the weekend—where they'll be defending their second-place float finish from 2013—the 15 to 20 members of the Brigade take turns working on both communal bikes and their own, personal bikes. It's a bit difficult to untangle what’s exactly what, as some of the group rotates, dabbing paint at the different animal heads and body parts that are scattered through the room; they operate with a singular purpose. A couple other members, it seems, are destined to mostly float, adding their thoughts and a few paint dashes to whole variety of works.
In the center of the room, co-founder Uriel Starbuck keeps applying gray paint to a long rhinoceros; it's gotta be a dozen-feet long, from horn-to-tail. The rhino shell caps pretty much the entirety of the bike, with only the handlebars, the wheels and the pedals sticking out from the bike's costume.
From this spot in the center of the action, he notes that the group's been around "for 20 years; or maybe 19. We crashed the St. Patrick's Day parade that first year. We would've been given an award, but we weren't in the program." A few days later, the Brigade joined our town's other parade, this time in Dogtown. An award did come with that appearance and those have been rolling in ever since.
Over time, the membership's changed, of course, but many participants stick around for a bit. Some work remotely; members who don't live near South City often decorate the bikes at home, moving into the shared workspace only during the closing days to pitch in communally. The South Siders, on the other hand, are here constantly. Obviously, in the last week of preparation, the intensity of effort builds, though it's not as if this group feels stressed.
The radio's playing a wild mix of rock and new wave on this night. REM segues into Radiohead into Duran Duran into Metallica into Jane's Addiction into Primus. Individual members of the Brigade express happiness with individual cuts, expressing their joy to the group, but mostly to themselves, as folks drop and out of the collective conversation. The energy level's set by the music, but also by the discovery of a flamingo's head, or the shouted request for a handful of paper towels. Members talk about the weather (it could get cold), when they'll start drinking on Saturday (it could be early) and whether they'll topple the Mystic Knights of the Purple Haze for the top prize (it could happen).
The night rolls on. There's no set time that folks are going to be done. The spirit of Mardi Gras is a bit reflective of this work session, which has a devil-may-care vibe. It's good vibe, a healthy vibe.
It's treat, an honor, really, to sit in their midst as the group works and toils and cracks wise, readying itself for the Brigade’s biggest event of the year. If the intent's to make people smile, they've already done it for one person, five days out from showtime.
Last winter, Look/Listen was able to highlight the pre-Grand Parade activities of the Mystic Knights of the Purple Haze, who'd go on to (again) win the overall title of best float. Then, we walked with the long-lasting krewe during the Fat Tuesday Parade. For 2014, we’re focusing on the Banana Bike Brigade, starting with this post. We’ll walk with them during the Grand Parade on Saturday, so look for coverage of that, as well as some other, exclusive stories from Soulard Mardi Gras, at stlmag.com next week.
Photographs by Thomas Crone