In the hot summer sun, among the women walking around wearing rainbows and the occasional completely waxed man wearing nothing but skin-tight boxer briefs and a smile, the old man wore a suit.
It was a brown suit over a white button-up shirt with vertical stripes on it. No tie, so it was old man’s version of casual. It puffed around him, cinched in with belt. The suit was the size he used to be.
“It looks like we got the perfect spot right here,” he said, seating himself beside my fiancée and me as we leaned on a bank window ledge to wait for the parade to start.
In fairness to the man, our little perch on the south end of the Pride Parade route was the perfect spot. It was in the shade, a cool breeze licked by and it was close enough to see the massive festival of gaiety and gayness, with all the rainbow-bedecked, beglittered attendees and confused-looking political campaign workers that implies.
Nothing quite makes you realize the strides society has made like seeing politicians make hay out of gay pride. You know you’ve arrived when they think your celebration is just as worth milking for votes as St. Pat’s, Columbus Day and Bud Billiken.
But like the Dykes With Bikes, the various drag-wearing dancers and a heavily booed BP gay pride float, the sight of Mayor Rahm running down the route giving everyone high fives (or high four-and-a-halfs, as my dad would later correct me) was yet to come.
Now the lady and I were leaning against a bank between a dapper old man in a suit and a bearded gutterpunk with a “WHY LIE? NEED BEER” cardboard sign.
The old man was white, with short white hair and that nervous, mouth-open look old men sometimes get. He was polite and kind and seemed to want to narrate everything.
Due to the noise of the crowd and my increasing inability to discern voices over background noise (my dad says that’s going to get worse), I could only make out bits of the old man’s conversation with my lady. “The 45th year,” I heard. “First since marriage was legalized,” I heard. The rest was noise, drowned out by an increasingly impatient crowd.
It was my first Pride Parade.
I had expected the drag performers and the completely hairless men in boxer briefs. And I had expected the young women who turned this, like Halloween, Mardi Gras and so many other slightly sexual festivals, into an excuse to wear the outfits they otherwise would get some cleavage-based grief over.
But I hadn’t expected the Hispanic family right along the parade’s edge in front of us. Their small kids sat on the ground waiting for the candy the paraders would bring, same as if it were any other parade.
I hadn’t expected the lesbian couple across the way wearing everyday tank tops and shorts. No bright colors, no rainbow leis or flags. Just a couple with their arms wrapped around each other, lazily smooching like longtime couples do when there’s nothing going on but there’s a face right there to kiss.
I hadn’t expected one of the first sections of the parade to be children from the nearby Nettelhorst School. I hadn’t expected the veterans or that so many of the stripy flags would be American instead of rainbow.
I had expected Bourbon Street Mardi Gras, not Main Street Founders’ Day.
At the lady’s request, I ran to buy her a rainbow lei from a street vendor. When I returned, she leaned over to me and cocked her head slightly toward our seatmate with the brown suit.
“He ran a clinic in Cameroon,” she whispered in my ear.
I looked over at the old man in the brown suit that puffed around him.
“He said it’s a lot more accepting here,” my fiancée continued. “And a lot more accepting here than it used to be.”
I looked at the old man, the one who was there when Pride wasn’t a thing politicians milked and families took day trips for. When he was young, there were no Dykes With Bikes, no proud drag performers dancing and shaking in public, no couples sharing bored smooches waiting for a parade to start.
I looked at the old man in his puffed brown suit and button-up shirt with the vertical stripes. I thought about how far the world had come in his lifetime. I thought about how far it has to go.
I never got a chance to ask him about that. There was a crowd of millions around us, families and couples and, yeah, even politicians. The sound of celebration and joy drowned my question out.