May 1st, 2014

Mayday, Mayday!

[NOTE: This is a repeat of a previous post.]

[UPDATE: I see that Russia has revived its Mayday parade, first time since 1991. Why am I unsurprised?]

Today is Mayday.

As a child I was confused by the wildly differing associations the word conjures up. It’s a distress signal, for example, apparently derived from the French for “come to my aid.”

That was the first meaning of the word I ever learned, from watching the World War II movies that were so ubiquitous on TV when I was a tiny child. The pilot would yell it into the radio as the fiery plane spiraled down after being hit, or as the stalling engine coughed and sputtered. On the ship the guy in uniform would tap it out in code and repeat it (always three times in a row, as is the convention) when the torpedo hit and the ship filled with water.

But on a far more personal level, it was the time of the May Fête (boy, does that sound archaic) in my elementary school, when each class had to learn a dance and perform it in the gymnasium in front of the entire student body’s proud/bored parents. The afternoon was capped by the eighth-graders, who were assigned the only activity of the day that seemed like fun—weaving multicolored ribbons around the maypole.

Ah, the maypole. Who knew it was a phallic symbol? Or that maypoles were once considered so risque that they were banned in parts of England by certain Protestant groups bent on discouraging the mixed-gender dancing and drunkenness that seemed to go along with them (not in my elementary school, however; only girls were allowed to wind the maypole ribbons, and the mixed-gender dancing the rest of us had to do was decidedly devoid of frivolity)?

The other meaning of Mayday was/is the Communist festival of labor, or International Workers Day. In my youth the big bad Soviets used to have huge parades that featured their frightening weaponry. Back in the 20s and 30s the Mayday parades in New York City were fairly large. I know this because I own a curious artifact of those times—a home movie of a Mayday parade from the mid-1920s. I’m not sure who in my family had such an early and prescient interest in movies, but the film features my paternal grandparents on their way to such a celebration.

They’d come to this country from pre-revolutionary Russia in the early years of the century. Like many such immigrants, my grandfather became a Soviet supporter who thought the Communists had a chance of making things better than they’d been in the Russia he’d left behind. Since he died rather young, only a few years after the film was made, I don’t know whether time and further revelations of the mess the Soviet Union became would have changed his point of view. In the film, however, the family goes to view the Manhattan Mayday parade, which looks to be a very well-attended event with hopeful Communist banners held high and nary a maypole nor a Morris dancer in sight.

The footage of the parade seemed archaic even back when I saw it as a young girl, although it was fascinating to see the grandfather and grandmother I’d never known (not to mention my father as a handsome seventeen-year old). But the most puzzling sight of all was the attention paid to the Woolworth building. Whoever took the movie was fascinated by it; there were two slow pans up and down its length.

Why the Woolworth Building? Opened in 1913, it was a cool fifty-seven stories high, the tallest building in the world until 1930. It had an elaborate Gothic facade and was considered a monument to capitalism—the “Cathedral of Commerce,” although the Communist-sympathizing photographer of my Mayday movie didn’t seem to let those two offending words (cathedral, commerce) get in the way of his awe for the building.

I never noticed the Woolworth building myself until the day I visited the site of the World Trade Center a few months after 9/11. There were still huge crowds coming to pay homage, and so we had to wait in a long line that snaked around the nearby blocks.

That’s how I found myself in front of a familiar sight, the Woolworth Building, still Gothic after all these years, and still standing (although it had lost electricity and telephone service for a few weeks after 9/11, the building itself sustained no damage). No longer dwarfed by the enormous towers of its successor—that new Cathedral of Commerce, the World Trade Center—the Woolworth Building even commanded a bit of its former dominance.

Although it’s still dwarfed from this angle:


And to bring this hodgepodge of a post round full circle, there exists a book of photos of 9/11 with the title Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!: The Day the Towers Fell, a reference to the myriad distress calls phoned in by firefighters on that terrible day.

6 Responses to “Mayday, Mayday!”

  1. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    My grandmother told me that it was traditional on May Day, when she was a little girl in the early 1900s, to make May Baskets — pretty little beribboned baskets full of spring flowers — and hang them on the doors of friends and family. After hearing about it, I tried to do it myself one year but, as a not especially crafty or skillful child, in a climate where not all that much is blooming yet in early May, didn’t get very far. I didn’t realize that I should have employed my brothers to do the hard part of finding the flowers. Here’s Louisa May Alcott in “Jack and Jill” on the subject:

    “Spring was late that year, but to Jill it seemed the loveliest she had ever known, for hope was growing green and strong in her own little heart, and all the world looked beautiful. . . . The job now in hand was May baskets, for it was the custom of the children to hang them on the doors of their friends the night before May-day; and the girls had agreed to supply baskets if the boys would hunt for flowers, much the harder task of the two. Jill had more leisure as well as taste and skill than the other girls, so she amused herself with making a goodly store of pretty baskets of all shapes, sizes, and colors, quite confident that they would be filled, though not a flower had shown its head except a few hardy dandelions, and here and there a small cluster of saxifrage.”

    It appears there are places where the tradition still lives:—-in-memories/article_e876dafd-ccf7-5a1e-b96b-8b25a8921150.html

  2. Jeffrey Says:

    I was near Ground Zero a few hours after the towers collapsed and found myself in conversation with total strangers as we surveyed the new skyline of lower Manhattan. An older man nodded towards the Woolworth Building and said, “That’s a view that no one’s seen in 40 years!”. Meaning the Woolworth viewed against the western sky rather than the Twin Towers.

  3. Hangtown Bob Says:

    I’m not sure, but the Woolworth building looks a lot like the building in the climax of Ghostbusters. Anyone know whether it is?

  4. Artfldgr Says:

    Hangtown – nope
    but they do have a great tiffany stained glass ceiling you cant see any more as visitors are not allowed in the lobby… (its in the back by the stair case)

    May Day coincides with International Workers’ Day, and in many countries that celebrate the latter, it may be referred to as “May Day”. Dances, singing and cake are usually part of the celebrations that the day includes

    International Workers’ Day (also known as May Day) is a celebration of laborers and the working classes that is promoted by the international labor movement and occurs on May 1 every year.

    In the United States, efforts to switch Labor Day from September to May 1 have not been successful.

    In 1921, following the Russian Revolution of 1917, May 1 was promoted as “Americanization Day” by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other groups in opposition to communism.

    It became an annual event, sometimes featuring large rallies. In 1949, Americanization Day was renamed to Loyalty Day. In 1958, the U.S. Congress declared Loyalty Day, the U.S. recognition of May 1, a national holiday; that same year, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 Law Day as well.

    so we lost a national holiday that protested communism…
    [edited for length by n-n]

  5. Artfldgr Says:

    Chapter IX
    The Surprise
    this is the surprise of the enemy. It lies more or less at the foundation of all undertakings, for without it the preponderance at the decisive point is not properly conceivable.

    meaning that the general state of disbelieve in what is going to happen is a necessity of what is going to happen. its a pre-requisite…

    that is. IF your mind is of such that it will happen, you prevent it from happening as you wont be surprised…

    but IF you take on the current idea of it not happening, that is precisely what is required as a precondition to work towards making it happen!!!!!!!

    so, if you refuse to discuss it, lay it out, and see whats going on, your complicit, and assisting the other in attacking!

    The surprise is, therefore, the medium to numerical superiority; but it is besides that also to be regarded as a substantive principle in itself, on account of its moral effect.

    When it is successful in a high degree, confusion and broken courage in the enemy’s ranks are the consequences; and of the degree to which these multiply a success, there are examples enough, great and small.

    yes.. the minute the real war breaks out, and the imposition of war time stuff happens, what will happen in the street? the economy? the food supplies? crime?
    [edited for length]

  6. Gringo Says:

    I never realized the significance of May 1, until one year I flew on May 1 to Bolivia for my work. I was surprised to find out that Bolivia had shut down for the holiday.

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