[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.