Last Thursday afternoon, I saw this link: Staging a Naval Battle at the Queens World’s Fair Site. Fine artist Duke Riley was building reed-and-recyclables boats and planned to make them fight in the old reflecting pool, filled just for the occasion, like the flooded Colosseum of old. The event was free and open to the public, but there was a dress code: toga. I had to go, so I borrowed the Tor.camera and called my brother and my partner-in-mischief Nina: “Cancel your plans. We’ve got a mock Roman-style mock navel battle to attend.”
According to Ancient Rome on Five Denarii A Day, no proper Roman lady wears a toga; not wishing to be mistaken for prostitutes, and rather smug in our knowledge, Nina and I donned two layers of slips to stand for the tunic-like stola and draped pashminas over our heads and shoulders. We wrapped my brother in the palest sheet we had—baby blue—and trekked forth to Queens. As we got closer to the museum in Corona Park, we started spotting our fellow Romans: babies with laurel-crowns, young boys wrapped in their Spider-Man or Batman sheets, hipsters in big bath towels. (That’s a different occasion, guys.) The museum was serious about the dress code: there were boxes of fabric out for those who didn’t arrive properly attired, and the biggest threat of all was, no toga, no free beer.
Oh, yes. The article didn’t mention that part. Free as in beer, beer as in rhymes with “oh, dear.”
By the time the volunteers, painted in their team colors and wearing cardboard armor, started processing towards the reflecting pool, the unwashed masses were good and schnockered (from the Latin sinus + nocuus, “a large, hurtful bowl”). We crowded around the water, pushing, shoving, and shouting merrily, and then less merrily when nothing happened for a while. There were clowns dressed as pigs and some weird dance number going on, and the playlist coming over the speakers was pretty much what you get when you google “power chords.” Still no boats. We were getting ansty, and then a photographer ventured into the pool to take pictures of the Colosseum set pieces. From out of nowhere, a tomato went flying at him. Then another. What the hell? There were soon BUSHELS of tomatoes flying in the air and dozens of people in the pool, and it was starting to feel distinctly authentic. I know I cheered.
After a while, they successfully cleared the spectators from the watery stage and the the ships came out to the opening strains of The Ride of the Valkyries— big ships, made of wood, reeds, cardboard, plastic, anything, manned (and womanned) by the cardboard warriors. I got a good grip on the camera and fought my way forward.
Hey, you know what’s awesome about a watery stage?
It’s a great place to set things on fire.
I started out cranky over the long wait and the drunken crowd, but after the games got going, I really understood the bread and circus act. I didn’t care that I’d been soaked, stepped on, and pelted with tomatoes, because I’d become one with the great hive mind. Fireworks explode overhead; five hundred people go “LOOK AT THE SHINY!” Of course, nowadays we have far more direct and efficient ways of cheering up the common folk, like, um, creating jobs and reforming health care, but a tiny part of me also wants mechanical tigers in Yankee Stadium.
Megan Messinger is a production assistant here at Tor.com, a job that runs the gamut from resizing images to dressing up like a Roman lady to explaining Robert Jordan to the normals. She is learning to play the fiddle.