The morning is cool, grey and not a little wet. I'm trudging down the laneway, bright orange umbrealla in one hand to hold off the half-arsed but constant drizzle, bagel with cream cheese in the other. But I'm not in New York (sadly). We're making our way to the Chinese Museum on Little Bourke St to get ready for this year's Moomba parade.
The city at 8 am on a public holiday is all but deserted. Melbourne Central is eerily quiet, devoid of the usual throng of suits, uni students and truants. Even the Museum is quieter than it was during Chinese New Year. The absence of people is a little unnerving. At 10 am there still aren't enough men to carry the dragon, jeopardising our participation in the parade.
Which is how six of us girls come to be standing on the corner of Russel and Little Bourke Streets in our costumes an hour before the parade, asking people off the street if they'd like to participate. Most people walk past, completely ignoring us, others stop long just long enough to say no. Even the offer of a free lunch can't seem to tempt anyone. However, after as many refusals as propositions, my sister accosts a French backpacker. Jackpot! He seems a little overwhelmed by six excitable girls in costume, but lets himself get whisked away for a crash-course in dragon carrying.
After catching this 'fish', as the excited parade organisers put it, my friend and I cross the street to join another three costumed participants, and to our surprise, we snare another volunteer within a couple of minutes. B lives up the street and is on his way to the supermarket, but is happy to make a slight detour.
By some miracle, the two people we get off the street transform into the five we actually need, and by 10:55 am I'm standing out the front of the Museum, my garishly coloured phoenix's wings flapping softly in the breeze. The Museum is across a cobbled laneway from a block of serviced apartments, and the guests look surprised as they step out into the dull morning to be confronted with a riot of violently coloured silk banners and papier-mache animals. The cacophony of drums, cymbals and gongs waking up the dragon brings a bunch of girls out onto their balcony, where they excitedly snap pictures and wave.
Walking along Little Bourke Street to Swanston Street, where the parade is happening, gives the impression that no one is attending, as the streets are almost empty. I'm just beginning to think that it'll be very embarrassing, all of us parading to no one, when we hit Swanston Street. Which is packed. People cram in five or six deep against bright yellow plastic barriers as far as the eye can see. Shit.
Because we're joining the parade after the actual commencement point, we get to see some of the floats go past. The Play School float is a definite highlight. One of the presenters waves back at me but I don't recognise her - I'm before her time. We're the last float out after Spotswood Primary's mass drumming. One of their teachers is cute.
Walking down Swanston Street as part of a parade instead of a protest is a strange experience. Instead of jeans and a 'support your student union' t-shirt, I'm wearing a red chinese blouse and black satin trousers. The phoenix is a little heavier and more cumbersome than the red flag that a Socialist Alternative member invariable thrusts into my hands during a protest, and requires a red webbing and leather sling for support. Everywhere I look, hundreds of little silver cameras snap photos. It's strange to think that all these people I've never met might be emailing photos of me to their friends. I wave to whoever waves at me and experience what it's like to give that moment of joy to little kids watching the parade.
I feel a little bad when we turn onto Flinders Street before Federation Square, which is still packed with expectant faces, but the dragon is bloody heavy and it's a long walk back. When we turn onto Russell Street and face a fairly steep uphill walk, I can almost hear the poor dragon carriers groaning in dismay. My own arms and legs are beginning to feel the effects of an hour's parading combined with washing dishes all weekend. I'm thankful to relinquish the phoenix and my petroleum-based uniform and head downstairs in time to see the boys finally put the dragon back to sleep. B is all smiles and says he had a great time.