Ah, New York, city of strangers. But how easy is it, once set in a routine, to see the same people, go to the same bars, cultivate the same hobbies, day in and day out? Maybe the bigger, bustling anonymity of this town can have that effect—concentrating small groups of people into pockets of idiosyncrasy, or encouraging vibrant underground communities that act like family. That’s what we’ll be exploring in a new series, digging into one Brooklyn subculture at a time. Last week, it was seeing how the Idiotarod, an underground, avant-garde shopping cart race, is organized from the inside out, and the next will profile 3D printing MakerBot enthusiasts. If you’ve got suggestions for others, we’ll take ‘em. In the meantime, read on.
Inside The Idiotarod
At Yer Man’s Irish pub in the early afternoon of Saturday, January 28, people in tartan kilts are walking around with clipboards and giving orders, a girl with fake blood smeared on her mouth is designing a Valentine’s Day card, and a man in a Scooby Doo costume is knocking back a beer. In the back room, another man in a kilt is leading another group of costumed individuals in militant-style calisthenics—jumping jacks, simple dance moves—while his brother stands in the back and shouts words of discouragement, all in a thick Highlander brogue: “YE CALL THIS DANCING?! NOT ENOUGH HAGGIS!”
This is the first checkpoint of the Idiotarod, New York’s infamous shopping cart race, now in its tenth year. I am allowed to observe on the condition that I also don the kilt and red beret worn by the organizers, collectively decked out as a Scottish clan. But the story of today’s Idiotarod isn’t wholly told by who wins, loses or throws up on the sidewalk. Die-hard enthusiasts celebrate the Idiotarod each year like a pagan holiday, and they don’t just do it for the awards or the drinking. The race comprises a temporary fantasy world for adults, one that has its own history, culture and rules of engagement.
It’s Not Just About Drinking
In 2007, Rachel Brill, at the time working for an education non-profit, woke up one morning to find a stray shopping cart abandoned on the curb outside her Nolita apartment. Brill had been discussing the idea of running in the Idiotarod, a wacky pub crawl she had heard of by word of mouth, with her coworker, Emily Ente. Finding the shopping cart, which one is required to push throughout the race, was the perfect opportunity. Brill pushed the cart, which was supersized, bright orange, and had a rusty lawn chair attached to it, two miles to Ente’s Stuytown apartment. There, they stored it in the basement, and for the first time went about figuring out how to turn that cart into a theme. Four consecutive Idiotarods later, Ente and Brill’s Team Disasterpiece would win the most coveted prize of all, “Best In Show,” and this year they’re helping organize the race.
Two days before teams are to gather at the starting line, Ente stands outside a toy shop in Grand Central Station, bundled in a cream scarf and cradling an iPhone in her palm. The screen, reflecting off the lenses of her black-framed glasses, routes an arduous, two-bus trip to Glendale, Queens, where the race “checkpoint” she will be overseeing is located. At each checkpoint, usually a bar, teams will park their carts outside, register with the tartan judges inside, and proceed to tackle a series of challenges—like making the perfect Valentine’s Day card or playing a wasted game of Simon Says. Ente received her checkpoint location and instructions at brunch earlier in the week. She sat down with two organizers who did not once reveal to Ente their true identities over the course of the meal. Instead, the organizers, a man and a woman, both referred to themselves as Robert McGeddon.
The Idiotarod, by design, has become a super-secretive affair, often releasing false starting locations and times to the public to shake off police types and boozy frat kids. This year, one of the long-time teams designed a fake website announcing the starting line at Zuccotti Park a week after the actual race. As a result of that action and the efforts by the organizers to keep things especially hush-hush, only 12 teams took part in the 2012 Idiotarod, a striking difference from the 30-70 teams the race has hosted in years past.
With Burning Man fans, artists and nine-to-fivers alike among the Idiotarod’s participants, organizers are making clear that the race is role-play, but only for those willing to fully immerse themselves in it. Putting together a half-assed costume and shouting “Shots! Shots! Shots!” comes off as distasteful for those who cultivate a sense of reverence for the irreverent.
“We’ve had conversations about how our favorite underground events have kind of been taken over,” Ente says, speaking quickly in low tones on the Q17 bus. Specifically, she’s referencing events like SantaCon and the No Pants Subway ride. “[They] no longer have this special, underground feeling like you’re doing something avant-garde and fun. It’s a bunch of drunk 22-year-olds. I’m over it. And that’s why the Idiotarod is special.”
But for a special event like the Idiotarod, special rules are required, as well as a person to enforce them. Nine years ago, artist and professional puppet maker Anney Fresh showed up to the Idiotarod in a fake wig and leopard print to try and convince cute boys she was a professional sports agent. That role has evolved slightly—every year since, she’s been the race’s official, unofficial referee, judging teams, receiving bribes, and emcee-ing the afterparty. All Fresh has to do is show up in a striped referee’s jersey. “I just turn up,” Fresh says. “If you keep showing up to be President, people are going to expect you to be President.”
Fresh now refs the Idiotarod with her husband of two years, Keith Ozar. “It’s like Christmas but once a year,” Fresh tells me. “Our secret family,” Ozar adds. “Our secret, drunken family,” Fresh finishes.
If the race participants are secret, drunken family, the character of Robert McGeddon is the Idiotarod’s secret, drunken patriarch. Each year, a different group of people organizes the race, usually the winning team from the last. It’s tradition to then design a new theme each time—last year, organizers were part of an evil corporation, and all had nametags that read “Henry McGovern.” This year, the theme is a Scottish clan. Every judge and organizer keeps his or her identity secret by assuming the clan identity of “Robert McGeddon.”
At the second-to-last checkpoint in the backyard of Williamsburg’s Union Pool, a man with a fencing sword and a walkie-talkie stands off to the side. As the person who delivered Emily Ente her instructions, he is an authority on the race’s underground proceedings. He will not reveal his true identity to me when I ask, (as expected, he tells me his name is Robert McGeddon), but he confirms that the small number of teams this year was by a conscious effort on behalf of the organizers. When I ask what kind of culture that is meant to preserve, McGeddon pauses to think before he continues.
“I’ll give you a quote,” McGeddon says. “Most of the world lives in constricted society.” He is speaking in parsed, considered terms, stopping every other word or so to adjust his speech and make sure I am jotting it down. “Our goal…is to allow all…to create at all levels…to…inculcate…all in a process of…personal creativity.” He continues. “There should be no…definition…of the word ‘art’…as a Micronesian culture…anthropologically manifested…” I continue to nod and scribble, pulling my notebook closer to my face. By talk of Micronesia I am pretending to take notes.
“I believe our interview is over, is it not?” he says when he is finished.
I smile, weakly. Robert McGeddon sighs, then hands me his fencing sword. He takes his walkie-talkie out of his breast pocket and places it in my other hand. He walks a distance of roughly five feet and stands with his back to me. He peers over his shoulder and raises his eyebrows smugly.
I feel the sword, and I feel the walkie-talkie. I feel myself in a kilt. I feel that this is supposed to be the moment where I have an epiphany, where I realize what the race is all about, where I find what motivates groups of people to spend hours and hundreds of dollars to live out a shopping cart-themed fantasy for one day.
“Now do you know?” Robert McGeddon asks. Well, sort of. It’s easy to see why some people go to great lengths for the Idiotarod; it’s a day on which the most valuable currency (aside from bribes and liquor) is both enthusiasm and creativity. But as a racer with a bag labeled “Guantanamo Athletic Dept.” winds his way around us for a series of Top Gun related tasks, it seems like many race in the Idiotarod for a blissful not-knowing, for a relief from the responsibility of knowing why we are compelled to do the things we do at all.