It’s the weekend of one of New York City’s Holi Festival of Colors and spring is just beginning to appear in the cloudless and bright blue sky. This particular event is being held outdoors in an elusive location in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. The address was only released a few days ago and it seems attractively random. The nearest subway train is a mile from the fenced parking lot that will set the stage for the night. I know little of what to expect because although Holi is traditionally a Hindu celebration held for the sake of spring and oneness, this isn’t an exclusively Hindu event and I suspect a lot of people will probably be on drugs, and with that in mind, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a religious event like this one before – even if only tangentially religious.
A crowded lineup of bands, rappers and DJs was announced on the event’s Facebook page this week. Since the festival is being held in a parking lot in a neighborhood relatively deep into Brooklyn, I assume that at least part of the motivation behind the location is to do with the sonic roster and sound ordinances. Each ticket comes with a bag of colored powder and the biggest ice breaker of the night is that people get to throw the powder on strangers without making any sort of prior acquaintance. This bend on common courtesy appeals to me. Attendees have been instructed to wear clothing that could be, but probably won’t be, ruined. With temperatures hovering around 50 degrees tonight, I’m not sure I have a coat I am willing to even possibly destroy so I layer up old sweatshirts and leggings instead.
%Gallery-186285%I’m in line for the security check when I realize I might run into trouble. The search is one of the most thorough I have experienced only to be compared with the Colombian airport where I was pulled aside and asked to open factory-sealed bags of coffee. I have prescription medication with me, but I don’t have the prescription itself in hand. This has never been a problem for me before – not even at the Colombian airport. But it’s a problem tonight. Security wanted to throw my medication away. I pleaded with two of the workers, explaining that since I don’t have health insurance, the medicine would be expensive to replace. One of the women working security fortunately offers to hold my medicine until I leave. I’m frustrated and trembling from the confrontation, but I understand it all the same. They don’t know that it’s not an illegal drug I have in my possession. If there’s any sort of scalability for which kinds of events are better-suited for recreational drug users than others, this kind of event would surely fall low in the rankings from a security standpoint. No one is spending the night in this parking lot tonight – everyone must find their own way home, whether they walk to the distant train, try to find a taxi, or drive themselves. It’s best to be vigilant, I suppose.
I finally make it through the security checkpoint and into the festival itself. The area is enclosed and seems small, but there’s more than enough room for the hundreds of people already present. A couple of food trucks and a bar are to my right. A handful of portable toilets crowning the head of a winding snake of a line are straight ahead. A makeshift stage hosting a dynamic punk band are to the left. I wish I didn’t have to, but I immediately head toward the harrowing bathroom line with urgency and wait.
I’m a lousy chameleon in this colorful landscape. The powders have been thrown; the colors have blended. Everyone else is a rainbow and I am a sore thumb until my husband surprises me with a hefty splash of red color to my face. My mouth is unluckily open and I spend the next 10 minutes spitting up red that looks like blood although it isn’t but maybe might as well be for the scene I’m causing. I repay him when he’s least expecting it later in the night. But that’s how the Festival of Colors is.
“I think you could use a little more purple,” says a girl within a swarm of girls behind me. She punts her purple powder my way.
“And more green!” adds her friend, wiping hers along my leg.
It’s difficult not to begin a conversation after an interaction like this. One of the girls calls me pretty and makes me blush, but luckily she can’t see the flush of my embarrassment beneath my splattered face. She asks to take a photo of me and I feel flattered and suddenly young. This is how it pans out the rest of the night. Strangers find clever ways to paint the innocent passerby and usually a smile is exchanged and sometimes a familiarity with one another is forged. I don’t normally find it easy to introduce myself to people I don’t know at events like this, so I like this. Beneath the masks of Holi powder, we are all ourselves, weighted with whatever we might be carrying. With the color unifying us all in appearance, our barriers have broken. These barriers are superficial and remarkably easy to eliminate. They are cemented into the changeable – like the logo of a brand, the smoothness of skin, or the shine of hair. We might not even notice them until they’re gone. Once our surveillance cameras have been covered, what happens next is lovely: we all just get along.
When the punk band exits the stage, a DJ begins. He throws us all back a decade or so with songs from Blackstreet and Destiny’s Child. We dance. The party is still going when I leave and attempt to find the security officer who told me she would hold my medicine. She said she would be here, but I can’t find her and I almost give up hope. She probably just threw my medicine away. But before I become too convinced, I’m pointed in her direction. She empties her pockets and gives me my medicine back, which is folded into my paper ticket for the event. I thank her and walk to my car. With the visible invisible, it’s fascinating how quickly we all become equals.