I walk towards Civic Center Park with butterflies in my stomach. I can see dozens of display booths set up in a large sort-of rectangle with their canopies fluttering in the wind, and a hundred yards from me two elaborately tattooed middle-aged belly dancers are practicing their art with the aid of finger tambourines and strange foreign-sounding music. Among the people watching them gyrate and spin is a grey-bearded man in a brown wizard hat and robe, carrying a green marbled staff. He is not the only one sporting the iconic tall pointed hat with a wide brim. It is a staple accessory, seen poking up out of the crowd in every color and style imaginable – black, grey, brown, translucent red, blue-brimmed, white with faux fur, and even some with attached veils. I suck in my breath and keep walking towards them all and to the event in which they are enthusiastically participating: Denver’s Pagan Pride Day.
I stroll through the booths, trying to only look vaguely interested. The wind blows over a rack of patterned hand-bags right in front of me, so I stop to help pick up the fallen bags and Celtic cross medallions. I ask the vendor if the bags are handmade. “I’m not sure, they’re from Turkey,” she says hurriedly as she scoops up the items and then returns to drum-playing with a man in the back of the booth. Their drumming becomes my personal soundtrack and I subconsciously walk to the beat as I explore what the other vendors have to offer. The most popular items are herbs, candles, and jewelry; many of the earrings and necklaces sport ancient pagan symbols like the pentagram, the Celtic cross, and the Egyptian ankh. There is also an abundance of booths advertising Tarot card, tea leaf, palm, and eye readings. A woman trying to give a tea leaf reading wears a plastered smile on her face, trying to hide her exasperation as her client rambles on and on about what she hopes to learn about her future.
I am unable to hide my quizzical look as I pass by the table for My Path, “the most advanced pagan social networking site.” I wonder if there are other pagan social networking sites…? If so, they are apparently hopelessly primitive. A woman with a painfully screechy voice walks by hawking her wares and screaming random announcements: “COME TO OUR BOOTH! DRUMS, READINGS, FASHIONABLE CLOTHING! THE WITCHES’ BALL IS IN TWO WEEKS – YOU WON’T WANT TO MISS IT!” The pagan prison ministry booth is taking donations and selling used books for very reasonable prices. Somber music issues from the booth advertising albums and auditions for the Orpheus Pagan Chamber Choir. Two robed women chat behind a table displaying books of Druid songs and poems. I nod at the representative for the Coven Grove drugstore, who is ready to provide “for all your metaphysical needs.” At the next booth over, a tall man wearing Mickey Mouse’s costume from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is showing kids how to make colored ornaments from fused glass.
Arriving at the end of the booths, I stop in my tracks, mouth agape at the strange sight on the lawn in front of me. A pair of garishly red-colored lips smiles out at me from a bespectacled harlequin face caked with purple and white paint. The face belongs to a man wearing a nuns’ habit who is sitting with folded hands on a long cushioned bench inside a homemade structure that must be seen to be believed. It is in the shape of a small chapel but is constructed of chain link fence parts that have been spray-painted purple. A rainbow-colored Magick energy star is displayed over the entrance, which is framed in purple fringe, and a giant bronze-colored chime hangs inside the chain-link chimney. A colorful sandwich sign is propped up to the right of the entrance; it reads “Please come in for a moment of peaceful reflection.” I want to go see him about this peaceful reflection, but my courage does not match my curiosity. I take three laps around the lawn trying to work up the nerve to enter his domain, but every time I pass by the makeshift purple pagan chapel it is swamped with people who want to smoke with him, exchange medallion necklaces, and take pictures.
After my third lap I collapse on a bench near the booth where the man and woman are still passionately drumming. I jump startled as the female hawker screeches from behind me: “AN EVENT FOR EVERY SEASON! THIS WINTER IT IS THE YULETIDE CELEBRATION GALA! YOU WON’T WANT TO MISS IT!” When she moves away I look down at my notes; when I look up, an average-looking guy with a duck-tail of blond hair sticking out of his baseball cap is staring back down at me.
“Hello, how are you?” he says carefully.
“Good, how are you?”
“I am well. So kind of you to ask.”
Silence. I stare at him with eyebrows raised. He fumbles in his large messenger bag and produces a hardcover book with an unpronounceable title. “You look like you might appreciate this book. It’s considered to be the sequel to the Bhagavad Gita – the most influential book of philosophy ever written.” His hand dives into his bag again and emerges holding a paperback copy of the sacred text, which he also hands to me. “Actually, Gandhi read this book every day.”
I stare at the books. “Oh wow. Very interesting.”
Silence. He pauses uncomfortably before saying anything, as if he is meditating on the correct response. “Believe it or not, I’m actually a monk.” He sits down on the bench beside me. “I live in a temple. We hand out these books as a sort of service.”
Pause. “Well yes. They are free. But, most people try to give a donation.”
Silence. “I’m so sorry, I don’t have any cash.” I hand back the hardcover. “Can I just keep this one?” I hold up the Bhagavad Gita.
“Yes. Actually, Gandhi read that every day.” Pause. “Also, please come to our temple. We have festivals and feasts every Sunday at 5.”
“You have festivals every Sunday?!”
“Yes.” Pause. “Sometimes we have festivals that last a week long.” Silence. “So, are you sure you can’t make a donation?”
“I’m really sorry, I honestly don’t have any money on me.”
He ponders. “We also accept used gift cards.”
After escaping from the monk, I head towards a booth that is offering coffee and chocolate but as I approach it I notice a tall guy walking towards me – he is dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt, but he carries a thick wooden staff that stands up to his neck and is topped with a crystal ball held in place by four silver blades. Intimidated, I pull an about face and nearly run right into two men, maybe in their early sixties, who are looking extremely confused. The first one, who I soon learn is named Frank, addresses me immediately: “Excuse me, but do you know what is going on here?!”
“Um yes, I think it’s Pagan Pride Day.” I immediately wonder why I said “I think” when I am quite certain of the fact that it is Pagan Pride Day.
“Pagan. Pride Day.” He shakes his head and smiles in amused disbelief.
His friend Robert jumps in: “We thought they had beer here!”
I direct them to the American Beer Festival taking place in the Convention Center. They laugh and throw up their hands at their foolishness, then Frank stops and turns back to look at me curiously. “Are you pagan?” he asks incredulously.
I pause, considering whether I should maintain my cover, but his pained expression makes me answer truthfully. “No I’m not – just observing!”
I learn Frank is a Colorado native and that Robert used to live here also: “I had a house up in Edgewater.”
I have no idea where that is but feign familiarity: “Oh, very cool!”
Frank sees right through me: “Do you even know where Edgewater is?”
He grins and looks off into the trees. But before he can say anything else Robert grabs him by the shoulder and pushes him off in the general direction of the American Beer Festival.
I turn slowly back around and notice that there is an open chair at the iridology booth, so I step forward to have my eyes read by Shelly: Natural Health Practitioner, Certified Iridologist and Herbalist. We immediately bond over how cold it is in the shade, and she invites me to open my eyes wide so she can shine her tiny light onto my irises. She analyzes my left and right eyes and keeps track of her findings on a detailed eye map: I have inherited good health and longevity from both sides of my family (true), I have asthma (true – she has me try some peppermint oil in the back of my throat to open up my airways), I’ve previously injured my hand and leg (true – dislocated finger and torn ACL), and I also need to look out for possible kidney and colon problems in the future (slightly concerning, but she promises I won’t die from it.) When she gives me the map with her notes, I ask her how she became an iridologist. I learn that she had her first heart attack at 24 and was told the damage to her heart was irreparable. Desperate to see her 5-year-old son grow up, she sought out natural medicinal solutions and was told that hawthorn berries can have heart-reparative qualities. She ate massive amounts of them for three months before going in to see her Western doctor again, and her next EKG came back completely clean. “Now I have cancer,” she explains to my astonishment. “I beat it back in ’08 using only natural methods, but it came back. I’m gonna beat it again though.” She smiles with a calm confidence. I wish her the best of luck as I shake her hand and get up to leave. She brushes off my obvious concern: “Oh, I’m gonna be fine!”
I walk up a couple steps and lean against a stone bannister, looking down at the sunken lawn where people are still milling through booths. The rhythmic drumming has not stopped. I open my notebook again to jot down some more thoughts, and this time when I look up there is a grey-haired man standing right below the stone railing looking back up at me.
“Excuse me? Are you writing a story?”
I’m concerned and caught speechless for a moment. Is he going to be offended by my response? “Um, sort of.”
“It’s just that I saw you three different times writing in your notebook, so I was wondering if you were writing a story.” I explain that I’m writing down my thoughts and observations for an assignment. He chuckles. “Observations on all the strange people here?”
“There’s definitely a lot to observe,” I respond vaguely.
He nods. “You know, some of these people are pretty neat once you talk to them for a bit.”
I agree heartily and then notice the high-quality camera hanging from his shoulder. “Are you a photographer?”
He smiles broadly. “It’s pretty much all I do.” I learn that he has been photographing “whatever strikes my fancy” for seven years, that he likes the grittiness of black and white, and that his most emotional project was a photo study of the homeless population on the 16th street mall. The conversation comes to an end, but we are both smiling. “Well, it was nice to meet you,” he says as he holds onto his camera with one hand and shakes my hand with the other, then begins to turn back towards the festivities. As he walks away, he calls back “I wish you well!” I wave, then close my notebook and head back towards my car, leaving behind the pagans in the park.
Posted October 25 by Cassie