11:30 a.m. Saturday: “Stand next to the fence,” the coordinator tells Paul and me. “Someone will be by to give you instructions.” Rain sifts down on my umbrella. Warm April rain, but it’s June 20, the cusp of Summer. “At least it’s warm,” the girl next to us says. “This would be hellish if it was cold.”

We are in Coney Island, waiting for the 2 p.m. start of the 2009 Mermaid Parade, leaning against a wooden fence that advertises Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, dressed in brand-new canary yellow T-shirts with VOLUNTEER printed on the back. There are ten of us. We carry umbrellas; we wear see-through plastic ponchos. Paul wears shorts and a raincoat. We are Marching Marshals. I’m not sure what that means.

12:30: A trim blonde in a cowboy hat hands us hand-numbered signs on long metal poles. The guy next to me looks up at his sign, eight feet up against the drizzly sky. He cringes. “We could be hit by lightening.”

The blonde tells us we’ll stand along West 21st Street in sequence according to our number, and Mermaids with corresponding numbers will line up behind each of us. “You’ll each have 25 Mermaids,” she says. “Your job is to keep them moving.”

1:00 p.m.: We’re spaced along West 21st , leaning against the wall with our signs. Paul’s and my numbers are in the three hundreds, in the rear, only three other Marching Marshals behind us. The rain has let up, but the sky is murky.

The lightning-phobic guy laments, “I wanted to see the parade. We can’t see squat from back here.” I sympathize fully. He brightens. “Hey, they’ll put Harvey Keitel in the rear, right?” Keitel is this year’s celebrity King Neptune. “Maybe we’ll be close. I can take a picture.”

The street teems with Mermaids in home-made tails and shell bras. Some aren’t young. Some aren’t women. Some wear only pasties on top. Some shouldn’t.

1:15: Rain again. A marching band leans on our wall, chugging Budweiser. A tuba lies on the sidewalk, rain pittering its silver curves. A skinny woman in panties, two strategically-placed cotton balls, and gold body paint poses for pictures with a fat guy wearing only a jock strap. He jerks—“Oh!”—and pulls a cellphone out of the jock. He grins. “It’s on Vibrate.”

1:30: Rain pelts down. We stand in the flooding street, waiting for Mermaids to find us.

The band plays slurred New Orleans jazz. A nubile college girl in a sea-green filmy, finned skirt shakes her butterfly-shaped pasties at a nerdy guy in a striped cap. Dirty old men click their cameras. Roller-derby girls swap war stories. Body paint runs; glitter falls; fins grow limp.

“I can’t feel my hands,” Paul says. “Look—my fingernails are blue.”

1:50: Downpour. Gold Woman and Jockstrap Man rush by, thoroughly goosebumped. The co-ed in butterfly pasties dons a jacket. The band takes another Bud break. Nobody has claimed our sections, those behind, or the lightning-phobe’s up ahead.

2 p.m.: Still no Mermaids back here.

2:15: Not one Mermaid. “They’re not going to use us,” the lightning-phobe exclaims. He sounds disgusted.

The pack of Mermaids up front jostles; we all start forward.

“They’re making us march without Mermaids,” Lightning Man wails.

An organizer approaches. Paul tells him,“Everybody’s up front. We don’t have Mermaids.”

“Oh,” the organizer says. “Well. You don’t have to march.”

Cool. We’ll see the parade from the sidelines. “What a wasted day,” Paul mumbles.

The organizer collects soggy signs. He hands Paul a board painted with the word “Spring,” and me one that says “Winter.” Other Marching Marshals get “Summer,” “Autumn,” and bamboo poles topped with flags. “Take these to the boardwalk for the Beach Ceremony,” the organizer says.

No parade. No Harvey Keitel. We drag our burdens to the boardwalk. The rain eases; cold wind whips the flags.

The parade ends, for walkers and hand-pulled carts, on the boardwalk. All motorized vehicles—antique cars, trucks, floats—dropped off earlier, unseen by us. We lean on our props, waiting for the Beach Ceremony–whatever that is–watching drunken Mermaids stagger by. Many faces, and bodies, are familiar. Jockstrap Man, still bare-assed, wears a jacket. The butterfly-pastied co-ed is draped over her nerd.

Harvey Keitel and his Mermaid Queen wife whisk by in a cart, so quickly that I can’t snap a picture with my iPhone.

4:30: A coordinator shepherds us and our props from the boardwalk to the beach and lines us up. Four “gates,” red ribbons stretched between bamboo poles, lead down to the ocean like hurdles. Before, after and between them, we stand with our “Winter,” “Spring,” “Autumn” and “Summer” signs.

“You’ll wait here twenty minutes,” says the coordinator, “then they’ll come and cut the ribbons.”

“Who cuts the ribbons?” someone asks.

“Harvey Keitel.”

It starts to drizzle.

5:15: Observers straggle down to watch us. I trade my “Winter” sign for a pole. The sign requires two hands, the pole only one; maybe I can take a picture with my free hand.

They sweep down abruptly: a bevy of Mermaids and Harvey Keitel. And the combined press corps of the entire free world.

Harvey clips the first ribbon with giant shears. I can’t see him behind the hoards of photographers. The circus moves to my ribbon. My substitute holds up “Winter.” I aim my iPhone and shoot. The ribbon snaps. The mob advances to the third “gate,” where Paul holds “Spring.”

I glance at my iPhone: I’ve got it! A shot of Keitel’s face, his crown, his glitter-covered trident, his wife, over the “Winter” sign. You can’t tell he’s cutting a ribbon, but…I’ve got it.

5:20: We march our signs and poles up the beach to the Coney Island Museum, where they’ll be stored until next year. Paul looks chagrined.

“You finally got to do something useful.” I say. “Aren’t you glad we came?”

“Hah. When they hit my ribbon, the security guy ripped my sign out of my hands and held it up.” He snorts. “He wanted his picture taken with Harvey Keitel.”