So, there’s a thing that happens around this time of year. It’s happened for the last five years and it’s a thing that I’ve been a part of off and on since it started, first as a participant and lately as a volunteer.
It’s the Annual Save Our City event.
This is, in essence, a giant game of water balloon tag that takes place over several city blocks worth of downtown Bellingham. There are survivors and a small group of zombies, and if the zombies get you, you turn into a zombie. It is several hours of running around in the sun. It attracts folks of all ages, from toddlers on up, and it is always a blast. Always.
I want to talk about some of the reasons why this is such a great event, and why it’s always meant so much to me.
First off, it’s an example of the public use of collectively owned spaces for something impractical. We all use public spaces all the time, even if we’re just driving to and from work on publicly owned roads. But to use them for something frivolous, and something that kind of amounts to a benign violation of societal norms… I think that’s fantastic. If the Black Drop Coffeehouse hadn’t stepped up and organized the event (which if I recall was initially limited to space in a park), and gone to the effort to secure the necessary permits and make sure that all the paperwork is in order and the rules are followed, this is not something that would ever have happened. If we waited for the city to do something like this, consensus would have ruined it. It would’ve been stripped away due to concerns about safety and the public good until nothing remained of it. Since the Black Drop was willing to step up and take a risk, we now have a ridiculous zombie game that takes over downtown for an afternoon, and it’s become a local institution. It’s an event that attracts a wide variety of attendees, aged from two to sixty-two, and everyone has a fantastic time.
I love that this brings an icon of death into the public eye. I know a lot of people think that this seems dark somehow, but death is a part of what being a human being is all about, and I think particularly in the US, and particularly in the modern day, we do our level best to eliminate images of death. We participate in diets and share news stories about advances in science that seem to provide that glimmer of hope that we won’t all die someday.
We’re all going to die someday.
Zombies are a visceral reminder of our struggle to cope with our own mortality. I think bringing this celebration into the public sphere benefits our collective psyche. This is the big boogeyman, look at it. It’s okay. Hit it with a water balloon and run away. It will get you eventually, but laugh until it does.
And that’s brings me to another thing that I really love about this event. It’s not really about winning.
So much in modern life is about winning. Not about success, but about being the best, the richest, the prettiest, the most well-liked, the smartest. It’s a thing that we suffer for, this cultural attitude toward who’s the best; who’s winning. It breeds envy and feelings of failure, and it can poison friendships and relationships. I don’t know exactly when we pick this up, but I do know it’s been one of the hardest things to disassemble in my life.
When the event starts, most of the participants are “survivors,” and a small number are “zombies.” When a zombie tags you, you turn into a zombie. Almost every survivor is a zombie by the end of the event… in fact, if I remember correctly, we’ve had years when there were zero survivors left. It’s a losing battle; as more and more survivors become zombies, the game gets harder and harder. And you know what? When people are tagged and become zombies, they aren’t all upset because they lost. They go back to the starting point, get their zombie armband, and head out chasing survivors again.
The point of the game isn’t to win. There will only ever be one winning team, and everyone gets an opportunity to be on that team. The point of the game is to play.
And play we do.
That’s another wonderful thing about this event… getting to see adults playing water balloon tag like they haven’t since they were eight. And that’s not all… many of our adult participants take a particular glee in dressing up for the event, with fake blood and rotting flesh effects and everything. And why not? Why wouldn’t you in essence wear the skin of your greatest fear and revel in it? Everyone, or at least the vast majority of people, are so kind to everyone. The adult participants are gentle and sweet with the littlest kids, and the injuries are rare for such a large crowd and such a barely managed chaos.
Everyone just wants to have fun.
So I’m really excited because I’m volunteering for the event again this year, and I get to watch all of this play out again. My joints are too bad these days to participate, they won’t tolerate all of the running, but I will enjoy getting to take all of this in again, and getting to help the survivors in their quest to escape an enemy that can never be overcome.
If you’re in the Bellingham area on May 31st, I strongly recommend coming by to watch at least, even if you’re not up to participating. It’s quite the spectacle.