Sultry July rolled around Monday, and when the flip of the calendar highlighted the fourth day, the good people of Catonsville set aside differences and forgot their concerns about the code red ozone warning, the week's terrorism alert and the fact that the Dow had dropped 132 points by mid-afternoon. They slipped out onto Frederick Road and stationed chairs for the 56th annual Fourth of July Parade.
The parade was still three days away, but that didn't matter. The town would gather under the theme "Hometown Heroes," and like every July, it would just be fantastic.
It would be swell, really.
Well, OK, not perfectly perfect.
Some people chained their chairs to street signs. Several linked them with bright yellow caution tape, the kind you see at crime scenes, and strung them to telephone poles. Hundreds of prospective paradegoers staked turf with stretches of rope and twine, blankets, painter's drop cloths, sleeping bags and large blue tarpaulins anchored by bricks and bags of rocks. By Monday afternoon, all the shady spots, from the post office to Hillcrest Elementary School, about a half-mile away, had been claimed. Someone had bound their chairs with string and hung a sign that said, "RESERVED."
Sixteen-year-old Nikki Drummond was walking to the post office when she came across nine chairs and a heavy porch swing in front of the library, their legs outlined in the grass by bright orange fluorescent spray paint, apparently a fresh effort to assert a rule of semi-permanence to the parade spot.
Not again, she thought. People are obsessing.
A few blocks away, Laura Jahnigen and her friend Laurie Church pulled up to the curb in a Land Rover and hauled out six chairs.
"I used to make fun of people who did this," said Church. "But today I saw what was happening, and I called Laura and said, `I saw people putting chairs up on Frederick Road. Hurry up!'"
"I do it every year," boasted Jahnigen. "Except it used to be you'd do this a day before, now it's three days before."
Ask anyone. You can't beat the Catonsville Fourth of July Parade. It is the most wholesome outburst of community pride of the entire year. It's a time when kids paint their faces and race for prizes at the high school, and the Christian Temple holds a free concert, and the local steel band plays, and the Baltimore Marching Ravens come to town, and floats and politicians and clown musicians and motorcycles and old antique cars take over Frederick Road for a perambulating spectacle that lasts almost two hours.
It's the same as it ever was, only bigger. And then, of course, this funny thing about chairs. That's kind of different.
"This is ridiculous," said Linda Wallace, as she and a neighbor climbed out of a van to distribute chairs around 4:30 p.m., looking a little sheepish. "My daughter came home Friday and said, `Mom, there are chairs out on Frederick Road. Get out there!' Every year she wants us to do the same thing: the barbecue, the fireworks, the parade. So here we are."
Last year was the first time people noticed that the date for setting out chairs had somehow advanced beyond what seemed right and proper. Old-timers started to reminisce about when residents simply stood up for the parade. People began to worry that the claims on prime real estate sent the wrong message to children.
Margaret Lebherz wrote an exasperated letter to the Catonsville Times, saying, "I can no longer contain myself and must ask, `What is going on?'"
Her frustration brought a bevy of letters pointing out an unfortunate "Me First" mentality in Catonsville and a call for civility. The mother of a student musician said she couldn't even find a place to watch her son because of all the squatters who had taken over. John Thornton Hilleary wrote to say he would not contribute funds to support the parade anymore and contrasted Catonsville's parade with the May Day parade he attended with Russians in Moscow in 1981. "The parade was a wonderful event, and no chairs were provided by either the citizenry or the Russian government," he wrote.
On Monday, selling fruits and vegetables out of the back of tattered green pickup truck, a young Romanian woman, Annamaria Kalman, 25, watched all day as vans and SUVs swerved onto the shoulder and people jumped out on the curbs with parade-going paraphernalia to quickly stake their claim and then disappear back into traffic.
"To me it seems like a crazy thing," she said, her brow fading into a quizzical look. "I am thinking, why do people need to do this when they could just stand? In my country, someone tries to do this, the chairs would be gone in an hour."
While some people in town say the rush for seats has become disgusting and silly and pledge not to attend anymore, others seem to be more enthusiastic than ever.