"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 21 August 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
I've Been a Shriner for a Heart of Gold



A young man starting out in America today is more likely to end up in prison than in a fraternal organization like the Elks or the Rotary Club. The two-day parade the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine — better known as the Shriners — put on as part of their International Convention over the Fourth of July holiday in Boston gave the impression of strength (it boasted five-thousand red-fezzed Shriners and nearly as many scooters, go-carts, and mini-vehicles; more than 350,000 people turned out to see it). But conversations with the Nobles all ended the same way. First, a wistful admission that their numbers have shrunk by half since they hovered near the million-man mark over thirty years ago; second, a friendly plea to drop by the local temple and sign up for some scooter-drivin', burned-kid helpin' fun.

The Shriners are quick to point out that they've recently relaxed their entrance requirements and made it easier for applicants to work their way through the 33 Masonic degrees into their elite cadre of super Masons. Heck, you can do it in as few as six months now — it doesn't take a lifetime anymore. And this year, for the first time in Shriner history, 300 new members were "fezzed" in a ceremony open to the public. It seems Masonic secrecy and complicated initiation rites are relics of the past, even if scimitar belt buckles and tiny cars aren't. About the only thing you have to do to get in these days is declare your belief in a supreme being, and you don't have to get any more specific than that: Any supreme being will do.



The Shriners' parade — as button-strainingly stuffed as your average Shriner himself — was packed with all the Shrinedom accoutrement and activity that have made the Nobles such mirth-provoking cultural objects for loungecore musicians, latterday surrealist painters, cool-cat cartoonists and other hipsters in search of a style. The Shriners, in all their regalia, never looked more like refugees from some fictional Midwest as they did winding their way past the Hermès and Escada stores on Boston's tony new Boylston Street. Back Bay socialites with their trim asses parked in outdoor cafés idly flipped through copies of Wallpaper as hundreds of Navy-tattooed, big-and-tall types playing "The Sheik of Araby" on musettes marched by in green polyester pants and red, curled-toe, patent leather shoes. The Shrine's charity emblem — a befezzed Shriner seen walking from behind as he carries a child in one arm and her crutches in the other — marched toward the horizon on the side of every float. Shriners from Iowa rode little lawnmowers that played "La Cucaracha"; their banners reminded viewers that "Our cars roll... so they can walk." Shriners called The Maharaiahs went by in tiny black 4 x 4's; the Flying Fezzes of Indiana's Murat Shrine piloted motorized biplanes on wheels; Shrine Club Go-Cart Units performed elaborately choreographed runs over ramps attached to the top of trucks; flying carpet cars accompanied by the strains of a Pharaonic "Wooly Booly"-"You'll Never Walk Alone" medley drove by sideways like agile crabs. Next to a float in the shape of a Shriners Hospital for Children, an illuminated marching band, each member draped in Christmas lights, played a "Tequila"-"Wipeout"-"Mickey Mouse Club Theme" medley. The wives of the band members rushed to the sidewalk's edge shouting "These are ours!" and watched as their husbands' "We Help Crippled Children!" banner disappeared down Tremont Street. Everywhere there were scooters, and not just the elaborately tricked out Cushmans the Shriners made famous. They drive Hondas now, too.

The parade had plenty of gusto, but the after-hours rowdiness associated with Shriner conventions has faded into the past along with the burlesque houses in Boston's West End. A twentysomething Irish parking valet at the Parker House, where many of the Shriners were staying, explained it in his brogue: "I never heard of Shriners before this week, but they're like grown-up Boy Scouts. They're calm and well-behaved and their wives are pleasant. They're old men. Maybe when they were younger..." The only report of crazy behavior came from a waitress at a Newbury Street bistro: "They kept coming in in groups of thirty and asking for separate checks."

The Shriners may be "men who enjoy life," and the Shrine may be a place "where fun is part of philanthropy," but their brand of turn-of-the-last-century Orientalism coupled with 1950s goofiness — all in the service of charity — is as charmingly dated as the Shriner memorabilia auctioned on the Web. The sad-clown sentimentality found in their poetry is too up-close for a time in which charity is something you phone in to Working Assets while you're gabbing with your college roommate. It's been 128 years since the Shriners emerged from within the ranks of the Masons, and 78 since the Shrine of North America opened its first pediatric burn hospital. The 22 hospitals they've opened since then could probably run fine without the circuses and fez parades. The Shriners could be eliminated as surely as polio was. Like small-town Jerry Lewises, they save kids' lives with all the showbiz brio of a very early local television kiddie-clown.



And like Jerry, they have a dark side. It's easy to forget that the guy wearing a fez and driving the vehicle that won "The Littlest Car" award in the parade is also a Mason, a member of that antimonarchical secret sect that's been blamed for everything from murdering Popes and Presidents to manipulating the federal government in an obscure attempt to re-establish the Temple of Solomon in the U.S.A. Some conspiracy theorists hold that Shriner silliness and its attendant philanthropy are suspicious in and of themselves — desperate measures designed to endear Shriners to the public and stonewall those who would look closer.

It's hard to imagine that a bunch of hardware store owners, insurance salesmen, and letter carriers are part of some nefarious plot — yet that's part of their mystique. The only really unsettling thing about them is the uncomfortable ickiness now universally associated with clowns. If Shriners are to be criticized for anything, it's for the tenacity of their idea that burned children recovering from the excruciating pain of skin grafts are amused by aging, Bozo-clad Chamber of Commerce members who show up in their hospital rooms with squirting flower pots. Only a few Shriners, however, go in for the clown thing during the parades. Those Shriners have a sad, rogue quality that's negated by the typical Shriner's uniformity. Most of them march in the natty black suits and fezzes we've come to know from the Shriner statuettes that vie for space next to miniature Virgin Mary's on the kind of dashboards outfitted by Archie McPhee. Shriners are wack Orientalists who've heard of the Near East, maybe even seen a picture of it, and have decided to re-create it out of cummerbunds and special patches. Their failed esotericism combines with their step-up salary-man ideal to create a look attractive to the kind of scenesters who listen to the same music they did in 1959, but who would never join a lodge. This totemization of Shrinedom, its civic-mindedness turned into kitsch, is the key to understanding their iconic appeal.



The Shriners are the last well-dressed non-fashionable men in America, senior citizens who are keeping themselves together without fanny packs and sweatsuits. Instead of spending their time in adult diapers in front of slot machines at casinos, they're practicing complicated stunts on scooters. Their routines probably make them feel better than the kids they're ostensibly for: Fez and scooter become release valves from close contact with the tragedy of crippling childhood accidents and disease. They're not capitalist retirees; they've entered some vaguely Oriental third stage of life — so what if they're going on that journey in mini-cars? Their spiritual quest embraces a personality-obliterating goofiness that makes them better people. It's self-mortification with an American spin — it's fun! They're an anonymous mass of do-gooders who aren't after individual recognition. These traits, passed off as idiosyncrasies, are what separate them from hipsters who would cop their style and form a more sophisticated, Left-leaning approach to making the world a better place.

Those who complain that there's no such thing as community anymore witness in the Shriner parade a last American community — but it's one they would never want to join. When they ask themselves, what will I be doing when I'm 70? and the vision they come up with is emptier than a Shriner parade, it's time for a little rethinking. Just as wearing a thrift-store mechanic's jacket that says "Chuck" is a cry for meaningful work that manifests itself as a desire to adopt the style of work without doing any work at all, so it is with the Shriner look, not to mention the accessories. Hipsters want the cool look, the belt buckles, and the scooter moves, but they aren't exactly going to tromp down to a hospital to help a kid with spina bifida. They think they want a fez; it's really a chance to help people and a meaningful old age they're in search of when they longingly contemplate the relics of the Mystic Shrine. The most desirable look for a certain segment of the post-Boomer population has always been that of the retiree, but the Shriners offer a life, not a lifestyle. Who can commit? Especially when they insist you work your way up through all those degrees before you're allowed to join the parade or even do the charity work. Getting in could be a struggle, anyway. The well-meaning tend to close ranks against the ironists, and it might be harder to explain away a collection of Shriner automobile insignias purchased from black Shriners at the Schwab's in Memphis than it would be to reverse a position on the supreme being.



Or maybe the Shriners can absorb any attitude into their ranks. They parade out of a warped love of life and scooters, not to salve their guilty consciences. They march by — choreographed, smooth, witty, and goofy — in stark contrast to other celebrations of do-gooder piety and community building. Graceless and fake-wild, what passes for countercultural celebration and philanthropy today has all the joy of a mosh pit at a Woodstock sequel. The participants may be in better shape, but they lack Shriner flair. And they're about as funny as a crutch.

Looked at that way, Shriner Egyptology makes more sense. A higher wisdom, a search for lost secrets — aren't these the things hipsters want, too? The Greeks gave us a legacy in which everyone's a character. Things are different in America today, and our procession of crocodile men, large armies, and people being carried resembles a hieroglyph a lot more than The Iliad. A little less Greek thinking and a little more Egyptian style might go a long way for a lot of people. The Egyptians built the pyramids, the Shriners build hospitals. It takes a little group-think to do that, but Shriner group-think glimpsed something about the American psyche that hasn't changed much: A loss of self must be coupled with a funny car if we're ever to get together on a large-scale project and build a hospital.

The Shriner's an individual in disguise. He's no one in particular, but he's still loved when he brings his parade to town. His presence makes people happy. He isn't afraid to wear his loss of individual personality on his head in the form of a red fez. It's good that the Shriners have lowered the bar and are making it easier to get into the temple. Among their ranks at the Boston parade were a few trim hepcats with Vandykes who beat bass drums along with their heavy-gutted elders. Isn't this a better version of the men's movement than the one that took place in the woods, or in the dank basement grottoes of alienated executives? It's like that dream of Freud's in which the dreamer is awakened by a cry of "Father, can't you see I'm burning!" By relaxing their standards, the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine have answered that call. Only a Shriner can heal the Burning Man.

courtesy of Slotcar Hatebath
picturesTerry Colon

Slotcar Hatebath