Show Me the Way to Go Gnome

There is no need to look for an address. Outside the West 4th subway entrance, three young women—a jumble of striped tights, flouncy lace, and polka dots—ramble past. I follow their trail of laughter to MacDougal Street, where three unkempt men in greenish gnome hats stand with a faerie who's holding a clipboard.

"Welcome," chirps the faerie as I descend into the subterranean grotto that is Love.

A sign at the bar of the dimly lit cave advertises the "Gnome Special" dandelion wine.

The Swirl Girls at Gnome Love
photo: Tod Seelie
The Swirl Girls at Gnome Love

"It's tequila and lemonade," explains a fairy-dusted human named Y. Pierrakos. Pierrakos leans against a catch basin for a sheet of water that separates the bar and a mossy double-tiered treehouse playroom beyond.

"You look naked," says Pierrakos. "I think there are still some gnome hats in the back."

I follow his finger to a psychedelic alcove, where three gnome-like revelers with pots of paint giggle over their graffiti: a childlike mural of butterflies, mushrooms, and flowers offset by the defiant proclamation "Gnomes 4 Life." New arrivals try on fuzzy conical hats created by Miyong-Noh, while Heather White shoots gnome portraits under a makeshift arbor of flowers and twinkle lights.

"Someone's got to turn me on or something," says 30-year-old Stefan Pildes as he attempts to make his gnome hat stand up straight for his photo op. A winsome gnome named Sandhi Ferreira enters the frame and offers assistance.

Gnome Love is a benefit for Gnome Camp, a bicoastal group whose mission is to "liberate gnomes from their humble garden dwellings, take them out into the world, and show them a good time." Over Memorial Day weekend, New York's pointy-capped contingent took nearly two dozen garden gnomes to Playa Del Fuego, a Burning Man–inspired campout held in Odessa, Delaware. After conducting adoption interviews, they distributed garden gnomes and disposable digital cameras to those caretakers who promised their wee companions grand adventures. Gnome Camp's future plans include a large-scale adoption in Nevada and ongoing adventures throughout New York and Los Angeles, including a New York gnome scavenger hunt.

Of course, such efforts toward the betterment of gnome life are not without precedent. Garden Gnome Liberation Fronts—such as the seminal Front de Libération des Nains de Jardin in France and the slightly more virulent Movimento Autonomo per la Liberazione delle Anime da Giardino in Italy—have been functioning in Europe for years. In 1999, a triumphant act of absurdity led to the establishment in Barga, Tuscany, of the European Gnome Sanctuary, complete with a gnome-friendly radio station. Since then, the "Traveling Gnome" prank, wherein a garden gnome is kidnapped (or rescued, depending on which side of the fence you stand) and photographed at unlikely locales and famous landmarks, has become part of pop culture parlance.

"I've always loved gnomes," says Tinker Bill, whose camos are wrapped in an array of grapevines and ivy. "They weren't as Hollywood as elves or as macho as dwarves. That was before they started doing commercials for Travelocity."

"I couldn't not come," declares Brooklyn native Jill Grabler as she adds a furry rainbow-colored tie-dye gnome hat to her already elaborate headdress of flowers, feathers, and purple bunny ears. Silly Jilly, as she is known, proves her dedication by revealing several large, livid faerie tattoos. Not to be outdone, Loren Polans—Grabler's best friend and cohort in mythical pursuits—shows me four of his own.

"I've always had a thing for winged women," admits Polans, who is a participating member of Kostume Kult.

As if on cue, two young women with fairy wings traipse by, on their way to the main hall where humans outnumber mythic characters 10 to one. Still, the gnomes have it. When five gnome women hit the dance floor and begin stripping to David Bowie's "Laughing Gnome," the crowd is rapt.

"Gnomes are dead sexy," says 34-year-old Drew Meeks, a dashing unicorn with a long, white silk scarf hanging around his neck like a mane. "One of my earliest memories is of gnomes in my bed. I had been looking at that book [Gnomes by Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet] and one of them tapped on my window and beckoned me into the woods."

"A man, a man, a human man," begins Amy Shapiro from the stage, adjusting her tapered cap. "Give me one that is not afraid to be alone in the woods."

Shapiro's gnome erotica oscillates between humorously explicit ("My sex opened like a cherry blossom, his cock filling the rarely touched places") and just humorous ("His hand, large as my face, reached out to touch my breasts, but found instead the top of my head"). By the time the brightly festooned Swirl Girls pick up their hula hoops, humans, dwarves, and fairy folk alike are in fine spirits.

"I've never been to anything like this," says 22-year-old La Porte, Indiana, native Sarah Menning, who has come to town to visit her cousin. "Is New York always like this?"

Roberto Mesa, slowly squeezing a blue bear and meditatively blowing a stream of bubbles through the wand that pops out of its head, says, "It's absolutely wonderful. Just wonderful."

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