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.
“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.”
Mesa, an East Village resident for more than 28 years, peers through a soapy kaleidoscope at the large throng that has gathered around the Astor Place cube for the Bubble Battle.
“Who organized this?” he asks.
“New Mind Space,” replies a woman with a tiny battery-operated bubble fan, but the answer seems to float away on the wind. What’s important are the bubbles, shimmering in the current of crosstown traffic. As suggested, people have arrived with bubble fans, bubble guns, bubble blowers, and bubble wands in every size, shape, and color. There is even a giant handcrafted bubble machine brought from Delaware by Felix Cartagena.
“I haven’t been to New York in 25 years,” admits 58-year-old Cartagena, who is moderator of a soap-bubble-fanciers group. “But a member of our group in England forwarded us this announcement. . . . . It’s incredible.”
Three-year-old Buenos Aires resident Lucia Shpunkoff waves a small bubble-blowing lion from atop her father’s shoulders while Chris Kieffer, a 22-year-old West Harlem resident with dark shades and a mohawk, brandishes a two-foot-long bubble sword. “Lucia just discovered bubbles this week,” laughs Richard Shpunkoff, a native New Yorker who brought his daughter home to visit family. “Can you imagine what sort of memory she is going to have of this place?”
The heat of summer, the tumult of traffic, the steamy jazz trio serenading the end-of-week commute, and a horde of laughing people frolicking with bubble-blowing lions, elephants, cows, ray guns, swords, UFOs, hoops, horns, pipes, and kazoos. Just your average summer day.
“Bubble battle!” shouts 22-year-old Jason Eppink, engaging me with a two-hooped variation on the tradition bubble wand. Eppink looms over me and, without much wind to assist in up-current, I am sorely outmatched even with my three-hoop wand. A shimmering avalanche of bubbles falls over my head and I discover firsthand two often overlooked maladies in bubble battle: hyperventilation and bubble-lung.
“The trick is you have to breathe very deeply while you’re blowing bubbles, so you don’t hyperventilate,” warns 31-year-old veteran Nick Asbell, “but when you breathe deeply you run the risk of inhaling soap. It’s a hard-won skill. That’s why I stick to batteries.”
I admit defeat and retreat to the outskirts of the throng, where spectators have gathered. Five-year-old James Malmude-Davisdances wildly with a nearly forgotten bubble blower dangling in his fingers. He pauses for a moment as a few young men start spinning the cube at the center of the bubble melee.
“Your grandfather and I used to come here and spin that cube,” explains Anna Malmude as a halo of bubbles breaks in her hair.