Fellini Visits Brooklyn
I was walking east on Carroll St. at about eight on a Sunday morning when two uniformed cops got out of an unmarked car in front of me.
“First thing we do is go to the church,” one of them said, “and we’ll trade them some tvs for golf clubs.”
“Sounds good,” the other policeman said, before they headed across the street, toward the church in question.
I was thinking that this was a mighty odd thing, until I hit 7th Ave. Unlike most early Sunday mornings, today 7th was all aflutter with activity. Every few yards down both sides of the street, groups of burly men in dirty t-shirts were trying to force various lengths of pole together. Others had gotten so far along as to have already affixed canopies to the tops of their poles.
“Funnel Cakes,” some of them read. “Sausage and Peppers” or “Fruit Shakes” read others. A variety of salmonella pit stops and cheap crap stands were slowly rising from the pavement, transforming 7th into another hideous street fair. Happens every year about this time—I just can never remember exactly when. It always catches me like a savage roundhouse to the back of the skull.
Farther down the street, another group of men in t-shirts as dirty as any others were creating some sort of makeshift half-assed stage in front of the high school. A bunch of card tables covered with an astroturf tarp. Three men were pulling battered amplification equipment out of the back of a van.
That’s certainly not a good sign, I thought as I hurried past and through the glut and the stench of already-burning peppers to the grocery store—my original goal—to pick up milk, juice and cheese for the week. The store was mercifully empty. At the checkout, the kid behind the register scanned my purchases and hit a few buttons.
“Six sixty-six,” he told me.
I stared at him for a second. “No, that’s not a good sign at all,” I mumbled. It was starting to look like one of those days.
When I got home, shaken and dazed, feeling the first stirrings of fear tickling me, there was a message waiting on my machine. I played it as I put the groceries away.
Yessir, I thought, as the message cleared itself, I need to get me an unlisted number. A few hours later, Morgan rode the train in from Manhattan, we had a beer or two at my place, then decided to head up to the fair. It was the one day of the year we were allowed to drink openly on the streets, and by God, we were going to take advantage of it.
“Just let me know when it gets too bad,” she told me as we headed up the sidewalk toward the growing roar of the crowd, “and I’ll get you the hell out of there.”
“Thanks,” I said.. “I’ll let you know.” I’ve never been good with crowds.
An aging doo-wop band—the Beltones, I believe they were called—were gesticulating their way through various numbers on the rickety and dangerous stage, so we just fell into the stream and headed north, right up the middle of the avenue with the rest of them. Three blocks later, the both of us considering bolting to be our finest option at the moment, we ran into the first beer stand of the day, and angled for it. Suddenly, things didn’t seem so bad anymore. The street was packed, yes, a turbulent and throbbing sea of humanity, but suddenly it seemed…almost… okay. It was well-behaved humanity. People were polite, they got out of the way. They minded their own business. They kept moving.
So did we—past the stands offering t-shirts and pottery and psychic readings from the World’s Loneliest Psychic and on-the-spot tattoos and public massages, bootleg videos and balloons. Past treacherous-looking food carts offering foreign delights like “Ice-Cold Marinated Chicken” and other, less appetizing treats.
A hatchet-faced child riding in a papoose on his father’s back stared at me. I stared back. His tiny, pliable face twisted into a look of pure, sour disgust. I made the same face back at him. He continued to stare and grimace until he and his father
disappeared into the crowd.
The day was warm and bright, but not unbearably so. Still, the beer was walloping us good. I think walking had something to do with it. We finished what we had and searched for more. There were no arguments around us, no fistfights. It was remarkable. People were simply enjoying this peculiar moment in time, and letting everybody else enjoy the same moment in their own way.
“It was almost like a religious festival,” Morgan would say later.
To our left as we continued north, a dangerous-looking “ride,” apparently constructed—or maybe just adapted—out of old industrial baking equipment, spun screaming children in tight circles. A block later, another ride—a kind of pendulum swing, was hoisted back and forth by a bald, muscular fellow who seemed to be having much more fun that the mortified children who were strapped to it. Like that first ride, it looked like it could collapse in on itself at any moment. I wanted to wait around until that happened, but we were swept along.
When we hit the barricades that marked one end of the fair—just a few blocks shy of Flatbush—Morgan noticed the lonely man on the opposite corner, locked outside of the fair, apparently, who was selling his lonely flowers out of a plain green bucket. He had no customers. We turned around and headed back, plunging into the crowd one more time.
It all looked and felt a bit too much like one of the missing scenes from La Dolce Vita, except in color. It was strange—I love fairs and cheap carnivals, but under any other circumstances, I would have fled a scene like this, screaming, long ago. I would’ve seen all those people, all those unpleasant faces, then turned right the hell around and gone home, where I’d pull my shades and turn up the stereo. But like I said, there was something different going on here. Being there with Morgan helped. She pointed out the weirdness that I normally wouldn’t have seen, and navigated me through the crowd with precious few mishaps.
It was like an alien street fair we had found ourselves in. I mean, it had all the same crap you’d find in every other street fair in this city, but the mood and tempo were different. There was something almost reckless about it as we drove onward. Again, Morgan put her finger on it, I think, when she called it “joyous.” And not in a creepy way, either—it was simply recklessly joyous, almost out of control, but not quite.
Of course, the beer helped, too. So we got some more. It was such a simple pleasure, she pointed out, to be able to walk past policemen, beer in hand, and not get hassled about it.
Back at the dangerous stage, members of what appeared to be a plague-ridden medieval performance group were stage diving and performing Bach vocal pieces very well. Then people from the audience were stage diving, too. It was very strange. I chose not to stage dive.
Then a three-piece oldies act set up and started playing Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly numbers, while the older women in the crowd (who’d also apparently discovered the nearby Brooklyn Brewery stand) started dancing and twirling about wildly. All at once, an old bum—I knew him from around the neighborhood—was in the midst of these dancing old ladies, kicking up his own heels, pulling the women, one after the other, away from the group to the open spot in front of the stage for some nasty, lascivious bumpings and grindings, gropings and cleavage nuzzlings. Any other circumstances, and these women would be (justifiably) filing charges against him. But here, and now, they stood in line, it seems, still dancing by themselves, waiting for a chance to grind nasties with a well-heeled homeless man.
Off to the side of the stage, a group of three policemen stood by patiently, hands on their weapons, waiting for the first scream of horror and disgust, waiting for things to turn ugly, but they never did. The band kept playing, the bum kept dancing
and we finally turned away.
We continued moving south again, feeling almost like we were at a Grateful Dead show (but not quite). Every third or fourth person we passed seemed to be carrying a long, black stick of some kind—maybe a squeegee, maybe a mop, maybe nothing like it at all—but everyone seemed to have one, and Morgan became obsessed. She just wanted to find out what they were.
I offered to ask the next person we saw carrying one, but decided that a drunken blind man stumbling out of the crowd and asking, “Hey…hey…what’s that big ol’ stick all about, eh?” probably wasn’t the best idea. We kept our eyes open and
kept moving, but found nothing.
The surroundings got stranger. The offerings at the food stands more unrecognizable. We were sliding our way into a part of the neighborhood I’d never visited before. Still, though, everything seemed fine. More bootleg video tapes, more Puerto Rican t-shirts. This thing seemed to go on forever, like my old dream of heaven. It had a beginning, but no end.
No end. We finally gave up, the beer and the sun and the crowd and the miles underfoot finally catching the better of us. We slowed to a stop, stepped away from the masses and onto the sidewalk, and headed back to my place.