Matthew Lickona 11:49 p.m., Dec. 10
There's nothing special about street fairs, really. I've been to neighborhood festivals and such in different countries, and they're all--on the surface level, anyway--pretty much the same. A bunch of vendors hoping to make some money set up booths under canopies along a thoroughfare, the traffic gets blocked off for a day, and a crowd of badly-dressed people wander up and down, looking at the stuff. Usually there's some low-rent carnival equipment and a load of screaming kids being admonished by their parents that, no, they can't go on that ride because it's too expensive or too dangerous or the line is too long or some such thing. Sometimes a band plays on a portable stage, drowning out conversation more than anything else. In other countries, people can enjoy a beer or a glass of wine at their leisure. In this country, an area is fenced off if alcohol isn't prohibited altogether, every ID is checked, and cops cops cops cops patrol diligently for the first signs of trouble. The latter is really the only uniquely American aspect to such events.
Rolando puts on one of these yearly, and with no "beer garden" or other allowances for alcohol the number of cops and security guards can be reduced somewhat. There's a band on a portable stage, and they don't sound too bad. There was no Rolando Street Fair when I was growing up in the '60s, so those of us who were around then as kids tend to think of the fair as a recent innovation. Yet there are pictures to be viewed in the booth dedicated to neighborhood history, showing that there were street fairs along this same Rolando Boulevard nearly as ancient as the 1927-dated sidewalks. Actually, it was the much longed for mid-century baby boom era, devoid of street fairs, that was the historic anomaly.
Members of the community council more energetic than myself put this thing together. As the time approaches toward the end of March, generally I'm persuaded to show up and provide some shoulders-down support on the Big Day, lifting heavy objects and folding up tables and such. I'll do as much as needed, but every year they seem to have more than enough willing hands. Thus I'll content myself with an occasional pitch-in while hangin' out on the "island" in the middle of the north end, chatting with the small group of friends who traditionally meet there at the end of the fair and go out to dinner afterwards. This year, I took it upon myself to persuade an ambulance crew to stop blocking the only exit as the long line of vendors sat impatiently with engines idling, waiting to head for home. A few minutes later, a perplexing problem that had the police at their wits end was solved when I blocked an off-limits road with a couple of folding tables. It hardly caused a break in the conversation, and made me feel that at least I'd done my part.
So, with such a cavalier attitude, why keep showing up and doing it? That old cliche, it's the people who make the neighborhood, would be a nice neat explanation for this tendency to keep going back to an annual event that really isn't particularly exciting and certainly isn't much different from dozens of neighborhood festivals and street fairs elsewhere. The fact is, though, that the people here really aren't that much different either, and some of them even annoy me mildly from time to time. I just happen to know them. It's not so much a matter of closeness as of long familiarity and shared surroundings, and nowadays as I get older it seems that's a major part of what really counts in this world.
The lady who headed our community council for thirty years or so--it may have been more but I was gone for the better part of three decades and out of touch with such things--passed away in the fall of 2008. Her spirit still very much looms though, and there's some community award named for her that gets handed out at the street fair each year. Besides, her surviving spouse is still very much a part of things, and their two kids are often part of the little post-fair gathering on the island. These are all people I've known since I was in grade school at Henry Clay. As her son put it at the end of the fair some years ago, when you have a connection with someone it never really goes away. You just pick up the conversation where you left off last time, even if the last time has been decades.
Her memorial service was held in the neighborhood's Ray & Joan Kroc Center those two and a half years ago. It was attended by the mayor, the former mayor, and several city council members. The family invited me to attend the private service a couple of days later, and to my surpise dad and I were part of less than a dozen non-family members there. Our two families had lived for years on the same street, only a block or so away from each other. Yet I'd been in their house only a handful of times in over forty years, and never thought us particularly close. There was nothing forced, all the same, when dad and I embraced our old neighbors there in the sanctuary at Blessed Sacrament.
The next best thing to friends, I suppose, is cooperative community members. It doesn't mean you hang out together a lot, or exchange a lot of favors. They're probably not the first people you'd think of calling if you were really in a bind. There are probably all kinds of things you don't know of them and aren't particularly curious about. Just the same, they help to make life pleasant and... communal. They know you and they want to like you, which makes you want to be more likeable. It seems like the way things ought to be.