Sunday, May 20, 2007

Street Fair in the Rain

The rain is battering on the metal roof, liquid so thick you can see it fall in gray sheets and bounce off the ground. This is springtime in the Northwest, and to the syncopation of the drops spattering like a snare drum, one is supposed to be able to work in earnest.

But it's Sunday, not just any Sunday but the first real Street Fair Sunday of the season. And not just any street fair, but The University District Street Fair,
where aging hippies and young hippies and toddlers dressed as hippies and downright decrepit hippies and Asian entrepreneurs all converge to ignore the weather in the interest of reviving a slice of thirty or forty years ago. We are all nineteen; we all wear tie-dye, and, with umbrellas (usually eschewed but not in today's pelting) or simply dripping head-to-squishy toes, we again peruse the thick-walled pottery, the hand-tooled leather, the bead earrings and mock-Chihuly wavy funnels, chatting hello to the same craftspeople, sharing updates since last fall's Salmon Days festival, and searching for an original concept that will inspire the wallet to open.

Though the call of the fair is strong enough for me to wander its wonders alone, my ever-trusty twin-ego-friend deigned to accompany me today. The fair is a woman's delight; any husband's presence there is a gift. Mine was engaged honorably at a Mariner's game with our daughter, spared from this appearance in the land of prancing and piercings.

Twin-ego is less cheap than me, so paid $5 to a charity for the developmentally disabled in order to park in a structure just a soggy block from the fair. Soon, the shhhhh of the rain was overtaken by the cacophony of a tutu-garbed violinist, a hard-metal rock band, several sodden buskers and the din of parents' admonitions to overly enthusiastic children. The neon-yellow vested traffic cops were poker-faced despite the distractions, directing us across the major thoroughfare dividing two snaking lines of identical white plastic cubicle-tents, each several blocks long.

The rain increased. And increased, as we noodled into the white cubbies lined up along the streets, viewing the usual merchandise and the same vendors. When I could no longer refrain I popped up my Burberry plaid one-dollar umbrella, inadvertently pricking patrons in the crowded enclosures. Every couple minutes, you could hear--and see--a vendor poking a broomstick up into the roof tarp so a stream of collected rain pattered onto the concrete. My tennis shoes became sponges, and the chill damp air barely let me inhale between the drops.

But we continued, as Northwesterners do, ignoring the rain, smiling at the booth inhabitants, occasionally seeing a clever piece of jewelry (one made of brilliant buttons!) or a particularly odd cause ("Ask an Atheist!") or an amusement ("Get your ice cold lemonade--rainy day discount!"). The Peruvian men with their flutes and red ponchos serenaded us; further down groaned the drone of a digeridoo accompanied by bongos and finger cymbals.

I parted with some cash in the parking lot sub-fair, where vendors from Nepal and Africa offer cheap baskets and recycled tin earrings, buying from the long-bearded, long-haired elderly hippie. A tie-dyed wrap skirt, with its black edged flounce was $15; I paid him and then heard the next customer bargain him down effortlessly; I could have paid $10! My other purchase was a gift for my dear friend in Los Angeles--one time I bought her a necklace she loved at the U District Fair and since then always think of her. A glass blower's marbled pendants were so unusual and delicate that I bought two--one for my friend, and one for me.

Did something wild or significant happen at the U District Fair today? Did I see an artist drawing the face of a famous Rabbi? Did I inhale the fragrance of springtime, or watch a perfect flower explode with color? Well, yes. And no.

Wild and significant is that I am part of a generation whose past remains the present. Tie-dye, independent crafts-people, crazy anti-establishment types all still revel in their uniqueness. But at the same time, they want to make money; they buy their place in a little white plastic booth, and sit there all day hoping to make a modest sale. Maybe I didn't exactly see the face of a famous Rabbi, but I saw the faces of seekers, of people spurning the commuter world for something more personalized, more expressive. And I did inhale the fragrance of springtime, though here it was greasy falafel, kettle corn, home-made soaps and the damp freshness of falling rain. The perfect flower? Several. One made of glass blown in a swirly mandala. Another the burst of blue, green and gold on my new tie-dyed skirt. A third of pink silk clipped to a mane of red hair. It's springtime in the Northwest, and the youth in all of us is set free in the rain.


  1. I think I just figured out who you are. I love the picture of the violinist in the, um, outfit.

  2. Apple, I'm curious who YOU are, though I can guess where you live! Glad you like the violinist. Thanks for the comment and for reading.

  3. WOW! The U-Street Fair was even MORE fun for me to re-live a second time through your colorful accounting and as-always stunning photos: I could practically smell the rain and hear the buskers as I read your poetic prose. Gee, did we have that much fun? Yuh HUH, fo' real ... and then some! Any time you wish to wander through such wonder-lands of wow, give me a ringy-dingy. Signed, L.Ter Ego