Monday, August 16, 2010

The Feast: Forever Five

Blame it on facebook. My friend Darren saw the La Fiesta Italian on the page, or maybe I sent out invites to the event, I don’t know exactly. I’m still developing my online social networking skills. I’m not sure exactly what I’m doing Facebook wise.

If you’re reading this blog find me on face book and I’ll totally confirm!

Actually, he’s the younger brother of my buddy Danny, with whom I have been friends since 3rd grade. I’ve known Darren for that long too. It’s not like we were still dwelling caves, but we’re both old enough to buy 45s when they were the only way to get a single, not a retro hipster trend. We’ve known each other for several decades. Concerts include the Grateful Dead at Englishtown, Tom Verlaine (with Jimmy Ripp) at the old Ritz, True West at CBGBs, Dylan at William Patterson College.

He’s the father of two five year olds, twins, Matthew and Sammantha. He wondered if he should bring the kids—he had the kids that night—or should he just show up for some beers, but I said no, it’s all about the kids.

I’m not a parent (I’m not even obvious). I have several nieces and nephews, all of them older than five and except for one teenager, all are well into adulthood. Still fun, but in a different way. It’s been a while since I spent some time with children. M and S are great kids, sweet, good natured, funny. But what five year old isn’t, right? It’s just a wonderful age. The ability to enjoy in the moment comes as easy as breathing to children. The older you get, the more effort that takes. Being around five year olds makes it easier for you to enjoy the moment too!

Going to The Feast with kids, acting as an ambassador to Jersey City and quite frankly, Hudson County—they live in the upper reaches of Bergen County—just made me appreciate the entire event anew.

Coming in mid-August, the Feast has that turning of the summer feel. The sun sets before 8 PM, if there is a breeze you can often feel harbingers of fall splintering through. Mid-Summer becomes late Summer during the Feast. I read this comment (on Facebook) how there’s a bitter sweet feel to the Feast for kids that summer is coming to an end and school is about to begin. That’s true, as far as it goes. The end of Summer Blues is not limited to children Seasonal inevitability about the weather getting colder and branches becoming bare gets me down every year. The Feast embodies the virtue of hope. It’s a way to hold onto Summer for one moment longer, a way to sneak a few seconds into the minutes and a few minutes into the hour. School is not really an issue for five year olds; what I remember about Kindergarten is that it was free of drudgery. M & S are due to start first grade in a few weeks. This is the last Summer where they are entirely free of any bitter sweet end of summer feeling to mid-August festivities. They have yet to know the daily grind of education. They have yet to taste ennui.

Now, I know that ruminating about the beauty and wisdom of children is easy for an “Uncle.” I don’t have to be around them and be responsible for them 24/7. On the other hand, every parent I know whose kids are teens or older express a deep nostalgia for those early years of childhood – and I guess parenthood. Let me be effusive. It comes from a genuine police and is not naive.

“Inflatable” seems to be what they call those things at the end of Sixth Street on Brunswick. It’s not that I don’t know what they are, I just never spent much time there before. I never knew that kids who are too big, eaten too much wonder bread too fast I reckon, were not allowed to play there and the number of children inside were limited. In the Spiderman one the kids bounce, one was just a slide, and another, a castle were it was mostly bouncing but also a concealed slide. Kids jump up and down until they get bored or tired. You buy tickets. I know I’m stating the obvious, that doesn’t make it any less new to me or fun to watch. Not as much fun as it is to be five and inside, but still pretty fun. I went to get some adult beverages for Darren and myself, while he bought tickets. We drank and watched through mesh screens the kids bounced around and scream laughter.

Darren’s a lawyer, and as I do with my lawyer friends I bug them to remember their constitutional law classes and try to get their opinions on famous supreme court opinions. Reading actual Supreme Court opinions is a minor hobby of mine. Which did more damage, Dredd Scott or Plessuy? It’s just stuff we talk about, in addition our families, his brother, music, politics, and we were doing this usual chit chat twixt friends who have known each other their entire lives. You get the picture, you have your own version with your own topics. But tonight the kids are having fun and the conversation keeps getting side-tracked to them. Watch me jump, Daddy. Civil War could have been avoided even after Dredd, but there was no stopping Jim Crow after Plessuy. Watch me jump, Tim.

I realize I’m having a blast and it’s not just having a Jack Daniels and Soda outside in the street. (I only had one, Darren drank a light beer, just one.) I always have a good time with this dude, but I am absolutely giddy. It’s fun to be at the feast with Kids. I mean, it’s loads of fun.

I’ve spent much thought and a modicum of research on some of the historical aspects of the feast, blogged about it extensively last year and I find it fascinating. It truly exemplifies something very endearing about the role of Italian Americans in the development of American Culture, particularly as immigrant groups increased their influence on our nation and by extension the world throughout the 20th century. In the feast we see religious culture—its inception was to celebrate the Assumption of the mother of Jesus Christ, a complex and highly mystical piece of Catholic dogma—and we see the examples of peasant cooking that likewise signify Italian American culture.

This cultural context though is not really why it is interesting and a long lasting tradition. It may even be besides the point.

Can we get an Ice? Can we play a game?

Oh that’s right, why has the Feast lasted? It’s Fun!

We mossied through the crowd, stopping for a chocolate and blueberry Italian ice for the kids. With the ice guy and with the other vendors who served the kids, they were part of the fun experience, they knew how to entertain them, how to talk to them, how to be nice to them. It really is all about the kids. Everyone is there so the kids can have fun, or so it often seemed.

They played some of the games, nobody won. The mother had fed the kids prior, so the two adults ate Feast food on the fly, grabbing sausage sandwiches and rice balls and even pizza as we followed the kids. I was having a great time, seeing this feast through their eyes.

M and I eat pizza. He likes oregano. He asks, what is oregano made of? I get to explain how it is a plant, etc. I get to think about what it was like when oregano was new.

Then we met my friend Mary Anne, Italian, born and bred Jersey City, been going to the feast since she was in a stroller—she’s my age—and was grinning. She loves the Feast. She told me she remembered being age seven and crowning the statute of the blessed mother that is carried in the procession. It was the year of her Holy Communion. She still has a picture. She is remembering what these kids are experiencing. She remembers it every year and that memory folds into all the other memories of the Feast that she has gathered each ensuing August. Somehow those memories are a focal point from which an understanding of her life – and Life – develops. This happens to us all.

Life. Is it memory? Seems you are either recalling a memory or creating a memory. The enthusiasm for this feast, especially from those who have had this feast throughout their life, is what we all share in, it’s infectious. Few things remain unchanged in this life. And a lot of things that changed, have changed for the better. I have nothing against change... in general. To enable traditions to remain, they need to change, or at least adapt. In fact, the reason this event still is ongoing because it has changed, resisted being stale. Organizers knew what to change, and what to keep the same (rice balls).

Knowing what not to change—the parts of the Feast that a five year old will find fun! That keeps the people coming back, that continues the joy. Maybe it’s more than that, but I’m not interested in arguing about the more here. The examination seems besides the purpose tonight.

Want to see inside this historic church? No! Want an authentic cannoli? No!

What do you want?

Cotton Candy!

The fibrous nectar of the five year old gods. Cotton candy. Dieticians may say cannolis are pure sugar, but cotton candy is actually, pure sugar.

I didn’t even know they had cotton candy at The Feast!

And watching it being made, remember when that was a new sight?

The other fun thing, climbing on the Vespas. More fun than hearing the best Frank Sinatra karaoke singer in Hudson County? Oh to be five again, unburdened with our adult compulsion towards irony!

Time zipped. We have to get these kids back, it’s after 10 PM. Way past their usual bed time. Darren decides that we should get the big chair picture, I of course buy a copy. Some people I know point at met and laugh. They know I’m not a big chair picture guy. Like Cotton Candy or an an Inflatable bounce inside castle, these are parts of the Feast I’ve never knew about in all my time going to it, at least ten years.

But was that the end? Were the kids tuckered? It is well past their bed time. Turns out their mother has enrolled them in tap or some kind of dance class they hold for five year olds. They live in Bergen County so I’m guessing it isn’t Julliard. The Motown tribute ban comes back on the stage. I know you’re going to Leave Me! And these two tykes start dancing like you would not believe. They are again bursting with energy. It’s pretty hard to say a five year old has moves, but they were doing a pretty good job mimicking the dance moves you see around. The band plays Brick House, more Motown, then Hot Hot Hot. The crowd of course loves it; everyone is dancing or at least moving around. Even I’m attempting my very dismal version of boogie. I grew up in the suburbs and hated disco, I have a bad knee! Nonetheless, who can resist the lure of the dance?

While M tries some break dancing, I see Darren dancing with his daughter, the smile on his face epitomizes satisfied happiness. I’ve known this guy my whole life and I’ve never seen him smile like that. I wish all my friends could smile like that. The fact I had something to do with that smile gives me a feeling of pride.

A good half hour of dancing. They could sleep in the car on the way home. Dancing— after bouncing in every inflatable and generally running around the Feast. Remarkable.

All four us are giddy as we walk back to the car. Something else I remember, from my nieces and nephews, kids can be easy laughs. Do you live here, they keep asking me pointing at the houses as we walk.

“I live here in the tree. I live with a squirrel. We go nuts.”

This is funny stuff if you’re five.

What did you think of the feast, kids? Big Thumbs up.

They said yes. They had a good time. Besides bouncing around the castle, their favorie thing was the motorcycles.

The Vespas?

When I was growing up in the Suburbs, Jersey City was seen as a slum, a place where half the town escaped from. It was during the white flight era. I used to cover suburban town meetings as a young journalist, parking in the streets was a big issue. Cars could only be in driveways over night. “We do not want this town to be like Jersey City!” I heard this often at the Town Council Meetings.

Even when I moved to J.C. in the early 90s, people were aghast. Of course, at the time, my family and neighbors from back home and several other friends just couldn’t fathom living in Jersey City, any city. A whole other group of friends couldn’t fathom moving from NYC to here.

Even I have to admit, I would never have promoted Jersey City as kid friendly. But good lord, it seems a third of the women in Downtown are pushing strollers and another third are pregnant! My buddy still voice a trepidation that this thing may not be a thing for five year olds. Regardless of the state of Jersey City, I can’t imagine this feast never being fun (or safe) for a five year old.

Times change and often what we don’t realize is what has stayed the same through the change.

A big part of the reason so many people love this Feast is that they remember it as kid. The Feast has formed some of their earliest memories, their earliest happy memories. They make sure they do the same for every generation. So it has been, for nearly a century and one imagines that the members of the Colassurdo family who brought the Feast here from Italy three or four generations ago, they experienced this feast first as children in Italy. They wanted to recreate that for the next generation of kids. A tradition becomes sustained, year after year and everyone is a link in that chain, a chain made of memory. Is life Memory?

What I also noticed, maybe not for the first time but certainly had a greater appreciation for, is the general graciousness. Jumping around, having a good time, being loud—that’s what is supposed to happen. People at the feast are friendly and they encourage the kids to have fun. They give them room.

Unlike say San Gennaro in Little Italy, the Holy Rosary Feast is a local affair. That is the big part of its charm, there’s no blatant commercialism. It’s more a family than a date night. The organizers are very hands on. There are similar Italian Feasts throughout New Jersey, and I’m sure they are all good (except for the Rice Balls) and fun and special in their own right. This Feast is special only because it is ours. Still, that has to count for something, right?

You brought five year olds to Jersey City? There was time that if you suggested such a thing someone might contact a county agency. But these days, the secret is out. During the Feast, there’s no better place than Jersey City for a five year old to be.

1 comment:

  1. LOVE this article!!! Doesn't hurt that M & S are my niece and nephew!!!

    Thing about kids is they usher you into the next phase of life, they force you to grow up and care more about their fun than your fun...which is way more fun than you ever expected!

    True, never thought I'd see TH in a big chair might suspect photoshop if they hadn't read the article!!!

    Ann Frankowski