Sunday, December 2, 2012

36. Street Fairs, Crazy Clocks, and San Gennaro

A street fair on Ninth Avenue

         New Yorkers love street fairs.  They occur in all five boroughs, but nowhere more often than in congested Manhattan.  Once the city is free of the rigors of winter, you can find street fairs uptown and downtown, on the West Side and the East Side, each one creating a temporary pedestrian zone free of vehicles and offering an array of wares: food, vintage clothing, handcrafted jewelry, ceramics, art, what have you.  Not that any of this is peculiar to the neighborhood, since the same stands appear here, there, and everywhere, with the same vendors offering the same wares.  But a kind of holiday atmosphere prevails, and anyone looking for unusual gifts for friends and family is bound to find something there of interest.

         Not too long ago our friend John, who visits Bob and me on Sundays, arrived late, explaining that he had taken a little time to explore the street fair on Bleecker Street, right under our windows.  What he raved about most were the crazy clocks – “wild, extreme, over the top” – on display at one stand.  Later, after our lunch together, I explored the fair by myself, walking its whole length and checking out every stand.  What grabbed me most was a stand selling panels made of wood or some other substance, beautifully designed; had I just moved into a new apartment or house and wanted to furnish it, I would certainly have bought a bunch of them to place under vases or other objects, or simply distribute about the place to embellish it.  But the stand with the crazy clocks also drew my attention.  Those clocks, intricate and complicated, simply cannot be described; as John and I later agreed, they were like Rube Goldberg constructions, unique.

         To my surprise, Bob, who is nine years younger than me, had no idea what a Rube Goldberg construction might be.  It then occurred to me that people of a less antique vintage than John and myself might be ignorant of these ingenious creations -- a truly woeful lack -- so here begins a lengthy but surely brilliant digression.

         Rube Goldberg (1883-1970) was a cartoonist active in the early decades of the twentieth century who used his early training as an engineer to draw elaborate and comical contraptions designed to perform the simplest operations.  Thus he proposed machines to get the cotton out of an aspirin bottle, put stamps on envelopes, count votes in elections (maybe we should give it a try), light a cigar, put the cat out at night, hide a gravy spot on your vest, or read your neighbor’s newspaper.  The more convoluted and absurd the apparatus, the more it was a Rube Goldberg invention.  Here, for example, is his self-operating napkin, designed to wipe your chin while dining.

        Explanation:  When the diner raises his soup spoon (A) to his mouth, it pulls a string (B) that jerks a ladle (C), which tosses a cracker (D) toward a parrot (E).  When the parrot leaps to grab the cracker, it tilts its perch (F), causing seeds (G) to fall into a pail (H), which, because of the added weight, pulls a cord (I) that opens and lights a cigar lighter (J), setting off a skyrocket (K).  The departing skyrocket causes a sickle (L)  to cut another string (M), so that a pendulum attached to a clock can now swing back and forth, wiping the diner's chin.

        So successful were Goldberg's cartoons that the Merriam-Webster dictionary 
of 1931 is said to have adopted "Rube Goldberg" as an adjective.  My Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd edition, of 1934 doesn't have the term, but my Webster's Collegiate most definitely does.  Though Goldberg himself never tried to build his contraptions, others have done so.  Today there is an official Rube Goldberg website, and even contests to build the most ingenious Rube Goldberg machine.  How many of us can hope for such earthly immortality, whereby our name becomes a part of the language and inspires young inventors of a comical disposition?  Very few, I suspect.

A Rube Goldberg contest in New Mexico, 2007

        The enduring quality of Goldberg's inventions reminds me of another term from the same period that also originated in cartoons and became a part of the language: Toonerville Trolley.  This was a rickety, single-track trolley featured in the comic strip "Toonerville Folks" (1908-55) that stopped whenever a passenger wanted to get on or off.  It suggested a hick town operation, but one with a certain charming quaintness.  One summer when I was touring southern France many decades ago, I rode a little red-and-yellow train in the Pyrenees, one unlike any other train I had seen in France, that made all the local stops.  Quite charming, it reminded me at once of the Toonerville Trolley.  Oops!  I've taken us far afield from street fairs in Manhattan, and was even about to recount an incident on a train with an old French peasant woman, which would have reminded me in turn of the innate wisdom and astuteness of another French peasant of little education, Joan of Arc, when answering the interrogators at her trial.  But this, with all its convolutions, would be the literary equivalent of a Rube Goldberg invention, so I'll return at once to the street fairs, and to one in particular.

        Chinese ribs and lemonade; cigars/cellphone accessories on sale; crepes; T-shirts: "You think I'm cute, you should see my grandma"; earrings: buy 4, get 1 free; shish kebob and lemonade; light-up T-shirts; 6 people scrunched together for a "big-chair photo"; hot dogs; zeppoles, calyones; raw clams; piña coladas and frozen daiquiris, free refills; barkers barking, urging people to throw balls to win prizes; artisan cannolis; paella, tacos; and, topping it all:

Alive/Angel/Snake Girl
No arms, no legs on her body
Now fully grown
Totally awesome
World's smallest woman
Little Liz
29" tall
She will talk to you

        Is this Little Italy or Coney Island?  Chinatown or the Barrio?  A religious festival or consumerism run wild?  Jammed into the surging crowds on Mulberry Street, had at by barkers and amplified music, I indeed wondered as I wandered.  But this was Sunday, the mild and sunny last day of the eleven-day 86th Annual Festival of San Gennaro, Manhattan's most famous and well patronized street fair, which I took in avidly last September as I marched the length of it under arches of green, white, and red (the colors of the Italian flag) along Mulberry Street from just below Houston Street all the way down to Canal, with spillovers onto Grand and Hester Streets that I chose not to investigate.  

        Admittedly, if one came in quest of a religious festival or the radiant but elusive soul of Little Italy, one might be disappointed.  And admittedly, I had missed any number of signal events such as the solemn high mass in the Church of the Most Precious Blood, followed by a procession of the saint's icon through the streets; the annual cannoli- and pizza-eating contests; Vico Piccone and the Elegants (whoever they are); and the blessing of the stands, which benediction provokes in me a host of irreverent questions: Were the hot dog and cigar accessories stands blessed?  And the San Gennaro T-shirts?  And Little Liz?  But why not if, on other occasions and at other locales, ships and pets and who knows what else merit a blessing?


        Finally, after all these quandaries, having gobbled a slice of pizza and some Italian ice cream, and having observed the annexes built out onto the street by every restaurant in Little Italy, where one could dine at leisure while eyeing the brouhaha of the passing crowd nearby, I decided that, yes, this was indeed an Italian festival, however invaded by souvenir T-shirts and tacos and hot dogs and a good chunk of distant Coney Island.  There were, after all, no roller coasters or boardwalk and just one freak, if the world's smallest woman must be so designated. And isn't the soul of Little Italy FOOD FOOD FOOD?  If so, and having partaken of pizza and ice cream, I had no right to complain.  

Martyrdom of San Gennaro
by Girolamo Pesce, 1727

        But surely there was more to it than that.  San Gennaro, or Saint Januarius, is the patron saint of Naples, whose worship was brought to this city by Italian immigrants from that region in the early 1900s.  And who was this saint?  A bishop and martyr of the church about whose life little is known, but who was beheaded in or about 305 in a persecution decreed by the Emperor Diocletian.  His body was then brought to Naples and interred there, and now rests in the city's cathedral, where the solid dried mass of his blood is kept in two glass phials, one of which, on certain solemn occasions when it is held near the silver bust believed to contain his head, liquefies miraculously.  

        Such, then, are the sacred and historical underpinnings of this food-obsessed feast that every year draws hungry multitudes to Mulberry Street.  But where, in this seething mass of cannoli- and pizza-gobbling visitors, would I find the celebrated icon of the saint, which on his feast day (September 19) is paraded about the streets of Little Italy, so the devout can attach offerings of dollar bills to the red ribbons accompanying the icon, thus funding numerous worthy charities and causes?  At the Church of the Most Precious Blood, I knew, a short distance above Canal Street.  Threading the crowds along Mulberry, I looked and looked for it.

San Gennaro, showing his relics: the two
phials of blood and his severed head
Caravaggio, 1607

        Finally, just across from Little Liz, in a small plaza fronting the church, I found the icon enshrined, flanked by fronds and surrounded by flowers, two fingers of the saint's right hand raised in blessing, while his left arm secured a bishop's crosier and the left hand held the two phials of blood on a small tray; dollar bills were fastened to the ever-present red ribbons.  Not the most sublime religious statuary, in my opinion, and with a somewhat plastic look.  (I have no knowledge of the icon's origin or date.)  But would you want a great work of religious art -- for example, Caravaggio's painting of the saint -- to be paraded about the streets or on permanent display in a church, exposed to the whims and quirks of every visitor or passerby?  Probably not.  And so, having absorbed this spectacle, I went on into the church, where I found a handful of worshippers and several interlopers like myself, while a service was being conducted in Chinese.  Yes, Chinese!  For even in Little Italy at this most special season, the church is universal.  And so ended my latest foray into Little Italy and the culinary delights and ambiguities of the Festival of San Gennaro.

My verbal kill list:  Here are some expressions that I hear too often and now forbid myself to use:
  • Like, as in "I was, like, confused."  Why not just: "I was confused."
  • "Have a good one!"  Pretty vague and subject to dire misinterpretation.
  • "No problem!"  Which usually means that there is a problem, or should be.
  • "It went viral."  Everything, these days, seems to go viral.
  • "And stuff like that."  Especially annoying, when repeated by the same speaker many times.
I invite readers to offer their own candidates for the verbal kill list.

Thought for the day: Towels that say LOVE are not the answer.   

                                        © 2012  Clifford Browder

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