What sort of California summer day is this, gray as London and about the same temperature? It is, of course, the day of the Menlo Park summer festival. No, it is not called that. Actually, the thing is a street fair. And what fare of the streets? Oh, paintings of Venice. Olive oil pressers. Corndog fressers. Hand puppet makers. And the San Jose Tamale Company. I find them last, at the end of the road. The closed off road, our main street, today’s Street of Dreams.
While it is not uniquely American, it is highly American, the fact that we celebrate our town in this annual and most elaborate of fêtes, by selling each other stuff. Which for me gives the weekend street fair and attendant closure of the main shopping thoroughfare, a dreary feel. Oh, there are a few noncommercial endeavors. The Menlo Park Police have a stand proclaiming something about Child ID. Whether this deals with kidnapping or simply getting lost, I have no doubt that it’s real enough. The Fire Department, across from the cops’ stand, has information on poisoning, disaster preparedness and, of course, immolation. The crowds are not flocking here. In fact, I am not sure what they are doing, except drifting. I wonder, really wonder, how many people are buying anything. This era being our Less Great Depression.
The truth is that on this particular Saturday morning I am whizzing through the stands and shoppers, looking at very little, mostly in search of food. Knowing the town center awfully well, one easily runs out of options. Especially at my age when calories count and one counts calories. I can quickly rule out the usual choices on the fingers of one paralyzed hand. Once or twice a month Alan and I share a Jewish pizza. Various soup titles rotate in and out of Borrone’s, and the leitmotif of minestrone has worn me out. Chinese is too greasy, Mexican too insistent, and the Japanese place is too dark and at this particular hour, closed. So variety, street food, what an adventure, right here in my own town, no driving required, not even a train.
At the very end of the closed street, just before car traffic recommences, an assemblage, a canvas-and-aluminum-frame village of food vendors. I eyeball them cautiously. I sniff the air, then scan the signs. Gyros, falafel and Philadelphia cheesesteaks? A suspiciously broad menu, although there is a substantial queue, and people emerging from the stand seem quite happy munching into aluminum foil wrapped sandwiches with substantial vegetable content. Teriyaki chicken over rice? Doubtful. So, already noted and briefly considered, The Tamale Company. I go for the single tamale and beans/rice, hold the rice. A large plastic plate of food emerges through a square opening in the burlap wall of the establishment.
I have been breathing carefully, preparing my spirit Zen-style for the experience to come. It is happening now, the transition of able-bodied food object to cripple’s folly. This was a plastic plate of food, but it is now a warm and liquid peril, not to mention a seeping fountain of shame. There is some small danger of burning myself with the hot contents, a much greater probability of embarrassing myself with the spilled contents. I have made some modest preparation, arranging two recent copies of the New York Times on my lap. And now the steaming plate settles upon its newsprint lap cloth…and we progress to the next step.
A plastic table in front of the stand holds bottles of hot sauce, paper napkins and disposable forks. I roll close carefully. My paralyzed hand can do no more than brace the plate, and weakly at that. I must not bump anything or anyone. Drawing close to the table, I turn the wheelchair off as a precaution, lean over and grab some hot sauce. Napkins, one fork and I am safely away. But to where? There is no where. There is nothing but street pavement with various constituents wandering about. That and a large stand, complete with stage, from Radio KJOY or some such. Loudspeakers on the latter proclaim a broadcast coming to you directly from the Connoisseur’s Marketplace in Menlo Park. Yes, this is the name of the street fair, and it embarrasses me, embarrasses me even more to hear it proudly proclaimed. And what is worse, there follows very loud music, insistent, a membrane of bass pumping through the pavement, repetitious and proof that I am very old. Yet there is really no where to go. I turn my back to the radio stand, getting to work on the tamale plate.
First, there is the cornhusk. Anything like a real tamale comes wrapped in one. I consider it a mark of high quadriplegic achievement that I grasp one side of the husk, lift it in the air and watch the tamale tumble out. The thing is pleasantly small and soft, the faint aroma of masa, Mexican corn flour, wafting. The problem remains the cornhusk. It is soaked in sauce, dripping and red. The larger game plan should be simple enough, but the smaller moves are terribly complicated. Trash receptacles abound, but all have lids. They cannot be lifted and kept open with one hand while tossing out the cornhusk with the other…because there is no other. I consider this quietly. I scan the street for other rubbish options. Returning to the stand’s hot sauce-napkins-forks plastic table, I quietly deposit the cornhusk to one side. Someone will deal with it. I am still annoyed that the City of Menlo Park has arrayed street fair porta potties across several disabled parking spaces.
Still, what is odd is that I do not ask for help from anyone. Raising the lid of a rubbish bin, for example. In truth, I feel the eyes of the town upon me. I have failed with the high school foundation. I have failed to get published, at least until now. I frequent this downtown street daily, roaming like a homeless person. Or, at least, an aimless person. My wheelchair makes me visible, recognizable. And now I am eating with one hand and doing everything not to screw up.
Which, it seems, I have accomplished. No, not quite. Sure enough, there is a red schmutz on my lap. I dab at this rather frantically. I drop small globules of spit, finger by finger, over the offending spot. Out, damn schmutz. It is hard being disabled and neurotic. At times, the combination is too much. Actually, at most times it is too much. Today is no exception, but at least the experience is brief. I leave the street fair, heading across El Camino to Borrone’s where I am known. No, they have no chocolate biscotti to accompany my cappuccino today. They do have these chocolate-on-chocolate cookies, however. I have one, or one has me. Somehow, only in early afternoon, it has been a long day.