Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

June 4-6, 2004 At the Crawfish fest.

For six months Ė no, more than that, a year Ė Iíve been planning to attend the Cajun music festival that my friend Sam from New Brunswick helps organize. Last year I was busy and didnít get there Ė and they were pretty much rained out. This year Sam told me there would be camping, and if I helped out I could go for free. Matilda and I put it in our calendar in ink.

I donít know quite what I expected, except that I like Cajun music, and once before Iíd gotten over my shyness about dancing so I thought perhaps Iíd manage the same this time.

Well, I didnít get past my shyness about dancing, and the music actually didnít excite me that much. And it rained, though not as bad as last year.

But the event was a delight! I just didnít know that there were people who go to festivals, the way there are people who kayak and fly kites and go to Vanagon events. But there are, and they were there in full force. There are festival regulars and Mardi Gras regulars, and a Cajun festival turns out to be a mix of the two. It hadnít occurred to me that it would be a Mardi Gras evemt - a lot of beer, but also crazy costumes, Mardi Gras beads, and wild decorations.

I got there early Ė Sam had said heíd need help by the middle of the day Friday, getting the campers set up. When I arrived, the campground was a sunny open field, a few tents over on one side and Samís caravan near the entrance gate. But four hundred people had signed up to camp Ė or maybe four hundred groups? Ė and Sam was worried about fitting them all in without blocking the roads so no one could get out. Not quite the free-for-all of Every Bus! Sam was also worried about everything going smoothly. This was the first time the state fair grounds had agreed to camping, and he didnít want anything to prevent them from doing it again next year.

I would have been happy to help with the campground, if there had been anything to do. Sam was in his element, though, whizzing all around the grounds in a golf cart, telling people where to go, giving them rides, getting frantic calls on his walkie-talkie. Heís not one for delegating, Sam isnít. I guess I should have known that from the train station party last October, but I had forgotten. Sam had assigned a friend of his, whom Iíll call Mike Ė because I canít remember his real name - to sit at the campground gate and direct the new arrivals, so Mike took charge of what little Sam would let go.

I felt bit guilty for doing nothing, so I decided to play campground hostess. I wandered from site to site as folks arrived, and somehow found things to talk to all of them about. I donít know how that comes out of me at times, that I have so much to say to total strangers! But I did. Everyone was excited to be there, the sun was still out, folks were eagerly setting up their tents, their pop-up campers, their outside furniture, their awnings, their purple and gold and green decorations, their great strings of Mardi Gras beads. They all wanted to talk and meet new people and join the party. So I guess I was like the violins tuning up to begin the first waltz, and they were all ready to join in. Which is a pretty funny role for me Ė I who would always prefer a book or my computer to a party.

One of the friendliest groups was also the most amusing. The Grillbillies they call themselves, and what they do for fun on weekends is go to festivals and cook huge amounts of food, which they feed to anyone who wants it. I had trouble wrapping my brain around this for a while. I mean, itís not like they are food vendors, they give it away. Itís not like the festival fees help pay for all the turkeys and chickens and cookies and salads and endless pots of coffee they gave away, either. They just like cooking and feeding people. As Matt, one of the regulars, explained, what he loves in life is bringing people together so they can meet and talk and get to know each other. And what better way to do that than to feed them? Well, it certainly worked. There was always good conversation under the big Grillbillie tent, and anyone was welcome to join in the talk and the food. Or in the music. Not all Grillbillies cook; some play bluegrass at the gatherings, contributing music instead of food. The group goes to dozens of festivals each year. This one was small for them, only twenty or so had made it there and they didnít have much responsibility for organization. At others they provide the music tents, feed the musicians and their crews, stage grand events. They have a website, of course Ė grillbillies.org. Perhaps Iíll track them down at another festival this summer, they were a nice crew. Or perhaps I should say a nice krewe?

Another group had pitched a vast green plastic shelter on a wood frame that must have been two stories high. Under it they pitched two big tents and set up a handful of chairs, all nicely sheltered from the rain that hit on Saturday morning. A separate play tent in primary colors stood outside for the kids Ė when they got underfoot they didnít even realize they were being ďsent to their roomĒ when their parents suggested they go hang out in it. The group of friends included a family with three small children - one of them just a week old, snuggling in the arms of his beaming mother. They were all cheerfully entertaining under their green roof as the rain dripped at its edges. One of them, a grinning bearded leprechaun of a fellow in a green hat and purple beads, offered me his original design rain gear Ė a big sheet of plastic with a hole cut out for my head. (I accepted.) Later I saw him teaching the children to fly whirligigs in the drizzle as they listened to the music.

On Saturday Mike and I were totally replaced as gate guards by Kip, who had actually been hired for the purpose by the festival organizers. Kip is a fellow New Yorker, who lives in Brooklyn Ė but there ends the similarity. He lives in a different world from me. He works at festivals and at music venues in the city, providing logistics and security. Heís trying to build a business, develop a crew that he can count on, and get contracts from festival organizers to bring in his team to handle the whole event. Heís still working at it, though, so in the meantime he works jobs like this to pay the rent. Through Sam, Iíve gotten a small window into this world of festival organizing and music production, but Kipís view is different. Sam does it for fun and makes a living in an architecture firm, whereas itís Kipís way of life. As he describes himself, heís living on the edge Ė shares housing with a bunch of guys, juggles his two children and his ex-wife, and can barely make ends meet. But he seems to love it. Heís delighted to be creating this business. He might spend a weekend out in North Jersey picking up cash at a festival, but I couldnít imagine him giving up his hopes and freedom for the security of aĒrealĒ job. I probably spent more time talking to Kip than listening to music, but it was worth it. I like his view of the world.

Feeling guilty for not helping out, though, I decided to document the event with my camera. Sam made an offhand remark about wanting photos for next yearís website, which I parlayed into acting official. It worked great. I talked my way backstage to photograph the musicians from close up, and the audience from the stage. I chatted with folks in the audience, and when I said I was taking pictures for next yearís website they were happy to be photographed. I talked to the guys working the vats of live crayfish, who held the crawly critters to I could get some close-ups, and were flattered to be photographed. Under the guise of my assumed identity I wandered behind a rope at the jambalaya tent and gaped at a vast vat of rice and sausage and spices. I chatted with the stage guard, who kind of adopted me.

People like it when they think you are ďofficialĒ and you want to photograph them. They tell you about last yearís mud slides, about their tent decorations, and how they want to camp out next year. It makes them feel important, a part of the event in a different way from being just a part of the audience. They want you to capture their decorations, their costumes, their reactions to the festival. The man with the crawfish was delighted that I wanted his picture, as was the woman whose sausages caught fire on the grill, and the girl dubiously biting into her first crawfish. The event becomes a bit more a community, a bit less a group of strangers at a concert in the rain.

It was a bit like handing out balloons at the New Brunswick train station party last October. I adopted a role and an identity for myself that gave me the freedom to go wherever I wanted and talk to anyone. Iíll blame the gray skies for the quality of my photos Ė but taking them was great fun! Oh, and I did give them all to Sam, so maybe some really will show up on next year's website.

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