If The League ever needed a reminder that The League lives in bum-fuck Arizona, it is surely The Chandler Ostrich Festival.
The dirty little secret of Chandler is this: just because all the trolls in their SUVs (myself included) moved into Chandler, does not mean the indigenous lifeforms moved out. And the even uglier secret is: really, despite the $40K cars and the golf clubs, you get the feeling there is a very thin line separating the newbies from the local yokels. It takes something like a State Fair or Community Festival with $3.00 admission to make folks put down the crytal meth for long enough to locate their kids and force them into a family bonding experience such as The Ostrich Festival (an event even the organizers now seem fairly embarassed of).
I like to think that events like this which used to happen in rural communities were the glue which held these places together. But I'm a suburban kid, and this isn't the 1930's dustbowl, so when I'm not worrying about whether the carnies are stealing the hubcaps off the Forester, or why the technicolor movies like "State Fair" always star people much more attractive than what I ever see at the actual State Fair, I'm usually thinking about how obvious it must have been to dream up Something Wicked This Way Comes after a trip to the carnival.
Anyway, I'm a sucker for staring at people, mostly because it provides an ego boost like none other. And there's no better place to feel good about yourself while looking down your nose at your fellow man than at any place with a portable Ferris wheel. So Saturday, after we'd been out doing yardwork all morning, Jamie and The League took our showers (a futile gesture, considering where we were headed), patted Melbotis on the head and took off for the Ostrich Festival.
Held once a year, the festival must have been founded in the 90's when some mastermind behind a pyramid scheme convinced struggling farmers and ranchers to invest in Ostriches. Surely, they would be the next white meat, and we could look forward to a golden future of an Ostrich in every pot. Or something. But those plans went awry (which I could have predicted given the demeanor of the "Ostrich Lobby" I sat with when visiting the Texas State Capitol in the Spring of 1995). And, alas, Ostriches have not yet taken off as the meal of choice in American households (of course, if Atkins said it was good for you....).
At any rate, I've lived in Arizona for roughly two years, and The League had not yet borne witness to a single Ostrich roaming about. I hear one can see them between Phoenix and Tucson, but so far, not a single one has reared his tiny head in the greater Chandler area. Cows standing knee deep in their own filth? Certainly. Tens of thousands of them (screw you, EPA!). But, no. No ostriches.
Last year when we attended the festival, there simply were no Ostriches. Newcastle Disease had caused such a ruckus that nether man nor beast wanted to be near a huge, snotty bird, and so the Ostriches were conspicuously absent. (Jamie still has a t-shirt bearing the Silhouette of an Ostrich with the "no" circle around it.) So, this year, with dozens of the grotesque monstrosities on display, the motto of the show was "The Birds are Back".
Perhaps because the birds were back (ho ho!), or because Chandler is, I am told, a town on the move, the Festival seemed much bigger this year. I found it odd that neither Jamie nor myself could recall if last year's festival had the midway and carnival rides. All either of could remember were a half dozen or so demonstrations by local karate schools. This year, those demonstrations were conspicuously absent, but what the festival lacked in Kee-Yopping 7-year-olds, it made up for in inflatable Hulk dolls. Everywhere one looked, there was another booth hawking inflatable Hulks, Spider-Mans and cartoon mallets.
We first made our way down food alley, and Jamie selected a gyro and water and I got a churro (a food suspiciously absent in any environment outside of a carnival) and some tea. And I think that was about as much carnival as Jamie wanted to take in.
"You want to ride on the rides?"
"How long have we been together?"
"Have I ever wanted to ride the rides?"
I looked about at the sort of activities made available to us. Carnival rides, check. Midway games, check. Inflatable Hulk, check. Stare at freaks, check. Eat questionably prepared foods, check. Avoid Jim Belushi's band, check.
"So, uh, wanna go on a ride?"
"NO! I could get hurt."
Looking at the rides, I could not deny Jamie could well get hurt. In fact, I suddenly wondered what minimum safe distance was myself.
"Wanna play a midway game?"
"If you want to..."
"Do you want to?"
"But I wanna see the ostriches."
So we trudged through an inordinate number of chubby people and headed for the rodeo staging area, complete with metal bleachers and a corral fence and all that. And we parked ourselves on the bleachers in some kick ass seats and proceeded to watch a guy drive a tractor in slow circles around the corral while pulling a log or something.
"What is he doing?" I asked.
"It's like a rodeo zamboni," Jamie answered.
Another guy followed behind him with a hose, and sprayed down the corral where the rodeo zamboni had circled.
And dry and getting hotter.
"How long have we been watching this guy?" I asked Jamie.
"Maybe twenty minutes."
"Do we know when the race starts?"
So I turned to the girl sitting nearby.
"Hey, any idea when the race starts?" she shook her head politely. There was a moment of silence and then the girl and her friends became speaking to one another excitedly in what was not English, nor did it appear that this girl spoke any English whatsoever. Which made me wonder how she had found the festival, but it was not a mystery to dwell upon. At any rate, I let is slide and returned my attention to the rodeo zamboni.
Slowly fat people began drifting in. Seriously. I don't know what the story was, but as I looked around, the morbidly obese community of Chandler, Arizona was slowly trickling in to the bleachers, sweating badly and groaning with relief as they placed themselves on the straining aluminum seating.
A matching set of a fat family sat down in front of us, the only non-obese member a small baby, destined (as DNA is a cruel bitch) to be just one more of this amazing team before me.
And, morbidly obese teen-agers, a little advice from Uncle Ry: Just because the trend of the day says to wear skin-tight belly shirts, save yourself a lot of aggravation. Be your own person and forego the Christina look.
But it wasn't just the family in front of us. There was a family who (one hoped) had participated in a karate demo who were all busting the seems of their uniforms. And, of course, many, many other variations.
I kind of wished I had beer. In fact, I wished I had a lot of beer, because it was hot out and the churro was certain not to absorb up as much beer as I thought was going to make my wait better. But this is Chandler, and not Texas, and so no beer was to be seen.
Music began playing from a crappy tape player over an even crappier sound system. The first song was from Bonanza.
"Hey," I said to Jamie. "What's the name of the ranch on Bonanza?"
"No. It's not. It's something else."
"I have no idea."
"Lorne Greene was in it. Michael Landon was Little Joe."
"Have you ever seen Bonanza?"
For the next fifteen minutes or so I stared into space and tried to remember the name of the ranch. It's Ponderosa (not that I remembered that then). So we can all thank Bonanza for being the show which launched two family steakhouses with groovy salad bars.
Eventually a guy dressed roughly like a 1950's movie cowboy (think retired Roy Rogers) wanders out and reveals that the "animal amusements" in this show (and already I was hoping nobody from PETA was around) are from Kansas. Except maybe the Ostriches. He never clarified.
And I wasn't really sure who this guy was, because, despite the printed program in his hand, the show seemed to be a complete mystery to him. At least four times before the animal races, he failed to press "play" on the tape deck to play the crappy rendition of a bugle tooting out the start of the race. He also improperly identified his wranglers, called a llama a camel once or twice, botched several other musical cues and didn't turn off his mic (nor take it away from his mouth) when making asides to his staff.
Maybe he was old and confused. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe the sun was getting to him. I don't know, but, people... rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal... it's the key to success.
Ostriches raced, chickens raced, we saw a trained Zebra sort of do about half of the tricks he was supposed to and a trained Palamino refused to play ball on a few tricks as well.
Someone made the curious decision to strap the ostriches to chariots made of barrels (which made more sense than you'd think), but didn't strap the ostriches down very hard, because only 1 in 3 chariots ever remained attached to the birds.
The cowboy MC also dropped a few questionable comments of a sexist and racist slant, but sometimes you got to let things slide with dudes in their 70's wearing a silk scarf and a cowboy hat.
Inexplicably, the family in front of me suddenly rose to their feet and wandered off. It seemed the heat was overcoming them. And so, like a Russian doll collapsing back into itself, the family disappeared from view, no doubt, to find a less sunny and less dusty place to rest their bones.
But these folks missed the part where our erstwhile/ anglophile jockeys donned Arab head scarves, renamed themselves "Ali", "Mohammad" and something else, sported some classy accents and proceeded to narrowly miss an international incident by repeatedly referring to themselves as Camel Jockeys (which was a literal minded interpretation in this case, but nonetheless...). The camels raced, we all cheered, and I guess we all learned an important lesson about what is and is not funny in Chandler, Arizona.
By this time the sun was getting to me, but the show ended somewhat anti-climatically.
Jamie and I went and fed some goats, stared at a kangaroo, tried to figure out what a gnu was if that thing was a yak, and then walked down the row of booths where you could get an air-brushed T-shirt. I wanted to get one that said "Jamie's Man" in baby-blue, but Jamie was holding all of our money, so I didn't even ask.
I tried again to get Jamie to agree to go on the rides, but she showed no interest.
Alas, with no inflatable Hulk or Spider-Man, but with a bag of cinnamon glazed almonds secured, Jamie and I bid the Ostrich Festival a teary-eyed adieu. Until next year, Ostrich Fest.
Man, I can't wait for Chandler Jazz Fest 2004.