The Dade County Youth Fair was in town. The annual event that made eating an innocent crime and riding dangerous machines socially inescapable had arrived in all its dirty, colorful glory. I looked forward to this carnival every year since I was a boy, but never did it bring such wonders. In 1984, the fresh spirit of new prospects and lovelorn ambition elevated this ritual to supernal heights.
The Fair was more than a menagerie of frail fauna and flora, killer food, fluorescent lights, human freak shows and mechanical failures. It was also a platform where children of all ages showcased their varied talents in areas ranging from science to poetry to dramatic interpretation. Two colossal warehouses, cold and empty in the off-season, ingested life for several weeks, displaying miles of student work, and hosting a drama competition for young thespians across the county. I had participated in these competitions and submitted products for the fair’s “Exposition” for many years. My science projects, hopeless poems, stick-figure illustrations, African masks, and medieval coats of arms had all found spots, at different times, on the makeshift walls lining the floors of these huge student laboratories.
But the one-act competition was the real show. This was a highly anticipated event for drama students all over the state. Participants were judged for their individual performances and ensemble chemistry. First place winners then went on to compete in the state finals the following month. To win the Youth Fair district competition, however, was a more personal achievement, due to familiar rivalries that had festered throughout the county over the years. It was a run on Broadway and the Tony’s in a single afternoon and evening. The young actors took it as seriously as their acne, and the winners were superstars in their self-contained drama troupes and simple minds. Those who left the exhibition center cradling shiny trophies inscribed with their names had bragging rights for months. They would also attain a certain level of respect across the high school thespian circuit, their names dropped in conversation regularly with a trace of malice by those who received a flimsy token for participation.
I’d been present a few years before, in 1981, when JC, my older brother, had competed at the junior high level. And here I was again, a few years later, for the same event with the same players. I was a stowaway sophomore on the senior steamship. My brother’s friendships had carried over from junior high, and this competition was the apex of their lifelong acting careers. That afternoon JC and his cast had performed in front of three judges. He was the lead and the object of my obsession was the co-star. This obsession had also carried over from junior high. It had survived and flourished, time and distance doing little to dull its rude persistence, and I was reliving events I had suffered a few years back with fresh pain but new equipment and a smidgeon of time behind me.
I’d watched the performance from the wings, beaming with pride and belonging, watching my big brother and his larger-than-life friends acting with a seasoned flair, executing on stage what the playwright had surely envisioned during the play’s conception and rigorous writing process. Their performance was flawless, and the buzz was hopeful. We left the fairgrounds in a state of excitement. We were to return that evening at sundown for the awards ceremony and, in case of victory, an impromptu after-party at the greatest of all festive venues: the fair.
As we left the theater, I felt the rumblings of something profoundly memorable. The best actor, actress and ensemble awards were in the bag; we were sure of it. The spirit of accomplishment, born of close, sweaty collaboration and rehearsed precision, was palpable. It circulated through the group, blowing gusts of emotional confetti, establishing an atmosphere of celebration, tenderness and admiration. But we proceeded with deliberation and awareness, for we felt, without being fully conscious of the phenomenon, that this would never happen again. Although experience often happens before it is appreciated, and pretty hindsight is always the embellished stuff of nostalgia, something made us consider the now with a kind of wisdom, longing and meticulous attention that defied our age and the habit of swallowing without tasting. There was much talk and communication in person and via telephone as the afternoon waned, as if every minute was worth recording, every portion of the coming evening worthy of common acknowledgement and corroborating witnesses. We were the unwitting, real-time historians of future melancholy.
I remember listening to UB40 as my brother and I spruced up for the evening. We were content and smiled as we flew by each other, carrying out the well-rehearsed choreography of sharing everything in the way of hygiene, grooming and general preparation. Usually there were brief altercations in the logistics of getting ready, but nothing bothered us that night. The motions, graceful and easy, flowed from agreeable cooperation and the mutual need to look and feel our best. There was also unspoken pride in kinship. I was the proud, younger brother in awe of JC’s talent and social prowess, and he thought that, for a little brother, I wasn’t half bad. We made several final calls for travel arrangements and walked outside our apartment building to wait for our ride.
A car horn blew and our ride appeared. We sang greetings, slapped open palms and accelerated into the night, a night full of possibilities for a band of kids full of insecurities. We decided to go in a large group, a popular custom for teenagers groping for identity and attention. Everyone would be there. Being the youngest, I would be ignored, of course, passed over, saved for an occasion without so many distractions. I felt inadequate but undeterred. I was on a mission sans statement. You see, little brother was after big game. I still had no idea how to succeed, but I was mad about her, and this intensity of feeling made me a contender. At this point, everyone knew of my quest, and She, full of sweet-girl avarice and playhouse dominion, enjoyed my reliable longing, her arbitrary attention and flirtatious innuendos carrying little weight. But I was sick and ready. There was urgency that evening, a shadow that spoke of action and denied complacency.
After a quick tour through the midway, confirming that everything was in its place, just as it had been for the past 15 years, we arrived at the tiny, improvised theatre in one of the giant exhibition centers and found plenty of seats toward the rear. I looked around at the crowd, a collective visage of feigned confidence framing eyes and smiles that leaked regret and self-doubt. The faces cried, “I could have done so much better!” and “We should have gone with the Edward Albee piece!” It was as if they knew they didn’t stand a chance, but a brave face was the only way to endure the strained pomp of the homegrown ceremony. We were jubilant but talked in hushed tones, a conspiracy of certain victory amid the strangled chatter of honorable mention.
The ceremony was long and tedious, but at its climax, when our troupe swept the awards, there was a general eruption in the stuffy room. Praise came down in torrents and fists clenched in the pockets of phony well-wishers. The competition wore smiles hard enough to cut glass, and our cast accepted their spoils, appreciating their heft and shine. Wood, metal, and tiny personalized plaques: hardware made all the difference. Paper and ribbon became failure material, and those who lined the side aisles to receive their consolation scraps did so with sad reluctance. We wanted to breathe the outside and unburden our precious load, so we carried our treasures down the center aisle, and made our way toward the lights.
We ran through the midway and out to the parking lot until we reached our cars. The trophies were properly displayed against the worn vinyl of back seats, and we turned and stood for a moment to behold the fair’s glowing rainbow in the distance, a faint, smoky aura coming off the neon. We locked arms and walked back to the carnival with a brisk pace, relieved of organized rituals, loving the present with its delicious freedom and whimsical melody.