A few years ago, San Francisco’s historic movie palace, the Castro Theatre, ran the film Picnic. I was lucky enough to be in town when it was playing and I went to see it with my friends, Michael and Kim. The Castro is a gorgeous old theatre on Castro street, smack dab in the middle of the Castro, San Francisco’s gayest neighborhood. I’d obviously seen the movie a few times before, but I’d never watched it with two hundred gay men and their straight girlfriends and I listened to it for the first time through the filter of my people. I’ll never forget the shrieks of laughter that occurred when Rosalind Russell came to the window, her face covered in cold cream, and pondered, “Anyone mind if an old maid school teacher joins their company?” But the thing that touched me the most was the pride I felt when Kim Novak sailed down the river, the newly crowned Queen Neelah, and the townsfolk called out to her, “Nee-woll-ah, Nee-woll-ah.” And while the Neewollahs of my own youth did not include the queen riding down the Verdigris River on a candlelit float (that’s not safe!), it did remind me of the many, many Neewollahs that I’ve enjoyed since I was knee high to a grasshopper.
It doesn’t matter, where I am: when this week, Neewollah week, rolls around, I keep an ongoing timeline of what is happening back home. Last night as I was driving home, I wondered who the new Queen Neelah was going to be, even though I’m sure I did not even know any of the candidates. This morning I thought about how today is probably the first day of the rides at the carnival. Also, it used to be that today was the first day of the food vendors. I can taste the jaffles and apple fritters even still. Friday afternoon, I’ll be thinking about the Kiddie parade, where one year I went as an astronaut (Dr. Ryan Stone?) and the next year, I wore a frog mask and the same astronaut costume and went as the Martian who killed said astronaut and stole his ensemble. On Saturday, when I am at work, believe me, I will wish that I am at the aptly named, Grand Parade, running into old friends and feasting on barbecue and cinnamon rolls, and sneaking in another jaffle.
I haven’t been to Neewollah for about 15 years now. That seems unbelievable, but it’s true. The last time I went, my Dad had just recovered from his first bout with cancer and I remember it felt like we had something to celebrate when we went to the Parade. We did. The Grand Parade is for many of us who grew up in Independence, a holiday like Christmas and New Years that marks the passage of time.
I’ve travelled a certain amount and I’ve lived in a few large cities. I used to live in New York and I never went to the Macy’s Parade. I live miles away from where the Rose Parade takes place every year and I’ve never gone to that either. I guess you could say that Neewollah spoiled me on parades, when you’ve grown up with the best, you have no interest in lesser versions.
I’m 45 now, at an age where I’m realizing that few things I experience will resonate in the way the memories of my youth do. The scariest Magic Mountain roller coaster will never compare to the Tilt-a-Whirl, Yo-Yo Ma will always be second fiddle to Jana Jae. No brush with celebrity compares to the time HBO came to film a concert with Roy Clark, Ronnie Milsap and Merle Haggard and we all thought it was going to make us famous. The prettiest beauty queens will always be Gail Moore and Jeannine Bailey and Missy Housel and Shelly Nelson and Kara Woods. And of course, the most exquisite, sophisticated, delicious, exotic food will always be the jaffle.