Monday, August 4, 2008

Jesus Freaks vs. Typical Garden Variety Freaks, or, The Joys of Late Capitalism.

Saturday night checked out the Orange County Fair and, while standing in line, saw a woman that went to my high school. She was a few years older than me, although I think she had a brother my age. If memory serves me correctly, she used to dance at a "gentleman's club." She's stunningly attractive.

It's difficult to overstate how crazy the fair is, with its deep-fried everything (avocadoes, Twinkies, Snickers, Oreos, broccoli, tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini, battered potatoes, etc.), its enormous livestock (worth the $1, believe it or not--they're really big), and its orgy of gaudy lighting in every rusted corner. I love it. The highlight for me is always seeing people make their way through crowds wielding outlandish prizes. One guy had a five-foot tall blue plaid Scooby Doo doll, another deftly balanced two mountain bikes while giving directions to his kids, who led the way excitedly. Both men had the same look on their faces, a sheepish mix of accomplishment and practical dilemma: does a giant stuffed dog fit in the car?

Sunday was still more interesting: the Chariot Festival of Venice Beach, which celebrates Lord Krishna's return to Vrindaban. Having grown up a couple of blocks from the stretch known as "Little India," I can't say that I've ever felt like my life has any lacunae in need of being filled by experiencing Hindu festivals, but this one definitely looked like something new: basically, two flatbed trucks are decked out lavishly in colorful, florid patterns and adorned with statues, pictures, etc. Then a ceremony is held around the floats, and an entire festival--food vendors, ethnic performances and the like--takes place in the general vicinity.

Had I thought more about the thing, I may have factored in the location. I'm glad I didn't, as the surprise provided for half the fun of the experience.

Upon arriving, the people we met told us right away that the Indian food served at the festival was terrible and we'd better get something to eat at another place. So I had a gyro. It wasn't very good, but not terrible. Then we proceeded to the site of the festival, which was literally only what I've described: two decorated flatbed trucks (I should note, they were very well-decorated), a stage where a group of young girls performed a very impressive traditional dance, and lots of shops selling everything from authentic Indian fare to New Age-y trinkets to Bob Marley t-shirts. For the first twenty minutes I saw many Hare Krishnas, countless women in saris, but not one person of Indian descent. It was essentially a gathering of old hippies and Phish-heads.

We did finally run across a contingent of “real” Indians, all gathered together sitting on a little knoll, apparently as bemused by the spectacle as we were. In front of them, somewhere in between Govinda’s International Imports and the Hawaiian Shaved Ice stand, a tall Caucasian man painted blue calmly explained Vishnu’s virtues to an apparent skeptic. Back near the boardwalk, stationed in front of another float under the watchful eye of the police, three men held signs high in the air condemning us all to hell for defying God and Jesus, while their associate yelled through a bullhorn that “You should be eating cows, not worshipping them!” While I was clicking a photo of him, he picked on a Hare Krishna adherent standing next to me and bellowed, “Does grass have a soul?” Then without letting the guy answer, continued, “The tents you’ve erected today are sitting on grass! You’re hurting the grass, you hypocrites!” As we left the scene I could hear him work up to a fever pitch and yell, “God hates you all and will send you all to hell, because you’re a nation of homo lovers. That’s right! You’re all nothing but a bunch of homo lovers!” This was met with uproarious laughter and even some applause from the crowd.

We proceeded down the boardwalk to find a spot on the beach. A guy in a turban with a visor pulled over it rode rollerblades and played the electric guitar. Aspiring rappers attempted to sell their CDs to passersby. Booths along the way sold a rendition of Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama poster that substituted the Rasta color scheme for the red, white and blue. Caricature artists, tattooists, calligraphers, blown glass, tongue whistles, fortune tellers, body builders, well-trained pit bulls, the "Venice Beach Freak Show."

Following some time spent soaking up UV rays on the sand, and after two or three beers at a nearby bar, we headed back through it all one more time on the way out. Close to the scene of the festival, an Indian family—mother, father, one child, one set of grandparents—sat bewildered on a bench in front of a head shop watching people shop for bongs as a woman stood out front distributing cards and yelling, “Medical marijuana, upstairs! Come see the doctor!” In the spot where we had all been condemned to hell’s eternal flames, three men still stood with signs, but they had no vociferous spokesman and their signs read “SURFING! SKATES! BIKES!” and “SUNGLASSES! $5!”

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