thunderstorm at the balloon festival
Friday, August 20 2004
There's a village called Greenville in Greene County, just south of the Albany County line, and every year they host a hot air balloon festival. I wouldn't know that New York had a Greenville or that it hosted festivals of any kind were it not for Gretchen, who frequently trawls through various sources in search of the ever-elusive "thing to do." The thing she wanted to do today was ride in a hot air balloon. So we drove north on the Thruway two exits to Catskill and then caught 32 to Greenville. It's situated in that wide swath of rolling countryside between the Catskills and the Adirondacks. The houses in this part of the world lack the luster of houses in similarly rural Hurley, perhaps starved by their distance from the vital influx of New York City dollars.
One thing that can be said about the folks running the Greenville Hot Air Balloon Festival is that they're not shy about charging. Admission was $10 per person at the gate for what was, by any standard, a C-rate festival. The fairway, such as it was, featured a series of dismal vendors selling things like miniature balloons and a variety of colorful wind-powered lawn decorations, several of which had an American flag motiff. In terms of food, there was your usual deep-fried cornucopia, including the ever-popular blooming onion. Due to overcast skies and threatening rain, not many people had come to the festival. Those who had were not what one would normally call photogenic. It was a very Middle-American scene. I didn't see the missing limbs and untreated tumors familiar from attending rural auctions and fairs in Virginia, but the poofy hair/skeeter-do dichotomy was in full effect.
Gretchen wanted to ride in hot air balloon, of course, but when we went to sign up we were shocked by the price: $175 each! Once we'd recovered from the shock, Gretchen said, "Oh come on Gus, let's do it! What good is our money doing us in the bank? We won't even miss the $350!" I was reluctant at first, since the experience didn't seem like it would actually be worth $350, but as my resolve broke down I agreed to do it only on the condition that we install a huge wind-powered American-flag-themed sail in our front yard for the next six months.
So we signed a series of forms promising not to sue in the event of a terrible hot air balloon accident. We also gave our estimated weight to help with calculating the quantity of hot air necessary to get us off the ground.
The woman helping us with our forms had a curious condition in which the skin of her face was bright red and covered with a dense carpet of fine white hairs.
There was a small midway separate from the center of the balloon festival. We wandered down there to see the rides, concessions, and freakshows there. It wasn't much of a midway, not even a quarter as big as the one in Uptown Kingston the weekend after the Fourth of July. Aside from the barkers, ride operators, and concessionaires, we were virtually the only people there. There's something unexpectedly frightening about a midway devoid of attendees. And since we were the only potential customers, our position was not an especially pleasant one to be in. The barkers immediately focused on us, and soon enough we'd been hauled in by a guy running some sort of elaborate pseudo-lottery racket involving a cloud of air-borne balls. The rules were elaborate, but it was basically a casino game in which we bet against the house and the house had the odds stacked it in its favor, perhaps with the assistance of a specially-rigged machine. We were initially lured by a "free" game, but from then on we had to pay, and periodically the odds would double as we pursued an elusive goal that seemed to forever hang within reach. Whenever I'd suggest that we quit, the man running the machine would insist that it would be foolish to quit now, that we had almost won some large amount of money. Then he'd flash an obscenely large roll of hundred dollar bills. Something kept us playing until we were down $40 and then I insisted that we quit. As we walked away, I explained that we had no idea how that air-powered ball machine worked, that the barker could have been operating secret levers to gradually remove balls favorable to us from circulation.
We sat for a time under a big tent while a female singer-songwriter on stage did her grating best to perform in the spirit of Ani DiFranco. Listening to the goofy affectations of her voice punching out from the overdriven speakers was a little like having a nailgun fired into my head, and I soon had to leave. Mind you, we'd been listening to The Scorpions all the way up the Thruway.
Like some sort of gathering galaxy in a cloud of nebular dust, a thunderstorm was building rapidly in the clouds to the west. The sky was darkening and the rumbling of thunder crept ever closer. We retreated briefly inside a beautiful old barn whose interior floor surfaces were covered with a thick deposit of pigeon guano. Through a hole in the side I could see a bored sheriff's deputy, sent to keep the peace at this sparsely-attended festival, looking out across the field at the storm, what was to be the festival's most obnoxious attendee. The rain had yet to start but the lightning bolts were now landing frighteningly close.
I cowered briefly in the singer-songwriter tent, but I kept thinking about how lightning might be attracted to its metal support poles. So I made a run for it and went into another barn, this one half-renovated into a space for fair vendors. The stuff for sale here was the most headache-inducingly tacky junk you can imagine: goods knitted from repulsive-colored yarns, ugly ceramic frogs designed to be set on the edge of shelves, and incense burners that would look like kitschy menorahs if only they had places for seven more burning objects.
Suffice it to say, we never got a chance to go for a ride in the balloon. As we were leaving, Gretchen ran back into the midway area with my camera to photograph the barker who had swindled us out of $40. He wasn't there, and Gretchen demanded of his buddy (in front of a group of potential midway suckers), "Where's that guy who ripped us off for $40?" She then explained that, in terms of entertainment, the ball game had been worth $20 but certainly not $40. And would you believe it, the barker's buddy handed Gretchen a $20 bill just to shut her up! She came back to the car with a big smile on her face.
Gretchen had read something about a live "rock and roll" show at "Gallo Park" in Kingston. So when we got back to Kingston, we drove around asking people where Gallo Park actually is. Nobody had ever heard of it, not even people who had been born and raised in Kingston. We were told to just go down to the Rondout, or (as one African American woman at a gas station on Broadway called it) "The Stream." Other terms for "the Rondout" include "the Strand" and even "Downtown."
After parking semi-illegally near the Rondout's public bathrooms, we saw a small sign on the ground that read "Gallo Park." Evidently no proper press release had been issued when the Strand's public space had been given this name.
The "rock and roll" was actually a band fronted by an Elvis impersonator (from the fat Elvis period). He sang, he crooned, and he even performed "My Way," which was written by Carol King and popularized by Frank Sinatra. But I could only take so much of an Elvis impersonator. You never really know what you're going to get when someone says there's going to be rock and roll.
For dinner we ate on the sidewalk in front of El Coqui, the Puerto Rican restaurant near the Rondout's main corner. The food was amazing. I had a fillet of catfish smothered in some sort of spicy sauce that had turned it into a savory slice of heaven. Our concern was that vegetarian options would be hard to piece together at this place, but that didn't turn out to be the case. Gretchen said her beans and wad of smashed plantain was the best meal she'd had in a long time. She also convinced me to buy her a couple roses when a rose vendor came buy.
A friend suggested we go up the street a couple blocks and check out the performance art at the gallery known as Deep Listening. So after dinner we walked up to have a look. A couple people were slowly, quietly, playing something very non-melodic on classical instruments while a handful of earnest people stood and watched in respectful silence. It looked like a Saturday Night Live parody of this sort of thing, and Gretchen had to compose herself so no one would see her laughing.
The NY Thruway north of Saugerties.
Dry thistles at the Hot Air Balloon Festival
Me in the abandoned barn.
A bucket in an abandoned barn at the Hot Air Balloon Festival. Note the pigeon guano.
Gretchen with some hideous vendor products. Notice how she is clenching her teeth.
"Frogs" and the people who sell them.
A vendor at the Hot Air Balloon Festival
Kids avoiding the rain in the vendor barn.
Colorful incense burners in the vendor barn.
An Elvis impersonator at Gallo Park on the Strand in Kingston.
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