Festival problems: A Chicago dad experiences street fairs with a toddler

This week’s blog post is by WDP co-host Matt Rocco, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood of Chicago with Professor Foster (his “Brown Mom” wife), and their daughter Viva, who spends her weekends eating funnel cake and watching “Sixteen Candles” do 80’s covers.

Baseball is lousy, the roads are impassible and my triglycerides are through the roof from fatty meats. It’s summertime in Chicago! So what to do besides sweat on yourself and listen to whatever this year’s “Blurred Lines” is ad nauseum? Go to our many, many, many fairs and festivals! (And I suppose one has to take one’s kids. They get grouchy when you lock them in the house with a bowl of ice cream and a DVR full of “Caillou.”*)

*Don’t do this. Both because it is illegal and because Caillou is whiny as all get out.

I’m not talking about those mega-fests in Grant Park that seem to exist primarily to lock up the Drive so that a trip out of town to the South means two hours of standing in your car near the museum campuses staring at people with boats having more fun than you.

(The Taste of Chicago in particular seems like the perfect festival to avoid annually. Foods that are impossible to eat while standing up, eaten while standing up, and which run through you like Patton through Europe in a land of “Lepre-cans” whose insides will disturb you forever. All in an environment seemingly designed for misplacing your child, and featuring vendors you can visit for real at a better price any other day of the year. But then, it’s not really for Chicagoans, is it?  It’s more of “A Taste of Chicago Before Your Go Back to Bloomington or Racine or Valparaiso.”)

I’m talking about the neighborhood festivals dedicated to our local flavors, vendors, sounds, and, of course, one of the most powerful entertainment demographics (and one near to my bratwurst-clogged heart), the aging hipster.

I should mention that I’m also not talking about the many mildly embarrassing Caucasian magnets that are the festivals of the suburbs – Various rib competitions, ale fests, tastes of this and that, and assorted celebrations which give you the opportunity not only to eat grilled sweet corn over a garbage can but also a chance to watch performances by Survivor, Loverboy, Night Ranger, and anybody still alive from Lynyrd Skynyrd.

If you can survive a day in Grant Park or at a fest in the ‘burbs, more power to you, but with a two-year-old I can’t even travel to one in the window between wake up and nap. So it’s neighborhood fests for me.

Even these festivals are feats of strengths and endurance when you’re dragging the opinion machine that is a toddler through the throngs. How long will she like the music? Will you be too far from the stage? Will the music be too loud? Is the kid area too crowded? Too creepy? Is the food too hot? Too cold? Too messy? Too something she doesn’t feel like dealing with at this exact moment? Who are you accidentally spilling your beer on now? How many grilled onions can you fit on one shirt? You see the challenge.

And, of course, children are generally smaller than adults, meaning if they don’t want to be carried (and mine never seems to), they want to get away from you and disappear into the masses, or under ropes, or into the mouths of the packs of pugs and cockapoos and domesticated pigs being walked through the already choked streets. That’s the great thing about babies – they aren’t good for much, but they can’t get away, either. Little kids are always on the move, and never in the direction you want them to go.

Here’s a pro tip – don’t let your kid see any balloons. If possible, buy them sunglasses that filter out the sight of balloons. Once they’ve seen a balloon, they must have a balloon, and that means either they (or you) will lose that balloon, inciting fits, or (even worse) you will NOT lose the balloon, and the balloon will spend the day bopping you (and large strangers) in the face. And when you get the balloon home, it will immediately start to give up the ghost and sink to the floor, teaching your child a cruel lesson about permanence and the fleeting nature of joy and life that you weren’t prepared to teach yet.

Oh, and these fests are expensive. It doesn’t seem like it at first – a reasonable suggested donation that anyone with an ounce of civic pride pays (and most probably don’t), THEN the eight dollar sausages and the six and seven dollar beers and the magnets with L stop logos on them you can’t live without. It adds up.

Sometimes some of the fun is free, but you never know. At Midsommerfest in Andersonville, Viva got her face painted gratis, so now she equates all fests with face-painting. At Square Roots in Lincoln Square, we paid $5 for a smiley face. $5 FOR A SMILEY FACE. That was only a dollar less than a glass of Daisy Cutter from Half Acre brewing and only a yellow circle, two dots, and a curved line away from not having a face painting at all.

A word on beer – Chicago is a contender for craft beer capital of the world, if it hasn’t earned the title already. All festivals WITHOUT craft beer should back it up. You’re telling me I can pay $6 for something from a Revolution or a Finch’s Beer Co. or a Two Brothers, or I can pay $6 for a Budweiser Strawberry Lager Diabeetarita (or whatever it’s called)? Come on. There ought to be a law that it’s Chicago beer or no beer. (And Goose Island, with your St. Louis overlords, you’re right on the bubble, pal.)

Viva hasn’t yet figured out that all the street fests aren’t the same – she went to ONE with an inflatable slide, and now her primary interest in all fairs and fests are inflatable slides. Imagine her disappointment that most of them only feature that creepy fake wave you can be photographed in front of while standing on a surf board. You know, because Chicago is a surfing mecca.

And then there’s the most obviously difficult aspect of street festivals – the bathroom situation.  Your kid is either in diapers or not (or a little of each, if you’re us). I don’t know what’s worse, finding a tree or hiding behind a bouncy house inflator motor to change a diaper in the heat and sun, or awkwardly holding your child over a port-o-let hole full of the vile excretions of thousands of strangers and trying to squeeze poop out of them like a wriggling toothpaste tube.

You know what, the diapers are better. We should probably all wear diapers to summer festivals.

I know, I know, I didn’t paint much of a picture in favor of attending neighborhood fests in Chicago, but they are fun, and there are a number of them left to attend. The music is good, the people are nice, and the food is delicious if you can keep any of it from falling onto your wailing child’s head while running to find the Puppet Bike.

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