Friday, July 5, 2013

Seven things I learned at the sno-cone booth

For an unadulterated display of mindless patriotism, summer celebration, stressful family dynamics, addiction-in-the-making and the blank, unholy inability to make a simple decision, there is no experience more educational than staffing the sno-cone booth at the annual Fourth of July picnic in the Tangletown neighborhood of Southwest Minneapolis.

We’ve been going to the parade since 1996, when we wheeled our oldest daughter up to the local high school, tied a balloon to her stroller, and followed the shambling crowd on the five-block-or-so “parade route” over to the local park. Occasionally, we’d even spot an observer -- some bleary-eyed grownup sitting on a front porch, clutching a mug of coffee and wondering why all these wound-up families were shuffling past at such an ungodly hour. For the parent of a young child, ten a.m. is the shank of the day, and we’d wave energetically at our sparse array of spectators, full of energy and good cheer.

Years passed, another child arrived, and we continued to wake with the birds on Fourth of July morning to decorate bikes, tie bandanas around the dogs’ necks and be first in line for the balloons in the parking lot.

Back then, the food was a potluck lunch, served on tables set unhygienically in blazing sunlight (the trees were smaller then), and the games were of the “toss a bean bag in the hole and get a dum dum” variety. But the neighborhood has taken a significant turn upwards in the past 20 years, and the festivities yesterday featured two different varieties of giant inflatables, Guthrie-level face painting and, that ultimate hipster beacon of fun, a food truck. I looked around at the crowd this year, and I was definitely out of my element, especially in terms of fashion.

Several women sported attractive sundresses and chic sunhats, and I saw more fresh pedicures than I could shake an orange stick at. People had painted their children’s buzz cuts to resemble the American flag. There were red-white-and-blue top hats and vests, with a minimum of beer guts or lighted jewelry, once staples of my decidedly blue-collar childhood Independence Days. One had the sense that, later, processco and sparklers, not brats and bottle rockets, would be the order of the day.

At this event, I always wear my WW II shirt, a bizarre bit of Joe Boxer’s less spot-on haberdashery, featuring tiny pictures of Churchill and Roosevelt, plus key battles. One year, it so upset a fellow parade marcher, who had examined it and declared it "warmongering," that I swore to myself that I'd wear it every July 4th until my demise.

But the shirt has gone missing this year – hiding alongside that set of steak knives we misplaced about fifteen years ago, I guess – so I had to settle for my best fifty-cents-at-a-garage-sale purchase ever – a hot pink women’s bowling shirt with “Heather” written in black script over the pocket and “Gutter Galz” on the sleeve. But, even with Heather and my getting-pretty-beat-up paper Independence Day crown, I was no match for the groovily tattooed and snappily dressed folk lining up for empanadas at the food truck. There goes the neighborhood, I could see them thinking, as they shot surreptitious glances over at the slobs manning the sno-cone booth.

And just how did I end up at that booth, wearing my bowling shirt and my paper crown, letting gooey syrup run down my shins? Several years ago, I had sat at this very event, dipping my feet in the lukewarm wading pool (whose contents, I surmise, are 90% chlorine and 10% urine) and realized that my children were no longer hanging directly off me at all times, shrieking. They were, I realized gradually, no longer little kids, but kids. Perhaps, I wondered, it might be time to give back a bit to this event that we had enjoyed so much, giving us, as it did, a chance to leave the house and Wear Them Out a Bit.

The following June, I announced to my family that I had volunteered us all to work a booth at the picnic. “I asked for the sno-cone machine, because I figured it would be cool.” No one seemed overly thrilled with this idea, but I argued that we’d spent enough years lazily holding down a blanket on the southwest edge of the Fuller Park hill, so we arrived for early duty and got to work.

As these things usually turn out, we had much more fun working than we’d ever had lolling. Even during the hottest years, we have stayed cool at our icy station – well, at least our hands have. We have run into lots of people we knew, gotten up-to-date on neighborhood gossip and enjoyed the perfect perch for people-watching. This year was no exception. So, distilled for your reading pleasure like a full gallon of iridescent sno-cone syrup, here are several of the more trenchant observations of Team Sno-Cone, 2013 version.

1.     Everything is more fun with kids
Of course I love my practically grown-up teenagers, but I firmly believe that all social activities are more fun with a soupcon of children. This year, I invited my friend Tammy’s two darlings, Mike and Maren, to assist at the booth. They made everything about 25% more fun, and the obvious delight they took in being the big kids behind the counter made all of us happier.

2.     There is a Zen of filth
When you’re covered from fingernail to sneaker with drippy, sticky, gooey syrup, there is only one logical choice to make – just go with it. Ever since the year our booth was next to the Girl Scout Troop’s cotton candy maker, we discovered that the filth of syrup is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the worst kind of dirt. Try being up to your elbows in hot, hairy cotton candy, and sno-cones will start to look like a clear mountain stream.

Once you can decide, “I am just going to be sticky and disgusting,” it’s easy to become Zen with the muck. And there were some simple joys among the goo. Maren’s elbows increasingly looked like a Jackson Pollack painting, my left hand resembled something out of a Steven King novel and Mary’s shins developed a strange case of bluish varicose veins, so we had plenty to look at during the lulls in the action.

3.     No one is sad in the sno-cone line
While there may be frowny faces aplenty at the DMV, everyone seems very, very happy in the sno-cone line. And – I swear this is true – every single person, even the ones who look like they’re planning a suicide attempt for later in the evening – genuinely smiles when that sno-cone gets handed over. It’s just some ice and whole lot of sugary food dye, but it’s a daymaker, I tell you.

4.     Your neighbors appreciate a quick decision
This year, as with most other years, it turns out that the very first thing most people want to do after they’ve finished that grueling parade route is head to our booth. We had a long, long line. Our workers were keeping up their end of the bargain, but the customers … well, let’s just say that waiting until you're asked for your order to begin the negotiation with your two-year-old about what kind of sno-cone flavor he wants, then asking the both staff to remind you once again what your choices are, because you weren’t able to observe them at any point during your ten-minute wait – you, sir or madam, will not be named Tangletown Neighbor of the Year.

5.     Sno-cones are simple, but some people make everything complicated
And also? When I tell you we have red, green and blue, please do not ask what “flavor” those colors are. They are not flavors. They are dye and sugar. I told one woman that the day-glo green syrup was made with kale, and she was so excited that she ordered for four cones. My feeling on that is, if you want to believe a woman wearing a Gutter Galz shirt and a paper crown that's been mended with Scotch tape, you deserve to be deceived.

We also have a secret staff-only contest every year, won by the first person to help the customer who, when asked "What do you want?" says, “I want a sno-cone.” Really, as we stand here under the giant tent with the "Sno-Cone" sign out front, we thought we were selling parboiled-unicorn-meat-on-a-stick, so we're not sure we're going to be able to help you, standing as we are In Front of A Giant Sno-Cone Machine.

Our favorite fellow this year was an otherwise intelligent-looking hipster, who, when he finally had finished his wait in line and was asked what he wanted, looked around in confusion and said, “Oh, I didn’t know there were flavors.” Yeah, life is complicated like that sometimes, pal. NEXT.

6.     Our daughter is good at customer service, who knew?
Our oldest daughter has been working at the local grocery store for four months, and, in that short amount of time, Kowalski's seems to have accomplished what I failed to do in 18 years. She looks people in the eye. She bares her teeth in the form of a smile. She says chatty things like “Hey, how are you doing?”

Her father said that if she had begun to speak fluent Urdu, or levitate off the ground as she scooped ice into paper cones, he could not have been more surprised than when he heard her say, “How’s your Fourth going so far?”

Still, it was funny to see the kid-I-know-and-love return as she shut down an old guy who tried to hit on her. He trotted out a Pepe Le Pew accent and told her he’d come all the way from France to enjoy her sno-cones. Her glare, it was withering, and I felt sorry that he was from the one country Emma is least likely to ever give a break to, ever again.

7.     There will always be addicts
Some people get one sno-cone. Some are so refreshed by our delicious offerings that they come back for a second. But, every year, we have our contingent of addicts. This group always fits a very narrow demographic: affluent (hey, it’s three tickets a cone) white boys, about age 11, who tend to travel in a pack. I served each member of this year's group about 10 sno-cones apiece. And this year, they had a king – a swimsuit wearing titan whose lips, tongue and teeth had  become stained blue from the number of “Blue Raspberry” cones he was downing.

“I can imagine this guy at his first fraternity party,” my husband said, “and it’s not going to be a pretty picture.” Toward the end of the afternoon, the kid wove his way back to our booth with a giant, sweaty wad of tickets. “Keep ‘em coming,” he roared, his eyes spinning in his head from the simultaneous sugar rush and brain freeze, “I just won these in a bet.”

“Oh good,” my daugther murmured under her breath as she scooped ice and started hitting the pump of blue syrup, “he’s got a gambling problem, too.”

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