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By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
It used to be with a perverse sense of pride that every July I could report that I had again avoided all of the Three Rivers Festival events, which was no small feat — I lived in West Central and it became somewhat of a challenge to avoid being spotted at any officially sanctioned TRF gathering. But I was determined, and when the fireworks started going off on Sunday I could glance out my window and congratulate myself on getting through another July without participating in any of the city's signature festivities. I was deep in my cool phase back then, and for the self-consciously hip the Festival is the absolute black hole of cool. The beer tent is for meatballs and sorority girls, the bed race is for dorks who listen to the oldies station, and the parade is the absolute epicenter of petit bourgeois, slack-jawed entertainment. No self-respecting cool guy would ever be caught dead there.
Fortunately, I've learned to abandon some of my smug attitudes and with a bit of perspective I can now see what a tireless shmuck I must have been. I went to a bunch of events this year and surprise, my cultured, sophisticated soul wasn't scarred by the sight of generally decent people having fun in the summer. And in one of those great reversals that can only happen when you realize how stupid you've been, I came to realize that the one group I had disdained the most — the people who would wait endlessly for the parade — suddenly appeared to me cooler than everybody else.
I had seen them, in previous years, while driving to work; I had one of those ungodly jobs that forces you onto the streets at five-thirty, and I couldn't believe how many people were already out on the parade route, staking out the primo spots. Getting up at the crack of dawn to see the Three Rivers Festival Parade — not the Macy's Parade, not the Rose Parade — seemed to me the height of absurdity. Were people really that interested in seeing marching bands and TV weather guys in golf shirts? It wasn't until this year that I realized that the folks showing up at five a.m. were the slackers — the true hard cores had already marked their spot the previous night and were camping out on the street, awaiting the start of the morning parade.
I saw the night shift for the first time this year, and it was sort of a fluke. About 11:45 p.m. I decided I needed a walk, so I trundled out of my apartment and walked toward downtown. On Berry Street, between Harrison and Fairfield, I walked past 20 or so all nighters, adults and children, most laying out on the sidewalk with only a comforter or blanket to separate them from the hard concrete. I smiled at everyone I passed, and exchanged a few Hellos, but I didn't engage with them too much. It was such an odd tableau but still I didn't want to look like an anthropologist studying some bizarre new specimen. And oddly, even though it was a city street, I felt like I was intruding, like I was imposing myself on them just by walking past. The kids were wide awake and giddy, and who could blame them? It was midnight! And they were awake! On the street! Everybody had bags of junk food to help keep the sugar levels jacked, and I couldn't help but smile at the silly wonder the kids must have felt. Even when they crashed, later, inevitably, with the tears and the whining, this was still a great night, one they'll remember for a long time.
Walking home, thinking about all this, I came to the conclusion that the TRF parade, the reason everybody was here, was actually superfluous. It was the waiting that was the important part. A parade is a parade, after all, but a night on the street anticipating it is unpredictable, exotic, maybe a little scary. Unless you're homeless or drunk (or homeless and drunk), odds are most Fort Wayne citizens have never experienced what these folks were doing. A night on the town! Discovering this made me realize how much, philosophically at least, I felt I had in common with these people. And I loved that they were willing to deal with the hassles of waiting, which started to make sense to me — I take a trip with friends every October, and no matter how much fun it is, it can never match the fun I get thinking about it the months before I go. My trip lasts five days, yet I'm sure I spend 50 days anticipating it, dreaming about it, turning it over in my mind, smiling at all that potential. Consequently there are 50 days in the year when I'm guaranteed to be in a good mood. It's a simple thing, really, just silly, unbridled hope, yet I'm always surprised at how strong a force it is with me.
Mainly, though, I liked the campers because they were willing to allow a little unstructured experience to intersect with their lives. I couldn't help but contrast their weekend with my own — basically, I was planning on hermetically sealing my apartment door and distancing myself from the world by watching endless DVD's and re-reading old books. How cowardly is that? Sometimes taking a break from the world is necessary, but too many times I find myself painfully aware that I'm phoning in my days, my weeks, my life. It was a relief to find people that, for a night at least, were willing participants in their own lives.