Thursday, March 31, 2005

The Ides of March (or Toga! Toga!)

How does the Bunny Brigade in Celebration, Florida, mark a milestone birthday for a member born in March? With a toga party, of course!

Since it's the last day of the month, it's fitting to revisit March with the tale of the toga party. And if you doubt that we would do something like this in public, there's a link to incriminating photos a little farther down the page.

It all started shortly before my last jaunt to the Windy city. A few days before heading to Chicago, I had purchased toga material for my husband and I, along with some fellow Brigaders. Joanne Fabrics has an amazing array of printed fabrics to suit all your Roman wear needs. It was a veritable smorgasbord of patterns and colors. At first, I was drawn to a loud nautical pattern, which I figured would fit in well with my cruise obsession (I sailed on my 43rd Disney cruise on Easter weekend, so you might say I'm somewhat obsessed). But finally I settled on a cute, but slightly more subdued, cat print in honor of my unholy feline trio (Stitch, Farquaad, and Tooncinator).

My husband did not join the toga-material excursion, but he had instructed me to pick a nice, plain, solid orange. That is his favorite color, so much so that he painted one wall of his office in our old condo a loud Pumpkin Orange (he would have done it to all four walls, but I stepped in with the voice of reason).

Being an aging child of the 60s, he loves tie-dye, too. When I spotted a "groovy" looking bolt of orange tie-dyed cloth, I just knew that he'd love it. I made a quick phone call to make sure he'd prefer that over the nautical pattern. He gave the thumbs up, so now we were both all set to create our fashionable togas.

Our friends chose a bright green, gecko lizard pattern and a length of cloth covered with cat balls. Yes, really, cat balls! It was festooned with cats curled up in circles.

We headed home with our booty after a brief stop at Moe's in Water Tower Place for lunch. My previous experience with Moe's had been limited to picking up a quick order of guacamole. Now I discovered a delicious item called "I Said Posse" (all of the menu items have weird movie-related names). Basically, it was a vegetarian quesedilla with melted cheese, beans, salsa, sour cream and sauteed vegetables. I also discovered that Moe's has the best green tomatillo sauce that I've ever tasted.

Not too long after the shopping trip, my husband and I had to fly to Chicago for five days. We were slated to return on Friday night, and the toga party was scheduled for that Saturday. We were getting a little nervous when Friday turned out to be a windy, snowy day. What would we do if our flight was cancelled? I certainly didn't want to miss all the fun.

The last time I had pranced around in a sheet was over twenty years ago, when I was in high school. I was in the Office Education Association (OEA), and we'd won some sort of bulletin board making competition. We were able to go to the state contest, which was held in Springfield (Illinois, not the Simpsons' home town, although I'm sure that would have been a lot more fun...I would have loved to see the sights like Mount Karl in West Springfield, Springfield Gorge, the Tire Fire, and the Squidport).

We were put up at a Holiday Inn, and one of the scheduled events in the atrium was a toga party. Of course, that meant stripped-down beds and tons of teens romping around in our hastily prepared Roman finery. It's one of those high school memories that still makes me grin with nostalgia. Back then, I doubt that I could have imagined a 40 year old version of myself parading around in public in Celebration, Florida, in a toga. But here I was, looking forward to it, keeping my fingers crossed and praying that our flight wouldn't be cancelled.

My husband was heading directly from work to the airport on the Orange Line train. I had a rental car (Canyonero's evil twin, the Pimpin' Family Truckster, is still in Chicago, but I need to way transportation from and to the airport, and renting a vehicle is cheaper than a towncar or limo). That meant I would need to leave early enough to gas it up and drop it off before heading to the gate.

As I was driving toward Midway, my husband called to tell me that our flight was delayed by half an hour. That caused me a fleeting bit of worry, since snow was pounding down on the windshield, and I was having a heck of a time figuring out how to work the windshield wipers that were obvious designed for a rocket scientist. Half an hour didn't sound too bad, but I hoped the bad weather wouldn't lengthen the wait.

I was already far enough in my journey to make it impossible to turn around for such a short reprieve. Oh well, we were flying Southwest Airlines, so I figured that would give me a chance to be one of the first in the "A" line. In case you're not familiar with the Southwest cattle call, they do not assign seats. Instead, you get a boarding pass marked A, B, or C, and you board in a group according to your letter. Basically, you just plop down in any available seat. The A group has the best choice, the Bs have it okay, and the Cs often end up with their parties split up and scattered throughout the aircraft. It's even worse on Orlando flights, when the pre-board sometimes equals and A and B groups combined. In theory, the pre-board is only for the handicapped and people with children age four and under (the kid and one parent). In practice, you'll see dozens of "four year olds" who have apparently hit puberty very early, plus at least a dozen accompanying family members and close friends.

We print our boardng passes online as early as possible (12:01 a.m. the morning of the flight), which virtually guarantees that we'll get an A pass. If the pre-board isn't too tragic, that means we have a fighting change to get decent (i.e. towards the front of the plane) seats. We like to sit as far forward as posssible because we only bring carry-on luggage. If you had to wait to claim our bags, getting off quickly wouldn't matter because it would give our luggage some time to arrive. But with carry-on, we like to pop off the plane and get on our way home to Celebration as soon as possible.

This was the first time I had rented a car at Midway, but it wasn't too difficult to find the drop-off area, which is conveniently located on Level 2 of the parking garage. But as I pulled in and waiting my turn for check-in, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to gas up the car! With a rental vehicle, that is a big faux pax. Most rental companies will charge you five to six dollars a gallon if don't return the car with a full tank. I had no desire to pay such a ridiculous amount (although goodness knows that will probably be the normal price of gas at the pump someday soon). Thus, I quickly pulled out of the return line and headed out of the garage to find a nearby gas station.

Fortunately, there was a Citgo on 55th Street, just a few blocks from the airport. My rental was a gas-guzzling Grand Prix (I had rented an economy but was upgraded, which was fine because I like having a bit more metal around me than a tiny little Focus or Cavilier provides). It slurped the gasoline hungrily, and when its appetite was finally saited, I headed for Midway once again.

The security line was minimal, and soon enough I was at the gate. Unfortunately, the flight before mine was delayed, meaning that all the people heading to North Carolina were in the A, B, and C "cattle chutes." Since I couldn't line up yet, I found a nearby power outlet, plugged in my laptop, and settled down to do a little work while waiting for my husband.

In a symphony of perfect timing, hubby arrived just as the last person boarded the North Carolina flight. I had been planning to shut down my computer to get into the A line for Orlando, which was already forming. But now he was able to pop into the queue so I could work for a little bit longer.

Unfortunately my work was cut short in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Not literal, since smoking in banned in the airport. But the man who had suddenly decided to stand next to me smelled as though he had chain-smoked through at least two packs to boost the nicotine level in his blood so he could make it through the flight. The smell was so pervasive that I almost gagged. Tobacco smoke irritates my allergies, and the smell premeating from his clothing was the equivalent of a football team of chain smokers. I hurriedly packed up my computer and retreated to the A line to join my husband.

Since our flight was delayed, you could feel the tenseness in the waiting area as people waited anxiously for our plane to arrive. Southwest is famous for its fast turnarounds, but as the minutes ticked away, we could see that the delay might be a bit longer than originally planned. Finally the big, brown 737 rolled up to the gate. It disgorged a gaggle of passengers, and before I knew it, the Orlando boarding had begun. I couldn't believe it; there had been no pause whatsoever to allow any time for aircraft cleaning. Oh well, I'm always anxious to return to Orlando, so that was fine with me.

The pre-board wasn't too lengthy, and we were fourth in the A line, so we were able to grab fourth row seats. My husband took the window and I plopped down next to him in the middle. We like to be able to see out because often our evening flights correspond to one of the various Disney World fireworks shows. But then I had a sudden flash of panic; Mr. Tobacco Man had apparently been traveling alone, so with my luck, he would choose the aisle seat next to me and I would be doomed to spend the entire flight gagging into the barf bag while my sinuses let loose a Niagara Falls-style flood.

Suddenly I had a burning urge to tinker with my carry-on bag. I pulled it out from under the seat in front of me and balanced it on the aisle seat, searching through it as though I had some purpose. As soon (or rather smelled) Smoky the Passenger go by, I replaced the bag and settled back to relax. Shortly thereafter, a non-smelly seatmate sank down next to me, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

The flight was relatively non-eventful, although a bit bumpy in spots. The highlight was when we soared over Epcot just as the Illuminations finale burst forth in a blaze of gunpowder glory. I just love seeing fireworks from overhead; it's like a spectacular "welcome home," as I know that Celebration is somewhere down there, right next door to Disney World.

Since we didn't get home too late on Friday, we didn't sleep too late on Saturday. Thus we had plenty of time to research various methods of toga tying before party time. The best resource on the internet is the How To Make a Toga website (click here to open it in a new window). With its guidance, my husband managed to do quite a reasonable job, donning his orange tie-dyed material over a white t-shirt. He rigged up a toga for me, too, but I wasn't pleased with the results. I holed up in front of the bathroom mirror and tried various configurations; finally, just when I was about to despair, I managed to folder my cat-printed cloth into something that vaguely resembled Roman wear. Where's Edna from "The Incredibles" when you need her?

We both had swim sandals that looked fairly authentic (that is, to people who are severely nearsighted or those who have downed at least three drinks). My husband eschewed a headdress of laurels, but I strung some cable ties together and threaded on some leaves from one of my backyard bushes. It was almost party time, and we were ready to roll.

The meeting place for the Celebration toga party was the Coldstone Creamery (an ice cream shop) at Water Tower Place. Our birthday girl had no idea that she'd soon be greated by a toga-wearing Greek chorus shouting out, "Surprise!" in a public store. My husband and I dove into Canyonero before any of the neighbors could see us and drove through town to the shopping center, hoping that we wouldn't be stopped by Osceola's finest.

We lucked out and found a parking spot right in front of Moe's, which is located in close proximity to Coldstone. But we didn't see our fellow Brigaders, so we decided to stay in the car until the others arrived. After all, there's safety in numbers.

When the others pulled up, we realized that they were wearing normal clothes. They had brought their cloth along incognito, planning to don it inside the ice cream shop. What the heck...I'm an exhibitionist anyway. My husband and I leaped out of Canyonero and paraded through the parking lot in our lovely Ides of March-themed creations.

I can't say we didn't get some very strange looks as we huddled in a corner of Coldstone, making last minute adjustments and skulking about, waiting for the birthday girl and her family to arrive. Her husband, who was the one behind this little escapade to make her birthday "memorable," planned to convince her that they really, really needed to take the kids out for ice cream. Little did she know that there was a bolt of bright shamrock-laden material just waiting for her to don it.

Shortly after 6 p.m., her daughter burst in to warn us that the rest of the family was following close behind. I breathed a silent sigh of relief; I was wondering if the Coldstone workers were wondering what we were up to. I half expected them to point out that shoes and shirts are required, but that togas must be confined to the parking lot. As our birthday girl walked in, we hollered, "Surprise!" at the top of our lungs, and the workers broke into a chorus of "Happy Birthday to You."

Fortunately, she is a great sport, so she happily wound herself into a toga (of course, her husband put one on too). Then he picked up the ice cream cake that he had secretly ordered earlier. He borrowed one of Coldstone's knives, and we headed out to Canyonero for an old-fashioned toga tailgate party. The good thing about Azteks is that they are made specifically for tailgating, with butt imprints on the pull-down gate and built-in cupholders back there, too. There is also a sliding tray that you can pull out to load with food; then roll it back it, plop down on the tailgate, and it's party time.

Our revelry was interrupted when one of the Coldstone workers came sprinted out. He explained that we would have to surrender the knife because having it in the parking lot was a "security risk." I'll be the first to admit that security is a serious subject, but we just couldn't help it...all of us burst into laughter! The idea of a bunch of toga-clad Celebrationites going on a stabbing spree in the Water Tower Place parking lot with a serrated Coldstone knife was just too much for us to keep straight faces. Click here to open up the photo page, including a firsthand shot of the birthday girl breaching security while carving up her cake.

Although it might have been an interesting experience to be hauled off by the Osceola County Sheriff and jailed in our festive sheets, we decided that it would be better to cooperate. After all, there was cake to eat, alcoholic beverages to drink, and some general partying to be done; I don't think they would have allowed us to do that in the holding cells.

The birthday girl hurriedly carved up the rest of the cake and surrendered her weapon. We gathered around Canyonero to begin our partying in earnest; we were parked right in front of Moe's Grill; I wonder what they were thinking and whether they were sending subliminal thought waves of, "Please go away! Please go away!"

But it wasn't the merchants or the sheriff who eventually got us to leave. It was good old Mother Nature sending a mid-March chill. Togas are not the warmest garments, and although I still have most of my Chicago heartiness, the other partiers have lived in Celebration long enough to have a Florida level of tolerance to the cold (i.e. none).

But the party wasn't over; in fact, it was just getting started. We all hopped into our respective vehicles and headed off to warmer quarters in West Village, stopping for culinary supplies at Chik-Fil-A on the way. Once we had moved indoors, it was time to break out the margaritas, too. Sure, they're Mexican rather than Roman, but at that point nobody cared.

Our togas actually held up until the wee hours of the night, which amazed me since they were pieced together with a rickety configuration of safety pins. The only challenge I discovered was using the restroom without utterly destroying my garment. Somehow I managed to slither out of it and then back into it; believe me, I did not relish the idea of having it fall apart and then having to reconfigure it (especially not after a few drinks).

All in all, I'm sure that it had to be one of our friend's most memorable birthdays. As the name of our town implies, in Celebration we really know how to celebrate those old-age milestones. Thank goodness that my husband and I both passed our latest ones last year, so we're safe for a decade.

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