Friday, December 23, 2005

Wall to Wall

It's the night before Christmas Eve, and downtown Celebration is wall to wall people! I don't think I've ever seen it so crowded, even on the Fourth of July.

I've been taking a walk almost every evening since the nightly snowfalls began. It gives me an excuse to burn a few calories hiking from East Village to Market Street, and it gives me a daily dose of the Christmas spirit. So far, the crowds have been big on the weekends, but they dwindle down on weekdays.

Tonight, I was aiming for the 8 p.m. snowfall (the soapy "snow" is sprayed onto the street every hour from 6 to 9 p.m.). I left home at 7:30, intending to get a peppermint mocha coffee at Barnie's before I watched the snow on Market Street. As I hiked downtown, I enjoyed the Christmas lights adorning so many of the houses. In the distance, I could hear the whistle of the NEV train and a low hum of distant voices.

As I approached the coffee shop, I could see that the crowd was larger than usual. I popped into the Barnie's courtyard...and stopped cold. The line stretched all the way back to the door! There was no way I could get a drink and make it to the 8 p.m. snowfall. With that mass of bodies in front of me, I would have been lucky to make it by 9 p.m.

Reluctantly, I decided to forgo my coffee, so I headed down Front Street along the lake. I noticed that Sherlock's had set up a refreshment table, with hot cocoa as one of their offerings, and mecifully there was no line. I got a steaming cup of cocoa topped with whipped cream and marshmallows. It tasted so good in the chilly night air! Cup in hand, I maneuvered towards Market Street...and once again I was in for a shock. The people were lined up wall to wall; I've never seen such a crowd in Celebration! I doubt you could have shoe-horned another body in. Usually I take up a position behind the snow machines so I get a good view of the merriment, but I decided not to wedge my way into the mass of humanity. Instead, I observed from a safe perch on the Front Street curb.

I was rather surprised that Front Street hadn't been closed to traffic from Barnie's to the Columbia Restaurant. That wouldn't have cost much parking space, since most of the curbside area was already blocked off for the trolley, NEV train, and horse-drawn carriages. But the street was open to traffic, which made for some compelling entertainment that rivaled the snowfall itself.

On the street, there was an ongoing battle between bedazzled pedestrians and lost drivers. The tourists on foot regularly stepped out in front of cars without hesitation. They were dazed by the hypnotic powers of the soapy snow, which instantly put them into a zombie-like state and drew them out into the road with no regard for oncoming vehicles.

Technically, drivers should yield to pedestrians in the downtown crosswalks. Unfortunately, most of the drivers were either a) completely lost ("Dang it, Mabel, it's snowin' over yonder. I thought we were supposed to be in Florida!"; or b) under the delusion that they might actually find a parking spot within five miles of the downtown area. Thus, they were either totally unsympathetic to the people on foot or else their eyes were too glazed over to notice the vulnerable bodies stepping in front of their cars.

Some of the cars appeared repeatedly like the loop from "The Truman Show." I could imagine the thoughts of the poor slobs inside them, caught in an endless drive to nowhere. After their fifth round of Front Street, some of them probably figured they had died without realizing it and gone to their own version of Hell, which was circling Celebration in the midst of a mob scene searching for a non-existent parking spot for all eternity.

Although there were some close calls, fortunately no one was run over (or at least not in the time I was downtown). I watched the soapsuds engulf the eager crowd as scratchy music blared overhead. It was a little sad to realize that the phenomenon will be over in another couple of days. After Christmas, the nightly blizzards cease, so I'll have to find a new form of entertainment.

Finally I tore myself away from the scene, since I needed to get home in time to finish up some work. Since I am a night owl, I do a lot of my travel agency phone calls and paperwork in the evening.

The downtown decorations, the music, and even the mob scene had put me into a Christmasy mood. It was being reinforced by the colorful array of lights and decorations on the houses as I headed back to East Village. Unfortunately, my mood was shattered by the sight of graffiti on a sidewalk. Ugh! I know that Celebration isn't Stepford, but those little doses of reality are still an unpleasant shock.

When we visited Celebration for the very first time, I was struck by how clean and tidy it was. That's one of the reasons that I think of it as Duloc; the first time that I saw downtown, it was as pristine as the main street in Farquaad's village. The only thing missing was a passel of puppets singing, "Celebration is the perfect place." The streets and parks and boardwalks were eerily immaculate, too.

Now, I notice the little imperfections, like trash tossed along the walkways and floating in the lakes or grafitti on the buildings, signs and sidewalks. I'm not sure if it's because the upkeep of the town has diminished over the past three years or if I'm just so familiar with Celebration that I notice the little details now. I suspect that it's a combination of both. But after reveling in the holiday atmosphere, it was a definite letdown to see the paint-sullied sidewalk.

Happily, as I drew closer to home, I noticed something that restored my cheery mood. As I walked past the East Village swimming pool, I could hear children's voices lifted in song nearby. Across the street was a group of young carolers, going door to door to serenade the neighborhood.

I thought back to the last time I'd ever seen carolers. I was only about four years old and was visiting my aunt's house. Her home was a typical Chicago bungalow, but to me, in my youthful inexperience, it was wildly luxurious because she had two whole bathrooms (with clear bars of soap, which I found endlessly fascinating), a big front porch, and a pool table in the basement. It must have been around Christmas because carolers came knocking at her door. I had never seen such a thing, and I oogled in fascination as they sang for us on that cold Chicago night.

Now, nearly four decades later, it was over a thousand miles away and decidedly warmer, but I was hearing the voices of carolers once again. It was such a nice little homey thing; my annoyance at the trash and the vandalism melted away as I was reminded of the good things in Celebration. There's no place I'd rather call home.

Merry Christmas or Happy Whatever You Celebrate to everyone!

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