Children's dreams are filled with fairy tales both read and imagined: Tree sprites are beings from enchanted forests, elves are colorful pranksters that work in the North Pole. But at the Willy Street Fair, mothers become fairies and dads become pirates.
Of course, Halloween lends itself to this sort of make-believe, but the annual end-of-summer festival on the east side of Madison is without the contrived, pseudo-spooky undertones that taste like cheap chocolate. Walk into any big box store in autumn and you're bombarded with a sensory overload of orange and black; plastic bags of candy are everywhere, sitting next to vibrating goblins that say "Boo!" But there is something marvelous and dreamlike about the Willy Street Fair -- for the make-believe seems real.
Considering how much work precedes the celebration, it's interesting to speculate how small children view the event. What is it like to learn how to juggle with your sisters? What is it like to have stilt-walking a common practice in your family? What is it like to see the guy who lives across the street don his pirate outfit -- again?
Children often ask their parents what it is like to be tall, able to reach shelves and see over the heads of others. At the Willy Street Fair, kids on stilts tower over adults, not to mention cars in the parade and the tents lining the street. Most kids have to go to Disney World to see characters from their favorite stories. At this festival, their own dreams become reality. What must it be like to grow up with this sort of creative freedom? How does that change a child?
As an adult, absorbing the eccentric costumes and small twists on the norm is arresting -- the grandma dressed like a pink fairy; the pregnant woman with a nasal septum piercing standing next to a man in drag; twenty tough lasses on skates making way for a bike-drawn mermaid; the man in an orange wig holding an "End the War!" sign; the guy in pink tights looking at jewelry and a man in traditional African dress beating drums; the woman with the spoon on her back; the gorgeous mother in her green and blue fairy outfit alongside her friend, the walking tree...
Are these the folks that the children of the Willy Street Fair become?
Plain-clothed parents flit about with pensive faces, looking for offspring who have disappeared in the crowd, searching for foodstuffs suitable for their entire brood, or wondering if the bouncy castle is free or not. While there's familial similarities in the bump of a nose, the set of the eyes, the bite of the lip, the analytical contemplation seen in parents' wrinkled brows is never mirrored in the smooth, wide-eyed stares of their children.
For all the fun it might be for adults to mingle at this neighborhood festival, it is the children that seem to benefit most. They needn't care about the political booths pitching for peace; they needn't wonder how much a shirt might cost; they needn't care who is winning the Packers game. They traipse about happy, in an environment of camaraderie and splendor, removed from the digital grind of video games and the judgment of schoolyard bullies. They can be who they want to be and indulge in the imagination.
It's truly lucky to be a child at the Willy Street Fair.