Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An Azalea Festival Field Guide

Every year since 1948, Wilmington hosts the North Carolina Azalea Festival.  What in the world is the Azalea Festival?  Well, it’s a big ol’ party for a plant that is drop-dead gorgeous for about three weeks of the year and looks like a dull, overgrown weed for the 49 left.  Mind you, the Festival Folk take great pains to hold the party during those three precious weeks so attendees don’t stand around wondering what the big fuss is all about.

If a person grows up in Wilmington, chances are very high that they have had at least some part in the Azalea kerfluffle at some point in time.  There’s a parade, a garden party, concerts, street fair and all sorts of other activities and it seems to get bigger every year. 

As for Yours Truly, I don’t think I missed a parade for the first eighteen years of my life and I even rode in one of the floats once.  I donned the hoop skirt of an Azalea Belle when I was sixteen and there’s even a picture of me wearing the full kit on a cover of the old Scene Magazine (don’t bother seeking it out).  My mother ran the ticket office for around three years, so I worked there and also got some darned good seats for a couple of the concerts.  I’ve attended more garden parties than you could shake one of those often served cornbread sticks at—could we get a new caterer, please? 

When I was little, I was enamored of the queens and their sparkly tiaras and the beautiful parade floats that seemed to glitter in the sun.  All of the pageantry, pink and fluff is very much catered to a little girl’s taste.  When I got older, I most heartily appreciated all of the events that excused me from school and I enjoyed the concerts and street fair and such.  Of course, when I grew into an adult, the extra crowds and traffic caused by the festivities simply made me irritable—even more irritable than average.

Suffice it to say that I’ve been around the block—or parade route as the case may be—plenty of times when it comes to the Azalea Festival.  What kind of hostess would I be if I didn’t offer a few pointers to lead the rookies safely into the fray and out to the other side?

The way I see it, the tackling the Azalea Festival breaks down into three main components:  (1)  The crowds;  (2) outdoor activities;  and (3)  the concerts.

You might as well go ahead and start your deep breathing exercises or confer with your Jedi Master so you don’t fall prey to the Dark Side of the Force.  The crowds are going to test your fortitude.  Wilmington’s population doubles at the time of the Festival which still pretty much means that 99.9% of the folks don’t know where in the hell they’re going—there’s just more of them.  One must be prepared to protect oneself on foot or in a vehicle.

When it comes to the crowds teeming around the parade, street fair, beach and various parks and gardens, there’s no point in trying to be in a hurry or even on time.  Also, you know those kid leashes that non-parents find so offensive until they actually become parents and then they wonder if making the collar electric would be a touch much?  You’re gonna need several.  Obviously, the kid needs theirs, but I often find that shepherding groups of people through events such as this bears a troubling resemblance to herding cats.  You’re way past ready to leave, but hubby wandered off to the antique cars and grandma took an interest in the craft tent where the lady makes the weird-assed dolls out of nude colored pantyhose. 

Everybody who expects to ride home in your car gets a leash.  No exceptions, no excuses.

Additionally, if you have the ways and means to obtain a cattle prod, I’ve often found myself wishing for one during numerous Azalea festivities such as the street fair and the parade.  It’s a personal choice, but something to consider.

Now, when it comes to actually being able to drive home—or anywhere for that matter—the same rules regarding not bothering to be in a hurry apply.  When you are out on the roads, it is best to assume that everyone in front of you, behind you or beside you is from out of town.  Lane demarcations, stop signs, stop lights and pretty much any rule regarding the safety of the roadways do not apply.  Folks will slam on brakes out of nowhere, make a sudden right turn across two lanes of traffic, attempt three-point turns slap in the  middle of I-40—you name it. 

I would like to suggest that someone invent removable rubber inner tubes for full sized cars.  Navigating Azalea Festival gridlock could be so much more fun if you could play bumper cars.

If you don’t think you can hack the crowds, there’s no shame in it.  Just do what any good Wilmingtonian does for hurricanes and the Fourth of July:  Go and buy a week’s worth of groceries and then go home, lock your doors, close your blinds and don’t come out until the All Clear.

Teeming hordes aside (actually watching a couple of zombie flicks would probably give you a leg up as well), there are a few other little pointers that might help an azalea newbie when it comes to the outdoor venues. 

As far as the parade and the street fair go, blinders for the kiddies certainly come in handy.  Nine times out of ten, the whole reason you find yourself wandering among the throngs is for the benefit of the little stinkers, but there are pitfalls. 

Of course you want the munchkins to see the circus elephants and the Baby Belles always love the tiaras and sparkly dresses on the pageant beauties, but those darned junk traders that carry their overpriced wares precariously stacked upon shopping carts are landmines.  Yep, those kids see the cheap plastic, flashing lights and cotton candy and you’re suddenly doused in silly string, carrying laser swords and chasing after precious pumpkins who have just been infused with high octane sugar.  It can happen so fast that you don’t even know what hit you:  Uncle Ethan still isn’t sure how Baby Belle 1 managed to talk him into buying an inflatable Batman at the parade last year...upon interrogation, he testified that everything “was just a blur.”

In addition to the blinders for the parade, I can only suggest that you lug your entire wardrobe with you to camp out on the parade route.  Why?  Well, you have to be up and at the scene at the crack of dawn if you want a good seat and, at that point, temperatures are positively Arctic.  Of course, as the day wears on, the sun comes up and you’re suddenly sizzling on the sidewalk like a piece of bacon.  It would be at that point you might want to shed the ski bibs and parka and opt for the tank top and SPF 1000 sunscreen.

The Azalea Festival concerts used to be a lot of fun.  I say used to because I used to get good seats with my nepotistic connection.  The truth is that, if you’re forced to sit more than ten rows away from the act, you better bring your damn iPod because that’s the only way you’re going to hear any music.  Trask Coliseum is an acoustic black hole.  It is where sound goes to die.  It is not, never has been and never will be a venue for anything other than basketball.  Scott and I went to see Al Green a few years back and we couldn’t even tell what songs he was playing.  It was horrible and the price of the tickets was highway robbery as it was.  

If one adheres to these instructions, there is every reason to believe that one will see the dawn of Monday morning.  Welcome to the club.  The hazing will commence shortly. 

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