The Berlin Fair
There are benefits to growing up in a little town over the big city. You have lots of grass and trees, and you can play baseball at one of the town's many fields or football in the street in the winter, and there's ponds and streams and woods to get lost in and tall hills to throw rocks at cars from. There's gravel pits and swamps and quicksand... OK, probably not quicksand, but there was a marsh past the end of our cul-de-sac that would suck you up to your knees (Adam Carolla has this funny bit about growing up in the '70s because quicksand hysteria was everywhere. If you were a kid in the '70s, Carolla says, you figured you had a 50/50 chance of dying in quicksand). I remember the adventures, the sprawling games of hide and seek that traversed entire neighborhoods and acres of untouched land.
We just bought a house in the hills. A nice house. But like most houses in the San Francisco Bay Area, there isn't much of a yard. We actually got half an acre, which by Bay Area standards is a lot. When Justine was pregnant with Holden, I seriously considered moving us back to the East Coast. But I am a city boy now, even if I remove myself to the hills and look at it from afar.
When I was a kid, there wasn't much to do. Yeah, all those fields and hills are nice now, where childhood takes on the warm nostalgic glow of the Saturday Evening Post, but growing up, it was boring as hell. I couldn't wait to get out, for something...to happen.
The town, Berlin, is different now. Two gas stations are now seven or eight, including the mega Citgo in the center of town. Food Mart used to be the only supermarket; now there's Stop and Shop and Rodgers. Fuck, there's even a goddamn Wal-Mart. The movie theater used to be the Berlin Twin. 99 cents. No shit. 99 cents to see a movie. I remember going after freshman football games with the team and packing the place. They used real butter. We must've watched The Karate Kid half a dozen times. Jesus, everything feels nostalgic now. It's like that last line in Catcher in the Rye, where Holden warns you against writing about people you used to know because you start missing the hell out of them all, even the ones like Robert Ackley that you hated. I miss those friends from my childhood. Great fucking names. American kid names. Jim Case. Michael Piskorski. Jimmy Ahern. Mike Giana. Tracy Bartlett.
We all have our first crush. Mine was Tracy Bartlett. Tracey lived up the block from us. Well, more like over the hill and through the woods, cross the crik and down the rocky embankment. She lived next door to my best friend, Mark Caliandri. Which in rural Connecticut means a good three-quarters of a mile, because you didn't have one house on top of the other like you do out here.
There's a line in High Fidelity about girls. How one day you're hanging out with your buddies, and then the next they're just...there. And they've grown breasts.
Tracy hung around with us, me, Jim Case, Mark, doing goofy kid shit, like throwing snowballs at cars (throwing things at cars was a pretty big pastime in Berlin. Along with crank phone calls). And I never thought much of her, other than she was pretty good at throwing things at cars, because I cared more about baseball and the Yankees back then. Didn't have much time for...girls. And then one day...
Tracy Bartlett was all I thought about. Couldn't get her off my mind. I was twelve.
The big thing in town was the Berlin Fair. An annual event, much hyped. They even let you out of school early, like a national holiday or something. I went to the Berlin Fair when I was visiting back east before my mom died for the first time since I was a teenager. It was like when you go back to your old elementary school or those sledding hills, everything now so small, shrunken. A couple rickety rides, some crappy games, a donut fryer and a pair of sickly ponies. But when I was 12, man, this was a big deal. Like Christmas or summer vacation.
The fair was held the first weekend in October, and for some reason it always rained. Seriously, I went to the Berlin Fair every year until I was sixteen, and it maybe didn't rain once. We always went on Friday, because school was only a half-day. And you could go on Saturday. But never on Sunday. Sunday is when the...out-of-towners came. And by that I mean the Puerto Ricans from New Britain.
The logistics of dating at that age always tripped me out. I mean, you can't drive, so your parents have to drive you around and that's just weird. I already had enough social anxiety. You could meet the girl somewhere. But where? In Berlin, there wasn't much nightlife. No Go-carts or Mini-golf. There was the .99 movie theater and a Friendly's. The Berlin Fair was the perfect date spot.
Now I don't know if Tracy Bartlett "liked" me. Even now I'm not terribly sure. Later on in high school, she was one of most popular and pretty, having "bloomed," and by then I was hanging with the ugly kids in the art room and Tracy was dating some douchebag on the football team. But at 12, she wasn't out of my league yet. I felt like I had a real chance with her, y'know?
I asked Tracy to go with me to the Berlin Fair in 1982. Probably asked her by staring at her shoes and stammering awkwardly. But she said yes, and I was so happy leading up to that year's fair. I saved my money. $40. Which was a lot of money for a twelve-year-old kid in 1982. I don't know how I saved it. I didn't have a paper route like my friend Rich. Probably my mother. But I didn't spend it before the Berlin Fair, which is the important part.
It was raining, because it alway rained at the Berlin Fair. I still remember she wore a blue padded coat with a hood. We went on the Tilt-a-Whirl and ate french fries and donuts, and the place stank like a farm because they had livestock, you know that mix of manure and hay and horses. Bells and whistles rang out with the start of the mechanical horse races and that game where you had to squirt water into a porcelain clown's mouth and blow up a balloon until it popped.
I don't remember what we talked about. I don't think we held hands or anything. I think we laughed about stuff. I remember feeling happy. To me it was a date. And I know it was a date because Tracy Bartlett spent my whole $40. $40 bucks and I didn't even get my hand held. And she blew it all in one pop, too.
There was this game where you had to cover a red circle with five little silver discs. A sucker's bet. Like tossing rings over those damn bottles. Couldn't win. Probably only cost .50 to play, but Tracy couldn't win, and she kept wanting to play more. What can you do when you're a boy in love with a girl? You let her keep playing because you don't want the date to end. As long as you are plopping down the .50, she's next to you, and you are happy. The crisp autumn air, the light rain falling, the sounds of families and kids laughing and rides clanking, and she's next to you, and she smells so nice because she's a girl, and you've got that weird flippy-floppy feeling in your belly making it hard breathe, which should feel bad, but it doesn't. It makes you excited with possibility... Until the money runs out and the night comes, and you can't stop those things... And it's funny how much that pattern would repeat throughout my dating life.
Oh, if I could write like James Joyce, I'd paint you a picture of Araby...