Sixty pounds of throw beads sounds like a lot until you get to the last six blocks of the parade. That's when "the eyes" come out. No one should have to endure the eyes of a child who just witnessed another small person scoop up a necklace from the sidewalk and giddily try it on.
"Where's mine?" the eyes say. "I'm the next one?"
That shit hurts.
I'll say this for the 2014 Willy Street Parade: It started right on time. Very un-Willy-like. When I got the "go" at 11 a.m. sharp from Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center executive director Gary Kallas, I thought something was wrong. Like the parade was canceled or something. Then the Wacky Wheel guy careened around the corner and rumbled up Paterson Street. Game on.
Sixty pounds of mix-color throw beads cost $73 plus shipping. I bought them from a wholesaler in Baton Rouge. They arrived in two cheesy cheese-colored vinyl carrying cases. Each case filled with bundles of 50 or so necklaces bound together by a stapled paper band.
The paper loop helps keep them from getting tangled. Helps, not prevents. The slightest fumble binds the necklaces together like last year's Christmas lights. You don't want to throw a knot of necklaces to a crowd. Totally amateur.
Still, they do get tangled, and detangling added to the pressure, the immense pressure, as we rolled through the crowded parade route in our '65 Beetle. Tossing beads off a float is one thing. Tossing them while operating a 4-speed in a vintage Bug with three in the front, including our nephew Billy dressed as a pirate poking his head through the sunroof, is another.
Billy's butt was in my face. "Go!" he said. Then, "Stop!" Peggy was next to him in a long blond hippie wig. "Stay in the middle!" she shouted. Two backseat drivers in the front. Although I tried, the directions were as hard to ignore as Peggy in that wig, which I was kind of hoping she'd keep on for that night.
We've been doing the parade for years, and it never fails. The first half we're throwing out giant handfuls of beads. When we get to the home stretch, we run low. What is it about Americans and our love of catching free stuff? We'd push each other out of the way to catch a moldy loaf of Wonder Bread as long as someone shot it out of a T-shirt cannon.
A guy with a creepy smile and dressed as a trout swam past us when we rounded the corner onto Jenifer Street. It was all first-gear driving: coming to a stop, then rolling again, and I could smell the clutch heating up.
Mercifully, this was a sparsely populated stretch. Dread Pirate Billy continued to point the way with his plastic sword, while Peggy and I broke open new bead bags like Civil War soldiers in their ammo box.
Up ahead, there was a big gap between us and Wacky Wheeler. The grinning trout guy filled it in, a little, flippering back and forth across Jenifer. But it was too much space for Trout to fill on his own and, freshly loaded, we lurched forward.
The corner of South Ingersoll and Jenifer is usually packed, and this year was no exception. I draped a hundred necklaces on my arm and began to toss with abandon. Trout's giant tail swiped across the windshield, and because of this I shanked a handful. They landed right in front of the car, and kids flooded out into the street and disappeared below the Beetle's front hood.
Jeez. This was getting dangerous. Damn fish. I shifted the Bug out of gear and made a solemn oath to run over Trout when we got to the bottom of the hill.
The Willy Street Parade is LSD for laymen. The sun this year strobed through the canopy of elms and oak, spotlighting children dressed as Wild Thing Max, dogs wearing tutus and ponytailed old hippies dressed as themselves smiling through real flashbacks.
When we hit the final stretch of Willy Street, it was clear: We weren't going to have enough bead power to get through. Peggy furiously untangled. On both sides of the car, right out the windows, the hungry masses in their grabbing frenzy turned the experience of driving down Willy into a scene from The Walking Dead. I was trying to stave them off. Throwing one and two necklaces at a time. Pitiful.
Desperate, we rolled to a stop. Peggy and I felt around through the pile of empty plastic bags on the floor. Ha! A couple full bags emerged, and we were back in business.
The finish line, the Wisco tavern, never looked so good. We filled up the final row of outstretched hands as best as we could. Then we took a slow right onto Paterson Street, away from the colors and noise of Willy, and I could already feel the coming grayness of the Wisconsin winter.