San Gennaro Festival

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It’s my 25th birthday and I’m walking, seemingly aimlessly (although I know what awaits, just not exactly where) through the streets of lower Manhattan with my longtime best friend Rachel. We spend red lights at crosswalks breathlessly catching up on each others’ lives as we do every few months or so. A little drunk and tired from an afternoon excursion at Eataly, Mario Batali’s indoor Italian marketplace, has left me lethargic but eager and hungry for a real meal. A left turn here, a right turn there– watch out for the taxi!….and enter San Genarro Festival on Mulberry Street in Little Italy.

85th Annual San Gennaro Festival, NYC 2011

This is the 85th year of the festival, but my first time here and it’s surreal. The fest goes on for blocks and blocks, with overhead Christmas lights twinkling under a spread of endless red green and white booths. The first order of business is to make a lap, take it all in, and THEN commit to a food.

Enjoying some spicy sausage

Booth after booth of sausage and pepper stands greet me. Someone is mincing fresh garlic in infomercial-like fashion on a serrated clay plate; the smell intoxicates me. When my friend Rachel inquires how long the booth will stay open, as to not make any serious monetary commitments at this exact moment, the woman says they will shut down earlier than the normal 11 p.m. “The crowd gets drunk and rowdy. We don’t like dealing with them.” A spread of jewelry, black light t-shirt and gelato stands later, Rachel and I commit to a hot Italian sausage sandwich with peppers, onions and broccoli rabe. It’s magnificent and everything I’d hoped for out of the iconic Little Italy.

No street fair is complete without shenanigans. Rachel grabs me by the hand and pulls me into a nook I recognize as a make-shift salon alongside a gelato stand. Perplexed at first, it dawns on me that her and I would soon be donning feather hair extensions. After about 10 minutes and a painless experience, her and I both walk away from the stand with eccentric, cute feather strands hanging from our heads, thanks to our friend the gelato scooper. These Italians really are a jack of all trades.

Kept alive through a miracle of science

While perusing the many booths and taking the scene in, Rachel and I discover what is practically the coolest thing I’ve ever seen: A real, live freak show exhibit. You can’t make this stuff up. Signs are plastered all around a Winnebago trailer advertising 50 cent looks at the incredible, living headless woman. We absolutely could not pass it up! Admission paid to the freaky carnie, her and I glide our way through the turnstile, eager for our look at the headless woman. Signs warn, “Oxygen in use- No smoking!” and we are stunned to see a real, live headless woman. “Is she a robot?” we wonder until she moves so realistically we are convinced she really is a living, breathing? headless woman. No one said any of this would make sense.

Our next stop is a stint watching a tribute to the Rat Pack perform. Frank Sinatra is on stage doing his best rendition of “Summer Wind” while Sammy Davis Jr. dances nearby. A slightly drunk Dean Martin flubs his way through some classics and  Sammy is a little tone deaf, but it makes the experience that much more authentically fun and hilarious. Rachel and I sway back and forth in our chairs, dreaming of the old days we didn’t even live through, intoxicated by Italian love songs and Old Blue Eyes’ charm. Rachel gets pulled on stage for a duet with Frank and does a bit of a dance number, making her a few bucks from pleased audience members.

We leave and take the money Rachel made tap-dancing her way through unknown lyrics to buy an assortment of cannolis. We stroll down Mulberry street watching couples arm in arm, passing the best authentic Italian restaurants in the city, if not country, eating our pistachio cannolis and talking of old times together. We’re having fun. The merriment abounds and San Gennaro Festival is everything I’d hoped it to be.

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