In late summer I was planning a vacation weekend with a friend who lived in Connecticut. We were participating in the annual New London Sail Fest Art Exhibit and Carnival held on the long July 4th holiday along the New London waterfront. This celebration drew summer crowds from all over to enjoy the ocean, the carnival, the food, the fireworks, and the myriads of vendors and wares that would line New London’s Bank Street all Saturday and Sunday. I was looking forward to a weekend of fun and activity, but also dreading all the work I knew was ahead.
Partially sponsored by the Hygienic Art Society, which signed up fifty-two artists and artisans to participate, that year it had grown so large that the city had to completely close off both Bank and State streets to provide enough room for all the vendor tents that would be set up, and then re-routed traffic for the entire weekend.
As a writer/photographer from the Boston area, I wouldn’t have considered my photographic repertoire to be anything to take on the road, let alone display at an out of state Art Show, but that year everything changed. My friend is an accomplished painter and photographer from the area, with a gallery in New London, and she invited me down to both visit and join her Sail Fest exhibit. She already had a tent and a reserved space and encouraged me to bring my photos down and display them with hers. It was quite the honor.
Suddenly every spare minute was taken up with polishing the glass on my framed pictures, and shopping for mattes and frames for the unframed ones. Then they were all carefully packed for traveling and I headed off for Connecticut on Friday night.
When I arrived, my friend was also in a flurry of last minute preparations, knowing we would have to set up early the next morning. Fortunately, everything seemed to fall into place just as we were about to succumb to starvation. Hollow-eyed and dragging, we decided to drive into the downtown to scope out the scene and find a place to eat. We left the quiet suburbs for the now-bustling city of New London, normally reminiscent of a quiet eclectic little village with more than the average number of large art galleries, and little antique shops tucked into every available space.
Tonight the area was mobbed with traffic jockeying for parking, people laughing and singing in the streets, groups gathered on sidewalks and near apartment doorsteps enjoying the comfortable summer night, and loud music and noise from every sort of entertainment in our ears the moment we approached the waterfront area.
In spite of the long walk it promised, my friend knew a parking space would be impossible to find downtown, so she headed directly for her art gallery where she had parking privileges. She tucked her car in a corner and we took off walking nearly across town to get to the water’s edge. From the number of other walkers, it was clear that many others probably had the same idea.
We hoped for a seafood dinner in the area where the Sail Fest vendors would set up the next morning. Along Bank Street, about a 20-minute walk from where we parked, was a wonderful restaurant called Lobsters On The River. Their street floor entrance led us down a long hall and right out to the back onto their second floor balcony overlooking the harbor. In spite of a good-sized crowd, we were quickly seated right at the railing, eye-to-eye with the carnival Ferris wheel about 100 yards away that was set up right along the waterfront, and with a perfect view of the water just beyond.
The warm ocean air wafted over us while the activity in the street below was non-stop entertainment and filled with the contagious activity of most street fairs. Pairs of helmeted police rode their motorbikes around down below continuously, stopping periodically to observe the surroundings. Dusk was gathering and the lights on the carnival rides lit up the waterfront, while music seemed to emanate from everywhere, including the passing autos. We sipped ice coffees and determined to catch up on the news–we hadn’t seen each other for months.
After barely a few sentences, the local commuter train arrived right on schedule, with horn blasting and engines roaring (see photo) – right along its strategically located tracks between our balcony and the carnival. It was so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves think, let alone talk – all we could do was dissolve into laughter.
When the train passed, we started again and began planning how we would set up in the morning, but within moments it seemed, another train came through with the same decibel embellishment, and with a look of helplessness, we became just spectators again. After a third such episode barely ten minutes later, with knowing glances, we just took our coffees and moved inside. Our seats at the railing were grabbed up before we had moved more than a few feet away.
The waitress arrived with menus so full of delectable options, it was hard to choose from. We ended up ordering two dinners to share, a truly giant lobster salad, and huge bowl of steamed clams, with an additional large side Caesar salad. They arrived in such healthy proportions, that as hungry as we were, it was hard to think we might even finish them. We quickly divvied them up and dug in – savoring every bite and managing to actually maintain a reasonable conversation in between. I confess to feeling a little weak beforehand and realized strong coffee on an empty stomach may not have been the best idea, but the weakness quickly left as the lobster and clams made their way home and settled in for a nap.
Our lovely and attentive waitress, Grace, was amazing. No one eating in the most expensive of restaurants had better service than she afforded us that night. When finished, we were glad for the long leisurely walk back to the car in the warm evening air and hoped it might be working off some of that wonderful seafood repast. As we drove out of the city, we saw that hundreds of cars had materialized out of nowhere and were parked end-to-end along both sides of the empty main road we had driven in on. It was clear everyone was gearing up to be early for the next day’s festivities.
Later back at home, even sleeping on the well-used living room futon, I knocked right out and slept like a baby, anxious to get up the next morning and see what Sail Fest had to offer.
On Saturday morning, we set out with our gear and artwork to locate our reserved spot to set up our tent. It was almost an exercise in futility finding the reserved parking for exhibitors, and then navigating from there to our assigned location to set up both the tent and our exhibit materials, but after many more foot-trips, we managed to lug everything to the site.
Our tent took both of us to carry and set up. After positioning it, the roof popped up and we only had to get it to its proper height. Then came the fun part-setting up the table, our deck chairs, and tying up four wooden lattice frames across the back of the tent with tie-wraps. Once that was done, we arranged and hung our photos for display on the latticework.
The stiff ocean breezes, although welcome during the heat of the day, challenged every effort we made from morning until evening. When not concentrating on securing the tent against the wind, we were able to make a few sales and enjoy wonderful interactions with the crowd and the other vendors whose tents were near our own.
Wendy, the face painter in the tent beside us, entertained us with her amazing painted faces on children, so like those of the Broadway play Cats (see photo). Her kind heart touched us as so many of the attending crowd brought their dogs, perhaps without realizing how difficult it might be to keep their canine friends comfortable in that heat. Wendy had brought a metal bowl and jugs of water to take care of those issues for every dog that passed by.
Our first day was exhausting but rewarding. An Asian restaurant on the Bank Street sidewalk just behind us set up their vendor tent right in front of their doorway and afforded us a wonderful lunch of barbecue chicken and noodles on Saturday – and kept us drooling most of the day from all the scents of their delicious concoctions wafting right out their door and in the back of our tent. But in the late afternoon as the crowds thinned, we began disassembling our displays, took down our photos, and lugged the artwork, table, chairs, and miscellany back to the car many blocks away – only the tent and lattice stayed overnight. We were tired and glad to head for home, even though we would be coming right back in a few hours to check on the tent and watch the fireworks.
At home, we broiled a couple of steaks on the grill and had them with a large salad – sans the avocado that my friend’s large dog eye-balled and snatched off the counter when I wasn’t looking. It had all been great fun and the next day promised to be a repeat performance.
After eating though, fatigue hit us both. We still dragged ourselves to the car afterward and headed back into town, but after seeing the hundreds of parked cars along the bridges and every street along the way into New London, it didn’t take much to persuade us that we should just give up and call it a night. We did a quick U-turn and headed back toward home, watching the beginnings of a spectacular fireworks display out the car windows, and finally in the rear view mirror. We had every intention of taking advantage of our decision and making it an early night, but then we ended up talking until nearly Midnight before collapsing into bed.
The dog woke us both early on Sunday, so I began making tuna sandwiches to take with us while my friend packed up the car. After seeing to both canine needs and our own, we started off for our second day of Sail Fest. This time we used our Vendor Pass to drive directly through the blocked areas to bring our exhibit art to our tent site, instead of walking it in as we had the day before. The crowds were thicker on Sunday and the sea breezes were stiffer. With our pictures, some as large as 2′ X 3′, attached to the latticework along the back of our tent, it almost made the tent act like a large sail. At times, wind gusts almost lifted the tent right off the ground. Much of the day we spent trading off holding things down.
Thousands of lookers stopped in to gaze and talk and took our cards and offered praise, asking about photographic content and technique. My friend sold a number of her prints and photo postcards since she was a resident and had many scenic pictures of the local beaches and hot spots. My large bright photos brought many admirers, but they apparently provided less appeal to buyers than local landscapes and I sold little. The general crowd included observers looking for bargains rather than art lovers. Most of the art lovers we met turned out to also be painters and photographers who dropped by just to look and comment on the interesting angles or colors of our work, rather than to buy.
We took turns watching the tent (and holding it down) to allow each other to do sight-seeing along the streets, observing the many vendors with decorative T-shirts, racks of brightly colored cotton clothing, and jewelry of all sorts. Native American arts were displayed everywhere, and were complemented by modern Native American music that wafted through the air. And there was food everywhere, although we were disappointed that the Asian barbecue was conspicuously missing. But it was Sunday, and other cultures are often more serious in observing their Sabbath than Americans. Fortunately, we had our tuna sandwiches and some lemonade..
On the downtown green half a mile away, a band had set up. The Hygienic Art Center had another band in front of their building on the common. The musicians traded off during the weekend, so there was always music no matter where you were. Along the other end of Bank Street where we were located, a tent across from us provided impromptu base and guitar contributions on Saturday, with Gunner & Friend singing folky songs with harmony. On Sunday, the Native American band delighted everyone with drums and dancing flute music.
By afternoon, the sea breezes had increased and almost reached gale pitch, forcing many vendors to pack up and retreat before they lost their tents and their wares. We decided to do likewise, but got a sudden influx of people into our tent at just that moment. As they gathered around in a last minute buying frenzy, neither of us was holding the tent down and in one quick blast, the wind ripped one of the lattice panels completely off and there was the sound of a small explosion that brought people running from everywhere. My 2′ X 3′ photo of a dew-drop covered Peach Iris that had caught many people’s attention, had been attached to the top of the thin lattice panel that fell, and this picture took the brunt of the impact – but when we lifted the panel, it was perfectly intact, only the glass had broken – and contained by the frame, it had not scattered so as to be dangerous.
Many bystanders and other vendors rushed to our aid and helped us reseat the tent legs in our cinder blocks and move everything back into position. Wendy-the-face-painter’s husband from the next tent came over with a broom and cardboard and kindly helped us clean up the broken glass. Others gathered about supportively, chatted pleasantly, and each lent their weight at the corner poles to hold things down while we cleaned up. In moments, it was like nothing had happened, but that particular photo was no longer saleable. I removed it from the frame and offered the bright Iris print to Wendy for their help and she seemed delighted to have it .
Then to top things off, we were offered some delicious ice cream, and that definitely took the bite out of the mini-disaster. In the aftermath, we all managed to simultaneously hold the tent down in the warm whipping wind and enjoy the ice cream, laughing about the weekend, and vowing never to enter another wind-prone outdoor event.
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