Today Frank and I went to the Gilroy Garlic Festival, for the very first time. One of my friends asked, when I told her we were going, “Why?” This is an interesting question.
I lived in San Francisco for 6 years and their festivals have a particular vibe to them. They carry the energy of that city…to me, it’s a bit jittery… a bit hyper (and no, I’m not describing myself pre-natural energy). People dress all sorts of ways, but the predominant color is black. There are usually several people who are noticeably on some sort of drug and/or alcohol. And there’s usually a fight and a hostile argument or two. Many ethnicities and sexual orientations/inclinations are represented. I love hearing all the different languages spoken around me as I’m standing among rows and rows of people, all behind metal barricades. The police are ever present. I’m not sure where the homeless people go during these street festivals…they are probably shooed away. People-watching is just as entertaining as the festival. We’re use to being in tight, cramped spaces – it’s a little big city (over 750,000 people living in just 492 miles, plus all the visitors). And we take care to keep to ourselves, not touching anyone with our bodies or our words. Occasionally, we’ll make friends with the people next to us…but that is not standard city etiquette.
The Gilroy Garlic Festival draws people from the surrounding areas: Gilroy, Watsonville, Hollister, Salinas (typically lower-income areas), as well as the rest of Monterey County and beyond (of course…we were there). The vibe here was mellow. I did not see one intoxicated or drugged-out person, and not one fight or even an argument. There were a lot of families, and a nice ethnic mix. It was pretty hot…but not as hot as it can be, I was told. People congregated under the huge circus tents they had set up for shade, with picnic benches and hay bales to sit on. People generally acknowledged one another and started up conversations with perfect strangers. I was listening to a newly retired military guy who just completed his fourth tour of duty in Iraq. He said it was a piece of cake compared to Afghanistan. Someone asked him how his transition back in the U.S. had been. He didn’t really answer the question; instead he said that crowds like this one still made him nervous. Another young woman invited us to sit down, making room at the table for us. I teased a young girl eating a “funnel cake” topped with powdered sugar, most of which ended up all over her face. These people felt so natural.
When Frank and I found the bandstand…we watched the older folks like us dancing, then went out ourselves. We put our bags down next to a pair of grandparents (our age), who were sitting by their sleeping grandson. They watched our bags when we danced, we watched their grandson when they danced. We had a conversation about where we were from. A 25ish-year-old young man told Frank and me that we “rocked” out there on the dance floor, while giving us the “thumbs up”. Everyone was exceptionally friendly, from the parking lot volunteers, to the shuttle bus drivers, to the vendors, to the policeman, who I asked at the end if he had a good day, to the attendees.
In answer to my friend’s question of why would I go to a garlic festival in Gilroy…it’s to eat some great food, to see original arts and crafts, to listen and dance to good music. But most of all it is to commune with these hard-working people (visitors and vendors alike) who aren’t afraid to start up a conversation with a stranger. Instead of people-watching, we were people-engaging.