Oak Park was about to celebrate its beloved lecherous literary drunk. I envisioned giddy Junior League ladies squirting wine from leather pouches down the open throats of half-naked young golf caddies. Sweaty brawls breaking out between a dashing matador and a gastroenterologist and a pair of postal workers. Everyone arribaing and oleing and drinking the town dry. Then, at the peak of the debauchery, half a dozen bulls ransacking Lake Street.
I bought a beer from a man mixing sangria and stopped to talk to Bill May, who was sitting on a wall across from the beer truck having a drink. I figured he'd entered the Hemingway look-alike contest the day before and I asked him if he thought he looked like Hemingway.
"No," he said. "I've been told I look like Kenny Rogers." He did, down to the gold watch.
"I can't walk in the park with my beer," he added. "I like to get a beer and walk around. There's a book fair on the other side of the park. I'd like to walk over there with my beer, but we have to keep drinks behind the fence." He meant the mesh fence they'd put around the park.
"What do you think of the festival?" I asked.
"Suburbanites like to have these little parties. I was mowing the lawn the other day, and I kept thinking of that Hemingway quote about Oak Park--a place of 'broad lawns and narrow minds.' I think about it every time I mow the yard. That's the contrast--Hemingway wouldn't be here."
I still had hopes. Weeks earlier I'd finagled an invitation from the festival coordinator to be an official bull pusher. I thought it'd be a hoot. I finished my drink and walked down to the parking lot where the bull pushers were to meet. Lined up in two parking spaces between a Subaru and a Chevrolet were six bulls. Their flanks, made of drywall and chicken wire, were the color of licorice. They were the size of riding mowers, with sturdy handles in the back and training wheels attached with plumbing pipe to the front. They had papier-mache heads, painted red eyes, and horns covered with masking tape. The bowl-shaped hole between the horns was for raffle tickets, I was told. They were all branded with white paint.
The Coffman & Wicklow Design bull was being wired by John Richter. "It's for flashing red eyes," he said. His bull was also rigged to have dry-ice smoke come out its nose. As he slipped down beneath the bull again, Richter said, "It's strange to have a festival for Hemingway considering that he hated Oak Park."
There were about 22 bull pushers that day, most of them bearded men in running shoes. I felt conspicuous in my Hush Puppies. The runners introduced one another with firm handshakes, like buddies meeting for pool after work. Many, many Toms and Tims. We split into fast, medium, and slow groups, with the dry-ice bull as the slowest. People were going to chase our bulls and try to drop raffle tickets in the hole between their horns. I chose the safe middle range. My partners were festival veterans named Bill and Jim. Bill would be the first runner, I would be the second, and Jim the third. "These bulls have knocked people down," someone warned. I was psyched.
Bill and Jim asked if I would like to test our bull, get a feel for his weight, pace, agility. Other people were taking their bulls for a spin around the parking lot and passing them on to the next runner. I took the handles of our bull, lifted the back of its body off the ground, and ran in circles. "Wow, it's so light. It turns on a dime," I said encouragingly. We lined up our bulls at the edge of the lot and waited for the 6 PM horn.
It sounded, and Bill pushed our bull off the curb onto the street. In triangle formation we turned onto Marion, then ran east on Lake. Streamers arched over the crowd, and children pushed into the street. We slowed down as little kids dropped their tickets in the bull. Parents were taking pictures. Before the quarter-mile mark Bill started looking over his shoulder at me, and I realized it was my turn.
He passed the bull in midstride, like a relay runner passing a baton. As I took the handles, the bull veered toward the crowd on the left side of the street. My bull seemed destined to commit random destructive acts. I imagined the masses parting in hysteria, men covering their eyes and women biting their knuckles. We would jump the curb, my bull and I, picking off small children on the sidewalk, scraping car doors with the taped horns, me yelling, "Viva el Hemingway" the whole way.
But we only nearly nipped one excited little girl. I had the bull a total of 30 seconds. I offered it to Jim and apologized.
"Bulls never apologize," Bill said.
I let them jog away, pretending to wait for the slowest bull, then walked over to the bull pen, a small, roped-off area inside the park. Other bull pushers asked me if I'd had fun, but I think they all saw my performance and wondered how I could claim to have done anything, much less had any fun.
The festival coordinator, Scott Schwar, in an official uniform--red scarf tied around his neck in a square knot, white shorts, and a red sash--saw me in the bull pen and asked if I'd like to help Virginia Cassin with the raffle drawing.
Virginia, a retired Oak Park village clerk, was busying herself with raffle technicalities. I drew tickets from the bull heads and called the numbers out to her, and she carefully wrote them next to the corresponding prizes.
I pulled 56.
"Oh, we already have that one," she said. "I don't like to repeat them. I don't think that's fair." Under her breath she asked me to pick another one. Virginia and I would champion the cause of fairness. The lazy bums who dropped all their tickets in one bull would not trick us--tampering with probability would not increase their chances to win more than one prize.
A matador with good posture and shiny shoes appeared next to the bull pen. I asked if he owned his costume.
"No, I rented it from Razzle-Dazzle Costumes." He produced an official Razzle-Dazzle business card from his velvety jacket. "I'm a morning disc jockey," he said. "Bringing you the best of big bands, beautiful voices, and all that jazz." I wrote his slogan on the back of the Razzle-Dazzle card. "I'm also the caretaker at the Hemingway birthplace home," he added.
"Anything eerie happen there?" I asked.
I smiled, not knowing what he meant.
"Are you talking about streets?" he asked.
"No, I'm talking about spirits, poltergeists."
"I'm sorry to say that there are no ghosts." He left to join Virginia in the bull pen.
The soul of the festival did not seem to be in the bulls, the bull pen, the beer truck, or even the matador's pocket. I thought I'd look for it in the freaks, the people so obsessed with Ernest that they actually try to be him. I saw a man with a full gray beard and a round tanned face sitting up on the ledge of a sculpture. I climbed up. "Excuse me. I was just wondering if you think you look like Hemingway."
He turned away and said deliberately, "I think I look just like my wife's husband." And he patted his wife.
I paid four tickets for another beer and sat on the wall outside the park. I turned to a lady wearing a big pink button that said It's a Girl and another that read Homophobia Destroys Families.
"Are you a big Hemingway fan?" I asked.
"No. I have relatives in the area."
"What did you buy?"
"A book about Hemingway?"
"No. I think it's about vampires. I also bought a cassette of East Indian music, some jewelry, baby announcements for my daughter-in-law, and food."
She was on her way home, so I finished my beer and found some police officers. Officer Guttman declared the event "very peaceful."
"Are you a Hemingway fan?"
"So this isn't a thrill for you?"
"Nope. It's just a detail."
Officer Palles said he hadn't had to throw anyone out yet.
The Electric Eels played Hank Williams Jr. covers. Someone turned on the tree lights. Two 11-year-old girls with poodles pointed out the cute boys working in the food tent. I decided to talk to the cute food-tent boys.
Pete was emptying the trash. Being 16 and beardless, he looked nothing like Hemingway. "I volunteered here for my job, and I pretty much do whatever they tell me," he said. "I work at a food place, so I do a lot of food. But right now I'm doing garbage."
"Are you a big Hemingway fan?" I asked.
"I don't like what his heroes stand for. It's such a masculine role. It's not chivalrous, it's brutal. I don't think it's very conducive to learning to tolerate each other. My teacher didn't like Hemingway, so we learned everything bad about him. How he went to the high school and picked up girls after he got out of the army."
I walked back inside the park to see the flamenco dancers and count baby strollers. Eight strollers and three dancers. As the dancers finished up with much stomping and twirling, I waited by the dressing tent with two young girls seeking autographs.
"Do you know who Hemingway is?" one girl said.
"No, but I've heard of him a lot and stuff," said the other.
Officer Palles was tacking caution tape around the tent. "It's like being security for the Stones--you know what I mean?"
Right. The little girls were so devoted to Maya Tatiana the flamenco dancer that they were ready to jump the tape and charge the tent.
I bought some marinated olives and mushrooms and sat on the steps of the park war statue waiting for Hemingway look-alikes and unlikely fans. The crowd had grown. Families and couples were spread out on blankets and lawn chairs in front of the stage. Some just stared at the darkening sky. Little children were catching fireflies, threatening to make other children eat them.
I tried to recapture my original vision. A festival where Bill May would lead a brigade of cute food-tent boys to storm Scoville Park. Where Virginia and the matador would dance in the moonlight. Where the bulls would trample all the beige apparel at the Gap.