PO1_JackCallahann and I recently returned from Dickens on the Strand, the premier Victorian Festival in Galveston, TX. As many of you probably are remotely aware, Galveston is a barrier island an hour south of Houston, a city known for its smog, delusions of grandeur, and being one hour north of Galveston, a barrier island which is the roundabout subject of my report. The island was ravaged by one of the several hurricanes that's been going to town on the entire Southeast of North America. Driving through the streets, it was surreal to see the lawns and streets cleared of rubble, but one out of every five buildings visibly scarred, their fronts gutted and collapsed. The several grand Victorian mansions scattered around the island, however, seemed to have survived, including the Bishop's Palace, which is something every one of you needs to see at least once.
The Strand, itself, is Galveston's historic district. I have many fond memories of visits with my family both in winter for the Dickens on the Strand celebration, and in summer for a generic vacation to the beach. My skintone has yet to evolve beyond "pasty," however, barely clearing "radioactive" and "necrotic" thanks to a few scattered freckles, but that's beside the point. Quaint stores that seemed to have remained unchanged for a good century used to open up onto the street with musty scents of forgotten cultures. My particular favorite was a bookstore that was utterly untouched by the mind-numbing convenience of the soulless corporations. I used to find all manner of obscure texts to pretend I could understand while sitting in the luxurious chairs and playing with the iconic and affectionate bookstore cats. After that, you could just walk down the street to the most legitimate ice cream parlor you've ever seen for the most legendary root beer you can drown your tongue in.
I didn't get a chance to check on the status of any of those places from my youth (Don't worry: I'm sure the bookstore cats are just fine.) but at least one street of the Strand was intact enough to be purposeable, and the festival soldiered on in the face of it all, even with half the standard amount space to work with. Previously, vendors made do with the cross streets as all of the storefronts were wide open, ready to usher in eager spendthrifts. This year, however, almost all the storefronts were closed, so the vendors took up residence in front of them.
The smell of a widely varied cuisine of overpriced, infinite variations on the food-on-a-stick recipe taunted us as we made our rounds, and ultimately we had to give in. Before that, however, we were able to sample the gamut of performers. The crowd favorites were all there, including the extremely talkative sword-swallower who made you laugh with every sentence, the band of bagpipe players (and requisite drummer) who drew a crowd no matter where they went, the people's favorite pirate band who sang "everyone's favorite song," Johnny Jump-Up complete with forcing members of the audience to participate in a synchronized dance routine, a children's choir from some local school, caroling Girl Scouts, and a pair of underdogs who never seemed to be able to hold a crowd. The lattermost appealed to the two of us, however, being San Antonio natives, so we took pity on them and laughed at their jokes, even after hearing them a second time. A common thread of all the performers that they made sure we didn't forget was the fact that they eschewed the normal demand for payment from the Galveston Historical Association, and were giving all of the money they pulled in from the audience after the show to the same Association.
I don't believe the vendors were in as a generous mood, however. All manner of overpriced-due-to-being-hand-made arts and crafts were represented, including crude-looking (but fully functional) ocarinas and flutes, drums, those massive tube things whose names only Australians can properly pronounce (though I'm pretty sure it starts with a D and ends with an "-idgeridoo"), and at the same shop, giant blankets with anachronistic Celtic-looking designs and modern, pointy Tribal prints to fill in the empty spaces. There were Venetian-inspired masks that were a solid "lovely" on the scale of "nice" to "the most ridiculously gorgeous inanimate objects created by human hands." There was only one shop that sold anything that might be remotely considered a full outfit, and most of it wasn't worth a second look, however the shops that sold individual elements (mostly hats) had some rather exquisite offerings... if you happen to be a woman of the female persuasion, that is.
Beyond the commercial aspects, however, I found the true joy of the festival to be interactions in character. There was a sizable camp of Confederate soldiers from a group of local re-enactors (who my character, being a Southern gentleman, made sure to properly encourage), plenty of regulars with very impressive outfits, and many people who were doing their best to contribute with various tuxedo pieces and the judicious application of corsets and pirate apparel. In addition, there was a group of regulars with a fleet of high-wheel bicycles and other obscure Victorian methods of personal conveyance who were offering rides to anyone brave enough, and of course there were police officers on pedestals at every intersection ready to wave their wands menacingly at anyone who looked like they were the trouble-making type. Speaking of, the local drama school sends out several of its students to dress in rags and bother people in various ways under beggar personas. I'm inclined to say they were the most fun, but that's probably just because I danced with a particularly fetching one in front of some hippies with peace sign-emblazoned drums. Everyone reacted appropriately when my hat was doffed in their general direction and the Southern boisterousness was brought to bear, and much fun was had both in and out of character. That said, there were no other steampunks present, which brings this dossier to its foregone conclusion:
Our Texan ilk need desperately to rally and invade events such as these in force, not only to support the reconstruction efforts of Galveston, but also to spread awareness of our culture to people who are already in close proximity. Where others see young men and women decking themselves out in Victorian clothes one day out of the year I see steampunks waiting to be shown the way and given permission to take it to the next level. Ideally, I'd like to see a moving booth in which we demonstrate our craft, sell hand-made goggles, clockwork toys, and paraphernalia and teach glassy-eyed youths to make their own from our bins of sprockets, gears, leather straps and brass tubes.
Sailing away at the end of the day in our own personal airship may be a bit too much to ask, though...