We call it many names. The Feast of the Blessed Sacrament is the official one, the one they've been using for the last hundred years. What exactly that sacrament is I do not know, and do fear to discover. Informally, you might hear of it as the Portuguese Feast and, indeed, in the sea of pressed bodies all named Silva and Correia and Medeiros eating malassadas and cacoila and carne de espeto you'd see the name was accurate. Then there's the Madeira Feast and, yes, that one is just as apt. It's said that the only place in the country, if not the world, that Madeira wine can be transported and served directly from the barrel is this one little spot on this one little weekend. The sweet, sticky, fortified wine is overflowing from little plastic cups and spilling onto the grounds, onto your feet and legs, and if you were an amateur and wore sandals the only cure for what we call Feast Feet is amputation. The mixture of pork grease and candy-like wine and sweat and filth will cake onto you and harden and that spoil knows no fear. It is part of you now. Finally, for those of us whom attendance on at least one of its four days in this first weekend of August it is simply called The Feast. It is the only one.
My humble apartment is what could be called prime real estate, this weekend. It's far enough away to remain unaffected by the rowdiest foot and vehicular traffic and close enough to walk. On Sunday, the parade will march at the end of my block. I like to invite people by before a stroll down the street for a few reasons. One, my ten dollar bottle of Madeira wine is better than the $8 7oz cup down there, and two, if you want to meet a friend there you will not find them among the throng of bodies. Unless of course, as in my case, your friends are extraordinarily tall seasoned alcoholics that you can pick out out of the crowd around the Madeira Hut.
Your first order of business is to stand in a fifteen to twenty minute line to have your ID scanned and wrist band printed. Each of these has a unique bar code and I find this disconcerting for the sheer fact that they assume they might have to scan one in order to find out who the deceased is. After the wrist band you find another irritated line of people waiting at hilariously unreliable ticket machines that are constantly running dry of the precious little gold drink vouchers. You stand behind a greasy little man with steroid acne and sweat who feeds it with twenty after twenty after twenty, pulling out strings of tickets that you suspect he might use to tie down Gulliver when he returns home to Lilliput. The little red Out of Service light blinks on for the fourth time and everyone behind you groans and looks to the neighboring line with envy and loathing.
At no point, thus far, have you been out of direct physical contact with a stranger since your arrival.
You have your wrist band and you have your tickets. Music is playing and it's always some semi famous band that had a hit or two just over a decade ago and gets by replaying it to nostalgic crowds for the rest of their careers. Thursday night it was the Gin Blossoms. Yesterday it was Blood, Sweat, and Tears. The press of bodies sets in. Tides of people ebbing and flowing, stopping to chat and holding wrists and hands and shoulders to stay together in their journey. Not all will make it. Invariably the weak link will be severed by a larger, drunker chain and they will not see their companions again that night. But weep not for them for this is New Bedford, and everyone knows each other. People from your past will resurface after years of seclusion, coming down from the mountains and rising, sodden and bloated and covered in seaweed, from the oceans. Yesterday I think I spotted a man who I was not only sure was dead but whose funeral I attended. And you exchange greetings and maybe speak and the press of bodies moves you along and you see them again maybe at the next Feast, maybe never again.
The wine flows. It's sweeter than sweet and it's dark, muddy brown that might once have been gold in a dream but nobody cares the quality of the wine that flows only that it does. Men wear brightly colored knit caps with tassels that stand erect or bent, depending on their marital status, the symbolism not exactly subtle. Down past the Madeira Hut and the lines of beer and linguica stands and the main stage and the side stage a glorious length of charcoal pit smolders. People are buying chunks of raw meat and sliding them down skewers six feet long, salting them and dousing them with Madeira wine. A few of the veterans put pepper and onions on the spit. You cannot buy peppers and onions there. They have brought them from home. As your skewer roasts on the perfect heat you guard your meat and drink more Madeira. There is a stand nearby with a v-shaped metal piece over a steel table dripping with beef juices and you position your skewer and yank it back and let the meat fall. And you drink more Madeira.
Across the way rides and games and little carnival vendors are set up for the younger crowds, for this is nothing if not a family affair. The next crop of Feast attendees must come from somewhere, after all.
After a thousand hellos and not a single goodbye everyone wanders off, in cars that will clog every street for a mile around over the next hour, or in pockets of people who carelessly amble through neighborhoods they wouldn't have the nerve to step foot into on any other night. Few of those people's nights are over, they are just moving on to the next bad idea, the after spectacle, the wind down from that glorious and disgusting undertaking that we somehow love that is the Feast.