Ellen Fox goes behind the green door at the 1999 St. Patrick's Day Parade Queen Contest
NewCity News 1999
Ellen Go - Bragh
"Sean Austin is such a babe," the girl sitting in front of me says. She's twisted around in her seat, talking about "Goonie," and her skin is so fresh and elastic, her features so young- still unmarred by age or career-related woe. She looks like she just got her braces off.
"Where do you go to school?" she asks me.
"From... from college?"
Her face raises itself in surprise.
I'm 24 and I'm surrounded by girls from varying citywide public and Catholic high schools, as well as nearby colleges. They figure out if they know each other's brothers and chatter about people who graduated. I know no one.
My only common link to the eighty or so females around me is that each of us responded to a flier calling for “Any girl of Irish ancestry, never married, 17-26 years old" to compete for the title of "Chicago's fairest colleen," Queen of the 1999 St. Patrick's Day Parade.
I, too twist around in my seat - not to make friends, but to size up the competition, to figure my rank among all the adjustment of skirts, the twisting of feet in 2-year-old pumps and all the hair in all its varying manifestations. There are some heavier girls I swear won't make the first cut (they do); there's also a skinny. goofy blonde wearing a miniskirt the size of a headband. I shake my head at her lack of tasteful foresight (she makes it to the top twenty).
Just the day before, in search of the perfect outfit ("We don't want girls showing up in bridesmaid's dresses," the woman on the phone advised), I hauled my butt down to Michigan Avenue. I trudged through Saks and Bloomies and Neiman's until, swept by a fit of PMS shopping irrationality, I plunked down $250 on a DKNY rose damask silk gown with gossamer straps thinner than moth's wings.
This morning, however, remembering the hard-working roots of the parade, I wonder if too much sophistication might incur punishment from the judges just for being uppity. Ten minutes before walking out the door. I don a girlish mint-green picture of modesty and flat ballet shoes instead.
This is my first time in a pageant, though all my life I've harbored the cynic's secret dream of being beautiful. The closest I've ever come to a queen contest is in my late-night passages beneath the rainbow flags of Halsted Street taverns. I suspect no one else here hangs out in Boystown. Their parents probably wouldn't hear of such a thing.
My parents are back in New Jersey, where, two days before the deadline, my father e-mailed me a summary of my Irish heritage, which, I was careful to note, dates back to County Mayo as far as 1810. I question if l wish my folks were here; the letter of acceptance I received from the Plumbing Council told me to invite them. "You would, of course, want them to be there should you be selected the fairest colleen in Chicago," it advised.
Should I be selected, my mother will no doubt still harangue me with the question she's been posing all month:
When are you coming home for Passover?
Two hours before the festivities start, we're freezing on folding chairs in the basement of the Chicago Journeymen Plumbing Union Local 130, located on a clean barren stretch of West Washington, next to the Fraternal Order of Police. "Daley for Mayor" signs still adorn windows, as if to show how faithful these groups had been. Just last week, as I walked to deliver my entry form on deadline day, I remember sensing on that street the same working-class intimidation I'd felt only during a past visit to the silent, cock-proud partisan turfs of West Belfast. "Don't fuck with us," the street whispered, "this is our part of town"
But inside now, even if my forbears never earned it, I feel the husky-armed bear hug of inclusion. After a brief welcome from a United Airlines rep, who's recruiting flight attendants at a table stocked with peanut packets, we get down to the business of pageant choreography. A kindly, graying gentleman in a suit,
Queen Contest Chairman Robert Ryan, materializes with a dry erase board featuring so many green Xs, Os and arrows shooting in befuddling directions that even John Madden couldn't follow along. The long and short of the accompanying seven-page guide is that we're supposed to twist around, going from low to high-stage and then back down again in a pattern that must have made sense to someone.
Once on stage, we are to announce our first name and school or occupation. "Remember," Ryan admonishes, "Just your first name. There's a tendency to wanna say 'My name is Sally Schwartz... " he catches himself, "Well, not in this group."
But it can't be stressed enough that we should state only our first names. Last year's winner Jennifer Battistoni, the Notre Dame sophomore at my side reminds me, was halfItalian and earned a considerable amount of scandal from Mayor Daley's alleged crack about her being "a dago."
For purposes either smug and supportive, there are former queens among us. When we break for pretzels and pop, a spiky-haired former Colleen from the mid-eighties repeats the running wisdom that you have to be in the pageant a few years before being selected queen. Of the twenty or so queens she's aquatinted with, she nods sagely, only maybe two were first-time entrants.
"One girl was in the contest seven years," she widens her eyes, "She was in the court for six years before she won.
It's still not show time yet, so the Notre Dame sophomore and I busy ourselves picking possible winners. I nod toward the 100-pound bright-eyed, bonny-cheeked brunette who looks as if she couldn't muster up a sneer if her life depended on it. She singles out the polished woman standing out like a sore thumb in a blindingly green suit. Her outfit looks like one big ass-kiss to me, but the sophomore shakes her head, "She's a third-grade teacher, how cool is that?"
Finally we're on our way to the auditorium, crushed into the elevator in groups of twenty, clutching white placards embossed with shiny green numerals. -I'm thirty-six, a number I immediately associate with my bra size. I'm also in Group F, a letter that has absolutely no association with my bra size. From the balcony, we peer like cloistered novices at tables strewn with pop and beer cans, and plates smeared with the remnants of complimentary Eli's cheesecake. Clans of fattened family members crane their necks up, search for their girl amongst us, and wave when the spark of recognition lights their eyes.
Now begins the drone of pipes and the tatter of drums as burly, middle-aged men in skirts (many of whom, on closer inspection, turn out to be women), line the aisle for our fanfare. We hurry into our groups of five and, for what must be at least a half an hour, enact ---finally! -- our pre-rehearsed walk-through.
In one ballsy but ill-advised move, an aspiring actress mentions at the, microphone that she is of Latin American descent, and the auditorium rumbles as everyone leans over to make comments. When it's my turn to take the stage, rather than smiling out to the judges with frozen joy, I unconsciously jerk my head from side to side to watch each girl around me stride to the microphone.
"My name is Ellen, and I'm an assistant editor at a newspaper."
My lips tremble as I say "newspaper," and I give a little nod along with it, as if some one might contest me. We now switch places with the five girls on the other side of the stage-careful to pass their left shoulders with ours-and smite, as instructed by the avuncular emcee, straight into the eyes of the judges. Some smile politely, or perhaps apologetically, back; others refuse to meet any gazes, like guilty felons.
An older woman grins fondly up at me, as if I were her own niece or granddaughter, and I'm sure I'll make it into at least the first cut of forty girls.
On our way back downstairs to the basement, I spot an open office door revealing a glossy poster of three buxom Red & White Valve girls smiling in tight shirts and string bikinis.
Perhaps I've dressed too girlishly. Looking around at the selection of medium-length, darkly-colored dresses-and unremarkable first-job-interview suits, I start to feel the creeping awareness of my folly. Only someone trying to compensate for their maturity would wear the long, lacy, buttoned-up and sash-tied tea dress I've chosen. I have, in a fashion sense, undershot my mark.
A half-hour. later, the chairman comes down with a sheet of paper bearing the numbers of the lucky forty contestants who will move to the next round. From these forty will be chosen twenty, and from that twenty will be chosen five court members, one of whom will be chosen as our triumphant, green-robed queen.
We sit up straight. If you are not chosen, he reminds us, be sure to come back next year. I swallow now and wait, the tiny hairs in my ears stretching themselves to the air to gather as much as they can grip.
As he rolls off numbers, a vision of myself waving joyously at the head of the parade -a vision I've harbored. for at least a month-begins to blur and disintegrate. "52... 85.... 46... and 19," he finishes firmly.
The chosen let out their collective breath; the rest of us mill towards the front to hand in our numbers. In addition to our head shots, we are given some consolation prizes: a certificate recognizing my status as a finalist, and a coupon book to "Chicago's Premier Attraction"-Navy Pier.
Now I can get ten percent off a twelve-ounce coffee at Color Me Coffee or Australian crystal prisms at Gnome King's Crystal.
It'll be about three more hours 'until the queen is chosen, so I slouch at an empty table, swallow a $3 corned beef sandwich and watch as the forty - many of whom, I sniff, aren't as pretty as me - make their way through the whole rigmarole once more.
Eventually, the five court members, all of whom wear long dark dresses but for the third-grade teacher, make their grand entrance. Male escorts in tuxedos lead them in as he emcee, sounding as raucous as a ringmaster, reads off their full names as well as their family's place of origin. I overhear a fat lady, who has been keeping score at the beer-can-strewn table next to me all day, assert vehemently that the queen should not be the third-grade teacher in the obsequious kelly green.
"She looks like a stewardess in that suit," she hisses.
The third-grade teacher wins.
Her friends and family - a veritable cheering section - erupt with screams at the back of the hall. The network TV cameras shine their lights as she is robed in even more green, crowned with a modest tiara and presented a box of Eli's Cheesecake, while the emcee slurs the requisite rendition of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."
Losing families pack it in and, off to the. left, an escort chats up the visiting Mexican- American queen, who is zaftig in a tight, shiny gown and foot-tall tiara.
Before leaving, I creep up to last year's winner, Jennifer Battistoni. "Is there anything I can do next year," I plead, "to better my chances of winning?"
She looks compassionately at me for a moment, then lowers her face like a religious elder about to whisper the simple, but arcane secret to lifelong happiness.
"I'm telling you," her eyebrows raising conspiratorially, "wear something block and sleek."
Mentally scanning the contents of my closet now, I realize I've had the perfect outfit for this occasion all along: a simple, black, velvet-topped dress, which has served its purpose at Christmas parties and concerts for four years running.
It hangs beside the rose damask DKNY gown, which I realize I can no longer return because I took needle and thread to its already fraying straps earlier this evening.
It’s a shame, because the cost, I calculate silently as Jennifer fades from view, is about the price of a ticket home for Passover