This evening, I went to Wonderland and back.
It was exactly as much fun as I wanted it to be.
Wonderland, of course, was Kirby Derby.
Kirby Street is the main artery of a neighborhood fortunate enough to be in possession of a Dead Man’s Curve, which is to say, a ninety-degree turn down a really steep hill. Know what that’s perfect for? Racing soap box cars. So, for the last dozen years or so, the creative folks who live here have thrown a big party every year about this time. They invite the whole city. There’s a pinecar derby, which the kids take very seriously. Then there’s a parade, which is great fun. There’s a brief drag race (as in, people in drag, running), which nobody takes seriously. Which doesn’t mean it’s not extremely competitive.
The real reason you come, though, is for the derby itself. Anything can happen. That’s why we were going to race this year. We were determined to race this year. We talked about our car all year long. We had big dreams.
Things went awry.
We all feel that we participated fully, though. Travis and Ollie let us hang out in their yard again, and wow, there was a huge crowd of derby-ers. We had some Tweedles in our midst, and a talking flower, and a Mad Hatter, and I went as a tart. You know, like, the stolen tarts that started the whole Queen-of-Hearts trial? Those.
I went pretty understated, as far as tarts go, but in lieu of welding and steering a racecar, I did actually bake tarts. I practiced lines like “May I interest any of you handsome gentlemen in a tart?” (Somebody go revive my mother with smelling salts. You’ll find her on the Swooning Couch.) We all knew I wasn’t going to do it. The tarts were a hit anyway. A bunch of people tried to buy some from me. I may be on to something.
And then the race started. All of the cars were excellent. It was clear from the first round, though, that the two contenders to beat were the Mad Hatter, and the Caterpillar. The Mad Hatter wins bonus points for the candlestick steering mechanism. Also: he was fast like quicksilver. Here’s a shot from the parade, because otherwise he’s too darn fast to photograph:
And then there was the Caterpillar. An first glance, this might not look particularly aerodynamic, and, you know, you see a giant caterpillar and “speed” is not the first thing that comes to mind.
I am here to tell you, though, that once that caterpillar careened around Dead Man’s Curve, he was flying.
To make the story even better, if the mumblings from the crowd are correct, Mad Hatter was the guy who won last year’s Derby with the coffin car, and Caterpillar was the guy in the excellent careening Mayan pyramid. Both crowd favorites, to start with.
Last year Julia and Audrey tried to get me to sit with them on the hay bales on the outside of the curve. I declined, because at that point my insurance was pretty bad, and I was sure one of them would lose a tooth. I didn’t mind being in the path of a careening vehicle, so much as the thought of being unable to get out of its way. We discovered through careful observation that the hay bales are actually relatively safe. Pretty much everyone enters the curve just fine, then overcorrects when they’re safely back on the straightaway, so the best chances for a spectacular crash are just down from the curve. So that’s where we stood today.
We had to scoot out of the way a couple of times in a hurry. Not so much for this guy piloting the minimalist door car,
but definitely for this guy.
But y’all, towards the end, something terrifying happened. Sure, everyone wants to see a crash or two, or at least watch bystanders diving out of the way of out-of-control-cars, but nobody wants to see an actual injury. Caterpillar came barreling down Kirby into the curve, and it was a tight turn with another racer, and Caterpillar crashed spectacularly. That was bad enough, but it was really quiet for a few minutes, and the Derby people surrounded him, and there were walkie-talkies and everyone looked really serious and nobody in the crowd could see what was going on. I mean, he went down hard. After a really, really anxious scene, slowly at first and then with great gusto, a blue arm appeared over the huddled crowd, raised in a triumphant fist. Caterpillar walked away from the crash. With ice packs and what looked to be some pretty serious road rash. But he walked away.
The crowd went wild. The race went on.
Mad Hatter took it all, in the end. It was impressive. And then it was over.
Know how sometimes you notice you’re standing in the middle of a street wearing a shirt that says “tart,” and you realize that you have given away three dozen tarts to strangers and all of your friends have piled beer cans on your empty pink cigarette-girl tray, as handsome men walk by? And then there’s nothing to do but drink the rest of the beer out of one of your grandmother’s teacups while everyone talks about the race and you try to remember what it was like when you still had any dignity left? That was me, around 7:30. All in all, it’s not a bad place to be.
So we all walked back up to Travis and Ollie’s, and made new friends in the yard until it was good and dark, and then we caught as much music as we could before we all went to put ourselves to bed.
Thanks, Kirby Street, and everyone who pitched in to pull this off. You’re a great example of what a neighborhood can do, working together like that. You make it look like fun. Shout out to Caterpillar; hoping he’s on the mend, and is currently being awarded some sort of Purple Heart for soap box car racers. Next year, I’m told, is derby number 13. This should be good.