So here it is. Salt Lake City’s 2002 Winter Games. Right in our own backyard. At arm’s length. Parked right on top of our face. And boy, does it feel good.
Why does it feel good? Because, contrary to popular belief, this isn’t some international event that comes complete with bows and ribbons. Assembly is mandatory.
For years, Salt Lake City’s been bracing for this—something we thought would instantly bestow us with some vague status or other. A “world-class city,” or some such nonsense. For the person on the street, with nothing but two legs for propulsion and two eyes for consumption, it’s a different story. The Winter Games and all its accoutrements is what you make of it. It’s something that’s created anew with every moment. It is not stagnant. Despite the mountains of merchandise, no one can market it.
Don’t like all the commercialization of the Games? Don’t like the fact that your little plot of paradise, your hometown, is now overrun? Don’t just sit there and whine. Make it your own! As the Roman historian Seneca said, “Resist fate, and it drags you. Assent to it, and it leads you.”
Last Saturday, Main Street between South Temple and 400 South was the best place to be. Our journey starts at the south end, heading north, then back again, forward, sideways, then back to the beginning, as T.S. Eliot might say, until you know the place again for the first time.
“No, we weren’t in Sydney for the 2000 Summer Games. But we’re thoroughly enjoying this. We’ve got no time for comments, I’m afraid.”
So said the gentleman from Melbourne, along with his silent wife. Strange that they would ignore an almost identical event on their own turf, but travel all the way here for this event. The attraction must be the snow, and the prospect of a far-away vacation.
Across the street, between the twin structures of the Boston building, local skateboarders still practice stunts on city streets and rails. Steam issues from their nostrils and mouths. Their cheeks are flushed red by the cold, which seems to drop a notch lower every passing minute.
“It didn’t seem any different to be down here as usual, really,” said Zach, a 16-year-old. “The only difference is there’re more people.”
There’s more than one difference, of course. “The crowds help you focus a bit more, cause you don’t want to look like an idiot on your skateboard,” said Nick, his 14-year-old friend.
The concession stands, deliberately or not, shaped in the spirit of a teepee, don’t carry on a booming business. But they do business all the same. Some offer $3 fritters the size of Frisbees. But nothing out-sells hot chocolate.
“People want their sugar and their chocolate,” said concessionaire Andrew Stireman. “Or they want directions. Some people think we’re an information booth. ‘Where’s Market Street? Where’s Olympic Square?’”
At that odd moment between dusk and dark, the sidewalks are in full motion, undulating with bodies and peppered with the almost omnipresent sight of Olympic security “yellowjackets.” Trax feeds the river of motion, with passengers pressed against the train windows like fish in a bowl.
Anyone who thought they need fear proselytizing Mormons should have been prepared to have their expectations turned upside down. It’s the Evangelical Christians who are in force now. Dodging religious-tract distributors is a full-time job if you want to walk Main Street.
“It’s not religion that will get you to heaven. It’s salvation,” said Tammy, a Baptist who drove down from Layton especially for this task. Her tracted hand awaits the grasp of passersby—any passerby.
“I’d really like you to read this,” she said with true enthusiasm.
A block away, on 200 South, a team of four break-dancers from Utah County—Utah County!—eagerly pop their joints, spin on the flat of their heads, and contort their legs for a gaping crowd. A laminated mat taped to the sidewalk makes the spectacle all the more comfortable and practical to execute. A boom box keeps the rhythm. The sky’s azure slowly turns a dark metallic gray. Cold seeps into the crowd’s collective epidermis.
The “breaking” must go on, despite the temperature. Eric Montandon, upside down, balances his head on the sidewalk. His shirt falls to his chest, leaving his navel to wiggle in the cold. His turn over, another break-dancer skitters and kicks his legs in a clockwise pattern while holding his body above ground by hand. Then, balanced on top of his head, he somehow makes his neck muscles walk his noggin across the mat. The crowd rightly applauds.
“It’s hard to hold yourself together in this cold, so you have to adjust for that,” says break-dancer Matt Hardman.
There’s no time for any other words. Galina, a dashing Russian journalist in white fur and designer glasses tinted yellow, finds an opening. So does her cameraman. She wants the Utah County break-dancers for some sort of promotional spot back in Moscow.
How many Russian athletes will win the gold? Galina asks this in a loaf-thick accent that’s disarming in its charm. The boys oblige. Yes, Russia will win many gold medals! Of course! “Go Russia! Go Russia!” This is the spirit of non-nationalist, Olympic internationalism on Salt Lake City’s Main Street. So what if it has to be prompted by a television camera. Galina and her cameraman are already off to the next assignment.
The break-dancers love it. “How’k manee Russians vil vin golt metal,” says Will, mocking Galina’s accent. Laughs percolate all around.
A blue-suited Oly volunteer, Derek, reminds everyone that, for this international event, such harmless mocking works both ways. “That’s OK, she’s probably already down the street making fun of your accent,” he tells Will.
Up the next block, the Red Cross tent isn’t exactly doing a booming business. That’s a good thing, of course. One lady tripped, garnering a fat lip. Other than that, Red Cross responders, trained in 40 hours of emergency protocol, have only applied Band-Aids to a few people with previous injuries. Part of the task, explains responder Evan Gabrielsen, is preventing frostbite in people before it begins. Ergo, the tent and its inviting industrial-strength heater.
Gabrielsen hasn’t seen any Olympic protesters. “We’ve had a few loud people go by, if that counts,” he said.
Louder still is Samsung’s overgrown DJ booth outside the ZCMI mall. Tae Kwan Do kids practice their routines at the booth’s base on the sidewalk. What this has to do with cell phones, no one knows. But they look at it, don’t they?
The presence of street peddlers is perhaps inevitable. But with so much going on this day, standing on the corner with a cardboard sign and backpack simply will not cut it.
“Some spare change for a stranded traveler?” a man blares out, his lungs a thread from breaking. “I’m not a crackhead and I need a job. Please help me!”
The only people yelling louder than he are the ticket sellers. They can’t be missed, especially if they sport thick British accents. Alas, business is not good, even outside the cash exchange near First Security Bank on Main and 200 South. “Useless! Absolutely useless! There aren’t enough punters [buyers]. And don’t listen to what anyone else says,” said Mark Lester, a ticket hawker who came all the way from London expecting a thriving Olympic ticket exchange.
Selling hockey and figure skating is easy. Those are hot. Speed skating? “It comes and goes.” Snowboarding? “Useless.” The Scottish sport of curling? Even more so. “Curling ain’t worth bollocks,” Lester says. “It’s a poxy sport for poxy punters. It’s useless. In fact, I could do it better myself. I’m an experienced roadsweep!”
Lester’s smile and voice are insanely mischievous. It’s hard to believe he can’t sell enough tickets to satisfy his thirst for business. What this market needs is a little stimulation. “Does it look like I’m stimulating this crowd?” Lester says with a naughty tone. “Am I stimulating them? Am I stimulating you?”
What’s all the more curious is, several blocks down, there are more than enough people asking, pleading, beseeching for tickets. Somewhere in this market, there’s a disconnect.
The sidewalk still heaves with crowds. Eyes everywhere are set forward. Someone nearby lets out a disturbingly loud, coarse, heaving cough. As if his hot chocolate were spiked by more than one Olympic pin. The trains are unrelenting in their delivery, docking with more human cargo. The pot on Main Street will be stirred beyond midnight. All that’s needed now are … bagpipes?!
It doesn’t matter who wrote the Utah Pipe Band an invitation. The strain of bagpipes and taut snare drums seems wholly appropriate right now. Usually, it’s a sound reserved for battle calls or funeral dirges. This evening on Main Street is neither. But the bagpipes fit. To the Salt Lake City native, it’s as if the street has been somehow reassembled or rearranged for a new equation, a new math. It’s so new, even the sound of “Scotland the Brave” marching up the street coagulates in its own fitting, proper way.
Will a steel drum band be next in line after these bags have been squeezed like toothpaste? No. But maybe this sound will chill the blood of any would-be terrorists in the midst. That, or the band was certainly out to find ticket-hawker Lester and box him around the ears for his remarks about the Scottish sport of curling.