Please indulge me. I am missing you very much, thousands of you. Were it not for the wretched COVID-19, Tuesday night would be the opening of Fiesta’s Night in Old San Antonio, or NIOSA. I miss seeing you there, bumping into you, spilling beer on you, or having you spill beer on me.
I’m not blaming Mayor Ron Nirenberg or Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff for pressuring the Fiesta Commission to postpone the event until the fall. New Orleans didn’t cancel Mardi Gras – the only citywide festival in America bigger or lengthier than Fiesta – and look what happened to New Orleans.
The city and adjacent Jefferson Parish have had nearly 12,000 of Louisiana’s 24,523 coronavirus cases as of Sunday, and more than half of the state’s 1,328 deaths. By comparison, San Antonio on Sunday had 1,015 cases and 39 deaths. And those figures don’t include all the out-of-towners who took the coronavirus home from Mardi Gras and would have taken it home from Fiesta.
So canceling Fiesta was clearly the right call. Still, after several weeks of social distancing the yearning for one of the nation’s greatest street parties is palpable.
If you’re a newcomer to town you will need to experience NIOSA to grasp it. It packs so many people into old La Villita that you can’t take three unimpeded steps in one direction. It involves scores of food booths featuring dishes you may not have at any other time of the year; dozens of bands playing, among other styles, the traditional genres of San Antonio: conjunto, Western Swing and German; and acre feet of beer.
The beer is vital for at least three reasons. First, it makes many of you more likely to ignore your inhibitions and dance. Second, it is important to stay chemically adjusted so that you love everybody, because everybody is very close. The happy vibes of Fiesta are so powerful that I can’t remember ever seeing a mean drunk on the streets. Third, beer provides a large portion of the profits that enable NIOSA’s sponsor, the Conservation Society of San Antonio, to do good work the rest of the year.
In a normal year, NIOSA opens at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday and runs every evening through Friday. It is kicked off on opening night by a merry foot parade through La Villita led by the two most prominent members of Fiesta royalty, King Antonio, generally a member of San Antonio’s old money elite, and El Rey Feo, who earns his crown by raising scholarship money for the League of United Latin American Citizens.
These two men separate themselves from the common folk by spending thousands of dollars racing through the streets in caravans with police escorts accompanied by uniformed attendants, attending fancy parties and other events, and handing out thousands of Fiesta medals.
Their stature was impressed on me in 1996. I also was Fiesta royalty that year, being King Anchovy. I reigned over sold-out performances of Cornyation, a bawdy satire of local and national politics and culture sponsored by the gay community annually to raise money for AIDS-related programs.
I attended the NIOSA kickoff parade that year wearing a silly hat that identified me as King Anchovy. I was standing in the crowd waiting for the parade to start and happily chatting with a liveried attendant of King Antonio when, without a hint of irony, he contrasted me with what he called “the real kings.”
Puro San Antonio.
Immediately following the parade, as the crowds start filling up La Villita, one of the best parties in town gets underway in a well-guarded La Villita space abutting the River Walk. Called the Kings Party and thrown by the Conservation Society, it is a very hot ticket. I was omitted from the list along with numerous others several years ago when the fire marshal ordered the Conservation Society to cull the crowd because of the limited space.
I miss the gathering not just because of the excellent food and generous bar. What was most fun was that among the politicians and other power players in attendance would almost always be at least one public figure whom I had recently offended.
For example, at the party 20 years ago then-District Attorney Susan Reed (whose Fiesta medal for several years was a tiny pair of handcuffs) came within hollering distance and shouted at me, “Casey, my husband is NOT a skinflint!”
Her husband Bob, since deceased, had persuaded a rookie judge to sign an order he had written exempting about two dozen lawyers in the prominent firm of Plunkett & Gibson from being assigned to represent indigent defendants for $30 an hour. The judge agreed that since Bob Reed was married to the district attorney it would be a conflict for any of the Plunkett & Gibson lawyers, who normally represented insurance companies, doctors, and other well-heeled clients, to appear in court against the DA’s employees.
The other judges were not amused. For one thing, as many a lawyer might have known, the rookie judge didn’t have the power to bind other judges to her order. For another, Bob Reed wasn’t a member of the firm but served “of counsel,” making himself available when one of their clients was in need of his expertise.
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Some judges also pointed out that under local bar rules, for a mere $50 a year any lawyer could buy their way off the list. Bob Reed told me the firm had already paid into that plan and would continue to do so. That turned out not to be true. It was up to individual lawyers to do so and several of the firm’s lawyers had not.
And neither had Bob Reed.
My response to Susan Reed’s defense of her husband was to laugh, and her response to that was also to laugh, and we had jolly good conversation. Such is the power of Fiesta that it is almost impossible to maintain anger under its spell.
This is true not only at NIOSA but also at any of the other teeming street parties during Fiesta’s 10 days and nights. Among the best are the Mexican Fiesta de los Reyes at Market Square, the German Gartenfest at the Beethoven Halle, the Oyster Bake at St. Mary’s University, and the Taste of New Orleans at the Sunken Garden Theater. Fiesta has been rescheduled for early November. When it finally happens, it may be the best ever. We will be so ready for a massive communal abrazo.