What's a carnival without a sideshow?

Once a year, I take advantage of the opportunity to check out people from all over in colorful costumes, sample foods not normally found in these precincts, examine merchandise from the tacky to the sublime, and subject myself to a sales pitch or two, all right here on campus.

And maybe if I have some time to spare, I might catch a little bit of that track meet nearby.

For most people, the Penn Relay Carnival means some of the country's best athletes performing incredible feats. For a sizable minority, it means the spring's biggest excuse to party. I belong to that even smaller minority for whom the sideshow's the thing.

For three days, Walnut and 33rd streets, along with the area just north of Franklin Field, becomes a street bazaar the likes of which we never see on campus at any other time. What makes this different from, say, the Spring Fling crafts fair is that the folks who sell the tacky stuff make no pretense otherwise, and it's all relatively cheap, even the really good stuff.

Like this year's officially-licensed Relays lapel pins, a bargain at only $5 each. And besides a nice-looking pin, I got an inside view of the vagaries of getting space and selling from one of the pin's designers, an outgoing guy named Steve Gaskin, who used to compete in the Relays and now comes down from New York each year with his EyeScream Graphics partnership.

Of course, some bargains are bigger than others. When I said to Steve that I looked forward to the Relays because it was the only time all year when I could have Jamaican jerk chicken for lunch, he said, "What's so hard about cooking it yourself?" And for $8 for an admittedly ample platter, it might have been cheaper for me to do that. But then I don't get the free atmosphere on the side.

Nor do I get exposed to even more unusual foodstuffs, like the "Original Hibiscus Flower Health Drink" served at the Authentic Halal Cooking stand this year. (Halal is to Islam as kosher is to Judaism.) I can't say that I felt any healthier for having had a bottle, or that I'd run out and buy a case, either, but it was worth trying once.

I wouldn't say that for everything offered at the Relay Carnival bazaar, though. One mixed tape of house music is more than enough for me, thanks. Then again, I'm a little older than most of the crowd poring over the merchandise. And that, too, may be part of its appeal: here, for a little while, I can gawk like a kid again, admiring the wood sculptures and airbrushed custom T-shirts while wondering just how many people really are going to buy those cheap sunglasses.

Sandy Smith is associate editor of the Current.