Laila is eight years old. She lives in San Jose with her parents, but no siblings. Her eyes are dark and shiny as watermelon seeds. This morning Laila insisted that she wouldn’t need to bring her sweatshirt to the chocolate festival in Ghiradelli Square. Her mother packed it anyhow. Laila hasn’t been coached for the ice cream eating contest, but when she’s selected as a contestant, she marches forward like a pro. At eight years old she’s on the senior side of her age bracket (which is 5-8). She is also on the cute side and my immediate favorite to win this competition. This is partially influenced by the fact that Laila is adorable, but also (and mostly) on account of Laila’s father making such a brilliant clamor for her to be on stage.
When the piquant little host in the polka dot dress asks Laila her favorite flavor of ice cream she smiles and answers “all of them.” The girl was made for this event.
The audience is informed that each contestant will be challenged with three full scoops of ice cream, but when the sundaes come out, they are large as Laila’s stomach.
“I thought we were discouraging childhood obesity” someone calls out from the crowd, mostly in jest. The children do not hear. They embark on the adventure of eating.
Laila plunges face-first into the center of her sundae, inhaling clouds of whipped cream and spilling ice cream onto the table. While the boy beside her moves modestly from one scoop to the next, Laila is on the table, lapping up strawberry sauce and caramel.
She is neck and neck with the toe-headed kid at the other end of the table, both of them eating for the prize they’ve been promised more than the ice cream in front of them. When the finish is called there is only one winner and it is Laila, her bangs dripping with remnants of strawberry swirl.
The polka dot woman hands Laila a giant box of Ghirardelli squares and sends her back to her parents.
“It’s in my ear,” Laila giggles, flinching and wiggling as her mother wipes her down with diner-dispenser napkins.
“Are you going to share that?” I ask Laila. She hugs the box of candy to her sticky wet shirt and shakes her head “no,” but smiles as she does.
I tell Laila I’m a writer, a reporter, and I’m covering the contest for a paper. Her eyes light up at the thought of instant fame and I remember how exciting the newspaper is when you are eight years old and the world is mostly mystery.
“Which front page?” she asks, as her mother jots an email address in my notepad.
“It’ll be on the online,” I tell her, wondering if I should explain the concept of the Internet and then realizing that Laila is likely as adept with the web as I am.
I want to put her on a front page. I want San Jose to read all about Laila’s great win. But the priority of the story is, well, not high. Not even in the food world.
Two hours later I’m walking out of Black Dog Coffee shop, where I’ve just finished a write up on the festival as a whole. As I walk toward my car, I hear someone call out my name.
It is Laila. She’s wearing the sweatshirt that she didn’t think she’d be needing. I’m buttoned up in a red jacket, a totebag hanging from my shoulder.
“Hi, Amanda.” Laila waves.
My heart warms. As a storyteller and a reporter, I have been trained to see people. To recognize and know. To be aware of the potential for a story.
I am not used to being recognized back. I am not used to being anyone special.
Though I got into this event on a press pass, I know my own significance in the media—that I hold no real sway as an authority or a taste maker, that my opinion is just that—my opinion. And yet, in this small moment with this small person I feel as important as ever I could. My life feels more “real” because someone has noticed, no matter who that someone was or what position she holds.
There are over 66 vendors and 15,000 attendees at the five-hour festival. I wonder how many have seen Laila. I wonder if they know that she is the winner of the ice cream contest.