February 23, 2014 Leave a comment
February 9, 2014 Leave a comment
That’s right, woodchuck-chuckers! It’s GROUNDHOG DAY!”
It is a genius meta-challenge: do you have what it takes to subject yourself to twenty-four hours of a movie in which the protagonist is himself subjected to a horrifying twenty-four hour loop? Are you willing to sit in a theater all day and merge your horometrical angst with that of Bill Murray? These are questions posed every February 2nd by the Gateway Film Center, when they host their annual Groundhog Day viewing party/endurance marathon. The movie in question is of course Groundhog Day, and they challenge you to watch it twelve times in a row. Completing the marathon yields a year’s worth of movie tickets, a very coveted prize considering the tragicomic tickets prices of the average theater. A ticket to the event is only fifteen bucks, and fifteen bucks for twenty-four free movie tickets is certainly a gamble worth taking, to say nothing of the priceless fun and singular weirdness of being allowed to stay in a movie theater all night with three hundred other tranced-out revelers.
7660 days have passed since Groundhog Day was released on February 12th, 1993. The movie chronicles the surreal hell of Bill Murray, an arrogant weatherman who learns some important life lessons after finding himself reliving Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA over and over and over again. Andie MacDowell plays the sweetheart TV producer who inspires him to be a better man and Chris Elliot plays the unnerving odd guy Chris Elliot is known for. Initially Bill Murray is excited at this surreal turn of events, as he realizes he can steal money and perfect his wooing techniques, but he quickly grows despondent when it doesn’t seem like the loop will ever end. The way out seems to be to win Andie’s heart by becoming a better person, and some genuinely warm n’ fuzzy moments makes up the last chunk of the movie. But it takes him a long time to get to this point, and the movie becomes a bit darker when you realize the enormity of what his character is actually facing. It is estimated that he relives Groundhog Day for at least forty years. Stephen Tobolowsky, the guy who plays Ned the Insurance Salesman, said that one of the writers “felt something like 23 days were represented in the movie, [but they lasted] over 10,000 years.”
Not that my friends and I were worried that watching a movie twelve times in a row would be equally as maddening, but the prospect of such an undertaking was kind of daunting: an entire day in one place, in the same seats, with hundreds of other people eating and farting and snoring and talking, all experiencing the difficulties inherent in doing the same weird thing over and over again. My good chum Pat and I were both new to the contest, but our friends Tess, Afton, and Kevin were old hands and explained that the viewings break down like this:
1-4: You sleep through most of them.
5: “This is a good movie.”
6: “This is the best movie ever made.”
8-10: “I can’t comprehend anything that is happening in this movie.”
11-12: Fun because everyone is going crazy, but also excruciating because you’re almost done.
I figured my point of no return would be 16 hours – I had to stay if I made it that far, and Pat assured me that he would convince me to stay. I legitimately didn’t know what to expect.
The rules are as follows:
1) You must be present in the theater for every screening of Groundhog Day in its entirety.
2) Cell phones may be carried into the theater, but must be powered down during the screenings.
3) No laptops, tablets, or other devices are permitted in the theater.
4) Your lanyard must be in your possession at all times during the marathon.
5) Every time Phil says “Ned”, you must say “Bing!”
“I want them to fucking crack down. I want them to make it a challenge,” Pat said. “I think it would be funny if they wouldn’t let you socialize, like they make you watch it.” I expect that he would fare well even if it one of those sinister experiments where you are strapped to a chair and your eyes pried open are you are bombarded endlessly with all kinds of horrible sights and sounds. He is up to stuff like that. He firmly considers the people stretched out on sleeping bags in the front of the theater to be cheating. How hard can it be when you are essentially allowed to camp in the theater?
A valid point, but I don’t think the theater has psychological trauma in mind when they host the event. The marathon isn’t intended to toughen you up mentally; it’s supposed to be ridiculous fun, and it is. Attendees are encouraged if not expected to join in chanting lines, which range from quotable insults to a collective horrified “UGH!!” when poor Andie MacDowell makes a woodchuck face at Bill Murray. It’s much more Carnivalesque than cruel. The experience inspires exuberant narration, and attendees yell whatever they want from the anonymity of the theater. A lot of the commentary is genuinely hilarious, but this anonymity also lends itself to some cringe-worthy unfunniness, attempts at humor that make you feel bad for the person who said them. But no worries, you can try again soon – the open invite for audience participation gives everyone a second chance to shine, and indeed, there is nothing quite as affirming as cracking up the rows around you.
The first American reference to Groundhog Day comes from a diary entry from 1841, where it is explained that if the groundhog emerges from its burrow and sees its shadow, winter will last another six weeks. Appropriately, the diary is that of guy from Pennsylvania. The world’s most popular rodent arbiter resides in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where the movie takes place and where real life Groundhog Day crowds have numbered up to 40,000. The tradition seems to come from a mix of ancient
weather lore involving prognosticating animals and contrasting calendrical systems. The pagan festival Imbolc celebrated the seasonal turning point on February 1st, but other traditions held that spring did not begin until the Vernal Equinox, about seven weeks after Groundhog Day, the traditional first day of spring for us in the US. A groundhog or hedgehog was used as a way to settle the disparities between the two calendars, and either choice he makes corresponds to one of the calendars’ first day of spring. Groundhog Day organizers say that the Punxsutawney Phil’s forecasts are accurate 75% to 90% of the time. 33% accuracy could be expected by chance, and a Canadian study unfortunately shows that weather pattern predictions made on Groundhog Day are right only 37% of the time. Buzzkill scientists from the National Climatic Data Center have described the forecasts as “on average, inaccurate,” saying that “The groundhog has shown no talent for predicting the arrival of spring, especially in recent years.” Punxsutawney Phil predicts in the movie that winter will last another six weeks.
Our night started off not in Punxsutawney but in a restaurant next to the theater called Mad Mex. tremendous plates of nachos were deemed necessary to carry us through at least the next couple of hours, and after 10:00pm everything is half-off. The waiter noted that the new margarita flavor was good because “nobody has sent it back yet,” and it was thus ordered and consumed. Not too long into our meal, a guy sits down next to the hostess’s stand, right across from our table, and promptly breaks down in tears. “I hate boys,” he says, explaining that his boyfriend puts everyone else before him.
Patrons of Mad Mex soon began getting up and leaving. It was clear where they were going. They were carrying sleeping bags and backpacks and were dressed in sweats and pajamas, and some people even had laundry baskets full of enough food and games for twenty-four hours. We too left in order to claim the perfect spot. The sad guy from inside was now in an impassioned argument with his presumptive boyfriend on the sidewalk, and they too would likely enter a time warp of their own, arguing in endless circles as they try to sort out the complications of love.
The Marathon Begins…
12:00 – We quickly realized that the Undertaking wouldn’t be as big a deal as we thought – we sat in the middle of the topmost row, with nobody on either side of us for at least three seats. We were able to put up armrests and stretch out and sleep as freely as we wanted to. Sitting in the back row seemed crucial to our success since nobody could hang their stinky over our heads and we weren’t in danger (or as much danger, at least) of something like the hurricane-level of puke that annihilated the area behind some seats in the middle of the theater. But I did begin to understand why it might yet be pretty difficult. Stills from the movie that precede each showing and tell you how many times you’ve seen the movie and how many you have left. These stills are supplemented by key soundtrack music played on a loop, so not only did you hear the same songs multiple times in the movie but you’re stuck listening to them over and over again before the movie even starts. Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” was followed by a ridiculous number called “the Pennsylvania Polka.” The tradition of clapping along with the latter started as soon as it began playing over the still, and we caught on to that fun aspect of the event.
Welcomes were given by the staff and the rules were read. The concession stand would be open the entire twenty-four hours and alcohol sales would stop at 2:30am but would begin again at 6am. The first viewing felt more like a normal night out at the theater than the beginning of a ridiculous challenge. I hadn’t seen this movie since 2010 (I remember this specifically because a guy I was housesitting for had it in his collection) but pretty quickly fell asleep. I woke up in time to see a surprisingly amazing truck explosion. It became a scene I greatly looked forward to each time. The truck drives off a cliff and smashes below; its intense bang into rocks is satisfying and incredible. The resulting explosion is great too – big, full, multi-layered, good expansion, deep oranges and reds – as is the way the gate bursts open when he drives through it. Note that the grill of the truck breaks when this happens.
2:00am – I am wide awake as the movie begins again. The atmosphere now feels completely like a giant slumber party. On top of the quoted lines and random quips, nonstop talking and settling occur for the first fifteen to twenty minutes of this and every subsequent showing.
Pat is laying on the floor resting, he overhears the scene where the local yokel shows Bill Murray a half-full or half-empty glass and says Billy Murray looks like a half-empty kind of guy. “That’s the whole message of the film!” Pat realizes. He tells me with the sureness of an inebriated philosopher that Groundhog Day is a metaphor for our search for happiness – you could look at it like glorious spring is just six weeks away, or that winter will brutally oppress us for six more. In other words, look on the bright side! Life is what you make it! He imparts this wisdom to me and falls back asleep.
4:00am – I am tired and kind of grouchy. I worry that perishable food I brought will go bad before I have a chance to eat it but I am too full to keep eating. Nachos are raffled off. I notice that the stunt double used when Bill Murray jumps off the tower looks like Ben Stiller, and that the bath water he sits in to electrocute himself is probably ice cold, judging from the movie’s earlier cold shower sequence. I also appreciate the attention to time-related details, like taking into account how doing thing
A for a few seconds longer the second time means that subsequent thing B would be a little different the second time around as well. But sometimes the movie isn’t as accurate as I’d like in this regard (events take place in the same way regardless of how long Bill Murray takes to do the thing that precedes them), but I realize that I will have ten more viewings to obsess over these disparities and so it would be better if I put them out of my mind. It’s just a movie, anyway, right?
6:00am – I realize I haven’t even seen the movie all the way through yet. There are scenes that I don’t remember seeing the first two times around, and there are scenes I saw between naps that I’m not sure where/why/how they fit in the narrative. An announcement is made that the concession stand is now serving breakfast burritos. The paper towel dispenser in the men’s bathroom was jammed, but the front has been pried open by attendees desperate to dry their hands.
8:00am – “Now it gets difficult,” a veteran tells me, “Most of the sleeping you’ll do has been done.” I am increasingly annoyed by the peppy song that accompanies the opening credits. The song is called “Weatherman” and was co-written by the film’s director, Harold Ramis. Heard nowadays, the song is totally anachronistic – it is one of those catchy, distinctly American-sounding rock songs that play during the opening credits of comedies from the 80s and 90s. (Which are themselves a very distinct and sorely missed breed.) But I soldier on. I get an encouraging text from a friend at 8:50: “You can do it!” My parents also cheered me on when the night got started.
10:00am – Somebody starts a story that begins with “I didn’t work at PetCo but…” but unfortunately I don’t hear the rest. After five viewings, I still haven’t seen the movie all the way through. The ten o’clock showing is different. The next stage of collective excitement is reached with this viewing. There is markedly more shouting, clapping, and merrymaking, and it increases with every viewing. I see the movie pretty much in its entirety every time from now until the end.
Unfortunately this increase in volume also applies to our neighbors and their wellspring of criminally unfunny comments. It’s kind of awkward because other unfunny comments fade into the darkness but you are hyper-aware of failed humor when the perpetrators are only a few seats away from you. There is a scene where Bill Murray says he is going to go back to his room and read Hustler; our neighbors yell “Go read Hustler – everyone likes to see naked ladies!”
12:00pm – I find that I always look up at the screen when Andie MacDowell’s name is listed in the opening credits. (The opening sequence of clouds rolling backwards is simple but really cool, and somewhat haunting.) I have also been able to study her distinct mouth, as her twenty-foot visage is on the screen pretty frequently. People in the audience continue chanting at choice moments: each scene with Needle-Nose Ned the Head is repeated word for word every time. The diss Chris Elliot delivers about the Home Shopping Network is always awarded with a tremendous “OOOOOOoooohhhhh!” Everyone claps in time with the slaps of the slap sequence and everyone claps sarcastically when the waiter drops his tray. Brian Doyle-Murray’s speech as the mayor is also a beloved moment in the film, as attendees love to help him call Punxsutawney Phil the “Seer of Seers, Prognosticator of Prognosticators.” The increasing dollar amounts are chanted when Bill Murray get auctioned off as a desirable bachelor.
2:00pm – There are two young kids in attendance with their dad. One of the two becomes a sort of celebrity for the occasion, as he is the first to lead claps and cheers and even yells a bunch of comments of his own, at the screen and in response to other people who are yelling stuff too. Between showings, everyone around him observes that not only is he having a FaceTime chat with his Grandma but that it is in another language. Everyone who sees this looks at each other knowingly, nodding at how hard this kid rules. As the day wears on, the two kids and the dad change seats from time to time, leading one person in the audience to ask “Hey! Where’d that kid go?!” in fear that the family would miss part of the action, or, worst case scenario, that they had left, which would not only be a bummer for the kids but worrisome to the rest of the crowd, for what would it mean for their endurance if their totemic spirit decided he had finally had enough? Not to worry – they simply moved seats and his commentary resumed quickly enough.
Pat notes that the scene in which Bill Murray steals the truck/varmint-naps the groundhog occurs almost exactly one hour into the film. The rest of the showings take this into consideration, almost like a breather that the movie is two-thirds of the way over. The coffee served by the movie theater is surprisingly good, and refills are free. Pat notes that Bill Murray gives the finger to the camera – during the second newscast he does on the first day, the 3-2-1 countdown ends with 1 being his middle finger. A lot of these kinds of details are noticed, including the unsettling layer of reverb/creepy frequency placed over top the ‘Pennsylvania Polka’ when Bill Murray gets freaked out.
4:00pm – This is the wildest showing yet. The hootin’ and hollerin’ reaches a hilarious, exuberant pitch. The audience has taken to yelling “SIX!!!” every time Bill Murray’s alarm clock goes off at 6:00am. A wag in the audience also yells “3:02!!” when that time is shown on a clock. One of my favorite shots is the giant alarm clock face switching from 5:59 to 6:00.
I find myself yelling along with everyone without even intending to. Our genius neighbors get told for the second time to put away their electronic devices during the showing of the movie. They take huge offense to this despite the prohibition of devices being clearly listed in the rules, and it is a topic they discuss with the utmost derision every twenty minutes for the rest of the contest. “We’llgive her an anti-bitch coupon if she’ll let us use our phones,” they snicker. The also take to calling her a “device Nazi.”
The audience’s sense of humor reflects the fact that we’ve been here for sixteen hours. “That’s Shia LaBeouf’s stepdad!” someone yells when Production Assistant Alecia LaRue rolls by in the credits.
6:00pm – I’m now starting to get kind of antsy. My stomach is weighted down with food. I wonder if I could sneak into a different movie. I’m not too bothered by the possible ethical dilemma of not seeing every single showing, for sometimes self-preservation trumps morality. But just getting up and walking around is good too:
“Pressure ulcers, also known as decubitus ulcers or bedsores, are localized injuries to the skin and/or underlying tissue that usually occur over a bony prominence as a result of pressure, or pressure in combination with shear and/or friction. The most common sites are the sacrum, coccyx, heels or the hips, but other sites such as the elbows, buttocks, knees, ankles or the back of the cranium can be affected.
Pressure ulcers occur due to pressure applied to soft tissue resulting in completely or partially obstructed blood flow to the soft tissue and resulting reperfusion injury when blood re-enters tissue. Shear is also a cause, as it can pull on blood vessels that feed the skin. A simple example of a mild pressure sore may be experienced by healthy individuals while sitting in the same position for extended periods of time: the dull ache experienced is indicative of impeded blood flow to affected areas. Within two hours, this shortage of blood supply, called ischemia, may lead to tissue damage and cell death. The sore will initially start as a red, painful area. The other process of pressure ulcer development is seen when pressure is high enough to damage the cell membrane of muscle cells. The muscle cells die as a result and skin fed through blood vessels coming through the muscle die. This is the deep tissue injury form of pressure ulcers and begins as purple intact skin…”
A ‘SIX!’ yell starts off a ‘7! 8! 9!’ succession. Someone yells “You can count!”, to which the initial yeller replies “I’m a math major!” The funny thing is that it’s true – the proud math major was observed doing math homework between each showing.
Our neighbors’ choice comment from this showing addressed the motivations of the “creepy” psychiatrist Bill Murray sees: “Mommy touched me when I was little so now I’m going to help people.”
In 2012, Bill Murray embarked on this nationwide party tour in which he would come to your house and hang out provided you call him Keyser Söze and have a banner out front that says “Bill Murray can crash here!” There was some speculation/hope that he (or anyone from the movie, for that matter) would make a surprise appearance, especially since he reportedly has a house in horrible Dublin, Ohio. He has not shown up, but that’s ok.
(Bill Murray was also said to have this trick where he’d walk up to you and steal your hat [and not return it] just so you could tell your friends that Bill Murray stole your hat. Yes, it would be funny, but I would also be pissed if he stole my lucky hat. It did not seem that this was in danger of happening either.)
8:00pm – I get up and walk around for the last forty-five minutes of this showing. I meet Max Vokhgelt in the lobby and he tells me that he and his friends have been keeping count: “I’ve Got You, Babe” plays ten times in the movie, as does the “Pennsylvania Polka.” I add this to my list of tallies: Bill Murray is slapped ten times, once because he asks to be slapped, once in the bedroom, and eight times during the sequence showing his repeated failure to woo Andie MacDowell. Fifteen snowballs are thrown during the snowball fight sequence, the last being a particularly (some may say unnecessarily) forceful throw at a kid. There is an uncomfortable scene when Bill Murray tries to get Andie MacDowell to stay with him – she offers ten refusals to his fifteen inducements to stay. He hits himself in the face three times in the psychiatrist’s office. “Strrrriiiiiiike!!” is yelled by the audience when the guy gets a strike at the bowling alley. Someone points out that come the final showing of the movie, the guy will have bowled twelve strikes, a perfect game. Candice at the concession stand says that everyone was cheery and optimistic when the day started but now everyone is red-eyed and defeated looking. Alcohol sales are steady. The staff is commendable for the quality of the bathrooms – I was admittedly worried about potential hygienic disaster but it has all been managed perfectly. The movie theater itself does not take on the offensive odor one might expect from three hundred people sitting around and eating all day, so that’s a relief too. This is the penultimate showing and people seem to be gearing up for an explosive final viewing.
9:00pm – someone in the first row is clearly using a tablet. It’s a dark theater, so any source of light is completely noticeable from anywhere in the room. A few people start booing and a few people start yelling warnings at the dude to put it away. Then the movie actually stops and the lights turn on – a staff member walks up to the guy and tells him he committed his final error. My neighbors renewed their colorful invectives against the fascist theater staff, as they were beside themselves that such an affront was actually taking place. Not that I encourage submitting to some arbitrary authority, but the rules for the marathon were very clear, not to mention the offending party had been warned repeatedly that devices are verboten any time the movie is playing.
10:00pm – the last showing is great and worth the twenty-two previous hours. Everyone immediately starts yelling and cheering as soon as the movie starts, and everything that was yelled is repeated again, but much louder and enthusiastically, if that’s even possible. People get up and dance to the aforementioned opening credit music and the music used to transition between scenes. The warnings for Bill Murray to watch out for a shovel that’s about to hit him reach a fevered pitch, with the awesome kid in the audience noting sadly that “he never heeds our warnings” after Bill Murray gets clocked. Someone yells ‘HOGROUND DAY!’ and for some reason this is utterly hilarious. The scene where Gobbler’s Knob is named for the first time is an audience favorite as well: “Wait for it….wait for it…. [‘Gobbler’s Knob’] YEAH!!!!!” (“Why is that funny?” someone asks. Uh, what? The place is called Gobbler’s Knob for crying out loud; how isn’t that funny?) The last viewing definitely feels like the shortest. I wanted the movie to progress not so I could go home but to hear new commentary to our favorite parts of the film. But before you knew it, it was over. People gathered their belongings and shuffled out of the theater as easily as if they were leaving a normal night at the movies. It was as if the challenge was not. The movie originally ended with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell waking on February the 3rd to find that Andie is trapped in her own time loop, and I’m sure that there would be more than enough people willing to stay for another twenty-four hours. I’m sure Pat would have been up to it.
As is the case with any fun event, once it is over you can’t believe all of the anticipation and antics have finally come to an end. It is weird experiencing something unusual with hundreds of other people and then leaving as if nothing had happened. It was kind of a bummer to bid goodbye to all these intimate strangers.
Walking home was truly kind of strange because my sense of time was genuinely kind of skewed. Not that I am by any means whatsoever comparing myself to people who have actually experienced some kind of fucked up real life imprisonment, but I had the briefest glimpse into what confinement-induced time disorientation must be like. It felt like ages ago that Pat and I walked from my apartment to the movie theater, but it also felt like no time had passed at all. Fortunately I was already wearing sweatpants and comfortable tennis shoes – the discomfort of my compressed ass could be addressed by running a few laps around the block.
Would I do it again? Possibly, as the last couple of viewings are definitely worth experiencing again. Will I do it again? I’m not sure, for right now the idea of seeing a movie in a theater sometime even in the next month is pretty unappealing. But I do have a year’s worth of free tickets, so a night at the movies might be in order to simply to celebrate my dubious accomplishment. For right now it’s like a home away from home. (Apparently there is a musical adaptation of Groundhog Day in the works, which I will absolutely not be seeing once, let alone twelve times. A musical marathon would be tantamount to torture, even if it is based on a story I have come to know intimately.)
January 26, 2014 Leave a comment
“Sex is like snow – you never know how many inches you’re going to get or how long it’s going to last.”
“Sex without love is mating; love without sex is philosophy.”
Fortunately it is not often that this author experiences significant disappointment. Cancelled dinner plans, rescheduled hangouts, the heater of one’s car not working on a long drive in the middle of winter are all part of being human, and these mild inconveniences can usually be dealt with and forgotten with little difficulty. But a run of relatively painless living made the collapse of a recently scheduled meeting with Liz Lewis all the more of a letdown. Lewis is the proprietrix of Black Kat productions, and she was in town to oversee Columbus’ third annual Sexapalooza, an adult expo offering a “diverse collection of exhibitors, entertainment, educators and non-profit community groups that represent each city’s sexual community.”
I wanted to speak with Liz Lewis for a book I’m working on about the ins-and-outs of a variety of occupations and hobbies: What is done differently do make Sexapalooza a more female-oriented show? What kind of international rigmarole do you have to go through to plan things from afar? What kind of sponsors jump at the chance to partner with such an event, aside from the obvious? Was it possible to work in this field without being, ahem, pleasantly distracted all the time?
I initially made a phone call to the marketing and graphic design department of Black Kat productions, the assumption being that the marketing behind a kink convention would be substantially different than that of something a little less edgy. The woman responsible for this department said she was too new to give a comprehensive overview of working for Black Kat, and she said that Liz Lewis, the president and founder, would be the person to talk to since Sexapalooza is her brainchild. She offered to try to set up a meeting with Lewis on Sunday at noon, as early Sunday is the calmest time of the event and there would likely be plenty of time to talk. I got confirmation the next day that the meeting was set up, and I immediately got to work researching the event.
Lewis was originally in the magazine business, publishing Touch, a magazine for the swinger community, and then Whiplash, a magazine for the BDSM community. As the internet made print BDSM community-building increasingly obsolescent, Lewis ended her run as a print publisher and started Black Kat Enterprises, a company that distributes adult toys and novelties. This side of the business led her to exhibiting at the Western Canada Taboo shows and various other sexpos, which in turn led her to start her own adult consumer show. Thus Sexapalooza was founded in 2007. Sexapalooza is now an international affair, with events held yearly in Canada and the US. According to Men’s Health magazine, Columbus has the honor of being the third most sexually active city in the country. And because of its statistical averageness, it is also a city known as a reliable test market for various new products and foods. The city’s refreshing openness yet familiar values make Columbus the ideal place for an upscale adult expo.
Unfortunately, the questions I wanted to ask remain largely unanswered. The parking lot monitors were typically unpleasant (seriously, try to talk to them) and their gnarliness as I pulled in augured nothing good for the interview. The $7 parking fee didn’t help, and neither did getting yelled at by the same people for trying the wrong door. Lewis was located by the staff and we were introduced, but I was told immediately that she wasn’t going to be available. Her time was very valuable, as was made clear by repeated mid-conversation bids for me to Hold on just a minute! while the concerns of whoever was on the other end of her earpiece were curtly addressed. (Although it should be noted that the stress inherent in running a major adult expo can be assumed, and it is absolutely understandable that my ideal, hours-long, conversation couldn’t realistically take place.)
Nevertheless, the annoyance of answering yet another phone call or having to listen to the wheedling of a cheapskate customer does not warrant the look of disappointment that greeted this author when he was initially introduced to the interviewee. The lack of major press credentials was clearly a letdown –
“Who are you with?”
and so all further interactions involved trying to impress someone who doesn’t respect you professionally in the least. I was told to come back in half an hour.
Sexapalooza 2014 was held January 17th-19th at the Vets Memorial building in downtown Columbus, a building worth noting for its historical status/impending implosion and for the larger than life statue of Arnold Schwarzenegger that flexes out front. (Arnold and Columbus go way back – a promoter named Jim Lorimer set up the first Arnold Sports Festival in 1989 and it has been a mainstay in the city ever since.) The building’s foyer is stripped of all accoutrements; the interior is a strange light blue and the color is punctuated almost exclusively by homemade signs that direct people to the main hall or parking payment machines. Maybe the paucity of décor is deliberate in order to accommodate the maximum variety of events, but the near total lack of signage can also be confusing and troublesome, as was the case when a mom walked in with her two children. People collectively held their breath as she strode in confidently and looked for the ticket booth. Was she actually trying to bring them in to the show? There is a wall of dildos right inside – you can see it from here! Regardless of the intensity of one’s sexual proclivities, everyone else in the foyer looked ready to break out in protest had the lady tried to argue that her kids should be admitted. But it was an honest mistake – it turned out she was looking for the AAA Great Vacations Travel Expo, which was to be held at the same place the following weekend. They promptly left, and it was unclear if the mom even registered what she and her kids accidentally almost walked into.
That scene of confusion was witnessed while waiting next to the drinking fountains for the rescheduled interview with Mrs. Lewis. The incident had just finished when Mrs. Lewis came striding back across the room to talk to a paunchy middle-aged guy who was asking for a refund, since he had only stayed for a couple of minutes and didn’t think he should have to pay full price for only a few minutes’ worth of admission. He had time to buy a few things, judging from the heft of the bag he was carrying, but wanted his money back since he didn’t have time to check out any of the product demonstrations or hang around until the Intro to Burlesque seminar started at 1:30. (There was a ‘second-generation professional magician’ scheduled to perform as well.)
Lewis listened to the guy’s request politely but with the look of someone who is utterly repulsed by not only the tackiness of such a request but that a person would even think to ask such a lowly thing in the first place. True, it was odd and tacky, and the patron was promptly humbled and denied a refund. She then spotted me and rushed over to see what this interview was all about.
Lewis is slightly taller than average, 40s, with long blond hair. She has a small overbite and was clad in an all-black pants suit. The author’s spiel about getting a “comprehensive understanding of what she does and how she does it” didn’t do much to change the low esteem in which he was already held, and his attempted investigations may have furthered her annoyance that she had not only agreed to speak with someone but that that someone was poised to ask multiple pages’ worth of questions. A tacit glance at the stack of papers held aloft made her eyes narrow; she suggested email instead. A hesitant email agreement was struck, and a further attempt to politely stress that the project was all about thoroughness resulted only in the comment that she would be answering the questions with one sentence replies only.
There was one last plea to be made: would it be possible to talk about just a few key things, since both author and interviewee are both present? Yes, she sighs, fine, and powerwalks over to a set of stairs in the foyer, where the following conversation occurred. The exchange lasted exactly five minutes and ten seconds:
Did you make a conscious choice to work in the adult industry?
No, I just kind of fell into it because I met somebody and started selling advertising for a magazine. Then I started my own fetish magazine and distributing a line of products and started exhibiting at consumer shows and then I started my own consumer show.
Are the rules that govern this event markedly different than any other event?
The only difference is the by-laws, whatever the local by-laws are regarding nudity. Because I’m in a number of different cities, I have to make sure that were not breaking any of the local by-laws.
Are there any venues for advertising that balk at advertising Sexapalooza?
Oh sure, not in Canada but definitely in the States. The first year we were here, they wouldn’t do billboards. There were a few radio stations that turned me down, some of the entertainment weeklies put me in the back with the prostitutes and escorts and the strip clubs and whatnot. This is the third year now and we’re in the front [of the weeklies]. All of the radio stations want my ads and we’re on billboards and digital boards.
And this event is intended to be a little classier and female-oriented than your average adult trade show?
Definitely. It’s not a porn show. There are other consumer shows that are similar to this that bring all the porn stars in; we don’t. We are more the burlesque, pole dancing, belly dancing, product demonstrations, seminars. There’s more education here, I think.
Taking that into consideration, do you have to turn down certain advertisers that want to take part in Sexapalooza?
Not at all, but we don’t really go after the porn stars or porn producers, so that hasn’t really been a problem. They haven’t come to me, so no.
I understand that you are a devoted Rotarian. How does Sexapalooza and Rotarianism overlap?
I just try to run my business following the beliefs of being a Rotarian, which is being honest, trusting people, trying to be fair, and I try to make sure that when I do business with somebody it’s beneficial to both of us.
Is there any consternation on their part about what you do?
Nope. When I joined the club in Peterborough, everybody knew what I did for a living. There are two clubs in Peterborough – I did join the younger club because I thought they would be more accepting, and there was no problem.
Why a fetish magazine in particular? [She published the BDSM magazine ‘Whiplash’ from 1999-2003]
I enjoyed the people, I like the fashion, I like the parties. They were cerebral, they were artsy.
Is there still a misunderstanding about what this event is about, or are people starting to understand it a little bit better?
I think it takes a few years. This is our third year here in Columbus and definitely people know what to expect now. Other cities where I’ve been for six, seven, eight years, yeah, no problem. In Ottawa, for instance, that was my first show, everybody considers it a fun night out, they’re gonna go out and buy some toys and have a good time.
Is the publicity that these events receive fairly accurate in representing what it is supposed to be about?
No, I think the media is pretty fair with me.
Is there an “average” attendee?
No, not at all. It runs everywhere from whatever the age limit is to get in – back in Ontario it’s 19, in Quebec it’s 18, here it’s 21 – right up to people in their 70s. I started a Sexy Senior discount program a few years ago and we get a lot of seniors coming to the show now.
Is it distracting to work with subject matter like this?
All in all, it’s a business like any other. I get up, I go the office, I get on my computer. I think it’s more fun than selling, I don’t know, office supplies or something boring. It’s more fun because of the subject matter and the people I get to interact with.
Do you see yourself doing this for the foreseeable future?
Probably ‘til I retire, yeah.
The debate about whether or not to pay twenty dollars to walk around inside for a little while didn’t last very long. (And I certainly didn’t want to commit the same error the refund-attempting guy did.) Sexapalooza ultimately was not attended despite the promise of a bondage bed demo and a G-Spot and Female Ejaculation how-to video. The Vets Memorial employees who had helped track down Liz Lewis gave me a card that waived my parking fee, as they had looked on sympathetically as I was rebuffed and dismissed. It’s ok though; I’ve never organized a major expo of any kind and so the amount of running around required shouldn’t be underestimated. If nothing else, the brief insight I had into Sexapalooza demonstrated that despite the sexiness of an event, the logistical necessities that govern it are the same as those which goes into organizing the Dilbertian insurance company expo that takes place every year at a hotel conference center where I used to work.
For more information, please check out:
Also, please check out the event’s information packet for potential sponsors/partners. The financial values assigned to the various types of advertising at Sexapalooza are awesome (“Verbal Promotion from Our Main Stage – [worth] $1500,” etc.):
And finally, Sexapalooza quantified, according to packet above:
2 for 1 tickets
January 9, 2014 Leave a comment
THINGS LEFT BEHIND BY THE GUY WHOSE LEASE I JUST TOOK OVER
In celebration of my new apartment (which I actually really like), here is a list of the things I found when I moved in not too long ago:
- a black futon mattress, on the ground, folded into quarters
- a porn DVD: “Video Magazine Nineteen, vol. 13: College Girls” (under the futon)
- a miniature grill with two full cans of lighter fluid
- a J°S. A. Banks tie still wrapped in tissue paper, with a $79.95 price tag
- a drawer full of loose plastic utensils and a stack of paper plates
- a double-boiler
- corduroy pants and a blue button-up shirt
- a pair of underwear and scattered socks
- an almost untouched, still mostly shrink-wrapped, package of peanut candy (which is, ahem, pretty good)
- a small box of rice
- a Harry Potter beer stein, which is about a foot tall, has a heavy silver lid, and features the full-color insignias of all six houses; on the bottom is a price sticker reading $40
- a suit hanging in the closet in one of those suit bags you take when you’re traveling
- various plastic lids and tops to appliances
- a huge pack of paper towels
- a wobbly black desk with three white trash bags taped across the top like plastic sheeting, covered in crumbs and featuring one small chemical symbol drawn in pen
- to top it all off, in the closet was a plastic double-edged skull axe (like the kind you get at the grocery store around Halloween)
(This was nothing compared to one roommate experience I had. I arrived in Valencia, Spain for the year without arranging anywhere to live or stay beforehand. Through a Craigslist-type message board, I found an apartment for rent and was able to see it that afternoon. I liked the apartment and was eager to stop paying to stay at a hostel, so I was able to work out a deal that I could move in ASAP with the understanding that the remaining two rooms were to be filled as quickly as possible, either with people I’d found myself or people that answered a For Rent ad the realtor posted online.
A day or two later we got a call from the realtor saying that she had found someone for us. We could come and meet him as soon as we wanted, because he was in the realtor’s office around the corner at that moment, waiting to move into the apartment. We walked over to meet him. We were introduced to his aunt and then to him, with a subtle look then exchanged between my roommate and I because the prospective roommate that the realtor was trying really hard to pretend was a great choice was sitting in the corner of the room, breathing heavily, sweating heavily, and looking at us in a way that can only be described as distraught leering. He was a big, solid guy and his hair was soaked through and sticking up crazily. His aunt had actually found the apartment for him and co-signed his lease, as she was looking after him while he was in town.
He seemed nervous and exhausted and his aunt explained that had been on a bus all day, traveling from the northwestern-most corner of Spain all the way across the country to Valencia. We talked with him and tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, as maybe his deranged appearance would lessen in severity after a shower and a good night’s sleep. He told us that he liked to cook, and we decided that a good way to get to know each other was to make a meal the next evening, after he finished moving in. My roommate and I shrugged as we walked back, trying to empathize with his journey and the stress of meeting new people.
Long story short, the meal was surprisingly good and the awkwardness was more or less only the natural amount that occurs when you have to spend time with someone new. A few days go by and it’s fine, though I do start to wonder what I’m going to do when my girlfriend comes to stay for four months, because I definitely wouldn’t feel safe leaving her alone with the new guy when I was at work; he hadn’t yet stopped breathing heavily and interjecting strange exhortations into our conversations and so I wasn’t sure if he was as socially adept as one might hope, a notion I was being mentally polite in pretending was my only worry about him.
One night I go out with a bunch of people and end up staying on someone’s couch across town. My original roommate was going to have some people over, and I was told that there would probably be people crashing on our couch. Cool, the bohemian lifestyle. Fine by me. But I get a phone call at about ten thirty the next morning from roommate A. He isn’t home, he says, because he almost got in a fight with the new guy. Why? Because earlier that morning, a girl that was staying on our couch woke up to find the new guy giggling and taking photos of her sleeping with his cellphone.
She got up and shut herself in the bathroom. She called my roommate, who came out into the living room and asked what was going on. The new guy immediately got super-defensive and says that it’s his house and he can do whatever he wants. The conversation got heated and so roommate A and all his friends leave the apartment. A little while later the new guy’s aunt calls roommate A and asks him why he threatened to punch her nephew. Roommate A is gobsmacked and really wants to ask her how she could possibly think he would be the one to be afraid of in this situation. (And he might have actually said this to her.)
Shit. I go home and try to talk to the guy. He is wildly pacing around the apartment and continues to chain smoke. He snaps at me when I suggest he stop smoking because it’s against the lease to smoke inside. Finally we talk for a little while and he seems to acknowledge that he did something really sketchy, but it’s one of those situations where the shame of it makes him not contrite but want to lash out in the embarrassment he can’t handle. (Roommate A says that the aunt told him that he made the new guy cry when he threatened him.) He calms down a little but then flares up again when roommate A’s name comes up and pushes his way out of the apartment after calling me a ‘fucking American scum’(!)
What are we going to do, roommate A and I ask each other later. We met at a bar to discuss the situation. ‘We can’t go back there when he’s there. I won’t go back there when he’s there,’ he said. Agreed, I agreed. I had a backpack with all of my valuables in it and we both had floors to sleep on that night. We would do it tomorrow. But do we confront him alone? What if he won’t leave? What if he gets violent?
But not too long after we got to the bar, I get a call from the guy’s aunt asking me to meet her. I go to the apartment to talk with her, hoping that this will somehow be resolved but not looking forward to how. We agree we’ll let each other tell our respective sides of the story, and I’m trying all the while to come up with the most tactful way to explain that her nephew is and was being super creepy to people while they are sleeping. She was actually a really nice, genuinely understanding person, and fortunately for us it turned out that the guy was already on an overnight bus back to where he came from, and she just wanted to clear everything up and suss out what might have really happened.
We went home that night and looked into his room. We stood in the doorway for a second feeling a bit of trepidation about actually walking in, like the guy was in there waiting for us or that his essence was adrift waiting to be breathed in. We walked in and looked around the room aimlessly, trying process the totally weird couple of days we’d just experience. It kind of did. Then for some reason we started opening the drawers to see if he’d left anything behind. Right after nervously laughing about the initial discomfort we felt about having him in the house, we discovered that he had stashed a long kitchen knife in the drawer of the table right next to his bed.
Despite this debacle, the landlord still thought she had the ability to select sane roommates and her search continued. (She also insinuated as long as we lived there that we were somehow at fault for running the guy out.) Unfortunately anyone we might know who needed a house had found one at this point, and so the next two people that lived in the house were people found somehow by the realtor.
Roommate A and I had a few days to ourselves before we were introduced to the next guy one afternoon by way of meeting him as he was unpacking in our spare room. He was decent enough. He was kind of happy go lucky, a moderate soccer fan, and was studying economics. He was from Portugal. He liked to sing loudly and would belt out tone deaf renditions of 90s US pop songs, but only the choruses or a line or two from a verse repeated over and over. This happened a lot but wasn’t that big of a deal and kind of endearing, in fact. The weirdest thing that happened with him was a result of my girlfriend and I agreeing to go out with him and his friend. We went to the bar down the street. We hung out and talked on the sidewalk about nothing in particular. (This bar always had this incredible deal on these tiny bottles of beer and so every table around us was piled with literally dozens of beer bottles.) Anyway, the friend was nice enough but we were kind of distracted by the act of talking to him, since his face was engineered in such a way that his mouth was always open really, really wide and would blast out seemingly pressurized puffs of air into your face every time he used certain syllables. An hour or so later we end up in a bar that was blasting the ‘Friends’ theme song when we walked in, a cut much enjoyed by the patrons, almost all of who were all jumping up and down and clapping with the claps in the song. He had been really flirty with my girlfriend all night to the point where I was wondering if I should say something to him about it. (And I’m not a needlessly upset guy). But just like that his attention shifted to me, and he started dancing high up on my thigh, with his eyes closed and head shaking in time with the music. Then he licked my neck and kissed me a couple of times before acting like nothing had happened. Thus the flirtation balance was restored and we continued on into the night.
Roommate A moved out a little while later (supposedly because he wanted to be closer to the center of town) and was replaced with a fresh-faced eighteen year-old kid from Morocco who had never lived outside his parents’ house, let alone his entire country. (Or continent, for that matter.) I learned that he could usually be found in his room laughing at top volume with his friends on Skype or watching soccer games. Sometimes he would leave to go to the Halal market around the corner, but that was about the only place he went aside from going school, which was down the street from our apartment, on the same block. His most perplexing behavior was his bathroom behavior. He would shut himself in there for at least a half an hour a time, and when he finally left literally every surface of the bathroom was as soaking wet as if he’d sprayed the entire room with the shower. The toilet seat had drops of water all over it, the towels were damp, the walls were dripping. This never changed and I never learned what he did; I would only hope that I got to the bathroom before him.
One day I walked in the kitchen as he was microwaving the collapsed remains of a rotisserie chicken, but not on a plate. It was just sitting on the rotating microwave tray. His dad came to visit for a week. His dad was always neatly dressed in a suit and tie. We didn’t speak any mutual languages so he just smiled at me or shook my hand profusely every time we passed. One evening I met them in the kitchen. They were preparing dinner by microwaving a box full of popcorn shrimp, again without a plate, just sitting on the rotating tray. The shrimp had a breading that in the oven would have been crispy and nice but in the microwave completely melted and turned into a gross glop that covered even a wider section of the microwave plate. I finally asked him why he did this. Not out of anger or disgust, just genuine curiosity about what was going on. He said that he didn’t use a plate because he didn’t know you could microwave them. But what about the soup you regularly microwave in a bowl? I asked. It’s the exact same principle. I saw him consider this and agree, and we continued to live together contentedly enough.
The last problem I experienced in this apartment happened in August, when I was moving out as almost the entire city of Valencia goes on vacation. I left a pair of shoes and sandals and a sweatshirt and some magazines there to get later but when I came back to get them, I found that the other two guys had already gone home, the realtor’s office was closed until September, and the guy who actually owned the place was far away on vacation as well. The apartment consumed a handful of my belongings.)
November 19, 2013 Leave a comment
I am thrilled to announce that I am doing the poster art for next year’s International Cryptid Convention! Past luminaries and guest speakers have included everyone from a neanderthal to a gang of Chupacabras. This year promises to be equally as exciting, with confirmed appearances from Dingonek, the Pope Lick Monster, and a Grey Alien! More TBA!
Other activities will include white noise demonstrations and even a deep-sea phone call from the Bloop Monster!
Stay tuned! It will certainly be an amazing time!
November 19, 2013 Leave a comment
That I complain a lot about my fairly trouble-free life notwithstanding, what did I ultimately learn from my summer as a mover? I’m not sure. Maybe to make sure you tip your movers but know that they probably said things so offensive that you’d probably weep if you heard them. Opinions on the default goodness or evil of human nature tilted in favor of the latter after seeing that verbal and physical violence can be so easily provoked, but in reality people are prone to be shitheads regardless of job or lot in life. Despite the many times when I swore this must be the case, this isn’t a characteristic specific to movers; moving is just another venue that hosts sketchy human drama. To wit, everyone in every industry is probably ethically suspect. The blustery machismo of movers is the same as the mercurial histrionics of kitchen staff and the ruthless ambition driving corporate knuckleheads for who even the smallest amount of power is violently arousing.
Thanks in part to the frustration inspired by said bluster, I also came to learn that sometimes a job is just a job. A job doesn’t always yield some sort of fascinating insight or exist primarily to foster literary investigation. You get up, you go to work, and you to do what you’re told. There isn’t much room for a job to be much more than the duties that comprise it, especially in a let’s-get-this-done-as-fast-as-possible profession like moving.
It’s precisely because of this that workers are so demoralized and psychotic. It was depressing to see yet again the utterly impersonal nature of business. Employers refuse to nurture individual talents or even recognize that an employee is an individual human being. Most of the employees were considered totally replaceable and treated accordingly. How much dissatisfaction and struggling to get by on unlivable wages does it take before a person does something outrageous in an attempt to combat the drudgery? How much dignity can be taken away from someone before he bullies his coworkers in an attempt to feel he has power as a human being? How much hard labor, condescension, and complete lack of benefits before people think and act like they have nothing to lose? And what if you are bound to stay in such an environment by necessity? How much moving can one man take?
The essays in Studs Terkel’s books can function as a kind of vindication for situations that seem to be devoid of hope. That the regular lives of regular people are being documented makes their struggles feel worthwhile. The books convey with heartbreaking clarity the tenuous hope that you as an individual are leaving a mark on the larger human story, the hope that there is a reason you are spending years doing an ostensibly unglamorous job. The books say that your life is not going unacknowledged.
In a way, I am guilty of appropriating the lessons in Terkel’s books for my own means. I feel that choosing to work a variety of jobs (some of which I specifically sought out after reading) is an attempt to address the same struggle for meaning and validation that any worker faces. You have to try to make work meaningful to contend with the fact that you are forced to do something you might not like for the majority of your life.
I had to try to keep this rationale in mind while working as a mover and toxic mold remover and factory line-worker. It wasn’t about trying to work my way up a ladder but to make the necessity of full-time employment work for me. I was less afraid of not making my way up a ladder than of a work-life defined by resignation to boredom. The unpleasant misadventures of moving were the price I figured I had to pay to stave off becoming a part of regular society. At least the jobs would be something to talk about, something to make it feel like I wasn’t compromising my mobility, my spontaneity, my sense of adventure just to abide by the lifestyle dictated by the Man.
But I’d also worry that by constantly reassuring myself I was doing a good thing I was trying to hide the fact that my work exploits weren’t playing out like I’d imagined. You can find glory and satisfaction and contentment in anything, but sometimes it’s hard to. Yes, I was trying new things, but I would often be grumpy and unhappy and have to completely zone out to put up with work, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to make that bitterness a consistent part of my life.
About a year after I quit moving I found myself working in a run-of-the-mill corporate office. Every day I went to my cubicle where I did the same tasks and dealt with the same client problems day in, day out. Truthfully, it was a step up from moving. At least at the office I was trusted to work by myself, and my unit’s boss even bought us a French press when I complained about the quality of the breakroom’s coffee at every meeting. (The “coffee” was the discharge of a machine that pumped boiling water through a large can of coffee-flavored syrup.) I could take breaks whenever I wanted, I had a set schedule, I had three weeks of paid vacation and inexpensive health insurance. My coworkers weren’t violent muscleheads; a disagreement we had about global warming ended peacefully when a coworker suggested in earnest that instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, money would be better spent on developing nuclear-powered cars.
The office was an entertaining and weird and eye-opening environment for a while, but it too quickly grew stale. One day we were called to a meeting where my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss – no joke about the ladder of bosses – flat out told my department that our position at the company would never change. We would never be given more challenging work and we would certainly never earn more money. Ever. I appreciated their honesty but I was shocked that they were so sure of our immobility that they had nothing to lose by telling us we would be staying put.
I eventually left in pursuit of a job that at least promised I would learn some new skills. I was quickly introduced to the atmosphere of my new workplace when a coworker explained that his morning headache wasn’t due to a hangover: “I don’t drink. I eat pussy, man, but I don’t drink,” he said. It was a tasteless non-sequitar that encapsulated the obnoxious yet strangely compelling madness that would be the next eight months of my life. Onwards and upwards…
Have I doomed myself to a life without professional fulfillment by not focusing on something I really like, or am I livin’ free by seeing the world, employment-wise? Did the complex emotional turmoil of my summer as professional a mover help answer this question? I still haven’t come to a definitive answer, but I’m sure insight will come with the next job or the one after that.
September 10, 2013 Leave a comment
All of the houses full of garbage, the surprise addition of an industrial-sized refrigerator to the day’s itinerary, almost dislocating your shoulder carrying a wardrobe up narrow stairs – the emotional impact of everything that happens on the job is intensified by the presence of your coworkers. When you’re able to laugh with someone about the ridiculous thing that just happened, a frustrating day will seem a little less so. But when the soundtrack to an already exhausting day is a series of bizarre racist rants or impatient mockery of your need to get some water (and it’s only 9:30 AM!), you’ll begin fantasizing about not just your escape but where you’ll hide the bodies.
I worked with a semi-pro indoor football player, a film student working on a documentary, and a very outspoken born again Christian. There were numerous ex-cons and a lackey that rode the coattails of tougher dudes, freely and happily mocking from under their protection. There were a handful of grumpy old-timers and an arrogant mechanic with a disarming resemblance to Matthew McConaughey. There were some serious chess players, a handful of family men, and a few sets of siblings. There were quiet guys who kept to themselves and one guy that was so loud and had such an intense, wild-eyed stare that you never knew if he was laughing with you or if you’d just gotten on his bad side, either of which would result in something totally unpredictable.
There were a lot ‘one guys,’ guys who, to their chagrin or pride, were forever defined by their actions. There was the guy that always ruined trucks. In the span of a month, he hit a car on the highway, side-swiped another moving van in the company parking lot (shredding its fiberglass shell in the process), and somehow bent the front axle of a third truck. Another guy was always vigorously scratching his back on any corner he could find. Porch post, brick wall, tree – anything helped. He had itches so profound that he began his scratches began from a squatting position to maximize force.
And like most jobs, the world of moving had its own subculture, its own in-jokes and complaints, its routines and difficulties that two movers from opposite ends of the country could immediately bro-down on. But the job was about the only thing my coworkers allowed themselves to have in common. Lives outside of work were mysteries, even between people that had worked together for a long time. Very little was shared or asked about because it didn’t seem to matter. (Everything mentioned above was gleaned through observation, the rare disclosure, or unusually persistent questioning. It’s not for the sake of entertainment that I reduce people to their idiosyncrasies; they were seriously the only things we knew about each other.) Maybe it was easier to move literally tons of stuff every day if you focused only on the job. Moving was a mentally and physically exhausting vocation, and its demands left little energy for getting to know someone.
But there was another reason for this distance, as the following example illustrates:
One day, towards the end of a move, I made the mistake of soliciting a coworker’s attention with a ‘psst psst!’-sound instead of calling his name. Maybe I was trying to be funny or cute or something; I don’t really know why I did it but it almost resulted in me getting punched in the face. He stomped over, fists clenched, eyes crazy, asking how dare I call him like a dog, and warning me to never fuckin’ hiss at him again. It was especially scary because his anger came out of nowhere. We had been chatting amicably all day but he turned on me in an instant. “But I thought we were friends!” I wanted to say. The crew leader standing nearby didn’t make any move to intervene. Instead of trying to chill the guy out (to say nothing of preventing a fight from breaking out on a client’s lawn), he simply laughed and awaited with malignant glee the threatened blow.
The situation was distressing and disappointing, and not just because I was almost attacked. It reflected the outlook that governed every aspect of life as a mover. Making sure everyone knew you were tough was the only thing that mattered, and that’s why nobody really got to know one another. Real friendships, or even any unguarded, genuine interaction, were almost nonexistent since the point of communication was to transmit that you were better in every way than everyone else.
People seized any opportunity to distinguish themselves as superior to others. You exaggerated perceived differences or made them up. Hence the ingrained, serious (though always irrational) racism of the sort I didn’t think still existed. Hence the very real, very creepy pathological misogyny: women were not people but trophies to prove you were a man. Violence (or at least the threat of it) was the go-to response to solve any problem, since it provided an immediate answer to any dispute. People were either directly at odds with one another or at best wary, laughing on the surface but always keeping watch out of the corner of their eye. The same trivialities that have inspired millennia of conflict were on display at the moving company, so petty but accorded so much weight, and thus so much potential to damage.
Not everyone was like this, of course. Some people were very friendly and talkative, and some people just kept their heads down and worked hard with no offense intended by their disinterest. The problem was that you might not be able to avoid getting sucked in to the fray. Some people thought that because you had the slightly above-average level of toughness necessary to be a mover, then toughness must be the most important thing in your life. It was assumed that because you worked there you were willing to play by the same rules as the most aggro mover.
It didn’t occur to my near-assailant that since nothing about our interaction throughout the day set the stage for conflict, I probably wasn’t insulting him. The context of the misguided hiss-sound didn’t matter. In his eyes I had disrespected him, end of story. The issue was never really about what someone said but that someone had the audacity to insult you in the first place. Toughness defines your character, which determines your social standing, which determines the respect you’re given by the world. An insult has to be taken seriously because it basically degrades your place in the Universe. And everything was considered an insult. The most volatile dudes were dealing with this dilemma every waking second of their lives. Merely existing must have been exhausting when every comment and glance has to been thoroughly analyzed.
(To be fair, they left me out of most nonsense. I tried to be friendly or at least unobtrusive, so I don’t think I was subject to the same rituals of manhood that others took part in. The only public insult I had to endure was occasionally being called Harry Potter, and (I think) that was only because I wear glasses.)
But the craziest part of it all was that when a day of insults became unendurable, employees were allowed to fight on company ground. I guess it was understood by the management that fights were inevitable. Fights usually got stopped before they got too out of hand but there weren’t any repercussions for the people involved. One day this guy accused the crew leader of shorting him on tips, and they argued about it for the rest of the day. When everyone was back at the warehouse clocking out, the offended party jumped out of his car as the crew leader was walking inside. They exchanged a few punches and then the guy jumped back in his car and drove away, with both returning to work the next morning as if nothing had happened. At least it was better than the conflict resolution technique a guy said they used at the moving company he used to work for: two guys were shut in the back of a moving truck; the doors were opened when the pounding stopped.
Oddly enough, people were surprisingly understanding of your physical limits. While you were expected to work hard, it wasn’t often that you’d hear people being mocked for not being able to carry as much as the strongest guys. Word certainly got around if you did things like take bathroom breaks to hide from carrying heavy pieces (“He is the peeing-est motherfucker!”), but most of the mockery was directed at people who had already proven they could lift heavy stuff, more like encouragement than derision. There were even moments of sympathy and times when you were allowed to carry light pieces for a little while, as everyone knew how difficult moving can be.
Trying to understand these dynamics and where/how I fit in was a perplexing and dissonant exercise. The work was difficult but I was proud of myself for doing it; I didn’t like the impulse to aggressively out-dude one another but I wanted people to recognize that I could pull my weight on a move. I didn’t want to fit in but I wanted to be accepted. Why?
Earning their respect was a way for me to live up to the perception I had of myself. I wanted to be work hardened; I wanted to exude blue-collar honesty. Sometimes I felt like the job was a romantic exercise that reinforced the fantasies I had of my ability to withstand hardship. I didn’t have any interest in forcing people to recognize my toughness, but I secretly wanted people to acknowledge it. Earning the respect of people who had seen it all on the job was a serious matter; if you got it, you knew you had earned it.
This is why it was so satisfying to be told I was a better worker than the football player-sized guy who started working when I did. Everyone was thrilled when he started since he was gigantic, but his attempts to avoid the hardest parts of the job – by offering to be the recipient of goods at the top of the stairs instead of unloading and carrying them up, as if he were taking one for the team – severely disappointed my bosses and coworkers, and a few weeks later he was gone. Considerable strength turned out to be less desirable than a commitment to work and to being an equal on a job; I apparently demonstrated this and was thus more highly valued.
I also secretly felt that if I was physically capable of doing hard labor, then I could also be capable of physically confronting my coworkers. I would be tough enough to put my foot down against their racist bullshit: it wouldn’t be some wimp calling them out for abstract ideological transgressions but an angry guy who could fight as well as they could. His complaints deserved to be listened to (and even heeded) if everyone knew he could back them up.
Sometimes, a day was almost tolerable. People would be laughing and getting along well enough while working in the sun – it was almost like enlisting the help of a few friends of friends to install a cumbersome but ultimately awesome accessory to your house. The work was hard and annoying, but the payoff would definitely be worth the effort.
In fact, sometimes this exact scenario was a by-product of the job. It wasn’t uncommon for homeowners to give away appliances or furniture that didn’t have a place in their new house. There was always the chance that you’d score something outrageous on the job. One family gave away not one but two enormous old-school big-screen televisions (“Big Boys,” in mover parlance). Customers gave away gaming tables; others gave grills, chairs, desks; others gave away furniture whose sheer size made up for any question of its quality. As a result, a lot of the movers had become de facto experts on home furnishings. It was hilarious to hear curse-ridden debates about the merits of one brand of easy chair versus another. Tough dudes were constantly bragging that their houses were better furnished than yours.
It makes sense that the amount of time working around furniture is proportional to the breadth of knowledge about furniture. The same can be said of the irascibility of the average mover relative to time worked. As such, an extremely irksome character was the ultra-veteran. There were a handful of people that had been with the company for at least eight years and had earned the right to act like it. They weren’t totally unfriendly but approached everything you did with an extremely critical eye. They’d worked with every kind of employee, and they were justified in not wanting to work with people who aren’t going to pull their weight.
On my first day, I was shown that the proper way to work was to pick up a box/chair/appliance/whatever and move as quickly as you could to the truck. You’d hand it to the guy packing the truck (if your crew was big enough to have a packer) or stash it yourself, and then run back into the house to grab more stuff and run right back out to the truck.
I was able to practice this method my first day without too much difficulty, since I was primarily tasked with carrying a lot of boxes and stuff that you could one-man. But when I worked with a couple of vets for the first time, I learned that you move the largest, heaviest, most unwieldy pieces with the same speed. I was practically pushed backwards down some stairs carrying a bookshelf and I tripped over my feet as I was driven along by a washing machine shoved into my chest. That was just the way they worked, and if you didn’t want to get on their bad side, you had to learn to move as quickly and nimbly as they did.
This approach served me well later when I moved myself or helped a friend. Picking up a box and running with it was reflexive. My brother’s roommate still talks appreciatively about how quickly her move went when I was there to help, though she also still laughs remembering the sight of some guy frantically running around the property with a large box.
(Side note: new people were told that anything they broke came out of their paycheck. You were encouraged to be careful by the possibility that your entire week’s wages could vanish in a second if you accidently dropped a TV. In reality this wasn’t true. The company’s insurance paid for any damages. Good thing because at what we were paid, compensating someone for something expensive would have taken months. The only thing I ever had a hand in breaking was a huge mirror that I propped up poorly inside a truck. The client brushed it off as a no big deal but his mom made sure that it was replaced by the company, not that it was especially valuable but why wouldn’t you want to get a free replacement or a small check?)
One guy I actually really liked was from Boston, and I had the good fortune of being assigned to work with him fairly frequently. I liked working with him because he didn’t care about what anybody thought, not in a tough I-don’t-give-a-fuck-fuck-you way but because he couldn’t be bothered to be bothered by anything he didn’t want to bother him. He was short and thick and had a crew cut. He boasted a few scars and a rough n’ tumble mug made handsome by his bad boy charm. His speech was peppered with a bunch of New England slang and he said he’d been to prison, but he mentioned it in a way that was free of bluster or yearning for credibility. Being in prison was a life experience just like any other and it was matter-of-factly discussed as such.
Having someone open up to me about the fact that he was at one point in – gasp! – jail was flattering for its implied trust and because it also satisfied my voyeuristic interest in the prison experience. Feelings of my own toughness were made a little more tangible by the fact that we were driving around in a truck talking about it and smoking cigarettes. He noted that I smoked “rollies,” as I was rolling my own. I silently freaked out in delight over the term, and I immediately began using the term among my friends, really casually like I’d always called them that. (I’m not a smoker, but in keeping with my obsession with being a real working man, I smoked a few packs that summer.) He told me about prison smuggling operations, work-release programs, and cliques. He told me that he had briefly taken up writing in prison. He wrote for a week straight and produced forty pages of a crime novel. He hadn’t picked it up after that and didn’t seem to have much interest in doing so, but he kept the manuscript and had it stashed somewhere in his house.
BUT there is the possibility that he wasn’t in jail at all. As odd as it sounds, some of the things he said were prison stereotypes that could be picked up from any TV show. For example: prison chess matches. He said he watched one person play against ten, the archetypical bookish prisoner who would inevitably win all the games. He also told me with a straight face about the dinners he and his fellow inmates cooked, which were apparently the stuff of legend. The meals were a beautiful show of camaraderie as everyone had a specific function – one guy took care of the pasta, one guy cooked the sausage, and the guy in charge of the sauce had this technique where he would shave the garlic into paper-thin slices with a razor blade so they would dissolve in oil. I was quite familiar with this scene as it appears exactly how he described in the movie Goodfellas, which was released in 1990 to widespread acclaim. I don’t know if he thought I hadn’t seen the movie or if he was somehow “testing” me to see if I would call his bluff, but I acted like it was true.
When a good conversation was underway, I could tell he knew it. The occasional look of appreciation would be exchanged, quickly followed by the sarcasm typical to male bonding. Sometimes it was hard to tell if his sarcasm was friendly or a way to tell me to shut the fuck up without actually doing so. I was always on guard that I was getting on his nerves. I sort of had a good thing going with someone and I didn’t want to blow it. Sometimes we’d ride in silence for a while and I’d wonder if I’d been too eager to appreciate but then he’d bring up the aggravating traits of a coworker, for example, and we’d bond again over our mutual annoyance.
One person we both complained about was the aforementioned born again Christian. The bit about people keeping their lives to themselves didn’t apply to this guy, as we learned a lot about him whether we wanted to or not. He was recently born again and told us how happy he was to have left behind a life of drug dealing, sex having, gun carrying, etc. etc. etc. It was the stock transformation, though he at least tossed around some obscure biblical references to spice up his otherwise predictable story.
One day he and I were on a move together and began talking about the history of Christianity, hoping as I was that my dazzling logic would knock loose the pillars of his faith. We carried boxes and moved tables as we chatted about the Council of Nicea and other important events. In addition to doing my duty as an antitheist, I appreciated the scene on behalf of the clients. I figured that the wealthy owners of the house must have been fascinated that these tough blue-collar types were casually talking about such interesting and intellectual topics. (In reality the homeowners looked amused and then annoyed, as if one subject were as bad as any when it came to slowing down the pace of work.) I enjoyed debating with him, especially in public, for the same narcissistic reason I celebrated earning my coworkers’ respect. I fancied myself a well-rounded, worldly chap, and recognition as a blue-collar semi-scholar further confirmed exactly how I pictured myself.
But this joy was short-lived. I realized that the intellectual sparring I was doing with the guy wasn’t as meaningful as I’d thought since it was just as much a pissing contest as every other attempt at one-upmanship I experienced that summer.
He was arrogant and judgmental and thought nothing of manipulating things for his benefit, acting afterwards (or maybe truly believing) that nothing untoward had happened. I worked with him a lot, and if we both knew he had acted questionably, a threatening “do not mention it” glance was shot my way. A lot of little lies and cut corners and selfish behaviors belied the vanity of his faith. The threat to anyone that noticed his errors was necessary because he knew he had done wrong and wanted to bury it: he wasn’t upset because he had strayed in thought and deed but that he had been caught doing it. He was exactly the same person as he was before he was saved, but now he had the forgiving/redeeming power of faith behind him. My friend the Bostonian recognized this and his no-bullshit approach to life elevated what was initially a bemused, sarcastic way of relating to the guy to a relationship of serious antagonism. They’d been working together for a while and their dynamic was much more nuanced than the caveman-like chest-thumping that characterized most workplace rivalries. It seemed to me like it would eventually lead to something explosive, but it would be a blow-up somehow more significant and more valid given the complicated personalities at play.
Speaking yet again of toughness, another coworker was unphased by the work of a house/office mover because he had just transferred from an outfit that moved pianos exclusively. Only pianos, all day, every day. We were (un)lucky if we moved a piano once every couple of weeks but this guy dealt with music stores, piano tuners, instrument refurbishers, and schools on a daily basis. Working with pianos every day didn’t make it easier, he explained, shuddering. Pianos were pianos. He was a nice guy by nature, but his good moods and enthusiasm were endearing because he seemed legitimately appreciative of his luck that he was now moving a variety of things.
(Here’s how moving a piano works, by the way: For small pianos, like the kind in your grandma’s house, you bring in a four-wheeled piece of plastic or wood to sit the piano on. You have to pick up the piano to set it on the dolly, but you can at least wheel it once it is secured. Sometimes we’d make a ramp and wheel the piano on the board down the steps, but this was only if the steps weren’t steep. A lot of times people had pianos on their second floor, where the only way to move it was to pick it up and carry it down the steps. (You’d have to take care not to let the spindly legs sticking off of the keyboard get caught on anything.) For grand and baby grand pianos, you’d bring in a padded board that looks appropriately like the backboards used by ambulance crews. You unscrew the piano’s legs – one person unscrews while two tilt the piano – and then flip the piano ninety degrees onto the piano board. The piano is strapped down and then lifted onto a dolly or – surprise, surprise – carried down stairs.)
Carrying pianos and other stuff all day certainly taught me the value of a cold beer when I got home. (Or, if the day was especially rough, that of a cold beer in the shower.) One or two beers was reward enough for me, though it didn’t hold a candle to the beer appreciation felt by a mover who was said to be able to drink an entire six pack in a matter of minutes.