Rebuffed and Disappointed at the Threshold of Sexapalooza 2014

“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? The parent company is Canadian, so 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 consumer values make Columbus the ideal place for an upscale adult expo.

Unfortunately, the questions I wanted to ask were to remain largely unanswered. The parking lot monitors were typically unpleasant (seriously, try to talk to them) and their gnarliness 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 she addressed the concerns of whoever was on the other end of her earpiece. (Though 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.)

The look of disappointment that greeted this author when he was introduced to the interviewee was enormous, as the lack of major press credentials was clearly a letdown:

“Who are you with?”

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. Agreement on my end was assumed, as Lewis was already walking away before the initial sound of the word ‘yes’ was even completed.
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, 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 kids into the sex 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 accidently 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, the refund request was odd and tacky, and the patron was promptly 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 sighed, fine, and powerwalked 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 did you publish a fetish magazine in particular?

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?

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 internal debate about whether or not to pay twenty dollars to walk around inside for a little while didn’t last very long. Sexapalooza ultimately was not attended by this author despite the promise of a bondage bed demo and a G-Spot and Female Ejaculation how-to video. (And I certainly didn’t want to commit the same faux pas the refund-attempting guy did in asking for my money back.) 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 by the organizer. 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, and I don’t blame her for not wanting to sit down for a leisurely chat. 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.

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. The previous tenant left:

  • 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) bulk package of peanut candy (which was, 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;
  • and a plastic double-edged skull axe Halloween decoration.

Naturally I contacted him to return some of the valuable stuff. He didn’t want any of it.

(But this was nothing compared to one roommate experience I had. I arrived in Valencia, Spain for the year without arranging anywhere to live 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 for 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 they could, either with people I’d found myself or people that answered an 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 at that moment he was in the realtor’s office around the corner, waiting to move into the apartment. We walked over to meet him. We were introduced to his aunt and then to him. My roommate and I exchanged a subtle look because the roommate that the realtor was trying really hard to pretend was a great choice for us 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. 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 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 that which 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 that I was trying to pretend was my only worry about him.

One night I went 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 got a phone call at about ten thirty the next morning from my roommate. 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 with his cellphone as she slept.

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 my roommate and all his friends leave the apartment. A little while later the new guy’s aunt calls my roommate and asks him why he threatened to punch her nephew. My roommate is gobsmacked and really wanted to ask her how she could possibly think that it was he who should be worried about in this situation.

Shit. I went home and tried to talk to the guy. He was wildly pacing around the apartment and continued to chain smoke. He snapped at me when I suggested he stop smoking because it’s against the lease to smoke inside. Finally we talked for a little while and he seemed 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. (My roommate said the aunt told him that he made the new guy cry when he threatened him to punch him.) He calmed down a little but then flared up again when my roommate name came up. He pushed his way out of the apartment after calling me a ‘fucking American scum’(!).

My roommate and I 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. 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 tell him he had to leave 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. She was actually a 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, trying process the weird couple of days we’d just experienced. We started opening drawers to see if he’d left anything behind. Right after nervously laughing about the discomfort we felt 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. We came home from work and he was unpacking in the spare room. He seemed decent enough. He was happy-go-lucky, a moderate soccer fan, and was studying economics. He was from Portugal.

In time, we learned 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 it was actually kind of endearing. 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. The bar always had this incredible deal on tiny bottles of beer, and so every table around us was piled with literally dozens of bottles. Anyway, his friend was nice enough but we were 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 pressurized puffs of air into your face every time he used certain syllables. An hour or so later we ended up in a bar that was blasting the ‘Friends’ theme song when we walked in, a song much enjoyed by the patrons, almost all of who were all jumping up and down and clapping with the claps in the song. The new roommate 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 suddenly 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. 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 he did.

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. A little while later 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.
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. Thus the apartment consumed a handful of my belongings.)