On Working at Ren Faires and Letting One’s Freak Flag Fly -The Toast

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When I was fourteen, I got a job at a Renaissance Faire. It’s tempting to say it was the best job I ever had, but really it was just my first and the most aggressively formative.

Every Saturday and Sunday morning in August and September, I’d cinch myself into a purple velvet bodice worn over a gauzy, off-the-shoulder dress. Given my closet’s limited options, Doc Martens felt like the most appropriate footwear. My mom would drop me off in front of the big wooden gates where I’d flash my employee badge and head past vendors hanging floral wreaths and setting out fairy statuettes in neat rows. After a short walk, I’d get to the gazebo-like booth where I would spend the day selling necklaces that looked like little dragon claws, rings with intricate designs symbolizing fidelity and strength, and pewter talismans that promised love and luck. I worked there for three sticky summers.

Like its relatives around the country, my Ren Faire drew mobs of patrons who roamed around guzzling beer and gnawing on giant turkey drumsticks. They made out on the so-called “kissing bridge” and lined up to hurl axes and knives at wooden targets, while being heckled by costumed women with dangerously wobbly cleavage. The Faire was a favorite weekend outing for families with little kids, who could be counted on to buy the gender-appropriate souvenirs that were its stock in trade: wooden swords and knight’s helmets for the little boys; those glittery, satin-covered princess hats—the ones that look like big upside-down ice cream cones—for the girls. Along with a strong Goth contingent, the Faire also attracted middle-aged women hunting for sacred gemstones and unicorn lawn ornaments, guys decked out in motorcycle gear, a few Hasidic families from the nearby ultra-Orthodox community and, usually, one confused guy in a Starfleet uniform.

Obviously, it was an eclectic version of the Renaissance, and an indulgent one—with room for both melodramatic acts of chivalry and bawdy jokes about pickles. In keeping with the spirit of this supposedly simpler and more innocent time (and with help from the “drynks” dispensed in any number of open-air taverns), people relaxed their inhibitions, pushing against boundaries and hoping to find them flexible. I got my hand kissed a lot, by guys with long hair and a flair for the dramatic. And I quickly recognized the hazards of calling someone “my lord” while wearing a contraption that hikes your boobs up close to your chin.

In the best moments, it was possible to forget I was in high school. In other more ordinary ones, I learned how to make change, call in credit card charges and size people’s ring fingers. I ate mozzarella sticks for lunch every day—sold alongside funnel cake and other county fair staples, and also gestures at more authentic fare, like “steak on a stake.” I started out as a drama club nerd, committed to the vague British accent encouraged by Faire management, but I let it slip as the weeks and then summers went by and I got bored. My boss was a super nice lady who, in her normal life during the week, was a lifer with UPS. When things were slow she’d wave me off to go watch the juggling act that went on at the stage next to our shop. One morning I came in to find her stricken; Princess Diana had been killed in a car wreck, she’d just heard it on the news.

In between sales I did the predictable thing and fell in love, hard and misguided, at least once a season. Jarrett was a painter with bright blue eyes and a crooked nose who spent weekends in the campgrounds behind the fair, living in a yellow school bus his silversmith dad had converted into the ultimate in bohemian motor homes. James was a heavily tattooed army reservist whose plans to move to Ireland had been derailed by the sudden death of his father back home in New Jersey. Andrew sold giant twisty candles across the dirt path from my shop. I could stand there and spy on him as he stood at the counter, his big hands laid flat on its surface as he stared into the distance, never looking my way. It was all too easy to fall hard in that place—what should have been little crushes were instead picturesque set pieces, romance for the ages.

Most people who flocked to the “Renaissance” being performed on these 65 acres in upstate-ish New York didn’t really care about history or accuracy. It was just a nice place to buy handcrafted pottery, take in a joust and have their fortune told. A scrappy, blessedly local Disneyland. There was, though, a conspicuous group that took the escapism more seriously. Impeccably costumed, they bought season passes that promised a summer full of chances to pretend they were living in their ideal era. I half-admired them for it—their commitment, and their certainty about where they belonged. But I also cringed as they wandered past weighed down by velvet robes, bodies straining against corset strings, drinking mead out of jeweled pewter chalices and fanning themselves against the heat. Before I knew quite why, their dedication to this abstracted age felt like something to distance myself from, or even pity.

Because we made up the scenery that enabled these fantasies, my coworkers and I felt licensed to stand in judgment of them. Our interactions with patrons were a shaky balance of deference and sarcasm. Showing up each day before the gates opened to the public, and staying after they’d cleared out and the fryers were turned off, trash swept up and cash counted, we were in little danger of being seduced or surprised. That’s how we wanted it (or claimed to). But the Faire was a playground for us, too—an enabling sort of place where people who thought of themselves as freaks or outlaws could show off their tattoos, flirt and make money and not feel like sell-outs.

I didn’t know then how special this was. After my time at the Faire, I went on to have jobs that felt more relentless and less revealing. I made lattes at a mall and arranged bouquets of flowers in a tiny shop stuck onto the side of a train station. I worked behind the customer service desk of a big art supply store, and spent nights inventorying colored pencils and skeins of yarn. Later, I sorted invoices and made photocopies for a construction company whose offices were in a suburban basement and had a gas fireplace.

On the surface, these were more ordinary jobs than that first, most vivid one. They were pretty typical stops on the way to becoming a “professional,” a destination that’s supposed to be more carefully chosen or worked toward than the way station that is summer employment. Or at least, stumbled on in a way that will make sense when you look back on it with the presumed wisdom of time and distance. Everything looks different with that kind of distance—maybe especially first jobs, weighed down, in retrospect, with everything we didn’t know yet about the bond between work and ambivalence.

So we pride ourselves on the more unexpected lines on our resumes, the things that raise eyebrows and beg questions. Beyond the usual retail and restaurant jobs, we tell stories about our time as go-go dancers, itinerant dishwashers, assembly line workers, temporary carnies. Sometimes we were these things and sometimes we still are, sometimes they were deliberate choices and sometimes they were necessities. Most of them look better looking back, or at least they make more sense that way. For me, having worked at a Renaissance Faire becomes a lucky thing, something I can’t exactly say I earned or aimed for, but that I still get to claim.

Sometimes I feel like my summers there have something to do with the person I grew up to be and the way I hold tight to the past. In others they just seem like a coincidence, and a curiosity. A Renaissance Faire is built from and for nostalgia, and surely that makes it an especially unreliable source of the same. So my wistfulness for it is a disorienting thing—it can be hard to tell my own half-melted memories from the generic ones and the ones that were staged. And even harder to guess what might be different if I could.

Eryn Loeb writes a lot about nostalgia and old stuff.

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