One time, when I was very young, I was with my mother visiting friends in a bayside town called Pacific Grove, a tiny 'burb basically a block away from Monterey. My mother bequeathed my supervision to the punked-out granddaughter of the family friends in order to give the adults time to drink and cuss, I guess. This granddaughter, whom I partly feared (for her looks) and admired (for her brazen threat to society), was old enough by this visit to have acquired a driver's license and a vehicle.
In an evening that will be remembered for the rest of my life, it all started when she told me that we would be going into Monterey, to "make fun of weird people." Part of this odyssey (and it was, for I desperately desired to return home) had us end up in a smarmy coffee shop, punctuated in the middle by a roaring fireplace.
"Do you want anything?" my chauffer of frightening nightly excursions asked.
"Do they have any soda?" I asked, the fear making my voice tremble.
"This is a coffee shop, jackass. I can get you a water."
"I'm good, thank you."
This conversation was a pretty good indication of the timbre of the evening, as well as every other point of contact I've had with her. I noticed a gathering of shadowy figures around the tall brick fireplace (which, in retrospect, wasn't really roaring as much as it was simply, um, burning). The throng was composed of lanky individuals in black garments, the men wearing frilly shirts and long-tailed coats with unusually large buckles on them. The females wore shape-bending dresses that accentuated the pleasures of a pinched bosom, crushed ribs, and fish-netted legs occasionally hidden beneath a cascade of fabric resembling that of a jellyfish's underparts. All of these darkly associating people seemed to be borrowing from the Communist color palette, but substituting the less popular yellow for black or violet. My guide to Monterey's underworld noticed my staring at the slowly moving group of people, and asked me if I'd like to visit them. I answered promptly, negatively.
“Did they come from a party?” I wondered aloud, at which my bringer of unwanted knowledge laughed.
No, I was told they were actually playing a game. Or, more appropriately, a role-playing game. I chuckled and wondered how it could have even been a game, since they weren’t even doing anything.
“What they’re doing,” I was told, “is living as their vampire characters.”
I nodded my head, though I still didn’t understand. Little did I know Vampire: The Masquerade was a place where ugly people with aspirations of acting greatness go. And when I say ugly, it’s out of kindness, for the people that play that game go out of their way to look pallid, sickly, and gaunt.
As I’ve grown, I’ve almost come to understand why those people do things like that (I actually know a few of them). It’s similar to the urges I have felt to escape from adulthood and social civility. It’s a desire to remain a kid, to live and be lost in your imagination; to continue hope that there lies a future you want instead of one you inherit, one that you have to step into.
Last weekend, for the first time in my life, I went to San Luis Obispo’s yearly Renaissance Festival. This has been an event I’ve heard about for years, as I have known many people who have been involved in its presentation (and post-presentation lechery). It has always intrigued me, more when I was younger and learned that vendors sold swords and other nerdy boy-stuff there, and now to see what level of historical accuracy they are trying to uphold.
The place: the fictional village of Donnybrook.
The year: 400 years ago (which would be 1605. The “Renaissance” in England is also called the “Elizabethan Era”, and she died in 1603. So, one could argue that the Renaissance in England had been reduced to a slow sizzle by 1605, but I’m not going to be a stickler for those kinds of details—it's just a natural result of counting time, and I got to see lots of sunburned boobs).
The patrons: Dan Bethel and his girlfriend, Nicole, the former of which was attending the festivities on the hunt for historical accuracy, the latter of which had been to many Ren Faires in the past and acted as the guide for the afternoon.
Even though I was looking for historical acuteness, the lovely ladies at the ticket kiosk brought me relief when they allowed me to use my credit card. Admittedly, it was an archaic method of swiping carbon paper over the card face, so I guess it was historical enough for my book.
I was pleased upon entering. Right off the bat, a row of busty wenches had been lined up, and modern day wanderers were being pulled aside to toss small objects into one of the ladies’ cleft of cleavage. It was, I must say, very awesome.
And it continued for a while, seeing not only blurry peasants, but knights (of the British and French variety) and nobles walking around carrying on conversations if not in accent, then in the content of the times. The bag was nicely mixed between the pretty and the painfully decrepit—but those were the times and it was nice to see that they weren’t sugarcoating anything.
We stopped for a bit to watch a dude with some very clever parrots, and as I stood there the truth began to seep through, via sights and sounds. I realized that this was no more an attempt to educate and replicate history as it was for Dungeons & Dragons fans to walk around and show off their startling levels of nerd.
It started with little things, modern conveniences that most of us wouldn’t notice or, if we had, wouldn’t have bothered mentioning since it made life easier for the individual. And why not, right? Everybody should have a chance at dressing up like a fool.
Then I started seeing more of it—people in time appropriate clothing but carrying a samurai sword—a katana, properly—which isn’t time inappropriate, I guess, just locale. Peasants in Birkenstocks, sunglasses, denim jeans, phone numbers on signs—the atrocities never ended. In all honesty, I don’t know how much tattooing and facial piercing was going on back then, either. But I can stand to be corrected. It just seemed that most of these people got their historical references from Xena: Warrior Princess or Hercules: the Legendary Journeys (great shows, no doubt, and great for the mythology…but complete fantasy on the whole).
The pinnacle came at the joust, where I gathered most of the documentation I needed against the historical aspects of the Faire. A peasant with a digital watch, for example; a bonny wench taking digital photographs for posterity, as well. It boggled me how out in the open these people were with their insolence toward history. But the worst came in the form of a humble squire, employed to attend on the jousters, whose job it was to set up the various games and armor the competitors as they prepared for combat. But this gentleman yielded to all his desires, not necessarily uncharacteristic of a bitter squire of the day, I guess. But he became the loudmouth who made the whole thing a sham, screaming modernity-laced comments such as: “Sexual harassment in the workplace! You all saw it!” and “Get the old man a wheelchair if he can’t ride!” or something like that. It was very distracting…and annoying.
For me, it spiraled out of control from there and I nearly lost my footing on academic reality. Flashbacks of vampires in a very dark coffee shop in Monterey filled my head and all I wanted was to get away, to end the odyssey with a prophecy from goofy old Teiresias and a good slaughter of some haughty suitors. A meltdown was kept in check, however, by Nicole’s presence and the eventual teaming up with fellow friends and roommates, Eben and Jessica, whom we followed as Eben documented the latent markings of sexual games lurking within the Renaissance Faire.
By the time we left I was okay, if not a little sunburned. I had to realize that this event was a place to make money and have some fun—a small-scale amusement park with wenches instead of sweet rides.