A Wench in the Works
Working at the Renaissance Festival Was as Much Bawd as Bard
In high school, I had this thing for this guy. He was a older than me--a senior, when I was a sophomore--and I remember what a relief it was when I first saw him and his friends walking down a hallway in between classes: a group of guys and girls who were neither stoners or jocks. They wore R.E.M. T-shirts instead of the requisite Megadeth ones that were de rigeur in my high school in the late '80s/early '90s. They read Kafka, even though it wasn't required reading, even for the advanced-placement English classes. They had amnesty international stickers in their lockers. I wanted to be friends with them. In particular, I wanted to be friends with him.
Only problem was, he was about to graduate, and if I didn't find a way to get to know him soon and let him know that I too liked poetry and interesting bands and that I too liked to read Jack Kerouac, I would miss my chance forever. One day, during study hall, he mentioned that every summer he worked at the local Renaissance festival in a gaming booth or beer tent. It was a fun job, he said, and it paid $5 per hour plus modest tips. I had never been to a Renaissance festival but told him I loved that kind of thing. I did like history, I reasoned, so it wasn't that big a lie.
"You should apply there for the summer," he said.
"Maybe I will," I told him. And the next day, I drove a half-hour to a Ren-fest job fair and hoped I had what it took to get a job.
A month or so later, I showed up at a tiny, dusty hut in the middle of a make-believe medieval village for my first shift as a lemonade girl. The other girl who worked with me in the hut was a veteran, and she showed me the ropes: Always speak to guests in your best approximation of a Cockney accent; serving wenches always wear peasant blouses and raggedy, flowing skirts; if you want to make good tips, don't wear a bra under your blouse; flirt with the men, sometimes even with the women, and never pass up an opportunity to make a raucous spectacle of yourself. It was good for business and made the festival's owners happy. Plus, if you were lucky, maybe someday you'd catch the eye of someone important and get a better job assignment next year--beer wench, or possibly even a bit part as an actress wandering the grounds and entertaining the guests.
It was a fairly pleasant gig, much better than working at the supermarket where I worked the previous summer, and my crush stopped by a couple of times over the course of the weekend to say hello.
It all seemed fairly simple, innocent, and cute, but as the weeks wore on I started to notice a rather Dionysian flair to the festival, particularly behind the scenes and after-hours. The rose girls, for example, who wandered the grounds with baskets of long-stemmed roses that could be bought for a few dollars, looked to be beautiful, mysterious, and ethereal, drifting around the grounds as if in a dream. I thought it was part of the act--pretend to be an otherworldly, Max Parrish-inspired beauty, I imagined the head rose girl telling the others--until I stumbled across one of them drinking mead and feeling up a guy behind the beer tent. They weren't acting mysterious and dreamy; they were perpetually drunk.
In the vendor's area, buxom women in low-cut flowing blouses and velvet corsets so tight they pushed their chests into unnaturally high positions sold flower garlands for little girls. Lusty wannabe pirates wearing tight pants and leather vests without shirts peddled daggers. Women of all ages, not shy about baring a bit of flesh by hitching up their peasant rags to show some thigh, belly, or boobs, sold chain mail and cloaks, fairy wings and leather wineskins. The men, many of them likely mundane in real life, decked themselves out in über-masculine gear: leather body armor, Tartan-plaid kilts, codpieces, daggers stuck down their boots, swords sheathed on their belts. The women did their best to dress like slutty peasant girls, slutty princesses, or slutty ladies of the shire. They exchanged lighthearted and suggestive banter with one another, and with willing customers, some of whom seemed to develop crushes on festival employees and came back again and again to finger the merchandise, while dreaming of fingering the lusty medieval merchant. After-hours, the vendors, employees, and sometimes even regular customers met up in a nearby roadhouse-type bar or at the festival campground, where they could drink mead, sing Renaissance-inspired songs, and get lucky in festival garb behind a booth or tree.
Meanwhile, families and children wandered around the grounds, gnawing on smoked turkey legs, watching the jousting tournaments, taking their kids to see the Punch and Judy puppet show, blissfully ignorant of all the sexually charged banter. The whole thing struck me as bizarre--I was not naive, but I was surprised by the overt sexuality of a place most guests seemed to think of as a family affair. They thought it was a nice place to watch Shakespeare on the Green and share romantic moments on the Kissing Bridge. I now thought of it as a place to learn what bagpipers wear (or don't wear) under their skirts, what happens in carnival campgrounds after dark, and how to get laid if you're a high-school loser in real life but a magician, warrior, or princess in the shire.
The ultimate example of the lasciviousness of the Ren fest was the pickle guy. I noticed him right away--for one thing, to my 17-year-old eyes, he was totally hot. He was loud and lean and sinewy, and he had long, straight blondish hair that fell below his shoulders. He looked kind of like Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Mother's Milk era, if that helps your mental image). His job was to walk around the joint dressed as a poor peasant, pushing a barrel on wheels full of pickles. He was always shirtless. And he was the king of double entendres and sexual innuendo--and everyone, from the stroller-pushing moms to the bawdiest of beer wenches, fell for his shtick.
He would come up to the girls like me, working the lemonade/iced tea booth, and say lewd things to us in front of large groups of people to drum up business.
"Good day, fine wenches, why don't one of you come out from your hut and try a taste of my fine, thick dill?" he'd call out to the girls in the lemonade booth or ice cream tents. "It's big and refreshing and delicious, you won't be sorry!" He was usually hot and sweaty, and if you acted out a little scene with him, he'd trade you a pickle for a cup of cold lemonade.
And though it wasn't in my job description when I signed up to work at the Renaissance fair, it was common knowledge that serving wenches (especially those who aspired to someday be Ren-fest actresses) could showcase their acting skills by getting randy with other peasants--particularly the pickle guy, who was always up for some role-playing.
Since I was new, the first few times he came around the more experienced girl who worked in my booth did the pickle mating-dance ritual while I watched. She'd hike up her billowing skirts high up on her thigh, swing her legs over the counter of our booth, and lean in close to the guy while he prepared a phallic-looking pickle for her.
"Oh, good sir, what a big dill you have," she'd tell him, and he'd put the pickle in her mouth while a crowd gathered to watch the scene, which was not unlike the stilted acting at the beginning of a porn flick. It drew applause from the titillated crowd, but more importantly, it drew big tips.
Three quarters of the way through the summer, the guy I had a crush on stopped by the lemonade booth to chat. I looked forward to his regular visits, and I thought he looked particularly cute in his tall lace-up suede boots and flowing poet's shirt. But on this particular day, he had not come to chat but to say goodbye. This was his last day of work for the summer because he was having hernia surgery and wouldn't be able to work for more than a month while he healed. It was a blow--his was the one familiar face I had at this odd festival, and he was leaving me behind to deal with the lecherous customers and profligate picklemonger on my own. I was crushed.
Later that day, when I heard that familiar call in the distance--"The finest, thickest dill in all the shire, come get some, ladies!"--I decided I would drown my disappointments in pickle juice. I had watched the other girls get randy with the pickle guy plenty of times, so I knew the drill. The pickle guy stopped his cart in front of our hut and called for a wench--I hiked my skirt up to my knees, hopped over the lemonade counter like a good bawdy wench, and told the pickle guy to bring it on. We got applause, we got laughter, we got tips.
After the pickle guy left, I finished my pickle--which was, I might add, just as big and delicious as he had promised--I wasn't sure whether to feel excited that I'd mustered the courage to act out that scenario in public or disgusted for lowering myself to partake in the cretinous tradition.
I never worked at a Renaissance fair again after that summer--not that it wasn't fun, but I just wasn't cut out for that kind of thing--and I haven't visited one in more than a decade. People tell me things have changed: Festivals now have ATMs and corporate sponsors, and organizers have to worry about liability and sexual harassment. I've also heard that Trekkies have become regular attendees at festivals. They dress in character and pretend to be on the starship holodeck, experiencing a simulated Renaissance environment.
Ren-fest purists, I'm sure, are appalled at the very notion. But I get a kick out of the idea of watching the pickle guy trying to coax a female Klingon to suck his dill.
Sizzlin' Summer (5/19/2010)
Our annual comprehensive guide to surviving, thriving, and diverting yourself until September
The Scenic Route (5/19/2010)
Rediscovering the countryside from a skinny-ass bike seat
Parks and Rec (5/19/2010)
Big Scam On Campus (5/12/2010)
Local job-training course raises questions--and alarms
In Need of Assistance (4/7/2010)
The state is implementing new ideas to process social services applications but there are still lags
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201