Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Big Country Chronicles, Part II: Sweatpants and Shenanigans.

He walked into the apartment house party with the confident stride of a man free of the shackles of social propriety. This was not unlike his usual gait, but this time was different. He walked into the kitchen, unscrewed the ice cold, perspiring Colt 45 in his hand, knocked back a few long chugs, wiped his mouth with his forearm and dried it off on his grey sweatpants.

"May Ah have y'all's attention, please. Y'all maht be askin' yourselves why a normally well-dressed gentleman such as mahself maht be wearin' sweatpants to a fancy soirée such as this.

Ah regret to inform y'all that Ah have sh*t mahself, as of 10:45 this evenin'. That will be all."


• • • • •

One of the more trying aspects of working on-duty management shifts for Kaman's Art Shoppes at Kings Island was handling guest complaints. I'll freely admit that a lot of the guests had viable grievances with our customer service, but generally it was about a 60/40 bullsh*t-to-no-bullsh*t ratio.

This was likely because Paramount owned the park at the time, and any guest that had tried their hand at getting free stuff via whining knew Kings Island was a veritable El Dorado when it came to comping guests. Which is fine when you're Kings Island Merch and you're giving away pastel sweatshirts with Spongebob molesting the Nickelodeon logo, but when you manage for a concessionaire, especially one that, in many cases, creates the product you want right in front of you, it gets complicated. Most of the employees got paid on commission and we still had to pay them for what they were doing, so it screwed up payroll paperwork.

And you didn't really have a choice, because our relationship was that, while we didn't work for KI, we still fell under the umbrella of Resale and therefore they dictated our guest relations policy. Which, of course, was almost always the same as it would have been otherwise, but if Kings Island found out that you, as a manager, told a guest that they couldn't have something that they wanted, you were in for the conversational equivalent of diving headfirst into a woodchipper.

To compound matters, word had gotten around to the junior high regulars that we were an easy grift, which, in the summer of 2003, basically translated to a complimentary Avril Lavigne-themed airbrush T-shirt for every $6 henna tattoo they complained about. Henna doesn't stain skin immediately, which our henna artists explained verbally and gave out a card explaining this with every henna tattoo sale. But if you threw away the card once you left the stand or just pretended that you were illiterate, the KAS on-duty manager was more or less bullied by KI into rewarding for being a horrible person.

Again, to be fair, a lot of complaints were viable concerns about our products or customer service:

"Hi there, I'm Jamie, I'm one of the assistant managers for Kaman's. What can I do for you?"

"Hi, I'm [don't remember]. Um, I…we were walking over by the Delirium ride and one of your caricature artists was really rude to us."

"Okay, let me get something to write with real…quick…okay. So you were over by our Action Zone Caricatures location. What happened?"

"Well, we were walking by him, and he asked us if we wanted one of his drawings…"

"Uh huh…"

"…and we said no, and he asked us if we were sure."


"And then he said kind of quietly, 'I can draw back hair.'"

"Ah. *cough* Yeah, that's…uh…"

"Look, I know this isn't really a big deal, and that jackass probably thought that we would think he was funny, and my brother kind of laughed and blew it off, but he's sensitive, you know? I think his feelings were really hurt. And he doesn't know that I complained, and he'd probably be mad if he knew that I was talking to you."

"Right. Well, first, let me apologize…"

"You don't need to apologize because you aren't the one who called my brother out on his back hair."

"Well, yeah, but let me apologize anyway. Even if your brother was cool with it, he didn't deserve that, and here we are."


"Yep. So, what time did this happen?"

"About 1:30, I think?"

"Okay…what did the artist look like? Did you see his name tag? He was probably wearing a blue shirt…"

"Well, actually, he was wearing a white one."

"(sigh) You're kidding me."


"He's wearing a white shirt because he's a lead…an assistant supervisor. That's Dexter."

"Well, you can tell Dexter that he's a jerk."

"Oh, I will. It's just…that's kind of ironic."

"Because he's supposed to be a supervisor?"

"No, because…because that kid has more back hair than anyone I think I've ever seen. That's like…that's like Sasquatch telling Robin Williams that he can draw back hair."

"Ha ha."

"I mean, if he ever asked me to help him manscape, I'd need a pith helmet and a machete just to--"

"Are you done?"

"*cough* Yeah. Sorry."

"So, you'll talk to him, right?"

"No. I'll yell at him."

"Okay. Thank you."

"So, Guest-Relations-wise, are we good?"

"Yeah, we're good."


• • • • •

We now continue The Big Country Chronicles, Part II: Sweatpants and Shenanigans, already in progress.

• • • • •

"...Ah regret to inform y'all that Ah have sh*t mahself, as of 10:45 this evenin'. That will be all."


I pulled my car into the Sunoco across from the KI employee lot, put it in park and stared at the steering wheel as the A/C blasted me in the face. It had been dark for over an hour, but it was still 85 and humid in the middle of July. I was in a terrible mood, as I had been shaken down by a crew of dead-eyed 13-year-old girls in the "henna maneuver" mentioned above before the park shut down, and I needed a beer. I needed three beers. I needed ten beers, along with the beers I had promised my airbrush artists for almost certainly having to paint comp shirts past close. Luckily, they were almost finished by the time I dropped off my paperwork at Resale, and luckily, the Kamanites at the Deerfield Conservatory apartments were having a party that night.

As I got out of my car, I noticed that Fred's car was four spots down. At the time, we called Fred "The Deuce" because we had hired another artist, a high school girl whose last name was Frederick and went by Fred, a month or so before we hired him. Nicknames were important with caricature artists, but this was notably the only time in memory someone's given name had taken a backseat to someone else's nickname. Fred handled it well.

I noticed a convulsing figure in the driver's seat, so I approached cautiously. The shaking man was, predictably, Fred.

"Fred, you, uh…you okay, bud?"

"…I…I can't…"

Fred looked up at me, his normally pinkish complexion nearly scarlet, his eyes tearing up. I wondered if he was having some sort of mental breakdown before I realized that he was laughing so hard he couldn't breathe. I bent down to look into the driver's seat window and saw Big Country sitting in the passenger's seat, staring straight ahead, almost contemplatively.

"Wh…what's so funny, man?"

"…I can't…can't…ask…him…you have to...ask him…"

Fred's head dropped into his arms resting on the steering wheel as he continued to squeak. I bent down lower.

"[Big Country's real name], what happened?"

"Ah…Ah fahnd mahself at somewhat of a loss for words."

"Wow. That doesn't happen often. Now you have to tell me."

"Well, it's a…bit…humiliatin'."

Fred was finally catching his breath. "YOU…HAVE…TO TELL HIM…"

"(sigh) Fahn. Well, we was buyin' beer on our way to the thing and Ah had to relieve mahself, so Ah was, uh…standin' at the urinal, and Ah…had a bit of a situation..."

Fred lost it again. He shook silently, his head still down.

"…well, Ah believe the, uh…technical term is…'sharted.' Ah sharted."

"Oh my God, ha ha. Wow *cough*. Are…ha ha…are you okay, man?"

"I sh*t mah britches, Jaymie. Pretty sure that doesn't fit any definition of 'okay'."

"Ha ha…I mean…could you clean it up? Was it bad?"

"Naw, it was a bit of a disaster, Ah suppose. Ah had a little trouble lockin' it down."

"...HA HA HA HA…."

"Dude, are you still wearing the same pants? How are you still wearing the same pants?"

"'Cause Fred made me go back in and ask the cashier for garbage bags Ah could sit on."



"Well, Ah couldn't just walk outta the gas station pantsless, now, could Ah?"

It was hard not to laugh, but I could tell that he was embarrassed, so I tried to keep it somewhat controlled. Fred was getting his composure back, but, admittedly, he was also fighting a whole additional layer of comedy involving him having to make split-second decisions about how best to not get human feces on the upholstery of his car.

"Well…what's the plan?"

"Well, Jaymie, Ah sh*t mahself in public, had to prep mah friend's car as to not get my sh*t all over it, and then told mah boss about it, so Ah take that as a sign that it's tahm to go home."

"…HA HA HA…"

"Ha ha. You have nothing to fear from me, man. I won't tell anyone."

"Ah appreciate it."

"…but you shouldn't go home, even just to change. Don't you live downtown? That'll take at least an hour, and people will have started leaving by then."

"HA HA ha…ha…I was going to drive him to Wal-Mart to buy new pants and clean up in the bathroom…"

"(sigh) Yeah. Ha ha. Ah suppose that is an option…"

"Ha ha. Well, get to it, that beer isn't going to drink itself. Fred, you won't tell anyone either, right?"

"Ha ha. No. I won't tell anyone. Promise."

"Looks like you guys have some pants shopping to do. See you in a little bit."

• • • • •

Once I got to the apartments, I really had to concentrate on not telling anyone about Big Country's fecal misadventures. Mind you, this wasn't the first time I'd seen someone sh*t themselves; after all, I had at one point been a freshman in college, and being anywhere where you can see a few thousand people drink liquor for the first time ever increases the odds exponentially. This was, however, the first time I had seen someone do it stone-cold sober.

But I, thankfully, had never had that experience (and still haven't, knock on wood). Still, my brain was jumping from bank to bank over the Sh*t Yourself River between laughing at Big Country's poo predicament and realizing that, had it been me, there's a good chance that I would have been so mortified that I would have found a back door to the gas station and run into the woods, possibly to live out the rest of my days as a feral beast wallowing in my own shame and probably my own sh*t.

No, I thought to myself, at the very least I would have gone home. There would have been no convincing me to go buy replacement pants. For that matter, I don't think I would have been able to stomach throwing my soiled pants in the trash can for some poor bastard working third-shift custodial at Wal-Mart to find. I get a little thrown off when I see a lone sock in the middle of the road, and that isn't even covered in sh*t.

There was a knock on the door. It opened, and in strolled Fred. I made eye contact with him across the room, and he grinned and shook his head. He was followed by Big Country, now clad in a pair of brand new emergency sweatpants.

He walked into the apartment house party with the confident stride of a man free of the shackles of social propriety. This was not unlike his usual gait, but this time was different. He walked into the kitchen, unscrewed the ice cold, perspiring Colt 45 in his hand, knocked back a few long chugs, wiped his mouth with his forearm and dried it off on his grey sweatpants.

"May Ah have y'all's attention, please. Y'all maht be askin' yourselves why a normally well-dressed gentleman such as mahself maht be wearin' sweatpants to a fancy soirée such as this.

Ah regret to inform y'all that Ah have sh*t mahself, as of 10:45 this evenin'. That will be all."

The room went quiet. I nearly dropped my beer. In that split second, the part of my brain that understands social graces imploded. Why would you do that? You could have totally gotten away with this if you could have just kept your mouth shut. Why? Why would you do that?

A couple of seconds punctuated by quiet giggling passed before someone started the sarcastic slow clap, which somehow turned into an earnest slow clap that then turned into a full-on cheer. And that was when I witnessed a full-grown man getting high-fives from everyone in the room for sh*tting his pants.

• • • • •

As the night progressed, I thought about it, and I realized how this worked. Think of yourself and how your social life makes sense in your brain. Now imagine that you have pretty much committed the most pan-culturally objectionable action that exists. How do you get over that? You can't get over that. How can you get over that?

Big Country knew. You take that action and you f*cking OWN IT.

That's exactly what he did. He owned it. Plain and simple. This guy sh*t his pants an hour ago and his ego wasn't even bruised, at least outwardly. I knew that Big Country was just as sensitive as the rest of us if not more so, but while he was at depths of humility that most of us haven't experienced, cleaning his own filth off of himself in a bathroom at Wal-Mart, he made the decision to embrace his failure, not to attempt to escape it. He was not going to let this own him. He decided that he was going to turn the tables and he did exactly that.

Applying this to a broader sense, I think that it goes without saying that regardless of worldviews, religious  or otherwise, we are surrounded by chaos. And while the ideology of things happening for a reason or not is certainly up for debate, it is absolute is that things are going to happen to us, and not all of those things are going to be good. I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of emotionally strong friends that found ways to own the adversity that has unsympathetically crashed into their lives. Terrible things have happened to some of them. I've seen them struggle, but all of them have found ways to own their hardships instead of being owned by them. They've done their absolute best to move on with their lives, and they inspire me to do the same. I wonder sometimes if I've handled the rough patches in my life in a similarly admirable fashion. I hope that I have.

I guess the point I'm doing a poor job of trying to make is that the next time sh*t happens, literally or figuratively, don't despair. There are always emergency sweatpants.


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Big Country Chronicles, Part I: A Legend Is Born.

Sometimes in life, we meet people that are so interesting that we know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that if we stay within a certain proximity of them, events will occur that will create the kind of memories that stay vivid for a long, long time. The kind of memories that comprise stories at social gatherings or are written about on a self-referentially obscure corner of the internet (Hi)We gravitate towards these people because we, consciously or subconsciously, crave adventure. This is a story about one of these people. Men like this are how myths are created. Men like this are how legends are born.

Men like this buy emergency sweatpants.

The man who would soon be referred to only as "Big Country" received his nickname at three o'clock in the morning on Cinco de Mayo in 2003 (Editor's Note: I've thought about this, and I've decided to not refer to him by his real name for reasons that will become apparent in a later chapter, should I choose to write it. I honestly don't think that he would care if I disclosed his identity, but in the times that we live in, varying authority figures generally try to seek out this sort of...delicate information about people, and I don't want these writings to jeopardize future opportunities for him. If you know him and choose to comment, please follow suit and please don't narc him out). He had recently been hired as a caricature artist at Kings Island; around that point in time we had a sizable percentage of caricature, portrait and airbrush artists that were students at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, and he was a referral from Jon, the Caricatures supervisor at the time and a schoolmate of his.

His interview sketch was good, and he had interviewed very well, but we were uneasy about hiring him; Jon had volunteered to make sure that he had a ride to his shifts because he didn't have a car or, for that matter, a driver's license. We would later say that we hired him based on Jon's voucher, but the underlying reasons centered around his almost preternatural charm.

He was a portly guy of average height; he wasn't sloppy, but he certainly wasn't skinny. He looked more like a high school offensive lineman that had retained a lot of his strength but had let himself go a bit. He almost always wore a beat-up baseball cap emblazoned with the Miller High Life® logo over his long ponytail, and he was reluctant to shave his beard to work at King's Island, but he agreed to, as long as he could keep his hair. 

He was from the hills of Virginia, and had a strong accent. I have often described him to others as looking like an Aryan Kevin Smith, and my impression of him kind of sounds like me doing an impression of Will Ferrell's impression of Harry Carey with a Southern accent.

Upon granting me permission to call him Big Country, he mentioned, as is typical of enigmatic men, that he went by many names, including Big Jesus, Fat Jesus, Big Gorgeous, Hillbilly Buddha, Buddha Jesus and so on. The caricature artists, even the high school kids, gravitated towards him; as I said before, he was extremely charming, but more importantly, he was a fantastic storyteller. Strange things had been happening to him in his 21-odd years, and his stories–coupled with the dichotomy between his cerebral, philosophical nature and his thick hillbilly accent–was a valued commodity to the artists that worked the slow eight-hour June weekday shifts with him. Everyone wanted to work with the bastard lovechild of Socrates and Hank Williams, Jr.

His compelling style of storytelling was rooted in the shock value that came along with the first sentence out of his mouth. You couldn't stop listening to him once he started a story, and he seemingly had hundreds of them, true or not. Some of these openings include:

"Did Ah ever tell you about that time Ah fell asleep in a preacher's car?"

"Did Ah ever tell you about that time mah mom knocked me out throwin' her prosthetic boob at me when Ah was ten?"

"Did Ah ever tell you about that time Ah was trippin' on acid in Eden Park an' Ah bit a garter snake in half 'cause Ah thought he was a messenger from the underworld?"

"Did Ah mention that some dude broke into mah apartment last week ta rob me while Ah was sleepin', an' Ah had to wrassle him?" With this one, I remember my exact response.

"Wait, what? He came in to rob you while you were there and you wrestled him? You're out of your mind, dude! Did he have a knife, or...or a gun or anything?"

"Ah don't know, Ah was half-asleep. Ah shoved him up under the couch while we was wrasslin' on the rug, an' then Ah jumped up and down on the couch 'til he said he would leave."

"Wow. That's pretty f*cked up, man. Well...I mean, did he leave?"

"Yeah, he left. Ah mean, Ah stayed on the couch until he tahred out enough where I didn't think he'd still be a liability, but...yeah, he left peacefully."

• • • • •

I was making the afternoon rounds at the park one day towards the end of June. Generally, this was a pretty uneventful task of checking on the kids and documenting register voids. There were exceptions every few days; another necessary reason for rounds was to instill the awareness in our employees that, at any random point during the day, there was a chance that they were being watched.

There were always fires to put out in those days, but it was generally the caricature artists that would fail in the most spectacular ways. The week before, a sixteen-year-old caricature artist named Mary Beth had somehow managed to ring up a sketch for $70,000 at I-Street, and a few days later, I was making my rounds, only to find a caricature stand abandoned by a kid named Jordan, the only artist scheduled to work the Rivertown stand that day.

I could see him about thirty yards away from the stand talking to a girl working at the Mining shop, and I could have just shouted for him, but I had been doing airbrush tattoos all morning because of a no-show, and I was in an awful mood. I reached under the register for the switch, popped the drawer open, took the cash out and walked over to the porch near what used to be the Antique Photo building. I used my cellphone to call Rivertown Caricatures. Jordan ran back and answered the phone.

"Hi, Car...uh, Rivertown Caricatures, this is Jordan."

"Hey man, it's Jamie. Just checking in. Could you take an X for me?"


I started walking towards him. I could hear him turn the register key and hit the Amount Tend button, springing open the register drawer.

"Oh. Uh...oh no."

"What's up?"

"Oh, no. The...uh...all the money is like, gone. Oh, $%&#."

"Yeah, I know. I have it. Hang up, I'm right behind you."

"Wha...when did you..."

"Just now, while you were chatting up your ladyfriend over at Mining. You know, most people know how to open cash registers without a key." I took the money off of my clipboard and handed it to him.

"Yeah...sorry. I...uh..."

"Are you going to leave your stand unmanned ever again?"

"N...no. No way."

"Well, there you go. That's your warning. No write-up. You're welcome. Lesson learned." I turned to walk away.

"Yeah...but...that was pretty mean, though. I really freaked out."

I thought about it for a second. He was absolutely right. This had been a pretty huge dick move on my part. Jordan was a good kid, and he was one of the better rookies that I had trained that year.

"Yeah...yeah, you're right, it was. Sorry about that, man. My morning sucked. Here."

I handed him an unopened pop that I had bought from the vending machine in the break room.

"Are we cool?"

"Uh...it's diet..."

"Fine. If you don't want it..."

He pulled the bottle towards him and smiled.

"KIDDING. Just kidding. It's cool, it's cool. I'll drink it."

"Jackass." I walked away.

My behavior during this juvenile cloak-and-dagger game was fresh in my head a week later. I had sunk pretty low to mess with Jordan like that, and at 25, I was too old to be playing mind games with high school kids and not look like a total asshole while doing it.

The bigger problem was Rivertown. The stands in Rivertown were too slow, and I knew all too well from working satellite stands in other parks, like B-Stand at Geauga Lake, Batman at Elitch Gardens and Shark at Six Flags Ohio, what the dangers of idle drawing hands were, regardless of the low-level paranoia that had usually kept me out of trouble as a line employee. I was approaching Rivertown Caricatures on my round; I didn't know who was working the stand, but I decided that maybe I would watch the stand for a while from a distant hiding spot. Watch the artist work. Collect my thoughts. Take notes. Observe.

As I posted up near a tree and began my surveillance, I realized that my mark was Big Country. I went down my mental checklist.

"Smiling at people and hustling, check. Standing instead of leaning, check. Mats and frames out, check. Register is...wait. What the hell is he..."

Big Country put one foot in front of the other, slid off his shoe, bent down, picked it up, and lobbed it into the middle of the midway.

"Sh*t," I thought. I quickly scanned around me. Thankfully, none of the park employees seemed to notice him do this, and none of the Merch managers were in the area. This was a relief; I had mentally flashed forward to an awkward conversation in which I had to explain why one of my artists was flinging his shoe at guests. Our relationship with KI's Resale department was a little terse at the time (it got much better in the following years), and this was exactly the kind of event that would end with me being sternly reprimanded, usually with a healthy amount of condescension, before I was forced to apologize for the unpredictably bizarre behavior of my employees.

I started to move from my post to ask Big Country what the hell he was thinking, but I stopped. A thirteen-year-old kid who had just gotten off of one of the rides walked over, picked up the shoe, and approached the stand. I stayed in position.

The kid handed Big Country his shoe, and he slid it back on. After a brief discussion, the kid sat down in the chair opposite the easel, and Big Country sat down and started drawing him. I flipped the pages on my clipboard to the notes section, and put my pen to paper before I realized that I didn't really know how to explain what I was witnessing at this point. "Threw a shoe." I scribbled it out and looked back at the stand.

Big Country finished his sketch, tore it off the bar, and showed it to the kid. The kid smiled. My mind raced. 

"Was he...no.  Is that kid...no way. There's no way in hell he's gonna sell this. No way."

 I watched in disbelief as the kid reached into his sock, pulled out a wet wad of cash, peeled a bill off the side, and handed it to my caricature artist, who, beaming, punched the numbers into the register, put his sketch in a bag, and gave the kid his change. In my position, I knew I had to discourage actions like this, but I couldn't help but feel proud. That was probably the best, if not the most unpredictable, hustle I had ever seen. I moved out of position and started walking over to the stand.

"Hey, Jaymie. You missed it, Ah just sold a sketch. Ah've been doin' pretty good today."

"No, I saw it. I was over...what the hell was...did you just throw your shoe at that kid?"

"Well, yeah, in front of him. Ah was just gittin' his attention. Clearly, mah efforts have rewarded me."

"Dude, you can't just throw your shoe into the midway."

"What? Why? Ah don't remember seein' any handbook rules about Shoe Fishin'."

"That's because it's common sense not to throw your...did you just say 'Shoe Fishin'?"

"Yep. Shoe Fishin'. That's what Ah call it."

"Y...you named it? Like, it's a thing? A thing that you do?"

"Hell yes, Jaymie. It's mah new guerilla marketin' technique."

I sighed. "Look, I'm impressed. Seriously. Don't think that I'm not impressed. But you can't do that. You're not the one who is gonna get his ass kicked by the park because one of his artists may or may not be whipping his shoe at guests."

"So Ah cain't do that anymore? Oh man, that sucks. It was consistent, too."

"No, you...wait, did you pull that off more than once?"

"Jaymie, Ah made lahk eighty bucks off that today."

"Jesus. Seriously?"

"Yep. Ah can see what yer sayin' about the approach, though. From a distance, it maht look, lahk, malicious, or..."

"Wow. I mean...yeah, you totally can't do that ever again, but I appreciate the improvisation. That's...ha ha. That's genius, in its own f*cked up way. Good man."

"Why, thank you, kahnd sir." He bowed.

As I walked away from the stand, I was fixated on Shoe Fishin'. My God, I thought, how much charisma does one actually require to be able to chuck footwear at someone and then sell them something immediately afterwards? Outside of training him, this was my first work experience with Big Country.

Little did I know that fate would soon unite us again, in the parking lot of the gas station across from the park.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Pulling Punches.

I'm currently drawing my way through the middle of after-prom season, which means two things: 1) it takes me two or three days to recover from staying up all night, and 2) I spend hours at a time trying to avoid the awkwardness presented by the ever-growing age disparity between me and high school kids. When I was twenty-five, it wasn't really that big of a deal. Now, it's getting a little weird.

"Where did you learn to do this?"

"I was trained at an amusement park called Geauga Lake when I was fifteen."

"Wow. When was that?"


"Whoa! I was born in 1994! Ha ha!"

"(Sigh) Yeah, that's great, kid. I guess New Kids on the Block jokes are off the table."


"They're...uh, they're kind of like...an earlier version of N*Sync."


"Never mind. Hey, listen, it's gonna be easier for me to draw your girlfriend's mouth if you take your tongue out of it."

I mean, I'm not going to lament any generational ignorance of boy bands, but that's one of many examples of how I have less and less in common with high school kids as I get older. 

Which, of course, is supposed to happen, and is a good thing. Which is precisely why most adults that aren't the parents of high school kids tend to try as hard as they can to stay the f*ck away from high school kids. About twenty hours out of the year, I don't really have a choice.

There are a lot of things that haven't changed much with high school kids, though. Most of the kids I come across are very friendly and polite. I will admit that the ones jacked up on energy drink at 3 in the morning can be a little hard to handle.

"Hey, whoever's next can sit down. Ladies?"



"Hey. Just the two of you?"

"Yeah. Draw us hugging."

"Uh...I'm just drawing faces tonight. You know, because there's a line of like fifty kids behind me, and I gotta keep my sketches under three minutes so I can draw as many people as possible..."

"Aw. Okay, just draw my arm around her."

"I'm...uh...not drawing arms. Just faces."

"Draw us holding hands."

"Wait, draw me punching her in the face. Like, just my hand."

"I'm not drawing your friend getting punched in the face by your...floating...ghost hand. Besides, your hand is technically part of your arm."

"Wait, draw me like I'm thinking really hard. Like this."

"Okay, your hand is on your face. What did I just say ten seconds ago about hands?"

"You don't know how to draw hands?"

"No, I know how to draw hands...smile real quick...I'm just not doing it tonight because it takes too long and because if I draw your hands, then the kids behind me will want me to draw their hands doing something too, then the kids behind them will too, etcetera etcetera, causing a chain reaction that ends with me averaging four or five minutes a sketch, and then less of your classmates get one, which means that there will just be more of them around to whine at me when I quit drawing at 5 AM."

"Yeah, but..."

"There's also an outside chance that I'll get in trouble because some of your suburbanite poseur friends will try to flash gang signs, and I'm drawing you guys on school property. So, yeah. I can draw hands. I'm just not going to right now. Smile again."

"Make me holding her tongue with my fingers."

"No. Please stop talking."

"Can you write our names on it?"

"Yeah. Right next to our face. So we know it's us."

"You can tell it's you by looking at it. That's pretty much the whole point of caricatures."

"Yeah, but it's a cartoon."

"Kid, I didn't spend the better part of...smile for me real quick...the last two decades studying facial features and meticulously trying to work out the kinks in my sketch so I could come here to your high school and draw smiley faces with prom hair and earrings. If I did, I would hope to God that people wouldn't pay me to do this, and if they did pay me, I would hope that they wouldn't be stupid enough to keep bringing me back here every year to draw crappy sketches instead of finding a new artist. It will look like you. I can write your names on it if you want, but that shouldn't be the reason that you want me to."

"Wait, don't write my name. Write 'J-Dizzle.' With three 'z's."

"Yeah. Write 'B-Dogg' on mine. No wait, write 'B-Money'. Or 'Brizzle Drizzle'. With six 'z's."

"I'm totally hanging this up now."

"Put hearts all over it."

"Somebody please kill me."

A pessimistic view, yes, but I can say with honesty that, from my experience, most people that aren't artists either lack the spatial awareness to be able to tell if caricature artists capture their likenesses, or they just don't care. I've known this since I was a fifteen-year-old rookie trying to fake my way through drawing people. If I sold most of those sketches, and I did, it meant that either people couldn't tell that I didn't know what I was doing or that they were too polite to tell me how much I sucked.

Of course, back then, I assumed the latter, but now I think that maybe I was giving people too much credit. I think that this is why caricature artists draw bodies. The fact of the matter is, most people don't care if you know how to exaggerate the proportions of their faces. They don't care if you draw their cheekbones accurately and they don't care if you notice that their nostrils flare slightly when they smile. They do care, however, that you can accurately draw Kevin Harvick's stock car off of a picture, and they care that you can write the correct number on said car. They care that you can draw them throwing dice against a brick wall "with all my gold in it". They marvel at your ability to draw a simple golf club, because then, and only then, it "really captures me." Drawing bodies on caricatures, in a sense, is a total copout.

This isn't to say that bodies are a copout without purpose. People do care if a representation of them, regardless of accuracy, is characterized by performing an action that they like. Most people don't care if you know how to draw faces, because they can't really tell what they look like. They just want to look cool. I think of it as kind of the same basic principle as paintings of European royals I learned about in Art History classes, where Napoleon Bonaparte, depicted on his horse, looks like a commanding badass of totally average height in David's "Napoleon Crossing the Alps." Or every painting of the Spanish Habsburgs that gently airbrushed out the crazy underbites and other grotesque genetic deformities resulting from centuries of inbreeding. Carreño did an especially admirable job painting portraits of Charles II without making it look like his jaw was trying to escape from his face.

It's not like this is a brand new conundrum. Artists have been idealizing portraiture for centuries. What does that make us, artists that pull our punches in an effort to make our clients happy? Caricaturists and portraitists are selling a product, so are we engaging in a form of customer service, or are we just selling out in the most base way possible? Are we diluting the art form, if we can go so far as to call it that? I'll tear people apart if that's what I think they want, and some of them do, so I do it. That doesn't mean that I don't feel a pang of annoyance every time I have to draw shiny pretty pictures of high school girls because I know that if I really pronounce the one girl's overbite or the other one's wacky eyebrows, odds are that they'll freak out on me because of the stigma that, on prom night, they just might be as pretty as they get.

I've drawn alongside other artists that don't care about pulling punches. In fact, a couple of them make a point to tell people this specifically, and I respect the hell out of them for that, because that's the closest thing that we can do to "keeping it real." I can't. I drew in retail for too long to not have a knee-jerk reaction to draw people the way that I think they want to be drawn, even when the opportunity to upsell them on mats or frames is non-existent.

On the other hand, people might not care if you can draw them accurately, but they sure know what ugly looks like, and they sure won't be afraid to tell you that you drew something that doesn't look like the idealized version of how they visualize themselves. I found that out the hard way working in amusement parks.

"Okay, here you go."

"What...what the hell is this?"


"Why did you draw the gap in my teeth?"

"I...uh...you...have a gap in your teeth. It's there."

"Yeah, but why did you draw it?"

"Because...because it's there. It exists. You have a gap in your teeth."

"Yeah, but you drew it on there. That's mean."

"I...I wasn't trying to be mean. I was drawing your face. That's part of your face. It's one of the things that distinguishes you from the hypothetical mean that...uh...that caricature artists envision to differentiate your face from...from everyone else's."

"Hypothetical what?"

"The hypo...the average. What the idea of an average face looks like."

"Who has the average face?"

"Well...no one. No one does. It's hypothetical."

"Hypo...do you think I'm stupid?"

"N...no. Of course not. I..."

"Why the hell would I want to buy a picture of me with a gap in my teeth?"

"Because...uh...because that's what you look like? You wanted a caricature drawn of your face. I drew one. That's what caricatures are."

"I'm not buying this. I wanted one like that one." (points at demo on wall)

"That's...um, but that's not you. That's not your face. That's Angelina Jolie."

"Can't you make it, like, half me and half Angelina Jolie?"

"Wha...why would....why would you want to buy that?"

"I don't know. Why would I want to buy a picture that just looks like me? That's dumb."

"BECAUSE THAT WHAT CARIC--*ahem*--Sorry. Because that's what caricatures are. We draw an exaggerated version of your face. Yours. That's the product we sell. We don't have a stand where you can mash your face and a celebrity's together. That doesn't even make sense."

"Well, I'm not buying this."

"Yeah, I could see that coming. Look, I can redraw it without the gap if you want."

"Hm...okay. Could you do me a favor though?"

"(sigh) Yeah. What?"

"Don't make my eyelids so heavy. And make my cheekbones higher, Oh, and make my lips fuller. Make me look thinner. And I want blue eyes, not brown ones. And put blonde highlights in my hair."

"Okay. Fine. Whatever."

"Why aren't you looking at me anymore?"

"No reason."

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Reign of the Rotorman.

One of the more interesting, and occasionally baffling, aspects of working in an amusement park is dealing with the regulars, the season passholders that come to the park every day. Most of these regulars are junior high school kids who received their pass from a parent or loved one that wanted to legally kick them out of the house for the summer. Of course, after the first few weeks, they become dangerous, not because they're bad kids, but because the they're bored. And if you're a bored thirteen-year-old and you've run out of things to do at an amusement park, the next logical thing to do is to try your hardest to annoy the shit out of the high school and college kids that work there.

Yeah, the kids are annoying, but they're relatively benign unless they're actively trying to break things in your stand. It's really the adults that you have to worry about. Some of you reading this may have read my previous post about the most awkward interview I ever had to conduct, and I wasn't lying the first time when I said that season passholders who aren't kids and don't have kids of their own should be handled very carefully.

Not surprisingly, the crazy ones were always the most famous. I would like to think that every park has them, these kind of urban legends that manifest themselves as people. Back at Geauga Lake, we had Country Joe, who would watch the same country show four or five times a day, every day. There was Handshake Steve, who, upon entering the park, would smile and compulsively reintroduce himself to every employee as he walked down the midway. But the real mascot, the beating heart, the best-known of the regulars at the park, was the Rotorman.

Let me take a second to explain, for those unfamiliar with the Rotor. It was one of those spinning rides in which the circular outside rotates rapidly, and the centrifugal force from the spinning causes you to stick to the wall as the floor of the ride drops out from underneath you. I was never much of a ride enthusiast, and the discovery of the delicate nature of my own stomach stemmed directly from an experience I had as a 5th grader, when I rode the Gravitron, a similar ride, twice in a row at Blossom Time and then threw up behind the bushes into the Chagrin River moments afterwards.

Rotorman was in line at the Geauga Lake front gate every morning that it opened. He was one of the first people through, and he would make his way as fast as he could to the Big Dipper, which always opened a few minutes before his namesake, and after his obligatory Dipper ride, he would get on the Rotor. The most prevalent legend that I heard about Rotorman was that he simply wouldn't get off of the Rotor until the park closed thirteen hours later. This was somewhat confirmed when I overheard a Rides supervisor in the break room explaining where Rotorman's hiding spot was, behind the entry/exit door of the ride.

In 1995, I would have said that he was middle-aged, but I was a teenager, so I could have been overestimating at that point. From what I remember, he had a heavier build and the paunch usually associated with ex-football players. He walked quickly, but with a slight limp in one leg, which was probably the reason why he ambled along at a quick pace instead of flat-out running down the midway with everyone else when the park opened. He had a receding hairline and shaggy hair parted on the side, straight out of a 1970s yearbook. His eyes were kind of a piercing light blue, but what made them noticeable was that his right eye was fixed down and away from the center of his face, regardless of where his left eye was looking. It was easy to pick Rotorman out of a crowd because he usually wore the same royal blue t-shirt that had a stylized "R" on the chest and said Rotorman underneath it, yes, like a superhero.

A few of my previous entries focus on my being fifteen and the awkwardness of not knowing what the hell I was doing. In 1995, I was seventeen, and at this point, it was pretty safe to say that I had become accustomed to drawing and selling caricatures to the point of actually liking it. I had been promoted to Lead Artist that year, which basically meant that I was good enough at making money and not antagonizing guests to the point where I could be trusted to count inventory.

I was opening the "B" satellite umbrella stand one morning and decided that I was bored. There's a period of time in mid-July, after the crowds from the holiday weekend leave, that forms a sort of temporal no-man's land, because it's dead center in the middle of the summer and going back to school isn't even on the horizon yet. During this period of time, the park gets relatively quiet for a couple of weeks, the temperature starts climbing into the low-to-mid 90s, the days start running together into a haze and and most of the employees get start getting burned out. Morale worsens and self-motivation falters, so avoiding apathy is important if you still want to make money. Worse, the opening shift at B stand was solitary for the first four or five hours. I was bored. I had to do something notable. I looked over and saw Rotorman making his way down the midway.

I waited until he was within earshot of my stand to strike.

"Hey, uh...Rotorman!"

He turned his head to look at me. His pace slowed and he began to adjust his course towards my stand.


I hadn't thought this far ahead; in fact, I hadn't even expected to get his attention. I suddenly felt like one of those naturalists on television after they attract the curiosity of a potentially dangerous animal. This was a pretty stupid stunt for me to pull, I thought. I didn't know anything about this guy except for the myths I'd heard about him. For all I knew, he was a violent sociopath. But I had already started this. I was going to finish it.

"Uh, could I draw a practice sketch of you? You won't have to pay for it or anything..."

He stopped in the middle of the midway and glanced at the Big Dipper. He looked back at me and winced.

"Ummm...I don't...uh, I have to get on the Big Dipper soon."

"Come on. It'll only take me a couple of minutes."

He looked back at the Big Dipper, and then looked back at me. They hadn't opened the ride yet. He started walking towards me again.

"Uh..." he stammered. "Yeah, fine. But when people get on the Big Dipper, I'm leaving."

He approached. Part of me panicked. There were many theories about how Rotorman became Rotorman, and I had no idea which one, if any, was true. Some of the Games supervisors were convinced that he was a Vietnam War vet with a Purple Heart and a metal plate in his head, and that the only thing that could alleviate his constant migraine headaches was riding the Rotor. This theory would have also accounted for his slight limp.

Another theory was that, as a baby, someone had left him, covered in a bag or something, on the Rotor, and that no one had noticed him for the better part of a day, and by the time that someone found him, his brain was scrambled and he subsequently became addicted to the Rotor for life. This supposedly accounted for his right eye, but was one of the more implausible theories; Geauga Lake had at least been there since the turn of the century, and the Rotor was a very old ride, but I doubt someone could have gotten a bag or backpack on the ride in the first place, whether there was a baby in it or not. Plus, I don't know what the effects of centrifugal force are on babies, but I doubt that they are described above.

I also remember there being some speculation that he was an ex-NASA test pilot who took too many Gs while flying experimental aircraft over Area 51, but that sounds like something that I would have made up when one of the rookies asked me who Rotorman was. Regardless, it made no difference to me at that point. I was going to be the first and only Geauga Lake caricature artist to ever draw Rotorman.

He sat down in my chair, still glaring at the entrance to the Dipper. I could tell I had thrown a serious curveball at him by interrupting his daily morning routine. His polite compliance with my demands had limits; he had already told me that he was a ghost as soon as that ride opened, so I knew I had to work fast. Still, I had questions.

I started drawing the side of his face. Temple, cheekbone, right jaw.

"So...what's your name?"

"Huh?" He looked at me with his primary eye.

Chin, left jaw, cheekbone, temple.

"Your name. Besides Rotorman, I mean."

"Fred." He looked back at the Dipper.

"Hey, I'm Jamie. Nice to meet you."

"Yeah. You too."

Left ear, right ear, inner hairline. Ask him. Wait, not yet.

"Have anyone ever drawn you before?"


Outer hairline, inner left ear, inner right ear. Go ahead, ask him. Do it.

"So, how...uh...how did you become Rotorman?"

"I...ride the Rotor a lot." He smirked. Diastema, check. Damn it. He had deflected my question.

Hair detail, sideburns, left nostril. Try again.

"No, I mean, like...why do you ride the Rotor all day?"

"I like it. It's fun."

Septum, right nostril, philtrum.

"Yeah, but you...hey, smile real quick for me...you spin around on that ride all day. Don't you get sick of it?"

He smirked again and shifted in his chair.

"No. Don't you get sick of drawing pictures?"

Upper lip, top of lower lip, top teeth.

"Uh...yeah. Yeah, sometimes I do."

I heard some excited yelling behind me, signifying that the Big Dipper had opened. As promised, without a word, Rotorman was out of the chair and ambling as fast as he could towards the entrance, leaving me sitting at my easel staring at an eyeless sketch of my new acquaintance. It didn't matter. I'd spent just enough time staring at him that his eyes and eyebrows were committed to memory. Mission accomplished. I had successfully drawn Rotorman.

As I drew a generic superhero body on him, I thought about our conversation. I felt cheated. When I decided to try and hold a conversation with him, I had expected to learn all of his secrets, the unanswered queries about his psychoses that made him ride around in rapid circles all day, every day. I wanted to take a peek inside this guy's brain. I wanted to stare into the mouth of madness and ask it questions. Maybe I thought that learning about Rotorman would somehow educate me, indirectly giving me a new understanding of people. Or maybe I just thought that I would come closer to learning the truth about what makes them crazy.

But the only truth that I had learned was that Rotorman was probably one of the smartest people that I had ever met. I thought about the countless times people had told me, "Do something you love, and you'll never have to work a day for the rest of your life." Well, Fred was doing that in the most literal sense possible. Sure, he wasn't technically working, and he might have had a pretty severe case of obsessive compulsive disorder, but he still seemed pretty happy to me. I dare any of us to be that satisfied with the daily routine of our lives, with or without mental illness. I asked Rotorman why he rode the Rotor all day, and he told me. Maybe the rest of the answer didn't matter.

The afternoon shift came in, and I went on break. I took my Rotorman sketch with me to the Main stand to show my buddy Rob before we headed out to Sirna's for lunch.

"Hey, check it out. I drew Rotorman."

"No way. Weird. Did he sit for you?"

"Yeah. He got up halfway through and ran away when the Dipper opened, but yeah."

"Nice, man. You could put that up as a demo."

"Nah. I was going to, but...nah. If he saw it, he might not like how I drew his eye."

We started walking towards the employee gate.

"Was he like, psychotic, or mentally challenged or anything?"

"I...I don't know. I don't think so. He was all right."

"What, like, was he normal?"

"I...I wouldn't say that, but...I dunno. He was a little off. He was pretty friendly, though."

"Well, what's...like...what's wrong with him?"

"Uh...he's...hm. I dunno. I asked him, but he didn't answer. Nothing, I guess. He's just some dude named Fred who really likes riding the Rotor."

• • • • •

After I closed my stand a few nights later, I was walking down the midway on my way to the money room and saw two shadowy figures collecting cans in a giant garbage bag. As I got closer, I saw that one of them was Rotorman. I said hi.

"Hey, Fred."

He looked at me with only a vague sense of recognition. Maybe he couldn't see me in the darkness.


Or maybe he just didn't give a shit about who I was. I was okay with that. Maybe, I thought, he actually was like Batman, obsessively devoted to a cause. Maybe there was only room in his heart for the Rotor. At least part of the issue of Rotorman's sustainability had been answered. I mean, the guy obviously didn't work. He rode the Rotor all day. Who knows where he lived, if he survived off of government disability checks or was in assisted living. Maybe he was just retired. I knew now, at the very least, how he saved up enough money to afford a season pass every year. He collected cans at night. Part of Rotorman made sense now.

Thinking about all of this now, I kind of wonder what happened to Rotorman after Geauga Lake closed down a few years back. I would like to think that he bought the Rotor at an awesome layaway price when Cedar Fair was selling off GL's roller coasters, but I know that was probably impossible. It couldn't have been easy for him. That park closing affected a lot of kids and their summer jobs, for sure, but that place was Rotorman's whole life. I would like to think that he found a new dedication to his life's work, like building gyroscopes. Or playing Roulette. Or maybe even something that has nothing to do with spinning around rapidly.

Wherever he is now, he was legendary then. We should all be so lucky.