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.