A piece from the book I’m currently working on, originally published in Preen Magazine. Dedicated to my sister who drove me to more than one Ren Faire:
My training hadn’t been paid so I was more broke than ever. Luckily, my photographer friend, Rosalie called with a last minute writing gig that would take me far away from the harsh realities of psychotherapy and into a Land of Make Believe.
“So, hey, Rev. I’m shooting for this fancy fashion mag called Preen. I’ve convinced them to let me shoot a photo essay on the Renaissance Faire this Sunday, mostly because I just wanna go to the Renaissance Faire. Then I convinced them that you would be the appropriate journalist to cover it.”
“Awesome! I wanted to go to the Ren Faire but I’m too broke.”
“Well, listen they’ll pay you 200 bucks and it’s all expenses paid.”
“We can totally write off our mead.”
I have always been a fan of Ren Faires and of the Renaissance in general. If you overlook the Black Death, wars of religion, corrupt popes and witch hunts, the Renaissance was pretty rockin’. Perhaps that’s why, more than four centuries later, Renaissance Faires have become a phenomenon. Part craft fair, part theatrical production and part historical reenactment, as my friend Tanya said, “they are also a wonderful opportunity for the young and friendless to become no longer friendless.”
As a teenaged dork trapped in the suburbs, I eagerly awaited Maryland’s Ren Faire every autumn. There I could escape the cultural cesspool that was the ‘80s for the romance of the Elizabethan period. Chivalrous boys in tunics were much more appealing than the football-jersey-clad jocks who taped “Kick Me, I’m an Art Fag” signs on my back at school.
I imagined the only thing better than going to the Faire would be acting as a Ren Faire Correspondent. Now I would have leeway to chat up Ren Faire hotties in the guise of journalism. Having spent the year absorbed in Arthurian Literature, I longed to find a lover with jousting skills and the ability to speak elvish.
“We’re totally gonna find you a new boyfriend,” Rosalie said. “I’ve heard the Ren Faire is all about hookin’ up.”
“Huzzah to that!” I exclaimed, already working some Faire lingo into my vocab. “My whole life, I’ve been searching for a man like King Arthur and I’m just not finding him in the East Village.”
We discussed what I should wear to attract the man of my dreams. At Ren Faires, the term “Renaissance” is interpreted loosely. Often you’ll find fairgoers dressed as magical creatures like elves and faeries. This could be because Shakespeare and Spenser wrote about elves and fairies or because dorks just generally like to dress as elves and fairies. Sometimes fairgoers dress as legendary medieval characters like King Arthur, Merlin and the Lady of the Lake, even though the Middle Ages happened before the Renaissance. Still, it’s all shit that went down in Europe a really long time ago and, whether you’re attending a “Medieval Faire” or a “Renaissance Faire,” you’re likely to find a lot of the same stuff as well as an excuse to drink during the day.
Though I have several cloaks and a replica of the dress Arwen wore to wed Aragorn, I wanted to wear something flattering and easy to move in. Cloaks are cool but they’re about as flattering as pleated pants. I opted instead for an Edwardian paisley mini dress, a large wizard pendant, platform go-go boots emblazoned with imagery of Adam and Eve cavorting in the Garden of Eden, black tights and my signature elf ears. It was an outfit reminiscent of the way people in the ‘60s interpreted medieval fashion, signifying to those around me that I am indeed an LSD Casualty.
After selecting my outfit, I called the Faire Headquarters to find out if I could bring Reverend Jen Junior, who has a Legolas costume I made for her two Halloweens ago. I figured it might be her only opportunity to wear it again. I was told that because the Faire features horses and other animals, dogs are not allowed, not even fabulous Chihuahuas in Middle Earthen garb.
Finding a dog-sitter, I then looked into transportation. Because Rosalie and I hoped to consume mass quantities of ale, driving to the Faire was not an option. Luckily, the Lords and Ladies at the Shortline Bus Company offered bus service to and from the Faire. The only catch was that the bus left New York City at 10 a.m. and departed the Faire at 6:30 p.m., which equaled a minimum of eight hours at the Faire. I wasn’t sure I could handle it.
Undeterred, I arrived at Port Authority at the ungodly hour of 9:30 a.m. and held a place in line behind a preteen with a braided rattail who was attending with his mother. He opened a soda and it exploded on his embroidered tunic. I wanted to hug him and say, “Don’t worry, in ten years, you will be cool.”
Rosalie arrived moments before boarding, wearing a floral gown and carrying a pentagram-emblazoned bag. As our bus departed, we discussed the concept of the Ren Faire.
“What I don’t understand,” I said, “Is why the Renaissance gets a Faire and other time periods don’t. Wouldn’t an Ancient Egyptian Faire be cool?”
“Or an Age of Reason Faire.”
“Or an Ancient Roman Faire with orgies and vomitoriums.” Once we’d exhausted the subject of wacky Faire possibilities, we studied my English to Elvish glossary. Ren Faire dudes would be totally impressed.
Within an hour, we arrived at the Faire grounds, a village enshrouded by the Sterling Forest.
Upon entering the gates, a corset-clad “wench” handed us programs and directed us to the privies – a cluster of unseemly Port-a-Potties. Still, our bladders had swollen like fatted pigs at slaughter, and we were grateful for the amenities, no matter how heinous. At least someone had thoughtfully scented my Port-a-Potty with incense.
From there we wandered down Spendpenny Lane. Merchants beckoned us as flute music filled the air.
“Would you like to pet a baby dragon?” a girl in devil horns asked me.
“Sure,” I said, tending to like “baby” anything.
She pulled a tiny lizard from the folds of her wooly cloak and handed it to me. Its little belly rose and fell as it climbed up my arm. I knew Jen Junior would not approve of anything entering our home that might take attention away from her so I handed the tiny creature back and continued.
“I might have to buy a cloak,” I said, feeling chilly in the crisp September morn.
As I said this, I noticed a glorious cloak dangling from a merchant’s booth. It was comprised of tiny scraps of beige leather sewn together meticulously.
“That’s just like the cloaks the gelflings wore in The Dark Crystal,” I gasped, when, from out of nowhere, a woman who looked remarkably like a gelfling materialized.
“I’m a friend of Wendy Froud,” she said, having heard my gelfling comment. Wendy Froud is the artist who designed the gelflings. Apparently she based their appearance on her friend.
Since I don’t wear leather and because most of the cloaks cost upwards of $1,400, I explained that I was just browsing. Even so, the live gelfling showed us everything at the booth. I tried on a “belt bag” which is like a medieval fanny pack, only more flattering – perfect for freeing up one’s hands for other activities like mead-swilling and axe-throwing. Rosalie tried on a faux-fur barbarian style mini-cape while I checked out a wall of leather “Rennathongs.” Noting they had no cotton crotch, I decided they were a recipe for ye olde yeast infection.
It was almost time to start drinking, but first we needed sustenance. A funnel cake stand called out to us. Fried dough topped with sugar seemed like a good strategy for soaking up alcohol and was especially appealing since I could feel my “blood of the moon” cycle coming on. Rosalie opted for an apple fritter, which tasted exactly like the funnel cake, but was a different shape.
We sat on a bench, feasting and observing fairgoer fashion. The pirate look was overwhelmingly popular with men thanks to Johnny Depp. With women, wearing your boobs up to your chin appeared to be the trend.
“Corsets and beer drinking just don’t go together,” I noted. I refuse to wear anything that might constrict my beer gut from expanding or that takes more than two minutes to get in or out of.
I took out my program and looked at the schedule. Time management was crucial, which meant watching a Midsummer Night’s Dream was out. Because I hate magicians, magic was also out. That left jousting – hot men on horses hitting each other with sticks – the official sport of my home state of Maryland. The joust didn’t start for two hours so we decided to go in search of libation.
Though the funnel cake was possessed of some magic that caused Rosalie and me to continue picking at it even after we felt sick to our stomachs, we eventually tossed it and rose from our bench.
We noticed two men dressed as barbarians, one of whom inexplicably had a tin of Spam attached to his belt. Figuring they too must be in search of beer, we followed them as they wandered into the Blue Boar Inn, a Faire hot spot brewing with activity.
“Are you barbarians?” I asked them.
“I am,” said the Spam-accessorized man. “He’s not sure what he is,” he added pointing to his friend. “What kind of elf are you?”
“I’m an urban elf.”
“You’re more like a hippie elf!” he exclaimed, disgusted by my apparent pacifism.
“No. She’s a groovy elf,” his friend corrected. I was impressed by his ability to differentiate between a hippie and a groovy aesthetic.
I am not a hippie. I own exactly one pair of jeans and I iron them. The groovy aesthetic is innocent like The Partridge Family or Banana Splits.
Because I wanted to remain coherent enough to take notes, I chose Budweiser over mead. Settling onto a bench with my drink, I felt like Frodo hanging at the Prancing Pony.
And as mine lips did finally meet the frothy King of Beers, my eyes beheld the King of my dreams – a strapping young Ren Faire god. He had shoulder-length, brown wavy hair and wore upper body armor as casually as if it were a t-shirt. He sat in a throne, hoisting a pint with his manly cohorts. There were no metrosexuals at the Blue Boar. These were men who would gut you with daggers if you so much as broached the subject of eyebrow waxing.
The testosterone was intoxicating. My pantaloons moistened as I imagined him unsheathing Excalibur in all its glory and delivering me from the clutches of a dragon or some other equally scary mythological beast. We would then ride off into the mists of the isle of Manhattan upon the back of a trusty unicorn.
“Will you be jousting this afternoon?” I casually asked him, cloaking my social anxiety in journalistic inquiry.
“No, this is my light gear,” he answered, piercing my soul with his piercing blue eyes.
My Elvish tongue grew suddenly tied and I only managed a few more questions. It turns out my King Arthur was actually “Dennis,” an actor from New Jersey who did not seem very sociable or interested in bedding an elf.
“I didn’t dress slutty enough,” I said to Rosalie as we left the Blue Boar. “If it weren’t so cold, I’d get a chain-mail bikini.”
From there we moseyed to the Pendragon Axe-Throwing booth. Apparently, axe-throwing is extremely popular with people who’ve been drinking all day. I waited in line but gave up. Jousting was about to start and I didn’t want to miss a minute of it.
As expected, the first jouster, “Sir Walter Raleigh” was hot. He looked more like Orlando Bloom than any historical depictions of Walter Raleigh I’ve seen. But his hotness was not enough to defend him against “Sir Guy DeGuisborne,” who broke Sir Walter’s stick in the final showdown.
After the match we sauntered back to the Blue Boar where a band was playing raucous Irish tunes. I interviewed various characters including “Frederic” a ringwraith and “Bubbles” a faerie. I began to forget that there was a reality outside of the Ren Faire. Time flew and before long it was time for the final event of the day – the Royal Joust.
Heading for the tournament field, we turned a corner and ran into socialist badasses, Robin Hood and his band of merry men. I asked them how they liked wearing tights all day.
Will Scarlett, the cheekiest of the bunch, answered, “I like my tights but not as much as you do.”
They vogued for Rosalie’s camera before bidding us adieu.
When we finally got to the tournament, there was a commotion and we saw that our new friend, Robin Hood, was being dragged out before the people to await punishment from the Queen!
Sadly, we couldn’t stay for his sentencing because our bus was leaving in five minutes and I didn’t want to spend the night in the forest.
Exhausted from hours of merrymaking, we slid into our velour bus seats.
“The amazing thing about the Faire,” Rosalie said, “Is that everyone there was so nice.”
“I know. That would never happen at a rock concert.”
No doors had been slammed in my face. No one had blathered into a cell phone inches from my ears. And for the past eight hours, men had called me “my Lady.” As far as “scenes” go, the Ren Faire subculture is as attitude-free as it gets. No one there was trying to be cool. I hadn’t seen a dude in a suit, a hipster or a wireless device all day, a fact that made me want to party like it’s 1599 all the time.