There are several ways to handle the onslaught of unorthodox sights, images and smells mingling in the filthy San Gabriel Valley air at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. None of them involve any degree of sobriety. Being sober at a Renaissance Faire is like wearing a black three-piece suit to the beach. You become alienated, uncomfortable, and surrounded by people gawking at you for having made such poor sartorial sense.
But even with a briefcase full of the finest goods that your local street pharmacist has dealt you, there is simply no way for a person with even the closest semblance of normalcy to make sense of this miniature civilization that crops up for five weekends each year at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area in Irwindale, an atrophied suburb approximately 45 minutes outside of Los Angeles. Luckily, I am not a person with any semblance of normalcy.
A bit of background: I had been to exactly three Renaissance Faire’s before, with varying degrees of insight. One time was for a Junior High field trip. Another time, I only lasted about a very very sober hour before the sight of hundreds if not thousands of men and women dressed up in their finest Elizabethan costumes became too much for even me and I was forced to retreat to the comfort and safety of my car and the Samsonite that awaited me back at home The third time was a bit better. I was most definitely not sober and attending the Faire with two of my best friends. This trip featured me being accosted in the middle of the Faire by a rather attractive girl with breasts pushed up and nearly out of her costume, asking me to a recite her a poem.
The Response: (with a creative debt handed to Ted “Theodore” Logan of the famed rock act Wyld Stallyns)
“Oh, beautiful babes from England
For Whom We’ve Traveled Back in Time
Will you go with us to the Prom in San Dimas
We Will Have a Most Triumphant Time”
I’m not sure if the “wench” (yes, all women are referred to as wenches by the Faire people) picked up my all-too-sly Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure reference, but she seemed to enjoy it nonetheless, and my friends even chanted the not-all-so-sly “Go For It.” I did not go for it. Though at one point, a different woman asked David “Crock Tock” Crockett to flog him with a leather whip. None of us really knew if she was joking.
These past experiences had steeled me for the potentially maddening sight of the 1,000-plus “volunteers,” willingly spending their time and money to dress up and pretend that they were living in the Renaissance. Kind of. Accordingly, my apartment beforehand resembled something akin to the scene in Half Baked where they are deliberating between using Wesley Pipes or Billy Bong Thornton. Let’s just say I liked “Sling Blade” more than “Blade.”
Driving to the Faire, I tried to explain what was going to happen to my girlfriend who had never been to such a bizarre event. I failed miserably. For much of the ride, we deliberated whether or not bringing a young child to such a place could scare them for life and relegate them to an existence filled with pageantry, pomp, circumstance and tights. We arrived at few conclusions.
No matter, the 44th Annual Renaissance Faire, loomed before us, among great stacks of white spring sunlight, baking the sprawling and dusty fairgrounds. Paying the steep $25 entrance fee, I naturally made several comments about the prohibitive cost of the event, before being staggered by the site of the meticulously created medieval/renaissance era Village in front of me. Yells and catcalls rifling through the air.
“Hello, lady and gentleman. Welcome to ye olde Renaissance Faire. Stay awhile, roll in the hay awhile. Heh Heh. Heh.”
A man dressed in green tights, a tunic (you don’t see someone in a tunic very often) and a bizarre muffin-shaped hat sold bags of peanuts and yelled loudly:
“Get your sacks of nuts. Every woman loves a big sack of nuts. Hot nuts. Can’t beat them. No woman can resist.”
Immediately, I realized one thing. The Renaissance Faire was about sex. And lots of it. Suddenly, I found myself in the cross-fire of waves of men dressed in garish Renaissance outfits, trying to step to women dressed in a variety of Renissance fine linens and cottons, sporting as much cleavage as humanly possible.
Renaissance Faire Rule #1 : The performers are there to fuck.
But this wasn’t my reason for attending the Faire, I came to observe a horde of people who somehow found it extraordinarily liberating to dress up in anachronistic clothing, drink vast quantities of beer and walk around for days on end speaking with a fake British accent and relying very heavily on the words “merry,”"ye” and “m’lady.”
Rule #2: The word Merrily should only be used in the phrase “Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Life is But A Dream,” and not by 47-year old men, dressed in flamboyant purple tights with thick beards and a day-job selling upholstery.
Somehow, I ended up sitting in a corner of the festival, eating a “ye olde baked potato,” watching the characters eat next to me, making come-ons to each other the entire time.
“So, my fair lass, what are ye doing after the faire.”
“Alas, my fair gentleman. I have a squire of my own.”
Not only did the exchange sort of remind me of Steve “The Pirate” from Dodgeball who mysteriously only wanted to talk like a pirate, more importantly it raised a very important question. I.E. Do these people talk in Renaissance Faire-speak during sex? And if so, do the woman do call the men “my lord” in bed, or do they have a whole different set of sexual epithets gleaned from the Renaissance that they’re ready to spew at the drop of a hat. I’m pretty sure that they do. Suddenly, I became certain that the Renaissance Faire is solely an excuse for these people to work themselves into a lather of cleavage, ribald comments and strong drink, and then at night the Ren Faire performers retreat to their tents and perform unspeakable and undescribable acts to one another in vicious sex orgys.
Renaissance Faire Rule #3 Cleavage is Never Bad.
Now I don’t necessarily have a problem with the Renaissance Faire crowd wanting to do sordid things behind closed doors. After all, they aren’t hurting anyone and I was sort of happy that all these outcasts had found a place to let it all hang out. So to speak. But I was onto their scheme. Every time that I saw a man walk up to a woman and grab her ass, I knew the truth, I knew that this whole gimmick was nothing more than an intricate strategy to get girls. In many ways, this place was no different than a Hollywood nightclub. Except while Hollywood nightclubs are nothing more than an elaborate almagam of smoke, lights, liquor and money, for the end result of wealthy men sleeping with young 20-something girls, the Renaissance Faire was just a bit more open about it. And a whole lot more nerdy. Oh sure, they don’t TELL you about the donkey, leather-clad monkey and refigerators full of ice cubes that they inevitably have stashed back at the camp, but I sensed a degree of honesty about it. And I respect that.
I continued to walk on, stomach filled uncomfortably with a ye olde baked potato that wasn’t sitting all too well.
Renaissance Faire Rule #4: Ye Olde Baked Potato Is Not As Good As It Sounds
Then I considered taking in a show. Yes, a show seemed to make sense. I consulted my handy Renaissance Faire guidebook that they had passed out. Almost instantly, I noticed a group of shows entitled:
Seeking Naughty Content? (NC-17)
This self-described “drinking group with a singing problem,” will delight you with their bawdy songs and naughty antics.
Merry Wives of Windsor
These lusty serving wenches retrun to the Faire serving bawdy songs and plenty of good cheer.
The Belles of Bedlam
Sure, they’re bold, they’re beautiful, and they’re back with their naughty bawdy brand of songs for grown-ups.
Pye Power Couty
Always full of surprises and antic accusations. This bawdy, raucuous bit of revelry is the longest continuously performed show at Faire.
Observing these show descriptions, I became aware of
Renaissance Faire Rule #5: Renaissance Faire People love the word bawdy.
Bawdy is one of those words you never actually see used anymore unless it’s used to describe a William Shakespeare book. Alas, this is not true at the Renaissance Faire where you can’t go five feet without having the thought: this is so fucking bawdy.
I half expected a pair of men wearing jester hats to spring before my eyes and confront the other one with the statement, “motherfucker, you ain’t bawdy. Watch me step to this lass. This is fucking bawdy, bitch!!”
This never happened, but my brief visual of two jesters having an esoteric adjective-off, led to another thought. Do people at Renaissance Faires floss? Like for instance, does a dude try to have the most stylish pair of tights to attract the finest Renaissance ho. Does he try to rock the biggest and most ornate hat? And what about the people that competed in the events (there were fencing and jousting competitions on the hour). Did the dude that won the jousting contest get all sorts of love during the group orgy later that night. I had some questions to ponder. However, I ultimately decided something:
Then there were the girls themselves, most of them were rather unattractive, but every now and then you’d see an incredibly cute girl dressed like a complete freak, totally engrossed in this weird world of artificial pageantry and acting. Say you met that girl at a bar two days previous and you asked her what she was doing that weekend?
“I’m going to the Renaissance Faire,” she answers.
“Cool, I’ve been there before. It’s fun to sort of laugh at everyone.”
“What!! Laugh at them? I dress up. I’m playing Queen Elizabeth II. It’s a very important role. You just don’t get it.”
Renaissance Faire Rule #7: If You Do In Fact Suceed In Picking Up a Ren Ho (and no, this does not mean a girl that MC Ren has slept with), A One-Night Stand Is Probably Your Best Option. Otherwise, it might get weird. Very very weird.
Then I finally sat down and took in one of the aforementioned bawdy shows. But rather than be titillated, I was just bored. Excruciatingly bored. Seriously, half of me wanted to go up there and do an impromptu stand-up routine just to save myself from falling asleep.
Renaissance Faire Rule #8: Improv Can Be Occasionally Be Funny In the Hands of Professionals. It Will Never Be Funny at a Renaissance Faire.
What was I to make of this? Who were these people? And what did they do for a living? How do they go in to work the following Monday, mingle by the coffee machine and tell their co-workers how they totally kicked ass in the archery competition at the Ren Faire last weekend, and how every woman there was totally jocking their Henry VIII costume.
Renaissance Faire Rule #9: What Happens in the Renaissance Faire Should Definitely Stay In the Renaissance Faire.
Still flowing through the thick crowds two hours later, on the last weekend of the Faire, I started to grow uneasy. One of the most uncomfortable things about going to a Renaissance Faire is that you are on their turf. No one is safe. At any moment, a performer might run up to you and grab you and start trying to talk to you in their awful, “I played Macbeth in the 7th grade play once” accents. And after about two hours of eating and mocking the weak stage shows (let’s just say, the only thing the shows had going for them was their bawdiness. How bawdy? Pretty fucking bawdy.) I was growing tired and it had been hours since Samson had been conversed with and with several cops patrolling the crowds, it wasn’t actually a good idea to dial up my old friend.
But I remained hesistant to leave. I had arrived at no conclusive evidence that the Renaissance Faire was nothing more than an excuse for debauchery, debasement and a whole lot of other unseemly things that begin with the letter “D.” All I knew for certain was that at the Renaissance Faire, there were a lot of shows, a lot of parents taking their children to entertain them for a Sunday and a whole lot of people dressed up in Renaissance garb who obviously hadn’t been talented enough to snare a top role in the High School musical. Their consolation prize seemed to be a semi-peripatetic existence of going to Renaissance Faires several times a year and pretending to be Mary Beth, the peasant wench from Birminghamshire.
And yet what about the people who came to watch this year in and year out? What was their motivation to come here? Sure, they were people like me. Smart-alecs, there to poke fun at the strange customs and sexual peculariaties of this perverse niche of people. But what about everyone else. If you weren’t there with children, out of all the places in the world what was the motivation to attend to a Renaissance Faire. Did they think it was cool? Did they like the food? Did they like the movie Robin Hood Men in Tights THAT much? The answers seemed to elude me.
Looping one last time through the Fair Grounds, I stopped in to use one of the portable restrooms that the Faire had arranged on the grounds. Waiting in line to wash my hands, at an outdoor portable sink, I watched an encounter that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. An encounter so bizarre, you’d have to be there to believe it.
In front of me was a rather large woman not dressed in any sort of Renaissance garb. She was wearing a very revealing tank top and a pair of jeans two sizes two tight. Across from her was a man wearing a pair of very dark sunglasses with several dark tatoos inked all up across his body, a wife beater and a goatee. I’m about 99 percent sure that he was in some sort of gang, as he looked identical to Edward Norton in American History X, not to mention the fact that there were hordes of menacing looking dudes who looked like they’d just got let out of prison, wandering around the Faire that day (not to mention the high visiblity of dozens of cops at the Faire. Only in LA do the cops have to come to the Renaissance Faire to watch out for gang wars)
Then out of the corner of my eye, I notice the woman and the gang-member look each other up and down.
American History X: Hey
Random Woman: Hey
American History X: What’s your name?
Random Woman: Brenda
(American History X walks around to stand right next to Brenda and begins taking a long look at the ample cleavage she is sporting.)
AHX: Say, that’s a pretty nice 38 DD chest you’ve got there. Wanna’ go out with me sometime?
AHX: Right now.
Brenda: Who are you here with?
AHX: No one, and whoever I’m with won’t notice I’m gone, anways.
Brenda: Okay, will you buy me a drink first.
AHX: One drink.
He then took her hand and led her off to presumably go buy a drink and have Renaissance sex. I looked back at the row of bathrooms to see if I’d just made up this entire encounter, then I noticed a large sign that read: Do Not Allow Children Under 6 To Enter the Bathrooms Unattended.
At that moment, everything suddenly became all-too clear, I grabbed my girlfriend and told her that we needed to leave. Now. On our way out, a pair of young woman ran up to her and started shouting, “My cousin, my cousin, aren’t you my cousin?” They tried to grab her and fleck drops of water across her eyes. Luckily, she made a break for it and darted out of their grasp.
About 100 feet from the entrance, a man tried to pull the same “aren’t you my cousin bit with me.” But this time, I saw it coming a mile away and as he ran towards me, I ducked around him and yelled back, “I really don’t think you’re my cousin. You don’t even look half-Jewish.”
Finally out in the parking lot, climbing into my car, and driving away as fast as possible, only one thought bubbled up from that long day, from that vicious miasma of come-ons, esoteric costumes and creepy sexual tension known as the Renaissance Faire:
Renaissance Fair Rule #10: The Renaissance Faire is Decadent and Depraved.