The Festival Booth Diary
8:00 a.m., Friday, May 5.
The nice, church-going lady inched up to me as I arranged my booth in spot 115 and stood there, watching me unload books under a dark sky threatening to make the annual Mushroom Festival wet, and wet books aren’t much fun… or buyable. “What are you selling?”
“Books,” I said, unfolding my chair and putting copies of my book on the table.
“What kind of books?” she asked.
“One I’ve written.”
“You got anything funny?” she asked, “because I like humor.”
“Yes,” I said, pulling a water bottle from my friendly festival bag o’ goodies. I never intended to sell my book at small-town festivals, but small publishers put as much effort into marketing as college students do in going to class. If my book was going to sell, I was going to have to do it myself. “I’m a parent and these are stories about things I’ve experienced with my kids.” She still didn’t look convinced. “Uh, kids are silly.”
She flipped through the book, casually glossing over words I’d chosen as carefully as a surgeon chooses a drink after a long day of slinging vasectomies. “I’ll take one,” she said. “This had better be funny.”
“I hope you think so, ma’am,” I said, taking her money. She walked down the quiet street of people setting up their booths, too, holding my book lightly in one hand like she’d forgotten it already. Maybe she had. Geez, that was easy. I’ll sell a hundred of these things today. I must be invisible. Should’ve paid more attention while I was shaving; I may have noticed something important like that. Nobody else has even looked at me. Great. And I must have missed yesterday’s parade; there’s a lot of horse poop in the street. It’s making the kids giggle. “Poopy, poopy, poopy,” one kid screamed, pointing at the pile. Yeah, poop’s funny. A lot of people don’t notice, or care, that they’re walking on horse poop. I don’t want to see their living room carpet.
Nobody since the old lady has stopped at my booth. This stinks. I hate festivals. I hate going to festivals. I hate being in a line of traffic diverted for festivals. Now I’m sitting at one watching people, whose family vacations revolve around the state fair, walk by me like I was selling insurance. I’m glad I thought ahead and brought liquor.
I sold a book almost before I turned off the car, now the march of the mushroom people won’t even look at me. Maybe illiteracy is a bigger problem than I realized. Great, and my book isn’t even thick enough to prop up the short leg of a couch. That probably would have counted for a sale or two.
The guy in the booth next to me is selling those feathers with alligator clips. Great placement. And darn the festival committee for putting me across the street from the Kettle Korn booth. Now I’ll have to smell that all day. Lots of tattoos are out, and Goth kids. It looks like a Mad Max movie if the bad guys were just rebelling against their parents instead of trying to survive in the brutal, radiation-scarred landscape after the apocalypse.
Hey, I sold another one. I’ve been here two hours and I’ve made $20. Sweet. I think I know why most people aren’t stopping; the Kettle Korn booth smells like fried fish. I hope I don’t get sick. A man with a kid on a leash just walked by. At least I think it was a kid, it could have been a puppy, or a chimp. It was hard to tell under all that denim.
Two people I vaguely know walked by my booth on their way to buy a feathered alligator clip. They didn’t stop. I should’ve anticipated the draw of alligator clips and put one on the cover of my book. And when were ponchos ever popular? I mean apart from the ‘60s when everyone was stoned and really didn’t care. Clint Eastwood can make a poncho work, that’s because he shoots people. Well, at least I’m not by the carnival.
What’s going to happen when I have to pee?
A man I once shared a beer-making hobby with walked toward me. I hadn’t seen him for 12 years—the day he came in second on “Jeopardy!” A group of us watched him in a bar and kept asking him if Alex Trebek was real or a marvel of animatronics. He wouldn’t commit. “Goin’ to the festival, are ye?” he asked.
“Indeed,” I said.
“You know, I always expect at these things for the clock to strike and people to start tearing off each other’s clothes while screaming, ‘festival, festival,’” he said.
“Me, too,” I said. Then he walked back across the street to his law office. No hello, no good-bye, just a vague Star Trek (original series) reference and he was gone. I wonder if he was trying to goad me into out-stranging him?
A small family stopped in front of my booth and none of them looked at me. I bet they’re the kind of people who block grocery store aisles just to gossip with someone who lives across the street, read all the tabloid headlines at the checkout stand, then wait until the clerk rings them up to pull out the ol’ checkbook. Jerks. Surprisingly enough, they weren’t related to me.
At least six people have stopped to tell me how much they like my newspaper column. Great, now why don’t you buy a freakin’ book. I’m not here to contribute to the festival ambiance. A girl I went to high school with walked by, said “hi,” and kept on walking. She wouldn’t give me the time of day in high school, either.
A clown keeps walking by and waving at me. I think she’s up to something. Clowns scare me. A guy carrying a corn dog and a bowling ball paused at the Kettle Korn booth then walked on, gnawing at the phallic festival food. I hate corn dogs and everything they stand for. They were invented by communists, or clowns. Probably communist clowns.
The same people keep walking back and forth. What compels people to stay at a street festival for hours, walking past the same booths over and over? The crap hasn’t changed since the last time you walked by smoking your GPCs, people.
I’ve got to pee, now. The sky’s still cloudy, maybe it’ll rain and I can go home.
I sold two more books. Cool.
It’s interesting to see people from my partying days, but it’s hard to recognize them because they aren’t wearing tube tops and dancing nasty to “Ice, Ice Baby.” Good god, what fifteen years does to some people.
I really have to pee. This was as bad as the time when I was seventeen and skipped my part-time job to see “Return of the Jedi.” I bought the jumbo Coke and missed the whole Luke/Darth/Emperor battle thing because I almost wet my pants. I’ve never forgiven myself.
A friend stopped by and took over the booth while I went to the bathroom. Whew. I feel like Regan when those priests finally exorcized the devil. Yowza. I was in no hurry to get back to the booth, so I bought a limeade and stopped at a booth that offered hand-carved, custom Amish toilet seats.
The sun came out. And, you know, I must really be going bald because my head burns. A skinny teenager dressed like Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix” keeps walking by. I bet he gets beaten up a lot at school. Dogs. Why do guys who go to festivals feel it necessary to bring their dogs? Is that the only time they get to show they’re the dominant male? Can’t they pee higher than Fluffy? The Kettle Korn guy hasn’t been very busy. Maybe people don’t trust eating something cooked by a guy who can’t spell corn, but then that would really shoot down my reading theory.
I’m still a bit shaken by that clown.
The sun is punishing me for something, the Kettle Korn still smells like fried fish, and I think some of these festival goers may be on meth. I’ve had more fun with a hangover. If these people aren’t going to buy anything, why don’t they just leave? Well, except for the pregnant teenager smoking a cigarette—she can stay. At least she’s entertaining, causing me to wonder which one of the guys with skull tattoos hovering around her like gnats might just be the sperm donor.
Note to self, floss.
Geez, it’s 2 p.m. Am I really going to sit through three more hours of this? I haven’t seen so much camouflage since I watched “Three Kings.” Hey, I’m finally hungry. Then I think, ‘those corn dogs are almost starting to look good,’ and just the right person walks by to kill my appetite. You know, a lot of people who shouldn’t wear tank tops go to street fairs.
A toddler in blue jeans and a rugby shirt grinned as he went by my booth. He’d squeal and run away from his dad. Dad would cut off the toddler’s escape path, and the toddler would turn, giggle, and run the other way, his toddler steps sending him ever closer to losing his balance. The dad just smiled. Is this harmless entertainment or child abuse?
Time goes slowly when people shuffle by you like zombies (well, zombies in Def Leppard T-shirts). It’s 2:15 on a Friday afternoon. Don’t you people have jobs? Someone else stopped by to tell me how much she likes my column, but she didn’t buy a book. Hey, thanks.
Crap. I broke the straw to my limeade. I wrapped a piece of Scotch tape around it… hope it works.
A woman stopped at my booth. “Jason Offutt,” she said. “I love your column. I’ve been meaning to buy your book and here you are.” She bought two. She’s good people… whoever she is.
Another clown? Holy crap. Go away. Go away. I won’t sleep tonight.
A lot of people have stopped to ask who my folks are. A person’s lineage is important in a small town. It makes you have something in common with people you have nothing in common with. That’s probably why I don’t go to family reunions.
Geez, I probably shouldn’t be eating sunflower seeds; I’m fouling my own nest. I’ve tried to avoid building a disgusting pile of spit-soaked husks but have succeeded in molding a disgusting ring of spit-soaked husks around my dollar-store lawn chair. Maybe no one will notice. I’m filthy.
I’ve learned two things by having a booth at a street fair: 1) if you have thinning hair, bring a hat, and 2) a potential customer asking “are you going to be here tomorrow?” is just a nice way of saying, “I’m never going to buy your book.”
My stomach’s rumbling now. I’m going to buy some of that Kettle Korn no matter how badly it smells. I just know it.
The church bell rang. Everybody yelled “festival, festival” and started tearing at each others clothes.
A lot of ladies in their 60s have stopped by to tell me how much they like my writing. I guess that’s my core audience—the gray ladies. I’m about ready to pick up and leave for the day; it’s getting windy. A pair of cops walked by; they’d been doing that for a while. I was almost bored enough to tell them I had a few baggies of pot shoved down my pants just to have something to do.
Damned clown. Keep your evil balloons away from those children, foul beast of the pit.
I really need some food, but not from the festival. The corndogs are past the point of being appealing, and the funnel cakes—those deep-fried strings of sugar-coated dough—make me want to swear off solid food.
“Are you Jason?” a gray lady asked.
“I thought you were. I remember you from when you worked at the local newspaper.”
“That was sixteen years ago,” I said.
She frowned. “Yes, it was,” she said, and walked away.
It’s straight-up 3:00. Can I make it till 5?
Five Japanese kids are walking around. What a great introduction to Americana this is. I hope they’re taking a lot of pictures, because no one back home will believe any of this. Have you noticed redneck guys strut when they walk? I think it’s because they don’t want anyone to know they’re secretly wearing ladies underwear. Some middle-school kids walked past my booth holding brown longneck root beer bottles with their fingertips like they’ve seen their dad do thousands of times. That’s not a sad statement on middle-class America, middle-school students are just morons.
Wretched clown. Die, die, die.
The Keanu Reeves kid walked by again. He’s been down this street at least fifteen times. Hey, Neo, your jacket’s plastic, buy a real one and learn Kung Fu, or just go home and watch Star Trek. An adorable, clean, homecoming queen teenage girl just went past. She was wrapped around some tattooed greaseball who’s apparently allergic to soap. I wonder what she’s getting back at her parents for.
Hey, these street fairs are a lot more tolerable with a couple of drinks down you. And, would you look at that? Two chicks holding hands. Now my festival experience is complete. The crowd’s thinning a little. Must be a truck pull somewhere.
A guy’s walking down the street holding a rifle and nobody notices. That’s the beauty of small-town rural By God America—guns are as accepted as baseball caps. Nobody’s going to shoot anyone unless they insult Dale Earnhart. The Midwest kicks ass.
I need another limeade to wash down all this vodka.
The hair stylist who gave me the Shawn Cassidy look when I was in high school stopped to tell me how much she loved my book. OK, I guess I might forgive her for making me look like a princess during my hormone- and pimple-riddled sophomore year.
It’s 3:30 p.m. and I’ve got to pee again. I hope someone I can trust stops by; but not the guy with the gray ZZ Top beard, winter coat, and walking stick who’s been pacing this street since 8 a.m. He makes me nervous. Four skinny teenage boys in baggy pants and sideways Raiders caps walk by. Good, lord, where do these people come from? I know you’re not from the Hood, kids, because I saw you park your Mom’s SUV. Pull up your pants and admit you still watch “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
A group of Mennonite girls in long black dresses and bonnets are going from booth to booth eating ice cream. How do I know they’re Mennonite and not Amish? They’re all wearing Nike sneakers.
Weird Guy with a limp—a guy I kept commanding with my mind not to stop by my booth—stopped at my booth. What has limited my psychokinetic powers? Lack of food? Lack of human contact? All this vodka? He picked up a copy of my book with hands sporting curvy Howard Hughes fingernails and huffed. “I’m not going to buy this,” he said, dropped the book and walked off. Yeah, thanks for stopping.
School district employees are starting to filter through the festival. Maybe I should hang around; they’re diluting the crowd’s concentrated weirdness.
A gray lady older than 60 passed up a chance to talk with me. Ugh. Am I losing my appeal with my core audience? How will I sell any books if the gray ladies aren’t interested in my middle-aged manness anymore? Will I be just another guy who sits by himself at a festival booth?
The dude from the alligator clip booth stopped by to chat (and, oh yes, he wasn’t just a dude, he was a duuudddde). I wonder if there’s a Midwestern small-town street fair booth subculture I’ve stumbled into? And, more importantly, is there a way out?
It’s 4:15. I think I’m going to make it until 5. A guy with a fu-manchu and Get-R-Done T-shirt strutted by (wearing ladies underwear). That’s two redneck bullets out of one gun. People who’ve been by me at least seven times are still wandering the streets. Attention, please. There’s really not that much going on. These are the same booths you haven’t bought things from the other six times you walked your dog by. What are you waiting for, our prices to drop to 15 cents? This is not a garage sale, this is a… well, yeah, I guess it is a garage sale; a big garage sale where you can buy steak-on-a-stick next to the courthouse. Geez, a street fair has as much lasting interest as a stick of Juicy Fruit.
Clown. Clown. Clown.
A balloon that slipped from the grasp of a baby floated past the courthouse clock, scattering pigeons into the sky. My old neighbors stopped to talk; they’d brought their dog—the one who always took a dump in my yard. They said how awful their new neighbors are. Looking back, I guess my wife and I weren’t trying hard enough. A cluster of 20-somethings who looked in their 40s gathered around my booth talking about all the cool Hair Band mirrors they were going to win at the carnival: Poison, Bon Jovi, Europe, Quiet Riot. Yeah, I saw the Quiet Riot reunion tour—it was in a middle-school gym. Meth, it’s not just for breakfast anymore
Yes, it’s finally 5. No more teenagers, no more Rebel flags, no more tattoos, no more balloons, no more pregnant eighth-graders, no more vodka… well, a little more vodka.
It’s over. Good lord it’s over. I wish I had an agent so I could fire him. I’m finally going home. I’m finally going to eat something that’s not deep fried in lard. I’m… Hey; I sold 20 books today. I wonder when the festival is next summer? For that one, maybe I’ll bring scotch.
* * *
Jason Offutt teaches journalism at Northwest Missouri State University. His latest book, “What Lurks Beyond: The Paranormal in Your Backyard,” is available at amazon.com.
“Funny you should mention it,” I said, “because that’s what I write.” I pushed a copy of my book into her hands and she looked at it like I’d just handed her a dead rat. “This is a book of parenting humor.”