I’ll have some shorter pieces and a gallery with some of our professionally-shot photos coming, but in the meantime, here’s my account of day two. If you enjoyed day one, this one is much crazier, and includes: a wet t-shirt contest, extreme nipple trauma, oil wrestling, a drug overdose, a Vanilla Ice performance, another overdose, a girl with no pants, and other events too surreal to explain succinctly.
Day Two: Heart of Dankness
We sleep six deep in our rented RV, including one in the passenger seat, and when we wake up it is HOT. The RV’s jacked in to an electricity hook up and the air conditioning has been running all night, but when we wake up it’s iced over and blowing 70-degree air. The smell in here is practically visible, the humidity thick enough to make snowmen. I step outside and it’s even worse. There’s no escape. It’s like we’re all stuck inside a sweat sock together. I don’t know how people live like this. It’s 10 am and I already hate everyone.
We meet our camp neighbor, Mike, a big dude from Indiana with a limp mohawk. He tells us about past Gatherings, deciding to come to this one at the last minute, and the journey from junk yard to junk yard trying to find a new… fuel pump? something, I can’t remember – for his pick-up, an early 90s Ford F-250 with giant dual exhaust coming out behind the bed and up past the roof like batman horns. He has a bumper sticker on the back that says “Juggalo Dad,” and a hatchet man on the front license plate. The hood has paint missing in a perfect, lived-in-jeans kind of way that actually makes it look more badass. It’s probably the manliest truck I’ve ever seen.
Mike’s truck would’ve fit right in with the cowboys at my high school who wouldn’t let me park my ’82 Cutlass Supreme in their corner of the lot, but he’s way nicer. We sheepishly explain what we’re doing here, and Mike laughs in a ball-busting kind of way. From this point on, he’ll yell “SHUT THAT F*CKIN’ CAMERA OFF” every time he sees us as a joke. It makes me wonder about all the people flipping us off and cursing us out the day before, and whether it was legitimate animosity or just a running joke. I’m about fifty-fifty on it. This does seem like a very flipping-off-the-camera-because-it’s-cool kind of place.
All the while, the sound of exploding firecrackers is near constant, and if I fail to mention them,it’s only because we’ve gradually become inured to the sound of a black cat going off every sixty seconds or so.
I attempt to feed seven people bacon and eggs on one burner with three plates, splattering grease all over the RV, setting off the smoke alarm three times, and feeling very Lord of the Flies. KILL THE PIG. MAKE IT SMOKE. FAM-UH-LEE.
After breakfast, we head down past the carnival stuff, over the drug bridge, and back towards the main stage. Everything looks even grimier in the daylight. On the way there, a group of people sitting in chairs underneath a tree yells at us to stop. Living in big cities for the last six years, my normal reaction to being yelled at by strangers is to go full tunnel vision and feign deafness until I’m out of their sphere of influence. But Lieb stops to talk and it seems safe so I stop too. We are here to mingle, after all. Turns out, the guy just wants us to offer a sacrifice to his tree. Okay, sure.
People from all over have been pinning trinkets and doodads to it, the guy explains, this sacrifice tree. “Use anything you have. Just a sacrifice. To pay our respect to this tree that’s here giving us all life right now, you know?” the guy says earnestly. We nod.
“There’s even a $100 bill in there,” the guy says, and sure enough, there is, sticking out of the bark.
Lieb pins a condom he had in his wallet to the tree. I don’t have much in my wallet, but I eventually settle on a BART card. Later I realize that I probably should’ve just stuck five dollars in the tree, since the BART card probably had ten bucks on it and I’ll actually be taking BART from the airport a few days from now. I kind of suck at money.
As we’re walking away, the tree guy yells to his group about breakfast, and we watch as he takes the $100 bill off the tree to go pay for it. This all happened in the space of about five minutes. It seems too perfect to be true.
I wonder aloud about buying a “stoner bowl,” a carnival food concoction of cheese, fried potatoes, and gyro meat, served in a bowl and slathered in gravy. Overhearing me, a juggalette walking by says, “Yo, try the chicken sticks, the chicken sticks are dank.”
We lazily wander our way through the campground with no real destination in mind – the proper state of mind for a place this humid, I imagine. Behind a stand of blue porta-potties, we come upon a skinny guy with a scraggly beard and buck teeth passed out flat on his back like a corpse, mouth open, toes pointed toward the sky. His hands are laid flat against his sides, his right gripping a three-fourths drunk two liter of red Faygo, his left a big plastic handle of off-brand whiskey with about a shot left in it. The mouths of both point up to the sky at a forty-five-degree angle like baby birds. He looks dead, and I have to lean in close before I can see that his chest is still moving. I want to take a picture, but feel like I’d be breaking some unspoken rule about letting sleepy ninjas lie.
Again, it seems like something I would’ve made up, not something that would realy happen, and I actually stop and look around us, searching for clues that this is all some elaborate piece of performance art, a Juggalo Truman Show staged for our benefit. I find no indication of that.
Next we pass a dunk tank next to a Chevy pick-up that’s selling used tires out of the bed. For $5, you get 15 baseballs (15!) to try to knock Skinny Larry, a guy in clown make up and a tie-dyed shirt, into the dunk tank. That’s two things you should know about Juggalos, they’re constantly creating their own markets – for used tires, pipes, drugs, shirts, food, etc – and everything is ridiculously cheap. Our documentary director, Mike, an ex-pitcher who was throwing 94 in his days in the Cleveland Indians farm system, is an obvious choice to try the dunk tank, so we pay the guy in the sleeveless t-shirt manning the booth 10 dollars. Mike starts throwing. He hits the red target to Skinny Larry’s right at least three times, hard, and nothing happens.
“Yeah, that one’s f*cked up,” sleeveless shirt guy says, a cigarette dangling from his lips. Mike starts aiming at the target on Skinny Larry’s left.
All the while, Skinny Larry’s heckling us in a meth head rasp that’s a dead voice ringer for Sirius Radio’s Scott Ferrall. “Show me what you got, Beanpole!” he shouts at Mike. Skinny Larry makes a raghead joke about the bandanna I’m wearing on my head, but I don’t catch all of it. I think he’s missing his front teeth. Mike grazes the target on Skinny Larry’s left a couple times, but without the kind of direct hits he was getting on the right. He’s just throwing and throwing. I don’t know how many balls we have left, and no one seems to be counting. Finally, Sleeveless Shirt just walks up and punches the left target with his hand, dropping Skinny Larry into a waist deep tub. We walk away as Skinny Larry hoists himself back up onto the chair, muttering to himself and smoking a cigarette, suddenly looking melancholy. Hey, it’s a living.
The documentary guys walk off to shoot scenery while Laremy and I hang in front of the Freakshow stage awaiting the wet t-shirt contest. Between yesterday’s rain and the general environment of breezeless, stagnant humidity, everything is a giant mud pit, including the area in front of the stage. There are about 25 dudes milling about, and though we’re there at the show’s stated start time, the show is showing no signs of starting. I’ve begun chain smoking Newports, either out of Stockholm Syndrome or a desperate need to have something to do with my hands. A guy near the stage is selling Bud Lights and water out of a backpack. I buy three Bud Lights for five dollars. I think I paid eleven dollars for one at my last Giants game.
The emcee of the wet t-shirt contest is a forty-something, heavy-set Everlast type with a backwards baseball hat, basketball shorts, and a big gut. “We got four contestants, we need 30!” he exhorts the crowd in a plea that seems absurdly optimistic. “I see Juggalettes walking around out there, get ’em up here!” he croaks in the froggy Ferall voice that seems so prevalent here.
“Yo, we already talked to ’em!” a guy shouts back. Most people here treat the person on stage like they’re talking directly to them.
I give out cigarettes while we wait, and we end up talking to a couple early twenties-ish Juggalos from Dallas, a big guy in a wifebeater and his smaller friend, a slightly-built guy with ear plugs and shaggy bangs laying diagonally across his face. I offer them beers, but they’re straight edge, both in recovery. Lieb, a former heroin addict in recovery himself, gets to talking to them about about the program. “So is being a Juggalo your higher power?” he asks, still wearing his yarmulke.
“No, man, God’s my higher power,” the big one says, respectfully.
They talk about the dumb shit they’ve done while high, how being around “the family” like this is their new high, and being able to make better decisions now. “These are the kind of decisions you make when you’re high,” the big one says, pointing to his pockmarked arm, which is dimpled with either cigarette burns, or abscess scars from shooting up (he seems young for the latter). Then there’s tattoos. The smaller guy shows us his new Twiztid ink on his shin. “Almost all of these I got when I was sober,” he says. Lieb shows off the Far Side tattoo on his inner arm: “I was not sober when I got this.”
Not having tats here definitely marks you as an outsider. I’d estimate probably 30 to 40 percent of the total crowd has Hatchet Men tats, specifically. Both Dallas guys are wearing Hatchet dogtags around their necks, which almost everyone here has.
The guys from Dallas start listing off old friends not in recovery who’ve died recently, seven in the last year, the big guy tells us, including someone named Skinny Pete, and another friend who passed the day they left for the Gathering. The distance between SNL’s “RIP, Ass Dan” running joke on SNL’s Gathering of the Juggalos sketch and reality is so small you’d need a special microscope to see it. RIP signs are everywhere, including a guy dragging around a big white flag that just says “RIP Uncle Ken.”
Despite sobriety and finding your higher power being some of my least favorite conversation topics, both Dallas kids are thoroughly likable. Excluding people who are too drunk or high to function, the percentage of people you meet here who turn out to be likable actually seems higher than it would be at your average San Francisco cocktail party. My theory on this is not yet fully formed, but I think it’s too humid to be full of shit.
People are finally starting to trickle in to the wet t-shirt contest, and with nine ‘lettes willing, it seems we’ve finally reached a quorum. “Anyone else?” the emcee asks.
“Yeah, right here!” a guy shouts, pointing to his girlfriend, a petite brunette who looks very underage. If you told me she was 13 I would have believed it.
“Is she 18?” the emcee asks. The boyfriend and the girl both nod right away like he’s crazy. “Do you promise me that you’re 18?” the emcee asks. The girl raises her palms to the sky as if to say “Yeah, duh” and nods again. That turns out to be sufficient in the way of ID verification, and she heads to the stage. I make a mental note not to photograph that one.
With the contest about to start, they bring three big tubs out on stage and call up six or seven sketchy looking dudes, chosen from the audience. The guys most interested in an interactive boob-watching experience are always the sketchiest, and the Gathering is no different. These are the guys who’ll be in charge of sucking up Faygo into giant, syringe-style squirt guns and shooting it onto the girls’ boobs, butts, and vaginas. One of the guys, a redhead with a crooked grin wearing a brown fanny pack, looks… how shall I say this? Possibly deranged, in Victorian parlance. At one point the emcee tells the redhead, “Hey, bro, you dropped your crack pipe,” and the redhead goes to pick something up. I can’t see what the guy picked up, so I can’t tell if the crack pipe thing was a joke. I’m not sure it was.
“I f*ckin’ hate that crackhead,” the emcee says, and the redhead smiles like a lunatic.
The contest will pit the contestants against one another, head-to-head, in a multi-round format, which scares me a bit, because what do you do for an encore when your t-shirt is already wet? In any case, the emcee introduces the first two girls, a large blonde with big boobs and a rail-thin brunette, both in white wifebeaters, both twenty-something, who walk out to the stage and take their places in their respective blue plastic tubs (the latter to catch the Faygo, I guess, though cleanliness doesn’t otherwise seem a priority).
The music starts and it turns out to be more of a no t-shirt contest than a wet t-shirt contest, as both girls instantly pull off their shirts. Wetness no longer being a functional necessity for nudity doesn’t deter the squirt gun guys from lubricating them any less enthusiastically. Guys in the crowd cheer. Girls in the crowd cheer. Kids in the crowd cheer. Four security guards in a golf cart filming the contest on their phones cheer.
After 45 seconds or so, the emcee cuts the music and asks the crowd to cheer for our favorite. He holds his hand over the bigger girl’s head. “Whoop whoop!” the crowd responds, almost in unison. “Okay, I love the ‘whoop whoops’, Juggalos,” he croaks, “but I’m gonna need y’all to really cheer for your favorites so’s we can pick a winner.”
I don’t see why the girls have to be cruelly pitted against each other like this, instead of just generally celebrated for their generous act of sharing with us their naked bodies. The latter would be less mean, and it would probably entice more young women to let possibly retarded crackheads spray discount soda onto their naked breasts. I admit, I’m a pragmatic feminist. But it’s called a wet t-shirt “contest,” so I guess it has to be a contest.
The thin girl wins, a process that will repeat itself in the next few rounds. It seems very unfair. Who made these brackets, anyway? The seeding process seems flawed. The whole thing starts to bum me out, but the rowdy crowd is otherwise mostly respectful to the losing contestants, most of whom were obviously doomed from the start, under the circumstance. One guy shouts “Yo, she got baloney nipples!”
Okay, not everyone is respectful, but most are.
The next match is between two older, biker-ish looking women, both of whose bodies are basically a train wreck of loose skin flaps, cellulite, and stretch marks. I hate to judge, and I will gladly holler approbation at anyone who wants to get naked in public, but after three or four rounds of this, you start to see things through the crowd’s eyes. The contestants who aren’t young and nubile look like lambs to the slaughter when pitted against the ones who are. You know they’re going to lose, and you’re embarrassed for them.
And yet… the contestants aren’t blind. They have to know what they’re in for, and no one’s forced them to be there. Clearly they’re getting something out of this. It wouldn’t take much to make a case for this being degrading, objectifying, a terrifying illustration of rape culture, and whatever else, and even if you aren’t looking for it, it’s hard not to think about it when a girl’s getting sprayed in the butt with soda by a guy who’s holding a giant squirt gun like it’s a penis. But to describe these as women who just need to learn to respect themselves so they don’t participate in this assumes that they’re all ignorant, confused, and/or without free will, which seems thoroughly patronizing. This must be filling some need, just like the guy letting people staple gun dollar bills to his back we saw on the walk over was filling a need – a need I can’t fathom with the brain I’ve been given in both cases, but those are our natural limitations. The Gathering is the kind of event that illustrates just how many different types of brains there are.
The underage-looking girl takes the stage next. The emcee asks her her name, and when she says “Autumn,” he says “I got a daughter named Autumn” and pretends to push her backstage. Nobody in the audience cries foul, to their credit, but the emcee lets her go on anyway. She whips off her shirt when the music starts like the contestants have all been conditioned to do, but seems much more tentative about it than everyone else, adding to the icky vibe of the whole thing. Laremy leans in and says “You have to admit, she has nice boobs for a 12-year-old,” and we laugh-groan in a way that hurts your soul.
The crowd, apparently thinking the same thing, cheers for her opponent, and we’re saved the discomfort of having to see lil bashful Lolita in subsequent rounds, where the emcee really pressures everyone into upping the sexual ante. The contest is eventually won by an absolute force of nature calling herself Skylar. Skylar begins her opening round in some sort of wifebeater dress thing that stops just above her bare crotch – Donald Ducking, as we call it. Even starting bottomless, she still manages to up the ante in each successive round, making out with other contestants, motorboating, drinking Faygo from bare genitals. They’re still technically competing, but it pleases me to note that at least they’re showing good sportsmanship. After all, it’s not winning or losing, but how you play the game.
The last round is a three-way run off between Skylar and two other girls. Simulated cunnilingus was already out of the way two rounds ago, and still the emcee prods “what are you going to do for us this round?”
Jesus, man, haven’t they done enough?
Nonetheless, they valiantly attempt to raise the bar, with one girl simulating oral on a standing girl, and Skylar with her face between the standing girl’s butt cheeks. I think they do some kind of triple kiss underneath. The standing girl doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the whole thing, which is a fascinating thing to consider given that her name is “Chaos” and she was fully committed to having crackheads spray her crotch with soda. She lets it happen nonetheless, and even spreads her cheeks for the crowd like prison search.
Skylar wins the contest going away, on the strength of her contribution to the canon of semi-consensual analingus alone. She takes home $250 worth of free merchandise, which doesn’t seem like much for the amount of work she put in. But to be fair, $250 could probably buy an entire container ship given the prices here. We’re left with many things to ponder.
Tired now, more to come.