Monday, April 13, 2015

Miami Fair: Bodacious Butts, Contagious Colds, Creepy Clowns, Happy Lesbians, and Stockholm Syndrome

Ah, Miami. I got back just several days ago, back to the sweet, sweet desert where humidity is low and eyebrow maintenance is not the number-one priority for most residents.

Yes, all eyebrows were "on fleek" in Miami. To the point where I began to grit my teeth every time I heard some girl exclaim that. It's amazing how two words can sound like bizarre new slang one day and sound like a tired, hackneyed phrase just a few weeks later.

But despite my sarcastic complaints, South Florida really does have its perks. And its perky body parts. See, it's a melting pot of South American, Latin, Caribbean, African, and all sorts of people. I could go into history and culture and race and genetics, but I'm not playing the academic here. I'm looking at it from a cartoonist's point of view. OH MY GOD, THE BUTTS! Sooooo many different kinds. The big booties, the little booties, the angular booties, the pert booties on tall volleyball-player-looking Amazons, the muscular booties on trans women so gorgeous it makes you feel inferior to be cis, the droopy bums on ladies whose salsa-dancing days are behind them, the perfectly round bubble booties, the booties that looked like they'd been drawn by Milo Manara, the booties that looked suspiciously like they'd been enhanced.

Yeah, I looked. I had time to look. It was kind of a slow fair. And in one respect I was grateful it was kind of a slow fair--as I caught the mother of all colds during the second week there. Two of our crew had already gotten the virus, and when you stay in close quarters (like a camper with a very small communal space), one disease vector is all you need. I was coughing until my whole body ached, my throat felt like sandpaper, and I apologized to so many of my customers as I gagged and sneezed and hacked my way through their pictures. It was just enough of a cold to make you miserable as you worked, but not enough to pull you completely from the workforce.

I eventually found my way (or, rather, Sara drove my sick ass) to the Walgreen's clinic, where I paid $120 for a nurse practitioner to look me over, swab me for Strep, and send me off with some prescription cough meds. They seemed to help, or maybe the visit just coincided with the natural end of the virus's reign over my bronchial system.

The fair was down a bit, in terms of attendance and numbers, and Miami has always had a late-night flavor to it. Lots of sitting around during the daytime hours, then we are always rushed as the last couple hours wind down. The same vendors were there, including Hector and his family, the purveyors of the best chimmichurri-drenched meat in Miami. Anthony Bourdain has not yet found Hector, and that's his loss. He only sets up at the Miami Fair and in one other Florida fair, so if you are in the neighborhood during the right time of year, and you see the little blue-and-white Argentinian Grill, do yourself a favor and try Hector's meat.

This guy didn't even pay. He just
squeaked and waved at us. Jerk.
This year there were a few changes. A couple of Miami Fair mascots bobbed their way around the fairgrounds, scaring the utter shit out of some of the kids. All the adults just felt sorry for whomever was stuffed inside those costumes during the hot, humid Miami afternoons. There was a butterfly habitat, where you could dip Q-tips into sugar water and feed the monarchs that flew around the bus-sized enclosure, trying to avoid the already sugared-up toddlers trying to grab them.
Fuck you, but gently,
like a butterfly.

 2015 also presented us with a unique scheduling twist: we actually all had four "days off," when everything was closed up. So for the first and last Monday/Tuesday we enjoyed a short respite from the carny life and got to go play Florida tourists. In those precious days off, several of us squeezed in a night-time fishing trip, a tour of the Everglades, and a night in South Beach. During that last week, we even got to spend time with Al-Rod and Michael White, two awesome Florida artists and longtime ISCA pals. That last day off was really a perfect day, and even worth the wicked sunburn I ended up with (despite multiple applications of SPF bazillion).
Florida wildlife: Michael White, a gator, and a "grunt" fish.

Which made it all the more difficult to head back to the fair. Workers grumbled that the days off kind of threw their rhythm out of whack. It was unusual, for sure, and I was glad to have the opportunity to go hang out with old pals, but I'm not sure I'd vote for that same structure next time around (ha, like we get a vote). It kind of felt like we were putting the fair-finishing celebration in the middle of the job instead of at the end. I and the other artists (and the rest of the fair folk) are really used to hauling ass for a few weeks and THEN getting time off.
By Lar de Souza

Otherwise though, the fair was much as I remembered it from last year. The clickety-clack of marionettes dancing hypnotically in the puppet booth near us. The overpriced fried food. The ants in the camper, and outside the camper, and around the camper. One of my hero artists, Lar de Souza, was moved by my Facebook complaints and kindly drew me as a "Carny Disney Princess" complete with ants and a vegetarian anteater sidekick. That made my week.

There were also the creepy clown garbage toppers. I have only seem them at Florida fairs, and they just . . . aren't right. In fact, Miami native Al-Rod even mentioned that he'd not been to the fair in years but remembers those things creeping him out as a kid. While they are all over the place in West Palm and Tampa, I only saw a couple of them in Miami. But, to my surprise, I got a photo message from a friend of mine visiting South America during that same stretch of time--and it was a picture of a fucking clown head garbage topper in Ecuador, where they were "inexplicably and unnervingly everywhere."
A Miami clown (left), a decapitated Miami clown (middle), and their Ecuadorian
 cousin (right). Though a little worse for wear, that South American clown is
 clearly from the same mold as others in Florida. Be afraid, be very afraid!

Now, I'm no conspiracy theorist, but the clowns are clearly up to something. Not sure if they are actually alien spawn crawling their way up (or down) the American continents, feeding on our refuse until they hatch from this latent form into who knows what . . . or if they have been planted there by government agents and genetically modified to eat certain children that wander by, thus controlling our population while they spy on us. But I'm fairly sure it's one of the two. Wake up, sheeple!

Oh yeah, and I drew pictures while I was there. Honestly, I wasn't too thrilled with much of my work this year. Maybe it was the sickness, or the days off, or the more leisurely pace with thinner crowds, but it took FOREVER to get into that "groove" we all strive for. Even with a less groovy groove, I'm glad I was there. I will still seek out retail stints like fairs, as a matter of personal development, for as long as I'm able. Gigging just does not give you the rounded experience as a caricature artist. Tipsy party guests who aren't paying for their picture can let you slide into mediocrity before you realize it. Working by yourself most of the time doesn't help. Nah, as aggravating as retail can sometimes be, I value those days where I'm working next to a bunch of other artists, with a critical, impatient, cheap grandma (or abuela) hanging over your shoulder judging your every line. That will keep you sharp. Or, at least, tell you when you're losing your edge. Or it might drive you bitterly out of the business--it can have that effect too. Results are not guaranteed.

There was one couple I remember pretty well, and I believe I gave them a nice picture--though I didn't photograph it. They were a couple of ladies, one more feminine and one more butch, who happily announced to me that they had just become engaged. They asked if I could put that in the picture. Well of course! I had done so for many couples before--one of them showing off the ring, the other smiling, both looking at each other, with a little heart that said "She said YES!" floating above them. Now, as I drew this picture I could not help but think about the new religious freedom laws in Indiana and Arkansas that were all over the news that same week. I hadn't realized it, but I am in an industry where I sometimes provide things for same-sex weddings. And here I was, in a situation where I could do a little thought experiment. I started wondering (silently, of course) what it would be like if I were religiously opposed to same-sex unions and chose to express that religion by denying these ladies a picture celebrating their engagement.

Wow, I thought, what an asshole move that would be. It would literally have ruined their day. And not in the typical "Oh my god do I look like that??" way that caricaturists can ruin your day. I mean in a demeaning, dehumanizing, hard-to-ever-laugh-about-later kind of way. What a stain on an otherwise special moment. As the hypothetical situation played out in my head, I literally cringed imagining the emotional harm one could do, even as a retail jockey selling a lousy $30 product (or AWESOME $30 product, as caricatures are).

But maybe I can invent a religion that requires me to refuse service to jerks. I could maybe get on board with that--goodness knows I've certainly put up with plenty of not-so-great people in my chair, and I've drawn them with a smile on my face simply because they had money and waited in line just like everyone else. Though I have heard some stories of ballsy artists rejecting customers (one of the other benefits to working a fair is that you hear stories of exploits on the road). At the Syracuse fair, one kid reportedly waited in line for 40 minutes with his girlfriend, then when they finally got into the artist's chair the smug teen said, "Twenty bucks to draw both of us, or we walk!" The artist chuckled, immediately motioned the kid away and shouted "NEXT!" His girlfriend looked angry and hurt as she skulked off with him, and she was likely rethinking her choice in the dating pool. Hopefully the young man learned a valuable lesson on haggling: it's completely ineffective if you have to wait in a line of eager customers first. One of my coworkers at this fair confessed that he had completely bailed on a picture a few fairs ago. The guy started with a request, then kept piling on more and more requests and warnings about how he didn't want it drawn, until he finally killed the artist's will to even begin the drawing. Without a word to the customer, the artist simply got up and left. Eventually the guy realized he'd been dumped and wandered away.
This baby was not a jerk (though she
did look worried as I started drawing). 

We all have moments when we'd rather not draw someone because they are drunk, arrogant, vain, obnoxious, argumentative, paranoid, cheap, or all of the above. But two ordinary, not-acting-like-jerk people in love? Hell, I'll draw that all day long, no matter what sets of genitals they own. The two ladies loved their picture, by the way, and I told them it would reduce well and make a neat save-the-date card if they felt so inclined.

And so ended the Miami County Fair. Even the long fairs, even when you're sick through them and business isn't great, and there's ants in your camper, you feel weird when it all comes to an end. Sara described it as "Fair Stockholm Syndrome," where you get used to the living situation and routine to the point where you kind of love it. But you hate it. But kinda love it. Sara and I had settled into a living situation like two primates at the zoo: she scratched my sunburned back and I picked stray hairs off her shirt for her. Then we'd screech angrily at people and fling our poop at them. Well, not really. But we thought about it pretty hard.

Until next time, Miami. Keep your eyebrows on fleek while I'm away.

P.S. A quick shout-out to Ali Thome, who has started doing a podcast on caricature called "It's Supposed to be Funny," available on Itunes, and Nolan Harris & Jon Casey who have been doing a podcast called "The Iscast" over on Soundcloud. Both of them are welcome additions to the caricature community, and I especially enjoyed Ali's last episode dealing with the whole "cookiecutter" debate that boiled over and got pretty divisive on a few Facebook pages last month. I look forward to listening to more of what they all have to say in coming episodes--and you should too!