Saturday, May 2, 2015

On Being a Girl Carny Artist

Warning: this post contains descriptions of adult situations. I did not pretty things up for mass consumption. If you are easily offended, clickey thyself elsewhere. It was inspired by Ali Thome's recent podcast episode "Girlcast," about adventures she and her cohorts have had on the road, as females in this peculiar trade of ours. If you haven't yet, check out "It's Supposed to Be Funny" and give a listen. Tip of the hat, Ali, you gave me pause to think and as a result I regurgitated all this stuff below.

Okay, I may get some flack for admitting this. Sometimes I read accounts of sexual harassment online and it's very hard for me to take the complaint seriously. It's not cool to bash women who have been victimized--but I'm not talking about rape victims, or those who have faced serious bullying, or been held back at a job unfairly, or groped/fondled/kissed against their will. That shit is serious, I do not smirk at that. I also have sympathy for women (I know a few) who get exposed to the not-so-gentlemanly side of the male gender on a regular basis, and for them it can become like a constantly irritated wound, with salt getting rubbed in over and over and over again. There are go-go dancers, strippers, and hostesses out there who are one more leer or "Hey baby, smile!" away from just snapping. I understand that.

But in my experience, unless you have lived a very sheltered life, it is not crippling to be around someone who makes a dirty joke or says the hair on your drink looks like a short-n-curly. (And if you are that sheltered, you best unshelter yourself as quick as possible.) Nor is it going to scar you if someone invites you to a threesome. And if you object, have the lady balls to say "Hey, you are grossing me out, go away!" before feeling victimized and harassed.

And maybe I developed this not-very-sensitive attitude because of my job. This job involves a massive amount of close interaction with the public. And the public contains a massive amount of douchebags, creeps, and horny guys. And as a girl caricature artist, you run into them. As a GUY caricature artist you run into them! Not only do you run into them, you have to stare at them for five or ten minutes, like directly at them, and make small talk while you study their features.

Eye Contact, EEEEEEEK!

It's become a rare and weird and intimate thing, eye contact. In fact, a couple of psychologists ran a study and concluded that four minutes of eye contact (plus 36 questions) is a "recipe for falling in love." Oh, the tragedy! I must have made so many unsuspecting people fall in love with me over the years! I'm sorry, guys and gals! I really am!

Yeah, he looks kinda like the last guy that hit on me at the fair.
But it's more intimate than just mindlessly looking at someone. If you're a good caricature artist, or even just hoping to be a good caricature artist, you study your model. And if they have half a brain, they can tell you are studying them. As writer Mandy Len Catron summed up, during her staring-leads-to-love experiment: "The real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me." Human beings yearn to be understood, to be really seen by another person. There is a long and storied history of painters making mistresses of their models, and it's become a tired, hackneyed trope to see a romance develop because some fellow who decides to draw a beautiful girl. As the cliche goes, she is flattered and touched at being a "muse" for the high purpose of art. Cue music and we see Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio . . . 

Anyway, I can assure you this is not a trait possessed by only female models. Eye contact and the type of involved, studious gaze that develops when you draw someone can entice, beguile, or just frighten male models too. One fellow, after I drew his caricature, asked if there was any way I would consider drawing him a nude--I told him I could certainly draw something like that, and he said, "Great, how do you want to do this, shall I get a motel, would that work?" Huh what? Oh no, I explained that I was just thinking he meant he wanted a silly little naked body on his big-head-little-body cartoon. Turned out he wanted the full "Draw me like one of your French girls experience" (which I don't offer!). At the last trade show I worked, I drew a middle-aged Indian man who looked terribly uncomfortable then finally blurted out, embarrassed: "I'm sorry! I just have never stared at any other woman this long except my wife!" I assured him I was a professional, and his wife would not mind, and the poor guy made it through the drawing. Still, I felt sort of guilty! At another event, a couple years ago, a West African man stared back at me just as intently as I was staring at him, and announced to me, in his exotic accent: "I have never been looked at like this, stared at in this way. It feels very sensual." The unnerving part was we were in a "gentleman's club" (I had been hired as part of their anniversary bash) . . . so, while two topless ladies danced nearby, this fellow was actually getting his jollies just be having me--overweight, fully clothed, so not sexy me--stare at him! The power of eye contact, I tell you what, it's intense.

We are looking at features, but where does the face end and the soul begin? Eyes are called the windows to the soul for a reason. It can be an immediate, intense connection drawing someone. Or it can be a moment made awkward if you are just going through the motions but your subject is feeling an emotional connection that seems natural in such a situation. One friend of mine said the job often reminded him of a scene in the Robin Williams-Al Pacino movie "Insomnia": The creepy self-obsessed serial killer, played by Williams, is reveling in the attention he gets as he is questioned by the haggard, worn-down detective played by Pacino. The killer suggests that Pacino's character must be fascinated by the cat-and-mouse game, the intricacies of how a killer's mind works, the dark soul beneath it all, the complexity . . . and Pacino shrugs and simply explains that it's a job. "You are about as complicated as a blocked toilet is to a plumber," he mumbles to a very disappointed Williams. 

Unintended Intimacy

So what happens sometimes when we lady artists stare at guys, again, in the general public, and some of them get the wrong idea? Well, just like bartenders, waitresses, and female concierges, if you are skillful you might parlay that experience into a nice generous tip--JUST a tip. But more often it's not just a tip (make your own jokes here folks). I've never been handed a $100 tip and a room key, but I know girls who have had that happen. Smart, practical chicks in this town tend to pocket both with a smile but only use one. Nevertheless I have been propositioned, asked if I want to "come party" after my shift, discreetly asked out, and sometimes offered sex rudely, crudely, and with no social grace. Maybe it's just the allure of Vegas, but the volume got turned up on that shit once I started working here. People think they get a pass on acting like sex-crazed drunken fools once they step off the plane.

The most egregious example happened at the Venetian Casino and Resort, where I drew a guy and his wife, made some small chit-chat as I do, and he interrupts with "Do you think my wife is attractive?" I answered neutrally, trying to sway things to the artistic sense of appreciation: "Oh, she has great features, I'm having fun drawing you both!" He took that as some kind of go-ahead sign and then started asking if I was into anal sex. And his wife sat there nonchalantly smiling at me the whole time, like he was talking about the weather or something. I think he eloquently put it something like this: "Hey, you're cute. And I bet you take it up the ass, right? You into that? We are. We're staying here at this hotel, you know." Now, I'll admit his (attempted) launch into my colo-rectal region flustered me a little at first. The look on my face was probably WHAT THE FUCK mixed with a little blushing. But I was mostly done with the drawing, and my goal quickly shifted to getting their money as quickly as possible and avoiding any sort of scene or complaint or report involving paperwork. Sure, I could have ejected them from the booth, or threatened to call security. But this guy was just asking questions so far, and it's legal to do that, and I'm a grownup. So I smiled, said "Wow, you guys get personal quick! I've only known you for ten minutes!" I forget the details, but he continued trying to fluster (or seduce) me, failing at both, and in record time I got their fucking $35 and away they went. It was a small victory, but it sure made for an interesting story when I got home from work.

Small Talk and Using Your Intuition

I have heard many colleagues admit that our jobs consist of drawing and flirting. The art of small talk is (or at least can be) very flirtatious. Especially if you work just a little blue, as I sometimes do if it's an adult crowd. It's a harmless sort of charged banter, I like to think, and we all get pretty comfortable doing it after a few years--or decades--interacting with our models and the crowd that watches. Being observant visually is stock and trade for any artist; and, I notice, many of us that make this our career are not just visually observant but psychologically observant too. (Or at least, I like to think I am, on a good day anyway.) That makes us very good at the small talk aspect of things. Asking the typical questions ("Where ya from? What do you do?") can sometimes snowball into deep conversations--and it's surprising what I've been party too over the years! Miniature therapy sessions sometimes result, where I end up consoling someone on a loss, or offering life advice, or pep talks, or just impressing someone with what seems like amazing insight but is actually just observation. I'm not saying "wow look at how amazing I am because when I talk to people this happens" . . . I'm quite sure many, even most, artists that work with the public have this happen if they are chatty and talk to their models. Observation plus conversation are a potent combination, they unlock many defenses. 

I'll also admit to consciously using some of the same techniques phony psychics (a redundant phrase) use in their parlor tricks. "Cold reading" is when someone fishes around for information and the mark gives out clues without realizing it--or even blurts out stuff that they completely forget they said later. I don't try to pretend I'm psychic, that would be immoral and wrong (though maybe profitable), but I've been accused of it. I have astounded some with my "woman's intuition" merely because I remembered some tidbit the person mentioned seven or eight minutes prior. And--another cold reading technique--I've also played the statistics. Just like in any given room of a hundred people you're likely to have a few that have deceased loved ones that "start with the letter M," you are also pretty likely to get a "hit" if you guess that the gentleman in front of you with a crew cut, muscular physique, and conservative style of dress is a vacationing police officer.

Most of the psychics working today are females, which some take as evidence that "women are more likely to embrace their intuition as a fact of nature and they communicate more easily” with other realms (per the California Psychics). As a female who draws people and works at carnivals, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this gender disparity in psychics is maybe due to differences in the sexes when it comes to our brains, not our auras. Women, as a whole, might just be a smidge better at reading people and getting folks to open up. That's just a hunch based on my experiences in the chair and what I see happen with other female artists versus our male counterparts. I have no empirical data but I'd bet I could mine some . . . another day, another blog post.

"Excuse Me Miss, When Will the Artist Be Back?"

One of the drawbacks to being a female in the caricature booth is that aggravating tendency some folks have of assuming that you are not the artist. Granted, there are more men than women in this business, so people are making that guess based on real numbers. I suppose it's similar to what female doctors had to deal with back when most of the graduates coming out of med school had penises. I'd bet many ladies in the medical ranks had to spend time explaining to confused patients that they were not, in fact, the nurse or secretary. And I'd bet male manicurists are often asked if the lady who does nails is on break (I have seen that happen, actually, last time I got my nails done--they assumed he was a repairman, not a nail technician).

Likewise, I've had to explain that I am not, in fact, the cashier or the booth helper girl who sweeps up. I'm not just minding the stand while "the artist" is on break. It might just be the fact that I'm aging, and no longer look like a wide-eyed teenaged girl who must be an unskilled booth monkey, but it seems to (thankfully) happen way less often than it used to. And, from the demographics at ISCA, it does appear that more females are taking up the caricature business, so yay for that! But it does still happen sometimes, and it can be irksome. Particularly when I suspect is has lost me money (losing money is VERY irksome!). I remember folks telling me they'd walked by a few times and wondered when the artist would be back, when all the while I'd been there, sitting at the bloody easel, waiting for customers! They had looked right at me and had only seen a cashier. How many people, I then wonder, walked by a few times then gave up, assuming this mysterious male caricature artist would never come back? This worry drove me to doodle as much as I could while I sat idle, so as to visually demonstrate I'm the frigging artist, and I even own aprons now that say "CARICATURE ARTIST" on the front.

Better yet, if there are two of you, people seem to assume that the female artist must be the wife or girlfriend of the male artist. They ask, while chatting, if we are together, etc., and it can be hilariously awkward depending on who I'm working with. Maybe they sense the easy-going rapport we co-artists usually have (especially when you're on the road with people and sharing a camper for a long stretch of time). Sometimes this has come in handy . . . one late night at a fair I was closing up and told a couple there was no time for any more (and frankly, I thought I was being quite nice and businesslike, not rude at all). They waited around after I'd packed up and then approached my coworker--who happened to be a large, imposing Slovak who has the male version of resting bitch face. They complained to him that the woman in the chair next to him had said she was all done, no more drawings, and they added (for extra points) that I'd been a real bitch about it and they didn't like the way I drew anyway, they wanted him. My fellow carny had my back: without flinching a muscle on his face, he glared at them and boomed, "You mean my wife?" He said they scurried for the hills without another word.

Of course, about ten years ago I went and made all those aggravating assumptions true by marrying a coworker. Shows what I know. And, to his credit, Rob is always quick to point out that he's learned from me and we both had been doing caricatures for ten years prior to even meeting--see, because another assumption you run into as a girl caricature artist is that you've been trained by your husband. And, well, I have learned a lot from Robert, but I did not arrive to him a blank feminine slate ready to be filled with his masculine art knowledge, thankyouverymuch.

"I Want the Girl to Draw Me."

The flip side of this assumption occurs when you're NOT the only artist in the booth. Something different happens when you're working alongside a dude, or a few dudes, and you get people walking up and figuring out which artist they want (an annoying thing in itself, makes you feel like you're in an Amsterdam red light district window waiting to be chosen). Male artists all seem to agree on this, and I'll admit they have it right: folks often prefer the lady. For dumb reasons.

Moms think you'll be better able to command their kids' attention; young (and old) women think you'll be "nicer" to their features because you're a woman too; guys would rather stare at you than at another guy. It doesn't happen all the time every time, but it occurs. Enough to be an annoyance. And yeah, it annoys me too: I don't want to have someone insist on sitting for me just because of my gender.

And there have been times that a male artist has just assumed that someone sat for me because "Oh they just wanted the girl," when in actuality the person watched, asked about samples, and seemed to honestly like my work better. A lousy male artist who does not realize he is lousy will sometimes blame his shift of low sales on your gender--which is not cool. None of my respected peers or friends have done this, and I'd be safe guessing that no one reading this blog has done it (because if you seek out caricature blogs you probably care about the craft). But I've worked with a LOT of artists over the years and quite a handful of them were shitty and didn't last in the business. Funny though, shitty artists are good at finding every conceivable excuse as to why people don't like their artwork, and whenever the "Oh it's just because you're a girl" card came up it made me roll my eyes in frustration. If I'm working next to Tom Richmond and someone walks up and chooses me, damn right it's because I'm the girl. But if I'm working next to Joey Thinks-He's-Great-But-Can't-Draw-Fer-Shit, guess what Joe? People preferring me has nothing to do with my tits. 

No Touchy!

One other part of working at the average state fair or local youth fair is that you become part of the interactive exhibits, or at least some people THINK you are. I'm not into being touched unexpectedly by strangers. Few people are. Yet it's amazing how many people don't even think twice about running their hand along your back, or patting you in a congratulatory way, or tugging on your shoulder while you are drawing someone. The typical "booth heckler" will come by and gently tease you as you work, sometimes, then say "awwww I'm just funnin' with ya!" as they close in for the dreaded conciliatory back rub and shoulder squeeze. And it's quite often a creepy older dude. And he rubs a little too long. And it's creepy. And if you go to a fair please don't do this. To any carnies. You have no idea what you might catch. My only defense during this type of thing has been to flash my customers a "ew-gross-help-me-please-make-him-stop-I-don't-want-to-embarrass-the-guy-but-are-you-seeing-this?!?" look, which often cracks them up a bit. So yeah, this little tidbit of sexual harassment can actually enhance my patter with the people I'm drawing. Call me a traitor to the feminist cause, but I say make use of what you can. It's a trade-off.

A secondary type of this touchy touchy stuff is older ladies. They sometimes mistake the artists (not just women artists, the guys too) for cats. They wander over and coo about how wonderful it is that we are talented, and they pet us. The old lady variety of backrub is less creepy, but it tends to last longer and still has an uncomfortable tinge to it. And the smell of menthol and Estee Lauder really lingers.

Some Stories on Being Female in the Carnival (and Elsewhere)

A group of carnies (or, as we prefer, carnival-Americans) is just like any other social group. Relationships do form, dating happens, people hook up, unhook, attempt to hook up, and so on. When I first started working the fair circuit, I wasn't sure what to expect. You stay in a trailer park area where tons of transient workers gather for a couple of weeks and hunker down in a very small space. A friend in the business once referred to the rougher side of the carny park (where the ride operators camped) as "The World's Largest Traveling Prison." Sometimes you have to walk across this trailer park in your bathrobe and jammies to get to the communal shower area/laundry room. Sometimes you get complimented on how you fold laundry by a shirtless guy who's staring a bit too long at your undergarments. Diminutive flowers of femininity need not apply. So, in other words, I've seen some stuff. Thankfully not stuff that ever seriously frightened or harmed me. Just stuff that makes for good stories.

Walking back from the laundry room one evening I passed one of the housing trucks--these semi trailers are basically motels on wheels: they have several extremely tiny cubbyholes that serve as living quarters, each scarcely wider than the door that leads into it. That night, one of the doors was open and a young man inside was dancing to loud salsa music, by himself, shirtless. He saw me walk by and motioned me in to join him. I shook my head, and kept walking, wishing he hadn't noticed me looking (kinda hard not to look, he was dancing energetically and it drew the eye over). Not one to accept defeat, he grabbed a can of Pringles off his dresser and shook it at me, invitingly, trying to lure me into his sardine tin of love. I shook my head again with a smile and kept walking back to my trailer. After telling my roommates about the little interaction, they laughed hard. "He shook it at you? Like a can of cat treats???" "Heeere pussy pussy pussy, ha ha ha!" "And that didn't work?" "Well, no, luckily they weren't the Cheez-Ums, just regular Pringles, so I was able to resist his oily charms."

Another fellow surprised me with his patience--and he was not a carny but a fairgoer. We'd had a short conversation the year before, and he ended up mentioning something about caramel bugles and I was like "Whaaat? I've never seen those, I don't think they have them where I live." Well, a YEAR goes by, and he shows up at the booth with a bag that contained two boxes of caramel bugles, asking if I remembered having that conversation with him. He hands them to me and says "My phone number is also in there too, if you care to use it." I gotta say, it was actually pretty smooth--I told him that was a very sweet gesture (literally) but I was a married gal. He politely still insisted I take the bugles to share with my campermates. And yes, my coworkers did get even more enjoyment out of the new installment of "Guys at the Fair Attempting to Woo Celestia with Snack Foods."

At the other carnival I work at, the one that's operating 24-7-365, I did have a much bolder and ruder interaction. While leaving a shift at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, I ended up on a parking garage escalator near a young man (maybe early to mid 20s). A larger fellow, and African-American, he seemed the typical friendly tourist type. With each floor he got a little closer, but not in a menacing way. He flashed a flirty smile and asked my name. I said "I'm Celeste, I work here," and it was in a tired, disinterested tone that should have indicated that I wasn't a tourist cougar, I was just a local getting off work, move along, these aren't the droids you're looking for. Instead, he got off on the same floor as I did and walked next to me, and next thing I knew there was a hand on my ass.

I'm trying to remember exactly what I said to him at that moment . . . oh yeah it was super loud and something along the lines of "GET YOUR FUCKING HANDS OFF ME WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?" He shrank back and said "But, I thought, I mean, I thought we were friends," to which I said "TELLING YOU MY NAME DOES NOT GIVE YOU THE RIGHT TO PUT HANDS ON MY ASS, WHO THE HELL RAISED YOU? YOU DON'T TOUCH A WOMAN YOU JUST FUCKING MET!"And he shrank back, cringing at my volley and scurrying away. In his face, I saw a confused, hurt look that made me think maybe this young man was on the spectrum. He may very well have had Asberger's or something that made him unaware of social cues; or he may have been a presumptuous asshole who fondled women on escalators. I'll never know. Hopefully, either way, I left some kind of impression on him so that he won't freely do the same thing to a younger, less mouthy woman.

Guys Don't Have to Deal with This Shit . . . Except They DO

So far, from what I observe (and what Rob tells me), guys are certainly not immune to the unwanted backrubs or the trapped feeling you get from having to stay at the booth while a booth groupie chats you up. But is that all? I asked around, and sure enough, guys I work with have also been asked to threesomes, playfully propositioned by cougars, an flirted with on a regular basis while in the chair. Nothing to ever take seriously, though, and certainly nothing that made them feel threatened.

I heard about an incident at the last fair I worked, a story from coworkers, that made me start seeing this whole aspect of sexual harassment and awkward interactions from a different perspective. A male caricature artist I work with got his junk grabbed. This was not at the fair I was working, and I did not witness it, but I heard about it from others who work the circuit with him (and they were giggling as they recounted the story). Now, having your privates grabbed is straight-up assault. If someone did that to a woman there would be yelling and shoving and righteous anger, and possibly charges filed. But instead there were giggles. This artist, who I'm not going to name, is a small, diminutive fellow, who was standing on the rig to undo some canvas bungees. His hands were busy and his crotch was sitting there unprotected as he balanced. Some teenaged girl (or early twenties maybe, no one was sure) ran by and grabbed his unit, yelling "Ha ha! Got yer dick!" and then ran off laughing like she had just playfully honked a clown nose.

Now, this artist who got man-handled at the fair was a 50-year-old married fellow who was not exactly "asking for it." I wondered how much unreported stuff like this went on with other guys I worked with. The very next person I asked was a younger (30-ish) handsome fellow who works with crowds along the Las Vegas Strip. He's only been in town for a month or so. As nonchalantly as I could manage, I asked him if he'd ever had his gonads groped while on the job. "Oh yeah, twice," he answered, like it was no big deal. That was a surprise. In his short time here, he's had two instances of other people, uninvited, grabbing his bait and tackle. He shrugged it off: "Well my job is practically to flirt, and I approach people like this," (here he opened up his arms as a typical carnival barker would, a move that did indeed leave his groin unprotected). "Of course," I agreed, "and look at how you're dressed, you're practically asking for it!" He caught the sarcasm, he's no dummy. The first instance, he continued, was a group of party girls who surrounded him and got grabby. The second instance, which he seemed much less comfortable about, was a creepy homeless guy who frequents the area. "I physically had to shove him off me, and he still wanders around here from time to time."

So, clearly, we ladies who work with the public don't have the market cornered when it comes to being victimized in a way that involves their privates . . . but the difference in how the instances were looked at was interesting. Can you imagine a woman giggling or acting like it's no big deal when talking about some strange guy grabbing their (or their friend's) vagina at work one day? I'm not saying it's impossible to sexually assault a man--it most certainly is. Go to the internet and you can find scores of stories about men raped by other men, by women, by spouses, by bosses, who rightly feel humiliated and violated. The very fact that society tends to look at dick-grabbing as a thing to giggle about rather than prosecute adds to humiliation felt by male victims.

Of course, the context matters, and how uncomfortable something makes you depends on the power relationship and how threatened one party feels. As a loud woman who is nearly 5'10" and outweighs most typical guys, I very rarely feel physically threatened. And after decades of hearing all the stuff you hear when working in a tourist area or carnival, there isn't much that can verbally throw me off my mojo either.

Maybe, just maybe, in addition to self-defense classes, all women could benefit from working at a carnival or two. It helps you grow some lady balls if you don't already have them. And if we really want equality in sexual relations, in addition to teaching our sons about respect, boundaries, and date rape, we also need to teach our daughters that it's not cool to grab some guy's cock and yell "Got yer dick!" then run away.