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Black Lamb

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How hot was it?

May 1st, 2007

BY ROD FERRANDINO

Setting for tragedy:
South Florida Fairground
West Palm Beach
Most of January, 2007

And the question is when, oh when, will this bleeping show ever end? Is that possibly a speck of light at the end of this almost forever tunnel?

It has been a demoralizing seventeen-day eternity, an energy-sapping, bankroll-depleting, brain-sucking disaster. Not just a garden variety, never-to-repeat, “rear-view-mirror” weekend show, a plentiful type in any forty-four-show year, but, like a hundred-year storm, one for the ages. The “Flood of Ought-seven,” or “Plague,” or “Famine,” maybe a “Drought.” Pick your curse.

The 2007 Great American Craft Show at the South Florida Fair started inauspiciously, took an immediate nosedive, and segued into a long, ungainly death spiral, a pterodactyl with a broken wing. Hints of impending doom were unavailable for pre-viewing until it was too late to avoid the trap. The “trap,” in this case, was the dreaded “change of venue.”

In 2006, I, along with a hundred fellow artisans, had enjoyed modest success at the show, which was centrally located in a spacious, high-traffic, air-conditioned exhibit hall. I had carefully studied the ’06 crowd and come up with several adjustments to implement for an even better 2007. My wife and daughter and I, had worked long and hard to ready our inventory for an audience that we, ultimately, never saw. My compatriots had all done much the same.

In its infinite wisdom (cue the soundtrack from Titanic), the South Florida Fair Movers & Shakers decided to move the craft show out of the air-conditioned exhibit hall in favor of what amounted to an auto showroom, hardly a unique attraction in South Florida. The car dealers had shelled out more money than a craft show could, hence, our “relocation” (read “exile”). Many of the exhibitors didn’t find out about the change until they had already booked the show and paid for expensive winter-rate lodging.

So much for a Fair corporation that publicly lauded itself for its renewed dedication to Made-in-America handicrafts.

On set-up day, we were directed to our alternate space, three tight, low-ceilinged, not-air-conditioned rooms, which might actually have been in a ZIP code different from the rest of the Fair’s.

To add injury to insult, during one of South Florida’s warmest Januarys, my not-air-conditioned building, Sweatbox #2, was even more not-air-conditioned than the others, with a lower ceiling and smaller doors. All I needed was a stack of towels, some cedar benches, a pile of rocks, and a pot of water, and I could have forgotten about trying to sell jewelry and just opened a sauna. In lieu of snow banks, a notoriously short-supply item down here, customers could run outside and jump into the back of an ice truck.

All seriousness aside, we crafters, true stoics, maintain a calm fortitude, and we bent ourselves, uncomplaining, to the show-must-go-on task at hand. I filched every portable fan I could find at my brother Steven’s house, so I was at least able to move some of the palpable locker room air into my neighbor’s booth, who, in turn, used his fans to push it along to the next booth, and so on, around the room, until it got heavy enough to form a rain cloud over the poor potter at the end of the row. Oh well, somebody has to take it for the team; I’m glad it wasn’t my turn in the dunk tank.

I mentioned our group stoicism, proud, strong, veteran crafter that I am, and that John Wayne attitude lasted well into the first fifteen minutes of Day One. Only then did the serious sniveling and whining begin, and, believe me, crafters are darn good at this sniveling and whining stuff. The bawling only got worse as the show went on and didn’t let up until… well, here I am, months later, still ranting.

On the whole, artisans, accustomed to short shows, typically one to three days, establish a loose, pick-up-game camaraderie, knowing that nobody has to put up with anybody else for very long. Seventeen straight fourteen-hour days, far from the norm, is a whole ’nother ballgame, and if we hadn’t been united by our growing group animosity toward the Fair corporation, we might have given that Donner bunch a serious run for its money.

Back in the retro-heaven of 2006, Fair officials were a common sight at the show, bluff, hearty, hale-fellows-well-met, but this year… not so much. The “Fair” (short for “Fair Weather”), probably as a form of hazing, would occasionally sacrifice a “newbie,” who would walk into our steam room, stammer something like, “Gee, it’s not so bad in here,” then beat a hasty backstroke to his air-conditioned office. Did I happen to mention, casually, and in passing, that our tin-roofed building was not air-conditioned? Just thought I’d drop that in there.

It was funny (I will probably laugh at my own funeral) to see how different people reacted to this long-running box-office flop. At the top, the Fair Corporation could see what they were doing to people’s lives and livelihoods, but they just faded from the scene, apparently oblivious to the average fifty-to-seventy-five percent sales drop-off the vendors suffered.

At the next level down is the craft show promoter. In addition to selling spaces — his way of making money — he is the liaison between his exhibitors and whoever, or whatever, is putting on the show, whether it’s a town, city, civic group, or, in this case, a Hydra-like corporate monster. The promoter is the monkey-in-the-middle, and when things go well, everybody loves him. At the first or, at the very latest, the second sign of trouble, he is hanged in effigy (see: Crafter Stoicism). The perception, whether it’s true or not, is that the promoter took the “side” of “management,” and hung his artisans out to dry, or, in this case, stuck us in a pan to be sautéed.

By the second weekend of this farce, it was obvious to even the most optimistic or delusional of us that this show wasn’t going to happen. Morale, of dubious initial quality, and with a rippling, snowballing, domino mechanism in play, plummeted.

Some exhibitors simply pulled up stakes, swallowed their thousand-dollar fee, and headed for greener pastures, despite threats from show management that they would never be allowed to do this show again (huh?) and might even be sued for breach of contract. Oh, this show got ugly. Most, like me, had no viable alternative and had to stick it out. We dubbed ourselves Survivors, West Palm Beach (apologies to a TV show I’ve never seen).

Somehow, and I don’t know why this always seems to happen, I became Comedy Central (apologies to a network I watch a lot). My fellows would congregate in my booth to share the latest in gallows humor: if we didn’t behave, we’d be forced to stay an additional week; the rumor, unconfirmed, of a live customer who actually entered one of our buildings but melted before being able to make a purchase. Badda-boom! Jon Stewart has nothing to fear from this bunch.

To occupy ourselves during the slow periods, (approx. 99.44% of the show), laptops, books, televisions, magazines, and cell phones were kept busy. My wife made a bunch of special necklaces and mailed them to me in hopes of stirring up some business. They were truly beautiful pieces, but, as I said to her, it was too much, too late. I made more jewelry than I have at any other show, and still had time to polish off half-a-dozen novels, kill a cell phone, and take lessons in Bolivian Spanish and Aymaran.

Ah yes, even in this black cloud, there were a few silver threads. One of my new survivor friends is Efrain Chura, a Bolivian of Aymaran heritage, and a musician and instrument maker. Efrain and I had ample opportunity for cultural exchange. He has been in the States for a number of years, is well on his way to citizenship, and his command of English far exceeds my grasp of Spanish. He taught me to count to ten in Aymaran, his native tongue.

As we commiserated about our newfound partnership in futility, I told him this show probably wouldn’t end until snowball fights broke out in hell. Efrain then told me that Bolivians also have a saying to that effect, cuando floresca chunio, “when the dried potatoes blossom,” and this became our inside mantra. Whenever we needed a laugh, all we had to do was say chunio and we’d be rolling in the aisles.
From there, we moved into heavy philosophical discussion, consisting mainly of bi- and trilingual methods of referring to body parts and their less-than-socially-acceptable functions.

We did, however, occasionally rise above the level of the locker room, and Efrain regaled me with stories of his upbringing in rural upland Bolivia. For me, it was as though I were able to step inside a National Geographic magazine and experience the flavor of his heritage. I, in turn, was able to shed light on what it was to grow up in the United States. Together, we shared the irony of the diverse paths we had taken to arrive in the same place.

When I told him this show was so bad that it might cause major changes in the way my family made its living, I described the experience as “the ton of bricks that broke the camel’s back.” Then I had to explain the joke, since he was unfamiliar with the saw about the straw.

I know the sting of this show will be outlived by the bonds of friendship, but I also think the friendship could have survived a more lucrative beginning. But what the hey — like the commercial says, it’s priceless. Long live the chunio. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Ferrandino | Link to this Entry

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