Come for the Economic Anxiety
Written by Sarah K. Inman
Wednesday, 06 June 2007 22:34
One beautiful Sunday afternoon, on his way to Harrah’s Casino, my husband drops me off at the Convention Center between Halls G and H. He now plays poker almost seven days a week. We used to joke that it was his second job, but as the expiration date of his contract with the University of New Orleans nears, card playing may indeed become his professional occupation.
Conventioneers from Anheuser-Busch arrive, their first day in New Orleans. Unlike the cardiologists who were here earlier, this group consists mostly of men. They walk confidently since they are, after all, bold sorts, more boosted by the favorable fluctuations of their business than humbled by the truths of science.
With a garment bag in hand, I hop out of our twelve-year-old Mitusbishi, a car that lacks air conditioning, a stereo, and decent shock system. I’m scheduled for a revel of sorts. This one involves wearing a form-fitting black unitard that covers my entire body-- hands, feet and head included-- and doing contortion or difficult yoga-like poses. Though more flexible than the average person and comfortable in various hand, arm, and head balances, I don’t call myself a contortionist and neither does my agent, except in these situations during which the woman with the really loose hips busily plans her wedding. The Red Hook beer people want to promote their product through a campaign called “something unusual,” and my agency asked that I arrive early to discuss the act with the clients since they may want to incorporate some product branding. Should I, for example, wear one of their t-shirts over the costume or manipulate bottles of pale ale with my feet?
A woman named Ashley or Shelby greets me inside the Convention Center, where fewer than two years ago, a couple thousand people struggled to survive in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The cries of “We need help,” from the desperate, suffering mass of humanity and the image of a dead elderly woman in a wheelchair, her upper body covered by a thin blanket, come to mind whenever I pass the Center. Even today, among the bustling bodies, those employed by the King of Beers, I cannot shake those images from my mind.
“You must be the contortionist,” Ashley says.
I nod. I don't accept fully this label, but it matters only what others expect of me.
Inside the vast acclimatized space, the walkway that connects the convention halls, an orderly line of people waits at the registration booth while persons wearing badges pass. We could be anywhere, in any city.
Soon Bethany from the agency arrives with an accessory to the costume, a neck piece make of white tulle. “This will create a Venetian look, if that’s what you’re going for,” she tells Shelby or Ashley, who hands me a clip-on laminated pass, one that announces Anheuser-Busch’s “Town Hall & Expo.” It has my name on it. “You’ll need this to get in,” Ashely-Shelby informs.
We leave Bethany and enter Hall H, which has been transformed into a nightclub-beer-garden-mini-mall of sorts, roughly the size of an airport terminal. Only dim light illuminates the large space, and each booth-bar has its own concept. Some areas are bigger than bars I’ve been to and some even larger than our single Bywater shotgun. The layout seems conceived by sorority sister party planners. Apparently in this business, the concept of meetings has evolved. It makes the Association of Writing Programs convention, which I attended last year, seem rinky-dink with its bright lights, folding tables, and cardboard booths.
In one corner of the Convention Center a gym is set up, and the barmaid mixes smoothies that contain ingredients such as fresh berries from exotic locations. I wonder how smoothies and beer relate before recalling the “& Expo” part of the pass. The entire space is larger than Delgado Community College’s gymnasium, and on display are an elliptical trainer, a Bowflex type machine and other impact resistant pieces. With its pale wood wall and track lighting, another section looks more like the inside of a CEO’s corner office. Books about how to make money and secure power line one shelf, and a few about how to maintain happiness throughout the process line another. There’s also the VIP-airport themed section. Young women dressed in short skirts move among pub tables, offering samples of sake.
I recall where I am, in the space where people were brought after the storm, where they lived in heat and filth for days, where they were starved into submission, where women and babies were allegedly raped. Now a staff of custodians keeps the trash cans from overflowing and the carpet clean. Today the toilets flush and there is plenty of paper and soap. Anheuser-Busch has even laid out recycle bins. Where, in a city that gave up on this concept after Katrina, will the plastic and glass be brought?
Outside Red Hook’s area, I meet two more women, whose names escape me. “So you’re the contortionist,” the one with dark hair, the one who appears in charge, says.
“Normally, I do aerial,” I say. “You know, trapeze, silks. You have the ceiling for it.” I look up and remember a time before the storm when I was paid a couple hundred dollars to sit on my trapeze dressed in an elaborate bird costume. I did this while below me people from other places ate and drank and eventually danced.
Inside Red Hook’s area, two bars angle across from one another, allowing a path between them for distributors to pass. A small stage with a video screen for a backdrop completes the Red Hook display, which is small in comparison to other exhibits. After all, Red Hook is marketed as a micro brew, and the pub-like atmosphere here indicates something small and intimate.
I touch the stage as I pass to see if it’s slippery. It feels fine now, but I just don’t know what the grip will be like while dressed in the spandex suit. I mumble something about owning a blue yoga mat and how I didn’t think it appropriate to bring blue. Once in 2002, while performing trapeze for Coca-Cola, only red, black, white, and silver were acceptable colors, but no blue. Blue was simply off limits.
The younger of the two women, the blonde one, who has not eaten all day because she’s been busy putting this thing together, leads me backstage. “I have some music for you,” she says, dragging an iBook across a thick, white carpet. “I have two CDs. If you want to listen and pick one,” she says. Then looking at my face, she adds, “You don’t have to wear the hood if you don’t want to.” Another young woman arrives and the two leave for lunch.
I change into the “gimp suit,” as my husband deemed it last night, when I wore the thing at home to practice, and begin stretching. Leaving my head exposed for the warm up, I roll onto my back and end up under a clothes hanger of skimpy green dresses. Soon after I clear out, the space will be inhabited by models hired to promote Bacardi products. Their set is made to look like a cross between a VIP lounge and fashion runway. I forward bend into a six pack of something packaged like the wine coolers I remember from my youth. Bacardi’s line of “malternative” beverages, made with malt liquor, sans hops, appeal to young drinkers who haven’t yet acquired a taste for beer. In other words, fourteen-year-old girls seem the target market.
Just before 2 PM, Ashley-Shelby returns to lead me to the stage. Though not totally blind while wearing the gimp suit, my vision is somewhat obstructed, and a guide to the Red Hook section helps. The music starts and I step onto the stage with two bottles of beer in my gloved hands. I pirouette before sliding into a split. Then as gracefully as possible, place the bottles before me as I roll out of the position and prepare for a forearm balance. I flip my legs overhead, stretch my neck up, and arch my back. My feet still don’t reach my head but apparently the move impresses someone, for I hear a clap. I suspect it’s the bartender.
From behind the mask I see faceless figures with black convention bags slung over shoulders, milling about. Beer from a draft pours. Arching into a back bend, I feel my hands slip a little. I can’t get the grip I need with my foot to raise the other one overhead. The stage is more slippery than I imagined, especially in the spandex gimp suit, so for the next ten minutes I try to get the attention of someone, one of the women in charge to let them know I need a mat or rug or something.
The mat arrives about one third of the way through my performance. A pressure bruise develops on the inside of my left knee from constantly sliding into splits while holding bottles of Red Hook above my head. My left side split trumps my right split, so I push it, do the move repeatedly, and with each repetition my hips and hamstrings loosen. I will feel this tomorrow and perhaps for days to come.
An hour in the gimp suit equals half of what I made last summer for coordinating the exit exams at a community college and pays more than an hour of tutoring English, and besides, it’s exercise.
Through the mask, I cannot see facial expressions, but I get the sense that no one but the bartender is impressed. And why should they be? They’ve been to Cirque shows, paid good money to see real contortionists up close. What’s impressive here? I feel inadequate, less in control and much less imposing than I do when hanging upside down and above everyone on the trapeze. I wish I had a hula hoop.
At some point one of the women in charge signals me to follow her off the stage. Finally it’s over. There’s a patter of applause. I don’t even take a bow. I just head backstage where a Bacardi model asks me if her dress is too short in the back. She’s concerned with the way it rides up her ass. “You’re covered,” I say as I change back into street clothes.
I’m thanked for a “great job,” an empty compliment and I go. Leaving the Red Hook area, I notice another act has taken my place, a hula dancer and a man with a guitar. Half bored conventioneers stop momentarily to watch. I want a beer but it seems unprofessional to get one from where I just came. Then I hear the rumble of my stomach. I need more than beer. I find the smoothie stand.
Outside the Convention Center, I lap up the mixture of fresh berries and watch a child backflip along the sidewalk. She exhibits real skill, and I’m envious. Not part of the entertainment, she’s here with a cheerleading convention. Her father and others look on. It’s a gem of a day, warmth provided by the sun alone, low humidity. I walk towards Harrah’s Casino, knowing it won’t last.