The Bohemian Experiment

The Mountain Dew Vertical Challenge

Posted by beckert10 on June 20, 2009

We awake by five most mornings.  I typically set my alarm for 5:03 because it somehow seems far less heinous.  The general rule of thumb is not to be the last person down to the lobby because not only will the best choice of food be gone, but it inspires disdain from the other crew members who are already loading up the trucks in the bitterly cold Rocky Mountain winter pre-dawn.

Todd was up at 4:45 and is just now beginning to dress in a slow, pained manner.  Pete fires up a massive joint.  Steve sits on the edge of the bed staring at the floor.  I say, “fuck” out loud a few times.  The horror of waking at this hour is something we all deal with differently.

I’m the last one out of the room but not the last downstairs.  Pam and Kristy are chatting and giggling in the corner between mouthfuls of Pop-Tarts and coffee.  How anyone can speak, let alone be cheerful at this hour, is something not only do I not understand but makes me distrustful of a person.  The crew leader, Patty, is running around trying to organize everyone.  She is tall and manly in the way of all females who are in charge of a predominately male group.  She is tailed by Mike, who enjoys no management responsibility but desperately wants to.  He’s trying to tell Flavio what to do, but not even the foreigner will listen to him at this hour.  Tommy  steps into the lobby saying, “Well goood morning everyone.”  The only response he gets is a few murderous glances.  I cram a Nutri-Grain bar in my mouth and chew mechanically.  I don’t think it’s possible for food to taste good at this hour.  Chuck comes up behind me and kneads my shoulders playfully.  I nod in return and hand him a granola bar.  “Fuck,” I say again and he shakes his head as a way of returning the sentiment.

I pick through the selection of cold cuts and make myself a lunch for later.  The slices of meat seem perverted at this hour.  As the mustard bottle makes a farting sound Randy chuckles and says, “Hey man, none of that now.”  If I had more strength I’d tell him if he makes that joke one more time I’ll insert the bottle up his asshole.

Patty is giving the signals to start loading up.  Mike already has brought two armloads out before the rest of us can even move to respond.  The sandwiches in my pocket are mashed into a ball as I carry a crate out to the waiting trucks.

Outside is one of the coldest temperatures I’ve ever felt.  Breckenridge is known for its weather but this seems inhumane.  Patty drives the truck with the trailer along with the other two girls.  I cram in the back of the Suburban with Chuck, Steve, Todd, Randy and Pete while Mike drives.  The temperature gauge reads -30 Fahrenheit.

We arrive at base camp and unload the gear onto the hard packed snow.  At this point in the season we’re all veterans and robotically begin work on our assigned tasks.  First, the tents must go up.  In this cold, fingers become useless about a minute out of gloves, but with them on it’s nearly impossible to manipulate the tent poles.  Thus, we assemble gloveless in quick spurts before blowing and cursing and slipping them back on for a short burst of relief.

This may be the coldest I’ve ever been.  My fingers and toes no longer exist.  I’ve put hot packs in the front of my boots but they only warm my feet enough to know it’s dangerously cold.  It’s a point of personal pride to keep working in these conditions.  Besides, this morning is too obviously cold to warrant discussion.  We just labor wordlessly, knowing movement is the only way to warm up until the sun rises.

The tents are all up and we move them into position.  The frame of our gypsy town is now complete.  The light from the sun is just beginning to appear as orange and pink hues behind the mountains, prompting a silent cheer from the workers.  The worst part is over.

With base camp assembled each of us grabs banners from the large plastic crate and begin to hang them.  Once the majority of the corporate sponsors’ signs are hung the boys begin to set up the giant Mountain Dew cans.  They must be inflated with a blower and anchored with sand bags, which in any amount of wind can be excruciatingly difficult.  The wind is quite strong this morning and we look like sailors running around the deck of a ship during a storm.  I lean back and hold one side in place with a rope while Todd and Pete try to anchor the other sides, but each time we’ve almost got it a gust of wind comes and knocks it over.  “Flavio, little help over here buddy,” I yell.  He waves with a smile and walks into the lobby.  “Tommy, dude, give a hand here!”  He helps stabilize the inflatable while giving an annoying play by play of it, “And the one side is up, but, noo, a mighty gust of wind knocks it down, and the crew must labor on in these harsh conditions.”  When we finally get it up he announces, “And, at long last, the men have completed their trial and can rest.” “Are you aware you’re not an actual DJ?  You’re just a DJ for this shitty free ski race.” Todd says to him.  Tommy laughs, thinking he’s just kidding.

Within one and a half hours the lair of the corporate-give-away-orgy has it’s framework in place.  The tents, banners and inflatables are set.  Now, each person takes on their personal task.  Pam and Kristy have registration, Mike Walk EZ,  Flavio sampling, Todd shwag, aka corporate junk giveaway, Tommy DJ, Pete, Steve, Chuck, Randy and I mountain crew.

There’s a brief lull when everyone can warm up inside the lodge.  Those of us on the mountain crew are waiting for the resort employees to arrive on snowmobiles and take us and the gear to the top of the race course.  We relax and warm frozen fingers and toes until we hear the distinct buzz of a sled which marks the arrival of guys who use the words ‘dude’ or ‘man’ approximately every 4.3 words.  They are the same species as the surfer dude, merely of a different genus.

There’s a circus-like atmosphere to a resort whenever we come to town.  When the staff begins to arrive at 7:30 they can’t help but come over, peep into each tent and ask questions.  Almost right away they start asking for giveaways.  What is it about free stuff that sets the American heart afire?  It’s as if the idea of getting something for nothing is a victory inching them slightly ahead of faceless competitors.  In a culture where success is measured materially, the accumulation of things is the standard of living well.  Therefore, turning down the chance for something free is not only un-American, it’s immoral.

While it’s our job to give stuff away and fan the flames of corporate greed the requests for shwag quickly become tiresome.  We reserve stuff for the resort crew that actually help, but for each person that is of use are four or five who just want something.  At this point in the season the wiser of us have learned to barter.  I’ve seen guys give away lift tickets, meal cards, drugs, an hour of hard labor, for a hat or water bottle that cost .34567 cents to make in China.  You’d think these were remote mountain people who’d never been to town the way they gawk and clamor to get close to the action and, the gods willing, scuttle home with some piece of divine bric-a-brac.

It’s 8:30 when we get to the top of the hill, giving us two and a half hours to set the course.  We divide into groups.  Randy and I tackle the giant inflatable arches that mark the start and finish lines.  Pete and a Breckenridge worker handle the slalom markers and timing system, while Steve and Chuck set the black plastic fencing on the edges of the course.  While harder work physically, being up here has the benefit of being far away from the prying eyes of management.  Also, the bulk of public interaction and required fake-friendliness transpires in the green and black shantytown a thousand meters below.  Up here, as long as the work gets done, we can pretty much do as we please.  This generally includes smoking pot, urinating and using obscene language.

Randy and I are struggling with the start inflatable. Generally, it’s best to anchor one side, inflate it, then stand it up and get it into permanent position.  For some reason one side keeps buckling, causing the whole thing to flop over.  Randy has a bit of a tantrum.  He’s explaining to me how he needs, “…to get back to making real money.  This is cool and all, but it’s barely paying the bills.”  He’s a bit older than the rest of us and seems to desperately want to give the impression this is just a temporary gig.  He wears the kind of sweaters that were cool in the seventh grade and brags about driving a BMW that he fails to mention is a fourteen year old piece of shit.  This job is like a chain gang.  It doesn’t matter who you used to be, what you plan to do after, or how worthy or unworthy the work seems.  In our identical black jackets and gray ski pants we’re all equals.

We finally get the first inflatable up, put on our boots and skis and race to the bottom to tackle the finish arch.  Skiing with no poles is a bit like riding a bicycle no-handed.  The second one is giving us similar problems and Randy takes his shovel and slams it into the snow.  “Fuck this, man!  This is not Randy type of work!”  Never trust a man who refers to himself in the third person.  “You know what, I’ve been thinking of starting my own online accounting company.  People could file their taxes right from their computers.  Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”
“I think it’s a good idea if you pick up the shovel and help me dig anchor holes,” I say.
“Man, I’m just not cut out for this kind of work, what with my knees and back.”
He’s thirty-two.  You’d think this guy was geriatric.
“You know, I’m actually kind of ready for something more steady.  I’ve got the cutest little girlfriend.  That’s really the kind of the route I want to go.”
I’ve seen this girl.  She’s about nineteen and not cute at all.  In a couple of years she’s bound to notice he’s frumpy and humorless and will find someone else with a stronger back and knees.

It’s now past nine o’clock, which means registration has started.  It will last for two hours until racing begins at eleven.  Two hours of a frenzied public lining up and hoping for the glory of cheaply made rubbish and the ego boost of winning this inconsequential public race in which one with slightly better than average ability has the chance to beat out he others who approach the registration tent with confused faces, frequently asking, “What’s this?” which requires an explanation from the infinitely patient Pam and Kristy that this is the Mountain Dew Vertical Challenge, a free ski race for the public put on by the good folks at Pepsi-Cola Co. in cooperation with Chevrolet and other sponsors, a race tailor made for the average, the generally unfit who press their glasses up and crinkle their face as they look at the registration form, for some reason always having to confer with their spouse about something on it, for the kids who want to ditch their parents so they don’t have to see their father in a one-piece suit show him how to hit perfect form on a mostly flat slope but now need him to sign the consent form, for those slightly older guys who think they’re hot shit and stand perched at the edge of a steep run under a passing chair lift ready to show off to the people above, for the old guys with circa 1982 straight Rossignols of neon pink and yellow who seem oblivious to the fact that ski technology and fashion have evolved tenfold since then, for old ladies who can rip through a mogul course with the precision that only old ladies seem to be capable of, for those just learning to ski and are a danger to everyone around them but for some reason think it’s a good idea to compete in a downhill race, for the brah-dudes in their baggy clothes who are, like, wicked in the park and can totally pull a 720 grab, who would, like, be totally stoked to win, for those little tykes under the tutelage of an overbearing father who is now out of shape but determined to see his son take home one of the flimsy, dull medals, for those preppy business guys who spend three grand on matching North Face gear and fly in for a long weekend from Chicago determined to prove they’re not sellouts.  Come one, come all, step right up, direct your repetitive and asinine questions to the two young ladies who look friendly but actually want to slit your throat, who can’t read your handwriting and will enter your name dreadfully wrong in the computer and make fun of the fact that where it reads, Do not write below this line you wrote, “No problem.”  Yes, weekend warriors, annoyed pre-teens, easily-impressed seekers of glory, fill out the form for a chance to be the best, the fastest, on the course today, which actually means not that good or that quick, and please write neatly so that if you, Mr. Schlonnan, should win, we don’t pronounce your name “Schlong man” and inspire outrage that on this day of glory your family’s name was sullied by a bunch of kids who are laughing at the fact that anybody can take this shit so seriously.

Tommy has taken over the mic, announcing, “Yo, yo, yo, this is the Mountain Dew Vertical Challenge everybody!  Come on over to the big black registration tent and sign up for the chance to win a shiny medal and a trip to Steamboat Springs for the finals in April!  Everybody who signs up will get a free Mountain Dew water bottle and the chance to talk to the charming and beautiful Pam and Kristy!”

It’s nine-thirty and the buzz of Mountain Dew world is reaching its fevered pitch.  Over at sampling an overweight man is slugging back cup after cup of soda.
“Blue and red Mountain Dew?  Now I’ve seen it all! Hah hah ha!” (various farting and belching sounds)  Flavio grins in the manner of all foreigners who aren’t sure what to say and/or what is being said to them.  “I like red.  It taste cherry.”
“Where you from, son?  What accent’s that?”
“My from Brazil.”
“Ahhh, Africa, hey?  How come you’re white, then?  Hey Sheila, come try some of this red Mountain Dew!”  His wife waddles over.  She’s one of those women who don’t ski and sit in the lodge all day reading Redbook and eating licorice.
“This fella here is from, ah, what was it?  Bots…no…Boli…no…ah, Baghdad, that’s it!”
“He doesn’t look European to me.  Looks just like us.”
“Actually I’m from…”
“So, son what do you think of Merica?”
“Very nice, sir.  I enjoy very much.”
“Ah, that’s great.  Me, I’ll never leave, what with all the turrists everywhere.  I mean, look around you son, why would you want to go anywhere else?”
Two peanut M&M shaped children clunk over in ski boots.  “Mom, we want to sign up for the race over there.”
“Hey kids, say hello to, um, what was your name son?”
“Flavio.”
“Fabio, like the butter guy?  Haw Haw” (indistinct gurgling)   Flamzian here’s from, uh…”
“I am from Braz…”
“Poland, Allan it’s Poland.  The kids don’t even look at Flaviad.
“Come on, mom, we want to race!”
“Alright, alright, let’s go.”
“Well, Flazlambad, enjoy Merica and remember not every country is like here, not even your precious France.”

“You see, ma’am,” says Mike, “these clip right onto the bottom of your boots, like this.”  He attaches the Walk EZ to his boots, then hands her a pair.  “I want you to try, to see how easy it is.  Now, go ahead and walk around, see how much better than feels.”  She strolls around like somebody trying on shoes at a department store.
“Why, that’s so much better, none of that clumsy heel-toe stuff.”  Mike gives her an assuring grin.  He’s wearing a Walk EZ beanie and turtleneck under black snow bib suspenders.  He’s perfect for the older crowd Walk EZ attracts.
“I can’t imagine how I ever walked around without these.  Let me tell you, I can’t even remember how many times I’ve almost broken my neck clunking around in these boots.”
“Yes, ma’am and that’s exactly what the makers of Walk EZ had in mind.  Their idea was to revolutionize the entire ski-boot experience.”  A small group of older people has gathered around.
“Well, I’m sold. Can I buy them here?”
“Actually ma’am I’m giving the first one hundred customers today a voucher for a free pair.”
The word “free” ripples through the crowd and it quickly turns into a swarm.  People who don’t even know what Walk EZ is shove to the front, eager to secure a pair.  A man tells his wife to hold his place in line while he quickly runs off to the bathroom.  Mike is explaining how the inventor and CEO of Walk EZ, after working at a ski resort for years and seeing countless spills, wanted to make something that would end the treachery of base camp walking.
“That’s great, now where do I fill out the form?” one man demands.
“Yeah, the forms, make with the forms!” another yells.
“Well, folks, if you could just wait a few moments…”
More people join the group, obeying the herd instinct that where many stand something good must be going on.  Mike, sensing he’s lost their attention, lays the voucher forms down on the table.  The crowd goes for them, mindlessly snatching them up and filling them out, some only afterwards looking over the sample box to see what their diligence has earned them.  Within a few minutes most of the forms have been filled out and the remaining ones are snatched up like scraps by a pigeon.  After a few minutes the man who’s gone to the bathroom returns.
“What do you mean there’s none left?  Gladys, why didn’t you get one for me?  You were supposed to hold my place!”  She looks at the ground, a defense she’s mastered over the years.
“Come on, you saw me earlier in line, why don’t you just give me this pair here?”
“Sir, that’s our demo pair.  I need these to show the customers here the incredible, life-changing potential of Walk EZ.”  He says this with the flair of a game show host.
“This is outrageous!  I was only gone for a minute!  Should I lose out just because somebody here couldn’t hold my place?”
“I’ll tell you what, sir.  I can give you a coupon good for thirty percent off, good at any major retail shop.”
“Why should I settle for that when I should have a free pair right now?”
Another crowd forms to check out the developing scene.
“Where’s your manager?  I want to speak to him!”
“I’m afraid she’s busy at the moment.  How about one of these t-shirts along with the coupon?”
“I don’t want a damned t-shirt!  I want the damned Walk Right or whatever the hell it is.      You know what, the hell with Walk E-whatever…and the hell with you and this whole event and this whole resort!  We’re leaving!”  He grabs his wife by the arm and stomps away like a sulking child.  As soon as he’s out of sight Mike announces,
“Well folks, I’ll tell you what.  Since we’ve got such a great crowd here today I’m going to give all of you here a voucher for a free pair of Walk EZ, the best thing to happen to skiing since the chairlift!”

“Hey everybody, hope you’re enjoying all the festivities of the Mountain Dew Vertical Challenge here in Breckenridge, Colorado.  I’ve just received word that Todd over at the shwag tent is going to be giving away a special prize so head on over there now!  And don’t forget, there’s only forty-five minutes left to register for the racing!”

Todd curses under his breath at Tommy.  “Fuckin idiot, now I have to deal with all these little pieces of shit swarming around my tent…hey guys!  Who want to win a Mountain Dew sweatshirt?”  The kids come at him with arms out like the undead in a zombie flick. “Whoa, whoa, not so fast.  You have to earn it.  Now let’s take ten of you.”  He counts off the chosen ones.  “Alright, now here’s what you’ll have to do.  First, twenty jumping jacks, then spin around these whiffle ball bats ten times, run over to that lady over there and tag her-Patty stands waving in the distance-then run back, do ten push-ups, and slap my hand.  Ready?”  Most of the kids are already running on a considerable caffeine and sugar buzz from Pepsi’s new energy drink that the can warns should not be consumed by kids or pregnant women.  “Ready….set…go!”  They complete the jumping jacks half-heartedly then begin to rotate around the yellow, plastic bats.  Several of them stumble and eat a face full of snow.  One of them gets up with a bloody mouth and staggers towards Patty.  Tommy is giving the play by play: “Whoa! Man down!  The guy in the black coat is in the lead, but the others are close behind.  Who will it be?”  The lead boy wildly smacks Patty then heads back towards the tent.  The rest of them follow behind.  One little fat boy looks like he’s about to pass out.  A group of three kids are now about dead even and beginning the push-ups.  “Come on guys, all the way down!  I want to see those chests on the ground or you’ll have to do it again!”  Two boys jump up and slap Todd’s hand at almost exactly the same moment.  “Whoa, whoa, whoa!  I think we’ve got a tie!  Tell you what…let’s give both of them a can of Dew and whoever can chug it first will take home the sweatshirt!”  The losers skulk about in dismay, kicking the snow.  The fat kid is off to the side being consoled by his mother.  “Alright guys, here’s your soda, open them up!  Now, when I say ‘go’ you start chugging.  1…2…go!”  They tilt the cans back and sickly green liquid spills down their throats.  “Come on, come on!  Who’ll it be?”  One boy holds his can upside down.  “We have a winner!”  Todd hands the kid a black sweatshirt with the letters, ‘MD’ on the front.  The boy doesn’t look well.  He takes a couple of steps and vomits green liquid all over the sweatshirt and snow, leaving a stain the color of dish soap.  “Whoa!  I guess somebody is a little too excited about their prize!”  Todd holds up a middle finger under the counter at Tommy.

“OK ladies and gentlemen, only fifteen minutes left to register so get on over here and sign up for the chance to win Mountain Dew gold!”

Up top, the course is set.  We’re lying in the shade in a snow bank.  Pete is sucking down another joint.  Steve and Chuck nibble at mangled granola bars.  Randy does some weird stretch trying to loosen his ailing back.  I’m looking up at the sky through the canopy, bracing myself for the next two hours of an over-eager public.  A sizeable line has already formed near the starting inflatable.  Guys are doing all sorts of pre-race rituals.  One is sitting in a yoga pose, another has a ski up vertical on its heel and is leaning forward, a few are running in place and limbering up.  A man beats his chest like a gorilla, gives a war cry and spits a big phlegm wad that lands on a woman’s ski.  A few analyze the course, talking amongst themselves about the best way to attack it.

The race is divided by gender, age group and skiers and boarders, though everybody gathers at the top and goes together.  Each competitor wears a bib with a number.  There is a red course and a blue course.  Racers go down two at a time, one on each course.  There is a starting wand at the top and a laser sensor at the bottom that are connected to a timing system.  One member of the mountain crew sits near the finish line with a computer and is connected to the top by radio.  As the two racers get set at the top their numbers are called down to the bottom, entered into the computer and the times are recorded as they cross the finish line.  Later, this data will be given over to Sam and Kristy who will match the bib numbers to the names in the registration data bank.  Finally, the results will be tallied and Mountain Dew Gold, Silver, and Bronze will be awarded.  The gold medal winners will go to the finals in Steamboat Springs to compete for an ever bigger piece of crap, a Mountain Dew trophy.

Pete straps on his board and zips to the bottom to man the computer.  Steve and I take the radios at the top and stand at the start line of the red and blue courses.  Randy and Chuck chat up the competitors but actually act more as crowd control.  This may sound unnecessary unless one appreciates the seriousness racers give to the event.  There have been fights.  A few weeks back one man punched another for cutting in line.

My watch reads two minutes past eleven.  It’s time to start.  I get on the radio.
“Alright, you ready to go down there?”
“All clear,” is Pete’s response.  The racers are chomping at the bit.  I nod to Steve.  We call down bib numbers.
“3…2…1…Go!”  They take off, crossing in and out of the slalom markers.  As soon as the first pair is on their way we call down the next two numbers.
“OK, on deck we’ve got 113 red, 24 blue.”
“Check.”
I step off to the side a bit.  “Dude, check the onnie on this guy about to come down.  It’s fuckin hideous,”   Making fun of the public is one of the ways we stay sane while dealing with the herd.  This guy has a white one piece suit with pink and blue stripes.  He’s stomping his skis into the ground which I can’t imagine offers any competitive advantage.  He trips the timing wand, meaning the person on the course will have to go again.  Pete informs him.
“What do you mean?  Why?  Man, I totally killed it that time.  This is bullshit!”
”Hey, keep the people at the top a few feet back of the wand.”
“Check.  Folks, please everybody move back a little bit!”
“So man, which course is faster?” a guy says to Chuck.
“Sir, they’re both the same.”
“Come on, one has to be faster.  Just point to it, I won’t say anything.”
“I promise you people are running almost identical splits.  It really doesn’t matter.”
“But one must be a little faster.  I mean, statistically speaking it’s impossible to be dead even.”
A woman is bumbling around in line barely able to keep herself in one spot.
“How about you take those skis off until you get up to the start line,” says Randy.
“No, no, I’m fine,” she says, nearly falling over.
“What the hell’s taking so long up there?” says one man.  “They should let all the serious competitors go first before all the amateurs push the snow around.”
“Alright next up Blue 16, Red 28.”
“Check.”
“You know, ma’am, to be honest, this is just a weekend job for me.  Randy is going through a bit of a rough patch but he’s got a plan to get back on track.”
“Who’s Randy?”
“Time, what’s my time?”
“Can I can change over to the blue course?”
“OK we got blue 19, Red 34.”
“Gotcha.”
“Folks, please step back a bit!”
“OK, listen up!  Only one run per person!”
“You know, I used to race professional.  I’m a lock for top three.”
“See ma’am, Randy used to be more into the fast life, skiing hard, partying hard, but my knees and back, they can’t take the abuse anymore.”
“Blue 2, Red 11.  See if you can get a look at this guy.  He’s got some nasty looking thing growing off of his neck.  I mean, that shit on his face has some shit on its face.”
“Whoa!  Yard sale!” A man has crashed into the plastic fencing on the left side, sending gear flying everywhere.  He’s caught up in the mesh and flailing wildly trying to get loose.
“Hold the course!”
Chuck hops on his board and glides down to the man.  “You alright?”
“Fine, fine.  Do I get another try?”
“You look pretty busted up.  I think you should go over to first aid.”
“Really, I’m cool.  I had it there man, a medal for sure.”
“I don’t think your arm is supposed to be bent at that angle.”
“I’m fine man.  Redo, OK?”
“Fuck man, let’s get this shit over with.”
“Big fucking 10-4 buddy.”
“OK, final two racers.  Blue 18, red 17.”
“Go!”
Just as they cross the finish line the guy who needs to do his run again puffs over to us.
“Come on guys, it’s your fault I have to redo.  You screwed up not me.  I had a perfect run.”
“Sorry, no exceptions.”
Chuck and Randy are already on the way down the hill pulling out slalom poles.
“What the hell?  This is bullshit!  This race is crap compared to what it was last year!”
“I’m sure it is, sir.  Why not head down and enjoy some cool, refreshing Mountain Dew?”

“OK folks.  I’ve just gotten word that the racing has finished.  In two hours the results will be posted on the registration tent.  Until then sample some Dew or head on over to see if you can win some great prizes!”

While Pete takes the computer over to the girls for analysis the rest of us break down the course.  Everything is piled up at the bottom then put into its respective container.  We do this as quickly as possible so there is time left over before the awards ceremony to get a few runs in.  By 2:15 everything is packed away and returned to base camp.  Back on the hill the green and red circus is but a memory, the hassling public dispersed amongst the rest of the resort dreaming of artificial metal-alloy glory.  The most serious keep a tight orbit around the tents waiting for the results to be posted.  The rest either have forgotten about it for now and are tackling the mountain or else hoping for the consolation of shwag giveaways.

It’s 3:15.  After hitting the slopes the mountain crew descends on the staff tent like locusts, gulping down every last available crumb, downing highly-caffeinated drinks to get through the final hour.  Tommy is in here as well, practicing for the grand finale in the reflection of a CD.  He adjusts his hat several times before settling on it cocked slightly to the side.  Todd stands behind him giving the jerk-off motion.  Over at his tent Flavio picks his nose, not aware it’s un-American.  Patty runs around frantically making sure all the final preparations are made.  Pam and Kristy unpack all the remaining shwag for the final, frenzied giveaway.  Mike is breaking down his display, confident in the knowledge that he’s tickled the fancy of a couple of hundred senior citizens.  The encampment has a similar atmosphere to the final walk-through by a flight crew before landing.  The smiles are put on extra big for one final push until the end.  The winners have read the results and wait to hear their names called like an overachiever at a school assembly.  They’ve extended their personal empire by just a bit today and it feels good.

The crew is supposed to mingle among the crowd during the award ceremony and look enthusiastic but mostly we stand at the fringe and look bored out of our minds.  I take an armful of shwag and throw it around, hoping to catch an unsuspecting patron in the head, watching people grab for it like savages.  Tommy and the rest of the crew members toss out gear as well, egging the crowd into a frantic display of greed.  People yell and hold up their arms, a few lucky hands securing a hunk of fabric, plastic, or metal.  Their pleased little faces say it all as they scuttle away with their bounty like ants back to the hive, drawing jealousy and further desperation from the have-nots.  The winners step up to accept their prizes.  A few stragglers are attracted to the crowd wanting to be a part of something-a part of anything.

At the end of the day what we sell is the illusion that stuff increases happiness, an idea the public is all too willing to embrace.  One man clutches a fleece blanket to his chest with a broad grin. I imagine him later passed out on the couch next to an empty bottle of gin, the blanket draped over him, no happier or sadder than he’s ever been or anyone has ever been or will be.

The crowd has dispersed, leaving behind a film of garbage and post-fiesta disappointment that hangs thick in the air.  The gypsies pack up their portable dream machine, insert it piece by piece back into the proper container.  The gear is loaded into trucks, those trucks driven onto the next destination where, unbeknownst to a sad public, the fleeting joy of being a big winner awaits.

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