Since I’m on a roll with telling stories about places I’ve worked, I have a doozy for you today.
Once upon a time, I worked at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. I worked there in various capacities for a whopping eleven years, taking jobs that involved helping children throw sandbags, managing a fried food booth, and/or selling hats. Today, I am telling you a story from the many years I spent there as a bartender.
I was a bartender at a wine booth that was slightly more upscale than the other wine booths at MRF back then. The other booths only sold illustrious box wines, each flavor delineated only as “red” or “white” or “blush”. Our booth actually sold wine that came out of bottles. It still wasn’t great wine, but it at least came in flavors of “chardonnay”, “white zinfandel”, “merlot”, and “cabernet”.
I had a great time working there, too. My two co-workers, Pat and Pat (not related), were fun and gregarious, and they were very good at making sure li’l naive me stayed out of real trouble. (I was under drinking age at the time. In Minnesota, if you are working for an establishment that serves food, you can serve alcohol even if you are underage.) The three of us were a formidable bartending force; we made crazy amounts of tips, even though we weren’t allowed to keep a tip jar out.
Our booth was a single-unit building, placed conspicuously in the middle of a dirt road, which was lined with rows of other shops and food booths. The booth had a bar all the way around the building. We served wine from one side. The other sides belonged to the Jaycees, who sold beer. The building itself had an A-shaped roof, and we were on one of the sides that had a flat wall above us. On that flat wall was a giant vinyl banner that advertised our wine. (Yes, a banner made out of ye olde vinyl.)
One fine Sunday morning in early September, I was going through the ritual of cleaning up the booth and getting the wines ready for the day. The Festival grounds were already open, so some customers were already milling around, but we weren’t allowed to start serving wine until noon (thanks to a weird Minnesota state blue law that persists to this day). So, I was taking my time scrubbing down the counters and making the booth pretty.
Well, I noticed that a few minutes after scrubbing the counter… there was a new collection of schmutz on it. Since it was a beautiful, breezy autumn morning, filled with golden sunshine, I figured that the wind had blown some dust back onto the counter. So I wiped it down again.
A few minutes later, I looked back at the counter, and… it was dirty again. What the hell?
About this time, one of the Pats and our area supervisor wandered by the booth, just to check in and say hi. I mentioned the spontaneous dirt growth.
We looked at the counter again. There was a new collection of grit on it. I wiped it down again.
The three of us stared at the counter in puzzlement.
Eventually, the area supervisor looked up at the roofline above our booth. He then called over to a passing actor, who was carrying a long walking stick.
“Can I borrow that for a second?”
The actor hesitated, then handed over the stick.
Mr. Area Supervisor then took the stick, and gently tapped the vinyl banner above our heads. I was inside the booth, so I didn’t see what happened, but Area Supervisor’s eyes got a peculiar look in them.
Let me pause here and describe the area around us at that moment. It was a truly gorgeous morning. Patrons were strolling happily around the festival, while autumn leaves drifted to the ground. The sunlight was golden in the way that only 1970s album covers seem to capture properly. Beautiful.
It was in these idyllic surroundings that Area Supervisor said, “Uh, okay. Watch out.”
With the stick, he flipped up a corner of the enormous vinyl banner…
…and several thousand brown bats erupted from the roof of our wine establishment.
The squadron of bats swooped through the festival grounds, sending startled patrons screaming away from us. The Area Supervisor continued to knock the stick against the banner, and the bats just kept boiling out from between the wood and the vinyl. Teenagers in half-assed Renaissance costumes dove for cover. Mothers dashed away, carrying confused children. Seasoned Renaissance Festival actors, who had likely worked there for decades and seen every variant of hippie/theater/art nerd decadence known to man, stared slack-jawed at this spectacular aerial attack. If we were all in a movie, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” would be playing.
Eventually, the flock of winged creatures fled into the trees, their dismayed shrieks fading into the distance. People slowly crept out of their hiding spaces, wide-eyed and jumpy from adrenalin. A single, terrified bat, its torso no bigger than my thumb, clung desperately to the side of a wine box, wondering what the fuck just happened. Pat, Area Supervisor, and I looked at each other in awe.
And then a truly horrifying amount of bat guano dropped down onto the wine booth’s counter.