One hundred thirty-three hours. That's five and one-half days. That's the chunk of my life spent looking at this:
But that’s nothing. I only had my NIOSA booth, "Cold Drinks #2 in Sauerkraut Bend," for six years. I inherited it from an 88-year-old woman who had been working the booth for over 30 years. To my left and right, my Conservation Society fellows decked out in lederhosen and German frocks have similar résumés. Sauerkraut Bend is one of the few areas left at NIOSA that takes its identity seriously. The other, ironically, is Clown Alley. I once rode the volunteer bus with some pretty earnest clowns.
Maybe it’s just the way Germans are. Most of the volunteers in the big round room are, in fact, of German descent, and they can probably tell you which state in Germany. If there’s one thing that Germans take seriously, it’s being German. What else would inspire grown men to wear lederhosen four nights in a row?
I’m sure they had high hopes for me – starting young with all my energetic young friends to enlist. I inherited the booth when I was 24, which means I was poised to set some kind of longest tenure record if I had held on.
But this was my last year.
I’ll explain why I quit, but first, I have to reflect for a moment on things I’ve observed from my perch in the plywood castle booth, peddling soda for a good cause, in a room with an oompah band called Eurofest that plays all night long.
First off, I truly believe that NIOSA is the people’s event. It’s wildly expensive, but the crowd is not pretentious or elite in any way. King Antonio and his entourage make their obligatory visit (which ends on the dance floor of Sauerkraut Bend within view of my booth), but the look on their faces clearly says, "Get me out of here."
The crowd I see at NIOSA doesn't mind having beer spilled on them, or consuming preservatives. Even during the recession, people dropped a pretty penny on this party. I've made a habit of counting the little 8oz. cups in the their cup-towers and figuring out how much money they have spent on beer thus far. On average, those stacks are 8-10 high at 6-8 tickets a pop ($24-$40).
VIA park-n-ride has done a lot to keep downtown from becoming a death trap after NIOSA, but as the night wears on, the characters who stop by my booth to "chat" get more and more colorful. Booth workers are a captive audience for men who have struck out with the moving targets, and are too drunk to care if the look on my face says, "I'd rather shove that anticuchos skewer in my eye." I am always grateful for the plywood countertop and giant tub of ice separating us. (Side note: I am also glad to be separated from the parade of said skewers, drunkenly swinging around at eye level on the well-worn path between the anticuchos and the sausage on a stick ... which is precisely where Cold Drinks #2 is located).
That said, I'm in view of the dance floor. So those same Casanovas draped over my countertop obligingly provide entertainment if the polka band strikes up a familiar tune. Like the Chicken Dance. Which I heard on average five times every night.
There has always been a charm about NIOSA, if you surrender to the chaos and grime (and take a TUMS when it's over). By changing your money for tickets you enter an alternate reality. And I believe that the Conservation Society does good work. So if people want to get their jollies by paying $3 for a Bud Light, then we'll just call it philanthropy. I know the dry chicken and tough green beans I eat at fundraiser dinners aren't worth $100, yet there I am.
Some people have a hard time with the heavy drinking that goes on.
" I could never work at a beer booth," one volunteer said. "I just couldn't serve alcohol to drunk people!"
"Instead you're at the soda booth," I answered. "Where we serve soda to fat people."
That was what I had a hard time with. So many of our social problems as a city stem from our unhealthy relationship to food and drink. My booth gave me a behind-the-scenes look at the mindset that got us there.
"Do you have water?" they ask.
"No, bottled water is sold around the corner."
"Oh ... okay. I'll take a Big Red."
If they had come to me asking for donuts, and instead I'd sold them a Big Red, I'd feel better about it.
Ultimately though, the reason I gave up my booth was that it was getting harder and harder to find volunteers. My peers are no longer in college or grad school. No longer new to town, looking to fill up an evening. They work late, their kids are on schedules, and they have tight budgets that don't have a line item for "things served on sticks." When they splurge a little, hire a babysitter, or stay out late, they don't want to stand in a booth and serve soda to strangers. Nor do they want to squeeze through a crowd of sloshing beverages.
The big perk of working a booth used to be the wristband to get in for free, all the free soda you could drink, and some free food and beer here and there (though organizers won't admit that part). But now my friends can afford to buy their own food, and don't really want to be smooshed up against all those people. I wish they did, because I am a huge fan of the Conservation Society, and so thrilled that it has this lucrative fundraiser. But NIOSA just isn't their event. It's not the event for health nuts, indie snobs, design eyes, and environmentalists (though some foodies do love it). They might set some of that aside and be sporting for the night...but you can bet they're not consuming $50 of Bud Light, no matter how many historical markers it would buy.
Which begs the question...what is our event? Which one should we look forward to every year? Who gets our money?
Walking out of NIOSA, I was a little bit nostalgic. The aftermath drips with melancholy. Flotsam and confetti carried by rivers of unknown liquids. The fading glow of heat lamps behind abandoned food booths. The limp streamers and toppling piles of trash. Drunk people stumble-dancing while confetti falls from their hair. Cops helping drunk people figure out why they are sitting alone by a planter.
That's actually the part I'll miss the most, the walk out of La Villita. I can't even explain why.
Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.