This morning, I picked up a charter bus outside of Fordham University in Manhattan, next to Lincoln Centre. Rather than observe the view or converse with the other ten passengers, I was able to finish my novel on the two and a half hour ride. The novel was Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. It was enjoyable enough, but I didn’t love it. I’m not sure why yet, though it may have something to do with the author’s personal views, and her frequent use of popular cliches. Perhaps I’ve simply been reading too much Jane Austen and need to relax my literary bar a little.
The weather was warm, sunny, and humid (as usual in the summer) in Manhattan, but as the bus neared the Poconos, the sky became very dark – too dark to read – and it began to rain. An electrical storm was breaking overhead as the bus arrived at the Pocono Valley Resort at about 4:30 and deposited us in front of what appeared to be a very large barn. Some of my fellow passengers were screaming like schoolgirls as they deboarded into the rain, putting up umbrellas and pulling on transparent ponchos before running toward the open barn. I calmly walked the thirty feet to the door, muttering under my breath about “pussies”.
Inside the barn, a horseshoe-shaped reception circuit had been set up for new arrivals, with a lot of luggage and men hovering about the centre waiting for a break in the now torrential downpour. I picked up my registration package at the first station. Next stop was the “schwag” counter, a convention tradition everywhere at which one picks up cheap and often useless gifts. I’m sure the amount of garbage distributed in this manner at conventions all over the United States each year could fill a transfer station the size of Iowa. I declined the offer of a GNI tote bag, a pair of multi-coloured sunglasses, a GNI pen, a keychain bottle opener, and other crap, and moved on to the “linens” pick-up counter. One has a choice – bring your own linens or rent them for $48. For the same amount, I could probably stop at Wal-Mart and pick up linens for a family of four and still have enough left to buy a round of ammunition. But I didn’t, so I paid.
The event officially starts on Sunday afternoon, but an early arrival option (Friday) was offered, which I took for two reasons. One, I wanted to get the entire experience, from start to finish. Also, after three weeks at a quiet retreat in upstate New York, I was concerned about the shock of the sudden over-stimulation of being deposited in a crowd of 800 gay men geared up for festivity, and the early option allowed me a more gradual acclimatisation. I’m happy to be naked anywhere, but I’m generally less happy to be surrounded in crowds. I estimate that about 150 to 200 men showed up at the same time, so there’s still stimulation, but it’s manageable. It helps that for the first two nights I am alone in my bunkhouse. On Sunday, there will be ten.
Once the rain eased slightly, I made my way to cabin C6, to which I had been assigned and which is down a hill toward the dammed end of a small lake. I chose a bed in the corner of the military-like room and made it up with my valuable linens, then relaxed until dinner reviewing the registration package, which essentially contains a calendar of events and a nametag.
As this was my first time here, and as I was alone in my cabin, I was uncertain of the protocol for dinner. Was I to appear in the dining hall completely naked? Although I’m not skin-shy, I am less fond of drawing toward myself the unwanted attention of large groups through my own unfortunate faux pas. Peering out the window, I determined that most of the people heading toward the dining hall were largely undressed, so I did the same.
As someone who is generally fairly socially reserved in environments where I know no one, I was slightly unnerved to arrive at the dining hall to find that almost everyone else was already present, seated, and eating. I picked up a styrofoam plate and some plastic cutlery and moved through the buffet collecting food. Rather than feel distress, I was busy feeling appalled at the calculations that my mind was working on. Seven days, 800 men, at least three styrofoam plates per man per day. Almost 17,000 plates! Add the cutlery, napkins, and drinking cups and there must be truckloads of garbage hauled away from here. I wish they had warned me, so that I could have brought my own dishes. Sorry, Iowa!
Dinner itself was good enough. Boneless chicken, pasta, vegetables, dessert. Rather than cowardly choosing an empty table and dining alone, I invited myself to join a table of others, which went fine, though they weren’t overly chatty. But then, neither am I.
Each evening, there is a “themed” cocktail hour. The first night’s theme was “totally naked”, which seemed rather pointless as everyone was already mandated to be naked anyway. For some reason, gay men seem to love the word “cocktail”. One might suspect that the phallic suggestion of the word is the reason, but it seems that the word may actually just have a pretension to it that appeals to homosexuals. Think of Scott Thompson’s Kids in the Hall character Buddy who was always talking about a “smart cocktail”. I don’t really get it, myself, but then, I seldom get pop expressions. I’m happy to call a drink a drink. It seems especially silly to refer to commercially produced red wine, poured from a cardboard box into a plastic cup bearing a Budweiser logo, as a “cocktail”.