It's 7:30 Wednesday night in the First Avenue mainroom, the Female benefit for the Chrysalis center for women is just getting under way, and I'm wondering why we're here. Not why we exist as sentient beings on planet Earth or why we've built homes in such an unforgiving climate, but why we've all decided to come here, and what's preventing us from leaving.
Volunteers and organizers are busy setting up merchandise and information tables, their faces radiant with the serene glow that comes from showing up for a good cause. ID checkers and ticket takers practice facial expressions ranging from surly to snotty, their presence precariously secured by a benefits package that includes near-slave wages and the intrinsic coolness of working in a club. Cliques of vintage-clad girls, beers and smokes clenched tightly in tiny hands, greet each other with hugs and squeals. Splitting their attention between the conversation at hand and obsessive surveillance of the two entrances, these members of the trash-can chic have been lured by the promise of an unfamiliar bed and trapped by the fear of being talked about. And Randi Eriksen, the slender, fuchsia-haired woman pacing nervously beneath the stairs--well, she's here because if she weren't, no one else would be.
Randi, ringmistress of whatever spectacle is about to take place, is nervous. "I'm nervous," she announces, pacing beneath the stairs. "They put all this hooker makeup on me. It's making me nervous." The 21-year-old hairdresser has managed to secure First Avenue's Mainroom (as well as the 7th Street Entry and the VIP Lounge), to book seven bands and four DJs, to coordinate 15 real-life "nontraditional" models in a runway fashion show, to enlist the help of countless volunteers, and to convince her parents to attend the 11:00 p.m. performance--all in about two months' time. Randi is here because "I wanted to share. I wanted to let males and females get together and not compete. I wanted women who don't have big egos to have a moment to shine."
The American Monsters take the Mainroom stage and announce their reason for being here: to rock. Their loud, aggressive punk rock inspires a handful of ladies up front to toss their jean jackets aside and bust some old-school moves, while information-table jockeys lean across their piles of pamphlets, straining to see the stage. Everyone has been here before, but everyone seems to suspect that something different is about to happen.
The unconventional fashion show features women aged 9 to 67 in all shapes and sizes--including one who is quite visibly pregnant--costumed as stereotypical toys. They walk down the runway toward a woman dressed as a fairy godmother who waves a wand over them and "liberates" them from their restrictive roles: Paper dolls are cut apart; wind-up toys have their keys removed and become autonomous. The audience eats it up. As at any charitable social event, the crowd came because it was a good thing to do. But they're staying because they're having a hell of a good time.
THREE BLOCKS SOUTH and four blocks east of the Xcel Energy Center, it's happening: Packs of people draped in their high school colors are navigating the ass-backward streets of St. Paul without having been here before. Drawn to the arena as if by powerful magnets, these men, women, and children skip across puddles and sprint fearlessly through traffic with contagious urgency. Some of us are here to immerse ourselves in the Hoosiers-meets-Wrestlemania experience that is the Minnesota State High School League Wrestling Tournament, occupying a cushy seat until hunger, boredom, or ruptured eardrums prompt our departure. Others are here because to be anywhere but here would contradict all that is true and sacred.
Even the darksiders are here. The gothed-out self-proclaimed pariahs of high schools everywhere typically live to dampen school spirit. But today, at least, two of their purple-haired ilk are sporting pro-Anoka trappings, prepared to sacrifice their reputations for a victory over Bemidji. One St. Paul man has pulled his kids out of school for the day; the opportunity to have them witness Daddy's alma mater emerge victorious from its Class A consolation match outweighs the importance of long division any day. Moms in team jackets shuffle slowly toward the concession stand, only to lunge for their seats at the slightest sound from the crowd. A swift move by a St. Michael-Albertville athlete pulls that school's fan section to its feet in a single precise motion so synchronous it almost seems rehearsed. In the ladies' room, the pep-squad girls primp silently, conserving their vocal cords for the next bout.
Parents and students roam the corridors between matches with the same mix of solemnity and hyperkinesis manifest at religious revivals. Why are they here? Ask a teen and you'll most likely hear, "Because [insert school name] rules!" (With a little prompting, one heretic shamefully admits that middle-school students are excused from classes if they show up to support the local high school.) Their adult counterparts, though, can't seem to be bothered to explain their presence. Middle-aged men in weekend wear stagger through the crowd, eyes glazed, hands clapping involuntarily. It's a bit of a Jonestown vibe: Sure, they may have been lured by the promise of a shiny new addition to the school's trophy case, but what keeps them here remains a mystery of Minnesota physics.