Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Queen of Merch (Alissa Grosso)

One thing about writers is that many of us have held all kinds of jobs a result of being non-conformists who also need a way to pay the bills. I'm no exception to that rule, and one of my more interesting ones was a job that I held during and in the few years just after college. Of course, I'm using the single word job here, though I should probably use a plural. I had a single employer but the jobs I did there were diverse: tavern wench, costumed interpreter (aka tour guide), office assistant and  event staff. It's the last I'm going to write about today, but first some background.

As you can probably guess, any place where I would have held such a diverse assortment of jobs must have been pretty interesting, and it certainly was. The quick and dirty explanation is that the place where I worked was a nineteenth century historic village/concert venue - because why wouldn't history and modern rock music fit perfectly together? For anyone that hails from northwest New Jersey, you might remember Waterloo Village in its heyday. Waterloo is still there, by the way, though things have changed a bit since when I worked there in the late 1990s.

Though the story is a bit more complicated than this, in general the explanation for the split personality at the historic village was that there was only so much money to be made in recreating history, so each summer a series of concerts brought in enough money to keep everything funded. As it was a relatively small place and a non-profit organization to boot, many of us wore different hats. So, that come Friday or Saturday night we would ditch our historic costumes or office attire (at different points in my Waterloo tenure I wore both) throw on an official event staff polo shirt and a backstage pass and transform ourselves into ticket sellers, ticket takers, ushers, t-shirt sellers, beer sellers and the like.

When Willie Nelson played Waterloo he had his own crew of merch sellers who joined me in my merch castle. They actually offered me a job going on the road with Willie selling t-shirts. I guess I could have added to my list of interesting jobs, but, alas, it wasn't something I was prepared to do at the time.


Again, at one point or another I did all of this and more, though perhaps the event staff position I held the longest was that of t-shirt seller, ahem, Queen of Merch. I don't remember which of my colleagues gave me my title, but I wore my metaphorical crown and my actual Queen of Merch backstage pass with pride. From my unique vantage point in the merch tent I heard a diverse array of concerts and met an even more diverse assortment of fans. As I took soggy twenty dollar bills from drunken concert-goers in exchange for t-shirts.

The concert experience for staff is wildly different than the experience attendees have. We still get to hear and even see a lot of the show, and sometimes even get the chance for some extra experiences. Did I once ask Jeff Beck when I happened upon him wandering around before the concert if he was with the band? Yes, embarrassingly, I did. Then there was the time that while I another coworker were making use of the still-clean stalls in the ladies room before a show, we heard George Carlin's unmistakeable voice reverberating through the empty room. "This is the ladies room!" my coworker shouted from the adjacent stall to which George Carlin shouted back, "What ladies? All I see are a bunch of cows?" By the time we got out to wash our hands, though, he was gone.

When local band From Good Homes played the 'Loo it was always a crazy  and chaotic night.


There's all the behind the scenes drama and near-disasters that fans are never aware of. Weird Al was playing Waterloo shortly after some big village staff changes, the fallout of which was that though we were supposed to hire two local dancers to perform on stage for his "Smells Like Nirvana" song the ball got dropped and as of one hour before showtime we still had no dancers. At the time my younger sister was helping me in the merch tent. She and another girl who was working in the ticket booth agreed to fill in. They hurried off backstage to change into their cheerleader costumes and figure out a dance routine on the fly. Were the fans any the wiser? I doubt it.

The fans differed so much from show to show. From the polite and orderly group that turned up to hear the Indigo Girls to the out of control yahoos that showed up for Lynyrd Skynyrd. That night there was a post-show brawl in the parking lot that led to a female fan punching a cop. We had to resort to a credit card machine for the 98 Degrees show where moms with Mastercards were willing to scoop up every last bit of merch for their boy-band-obsessed daughters. Likewise, we had so many underage kids showing up for Blink-182 that we set up a special parent drop-off area to help with the traffic flow.

One of the last shows I worked at Waterloo was a combined Bob  Dylan and Phil Lesh show. There was a mix up with the police directing traffic that night, and they ended up turning a bunch of ticket-holders away. The result was that we had to pay out a massive amount of refunds and our little non-profit organization took a big financial hit.


One thing about working at so many concerts, though, is that you kind of lose your taste for attending them as a paying guest. I think I've gone to all of one concert (Weezer, they, alas, never played the 'Loo) since my Queen of Merch days. These days, I'm content to listen to my music from the comfort of home, and sometimes when a certain song comes on I can almost smell the combined scent of stale beer, marijuana and body odor that seemed to linger over every one of those outdoor shows.


Alissa Grosso aka The Queen of Merch is  the author of the YA novels Shallow PondFerocity Summer (in which her old employer Waterloo get a mention)  and Popular. You can find out more about her and her books at alissagrosso.com.


6 comments:

  1. You do realize you have the makings of at least three novels right here ...

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    1. I always figured I would write a novel about the whole historic village thing, but it's been mouldering in the "ideas pile" for a long time.

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  2. This was so much fun to read. I'm sharing the link on Facebook.

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  3. Great post! So fun! I remember Waterloo well for both class trips and concerts. Cool that you got to see so many great acts. I LOVE From Good Homes. :)

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