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Identity And Desperation: How Oktoberfest Helped Me To Better Understand America

Behind every tradition and every interaction lies a glimpse into the American psyche, it just takes a willingness to see.

Looking back at it now, I probably should have seen it coming. It’s the sort of dangerous line of questioning you’ll stumble into at every cultural festival with enough drinking adults and a liberated mind. Left alone long enough with your thoughts and you start asking things that make a little too much sense. That’s the danger with clarity, you’re bound to run smack dab into something so obvious, so painfully transparent, that you’d wish you stayed as impaired and barely functional as everyone else.

But none of it occurred to me that September night. My head was too occupied with brown ales and hefeweizen and other delicious German booze to warm my belly and muddle my thoughts. I rapped my fingers against my lap anxiously as our Lyft car rumbled over loose gravel to the entrance of the Oktoberfest fairgrounds. The driver made an off-color joke, grinning back through the mirror vapidly, expecting a response. His gaze clawed to meet mine and I made every attempt at pushing it away.

There were some men that thrived off of obscenity.

Like carrion eaters, the trash and filth sustain them. But it’s not enough for them to live and thrive on that sustenance alone. They also get a special kind of pleasure from the reaction of others, throwing jump scares and gnashing their teeth in ecstasy at every flinch. These were men who reacted largely by fear and insecurity themselves and needed to see it in others.

But the great danger in these men isn’t in being victimized, it’s in following them. Mouthing along to their canned laugh track, rallying behind them with Costco tiki torches while you jump at and victimize some other poor sober soul. It’s like a pyramid scheme of nervous laughter, only you’re never really aware that you’re putting your name on the dotted line and making a payment. It sort of just becomes you.

The ride there was starting to feel too much like that scene from Full Metal Jacket. That impending sense of dread as Joker and his crew were being airlifted into the jungles of Vietnam, their gunner transport laughing maniacally as he fired into crowds of children and farmers. “Git some.” The driver chuckled emphatically again, trying to goad me to laugh along. “Git some.”

He dropped us off close to the entrance and I got out quickly, grateful for being away and in the warm autumn air.

Oktoberfest at last. It was a special weekend in Columbus where the beer flowed as free as six tickets could get you and grown adults dressed like the people on the front of Swiss Miss boxes. It presented itself as a weird cross between a renaissance festival and a heritage fair, with everyone there just as delighted by the weird mix as they were confused by it.

I had brought an entire cabal with me. A faction of degenerates and weirdos in their own right, all of us intent on boozing and people watching under the guise of cultural immersion. Each of us armed ourselves with 20 tickets to start out with. I made no designs on food, all my tickets were going toward subsidizing stock in delicious, delicious, German beer and nothing was going to distract or deter from that.

I shoved a fistful of tickets in my pocket and marched down to the beer vendors. “Hello, I would like one ‘fun’ please,” I said to a weary cashier. She blinked, equal parts bored and confused, “I’m sorry, what?” I cleared my throat, “I said, I would like one ‘fun’ please. Get it? Like, I want a beer but instead of calling it ‘beer’ I called it a ‘fun’.” There was a long pause. “Because beer is fun.” The last part I said more in a whisper as she busied herself with side work. “Just get me the brown one on the left, that’s fine.”

Now I was fully equipped and well armed for the evening ahead.

The cool liquid felt pleasant as it dribbled lightly down my knuckles, a harsh contrast to the hot night air. A soothing and languid comfort began to seep deep in my bones as I downed the tasty brown ale.

For hours I hovered around the festival. Taking in the sights and sounds, draining one ale after the next, laughing at the sight of dirndls and lederhosen and hackneyed feathered fedora. It felt like I was walking through the set of the old Man Show. At one point I’m pretty sure I even heard “ziggy zaggy, ziggy zaggy” chanted meekly by some poor inebriated creature before being swallowed away by his own insecurities and the hum of the drunk masses.

The crowd was an odd combination: experienced night-lifers swirled in with the gleeful nervous grins of shut-ins and office workers.

They were treating themselves for their once yearly ration of drinking and socializing. Undaunted by their more habitual fear of large groups, armored by the bravery that beer can sometimes bring to the otherwise faint of heart.

And they danced. Swinging each other about in long jerky movements, polka folk melodies driving them forward, urging them to look past their awkward and uncoordinated efforts. I had to admire the sheer fun of them, the delirious joy that enraptured and carried them along.

There might have even been a tinge of jealousy for all that joyful abandon.

I never joined in but I clapped them along, encouraging the blitzkrieg and bedlam. I applauded every courageous gallop, every spin, pirouette, mosh, and groove. They were what happiness should look like, by morning they would forget it, but for the moment it was theirs to have and to share.

The dancing wore away at the night and so did the beer. Bright lights beamed against the colors of traditional German flags, fighting against the darkness of the night beyond the beerhalls. But as the evening slugged forward the masked grins and cloaked laughter began to slip, revealing something a bit hungrier and more desperate.

I noticed it just after a trip to the porta-john. I fumbled at the foot pump to wash my hands, an awkward balancing act of pumping too much or not enough water to get the tiny stream to clear the soapy foam from my hands. I wiped them on my jeans for lack of paper towels and turned to walk away— straight into a pool of beige-brown vomit.

Grimacing, I scraped the soles of my shoes against the blacktop and continued on. Vomit happens, no use letting someone else’s digestive misfortunes ruin a good time. But looking on, I was becoming aware that the people around me were starting to look the worse for wear. But worse than that, they were refusing to slow down. They were being pushed forward by some crazed need to keep carousing even as it hurt them. Honoring Oktoberfest was more than just a celebration, they had to sacrifice for it.

People were carrying each other by now, arms slung over shoulders.

Draping themselves onto comrades, they pushed themselves forward. Their bodies were awash in beer, lederhosen, and Germanic colors. These people needed this sacrifice as much as the sacrifice needed to be given.

That’s when I really began to question my surroundings. I couldn’t help it. I had to ask myself: just how many of these people really even called themselves German? A fair amount, I’m sure. But this sort of desperate jubilance was unmistakable. It was the same kind I’d see on St. Patrick’s Day, on Cinqo De Mayo, on the virulent and ever graceful Mardi Gras.

Sure, as far as any American goes, we’re pretty pumped for any holiday that celebrates a cold drink and a reason to howl into the night.

But I couldn’t help but see something deeper and more carnate about these rituals. It showed us just how thirsty we were for an identity, any identity.

We’re always looking for a holiday to celebrate or a name to idolize. To pour all of ourselves into, to raise the stock of our own often vague and undefined patriotism.

It doesn’t matter what it is and often times we never even take the time to fully understand them. It’s the hollowed figurehead, the effigy that’s really important. We crave symbols, metaphors to give us depth and substance. We want to rally and drink and curse and dance for a cause or a name. It’s this need within us that drags us to down to tailgate parties, to bars on Cinqo De Mayo and St. Patrick’s day, it even moves us to marshal behind the loud and foul-mouthed, with their off-color jokes and their Twitter accounts. “Git some.”

We weren’t running from a reality, we were starved for a connection. And I had to feel for that. To join in and give them a shoulder and another mug of beer to steady themselves. America was dumb, drunk, and desperate for an identity, and I was perfectly willing to hold their hair back while they got sick of it. Not because I owed them that, but because it moves me whenever I see anything that tragic and beautiful loathe itself.

Dear America. You hot mess Adonis, reign in your tragedies and know thyself as you know your own lusts. Cheers to you. Prost.

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