Goodnight Sweet Prince
October 11, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Once again, the exam gods have spoken — apparently they’re super interested in fans this week, and haven’t let me think about much else because they run the universe and are dicks. This reminded me of a thing I wrote a million years ago, during my first (lost) summer in Eugene, which is less about specific fandoms and more about what happens when other fans try to study them. As usual there is ample backstory (fandom is predicated on backstory), but in this case how and why I became a fan is less important than my subsequent academic interventions. On a methodological note, this would be my very first tangle with ethnography, and consequently my first experience with how weird ethnographic research can be. Even weirder, this has proven to be the least weird road my research has taken me down. Which in itself is pretty fucking weird.
I am driving down a gravel road somewhere in Washington State. I have no idea where I’m going and am starting to get nervous. In front of me there is a red Ferrari, which I have been instructed to follow. Or maybe it isn’t a Ferrari — I don’t know the difference between cars, just know which ones are expensive. And this one is clearly expensive. Fish-looking. Stern. It belongs to Captain Phil from The Deadliest Catch, and we are driving to his house.
His house that seems very, very far from civilization. My mind wanders. I consider the possibility that this is a trap. It seems unlikely that a high-profile television personality would bother to assault me, as I’d surely press charges and damage his brand. But dead men, they tell no tales. I picture my funeral; I imagine the headlines. It would be like death by kazoo, or death by plastic fichus. I expect that death by celebrity crab fisherman would be just as confusing. Because told well, I’m sure it could be pretty funny.
But I am digressing, I am not in Washington State to tempt fate. I am in Washington State to research a project on fan behavior. How great would it be, I had thought, if I could get some behind-the-scenes perspective. This was my initial pitch to Phil — for whatever reason, he had been nice enough to agree to an interview and crazy enough to meet me in person. Indeed, the lead-up to this trip has become, in my circles at least, the very stuff of legend. There was intrigue, an improbably hand-delivered letter, Phil’s accidental meeting with my parents, a second improbably-delivered letter, several rambling phone messages…
Phil flicks on his blinker and turns left. Apparently we are here, though the where of this here still escapes me. All I know is, there are two big campers or trailers or something, I can’t tell exactly what, and I am being directed to park in front of the smaller one. I look around. In front of the bigger camper or trailer there is a man-sized coat of armor. In between the two, there is a bear carved out of a tree stump.
I get out of my car and walk towards Phil. He is as tall as I was expecting, which for some reason is a relief. He invites me into the main house and when he opens the front door, a tiny dog comes bounding outside. “Hi Gizmo,” he says. “Hi buddy.” The dog is smaller than most cats, wears a Harley-Davidson collar and looks like a stuffed toy. I conclude that murder is not on the menu.
Phil tells me that he needs to go run some errands, and that we can talk on the way. I ask what kind of errands and he says something about a washer and dryer and bike parts. “Weird place to live, hu,” he says. “Yeah,” I answer, but change my mind as soon as I say it.
* * *
I like Phil; he asks smart questions. For example, “why would anyone study this.” And oddly, despite the fact that we just met and that I am here under extremely unusual circumstances, running errands with him feels like a perfectly normal thing to be doing. I nearly forget why I’m there — my paper has hardly come up. Then Sig, another captain on the show, calls Phil’s cell phone. “Hi Sig,” Phil says, and spends the next ten minutes discussing show gossip and business stuff and certain parent companies, all research gold. When he gets off the phone he chuckles and says I probably shouldn’t have heard that. “Heard what,” I say.
We drive a few more miles to the other side of town (or to another town entirely, I still don’t know where the hell we are) to pick up parts for Phil’s new bike. He tells me I had better start asking questions, so I do. Why is the show so popular, I ask. What are your demographics. What percentage of your fans would you describe as “creepy.” Are you now or have you ever been the subject of Deadliest Catch fan fiction. “What’s fan fiction,” Phil asks, but before I can fully explain it, a police siren blips and we are pulled over. “We aren’t wearing our seatbelt,” the cop says. “How come.” Phil looks down and realizes that the cop is right. He apologizes and tries to explain. “I’m being interviewed,” he says, and is let off with just a warning.
Phil’s answers are good ones, thoughtful and to the point. I scribble as many notes as I can, though I’m beginning to wish we could go back to chatting — not that the show is boring me, not that Phil is boring me. It’s just that this stuff is business, and demands a certain degree of distance and professionalism. And to be perfectly honest, I’m not in the mood.
But I have a fake job to do, and press on — ask a particularly long question, one that addresses, as I put it, “the inherently one-sided nature of the fan/idol relationship.” It takes a good forty-five seconds to read the whole thing and suddenly it occurs to me that this is Phil’s day off; that I am a stranger; that I am demanding more time and attention than I deserve to be given. I can’t help myself and ask why me, why, out of all the thousands of letters and requests he receives, he decided to go with the sycophant grad student. Phil thinks about this. “I don’t know,” he finally says.
* * *
We get back to the house a little before three. I’ve not eaten anything all day so Phil gives me cookies and a glass of milk, then makes us coffee. At three-thirty Phil’s son Josh, who is about my age and is also on the show, shows up with his friend Woody to help unload the washer and dryer that Phil has just bought. Josh is outgoing and disarming and I like him immediately — he has more personality than three of me combined. He is also savagely funny, and the conversation quickly turns colorful. Let’s say. Soon he is handing me a bottle of hard lemonade and declaring that he’ll be taking me out that night. “For your research,” he says.
For half an hour Josh and Woody and Phil screw around with the washer and dryer. Once that’s finished, the party moves into the living room. Phil teases me about something and I respond with a few choice swears. Josh laughs. “You’re alright,” he says, and I am glad they think so.
Soon we are hungry, so Josh and Woody and I drive into town for dinner. On the way, we stop by one of Josh’s houses (he splits his time between three). There are people there, and I am introduced. “This is Whitney,” Josh tells them. “A writer. She writes, uh…” he doesn’t have the correct words and looks to me for assistance. But this is the best description of my work that I have ever heard, so I just smile. “Hi,” I say, “Nice to meet you.” And then I change the subject because this whole research thing is starting to make me feel like an asshole.
We have dinner at a sandwich shop, then head for a bar whose name I promptly forget. As soon as we walk through the doors, Josh orders us a round of particularly sinister-sounding shots, for which I thank him. But what, pray tell, is in a monkey fucker? “A flaming monkey fucker,” Josh corrects. “The flaming makes all the difference.” I never get my answer but drink the drink anyway and then another drink and then another. By the time midnight rolls around, I am pounding my fist on the bar like an ape and lamenting the intricacies of the Democratic presidential nomination process. “The problem is that Clinton keeps changing the fucking metric,” I slur.
After the bar closes, I am driven by Josh and his girlfriend Ashleigh back into the woods. Tonight the guest trailer is all mine. Right before I fall asleep, I realize I haven’t locked the front door. But I’m not worried, which is surprising.
* * *
When I wake up, I am still drunk. I call my mom and she laughs. A few minutes later I wander over to the main trailer and tell this to Phil. He also laughs. An old episode of his show is on TV; he lies down on the sofa and I curl up in a recliner and both of us fall back asleep.
After I’ve woken up the second time and am dressed and ready for the day, Phil tells me he has to go but that I can hang out in his house while I wait for Josh, who is coming over to take me to what technically will be goodbye breakfast but could also be considered goodbye lunch. It’s only been twenty-four hours since I arrived, but I can already tell that I’m going to miss him.
* * *
At goodbye breakfast or lunch, Josh tells me that my left taillight is out. After we’re done eating, he says, he’ll take me to a car parts store and will fix whatever problem. And then it hits me — I don’t even care about my stupid project anymore. I blurt this out and Josh asks why. My answer is stupid.
The first car parts store doesn’t have the car part we need. So we have to go to another. This second mission is successful, and Josh does some sort of magic trick to make the light come back on. I can tell that I am going to miss him too, and don’t like it when he walks away. Then I realize I don’t know how to get to the freeway and scamper back to his car. He starts to run through the steps but pauses halfway through. “You know what,” he says, “just take my GPS.” He pulls a handheld device from his dash. I try to refuse this offer but he insists, he just got a real GPS installed in his car and this one is extra, it’ll be good for me to have and that way he’ll have incentive to come visit me in Eugene. Ransom, or something.
I don’t quite know what to say to this. “Why are you being so nice to me,” I ask.
“I’m not being nice,” Josh says. “I’m just being human.”
The simplicity of this makes my head spin.
[conclusion redacted; fast forward to present day]
And then I said some bullshit about the universe smiling upon us, I don’t even know, this was four years ago and I was going through a phase. The interesting thing for me now is what forms fan research can and should take, and the extent to which fannish investment either enhances or precludes the process. For me, as soon as I got to know Phil I lost all interest in studying him, and even stopped watching the show. Not to universalize that experience, but in my case my (academic) interest faded as my (personal) access increased. What that means, I don’t exactly know.