Renaissance men

You've met the blue-haired snowbirds. Now meet the 'rennies.'

click to enlarge NOMADS: Joshua Roe and Justin Cordova are "rennies," a slang term for the traveling craftspeople, cooks and general laborers of Renaissance Fairs. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
NOMADS: Joshua Roe and Justin Cordova are "rennies," a slang term for the traveling craftspeople, cooks and general laborers of Renaissance Fairs.

It's a quiet afternoon at Abbey's Wigwam RV Park in Seffner. There's no sign of people outside the ramshackle collection of wheel-less trailers, rusted-out RVs, converted school buses and camping tents. There's no traffic on the pot-holed roads through 110-site campground. And neither Abbey, nor any other employee of the park, is anywhere to be found.

The park is empty, except at its far end where a wolf dog leashed to an RV's wheel barks incessantly. There, Joshua Roe and Justin Cordova sit on two lawn chairs under an awning, drinking the energy drink/ malt liquor concoction Tilt and listening to the latest Tool album blasting from a radio inside the RV.

It is not a typical snowbird trailer park, with swimming pools, bingo nights and blue-haired ladies walking small, white fluffy dogs around the horseshoe courts.

Abbey's Wigwam doesn't cater to the elder set. Roe, 21, and Cordova, 26, are "rennies," a slang term for the craftspeople, cooks and general laborers of Renaissance Fairs who travel from fairground to fairground living at various campsites. For the next six weeks, dozens of them will be in Tampa Bay for the 2007 Bay Area Renaissance Festival, starting Feb. 17 in a field near MOSI.

"If you go to a campground and see a bunch of hippie-looking people, it's probably us," Cordova clues me in. "We pretty much try to camp together as much as we can."

Roe and Cordova work for a fair vendor who employs them to run a booth selling medieval-style weapons, some of which they make themselves. They follow the circuit up and down the East Coast and throughout the South, working two or three days a week, making just enough money to keep the RV running and beer flowing. And that's okay with them.

"The money we make goes a lot further than it normally would," Roe says. "Remember — we don't have bills."

Rennies have been coming to Abbey's Wigwam RV Park for years, and it's one of only two campgrounds in Florida embraced by the free-spirited subculture of travelers. Cordova says other RV parks, with their strict lights-out-at-10 p.m. policies and nosy elderly visitors, don't always welcome the large group of pierced and tattooed nomads.

"We're easy to spot," Cordova says. "We don't do it intentionally, but we always get into trouble."

On this afternoon, there are no maidens frolicking about or knights looking for imaginary dragons to slay. Most of the other rennies are setting up a fair in Fort Lauderdale. Roe and Cordova, eager to enjoy a rare "bachelor day" without their girlfriends, decided to stay behind. Between beers, they plan to practice their swordplay and work on the handmade weapons they'll sell at this year's fair.

But even if the other rennies were here, they wouldn't be in costume or practicing their lines. Much like the feudal system the fair's workers re-create, there is a strict hierarchy among rennies. Those who set up the tents or run the games ("push monkeys") are on the low end, merchants (like Roe and Cordova) are in the middle and the actors and jousters are at the top. These "entertainers" usually have hotel rooms bought for them, and they rarely mingle with the common folk of this RV park.

"There's like a caste system, you know?" Cordova says. "The entertainers seem to be more like royalty, and we're like the peasants."

And even rennies put themselves above some of the other traveler subcultures, especially carnies.

"It's apples and oranges," Cordova says about the carnival workers they often cross paths with.

"Yeah, we still have our teeth," Roe quips.

Cordova steps inside the rig to put another Tool album on the stereo. The RV belongs to Roe, who left New York City two years ago to join the fair circuit. Like most rennies, Roe says, he left with nothing.

After a year of bunking with other rennies, Roe saved his money and bought this RV a year ago for $1,000 from a gutter punk he met on the road. Now his home is a cramped space of clothes, beer cans and fair props.

You might think the days of running away with the circus, or in this case the fair, are over. But Roe says that's exactly how most of the rennies end up in the business. Many of them left bad home lives or, after traveling with another traveler subculture, were eager to supplement their lifestyle with a job. Cordova's story is no different. He left Kansas City, Mo., last year to avoid the "rat race," abandoning his house, car and a $40,000-a-year job.

"I didn't care if I left or, more importantly, if I came back," he says.

But it wasn't the medieval culture that attracted Cordova; he just needed a job to supplement his new traveling lifestyle. So, through the Internet, he hooked up with a vendor that needed a cook. Once inside the circuit, he bounced around other vendors until he found one that let him make weapons and jewelry. He made friends. He met a girl and fell in love. Now, he follows the fairs from city to city like a 15th-century Deadhead.

"This is much more conducive to my attitude," he says, taking another swig of Tilt. "There's a lot of freedom. It's more than a job. It's a way of life, and that's why I'm here."

A tall, long-haired man in his 30s interrupts us, asking for a spark plug wrench. Roe looks for one, but can't find it.

"That's okay, someone else has one I'm sure," the man says and walks away.

"Everybody is willing to give a hand and everyone is able to help out," Cordova says after he leaves. "I've been broke out on the road, but I never felt broke."

"You'll never starve," Roe adds.

That said, Roe and Cordova don't know how long this gig will last.

"The Renaissance Fairs are going down," Cordova says.

With more than 180 fairs in almost every state, he worries they are "overplayed," hurting attendance. Plus, imported crafts are pushing out the vendors specializing in handmade items.

"You do have to have something to call your own," he says. "But the bread and butter is definitely buying and re-selling items."

Unfortunately, Cordova says this reduces the merchant's job from amateur artisan to average mall clerk. And the pay follows suit. Cordova wonders if he should join a more profitable festival like Bonnaroo or perhaps organize his own.

But in the meantime, Roe and Cordova will sit out under the RV awning, drinking beer and practicing their swordplay in this cramped little RV park in Seffner. As long as people keep coming to watch the jousters and buy a trinket for the kids, they'll be out here, living a lifestyle almost as foreign as the fantasy world they work in.

"You'd like to call it 'roughing it,'" Cordova says, "but it isn't."