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May 13th, 2009 Megan Brescini | News Stories
 

Revisiting Renn Fayre

WW checks back on Reed College’s signature festival one year later.

     
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REED THE MAP: A guide to Renn Fayre from Reed College’s student paper.
IMAGE: Andrew Williams

I’m sitting on the toilet, reading the stall-wall wisdom in one of Reed College’s restrooms during this year’s Renn Fayre extravaganza.

The scrawl was obviously written a few days before my May 1 visit to the annual festival: “Renn Fayre is coming up, have you been tested yet?”

That sounds intriguing.

WW reported on Renn Fayre a year ago (see “Higher Ed,” May 14, 2008), examining the tolerance of drugs at the private school in Southeast Portland. The piece inflamed students and administrators, generating 562 comments—many of them critical of WW—on wweek.com.

Reed College spokesman Kevin Myers says the school has since limited the number of visitors at Renn Fayre to help with crowd control, and also looks at its drug and alcohol policy on a “pretty regular basis.”

“We have a moral, legal and institutional responsibility to report serious violations. If we didn’t see it and nobody points it out to us, we can’t do anything.” Myers says of Reed’s drug policy in general. “We’ve taken it seriously in more instances in the past year. We’ve gotten the Portland PD involved more.”

During my three-hour visit to Renn Fayre this month, little seems changed—many of Reed’s 1,400 students enjoy a three-day festival at the end of the school year geared toward chemical enhancement. The naked kids covered in blue paint who call themselves Picts are still here. Lube wrestling? Yes. A giant slide and skate ramp? Absolutely. Fireworks, fire show, and Glow Opera, yes, yes and yes.

Even the “Informed Decisions” column in the school’s newspaper, The Quest, looked the same as last year’s column: “But most of you won’t be doing a single drug, will you? Nope, you’re going for double or nothing and betting on drug cocktails.”

And just like last year, drugs were at the center of it all.

I walk onto campus, past signs lining the front lawn, warning outsiders like me that Reed was closed for the weekend, admitting only students and their friends—identified by $25 purple plastic wristbands. I follow the music to the Green Lodge, an open tent in a dark corner. The sweet rank of pot smoke wafts up from the cluster of couches and hangs in a deep green cloud below the tent’s ceiling as the DJ spins jungle music. The “green” lodge. I get it.

Inside the Gothic architecture of a dorm hall is the Black Lodge, lit with black lights and filled with the driving beat of trance music. There’s a table where people are painting huge balls in neon paint that fluoresces crazy bright in the black light. There’s also a raised platform of mattresses covered in glowing white sheets with clothed bodies squirming on top.

When I leave, I pass a security officer with a walkie-talkie squawking at his hip. He glances at my strategically covered wrists; I walk on and he doesn’t bother me.

Down the stairs of another building, in a small room, is the White Lodge. In the middle of the floor is a white shag rug with mattresses; warm white lights are strung on the walls and hanging from sculptures like twinkling chandeliers. White powders, spread on a large mirror, are bought and sold by students and snorted with a $20 bill. Someone says, laughing, that at least it’s not the standard $1 bill.

“Yeah, remember when we used a $100 bill?”

Molly, 2-CB, coke. It’s all here. A boy comes in and a girl with dinner-plate pupils asks him for “K.” He’s already out of ketamine, but the guy next to her has some to sell. And whippets, too. The empty nitrous oxide canisters click metallically as they’re kicked around the floor. Kids prescribe drugs to one another with clinical assurance, assessing what would bring the best effects when combined with what has already been consumed.

I’m supposed to tell you this is all safe—to say the Karma Patrol passes out bagels and water, and there’s a first aid tent. The Renn Fayre is, I’m told later by two “border patrol” kids who very kindly escort me out, a tradition created by the Fayre’s hippie founders, meant to be a safe place to experiment and expand minds.

But I’m left wondering if Renn Fayre is true to the founders’ counterculture that spawned it. Because these are privileged kids with money to burn while satisfying every drug craving, it feels and looks more like the established culture of instant gratification.

Which would be fine, except these are also very smart kids, and while I heard them discussing world affairs in the White Room, no one mentioned Mexico, where all that coke came from, or that America’s consumption of those drugs has driven a bloody drug war in that country.

Reed’s guide book says “social responsibility is a necessary companion of social freedom.” Renn Fayre is an act of social freedom, but the questions it raises about Reed’s social responsibility don’t seem to have been asked.

 
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