S.M. Park

Risen Apes: Potbellied

S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Potbellied,” Park talks about his foray into printing and selling potbellied pig T-shirts.

 

I’ve done some strange things to earn a living, but the oddest may have been my potbellied pig experience.

It was the summer of ’96 and I’d spent the previous two years selling emu and ostrich T-shirts. It went well because: (1) there was a popular industry magazine that most breeders read, which meant they were reachable by advertising; (2) I had over two dozen designs and shirt colors (while also selling Christmas cards and sweatshirts); and (3) interest in the industry (and the price for mating pairs) was so feverish that it fostered conventions across the country.

I drove to nearly fifty of them and (except for those in Boregon) sold out every time. It was absurd really; I don’t normally carry a camera around but I wish I’d had one the last day of the ’94 Emu Convention in Nashville. My friend Lois was helping me and we were taking in money as fast as we could count it.

I’d foreseen the last-minute rush (it’s how convention sales usually worked) and wanted to squeeze the moment dry. This meant the psilocybin mushrooms I hid in the bottom of my satchel. I was only going to take a couple grams, but they seemed chalky (and I couldn’t remember how long they’d been there) so I ate two more.

 

I’ve done some strange things to earn a living, but the oddest may have been my potbellied pig experience.

 

I was fifty at the time and still pushing the envelope. This had proved problematic in the past, but I didn’t tell Lois what I’d taken, nor did I offer her any; I’d made that mistake the year before. We were vacationing in Hawaii and I spent a week convincing her to do ’shrooms with me. She finally relented and all was well until—almost by happenstance—we ended up in a Mormon theme park. I was thrilled: I figured the weirder the surroundings, the better the high. It even reminded me of the old days, when I’d take acid at Disneyland.

Except this time we were the exhibits.

“Is it just me?” gasped Lois finally. “Or is everyone staring at us?”

Her own eyes were wide as silver dollars and she was glancing around furtively.

“No,” I said “you’re absolutely right.” I bent over and mimicked her, so the two of us were bobbing back and forth like prairie dogs.

(You know, now that I think about it, I can’t remember a girlfriend who took psychedelics with me and thanked me later, much less did it again.)

Fortunately Lois was a good sport and—as that emu convention drew to a close—we were besieged by buyers. They came at us in waves, shirts in one fist and money or a credit card in the other.

I was tossing cash and slips into a bag when I suddenly jerked upright, seized by the notion that I was “too high.” It passed quickly (there being no such thing, of course), but I used the moment to step back, take a mental snapshot of the frenzied crowd in front of me: in three days we grossed over ten grand in Nashville.

I knew it’d never be that easy again. And sure enough, once ratite breeding was branded a Ponzi scheme the craze shuddered to a halt. In the meanwhile I’d managed seventy grand in profits while continuing to grow and sell pot. So not only were the shirts a lucrative sideline, but I was making a buck from cartooning for the first time in my life.

The difficulty was generating new and interesting ideas. When you draw something and print it on a shirt, then offer it to people to wear (most of them farmers), you’d better be cleverer than the next guy.

The challenge energized me even as it kept the ennui at bay. So when the ratites were history I set my sights on a new target. I’m not sure how I settled on potbellied pigs, but they seemed (based on my pre-Internet research, anyway) to be an untapped market.

Knowing little about them piqued my interest further. The only potbellied pig I’d ever seen, in fact, was owned by my buddy Tony DeBola. He called him Winchester and he was very cute and lovable when young. Then he grew into, well, a pig. He weighed hundreds of pounds and one day Tony just stopped mentioning him (I assume he ended up on a dinner plate).

So I sketched some shirt ideas and nothing excited me until I read about a woman in Arizona who had a pig so smart she named him “Einswine.” I thought that was brilliant. I managed to contact her, told her if she let me use Einswine’s name and likeness I’d give her free tees and sweats in return.

She agreed and the result was the only shirt I still wear myself. (Though walking around Amsterdam and Berlin in it caused nearly as much rancor as my refusal to doff my hat in cathedrals. I was reminded of this recently when Notre Dame burned, as the gendarmes escorted me from there in ’91.)

 

 

Other than that, though, I was generating little in the idea department. I decided to go to the source and contacted the women running Boregon’s Potbellied Pig Association. I met with three of them in a Portland restaurant and they proved to be formidable porkers themselves. I explained my dilemma and asked if they had any shirt ideas.

They looked at each other, then responded in unison: “I Sleep with a Pig!

I laughed, but they failed to join in.

“C’mon,” I said finally. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No,” said the woman next to me. (Her arm was as big around as I was.) “We do sleep with our pigs.”

The other two nodded in affirmation.

“My Doby gets right under the covers with me,” said the redhead.

What!? Was that as creepy as it sounded? It must have been, because I didn’t take their suggestion seriously. Instead I compromised on a “Check Out My Potbelly” design.

 

 

In September I attended my first potbellied pig show. It was an hour down the road in Woodburn, and given the variables I stuck to a marijuana brownie this time. It proved fortuitous, as there were roughly a hundred people in attendance and—not only was I the only vendor—I was also the sole male and thin person. I’ve nothing against my husky brethren (I’ve spent most of my life trying to gain weight myself), but what was it with them and pigs? What about greyhounds? Or ferrets?

Much less pigs dressed in costumes. Little hats, pants and dresses (one of them even wore lipstick and another a blonde wig), as they circled the arena doing tricks for the crowd. I stood there open-mouthed, thinking I should have designed shirts for the pigs.

 Then I wondered if the 2XLs I’d brought were big enough for their owners.

It didn’t matter, I guess … there was always the pot revenue. I snuck a joint behind the tent, and when I came back the lunch bell rang. The crowd rose as one, began waddling towards a house on the property. The show organizers motioned me along and when I stepped inside the place was packed with porkers. (At least they’d left their pigs outside.)

I imagined a drab, calorie-conscious buffet. Instead there was nothing green in sight and a woman was filling soup bowls from a vat.

I knew what was in it before I got there, I just couldn’t believe it: it’d been forty years since I smelled SpaghettiOs. Remember those? Chef Boyardee in a can, the soft white noodles in tomato sauce that our mothers served us? I thought they’d disappeared from the shelves years before.

Instead I was handed a steaming bowl of them, along with a chunk of garlic bread. I squeezed into the living room and found a space against the wall. Spread in front of me were big gals getting bigger on SpaghettiOs. If that wasn’t enough they were watching the Winter Olympics on TV. It was the ice skating finals, and tiny, anorexic girls slid across the screen doing spins and figure eights.

The living room crowd oohed and aahed in appreciation, seemingly oblivious to the irony. I tried to choke the noodles down but finally gave up and tossed them. Returned to my merchandise table, figured I’d give the day another hour or two before leaving.

In the end I sold a reasonable amount of shirts, as I did at the other shows I attended that Fall (one in Washington and the other in Northern California). By then my inventory was exhausted and I didn’t replenish it: being a vendor had run its course for me.

I was left, though, with dozens of children’s shirts. They’d been huge sellers in the emu and ostrich market but the pig owners?

They never bought a single one.

The pigs were their kids.

 

S.M. Park is the author and illustrator of his memoirs High & Dry and The Grass Is Greener, both published by University of Hell Press.

 

S.M. Park

S.M. Park lives two blocks from the Salish Sea in Port Townsend, Washington. His passions include walking, wondering and weed. Park, in his guise as Wilson High, has written and illustrated two memoirs, High & Dry and The Grass Is Greener, both published by University of Hell Press.

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