How a hot-lipped man named Cracker earns an honest living, and raises a son, one carefully crafted wisecrack and flying fruit to the face at a time.
A man with shiny, slicked-back hair slaps a five-dollar bill on the counter, picks up one of his newly purchased projectiles, winds up and fires. The first tomato comes hard and fast, flying towards the wooden wall about a dozen feet away, where painted letters spell the name of the game: “Rotten Revenge.”
Splat. A miss.
“Sir, did you know you have enough mousse on your head to sink a sea turtle?” yells “Cracker,” the fruit-thrower’s target. “When you shower, dolphins die.”
Cracker, aka Michael Higgins, 36, braces for the next one. His arms and do-ragged head are his only visible body parts, sticking through the three cut-outs, which resemble Renaissance-era stocks once used to punish criminals.
Splat. Another miss.
“Nature hates you.”
A third tossed tomato comes closer and faster this time. There’s anger behind this one.
“Sir, you’re obviously a guy who enjoys drinking alone,” Cracker says pleasantly.
“Is this harder than downloading dates?” Cracker asks, his eyes never leaving his assailant as another projectile crashes way off the mark.
“Thank you sir!” Cracker shouts to the back of the man’s head. His turn is over.
The crowd lingers, and Cracker scans for a moment — he has to keep them engaged. His eyes land on two women casually walking by. “Ladies, it’s true, I’m available,” he shouts as they walk away. “I’m a Pisces. My hobbies are listening and long sits on the couch.
A big, bald man in sunglasses arrives with his wife and kids, places a plastic cup full of beer on the counter, and pays for five turns.
“If anyone was wondering where Stone Cold is today, he’s right here ladies and gentlemen,” Cracker says, referring to retired WWE superstar Steve Austin.
The woman chuckles and her husband launches the fruit.
“Are those official WWE sunglasses?” Cracker asks.
“They’re official work sunglasses,” the man responds, reaching for another tomato.
“That’s crap! Stone Cold don’t work. Stone Cold drinks beer and kicks ass,” Cracker says in an exaggerated Southern accent.
The next one hits its mark, and the crowd roars with delight.
Cracker quickly ducks behind the wall, and, after a beat, a round sign reading “Ouch!” fills the hole where his head had been. The contestant holds his fire.
When Cracker returns, he’s wearing novelty Groucho Marx specs. “You wouldn’t hit a guy with glasses would you sir?” He grins.
The man misses his last shot, then rinses his hands off in a bucket of water, satisfied with his performance. He gets no prize for that direct hit, and doesn’t seem to mind.
* * *
From the main gate of the annual New York Renaissance Faire in Tuxedo, it’s about a five-minute walk through the woods to reach the Rotten Revenge game where Cracker holds court on weekends throughout the summer. On the way over, visitors pass jubilant maypole dancers, lovers on the Ye Olde Kissing Bridge, and an arena advertising a royal chess match at one p.m., a pastoral dance at 4:15. and a “trial by combat” at 4:30. There are Merry Men dressed in tights and tunics and women in corsets uttering “thou” and “thee,” as well as troupes of elves, fairies, pirates and other fantastical creatures who defy easy classification. This is a place where the quest for fun trumps historical authenticity, a place where freak flags proudly fly.
Like most of the attractions at the faire, Rotten Revenge is a spectacle for sale. But instead of hawking wooden swords and feathered caps or chances to shoot arrows or chuck axes, Rotten Revenge’s product is public humiliation. Unlike the renaissance and colonial punishment on which it’s modeled, the game’s subject is also its purveyor. It is degradation for dollars.
Cracker heads for a break backstage, accessible through the sheer red curtains on either side of the stocks where he’s hired to stand until around six tonight. He is much taller than he seems from the other side of the wall, and his baggy Renaissance garb accentuates the wiriness of his six-foot, two-inch frame. His speech is slower and deeper than the cartoonish, nasally performance voice he puts on. Some days are rowdier than others, he says, sitting in a collapsible chair around a small table in the dark, cool enclave, puffing on a purple e-hookah. Still, crowds are usually louder and quicker to laugh than they’ve been today.
“They seemed to be a bit low-energy,” he says.
“Yeah, nobody applauded! At all!” adds his nine-year-old son, Canaan, his floppy blond hair nearly covering his eyes, which rarely leave his Nintendo DS. His statement is a bit of an exaggeration, but he’s accompanied his father to faires in half a dozen states, and he’s seen better crowds.
The customers are indeed largely tame, but some of them— especially the guys — seemed more aggressive than others, prone to talking a little more smack and throwing too fast for comfort. Cracker’s used to it by now. He thinks of the tomato show as “cheap flea market therapy” — a way to blow off steam.
“I tell them things they don’t want to hear about themselves and they get to release it immediately. Their wives probably tell them things like that all the time but they can’t throw things at her face, you know what I mean?” he says.
Growing up, Cracker experienced more than a fair share of aggression levied against him. He was born in Fort Hood, Texas, where his father served in the military, and raised in the small mountain town of Burnsville, North Carolina. His parents divorced when he was a toddler and he rarely saw his father after that. His stepfather, meanwhile, was a harsh disciplinarian. “You don’t forget that stuff as a kid, being slung across the room,” Cracker says. “He’d act like a loving, caring parent when [my mom] was around but as soon as she wasn’t home he’d call me stupid. I believed him a lot of times, so I was a quiet kid.”
He spent most of his time riding around in the woods on his ATV, leaving the house in the morning and coming back close to midnight. On the weekends, instead of staying with his father, he’d visit each of his grandparents — the Southern Baptists on his mother’s side who took him to church, and the “card-playing moonshining hustler types” on his father’s side. When he was sixteen, Cracker moved in with his friend Stephen and his mother Margaret. He lived with the family, who were black, in a segregated area of town called The Hill, quickly garnering a nickname that still sticks. He explains that Stephen’s uncles would frequently ask, “Stephen, why’d you bring that cracker ass white boy up here?’” Despite these verbal jabs, he was welcome in the home. Margaret mentored Cracker; they even called each other mother and son. When she died a few years ago, Cracker was a pallbearer at her funeral. “I don’t know what I would have done without her, to tell you the truth. She was a good lady.”
At eighteen, both Cracker and Stephen moved into low-income housing in nearby Asheville. Cracker began selling marijuana and “got caught up in that whole street life.” A few years later, in a different apartment, police arrived to bust his new roommate’s brother for violating probation. They found Cracker’s weed stash. Given the choice of two years probation or 60 days behind bars, he picked the latter, and, after he got out, worked construction jobs around Burnsville. When his uncle got him an interview to do construction at the Carolina Renaissance Festival in Charlotte, it sounded like a fresh start, a way to get out of town and escape an emerging downward spiral.
* * *
The day at the faire continues, and hundreds of tomatoes pile up at Cracker’s feet. His do-rag turns blood red with juice. The game’s owner, Lisa, explains Cracker is “iron-manning it” today — facing the stocks on his own when, usually, he splits time with another performer. To maintain energy, Cracker keeps a big can of a cold Starbucks drink in one hand while swatting away tomatoes with the other. During slower periods, he takes to singing juvenile riffs off of the Barney song — “I love you, you love me, someone took a pee in my Rice Krispies” — and the Toys ‘R’ Us theme — “I don’t want to grow up, I want to kick a kid’s butt.”
For a stretch, most of the customers are children. Lisa, who handles the customers and pulps the tomatoes to soften their blow, brings the smallest of the kids past the counter so they can throw just a few feet from Cracker. Many of them hit their target. Cracker tells the boys they’re shorter than Smurfs; he tells the girls they ought to be watching a “really crappy princess movie.” When he runs out of things to say Cracker tells them they’re adopted or makes a fart noise.
Knowing what not to say in Rotten Revenge is almost as important as knowing what to say. “No fat kids, no ugly kids, no fat women, no ugly women,” Cracker says, rattling off insults to avoid, mantra-style. Cracker usually thanks his customers or encourages the crowd to give them a round after they’ve finished their throws. He prides himself on not getting nearly as many complaints as other performers do. Still, Cracker’s insults are by no means PC, particularly when it comes to female customers.
“Hey, do you know why we never sent a woman to the moon?” he asks one woman brandishing a tomato. “Because the moon doesn’t need cleaning!”
“Hey, you know why the feminist crossed the road?” he calls out to another. “Because I told her to!”
Cracker says making sexist jokes about a girl is a surefire way to get a reaction, and maybe even a means to get their mother to throw down another $5 to try as well. “It’s an easy way to push a button,” he says. “I’m pretty sure the crowd knows I don’t mean it at all. It’s comedy.”
Ultimately, he says, the people who are best suited for this job are those who genuinely don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but can quickly identify a contestant’s weak spot and dance around it.
A sign posted along the fence at Rotten Revenge explains the ethos of the game. “This is an insult game,” it reads. “Don’t play if u are a whiney little baby!”
During another break backstage, the curtain flies open and a hooded figure growls. “I’ve come for your soul!” This is Muggsy, Cracker’s best friend and Canaan’s godfather. Muggsy works over at the audience interactive “Ded Bob” comedy show, giving voice to a wise-cracking skeleton puppet. Cracker passes him a small bottle of Jack Daniels and he lets out a yelp after taking a swig.
It’s only been twelve years since they met at the Carolina Renaissance Festival, but Cracker and Muggsy share the easy, jocular manner of siblings. Cracker was doing construction there and Muggsy was working at a tomato game called Vegetable Justice. Cracker liked to watch Muggsy perform, and one day, during his second year at the festival, Muggsy encouraged him to try out the stocks. It felt right. “I made people laugh and people liked me,” Cracker says. “It was a nice change. It was a big confidence builder for sure.”
Cracker and Muggsy traveled the country together working at all the major Renaissance festivals — Arizona, Minnesota, Colorado — where there were tomato games. For a while, before Muggsy started his Ded Bob job, he built his own tomato game, which Cracker later took over and brought to events around the country, including a PGA Tour after-party and a Cinco de Mayo celebration. When they had time off, they competed in MC battles at venues around the country. Both are freestyle rappers, a skill that helped them improvise in the stocks — and one which Cracker still pursues as Carolina Cracker, a.k.a. “Hillbilly Boss,” “Prince of Poverty,” “King of Tha Have Nots.”
During the day, they shared material and Cracker mirrored Muggsy’s style. Cracker “was straight out of the country, so he brought stuff we’d never heard,” Muggsy says. “We’d all be up there doing the same stuff and Michael would stick his head in the hole and be like, ‘I seen better aim from a three-legged jack rabbit shooting a bow and arrow off the back of a crooked grasshopper!’”
“No, the actual joke is, ‘I seen a one-legged dog peeing in the wind with better aim,’” Canaan interjects.
“Yeah, stuff like that,” Muggsy says. “It was real special.”
Muggsy got his first tomato job in Minnesota. His sister had been dating a performer at the original Vegetable Justice game, which Muggsy says started around 25 years ago. Muggsy didn’t like the guy and started picking on him, which in the tomato-throwing world basically amounts to a job audition. “When I started, I was working 47 weekends a year. Anywhere there was a hole I’d stick my head through it. I loved the job so much. I still love it. I still miss it.”
According to Muggsy and Cracker, there have only been a handful of guys over the years skilled enough to maintain this job full time. Insult tomato work is almost exclusively a man’s arena. According to Lisa, the women who’ve tried it — herself among them — are just as good at the insults as men are, but audiences don’t like to see them get hit by the fruit as much. Moreover, Mugsy adds, “We found that if a [male contestant] get his ego crushed by a woman, and then misses, and then gets his ego crushed some more, he becomes violent. They can take it from a dude, but they can’t take it from a lady.”
* * *
In the stocks, Cracker is an interminable flirt. He loves to tell guys they’re dating out of their league. And when a pretty woman steps up to the counter, he doesn’t spare a moment in making propositions. In a job that demands he give voice to his audience’s innermost thoughts — both their most deep-seated prejudices and their most amorous impulses — aggressive flirtation simply comes with the territory. In a bar, it would get him punched in the face. In the stocks, it gets him laughs.
“You do realize this is ‘win what you hit,’ right?” he asks one female. “The rule is if you hit me, you have to kiss me. Do you agree to those rules?” A tomato smacks the wall.
“No,” the woman responds.
“Then I’m not playing,” he says.
A tomato flies and he catches it in his hand. “This is going to be a really short relationship. It’s not going to last long.”
“It’s over already,” she says, walking away, having thrown her last tomato.
These days, Cracker’s advances are usually for entertainment purposes only, but, back when he was 21, things were different with Marie Hein. She was eighteen, blond and pelting him with tomatoes at the Colorado Renaissance Festival when he first laid eyes on her. They started dating and she joined him on the road, where she earned money hand-crafting and selling things at the festivals. They lived together in Phoenix for a while, where they had Canaan.
A year after the boy’s birth, Cracker decided he wanted Canaan to become better acclimated with his family in North Carolina. With his wife and son in tow, Cracker moved back to his home state for the first time in seven years. He stopped traveling with renaissance faires, returned to construction work and established a side business with his cousin, making furniture and flooring out of reclaimed barn wood.
Shortly thereafter, Cracker began suffering from connective tissue disease, making his immune system overactive. He was stressed, and he and Marie were fighting. In 2011 he decided to go back on the road with renaissance faires to give her some space. Their romantic partnership was effectively over.
The pair are still married, and the traveling, according to Cracker, allows them to “tolerate each others’ presence for more than 20 minutes” at a time. While Cracker is on the road, Canaan lives with him for about half of each of his Renaissance contracts — which typically last eight weekends and include living accommodations. Together, they’ve seen the country and shared the sort of time that Cracker never had with his own father.
Cracker considers himself a happy person, but he’s as hard on himself as he is on the Rotten Revenge contestants. When he’s not thinking of how best to insult them, his mind tends to linger on feelings of regret and guilt. “I just beat myself up a lot,” he says. “I feel I could do better if I did some things differently. I might dwell in past decisions a bit longer than most.” He wishes he’d taken greater career risks and accomplished more — the opportunity to be a radio personality in Arizona, which he passed up at 22, haunts him most. He also feels he and Marie perhaps should have communicated better, and he worries about making the right choices in raising Canaan.
“People say you can’t change the past, to move on from it,” he says. “But I’ll always think of those things. I’m already having so much regret for those decisions. I really look into opportunities now. I take things more serious.”
* * *
As the crowds finally dwindle near closing time, Lisa starts picking up all the broken tomatoes. Cracker, meanwhile, takes Canaan into the campgrounds where the staff lives, a maze of hundreds of trailers and tents. Canaan darts into a small trailer marked with a “Danger Keep Out” sign, eager to fire up the Playstation and Wii inside. Cracker tells him he’ll be back to play with him in a little while.
“He’s struggling in school with the whole fitting-in thing,” Cracker says of his son. “He don’t like authority too much. He’s exactly like I was.”
Cracker will work at Rotten Revenge until the end of September. After that, he’ll go back south, possibly tour with some musicians and do the odd construction job. The Louisiana festival is in the fall; the Florida festival is a few months after that. One day, he says he wants to own a house and live a generally more stable, idyllic life — “the American Dream type thing,” as he puts it. But he also says he’ll likely always work at Renaissance faires, even if it’s just once a year because, otherwise, he’d miss it too much.
The faire is a home of sorts. Walking down its twisting path, past little stores and campfires and huts, the area resembles a small village. And though it’s modeled after a specific era, there’s something timeless about the feeling of community in the calls of “Hey Cracker!” and “How’s it going?” that greet him as he passes.
Near the front gate, a band is playing and faire-goers are dancing. There are men in top hats and vests, women in long flowing dresses, kids with wings and elf ears jumping and spinning in circles. Cracker stops to watch, relishing a brief moment in which he doesn’t have to say anything for a change.
It might be hard to imagine that some of the same people who taunted and jeered him at Rotten Revenge are here now, laughing and enjoying themselves so innocently and free of malice. But this doesn’t surprise Cracker.
“I think for the most part people are mostly good,” he says. “There’s a lot of love left in the world.”
* * *