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Before I had built my own business, I did some fairly shocking things for money. When you’re a jobless, overeducated single mother in the middle of a recession you say ‘yes’ to humiliation in exchange for cash. This is how I became a table head.
I was doing local theater and a director mentioned that he worked with a corporate entertainment company and said that they had character work for corporate events. I jumped at the work, which included such roles as cigarette girl, Peppermint Princess, go-go dancer, the Moon Queen and a host of odd characters.
Being a table head was nothing like any of the previous roles. I was disturbed by what was being pitched to me, but I was a single mother between jobs and in need of income. This work paid about a hundred dollars an hour on average, a sum that sounds substantial until you understand what it means to be a table head.
To be a table head is to sit beneath a banquet table with your head popping out of a hole. You arrive early, prior to the guests, with the catered food. You sit on a low stool with just your head exposed through a hole while shrimp platters and cheese trays are placed around your head. Guests serve themselves food while you make small talk as some character that ties into the theme of the party. It didn’t take long before my hair would reek of Swedish meatballs.
I was a table head twice. Once as Jane of Tarzan and Jane, and once as the wife of an arguing Italian couple. Inexplicably, there are always two heads. I don’t know why.
Surviving in the midst of a recession, divorce or life crisis shows you what you’re made of. Are you the type of person who turns your nose up at perfectly legal, albeit humiliating work, or do you crawl under a banquet table and smile? I am the type of woman who crawls under the table.
As Jane, things went awry rather quickly. Tarzan sat on his stool at the other end of the table grunting like a fool while I was doing all the heavy lifting making inane chit chat with the guests. The pressure is enormous. You can’t leave. You’re trapped for a couple of hours, with just your head exposed. It’s a very vulnerable position.
Some people are frightened and scream when they see you. They take photos and ask if they can feed you. It’s akin to being a caged animal in some lab where evil scientists with no empathy perform experiments.
I went to graduate school. This did not protect me. An economic downturn can be a sobering experience, a sharp slap to the face. It wasn’t just the work itself, it was how we were treated and perceived as table heads that was most humbling.
At one point, while playing Jane, I notice that Tarzan – who had been grunting and acting like a maniac – begins to sound more muffled. To my horror I look at the other end of the table and see a boy sadistically stuffing Swedish meatballs into Tarzan’s defenseless face. I can see Tarzan’s eyes widen and begin to water with each subsequent ball of meat. His very life is in danger. He could die as a table head at the hands of an eight-year-old boy. These are not things they tell you when you sign your contract.
I scream for help in a British accent and someone comes to the rescue. I never break character. I’m a professional. I save Tarzan’s life as Jane.
As a table head you’re at the mercy of everyone at the event. They can feed you, taunt you and torture you and there is nothing you can do – worst of all are the drunk, sad men who stand next to you and try to hit on you. It’s not like you can walk away. And my head was right at waist height. It’s a fresh hell that few can completely appreciate. Being an exposed head wearing a pith helmet and talking to a drunk man’s crotch takes a special strength of character. If you could kill someone with the tone of your voice, the banquet table would have been littered with sexually aggressive inebriated men.
“Can I buy you a drink?” Some anonymous man would slur with his forward pelvis.
“I can’t possibly. I mean literally - I have no arms.” I would chirp in my British accent.
One man patted me on the head, which I would define as an assault in my vulnerable position, but I didn’t press charges because it’s bad for business.
Some people feel terribly sorry for you and offer you water through a bendable straw. This goes on until the guests become bored and stuffed with banquet food and we are allowed to crawl out from under the table.
When I see some a man or a woman dressed as Lady Liberty promoting tax preparation I honk and wave. I don’t dine at Chuck E. Cheese but if I did I would tip the person dressed as Chuck E. and I have nothing but respect for every hardworking party princess at every children’s party in America.
I now own my own company. When someone interviews me or asks me about success I often say, “I was willing to do things that other people are simply unwilling to do.” I don’t ever elaborate about what I was willing to do.