I started to get nervous about halfway to High Point.
My furniture-buyer costume was tight and hot and uncomfortable, my market pass twisted and caught on my sports jacket. I tried to take my mind off it, imagining the sights I was about to see — black rhino skins, dinosaur leg tables, children from the developing world being used as chairs. This was it; I was as going to see the greasy underbelly of the High Point Furniture Market.
Now I know everyone is sick of hearing about the vacant buildings in downtown High Point, but it’s difficult to overstate how similar parts of it are to the set of “The Walking Dead.” I easily found a spot to park in a long row of empty spaces across the street from a long row of empty buildings on a long empty street three blocks from my destination. I locked my car, scanned the immediate area for zombies and set off. I cut across the train station and some empty parking lots, walked past a long row of decrepit shrubbery, and across a particularly brutal concrete bridge when suddenly over the horizon, I saw the glittering oasis that is the spiritual center of the beast: Market Square.
My heart pounded at the entrance, where three police officers stood with a woman with a scanning gun. I paced around pretending to text or research. I was racking my brain for a cover story to explain how lost I looked. “I’m just an assistant,” or “This is my first time at market,” or maybe “Could you please direct me to, uh, Alan Cousins Art Acquisitions? Yeah that’s it.”
I knew if I hung out too long they would get suspicious so I just bit the bullet and went for it, desperately trying not to look nervous as I made my way to the entry queue. I kept my head down, and my shaky hand lifted my fraudulent pass to be scanned.
The woman casually scanned my tag and continued her conversation.
I was in.
I entered the space and felt an immediate pang of disappointment. Where I had expected sex and power, cocaine and opulence, I found only the eye of a swirling vortex of banal capitalism staring back. Here was a shopping mall with no registers. Long aisles were separated into makeshift booths. Sure everyone looked rich, and I couldn’t have afforded anything here, but where was the glitz, the glamour, the smoky backrooms where billionaires bet million-dollar furniture on poker games, a model on each arm? I trudged down the countless aisles and scanned for anything to report and came up with only this — the 2016 furniture trends are as follows: fake plants, fake books (yeah seriously a whole booth dedicated to fake books), headless rainbow birds, and Victorian-era furniture which appeared to be dipped in primary colored paint.
The building went on forever. It was a maze of color. I was getting uncomfortable. They could tell I wasn’t one of them and I picked up speed. I needed a drink.
I made my way through the labyrinth to a little bar area. It was as surreal as the rest of this circus. Somehow the bartender must have known I wasn’t what I appeared, because after waiting anxiously in line watching people walk away with drinks he would only pour me quarter-ounce tastes of whiskey. Was there some secret code? I managed to cobble together an ounce or so of whiskey out of five or six “samples” and steeled myself to return to the fray. Down a metal staircase and onward. Up another staircase to the children’s section, with $30,000 bedroom sets made to look like airplane cockpits or spaceships. Down another flight to what looked like a massive antique store, stopping at the little wine and cheese carts with confused bartenders to hydrate.
I was on my fourth or fifth plastic four-ounce cup when I came upon a massive brick courtyard filled with people at the far side of the building. The “traditionally Southern” catering and middle-aged cover band created the overall effect of a summer cookout in your rich friend’s backyard.
I made my way to the buffet line and filled my plate with free barbecue and green bean salad, and found a spot out of the way in the corner to sit and think. What is the story of the furniture market?
I sat there for awhile watching the throngs of rich, middle-aged people from all over the world. I watched them in the middle of this city-within-a-city drunk on one cup of wine, letting their hair down and dancing. I thought about the bus station, empty buildings and the man I had asked for directions who didn’t even know how to get here. I thought about the plastic furniture and all the wealth. This tiny island of prosperity that only exists twice a year felt so separate from High Point. I turned these things over in my head, drank the free wine this forged pass got me and ate my free sandwich. The party wound down and as the last chords of the Black Crowes-inspired cover of “Hard to Handle” rang into the autumn night, and a strange phrase echoed through my mind: “Don’t worry folks, things are still about the same.”
Tim Nolan is a bartender and musician living in Winston-Salem.