As I rode past the Paramount Theater on the way to a pre-party social gathering, I saw what seemed like hundreds of men glistening with beard oil, anxious to pile into the kick-off party for the weekend’s SCA festivities. There would be booze, bros, and, at some point, me. When Sprudge asked me to take over Liz Clayton’s duties at this years SCA, I don’t think they were expecting me to be Liz. Her “Reluctant Partygoer” reports are five years strong and an essential component of event coverage; I knew it would be a tall order to take the reigns from someone I’ve idolized, and who has been very supportive of both my work on Sprudge and my vain Facebook status updates.
I might have taken a completely different route by hitting up as many parties as possible while hopped up on adrenaline and cold brew, or I could have taken everyone’s suggestion and FaceTimed Liz into the events. Instead, I bought a pack of “Hello, My Name Is” labels and wrote “Liz Clayton” on them. I would tell the coffee world I was Liz and see what happened. Nothing could have prepared me for the resulting queer psychodrama of identities assumed and lost.
Would my claiming of Liz’s identity even matter if no one at these parties engaged with me as her? The Paramount was the wrong place to debut the new Liz Clayton. It was big, dark, and overcrowded. There were dancers. There was astroturf. And of course, there was a Starbucks virtual reality farm tour. I like the future well enough, but I’ve yet to be transported by VR. For the most part, it feels like I’m standing really close and staring at a fuzzy nineties big screen television. While the footage was well defined and realistic enough, the seam that connected the 360 degree moving image showed and foreshadowed my agonizing struggle to be authentically Liz.
My Instagram feed showed that people were at parties and maybe even enjoying them! Sprudge sponsored a natural wine party, which I very irresponsibly missed. I walked by The Crocodile, where the Stumptown party was raging. If there had been a virtual reality experience, I might have felt compelled to sneak in. The iPhone reality of those Instagram videos was stressful enough. A few doors down from The Crocodile, I met Anne Nylander, who had asked me earlier if I wanted to skip the parties with her. We retreated to a kara’oke room, where I did my best impressions of all the guys who sounded like Eddie Vedder in the nineties. Perhaps a bit raucous, but abandoning the party scene proper for something more intimate felt like a Liz thing to do. I pulled out my phone on my car ride home, looked into the front facing camera with one eyebrow upturned, and almost convincingly said to myself, “Good job, Liz.”
The next evening, my confidence in my assumed identity plummeted considerably. I attended Red Fox Coffee Merchant’s wine party at Upper Bar Ferdinand and immediately knew I didn’t belong there. Well-dressed men stared me down in my bulky red, blue, and green sweater as if to say, “Who is this guy? What is he doing here? Why does he say he’s Liz?” I took a few sips of rosé and headed back to my Airbnb. I was tired from my floor coverage and stressed from awkwardly showing up to a party and saying nothing. I needed a nap before I could even think of making appearances at the Coffee On:Line event or the Elevated Coffee Experience, where dank filter coffee was likely to either put me out for the night or jack me up and get me wild. I’d aimed to power nap, but when I woke up at 12:30am, I felt like a failure.
I went to my bathroom mirror and stared at a well-rested loser with utmost contempt. I said to myself, “Come on, Grimm. You’re here to party and have a miserable time. Attend all parties or die trying. Get your shit together… Liz.” I pressed my forehead against the mirror and burrowed deep inside, past my eyes and into my soul, where I found peace and determination. I had two nights left to enjoy or not enjoy the biggest parties of SCA 2017. Either way, I, Liz Clayton, would be there.
The following evening, I suited up in my New York best: white shirt, black vest, black jeans, and black Frye boots. I returned to the mirror where I had solidified my identity less than a day before. I donned my war paint: some travel sized Kiehl’s moisturizer I once got from a lost and found. As I smacked my dark under eye circles to try to look alive, I prepared for battle. I was determined to make appearances at two parties that evening. The logistics of a busy weekend necessitated that Nuova Simonelli’s celebration of Gianni’s 80th birthday and La Marzocco’s 90th birthday celebration would occur at the same time. I would walk to Gianni’s party at Café Vita from my Airbnb in lower Queen Anne before attending the La Marzocco party at their café. By walking everywhere, I would build up my energy and continue on what was shaping up to be a great night to be myself, Liz Clayton.
Then I got distracted. Once I hit Pike Place and got a whiff of that fish, I wanted to elevate my experience by walking with determination to a Seattle soundtrack. Nirvana was an obvious choice, but all I could think to do was queue up the soundtrack to Fifty Shades Darker, a movie that was filmed in Canada, but is technically set in Seattle. As Taylor Swift whined that she did not want to live forever, I looked down at Google Maps and discovered that I had taken a wrong turn and walked very far away from Café Vita and toward La Marzocco. It was just past 8:00pm and I knew the La Marzocco party would have a long line to get in. I agonized, but ultimately resigned myself to failure once again and continued to walk toward La Marzocco. I felt for Gianni as I glided on a wave of sadness away from him. I think he would’ve wanted Liz to be at his 80th birthday party.
Once I got into La Marzocco, a woman barked at me to step to the right and get a number for the costume contest. I didn’t think I was wearing a costume, but maybe she knew something I didn’t and was indicating that I was dressed like Liz from the 90s. This was the narrative I went with as I desperately clung to what little confidence I had left that I was Liz Clayton. Some people would see my nametag and say, “Hey, Liz!” Others would frown and say, “You’re not Liz! Where’s the real Liz?!” I sat outside and ate a horribly decadent hot dog with cream cheese from a caulking gun as the truth became all too clear. I could move to Bed Stuy, write books, have a baby, and even legally change my name, but I would never convince any of these people that I was the real Liz Clayton.
On the final night of party coverage, my fate was sealed. I looked at the doors of the Trinity nightclub (home to the 2017 Barista Guild dance party) with sad and defeated eyes knowing that my journey was reaching its conclusion, and the finish line was a place where barista competitors vomited their 17th place disappointments at 1:00am. I walked in to an orgiastic scene of barista beauties bathed in purple light, overindulging in booze and each other, as Ben Kaminsky and Devin Chapman hosed them down with early aughts hip hop. I wasn’t sure which mask I was wearing but I knew the role I would never essay again. I ripped off my “Hello, My Name is Liz Clayton” nametag and deposited it into the trash before walking slowly to the dance floor and losing myself in the crowd.
I am not Liz Clayton. After a weekend of trying to assume her identity, I don’t know the first thing about what it takes to be Liz either earnestly or in performance. I may be even less certain of how to play myself anymore. I have few specific memories of those parties because my identity struggle was always on my mind. I could neither lose myself in Liz nor show who I truly was. Were you at any of those parties? Did you see me? Did you see Liz?
When I returned to New York a day later at 7:00am, I dropped my luggage on my apartment floor, unwilling to begin the process of unpacking the personal belongings of whoever had packed that bag in the first place. I shed the clothes that felt so alien on me, climbed into my bed, and shut my eyes. My husband, mostly asleep, put his arm around me and said, “Hey, you.” I opened my eyes wide with terror and looked over at him.
Eric J. Grimm is a Sprudge contributor based in Manhattan. Read more Eric J. Grimm on Sprudge.