When you're a newbie at Gathering of the Juggalos, one of the first things you realize is that you're better off just announcing your first-timer status to everyone you meet. Gathering veterans love welcoming newcomers into their ranks, even those who openly admit to not identifying as Juggalos. If you're just there to party like everyone else, and you treat their culture with respect, you're Fam.
Some Gathering virgins even go so far as to announce their status via one of those hand-lettered cardboard signs Juggalos love so much. I talked to one happily buzzed dude brandishing such a sign, and he reported that since he started walking around with it, strangers had kept him steadily supplied in beer, fist-bumps and passed joints.
I wasn't feeling quite ready to go the sign route, but I did decide pretty early on my first day to meet as many veterans as I could and ask them for advice on how I could get the most out of my first Gathering. I'm not sure what I was expecting them to tell me: "Fuck shit up!" maybe, or "The first time you try shatter, make sure you're sitting down." But the advice I got instead ended up being far more practical — and proved, time and again, that despite how intimidating they can seem to outsiders, Juggalos are mostly just a bunch of really nice people.
"Number-one rule: Know your limit on alcohol, drugs and everything," a bald Juggalo in vampire fangs and the scariest facepaint I saw all weekend told me. "And number two: Stay hydrated. It's hot as a motherfucker out here."
This was a recurring theme; nearly everyone I talked to cited water as the most crucial party provision for veterans and newcomers alike (despite the fact that nearly everyone had a can of beer or Faygo in their hand as they imparted this advice). "Drink plenty of water. For all the beer and liquor you bring, bring some water," said an O.G. attendee named Alex, who's been to all 17 Gatherings.
Staying hydrated is especially important if you're going to partake of some illicit substances, which several Juggalos encouraged me to do — though all with the "know your limits" caveat. "I don't do it anymore, but to do acid is pretty fun here," says another 17-year Gathering veteran, who's famous among Juggalos because he shows up every year wearing a Batman mask, cape, giant black dildo and not much elese. "But you'll wake up sore the next morning, let me tell you." ("Sore from what?" I nearly asked him, then realized I probably didn't want to know.)
Several Juggalos cautioned me to make sure that any drugs I do during the Gathering come from a trusted source. "Careful with what people hand you," a large gentleman in a bright yellow shirt told me, after selling me a couple of beers out of his cooler. "We're all Family and whatnot, but some people party a little harder. What you may think is OK turns into running [around] naked. I seen it happen."
But there was one thing everyone I spoke to brought up — not a piece of advice so much as a code of conduct that every Juggalo take great pride in.
"No matter what, Fam always looks out for Fam," scary facepaint guy said. "You fuckin' down and out, ask a homie for a bottle of water, man."
"The Gathering is about family," an older Juggalo with a bright blue beard named Bear explained. "It's about love. When a man can come and pass out at your campsite and you don't know this guy from nothin', and the next morning you're taking care of him 'cause the sun's out, so you get him up, get him a bottle of water, get him on his way and make sure he's OK. This is about love; it's not about no violence or anything like that."
"I've been to Gatherings where I had nothing and they gave me everything," declared one of two girls I met from rap group Dead Body Bitches. "Food, a place to sleep, everything."
"Talk to everybody. Don't just walk around by yourself," her friend added. "If you see people kickin' it in their campsites, just walk up; they'll invite you."
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"I've seen people with the least preparation come here, and people take care of you," said Alex. "That's the magic part."
But the best piece of advice I got came from a guy named Scotty D, who works for the popular Juggalo news site Faygoluvers.net and has also been to all 17 Gatherings. (I kind of suspect "I attended the first Gathering" is the Juggalo equivalent of the aging punk's "I saw The Ramones at CBGB's" — or maybe it's just that the 17-timers are ones most likely to chat happily with an obvious non-Juggalo wearing a media lanyard.)
"If you leave dry after ICP, then you didn't Gather right," Scottie D told me, moments before plunging into the photo pit for Tech N9ne. "Get as close as you can. Faygo Armageddon is the most fun ever."
For the uninitiated: Faygo Armageddon is what Insane Clown Posse calls the finale of their show, when they shower "thousands of bottles" (this according to Scottie) of fizzy soft drink on their adoring fans. It's a baptism by diet cream soda, and if the Juggalos say it's OK for me to partake, then I'll be down in front with the rest of the clowns. But I'll drink a lot of water first.