It’s usually around March when I’ve finally forgotten about the whole thing. I’ve just wiped clean the pieces of my memory of all the mud and dirt and debris of last year’s event, wrung the towel, and disposed of it through distance created by time.
But there’s still those shards that you can’t rid yourself of no matter how hard you scrub your memory. I see their reflections when the first beam of spring sun coruscates off of them, revealing my fractured memories if only for a moment.
And yet, I’m still convinced I’ll never do it again. It’ll never be the same as it once was, before the drama, before we had started growing older. The kids now, they just don’t get it. It’s not worth it I tell myself. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Until Chris calls.
“Did you hear? Tickets go on sale in April. You in?”
“I swore I wouldn’t do it again.”
“So did I.”
“I meant it this time.”
In April, I’m standing in a local Kroger store (I’ll never reveal which one), holding a lottery number that I withdrew from a stack of frayed 3x5 index cards. Tickets go on sale in half an hour, and there are a handful of people who have gathered to try their luck. I’ve arranged to be free from the office this morning to do this. The concert itself will cost two more vacation days, a pricey toll for a corporate employee who prizes his time off.
The clerk, a forty-something woman with a salt-n-pepper flattop haircut, withdraws feather-edged cards from a bucket for the lottery, and my number is first. I raise my arms in triumph. The line starts with me, and each person falls behind consecutively. I can think of no more a democratic system than this one.
She lines up envelopes like an air traffic controller lines up flights at a busy hub, recording the method of payment on each one. To expedite the ticket purchasing process, she commands us to have payment ready so as many people as possible can get tickets.
She is an artist. I have seen her in action before, and she is the main reason I keep coming back to this location. Her organization and acumen ensure that even a bad draw in the lottery can mean success. It’s the people that make all the difference in these situations.
With a moment to go she calmly finishes setting up her computer screen, and I hand her my credit card. The clock strikes ten and the action starts like we’re on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Her fingers bounce across the keyboard and within a few clicks of a mouse and the swipe of my credit card, I’m the proud owner of six seats on the lawn — the only place to sit for this show.
I step to the side and organize my tickets and put my credit card back into my wallet, when the crowd lets out a collective groan. Only four people into the line, and the show has sold out once again. I thank the ticket gods for granting me such good fortune and another summer night on the lawn.
I report my success to Chris. He has not had the same luck. Long lines, a poor showing in the lottery, and a bad clerk have coalesced to prevent him from gathering any tickets. But it’s alright. Chris has friends spread out across the country, and their reports are coming in, mostly successful, yielding more than enough tickets for the group. Some of them will go to the concert and others just enjoy the thrill of the hunt. Many of them were attacking the ticket master concurrently on multiple fronts — phone, web, and in person — and have been rewarded for their tactics.
The day of the concert arrives. Could be May, could be August. It seems that it’s rarely in between. Either way, it’s warm, and the beer has been on ice since early in the morning. The yard is decorated in its garish best with stolen banners announcing Lobster Fest in Key West and advertising Corona to drink. There are inflatable palm trees rooted to the Earth by ice and beer, and two inflatable sea planes twist lazily on their strings suspended from a tree branch. Each one is a testament to the act of humanity that freed it from its respective bar.
All pay homage to a place that we knew little of prior to being introduced to Jimmy’s music, but after several visits now know as well as our own hometown. In fact, we had eaten at Lobsterfest, an annual Key West event, the week when we climbed the fence each morning around 2 a.m. Walking back from the bars on Duval Street and the pool in the condo complex where we were staying called out to us. We could not resist the pull of its gravity. Somehow we managed to scale the fence and find our way into the then serene waters, despite the signs discouraging such behavior and warning of consequences. The rest of the week, we poached unauthorized souvenirs — banners and road signs and inflatable seaplanes emblazoned with the Corona logo on the side.
Out in the yard, we talk over cheeseburgers and hotdogs and toss beanbags into holes while we soak up the sunshine. Some of us drink the homemade concoction we dubbed beach bum (that’s your career aspiration after).
For some reason it’s always sunny the afternoon and evening of the concert, at least in my memory. The weather is so good that one time, while drinking in a field near Buckeye Lake, Ohio, Jimmy buzzed over in his Grumman Goose and landed on the nearby lake. It was an amazing site and one of the best concerts we had attended, beginning to end. The show was capped off with an impressive fireworks display and meandering around the fields that served as a parking lot. There was no easy escape, so we made friends with others and shared campfire stories and drinks and cooked food around hibachi grills next to kitschy Hawaiian themed pickup trucks while the moon quietly ascended, each carload of partygoers fading one by one until eventually it was just us and the stars and the moon.
Back in the yard, time slides around us, and soon the cheese bus is waiting at the bottom of the hill to whisk us off to the concert. By day, they are hauling children off to school so that they can learn the rules. Tonight, they are the escape pods for a bunch of drunken revelers looking for an escape.
We load our coolers containing a case of beer to the person. It is the same driver year after year until the bus company is bought out. Then it’s a different driver, but the same in many ways. The rules are simple: drink as much as you want, but stay seated while the bus is moving, and keep your limbs inside for god’s sake. Even in various states of inebriation, we recognize the bus driver’s authority with childlike obedience. We sing songs in unison and shout at the cars as they pass us on the highway, but no body parts hang out the windows, at least until we get to the concert.
That’s where the proverbs start making their appearances. You have proverbial drunk guy, telling everyone he can find that he loves them. Then you have proverbial drunk girl, who is in love with every person there and screams like a banshee at any mention of any of Jimmy’s songs or anybody’s songs for that matter. There’s proverbial drunk, naked guy. He just can’t keep his clothes on when he drinks. He usually makes it into the concert. Sometimes drunk, naked guy is the same person as drunk-on-top-of-the-bus guy. He doesn’t make it into the concert. The bus driver simply ushers him down and releases him into the crowd with an admonition. People are talking, paying no attention to the fact that the show is about start. Then somebody sober enough and actually wearing a watch reads it for some unknown reason and realizes that there are just five more minutes until the start of the show. They make an announcement to the group and like a flock of starlings, we start walking toward the entrance.
It’s only a quarter to half a mile walk, but it is the most treacherous part of the odyssey. There’s too much distraction. People get lost, mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Not everyone will make it into the concert, but everybody somehow makes it back to the bus.
Someone has splintered off from the group and is crossing a small field of weeds, walking briskly toward a bulldozer that is sitting placidly in the sun. I see the distinctive silhouette of a cowboy hat, and I know he’s with us. He climbs up on the dozer and into the driver’s seat. There’s security everywhere, but they haven’t noticed him out there. A plume of smoke bursts from the exhaust pipe, and we can hear the machine grumbling. Still no one has noticed.
I’m trying to convince myself that he will not drive it into the crowd, when he jumps down and walks briskly away from the still running machine. He urges us to start walking as he clambers beneath a white rail, so we do and move further into the larger crowd.
The SECURITY team has taken notice, and two men in black t-shirts that shout SECURITY on their backs are overlooking the machine. They climb up and touch things and look confused when nothing happens. They peer into the crowd and talk into their shoulders.
“What happened?” we ask.
“I couldn’t get it to turn off.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it wouldn’t turn off. I don’t know what was up with it. I had to get out of there.”
It’s then that I notice we are perilously close to the Ohio River. She’s high and fast from recent rain and has a wicked undertow. Perry has been arguing with the girl he brought all afternoon and into the evening now. It’s intensified in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol consumed. Conquering the mighty river just feels right to Perry.
Much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, who argues against his brazen plan the entire walk down the riverbank, he dives in. About a quarter of the way out there, and hundreds of feet farther upriver, in a flash of sobriety — likely the realization that he could drown in the Ohio River at a concert — he remembers that he is not a good open water swimmer. He turns to the shore and swims as quickly as he can carry himself to where she is waiting. As he climbs out of the water, she continues to remind him of what an asshole he can be at times. Waterlogged, they continue their trek into the show and no one seems to notice or care.
Meanwhile, Chris and Emily actually are trying to make it in to the concert. They’re lucid enough to realize that people — large groups of people — are walking toward the venue, so they are instinctually following the crowd. The lot is packed with cars and people, and for some unknown reason — something that neither of them is really dedicating too much thought to — cars are still moving about quite a bit, slowly cruising the aisles like marauders, their drivers in search of that still better parking spot.
Emily is walking in front of him at a brisk pace, moving quickly toward the venue. She does not want to miss the opening of the show. She is looking back toward Chris, when — it seems like it came through a time warp or something — she steps out into an aisle and kapow! She rolls up the hood of the car and is catapulted off the windshield and onto the nearby pavement.
Chris runs to Emily as the driver gets out of his car, evidently annoyed with the situation, judging by the look on his face. His passenger, a woman, looks bored by the overly dramatic scene and stays inside the air conditioned vehicle.
The driver says, “Are you okay?” She nods. “Why did you do it?” he asks.
The question is confuses everybody. Is the driver blaming her?
Chris is kneeling beside Emily, comforting her and checking for serious injury. He answers for her, “She’s been doing it since she’s two.”
The driver doesn’t appreciate his wit and takes off his Top Gun-issued aviator sunglasses. Chris has a polite debate with him about the merits of driving with your head firmly planted in your ass while he gets her back to her feet and notes a precipitous limp when she tries to walk. A few bystanders stop to offer aid. Emily and Chris agree that the best decision is to get her back to the bus and make sure that her injuries are not that serious. They begin limping back toward the parking lot, and the driver realizes the fight is over. So he clambers back into his car and continues marauding the parking lot for other innocent walkers.
Inside the venue, I’m walking back from the beer line, trying to circumnavigate a crowd of people, so I step onto the slope of a nearby hill, still damp from the days of rain immediately preceding the fortuitous break in the weather. I slide a few feet to the bottom of the hill but manage to keep all the beer in the plastic cup. That’s when inspiration strikes.
I look up at the top of the hill and decide to follow the paths around to get there. Encouraged by the success of the last few feet, I proudly carry my surfboards — my feet — to the top of the hill to conquer the whole run. I run into your buddies along the climb and tell them hang tight and, “Watch this!”
Good actions rarely follows those words.
At the top of the hill, I gently step out onto the slope and my feet begin to slide. Arms out, knees bent, I feel the contours of the hill with my feet and let my body react without conscious thought. There is no steering, just straight down the slope to the bottom where it starts to level out and there’s not enough grease to keep me sliding. I look back up the hill, and my buddies are already following suit, each one managing to stay upright as they slide down the hill.
Other people are catching on now as I climb back to the top to ride it again. All over the hill people are sliding down to the bottom, narrowly missing the wooden deck which comes perilously close to the hill at some points. One guy manages to make it all the way to the bottom, beer in hand and not a drop spilled, only to smack his face on the deck and pour his beer into the grass. He jumps right back up, though, upset that he lost his beer.
Nobody’s really sure who invited either of them. But we’re all back at the bus now, show’s over, waiting for him because she asked us to. We’re ready to go home, the buzz of the drink wearing off. But she is sobbing, her face buried in the palms of her hands.
Apparently, they ran into some old (he’s barely out of college) college friends, kids he used to sit around smoking weed with and make fun of all the people doing something with their lives. They were passing the bong around in a semicircle without fear of the cops that walk along the route. She thinks he got involved, and now he is somewhere, maybe dead. No answer on his cellphone. He has not returned texts. He gets crazy when he’s high, she says.
We try to clarify — gets crazy or does crazy things. It seems like there’s a difference. Truly, we’re just passing time as the parking lot drains out onto the road, until we’re the only bright spot in the middle of the dimly lit parking lot.
We give his information to SECURITY, the important stuff: height, weight, hair color, shirtless. We leave out the details, although we admit that he may have been drinking. We’re not entirely sure because we have not seen him since the beginning of the show. They diligently scribble our info into a 3x5 notepad and promise to call if — when — they find him (of course they will find him).
The bus is rolling before we realize that we are missing another. None of her friends are overly concerned, though. She met a guy at the show, and he promised to take her home tonight. She was last seen climbing into the back of a taxi with him. We’re pretty sure she does not know the address of the house.
Back at the house, those able clean up the bus as everyone unloads. I feel sorry for the kids that have to ride it in a few hours. It’s damp, sticky, and reeks of alcohol and mud, but we do the best we can and tip the driver well for putting up with our shenanigans.
Then there’s more drinks for the survivors, cornhole, fresh hot dogs on the grill, and a small bonfire around which to exchange the fragments of the day. For the rest of us, there are sleeping bags, beds that spin like carousels, and for the most unfortunate, a night spent in the sweet caress of cold porcelain.
The next morning is a tough start. A phone call at seven am, far too early, stirs a few in the group. It is the SECURITY officer from the venue last night.
“We found your boyfriend this morning,” he says. “Can you come down and pick him up?”
She scrambles to gather her keys and runs out the door. She returns with him before most anyone is awake. He is scraped and pebbled on the side of his skin from the gravel where he “slept” in the parking lot last night. They thought he was dead at first. He was lying in the parking lot, unresponsive to their commands. After a few minutes of prodding, they were finally able to bring him to consciousness, the state of, at least.
For the rest, there are exchanges of aspirin as the survivors roll up their sleeping bags, pack their belongings, and clamber into their cars, all without saying too much to anyone. The fire is out, and last night’s leftover feast is leftover on the grill, shriveled, burnt, charred.
Outside, the sun is high and bright in the blue sky. Grease and sunglasses are the order of the day. There are no particular plans for this day, and people slowly file out of the area with little talk of what happened last night. Every year ends with a promise: we will never do this again.
And the next year always starts with a phone call.
No sooner has it begun that it is over, and we return to our lives — our families, our jobs, our responsibilities. We have achieved, within a day, a pure disconnection from reality. The superficial activity of the concert has allowed us to stop thinking about our jobs, our responsibilities, and, in some ways, revert to our childhoods, back to a time when life was frolicking and play and a mutual exchange of stories. Back to a time when we weren’t hyper-focused on bottom lines and markets and economies and jobs. Though this comes with some residue of guilt for leaving the world, we return tired but with our minds refreshed, rejuvenated and prepared to once again tackle the challenges of everyday adulthood.
All that remains are the fragments of each show, tattered and frayed, which, when woven together, comprise a full concert. Yes, there is music in there somewhere that forms the soundtrack. But each fragment is a story, though, a little kernel of facts that shape my character, and if given the opportunity can shape others, for it’s not the show that is center stage in these types of experiences. Don’t get me wrong, it is always entertaining and worth the face value on the ticket. But it’s the stories that keep me coming back year after year. It’s the stories that are the currency of experience. What would I do without the stories?