They've never done anything like this before. My vinyl-record-loving son Henry and his buoyant eyeglass-wearing friend are meeting new versions of themselves tonight. Fifteen-year-old poets in a world of jocks, Henry and Marlon are eating Jolly Ranchers from the box while standing on a slab of uneven cement in a crowded line of stoned people in New York City on a school night, hoping to connect with what they like to think of as their people, to surrender to wonder at the 4/30/17 SOLDOUT Travis Scott concert at Terminal 5 in NYC. Once they get inside and break free of their adult chaperone they think they will have their chance to reinvent themselves as kids who are older, blacker, hipper, and more rebellious than is the case. "Dude, this is so sick," Marlon whispers. Wearing dark hoodies with postures of a hard life they've not lived, they are too inexperienced with the world to realize their cool act will fool exactly no one. They were watching iCarly five minutes ago. Before the night is through they will likely experience the special shame we all endure when our hidden desire to fit in is exposed.
Henry and Marlon are bonded in a way adults don't have time for: both drummers, they come together to make music and movies, laugh, plot, and discuss that girl in show band. They share clothes and pizza slices. They stay up till dawn mooning over album tracks between bowls of Lucky Charms. "Bro, wake up, Frank Ocean just dropped a new album," is a typical 1:00 a.m. text from Marlon. They draw with permanent markers on each other's arms, legs, and Converse sneakers. They knock fists when they greet each other and don't need to pretend they are anything other than who they are. They live with their insides on the outside – carelessly teasing and easily hurting (ex: Dude, you look like a frog. No, no, not in a bad way. Just those bug eyes.) but also fiercely loyal, their trust in one another palpable. They give full body hugs and share their most vulnerable song lyrics, the raw ones they wrote hunched over a scrap of paper on the school bus that morning. The ones they wouldn't dream of sharing with most people. They make beats for each other and swap laptops, adding different flavors to each other's music.
I wasn't there, but my husband Steve was and he told me; I can see them clearly in my mind's eye. There is a strange loneliness to the way they carry their fragile sense of selves, something rarely glimpsed under the pile of defenses they build to protect that vulnerability. The sun hasn't yet started to crumble and sounds of the city are all around - ambulances, loud people on phones, music, dogs, all of it. There is a mix of acidic urine, hot dogs, and stale beer in the air. There isn't much stranger-to-stranger eye contact in the city now that kids eat Tide Pods and people walk around with listening devices stuffed in their ears. There are suspiciously filthy puddles to be avoided on every corner though it hasn't rained in weeks. There is a baby in a stroller, next to an elderly woman in a wheelchair next to a young woman with terrible acne next to a man with psoriasis; all of them are staring at the six-foot genetic-jackpot teen-girl striding past them on the sidewalk. It's not a melting pot, no one is melting, they are just all here, improbably together on this block.
Many of the lined up people look down at their phones and are periodically barked back by the cops: Get against the wall, don't block the sidewalk. Henry and Marlon practice chill personas and resist the urge to leap around high fiving everyone in sight. Every half hour or so club bouncers troll the line telling people to Go home if you got fake tickets, no one's getting in with fake tickets.
Henry and Marlon have fake tickets. And a plan.
Henry and Marlon have fake tickets. And a plan.
They've been standing there for three hours, not counting the three hours it took to get to the club. For nearly five months before that, they have dreamed of this moment. They want to get inside so badly they have made themselves sick, literally unable to eat. They were talking 160 words a minute on the car ride from our hometown of Rhinebeck to NYC; Steve said he couldn't understand half of what they said. These boys will do anything, absolutely anything, to see their rap idol - Travis Scott, aka la Flame, at his 24th birthday concert, and Steve has contributed an insane amount of time and money to make it happen. Henry wore his good luck shamrock boxers as a nod to the spirit guides he hopes will help get them inside. All this was nearly impossible for me to comprehend. My first concert had been The Carpenters; we bought tickets, showed up, sat in our designated seats, sang along, and enjoyed the show. There were no insurmountable obstacles to scoring tickets back then.
The boymen were giddy with anticipation on the trip into the city, Henry's voice rushed and cracking, "I can't believe it's happening TONIGHT! It's finally here. We are going to be different people tomorrow morning. We are going to be people who partied with Travis Scott! ON HIS BIRTHDAY! If he pulls me on stage, Imma pull you up too. How we gonna dance? Bro, we don't dance. Have to dance. Travis Scott!"
"Dude, yeah, me too, show him the you know shirt, don't forget to show him the shirt," Marlon said, referring to the killer t-shirts he'd made for the occasion. There was a picture of Travis Scott's action figure on front – ripped abs, pounds of gold chains around his neck, and signature dreadlocks covering half his face. Marlon had written notes in black sharpie on the back: travis, april 30, 2017, fuck a memory of you all night long (his take on a Frank Ocean lyric), less than zero, for henry from marlon. It was a limited edition, numbered 1 of 1. "This is gonna be epic. I bet you $20 that Migos will show up you know and perform, like a rodeo, that's what Travis said. A rodeo."
The Travis Scott birthday show received an extraordinary amount of press. Everyone was speculating who would perform as part of the "intimate" celebration (3,000 guests as opposed to 30,000 in a stadium) and no one would have been surprised if Prince himself rose from the dead to attend. The boys sang Travis's song like a mantra over SnapChat, Nights like this I wish I could do the impossible, I wish I could do the impossible, I wish I could do the impossible, I could do the impossible… I loved hearing them sing in the backseat of my car in the weeks leading up to the concert.
We read online that Travis's pre-concert dinner included his girlfriend Kylie Jenner, her sister Kendall, and their it-girl model friends Bella Hadid and Cara Delevingne. Henry and Marlon didn't know the People magazine cast and neither did I, but it was evidence of the star-studded nature of the concert. The show was a bigly. Or, big league. Or both. It was everything.
Steve drove into the parking lot ($45) at 3:45 and they walked over to the venue where the three of them stood on a packed sidewalk outside Terminal 5, the warehousey venue in Hell's Kitchen. Steve - feeling older, he told me - than he had ever felt in his life, dropped them off and headed to a nearby café to wait until closer to the start time. The line, patrolled by a dozen police, wrapped around the block, easily 300 people by 4:00. Not wanting to lose their places, people peed on the side of buildings, ate standing up, and left their trash on the ground. Pigeons jerkily pecked at the leftovers, erupting periodically into a whoosh of noisy flight. A nearby vendor sold hot dogs. He had the concert schedule hanging on the inside of his food cart.
The concert goers were neither friendly or hostile. Everyone just wanted in and once inside they'd be part of the same community, but not yet. Not just yet. The mix was about 40% black, 40% white, and 20% Hispanic. The show had been sold out for months and the boys had been crushed when they couldn't find tickets. Then they'd been elated when Steve found four tickets on Craigslist. A combination of rolling quarters, cutting lawns, and pooling our funds, we parents, and Marlon and Henry had come up with the $100 needed for each ticket.
The boys had started to suspect the tickets were not real a month before the concert when they saw comparable tickets going for twice the price. But, they sure looked like the real deal. There was even a receipt from Ticketmaster. They read on social media sites that there were a lot of fakes being sold and a few weeks before the show, they went through stages of grief: denial, anger, and bargaining, at which point they asked Steve to go to the venue to have the tickets scanned and (hopefully) validated.
The boys had started to suspect the tickets were not real a month before the concert when they saw comparable tickets going for twice the price. But, they sure looked like the real deal.
Fake tickets have become a way of life. If you don't buy the tickets directly from the venue, which is impossible because they sell out to pre-programmed bots before they go on sale, you are at the mercy of the scalpers, many of whom are low-lives making counterfeits and lots of money exploiting other people's dreams. The exploiters are all deserving of a karmic comeuppance that is swift and painful. The fakes have become so good it's impossible to tell which tickets are real without going directly to the venue, which is what Steve eventually did, a few days before the big day.
After working a thirteen-hour day, Steve headed from his office to Terminal 5 while another concert was in progress. He pulled the tickets out of his backpack and showed them to the guard outside. The guard looked them over, thought they looked legit, but wasn't sure and sent Steve inside. Several staffers looked at them and they too just could not say definitively. They finally found a manager, who scanned them, and said, Nope, not a chance. You've been had.
A guard, George, standing nearby in a navy t-shirt with Security in big orange letters on the back, took pity on Steve. He came up to him as he was walking forlornly towards the door and said, Look man, it sucks, they do this to you. I'm working the show that night. Ask for me. I'll get you and your boys in. Just ask for George. No secret handshake, no money exchanged, but they had a regular handshake and a few seconds of eye contact that sealed the deal. We talked a lot about wonderful George the week leading up to the night of the show. But, what if he was sick that night and didn't show up for work? What if he forgot his promise? What if he could only let in one or two of them?
Hope drove Steve, Henry, and Marlon to wait in line without real tickets. I was less optimistic, which is why I had stayed home. "It's too risky," I said. "What if we can't get in? All that time and money… I'll stay home."
It was more than just a show to the boys. They didn't want to merely watch the show, they wanted to experience it on a cellular level, to smell the sweat and feel the throbbing kick drum rise up from their feet to their heads. They saw this as one of those big events that gives life meaning. The chance to see and hopefully meet a great artist who could pass on some of his magic to them. The best performers, and Travis is one of them, establish a reciprocal relationship with their audience and allow fans to explore the music fully, to participate to the point that they change the work, create their own hybrid genre every show (singing along, finishing phrases, dancing, moshing, getting on stage). These experiences need not diminish as we get older, but life gets in the way and we spend less energy pursuing them. I spend less time pursuing them, contented as I am to be at home reading or cuddling my poodle.
Steve returned to the line and as soon as the doors opened the crowd became an unruly organism, shoving forward, elbows as weapons, hair flicked in faces and toes crushed. The police were shouting to get against the wall because the sidewalk had been swallowed whole and people were flooding into the street. The line moved fast and before they knew it, my boys were being patted down by a security guard. Pat, pat, pat, What's this? The guard pulled ChapStick out of Marlon's pocket and handed it back to him, looking disappointed. Henry's pockets were filled with candy wrappers, bits of folded paper, mints, old gum, a paper clip, nothing interesting. So far, so good. They entered a narrow corridor where tickets were being scanned.
People were being turned away for fake tickets left and right and adrenaline must have been pounding through Henry's veins. This whole thing had been his idea. Those who were shunned and forced to leave for lack of ID or fake tickets cried. Cursed. Threatened to kill themotherfuckersfuckmeover. The police shouted, Get out of the way, you go in or you get out of here. You can't be here without a ticket. There was absolutely zero sympathy. It reminded me of when I lived in Brooklyn and went to move my car one morning (alternate side parking rules) and found my side-mirror broken and glittering in a million tiny pieces on the pavement. I had no money to fix the mirror. To add insult to injury, there was a $75 ticket on my window for having a broken side view mirror. Fake ticket holders walked in circles dazed, stunned, and wanting to make a case for themselves, like Steve did.
Henry and Marlon felt they shared a heart with Travis Scott, that they carried the same wounds of the world. They revered his wildness, artistic boundary pushing, the way he pulled out something primal from the core. They wanted in on the animal ferocity, to escape the ties that bound them to a chair at school for seven hours a day.
When Travis Scott performs, he's laughingly grandiose - sexy, bare-chested, tunnels of sweat running down his dark skin. The roof blows off and the walls collapse under the pressure of his machismo. His hungry fans lap it up like honey. To say the man knows how to work a crowd is like saying Oprah is a people person. He coaxes fans to dive into the mosh pit, release their animal. "This shit is not for old mother fuckers, this is for the kids, or people with a young soul at least," he said, sounding like a righteous preacher in an interview we'd seen. There are no fans on earth as passionate as hip-hop fans.
"Um, we are looking for George," Steve said.
"George is busy" another security guard answered. "What do you want?"
"George. We were told to talk to George," Steve repeated.
"Told you, he's busy, you're gonna have to move out the way," he said brushing past Steve like he was an ant at the wrong hill.
At that point, he saw George across the corridor.
"George!" he said, waving and whatnot, so relieved he wanted to kiss him.
Everything came down to this moment. Henry and Marlon took deep breaths and sighed with relief. George!! He was there in the flesh just like he promised he would be. He didn't look particularly friendly, not like they had pictured him, but no worries. He was the one good man who could spin this whole mess around from fiasco to a story worth retelling.
They imagined meeting Travis. They wanted to unveil the man behind the star. They wanted to know what on earth it felt like to be on that stage breaking people open, making them jump off balconies into mosh pits. What were the secret ingredients to his success? Did they have what it takes? Did Travis spend hours in the studio recording and experimenting with beats, like they did? They wanted him to like them, to see the similarities between him and them.
George looked through Steve as if he was invisible.
"George, remember me? Remember, I was here a couple of weeks ago? I have the… you know the… fake tickets," Steve whispered the last part.
Again, George looked everyplace Steve wasn't. Finally, when Steve got up in his face trying to get his attention, George looked panicked and whispered, "I can't man, my boss is here… Imma lose my job. I can't help you. Can't even talk to you."
Steve pointed to Marlon and Henry, who looked like they would cry if they were not trying so hard to hang on to their last shred of composure. The manager came up to Steve. "Did you give George money, is that what's going on here?"
"No, no, no. I just came a couple weeks ago. George said…" It was clear to go on would probably get George fired.
"You need to leave," the manager said, walking away.
Nights like this I wish I could do the impossible, do the impossible, do the impossible.
Marlon and Henry stood off to the side of the corridor in their handmade t-shirts, no longer sure what to do with their hands, their hopes. They stopped imagining the unimaginable, themselves up on stage with Travis Scott. I can see them, looking subdued and exhausted. This would not be the night they partied with Travis Scott. This would forever more be remembered as the concert they did not see, the party they were asked to leave. Those Last one picked for baseball kind of feelings percolated up. The police told the three of them to GET OUT. They were forced to make the long walk of shame back onto the sidewalk with the other hundreds of deflated, dejected people.
This would not be the night they partied with Travis Scott. This would forever more be remembered as the concert they did not see, the party they were asked to leave.
Henry and Marlon had listened to all the provocative Travis Scott songs a million times in the month leading up to the concert; singing along in the car, their joie de vivre was contagious - "Birds in the Trap Sing Brian McKnight… Shout my tropes!" Henry with his long hair and pony legs, Marlon with a pink buzz cut and black-frame glasses, sang the words with a fierce commitment to the chaos of being alive. Yes, the lyrics included violence and drugs and sexism and the n-word, but so too were they smart, energetic, funny, and full of surprises, some combative, some poignant. Both wildly wrong and right, like all the best art. Somewhere along the way I moved away from pointing out what was not PC about the music to loving it. Listening to it with or without kids in the car.
But that isn't what this is about. This is about the ravenous appetite we humans have for finding our tribe. It is about the countless ways, both petty and profound, the world has of casting us off. And it is about the lengths parents will go through to help their kids feel included.
The walls of their pretentions wrecked, the boys were hoarding the scraps of music that bled out to the sidewalk when the security guard, looking like he might be softening, asked them, "Who are you?" Before they could answer, he asked a second question, "Where you from?"
"Rhinebeck," Henry said quickly, with hope riding the roller coaster back up his throat. It was the last gasp effort. Most of the show was over, but if they could get in there, even for a minute, for a second, even if only to be able to say they'd been there, it would make the rest of it all worthwhile.
"Not far enough," the guard said, and waved the two remaining people behind them to go inside. The guard winked at the two who were entering and said, "Don't worry, we won't let them in," referring to Marlon and Henry. It killed them.
That was the moment that broke their heart, the moment they understood their hearts could be broken this way. It wasn't until that moment, almost nine hours into the ordeal, that they finally turned to That's it, it's over resignation. Heaven awaited, but they had been judged unworthy, by the doorman whose role had been elevated to near-god. I picture them there, squaring their shoulders, looking at the ground, and mumbling something about it probably being time to go home.
The car was silent on the long drive back to Rhinebeck. They arrived around 2:00 a.m. and didn't make a peep. I came downstairs to see them filing into the living room, stooped and weary eyed. Steve had to be up at 5:00 a.m. to go back to the city for work and the boys had to be up by 6:00 for school.
The next morning Marlon's mother picked him up by 7:00 and he left the kitchen saying, "Right bro, catch you later." Barely looking up from the breakfast table Henry answered back, "Peace out." I asked Henry about the night and he said, "Doesn't matter. Don't want to talk about it." He saw me acknowledge his awareness that things rarely work like we imagine. It irked him that I knew these things about him. Then he talked about it anyway. "I just don't know why the guy didn't let us in at the end. We, you know, we stood there all night," words failed him here and he gestured with his shoulders in a shrug, "he let the other two in, so he could have let us in too, by then he kind of knew us. Whatever. I don't know why he didn't like us." I thought it probably had something to do with them appearing to be the pampered and overprotected kids they are, or because Rhinebeck is a ridiculously white town, or maybe they did something obnoxious while waiting on the sidewalk that night, I can't imagine it but I wouldn't know. Maybe the two behind them were super special or worked some kind of voodoo or payment plan out with the guard when Henry and Marlon weren't looking. What I did know was that I wanted to punch the security guard who had refused them, no matter his reasoning, but I also understood that Henry's coming of age necessitated my letting go. The concert fiasco is the kind of thing that will stick with him for a long time as he gropes his way from one experience to the next on his path to adulthood.
Unless you are very young, Terminal 5 is a shitty place for a concert. You probably won't see much because there are columns holding up the two balconies and obstructing the view of the stage from too many places. Audience members have to like getting really close to each other. Somebody fell off a balcony and either broke a leg that night, or ended up paralyzed, depending which report you read. Fights broke out all over the place and people got hurt in the mosh pit, but that didn't stop them from dancing together. In Henry and Marlon's minds, unimaginable amounts of fun were had inside those walls, much of it posted on social media – kids going hard, breathing each other's sweat, everybody mosh pitting -- the kind of excitement that is impossible to sustain, one of those moments taken out of time when the world is exactly how we want it to be.
Anne McGrath's work has appeared in such journals as Antioch University's Lunch Ticket, The Brevity Blog, and Petrichor Audio Magazine. She was featured on NPR's Listener's Essay segment and an audio flash piece is forthcoming in Brevity Magazine's One-Minute Memoir. Ms. McGrath is an assistant contest editor at Narrative Magazine and is pursuing an MFA in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.