Sometime between getting a call as I left the boathouse and watching a band of five dorks and weirdos play to an audience of some five thousand dorks and weirdos, somewhere between finally finding the concert hall and leaving the car in the Staples parking lot — that’s when we saw the corpse.
The call — which arrived in the late afternoon of Tuesday, March 27th — was one placed by Jack, a 15-year-old rockperson with impossibly curly hair and a senseless affinity for smashing guitars (completely alone, one time). He was in a bit of a predicament: he suddenly no longer had a ride to the evening’s biggest rock-styled event, and, asking himself who has both a license and an appreciation for music, found himself dialing my number.
Jack is something of a hepcat, but not your typical sort. He has a bit of a crush on Bob Dylan, he smokes black clove cigarettes, and he has been high while listening to Air, yes; but he’s also the type of human who buys a copy of Fall Out Boy’s new album Infinity on High because he’s curious and it felt like the right thing to do. Some speculate he’s bought several, now that he asks acquaintances if they want to “hear his demo” before passing them the shrink-wrapped CD, Borders sticker and all.
Young Jack needed a ride, and while I knew between little and nothing of the band in question — the Decemberists — I decided to be swell. Gas money and a ticket would be provided, after all: I had nothing to lose but time and sleep, and at the end of the day both of these resources are nigh limitless for those patient enough to wait. I hung up, went home, doused some wheat noodles in tomato sauce and downed them quickly, showered and air-dried, then cued up my iPod for the half-hour drive ahead.
I arrived at Jack’s house roughly 15 minutes before the show’s scheduled start time (the opening band was a non-factor, I’d been told). He hopped into the car rambling about how he’d just managed to score second row tickets not moments earlier — the catch being that we had to pick them up “somewhere downtown,” and soon. He had printed directions at the ready, and against the clock we went.
Somewhere downtown turned out to be a desolate strip of stadiums and silos near the airport, running parallel to the highway. There was scarcely another car on the road, and the asphalt felt especially lonely beneath the tired, time-honeyed streetlights.
“The lady on the phone said she didn’t know exactly what 900 Packer Avenue is,” Jack said as we wandered. “But she said the tickets would definitely be there.” None of the buildings had any discernible addresses posted; here was where things began to get unreasonable.
After a few tense, aimless minutes, we resigned ourselves to the local Holiday Inn, figuring they could at least point to some bright north star to for guidance. We passed a clique of young waitresses idling by the steps, asking beneath smoky methyl halos if we needed a table; at the door, we noted that this Holiday Inn was itself 900 Packer Avenue. The receptionist in the lobby silently greeted us with maybe-knowing eyes.
“I’m Jack,” Jack said, flashing a middle school ID too thumbed and corroded to even swipe properly in the cafeteria anymore. “Do you have any tickets here?” The mute before us fumbled through some papers behind the counter before producing an envelope marked only by vague cursive script, ink yet wet. He ceded in silence its contents, which in fact bore the appearance of two front-row tickets to the Decemberists set that was beginning at approximately that very moment.
Things were about to get less reasonable still. Back in the car, it became apparent that Jack’s directions from Packer Avenue to the venue were, in fact, written in reverse. And anyone who drives knows that you can’t go in reverse down a highway: his directions were more or less useless. One thing we did know, though, was that this venue — the Tower Theater, it’s called — was somewhere on 69th Street. So I swung us onto some local road or another, and simply followed it as the numbers on the perpendicular streetsigns increased. Starting nearly fifty blocks from our destination, it seemed like a formula that could work.
Our optimism curdled like heatlamp-lit soy when we began to realize our haphazard route was boring us deeply into the heart of Philadelphia’s hardest-boiled neighborhoods. The row-after-row ramshackle homes and spry bicycling youths began to converge upon us on either side, as we made our cautious, gradual way toward live music. We trailed a nearby police car for protection, until an opposing vehicle ran a red to nearly broadside the cop, breaking within some few inches of him. The siren responded in a punctual manner, and the two cars went aside to settle their new business like respectable gentlefolk; from there we’d have to go it alone.
We dodged several blocked roads via unmarked detours, one of which led us past a pitch-dark playground bustling with children like it was second recess, midnight nigh and not a grown-up in sight. Living conditions and in-car morale finally improved around the 60th street mark, but after passing 63rd Street, we found ourselves faced by the black vortex of a vacant forest. I cussed accordingly.
“Chill out, man,” Jack said, one to keep the faith. “We just gotta clear this shit out of the way.” I sized up the brush and shrubbery blocking our progress, and then the lane divider shedding red, sun-burnt skin before them. He was probably three figures in the hole on these rapidly expiring tickets — ones we figured couldn’t possibly be real, considering the suspect and post-deadline methods by which we’d attained them — and still, he could laugh. I made a right, grinning.
By crisscrossing down and across the failing city plan, we made incremental headway towards the magic number 69. A third person in the car could have felt our spirits balloon when we finally found and passed 68th Street with wide eyes and flared nostrils – and felt them deflate, blow by blow, as we rode past some ten unnumbered street signs, named after one faceless sadist or another. Surrounded now by the grass patchwork and empty parking lots of the suburbs, we decided to turn around and make our way back, baffled and defeated.
Passing an A-Plus minimart at a busy intersection, I decided that we would enter that minimart, ask the cashier what we needed to know, and, pending deliverance, accept the night for the strangely endearing failure it already seemed to be. We pulled the park brake and braced for impact.
Inside was a small congregation of locals who unknowingly gave the fast and firm impression that they had little interest in music towers. I chanced it at the counter anyway, but found myself staring down the barrel of a blank expression that seemed not to understand why I lacked a UPC to scan. Outside, we collapsed back into the refuge of our respective car seats, exasperated and eye-aching.
Just then, a bleach-blond surf nerd shimmered into view like a shooting star, crossing our windshield and fading romantically into the minimart.
“He’ll know!” Jack was shouting. We sat motionless, engine humming, until he resurfaced some minutes later, shining brighter, a real-life Mountain Dew in his hand.
He met my sentence-length catcall immediately with a “sure, just a second,” lifting his phone from his pocket to his ear as he said — without dialing a number – “Dad: I’ve got these two guys here who wanna get to the Tower Theater. Yeah, that one; where I saw Trey Anastasio.” Jack flashed me a Christmas morning smile, the cherub swigged his citrus carbon fuel, and soon we were watching the simple instruction of his free hand.
After a few additional minutes of road time, we finally found ourselves within spitting distance of the venue, now well into the Decemberists’ 90-minute set. Jack again began to shout, but I assured him our journey was not yet complete.
The problem was simple: we had no spare change between us (nor the driving experience to know that parking was most certainly free by that time of night), and there was nothing but row after row of parking meters and parked cars in sight. I turned left off the main strip and onto a small, shadowy lane that met us with another solemn sentry of two-headed meters – albeit this time with vacant space before them. At the end of the long block, beneath the moonlit backlight of a large, sprawling oak tree, there laid an apparently abandoned car. Behind it was yet another lineup of meters, but these were significantly behind the vehicular pall before us, a good ten or fifteen feet separating car and curb. It seemed suspect, but not enough to think twice. Still facing it, my headlights bright, I put my own set of wheels into park by the side of the road, briefly to ponder with Jack whether this was an appropriate place to decamp. During this contemplation, I noted that this oddly parked car before us was the makeshift bedchamber for a man dozing in the driver’s seat.
Seconds later, a second car surged into view from stage right, headlights bleary with an almost bloodshot intensity as it made its way behind the dead sedan, then doubling around it, again and again, in anxious, screeching circles. The atmosphere turned violent, the silent riddle parked before us assuming the form of some louder, grimmer omen. I leaned forward in my seat to more closely inspect the motionless vehicle and its compensative partner, eyes wide and breath short, trying to parse out some meaning. Whatever the spectacle was, it was being performed for an audience of two: aside from my car and its person-contents, there was nothing on this block or anywhere near it.
It took less than a moment to realize that the unfazed body behind the still wheel wore sunken, sallow skin heavy on his face, jaw hung wide and skull cocked back like a break-action handgun. In the occasional glow of the circling car’s headlights, it looked discolored, an off-shade of yellow, and it was…maybe very rotten. Fear flickering inside my head, I killed the parking brake to cut a fast right onto the perpendicular street, remembering an instinct too late that it was a shallow dead-end, making haste to saw and swerve my wheels back around, Jack yelling question marks as my breathing stopped altogether. We floored it past the aggravated motorist who had just parked to the side of the street and was now opening his door to get out. With a little momentum now I made a sharp left and a long drive for the main three-lane artery that would take us back into the realm of streetlamps and witnesses. There I would explain to Jack what it was that I had seen, what the behavior of the other driver seemed to imply, how what we had seen was something he hadn’t wanted us to see. There Jack would reply with a half-smile and a shake of the head. “Unbelievable,” he’d say.
Calling the cops wasn’t even a thought. Instead, we wound up finding a place to park in the closed Staples’ lot, trekked down two slanted blocks to the mouth of the theater, marveled as the scanning device at the doorway authenticated our late hotel tickets, then proceeded to enjoy a meager three-and-one-quarter songs by the Decemberists. They were a peculiar band – nerd-trying-damn-hard-to-be-nerdier frontman, buck-toothed shortstop keys girl, senior citizen on the drums, fat man in a little black suit on the guitar, plainly out of place bassist – with a peculiar audience: you could easily tell who was into it, by the inarticulate way their bodies stuttered to the simple rhythms. The band closed with a song about a whale and breaking someone’s fingers, big goofy geezer drummer on the floor, beating a bongo; the audience screamed like a shipwrecked, whale-fearing crew might when the guitarist made a gesture like a tree-hugger embracing fallen timber (the cue agreed upon pre-song in a deal bartered by the frontman), and that was that. The band accepted the beckon for an encore as they had no doubt anticipated, then made a brief attempt at looking modest by huddling to discuss what to do next. The frontman came back out with a lonely guitar as the rest of the band members dispersed this way and that, not to play more overstudied chamber pop but rather a charmingly reticent take on an old Cheap Trick song.
After speaking briefly with a couple friends I had found in the audience (having conspicuously entered two hours late to second row seats), we departed again, Jack commenting about how he had an MP3 of Soul Coughing and Weezer collaborating to cover that very same Cheap Trick song, recorded in 1997. Knowing what I knew, I had to doubt him, though if nothing else, the night had proven stranger things can happen.
As the crowd spilled into the cool streets, Jack lit a cigarette and inhaled it hungrily. After a couple drags he tore off the filter, ranting something about how it blocked from his lips and lungs some secret THC supply, then quickly spat it back out, throwing it to the ground with flustered conviction.
“Man. That tasted like shit.”
Soon we were back in the car, leaving Staples and starved. Even with the backwards directions to the theater – now right side up – we managed to get lost again, which pushed me within inches of a mobile mental collapse, as though realizing suddenly I was to be sprinting on the river in less than seven hours. Yet in the greater context of the night, the rest feels irrelevant. What mattered was how I had set out to see a new friend, and to see a band that I had little interest in seeing, and wound up also seeing Philly at its worst, a car starting shit with a cop car, a Holiday Inn-shaped outgrowth of some illicit ticket stub economy, a dead body, and a person apparently related to that body’s reason for being dead. It was an uncentering evening, one impossible to recreate, and one that, in some twisted way, made me think the unreasonable was reasonable, maybe.