Forever Young

He was not sure exactly what to wear to a concert anymore. Or rather, he had a pretty good idea what the young people would be wearing but he was not a young person anymore, even though he could mix with them pretty well because he still felt in his mind like he was about 21 years old. He put on a pink dress shirt, untucked, with a blazer, and went out.

“Golden Gate Park”, he said to the driver, a middle-aged Asian man whose Prius felt like a modern, rolling temple, with New Age-y music playing, an air purification device clipped to the visor and glowing softly, and a pack of gum in the seat back, as an offering to guests. Hahaha, Golden Gate Park is a big place, it turns out, and you can’t just drive into the park when there’s an event. But they managed to get close, driving progressively higher in the hilly city, past Chinese laundries and bars, tidy row houses perched on top of their garages, lit up in the dusk, people in cars and buses and riding bikes and on foot, going about their Saturday evening business. As they drove along the southern edge of the park and got closer to the concert, traffic slowed, and the trickle of young people on the sidewalks turned into a river, flowing towards the thumping music.

Inside, he wound his way through the crowd until it got too dense to go further without pushing, a stone’s throw from the stage. The band was the white hot center of energy and attention, and giant video screens showed live footage like a real-time music video, and he had to remember to watch the performers and not just the video of them.

The crowd were in their twenties, the guys wearing jeans and t-shirts, the girls wearing short shorts or tight pants, but with no makeup. Scattered around him, girls and a few boys had climbed onto the shoulders of friends to get a better view and to raise their hands and smile and sing and scream until their friends would get tired of holding them and they would climb down. A group of kids standing next to the man had their faces painted, with stripes on their cheeks like they had been to a childrens’ birthday party. Other kids were holding up talismans as part of the celebration: an inflatable palm tree, a California flag, a watering can on a stick. Every few moments the sweet smell of pot would waft past, though no one offered him any.

On stage the band members were plying their craft, hair and faces wet with sweat, the singer leaning into the mic with his eyes closed, then bent over his electric guitar, coaxing out of it incredible, distorted, beautiful wails and screams, the drummer looking like a high school teacher with his button-up shirt and floppy curly hair and black-frame glasses, but playing fast and hard, completely and perfectly in sync with his partner. At one point the bassist and rhythm guitarist took a break so the singer and drummer could play a song as a duo and they made an incredible and rich sound with just the two of them, these friends who grew up together in Northeast Ohio, playing in basements and gyms and bars for a decade, and now playing here at a festival for twenty thousand people. There was no banter from the band between songs, the stage would simply go dark for a few seconds and then the lights would come back up and the next song would roar to life. They showed their appreciation for the audience with their energy and professionalism, and by sharing this music they had created to make themselves happy and to make the crowd happy. At the end the singer introduced the band members and introduced himself (“I’m Dan”), and then played a crowd favorite which was a sing-along. After the last drawn-out, distorted chord, the singer raised his hands up and then bowed and threw his pick into the crowd and said “Thank you San Francisco, we love you, we’ll come back anytime”, and the drummer walked to the front of the stage and threw his sticks into the crowd, and the band members all filed off the stage and the crowd could follow them on the big screens, headed backstage to change clothes and get drinks, done with work for the evening.

When the lights came up the crowd came out of its collective trance and after a murmur of disappointment a hum of excitement came over the young people because after all they were not dead but very much alive and it was only ten o’clock on a summer Saturday night, and they were with their friends and lovers and there were parties to go to, and the night was just getting started. One boy with tousled hair and a scruff of a beard strode purposefully through the crowd, his pretty girlfriend holding his hand, trailing behind him. His black t-shirt said “Don’t Worry Be Young”, and tonight that was a motto for the whole crowd.

Up towards the front of the crowd where he had inched and danced his way during the show, the man was coming out of his trance too. He didn’t have any parties to go to and his wife and kids and friends were in different places, different cities, but he was also happy to be young. Tonight no one in the world knew where he was. As he made his way with the crowd towards the exit, he was a stick dropped off a foot bridge into a creek, twisting and turning in the current.

At the porta-potties, lines had formed at each unit and people were laughing and joking. One girl closed a door behind her and stuck her head back out to make a silly disgusted face to her friends, which cracked them up in laughter. The lines were long and in another lifetime the man would have relieved himself on a tree, and he thought about it but he didn’t do it. He was an upstanding member of society.

He didn’t feel like leaving yet and he was starving so he walked past the merchandise tent, with its colorful, ironic t-shirts, and past the Heineken Party Dome, closed for the night with groups of kids milling about outside, smoking, to the row of food stalls. The employees were trying to close up and go home. They were kids just like the kids in the audience, except they had to work tonight, and now they wanted to get the food put away and the fryers cleaned out and get home and take off these greasy clothes and go meet their friends. But a few stalls were still open and they were doing a brisk business.

In front of an Asian fusion stall a boy stood with two girls, eating what was advertised as a ramen burger. “Is it any good?” The man asked the boy. All three looked at him. They were in their early twenties, Asian-American, he imagined that they had gone to college together or met at work or at parties. They were flushed and happy from the concert, and the boy was wolfing down his burger. “No, not really,” he said, as he took another bite. His t-shirt had the Atari logo on it. The man laughed and one of the girls asked, friendly, “Can you go somewhere else and get fresh food, because if so I think you’ll be a lot happier.” “I know I should do that but I’m hungry,” the man said. “Look at him,” the boy said, not unkindly, eyeing the man’s sport coat and dress shirt, “He just got done in court and he told the judge he had to leave so he could go to the concert.” The man smiled. The second girl had an idea. “Just go up and say you’re B,” she said. “Yeah!” said the first girl, “They’ve been calling B forever, just go up and say you’re B and take it!” The man laughed. “But you said the food was terrible!” he protested. “Yeah but it would be free!” the first girl said. The boy said, again not unkindly, “Just go up there and take it, you know you’re used to lying all the time at work anyway.” It didn’t come out like an insult, and the man laughed and said “That’s totally not true!” and really it wasn’t true. “I don’t want bad free food,” he said, laughing. The boy said “Yeah, you can afford to buy good food, you should probably eat somewhere else.” The man said thank you and he went on down the line of stalls, but only the greasiest ones were still open and he kept going towards the exit and out of the park.

Almost to the main road, in spite of the girl’s suggestion to eat something healthy, he stopped to buy a hot dog from a small Central American woman with a pushcart. (He noticed that there were at least a dozen of these women with identical pushcarts, and he thought, somebody is making money here, and it’s probably not them.) The hot dog was wrapped in bacon and topped with grilled onion and a grilled jalapeño and ketchup and it was spicy and delicious. As he was paying, a female police officer — black, tall, pretty, on foot patrol — came up to the vendor and said “You’re going to need to move along ma’am,” and the vendor took the man’s bill and made change quickly and then pushed her cart up the hill and towards the exit. Everyone just doing their job.

The man followed the flow of people away from the park, walking vaguely in the direction of his hotel, though it might take him three hours to walk all the way there. He had nowhere in particular to be. On the street facing the park there were big concrete semi-circular benches on each street corner, and groups of young people and couples and individuals were perched there, eating bacon-wrapped hot dogs, texting, talking and laughing, still high from the show. A young woman sat, dazed and embarrassed, on the sidewalk, leaning against a wall, blood and scratches on her face. Her boyfriend stood talking to three police officers, whose bikes were leaning against the wall. Nobody seemed too concerned.

The crowd was like a river flowing through a delta, with streams of people breaking off at each side street. The man turned down one of these and into a neighborhood of tidy single family homes. Short driveways and garages, with stairs leading steeply up to the houses perched above, big front windows looking into living rooms. Groups of kids had stopped and were sitting on walls and stoops in front of houses which were not theirs, waiting for rides, contemplating which parties or bars they would go to. The man saw couples, holding hands, kissing, arguing, and he saw young people in groups flirting and he thought about how much of this, how much of being young, was about finding someone to spend your time with and someday buy one of these houses with and have kids of your own with. Kids who would go to concerts with their friends and smoke cigarettes and flirt and ride in cars to parties and fall in love.

He turned onto a bigger street, heading towards the university, through an immigrant neighborhood which was dotted with bars and late night restaurants catering to the students and young people. Dr. Joyce Lee Family Dentistry. Sunset School of Dance. Straight-A Tutoring. Rexall Drugs. Bubble Tea Palace. He took pictures of the signs. He walked a mile or so until he was too tired to walk more, and he stopped and went into a creperie, which was full of concert goers and groups of students. It reminded him happily of France, of other nights, long ago in Paris when he would wander the city by himself, feeling alive and happy and desperately lonely all at the same time.

He ate and drank and read and after awhile he called a car. The driver was a Russian, friendly, talkative. Tonight the man didn’t mind talking. The driver told him a story which he had heard but couldn’t verify, about the longest Uber ride. An important businessman had asked his driver to wait outside the airport while he ran in to check if he had missed his flight and sure enough he had. He needed to be at his meeting first thing in the morning, so he paid the driver to drive him through the night, eight hours to Los Angeles, and told him to keep the meter running for the drive home. It was a $2,000 trip. In the back seat the man laughed. There was a ring of truth to this story.

As they drove back through the city, past the university up on its hill, past the 24-hour Lucky Penny Pancake House, past gas stations and apartment buildings and row houses and deserted parks, up and down hills, he was tired and happy and lonely. They came to the top of a hill and he could see the city spread out below, a carpet of lights and then tall pillars of lights that were the office buildings, with the dark of the water beyond. “It’s a huge city,” the man said. The driver half-turned to him, surprised. “Not so big,” he said. “Not as big as Chicago or New York. Is just crowded this weekend because people come from out of town for the concert.”

It wasn’t what he had meant. “I guess every city feels big when it’s not your city,” said the man. “Ahh,” said the driver, “yes, this is true.”

After this the man dozed off and the driver woke him up when they got to his hotel, and he thanked the driver and got out and went up to his room, where he could hear city noises outside in the street, and he could see a few lights still on in the skyscrapers, indicating the presence of other human beings out in the great big crowded lonely city.