In June 2012, I was coming to the end of the worst two-year span of my life outside of junior high and high school. I was slowly recovering from being broke, close to paying off more than $6,000 in medical debt (thx, endometriosis), starting to see a therapist who’d change my life, and a few months from freeing myself from a deeply shitty social existence. But I wasn’t at any of these things yet and didn’t know how close I was. On top of all of that, a couple weeks earlier, there’d been a mass murder in a cafe I spent a lot of time in. I didn’t know the people who died well, but I admired a couple of them very much and had seen them perform many times. They meant something. So it was broad horror and specific horror, and it’s the only time I’m aware of that I played the role of “crying girl hugging friend outside crime scene” on local news b-roll.
In July 2021, I was coming to the end of one of the worst years I’ve been alive (probably number three or four on the list, all told). Unlike June 2012, I wasn’t broke and had a fair amount of agency derived both from finances and from that good therapeutic work. However, also unlike June 2012… well, you know how 2020 into 2021 went. It was very, very bad. I found some beautiful things in all of it, but mostly I spent a lot of time figuring out what part of myself was compartmentalized into stasis this week. I had long periods of time where it felt like half my abdominal cavity was just this static, dense mass, unmoving where all the feelings used to swirl. I’m not typically given to numbness, but that and escaping into my imagination were the two ways I found to survive.
Fresh with so many layers of grief, which piled heavily on top of stinging disbelief around how I’d allowed my life to get to the state it was in, I agreed to go to Honkfest West. My general feeling about music is that I like just about anything live, and I especially like a big band with brass instruments (one of the reasons I’ve loved ska since high school). It was inexpensive and within city limits. Everyone I knew felt basically destroyed; why not be destroyed and listen to some music?
In the possession of a little more morally allowable movement and of money and a break between jobs, I went to New York for two weeks. I tried to figure out some extracurriculars ahead of time. I’d been wanting to go dancing at home and managed it once before delta variant feelings made us all need to reconsider our definition of freedom. So I knew I wouldn’t want a large club (I’m mostly too old and sober for that anyway), but I wanted some culture. I wanted to go out and feel the physical force of sound in my body. I wanted something bigger and broader than the sound from my beautiful shitty headphones. I found that a brass band I’d listened to online played in Brooklyn every week. Sold.
I’d gone to Honkfest before. Bands in Gasworks Park, bands in associated clubs, bands upon bands. I took the buffet approach: I knew I’d like enough of it so didn’t need to do much research. I’d show up, probably like what I heard, and be content. Good enough.
I look up the show again a few days out and find that the regular Tuesday night entertainment is canceled, and instead, a selection of bands through Honk! NYC is playing. You know what? Sure, that’ll do too.
I go to a venue in Georgetown. I’m wearing, in a way that feels incomprehensible in later, warmer times, a sweater dress with a thick cowl collar. I get a Large Can of Rainier, the drink of both happy times and sad, broke-as-fuck ones. I enter the performance space and get no further than the door, because it’s crammed.
I find my way to the bar from the subway. I show the bartender a picture of my vax card. I show the guy at the door in the back of the bar a picture of my vax card. I stand and listen to the DJ and drink my pilsner, texting with people back west. A couple people come in with drums. Then a couple more. Soon the number of people with drums outnumbers the spectators still filling in at the back of this small room. The drums are not small drums. The program promised samba-influenced drums as the second act. Excellent.
The band playing when I walk in, large can in hand, is a samba-influenced drum troupe. I have felt like something left in the sun lately, like all the softness has gone hard and all the flexible things crystalline in a hideous, sharp way. Everything feels vulnerable and terrible. Anything can happen anywhere, and it’ll probably be bad. Everything tastes like salt, even the sweet things. I stand there for a little while, a largely inert thing, drinking generously from my beer. I finish it and go get another. And when I come back, I feel something that’s taken its leave of me for a while: an urge to move.
After a bit, the audience finally outnumbers the band, but the band commands the space. One song blends into another, enough that they have to prompt us to applaud sometimes, too busy are we being mesmerized, being absorbed. I see stiff-spined white boys who I suspect aren’t all about dancing at shows start to move at the hips. I did immediately. It felt so good to feel percussion in my body again, to feel it at all angles and across frequencies, not a flat recording of something. It’s large, and I feel part of it. It’s so good to feel a part of anything with other people again.
After a bit, I end up with my half-full beer shoved into the top of my dress, cold against my sweaty skin, and I just move. I’m there with some similarly traumatized friends, and we all begin to dance, first like badly tended marionettes, then like people who might feel something good again someday. We get a little bit of it that night, that feeling of oh yes, I still have a heart, I’m still connected to something around me. I’m still alive and might even be glad of it again someday.
I find myself teary at odd moments. The synchronized movements of the drummers. The solos of the band that follows, the culmination of an untold amount of practice. All this effort just to make something transient and lovely. I missed that the most. I have plenty of days of being kinda over humanity, but all along, all throughout our shared isolation, I so badly missed the things we do when we come together: theater and music and that particular feeling of people coming out for a similar purpose. Dancing and conferences and all these gatherings toward a single goal. We do such fine things together, and I missed them terribly.
Life doesn’t get fixed on that night in 2012, but it was the first time in a long time that I felt like there might be something bigger and better yet to come, that putting effort into unfucking my life might yield something wonderful. That some things ended, sometimes terribly, but I wasn’t done yet. I was still capable of being surprised, and the world was still capable of surprising me with wonderful things.
And in late July 2021, we are still in the shit. In the 24 hours before this night in Brooklyn, I saw a lot of the bars in San Francisco switch to the model I see fairly often in New York, the “must be this vaxxed to ride” rule, and it gives me hope: both for going out and for incentive for people avoiding vaccinations for anything other than very specific medical reasons to reconsider. I just want us to have this together again: the call of brass, the impact of drums, and a bunch of happy nerds dancing in rooms again. I can hang in there for this. I feel something blossom again within me: to do things, to know that doing things is worthwhile, to know that taking this trip was the right thing for me.
And in the meantime? All we can do is keep dancing.