The Limits of Reduced Capacity

In the fall of 1999, I traveled from my East Tennessee home base to visit friends and see a concert in Columbus, Ohio, the third and final such journey I would make before moving in earnest in the handful of days between Christmas and Y2K. Nothing I encountered during any of those various excursions to the biggest city I’d yet visited gave me trepidation about making the arrangement permanent. Indeed, my first memory of Columbus was proclaiming,  “welcome home” under my breath as I gazed out at the runway from a taxiing plane’s porthole window that July. I was sheltered, but I was growing. My good friend and former singer had moved with his fiance back to her ancestral home roughly a year earlier and was now excited to welcome a potential new roommate, partner in crime, and adjunct financial investor for their forthcoming wedding. I was near breathless in anticipation, now thiiiiiiiis close to definitive escape from the South’s gravitational pull and a new lease on life. At the now-tender, then-unfathomable advanced age of 25, I was fairly desperate to finally do some “living” before I officially crested the fabled hill and began what would surely be a white-knuckle descent into oblivion. The trips north had been a rousing, unqualified success, each centered around a concert I knew for a fact I couldn’t see in Bristol, Tennessee. This charming third saw us venture inside the not-yet-infamous Alrosa Villa, cinder block cathedral of the discount music gods, to witness New Jersey thrash metal royalty Overkill dominate and utterly destroy an, ahem, somewhat less than capacity crowd, an evening equal parts satisfying and surreal.  

In February of 2020, I traveled from Columbus, Ohio to Dallas, Texas to partake in the next in my exciting, then-ongoing series of “intentional tourist” weekend excursions to exotic, far-flung domestic ports of call. I would arrive Friday night before investing myself in the fullest possible Saturday of exploration, sight-seeing, excellent local grub, with a climactic concert – this time The New Pornographers, who, fun fact, I’ve now seen in four different states – as the cherry on top, and then fly home Sunday, sated but exhausted. Dallas was another rousing, unqualified success, my fourth such in nine months, following trips to Manhattan, Brooklyn, and seaside New Jersey. I looked out over historic Dealey Plaza from a somber sixth floor corner window, drank local craft beer responsibly, and ate barbecue outdoors in the dead of winter. It was the latest in a series of great experiences I was then convinced would not end any time soon. It was also the last concert, or live event of any kind, that I attended, and, given the new reality that has been imposed upon us in the year since, the very definition of bittersweet. Moving to Columbus changed my life, comprehensively and for the better, opening up myriad new opportunities whether work, play, or personal. The two-plus decades separating the moments myself and three dozen or so other die hards – for the inexplicable rest were likely across town watching Limp Bizkit bloviate and manfully perspire – dotted a concrete floor designed to hold hundreds and the great Neko Case’s latest admonition against amateur photography whilst live Pornography was in progress saw me attending shows well beyond my limited ability to count. Even during particularly lean times, it’s safe to say I still averaged one per month. For 242 consecutive months.

Hard times hit the land of opportunity everywhere just over a year ago, of course, splintering our plenty into unpotable, unrecognizable, unusable shards, and the live music industry, like so many others in COVID’s path, was decimated. From the hockey arena to the local indie playground, from dance halls with corporate branding to proudly self-proclaimed holes in the wall, comedy clubs, movie theaters, karaoke nights – hell, nights out of any description – everything was shuttered. Everything just stopped, so that we could go on. The hurt my heart still feels for the tangible loss of my former life is tempered greatly by the fact that I could’ve lost so much more but just… somehow didn’t. Through no fault of their own, I was simply better equipped than many to become a hermit – single, sans roommate, already a natural introvert, with the ability to telecommute and entertain myself, and, to that end, a hoard of electronics and accumulated media worthy of Smaug – and once I returned indoors, I did my level best to remain there come what may. I’ve largely resisted the urge to write about the pandemic in real time so far. It’s too fluid a situation, still evolving and with the potential to turn on a dime. Undeniable progress toward vaccinating the population, or at least those open to the concept, is counterbalanced somewhat by the publicization of new virus variants, seemingly a daily occurrence, and continued erratic behavior from the public, who frankly should know better, and the politicians charged with acting in their best interest, who definitely do.

Never before the pandemic hit and began applying pressure to every aspect of American life was I so acutely aware of the United States as a collection of loosely affiliated fiefdoms pledging conditional allegiance to a central authority, or principal, or whatever might please them for exactly so long and no more. How else to explain the barrage of by-the-minute updates detailing the piecemeal relaxation across every state in the union of the COVID era’s most common sense restrictions – some admittedly baby steps, others giant leaps for mankind – despite the fact, unassailable by anyone with functional eyes, brains, and communications apparatus linking them, that, no matter how many bloodstreams might contain vaccine by the start of summer, the United States is still firmly IN the COVID era right now? Over 500,000 Americans are dead of coronavirus, lest we forget, with millions more infected or recovering. Here I’ve sat in my fortified bunker, festering, calcifying, yet watching with keen interest as, to take examples from both ends of the local spectrum, a DIY music club I dearly love and want to support began advertising seated rock shows at 10% of its already meager capacity while our NHL franchise announced plans to open up of 10% of the massive Nationwide Arena to fans, then enjoyed such a great response on “opening night” that the cap was immediately upped to 25%. Now contrast that comparatively benign maneuvering with the stunning announcement, delivered contemporaneously, that the state governments of Texas and Mississippi, with more certain to follow, have summarily ended all rules mandating mask wearing and social distancing in public, as well as any limit on capacity whatsoever. At a time when federal guidance admonishes us to continue wearing masks and distancing as before even after receiving the vaccine, Texas and Mississippi are now wide open.* What fresh hell is that?  

*Wide (the f) open, I originally wrote. It’s literally breathtaking. And North Dakota must already be seething at the recognition it’ll finish no better than third in this race. 

Suffice it to say I won’t be traveling to Mississippi or Texas any time soon. The former is perhaps no great loss, though I enjoyed the exotic palm trees when I visited relatives on the Gulf Coast as a kid. The latter I’d rather hoped to get back to eventually, and I will. But not until I feel not just comfortable within its borders but welcome…because a direction like this, a counterproductive, grandstanding overcorrection that undermines the concerted efforts of people of good faith on both sides of the cash register to sustain themselves and their communities in the process of protecting them, feels to me like an act of aggression, a somehow personal assault on the otherwise faceless masses. What good is any supposed step forward when you hit the wall and stumble, surrendering that step back plus more? I have no influence over such transparent political decisions, wherever they occur – they seem to be in somewhat shorter supply in Ohio so far – and whatever their ripple effects. I’ve kept my head down during the pandemic almost as a matter of course, having lost any patience I once had for idle chatter. I guarantee the comment section dialogue currently consuming the nation is just as loud without me. Can’t help but ponder in bemusement, however, the fact that business owners who, because it is their right as well as moral obligation, plan to buck the irresponsible state guidance and require their clientele to mask up and keep distance anyway will inevitably suffer for doing the right thing. They and their customers, and their communities, cities, and, eventually, their neighbors, both within state lines and without. 

None of that is well and good, but it is all very easy to say. It’s a strangely empowering feeling to play backseat driver to 29 million people you’ve never met from 1,000 miles away. It’s not difficult to see why certain restrictions are being relaxed now, or, rather, why there is such pressure, both public and philosophical, for state and local government to help speed them along. So heavy has the collective burden been on the American people, so high the accumulated psychic toll, that practically any advance or improvement, no matter how incremental, is inevitably greeted by many as a definitive harbinger ushering in our long-awaited return to normalcy. We saw such thinking last summer, and again during the holidays, and most but not all of us lived with the disappointing results. When you give the broad American public, after all we’ve endured, the first hint that we might actually be able to salvage a semi-traditional summer from 2021, the knee-jerk reaction among many will be to take that not as a best-case scenario but as a promise. Instead of moving heaven and earth to help make it happen, that collective exhale will blow us backward as a society, erasing hard-won gains and leaving an even larger crater of our own making from which to escape. Look, I get it. I miss my friends too. I miss concerts, and movies in the theater, and happy hours, and impromptu trips. Pretty much everything I do for fun was decommissioned all at once, and life since has, to put it mildly, been a source of neither inspiration nor edification. I want my own “normal” back. I want it so desperately, in fact, that I’m prepared to wait as long as necessary.

My feelings on homegrown pandemic measures are no less hard to quantify, though infinitely more difficult, at least personally, to justify. Downshifting to a pseudo-quarantine mindset has required a good bit of deprogramming on my part, and, however embarrassing, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that I spent last summer and early fall in a kind of petty, petulant mourning for what had been lost. By and by, the storm clears, and, shaped by context and time – both of which you now have in abundance – you arrive at a different place. After some eight months operating under extenuating circumstances, for instance, a worthy comedian (Mark Normand) is finally on the docket at Columbus’ Funny Bone, but as a likely solo attendee, I don’t meet the requirements for admission. It made me misty to knowingly miss any available event even before COVID, but I can’t and don’t blame the Funny Bone now for wanting to protect its comics and customers just because I’m excluded as part of the deal. I wasn’t planning to go anyway. I watched the aforementioned Blue Jackets game on DVR the morning after, and it was awesome. Win or lose, I’ve nothing but great memories of my many hockey nights at Nationwide, and this 4-1 victory looked especially sweet. But I don’t intend to return in person until I can join and be joined by the 5th Line in its vociferous entirety. I used to invent excuses to go to the movie theater, yet, despite reopening last August, I haven’t been back. I even bought a delightfully ostentatious new television with which to compensate, and, despite a level of sustained indulgence akin to the “gluttony” victim from the movie Se7en, still find myself missing the (far) bigger screen every few days. 

I don’t blame anybody wanting to skip ahead several spots in this interminable waiting line. I figure the pandemic has left even those fortunate few not disproportionately affected by its nastiest business some combination of antsy and emotionally hollowed out. Nor am I here to tsk-tsk small businesses who, for a full year now, have been taking one extreme measure after another just to survive. The Alamo Drafthouse theater chain – the sort of nerd cache destination I tried hard to make fit into my Dallas trip before simply running out of time – just declared bankruptcy and closed three of its locations. I’m not holier than anyone, and I worry constantly about the landscape we’ll someday re-enter, littered in my nightmares with broken bands and shuttered clubs. Fundraisers, live streams, and Bandcamp Fridays (what’s today?) are evidence of how the music-loving community is pulling together in lieu of traditional events to support their own. Those will remain my outlets until things approach some semblance of true normalcy – or else some unmissable proposition finally forces my hand – because the prospect of masked, distanced seating in a charmingly miniscule rock club just isn’t cutting it for me. I’ve seen Overkill pack far bigger rooms across three states since and tear them all down, but that first night in 1999 was straight out of the Twilight Zone. Pros that they are, Chaly’s Wrecking Crew shrank not from the reality of 10% capacity and delivered their typically awesome set, though I was self-aware and uncomfortable enough for all of us. A silver lining memory did materialize when the belligerent, unobservant fan who had taken stage to antagonize Overkill multiple times that night tried to beat a hasty final retreat and stage-dove out into the non-existent crowd, soaring over our heads to the empty pit behind us and cracking his head on the Alrosa’s polished concrete before staggering off in a drunken swoon. 

Famously stoic Overkill bassist D.D. Verni even cracked a smile at that, swear to God. I miss those days.

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