MAY 4, 2007 — It’s amazing how quickly things go wrong when they go wrong. No matter how good you are at exerting control over a situation, your control can be lost in the blink of an eye. One minute you’re happily driving your car in New England and the next, flames are spewing out of the back (yes, this happened to me). Or one minute you’re taking a wild motorcycle ride in Thailand’s beautiful Golden Triangle, and the next you’re lost in drug-dealer country with no sunlight to see your way. Or one minute you have a beautifully furnished apartment, and the next your door is gone and an apartment fire has filled your home with smoke (this happened to me soon after I moved into a Los Angeles apartment).
This past weekend, I went with my friend, his Canadian girlfriend, and her wacky friend (along with reportedly 180,000 other people) to Coachella — officially known as The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival — an epic event with a diverse selection of music acts. Coachella first was held only eight years ago, but the event already feels legendary. When you’re watching a huge show on Coachella’s main stage, it seems like something magical is happening before your eyes — that is, of course, if you can manage to see anything. This year, Coachella seemed near its tipping point. Every main-stage show was overcrowded, and it was nearly impossible to get close to the stage.
During Arcade Fire’s performance, my friends and I moved as close to the stage as we possibly could, but it was a very unpleasant experience. Audience members were packed so closely together that each person was breathing down the neck of the person in front of them for the entire performance. The crowd moved as one: if one person pushed, hundreds were pushed. Inhaling was like inhaling the body odor, perfume, and cologne of thousands of people in one breath. There was no room for someone to move in or out of the crowd, and every time someone tried, it was an extremely uncomfortable experience for the entire crowd, including the person physically fighting to escape.
Nevertheless, my friends and I managed to enjoy the show until suddenly, everything went wrong. A crowd-surfer appeared without warning over our heads, and before anyone knew what had happened, the surfer had kicked my friend’s girlfriend in the head. Within minutes, she was crying and almost unable to move her neck due to the pain. Before I really had time to understand the problem, we had fought our way out of the crowd — it took ten minutes just to walk to an area where people were not smashed together chest-to-back — and the Coachella medics were looking at her injuries. Quickly, an ambulance arrived and brought her to the hospital. The rest of us quickly followed.
I spent the first night of Coachella 2007 sitting in the waiting room of the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Indio, California with my friend’s girlfriend’s wacky Canadian friend. It seemed like one minute we were watching Arcade Fire and everything was normal, and the next we were sitting in a hospital emergency room. I thought of the people at Coachella, still there, who we were just like only moments before. How did we end up as the weird Coachella people whose night ended at the hospital?
The wacky Canadian and I sat in awkwardness next to a poster on the wall with a photograph of a bouquet and coffin with a caption reading, “He beat her 150 times. She only got flowers once.” As the Red Hot Chili Peppers played on at Coachella, we watched Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights (in which a cliched, cross-racial, Romeo-and-Juliet-style relationship leads to a Communist revolution!) and Crazy/Beautiful (in which a cliched, cross-class, Romeo-and-Juliet style relationship leads to end of said cliched relationship!).
When we couldn’t take any more television and ran out of ways to detail the myriad of ways the coffin poster was ill-conceived and inappropriate, we turned to other sources of entertainment. At one point, two men came out of the single-person bathroom after having been inside at least an hour (we never saw them go in), prompting untamed speculation. We even made a getaway to In-N-Out, the California-based fast food hamburger joint that never fails to delight out-of-towners (and Canadians, apparently) with its secret menu (always order burgers “Animal Style”) and fresh-cut fries. (I don’t totally understand the fascination with the place, especially considering that the Hollywood In-N-Out usually has a 20-minute wait no matter when you go).
Eventually, after some CT scans and some bad reactions to morphine (my friend’s girlfriend vomited quite a bit that night), we escaped the hospital and arrived at our pre-booked room at the Westin Mission Hills Resort in Rancho Mirage. Our two-room suite was not quite big enough for four people, and it took the hotel over an hour to find pillows and sheets for the extra bed; but the next morning, we awoke to the obsessively-manicured resort’s lavish Sunday breakfast buffet and pool with 60-foot waterslide. It could have been worse. I could have been kicked in the head by a crowd-surfer.
But I still really wanted to return to Coachella. I desperately wondered how I could re-exert control and steer the group back to the rock festival at the polo fields. But as soon as the group saw the buffet and pool, I knew I had lost any hope I had of returning to Coachella — ironically because I had booked in advance a beautiful place for us to stay.
As we began drinking margaritas by the pool, I knew my cause was lost. I stopped trying to exert any control over the situation, relaxed, and jumped into the pool. In the 105-degree heat, the pool’s cool blue water wiped out my stress, and the pool-side bar kept the margaritas flowing. We weren’t at Coachella, but suddenly, we had reached bliss.