Preamble: Life and Times of a Young Man in a New Town
“It says buy one, get one half off.”
“That’s for the 7.5 bottle, not the whole liter.”
“That’s bullshit! Fuck this!”
“Good! Don’t bother coming back!”
This was the entire conversation I witnessed between a liquor proprietor and one of my lifelong friends, James Swain. It happened at about 2 in the afternoon over a mistaken Jagermeister advertisement. You know the day is off to a good start when you’re getting kicked out of a liquor store while most people are still on lunch break.
So I, along with the motley cast consisting of dear friends Daniel Mesich, Russell Cochrane, Emily Broker (now Emily Cochrane) exited the store, doubling over with laughter. You’ve already met James.
We hopped back in Emily’s X-Terra and went three blocks down South Congress Blvd to the next available liquor store, opting to leave James in the car this time. We’d already been drinking for a few hours by then.
I had been living in Austin for two years at this point, with three broken leases already under my belt to show for my time. The last one coming just two weeks prior, when we left our spot in The Grove Apartments to move in with a whole new transplant of South Carolina refugees, seeking an escape from the endless cycle of alcohol abuse, terminal boredom and opioid epidemic prevalent in the Myrtle Beach area at the time.
We rented out a 6-bedroom house in University Hills, a low-rent neighborhood in Northeast Austin, not knowing that we had inadvertently started a misfit community that would hold together in one form or another for the next four and a half years.
It was from this house that Russ and Emily picked us (Dan and myself) up on this day that was destined to go down as one of the most reckless and irresponsible in all of my reckless and irresponsible young life. We headed to South Austin to retrieve Swainy.
James “Swainy” Swain and I were still working together in the then Mom-and-Pop institution that was Salvation Pizza on 34th Street, presently a growing franchise and successful business, i.e.: a bourgeois mockery of what it once was – a sweaty mess of hip townies and hardly-functioning alcoholics drinking free beer and making the errant pizza from time to time.
We had known for a couple of months beforehand that Iron Maiden would be coming through Texas on their Maiden England Tour, with a stop in San Antonio, a mere 90-minute drive away. Swainy’s mind was made up instantly, and he was pressing me to go with him. But having just moved for my fourth time in two years, I couldn’t give a definite answer.
Until he offered to pay for half of my ticket. How could I say no to that?
So we arrived at Swainy’s garage apartment around 11:30 and started our journey off with some drinks and excited shit-talk on the porch. James, a lifelong Maiden fan, had yet to be in the right place and time to catch them live on stage, and he was over the moon with what the day had in store for him.
I had seen Iron Maiden once before when I was 18 – at Coors Amphitheater in Denver, Colorado – back in 2005. But I didn’t consider myself a fan at the time. I knew a few of their tunes, but something about the music just didn’t click with me.
However, after 7 intervening years of hanging out and living with James Swain, I had become very much familiar with the music, the members, the imagery and career of Iron Maiden. So much so that even if I still didn’t really enjoy the music (which I did), I had already invested enough time and experience with it that it had nostalgic appeal for me by the time I was about to turn 26.
Once the clock started to near 2 P.M., we decided the time was right to get moving, after all, we needed to stop for more beer and liquor on the way down, and the hotel check-in was at 4. Doors opened at 6:30, which gave us a couple of hours to “pre-game”, if you don’t count the beer, tequila and Jager we drank on the way as “pre-gaming”. We didn’t. That was road soda.
The mid-summer Texas afternoon was bright and hot, with a smattering of small clouds in the sky, as we cruised and bounced down Interstate 35. The rolling hills stretching off into the far horizon, light brown and dusty as the land continued to recover from the previous years’ drought. An aura of excitement and positivity buzzed through the five of us as we basked in the potential of the night ahead and the good spirit of getting the rare day off from work with a handful of best friends.
We pulled into the parking lot of the Travel Lodge off of East Commerce St, checked into our room and proceeded to debauch ourselves further with even more drink and smoke.
The Night in Question or: How to Win an Away Game
My mind was hazy. Somebody said something about it being 6:00. We started walking.
It was a short hike down the side of East Houston Street, past Willow Springs Golf Course, to our destination – The AT&T Center, maybe 15 or 20 minutes away on foot. But after helping to polish off three bottles of hard liquor, a couple cases of beer and a pack of cigarettes, in the August heat and humidity of South Texas, I was taking part in the Bataan Death March. We’re talking instant swamp ass, and arriving at the venue, only to spend the next 20 minutes standing in line on a shade-less parking lot. My mind ached, and I lost a little bit of time.
“Holy shit! It’s Wes!”
I emerged from my brief blackout as I recognized my good friend and Salvation co-worker John Wesley Coleman standing not far away, amid the teeming mass of dark hair, black T shirts and tan skin. I had forgotten that he said he was going to be there, so I stumbled over and gave him a big, stinky hug. We were almost inside.
I could feel the promise of air-conditioning teasing as we neared the entrance. I did my best “sober person impression” as security scanned my ticket, scanned me with a metal detector and turned me loose inside. The elation at the wait being over, coupled with the 30 degree drop in temperature renewed me instantly. It was time for more beer.
And more beer was had.
Now I will say that there is a part of me that wishes that I had retained enough to sobriety to remember the performance in detail, because it was fantastic, as Iron Maiden concerts are wont to be. In fact, there is a self-shot video of this exact concert in it’s entirety on YouTube, posted by one Ruben Vazquez, and watching the playback, I found myself astounded by the quality of the performance put forth by a bunch of guys in their early-to-mid-50’s at the time.
But it was these particular set of choices which led to the frame of mind that I feel helped give birth to something more than just going to a place, watching a show, going home and going to sleep, waking up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to continue my prole existence the following day. Instead, the horrible decisions, blatant disregard for established laws, common decency and socially acceptable behavior – and therefore consequent suffering (although we got away with everything) – created a bigger entity: a story that I would keep for the rest of my life.
So what follows will be the events as I remember them in a series that spelled the name of the night: Trouble. Chronology be damned.
We’re standing in our seats, up in the nosebleeds. I look down the bleachers and see open space at the bottom, so I figure, why not? By the time I get down there, security is already kicking Swainy out of the General Admission section for hopping over the knee wall separating the GA from the stadium seats surrounding the main floor area. He has a big, goofy grin on his face and a wondrous, yet vacant, expression in his eyes.
“Um, those are supposed to be our seats.”
I had been made.
I pretended to look confused and handed my ticket to the usher who had helped these people find their rightful seats. She pointed up, way up, to the section of the bleachers where I was supposed to be.
Somehow I find myself between two very rotund Mexican men. We’re rocking out hard to “The Prisoner” (one of my favorite Iron Maiden songs, and one they hadn’t played live on tour since 1988). I have no idea where I am or how I got there. I’m in somebody else’s seat, but these dudes don’t give a damn. For a brief moment, we were best friends. Such is the power of Maiden. We’re three songs deep into the set list at this point.
“Sir! You’re in the wrong seat!”
It’s the same usher from before, with another couple of hapless snowflakes who apparently couldn’t find their way back from the merch stand without professional assistance. This time she follows me back to nosebleeds, just to make sure.
I’m back in my section with our crew, but Swainy is standing in the wrong row, and people are trying to get by him. I think he’s standing in their seats. We try to get his attention, but it will not be averted from the spectacle onstage. He’s been waiting since childhood for this night. Nothing will detract from his total immersion in this experience. This is his birthright, dammit!! Dan, Russ and I are forced to manhandle him and physically drag him across and down to his seat. I look over his shoulder and notice the Texas State Trooper standing in the far back row, shaking his head in disapproval.
“Sir. Come with me.”
She’s brought backup with her this time.
I follow her up the stairs, out into the concessions area. She flags down a group of security, and they ask for my ticket. I hand it over. They briefly inspect it and hand it back, and then turn their backs on me to discuss my fate when I hear “Churchill’s Speech” start inside. That means the encore is about to begin. And “Churchill’s Speech” means they’re about to play “Aces High”.
“Fuck this.”, I say to myself.
I walk away and easily disappear into the thousands-strong mass inside the arena.
I’m standing outside in the parking lot. The show is over. I’m drunk. I’m hungry. I don’t know where my friends are, and I can’t figure out which way to walk to get out of the parking lot. I wave to an employee to ask, “Hey, how do I get to Houston Street?”. I don’t notice until too late that it’s the same two ushers from before. They give me a very condescending look. One of them – the “backup lady” – says, “You’re very lucky.”. I can’t hold back my laughter, and I walk away.
My head is spinning as I try to wrap my head around how to walk out of this maze. I can see the nearest thoroughfare (which must be Houston?), but the idea of working my way through the Frogger-like traffic scenario full of cars and people is baffling in my state.
I’m looking for signs of my friends, but it’s hopeless. The chaos of motion is just as confounding up close as it is far away.
I lock onto a pair of younger dudes, wearing longhair wigs and howling outside the front entrance. With everybody else just shuffling through to get back to their cars, straight back into automaton mode and everyday life, these kids were still reveling in amazement at what they just witnessed. These guys were clearly on a more similar wavelength to my own, so I walked over and struck up a conversation, breaking the ice with something along the lines of: “HOW ABOUT THAT SHIT?!”. If I couldn’t find the friends I came with, why not make some new ones?
They were exchange students – from Spain and Argentina respectively – whose names I couldn’t remember if I tried. And they.. were… shitfaced. Again, my kind of people.
I asked them how they got there.
“We drove here, man! WOOOOOHOOOO!!!”
“Awesome! Do you think you could give me a ride to my hotel? It’s right around the corner!”
“Sure, man! LET’S GOOOO!! OOWWWWWW!!!”
We walk over to their car, a grey or white-colored sedan not too far away.
“Hey man! Do you want to drive?”, the Spaniard asked.
I felt an impish grin creep across my face as the Spirit of Pure Mischief inhabited my entire being…
In an inexplicable exhibition of homing pigeon-like directional awareness, I piloted a motor vehicle, belonging to people I had just met, out of a labyrinthine parking network, onto streets I had never been on before this night, back to our hotel. For whatever reason, I couldn’t walk out of there, but I drove like an arrow, straight to my targeted destination, pulling up outside of our room just as Russell and Emily were coming out the door, their faces a mix a relief, cheer, and disbelief, as they recognized the person driving.
“HOW THE FUCK DID YOU GET A CAR?!”
A vague recollection of piling back into the X-Terra follows. A few bumps, twists and turns later, I find myself standing on a street corner with my friends in downtown San Antonio. We’re looking for the Riverwalk, hoping to find a late night restaurant. We don’t know the area, so we enlist the help of local homeless man to help, offering him dinner in return for his services. It’s about 1 in the morning.
He leads us straight to the Riverwalk, which was (no shit) right across the street from us, and we continue our quest. As luck would have it, a few blocks away was an open Mexican restaurant which shall remain nameless, as the staff were the only innocent characters in this comedy. They received us cordially and with good humor, even as we were a horde comprised of five drunk Austinites, two equally obliterated foreign exchange students and one well-meaning-albeit-crusty hobo, showing up an hour before close.
Normally, our shared sense of service industry camaraderie would have prohibited such wanton degradation of fellow service members in such a naked display of disregard. But the hostess, servers and even a manager insisted on having our business. Beside that, we were fucking starving. And pie-eyed drunk. Turn away at your own risk.
We caught up with our personal accounts of what happened at the concert over a late dinner and more drinks – which coincidentally turned out to be our smelly new friend’s dinner: two large mugs of cheap draught beer – as my own “ESL hostages” blacked out and fell asleep at the table. The staff made it plain as they dropped off the check that they were closing, and that we had to pack up and move out.
At the sight of the bill, our vagabond steward immediately got up, mentioned something about having a bus to catch (at 2:00 in the morning) and shuffled away. Dan and I burst out laughing. Swainy lovingly called out, “Wait! Don’t go!” But he was gone, back out into the unknown, his charge fulfilled and compensated.
Another blur of laying down in the hatchback of a Nissan X-Terra follows. Stop lights. Bumps. Turns. Confusion.
I wake up in the hotel room shortly before the rest. I go to the lobby and snag a couple of bagels and some coffee from the free continental breakfast. Terrible stuff. I come back to find everybody still asleep, so I go ahead and shut my eyes again.
Russ is yelling at me now. It’s time to go, my Spanish and Argentinian captives already having made good their escape. And so began our torturous journey back to Austin, with split skulls and exhausted windpipes from a night full of criminal negligence and holy terror. Yet we returned with said cracked heads held high, having – in our own minds – represented Austin righteously and earnestly in the realms of partying and old-school heavy metal. In our shared heart and mind, we were coming back with the championship belt. But still, we made tracks forthwith. I had to be at work at 4.
Epilogue: The Hangover and Lesson Learned
In a learning experience that I would integrate into my case building “How to Adult” dossier, I made sure to dictate a new Cardinal Rule: always take the day after a big show off from work.
I dragged my hardly-animated half-cadaver through the front door of Salvation Pizza ten minutes late, with that same flippant grin I had on when I commandeered the Latins’ car, albeit this time with much more psychic lamentation and torment behind it. I started the work night with my head down, taking lonely solace in my stories from the previous night. Wes and James had the subsequent experience and wisdom necessary to know the “Take the Day After” rule that I was in the painful process of learning.
Elizabeth Mahoney, then co-owner of the restaurant, overheard me recounting my fresh recollection of people “trying to kick me out of the show” to whomever had the displeasure of working beside me that night, to which she countered in her signature, pedantic, Nor-Easter locution, “How the fuck do you get kicked out of an Iron Maiden concert?”.
My fiendish smirk returned.
“Let me tell you how it all went down…”