Wednesday, September 8, 2010

African Queen

The Hollywood Bowl is the most amazing concert venue on Earth. It is such a perfect way to enjoy music,with the open air and the beautiful stars
(granted there's only nine of them) in the Los Angeles night sky. It is all so civilized that it makes a concert at the Forum seem like going to prison. Having lived in LA forever, I have a long history with the Bowl. I have seen some amazing shows there and have always had an exceptional time despite the schlepping and walking and crowds that are simply unavoidable due to the Bowl's design.
We went to the Hollywood Bowl with a friend last weekend. His mother bought him four box seats for Earth, Wind and Fire. We arrived last Saturday at seven thirty for an eight thirty show. We brought our own everything, still used to the years where there really wasn't much to buy when you got there. Now there are wine shops and good restaurants and catered dinners to choose from-a far cry from the overpriced rudimentary concessions of the previous decade. We were directed to the box by a teenage usherette,dead center just below the main aisle. It had six seats. We were four people, so the other two would be an unknown. I was suddenly reminded of the one bad experience I had at the Bowl. I hadn't thought about it in years but this brought it all rolling back like a giant wave of nausea.
In 2001, my boyfriend and I bought two tickets to see Maceo Parker and Femi Kuti at the urging of my father, who has excellent musical taste and a thing for African music. It was part of the World Music Festival at the Bowl and it had the makings of a great show. We arrived at the box, much like last weekend, and found six empty seats. We sat and had our picnic and drank some wine,watching the people arrive. I had just packed it all up, because the show was about to start,when when four tall African American women stopped in front of our box, their arms full of baskets and bottles. All of them were dressed in beautiful bold African clothing, and two of them had amazing head wraps that made them look six feet tall. They were being greeted by another woman in African clothing who gestured to the box. She was with a young boy who was probably six or seven. It became apparent from their conversation that they were personal guests of the second musician, Femi Kuti. It was also apparent that they weren't that keen on sharing the box with us. The largest and most formidable of the bunch was the last to arrive and, upon seeing us, asked loudly "What are these white people doing in our box?". I am sure my eyebrows shot up reflexively. I looked over at my boyfriend, and he shook his head slightly, as if to say, don't do anything stupid. The other women ignored her comment and proceeded to settle in with all their stuff. Not one of them made eye contact or even aknowledged us in the slightest,giving me the impression that her comment spoke for all of them. They spread out as much as they could without actually putting their Cristal bucket on my lap. The boxes are the size of a public restroom stall, so personal space is kind of important, but they seemed uninterested in the concept. The large one sat right next to me,of course, and her face was ten inches from mine. If I had been taller, her head wrap would have knocked the sunglasses right off my head. They laughed and talked and carried on quite literally as if we weren't even there.
It was a bit surreal, really. Aside from the glaring political correctness double standard issue, it just didn't make sense. I mean, if we had gone down to a local blues club in Compton to hear some music, I could see getting this reaction from the other patrons. I wouldn't like it there either, but it wouldn't be a huge surprise. However, in the box seats at the Hollywood Bowl? Are you kidding me? The place is supported by the patronage of the oldest whitest crustiest people on the planet, and this sort of behaviour is very unusual.
While I am certain that every woman in that group had the converse experience one too many times, being Caucasian, I hadn't. The closest I'd come to discrimination was when I was bar tending at a lesbian bar in West Hollywood. I had served a Bettie Paige lookalike a drink after ignoring her advances, and she took the drink and said "Ugh, you're straight!" before storming off. I thought it was kind of funny at the time because she thought she was being insulting. This Bowl situation, on the other hand, felt wrong and kind of dangerous. The large one was emanating some sort of hostile ray of death at my head without even looking at me. I just couldn't ignore it. I turned to her and said "You know, we paid for our seats, just like--", but, before I'd finished the sentence, she put the palm of her hand directly in my face, giving me a first hand understanding of exactly what "talk to the hand" means. I was floored. Her friends ignored the interaction and one of them distracted her with a piece of cake. My boyfriend hissed "don't.. they have a fucking knife...". I glanced at the cake knife that was lying next to the cake box and wondered how fast security would come if she came at me with the knife, or how long I'd last if I came at her with it. Probably not something I'd like to test considering that all she had to do was sit on me and I was pretty much done for.
The show began and they kept on talking and laughing as if they were in their back yard having a tea party. While everyone around us gave us empathetic looks, there we were, trapped in the box from hell. At intermission we decided to move up to an empty box directly in front of us. We had to ask them to move aside so we could get out of the box. The woman nearest the front pulled her belongings aside and looked up at me blankly as I passed her. I tried to return the gaze, but I am sure she saw the confusion and rage on my face. A huge collective cackled went up as we sat in the new hostility free box, but we didn't care. The man next to us nodded and said something like "those gals giving you some trouble?". I just rolled my eyes and tried to enjoy what was left of the show. They talked and shrieked with laughter through the second set,which was mostly drowned out by the music.
Naturally when the third couple showed up last Saturday,to see Earth,Wind and Fire, I gave them a good once over and determined them to be as harmless as we were: middle aged, middle class and probably middle management. No match for an African Queen and her subjects, and that's quite alright with me.

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