Well, barely. Talking was harder than breathing. And breathing was impossible.
We hunched over, heads bowed, reduced to violent, concussive coughs, trying yet failing to mine some refreshment from this steaming soup. One hundred yards from Tampa Bay and I’m somehow drowning on dry land.
Summertime Florida’s daily visitor was nothing but a frustrating tease, a sick joke. It threatened an appearance, a hope-inspiring glimpse of its slip, so we coveted the darkening clouds, the heat index ramping to three digits.
But no shower today, not a chance, not for us. The cloud cover barely softened the debilitating heat. We knew the truth: We had bowed down to false gods who blared punk rock, and this was our penance. Painful enough in the afternoon, it now was early evening, and the Vinoy Park heat had conquered me.
I spat again.
The hulking Alex Nodderal, at 6 feet 2 a brick wall, got his voice back first – one benefit of being 22 years old. He pulled his West Coast Choppers T-shirt away from his thick chest, analyzed it and, smiling at me, said:
“That blood can’t all be mine.”
We had wormed our way out of a mosh pit, one of several that formed as My Chemical Romance performed. It was Friday and three more bands would play at this Vans Warped Tour stop. The group was finishing up its hit Helena as we tried to recover at the edge of the crowd, me and Uncle Fester, my self-appointed kind-of bodyguard.
Alex wiped his considerable brow with the back of a soggy, filthy paw, smearing the blood that seeped from above his left eye. The piercing, an inexpensive Hot Topic deal, was gone, leaving a small gash.
The cut didn’t look too deep, though getting stitches for a facial cut generally seems like a good move. At the least, grabbing a bottled water – hell, even a beer – and rinsing out the millions of bacteria Alex had just introduced to his grass-stained, 5-o’clock-shadowed, cannonball-sized gourd wouldn’t be the worst idea.
And right after I delivered one more big, cleansing spit, thick and slimy and, huh, red – I told him so.
“Yeah, later,” he said. And then there was loud music, and Alex yelling: “That’s Hawthorne Heights! Seen ’em before?”
Even as I choked out “no” – and I meant that more than one way – Alex was pulling us back in, a rhino clearing a path through a jungle of human bodies. Funny story: I had 14 years on Alex. I had less on some of these kids, but more on most of ’em.
Suddenly the bodies were gone and we had pushed through to a mosh pit. I’m sticking to the wall for a sec, I thought, while absently helping a crowd-surfing girl – my god, that one can’t be more than 13 – avoid crashing to the earth. I catch her by the nape of her neck, lift her as high as I can and reintroduce her to the carpet of hands.
But now the pit has moved in some direction I didn’t notice – it’s just people, after all, and there is no defined playing field, no out of bounds. And I’m the middle of it. And then some little jerk drills me from behind.
It’s an elbow, I think, that levels me by landing in the small of my back. It’s an unnecessary and sadistic shot, albeit highly atypical out here, and suddenly I’m sprawling.
I’m pulled up immediately by two guys – good, safe pit etiquette, nice to know that’s not just a thing of my past – and I turn to see Alex charging toward me, coming in hot, teeth bared in a brilliant “I’m only doing this because I love you” smile.
He slams us, me and a couple of other guys, his arms low and safe. The same guys who helped me up? Probably, but who knows at this point. He didn’t hit us half as hard as he could have, but we’re drilled back several feet. The spongy wall of thrashing kids keeps us on our feet. We just smoosh the crowd real good, then bounce back.
Alex already is headed the other way, knocking into the few brave souls willing to get near him. He gives one skinny little guy – a buck twenty, tops – a shove that propels the kid off his feet.
I’m looking at Alex and thinking he’s just the king of this little ring of combat. With more than 100 bands performing, at least 100 pits have formed this day at the Warped tour.
But at this moment, Alex – who later tells me he’s studying to manage hotels, for goodness’ sake – is running the show. And I guess I’m proud, because I sort of feel like we’re buds now.
And the sun is setting and the whole scene is taking on this sepia-toned quality and I’m thinking there’s some really cool artsy metaphor to all this. But the most artsy thing I can think of is that a now-gesticulating Alex looks like Leatherface dancing with his chain saw at the end of the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Then a poorly navigated crowd surfer crashes down on my head. Must have been a decent sized kid, maybe a buck eighty, because as my neck snaps forward everything gets a little fuzzy. I think I nearly blacked out. And I’m on the ground again. And wondering how I got here.
Oh, which reminds me. Alex was right. The rest of the blood? Yeah.
That was mine.