A Hoboken Yankee in Connecticut

Pearl JamHartford, Connecticut is a little town that north-easterners pass on their way to Boston. Or that’s what I thought. I didn’t know much more than that until this past weekend when I stayed in Hartford overnight to see Pearl Jam. My friend Arthur and I thought that PJ would play a show or two at Madison Square Garden, much closer for us. But no such tour date showed up in their many legs after long, anxious waiting. So we decided to take a drive.

Hartford is a pretty small city and one guy in a local tourist magazine claimed “It’s like living in SoHo, but with much cheaper rent.” Anyway, we were wheeling our big cooler across the hotel lobby into the elevator when some portly fellow who worked for the hotel exclaimed: “Our cooler policy is one warning! We warn you once, then that’s it! Plus, you better bring a raincoat! It’s going to rain!”

We weren’t sure if Mr. Killjoy meant we would get thrown out on the first or the second strike, but we didn’t care.

And, it didn’t rain.

The hotel was packed with Pearl Jam fans as we soon found out. It was a bit like a writers’ conference without costumes and smelly people. Oh, no wait, some people did smell.

The concierge told us the one mile walk was “not a nice walk,” so we took a cab. As I sat down in the taxi I noticed the meter already had $4.00 on it. I asked him to reset the meter. It went down to $3.00. The window to my left proclaimed $2.25 initial fare. We drove one mile. Total bill: $9.75, not including tip.

“Welcome to Connecticut,” I thought.

The concert was held at Dodge Music Center, an outdoor amphitheater which is partly roofed and partly a steep grassy hill. Anyway, the Center was probably one of the worst designed venues I have ever been to. They had one indoor bathroom where a line of men like herded cattle squeezed into the tiny openings for slaughter. We actually had to wait to leave the bathroom too. It was mobbed.

Beers were $7 a pop. To be expected, I guess. But the grassy hill was pretty steep and we didn’t want to schlep back and forth with beers, so we double fisted up these tall flights of wooden steps. At the top we got our first unobstructed view of the place: It was huge. Thousands of people crowded the grassy hill, but I noticed an empty spot on the opposite side, so we trecked across the moist grass in the gloomy evening under light drizzle to our spot.

I’ve never liked Dodge as a company. I had an ’88 Dodge Daytona. Every piece that could go wrong went wrong on that car. The problems were too numerous to name. I vowed never again to buy one. Dodge, in its revamped image, likes to market to red-blooded twenty and thirty something males, or older men having a mid-life crisis. That’s why their logo is blood red, their symbol is a ram, and their best-selling models are trucks. They are like the New York Post, selling to our basest instincts, except they sell cars. What made me loathe them more was the subliminal message they flashed at the end of Pearl Jam’s opening song. Huge TVs showed the band for those of us high on the hill and without hawk-eye vision. So as the song ended the screens switched to a man holding what looked like a cue-card before the crowd that said “Go get something to drink and eat.” The words were written in blood-red, just like the big Dodge logo hanging on the side of the stadium, and each word flashed in quick turn to the beat. The total time of the image was less than a second. Not quite subliminal, but add to that the alcohol and other substances being used by the crowd, and I’d call that a pretty sneaky marketing ploy. I didn’t see any other messages during the show, but perhaps I wasn’t meant to.

That didn’t spoil the show though. In fact, even though it was cold and wet, like maybe 50 degrees tops, and even though we were pretty far away, there was an excellent vibe about the hill, and the concert rocked. Connecticut folk were a bit aggressive at first before the show started, but when it came time to cheer they grew slothful. I don’t know if it was the dismal weather or the culture of the area, but this too didn’t seem to matter. Eddie and the band rocked us out.

Right before the first encore Arty and I headed down for a second round of brews. A nebbishy beer salesman replied after I asked him politely where we can purchase a beer: “There’s a bar two miles that way.” They had, unbeknownst to us, a 9pm cutoff on alcohol at this venue. Pearl Jam went on at 8:45pm. Perhaps the subliminal message should have said: “Beer stands close in 15 minutes.” They would have made more sales that way.

After the show we and about 15,000 other people walked down the giant wooden steps, across the puny parking lot, and over a long two-lane bridge. The walk was really insane and I’ve never seen so many people walking in one direction before, except perhaps on 9/11. It seemed that everyone either parked or was staying in the hotels downtown. Car traffic slowed to a crawl and people walked in the street as if it was their own.

Back at the hotel Arty and I watched as a Catholic senior high school prom filed out to their limos. Some of the black students were pimped out with, besides their tuxes, top hats and canes. We enjoyed that.

We wandered the hotel looking for parties when we heard some live music coming from a room. A guy we met in the hall introduced us to the room’s occupants and we ended up hanging out with this group of cool people from California, Boston, Florida, and some other places. Most of them were following PJ around the country. There was an acoustic guitar, there was a cooler of beer, and there was good (and sometimes odd) conversation until about 2am. I even played a few PJ songs on the guitar which was new for me. I’d never played before a strange audience before. And they enjoyed them.

But, it never rained (besides a slight drizzle), and we didn’t get that promised warning from the portly killjoy, and even though the experience was strange and surreal, like any visit to a city you’ve never been to before is, we had a great time.

While we were hanging out in the room, one of the guys following PJ around the country told us he followed them because, “This could be the last time you ever see Pearl Jam. Did you think about that?”

I did think about it, and I hope he’s wrong.

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