John stared at the blinking cursor on his computer screen, willing it to make words appear without his help. He looked maliciously towards the clock, tick-tocking ever closer to a deadline he was nowhere close to meeting. From the desk in his home office, John could see his son Ben sitting on the couch. Ben was also nose-deep in a computer, although he seemed to be having more success than his dad. Something on the screen caused a broad smile to stretch across Ben’s face. His happiness drifted through the air, nearly reaching John, until—
Ding! A notification appeared on the computer screen. A message from his boss, Paul. All happiness dissolved.
“I hope your project is coming along rapidly,” the message read. John stared blankly at the little grey box, then furiously punched the ‘ignore’ option.
“I’m not even supposed to be working today!” John said aloud, exasperated. He ran his hands through his hair. Today would have been the start of the annual Jazz Fest, which John traditionally took time off of work to attend. However, this year was highly untraditional, to say the least. Under the specter of a worldwide pandemic, the Jazz Fest was on hiatus. John, and his son Ben, had been crestfallen at this turn events, albeit for very different reasons.
John wasn’t originally from New Orleans, but he’d spent a large chunk of his adult life in the city, calling it home now for more years than he cared to count. Ben, however, had been born and raised in New Orleans, often telling anyone who would listen that he was a native.
“A real Who Dat baby!” Ben would say. It filled John with joy to know that his son felt so connected to the Crescent City. It filled Ben with pride to claim it as his own. On many occasions, John had heard folx reply to his son with things like: “you must bleed black and gold!” Statements like this always lit up the twelve year old’s face brighter than a Mardi Gras float. Ben spent all his free time reading about the history and culture of the city, decking his bedroom walls with pictures of New Orleans, and dancing wildly to brass music.
Naturally, Jazz Fest was one of Ben’s favorite times of the year. Last year’s 50th anniversary celebration had amazed him so much that Ben exclaimed to his father, with a mouthful of crawfish bread, that “this is better than Christmas!” True to that passion, when the pandemic broke out Ben’s first questions to John was about the event.
“Do you think they’ll cancel Jazz Fest?” his eyes swelled with disbelief at the possibility. John hadn’t only seen that look from his son once before, when the New Orleans Saints had a very big football game stolen right out from underneath them.
John’s feelings about the festival were less straightforward. When he moved to New Orleans (and for plenty of years after) he had loved going to Jazz Fest almost as much as Ben did now. As the festival grew in national popularity, the crowds grew with it, and eventually John found himself becoming agitated with all the jostling and jockeying. He pined for the days when he could claim a nice spot of grass without having to arrive three hours early.
By and by, John’s favorite thing about the season became the extended period of time he could take off from work. In recent years, Ben’s excitement over Jazz Fest, combined with the unique atmosphere of the event, revived some of that old appreciation in John. Still, John’s patience rarely lasted past the first weekend, and he was ready to escape from the Fair Grounds at Ben’s first yawn.
In the midst of the pandemic, the Mayor had put New Orleans on stay-at-home orders. John’s first reaction had been relatively positive. Working from home will be a breeze, he thought. All the more time to spend with Ben. Only, with less commuting, John’s boss Paul expected higher productivity out of his workers— and he wasn’t shy about letting them know.
Two weeks before the event’s regularly scheduled date, Jazz Fest organizers announced the cancellation of the 2020 festival. Within thirty-minutes, Paul had ordered a company-wide video call.
“Well..” John cringed hearing Paul’s voice. He had a feeling he knew what was coming. Paul continued, “This is a tough time for the company. We’re losing profits like gangbusters! Shareholders are angry! I know that a lot of y’all requested time off for Jazz Fest… but now that there isn’t a festival… I have decided that we’ll be declining all requests…” The video screens erupted in a buzz of heated voices and indignant expressions. There was a click, and the shouting faces became noiseless, although, it didn’t take a professional to lipread the more suggestive phrases being mouthed. Paul bristled, “y’all are worse than children! Look… You’re workers! We need you to work! The shareholders and I expect results here people!”
John had tuned out the rest of Paul’s speech, flushed with anger as his coveted time off disappeared. He wasn’t the only emotional one in that shotgun house: further down the hall, John heard Ben’s bedroom door slam shut.
Guess I don’t have to break that news, John thought.
Ben stayed in his room for three full days, blasting Professor Longhair records to hide the sound of his tears. Not even a delivery of hot roast beef po-boys could cheer him up. Then, a week before Jazz Fest was supposed to begin, a radio announcement miraculously coaxed him out of hiding.
“DAAAAAAAD!” John sprang in shock. He hadn’t heard Ben’s voice in days. Feet thundered down the hallway, “Dad! Dad! Dad! Dad! It’s back! Jazz Fest is back! It’s gonna be on the RADIO! WWOZ!”
John stared at his son’s shining face. He tried to drum up the same excitement Ben felt.
“Son, I’m so— ”
Ding! A notification pulled John’s eyes back towards the computer screen. He could ignore the grey box, but not the reminder it left; he wasn’t free to attend a Jazz Fest whether it was in-person, or online. John looked back at Ben.
“That’s… that’s great son…” John wasn’t sure if he sounded convincing, but Ben didn’t seem to notice. He rattled on with excitement.
“YEAH! They’re gonna play old sets that I’ve never heard and there are chefs sharing recipes online and restaurants are gonna’ deliver Festival foods and people are doing video meetings to dance together and… and… it’s gonna be just like the real thing— only virtual!”
Ding!… Ding!… Ding!… Messages from Paul rolled in as quickly as Ben rolled through the house, hopping up and down with happiness.
Ben spent the next few days scouring the internet for all the details about the on-air festival. John continued to work, every dinging notification souring him on the idea of a virtual Jazz Fest that he couldn’t be at. In short time, John became so bitter that all he could think about were the things he hated about the real live Jazz Fest. Finally— he didn’t dare say this to Ben— John convinced himself that a virtual Jazz Fest wasn’t a real Jazz Fest at all. So, why worry about it?
It was on the first day of the on-air festival that John found himself unable to work and trying to catch some of his son’s joyous smile. Ben sat on the couch waiting for the show to start. The chiming message from Paul infuriated John, so after ignoring it, he slammed the computer closed and stood up from the desk. A fatherly notion popped into his head. Ben would really like one of my old Festival shirts, John thought. He walked quietly into his bedroom, trying not to alert his son, hoping to give him a good surprise. John pulled open the dresser drawer where he kept the lively printed Hawaiian-style tops. Slowly, he pulled out shirts styled with red beans, and streetcars, alligators, instruments and great big magnolia leaves.
The garments popped with colors and mosaics and memories. At last, John reached the bottom of the drawer. His eyes fell upon a design he had never seen before. Was it just his eyes, or was this pattern moving? Shades of blues and greens, purples and oranges, all seemed to sway, move, and shift shapes. Where had this shirt come from? John reached out for it shirt hesitantly… but there was no fabric to grab…his hand went right through what should have been cloth, past where he should have felt a wooden panel… until suddenly…
John’s bedroom disappeared from view as his vision filled with swirling colors. His ears picked up the sounds of chattering crowds and lively music. The noise seemed to be coming from afar… gradually growing louder… until… the colors were gone. John saw only black.
It took him a moment to realize that his eyes were closed. Opening them gave him the biggest shock of his life… Golden sunlight poured all around him... He gaped in amazement… He was on the Fair Grounds. John was at the Jazz Fest.
John looked around wildly at the crowd of people bustling to and fro. He tried not to panic, but questions rushed his mind quicker than Ben could babble. Fortunately, the first one was an easy answer as he already knew exactly where he was. The signs, stages, and layout of the Fair Grounds were as familiar as John’s backyard. The others questions weren’t so simple: a steady track of “how did I get here?” hammered John’s brain until he was forced to let it out by screaming at the top of his lungs:
“HOW DID I GET HERE!?” The throngs of people flowing around him, which up until this point had ignored his presence, stopped and stared. John screamed again— only this time he had no words. Every person who was looking in his direction was faceless. John stared at countless shades and shapes of flat, featureless heads. They all had hair, some wore hats, but there wasn’t a single nose, eyeball, mouth, chin, or mole to be noted. John felt his eyes flutter, his mind threatened to go blank. He took a deep breath to steady himself as the crowd began moving around him again. Several of the adult sized beings (were they people?) pulled their young a little closer as if they were afraid of him. A faceless-being dressed like a police officer emerged from the crowd, approaching John.
“Are you lost sir?” it asked from an unidentifiable place.
“Where am I?” John replied instinctually.
“You’re at Jazz Fest sir… Are you lost?”
“How did I get…” John took a step back as the officer-being approached him. “What year is this…” John asked, unsure how this information would help him.
“That’s a good question,” the officer replied. “Let me find out.” It turned around as if to reach for a walkie-talkie. John took off running. He knew the Fair Grounds well, but in his blind panic he had no idea where he was going. When he finally stopped running, John found himself surrounded by the booths and tents of the African marketplace, a cultural hub of the Festival. Suddenly filled with exhaustion, he collapsed in a heap next to one of the stalls.
“You need some water buddy?” Another faceless-being approached John from around one side of the stalls. John jumped with fright. The being jumped too.
“Look.. You don’t have to…” But, mentally exhausted, John took the bottle, sipped, and then chided himself for breaking a rule he constantly told Ben: “don’t take things from strangers.”
“Ya’ look beat!” the being said. “Don’t party too hard or you’re gonna miss a great show… Funky Meters is up next!” John gaped at the being. It spoke again, “I know, right! Funky Meters… whadda’ lineup!” At this, the faceless-being ambled away in the direction of the Acura Stage. In the distance, John heard a familiar drum beat, followed by a bass line he knew all too well. “Groovy Lady” began to play. Life flowed through John. Scared or not… nobody could fight such a beat. Before he could think otherwise, John was on his feet, drifting across the grounds toward the edge of the faceless crowd which was moving, shaking, dipping, ducking, and wiggling their legs in every direction. John remained on the perimeter, but in no time he was dancing too, shaking his body in all the ways that felt right.
John danced for what felt like hours. Surprisingly, the characterless heads had started to feel comforting— it was freeing to dance without wondering if anyone’s eyes were judging him. Without faces, John found himself less willing to judge the bodies for accidentally bumping him, as they too danced. John could not remember the last time he felt like this happy at Jazz Fest. All of the love, excitement, and joy that he knew Ben felt for the Festival came flooding through him. John gazed happily at all the sights, breathed deeply all the special smells. He wished he could share this with his son.
Eventually, John felt a rumble in his belly and he remembered that he hadn’t eaten. He stepped away from the crowd and headed towards the food booths, hoping that mouthless people still served soft-shell crab po-boys and Crawfish Monica.
John was only a couple bites into his sandwich when a small being caught his eye. They were walking alone, totally unattended by any of the adult-sized humanoids, wearing a Hawaiian shirt the same strange pattern as the portal John had fallen through. The being was uncannily close to Ben’s size, and sported a similar hair cut too. A strange feeling of familiarity came over John. He had an urge to see the other side of the little one’s head, just to confirm that this was not, in fact, his son.
The rolling taps of snares and a deep beating base drum pounded from the stage before the air was split by a chorus of trumpets. John only knew this song thanks to Ben: it was called “Karate.” As the first notes sounded, the little being jumped up and down, just like Ben did when he was excited. While hopping, it’s head turned slightly towards John. A crispy bite of crab fell out of John’s mouth to the dirt below. He swore that he’d seen a cheekbone the same shape as Ben’s. Had his son fell through that magical portal too? Before John could ask, the little being had taken off, rushing into the dense crowd before the stage. Without thinking, John took off in pursuit.
John had little chance of catching the excited youth. As he chased it further into the crowd, it duck and wove under swinging legs and arms, grooving to the song. John became more convinced with every shake that it was Ben. All of a sudden, John realized that he’d lost sight of the being entirely. The crowd was at its thickest, John now found himself in his least favorite festival place: the pit. The crowd hustled John from side to side. He felt panic rise again… and then… the band switch paced… The crowd slowed… John recognized the clinking cowbells of a new song. One that he knew well.
“Well I spent all day, Ridin’ on that RTA!” a singer called. John felt his feet move again. Without a second thought, he was back in the moment, dancing again. The faceless-folx moved with him… John took a big dancing hop, and without warning… he slipped onto his back…. His head collided with the dirt… His vision filled with blue sky, and then a number of faceless heads pointed down at him. Their body language suggested concern… John thought he heard someone yell, “call a medic!” He struggled to make words.
“No… don’t touch… I need to find…” The heads descended on John, filling his vision again with a rushing swirl of color palettes and patterns… then, everything was black.
John awoke on the floor of his bedroom. He felt a thumping in and around his head, and heard music playing from somewhere distant. John sat up slowly and opened his eyes. Piles of printed Jazz Fest shirts littered the floor. The outside thumping was coming from Ben’s feet, the music from a handheld radio which he was gripping tight in his hand. Ben was draped in a Jazz Fest shirt printed with a strange but familiar pattern. Ben sang loudly.
“Aint’ no time to sleep DAD! Got people to meet!” John looked around, dazed. It might have been the headache, but the print of Ben’s new shirt looked like it was swirling… just as the portal had done before John fell in.
“Wait son…Where did you get that shirt?”
“From WWOZ! They’re driving around and tossing them from a car window! Wake UP Dad! You’ll miss the whole thing!” Ben tried to pull his father upright, his feet hopping just like the faceless youth had. John allowed himself to be pulled out of the bedroom. Ben continued pulling John all the way onto the front porch. What greeted him was a sight unlike any other.
All up and down Iberville Street, neighbors were dancing and singing from their front porches. Green ferns swung in the sunlight, the smell of jasmine, boiled crawfish, and all other sorts of Louisiana scents rushed John’s nose. The sound of Ben’s music, tuned to WWOZ, echoed and reverberated from radios across every front stoop down the block. Neighbors waved and cheers’d each other from yards away.
Ding! A notification popped onto John’s phone. He looked down at it, then tossed the device into the yard.
“Sorry!” he yelled to nobody, “I’m at the Jazz Fest with my son!” John grabbed Ben and the two of them cut a rug across the concrete steps, dancing in place to the sound of the 51st Annual Jazz Fest.