There's No 'There' There

Being from the Bay Area I reach too often for the Gertrude Stein quote about her visiting Oakland as an adult and staring at the apartment building that replaced her childhood home. "There is no there there," she wrote. Importantly, she did not write "There's nothing there." A place existed, could be seen and touched, but contained no significance, no feeling, no experience. Something was there, but the thing she had come for was not. 

Around 5:45am on Sunday, sunk into the couch in defeat, my friend wondered if going up to the front of the dance floor might fix the party for him. I had tried this around 5, I told him, and he would be disappointed. 

First I had suffered through hours of booths-and-pants techno so unremarkable it could have been a single track. Finally, Aurora or Nobu, I couldn't see who it was, unleashed a huge, jagged whooshing sound over the crowd. Master DJs do this sometimes: the first half of their set is a phone-in to finish out the alcohol hours, with little drips of sustenance to keep the freaks awake until we can take over the dance floor. Then, suddenly, a track punches through the stupor to announce that the real set is starting. A bubble forms around the dance floor and floats us off Earth's timeline. I call it "hitting the red button." 

The big whoosh sounded like red button and so I told my friends, "I'm going up to the front by myself," expecting that visiting the sweaty cauldron would be a shortcut to locking in. I slid a path through lumbering phone-clutchers and first-time-molly writhers. People were up by the booth when I got there, packed tighter than where I'd come from, like I expected. Some of them were dancing, like I expected, although not enough of them. But The Front, the space of intensity where we go to descend, transcend, subsume, lose ourselves; a place-bound energy conjured by its inhabitants; was missing. The "there" of the dance floor was not there.

In my mind I turn to Gertrude, who needs no explanation when I tell her, "It's not giving." Next to us, Peggy Lee exhales. "Is that all there is to a party?" 

I had never been to a Merge before, because no one had ever said to me, "Merge was SO GOOD this weekend!" Just: "It was ok," "There were good moments," "I guess I'm glad I went?" When this one got announced, a b2b of icons, the group chat collectively decided: ok, fine, I guess I'm finally gonna go to Merge, and about a dozen of us shelled out what felt like just a little too much for the ticket. 

My cluster arrived at 1:30 to cold rain and a line round the block. The mensch got in the back. The other two of us cut in with friends who had already been there for half an hour. It was 2 when we got in, but the milling crowd and too-bright lights felt like 11 pm, a time-space that never advanced. Even the 5am wandering was 11am wandering: early-night find-friend jitters in place of mid-spiral purpose-locked stride. Too many normies out past their bedtime. Too many strangers too high on the wrong drugs. And the lights, why the bright lights? At 3:30 another friend finally made it in after waiting ninety minutes, an amateurish degree of overselling that the prior, dearly departed Big Party would never have committed.

Merge, barely two years old, was buckling under the weight of the crown. I shouldn't shade a fellow line-jumper, but she grew up too fast. Uninterested in or perhaps unable to gestate naturally in the wombs of cramped basements and smaller warehouses, she emerged fully-formed and misshapen into the big leagues. A simulacra, a rave in the uncanny, the ingredients all there but slipping over each other unenmeshed. At 5, the ill-fated journey to the Front That Wasn't. At 6, an admission of defeat, the grasping for more finally having become unbearable. I called a car and popped a klonopin on the way to bed, the better to sleep off unease.  

I had twenty-seven Signal notifications when I woke up a little after 1, unease intact. In the night's side chat, two friends revealed that after leaving early, they had stayed up for hours trying to figure out what had gone wrong. They couldn't. None of us could. (I suspect we will talk about this for years.) Soon it spilled over into the full group. “ok what the hell happened last night??” from someone who had smartly spent their night asleep. Cursed, unsettled, dark, weird—the standard shorthand did not apply to a party that was not notably bad, but instead notably unsatisfying, which is worse. Bad is a story. Unsatisfying is a haunting. A hellish rave, in retrospect, is better than a Bardo. 

These words came weeks later. In the moment, bonded in misery and unable to enlighten others, we spoke in action. We don’t know what to tell you, we said, so maybe this will get the point across: our tickets for the next one are already in the resale queue.