Sunday, August 5, 2018

they paved paradise and put up a parking lot

Mrs. P and I attended the annual XPoNential Music Festival*, a three-day gathering of members (and non-members, I guess) hosted by WXPN, an indispensable radio station in the Philadelphia area. This year marked the 25th year of the festival and boasted such diverse performers as David Byrne, Lukas Nelson, J.D. McPherson and a bunch more. It's more than just a concert, though. It's like a big family reunion, if you liked everyone in your family.

The festival takes place in Wiggins Park on the Camden, New Jersey waterfront. Wiggins Park, named for Dr. Ulysses Wiggins (who, I believe, was the first doctor to treat victims during the annual "Burn Camden to the Ground on Mischief Night"), is a picturesque natural amphitheater, with sloping lawns and shady trees. It is one of the truly nice things in Camden. Actually, Camden is going through sort of a Renaissance. Sort of. Within the first two blocks off the waterfront, there's a lot of construction, a lot of overpriced, rehabbed buildings festooned with signage to entice tenants.... and an abandoned minor league ballpark, the one-time home of the one-time Camden River Sharks. Past that two-block cutoff, you take your life in your hands. Camden is a scary, scary place — rife with shady looking characters, boarded-up buildings and a ton of broken glass. I suppose that's why Wiggins Park faces Philadelphia.

In the days after the XPoNential Music Festival*, most everyone is talking about their favorite memories of the weekend — which performers they enjoyed, that new musical discovery they were exposed to, how many free ice cream bars they consumed. Sure, we had a good time, heard a lot of great music and downed more than our fair share of ice cream, but, honestly who wants to read a Josh Pincus story about something pleasant? I'll try not to disappoint.

The gates were set to open at 3:30 on Friday afternoon, with the first band — Philadelphia funksters Swift Technique — scheduled to take the stage at 4. Mrs. P and I packed our cooler and gathered our new custom-made blanket (constructed from a collection of bandannas) and backed out of our suburban Philadelphia driveway around 1. After inching through congested traffic on the infamous Schuylkill Expressway, we made it to Camden around 2. Our go-to parking garage is not always accessible, mostly due to non-existent rules and some overzealous attendants who get to exercise a bit of authority one weekend a year. But, instead of following the giant electronic arrow flashing on a temporary sign at the corner of Market Street and Jersey Joe Wolcott Boulevard (I shit you not!), we made a left on the off chance that the parking lot attendant was feeling particularly generous this Friday. 

He was not.

A weathered man with wild gray hair and approximately three teeth in his head (two of which were in his mouth) sporting a bright red "Live Nation" polo shirt signaled for us to stop as we approached the garage entrance. "You folks here for the concert?," he croaked through a sneer. We replied in the affirmative. He sneered more. "You gotta park in lot 1, 3, 4, 9 or 11.," he spat, as though everyone is intimately familiar with his random list of designated parking lots. My wife asked for general directions to the aforementioned lots. The man waved his arms left and right and muttered something about making lefts and rights. Mrs P spun the car around and drove up to the festival entrance where a queue line had already begun to form. I unloaded our gear — chairs, cooler, blanket — and left Mrs. Pincus to grab a spot in line while I went off in search of parking.

I continued past the Camden Aquarium and spotted an A-frame sign in the middle of an otherwise-barricaded street. The sign read: CONCERT PARKING $10. "Well, that's for me!," I thought. As I approached the entrance to a relatively safe-looking, fenced-in parking lot, a bedraggled attendant leaning back in a metal folding chair pointed to his wrist (he wasn't wearing a watch) and yelled, "Three o'clock! Lot opens at three!" Then he curled his lips into the standard parking lot attendant authoritative smirk. I check the clock on my dashboard. It was 2:30. I would have to find a place to sit in my car for a half hour, because the delicate balance of nature would be thrown irreparably out of kilter if I were permitted to stash my car on that hallowed asphalt thirty minutes early. 

Across the street from the inaccessible-til-3 lot was an entrance to a construction site that was as wide as a street with cars parked along both curbs. I saw a couple of hard-hatted men climb in to some of the vehicles and pull away, leaving an open parking spot. I pulled into one of the spaces to wait. A car pulled in behind me and the passenger — a confused looking guy — got out and looked around as though he had been dropped from an airplane. I suppose he was checking for a sign of some sort delineating the regulations for parking in this small access road. Of course, no such sign existed, so he did the next best thing. He asked the nearest person sitting in their car with the windows rolled down. That was me. "Excuse me," he said, "You think it's okay to park here?" I looked right at him and replied, "I wouldn't. I'm waiting for the lot across the street to open at 3 so I can park there." He scrunched up his face in an expression of befuddlement. "What do you mean 'you wouldn't?' Is it because you're worried something would happen to your car because this is Camden?," he questioned. "Yes. Yes, I am." I stated. The man shuffled back to his car. By this time, it was nearly 3 o'clock. I turned the ignition key and swung my car into a U-turn, heading over to the now-open lot. I paid my ten bucks and found myself an open space on the end of an aisle. The guy who questioned my parking plans pulled in next to me.

We arrived bright and early  as the second day of the XPoNential Music Festival* kicked off at noon, with the gates set to open at 11:30. Gluttons for punishment that we are, we took another shot at our favorite parking garage. As we approached, we saw several cars being waved in. That was a good sign and things looked promising. We got closer and an attendant — a different guy from the day before — waved for us to stop before entering. "You folks here for the concert?" he asked. We confirmed that we were. He informed us that today the garage was reserved for radio station employees and handicapped parking. My wife quickly explained that our son is an employee of the radio station. (He is indeed.) The attendant glanced into our car and gave the interior a once-over. Seeing no one but Mrs. Pincus and me, he was prompted to ask, "Is he with you?" Mrs. P tried to save this by saying we will be driving him later. The attendant wasn't buying it. Instead, he directed us to several other lots, the identifying numbers of which he rattled off like he was calling a Bingo game. Slightly annoyed, I dropped Mrs. P off at the entrance line again and parked at the same lot I parked in on Friday.

The final day of the festival found my wife and I dragging. Sure, we were having a great time, but the whole weekend is a tiring undertaking. Plus, with each festival, we find that we are another year older. Although we enjoy the convenience of the riverfront parking garage, we just weren't up for an argument over getting ourselves in. This morning, I just went straight to the entrance line and dropped Mrs. P off with our belongings while I headed to the parking lot that accommodated us the previous two days. As I pulled away from the curb and headed towards the lot situated four long blocks from Wiggins Park, my phone rang. It was my wife. She explained that she was talking to some guys in line who said they parked in the garage with no problem. I hung a quick left and drove right up to the garage entrance where I was greeted by the Sunday attendant — a different guy from Friday and Saturday's guardian. However, he must have been studying the Parking Lot Attendant Official Handbook, because he started off with the ever-popular ice-breaker: "You here for the concert?" I said, "Yes." Then, he threw me a curveball. "Are you a volunteer?" I panicked. I wasn't one of the many volunteers who offer their services for the weekend out of the pure love they have for WXPN. I love the station, but I like to just sit on a blanket and listen to music for three days. Sure, I could have very easily said I was a volunteer, but that would involve lying, which is something I do not do. It would also, most likely, require me to produce some proof of my volunteer status, so I answered, "No." I was immediately denied entrance to the garage. Again. Instead I was directed to follow the street to the traffic light where a left turn would take me to Lot 1. I angrily exhaled. I hit the gas and followed the road until I found a large, fenced-in, unmarked parking lot. A smiling young lady with a fistful of parking tickets waved me in. "Is this Lot number one?," I asked." Her smile broadened. "Yes it is., " she cheerfully replied. As she relieved me of ten dollars, I told her about the contradictory information I was given by many of her co-workers. He gave a little pout and sort of apologized on behalf of the entire Camden Parking Authority. Then she pointed to a wide area of available parking spaces and offered a heartfelt "thank you" as I drove off. That little bit of "nice" almost made up for three days of parking frustration.

At the culmination of the three-day event, the General Manager of WXPN took to the stage, thanked everyone in attendance and invited everyone back for next year's festival.... although he made no mention of where to park.

* presented by Subaru

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