(April 7, 2005; nonfiction)
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"Hey, what's your name?"
He looks almost like a cartoon character when he emerges from the crowd to dance next to me, which was probably what he was going for: he's sporting huge white gloves that glow blue under the blacklights, a red-and-beige-striped shirt, and unmistakably enormous pupils. After introducing himself to me, he asks if I'm having a good time; I respond that I definitely am, and having been thus reassured, he waves and vanishes into the hedge-maze of bodies. I suspect that I'll see him again, since we've had this conversation, word-for-word, three times now.
Sometimes, being in my right mind just feels like the wrong thing to do. It's a chemical circus in here, where the performing animals are weekday humans who've cast off their minds in favour of all manner of pretty shiny things, and my own humble mental state occasionally nags at me. Think of the potential wonder, the mystique!: ideas flowing freely, creativity unleashed in raw physical forms, mental processes unchained so that their owners can reach new heights of -
Wait a second. This isn't some Coleridge-inspired opium den of poetry and magic, where pleasure domes don't necessarily come wrapped in Victoria's Secret. I'm standing in the middle of the dancefloor at DarkRave, the monthly spectacle of PVC and body paint that I love so much, and most of my wonder is concerned with how many pseudonyms I can give that Groundhog Day-guy before he starts to catch on. There are drugs that inspire beauty, and then there are drugs that sham beauty while inspiring big smiles and vacant eyes. Yeah, you can argue that they all do that - but if you do, I'll know you've never spent a night surrounded by ravers. I'm not knocking anyone's decision to toy with their neurotransmitters, but if these pills contain the potential for productivity, it's nullified by this context.
It is profoundly strange and mildly disconcerting to know that in this crowd, I represent at least 20% of the total sobriety, more if you eliminate the people whose drug of choice is alcohol. (Rev is tempting in this situation, it's true, but at $7.50 per bottle, it'd be cheaper to drink myself into water intoxication than to go on a guarana-vodka bender.) Beyond that, I've never tried ecstacy, ketamine, LSD, or any other substances dredged up from shady laboratories god-knows-where. This creates a total disconnect - not only am I not having the same experience, but I can't even imagine what everyone else is currently feeling. This set of minds is completely foreign and unknowable; I don't know how anyone will react if I accidentally step on their shoes or wave hello, and have no idea how many people's nights I'm ruining with my UV-reactive contacts, which shine in the darkness and are rather startling. If you're someone who has intermittent problems with empathy and understanding at the best of times, this is a bizarre position to be in. Luckily, ravers on ecstacy and those other shady-lab chemicals are nothing if not forgiving.
Everyone beams at me as they writhe by, except when they're too disconcerted by my glowing blue eyes. (There is, as it turns out, an international gesture for, "Your eyes are freaking me the hell out:" pointing at one's own with one's index and middle fingers in a V-shape, then pointing at mine. This is generally followed by either a wink or a shudder. I counted at least nine instances of this behaviour over the course of the night.) I'm touched more than I want to be, since everyone's body appears to be everyone else's business - stray fingers and well-intentioned hugs both find me, always accompanied by kind words and grins. For the most part, I enjoy the cheerful attention, and am at worst neutral about it; however, one particular raver can't smile quite broadly enough to balance his inherent creepiness.
He's such an odd vision that he practically seems synthetic, invented by a comic book artist trying to flesh out a dilapidated dance club in some dismal future setting. I imagine he's about 40, although he might just be poorly-preserved; his face is creased and his hair is thinning, and he'd look like someone's loveable high school chemistry teacher if he weren't decked out so fantastically. I mean that in every sense of the term - he radiates audacity and a complete defiance of age, which is both oddly impressive and amusing. Two things set him apart from the rest of the ravers in t-shirts and brightly-coloured pants: the truly awe-inspiring amount of candy (beaded bracelets and necklaces, most of them UV-reactive) he's wearing, and the whistle around his neck. Every time there's a lull in the music he blows that whistle, waving his fists in the air; he is a cheerleader for electronic music as a whole. It's actually really, really annoying, but you have to respect his enthusiasm.
Anyway, at some point - probably midway through the night, around 1:30, when all respectable bloodstreams are tainted at maximum efficacy - he notices me and prances over. This isn't the first time; he made much of my eyes last month, asking me if they were my natural colour and looking rather disheartened when I told him that no, I am not in any way related to phosphorescent deep-ocean fish. However, he has totally forgotten about this in the interim, and is briefly enraptured by my face, which he grabs without warning like a curious child. With his fingers stretching along both sides of my jaw, he peers at me, and squeals something totally incoherent. The last word is 'jewelry,' that's all I know; your guess about what message he was trying to convey is as good as mine. As he lets go, I glance over at my partner in sobriety, Jessica, and we share a look of complete horror. There's something about being gripped by a tall, potentially middle-aged, incomprehensible man that inspires a certain level of alarm. He obviously means well, but somewhere between the mania of the venue and the mania in his brain, his sense of decorum has gone terribly awry. Many such things happen over the course of a DarkRave, but that's a particularly notable example, as is the time I flailed my arms a bit too wildly while dancing and accidentally connected with the same guy's shirt. It was like hitting a saturated raver-sponge, and three trips to the bathroom couldn't make my hands feel clean again.
Handling a DarkRave sober is a careful art, because a body just isn't designed to be in constant motion for eight hours at a time. Ecstasy and other related drugs mask natural exhaustion and convince people that they're fine to go on forever - at least until a debaucherous Saturday melts into a sketchy Sunday - but without that artificial assistance, one's time is decidedly limited. Caffeine and short breaks outside in the cold air help to keep my muscles awake, and if I'm devoted, I can manage a few hours of dancing with no problems. After that, though, pain and fatigue begin to set in; once I've accidentally thrown my glowsticks across the room for the third time in fifteen minutes, I know it's time to stop before I blind someone. (They'd mind come the next afternoon, I suspect.) I feel bad that I can't fully participate in the experience, but burning out my body isn't going to help anyone. By this time on this particular DR night, Jessica and I are ready to retire to a pair of comfortable pleather chairs for the delightful sport of raver-watching.
Like any creatures with an established habitat and behaviour patterns, ravers, when observed at length, yield many valuable conclusions. Sitting beneath the large screen dividing the main room, onto which bright visualizations (and, occasionally, animated Japanese porn) are projected, we watch as the same clumps of people walk by every ten minutes or so. They complete a winding circuit that takes them across the dancefloor, past the bars, near the coat check and bathrooms, and back to us, seemingly unaware of the fact that they're not exactly discovering new territory. They are migratory ruminants who wave at the same people and make the same motions during each pass, apparently forgetting who they're seeing as they see them. Granted, I've done the same thing, so I don't have a whole lot of room to talk about that one. Jess and I make a game of commenting on the scenery. We size up the social groups meandering by and make half-joking, lecherous comments about particularly precious specimens. It seems appropriate, given that most of them are currently configured as cheerful bodies to be assessed as meat. "Thank you, Santa!" we call toward a shirtless fellow with a topknot and a pair of multicoloured glowstick-orbs, but we're really only saying it to amuse each other, so it's good that he doesn't notice.
Our section of the room is the permanent home of those who are too far gone to walk (behind us) or dance (up front), so we see the best and worst of this scene: people staring blankly at the lights overhead or the sticky floor underfoot, people leaning on their friends as they jabber on and on about nothing, people hugging everyone they can lay hands on and proclaiming their love of the universe to anyone who will listen. I can't say that I don't envy them their simple serotonin-fueled adoration, but that doesn't mean I'd ever want to put myself in that position. Ignoring the fact that you only have so much happy-juice in your brain to spend - and E is a line of credit with a very high interest rate - they look so silly. Obviously, if everyone is in the same boat it doesn't really matter, but knowing what I do about how these chemicals make you act in public, how could I try them and drop myself into that? Ravers are hilarious and fun, but there is definitely a line here, and I'm on the side with June Cleaver and the pitifully misguided D.A.R.E., no matter how liberal I may be. However, despite this, by 3 AM I am feeling a lot like how I imagine they might, giggly with manic tiredness and highly amused. I might not understand these people, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy them.
Let's be clear: I don't go to DarkRave in order to make fun of its other participants, I go to mingle and snag a bit of the wonderful energy created by hundreds of happy people dancing together. There's nothing like standing just below the stage at the front of the room, packed in on all sides by sweaty, glowing, ageless individuals turned into a single organism, kept moving and moving by magical rave kinetics. Much as it perplexes me, I don't mind the all-pervasive drug use; if nothing else, it keeps my neighbours friendly. Everyone near me is having a good time, sharing in a communal experience and connecting enough to pause and resume their moves as the beat does the same, and as I shift around and wave a pair of green glowsticks in time with the lurching bass of this trance music, I can't keep the grin off of my face. It's absolutely genuine, and not generated by anything but my own general sense of well-being. Well, okay, my general appeciation of the situation's ridiculousness may be contributing, too. If I could find him without losing my place, I'd probably seek out that cartoonish Waldo-style guy, just to ask:
"Hey, what's your name?"
Maybe next month.