Festival Blues: A Short Story of Alienation

Written June 2013

Packing the cardboard boxes always meant summer was on the wane. It was Jonah’s ritual.

He took down the posters and cleared the small office of collateral that was used to remind the staff and unpaid interns of how exciting the festival was to be and how important incessant enthusiasm was in promoting gay culture.

Since the freedom marches of the early 1980s, the festival had always been held in the last week of summer to commemorate the night the old queens set the police station on fire in protest at the latest bashing to go uninvestigated.

Jonah flicked through the pamphlets for the various shows before filing them away. His heart sank — it was getting worse every year — and this bumf was a piercing reminder of the festival’s low points.

Frustrated, he abandoned careful filing and threw all the posters and papers into the box in a petulant huff. He closed the lid and sealed it with masking tape. It was quite a large box — it had once housed the office bar fridge that would now whirr unattended through winter — causing Jonah to sigh at the awkward transportation confronting him.

He launched it from ground with a deft touch and snuck his arms under before it catapulted forward. Approaching the office door, he heaved the box with his right arm, using his free left hand to jiggle with the lock, which sat five centimetres below the knob. Contorting his hand to the point of cramp, Jonah finally perfected the concurrent twisting of both lock and knob to free him from the office.

With both hands now on the box, he approached the small flight of stairs from side-on. It was already darkening and some spitting during the early evening had slicked up the steps. Jonah was tentative. He moved his left foot to the first step, feeling with the tip of his toes… Success! He thought, and he brought his right foot down to join its twin on the now cramped space.

He repeated this, moving faster, down the next three steps, before his bravado overcame him; the momentum of his right foot joining his left on too small a space caused Jonah to fall forward, down the last three steps.

The box, removed his grasp, seemed to explode on the footpath in an orgasm of gay festival bureaucracy, just as Jonah exalted a pent-up, fermented round of cursing.

Fucking cunt!” he screamed; unsure if he was directing it at the box or his own incompetence.

Maybe this is for the best, Jonah half-heartedly reassured himself as he fussed over the dampening material. His fetching of all the papers from the wet cement had crumbled them. He had picked them all up, for Jonah despised littering, and in the same way a mother holds a newborn baby, Jonah looked down at the hundred-or-so documents.

Then he looked at the withered cardboard box.

Then he looked at the garbage bin.

Free at last, he thought, as he began the walk down F Street to his apartment. ‘F For Free’ he and the old queens used to chant, as they marched in the early days. Progress could rename it G Street, for ‘Gentrification’, though there were still vestiges of the old culture and of the festival.

At the end of the block from the office was the Gold Crown Theatre, which hosted one of the several plays about male prostitution staged this year. This particular one was high concept: a play about rent boys, conceived and performed by an apparently reformed rent boy, playing all nine parts.

Jonah crossed and continued down F, past the Guillotine Club, host of ceaseless drag shows, this year themed to different disco eras, not even different eras of music. The 5pm crowd was shuffling in and Jonah could hear, from the street, Gloria Gaynor playing on the jukebox. Jonah thought back to when he was first coming out — the original era of disco — the songs never seemed that different during that brief epoch.

Next to the Guillotine was a 24-hour pharmacy, a 24-hour record shop and a 24-hour book and comic store. Jonah mused out how convenient it was that gay areas always seemed to have infinitely open specialist shops but this momentary happiness was breached when he passed the 24-hour pizza slice restaurant and found himself under the awnings of the Windsor, home to festival’s desultory stand-up comedy program.

There were the usual hipsters making witty insights about modern culture and a few lesbians making fish puns — the normal, harmless, boring stuff — but the worst was the edgy international stand-up comic, flown it at great expense, who performed his set with his cock out, blood rushes timed — to the perpendicular — to match his zingers. The mainstream press had memorably described it as “inoffensive…merely unusually unpleasant”.

A celebration of gay culture should be about more than rent boys and novelty comedians, Jonah thought as he hurried on past the Windsor, over the cross street and towards Elizabeth Avenue; it should be pleasant and welcoming and involve rather than alienate the straight people we are ultimately relying on for equality and justice, not that he dared voice something so obsequious in front of the benefactors.

Before turning right onto Elizabeth, Jonah about-faced and stared up F Street towards the offices. He recalled the Elysian pleasure during the sultry weeks of the festivals of his youth. One year, he wore his hair high in a bouffant and walked the route he’d just miserably completed wearing only Speedos and sandals on his way to a foam party, where he gorged on poppers and had an erection he thought would last forever.

It was becoming harder to conflate the maudlin past with the turgid present.

Tabby Wynette greeted Jonah as he entered his apartment. He bent down at hoisted his beloved Russian Blue up for a mew and a kiss. Despite his chagrining walk home, sanguine optimism pulsed through him as he nestled his face in Tabby Wynette’s velvety fur.

He retrieved his iPhone from his pocket, unlocked it and selected one of the old queens from his Contacts.

After a polite three rings, Thomas answered:

“Hello Jonah; another great festival!”

“Was it Tom?” Jonah said.

“Of course, you saw how much coverage we got in the paper and on TV, that’s why we hired a PR exec to run it.”

“I can’t help but think it was too gay, or at least not ‘modern gay’. The kids are different now; I’ve seen their tastes change over the 10 years — you don’t see it because you’re not on the front line. They don’t want the overt sexuality or all that campness and they definitely don’t want to see a stand-up comic with his dick flopped out.”

“Jonah, Jo-nah, Jo…nah,” Thomas patronised. “That’s what a gay festival is, otherwise it would be a straight festival, which is just life.”

“There must be something else: what about an art show for up-and-comers who are gay but you wouldn’t know it from the paintings? Or photographs of men wearing clothes for change?”

“You can do those as well—”

“Or we could put on some plays; there are plenty of gay playwrights we could celebrate: Noël Coward, Oscar Wilde, Tony Kushner, Patrick White—”

But Jonah knew immediately had had misspoke.

“Patrick White?” Thomas latched on immediately. “The man hated everyone and everything. We can’t go around putting on plays no-one will understand from old poofs who didn’t nothing to help the cause.”

Jonah winced. Hoisted by his own petard.

“Of course not,” was all he could manage.

He silently accepted the rest of Thomas’s praise, finished the call and placed his phone on the kitchen bench. After mixing a strong Midori and lemonade, Jonah put on one of his old disco records and snuggled up on the couch with Tabby Wynette.

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