I tried to hide the alarm in my voice from my girls. The gentleman with the sidelong glance (it was already sidelonging past me at the next potential sucker) and the Austin City Limits Music Festival wristbands adorning his weathered hands seemed used to that reaction. "Yeah," he said. "Nobody's selling, everybody buying." It was a cogent and succinct economics lesson.
I'm not always a great planner, and the way we got to $450 for a pair of Friday wristbands to see Beatles legend Paul McCartney is not that complicated. You could call them excuses; I call them "reasonable hedges."
I didn't buy passes in advance because I wasn't sure my kids and I were going to be able to make it up to Austin from New Braunfels on a Friday night. There was traffic. And the inertia of kids home after a long week of a just-begun school year. By Friday, their enthusiasm for standing in a very big park to see a very old man play very familiar songs very far away might have waned. And weather reports were sketchy: it was entirely possible the whole thing would be rained out. Disappointment from the sky, no diamonds.
But we had been talking about it for weeks, this idea that my kids might go with me to see the man who co-wrote and sang the songs that served as lullabies and singalongs through their childhood. When my kids were old enough to understand mortality, they asked me about the Beatles. "Are they still alive? Can we see them in concert?"
Which opened up a whole conversation about which members survived, which ones died and why. I had to explain that seeing the Beatles in concert was never going to happen, but that maybe, someday, Ringo or Paul would perform in town.
"Do they play together?"
"Ringo and Paul?"
"Yeah, why don't they play together?"
"I don't know. They don't really tour as a band."
"Do they hate each other?"
"No, that's not it. They just do their own thing. The Beatles were great, and then they moved on to do other things."
"But they still play Beatles songs?"
"Can we see them?"
It was a lot of conversations like this for years as my kids got older and more versed in the band’s back catalog. Now, the day was here, and everything was going surprisingly well. The kids arrived from school asking if we were still going. "If you want to," I answered. Turns out they really did.
After some sibling-rivalry-gone-nuclear about where to pick up food, we ended up with ThunderCloud sandwiches to eat on the road and were off. Traffic was light. We made up some time we'd lost getting our bag of festival gear ready (reusable water bottle, blanket, foldable chair). By the time we parked off Congress Avenue, it was still an hour before showtime. Plenty of time to walk to Zilker Park.
My younger daughter, Carolina — the one who once sat on a curb in protest of walking in Washington, D.C., and tried to use my phone to hail an Uber — wanted a pedicab. "The weather's beautiful, it's not that far. We don't need one," I argued.
She sulked at the corner of South Congress Avenue and Barton Springs Road and pointed. "There's lots of pedicabs right there. We can be there faster," she said.
"They're expensive," I said. "Your legs work, don't they?"
Carolina glared at me. I smiled back.
A few blocks up, serendipity. A wonderful, grandmotherly pedicab driver I'd met while working the festival the weekend before spotted me. She wanted to meet my kids and give us a ride.
"Yeah!" Carolina cried, "PEDICAB!"
I tried to beg off, but the driver insisted. Soon, we were whooshing there, weaving around slower vehicles, the October air rushing past our faces.
"Take pictures!" Carolina cried. "Instagram!"
I hoped in that moment my daughter wasn't just doing this whole experience for the 'Gram.
We got to the gate after many thanks and a tip for the pedicab driver, and the thing I was expecting to happen wasn't happening. Usually at ACL Fest, lots of people are trying to unload last-minute wristbands near the gate. Friends don't show up, people over-buy passes they think they'll be able to sell at a premium, scalpers start getting nervous late in the day that their inventory will soon be worthless.
It wasn't going like that. Nobody was selling tickets. Instead, parents and teens and old Austin hippies and the ticket re-vendors themselves were all looking for wristbands. Everyone was buying. Nobody was selling.
Every time a Friday wristband appeared on offer, a small crowd gathered to try to hijack the sale.
I saw one, two, three passes sold right from under me. Beaming buyers who could afford $300 for a single wristband sailed through the gates to see Sir Paul.
We tried and tried. Forty-five minutes to showtime turned into 35. Then 30. 25 minutes till the 8 p.m. start.
"We should go," Carolina said. "There's no tickets."
We had a backup plan in case we couldn’t get in. We were going to go to the Austin Central Library, a place my kids love. We'd grab a snack, maybe some doughnuts, and head home. It was no Paul McCartney concert, but we weren't going to waste a trip to Austin. Carolina kept tugging my shirt, suggesting we find our pedicab friend and start heading back.
My older daughter, Lilly, wasn't ready to give up. Her eyes darted back and forth, looking for someone to raise an arm with a set of Friday passes. We wandered like hungry ghosts among the many buyers and few sellers.
We passed up offers of $300 per ticket. It was just too much.
But then, we overheard a ticket seller say he had Friday passes for $225 each.
I did some mental math. My younger daughter is 8. She gets in at ACL Fest for free. Lilly, who is 11 and adamantly refuses to fudge her age to 10 to get free admission (I guess good parenting?), and I need wristbands. Two wristbands for the three of us, $450.
Oh, man, that's a lot of money.
I got the ticket seller’s attention and started digging in my wallet. Expecting to buy passes plus food and drinks, I'd come out with about $350 in cash. It still wasn't enough.
"That's OK, you can PayPal me the difference. You have PayPal?"
I took a deep breath. I asked my girls, "You're sure you want to go inside? You're not going to ask me to leave after two or three songs?"
They swore they wanted to go. I sighed a dad sigh, indicating that Dad is spending too much money on family fun. The ticket vendor and I stood in the crowd and made our phones do a money handshake in bad cell service conditions. The digital cash went through after what felt like years of LTE dithering. We had our Friday wristbands.
I could tell you about the show, but better music writers than me have painted that picture. Sir Paul McCartney was brilliant, playing a generous heap of Beatles and solo classics, songs my kids recognized in their DNA if not in their memories.
Carolina would later ask me to play "Lady Madonna" over and over on Spotify, a song she learned at the show. "Live and Let Die" was a fireworks spectacular that thrilled my up-too-late kids toward the end of the show.
Just as the set started, a man standing next to us who said he'd come from Canada to attend the festival yelled at my kids, but in a good way. "YOU'RE SO LUCKY TO BE HERE! YOUR DAD IS COOL FOR BRINGING YOU!" he shouted. My daughters nodded politely. "YOU'RE GONNA REMEMBER THIS FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIVES!"
"LET'S HOPE SO!" I yelled back. "IT WASN'T CHEAP!"
I took lots of photos and videos. We took turns in our single chair after angling to the side for a much better and closer view. I boosted Carolina up in my arms a few times. Lilly stood in the chair a few times to get a better view. Sir Paul was Sir Paul. Brilliant, great voice, great songs.
And somewhere in that long night, what I had been hoping to accomplish was happening. I wanted to give my girls a memory, to build a family moment they would have forever.
It was a rough summer for my girls. Lots of family changes. I left a job of 21 years. A new house. The stable, kind of boring life they'd been so accustomed to since birth was suddenly changing and shifting, the grassy park soil beneath their feet turning into something that felt like a queasy mud pit.
At the moment my glow stick-adorned kids sang along to "Hey Jude" and I could hear their voices carry and mix with all the thousands of others, it seemed unimportant that this night was pricey, that it had been stressful getting in, that we almost didn't make it to the show because of my own reluctance to commit to securing this experience in advance.
Right then and for every moment since, it was absolutely worth it. My daughters and I shared a memory we would talk about for weeks, then months, every time "Blackbird" or "Maybe I'm Amazed" came on the SiriusXM Beatles channel as we drove.
Money and time and traffic come and go, but when you make the effort to create a family memory, it can sometimes pay off with such rewards. When it works, which is not as often as any parent would like in this busy life, it's like pulling off a difficult magic trick while barely knowing how to shuffle cards.
I had tears in my eyes out in Zilker Park, like I always do when I hear "Golden Slumbers." I tried hard to lock the moment in my mind, to bronze it and hold it and protect it.
"Once there was a way to get back home," Paul sang. "Sleep, pretty darling. Do not cry. And I will sing a lullaby."
I looked over at my kids.
I'll remember. Always.
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