It wasn’t so strange to plan to spend a weekend in Prospect Park eating and hearing live music, since that’s what I mostly use the park for anyway. During the summer Celebrate Brooklyn concerts my husband Tom and I gather friends and make a meal of cheese and cheese accessories such as crusty bread, and wash it down with some beer or wine, while lounging on a sheet on the grass and listening to a free concert by Sonic Youth or Bob Dylan. At such times I think, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” And “this is why we are here.” For an evening, I can set aside the many goddamn annoyances of life and enjoy the present moment.
However, from the first announcement a few months back, the ambitious plans for The Great Googa Mooga seemed to leave a much higher probability of goddamn annoyances. I had been trapped on an island food truck fest before where you could only get food by enduring snaking lines a hundred heads long.
This seemed like a scaled-up version of that which would likely result in the angriest tweets ever.
So I set my expectations low, and this was absolutely key to enjoying the festival.
Now, we are talking about The Great Googa Mooga, but for this purpose let’s shorten it to “GM” so as not to sound like antique car horns.
I was a little put off by GM’s cultivated exclusivity–the website-crashing free ticket distributions, the prohibitively priced “Extra Mooga”, but the organizers knew their crowd: these are otherwise sophisticated people who will stand on their heads while reciting the alphabet backwards to land a reservation at the restaurant of the moment. For many it is the closest thing we do to a sport. But while there was a little hoop-jumping to get in the gates, this was also not the state fair. Our promised hand-food would be prepared with more skill and nuance than typical state fair fare such as deep-fried Coke.
With the barrage of pre-festival emails, press releases, and media coverage, it felt necessary to prepare for GM, but when Saturday morning arrived, I hadn’t studied for my test. All I knew was Preservation Hall, the Roots, and Hall and Oates and were playing, and that there would be lots of good food and…let’s see…after scrutinizing the printout map, it appeared that all the cool speakers would be off-limits in the rich people area.
As it turned out, this was the best way to prepare: don’t waste time creating a schedule that’s doomed to fail. Play it by ear.
We arrived around 1 to many lines in all directions but some open spaces. First things first: Tom got on the line of confused fancy beer-seekers, where you had to buy tickets to buy beer or something, only they were already changing the plan…? I left him to sort out that nonsense and headed for Crawfish Monica, a pasta and cream sauce staple of Jazz Fest in New Orleans which was making its Yankee debut, which had no wait. The inauthentic elements were the the Eco serving implements (corn-based cup and forks), and the guy serving it pronounced New Orleans to rhyme with “beans.” Still: the $9 scant cup o’carbs was a solid and gently spicy start.
I returned to Tom with prize number 1 to learn that the good beer costed an average of $12 for a cup, or $3 for a shot-size sample. No thanks. This was even more nutrageous to people with taste buds since a wristband-distributing volunteer told us the only alternative to this line was Bud. But she was wrong.There were plenty more beverage stands where after a 20-minute or so line wait, you could pay cash and still get better than Budweiser beverages for around $7. So early in the day, confusion and lines already reigned, prices were high, and topping it off, phones weren’t working.
I was obsessing over my phone not working and the lack of Internet connection. Would it have killed the organizers to bring in a cell phone tower? I had better service on my Nokia brick phone on 9/11. If I have an observation and no one online knows about it until later, do I exist? My unsettled feeling suggested the answer was no.
Complaints, which are popular on the Internet, came rolling in over the Twitter (presumably from those determined and pissed off enough to keep hitting reload).
We were able to meet up with another friend, Dwayne, only by leaving the park and after many crossed phone messages, finding him just as he was giving up and leaving the park.
And then we three wandered into a pork and metal sanctuary.
Dominating the entrance to Hamageddon was a colossal pig-shaped smoker with a pig turning on a rotisserie inside it. In this section, everything sold was made of pork and the signage was in fonts of Slayer, AC/DC and Metallica.
As my two tall sides o’ beef companions waited for their pork, I waited on the drink line in direct view of the air guitar demonstration by the flamboyantly costumed team. It was an apex of assholery. Sometimes this irono-stuff is like poison to legit expression, but here it worked, maybe because it was midafeternoon and everyone was able to get beers faster than food.
We had found a special place. For example, the Hamageddon beverage stand was the only one with a handwritten sign advertising “Crunk Juice,” which is Red Bull with Hennessy and we have celebrity mixologist Lil John to thank for that contribution.
I was too busy shepherding my two cups of cider to our personal section of real estate on the slope, as designated by the sheet. Dwayne had gotten the maximum of cups, four, a risky maneuver. It was crucial to strike the balance of dehydration and hydration so you don’t have to use the Port-a-Johns.
The speakers blasted a litany of Skid Row, Motley Crue and Judas Priest as we ate, but by that time, it was clear that GM was a terrible way to sample New York City’s endless fine food purveyors. I’ve been to a lot of these joints anyway. So what were we here for?
Then came the Van Halen tribute, Unchained. On a 3-beer afternoon, they were awesome, but I will never forgive the missed opportunity of calling themselves sHam Halen.
Some dude in skinny royal blue pants was standing in our way and the menfolk were making pointed comments.
“It’s heavy metal” he turned and said by way of explanation. “You’re not dressed for heavy metal” heckled my old man. Oh crap. No fighting, boys. After that, of course, our answer to everything between us, and all of our neighbors who heard the exchange was “It’s heavy metal.” We were making pals.
When we had enough of Unchained, we got up to find GM had become a sea of humanity stretching to the furthest food stands. The Roots were coming on soon, but it was easier just to go nap.
That night, we were awed by Dwayne’s 50-story up roof deck in the Flatiron area with the Empire State looming above us, lit green, and the city all around us and fireworks going off on the New Jersey side of the river. Much later that night, we gorged on plates of Bon Chon. Best meal of the day.
I was reluctant to go back to GM. It was fun yesterday, but what were the chances it would be again? And the lines and oh the humanity. We were so reluctant to return that Tom and I spent several afternoon hours setting up our container garden on the rooftop and fire escape.
But no: there was more to be seen. A text message update that the lines weren’t bad decided it–and you could apparently now text from GM.
Hall and Oates were on when we got there. I cannot say for sure how much of the crowd’s attention, synchronized hand claps, and dancing was genuine and how much ironic. I suspect many of those participating couldn’t tell you either. I would be remiss if I didn’t evoke The Simpsons “Homerpalooza” episode here: “Are you being sarcastic, dude?” “I don’t even know anymore.” Either way, don’t be surprised if there’s a bump in Hall & Oates album sales.
By 6:45, I had an amazing chicken bao from Baohaus in hand, and there was officially no wait for drinks at stage left.
I heard a familiar bass line, looked to the stage and Oates was feeling it in his mirrored blue sunglasses: “I Can’t Go for That.” At the same time, Tom and I spotted Questlove nodding along at the far side of the backstage area. It was instantly one of the best moments of an already pretty great weekend.
We made our way around the the remaining vendors at stage right, where it was mostly a ghost town, but for Little Muenster Grilled Cheese, where I got their Oaxaca, which was sweet corn purée tomatillo and melted cotija on perfectly toasted peasant bread.
From that rise, eating this delicious half sandwich and exclaiming at least 3 more times how glad I was we came back, I had an entertaining view of the crowd, now sufficiently lubed up to dance a lot. Twentysomething girls waiting for their Muenster sandwiches were getting loose in their flower-print rompers, dipping down to the grass. That crowd was the most uninhibited fun dancing I’ve seen in Brooklyn in a long time, maybe ever.
The fest was drawing to an end. I refused to miss “Private Eyes,” so Tom went to investigate the wine tent prices on his own. When it was over, fireworks were shooting out of the giant cake, and I got a call from Tom. (Hey–My phone worked!)
“Come to the pig.”
When I arrived at the colossal pig-shaped pig smoker, a few men were dismembering the slow-cooked beast with “Lust for Life” as the soundtrack.
The carnage was fast drawing a crowd, still hungry for pork.
“I’ve been looking at this this thing for two days,” a woman muttered. “How do we eat this?”
“Ew, blood!” squealed two matching blond kids, brother and sister. It reminded me of a “meet your meat” moment I had as a child visiting Ireland (one of several, not coincidentally, since they were closer to their food sources then), strolling into Uncle Patrick’s butcher shop in Dublin and coming eye to wild eye with a giant cow head on the block. That, ostensibly, was one of the things this fest was supposed to be about: meeting your meat and seeing how it gets to your mouth. Well, I can vouch that those blondies will never forget what they saw that evening.
But back to the zombies trying to get to their porcine corpse.
“There’s going to be a Hamageddon if they don’t give us some.”
A drunk gal blurted, “I want pork in my face that’s what she said.”
Someone made the suggestion that this offering was reserved for Hall & Oates, which brought on a repeated chant of “Let’s go Oates!”
Why would they ceremoniously dismember this beast and not share? I never found out, and if it did become a riot, we got out of there before it happened. But there may be some who still might like to roast the organizers on the spit in the Hamageddon smoker.
We reconvened with friends using our cell phones (that now functioned!) at the Double Windsor bar, and for two more rounds, the fun continued.
Two favorite activities of New Yorkers are having a special only-in-New-York time and complaining. At GM, there was plenty to complain about. But it was also a free festival that everyone knew would attract many thousands of people. You know what’s relaxing? Peace and quiet. You know what’s annoying? People. Everything that ever happens in New York requires being too close to others you’d rather not: commuting, eating at a restaurant, living.
Unless you are counting on the segregation of Extra Mooga, you have to go into a situation like this knowing there will be discomfort and annoyance.
GM was a food and music festival in which I didn’t eat much food and didn’t hear much music. I did hang out with my husband and friends in the sun on a grassy slope and laughed a lot and it was good. I was glad to be where I was.
photos by Dwayne Hill and Colleen Kane.
Want more Mooga? Here’s Heather Phelps-Lipton’s photo feature.