Like a good wine, Nine Inch Nails is best when paired with certain activities, such as walking through fog in downtown Toledo, or being meticulously dismembered. The band’s bleak and melancholy sound is also recommended during sex—preferably with someone you once loved and will probably never see again. Other choice occasions include kneading your cheek after a novocaine injection, or just sitting curled up in the corner of your bedroom.
Me, I enjoy Nine Inch Nails at the gym. While the rest of the adults at Planet Fitness watch CNN from treadmills or listen to podcasts on the elliptical, I circle the Nautilus machines, dressed in camo sweatpants and a black tank top, lip-syncing songs about marching pigs and the death of religion. In my mind I am leading a revolt. Against what, I don’t know, but it’s crushing my soul, and pushing me to the kettle balls.
Two weeks ago I learned that Nine Inch Nails is touring the U.S. with a stop in my city. The venues are small theaters, and in true power-to-the-people form, the band has eschewed Ticketmaster and other online agencies and opted to sell tickets only at the box office. According to their website, the intent is a return to the old days, when fans lined up at the venue, paid face value, and possibly made a few like-minded friends along the way. This is how it was done before Ticketmaster and Stubhub came along. Today this concept is so novel that Trent Reznor has coined it “The Physical World”, appealing to the nostalgia of his own generation, who remember when such a place actually existed.
The tour itself is titled “Cold and Black and Infinite”, which is fitting, as it aptly describes the line I waited in for eight hours last Saturday. Though I am one of the middle-aged fans who yearns for The Physical World, the experience nearly broke me—mentally and physically—and I’m beginning to wonder if this wasn’t part of Mr. Reznor’s intentions as well: a psychological razing, the liberation of my consumer mind, the transparency of my idol worship—all themes one might typically find in a Nine Inch Nails song.
I left my house at 7:00 that morning, confident I’d be among the first in line, since tickets didn’t go on sale until 10:00. At 7:30 I arrived at the theater, and my hope was crushed. The line spilled out the front doors and disappeared into the horizon. I walked alongside it, desperate, searching for the end. Every turn presented another endless stretch of people. It was a sobering welcome, a reminder of the futility of life, the insignificance of our dreams.
Finally I reached the end. I took my place and stood, debating whether I should cut my losses and just go home. All signs pointed to home, literally, since I was standing next to a highway onramp, six blocks from the theater.
At 8:15 the line started to move. We walked and stopped, walked and stopped, shuffling through the city like a chain gang, gaining fifty feet every twenty minutes.
At 9:30 we entered the theater. I received a number: 432, handed to me on a wristband. “Do NOT lose this,” the usher commanded, herding us along. I felt like cattle that had been tagged inside a slaughterhouse.
I attached the wristband with my trembling hands and walked on.
The entire line was now packed inside the theater, two thousand people crisscrossing past each other on stairwells and balconies. I was tucked away near a service entrance for ninety minutes. I sat on the cold Linoleum and fought back images of bananas and protein bars and water bottles, all things I should have bought on the way in.
At 11:00 the line moved fifteen feet. The crowd cheered.
Then we were still again, for another hour. My stomach rumbled. I imagined how it looked inside: a fiery underground pit of roiling gastric juices. I put in my ear buds and listened to The Downward Spiral, putting a soundtrack to the picture.
At 11:30 I texted my wife: This is insane. I had no idea it would be this nuts. I know I said I’d be back by eleven, but I think it’s going to be more like 2. Sorry!
She wrote back and said not to worry.
At noon I heard gasps. The line moved again, another twenty feet. There was laughter somewhere, the shrill, delirious kind.
By 1:00 I had made it into the lobby, where I could see the grandeur of the theater: gilded fixtures, high ceilings, Corinthian columns. It was like seeing daylight after a lifetime of confinement. For a brief moment I felt a kindling inside me, that long-forgotten emotion called hope. I relished it, knowing it wouldn’t last.
At 1:15 I considered urinating in my pants. I had a number tagged to my ear—I mean, tied to my wrist—but still, I was afraid to leave the line. There was too much at stake. So I held it in, figuring that eventually my groin region would go numb.
At 1:45 I ate lunch—two pieces of Trident gum.
At 1:50 my vision started to blur from dehydration.
“This is unbelievable,” someone in front of me said. I stared back but said nothing, unsure of whether or not the person was real.
At 2:00 I texted my wife again, another apology, another empty promise that when I got home I’d watch our son so she could go out and do something, like get a massage, or file for divorce.
At 2:30 the line moved again, and I could now see the box office. I celebrated with another piece of Trident. There were merchandise booths set up on both sides, as well as a deejay playing Nine Inch Nails remixes. I remembered the website announcement: “Food and drink will not be available. Restrooms will not be available. There will, however, be music.” Yes—loud, pulsating, industrial music. It’s like telling someone who’s starving that instead of food they’ll be treated to a metal pipe against their head.
I began to sway back and forth, lightheaded. The group in front of me—four friends—played a charades-like game. They were cheerful and laughing. I had my first thoughts of cannibalism.
At 3:15 I reached the box office area. The ticket window was in view. People were receiving their seats and then crying out as though they’d been freed from a lifetime of bondage. Some thrust their hands in the air; others fell to their knees. I heard people on their phones, telling loved ones they were okay. Adrenaline surged through me. I would make it. I knew I would make it.
At 3:45 I had my tickets in hand: four orchestra seats for the Friday night show, the best I could get. “You’re okay, you’re fine,” the teller said as I sobbed pathetically. I walked outside and directly into a 7-11, where I bought two hot dogs and a Coke. I ate the hot dogs at the register and drank the Coke outside, with both hands on the bottle, the syrupy overflow dribbling down my chin. I sat on the sidewalk and looked up. The sky was low and gray and dense. Rain sprinkled against my face. Something inside me had changed, though I couldn’t figure out what.
I called my wife but hung up after one ring. What would I say? What would she say? Would we talk about dinner plans? The color printer I still hadn’t set up? Would she tell me something cute about our son? I felt an internal struggle: part of me recoiled from the idea of a conventional family, while another part longed for the closeness of a lover.
“I hope you had fun, out all day,” my wife said when I finally got home, at five.
I tried to respond, but all that came out was a single burning tear.
She thinks I’m crazy for spending an entire day, at my age, waiting in line for tickets to a rock concert. My friends and colleagues call me stupid, immature, trying too hard to recapture my youth. They don’t get it. No one does. Since then I’ve stayed mostly in my basement, where it’s colder and darker, where I’m attuned to my isolation, where I can accept my misguided, misunderstood priorities.
Fortunately, I have the perfect music for such an occasion.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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