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On the Train To a Concert, The Electricity Begins to Build

By Esther Iverem
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 30, 1998

  Style Showcase

    On a Metro MCI night: Heather and Matt Welsh don't mind getting a little closer during a trip home on the Metro. (Lucian Perkins/The Washington Post)
They swear they can spot each other anywhere.

Even from inside a subway car at Metro Center, Kia Holiday can look out over the teeming crowd and spot Preston James. She spots him not because he stands about 6 feet 4 but because of his hair – thick, dark brown and puffing out over his shoulders tonight, not the cornrows he sometimes wears.

Preston is running late. He spots Kia from the platform. He sees she's wearing the brown-and-white striped dress he bought her. It fits kind of tight. He likes that. He presses with the crowd onto the same car, makes his way over and hugs her.

Pre-concert electricity is in the air. It travels through this trainload of urban and suburban blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos – through an instant universe of like-minded music fans acting on their pop-cult devotions. Everyone has spent at least $43 for a ticket to see the Puff Daddy and the World Tour concert with not only Puff Daddy, Mase, Lil' Kim and other members of his act but also Dru Hill and Busta Rhymes at MCI Center, one stop away at Gallery Place.

"Ooh, I can't wait to see Mase. He's soooo cute," one girl squeals. More than one woman is a Lil' Kim look-alike, sporting high, high heels and a blond wig like the petite porno rapper.

The party has already started on the train, in a way that it starts in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and other big cities where fans travel directly to big arenas on subways and other public transportation. With the new MCI Center accessible directly by Metrorail, the same party can happen for thousands of people in Washington who had a hard time getting rides to suburban venues such as USAirways Arena or Nissan Pavilion, which are difficult if not impossible to reach without a car.

"I would always have to find a ride to go out there," Preston James says with a groan. "When we went to see Prince, my father had to drop us off and my aunt picked me up."

"Anything way out there just wasn't happening," says Etube Okala-Cooper, a 23-year-old train and bus traveler from Hyattsville. "I wanted to go to Lilith Fair with Fiona Apple, Joan Osborne and all the women, but that was at Nissan. I've never been to a Smokin' Grooves [hip-hop] show either. I would see concerts advertised in the paper and I would want to go. But anything way out there just wasn't happening."

Preston and Kia – he is 20 and she is 18 – are used to meeting on the Metro. Tonight she took the Red Line from Shady Grove, where she lives. He took the Orange Line from New Carrollton. This Sunday night is a rare and extra-special night. He's finished working a nine-hour day. She's done studying for her college courses.

They are going to the show.

James has been riding the Metro by himself and with friends since he was about 12 or 13. His dad, Walter James, works as a mechanic for Metro, so he felt comfortable on the trains, grew comfortable with the New Carrollton station as his regular point of embarkation for adventure. He felt they were his trains. He would ride with buddies around town, go to the zoo, later take dates downtown to clubs.

"I stay on the Metro," says James matter-of-factly. "And if you can't get there on the train, that just creates a problem, now, doesn't it?"

For young people coming of age in the nation's metropolitan areas, the ability to travel by subway or bus without parent by yourself, with siblings or friends is a rite of passage, a major moment of emancipation. You go to school on the other side of town, sometimes with friends who are so rowdy the bus driver threatens to throw everyone off. You go to music lessons or basketball practice. You learn the city from a window seat, from a subway map laced with colorful train lines. On your route, you learn which newsstand has the best candy rack and what fruit stand sells big juicy peaches. You win a personal gold medal for running for and catching a bus. You feel the agony of missing one that pulls off, splashing you with gray slush.

And the first show, in fact all the concerts during this time of adolescence stand out as missions of independence – independence of mobility, independence of musical taste and independence to act stupidly. (Yelling profanities at the stage, posturing as if sexually mature though you are major jail bait.)

"I was about 10 years old when I started traveling by myself," says Joe Tack, a 29-year-old graduate student, remembering his days growing up in Quincy, Mass., just outside Boston. "I used to go on the train to a lot of shows at the Orpheum. It's a 2,200-seat theater, kind of like the Warner Theatre [in Washington] before they renovated it. It was kind of a dump but a great place to see a concert. I think it was an old vaudeville theater. My mom used to go see movies there in the 1940s.

"I saw Siouxsie and the Banshees, U2 on the 'War' tour, Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa," he remembers. "This was in the early '80s. I saw the Cult on the 'Love' tour, which still stands as the best rock show I ever saw. They sold out three shows at the Orpheum. They mentioned the show I was at in Rolling Stone. The lead singer mooned the crowd."

Coming of age in the Bronx, Raoul Dennis knew the subways better than the blood in his own veins. He was an old-head teenager and went to off-Broadway plays and poetry readings. As a young adult, his musical tastes drew him to jazz clubs in Greenwich Village, where he saw artists like his idol, Gil Scott-Heron.

From his family's house, he walked four blocks to the No. 4 train.

"The train was outdoors but you were psyched for the concert. You wouldn't worry about the cold and wind so much," he says. "You prepared for it. You know, you had your rituals."

He would meet more and more friends as the train approached the arena. Even his dates would just meet and ride on. "I'll be on the third car. Jump on at 42nd Street," he'd say.

"The women I went out with were never prissy about a guy having a car. That's why I went out with them," he says. "I only started driving when I was 18, maybe 20, after my dad died. I used the family car, a Chevy Citation, and you can't really make a statement to a woman in a Chevy Citation anyway – a red-orange one at that."

He remembers traveling with friends to see Billy Joel at Yankee Stadium, "literally right up the street," he says. "That night had a particular zoom to it, the train ride itself. On the No. 4 going north, once you get past 125th Street and there are still white folks on the train, you know they're going to Yankee Stadium. That night we knew they were going to the Billy Joel concert and we started bonding on the train. It was packed. We all talked about the music loud enough for people to hear. The energy started on the train. You start high-fiving and talking trash."

A few years before in Baltimore, 16-year-old Erica Adams went to her first concert without being accompanied by her big sister Robin. In the mid-'80s, Baltimore had no subway. There were only the funky blue-and-white MTA buses with hard plastic seats. She and her friend Cheryl rode all the way from the northeast and west sections of the city to the Baltimore Arena downtown. A big rap show was on the bill with Big Daddy Kane, L.L. Cool J, 3X Dope, Kid 'n' Play and N.W.A.

"It was crowded. Everyone would get on at the same stop and everybody would be all dressed up sitting on the bus," she remembers. "Everybody had gone shopping and bought new clothes just to go to the show. They went all out for a show.

"Everybody would have on their fresh new Jordache with white stitches and the big Jordache horse on the back pocket," she says. Everybody used to tuck their shirts in so everybody could see what kind of jeans they had on.

"The clothes were jeans and brand-new tennis [sneakers] because we knew we were going to go to the show," she adds. "It might be a fight or something down there and we might have to run. Or we might have to wait for a bus to go back home and nobody was going to walk or wait in heels."

The Show

Preston James can spot the Baltimore women in the crowd for the Puff Daddy show. They have what he calls "high hair," upswept elaborately atop their heads. In general he notices "a lot of little freaky outfits." Like one girl has on a black blouse so sheer, it looks like she's just wearing a bra. Kia Holiday notices too and notices Preston James noticing. In a whirl of mini-mini skirts, brazen stares, artful poses and a blend of soaps and perfumes, concert mating rituals have begun. The hunt for phone numbers is on. All of which means very little to Preston and Kia because they are an actual hand-holding couple.

They met last year at marching band practice at Bowie State University and that's where she first noticed his hair. People tell Preston he looks like a member of the rap group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.

Out of the Metro, a line has formed around the block because security officers are scanning everyone with hand-held metal detectors, searching women's purses and asking baseball-cap-wearing men to remove them until they pass security check.

This doesn't bother Preston and Kia. They're used to it. Every weekend at go-go clubs in Northeast Washington – Taj Maehall, Ice Box, Deno's Club – they submit to the search, including removing their shoes and standing in their stocking feet on a dirty floor.

"It doesn't annoy me," James says. "I know how young people are. They act wild."

When they walk into the arena, it is only slowly filling up. James sees a warm-up act onstage, two rappers in bathrobes.

"Who are these fools?" he says out loud.

Then comes the real show: James doesn't care much for the love men, Dru Hill, but he gets to his feet for Busta Rhymes, who bursts out of smoke onto a stage decorated with a huge skull face.

Hit you with no delayin', so what you sayin', yo?
Silly with your ice grilly, what the dealio?
When I be up on the mike I do my duty-yo
Wildin' in the club or up in the studio . . .

Or something like that.

"That boy is crazy," James says. He and Kia stay on their feet, half dancing.

A deejay, Kid Capri, revs up the crowd between Busta's act and Puff Daddy's with a rapid-fire mix of oldies and hip-hop classic beats, all the while pumping his fist in the air and ordering the crowd to its feet. James feels as though Kid Capri has shot him full of adrenaline. He feels energized. He'd worked nine hours that morning. On the busy weekends at IHOP he is the egg man. That day he'd probably filled 400 egg orders. Standing on his feet so long made him sleepy. But Busta and Kid Capri have brought him back to life. At this point, he could go home. He thinks Puff Daddy is more of a thief of others' music than an artist. But the act is entertaining. Puff Daddy and other members of his "family" – Lil' Kim, Mase, the Lox and 112 – perform a high-energy variety show. The crowd roars at the opening beats of each hit.

After nearly four hours, the last pyrotechnics are offered. There is no roar for more, for an encore. If Preston were alone, he would sprint to the exit by jumping over rows of seats, passing the throng clogged on the stairs. But he says he has to be a gentleman and waits patiently with his date.

The crowd is an energetic mix of after-show high, agitation and instant judgment about whether it was worth $45.

The Ride Home

In minutes, MCI Center is emptied and the subway cars are filling with the same people who filled them hours before.

Some would-be dancers attempt moves they just saw. Favorite lyrics dance in heads and on lips:

I know you seen me on the video.
I know you heard me on the radio.
But you still don't pay me no attention . . .
I'm not trying to push a rush on you
I had to let you know that I got a crush on you.

"What I always remember is the people packed on the train coming back from the show, the camaraderie," says Tack. "Everybody'd be saying, 'It was cool. It was cool.' Yeah. If there was anyone on the train who hadn't been at the show, they hated it. And there was always a drunk idiot getting into fights. . . . One year, after the Kinks show at Boston Garden some kid got in between the subway cars, climbed up on top of a car and got decapitated when the train went through a low tunnel. It was in all the papers.

"You could always tell what show it was from the people on the train," he says. "Like for Frank Zappa there were all these dorky college-looking guys. Not that long ago I wound up on the train after a Billy Joel-Elton John and they're all white suburbanites heading out home. It was something I hadn't seen in a long time. That's the kind of thing I remember back from when I was a kid. They'd been to the concert, bought the concert T-shirt, put it on at the concert and here they were on the subway with the T-shirt on."

The crowd rushes the rear cars of a Red Line train. But Preston James, Mr. Metro, whisks himself and Kia up the platform to a nearly empty car. They both plop down in their seats for the ride back to Shady Grove.

She enjoyed the night a little more than he did. She says, "I think it was a good show."

"It was decent," he says of the concert. "That Busta is crazy."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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