Our tale begins at Hunky Dory. I was shopping for records when I ran into one of the organizers for the Free Things Fest. They pointed to the poster on the wall and personally invited me. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. First, it’s a free event. Second, I love music, but I’m poor and often find it difficult to bridge the two.
Lately, my lovely VW has been having a problem, which I have thrice paid to be fixed, only for it to resurface yet again. Lest my wheel should fall off while driving (which has happened before), I asked a family member if I could borrow their SUV for the day instead. As much of a bummer as it is to drive anything else, I always feel #blessed to have A/C for a change. I drove to Durham to pick up Riley the Photographer and we carpooled to the All Peoples’ Grill. I put on some driving music and Riley commented that ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ is “the ‘Free Bird’ of jazz.” I couldn’t disagree.
Rolling up to the festival, we saw a white concrete shack on the side of the road next to a field. A man in a panama hat was giving very confusing parking directions on the way in, but we were able to snag a front row spot from a car that was leaving. We couldn’t have had better luck, because now we had a direct view of the stage from our vehicle. As soon as we stepped out of the car, we were greeted by the smell of fish fry. There are few smells more welcoming to a Southerner than the smell of a fish fry. Soon we were joined by a mutual friend and we started exploring the grounds.
The woman at the information stand gave us wristbands and encouraged us not to “forget to leave with something from the table, it’s free.” I was unsure why they would give out wristbands at a free festival, but I was more than happy to oblige.
First we stopped at the water cooler for refreshments, then went to the lounge area for some shade. Walking by the food trucks, I noted that the vendors had not inflated their prices for the festival: $3 for cotton candy; $7 for red velvet waffles; $10 for the chicken & waffles special. There were no out-of-town corporate sponsorships. There was no VIP frou-frou. They didn’t even charge for parking. They were just good, honest folks who wanted to bring their community together for the sake of it. It all felt so wholesome.
In the shade, I played a game of horseshoes with Riley, then we walked around the makeshift outdoor gallery, looking at canvases affixed to the trees or just propped against them with a 2×4. Suddenly, a woman appeared out of nowhere and led us to a wooden archway covered in ribbons. She said “Write down a wish and put it in the jaaaar! All wishes made in the fairy forest come truuue!” I looked at my crew, skeptical, but when I turned back, she was gone. My childlike imagination envisioned that she had vanished into a cloud of confetti, but she probably just left for some fried catfish and a smoke.
I opted to make a wish in the fairy forest, but Riley said they would save their wishes for when they really needed them. I grabbed a flower pen from the jar and scrawled “WORLD PEACE”, which, admittedly, was a bit of a throwaway. I should have wished for something more practical, like some bug spray or a joint.
Towards the end of No Parking’s set, we visited the vendor’s table by the side of the stage. She was selling scented candles that she and her wife make at their home in Greensboro. She mentioned that the melted wax can also be used as a moisturizer. Out of all of the scents offered on her table, my favorite candle smelled exactly like Starbursts. It was pure, sugary deliciousness. I couldn’t get enough of that sweet nose candy.
Sarah Summers covered Aretha’s version of “Natural Woman” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers. She also performed an original song entitled ‘Part of Me’. The crowd gathered around like flies to honey, like moths to a flame, like ants to a picnic. Everywhere people stopped in their tracks and listened. As she finished her set and was neatly leaving the stage, a distant voice in the field called out “do you wanna do another one??”
The next vendor was from The Microgreenery, and he was selling microgreens! What are microgreens, you say? Plants, after the sprouting stage, expend most of their energy on growth, resulting in a plant that is larger in size but lacking in nutrients. When harvested before the growing stage, they’re called “microgreens”. A plate of salad has few nutritional benefits compared to a cup of microgreens. I sampled a few varieties, and they tasted the same as regular greens, but just… micro. Before you ask, yes, microgreens are just a hipster word for sprouts. The interaction did seem more like a Portlandia sketch than reality, but I’m a vegan who hates salad, so I was sold on idea of having to eat less of it to be healthy.
I could feel a single bead of sweat collect at my nape and start its slow descent down my spine. “Let’s go sit in the shade.” I said to my companions. Riley offered, “Or we could go back to your car and sit in the A/C.” It was a novel idea. As we made our way to the last vendor, Riley was hit by a stray soccer ball. We ran back to the car and sat overlooking Tennis Rodman. I first noticed his energy and the intensity of his performance even in 90-degree heat. He even sampled his cat in his track! “Shoutout to my cat. Any of y’all got cats?” Still in the driver’s seat, I excitedly raised both of my hands for my two cats, but to no avail. Surveying the crowd he praised, “It’s great seeing so many black people here, great having culture supporting culture.”
We stayed until the end of 3AM Sound’s set and decided to call it a day. As easy as getting into the parking spot was, getting out of the parking spot was the opposite. The aisle was too narrow for an SUV to reverse! It took more than a few tries toing and froing, and it annoyed the drivers in the cars behind me whom I was blocking in. Riley asked if they should get out of the car and help me to reverse. My pull-out game was weak, but my fear of failure was stronger than ever. Determined to never admit defeat, I gave it one last try and finally cleared all of the parked cars. Leaving the festival grounds, we made a dash to Heavenly Buffaloes, which, as always, was divine. We congratulated ourselves for making the departure for downtown as night fell around us.
All original photography by Durham Beat’s own Riley the Photographer.