City Stages Lessons Learned

City Stages is not for fainthearted BirminghamMoms. Although the atmosphere is festive and there is entertainment for all ages, these kinds of festivals seem to attract the supporters who wouldn’t miss it for the world, in contrast to the other folks who stay home saying they wouldn’t be caught there under any circumstances.

I like to think I’ve figured a few things out about City Stages by now. First of all, City Stages becomes a whole different experience with kids in the picture. For example, you’re not going to be holding your own cold beverage; rather, you’ll be holding your kid’s bottle, sippy cup or water. Even if you had the stamina to stand up or sit on the curb for the concerts before, those options are out of the question once you are bringing a stroller or have mobile kids. Now you’ll have to tote folding chairs and all your kids’ paraphernalia as well. You must become a pack mule.

The people-watching is top notch, only you will see things through new eyes with your four year old. From crunchy granolas to pierced goths, the full public spectrum is represented. How proud I was of my son the year he was learning to read from what educators call “environmental print.” He was recognizing logos, traffic signs, and learning to sound out words. Happily exploring, we walked upon a guy at City Stages wearing a T-shirt with four one-syllable words.  My son read aloud as far as “Show… me…your...” when I abruptly whipped him around to fuss over his shoes, which I untied and slowly retied until Mr. PG-13 (or is that R?) had passed. 

So, along with a recommendation of constant scanning and vigilance, I have a few more suggestions:

Avoid anybody’s naptime – including Dad’s. This sounds obvious but it will take longer to get there, get parked, wander around and settle down than you think. If the adults are worn out from finding a parking place and slinging chairs, nobody will have fun. 

Go early in the morning, when the park and the streets are fresh from the cleaning crews. 

Take some cash; the ATM fees are ridiculous unless the machine belongs to your bank (Sentimentalists, take a moment to ponder: there were once four Alabama banks headquartered here within blocks of each other; today there is only one.)

Backpacks are not allowed, but diaper bags are. Bags are inspected at the entrances.

There really is good food among the vendors. Food and beverage products aren’t allowed (except for the standard diaper bag fare of sippy cups, goldfish, etc.) so you can’t expect to economize by bringing your own picnic or snacks. The food is part of the fun, though. Good kid picks are corn dogs (eat sitting down, of course), lemon icees and Dippin’ Dots. Bottled water is plentiful but costs as much as soda (Side note: This always gripes me. I could understand the same price if there were syrups, carbonation, and food coloring in some 100-year-old secret formula, but come on! It’s only filtered water!) 

If your kids are devoted chicken nugget fans, there is a Chic-fil-A on 5th Avenue North, but it is closed on Sundays like all Chic-fil-As.

If you do go in the evening, save yourself a headache and stop at the Dollar Tree for a packet of glow-in-the-dark tubes the kids can make into neclaces. Pop them out when the kids ask for $3 to buy one from a vendor weaving through the crowd. You may consider selling them next year. Surely these gimmicks are the fastest buck you can make if you have $25 in capital and, I assume, a business license. True story: Two years ago a vendor was selling blinking retainer-like thingies that went in your mouth. My husband actually broke down and let the kids buy one each! This was even less forgivable than the Bleeding Scream costume one Halloween, (another story). I spent the whole time watching them to be sure they didn’t choke, and they spent the whole time asking each other, “Ith my mouth thtill blinking?”. 

If you’re wanting to see the late evening acts, get a sitter. Most of them are a little too raunchy for young kids or just too late in the evening. I have personally discovered that kids have no appreciation for hearing a song – even if it is one they know – sung by the original artist. Your enthusiasm for Morris Day and the Time or Earth, Wind and Fire just cements your place as a has-been. As a full-fledged parent, you’ll sing “Free Bird” with a new sense of irony. Young kids can’t possibly appreciate the gravity of the upcoming Lynard Skynard moment. How many cell phone lights will be swaying in the night air?

Pack sunscreen and hand sanitizer – wipes preferred. The vendors can be stingy with their napkins. 

Carry a small pack of tissues incase you do have to visit a port-o-let. They should all have TP, but who’s willing to take that chance? If you are taking a potty training kid, secure your sunglasses firmly on your head before suspending your child over the toilet. With no free hands, whatever falls is irretrievably gone forever (another lesson learned). 

The Children’s Festival at Linn Park is always a highlight for the kids. Plan to carry a few craft projects back home as souvenirs. Up-and-coming acts perform here, too; The Imagination Movers played here before they hit the big time.

To cool off and settle down, visit the Music Oasis stage at Church of the Advent. Don’t go when the kids are squirming but rather when they’re a wee bit tuckered out. The Dance Depot is a favorite for watching tireless Cajun dancers.  

A lot of families bring picnic blankets and lounge around the west side of Linn Park, a compromise location between the children’s area and the food vendors.

Kids under 12 get in free, so you can expose the kids to some up-and-coming or oldie goldie acts without additional expense. Please be advised that the fountain at Linn Park is not a public swimming pool and no one is testing the water on the hour. If you or the kids have to cool off, show some restraint and stand under the misting machines near the gazebo.

City Stages really is a fun event, and organizers have gone out of their way to make it family-friendly with entertainment and activities kids will enjoy. There is never a dull moment, and there are certainly some vivid memories to be made. Few local events bring out so many conforming suburbanites to mingle with the bohemian crowd.

One final piece of advice. The weather is usually hot, so this is the occasion for the blousy tops and spaghetti straps that are so popular this summer.  If you’re sporting your barest summer garb, I implore you to please wear an appropriate foundation garment. Regardless of what the above-mentioned T-shirt said, the only show we want  to see is the band on stage.