Sunday, September 9, 2007

A Summer Evening

I learned that Jerry Garcia died while I was at work one morning at Coffee People in Portland. One of my customers came in with the newspaper and over the whine of the milk steamer read the relevant paragraph to me. I didn't know much about Garcia's personal life at the time, though I knew he'd been ill - I saw him play in Golden Gate Park shortly after he came out of the diabetic coma in 1986. When you don't know much about someone famous, he or she can be larger than life, and that's how I felt about Jerry, like he was the heart of a band that had supplied some of my life's soundtrack (and no, I wasn't a Deadhead; given a choice, I'd take the Beatles anytime).

That evening, or maybe the next one, a radio station hosted a memorial on the plaza outside the Rose Garden Arena, which was new at the time. I didn't know anyone who would be interested in attending with me and I was getting used to doing things alone. I was carrying a sweater, but the plaza was warm, filled with bodies and burning candles, on that summer night. The radio station was playing on big speakers at the front of the crowd, but due to noise ordinances, couldn't really pour on the volume, so the deejays asked folks to bring their boom boxes and there were small stereos (and not so small) all over the place. Signs and drawings were propped up all over, against walls, trash bins, and posts. The age range was, unsurprisingly, very wide.

At one point toward the end, Ripple was playing:
Reach out your hand if your cup be empty,
If your cup is full may it be again.
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men.

There is a road, no simple highway,
Between the dawn and the dark of night.
And if you go, no one may follow,
That path is for your steps alone.

I looked over my shoulder and saw a boy who looked to be about fifteen years old, his hands cupped and held forward and up from his body. He had long straight blond hair, was wearing a dirty white t-shirt. His eyes were closed and he looked sad, prayerful, as if he was both holding his cup to be refilled and also as if he had just let a bird fly from him.

(After hearing Ken Kesey give four different interpretations for Sometimes A Great Notion, I tend to be skeptical about annotations and literary interpretation, but this annotated "Ripple" is interesting.)

When the memorial was over and people were starting to disperse, I wasn't ready to go home, but as I was alone, I didn't know where I could go, either. I was walking as slowly as possible back to my car when I bumped into someone I had worked with when I was subbing around various Coffee People shops, before I became a regular at my shop. He looked like I felt, and he invited me to his house.

He had a large backyard that was bigger than the house. We sat outside, each with a bottle of beer, and he had his guitar. Together we sang "Sweet Melissa," a song I didn't know I knew until that evening. Night had come, but it was still as warm as the daytime. The stars shone through the city's light, and the crickets chirped. It seemed that time was slowed down, and this man I didn't know very well and I were connected by the death of someone neither of us knew but with whom we also felt connected.

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