Bluegrass and the Random Wonderful

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I tend to avoid crowds successfully enough that I forget how being in one can so easily restore my optimism. One of the best things about San Francisco is Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the free concert in Golden Gate Park that takes place the first weekend of October every year since the festival’s inception in 2001. We hopped on the motorcycle and zipped over to Speedway Meadow. It was a perfect day for a ride, eighties and sunny. As far as a mile from the park we can see the festival goers, first a trickle, then a stream, then a flow. Everyone wearing tank tops and shorts and bikini tops — everywhere you looked it was skin skin skin, San Franciscans emerging from the chrysalis of summer fog to get their collective music on.

I saw the rarely seen bared, pierced, tattooed midriffs of people of every skin hue, age and gender combination imaginable, and some you probably couldn’t imagine, unless you live here. There were parents carrying children in backpacks, pushing them in carriages, towing them in wagons, packs of young men in cowboy hats carrying cases of Coors Light suitcase style (HSB is BYOB), and everywhere couples holding hands — it was that kind of day. We had to park a least a half mile away; after the mass shooting in Gilroy, the city is taking no chances; the 750,000 attendees over three days will exit or enter the park from one of four points. We have arrived unencumbered with packs and purses that need to be searched, but I note that many people in the crowd are wearing clear plastic backpacks (the easier to prove they don’t have weapons) and know sure as anything there is some little hamster entrepreneur in the crowd even now mentally composing his Clear Plastic BackPack elevator pitch for some Sand Hill Road VC.

There are four stages and we visit them all, having timed our arrival to hear the Southern Gothic stylings of Aida Victoria, the banjo picking of The Flatlanders, and that rockabilly  Romeo, Robert Earl Keene. As we listened, the flow of people entering the grounds became an avalanche; a carpet of people blanketed the meadows and low sloping hillsides — Robert Plant was scheduled for late in the afternoon.

I was briefly interested, hoping he’d be appearing with Alison Krauss –  surely their album Raising Sand is one of the best, most unexpected musical collaborations ever  – but no such luck.  

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Alison Krauss was a headliner of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass back in 2001 when it was Strictly Bluegrass. I’d just discovered bluegrass in those days  by accident – the elegiac Our Town by Iris Dement played over an extended montage on the show Northern Exposure. Who was that?!  I was so astonished by it that I waited for the credits to identify the artist.  My banjo-playing brother-in-law introduced me to other bluegrass greats, and though I never much liked the pathos of country music, bluegrass has a heartache running through it that immediately felt like home.

I am not the only one who feels their heart unexpectedly haunted by bluegrass. Robert Plant  discovered Alison Krauss much like I found Iris – the high lonesome of her voice found him one night in his car, radio on as he drove from a Shropshire pub. He pulled the car over to listen more intently wondering, who the hell was that? And writing the name down because Robert Plant is no longer a young man, and does not take a young man’s chances with precious gifts. In his interview with The Guardian, the reporter is a good writer, and Robert’s sense of revelation when talking about Alison is clear and why not, as Alison sings herself in That Kind of Love it’s easy enough to know a heartbreak in disguise.  Some of us are born heartbroken – I have a theory that maybe it’s a prerequisite to optimism…as Alison also sings in Someday I’ll Get Over You: I hope that I find what I’m reaching for the way that it is in my mind.

The first Strictly Bluegrass event couldn’t have been more different than this weekend’s sunfest. There was just one stage, and the ground was cold and wet. On my regular weekend run through a densely foggy Golden Gate Park I heard the unmistakable crystalline soprano of Alison Krauss. I cut left on a little used trail past the Japanese and Shakespeare’s gardens and burst into the Speedway Meadow expecting to see some shaggy hippies with a boomboxes and offers of mushrooms and like magic in that good-sized clearing found the real live Alison Krauss, with  Union Station. I stood there open mouthed – there were maybe 200 people sitting and standing in the grass and we were all looking at each other with the same happy amazement, that it would be possible to find an angel fallen to earth and singing about the pain in a meadow, put your blanket down, everyone’s welcome.

I sat on the ground, my sweat drying, shivering uncontrollably in my shorts and thin shirt – I still hadn’t learned about San Francisco microclimates – it had been sunny when I started my run,  and the fog had caught me by surprise. Despite the clammy weather, more and more people were pouring in until there was a crowd of five hundred or so listening quietly as Alison’s soaring voice pierced the fog like a ray of light. Here, said a voice, and a fleece pullover dropped into my lap. I was too cold to go through the normal protestations and thanked my benefactor, a man in his 70s.  Thank you! I told him, can you give me your address and I’ll wash it and return it to you? He waved me off. It’s clean, he assured me, but old, I don’t need it back. I saw you singing along, he said approvingly. You like bluegrass? I’ve listened to her latest album like, a hundred times, I told him. I can’t believe she’s here! Meaning, on a stage, right over there… in the grass! 

More people streamed into the park as the temperature continued to drop.  “Our fingers are getting smaller and smaller” Alison joked from the stage. Someone brought her a jean jacket and she set down her fiddle and put it on with humorous alacrity. My fleece-bearing friend – I have since forgotten his name but not the way his eyes were the clear blue of a much younger man –  pointed out a roped-off area to our right, where our benefactor for this miracle in the meadow stood – the heir to the Hellman mayonnaise fortune, a man who looked to be in his mid-sixties.

I sat  for another hour happily listening. When Hazel Dickens took the stage I was flat out stunned. Emmylou Harris wrapped it up with an inspiring set that had me going home and googling Just how old is Emmylou Harris anyway?  Before running home I saw Warren Hellman standing alone in his black leather jacket with a dragon embroidered on the back. I ran over to him before I could lose my nerve. Thank you, I told him. I was running by and…Hazel Dickens! Alison Krauss! It was just wonderful! 

Hey, a fellow runner and bluegrass lover! he exclaimed back. Unexpectedly, he held his arms wide and bear-hugged me. I’ve rarely seen a man as joyous as Warren Hellman on that miserably cold day, sharing the music he loved with the city he loved. 

It’s this kind of random wonderful that happens in San Francisco that made me fall in love with the city. Like the time I was on the way home from the gym and I heard someone playing The Doors. I figured the music was emanating from one of the shabby Victorians of the lower Haight but it was actually coming from a church. I stood outside listening for a bit, enjoying the mental picture of some old hippie pastor whaling away on the organ behind the sacristy when a man stepped out the front door, leaving it propped open. He smiled at me as he lit a cigarette. 

Ray.pngIt sounds just like The Doors, I said, and he said It IS the Doors! Then added: Or anyway it’s Ray Manzarek, founder of The Doors.  NO WAY I said maybe too loud because he flinched and we both laughed. WAY he whisper-shouted and beckoned and I came to the door, intending only to peek in and see Ray but was unceremoniously ushered in though it was clearly a ticketed event, and I hadn’t paid. San Francisco is full of churches with a tradition of hosting musicians in the evening – I know from twelve years of singing Catholic hymns,  there’s just no beating the acoustics of the Lord’s house. I’ve since heard David Gilmore, Bill Frisell, and Chick Corea in churches around town, and though I’ve long since left Catholicism behind, this use of churches to speak in musical tongues seems not just appropriate but holy.

Another evening, I was walking down the street and two young men politely stepped into my path. “Excuse us, miss would you live to view Saturn?” I stood blinking at them, wondering if I had misheard (also, I was 40, and hardly a ‘miss’). But I hadn’t misheard; they were scientists from Berkeley with a powerful telescope set up on the sidewalk to show passersby the wonders of Saturn in her icy-ringed, 62-mooned glory. It was not the kind of telescope you may be picturing, on a tripod, pointed heroically skyward; rather it was like a big box (that might or might not fit a small man with an impish sense of humor) with a short staircase that one climbed in order to peer down into the telescope where I did indeed behold Saturn, gorgeously close and surprisingly colored.

More random wonderful.  

The same week the scientists stopped me, an old man with a greenish number tattooed on his arm shared first his newspaper with me, and then his story of Bergen-Belsen. We sat in a coffee shop and he talked for about two hours, peering at me every 30 seconds to be sure I was paying attention; it was the same coffee shop I’d be sitting at a couple of years later when Robin Williams walked in. He didn’t say anything to anyone other than the barista (who either didn’t know who he was, or had raised blase to an artform), though when he saw me cautiously looking at him he gave me a crinkly eyed smile.

For a wonder, HSB has been going on for 18 years in the same vein that Warren Hellman conceived it: entirely free and non-commercial. It turns out that his refusal to take sponsorships was key to attracting the crown jewels of American Roots music – it was rumored Hazel Dickens turned Warren down, suspicious rather than impressed by his billionaire status.  But Hellman refused every corporation that tried to sponsor the event, and there must have been a lot, given the crowds equal and exceed the population of San Francisco most years. In keeping the event focused on the music and the community and not consumption, Hellman was ahead of his time and won Hazel over, so much so that they became close friends and she returned year after year, even when the festival expanded beyond strictly bluegrass. 

I have to say it makes for a nicer experience, to be surrounded by people with their children and dogs, and no signs trying to be heard over the music, assuring you Wells Fargo and Kaiser Permanente and Citibank honest to goodness care about you, with carefully curated multiracial images of fake friends and families. We stopped under a shade tree to listen to Robert Earl Keene say twangily how it feels good to feel good again and watch the people walk by, a sight that always makes me feel better about the human race’s chances to survive itself. All these wildly different-looking people, in the same place for the same thing — to catch a little banjo-picking and glimpse his Plantness. Surely if we can get a population bigger than the city itself squashed into four meadows, there is still reason to be optimistic about our ability to get along.

Though the festival was beautifully organized with plenty of portable toilets and even sinks, free water and food stands, there was still something unnerving about the miles and miles of temporary chainlink fencing preventing anyone from approaching the crowds from an unobserved angle — it was clear the fencing might act as a slower-downer, but surely not much of a stopper. More than once during the day I uneasily scanned the far hillsides and the edges of the woods.  I do not argue that it is necessary, the fencing, the policies against any bags or backpacks not made of clear ugly plastic. But like Edna St. Vincent Millay, I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1e10As we exit the park the crush of people arriving to hear Robert Plant has become a swarm and I have suddenly had enough of the human scrum and we gladly hop onto the bike and head west, pursuing the sun towards land’s end, taking the long way home for a view of the ocean, a vinyl album signed by Aida Victoria pressed safely between our bodies. My horror mind presents me with a picture of the motorcycle smashed in the road, the vinyl disc slipping it’s sleeve and rolling through the carnage, printing the street with a thin red line of our blood, but such thoughts rarely disturb my joy in the moment (and might even increase it). The day is clear and we can see from the road all the way to the Farallons, the ocean like a great mirror of shattered light.  

The beautiful weather held for the whole weekend.  Back home the h tinkered with the motorcycle, which he restored after a construction crew ran over it with a dump truck a few year’s back, twisting it into a pretzel shape. He was mad, but the sheer complexity of fixing it quickly overcame an anger he couldn’t do anything with, anyway – the construction crew all disavowed knowing anything about it with carefully blank faces.  Not everything random that happens in the city is wonderful.

Our flat is 50 steps above street level where the garage is, and the h comes up to the kitchen every now and then to refill his water bottle or reapply sunblock, leaving Jake in his position in the middle of the sidewalk, ‘guarding’ the garage with his chief judo skill, a trusting friendliness for anyone who might be open to an exchange of interspecies pleasantries. You’ll never guess what, the h says. What, I say. I am prepping vegetables for a vegan pizza later tonight.  Sophia makes a little moue of doubt when I announce this; it’s so warm in the house she is finding studying difficult, even with all the windows open and shorts on, but I know that by evening it will be down to a more reasonable fifty-eight and pizza will be welcome, plus we have heirloom tomatoes on their last legs. Such is the tyranny of veganism.

I’m working on my motorcycle and a guy walks by and comments on our old BMW, says the h. Says he specializes in fixing up that specific model and year.  I perk up; I don’t drive it much, not since someone cut through the top (and another time, through the back, and another time, through the side) eventually damaging it so that we couldn’t manually lower the roof.  Unable to prioritize fixing it, I’ve simply garaged it and started walking and taking the bus. I’ve missed driving it; we bought it for a price so low it still feels like we got away with something; the owner had just replaced it with something newer and cooler and swifter but I always liked the classic lines of the ‘95. He’d neglected it in the way that people with garages neglect their cars, letting the leather seats dry out and the window fog over, and not fixing small problems like a broken glove box. The h spent a weekend detailing it presented it to me as compensation for  handing over my beloved yellow convertible to my oldest step-daughter, when she arrived in California for college. That weekend we piled Jake (then a puppy) into the back and road-tripped to Portland, top down and blankets draped on our laps under a sky that was lit with what seemed like a billion stars. 

Well, said h, his name is Alex and he’s an opera singer who bartends on the side and he’s going to stop by on his way back from church to help me fix it. And that’s exactly what happened. More random wonderful. 

Mary.pngOnce the convertible top was opening and closing smoothly again, we took it to the carwash, the old-timey kind where you buy a token and get 4 minutes worth of pressurized sudsy water from a long stretch hose. When we arrived, there were just four cars, but as we scrubbed off a year of dust and garage grime the waiting cars kept stacking up, so that by the time we were finished there were 20 or so cars lined up down the street, radio music drifting from open windows. I was surprised that people would join a line that was already so long but washing your own car on a sunny day is both novel and nostalgic.  As I scrubbed I thought how watching Mary Richards wash her own car in her own driveway in the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show always filled me with a sort of longing; she might have had a grumpy always-yelling dad-like figure for a boss, but at least at home she could do her own thing without someone breathing down her neck telling her she wasn’t doing it right and don’t waste so much water do you think we’re made of money? It didn’t matter that Mary Richards was fictional, just seeing what freedom might look like – washing my car in a number jersey on a nice day – was enough to make me think I could do that. That looked possible. I could maybe hold it together until I reached the moment I was washing my own car in front of my own place. 

After washing the car the h spent the rest of the afternoon detailing it while I wrote in what I sometimes think of as Jo’s Garret, because our flat is high in the sky, a third story with my office in the back overlooking a garden. No Laurie for me across the way, though there is a billionaire, they are middle aged with a dog they leave outside too long in the evenings. Next door is the Portuguese consulate. We will miss the previous Consulate General – he and his wife threw great Halloween parties with the best games and, ironically, the absolute worst wine I’ve ever tasted, so bad that we poured it down the sink and felt sorry for the drain. We were once invited to a musical afternoon at the embassy, in which a Portuguese pianist took small slips of paper from the audience and created a composition on the spot, and the h brought the entire room to a stop with his slip, “The Last Whale’.  The haunting piece that followed is lost to time, unless someone thought to record it – we didn’t, as I was too transfixed with the story unfolding in my mind, which I have since put down here.

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This weekend writing in my garret, I am in the grip of a new story, one that I have been ruminating on for a few years but now feel all the pieces coming together as if magnetized. It’s a story about a girl and a dog, the way Charlotte’s Web is a story about a girl and a pig. It is not a horror story, though horrible things happen, or almost do, or could at any moment… things I was just starting to write about when the h called up the steps with the completely unexpected question, Have you seen Jake? 

Distantly, I hear Sophia say No, and even as my fingers keep typing the next sentence my legs have propelled me up and out of the seat.  What do you mean, have we seen Jake? I pursue the h down the steps without stopping to put shoes on. I was in the garage, he said, and Jake was laying on the sidewalk…when I came out, no Jake.  I ran down the sidewalk, peering up and down the cross street, trying to decide which way he’d go, even as I knew Jake would never wander off on his own; should I jump in the car? 

I was already headed down the sidewalk in my sock feet, speeding up to a sprint when the h called me back to read a text he’d just gotten – Jake’s tag features both of our phone numbers, and a woman was messaging us, Do you have a chocolate lab named Jake?  Herb spoke to her briefly and I had to be physically restrained from running after them. A few minutes later a young woman rounded the corner, awkwardly holding onto Jake’s collar. Jake looked cheerful enough, and gave her hand a quick kiss before galloping to greet us in his usual skidding-in-sideways approach.  It was all over and done, from the Have you seen Jake question to Jake himself bounding up no harm done, in less than fifteen minutes, which is about how long I cried in the bathroom, quietly and by myself, before returning red-eyed to the garret and resuming my work. Sometimes the universe sends you an unmistakable message.

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The sun set in spectacular fashion amidst a flotilla of purple clouds with salmon underbellies. At the magic hour of 11:11 the h texted me, your chariot awaits and I ran downstairs to have a look. The car sparkled darkly under the streetlights, purring its invitation. We took it for a late night spin, ostensibly to check the brakes etc as it had not been driven in so long but maybe really just to drain the last dregs of warmth from the weekend. Above us the crescent moon looked like a ladleful of light, the tattered clouds like the sails of great ships floating in the midnight blue. We wound down Presidio Avenue, through the towering eucalyptus in their orderly rows standing silent sentry, past the sleeping houses, the bridge looming before us uplit against a canvass of darkness like the face of a beautiful woman. The car drives perfectly, so steady on the straightaway it feels like we’re riding on rails, or a rocket. As we head home I sing the Iris Dement song that’s been echoing around in my head all weekend. I know she wrote the song about a town like the one my mom grew up in, with a town square with shuttered businesses, a local graveyard containing generations of relatives, old folks sitting outside the grocery store, but I find it fits just as well for San Francisco, or anywhere you’ve grown to love so much it’s become a part of who you are.  Love is fleeting, she is saying. We are all bound for dark ground. 

And you know the sun’s setting’ fast
And just like they say nothing good ever lasts
Well, go on now and kiss it goodbye but hold on to your lover
‘Cause your heart’s bound to die
Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town|
Can’t you see the sun’s settin’ down on our town,
on our town
Goodnight

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