On Jerry Garcia

My dog wants to go out. Again. It’s almost spring, she’s been stuck in the house for two very long, cold months and she sits in front of me, looking at me with her sad, wide brown, doe eyes, always wanting to go outside, or for a walk, or something other than sleep all day long while her caregiver writes, reads, and reflects on life during her sabbatical. I take her out, for the fifth time today. It’s exhausting and somewhat infuriating and I understand her ennui. It’s almost hiking weather I tell her; we’ll get there.

As I wait out in the cold for her to do her business, bundled up, while she wanders around, smelling the not yet clean grass, chasing bunnies that run through the yard, searching for frozen poop to eat – because she’s disgusting and apparently ravenous all the time – hungry enough to eat frozen poop, I’m singing Grateful Dead songs in my head. (Read On Music and Writing). There is always a tune in my head and generally when I’m dealing with my dog, Magnolia, it’s Sugar Magnolia. And I’m reflecting on the day that Jerry Garcia died and where I was in life and what I did and how I think about it almost twenty years later.

It was on March 17, 1994 that I moved to New Orleans. I remember it because it was St. Patrick’s Day and David and I had driven the almost 15 hours from Ohio, arrived at our fairly newly renovated condo located right outside of the city in Metairie, Louisiana, unpacked my sad little silver Ford Escort and his brand new Magenta Ford Truck, and as the real estate agent walked us around, I inquired about a job. She told me that there was a local bar down the street within walking distance, that had recently opened and might need help. And so, that afternoon, exhausted yet exhilarated about this new adventure in our lives, and when David was checking in at Emeril’s (his externship for the Culinary Institute of America and long before Emeril was “Emeril”) I walked down the street, walked into the bar, Risky Business (yes, because of the movie) ordered a drink, and asked if they needed help. The owners, Scott and EJ were about my age, new entrepreneurs, and were engaging and interesting and funny and, the bartender, Monica, was lovely. I had lunch and spent an hour there when they told me to come back at 5pm, at which time they would talk to me about my experience and training and what shifts they might have available. I later discovered that they were testing me; they wanted me to come back to the bar during happy hour, when the regulars were there, to see if I was sociable, who I talked to, what I talked about, and if I would fit in with the Risky Business “crowd.” I talked to everyone, as I always do, I drank Margaritas and green drinks and laughed and made friends and I was hired on the spot. To this day, the people I met that evening – Monica, Scott, EJ, Dwight, Laurie, Sean, Tim – are all still my dear friends and we meet up, in New Orleans, all these years and many drinks and lives and loves and marriages and divorces later, always at the River Shack (the best local bar on the Mississippi because Risky Business is now closed) and it feels like nothing has changed and no time has passed and we’re still the same foolish twenty-something year olds with dreams and aspirations and never enough sleep.

I worked during the day mostly, lunch. Some weekends and Lingerie night, Wednesdays, when barely-clothed girls would wander the bar, in lingerie during happy hour, trying to sell skimpy, lacy clothing to drunk men to take home to their wives or girlfriends or wanna-be lovers or whomever. I met my best friend on lingerie night. Michelle. She was dating Nick, a GMAC man who she would meet there a couple of times a week for happy hour and always, probably strategically, lingerie night. To this day, even the feminist in me, thinks that Lingerie night is a brilliant concept. How better to sell a product than to have beautiful, young women model skimpy clothing, in a bar, with drunk men, who are willing to pay to watch you take it off. Michelle and my story is that while I was a lanky 5’7 feminist and more interested in making tips than selling lingerie, we bonded when one of the models bumped into me – me in my Risky Business t-shirt and shorts (nothing close to lingerie) and said model in next-to-nothing – Michelle standing next to me, as I attempted to recover the spilled drinks, and said model apologizing and me responding, “No problem tramp.” Perhaps not the best feminist response, but it elicited a laugh from Michelle who promptly introduced herself and we were immediate friends – then roommates and best friends who adopted a dog, Riley (after Pat Riley my favorite basketball coach and B.B. King, his first name), and me in her wedding and birth of her daughter and four degrees between us and a divorce and subsequent wedding and birth of her son, all these years later. We’re best friends to this day. We think the story is classic. Perhaps it’s an inside story, but classic nonetheless.

Risky Business was located on the ground floor of a business building that housed a travel agency and a number of other odd businesses where mostly men worked but notably GMAC, where many of the male friends I’m discussing now spent their long, office filled days. These men would descend from the top floor, streaming out of silver elevators, at 5pm, requesting that I supply them with much needed beers and sustenance after a long day of numbers and customers and the general ridiculousness that embodies the business world that bartenders don’t have to contend with during the sunlight hours. The bar housed local bands on the weekends. Really good local bands because music in New Orleans doesn’t ever suck; it breeds musicians daily. This is where I met Skeet, my then boyfriend/brother and, ultimately, best friend, and where I befriended many other interesting, exotic, weird and lovely people that I am still proud to call my tribe. I worked there for the six months that David interned with Emeril, and then after he decided to leave and I decided to leave him to stay in New Orleans because I thought he was an ass because he apparently didn’t appreciate and get the fact that New Orleans was the best city on the planet. I thought that New Orleans was a good fit for my life at the time, and, ultimately it was, through the next few years while I earned a Masters Degree in African American Urban History on my way to earning a Ph.D. I’m glad I stayed.

It was a Wednesday. Lingerie night. I walked down the street to the bar, the mere 200 feet it took to get me there, in the steamy August heat, and began the day like any other. I turned on the lights, turned on the television, and began setting up the bar and preparing for the days tomfoolery. And then, the news informed me that I would not be flying to Washington, D.C. to see my friends and the Grateful Dead in a few short weeks, but rather Jerry Garcia had died of a heart attack. I think my own heart stopped. I had first seen the Grateful Dead in college when I made friends with a group of stoner musicians who toured with them. My first show was in Columbus, Ohio, where I tried, unsuccessfully, to meet up with my brother, also a fan, at the Greenpeace Tent, to no avail. Drugs. I had traveled to many a show by then and was looking forward to flying to back to D.C. where I used to live to regroup with “The Canadians” and Julie and Chris and others, for yet, another weekend of good Dead revelry. And then, just like that, it was all over. I remember feeling not only bereft but, quite frankly, lost. I told EJ I was going home to change. I walked back home, took off my white, Risky Business t-shirt and put on a black shirt and shorts and walked back to the bar, where I worked until 5pm and then after, I met other bereft Dead Heads at the River Shack where we watched the almost incomprehensible news that Jerry Garcia was indeed gone and thinking now what would we do with our lives. I talked to my brother, Jerry that day who also couldn’t believe that we wouldn’t be meeting for another show and how we would go on with out “Jerry.” Today it seems unreasonable that we put so much energy into following a band, but Dead Heads are like family and that day our family suffered an enormous loss.

To this day, New Orleans feels like home. When I fly there and I disembark from the plane and walk through the airport, out into the humid, swampy tight air, I’m almost always relieved that I’ve found my way back there somehow. The fact that I’ve chosen to write books about the city aids in me being “home” on a regular and somewhat planned basis. The real truth is that the people that I befriended in New Orleans are unlike any other in all of the many places that I have lived. They embody life in a way that folks in other cities can’t imagine and would be jealous of if they could. New Orleanians bask in the heat and the music and the food and each other in a way that makes me appreciate life, when I’m there, unlike most people I know. They revel in the fact that their city, my city, is completely unique in this country in a way that if you are not from or of New Orleans, you’ll never completely understand. I am from, and of, New Orleans. And while I don’t miss the heat and humidity, and I appreciate living in the mountains where I can hike and breathe fresh, clean air, I miss the feeling I have of being in a place that embodies everything that I know to be truly important in this life on a daily basis – music, laughter, love, fun, joy. Shit. I forgot to mention that the coffee in New Orleans rivals any I’ve had elsewhere. I’m a historian and a writer and an academic. Coffee is life. Jus’ sayin’. (Shout out to CC’s!)

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On Moving to New England

On Moving to New England

We all think that our lives are hard. Everyday. Getting up. Making coffee. Showering. Clothes on. Getting to work. Being us.

The reality is, it’s just not that hard. Of course, this is relative. When I was in college, and after, I worked at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, one of the largest homeless shelters in the United States. Those folks had hard lives. There are people that don’t have homes, or food, or clothes, or a job to go to, or people that mean something to them. These are the things that make life hard.

In retrospect, one of the most difficult times in my life was moving to New Hampshire from New Orleans where I had a life that I loved and had known for almost four years. I lived in a city that I adored, had an amazing and completely whacko group of friends, I worked at a job that I loved with people I loved. Thus, that move was hard. And scary. More scary than being abandoned by my mother when I was four or being knocked up at sixteen and having to figure that shit out. When I think back on some of the most strenuous times of my life, nothing seems as crazily difficult as embarking on a doctorate in a town I was unfamiliar with, alone, attempting to finish a degree that I wasn’t quite convinced I was smart enough to earn.

I moved to New Hampshire in August 1997 on the very day that the world found out that Lady Diana was dead.  Lady Diana’s death was all over the news, yet I was singularly, and selfishly preoccupied with moving into my new place in Newmarket, New Hampshire, and beginning a new doctoral program. As we read and watched the news that day, the juxtaposition of my life and this news felt oddly appropriate and, well, sad. The princess we all loved, barring how we (I) felt about England and it’s history, was dead. That morning, the three of us – my father, my boyfriend and me – sat in a rather ordinary New England diner, eating our eggs and drinking our coffee as we watched the world seemingly collapse in despair. This was the day I moved to New Hampshire.

Yet aside from the melancholia of the moment, I was embarking on a new adventure, a possible Ph.D., a dream I’d had since I began college. I had left New Orleans, with my boyfriend and my dog in my car (no air conditioning) and my dad driving my Hertz rental with all of my worldly possession behind us and, I thought, maybe, just maybe, this wouldn’t be the bad omen that I was expecting in my long life of bad omen, because sometimes I feel like my life has been nothing but one long train of bad omens. Lady Diana dying the day I moved to my new town was one of them.

I had rented a place sight unseen (pre cellphone pics and snap chats and all that) in historic Newmarket, a town just a few miles outside of Durham, New Hampshire, home to the place that I would fulfill my goal of becoming a philosopher of something, history it seemed. We arrived that Sunday, after driving from New Orleans to Annapolis and spending a night there full of food and revelry with my college friends, regrouping and revisiting with parents not seen since graduations and weddings. The next morning we set off from Annapolis, onto my new life in New England. Some eight hours later, we pulled into the parking lot of my new apartment, which as I discovered when we entered, was not yet vacated and, more than that, quite abysmal. The bedroom was painted an awful shade of purple, a mix of eggplant and what can only be described as red-wine vomit (I now admit that I ultimately came to embrace this particular shade of purple). The living room was covered in fake wood paneling, the floor in said room sloped at a 45 degree angle, into a kitchen of concrete, unpainted walls and a floor that looked as if it hadn’t been cleaned since they installed it in the 1960s. The bathroom was yellowed and uninviting and possessed what was quite probably decades-old sink and toilet, both of which looked like they were going to fall through the floor, and a stand up shower that was made of plastic. The second “bedroom,” which would be my office, shown of cracked walls and cracked floors and, frankly, it smelled. I cried. My father assured me we’d make it better. It’d not be the college-style shack that it certainly looked like at the time I walked into it, but a lovely place where I could read and study and cook and call home for the next four years. So, over the next few days, we painted, fixed floors, moved in rugs and my antique furniture and art from New Orleans and, we made it a home. And when we were done, it didn’t look quite so shabby as it had when I first walked in and cried and thought I’d never be happy there.

And then my father, the optimist that he is, offered the next day to tour the campus with me, something he didn’t get to do with me when I began undergraduate school when I was alone and trying to figure my life out post-baby, post early graduation-high school, post psychological trauma. That morning we explored the beautiful, historic campus, my new campus, with all of the verdant grass and trees and hundred years old brick buildings and small, paved walkways and over a tiny bridge, through the woods, that was necessary to get to the beautiful, majestic library, where I would spend much of the next four years. And then he paid the almost $400 in history books I needed for that first semester of my doctoral program and made me feel like he was doing it with me and that I wouldn’t be alone and that I was embarking on some amazing adventure that he was silently part of and silently proud of, an adventure he never quite got around to doing when he was my age. He, of course, was proud of it all, and proud of me. Because I am the first child in my family to go to college, to get a masters, and, at that point, to even fathom that I could get a Ph.D.

After a few days of assisting me in adapting to my new surroundings, mfather flew home and as I always do when we part, I cried. I cried because he was leaving me alone in a place I knew nothing of and that was new and different and that scared me for all the reasons a new place and a new degree should scare you. I cried because he left me with a bereft “boyfriend” who was flying back to New Orleans in a few days, a “boyfriend” that at that point wasn’t really a boyfriend, but more like a brother who was sad that we wouldn’t be spending all of our waking time together no matter what the circumstances of the relationship was at the time. I cried because when you embark on a new part of your life you’re scared and uncertain and while you’re quite sure you’ll fight through the fear and ultimately make it, at that one moment, you have questions. I was going to be alone in few days and that was something that I was all too familiar with and being alone, while I embrace it today in my 40-something year old life, was not something that I was certain I could handle in my late twenties.

I think back today on those few days of me and Skeet (the boyfriend now best friend, been in his wedding, his children are my loves) arguing about driving (my father intervening before we killed each other) of me entering the new apartment completely ghost-faced about where I was living, about the four-year stretch of life before me that was so unfathomable and difficult; now I look back on it all and realize that while they may have been the hardest years of my life, mentally and physically, I am the strongest person I know and that if it had to be, I could certainly do it all over again. Probably better.