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A Workingman’s ‘Dead’


As it does on some days in the Richmond District, the 12:00 o’clock siren is blowing, and it reminds me of the daily siren at noon in the small town I was raised in on Long Island. My grandfather, a hardworking German immigrant who farmed after retirement, would put down his hoe and walk back to his bungalow, where my grandmother had lunch ready. She ground up coffee beans in a metal hand grinder with a wooden-covered handle. It had a cup to catch the grounds and a vice grip at bottom to keep it securely set. The coffee, I remember, smelled to my child’s senses utterly wonderful, and my grandfather, who had given me my own red plastic cup, would fill it with milk and add a dash of coffee. When my grandmother would object, he’d say, “It’s all right, it won’t hurt her.” This addicted me lifelong to coffee.

My grandfather and grandmother, both German immigrants, lived in a one-bedroom bungalow with an outhouse in back, set on four acres that made it possible for them to farm for their own use. From this distance it seems my grandparents, unlike my parents, lived with an unusual mindfulness, whether dealing with living things or possessions, with a certain unspoiled frugal kindliness. With clarity I remember the loud tick-tock of the clock they kept on the mantle in the small living room, my grandfather taking up a large key to wind the clock up which he did with care and precision. My grandfather had a hard existence in Hamburg as a young adult, and worked as a butcher in Brooklyn when he first came to this country in 1896, then maintained roads for the county, working six days a week, ten hours a day for years, finally suffering from angina, which killed him at 70.

An apple will last without refrigeration, but not if you break its skin, which seems to encourage internal degradation — same is true of human beings and other animals. There are certain conditions that have to be met with living things, crucial time frames within which particular conditions have to be met in order to achieve a certain desirable effect. There are parameters, and while reasonable deviations may allow the goal to be achieved despite them, these parameters are of greatest importance in a life-span. Ask the dedicated rose grower.


It wasn’t too long ago the Polo Field with its cachet of the original Hippie culture hosted the Human Be-in with the stars of the 60’s revival of counterculture. When I got back to San Francisco from Los Angeles in 1968, I stayed here after I got a job as a clerk with the Post Office. And while I never went to the Fillmore West, everyone living here of a certain age was aware of the rock music scene and the flowering counterculture. Especially if you went to Haight Street, or worked at Rincon Annex Post Office.

One August Sunday in 1995 I went over to Golden Gate Park to jog around the Polo Field, finding there a memorial service in progress for Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia worked at music from 1960 to 1995, a thirty year work life, and he might have been surprised that in 2002 two of his guitars sold for 1.74 million. His bar owning musician father died when he was five; his mother sent him to live with his working-class grandmother. So Garcia was a workingman ‘Dead’ by dint of upbringing.

The memorial crowd is so large I’m taken aback. It could be over 20,000 (later reported as 25,000). There are parades of multi-prop dragons, Mandelas carried high on posts, flowers, oranges, large and small images of Garcia, banners, memorial gifts, tambourines, mouth harps, drums, dancing, costumes (bagpipers did a rendition of “Amazing Grace.”) so varied it reminds me of Haight Street in the day. Crazy variety in color and presentation. Smells of marijuana and patchouli and sandalwood. Everyone exhibiting bon homie. Hippie garb of vests and long dresses, Levi’s, sandals, flowered tresses and smiling faces. Garcia’s wife Deborah gets to the stage microphone and speaks to the crowd: “What a great guy Jerry Garcia was! He would have loved this! He is loving it!” Her daughter Annabelle adds her thoughts: “We love each and every one of you, because you put us through college and we didn’t have to work at Dairy Queen.” At one point the crowd begins spontaneously chanting the chorus line of one of the Grateful Dead’s well-known songs: “You know our love will not fade away,” clapping in time. Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane reads a poem to the crowd, talks about the night before when Deadhead campers assembled there, playing drums and dancing under the moonlight. “It was nice. Very pagan.” I had forgotten what it felt like to be in a crowd of thousands of people and not be paranoid. No one of non-friendly intent — and this amazes me. The San Francisco Police Commander Dennis Martel was later quoted as saying: “Everybody has been real cool and cordial. They’re just having a good time.” Events like this used to be fairly common, the Jefferson Airplane playing for free in Golden Gate Park, or the Dead doing a free concert on Haight Street. It seems somewhat of a miracle— especially in 2016 — in these days of bombs, drones, grandiose ambitions, hi-tech spying, intimidation, grasping, gasping, and hard times, that a good neighborly feeling like this in such a large gathering of people is still possible. Sixties counterculture put a positive spin on greeting the sun in the morning, gratefulness, generosity, dancing beneath the moon. Celebrating when possible. Doing no harm to others or the earth.

Eating and living simply. You can fault it for its naiveté, sure, but it’s looking pretty good in comparison to today’s micro-politicized steroid-plumped narcotic capitalism.

Music and art was taken out to the streets then in the service of protesting the Vietnam debacle — and if our parents generation had only joined us in protest instead of demonizing it, the government would likely have stopped the war. (To this day I don’t know why we continued (or started) in Vietnam, except that President Johnson was intimidated by a coterie of Harvard graduates who told him to stay in it — that Gorilla chest-beating of precious young men who never had to do real work in the world?) In his collection, Letters to a Spiritual Seeker, Henry David Thoreau opines, “It’s not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?” It’s a question the counterculture asked in various ways in music, literature, and anti-war protests. Seems philosophically quaint today.

In August 1969, when the light show groups that worked in Fillmore West and Winterland decided to go on strike, picketing Grateful Dead shows, Jerry Garcia refused to cross the picket lines. His grandmother in the Excelsior district took him to live with her after his father died in a fishing accident, and she’d been a co-founder of the Laundry Workers’ Union in San Francisco. And Friscotown has been, up until the most recent Great Recession, a union town, and the fingers of unionism are still taking the city’s pulse, albeit part-time now, even as high-tech monster money is almost a half-century later trying to unclasp those digits with any hammer or pry bar it can devise.

A number of times in the last year I’ve been on a city bus and watched Muni Fare Inspectors writing out tickets for jumping on a free ride. The fine: $120.00. It gives me the hully gullies, having read some about how the Nazis got people used to being approached by police in public. Like boiling the frog in the pan of water, by a slow, incremental, merely inconvenient- appearing acclimatizing. The point is, there are all sorts of cunning maneuvers useful for driving non-elites from the city. And people accept official rationalizations so easily, such as that there are hordes of people getting on the buses without paying a fare, and this is why it costs us so much. If so, why then was this not the case say five years back? If so, then why have that gizmo to click off your plastic fare card at the door halfway back? Why not keep it at the front? Which would also make it much easier for riders to exit by the back door. Is getting a free bus ride ten blocks down Geary Street really a serious thing, a crime warranting a $120.00 fine? How much does it cost to pay all the Fare Inspectors to police buses? And why do we all accept so easily being approached in public with a demand to see our I.D.? I never carry mine in the city. And I attempt to get off the bus if I see Inspectors getting on — not easy to do now — once an Inspector of Fares followed me up the street into a grocery store when I escaped. He devil-eyed me as I continued squeezing the limes in their display prison. I was rattled. Because a few years ago I read that out in the Bayview a man came to help his sister who didn’t have a bus transfer. The Inspectors stopped her and she ran. He ran. He was shot and killed. Did I just imagine that happened?

I really miss those good-vibed, free-wheeling times of the city’s past, when our workers had unions and they were well respected in city hall, and all of us were considered above average by the authorities.

Rest in peace Mr. Garcia. Gonna be a long time gone.

Since the war in Iraq, we Americans have gotten accustomed to waking up and going to sleep hearing about people belonging to one gang — tribally and/or religiously connected in their values and desires — blowing up people of another tribal gang of people in public places with crude explosives, either near police stations or where soldiers gather, or in open-air market places on busy days, or in buildings where politicians and legislators meet. Or in airports or concert halls. Kill as many as possible. In as shocking a way as possible. How does this no-letup diet of hearing about people blowing other people up affect us? Affect our children? It’s shaping our psyches. It’s shaping our reality. It’s — frogishly — recreating reality.

When this jihadist war first began, 99.9% of vest-packing suicide bombers were male. Slowly, very slowly, the move is to women strapping on the vests— more exactly, of someone else strapping the vest on young women. Only six decades ago American society looked upon comic books and rock and roll music and pony tails on men as extremely harmful to our culture, as immoral. Dangerous to our kids. I would like to suggest that taking opioids and then blowing one’s body into bloody dripping pieces, or forcing this behavior on others, represents the satanic human mind at overload level. Will it soon dawn on Muslim extremist men that it would be convenient for this murder technique of theirs to allow women to drive?

In the days before explosives and assault rifles, it was hard work to conduct war. Soldiers used to have to hack away at other soldiers face to face with large heavy swords, make and pour boiling liquids, render large metal balls with sharp spikes on them, and employ various other hard-hack devices. Even today it still isn’t all that easy to kill people, so it’s much more convenient to put those people into an assembly, and kill them in groups. Put them in containers like planes or trains. Like killing bacteria on your kitchen sink by wiping them away with Clorox on a rag. In modern times, Adolf Hitler showed the world one way this could be done. Other tribal leaders have taken his lead and run with it.

Now concentrated explosives are used. Connected with the ubiquitous automobile, used as a ground missile of great force — a basic football tactic in a way — this technique is greatly appreciated by those in the non-discriminating killing business. The fast and furious shredding of flesh skin and bones, accomplished instantaneously. The beauty of more modern operations is, that while in Hitler’s day it was put forth as a distasteful, yet honorable duty to annihilate for instance every Gypsy or Jew in Europe, today mass murder is justified by, God told us to do it. So those who implement the Ethnic Cleansing, Final Solution, Manifest Destiny, Crusades,

Nation Unification, Holy War — whatever euphemism is used at various times and places — nowadays have the techniques of genocide honed to a smooth play. No Hail Mary passes needed.

Sorry. Bummer. Too much media input.

I really wanted to end talking about the fact that both guitarists, Django Rheinhardt and Jerry Garcia, had lost part of one hand, yet played like angels apart, and I’ve wondered whether high motivation plus extreme struggle to overcome a serious defect might work to produce superior art? Because neither one of them ought to have supposed that they could do it.

(Penny Skillman’s fiction and essays can be found on Amazon Kindle ebooks.)

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