On Consideration Of the End Of the World: Life Without Jerry Garcia

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On the day Jerry Garcia died, my life became a smaller and a bigger place simultaneously.
Cynthia Hoffman

Issue #25, March 1996

"I always knew the world was going to come to an end; it just never occurred to me that it was going to happen on August 9, 1995."
— Me, August 10, 1995
"There is a silence that will not speak; there is a silence that cannot speak."
— Joy Kogawa, Obasan

On the day Jerry Garcia died, my life became a smaller and a bigger place simultaneously. I know that everyone who was anyone in my life, with very few exceptions, tracked me down by that afternoon and said something to me, even if all they knew how to say was "I knew you'd be hurting and I wanted to check in." People who I hadn't heard from in years, people who had to call my parents to get my number, found me. Some people shared great thoughts with me, others just shared themselves.

It really was just an ordinary August day. Well, maybe not totally. As I was getting dressed, it occurred to me that if I wanted to attend the rally at the Civic Center that I would need to arrange to take a long lunch hour. It was Nagasaki Day after all and 1995 was the 50th anniversary of that utterly senseless bombing. But otherwise, clear skies notwithstanding, it really was just a day like any other summer working day in the San Francisco Bay Area. Another day at the office, doing legal writing and secretarial work to pay for those plane tickets to Atlanta, Georgia that I had bought last spring, and the ones to Toronto, Ontario, Canada that I had just purchased that previous Monday, so I could go to yet another new city to see the Grateful Dead.

There are limits to my desire to wake up when it's still morning, after all (I have a theory about mornings ... I don't mind it when I'm awake for them, I just don't like waking up for them, if you catch my drift); Grateful Dead tickets and the accompanying plane tickets to get me to the venue were close to my only incentive to wake up by then. And while I really was beginning to hate working full time, I have to admit that I liked the money. Additionally, I didn't know what else to do, and besides, it wasn't yet the end of the world. I had plenty of time to move on, right?

When working in corporate America, my morning routine is quite simple: I make every attempt to get up just before the alarm awakens me, prepare the makings for coffee, download e-mail while the water is boiling, feed the cats, prepare the coffee and then drink it while perusing the morning's mail. I then shower, put in contact lenses, dress, drink another cup of coffee, and head for the nearest BART station for my relatively quick commute to the financial district in San Francisco. If I'm living right, I even get a seat on the train. I'm so acclimated to the commute that I put on the walkman and go, tuning out the rest of the world as I pump music straight into my brain. Nothing out of the ordinary here. I've been doing this for a couple of years, and on August 9, 1995, I just fall into the routine.

But in retrospect, of course, certain things stand out:

I woke up at 4:30 a.m. abruptly, and was curious. My normal "it's far too early to get up, why am I awake" time is 5:30 a.m., just too late to really get any good sleep before the 7:00 a.m. alarm goes off, but not late enough to get out of bed yet; I got out of bed at 6:00 a.m., a full hour earlier than usual.

I also now realize that I dressed very casually, even for me. I didn't put my hair up (I have more hair than god; I define bad hair day as bad hair life), I dressed in faded baggy jeans and a black t-shirt rather than a skirt and blouse, and I put on my birkenstocks without socks. None of these things in and of themselves were horribly unusual, but all of them together were certainly pushing it for a midweek day at a highrise financial district law office.

Of course, at 8:30 a.m., everything in my life changed. What changed it was amazingly short and so simple, really; and although not entirely unprepared for, still entirely unexpected. I put the key into the ignition of my car, and as the engine warmed up, and in the absence of the usual tape in the tape deck, the radio started playing, and I heard the report of Jerry Garcia's death being confirmed by the Marin County Coroner's Office.

I never want to feel like I felt in that moment ever again in my life. All thoughts of going to work vanished in the amount of time it took me to notice that my hands were shaking, that my vision was blurring, and to acknowledge my inability to negotiate the drive to the BART station. I was out of my car, dropping the keys as I thumbed the lock on the door, automatically setting the car alarm, and stumbling up the stairs and into my apartment before anything even remotely resembling conscious thought took over. I didn't call in sick, I called in "I'm not coming in" to work. I slid down the wall like they do on television and in movies in moments of grief, and I spent the next hour curled up on the floor in the kitchen, hugging my knees to my chest and screaming and sobbing and denying that it could possibly be true. I remember muttering "Oh my God, what on earth am I supposed to do now?"

Although I'm not sure I believe her, I'm told by the office manager that I hung up on her when she called to find out what was going on because, according to the office receptionist, I sounded "scary"; and I remember for the first time in six years having an uncontrollable desire to get blind drunk to make the pain go away. There was an emptiness inside me that I hadn't felt since I got sober, and that emptiness is still a part of me, so many months later. My best guess now is that like Joy Kogawa's silence that will not speak its name, a part of that emptiness will never go away.

In the initial days following his death, I bought newspapers and magazines that I was unable to read and finally just filed in a box to be read later, logged onto the internet to join the extended community there in mourning, went to the Polo Fields at Golden Gate Park and added my thoughts and mementos to the growing, impromptu, and municipally sanctioned memorial, watched the extensive news coverage, and attempted to behave like a grown up around people who no longer knew how to behave around me. While President Clinton and Vice-President Gore gave the news media soundbites about their personal sense of loss and the end of a musical era, and the local news trumpeted how interesting it was that a drug icon had died while attempting once again to get clean of drugs, the people in my life were unable to comprehend the pain they were causing me by saying "it's not like you lost a member of your family." In point of fact, they were right, but not in the way that they meant: it was worse for me than losing a member of my family, because the Grateful Dead Community is my family, and with the death of Jerry Garcia, not only was I going to lose the magic of his live music, I was convinced that once his magic was gone, I was going to lose the community he was instrumental in creating as well.

Since I discovered the Grateful Dead, I have spent, on average, 50 nights a year in the company of Jerry Garcia, and that's not even counting the amount of time I spend listening to him on tape. His presence in my life is constant and pervasive. I barely spend any time at all with my nuclear family compared to the amount of my year that is devoted to my Grateful Dead family. In point of fact, my mother used to keep track of where the Dead were playing so she'd know where to find me. I recall once waking up from a deep sleep to the sound of her voice and wondering if I was having a nightmare. What I was hearing was my mother's voice on a friend's answering machine saying "I know she's there; the Dead are in town so she must be staying with you. Ask her to call me when she gets in."

I write about identity all of the time. And much of my identity, ever since I can remember, has been tied up in what the media terms the counterculture. Jerry Garcia wasn't just a musician, he was my "Uncle Jerry" and the Grateful Dead weren't just a band, they were the focus of my spiritual life and the epicenter of my day to day community. When I stopped drinking, and began attending 12-Step meetings, the Grateful Dead and its attendant community were my higher power, and when I checked into a rehab program, I had 8 tickets to various shows in my backpack. When it was suggested to me that getting and staying sober were antithetical to being a Deadhead, I retorted that I was getting sober to get my life back; if the Dead weren't going to be a part of my life, I had no life and might as well stay loaded. In that one brief moment on a sunny day in August, my entire life changed because of the sudden absence of someone I'd never even met.

And therein lies one of the most difficult things about coping with Jerry's sudden demise: trying to explain to the rest of the world exactly what it is that I'm mourning. The media had its own ideas, and sound bites from the Clinton and Gore made me feel almost mainstream for a brief while, as did receiving the day as a bereavement day from my boss and noting, not without some small sadness, that the flags were flying at half-mast over City Hall and most major buildings in San Francisco. In the initial flurry of press coverage, the community that followed the Grateful Dead was extolled lavishly and shown to be taking care of its own in its peculiarly communal fashion. The Golden Gate Regional Park District even allowed camping out at the Polo Fields.

But the media picture very quickly changed: the press began to concentrate its energies on covering drugs, now insinuating that drugs and not a heart attack killed Garcia, and by the time of the funeral, I could no longer watch the news or read the newspapers. When all was said and done, I was in such an emotional turmoil I was unable to attend the "official" memorial that the band was forced into holding too quickly so that the park could be cleared and the community made once again to disappear. Things were once again status quo, with the Dead Community getting grief from left, right and center, very often for the same reasons: the Dead and their followers are about drugs and hippies and self-indulgence, they are not about politics, cultural or otherwise; the Dead and their followers are about chaos and lawlessness, they are not about freedom and acceptance.

So picture this: in 1991 I was assaulted and left for dead in my apartment and the first time I felt safe and whole following was at a series of Grateful Dead concerts, amongst both friends and strangers who cared enough about me and how I was doing to keep track of me in parking lots, bathroom lines and at my seat, but understood enough about me to be comfortable with the idea that I could still live in the music, dance to my heart's content and scream "I will survive" along with the band when they played Touch of Grey. If I have to name the thing that I'm mourning most, even seven months later, it's that freedom and that space to be wholly myself, without having to explain it to anyone. And that space was made magic and manifest by Jerry Garcia.

In August of 1995, with the help of friends, I made it through the first day; I spent time by the ocean, and I carefully considered the time that was suddenly going to be mine to use in new ways.

On December 8, 1995, the Grateful Dead office issued a press release announcing that the "long strange trip" was over and one week later, on December 15, 1995, I went to the Warfield Theatre, site of so much of my musical history with the Dead, to see Bob Weir's new band RatDog and to say goodbye to a scene that has been the center of my life for 20 years. As I say goodbye, I'm left to ponder how I am going to make major decisions in my life now. I've always made them at Dead shows because they were the one place on the planet where I knew I was most truly myself.

I hope that the decisions that I make and the ways that I choose to use my newfound time will honor the way I used to spend it. And I try to remember that he died with a smile on his face, and with no one tugging on him to stay around longer than he wanted to; not like last time when he felt pressured to come back.

I finally made it to Toronto last month. I went to see a play, and to get away from a Bay Area that was for the first time in years going to be celebrating Mardi Gras and Chinese New Year's without a Grateful Dead concert. While I was in Toronto, I fell in love. Sometimes, I think of her as another of Jerry's gifts to me because we never would have met if he hadn't left me to find my own way without him. She says I have given her the gift of being exactly who she is without having to explain herself, and I think that's a fitting legacy.

I had twenty years.

And I will always be a Deadhead.

Cynthia J. Hoffman is a Graduate Student in the English Department at the University of California at Berkeley where she occasionally remembers to write about monsters in early modern literature. This is the first time she's talked about her reactions to Garcia's death in public, and the last time she listened to the Grateful Dead on her walkman while riding BART, she cried so hard she missed her stop. That file box full of articles is still mostly unread. She can be reached via email at choff@lmi.net.

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