When my long strange trip concluded in December of 1995, the end of the six-year drinking marathon and four months after Jerry Garcia died, I, too, like Jack tried to put it all down on paper. A longer stranger trip commenced impelling me to days of greater peril and confusion when I returned to the Sunshine State in 1996 at the urging of Moose who wished that I would “get a haircut and get a real job.” I was ambivalent, held higher aspirations. Prior to my exodus I sequestered myself in his house in Connecticut as Mother Nature struck the region with a Polar Vortex, a tyrannical Nor’ Easter like the one I faced in ’93. I sat before the Royal manual typewriter sneering its bone-white keys. I had it refurbished at Business Office Machines downtown across the street where I attended parochial school, hazy lazy days I jettisoned to live the life of the true Bohemian. I had the mean machine refurbished; its gears oiled for maximum velocity, and pounded it for fifteen hours a day for six months until I completed drafts of two novels. The first I titled The Grateful Dead Novelabout the fraternity road trip adventures with Hazard and Scar, the genesis of this story. The second one, Paradise,centered on the summer of ’94 that I spent with the Barcome family in the mountains when I came of age. The first story was more meaningful but I remained dissatisfied with both, my words staring at me in mediocrity. Newly sober, I hoped to initiate a frenzy that would pull me through, for excessive caffeine can also cause hallucinations I learned during my hospitalization in August. I had these stories rattling around in my brain after those porch discourses at 112 South Lincoln Street. It was time to infuse into them the Breath of Life. I belted out these chronicles until my back grew sore and my fingers ached, grew knotted and decrepit, for such was the force unleashed within me that I could hardly forestall the inertia and determined to complete these magnum opusesif it was the last thing I’d ever do. Like Moses on the summit of Mount Sinai, I neither ate nor drank, but lay prostrate before the Golden Calf in obeisance deifying the rattly contraption as the elements hemmed me in. Nothing else mattered. There was only one initiative, the Word, now that Jerry Garcia, and his music were dead.
Moose remained in Florida awaiting my arrival. I had yet to telephone him and deliver what he would perceive to be distressing news: that I left the University of Southern New Hampshire without obtaining my Bachelor of Arts in English. I failed Linguistics, a requisite for earning a degree in American Literature. What did the International Phonetic Alphabet the fricative and the schwa have to do with On the Roador Ginsberg’s “Howl”, or even Bob Dylan? Moose would have a conniption, a coronary even, from all the stress strangling his heart like shackles. Good. I could hear his foghorn sounding long distance: “Six years of college down the drain!” I learned in a decidedly different manner, the hard way, the only way I knew. I had traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard numerous times in an effort to placate my mercurial spirit, to live out my rock ‘n’ roll fantasy, yet refused to accept the truth that Jerry Garcia was gone.
First reports of his death at Serenity Knolls, a treatment center in Marin County, were broadcast from the nascent Cable News Network (CNN). Jerry’s death coincided with the O.J. Simpson trial. I remember debating the issue with Glenn Barcome at poolside at Paradise for 10 hours and as many bottles of Moosehead. “Absolutely guilty!” Glenn claimed. Who cared about the felonious footballer? Jerry’s death hit home. I was a Deadhead, yet didn’t wear the uniform, the tie-dyes, the sandals, the hippyish hairstyle and the patchouli, rarely listened to other group, save the Boys and their brilliant music and thought upon the MSG show and at Giants Stadium with Merrill and Barry. It took a Dead member’s death to inspire the flash mob of the nascent technological wonder, the Internet. A fraternity alumnus, Odie, hipped me to the ‘net. It’ll never catch on, I remember thinking. Three decades after the group’s inception, Garcia died at age 53, defied his own life expectancy. All day CNN ran teasers about breaking news out of California. In the morning I walked to the Student Union for a cup of coffee where I heard a gaggle of students clucking, heard somebody say “Jerry Garcia’s dead,” but I didn’t believe them. News stations broadcast periodic updates and images, a wide shot of Jerry in his ’87 flannel shirt grody beard and tinted glasses, a wry expression on his careworn face. I turned away from the television in the Union. Who in our party could say that they were surprised? MTV displayed “Touch of Gray,” the Dead’s first hit video, and “Truckin,’” reported that Garcia died of “natural causes.” Something sounded fishy. Was he just another dead doper as Rush Limbaugh claimed? Where would the Dedicated go from here? Not Phish, never minding what Horace Lang told me on our way to Tennessee and back. Lang was bellicose. I was in denial. I was hardly alone.
Torrington served as the concourse until I made my trip south again. It was a journey I preferred to avert. Nothing should halt my literary endeavors I determined, especially employment and inclement weather. Close quarters offered a dismal milieu. I was a vagrant, a squatter, like those burnouts who hung around Madison Square Garden at my first show in ‘91. If Moose wanted me out of his house then he ought to have contacted the Sheriff and evict me properly. Still, Florida was appealing. The house was as cold as the graves of my mother and her parents. Moose locked the thermostat at fifty degrees in October prior to his return to the Sunshine State but I didn’t want to leave. The new job I landed at a South Florida Daily hardly interested me. I was willing to kill or die to finish my ex operante. Each night I popped a tape into the VHS of The Shining. I was Jack Torrance in the Overlook Hotel, a dry drunk beset by demons who wrote at the grand table bequeathed to me by my mother while maple and hickory logs snapped and hissed in the hearth in the sunken living room. I thrust the poker into the coals and threw more logs on the fire. The work I deemed imperative. I wanted to write a modern-day On the Road but had to earn a living. I knew I had to leave Torrington, couldn’t linger until Spring when the snows on the graves of my loved ones melted, the precipitation seeping deeper into the permafrost and rotting what was left of their bones, coagulating their ashes from dust to entropy. They no longer haunted me. They were empty promises from empty graves. Still, I couldn’t let go and continued to suffer. Florida offered therapeutic distance. I assembled my baggage———no shortage of that in my life. With drafts completed and my trunk full of junk, my journals and my mother’s heirlooms, I drove back to Florida where I took the job as a reporter, for journalism was the only marketable skill I possessed, as evidenced by the article I wrote about David Amram the Beatnik Jazz musician. My correspondence with the famed pianist had long since fallen away. That didn’t surprise me for all my relationships are transitory but I wondered how I could continue the Long Strange trip.
The Sun Herald, where I hired on, wasn’t the Equinoxwhere I was a standout feature writer. Newspapering at the professional level turned out to be more difficult than I imagined. It was hard work. I possessed a modicum of experience yet figured it would be the gateway to my dream of being a writer despite what Moose thought. It was a perilous occupation. The owners of the paper, the Dunn-Rankin family, continually reminded staffers that we were on borrowed time, one story away from termination. At the end of each day covering budget hearings, ribbon cuttings, grip and grins, city council meetings and Keystone Kops and Courts, I returned to the condominium where Moose warmed up lasagna in the radiation box above the range. Then I worked on rewrites of what I’d composed before fleeing New England.
The Cold War between my father and myself was as cold as ever. I admonished him because he watched too much television from dawn to dusk to blackout. Television is so banal; I eschewed the damned contraption while Moose fell asleep on the davenport with the volume on the TV jacked up. I shook him awake. ”What’s your problem with it? It relaxes me,” he snapped. “Television,” I said pronouncing my disdain for the gleaming glass teat, “is more dangerous than the atom bomb.” We never did make up from the Battle Royale two Christmases ago. Nothing changed. Why forgive?
After dinner and rigid conversations centering on nothing save for my job I stowawayed into my room and closed and locked the door. I shielded my ears with my Walkman and popped in a tape from a show from Charlotte North Carolina, 3/23/95, where the Dead played “Unbroken Chain” for the first time since the group cut the Phil Lesh track on vinyl on From the Mars Hotelin 1974. At last Kerouac handed the pearl and the visions on to me. Merrill mailed the bootleg to me, a nice gesture but I never heard from him again. Maybe he did enroll in law school at the insistence of his parents while I heard that Scar entered the seminary. The bootleg was a real score. I listened to the show to drown out the insidious box and the Zzzzs of Moose and spent the night typing maniacally. The condo had no spare room, forcing me to I write in the walk-in closet with its overhead light, the sleeves of my new sport coats brushing my shoulders. Like Kerouac I knew I had a story, felt confident that I would obtain representation that would get my manuscripts to an acquisition editor at a major publishing house: Harcourt Brace, Double Day, or Scribner’s——Hemingway’s publisher. There had to be something in all the pain and travail I endured in the years following Sylvia’s death, from the summer of ’89 when I left home for college until 1995 when Jerry died and I fled the Northeast for what I hoped would be forever.
Alacaday, I’m still chasing the muse, that frosty bitch as elusive as Sinatra’s unladylike luck, mining the yellowing notebooks stored in the beat trunk full of self-indulgences, analyzing my manuscripts like an historian who peers into arcane texts to unlock the mysteries of antiquity.
Leaving Keene in the autumn of 1995 proved to be more perilous than I imagined. Depending who you ask, I caused great calamity, ran amok throughout the city and the campus with a black spot embossed upon my palm. Out came the pitchforks and the torches. It was a psychiatrist’s prognosis that caused me to go dry, cold turkey.
“Stop drinking or you’re going to die,” he said point-blank.
“Okay, Doc,” I said, “I will.”
I obeyed his orders though his prognosis seemed preposterous. I was a victim of an intervention orchestrated by fraternity laughing boys. The meltdown happened on J-Day, the ninth of August, the day that Jerry Garcia died, that day of Infamy that sobered up the Deadheads and their ilk. I awoke in the psychiatric ward at the Cheshire Medical Center on Washington Avenue, locked in a private room while clinicians checked my vital statistics. “You stick me with that needle in me I’ll shove it into your throat.” I plotted retribution for my ‘brothers’ who screwed me. Where am I? How did I get here? I’m gonna kill those sons of bitches who sandbagged me. Don’t they know who I am? I’m the Hegemon of Kappa Delta Phi and a Grateful Dead Archivist and I’m going to get even with those bastards if it’s the last thing I ever do ...
The psychiatrist assigned to my care, the doctor who ordered me to quit drinking, was named Joseph Berger. He sat bedside in his starched white coat murmuring over his clipboard and jotting down notes. A veritable giant, Berger stood six feet seven inches tall and wore a salt and pepper beard not unlike the Grizzly Garcia’s whose ashes were soon to be scattered across the San Francisco Bay, scattered into fish food. Such a legacy for a paragon of American Beauty. I inquired Berger about his physical dimensions and he told me that he had been an All American college basketball player, a center at Villanova University in the seventies. The palms of his boilerplate hands were large enough to palm a basketball.
“Come now. Why am I here,” I said.
“Why?” asked the doctor incredulously. “Because you’re a very sick young man.”
“A fine grasp of the obvious, doctor. But why this private room?”
“You threatened to kill one of your friends.”
“I don’t have any friends anymore.”
My dilapidated mind struggled to understand the admonitions of this elephantine physician as the overhead lights fried my follicles and shellacked my glassy eyes full of double vision.
“Doctor,” I said. “Am I schizophrenic or something or what?”
“No,” Berger replied. “No, you are most definitely not schizophrenic.”
“Well, that’s a relief. What’s next, a lobotomy?”
“Just relax. Somebody will be with you shortly.” He stood and left the room, ducking his head as he crossed the threshold.
In the stillness of the antiseptic chamber I pieced together the grainy memories of went down in Keene prior to my hospitalization. Certain members of my fraternity, Kappa Delta Phi committed me because, I learned, that for weeks I had run amok throughout the campus, threatening an unsavory character, Paul Odelson, with bodily harm. “Latent psychosis,” Berger had said.
The death of Garcia pushed me over the edge; I lost all reason but my legacy lay secure. I went mad like Jack. It was Odelson, ”call me Odie,” who affirmed that Jerry was dead. I called on him at his apartment across the street from the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity house. Like me Odie had been at USNH for years without garnering sufficient credits to graduate in the ten yearshe lived in Keene, an a Italian Jew and a veritable Brother Bluto. Ashes and bong resin covered the wooden cable spool table stacked with copies of High Times, Rolling Stone, and Playboy.
“Odie set me up. I’ll take the usual,” I said.
“A half-pound of Shwaz?”
“You know it, brother.” I spread my cash on the table. Odie pocketed the Jacksons.
“Hey,” he said as I headed toward the door. “Did you hear the news?”
It was gray o’clock in the afternoon and all the brothers splashed through the sewage engulfing the streets following a deluge and floated down South Lincoln Street in tire tubes.
“Hear what, Odie?”
“Jerry Garcia died this morning.”
Odie affirmed what I’d heard that morning at the Student Union. My blood ran cold and I felt my brain turning somersaults in my scull.
“I beg your pardon, what did you just say to me?”
“Yeah, yeah, he’s dead.”
He said this most gleefully. His report seared my mind in its deep neurosis. I wanted to tear my teeth from my guns and gouge out his eyes. The jerk wouldn’t let it go, added injury to insult. “Imagine,” he said, “the long strange trip is over.”
“Not for me, asshole.”
I stuffed the dope in my pocket and left his apartment. Searching for answers——there were none——I wandered the Keene Streets and participating in several “Good By Jerry” parties. “He’s Gone” was the funeral dirge, and also Don McLean’s “The Day the Music died.” So much for American Pie. The setting sun cooked the rancid earth. I ran into another frat boy, Kai Persia, a skinhead, sitting on the porch at the Kappa house. Kai had converted to the True Religion and went to see the Boys play at Highgate at the airfield this past August, a show I avoided because it wasn’t the same without Merrill Hazard and Barry Scargensky. How had they received the blow? When would I hear from them? The straight edge’s story rang true, though he failed to recognize the shock waves over the exactness of Jerry’s departure to the ultimate Land of the Spirit. Kai, a skinhead no longer, let his hair grow out, grew dreadlocks the color and consistency of cornstalks. He traded Fugazi and the Sex Pistols for the Dead. I had no choice but to believe and accept that his conversion was sincere, that he was one of Jerry’s kids now. Still I wasn’t satisfied. I buttonholed him, commanded him to provide me with the details to a fine decimal point, of the Boys’ final concert in New England, the entire set list. “Tell me everything that happened there! What songs did the band play? Hey, boy, listen. You don’t understand——I need to know!”
“Take it easy,” said Kai, trembling at my knotted fists. “You’re face is like turning purple. Breath, man. I don’t remember what the official body count because I was high.” His testimony failed to satisfy me.
I cornered him on the porch where I spent so much time with Merrill Hazard and Barry Scargensky. Eyes cast downward at the garbage strewn across the driveway and the porch, Kai essayed to describe what happened in Franklin County two weeks earlier, buckled beneath the duress. “It’s probably good that you didn’t go, he said. “Purists like you, Haz and Scar, too, would have considered it to be a charade at best, a nadir, truly the group’s Swan Song. It kind of sucked but at least I got to see the group before Jerry kicked. The Porto potties were full so guys took to hanging steak in the dust, which drew flies in addition to the mosquitoes. It wasn’t just the music that sucked, but the concertgoers. Sorority girls bared their breasts and slithered in the mud like salamanders yet decried the goons that groped them, uninvited skinheads that broke down the fences. I didn’t have a ticket. If it weren’t for the Skinheads I would never had made it to the show. That’s my recollection of the strange rumblings on the Canadian Border. Sorry for the loss, man. My condolences.”
In Keene music wafted Dedicated. Kai speculated on substitutes for Jerry, “as if that were possible,” I snapped, speculations that went to absurdities.
“Such as?” I said with my arms crossing my chest.
“Why, because he has a Latin Surname? That’s absurd.”
“How about Trey Anastasio?” he offered.
“Never heard of the guy.”
“I can’t help you,” Kai said and hurried away to another vigil.
That night, the ninth of August 1995, I learned that Bob Weir, rhythm guitarist from the Grateful Dead, was playing a concert at the Hampton Beach Casino a mere hour from Keene. I wanted to make the journey but was in no shape to drive. Weir, the Ying to Garcia’s Yang, strapped his acoustic guitar across his chest following a press conference during which he said in the rarest of important occasions, “If our friend taught us anything it’s that good music can make sad times better. We’ve got our work cut out for us so let’s just get started.” I sensed the anger and fear in Weir’s eyes, felt the vibes of destruction and abandonment that he and the rest of the Boys felt that California morning of hysteria.
Instead of going to Hampton Beach I breached the TKE house for another “Goodbye Jerry” party, one of millions taking place throughout the world where hapless ‘heads remained overwhelmed with grief and denial. It was a deep sense of loss, an incredulity that cut across generations. I made it through the door, staggered down the stairs into the basement where they kept the kegs. A brawny boy clamped his hand on my shoulder. I turned to face my accuser. “What the hell do you want?” I said.
“Put down your beer.”
“I’m not done with it yet.”
“Come with me,” said the gorilla, “And don’t give me any shit or I’ll fuck your world up.”
“What do you mean? I don’t understand what you’re saying to me, friend. I just want to party. I’m here to eulogize Jerry.”
“I said let’s go. I’m not your friend. You’re a sick motherfucker and everybody’s afraid that you’re going to kill Odie.”
“Who doesn’t want to kill Odie?”
This confrontation slightly sobered me. The kid, Shalaylee’s new boyfriend, meant business, augmented by a troop of goons in fraternity letter t-shirts and tie-dyes. I was outnumbered; no Kappa brothers came to my rescue. I did as I was ordered. The eyes of all in attendance, lots of girls, some I had ‘known’, most who ignored me, followed me as the bouncer led me up the stairs and out into the parking lot where friendly police officers helped me into the backseat of the cruiser. Logical questions crowded the mind of the mental one. “Am I being arrested? What’re the charges?”
The cops grinned, pulled up to the front entrance of the Cheshire Medical Center where I was admitted and directed to a brightly lit room waiting to see the psychiatrist Doctor Berger. I spent ten days locked up at the Cheshire Medical Center in its psychiatric ward on the third floor of the hospital. After discharge, “fit for society,” I returned to Moose’s house in Connecticut. I kindled the fire in the dying hearth and spread my writings on the table, all the journals, mining them in search of the Pearl of Great Price. The house was freezing; I could see my breath as I rubbed my hands, sat in silence, digging the isolation. A neighbor brought me a cat, “Harry Kitty,” a Persian mix, to keep me company. Instead I terrorized the feline, chasing it through the hallways and bellowing my Barbaric Yawp——Gahhooohy! Harry Kitty scrambled away, its paws slipping on the terrazzo tiles in the kitchen as it scampered beneath the bed. Harry Kitty only came out from the bed at night to feed while I sunk into the hot tub in the master bedroom. In daylight hours, as the winter sun penetrated its rays through windows facing west, west, where calamity ensued following Garcia’s death, I sat at my mother’s pinewood table; its deacon’s bench bolted by deteriorating screws and brads corroded from entropy. Utilizing the services and skill of the Royal manual typewriter, also left to me by the dead woman, I wrote résumés and cover letters to newspaper editors in Florida, for I felt that desperate to get out of New England. Only one replied, the Sun Heraldin Port Charlotte, between Sarasota and Fort Myers. My father’s going to kill me when he sees what I’ve done to his house, I thought. It was an intense environment. Coming to my senses, and desperate for a drink, I surveyed the destruction wrought upon his nightmare castle; if he thought that those pervious tenants wrecked his investment then how mortified would he be at its condition now that I’d been living rent-free for the month of December. Cabin fever set it. In a fit of futility I hurled my coffee mug across the room shattering it and put a hole in the wall just because I made a typo. Chewing tobacco sluice soiled the Zanadu carpeting. My grief over the loss of Jerry Garcia knew no bounds. I rolled on the tobacco sluiced carpeting bewailing the loss of my hero as I listened to a recording of the Jerry Band show that I saw with Hazard and Scar in Portland, the organ blasted by Melvin Sears, a four hundred pound gospel musician. Odie was right. The Long Strange Trip was over. Another trip commenced, but who what where when why or how?
Getting out of Torrington proved more difficult than I imagined. I didn’t want to go; I couldn’t go. Had to go. A wicked Nor’ Easter laid waste to the region trapping me in the old man’s mansion. I needed weed——badly. Berger ordered me to quit alcohol; he never said anything about drugs. I made several phone calls throughout the greater Torrington area to procure my medicine and connected with a girl, Mary who lived with her boyfriend, a Syracuse graduate who bore a resemblance to Quasimodo. Mary graduated from USNH in 1990, the year I matriculated. She promised to sell me a tremendous cache of marijuana. She lived across the street from the newlyweds Horace and Eda Lang. I wanted nothing to do with these “young marrieds.” My truck got stuck in the snowdrifts at the edge of the driveway. In desperation, I called Malo, tall and fat with girly eyelashes who drove up the hill in his Jeep to dig me out but we failed to free my vehicle from the mountainous embankments. We struggled to lurch free my GMC but it sank into the snow. In unbridled rage I shoved Malo out the way, snatched the snow shovel from his hands as he stood with his orangutan arms hanging down to his knees. “Give me that fucking shovel, Malo. C’mon now. What are you good for?” “Don’t talk to me like that,” he said. The boy watched in horror and amusement as I bashed in all the windows of the truck’s cap because I couldn’t get my dope, the shards of glass littering the snow-covered asphalt. Malo refused to drive me downtown to Mary’s apartment. How I jonsed, promised Doctor Berger that I would stay sober and felt relieved because my sincerity was genuine. The pot I needed to stabilize my frenetic mind following discharge from the hospital after Jerry died from the surrealistic pillow of his indulgences. Soon I fled Torrington to Southern skies. I packed the truck, minus the cap, a twisted mass of aluminum and shattered glass, fastening a blue tarpaulin cloaking the truck bed full of books, including some first editions of The Grapes of Wrath, The Godfather, and Irving Wallace‘sThe Seven Minutes, allbelonging to Moose. If they meant that much to my father he would have taken them with him when he moved from Connecticut to Port Charlotte. The Royal and the journals packed in banker’s boxes sat shotgun. Prior to New Year’s Eve the weather morphed into a snowy shitstorm but I readied myself for another twenty-four hour slog from New England to Florida, vowing to remain in the Sunshine State until I died. I found out that Merrill had married but I never received an invitation to the ceremony in Laconia. Barry Scargensky, I had heard, had in fact entered the Jesuit noviate at Boston College. Sylvia’s Ghost continued to haunt me. Long dead gone and buried she and her parents rotted in their plots beside the oak tree at Saint Peter Cemetery in Torrington overlooking the pumpkin and blueberry patches. Either we crossed paths or went our separate ways into Eternity, never knowing the fate of each other. I prayed to them at times but stopped because they didn’t pray back.
Why Florida again? I wanted stability, familiarity, a home, and a place to play my Grateful Dead bootlegs, which turned into CDs, as I hurried to mine the journals hoping to finish my latest trash heap of this novel. The pages strewn across the floor in the closet at the condominium and I tried to organize them, scattered like pieces in a puzzle and I couldn’t figure out how to put them together. Sylvia, Conrad, and Alice Mae manifested themselves as poltergeists. I feared for my sanity and I had reason to fear, lay awake at night watching shadows crawl across the ceiling and the walls. I listened to them speak in alien languages from the Beyond, quicksilver whispers in my ears and a blue and soothing light bathed the room. I needed to have my head examined as the dawn penetrated through the venetian blinds covering the window overlooking the retention pond. I was a Floridian now, possibly forever. Why else would I follow a band called the Dead?