Gotta Make It Somehow
First I need to tell you that I’m not a hippie. And on this particular day, I was the opposite, if there is an opposite to “hippie.” I was a city employee, a civil servant. I was a city employee, and this is a story of wonder.
I was tie-dyeing when Jerry Garcia died. Maybe not at the exact moment, but I remember wondering: were my hands swirling in purple and green just as his last breath passed? Or was I really just stirring another gallon of red pigment when news reached his agent, who crafted a press release that was read on the radio that caught my breath and made me cry, perhaps hours later? I like to think I was tie-dyeing.
I was a city employee who roved our parks' recreation programs, conducting daily free art workshops for kids who might not otherwise see a gluestick or popsicle stick or pompom all summer. Our city had free recreation programs at a dozen parks. Ostensibly, they were to keep kids moving and busy and supervised for a few hours a day. Really, the programs served the more essential function of providing free breakfast and lunch to hundreds of kids who lived on subsidized meals during the school year, and who might not otherwise eat those meals again until September.
Some of those kids were starving. Some were starving for food and some were starving for affirmation and some were starving for the bright colors I brought into their lives in the forms of glitter and pipe cleaners and reassuring hugs. They were starving for color and they were starving for wonder and I always felt heady bringing so much delight to their eyes. I brought some form of craft to every park every week, but once a summer I brought tie-dye to each park, which meant twelve times a summer I was a magician, a superhero, a curator of wonderment.
We used professional-grade dyes, so strong that the purple never really faded from my knuckles until about midterms of fall semester every year. These weren’t your mama’s Rit boxes. I brought big rubber bands and skinny rubber bands and binder clips and wax for relief designs and was the baddest tie-dyer in the land. I had a booklet with 80 different T-shirt folds. We could make anything, those kids and I. And we did.
I mixed the dyes and filled spray bottles and we worked on blacktop, on grass, on a rocky creekside and a fissured basketball court. I covered the landscape of our crummy little town with tiny dots of the most vibrant tones you’ve ever seen, little gems of optimism glistening against an otherwise unpromising landscape.
I asked the kids to bring something white, anything white. I tie-dyed t-shirts with faded church logos and gym socks and Grandma’s pillowcase. We dyed moth-eaten curtains and a laundry bag and many, many boxer shorts. When one boy brought a crisp new handkerchief, we set about planning a delicate accordion design befitting its diminutive size. “But can I wash it out after?” he asked. He just really wanted to try the dyeing. But he had swiped the handkerchief from his mom’s new boyfriend and didn’t want to get in trouble. Quietly, I handed him a new Hanes XS men’s undershirt from the trunk of my car. I always had a 12-pack of Hanes with me. You have to be prepared when you want to be a superhero.
The day Jerry Garcia died wasn’t any different from any other tie-dye day except for two things: 1) it was the day Jerry Garcia died, and 2) I was working at one of our most impoverished parks. The kids were too young to know Jerry’s name, most likely, and this was before smart phones and texting. A day at the park meant a day away from the news.
I unpacked my potions. The kids used words like green and blue and black and I imposed upon them cerulean and vermillion and hibiscus. Want to make a six-year-old snort his giggles? Give him the gift of “puce.”
In my position, tie-dye was an act of optimism. Would the color set; would the whites stay bright; would my ties stay tied; would that girl come back next week with fewer bruises on her face? Would I get to hand her little work of art back to her? Would I point to its bright colors and concentric patterns and say encouragingly: “you did that!”?
For the kids with so few promises to believe in, that tie-dye was an act of faith. I said, and they believed, that the ink that looked like burned cheese would set and dry to the vivid color of orange juice. I said, and they believed, that the dye that looked like the storm-drain run-off a few feet from our picnic table/art studio would set and dry to black I insisted on calling obsidian. I said, and they believed, that I’d be back next week with their finished projects. And with their hugs and desperately-sought words of encouragement and the extra bananas that the kids from a more affluent neighborhood never gobbled up, too.
My own childhood was modest, but by the time I was tie-dyeing I was driving around in my father’s car, generously lent to me for years while he walked to work so that I could stain its trunk and its steering wheel with ceruleans and obsidians and the elegantly named “burned cheese.” My own relative wealth shocked me some days, as I drove up next to a picnic table and pretended it was more than that.
It was too much, suddenly, to hear that Jerry Garcia was dead and see these kids looking at me, hungry for more than I had to give, clamoring with their eyes through the windshield before I even had the gear in “park.”
Some people live their lives on a score of musical associations, I know, but I happen not to be one of them. Music usually fades into the far background of my life but on the day Jerry Garcia died, the radio DJ made that announcement and played an out-of-station-format choice, the Dead’s “Comes a Time.” I made an out-of-format choice, too. I re-started the car, moved it as close as I could to our shabby picnic table, rolled down all the windows, and cranked the radio as loud as it would play.
We tie-dyed with fervor, those kids for whom maybe the only chance at wonder lay in the magic in my bottles and the reliable return of my weekly presence; and me, singing along to lyrics I hadn’t even realized I’d known:
Comes a time when the blind-man takes your hand, says "Don't you see?
Gotta make it somehow on the dreams you still believe."
Don't give it up, you got an empty cup only love can fill,
only love can fill.