My son and I went to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco over the weekend. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an incredible three-day event put on by an enlightened billionaire named Warren Hellman, featuring a diverse set of great musical talent, only some of which has any connection to bluegrass music (hence the name), all of it absolutely free. Here’s just a brief sample of the artists who played: Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, the subdudes, Patty Griffin, T-Bone Burnett, Exene (former lead singer of X), Joan Baez, David Grisman, Steve Earle, Kinky Friedman, Jonathan Richman, Hot Tuna, Conor Oberst (aka Bright Eyes), Fountains of Wayne, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Emylou Harris, The Avett Brothers, Roseanne Cash, Nick Lowe, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Peter Himmelman, and James McMurtry. On Friday night, which unfortunately we didn’t attend, a little ensemble called The Dukes of September Rhythm Revue held forth; among its members: Donald Becker (Steely Dan), Michael McDonald (Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers), and Boz Scaggs.
My highlights: Richard Thompson (a truly sublime guitarist and singer, formerly of the old Fairport Convention) on Saturday, and on Sunday: Randy Newman, the Indigo Girls, Elvis Costello, and Patti Smith. In. That. Order. Can’t find the adjectives to describe what it was like to be there on Sunday – I got to see four acts that I have either admired or genuinely loved for years and years but had never seen play live, didn’t have to pay a cent, and even got up to the very front of the stage for the Indigo Girls. Being able to share it all with my burgeoning musician son was just the icing on a Double Chocolate Fudge cake.
But this post isn’t actually about the music or the incredible San Francisco vibes which enveloped me in their sweetness (along with some not-so-sweet territorial behavior displayed by a few old hippies, who had staked out little squares of ground early in the morning each day, and were pissed off by people, like me and my son, who had the audacity to stand in front of them and groove to the music).
My son left early on Sunday to attend a birthday party, so I ended up going home by myself, after an incredible Patti Smith performance. I walked up from Golden Gate Park on 33rd Avenue to catch the 38 Geary, which would take me back downtown to BART and eventually home. Going down Geary we stopped to pick up a sketchy-looking character who sat down in front of me and began talking.
He was wild-looking, and a slight smell of booze (and other aromas) emanated from him. He started off talking to no one in particular, and for some reason I responded to him. Having lived for years in the city, I knew the first rule of dealing with street people and the homeless was to never engage them in conversation. Sometimes you get genuinely insane behavior, and it’s not the kind of insanity that most “normal” people want to be bothered with; sometimes it can turn downright scary and violent. But I was feeling really good after my day of musical epiphanies, and I figured, why the hell not.
I never got his name, nor he mine, but fairly quickly we were talking as if we’d known each other for years. He told me that he lived in the park; “it’s just like camping,” he said, and with the proper foraging techniques you could actually get by fairly well. “Have you ever seen a big ol’ white heron up close, just spreading its wings? It’s quite a sight.” He had seen a red fox, and raccoons the size of golden retrievers. Here he was, living in a park in the middle of a great American city, and he probably saw more wildlife than the average suburbanite.
“I could never make it on the street, man, but in the park it’s great.” Then he complained about how Gavin Newsom was making it impossible for people like him to enjoy their meager existence. “That “sit-lie” thing? That’s fucking ridiculous. What are we supposed to do, just keep walking around from 7 in the morning ‘till 11 at night? How the hell are we supposed to do that?” This led to a diatribe about politicians running for office having to prove their bonafides by showing how heartless and cruel they can be to the powerless and lost. He bemoaned the fact that the city was cutting down trees and thinning out brush, leaving fewer and fewer places for homeless people to set up camp.
He talked about his partner of 22 years, Randy, and how much they cared about each other, and looked out for each other. “Can’t do what I do by yourself,” he said. (At first I though Randy was female, but then quickly learned, to my surprise, that my new friend was gay; obviously my gaydar is broken beyond repair.) We swapped stories of how we had both wound up in San Francisco. It turned out he had graduated from High School in 1975, the same year that I did, which meant we were the same age, though he easily looked ten to fifteen years older. He had a stint in the navy, which took him to Europe and points east, and eventually he found his way west to Baghdad By The Bay, as I had.
Then his words took on a darker tone. “Man, I’ve been up and down a bunch of times in my life,” he said. “Three times I had it all, had everything I thought I was supposed to have, then ended up having to sell everything, for cents on the dollar. Up and down, up and down. After the last time, I decided that I’d had enough. All those motherfuckers care about is making money. They don’t care about who they screw over, or who gets hurt. As long as they’re making money, fuck everyone else. No more of that shit for me.
“I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. I’m ok with being poor. I’m much happier this way. I don’t need any of that shit any more. They just end up taking it away from you anyway.” We got to his stop and he stood up to leave.
“Sorry to get all negative on you there,” he said, smiling wanly. I told him it was fine, and told him to stay safe. He said goodbye and stepped off the bus, and headed out into the cool evening air. He was already talking.
(More about the absurd “sit/lie” proposition here.)