If Roots were an underfunded theme park, this would be it. I wanted to get away from consumerism and gluttony. So there I was, at the National Great Blacks In Wax Museum in Baltimore, having my own Black Friday.
The ticket agent was straight out of a John Waters movie. A light skinned black guy with a pencil thin mustache and a bulky bluetooth headset that looked 15 years old. His area was a mess of errant papers, receipts and pamphlets. I got my ticket.
At the beginning of the exhibit was the slave ship, composed of several rooms that were made to replicate an actual ship. It seemed like a place I could get some alone time. I walked straight in. The ship was as brutal--black children chained together, force fed slaves, revolting slaves. It was a palace of white guilt.
A large black family entered the slave ship with me. Most of them were watching their comments around me I could tell. One woman, when seeing a wax figure made to jump off the ship into awaiting sharks yelled, “oh yeah, feed me to the sharks!” If the subject matter wasn’t so macabre I would have laughed. A man in their group seemed angry he was dragged to the museum. He said “I don’t know why you all take me here. This (expletive) makes me so mad. I’m going to kill the next white person I see.” I was definitely the next white person he saw. He didn’t kill me.
I exited the slave ship and entered the area of great black accomplishment, wax figures of inventors, political figures, civil rights heroes, sports stars, artists and musicians. Many of the figures were done quite well. I loved the Mahalia Jackson figure in particular. So confident and elegant. It was exciting to see black families witness the history of black accomplishment, leading up to President Obama, whose figure had an entire room.
Leaving the museum the ticket agent with the thin mustache asked me if I had a good time. I said yes, but only because I think that was the answer he wanted. Then I sat in the lobby for a while, talked with an older black lady for 20 minutes, then whisked off to a bar a friend recommended that served a variety of local craft brews.
What if Timothy McVeigh became a Deadhead instead of a militia nut? What if instead of his grandfather putting a gun in his hand he gave him a cassette of Cornell ‘77? What if Timothy McVeigh sold bumper stickers that read “Keep on Truckin” or “What a Long Strange Trip it’s Been” instead “Fear the Government that Fears Your Gun”, one of the bumper stickers he sold to the ogling masses forming outside the David Koresh’s compound in Waco. What if?
These are some ideas that floated through my head watching the documentary “Oklahoma City”. By the 1990s the Grateful Dead were at the height of their popularity. Back then, the kids at my high school who wore Grateful Dead shirts were typical of fans that plagued the band during that period. They weren’t the idealistic hippies predisposed to Herbert Marcuse and vegetarian cuisine. These kids had a dark edge. They came from rough, working class backgrounds. Their career opportunities were limited. They chewed tobacco and did whatever drugs they could get their hands on. They tattered shoes and ripped flannel shirts with the insulated cotton coming out. They were marginal, desperate types looking for something to belong to, some type of family in an America that left them behind.
Teenagers in America need something to identify with, something to believe in and the Grateful Dead fell right into their laps. The music may have been secondary to the sense of belonging, enhanced by the copious amounts of drugs available at concerts. They gravitated to the Dead in droves even though the music in the 1990s was inessential. The band lost their soulful keyboard player Brent Mydland to overdose in 1990, replacing him the cheesy keyboard stylings of Vince Welnick. Many songs are downright unlistenable. Garcia’s face was haggard, succumbing to years of drugs and bad health.
Often when I listen to the bands 1990s material, I wonder why Garcia didn’t just hang it up. Then I think about those Grateful Dead fans at my high school. The types I’d maybe see at a bonfire party, drunkenly singing off key to “Friend of the Devil” as someone strummed guitar. I think Garcia kept going because without the Grateful Dead, a lot of those fans were lost in that wilderness, left to a dead end job, DUI charges and unpaid bills, with nary a song to sing. I think Jerry Garcia understood the role the Dead played in filling this void for young people.
Maybe it’s naive to think Timothy McVeigh could have become a fan of the Grateful Dead if his circumstances were different. That if he had just hung out with the young fans on the fringes on a 1990s Deadhead culture scraping on fumes, a whole new world would have opened for him and he would have sworn off his enthusiasm for guns and chaos. The question isn’t what if Timothy McVeigh became a Deadhead. The question is how many Timothy McVeighs did Jerry Garcia save?