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Shitting used to scare everything but shit out of me. Once or twice a month, I would let nature take its colonic course but, until then, I had a process. As soon as dinner was finished, my toddler self sat on the couch, shifted my distended belly off to one side, and rocked back and forth with a blanket tucked around my lap. Around the time I was expected to attend a full day of school, I got over my fecal separation anxiety but it was development that had more to do with scheduling my dumps for a home-safe four in the afternoon than any sort of rectal realization.
And, like most of my early childhood traumas, I probably wouldn’t even remember this quirk if not for home videos.
“Brian, what’s the matter?” asks my mom from behind the camera, the consistently blinding flash from her circa-1995 camcorder scarring my retinas.
“Nothing,” I whine, rocking week’s worth of scat back into my lower intestines.
Hours later, the daggers in my stomach subsided, I’d go off to fail some other stage of attachment, leaving the couch and taking the preferred blanket off my lap. It was black and red, warm but not smothering, and its surface was stitched with the likeness of Jerry Garcia.
My dad is a straight Baby Boomer so rock music of the 20th century variety is kind of his thing. Growing up as the lone white kid in a Queens public school, his taste in music was fortunately spared from veering towards Kansas or The Eagles or Andrew Gold. Before knowing the definition of “appropriation” ruined all the fun, my dad was into blues and jazz and pot-back-in-my-day-psychedelia. Genres fused together by his very favorite band, the Grateful Dead.
“Tonight and the days your sisters got married,” my mom said, gesturing towards my dad as he mopped my dorm room floor. “The most excited you’ll ever see him. Pay attention.”
Picking me up first from school, we were headed to Worcester that night to see the most recent touring incarnation of my dad’s musical birth rite. Jerry wouldn’t be making it tonight so the three living members of the band were to be joined by a few new musicians: one being the man who made middle age all right for my mother. John Coitus-Lullabies Mayer.
“You know, I’d really love for you to experience seeing the Dead right next to your dad,” my mom said to me, standing in the doorway of our hotel bathroom with a curling iron in hand. “But, I mean, it’s John. You understand.”
Whether I did understand or not, I knew that they’d be standing in the general admission pit on the arena’s floor and that I’d be sitting somewhere in section 212. But, having never necessarily developed an appreciation for the band myself, I didn’t really mind. Raised by a genuine fan of the Grateful Dead, I was always put off by the fuzzy-faced, mildew-odored guys from my high school who only seemed to like the Dead because they thought they had to do. That their white-and-unwashed aesthetic wouldn’t be complete without dancing bears adorning their industrial-sized bongs.
“This is where the real show happens,” my dad said, leading the way as we walked into the cloud of patchouli-and-pot-smoke that signaled the beginning of the concert’s tailgate. Half vendor’s market and half narc’s paradise, an accompanying lot of Worcester’s DCU Center was filled with tents selling grilled cheese, vapes, coleslaw, drug rugs, and pizza cooked in ovens furnished into the back of a one-eyed-man’s minivan. I expected fans as old as my parent’s parents to be milling around these Shrooms-R-Us tents but, everywhere I looked, I saw people my own age. Guys with faces already wrinkled from years of stoned smiles were wearing cargo pants and hooded sweatshirts while gauzy shawls and dreadlocked armpits adorned the girls, all of whom looked like an Appalachians-raised Stevie Nicks.
“Look at these chicks,” my mother hissed, her paisley TJ Maxx blouse healing the “cataracts” of everyone around. “Total groupies, they go from show to show to show. And you know they’re from rich families. Doctors for fathers, all of them. How else could they afford a life like this?”
Whatever life it was, it was new to my dad. Seedy, that’s how he described this new scene. The people congregated around us seemingly cut from a different hemp cloth than the few-years-too-young-for-Woodstock-ers that followed the Dead around in my dad’s Carter-era America. His favorite band had fallen into the hands of people he couldn’t recognize but whatever I saw on my father’s face—his lips curling and flattening, his head nodding to one side and the other—seemed to be something other than disappointment. He asked if we wanted to go back to the hotel.
Pulling her gaze away from a barehanded woman slapping raw burgers onto a charcoal grill, my mom asked, “You don’t want to stick around? The show isn’t for another hour.”
“We can grab drinks before it starts,” my dad shrugged. “I’m ready to go.”
A guy of few words and fewer false intentions, I knew my dad wasn’t leaving the tailgate for our sake. But as he started walking back from where we came, I wanted to stall, to linger a little longer in the onions-and-ash-tray stench. I didn’t belong there—my jeans too tight, my weed-high too painfully self-aware, my American Spirits forgotten inside another jacket’s pocket—but I wanted my father to. No one around looked like the kind of person I’d have anything in common with and it seemed like my dad felt the same way. Waiting until there was some distance between us and what we left behind, I looked back and held in what I could.
Brian Burns is a Staff Columnist and the Executive Managing Editor of The Hub. Follow him @brianTburns_.