A Very Merry Jerry Day

Rachel and I moved into our new home in Sarasota, Florida in February. We have been enjoying the experience of learning about our new community, as well as checking out restaurants, movie theatres, and the arts scene. On Sunday evening we joined an eclectic group of people to celebrate a special birthday.

Jerry Garcia was born on August 1st, 1942. He would have been 76 years old this year. For the tenth consecutive year, the Fogartyville Community, Media, and Arts Center celebrated Jerry’s life with an event they call the Very Merry Jerry Day. Fogartyville is affiliated with WSLR Radio in Sarasota, a community FM radio station. The center is located downtown on Kumquat Court. Rachel and I loved the name of the street. Parking was anywhere you could find it in the neighborhood, and we walked past a line of folks waiting to enter a homeless shelter, located in the building next door.

The large room was set up with a small stage at one end, a simple bar at the other end, and mismatched tables and chairs covering the floor. There were a few leather booths along a side wall, and Rachel and I snagged one of those. A table was set up next to our booth with a large display of vintage vinyl records. The wall across the room from us had two large doors that opened to a large outdoor patio. There were food vendors and tables around the outside of the patio where people were selling arts and crafts or handing out literature about community happenings. White plastic chairs were scattered around the patio, offering more seating for guests. The walls were decorated with 60’s-themed wall hangings and posters, giving the place a funky vibe. Small sparkling lights lit much of the outdoor space.

The line-up for the evening included three local bands. One was a Grateful Dead cover band called Ship of Fools. The other bands were Stumble Creek and Al Fuller and Friends. The latter two usually played a variety of music, but were limiting their set lists to songs by Jerry Garcia.

Rachel and I settled into our old leather booth with glasses of wine and watched the crowd filing in. Our booth could accommodate four or more people, and we had decided that we would be happy to share the space. A few minutes later a guy approached us, holding a huge plate of Mexican food from one of the food stands. He asked if he could join us while he ate his dinner. His name was Peter and it turned out that he was in charge of the table with all of the records. As he ate, he told us about his business, Rocket Star Records. The store was on Washington Avenue in Sarasota and was only a few months old. Over the last few years, all of the record stores in Sarasota had gone out of business. Peter had worked at the last one to close. For two years he had worked out of his car, driving around to customer’s homes with his car loaded with boxes of records. Peter said that his personal collection had been more than 6,000 records. Eventually he saved up enough money to rent a retail space, and he and one employee were doing their best to make a go of it. Peter had been surprised that many of his customers were teens and young adults, buying recordings that were made before they were even born. We laughed when he shared his observation that Sarasota was great for old people like us, but not enough was happening for younger folks like him. And he was 50! After Peter finished his meal he gave Rachel a Rocket Star pen, complete with flashing lights that could be turned on and off.

The room was beginning to fill and most tables were now occupied. The crowd was made up of a surprising variety of ages. There were several family groups that appeared to include grandparents, their kids, and their grandkids. I guess Grateful Dead music crosses generations. A couple approached our booth and gestured toward the open space. We told them that we had been saving the seats just for them, and they looked happy to join us. Roger and Julie were around our age, Roger a little older and Julie a little younger. When I asked about their history in Sarasota, Julie emphasized that they were not a couple, just friends. She was a massage therapist and yoga instructor and had moved to Sarasota a few years ago from Iowa. Rachel was born in Iowa and we had both attended the University of Iowa, so we had some things in common. Roger was from upstate New York and now lived in Nokomis, a beach-front community just south of Sarasota. He told us how he had been in business selling clothing to the rich and famous. Roger showed us several pictures on his phone of him posing with various celebrities. I didn’t recognize all of them, but liked the picture of him with a very young Mick Jagger.

Roger was quite gregarious and kept standing to call out to people he recognized and frequently left the booth to greet friends. On one of these trips he returned escorting a guy with another plate of Mexican food. Once seated, he introduced his friend as Al Fuller. His band would be the third act of the night. As he ate, Al told us about his band, which was different than usual that night. He also reviewed his regular gigs around Sarasota, which included a “blues jam” at a restaurant/bar called the Blue Rooster on Wednesday nights.

We stayed to watch all three bands. Each put their own spin on Jerry Garcia’s music. Stumble Creek had a distinctive country style, with mandolin and upright bass blending in with the guitars. Ship of Fools was a traditional cover band, playing familiar Dead songs just as I remembered them. Al Fuller and Friends played some less well-known Jerry Garcia songs with a real bluesy flavor. Al had a strong voice and his guitar playing reminded me of Eric Clapton’s blues songs. Lots of people got up to dance in front of the stage. Rachel and I enjoyed watching a pair of dancers who looked to be a grandpa dancing next to his adolescent grandson. That’s something you don’t see every day.

As the evening was winding down, a distinctive fellow walked up to our booth. He was small in stature and his bright green trousers, hiked up well above his waist, made a real impression. He was carrying a clipboard and introduced himself as Francis, the Ambassador for WSLR Radio. I asked him what an Ambassador did. He responded that his job was to welcome new guests, answer their questions about Fogartyville and the radio station, and give them his card. Francis produced a business card with a flourish and then wrote our information on his clipboard so that we could receive information about future events.

Rachel and I agreed that we had discovered a special gem in the Sarasota art’s community. We will look forward to getting notices about future happenings.

Happy birthday, Jerry!

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