Field Day

This is how I like to describe the crowning of Sue’s and my adventure to Chicago on Sunday, July 5, 2015. A 17-hour train trip up through New York State, a [relative] blink at a corner of Pennsylvania, and across Ohio brought us to the Second City, pride of Illinois. Traveling through the Independence Evening, we looked at our sojourn in the “All come to look for America,” Paul Simon perspective, and the hinterlands of several states did not disappoint.

Initially traveling along the Hudson on steel rails, not the bus tires envisioned in the Simon song, we hoped to catch a glimpse of some small city’s fireworks marking the day. Returning from Jersey by car on July 4 about a decade ago, we happened to hit midspan of the Tappan Zee Bridge at the moment a half dozen cities unleashed their brightly lit shows to stunning, unforgettable effect. But this night, we arrived in Rochester for a 10-minute stay at 10:00 pm, with our fireworks Jones unfulfilled. Suddenly the sky was alight, an occasion, as passengers stretched their legs, I took to express my independence, so to speak, a short distance down the platform.

Having spent virtually all my teen years in Upstate New York, the meander seemed a homecoming of sorts. Leaving Albany, I glanced west to where I had had my first stop at The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where the featured display back in that day had been the race to 500 homers between Willie Mays and my beloved Mickey Mantle. It felt like another country, as we passed smaller Utica, with the proud “Utica Hotel” sign atop the tallest building in town, quite the opposite from much bigger Syracuse, where neither the train station nor an adjacent sports stadium evidenced any sign of their home city’s name.

We took in the slightly pricey dining car where Sue had stuffed pasta and I some chicken, but thereafter shortened our train-long, four-car trudge just to the cafe car, one stop before. Mostly, we subsisted on drinks and snacks we brought along, and the cafe server tired of giving us ice for our home-brewed libations.

We slept through much of Ohio except to gape at Cleveland, not expecting to see so many boats along [what I came to discover was] the Cuyahoga River. And then we arrived in Chicago late morning, ready to go. We had opted to go berthless, and sleep in our seats, a strategy that was somewhat successful. This trip was about enjoying, not spending, and a loving group devoted to making the 50th Anniversary [and end] of the Dead a welcome experience had hooked us up with offseason university housing. We had a plain room (among thousands) amid several campuses, with two plain beds, two plain desks, a closet and bathroom with shower. With knowing, smiling looks, we observed wine bottles lined up in the windows of dorm rooms across the quad, and we froze in the air conditioning (well, I liked it mostly).

We were later to be disappointed in the Chicago take on the upcoming festivities, and those who came to live them, as a critic from the Tribune would pan the upcoming show, and a sports columnist longed for the “hippie” departure from the city’s biggest playing field, but our first interaction was much more pleasant: Our cab driver from Union Station, smiling, declared it the best of times: “I love you tie-dyed people. The whole city has smelled like weed all weekend!”

As Sunday dawned, an all-day subway pass got us north to Wrigley Field for a 1:15 game pitting the Cubbies and the visiting Marlins. Latching onto a lady with a Cubs uni to be sure we were headed in the right direction, she smiled and wished us well as I enthused about the old ballpark; then, she turned serious and declared the new scoreboard, video board and reconstructed bleachers “a sacrilege.” Been there.

You arrive on an elevated platform that rivals the one we had on the 4 train across from the old Baseball Cathedral in the South Bronx; if you’re quick you can see Wrigley field in the cracks between buildings on the one block separating you from the ballpark. It’s on seating erected atop these buildings that fans outside Wrigley pay less for a bird’s-eye view. We opted for inside, and two $35 tickets got us obstructed view (behind a pole like we had in the Bronx until 1973) seats in the left field corner, but luckily my view of the video screen was blocked more than anything on the field. The cheeseburgers were bland and dry but the pale ale better.

Hot and sunny, the teams struggled to hit all day, and Cubs hurler Hendricks, who spells him name a bit wrong, was introduced to the strains of “Purple Haze.” We enjoyed five innings, and left with the Cubs up 1-0 on a wild pitch; they would win 2-0. The “spell on me” moment was about to happen. Two subway trips separated by a shower still just got us within a mile of Soldier Field, where the Dead would play that night.

We were thrilled that we were able to score tickets, of course. With the stage set on one end of the football oval, we had eighth-row seats on the field level (but not in the seatless field), and situated at about the 30-yard line, an ideal location. We had trudged around museums and picnic fields around Soldier Field to find our entrance, at one point passing a statue of a dinosaur named “Sue,” which was cool. Through many minutes of searching we met and hugged a bunch of our Capitol Theatre “family”; I met up with a friend from Long Island I never would have found without a cellphone. But onto the show.

What controversy this show had had to do with two questions: Was it the Grateful Dead, even though Jerry Garcia passed away 20 years ago? And what was Trey Anastasio, guitar player for Phish, whom younger Deadheads love, and older Heads consider, at best, Dead-light, doing up there on stage with Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart? The more clever in the brilliant Dead community had been mixing talk of this with their artwork ticket requests and posts to Facebook and Twitter, culminating, perhaps, in an internet meme whose legend read, “Wherever he goes the people all complain,” pulled from the lyrics of a song everyone recognized.

I can’t speak of the four earlier shows, but at show 5, there was no issue. Trey contributed to the vocals on China Cat Sunflower, which kicked off the show, and by the time we moved on to Know You Rider, with tens of thousands more joining in, we were all playing, all singing, all grateful. Bob Weir shone on Estimated Prophet, and the group, joined on keyboards and vocals by Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti, had the throng literally dancing “in their seats.” Phil Lesh sang too, on Mountains of the Moon, and a 75-minute first set culminated with a rocking Throwing’ Stones.

Friends who had enjoyed our seats Saturday were thrilled that the music had carried on to just before midnight, and the entertainment lingered as just barely July 4 fireworks split the sky, and turned night to day. We expected no such post-show repeat on the fifth, and we were right. But how about just before the second set? I’ve heard ours were better, and again that Saturdays were better. What matter? They were stunning. Splashing the sky above the stage in a range of colors and ever-changing patterns, rockets were suddenly loosed along the side of the Stadium, resulting in bursts of incandescence at roughly the 20-, 40-, 40-, 20-yard and goal lines. There was not a fan to be found whose head was not adorned in a burst of color. Huge screens on either side of the stage displayed stunning, mind-bending artwork, views of the players on stage and pictures of band members both still here and those gone, to breathtaking effect.

We were then surprised by Truckin’ to start set two. We had seen the band Furthur, a post-Dead configuration featuring Bobby and Phil, over nine shows at the Cap in September 2014, and it wasn’t until the eighth show that they had their first repeated song, so we very much expected they would be playing no song more than once over the five shows. But this represented one of two exceptions to that rule for the Fare Thee Well run, as this iconic tune, along with Sue’s favorite (Eyes of the World), and mine (Uncle John’s Band), had been played at the first two shows in Santa Clara the week before. But nothing describes the Dead’s time on this planet more than “Lately it occurs to me, What a long, strange trip it’s been”; so I can see why it was an exception (the other being Cumberland Blues), and they used it to stunning effect: to ignite their last set ever. Cassidy and Althea followed, and then Terrapin Station, sending thousands of fans clad in terrapin-themed gear into paroxysms of joy.

A long drum solo (well, duo, really) followed, then Unbroken Chain, carrying a definite we-ain’t-going-anywhere vibe. Days Between brought us to second set closer Not Fade Away, a love anthem carried on by much of the crowd with staccato clapping and singing for seeming hours, both as we awaited the encore, and again after the show was over. The band rocked easily throughout the second set; Bobby emerged with a T-shirt carrying the legend, “Let Trey Sing,” and with smiles all around, they all did. Weir was particularly inspired in set two, and rumors abound that he’ll be joining the two drummers and others on the road in a few months. One doubts Phil, who will continue to play with “Friends” (in October and November at the Cap at the least) will join on that ride. Mickey Hart exhorted us all to “Be kind.”

We got A Touch of Grey, and then a soulful Attics of My Life to close. We had expected We Bid You Good Night, once Brokedown Palace had closed a California show, but again, no matter. The singing was lovely, and poignant.

What was not lovely was the method Soldier Field and Chicago had created for exiting the crowd on a Sunday night from the huge venue. All fans were directed in one “Fan Exit” direction around and out of the area. An irony of my makeup is that I spend 80-plus days a year attending games that attract thousands of fans, but I neither care for, nor trust the actions of, crowds. It was drudgery, and a little scary, but eventually we used up our last subway trip, crashed our dorm room late night, and slept late Monday morning.

All packed, we stored our stuff in Union Station lockers, a practice that seems out of date and quaint to New Yorkers, but that was much appreciated. We didn’t go far that day. Rather than queue up for a view of the city from atop a skyscraper across from Union Station, we settled for a relaxing interlude draped in Adirondack chairs in a small park across the street. We took a water taxi up and down the Chicago River, stopped for subs, then settled in a local bar/restaurant shortly before the skies opened and it rained. Enjoying a libation, a smiling woman approached me and handed me some Dead stickers from 1985, saying, “These stickers have been waiting to hook up with you for 30 years.” I checked them in the dim light, then turned to thank her, but she was gone.

And over was our Chicago sojourn. I noticed the pub in Union Station was adorned with White Sox paraphernalia, there on the south side of town, but I spoke with some Deadheads of Wrigley nonetheless. I’m an AL fan, but it’s obvious you can do no wrong if you speak of Wrigley in Chicago. Both teams had been home the afternoon before, but we were sure we had made the right choice to head North.

It became creepy late in Union Station as it slowly became obvious that every traveler congregating there were ticket holders on the same 9:30 Erie Limited, final destination Penn Station, New York. As boarding time approached, an insane line formed, but I was delighted to learn that they would be taking wheel bound and families with children first, and senior citizens next. If you want a weird take from the weekend, there is one, that celebrating a band that had been playing for 50 years, I was a member of a relatively small group 65 years of age and older. Sue and I sped to our seats, though a favored Dead sweatshirt was lost in the rush.

We settled in for a trip that was not as entertaining, and was four hours longer, on the way back, though it wasn’t bad either. Something about swapping out one-purpose engines for those that worked both via the third rail and by diesel had us waiting for some time, but we arrived home without incident.

Sunday, July 5, 2015, was Field Day, beginning in Wrigley, ending in Soldier, an adventure completed.