Most of what I know about communities, I learned from the Grateful Dead.
A friend introduced me to the band in high school. Over the next few years, I fell in the love with the music and then, the community around it. The pull of the community was so strong that I didn’t even need to see a show to be consumed by it.
I stumbled upon a store in college that was a sort of hippie haven, selling frisbees, tie dyes, hacky sacks, and incense. What I cared about, though, was that they played Grateful Dead concerts constantly. And like the record store clerks in High Fidelity, the employees scrutinized every nuance. They loaned out tapes of shows with nothing more than a promise to return it. And, they told me about something called rec.music.gdead.
As some of you may recall, this was the age of usenet groups. In a surprising twist given the band’s 60’s roots and the still nascent Internet, thousands of Deadheads from around the world were online, obsessively discussing and debating anything related to the band - favorite shows, rumored tours, lyric interpretations, and tie dye tips. It was here that I learned the lore from people who had attended hundreds of shows. They told stories, gamely answered questions, and welcomed me in a way I hadn’t experienced before.
By the time I attended my first show, I was one of them. I knew which songs were rarities and what to expect in the parking lot. I had mastered the Dead dialect and obscure references. I couldn’t wait to finally experience what I had been reading about and listening to for so long.
It was truly magical, unlike anything I had been part of before or since. Everyone I encountered was friendly and helpful. They had found something that meant a lot to them and were eager to share it. By any objective standard, I didn’t belong there, but anyone who was drawn to the music and the community was welcome.
In the end, the shared encounter with the music was what mattered. People weren’t there to see the band (there was very little to see) and there wasn‘t an audience in the normal sense. On stage or off, everyone had an essential part to play.
On that night, I joined a story that had begun many years before. I attended four more shows before the chapter came to a close. This weekend, I’ll watch as the Dead celebrate 50 years as a band with three final concerts.
Last Friday, we celebrated the Uncommon community's third birthday. Our trip is just beginning. Let’s enjoy the ride.
Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.
The latest dispatch asked, Which notable people have you crossed paths with?
When I was in college, an uncle of mine became the head of state of a small but well-known country. Now he’s working in the private sector because he’s relatively young, and still gets recognized all the time, much like you would know Bush I if you saw him in a restaurant.
I recently worked in politics, and it was not unusual for celebs to come by the office. But it’s awkward, and they don’t have time (or interest?) to talk with people individually. You end up just smiling at them as they get the tour of the building and there’s nothing to say... or the next day you think of some great anecdote you could have told them. Sometimes the big celebs posed for team photos, sometimes you could get a selfie.
My wife and I ran into Bill Murray at Marias Taco X press. He was in town for SXSW and was there to see a band. We were with our 3-year-old and 6-month-old. We decided not to accosted him or anything. Famous people are, you know, people as well as the rest of us.
I used to live in New York and I wondered how I never seemed to come across celebrities on the street. I’ve visited a few times this summer for brief business trips, and somehow managed to have the New York celebrity experience every time. Rod Stewart with a model companion, while Bloomingdale’s employees gawked at his unmistakable rockstar shock of hair. Linda Rodin with her fabulous sunglasses and her fabulous poodle, Winks, shopping in the fabulous but affordable Cos. Cynthia Nixon on the subway, thwarting a European tourist fan who was shameless about snapping a picture of the Sex and the City celeb. I tried not to gawk, I certainly didn’t get out the phone to take a picture, and instead reveled in the New York celebrity magic.
After the third time, I wondered if I had just been lucky on those brief trips to catch someone recognizable every time, or if in returning to New York as a visitor I had changed my lens on the world around me, and was watching more carefully, primed to catch a glimpse of those “just like us” celebrity moments.
After I quit my job in Amsterdam, a musician friend started dragging me out almost every night to play music on the bridges of the Red Light District. I played backup chords; she sang and played uke. It was a lot of fun, though it got colder and colder as the Holland autumn came.
Most people who’d come up and talk to us were guys, drunk or stoned, but one night a woman in a hoodie walked right up. She said she’d been looking all over for street musicians and was glad to see us. We both found her vague European accent a bit weird and unplaceable. Our theory, probably never to be confirmed, depends on it being fake.
I started: “Hey, you look just like… what’s her name…” My friend understood: “Sarah Silverman!” Me: “Yeah, the comedian, you know?” Her, deadpan: “Oh, I’m not funny though.” She walked across to the other side of the bridge and we did a song that we figured Silverman would know: Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.” Sure enough, in the call and response chorus, she nailed it.
Then she came up to me while my friend was doing something else, and she said she had to leave. And: “Hey… my name is Sarah, by the way.” In this perfect mindfuck moment, all I could say was “Hey, cool.” Then she wandered off into a red light district alley full of people. We’ve agreed, that’s enough evidence.
I’ve met a few interesting (and in several cases, unexpected) prominent figures in my life. As a child, I once performed as part of a concert that featured Audrey Hepburn, and I’ve never forgotten how she stood patiently in the wings after the show, greeting each of us individually and chatting with us comfortably and kindly (while wearing a perfect, strapless black gown and fuchsia wrap, naturally). I once rode in a car from Seattle to Vancouver with Moby. (That was less interesting than I expected.) And oddly, like you, I had a fun encounter with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer, who I found not only incredibly smart, lovely and down-to-earth, but also – how do I put this – deeply interested in each other’s perspective, which I find a cool quality in a couple. I met them at a pot luck dinner at MIT, the kind where a bunch of folding banquet tables get pushed together, the seats are a motley assortment of desk chairs, and nobody thinks to bring glasses for the wine, so we were all sipping cabernet sauvignon from coffee mugs.
But when I read this week’s prompt, the encounter that sprang to mind surprised me: it was the time I volunteered at a ballet gala, and met the great Russian prima ballerina Natalia Makarova. The room was full of dancers and arts patrons, and she was one of the last to arrive. She swept in – there’s no other way to describe her dramatic entrance – in an ankle-length fur coat, wearing a silk head scarf, and took a seat near the door. The moment she walked in, a deep hush descended on the room, and every head turned to look her way. And after she sat down, people quietly began making their way over to pay their respects. I have never seen anyone, before or since, command that kind of response from a crowd of people. I think what struck me most was that there were people in that room who might be used to getting that kind of deference in their own lives – whether from an audience (for the dancers) or a boardroom (for some of the patrons) – and here they all were, literally bowing down to kiss Ms. Makarova’s hand. Amazing.
Oh, and I got to sing for the Queen of England once (again as part of a choir, this time as an adult). She sure knows how to bowl over a room, too. And she has the gift of making eye contact with each person, so that you feel you had her complete attention, even if it was for a split second.
My favorite of the MANY Dave Matthews Band-related stories I have (I grew up in Richmond, Va when they were playing a club in town once a week for like $6 and got close with the band) is once, at a mutual friend’s house, Carter Beauford, DMB’s drummer, invited me to his house (down the street) with the offer of making me a cheese omelet. This would have been in 1992, years before they hit it big, and since I had another place to be, I turned him down.
My two notable people I have crossed paths with (notable on a societal perspective) would be Lance Armstrong and Robert Plant, oddly enough, both at Juan Pelota Cafe in Austin.
The first thing Lance ever asked me was, “Do you have any mustard back there?” Who could forget that, right? I would end up in his presence numerous times, and he has a good memory, too. At the last Christmas party I spent with the company, he said, “Oh, I remember you, you gave me shit about the coffee I drink at the last party.” True, yes…I blame the frozen margarita machines, in my defense. (He’s used to Starbuck’s and I couldn’t blame him, any more than I would my Dad, for his habits and preferences for dark roasted coffee.)
Robert Plant was a pretty typical a customer transaction. He and Patty came in and left with two large coffees, two bags of coffee and the gazes of everyone. It was magical to see how someone could make a room fall apart in awe.
In the many years behind the bar, I’ve come across numerous “notable” folks, but usually I didn’t recognize them (actors) or just didn’t know what to say. The whole trying to not seem like your trying, only ever seems to lead to trying and not too well. So, I just keep it real like I would with any other person. I’ve found the notable people to be ones like a regular of mine who is so keen, and spunky… and a third generation Juilliard pianist. Because she IS a different type of notable, she gets the ticket to engage and be a person without bounds. I adore her. Or people who work for a small start-up around the corner and are a bunch of fearless and adventuresome computer folks who really like coffee breaks, and seem to invite you into their lives in small ways.
I used to have a list of the “famous” people I had met through coffee. Who knows what box or landfill it’s in now. The most valuable part of those memories or interactions was the impression of humanity they all left. It’s so easy to categorize folks as something unlike yourself, but there’s so much more in common than we give credit to, and that’s just sweet.
I once spent two weeks visiting a friend who was working at an organic farm in Sante Fe, New Mexico. We went into the city to see a movie and killed some time at the mall food court. I noticed a older gentleman drop a $20 bill on the floor while paying for an Orange Julius. If you’ve never had an Orange Julius, it’s a mall-based cocktail made from the following ingredients: orange juice, sugar, and powered egg whites. Anyway, the man didn’t notice that he dropped the bill, so I walked over, grabbed it and tapped him on the arm. He turned and I said, “excuse me sir. You dropped this,” and handed the money back to legendary character actor Brian Dennehy. He smiled broadly, nodded, and thanked me.
I had the chance to ask then-Senator Obama a question during a Town Hall Meeting when he was running for President in early 2008. The event took place in a mid-sized gym on the local university campus, so there were hundreds of people in attendance. I asked a bit of a softball question (that I’m moderately embarrassed to repeat now), due to the fact I didn’t actually think I’d get picked and therefore didn’t actually think of a question to ask until he pointed at me and someone handed me a mic. A friend happened to catch it on Flip Cam (cutting-edge technology at the time), so I do have the interaction recorded for posterity’s sake.
In a more personal interaction, I found myself at a speaker reception at a conference a few years ago (because I was accompanying a speaker, not actually one of the speakers being received). Shortly after arriving, I found myself being introduced to Roma Downey (Touched By an Angel) and Mark Burnett (producer of Survivor, Shark Tank, The Voice, etc.). Somehow, in a room full of people far more remarkable and worthwhile to rub elbows with, Mark and I ended up tucked into a corner of the room by ourselves, while everyone half-heartedly listened to a presentation taking place. For about twenty minutes, in a lowered voice, Mark shared with me his perceptions of Americans - how welcoming, generous, and kind we are. I don’t know that I said much at all, really. But it was fascinating to hear him speak in a way that seemed so personal and spontaneous. Six months later, he was visiting the place I was working - and though he certainly couldn’t be expected to remember my name or our conversation - he said, “We’ve met before, right? I remember your face.” That, I’m sure, is a handy ability when you’re traveling the world and brokering blockbuster television deals.
Leaving my office on 8th floor, I pushed the “1” button in an elevator and whipped out my phone to catch up on Twitter timeline. I must have been so absorbed because I didn’t look up to acknowledge a few people coming in from the next floor down. They were discussing the Biggest Loser, which was at the time my guilty-pleasure show. However, I didn’t feel like joining in the conversation. Twitterverse was more interesting then.
I had a bad habit of judging people by their taste in television shows, so as we all exited on the first floor, I decided to take a quick look at who they were.
There were two women. One I didn’t recognize, but the other one I did, but only from what television portrayed: intense, demanding. authoritative. The one and only Jillian Michaels from Biggest Loser.
Dumbfounded I was.
Jillian Michaels quickly went another way (later I found out she spoke at an event in my building), I stood still, wondered what had happened, and started mentally kicking myself in the ass for not taking the time to look up from my phone sooner.
For two years, while my wife was in college, I worked in the TV production business in Los Angeles, and I had a few encounters with celebrities. All were thoroughly unremarkable, as tends to be the case when you’re a lowly production assistant. Let me relate to you a few very boring scenes.
SCENE 1: I see Huey Lewis standing outside the sound stage at the end of a long day.
RYAN: Hey, do you need a ride back to your green room?
HUEY: No, someone’s on their way.
SCENE 2: I am carrying a floor mat into the Malibu home of Cindy Crawford. Cindy, who got strong-armed into having the shoot at her house and is already pretty freaked out that 40 strangers are running all over the property, sees me turn and bring the rug within 2 feet of a fancy ceiling lamp.
CINDY: Hey, you’ve got to be really careful, because those lamps are super expensive to replace, and that’s exactly the kind of thing that’s going to make me lose it and shut this whole thing down.
RYAN: Okay, sorry, I’ll be really careful.
CINDY: I’m just saying, that someone was already leaning C-stands against the garage door, and it’s solid wood, and it’ll get scratched. And those lamps are really expensive and hard to replace.
RYAN: Okay, I’m sorry. We’ll be really careful.
SCENE 3: We are shooting on a very hot sound stage, and the air conditioning has to be turned off because we’re recording sound. The Production Manager tasks me with pointing a fan at Katy Perry between takes, so I have to stand three feet away from Katy and point the fan at her face.
KATY (smiling): Hi, I’m Katy. What’s your name?
RYAN: Hi, I’m Ryan.
KATY: It’s nice to meet you.
RYAN: Nice to meet you.
SCENE 4: I work two days on the set of 24. At one point I have to stand 10 feet away from Kiefer Sutherland while he waits at his mark for the director to call “Action!” No dialogue occurs.
Having shared the room with Brian during President Obama’s visit, that certainly takes the cake for high-profile people. At some point Matthew McConaughey’s front bumper on his bright orange Lamborghini came awful close to my leg as he screeched to a stop at an Austin stoplight while I was in the crosswalk.
I’ve seen and been in a room with tens of celebrities, but one of the most gratifying relationships I’ve had was working for and with Sean Parker, the eccentric startup billionaire. Truly one of the sharpest and most interesting people I’ve met, regardless of his wealth. I am glad to have had the chance to spend many late nights dreaming up new products and features with Sean.
Flyers are up around the neighborhood announcing the big news: stacks are here!
On the solstice, we released the first seasonal Uncommon update. Members visiting our community’s online home will find a stack of delightful cards waiting for them, including favorite things, introductions to interesting neighbors, thoughtful and surprising prompt replies, and every so often, a little news. We've been hard at work on stacks for a long time. It's an essential part of Uncommon's online experience and the foundation of so much to come.
Of course, stacks are uncommon, too. There aren’t red numbers telling you how many unseen cards you have. In fact, stacks are designed to be a great experience whether you visit a few times a week or a few times a month. We archive each card you see or favorite to return to in the future. There aren’t filters or followers; everything in the community is shared with the community. And stacks are small and created once each day, rather than on each visit, because we deeply respect your time and attention.
If you’re a member, give stacks a spin. If not, there’s a spot on the front porch just for you. Join us and make yourself at home.
A.O. Scott reviews Why Grow Up? by Susan Neiman:
Between them, they mapped out what Neiman takes to be the essential predicament of maturity, namely the endless navigation of the gulf between the world as we encounter it and the way we believe it should be.
What’s the longest, strangest trip you’ve taken?