Sunday, October 9, 2016

Friday Night, the Town Blocked Off Western Avenue Again, Lighting Fire Pits and Placing Musicians, Lugers and even Archers on Muskegon's Main Street.

Ellen Van Geest Berends commandeered Western Boulevard Friday night from Six until Eight in the evening. She arrived early with her fleet of Ford pickup trucks, delivering picnic tables and firewood. Her team leapt off the trucks and went right to work, event producing ninjas, setting up fire stands and positioning picnic tables into pretty patterns. A shalom course for the street luge appeared in the blink of an eye. Then, an archery range appeared like magic on the sands of the downtown volley ball court. When it was all good and Six PM was fifteen minutes away, Ellen herself marched down the boulevard, marching towards the sundown at the south bend of Western, armed with a flame thrower, and set all the fire stations alight. Five pulls on the flame thrower, all it required. "Wow, did you see how she handled that torch, and not a blonde hair out of place on this windy of a night?" uttered my friend in amazement. She and I watched in wonder from the safety of the union hall benches. We thought about offering help and decided to remain seated, where we were out of the way of the efficient, elite team.

I knew Team Berends had planned four fire stations for warming, each with a musical act. I made a plan to visit each station and hear at least one song. I found Marquita B Bernard to the left of the first fire station, a good plan because she had her keyboard on a table with an elegant if flammable black satin drape. She had launched into a torchy ballad before I arrived, and so I decided to stay until she finished an entire tune. It was remarkable because how often does a woman set up a piano on Western Boulevard and sing like a diva on a jazzy stage in San Francisco? Never in one hundred years has this happened. One of her fans ran over and began to photographing Bernard from all possible angles, and I stepped back to avoid photobombing the performer. Later, I found the stream of photos on Instagram, and I learned the name of the chanteuse. Nice bit of fortune brought to me by social media. I dropped a tip in the fishbowl on the piano table, and walked towards the sound of rock and roll near the Snurfer statue.

I swore I was hallucinating. Right by the archives of the Lakeshore Museum, a young man who looked like Ted Nugent as a child was crooning about, "Busting a Move Up North". His partner was working with his father to repair a broken guitar string, and all these middle aged men were throwing fivers into their drum cover. The drummer banged a steady beat on his snare, and I found myself hallucinating again. Maybe it was the wood smoke, but why did he remind me so much of Scotty Pellgrom? If Scotty Pellgrom were in Middle School, that is. I saw a man with a supernatural length beard of gray next to me, and I asked, "What do you make of this?"

"Wish I had put together a band in middle school, man", he answered. The song ended, and he yelled at the lead singer, "What's the name of your band"?

"We're Hazard, and We're from Grand Rapids. Thank you, kind sir, for your question", yelled back the lead singer.

I shook my head a little. "So young, so polite and yet, so rock and roll at such a tender age", I thought as I walked towards the lighted Frauenthal sign, welcoming the guests of Billy Blagg, magician.

The Coffee Factory popped up a small counter at the Third Street Roundabout, serving hot coffee and warm cider. The Coffee Factory is all about quality, and I wonder if the factory took it too far Friday night. The entire management team showed up, all four of them, managing a staff of three baristas. So although it seemed every man, woman and child walked Western with a Coffee Factory cup in their hand, a line never accumulated in front of the counter. Service delivered swiftly, no visitor had to wait two shakes of a ribbon wand. And the children all were shaking ribbon wands, hand crafted on the spot by Laurel and Sara, sisters who know a little bit about putting magic in the hands of young people. Dressed like a French philosopher all in black, Christopher Cordle played from his personal song bag as the coffee, hot chocolate and apple cider flowed. I listened for more than one and a half songs because I was somewhat taken in by his brainy lyrics, "Isn't it surreal, life is such a deal. Yet, you must spin the wheel". I made a mental note to ask him about that writer of brainy lyrics from the seventies, Todd Harry Rundgren. I always find myself thinking of Rundgren when I hear Cordle sing.

His girlfriend joined me in admiration, and I said to her, "Isn't he like a singing French existentialist philosopher. Look, black shoes, black trousers, black sweater and black knit cap. Plus, check the salt and pepper goatee". 

"Ha, Ha. He looks like a French cat burglar. He's going to rob your house, coming down the chimney, if the tip cup doesn't fill". 

That led me to wondering. Would a French existentialist philosopher have any success in petty breaking and entering? I was worried. Cordle had put out the smallest tip cup. I slipped over and popped in a fiver, just to buy some insurance.

I bid my friend adieu when I spotted my neighbor, the Deconstructionist, sitting on the curb below the Frauenthal Marquee. "But wait. Stand still", and she shook her ribbon wand over my head furiously. "There, now you can go. Expect good luck. The fix is in". "Thanks", I said. 

The Deconstructionist was in another world as she listened to the two men sitting on an Arabian carpet spread over the yellow line of Western. One man was singing lyrics in tongues, as best as I could tell. Just like glossolalia, his singing almost made sense, and yet it eluded my understanding. The second man was tripping on his steel guitar, playing a tune between "Wild at Heart" and "Pachebel's Canon". The song ended, breaking my friend's trance.

She beamed at me, "I spotted them yodeling, and I sat down. And then, suddenly, the duet broke into Tibetan Throat Singing. I never expected Tibetan Throat Singing on the main street of Muskegon. And I thought Muskegon was just a town for sailing and cottage businesses".

"Yep, there's more than what meets the eye in Muskegon these days".

"I just remembered. Go to the Red Lotus now".

"Under the Century Club, in the basement below Oceana Vineyard's tasting room".

"What are you doing here still? It's the Day of the Dead show. It's better than the show Richard App throws every year at this gallery in Grand Rapids".

"Better than Richard App's Day of the Dead Show. That's impossible".

"Go, and see for yourself. Hurry up, fool. Shoo." The duet started a new song, this time a chanson in French.

When the Deconstructionist speaks that strongly about an art show, it's time to let go of everything and go. So I ran through the archers shooting bolts into hay bales on the sand lot near the Century Club, and scurried downstairs. I was greeted by Linda Goss, who had lit candles on a shelf of freshly painted sugar skulls. The Red Lotus instructor had just finished a small demonstration on the Mexican tradition of painting skulls of sugar with food coloring. Earlier that night, Goss told me, another instructor had shown how to make a Day of the Dead skull with tiny rolls of paper, a technique called paper quilting. Goss pointed at the exhibit, making sure I noticed the paper quilted portrait of Prince, who passed from this life in April. Goss noticed that the gallery team was cleaning up the banquet table, and she put together a glass of chardonnay for my right hand and a cup of veggie chili for my left hand, and pointed out the ofrenda. She wished me a good night, and joined the clean up team.

I was excited and horrified. Muskegon Community College had commissioned an ofrenda, an altar honoring and remembering the dead, two years before tonight. However, this was the first ofrenda I had noticed in a public space in Muskegon, made by locals. I was horrified because visitors had placed pictures of their loved ones upon the lovely yellow cloth covering the levels. I had nothing that I could put on the cloth, honoring my parents, who I had laid to rest with my siblings in March. 

Jill Farkas and her friends had furnished the main elements of the ofrenda from her antique shop, old knit laces, flickering candles on elegant sconces and tiles she had discovered in a bazaar in Tijuana. One depicted a woman skeleton sitting on a couch, lettering explaining she was, "Waiting for Mr. Right". Another depicted a male skeleton sitting on the porcelain throne, reading the paper. These one of a kind finds were not for sale. Humor has never been discouraged on an ofrenda, an altar that can hold everything human. A friend came to my ear and asked, "Are you writing about this"? 

"I'm always composing in my mind". For example, look above the ofrenda, the oil paintings on window glass. I know the painter, Catherine Swiatekand here she is at the top of her game. Note that image of Hildegard Von Bingen, the Catholic saint and mystic of the Twelfth Century. It's fantastic. It's remarkable. Swiatek claims she painted it rapidly in a matter of hours. Fine. Chess masters keep their skills sharp by playing speed chess, games of no more than five minutes duration. Now, what I truly love about her Hildegard. Hildegard composed and sang mystical music with her sisters in the abbeys on Europe. Heady, heady, stuff. This summer, our painter toured Michigan as the lead singer of a Led Zepplin tribute band, Dancing Daze. What would Hildegard Von Bingen sing if she were born in the Twenty-First century. She might like all the lyrics of Led Zeppelin. No wonder Von Bingen came trippingly off of Swiatek's brush this October."

My friend looked at me with a puzzled look. She looked at Hildegard. She gave me a kiss on the cheek and said, "Write it down just like that". And she rejoined her husband, who crafts medieval chain mail. 

Will Juntunen

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