It’s June 25th, 1995 and I’m straddling the roof of a broken down truck like Davy Crockett at the Alamo fending off deadheads from looting a mountain of watermelons in the parking lot of RFK Stadium. Right now I should be headlining a show at the Roundtable. At least I could be inside the stadium listening to Bob Dylan and the Dead. But instead I’m standing guard wishing I was anywhere but here. I need a miracle!
Just 48 hours ago inspiration struck for our next brilliant scheme and outlandish adventure. The Grateful Dead are in town for what will turn out to be their final shows at RFK. The bustling third world marketplace of the parking lot scene is an experience unto itself. People camp out for days and transform the parking lot into a sort of psychedelic village of campers, tents, makeshift kitchens and smoky wood fires. You can sell, barter, trade, or shop for anything you want. The tribal drums and twanging guitars set the tone for a dread lock parade of peddlers and patrons seeking miracles in colorful tie dyes and hippy skirts. What can we bring to the party? Watermelon. Lots of sweet and juicy watermelon.
Friday morning we head to the shore to load up our truck. If you can picture a perfect heaping bowl of cherries, then switch the cherries for a couple hundred enormous Sangria melons and replace the bowl with the ugliest old stake-body truck imaginable and you may have an idea what we look like coming across the Bay Bridge.
As if running 10 produce stands doesn’t keep us busy enough, we give our rookie managers the keys to the operation and cut ourselves off from civilization. Mobile phones are bulky, primitive and unreliable, reminiscent of radio communication during war time. We have our phones, coolers, ice, paper towels, some big bulky bins for tables, a cutting board, and a giant knife for slicing melons. We’re ready for business, or so we think.
About noon we slowly inch our way through a sea of deadheads. They part just wide enough to let us through then close up right behind. It feels like being swallowed. As we pass we can here them chant, “Here comes the Watermelon Man”. I feel as if bestowed with instant celebrity and significance. The sun is high in a cloudless sky even though it rained all night leaving the ground a trampled muddy mess. The steaming heat and humidity in the unsheltered parking lot make the sun inescapable. This is the parking lot I frequent at Redskins games. Now it has taken on an entirely different air.
As we continue to ride the clutch through the crowds and the aisle of vendors I begin to smell something. Something sweet and familiar. I rack my brain trying to remember what it is. Finally it hits me….antifreeze. That’s when I notice steam hissing like a serpent from beneath the hood. The gauges shoot up into the red and the dashboard lights up like a Christmas tree. We are at the end of the line.
Perhaps one might associate the “Deadhead” movement with peace, love, and happiness. Maybe a broken down old truck loaded with watermelons could be construed as a ‘Good Omen’ for the parched masses. Yes, one could reasonably come to these conclusions but in this case they would be DEAD WRONG.
As soon as the truck begins to show signs of distress we are accosted by furious unsympathetic vendors ordering us to go break down somewhere else. They pound on the hood and the walls of the truck shouting obscenities at us. It’s as if we’ve started a riot. At first I try to accommodate and continue to coax the truck a couple feet every few minutes before it overheats. Eventually as the vendors grow more agitated by our accidental prime real estate we give up on being accommodating and drop anchor.
My older brother Steve leaps onto the back of the truck and removes the rear gate. Next he rolls off a giant wooden bin pounding the ground with a solid heavy thump. It is a statement with the finality of a giant judge’s gavel. We’re not budging another inch.
At first we get slammed with an extremely enthusiastic crowd. These watermelons are so fresh they nearly burst open upon the first incision. We scramble for a bit to refine our systems then we hit a groove. It doesn’t take long to learn our roles. Steve is the idea guy. He is good with people and money. I’m more the nuts and bolts. He hands me the knife. I’ve never carved a watermelon before. By the end of the day I will be an expert.
We keep cutting. When the line dies down we send out free slices to get the buzz going. Then the rush starts all over again. The cooler has wheels and becomes a mobile satellite stand. Watermelon becomes currency and pays for our food and beer. The image of the watermelon truck is iconic and becomes a destination spot like a desert oasis or a fountain in a piazza. Its size and volume is monumental and timeless lending authentic stability to the transient scene. We become a landmark all in the span of hours. Everything is copasetic until the sun goes down. That’s when all hell breaks loose.
As darkness falls most everyone heads for the stadium. The show is about to begin. Most will experience that trademark sound of Jerry Garcia chasing after the moment on six strings. Others the gritty grinding whine and harmonica-riding lyrics of Bob Dylan as they pierce the night sky. Not me though. The day is long and endless. I’m tired and stranded, sitting heavy on watermelon when the dregs take over.
As best as I can perceive, the dregs have two motivating factors. Getting high and getting free stuff. They move like zombies making their way towards me seeking free watermelon. When I decline them they get agitated. I’m all alone. Steve is off looking for antifreeze and motor oil so we can make our exit. The fun and festive day has been overshadowed by a dubious night. People appear shady and sketchy as I try to conceal the wad of cash in my pocket.
While I’m dealing with the dregs and helping the few paying customers at the back of the truck I am clueless to the fact there is someone selling hits of nitrous oxide at the front. I go to investigate and the dregs seize the opportunity to begin looting the melons in back. I get tangled in a Catch-22. I am running in circles feeling outnumbered and overwhelmed. As a last resort I leap atop the cab of the truck and shout with all the authority I can muster, “STEP AWAY FROM THE WATERMELONS.”
For the time being I seem to hold them at bay, but for how long I do not know. I feel surrounded by wolves. I need a strategy. I begin packing up all that I can and hoping Steve will be back soon with what we need.
Earlier that day I remember a strawberry blond, freckle nosed waif. On a cardboard sign she had written, “I need a miracle.” There was something beautiful about her as she clung to the hope of free tickets. As if somebody’s mercy would get her into the greatest thing ever. Like giving a popsicle to a kid on a hot summer day. Right now all I want is my soft cozy bed. I think of that sign and mutter the words, “I need a miracle.”
That’s when I see Steve with a bottle of antifreeze and motor oil. We quench our truck’s thirst, roll the bin back up, and drop the gate. Just before I turn the key I’m thinking, “please, please, please start.” I crank it. After a long minute of sputtering failed attempts, finally it turns. Thank God. The stadium fills the side view mirror as we pull out. I yawn in relief with thankful exhaustion. This must be what they mean by “Grateful Dead.”