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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Jonathon Lipsin goes to Washington D.C. for the Inaurguration

Jonathon Lipson, of Incredible Records in Sebastopol, goes to Washington D.C. for Barrack Obama's Presidential Inauguration and Lives to Tell the Tale.

By Jonathon Lipsin

As I got ready to go to the inauguration, I dropped off to say goodbye to Rico, the donkey who lives across the street from our house in Sebastopol. I always favored Rico as a democratic animal and wondered if the symbolism was lost on him. Anyway, Rico gave me a nuzzle, and I climbed in the car to drive to the airport for the flight to Washington D.C.

You may think that I’m drinking the Kool-Aid, but this past week at the inaugural has been one of the greatest moments in my life and there have been many. I have always gone for a peak experience and I was not disappointed.

America had arrived by plane, train, car, and bus, some two and a half million people from Bayou Teche in Louisiana, London, England, Minnesota, Alabama and California. We had come to take America back, it seemed to me, and we were proud, hopeful and resolute as we sensed the veil of exclusiveness was finally drifting away into a sea of irrelevancy. Change was in the air and it was exhilarating! An American revolution was taking place and we were the foot soldiers come to witness its becoming and its grace.

Love, pride and kindness were the passwords this weekend as we stood in freezing cold weather daring to watch a dream come to fruition. Black America was merging with white and reaching out and embracing like never before. The chasm was closing in one Kumbaya moment and my family was poised to revel in it as we dug into our marrow to emanate a hearty yea!

I thought back to when I was 16 and had experienced a portion of black life in America, albeit a very small and quaint slice. That late summer I had decided to receive the baptism of life on the road and set out to see North America by dint of my thumb, my wits and my unabashed earnestness. I hitched from Montreal, Canada, my hometown, across to Vancouver, then down to Berkeley and across the U.S.A. It was in a small town in Utah, a place I have since forgotten, that I chanced upon a black kid, a bit older than me, sorrowful and hanging by the highway with a sense of futility. His name was Monroe and he hailed from New York State, near Buffalo and he was heading across the country in a bid to visit his relatives in Alabama. I allowed how I had never been down south and I was eager to hook up with him if he agreed. He gave me a derisive look and flatly told me my chances of even getting out of this state were slim hitching with a black guy.

Let me describe how I looked during this period of my life. My hair was the stuff of legend. It was probably the world’s largest ‘fro, sticking out from my head in any which direction culminating in an arc down to my shoulders. My jeans were earmarked with colorful patches, one of which was the American flag hung ceremoniously on my buttocks. I carried a small backpack whose contents revealed a mess kit with baggies of rolled oats, peanuts and raisins. My reading library consisted of Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums”, Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl”, and a Woody Guthrie songbook aptly named “Hard Hitting Songs For Hard Hitting People.” Also included in afore-mentioned pack was a genuine Marine Band blues harp in the key of A. Yeah, I deadpanned, “wait ‘til the rednecks find out I’m Jewish!”

At that moment we became fast friends of the road. He had been there all day waiting for a ride. The monotony was broken only by racial epithets hurled at him from pickup truck windows. He was alone with his color in a world not of his choosing.

A sheriff stopped his shiny car with the flashing light and sternly warned that if we set foot into town we would be arrested. That night we hunkered down to a can of beans we heated up by a makeshift hobo fire. We sat up all night talking about our different lives and a hope that racism would abate in our lifetime. The next morning a ferocious dust storm hit and it was all we could do to huddle down in a gully covered by our blankets. I felt exhilarated! Wow a real dust storm like the kind Woody Guthrie would sing about.

We finally got a ride out of there and Monroe and I traveled all the way to Alabama. We were met with hostile stares and ugly looks. This was just two years after Martin Luther King was shot. There we were, a sight to be seen, a Jewish kid with a huge ‘fro and a black kid with a peace sign necklace. I took in the tarpaper shacks, the abject poverty, the southern mansions on the right side of town, and I felt the land reeked with a putrid evil.

Monroe had a fever to hop a freight train, and we parted ways, hugging and saying farewell. Monroe and I never saw each other again but I would like him to know that I think we’re making it, from those long ago hobo kids in 1970 in the Deep South to a new American beginning. I ducked into the Birmingham bus station and slicked down my hair in the bathroom, emerging a slightly more benign sight, and promptly bought a bus ticket back to Canada.

Two days before the inauguration, Susy and I were on the National Mall to watch the concert with Springsteen, John Legend, Stevie Wonder, Beyonce and Pete Seeger. The first time I had seen Pete, I was probably three or four years old at a Montreal concert my father had produced. The next time was at my left wing summer camp when I was 6. It was perfect that Pete would close out this inaugural performance and I confidently intimated to the people around me, “I bet he’ll sing ‘This Land Is Your Land.’” He did and as I closed my eyes and sang with the crowd, I surely felt Woody and Leadbelly singing along with us. Their time had come. I couldn’t help but feel how great this country is!

The next day we waited once again for seven long hours in freezing temperatures, to see Aretha Franklin perform for free at the Kennedy Center. If we were crazy, then we were all crazy driven to the nth degree by our zeal. The more we waited, the stronger we bonded as we shared stories and food with people from different parts of America but all with the same conviction. I stood entranced as I listened to Elvira, a spry elder from South Carolina, matter of factly recite her whole family legend beginning with her great great grandfather, a runaway slave who escaped the plantation to join the Union Navy.

Ironically also in line was a pastor from the same town, but white, who told of his great great grandfather who was a colonel in the Confederate Army along with his five sons. These two from the same small town in South Carolina had never met until now, and I marveled at the vagaries of history that brought us altogether standing in line waiting for Aretha on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Later in line a man jumped on a box to spout rhetorical hatred about Whitey and revolution. The crowd, some thousands of people mostly black, were unfazed but I wondered how this would turn out. Just then a voice behind me started to sing in a wavering but determined voice, “We Shall Overcome.” It was Elvira! A shiver went through me, and a lump swelled in my throat. Pretty soon others picked it up and we all started singing the song that Dr. King taught us and by then the preacher of hate was drowned out and he scurried off as we all came together in a truly righteous way.

These events I describe to you I will never forget. They are etched in my memory forever as we came away from Washington with a great many friends. Just yesterday, Larufus, a woman we met in a line with her mother, left a message wondering if we made it home ok.

Those of us who were there changed that week. We were awash in human kindness and camaraderie as we realized we were all in the same boat and we had to watch out for each other. Susy said a wonderful thing when she enthused “I wish every day could be like this day!”

One thing that struck me was how many young people were there. In fact they were the majority, the under thirties who had eschewed their lattes to come out and vote and take charge. Yes it’s a new generation rising and that gives me hope.

An African-American woman told me recently that her heart felt like a thousand hands were clapping inside. For 400 years we have waited for this and I never thought I would see it in my lifetime, she confided to me.

Thank you Barack!

When I returned back home to the sleepy town of Sebastopol I was so tired I immediately curled up in our warm bed. The next morning I awoke to the gentle bray of Rico the donkey and I smiled as I sensed everything will be ok.

Joanathon Lipsin owns Incredible Records in downtown Sebastopol. He's currently working on a book about his incredible life experiences.

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