Today was our last real day in the condo because tomorrow the moving company arrives, bright and early. After they pack up, with me following behind them with a broom and a dustpan, which they'll toss into the truck before shutting the door, No. 1 and I will be left in the empty rooms with only last-minute things to tend do. Then we'll spend a night in a hotel and evacuate on Wednesday. I'll head for the airport, and the girl will head for a 12-day road trip that will eventually land her in Ohio. We'll be headed home, at least I will be, but for a few moments tomorrow, I believe we're going to feel a little homeless.
On this last day, No. 1 has been excusing herself now and then to spend time with friends for the last time while I stayed behind and taped up boxes and drifted aimlessly in the hammock chair. That hour or so when I sat outside with the birds and the noises of the city was actually very pleasant, but I didn't enjoy the prospect of spending the evening alone here with no work left to do. So, when No. 1 said she was going to run out for about an hour with her friend Michelle, and she described the neighborhood in Oakland where they would be paying a quick visit with some friends, I asked if I could tag along. I didn't want to go meet the friends and barge in on their last night together, but I did want to go find a spot in this so-called interesting neighborhood for a change of scenery.
Standing on the corner where I could head west toward the cafe the girls had recommended or cross the street toward the Mexican restaurant, I crossed the street. Oddly, the joint had a blue-grass band, No. 1 said, and with what I detected as a slight smirk, she added that I'd probably like the place, unusual as the combination of fish tacos and blue grass might be. The girl knows her mother.
I ordered the fish tacos, which are a favorite of mine, and found a little table—note in the fuzzy photo above that all the tables are little, and note as well that what you see here are the only tables in the space. And just as I was told, the small band by the back door was a full-fledged and authentic blue grass group. The banjo and bass and mandolin and guitar were exactly what I had known as a kid, as we listened to recordings of groups or watched them on television, and my father would talk about how he and his brothers would play those old tunes every evening in the 30s when families did such things as a matter of course.
The group sang classics, like "Ain't nobody gonna miss when I'm gone. Oh, won't you write these words upon my tombstone." "Want to see my honey, want to see her bad. She's the best gal this poor boy ever had." "In the pale moonlight, we quarreled one night, our hearts were young and free." And between the lyrics, they took turns with solos that were as quick as any I've heard, with just the right combination of joy and sorrow.
The music these people made, seeming so out of place in a Mexican restaurant in Oakland, California, was familiar to me in the unfamiliar. I was alone in a place I had never been before and would likely never be again, yet I knew some of the lyrics because I had heard these tunes before, and I could tap my foot to a style of music that I've known since my earliest years. I've never been good at harmonizing on the fly, but listening to these people meet each other in the middle with perfect harmony reminded me of how my sisters could find their parts so easily when we would sing around the piano. I swear, the base player even looked a little like my sister Myra. And I saw a bit of my Aunt Sybil in the woman with the guitar.
People offer up so many quaint phrases about music—how it allows us to express emotions or ideas we have no words for or how it's universal or how it makes life palatable. Those things are all true, but here's another thing that's true about music—when you are in an unfamiliar setting, and you hear chords and tunes and lyrics that are familiar to you, you are suddenly in known territory. You belong. You find comfort. You breath easy because you are at home even when so far away from where you actually lay your head.
I have been to several unfamiliar places on this visit to Berkeley. Tonight, I went to one more; but as long as that funky blue grass band was playing, I was right at home in the unfamiliar.