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Cosmic Debris

Lost and Found at the Philly Folk Fest

August 1999--Somewhere along the line, I misplaced my roots.

    I realize this as I sit on a portable Coleman chair at the Philadelphia Folk
Festival scanning the crowd to spot someone I might know. Seeing how I haven’t actually lived in the Philadelphia area since high school, I’m basically looking at a bunch of graying, balding, midriff-bulging middle aged baby boomers mistakenly thinking that I might recognize one of them as a childhood acquaintance. One might very well be my first best friend (even though I once accidentally pushed him off of a garage roof) Todd “Toad” Alexander, or the Cosmo Kramer of my grade school, Bernie “Booger” Herbst, or maybe even silken-haired Linda Goldfine, who I had a secret crush on in the fifth grade.

    I watch the crowd ebb and flow through Dulcimer Grove, perhaps the best people-watching spot in Schwenksville, where the Philadelphia Folk Fest actually takes place. The grove is a shaded, creek-chiseled ravine that serves as both the geographic and spiritual heart of the fest. To my left is the backside of the festival’s main stage and a steep hill leading up a natural amphitheater to the hamburgers, hot dogs, funnel cake, falafels and Potty Queens. To my right is a slightly less steep hill leading to the Camp Stage and beyond that, the campground where about 7,000 now-gamey people reside for the duration of the three-day fest.

    Dulcimer Grove is a popular spot. It is the festival’s unofficial day care center, currently occupied by jugglers, clowns, a man with a monkey and a guy playing an Australian dirgereedoo, which if you haven’t heard one before, sounds like an elephant in serious need of a pachyderm Potty Queen. Kids are running around all over the place. It must be safe, because not one of them is crying. Nearby, a young woman in a gauzy tie-dyed dress spins round and round with a magic wand producing bubbles the size of boulders. They shimmer electric blue and deep purple as they float through dapples of sunlight, then die prematurely at the index fingers of giggling bubble assassins.

    It is hot in the sun on the hillsides, but the grove has a deep-woods coolness. A nice place to sit and watch the world pass by. I grew up not far from here, yet now am an outsider. Recently, I lost contact with my last grade school chum. Now, I know no one here, except family.     

    Or do I?

    I strain my eyes, memory and imagination to find a familiar face in the crowd. I see one who could be my old tree-climbing pal, Jonny Bricklin. And this other one might be Matt Starobin, or Larry Cutler, or Bradley Allen. The nearly-familiar faces trigger names I haven’t thought of for decades. Mansh and Bregman. The Grabfelders. Hilary Kapnek, Richard Lieberman and Mary Wolf. The fraternal Fox twins, Tyler and Mitchell.

    Of course, these middle aged people aren’t really my childhood friends. At least I don’t think so. There’s really no way to tell. I’d probably be better served to check out their kids, who probably look more like my old friends than my old friends do these days. But I see no little Foxes. No junior Cutlers. No young Grabfelders.

    My own little Greenberg runs up to tell me he caught three crayfish with his new pal, whose name he can’t remember. He chugs a packet of CapriSun juice and runs back to the creek with his arms outstretched making airplane sounds.

    Maybe I’m looking too low, I think. I started late. Most people my age don’t have five-year-olds. Their kids would be in high school, or beyond. I check out a stand of high schoolers and see a girl who is a dead ringer for one of my best friends through childhood and into college. Marc Schwerin. I wonder. He started early and had three or four and one in the oven when he was stricken by an asthma attack and died. It must be more than a decade ago. I heard about it from Nick Helfrich, the last connection to my past, who now seems to have finally faded away with the rest.

    Faces come and go. I really wish I could recognize someone--Josh Gottlieb, Monte Elias, Joanne Semless--or that someone might recognize me. But that’s not likely. Now, I look more like my father than I look like myself as a kid. My old friends must also look like their parents now, just as their kids will look like them in 30 or 40 years. 

    It’s hopeless. So I sit by myself in Dulcimer Grove feeling uprooted. But in
searching for a face I can’t forget, I find something else. Though I’ll run into no one I know all weekend, I still manage to see a lot of old friends at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.


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