Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Create and Connect: Making the Most of Your Writing Residency


A reflection in light of the 2015 AWP Minneapolis panel discussion

Minneapolis, Minnesota
As a poet and writer, I try to get away for a devoted chunk of special writing time at a writer’s colony/writer’s residency/writing retreat every other year or so. When I learned that the AWP conference, held in Minneapolis this year, was hosting a panel on writing residencies, I made sure to be there. The following are highlights from the panel, interspersed with my own reflections and experiences when it comes to residencies.

“Create and Connect” panelists were either writers who’d done their own stints at writing residencies such as Yaddo, Ucross, Anderson Center, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center and others, or writers who also administered writing residencies at such places as Hedgebrook in Washington State or Firefly Farms in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

I don’t think I met one person at AWP who wasn’t a writer, no matter whether he or she were also a teacher, publisher or administrator. And last count, I think there were 16,000 people in attendance at the Minneapolis conference. That’s a lot of writers!

Panelist and writer Kathleen Ossip is also a mother, and getting away from an active family to a writing residency is no small feat. Juggling childcare, children’s schedules, clothes packing, each child’s eating habits, budgets and all the prep work that comes with organizing a two-week residency away from your kids most likely takes as much time and care as the residency itself, according to Ossip. Because of this, she stresses that working parent writers deserve the residency they so carefully plan and change their life for, and need to make the most of it.

As a writer, teacher and mother, Ossip has to have her act together to make each role happen and take place with a devoted heart, and she definitely seems to have heart, balance and nerve. She bemoans the fact that many residencies that offer longer-term stays don’t take into account that many writers have children, making it difficult to be away from home for more than two weeks.

At the Q and A, I brought up the My Time Fellowship for Writers with Children, an annual fellowship offered by The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, for writers with children at home under the age of 18. The fellowship includes a two-week residency with meals, and a $1,500 stipend to help pay for childcare while the writer is away from home. Many hadn't heard about it and were glad I mentioned it. Unfortunately, only one person per year is awarded this grant.

Kathleen Ossip also suggested alternatives to actual residencies for those who can't get away from home, such as one-night-a-week dinner take-out residency; one night at motel residency without the kids, who stay with grandma or dad; weekend mini-residencies organized ad hoc with fellow writers; month of July residency at home, trying to be a little more writing focused while doing everything else. Here are some other ideas for stay-at-home writers' retreats.

Other discussions among the panelists included what it’s like as an administrator to start up a new writing residency -- and the importance of taking time to have fun and enjoy your surroundings while at a residency. It shouldn’t be all work, work, work, according to writer Sally Franson. Go hike, make friends, do handstands, don’t necessarily take the Calvinist approach to your work. Franson said, "A residency is a place to face yourself and what you're into or are writing; a place to be the true you. You fill yourself back up." 

Ossip suggests honing in on your work during the day and at least earmarking your residency evenings for outside activities and socializing with other writers. She added that in the two- or three-week residencies she's experienced, she got more done than six months at home with kids around. She also added, "Don't be upset if you don't reach your goals. But you may also reach or exceed your goals." 

I tend to side with Ossip. With so many other distractions in my life in Chicago – work, family, friends, poetry readings, yoga classes, more, I find a residency away from the urban hub-bub as a time to really focus on my writing in an uninterrupted manner. During a week in a Wisconsin cabin at a retreat center, I fitfully completed forty pages of a first-draft play and several mandala colored-pencil drawings (unrelated to the play!), while also taking time to enjoy meals with other residents and opt for a few onsite yoga and meditation activities. It was an exhilarating week, a lot of effort, and a deeply satisfying start to a new work under my belt.

Panelist, writer and Hedgebrook alumni Allison Green outlined the process the women-only colony takes to whittle its 1,000 annual applicants down to 40 residents for the year. Thankfully, many residency programs are not as competitive. A special hint many panelists gave for aspiring applicants is to choose any other time of year than the summer months for one’s residency, as this is the prime time many educators and/or parents with children take time to leave home.

To my mind, residencies where a formal cost is involved are often less competitive to get into than those that either completely cover the cost of the residency or carry a nominal fee. As well, programs that accommodate only a smaller amount of residents at a time, such as the Millay Colony or Ragdale, as well as Hedgebrook, can be highly competitive. One’s state or local arts council may have grant programs that can help cover the costs of a residencies that come with a price tag. Funding can include travel expenses to and from, if such grants are available that particular year and an aspiring resident applies within a reasonable amount of time beforehand.

Someone in the audience asked how to go about choosing the right residency program. Poets & Writers Magazine maintains a Conferences & Residencies Database through which one can narrow down venues by state, type and cost, if any. AWP itself also maintains an online database called Directory of Conferences and Centers. And one of the panelists suggested the Alliance of Artists Communities http://www.artistcommunities.org

Other aspects I would personally consider in choosing a residency include how isolated the venue may be -- or not (in the wilderness, the city or near a quaint town?); how difficult or easy the colony may be to travel to (close to an airport or within driving distance from home?); how many other writers to expect in attendance (would you rather to be by yourself or a few others, or surrounded by a nurturing – or competitive – network of perhaps dozens of writers?), and the emphasis or culture of the particular colony.

At a place such as The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, I heard that residents can enjoy the best of many chosen worlds; to write all day in one’s assigned cabin with a delivered lunch basket, as well as interface with scores of other writers at the main house during dinner and after-hours activities – or not, according to one’s preferences. A poet I met at the AWP conference told me she’d been a resident at MacDowell 12 times(!!) and loved each one of her stays. Thus, she’s inspired me to apply some year soon.

I strongly feel (again, it’s a personal opinion) that the ideal way to select a residency is to pre-visit the venue itself, perhaps during a road trip to another place you’re going to anyway. When visiting friends in Burlington, Vermont, my writer husband and I made a short side trip to the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont. We called ahead and one of the administrators was kind enough to take us on a personal tour. In many unique ways, the colony is the town of Johnson itself, its various venues, studios, performance centers and lodging areas dotting the entire area. However, as beautiful as the place, the town, and the people were, we both felt the center placed overwhelming emphasis on artists rather than writers among its 700 annual residents.

On a different trip out west to visit a friend’s farm in Montana, we three poet travelers stopped for an hour at the Ucross Foundation in the Wyoming foothills, again calling ahead and getting a friendly reception. This peaceful, ranch-style, getting-away-from-it-all haven with an equal mix of writers, artists and musicians had a lot of appeal – and its own art gallery and library.

Where have I taken residencies myself? I started back in the 90s with my husband and young son at La Casita in Jemez Springs, New Mexico (our little family in a little casita in a sweet little mountain town; program no longer in existence), then jumping ahead 10 years -- two residencies at The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow, Eureka Springs, Arkansas (among five or six other residents at any given time; I was lucky to end up in its fantastic, fully-equipped Culinary Suite for food writers), Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point, Wisconsin (a solo residency, now for Wisconsin writers only), The Poetry Farm in Wisconsin (a work/writing program, no longer in existence), The Christine Center in Willard, Wisconsin (where I spent a week writing a play in a cabin thanks to an Illinois Arts Council Grant), and the Rivendell Writers' Colony in Sewanee, Tennessee, a newer venue in a vintage Old South mansion, where both my husband and I look forward to residencies this summer.

Want more details? If you comment below with questions or your own experiences at any of these wondrous places, I’ll be happy to answer or chat.


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Friday, February 20, 2015

The Year of the Ram 2015: A Poem to Celebrate Chinese New Year


you make a mistake and want to erase it
from the board.
you tire of dabbing the bottom of the paint cup.

you want a fresh start,
to break free from the same-old, same-old,
be brand new, but still be you.

China? they know how to work with
the same old thing,
they’ve have been at it for five thousand years.

so every Chinese New Year’s,
there are reasons we clean our houses
from top to bottom, sweep away
last year’s bad luck with a broom.

what better time to wear new clothes,
make up with friends you’ve had fights with,
paint the front door with a fresh coat of red,
spread out bright flowers and bowls of glowing fruit.

and most of all, spill by the hundreds to line streets for
parades of dragon puppets 50-people long,
looping and curving into a long-life ahead,

to see lions dance with roosters 
dance with monkeys,
and watch clowns mime, 
somersault and walk on stilts.

gongs and cymbals ring through icy air
warming the winter February here in Chinatown
into a new spring we can’t yet see, but can imagine.
even our ancestors celebrate,
and clap their hands from a faraway place.

there are reasons this happens over and over,
because no matter how old our culture grows,
each year is new to its people,
we are all young ones in this ancient world,

with hopes, ideas and heartbeats
that spark and pop
like a huge braid of firecrackers,

there are countless reasons to believe
that everything we are
will fill up the next year

to the brim.

~ Cynthia Gallaher 

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Post-Katrina Mardi Gras Poem & Some Thoughts on the Holidays


Post-Katrina Mardi Gras


Katrina, huffy hurricane, howler, home wrecker,
how could New Orleans celebrate after the likes of you?

was it not your winds, but your rains that broke the levees?
left homes lopsided, lives lost or misplaced
in the wake of the flood?
how much more did you take away?

Lakes Ponchartrain and Borgne swelled and
spewed mighty waters as if from Neptune’s mouth,
south across the Ninth Ward, Arabi, Chalmette.
that God of the Sea was the one in our living rooms,

if he didn’t climb all the way up to the roof,
he at least was knocking at our door.

“But not having Mardi Gras in New Orleans
would be like not having Christmas,” some say,
while carnival floats awaiting next year’s celebration,
were “floating” the streets after levees gave way.

“Fat Tuesday” had grown so slim,
you could count its bones,
could New Orleans ever gain back
what Katrina had stolen away?

but somehow trumpets sounded, drums pounded,
whistles blew, maracas shook in anticipation,
and NOLA pushed Mardi Gras plans ahead
taking pride in its annual February vacation,

as exuberant, gaudy and giddy as it seemed,
to forget past troubles, take new time to dream.

could it happen between building and tearing down,
between devastation and renovation,
with people displaced all over the place?
could it happen among those on their way back,

and those who still had a long way to go?
it happened.

down St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street,
crowds applauded krewes on floats
with fewer members, lost to Katrina,
wildly caught “throws” of bead necklaces

and flashy doubloons that showered down,
cheered marching high school bands
from flooded-out high schools,

caught up as ever in the annual whirlwind
of lavish masks, hats, and costumes,
profuse confetti and striped umbrellas
up and down so many noise-filled streets,

while other streets stood silent amidst collapsed roofs, overturned cars,
roadways strew with muddy shoes, furniture and stuffed toys,
Ash Wednesday come early.

much disappeared,
much had washed away,
but the Crescent City felt mighty pretty
when Mardi Gras kept its day.

laissez les bon temps roulez
##

This poem originally appeared in a shorter form in Midnight Circus: Holidays issue from EAB Publishing 2014.

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Friday, February 06, 2015

"I want the Jimi Hendrix Electric Ladyland album!" demanded my Depression-era mom

The year 1969, in retrospect, was one of the biggest in classic rock music. It was also the year my friends Sue, Mary Jane and I, three 16-year-olds, signed up for summer telemarketing jobs. It was during these working hours we perked up our ears, not for music, but the sounds of potential clients’ unenthused one-word responses across the wire, and the lilting, if not often monotonous, rhythm of our own voices as we repeated rote telephone pitches. Our goal was to sell small plots of Wisconsin resort property to older folks in the south Chicago suburbs, not an easy sell for a peddler of any age or experience.

For escapism from the din of the phone center, the three of us would take our lunch break together outdoors at the local snack shop’s picnic table. There, near the corner of North and Harlem Avenues, we’d quickly wolf down our brown bag lunches and purchase a pop at the shop counter to at least feign the impression we were legitimate customers.

Once food was consumed, we moved on to our true destination, Peaches Records, a few doors down from the snack shop. This record shop served as our rock music “museum.” Our paltry paychecks from the telemarketing job were needed to be spread elsewhere than on pricey record albums, for the likes of school clothes and bus fare. After we entered the record store, we headed straight toward the stacks. 

With Sue and Mary Jane at my sides, one particular afternoon I held up an album cover with the saffron yellow and fiery red solarized portrait of a man dancing before us -- “Electric Ladyland,” the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s third album. It was part of the ritual we undertook with one another, showing off the most recent rock albums that we admired, like auctioneers at an estate sale, presenting a beautiful object to bidders for examination. 

We all had our current favorites “of the moment” and took turns with this show-and-tell game until our lunch hour was over. We would examine, we would discuss, we would laud and fawn over, we would disagree, though we couldn’t bid. It was like touching fine paintings, something the guards wouldn’t let you do at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The graphics of “Electric Ladyland,” though colorful, weren’t as visually psychedelic as the group’s second album, “Axis Bold as Love.” “Electric Ladyland” featured large aforementioned solarized close-up of Hendrix singing. The back cover photo flanked Hendrix with his fellow musicians, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding, who were two white guys sporting Afros nearly larger than the man’s himself. Their well-fitted garb was totally psychedelic, jackets jumping with surrealistic cartoon characters, polka dot ties popping and brilliant neck scarves furling, all which satisfied the freaky fashionista in me.

The album cover wasn’t what really attracted me to this album. I, as many others were, found captivation in the originality of the music. I had been enamored with Hendrix’ music since “Purple Haze,” a single 45 rpm record I purchased in 1967 while still a dooper at Taft High School. A dooper, by the way, is a Chicago term for a collegiate, an acronym for “Dear Old Oak Parker,” meaning someone who’s similar to a suburban Oak Park youth who can afford Ivy League schools – and record albums – or, like me, a Chicagoan from the northwest side who merely dressed like one with clothes snagged from bargain basements and thrift shops. By 1969, my friends and I were “hippies,” or at least hippies who toned down their outfits enough to get summer jobs like the telemarketing ones, and still, evidently, trying to be all that in this Oak Park record shop. 

Double album “Electric Ladyland” is viewed by some as the peak of Hendrix’ mastery of the electric guitar. In recent liner notes, it read, “After Woodstock, Neil Young said that Jimi was ‘absolutely the best guitar player that ever lived; there was no one even in the same building as that guy.’” Besides Mitchell and Redding, a number of guest artists made cameo appearances in various tracks on “Electric Ladyland,” including Steve Winwood, Al Kooper, Dave Mason and Brian Jones. The most well-known song on the album is by far “All Along the Watchtower” of which music and lyrics are written by Bob Dylan. Hendrix wrote the remainder of the songs.

My personal favorite is “1983…A Merman I Should Turn to Be,” which tracks at over 13 minutes. Some say it is the most psychedelic and political song on the album, if not among all of Hendrix’ body of work. I fantasized as a child about what it must be like to be a mermaid, influenced by “The Little Mermaid” story by Hans Christian Anderson as well as the film “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid” with Ann Blyth and William Powell. In the Mr. Peabody film, Blythe portrays a mermaid brought to land in order to try fit in like everyone else. When it’s clear she cannot, she is mercifully returned to the sea.

Hendrix wanted to be a merman, the male counterpart of a mermaid. But he longed for it as a means to walk away from war and oppression and straight into the sea “not to die, but to be reborn.” The title’s “1983” was a year that Hendrix was destined never to experience himself. His short but artistic career as a musician ended only a year after I held that record album in my hands at Peaches Records, with his death in 1970.

A fond memory of my mother involves the “Electric Ladyland” album. Our local department store in the neighborhood strip mall, Turnstyle, featured a flyer advertising select albums on sale for only a dollar. Most record albums sold for about six or seven times that amount at Peaches Records. “Electric Ladyland” was one of the albums featured in the Turnstyle photo. I rushed to Turnstyle only to be told by a manager that the array of albums pictured were for marketing purposes and that “Electric Ladyland” itself wasn’t actually among those on sale for that price.

When I came home and told my mother my disappointment, she took a close look at the flyer. My mother, Evelyn, had married my father during the Depression era. With money tight, they lived with my grandmother the first five years of their marriage, trying to scrape together enough to get their own place. They postponed starting a family, as well. During World War II, my mother did things like save cooking grease in cans and gather slivers of soap to ship to facilities using it to make munitions, from what my sisters told me.

She was one to count every penny, use every resource and read the fine print. She strived to get the best out of every deal, receipt, coupon and warranty. That was the way women from her era worked things to feel a tad more financially secure. My mother eventually became a widow and had to fend for herself, my two sisters and me on her own. As a result, she wanted to make sure I never had it too easy, that I might be independent and strong, as she had learned to the hard way.

With the “pull up your bootstraps” modus of her working-class stance, she usually let me fight my own battles and issues, whether win or lose. So I was a bit surprised that, with flyer in hand, she uncharacteristically decided to take up the cause. She took off her apron, threw a chiffon scarf over her dark curly hair, straightened the cuffs of her polyester pants as she slipped marshmallow white  flats onto her feet, then grabbed her car keys. “Cindy, let’s go,” she said. “Go where?” I said. “To Turnstyle,” she said. “Mom, really?” I said, as I slipped into the seat next to her and she drove off.

Once inside the store, she approached the manager. Yet he, too, told her that he couldn’t sell that particular album at that price. She wouldn’t let his proclamation immediately dissuade her. My mother raised her voice and, pointing a finger forcefully at the page in the flyer, said, “Sir, I see ‘Electric Ladyland’ pictured right here in your ad, and I want ‘Electric Ladyland’ for the price advertised. I don’t want any of those other albums on sale. I don’t want The Turtles ‘Happy Together’ album. I don’t want ‘Polka Favorites.’ I don’t want Dean Martin’s ‘Gentle on My Mind.’ I already have that one. I want Electric Ladyland!”

The manager sincerely apologized for the inconvenience. Hands on hips, his bald head glistening, his protruding belly battling three of his shirt buttons, the manager nonetheless held firm to the notion that he could not sell the album for a dollar. “You have to give it to us,” my mother demanded. Everyone was looking. He looked exasperated. Then someone called him away to answer a phone call.

Ultimately, my mother had as little success as I.  But I was touched that she went as far as she did to try to get some justice for me. And to hear my Dean Martin-loving, Depression-era mom demand a psychedelic album and reprise the words “Electric Ladyland” at the top of her voice, militant against this bait-and-switch in a public forum struck me as righteously incongruous as well as tremendously precious, dear, odd and sweetly funny. While I didn’t land a copy of “Electric Ladyland,” and the idea of how my mother and I had joined forces only to lose this small battle together made me proud of her, and feel loved by her.

Decades later, after my mother was gone, I  gathered with my own small family as we celebrated our usual Christmas stocking ritual for the holidays. By then, I had nearly forgotten about the album. When I spied a gift that my 20-something musician son, Julian, had tucked into my stocking, I thought it was a book. As I tore open the wrapping and uncovered the box it was in, I saw that it was none other than a CD version of Jimi Hendrix’ “Electric Ladyland.” Two years before, during a family visit to the Rock & Roll Museum in Cleveland and inside the Hendrix exhibit, I had told Julian about the episode at Turnstyle with my mother and me. 

So happy to receive the album, I wished I was able to call my mother to tell her I finally got it, although that was no longer possible. Once again, I was deeply touched by a family member who made a personal gesture for me in regard to the album, this time my son. I wept, and told him that this was one of the best Christmas gifts I ever received.

Since then, it has turned out to be more than a mere rock album for me. Every time I play it, I walk hand-in-hand with the living and dead, with the musical and otherwise, with the caring and savvy of my mother, son, Sue, Mary Jane, and Jimi, too, right into Electric Ladyland.


(Excerpted from a memoir in progress: "The Year of 14 Jobs")

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Experiencing Sugar Man, Then Losing Track of the Song for Decades


One summer, I flew out from Chicago and spent the month of July in Berkeley, California, hanging around the University of California campus for no apparent reason, whiling my time away. I won’t carbon date myself by telling you the year, but it had a “7” in it.  

My friend Sue and I had spent a week in the area the previous summer and fell in love with the east bay. I went back, wanting to explore the area more and actually wait for Sue to again follow me after she finished a summer school session back home.

That previous year we had stayed in San Francisco proper, in the Tenderloin district, and at what seemed a well-kept hotel, even though in reality it was nothing but a $3 a night flophouse filled with its share of drunks, druggies and screamers – which we two little 18-year-olds on a budget found amusing and exciting, even though we didn’t chum up with anyone at the hotel.

After traveling over the Bay Bridge into Berkeley, we discovered a building that served as frat house during the school year but was rented out to both gals and guys by the week during the summer months. This frat house, Theta Delta Chi, was featured in the film “The Graduate,” where on an interior shot you’ll see actor Richard Dreyfuss in his first film role, speaking one line.

That following summer I knocked on this building's door when I got into town, with no reservations, no previous plans. They found a little room for me in a back wing for $10 a week. The room held a twin size mattress on the floor and nothing else. No drawers, mirrors or closets. There wasn’t even any electricity in the room. No lights. So at night, I entered and undressed to a flashlight.

The summer frat house roomed folks of various stripes, with some of the year-long frat boys still in attention. But mind you, in Berkeley even frat boys seemed like hippies, but with shorter hair. There was an open door policy. Meaning, the front door was always open and, as well, we kept the doors to our rooms unlocked. 

That is, until one sunny afternoon I found this short little rasta guy sitting on my room’s mattress, just about to crack open my knapsack to look through its contents. For some reason, I kept very calm. First of all, I knew he couldn’t steal anything because I didn’t have anything. A beat-up aluminum mess-kit, a camping knife and fork, and some well-worn women’s hippy clothing. 

He didn’t look like the violent type. I simply asked him,“What are you doing here?” When he didn’t answer, I just said, “You can’t be in here. This is my rom. You have to leave.” And he did. I was surprised. I locked my door from the inside every night after that, though I didn’t have a key to the outside.

Anyway, on the second floor, a few of the guys had one very large room that they shared and many of the summer residents were invited up there to hang around nearly any time of the day, including myself.  One guy showed me how to play chess for the first time, and I played everyday for a while. Another guy who came back from a local abalone diving adventure treated us all to breaded and fried abalone he made, fresh from the east bay.

And one guy from South Africa, big and blond, who was a summer student at the university brought a record album up to the room and held the cover before me.

“Did you ever hear this album?” he asked.

I stared at the guy in a bubble on the vinyl album cover, in tall hat and sunglasses, sitting cross-legged as if floating in midair.

“I don’t think so. I've never even seen it before,” I said.

“I’ve asked all these California people out here if they knew this guy Rodriguez,” he said. “And nobody does. But he’s from the U.S. I thought since you were from Chicago maybe you knew who he was. Maybe he’s from out there.”

I stared and stared at the cover that said “Rodriguez Cold Fact.”

“This album is a big hit in South Africa. In fact, it’s the number one album,” he said. “And no one here seems to have every heard about it.”

“Number one? And he’s not from South Africa?” I said.

“In South Africa, everything we listen to is either from Britain or the United States. Rodriguez is from here, but nobody knows exactly where,” he said.

"Why would you think he might be from Chicago?" I said.

“I figured Chicago is cold and Cold Fact might have something to do with Chicago," he said. "And the buildings on the cover look like older urban buildings.”

“A number one album from America, and no one here has ever heard about it?" I said. I was incredulous. "Play some of it. Maybe I’ve heard it before and just never saw the album cover,” I said.

He slipped the record out of its jacket and slid it onto the small stereo against the wall. He put the needle to the record, the record turned and the Rodriguez’ song “Sugar Man” began to expound.

Sugar man, won't you hurry
'Cos I'm tired of these scenes
For a blue coin won't you bring back
All those colors to my dreams

Silver magic ships you carry
Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane
Sugar man met a false friend
On a lonely dusty road
Lost my heart when I found it
It had turned to dead black coal

It was so quiet in the room besides the echoing lyrics and guitar music of the song, we held our breaths and felt just a gentle breeze enter through those second story windows. We were mesmerized.

I slowly came out of my reverie of the song. “I wish I could help you. The song is terrific. But what does it mean. Who’s sugar man?” I said.

One guy said, “A drug dealer. One who sells drugs, sells sugar, cocaine, pills?”

“What about that Sammy Davis Jr. song, ‘Candyman?’” I said. “You know, ‘Who can take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew, cover it in chocolate and a miracle or two, the candy man, the candy man can.’”

Another guy, “That beat tune? I think that’s really about actual candy. But I could be dead wrong.”
"I know it's a beat song. But did he copy this 'Sugar Man' guy?" I said. "You know, like the concept, not the art of it."

I stared and stared at the Cold Fact cover. The image of Rodriguez floating in a bubble seared into my brain. I asked the South African to play “Sugar Man” again. Then again. He did. I blissed out on being in Berkeley, on meeting people from all over the world, on the song “Sugar Man” that seemed to come from nowhere and have no home, except in my heart.

Of course, I didn't travel all the way to California just to listen to records or play chess indoors. I joined the group of friends I made at the house and elsewhere in Berkeley for picnics, waterskiing outings, a day trip north to wine country, long discussions at coffee houses, a evening exploring San Francisco's Chinatown, endless billiards challenges, and a special night at a small, local dance venue where Carlos Santana hopped onstage as a surprise performer during a Tower of Power set.

Eventually, I found out my friend Sue wasn’t able to afford the trip out west after all, even on standby. By the end of July, I headed back to Chicago, saying goodbye to the guys and gals I met in Berkeley from California and other states, from South Africa, from Europe, and goodbye to the song “Sugar Man,” which I never heard again…

Until 2012, when the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” was released, winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary. My husband and I watched the film on our home TV via On Demand.

Rodriguez appeared onscreen and began to play the song “Sugar Man.”  

“I’ve heard that song before. I’ve seen that record album before. I love that song,” I told my husband.
"No one's heard it before. You just heard it now. No one knew who he was until this year," he said. 

“Why is that song so hauntingly familiar?” I asked. “Rodriguez lives not too far away. Didn’t the Chicago radio stations play the song for awhile, back when?”

“Listen, I know a lot about music, and I’m telling you, I never heard it before,” he said.

“Maybe I’m just getting it mixed up with the song ‘Candyman,’” I said.

“Are you kidding me?” he said.

“For some reason, I think I’ve had this silly problem sometime before,” I said. “It’s all unclear. It’s so hard to remember. A number one album no one ever heard of.”

But after a few months of soul-searching, I did remember. I remembered hearing “Sugar Man” in Berkeley so many years before and feeling song all the way up and into my solar plexus. And I remembered the South African student trying to find someone, anyone from the U.S. who knew anything about Rodriguez or where he came from. None of us knew.

But I’m so glad that now, finally now, all of us do. Here's to you, Sixto Rodriguez from Detroit!

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