Sixty Pumpkins

Sixty pumpkins bashed, battered, beaten, and bruised, pale orange flesh and seeds scattered on the street by vandals. This sight greeted me as I returned home at 2:30 AM after a Saturday night spent at Davey’s Uptown. I was still energized from performances by Howard Iceberg and the Titanics, The Expassionates, and Hidden Pictures, three local acts that played to a tight-knit audience of music lovers and friends.

Turning down the car stereo, the recorded voice of Howard Iceberg on CD faded as I concentrated on the broken bodies of flesh on the street. Instantly knowing what happened but hardly comprehending why, I parked the car in the garage and retreated to bed.

Going to the show at Davey’s was a protective measure of sorts, an antidote to the day’s glumness, an attempt to distract myself for a few hours from the news of Anne Winter’s death and another friend, Barbara Moss, who died recently. So many people in Kansas City, online on Facebook and holed up in their home, were still reeling from the news that she took her life last Thursday. The comments, tributes, recollections, and news began to accumulate on news websites, Facebook pages, and across the digital ether like layers of leaves fallen from summer suspension to an autumnal rest. Certainly, she touched many lives as the former co-owner of Recycled Sounds, a fellow music lover, a fixture and supporter of the local music community, a friend to many. No matter how well any one person knew her, the loss of her presence and the tragic manner of her death was difficult to deny. Sadness settled over the city.

At Davey’s, a number of people had gathered to get out of their heads, listen to live music, dance, drink, and share warmth in each other’s company. I needed this as much as anyone. It was a relief and a joy to be surrounded by Elaine, Abby, Chris, Christian, Rhonda, Rebecca, Anne, Mel, Scott, Sam, Rich, Marco, Christel, and so many other familiar faces. Kansas City’s music clubs and venues offer more than a so-called “scene to be seen” for people that self-appointed social critics label as hipsters. These people around me – fans, singers, songwriters, sound guys, musicians, or simply souls out to support their friend on stage – form a community that exists because they show up for each other, believe in the music produced from talented local artists, and prefer to frequent a locally-owned watering hole with a history of true investment in Kansas City. In the wee hours of the morning, these thoughts run through my mind. It’s a speech best saved to remind myself of why I live, work, and play in my hometown when the days seem too long, the nights play out too slowly. Cold beer, a warm hug, and a good music, for now, that’s what I needed and wanted.

Howard Iceberg is acknowledged by many to be one of the best, if not the best, songwriters in Kansas City. Thoughtfully, he dedicated the set to Anne Winter and offered a few words in the aftermath of a gathering on Friday night in her memory. Echoing the wishes of family and friends, Iceberg urged us to “not dwell on Anne’s death, but to celebrate her life.” Anne loved music, he said. Being here at Davey’s was as good a place as any to get our share of it. And, without delay, the audience was ready for release.

Iceberg was backed by a strong lineup of long-time cohort and guitarist Gary Paredes, drummer Pat Tomek, bassist Scott Easterday, and guitarist Dan Mesh. These Titanics produced a thunderous sound. Rock-and-roll doesn’t get any better than this. Fifties rock spirit blended with doses of rockabilly and Americana roots. Iceberg belted out forlorn love songs and raves filled with his poignant, precise lyrics. The Titanics’ warm, harmonizing vocals and musicianship also won the crowd over easily. At one point, the sheer pleasure on Tomek’s face as he knocked out beats on the drums was radiant.

The Expassionates took the stage next and launched into their trademark sound – expansive as the desert and canyons of the Southwest, solid and sure as Midwestern bedrock. They reeled through their set of introspective songs, some newer and many feeling like cherished classics, with poetic lyrics penned and sung by leader Scott Easterday. Dressed in suit jacket, silvery vest and tie, Richard Burgess manned bass guitar with equal parts aplomb, grit, and joy. He lowered his tall frame, bending at the knees, leaning into the rhythm, and rollicking to the groove. Sam Platt alternately walloped on drums when called for or simmered on the slower, New Orleans dirge-like “Gone to Kansas.” Easterday joked, mock snarled, and crooned with ease. He served each moment, each lyric, like a basket of warm bread that everyone wanted a piece of. Of course, the sound of the Expassionates would not be complete without the searing, expressive yelps, growls, and doleful notes coaxed from the guitar of Marco Pascolini. A stratospheric sound tethered to the stage by tight musicianship left the crowd feeling exhilarated.

Much later, Hidden Pictures closed out the night with an energetic, melodic run of indie pop songs. The harmony of Richard Gintowt and Michelle Sanders rang out over a backdrop of keys by Nate Holt, bright pings on glockenspiel, and muscular drumming by Tomek. During the Expassionates’ set, Gintowt kidded about tonight’s incestuous lineup. Easterday played guitar in his band and bass in the Titanics. Gintowt and Sanders hopped on stage for guest vocals to support Iceberg on a song. Tomek drummed for the Titanics and Hidden Pictures. Such an interchange of players among bands is common in Kansas City’s legion of bands where musicians perform in multiple acts.

A night of dancing, talking, and being together with friends works wonders for a soul. Questions about Anne worked into conversations, but no answers came forth. Why and how and what remained prompts for a constant unease with the loss.

I could not help but think of another loss that I learned about only a week or so earlier. Barbara Moss, a talented artist, poet, and author of two successful memoirs, died from cancer in early October. Her husband Duane called to inform me and invite me to a gathering of friends and family. The news of Barbara’s death caught me off-guard. When are we ever prepared to face the news, the actuality, the finality of death?

I was at my mother’s house, my childhood home, working in a flower and vegetable bed as I discussed details with Duane. Turning soil with a shovel, I covered the base of rose bushes to prepared for an eventual frost. Petals, bright red cherry tomatoes, the remains of vines gnarled as a witch’s veins, and scraps of basil stalks and coriander seed covered the ground at my feet. Barbara had already been laid to rest in Alabama where she grew up. Poetic imagery sprung from my feet into my head as I processed the news. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I could not help but think she would be tickled to inspire creative impulses even in death.

I did not know Barbara Moss well as I wanted to or Anne Winter on a personal level. Receiving the call from Duane about his wife was a sacred gesture of warmth, kindness, and inclusion. I had interviewed Barbara at length in her home about her difficult life in the South, motherhood, her struggle and achievement as a writer and painter, her fears and joys. Sitting on her couch and sharing warm green tea and butter cookies, I felt honored, thrilled, and privileged to have this private audience with an accomplished hero. She had published two powerful memoirs, written poetry, and produced stunning artwork that reflected her life experiences and dreams. How often do we get to be in the presence of someone we admire? Yet, Kansas City is such a place where artists, musicians, writers, and business owners are not only accessible, but they can also become friends and dear acquaintances.

Like many who came into contact with Barbara through her published work or as a mentor and teacher of literature, she encouraged and inspired those around her to reach for possibilities, dream big, and make things happen. If she could overcome a life of poverty to achieve, then certainly we all could make progress. Writing several stories about Barbara’s writing and artwork was only a start at what I hoped would be a lifelong association. In the back of my mind, the seeds for another visit to foster this friendship were always waiting to germinate and grow. Even though I had met her a couple of times and Duane once, I already thought of them as kindred spirits and companions that I would grow to like, love, and value even more over time.

As I shook the dirt from my shoes and walked in the dew-laden grass at my mother’s house, it occurred to me for the first time that these people will not live forever – the countless artists, writers, photographers, musicians, cooks, chefs, and people from all walks of life that I know through my work and adventures about town. Intuitively, logically, I knew this as immutable fact. I’ve encountered the death of family and friends before, yet this unshakeable idea that those I will always be able to see, those I know and love and brush shoulders with––at Davey’s Uptown, recordBar, Potpie, Le Fou Frog, The Brick, chance encounters on sidewalks about town, at galleries and festivals and the annual cycle of remarkable events that fill the calendar––suddenly didn’t seem so solid and reassuring. A time comes for each of us to pass; the time to live and make the most of here and now is, well, here and now.

Being at Davey’s on Saturday night for music and companionship was not only a stab at coping with the loss of Anne and Barbara, but also a grab for the fleeting hours and experiences that color the lines and shade the contours of my life. It means being present in spirit, in intent, in action.

As I made my way home from Davey’s in the wee hours back to the ones I love, I listened to Howard Iceberg on CD as a guide past mercurial thoughts. The sight of smashed pumpkins in the headlights was disturbing, an underscore to the night, a cruel prank that would be dealt with in the morning.

When daylight arrived on Sunday and filtered through gold, russet, and red leaves, I grabbed a shovel and a wheelbarrow and headed to the street. An image of a car bomb and dead bodies flashed through my mind. I hope to never experience such a deadly act or its aftermath firsthand. Of course, these pumpkins were not the same as human bodies strewn across a blast zone. Scooping up the flesh, seeds, and stems, I could not help but feel a sense of loss, frustration, sadness, and bewilderment. I understood that vandals have their moment too, their way of acting in the present for self-serving purposes. The destruction at my feet was senseless. The questions and doubts about the goodness of people, the purpose of life and how it plays out, rose and loomed in my thoughts. The grating sound of shovel on asphalt punctuated the quiet morning.

I couldn’t save these pumpkins. I couldn’t have known or anticipated what would happen. I couldn’t bring them back or restore them in a tempting, clumsy line along the sidewalk in front of the house. Life rarely adheres to our sense of order and illusory sense of control. My father had grown these pumpkins at his place by the lake and brought them to me a few weeks ago. He had planted them late so many of them were still green and just beginning to turn orange. I told Pam and her kids that they were Irish pumpkins. Now, two wheelbarrow loads of broken flesh would become compost.

Standing in the vegetable bed in the back yard, I shoveled the remains onto the ground and spread the contents evenly. I studied the hundreds of seeds and knew then that even in the aftermath of a senseless act, a loss difficult to explain or absorb, that time would pass, that life will and must continue for the rest of us, that the potential for a fresh start lay at my feet.


Originally published in Present Magazine, October 2009.


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