This is a story about a t-shirt and a kid and how that t-shirt and kid got older together and how the t-shirt turned dangerous.
When my daughter Emily was 10, Arlo Guthrie came to the Montgomery County Fair to perform at a venue that would’ve made his Daddy, Woody, proud. There were no seats, just some yellow, worn-out looking grass that was starting to look sloppy, with room for 200 people, give or take, depending on whether they were upright or prone. Calling it a “venue” required a stretch of the imagination. It was certainly ventilated. I don’t believe the sun ever came out. It rained on and off, nothing of biblical proportions, only lightly. It seemed like Arlo was a neighborhood kid who made good and decided to throw a show for the neighbors. He sang loud and lots of grownups sang along. Some even knew the words. Arlo didn’t sing that 45-minute song of his, saying, “I’m savin’ my voice for Carnegie Hall.”
When the show was over, we all strolled up to where the Guthries were hangin’ out. Saying Arlo and his family were approachable doesn’t capture the experience because they came out to meet and greet us before we could reach them. My wife carried along her first edition of the little printed book corresponding to the 45-minute song Arlo didn’t sing and on it he scribbled his John Hancock. Emily chatted privately with Arlo about we don’t know what to this day. But, when they came back, we had a clear sense that these two had developed some sort of bond, adult to child, but friendly, mutually-respectful and all. We bought a bunch of stuff.
A year later, Arlo came back to perform again at the county fair at precisely the same spot and, if you didn’t know better, you would’ve thought it was a continuation of the same day, except that some people changed their clothes. The sun still didn’t shine, and a light drizzle was falling. On the worn-out yellow grass people stood or sat or turned headstands or struck yoga poses. This time, Arlo was feeling more adventurous and didn’t have a priority commitment at Carnegie Hall so he sang that 45-minute-long song that everybody always asks him to sing but he doesn’t like to because it doesn’t leave time for much else or leave spaces in between to recuperate. When Arlo was done, Emily ran up as if Arlo was a neighbor she hadn’t seen lately and kinda missed. Like the year before, we bought a bunch of stuff. That included a t-shirt for Arlo’s 1989 tour. Emily slipped the shirt right over her head and asked Arlo to sign his John Hancock on it. Being accommodating, Arlo knelt down on one knee and scribbled on the left side of Emily’s chest. Beneath his name, he wrote, “1989.”
Flash forward 12 years. Emily’s grown up and filled out, as they say. The whole family’s going to see Arlo, this time at a VENUE with capital letters, the Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center. Not only do they have actual seats, but even box seats and two balconies. Being adventurous, I’d gotten us chorister seats, which wrap around the back of the stage, thinking that way can we keep Arlo company. It didn’t work out as any of us sitting there had imagined because of some kind of microphone foul-up. Somebody even said, “That ain’t Arlo. That’s Marcel Marceau.” So, the usher-in-charge moved us up high where we couldn’t keep Arlo company, and could barely see him, but at least we could hear.
As we were streaming out after the show, Emily said, “We can’t just go like this. I always talk with Arlo.” And there she was, wearing her Arlo Guthrie 1989 t-shirt so anybody could see this girl’s been around. As we passed the stage door, she said, “We gotta wait for him.” Another 20 people or thereabouts had the precise same idea. An official-looking man standing by the stage door kept looking us up and down, making us feel inspected, dejected and neglected, but not selected. “I don’t know if he’s gonna see ya.” In a while, the same man disappeared and returned, as people who disappear are wont to do. “He said he’ll see ya.”
We moved through a dark winding hallway, Emily ahead of me. When her turn came, she looked Arlo in the face and said, “See this shirt? Remember how you signed your name over here?” pointing to her left side, so Arlo saw exactly where she meant. “Can you do the same thing on this other side here?” now pointing to her right side. Arlo said something like “I’d be glad to cooperate” or “Sure” or maybe it was “Who, me?”
Anyhow, Emily sorta leaned back so Arlo could scribble his John Hancock for the second time in twelve years on the same t-shirt. Arlo slid the shirt up so the section of the shirt he was supposed to be writing on wasn’t straddling an uneven surface. After applying the final touches, he leaned back thinking he was done, but then Emily said, “Can you write the year beneath your name, just like you did last time?” again pointing.
Arlo’s eyes grew bigger, he sucked in a breath, held onto it, and then exploded. “How low do you want me to go? This’s getting daaaaan-ger-uus!” He discreetly slipped the t-shirt up, so he didn’t have to write “2001” on a section that straddled an uneven surface. Pleased to be done, Arlo resumed an upright position, and drew in a slow, deep breath. Once he’d exhaled, he and Emily smiled and mumbled something to each other.
Arlo took a few sips of water. When he looked at me and nodded, I stepped forward, extended my hand, and said, “It’s good to see ya.” Not to be outdone, all friendly like, Arlo said, “It’s good to see you too.”