I hugged my parents goodbye in Dublin and got on a plane to New York. My best friend from college was with me. We had student work visas and a vague plan to make enough money to spend the summer in California. We had visions of swimming in the Pacific Ocean and walking across the Golden Gate Bridge.
After a visit with my cousin in Manhattan, we flew to San Francisco. It was gray and cold. The hostel on Market Street was rather underwhelming, so we ended up staying with two girls from Ireland in a small room on the top floor of a house in Berkeley.
The four of us slept on the carpet and shared a bathroom with a group of students. After several sleepless nights, I found a thin foam mattress at a second-hand store and carried it upstairs.
We fell in love with vibrant Berkeley and spent as much time as possible in the music stores, bookstores and coffee shops. It was 1998, but the earthy scent of Nag Champa lingers in the air, just as it must have been in the hippie days.
For a few weeks I had been hopping on the BART train to a monotonous telemarketing job in San Francisco. Then came a short stint at a sleazy burger joint off Union Square. In Berkeley, I worked at Blondie’s Pizza, which I enjoyed, but none of the jobs paid much, so I kept looking.
One Wednesday afternoon, I discovered a flyer hanging in the window of a yellow building four blocks down Mission Street: A company called Peachy’s Puffs was hiring young women to sell cigarettes, sweets, and other novelties at area events and clubs.
Curiosity and the need for cash pushed me through the door and into a dingy office. Lining the walls were glamorous snapshots of women who looked like movie stars from decades earlier. The job interview was quick and to the point. A dark-haired man sitting behind a crowded desk ordered me to turn around.
“You have a very nice body!” He said, looking me up and down.
When I had completed some papers, he told me to come back on Friday in a pretty dress, so that I could go to the Further Festival. I had no idea what this festival was, but I was game. He also ordered me to buy new shoes and a flashlight. Then he wrote an address on a slip of paper and told me to get a street vendor’s pass.
When I mentioned the Further Festival to my friends, they were thrilled on my behalf. They said tickets for the event were nearly impossible to come by, let alone expensive, and The Other Ones, a band composed primarily of the surviving members of The Grateful Dead, would be headlining.
My friends were so excited that they planned to ride to Mountain View, where the festival is taking place, and camp out outside the gates of the Shoreline Amphitheater, where they could hear the music for free.
On Friday, I returned to the dingy office in San Francisco wearing a vintage pink, knee-length $15 dress at Haight-Ashbury. I completed it with my well-worn combat boots, because I couldn’t bring myself to spring for new ones.
My appearance failed to impress the man who hired me. He looked at me with a neutral expression, handed me a heavy tray piled high with candy, and reluctantly ordered me into the pickup truck parked outside.
Nervously, I climbed aboard. Sitting in the back were three young women wearing colorful make-up to match their glamorous and low-cut stomach, pleated miniskirts and platform sandals. They sat upright, trays on their knees, and looked down on my bulky old boots. Just before the driver closed the door, a woman in a red dress joined us.
On a long drive to Mountain View, I wondered about the exorbitant dessert prices. Who would pay $5 for a bundle of M&M’s? And I was somehow supposed to sell everything in my staircase, or I wouldn’t make any money.
Traffic near the festival grounds increased, and I began to understand what was going on. This was a movement of sorts, and thousands of people of all ages participated in it, many of them modern hippies in flowing skirts, summer dresses, tie-dye T-shirts and sandals. There were a few colorful Volkswagen buses along the road. Everyone shone.
On top of a grassy hill inside the gates, an overflow tray was placed. Music boomed from the big speakers. I sat next to Nubia, one of my new co-workers, and for a while we watched people dance in the California sunshine, their bodies loose and happy.
I thought about how reserved the Irish are on the dance floor, unless they are drinking. Here, the crowd was lively, lively, and boisterous. The white-bearded men were curling up with barefoot children. Dreadlocks were worn on bare shoulders.
By the time Rusted Root came on stage, Nuba and I could take it no longer. We jumped in and started dancing with abandon. The scent of patchouli wafts in the air. After a while, she lifted her tray and got back to work, but I just couldn’t stop. I was hardly selling any candy, but I didn’t care.
As I played Hot Tuna, a few people approached me. Smiling, they took out packages of candy from the assortment and asked how much they cost. They shook their heads at the price and many walked away.
Overpriced, I said to the next customer.
I said to another: “Rip once.”
Then I started giving candy.
My performances were met with a warm embrace. A few people even said they loved me. They called out to friends, waving to them.
Darkness fell as the others took the stage. Their quiet smothers sounded like a prayer as I danced in the cool of the evening. Candy is completely gone, but my circle of friends has increased.
Grateful for the M&M’s I gave her, and noticing how cold I was, a young woman removed a green woolen blanket from her shoulders and draped it over my shoulder. She told me her name was Rose and said her Irish grandmother had woven the blanket. She insisted on keeping it, even as I objected. We took pictures together, our smiles wide and our bodies close.
I didn’t make any money that day. In fact, I owe Peachy’s Puffs $40, which I paid on the spot. It was worth every penny.
Carmel Breathnach is a Portland, Oregon-based writer and educator whose work has appeared in The Irish Times, Huffington Post, and Beyond, among other publications.