I spent the night in my van in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in a small (population less than 10,000) Southwest desert town. I woke before daybreak and bundled up for the long walk from my van to the store’s entrance.
After my visit to the restroom, I wandered through the store, trying to remember what supplies I needed. I took a shortcut through the men’s clothing department on my way to the propane canisters in the sporting good section. I ended up walking next to a wall of t-shirts and slowed down to see what was on display.
There among the shirts featuring SpongeBob and Patrick, the Pink Floyd prism, and a kitten with a bandana around its head (captioned “Hug Life”) was a bright tie-dye with a spiral of Grateful Dead bears.
One might think those Grateful Dead bears are all about dancing and joy and love. If one thought such a thing, one would be only partially right.
Bear (Owsley Stanley) was for a time the Grateful Dead’s sound guy. He was also, for a time, the Grateful Dead’s LSD guy. Yep, Bear was manufacturing lots and lots of delightful acid. (According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owsley_Stanley, Bear
was the first private individual to manufacture mass quantities of LSD. By his own account, between 1965 and 1967, [Bear] produced no less than 500 grams of LSD, amounting to a little over a million doses at the time.)
And according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grateful_Dead,
A series of stylized dancing bears was drawn by Bob Thomas as part of the back cover for the album History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One (Bear’s Choice) (1973). Thomas reported that he based the bears on a lead sort from an unknown font. The bear is a reference to Owsley “Bear” Stanley, who recorded and produced the album. Bear himself wrote, “the bears on the album cover are not really ‘dancing’. I don’t know why people think they are; their positions are quite obviously those of a high-stepping march.”
Those bears–dancing or not–in their most basic sense represent Bear, and Bear represents LSD to lots and lots of folks. That LSD connection might explain the bears’ bright colors and the psychedelic backgrounds often seen behind them. (Whenever I see some little kid on the lot dressed in a tiny t-shirt with one of those bears on it I snicker to myself and wonder if the Deadhead parents–or grandparents–even realized they’ve made their precious darling a walking advertisement for lab produced hallucinogens.)
So there I was in Wal-Mart, faced with tie dye and dancing bears and the Grateful Dead–representations of drug culture, hippie culture, counterculture–all before 7am.
I wanted one of those shirts! Lord, the price was only $7.50. I pawed through the display and found a size XXL. I really wanted one of the shirts. I put the shirt on over my jacket, and it felt a little too tight. I peeled off the shirt, then the jacket, put the tie dye on over my long sleeve t-shirt. I still didn’t like the way it fit. Damn!
I put the shirt back in the stack and went about my life. Even $7.50 is not a bargain if I don’t like the way the shirt fits. But I was sure sad to not be able to sport those bears and tell folks they’d come from Wal-Mart.
I took the photos.