I hugged my father goodbye in Dublin and boarded a plane for 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 and walking across the Golden Gate Bridge.
After a visit with my cousin in Manhattan, we flew out to San Francisco. It was gray and cold. The hostel on Market Street was more than a little depressing, so we ended up staying with two girls from Ireland in a tiny room on the top floor of a house in Berkeley.
The four of us slept on the carpet and shared a bathroom with a bunch of students. After several sleepless nights, I found a thin foam mattress in a thrift shop and carried it upstairs.
We fell in love with vibrant Berkeley and spent as much time as we could in its music stores, bookstores and cafes. It was 1998, but the earthy scent of Nag Champa lingered in the air, just as it must have in the hippie days.
For a few weeks I commuted on a BART train to a monotonous telemarketing job in San Francisco. Then came a brief 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 spotted a flyer pinned to the window of a yellow building four blocks from Mission Street: A company called Peachy’s Puffs was hiring young women to sell cigarettes, sweets and other novelties at events and clubs in the area.
Curiosity and the need for cash propelled me through the door and into a dingy office. Lining the walls were glamour shots of women resembling movie stars from decades earlier. The job interview was quick and to the point. A dark-haired man seated behind a cluttered desk ordered me to twirl around.
“You’ve got a pretty cute body!” he said, looking me up and down.
As I filled out some paperwork, he told me to come back on Friday in a nice dress, so that I could go to the Furthur Festival. I had no idea what this festival was, but I was game. He also instructed me to buy new shoes and a flashlight. Then he scribbled an address on a scrap of paper and told me to get a vendor’s permit down the street.
When I mentioned the Furthur Festival to my friends, they were thrilled on my behalf. It was almost impossible to get tickets for the event, they said, not to mention expensive, and the Other Ones, a band composed mainly of surviving members of the Grateful Dead, would be headlining.
My pals were so excited that they planned to catch a ride to Mountain View, where the festival was held, and camp outside the gates of the Shoreline Amphitheater, where they would be able to hear the music for free.
On Friday I was back in the dingy office in San Francisco dressed in a pink vintage frock, a knee-length shift dress that cost $15 in Haight-Ashbury. I complemented it with my worn-in combat boots, since I couldn’t bring myself to spring for new shoes.
My appearance failed to impress the man who hired me. He looked me over with a neutral expression, handed me a heavy tray stacked with candy and grudgingly ordered me onto the minivan idling outside.
Nervously, I climbed aboard. Three young women seated in the back wore colorful makeup to go with their bright, low-cut belly tops, short pleated skirts and platform sandals. They sat upright, trays on their knees, and eyed my chunky old boots with disdain. Just before the driver slammed the door, a woman in a red flapper dress joined us.
On the long drive to Mountain View, I wondered at the exorbitant candy prices. Who would pay $5 for a packet of M&M’s? And I was somehow supposed to sell everything in my tray, or I wouldn’t make any money.
The traffic grew thick near the festival grounds, and I began to get a sense of what was going on. This was a movement of sorts, and the movement involved thousands of people of all ages, many of them modern-day hippies in flowing skirts, summer dresses, tie-dye shirts and sandals. There were even a few colorfully painted Volkswagen buses along the road. Everybody glowed.
On a grassy hilltop inside the gates, I set down my overflowing tray. Music blasted from large speakers. I sat next to Nubia, one of my new co-workers, and for a while we watched the people dancing in the California sunshine, their bodies loose and happy.
I thought of how reserved the Irish are on the dance floor, unless they’ve been drinking. Here, the crowd was alive, energetic and buzzed. White-bearded men twirled with barefoot children. Dreadlocks bounced on bare shoulders.
By the time Rusted Root came onstage, Nubia and I could stand it no longer. We jumped up and started dancing with abandon. The air smelled of patchouli. After a while, she lifted her tray and went back to work, but I couldn’t stop. I had barely sold any candy, but I didn’t care.
As Hot Tuna played, a few people approached me. Smiling, they plucked packets 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.
“A rip-off,” I said to another.
And then I started giving the candy away.
My offerings were met with warm embraces. A few people even told me they loved me. They called out to friends, waving them over.
Darkness fell as the Other Ones took the stage. Their soothing jams sounded like prayers as I danced in the evening chill. My candy was all but gone, but my circle of friends had increased.
Grateful for the M&M’s I had given her, and observing how cold I was, a young woman removed a green woolen blanket from her shoulders and draped it across mine. She told me her name was Rose and said the blanket had been knit by her Irish grandmother. She insisted I keep it, even as I objected. We took photos together, our smiles wide, our bodies close.
I made no money that day. In fact, I owed the Peachy’s Puffs company $40, which I paid on the spot. It was worth every penny.
Carmel Breathnach is a writer and teacher in Portland, Ore. Her work has appeared in The Irish Times, Huffington Post and Beyond, among other publications.