Just when the world has finally gone to hell and your fellow man’s distrust of your other fellow man has reached epidemic proportions, along comes Ben Perrier with one of his life–affirming bear hugs.
Last Friday night, Perrier turned off the news to partake in the one ritual that has kept him afloat all these years: live music. He landed at the Cabooze for local jam band God Johnson, and gave hugs to his hippiecentric tribe like Santa giving out candy canes, as winter’s darkness descended and the once lighthearted task of picking up our kids from school and the sacred space that is the carpool lane became a stark if not permanent reminder to appreciate our painfully poignant lives.
“When something like (the Newtown massacre) happens I’ve just got to be around music,” said Perrier, a burly, bearded 47-year-old father of three, owner of Nokomis Concrete, and avowed fan of Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead. “I can close my eyes and I’m in my own little cosmic world. With a lot of Deadheads, music is where you go, and things make much more sense, and you find yourself back on solid ground again instead of an earthquake under your feet wherever you go.”
The night before, Perrier and a bunch of his Grateful Dead-loving friends who go by the name of Team Deadhead helped cook and serve dinner for 300 needy folks at Holy Rosary Church in East Phillips. Since forming in the spring at the behest of Perrier, Team Deadhead has regularly volunteered its services to Loaves & Fishes, the 30-year-old feed-the-poor organization that historically has been staffed by volunteers from churches, synagogues, and corporations.
“The people we get to help us are good people, but they’re not church-goers. They’re kind of misfits, in a certain way,” said Perrier, who admits to long-gone brushes with the law and a sometimes violent past. “They maybe don’t fit in a lot of other places, but with Team Deadhead, everybody fits in.”
They also respond when Perrier puts out the call for volunteers – as he did last Thursday when Loaves & Fishes volunteer organizer Beth Ann Dodds realized the meal at Holy Rosary was in dire need of cooks and servers. Team Deadhead to the rescue.
“Ben greeted every single person who walked through that kitchen with a big bear hug, and the women he could twirl, he twirled them,” said Dodds. “He was fantastic. Music, singing, laughing, joking, citing poems that he makes up in his head. It is a lovely, lovely experience serving with him. Ben’s mother was involved in Loaves and Fishes, and I can tell he’s filled with love and wants to share it.
“It’s a really great thing. I’m so glad I met them, and that they’re part of this. Our Loaves & Fishes model is changing a little bit, where our faith-based organizations are getting older, and we’re looking for new blood. This is one of the newer teams, and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience in getting younger people in the door.”
Team Deadhead was born when Perrier’s stint as a volunteer football and baseball coach with Pearl Park, Holy Angels, and Washburn came to an end this year, but his itch to give back remained. He convinced his friend, musician Javier Trejo, to plant a community garden that now provides much of the organic vegetables for the meals Perrier cooks for Loaves & Fishes.
Not unlike the similarly roots-based food-share organization Sister Camelot, the 19-25 member-strong Team Deadhead’s philosophy
is based on the 1971 Grateful Dead song “Jack Straw,” which promises, “We can share what we got of yours ‘cause we done shared all of mine.” Such barter mentality is sure to become more popular in America, as more and more people find themselves scrambling for the basics.
“It’s basically, ‘Don’t worry that you’re out, I’ve got some.’ That’s the Dead way,” explained Perrier. “It’s a giving mentality, and you don’t worry about getting something back. It’s just an ever-building mentality, and I try to spread it as much as possible.
“I’m not one of these people who believes that you hold out your hand and government swoops in and makes everything OK. I’m a firm believer that communities are what really make the world go around. To me, there’s a way to take care of people, and people can do it themselves; there’s a way to pick up the slack, and there’s a lot of it out there.”
For the record, Perrier is always looking for new Team Deadhead members – and stresses that one needn’t be a fan of the Dead to be part of the team or experience.
“Just this last time, there were about eight people who have never volunteered for anything in their life. I tell people all the time, ‘Just come here. You’ll have a blast. It’s the best energy you’ll get for the day, and sometimes the best energy you’ll have for a week or a month, because everybody is cool and negativity is not allowed.’
“I have parties all the time and one of my stipulations is ‘There is no negativity allowed,’ and if there is, I’m the biggest bouncer in the room and I’ll come over there and squeeze it out of you.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.