A Friend, Native Garden-Stater, and Fellow Dead Head, not to mention loyal son, brother, and husband, Jeff Willner, is at peace now. This is for him...
It's at times like this that human nature compels us to look inward, at our own lives, and assess the connection we have with friends and loved ones. Selfishly, I am so proud that Jeff wasn't just "my sister Robin's friend," or "my friend Nancy's brother." He was my friend, and we shared a moment in time that I feel compelled to share with you, if for no other reason than to bring a smile of recollection...
I don't recall the exact year (late '80s), but it was summertime, we were young and still living in New Jersey, and I was looking for a way to make money without having to actually...work. Nancy knew I loved music as much (ok, maybe almost as much) as Jeff, and he presented me with what seemed like an opportunity of a lifetime: playing security guard at concerts at Giants Stadium! Yes, you heard me correctly: 2 average sized Jewish kids from Bergen County were going to deal with the unruly riff-raff that descends upon the Meadowlands. Well, Jeff had done this the summer before, so he was my senior leader. Armed with the coolest shirt I ever wore (It actually said SECURITY on the back!), we made our pilgrimage together to East Rutherford. As fate would have it, my first 2 shows I worked were the first 2 Grateful Dead concerts I've ever attended. Jeff's sage advice to me: "Don't worry where they put you at first...when the music starts, just rush inside and you can get near the stage." Spoken like the wise man he already was.
Of course, me being low man on the security totem poll, I was stationed outside, by a fence, helping ensure no trouble-makers tried to hop the fence to access the inner sanctum of the parking lot. I was alone, and wondering what plum assignment Jeff, the wily veteran, had garnered, inside the bowels of Giants Stadium. Like the obedient underling I was, the moment I heard the first tune-ups of the Dead's music, and the roar of the crowd inside, I made a mad dash toward the security entrance, dodging Dead Heads along the way. I made it inside, still wondering, "Would I be able to find Jeff in this throng of people?" He was my beacon; my buoy in a sea of tie-dyed madness. More importantly, I wondered, "How the hell would I get home by myself??... Jeff drove me here!"
Lo and behold, I was able to spot him among the other blue-shirted security detail... and of course, Jeff Willner had the best seat in the house.
I will never forget that experience: it rained for most of the show that night, I recall; through "Shakedown Street," "Sugar Magnolias", and "Aiko Aiko," among others. I was converted. I had heard the Dead before this, but now I was a part of it. This would be the first of more than a dozen Dead shows I'd see in my lifetime (and from onstage, no less!!)... and I have Jeff Willner to thank for it. We'd flash each other knowing smiles every once in a while ("Can you BELIEVE this?!?!"), while intermittently scanning the crowd and trying to look officially serious and detached from the euphoria, if not menacing and intimidating. I could tell Jeff got as much enjoyment and satisfaction out of seeing me experience this, as he did experiencing it himself.
There were other concerts that summer -- Bon Jovi comes to mind -- but nothing compares to that 2-night stand at Giants Stadium with me, Jeff Willner, and the Grateful Dead. In retrospect, as you get older, you understand that it's the memories; the experiences you share, that count. A recently departed friend of mine once said, "It's not how many toys you have that matters most in the end. It's the stories."
Jeff and I shared that story together, that moment in time, like a freeze-frame snapshot, from that otherwise nondescript summer of our formative years, together. I carry that with me, and recount it often, as it still stands as a highlight of my youth.
Thank you for that memory, Jeff. Without you, it wouldn't have been possible. And I cherish that time now, more than ever.
Enjoy the music up there... I know you have the best seat in the house.