(Editor’s note: This is a long one folks. Not quite Ironman, but pretty lengthy.)
I didn’t know why I was going. I had no idea what to expect. And I wanted to go alone.
These three concepts never work in concert together in my head as drivers to get me somewhere. But for some reason, I was compelled, almost obsessively so, to make sure I attended the Tuba Man’s memorial Wednesday night.
It was luck that I even heard about it. I was headed to a networking event Tuesday night when a colleague convinced me it would be a waste of time. So I headed home. And in the 4 minutes I listened to KJR between the grocery store and home, I heard about the event. I immediately knew I had to go. It wasn’t even a question.
5:45pm – Before the event
It’s dark, rainy, windy, nasty. I park near FX McCrory’s and walk down the long road that runs west of the stadiums. Some days this is where you’d find Tuba, sitting on the ground against the fence. The space honestly seems empty. It’s so empty that it needs something just to fill the void. There’s talk of a Tuba statue, and I hope that gets done. But nonetheless, it’s the first of many times I’ll get choked up.
I’m not alone. There’s a trickle of people, most walking by themselves, in the direction of the Qwest Events Center. Off in the distance you can hear the sounds of the Blue Thunder marching band, marking the entrance of the building. I walk through the covered walkway at Qwest, past where Three Finger Jack will be playing tunes come April. I realize that these people are actually part of my gameday experience. Hell, they are part of my city experience.
I pass the Blue Thunder and somberly walk into the Center. It’s not an intimate place at all. Immediately I get to a table where there is a Seahawks 12th man flag that everyone is signing. I don’t know what to say, so I recoil. But then I get back in line – I have to write something. I lamely manage “Play On” and sign my name. Who knows where that flag will end up, but at least I tried to pay some respects for posterity.
The Seattle Symphony is on stage and playing in the background. The freaking Symphony. I look around the room and do a rough count, estimating about 1800 chairs in 3 sections that go about 30 rows deep. Few people are sitting yet, and I look to see if I know anyone. The room is filled with people I know, but have never really met. Rick the Peanut guy. A guy who looks like the Zamboni guy. The other peanut guy from Safeco – you know who I’m talking about. The trumpet playing guy. Fans in T-Bird and Hawks jerseys – guys I know I’ve high-fived or stood behind in a beer line.
If there is a kooky Seattle fan, he or she is here. A mix of men and women, old and young, poor and rich, white and black. Guys who just left corner offices and guys who stumbled in off the street. Some wear suits, some wear funny hats like the ones Tuba wore, and some wear both. Fathers are there with their five year olds, because, they know it is something their kids need to see. People run into each other and I overhear season ticket holders call out to one another and shake hands. It’s like a giant Irish wake, but no one here is related.
6:30 The Event
I stand in the back corner because I’m already choking up and I don’t need to be sitting in front of three guys wearing Walter Jones jerseys when I lose it. I can’t figure out why this is so emotional for me, but I look around and see that everyone is biting a lip, holding back a tear or just letting it flow. We are all affected.
The brain is an incredible machine. When we are emotionally hurt, it is able to throw cerebral power and diffuse the pain by throwing logic at you. You can minimize the pain from the wound by figuring out how to fix the wound. Think about your most painful moments and how the brain comes to your rescue, “She’s not the right girl anyway,” “Even though we’ll be 1000 miles away, I’m sure we’ll stay in touch,” “There are way better jobs than that one anyway,” “I made the money once, I can make it again…..” When pain comes, the brain steps in and develops a logical plan for coping.
But this event, this is just senseless. A guy everyone loved was brutally beaten by 5 thugs for no reason. The brain can’t cope. There’s no logical process, no stream of consciousness that even begins to make sense. A helpless guy who was a positive part of your gameday experience was killed for no reason. You feel pain for him, his family, and yourself. It’s just pain without the brain’s safety shield. It just hurts. No fixing, no logic, just hurt.
I look around and try to gauge the crowd. I estimate about 1200-1500 people. Wow.
The MC: The service itself begins as a thin guy in a suit starts talking and your already confused brain is trying to place the voice. It’s so out of context, you’re almost driven mad by the fact that the man saying, “Thank you all for coming, we all loved Tuba” is the same guy who rallies a crowd with, “At Quarterback, #8, Matt Hasselbeck!”
The other MC: Next up is Maynard, from Robin and Maynard Fame. He is obviously shaken, but is also the guy who made it all happen. His days with Tuba go back to KXRX and KZOK, where he would have him on air as a guest. Another proof point as to how ingrained Tuba had become.
Chuck Armstrong: Mariners’ President Chuck Armstrong is introduced and quips, “That’s the first time I’ve gotten applause in months.” He explains how his 27 year old son, who now lives in the Bay Area, never knew a baseball game without Tuba. He reads a letter from his son for the event. It’s poignant and brings tears to many.
Art Thiel: Seattle PI Sportswriter Art Thiel is next. Thiel is another main force behind the event. He says two things that stick with me. One helps explain the emotions we all feel. ”Sports stadiums are like secular churches.” He is right. We have irrational and illogical devotion and love for these teams, for no other reason than it brings us comfort. And Tuba was a positive part of that experience. As a real friend of Tuba, he has insight to the man, saying, “Tuba was one of the few people who could both say funny things, and say things funny.” It’s a dramatic moment. More tears.
John Tangeman(sp?): So if this event hasn’t had enough of a mixed bag of people yet, here comes the Stage Manager of the Seattle Ballet, Opera and McCaw Hall. As it turns out, the same guy we all passed on our way into the Kingdome, Qwest and Safeco, is the same guy who’d sit outside McCaw and play for patrons of the ballet and opera. John uncovers a whole new side of Tuba, explaining how he’d often give him extra tickets to a show, as long as he’d take off his hat. And that he’d look up and see Tuba on the edge of his seat throughout the show. John also reminisces how Tuba would play all night while he was in the ticket office writing his report. Then when he would leave, Tuba would ask in his deep baritone, “John, would you like to be part of it tonight?” He didn’t say, can you spare a buck. It was, “Would you like to be part of it?” And so he’d throw some cash into the case.
Richard Peterson was next. A mentally disabled street musician who was Tuba’s nemesis, his conversation with Maynard was touching.
Ken Schramm: Because the night couldn’t get much more eclectic, KOMO Radio’s fiery liberal is up next. He tells how he tried to broker a peace accord between Tuba and Peterson. The issue, for those who don’t know the story, is that Peterson would have his trumpet, and on game days try to play music where Tuba was playing. This would infuriate Tuba, who would move locations, only to have Peterson pop up again. It was a street musician version of Coyote and Roadrunner. So Schramm goes to Tuba and says, “Why don’t you guys just work together.” And Tuba responds in his slow low voice, “Because tubas and trumpets do not make good music together…(pause)….perhaps a piccolo.” And Schramm replies, “A tuba and a piccolo?” And Tuba shakes his head and slowly says, no, “A trumpet and a piccolo.” The crowd loves the story. Laughter and tears.
Kelsey McMichael: If you haven’t cried yet, well this one is the proverbial straw. Kelsey is Ed’s brother, and tells how Ed became Tuba. That he had played for the Seattle Youth Symphony, the Bellevue Philharmonic for 10 years, and then the Cascade Symphony, but didn’t get paid, and thus was encouraged to try the streets where the money was better. Kelsey has since moved to Florida and the family could never figure out, until now, why Ed couldn’t leave. Now he knows it was because, “People here really liked him.” He also reminds everyone Tuba’s favorite expression, the simple “Thumbs Up” sign. He was always happy and would always give people the “thumbs up.” So Kelsey gives the whole crowd a “Thumbs Up” and the most fitting form of confusion sets in. We all give Kelsey a standing ovation with our thumbs up high. But we also want to applaud. So we’re all bawling with our stupid thumbs in the air. And we want to clap and raise our thumbs at the same time and just can’t figure out what the f$#% to do. One hand is wiping our eyes, one hand is in the air, and we’re trying to slap both of them together without punching ourselves in the nose. Nothing could have been more appropriate for the situation.
Conclusion: They play a great video produced by Robin’s husband, and we get another mixture of laughter and tears. Mr. Seahawks PA guy comes out to close the ceremony, and we have a long moment of silence. But about halfway through the moment, as if on queue, you hear a train in the distance, blowing its own horn, almost in tribute. The moment was not lost on anyone.
And just like that, it is over. The tuba ensemble plays a sad song and we are ushered into the night. Men and women are wiping their eyes, and we all feel that twinge again as we walk by Tuba’s spot on the street, the spot that seems even more empty now.
I get into my car and know I have to write all this down, because there is no way to explain it in short form. I still don’t know what compelled me to go, and still can’t explain why it has had such effect.
It honestly just breaks my heart. A senseless death. And my brain has given up trying to protect me from the hurt.