“California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas returns me to my hometown amusement park, with its roller coasters, buttery elephant ears, and the grassy knoll where I smelled pot for the first time while reading Tolstoy for the first time.
Twenty years ago, a season pass cost only $85, and I lived a ten-minute drive away. Sixteen and immersed in War and Peace, I considered the amusement park a perfectly good place to read. As an introvert, I enjoyed being surrounded by strangers who expected nothing of me. I spent a lot of summer afternoons on the grassy knoll, wondering How long can these stoners play hacky sack? and Is this book a novel or philosophy and why should such labels matter? and How did the park decide on this playlist?
More than once, my friends who worked in the park’s arcade plucked War and Peace out of my hands. (“It’s like you’re actively trying not to have fun,” they’d tease me). That year, the amusement park had unveiled a steel roller coaster with a three-hundred-foot drop, and it obsessed my friends. After finishing their shifts, they’d come by and convince me to ride it again with them, and each time I’d say sure, okay—because even though our conversations usually circled around the same topics (crushes, music, politics, teachers tipsy at the bar in Applebee’s) and even though I’d ridden this coaster at least a dozen times, I actually enjoyed waiting in long lines with my friends. I remember one of them saying “I love this song,” when “California Dreamin’” blasted out of the nearest speaker, and I asked if they’d ever heard “Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Cass Elliot, better known as Mama Cass.
“She died choking on a ham sandwich,” a guy in front of us interrupted.
Then he laughed. He was wrong—if pressed, he likely would have cited Austin Powers—but I remained quiet. Like most girls my age, I already knew the opposite sex could turn angry when corrected.
We reached the front of the line, only to find a grassy-knoll regular/stoner in park uniform at the control table.
“Not worth it,” I told my friends before I stepped into, then out of, the front car.
The interrupter from the line, already buckled in, said to me, “Oh sweetie, don’t be scared. Ride with me back here. I’ll protect you.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Slut,” he said.
This memory reminds me of why I prefer Cass Elliot solo. No man’s voice nearby.
Here in Baltimore, Cass’s birthplace, I’m listening to “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” the title song on her 1968 debut solo album. Even though the Mamas and the Papas had disbanded a year earlier, the record company credited her as “Mama Cass,” figuring it’d help sales. (Her last album, released in 1973, is called Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore.)
Anxious that I’ll contract COVID-19 and accidentally spread it to my mom, who turns seventy-eight in June and shares a roof with my partner and me (albeit in her own separate apartment), I play “Dream a Little Dream of Me” just as I did when I was a teenager stressed out about some test or other. And the song would probably relax me if not for the police helicopter circling overhead, its operator yelling through a loudspeaker, telling people one neighborhood over that they need to stay apart. I imagine myself in a helicopter, yelling at the idiot guy from the amusement park: Stay away from my memories of “California Dreamin.’”
But sometimes it’s hard to separate the art from our experiences of the art. Instead of remembering War and Peace’s characters, for example, I remember my friends telling me not to read War and Peace at the amusement park. Instead of remembering the precise lyrics to “California Dreamin’” (Is it “and I began to pray” or “and I pretend to pray”?), I remember telling my friends, “The Mamas and the Papas are great, but I’ll burn you each a CD of just Cass Elliot,” and listening to “Dream a Little Dream of Me” with my friends on the amusement park’s beach after high school graduation. We promised one another we’d keep in touch always, and we believed it. It was the last time I remember all of us in one place, together.
— Jeannie Vanasco
Baltimore, day 72