This story begins where most go to end: deep at the bottom of a garbage dumpster.
On a cold and moonless night in 1996, a derelict Dodge van cruised, slowly, through Bernal Heights. That van doubled as the residence of its driver, and also as the repository of a load of garbage he'd been paid to offload at the dump. That payment — including the dumping fee — was long gone, though. So, the ideal plan would be to locate a dumpster, secret the heaps of garbage into it, and avoid another night of being relegated to sleeping behind the wheel instead of sprawling out, luxuriantly, in the space now occupied by moldering trash.
When you get caught doing this, the legal term for the crime is “theft of service.”
On Wool Street, a dumpster was found. But it was full. Of furniture. Gorgeous, antique furniture. So the plan changed: Unload the furniture onto the street, toss the garbage into the dumpster, pack up the furniture in the van, sell it at the flea market, rinse, repeat. And all of that happened. But not just that.
When the driver lit a 3 a.m. cigarette, he discovered, at his feet, a candle. And when he lit the candle, he discovered more.
“It was beautiful. I can't even impress on you how beautiful it was,” says Chicken John Rinaldi 18 years later. “It was hand-tooled leather. And big! I started flipping through it.”
What Rinaldi had unearthed was a scrapbook encapsulating the life of Margaret Rucker — from her birth certificate in 1907 to her obituary 51 years later. In between, it was stuffed with photos — Rucker as a child, a schoolgirl, then convalescing in a hospital after she and her naval officer husband were involved in an auto wreck. It was also teeming with Rucker's published poetry, snipped from magazines and journals and pasted onto these pages.
In short, it was the encapsulation of a brief and, at times, tragic life; the ephemera of an outstanding, unique individual — like all the rest of us. Somehow, this gorgeous edition had found its way to the bottom of a trash pile.
And, had it not been for a man only seeking to disgorge a load of garbage so he could sleep in his van, it would have stayed there.
“Margaret Rucker” is not a household name in San Francisco. But, in Everett, Wash., it is, literally, a household name; you can go visit the old Rucker Household. You can luxuriate in Rucker Park, drive down Rucker Avenue, and wander around the Rucker Hill neighborhood. The Rucker brothers were, for all intents and purposes, the Seattle suburb's founding family. Margaret was the daughter of Bethel Rucker, who drew a lot of water in Everett.
So, when Rinaldi last year mentioned the scrapbook to Everett-based folk-punk singer-songwriter and accordion player Jason Webley, things took a turn for the synchronous. Just one day prior, Webley had offered the grand Everett tour to a friend who, over the course of it, asked why the name “Rucker” abounds in that city. The tour concluded with Webley and his pal ascending the massive, ziggurat-like Rucker mausoleum, an imposing monument better suited to the wilds of the Yucatan than a small town 25 miles north of Seattle.
So: The day before Rinaldi showed Webley the contents of the Margaret Rucker scrapbook he, incongruously, had salvaged from a Bernal Heights dumpster, Webley had been sitting on her grave.
Different people handle a development like this in different ways. Webley chose to obsessively throw himself into researching every detail he could about Rucker's tumultuous life, assembling a cadre of musicians to join him in writing an album based on the materials gleaned from that notebook (it's called Margaret) and setting off with a nine-act West Coast traveling show that rolls through the Castro Theatre on Saturday, Dec. 20. The album's official release was on Friday, which would have been Rucker's 107th birthday.
Webley funded this endeavor via a Kickstarter campaign. He set out to raise the rather modest palindrome of $11,111. He has, to date, amassed $67,653. “I have managed to spend almost all the money on this project,” Webley admits with a tad of sheepishness. The 40-year-old has a voice many have likened to Tom Waits' primal growl. Webley, in the best possible way, also physically resembles Waits' handsomer, more youthful, less rode-hard-and-put-away-wet iteration.
One place he spent the money: The liner notes for Margaret are actually an 88-page book containing many of the pictures and poems from the original journal. The album itself preserves much of the original, as well: In addition to songs based on Rucker's life, several numbers simply set her poetry to music. Without giving away the surprise, Rucker's life contained many events worthy of poetry, and not necessarily the happy kind. These numbers are evocative, particularly in the pristine voice of Shenandoah Davis, one of a handful of friends Webley recruited to help fulfill something he unabashedly admits has grown into an obsession. “There was,” he says, “something magical running through this whole thing.”
This story's beginning was in 1907. Its middle was in a dumpster. And no one is quite sure how it will end. But when Webley and his assembled musicians finished their show in Everett, the night concluded with a procession to Rucker's tomb within that massive ziggurat. That seems magical, all right. And, befitting the means by which Rucker's story, literally, came to light, the procession was illuminated by candles.