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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

High, Low, and In Between


Chapter 12

Another Day at the Office

I went on to set up in that tunnel in August and September for the next five weeks. Each day I got a little more comfortable with my new form of employment. Like any job, there were your good days and bad days. I made as little as eight dollars and as much as a hundred dollars in what usually consisted of about four hours. Tax free. Thoreau would be proud. Money had very little to do with why I was out there; but then again, any compensation for your art, for doing what you love, despite what anyone says, is always welcome. And the best part was that, for once in my life, I was my own boss. There was nowhere to clock in and no one to report to. No journeymen to bow down to. No manager with a feeling of superiority looming over me. In the tunnel I called the shots. I played what I wanted and when I wanted. I took my break when I was tired, and when I felt like going home, that was it. I packed my guitar up, counted my earnings, and filed back into the streets, almost mysteriously. No one knowing of my daily exploits, I’d ride the subway smashed alongside the other riders reading and with their headphones on, some of them just staring off into another world. I’d curiously watch them with my little secret life of sorts to myself.

But the reality is, what I loved most was the spontaneous interaction. Sitting on my stool with some wood and some strings and a lackluster voice and a book full of songs memorized, I was granted time with folks from all walks, everything from life-long New Yorkers to tourists visiting from every country imaginable. Many of them would stop to request songs, tell me a story, ask how I’d come about to playing in the tunnel. I couldn’t help but marvel at how entirely different it was from the makeup of a playing a live show. Aside from the music, I had to be personable, willing to talk, and willing to listen. I had to provide the brief role of entertainer and, although I don’t deem myself to be much of one, I had fun trying my hand at it.

Barry, the philosophical Buddhist Jewish voice-over man of Manhattan comes up to me and asks me about Fred Neil. Two hours later, I realize I am sitting in front of the most animated intellectual person I’ve ever come across as he goes into lengthy discussions about the deepest and most profound questions of man. A retired freight train operator is singing the “Wabash Cannonball” word for word as I quickly figure out the chords. A wedding party of twenty foreigners is dancing in circles before me as I play John Hurt’s “Pay Day” four times in a row. A gorgeous girl from Colorado talks with me and takes pictures for an hour and as I tell her, “You are beautiful,” she keeps her hand held in mine for more than just a while. She gives me a big smile and parts ways and skips through the tunnel and up the stairs. On a cold, rainy day the most amazing looking French woman leans on the wall next to me and tells me “You juz’ made my day.” An hour later, a bum pisses right in front of me and demands three dollars. The Vietnam vet who hasn’t showered in months and is always wasted by noon, looks at me from the corner of his eye as he stumbles by. A baby in a stroller bops his head around as his Caribbean nanny pushes the cart to and fro. Boris, the grumpy sax man, curses me for playing in the tunnel. Valentine, the Russian sax man, greets me with a smile each day and says, “America! Great Country! C'est la vie. This is the life we choose!” An old school Brooklyn Italian sings Woody Guthrie songs to me and serenades the people passing by in an operatic voice that would make Pavarotti and Bocelli cringe.

These are days when you are looking down into the case with a few bucks, two hours of hardly anyone paying any attention, sort of wondering what exactly it is you’re doing out there. Then people like this come to you and you realize that this is your place. That though you spend much of life in question, wondering where and what you are supposed to be doing with the hand you are given, whether you are a success or failure, if maybe you could’ve gone about things another away; that at this particular time this is where you are meant to be and were meant to be. Whatever questions or fears you have in regards to making it, well, they’re briefly answered.

All in all, I went to the tunnel about twenty times, taking notes of each day: the highs, the lows, and all the in betweens. My goal was just to give a little glimpse into the world from the musician’s perspective. As I did, the words began to pile and pile one after another.

The last time I played in Central Park was in October. The weather had considerably cooled off as winter approached and there weren’t nearly as many people out. My fingers freezing, I found it impossible to pick out the notes on my guitar. I realized, as much as I liked playing, I wouldn’t be back for a while.

Chapter 13

New York is a hustle town, I suppose more than any other I’ve ever been in; you see the prosperity in the suit and ties and sleek dresses on the streets of upper and lower Manhattan and in the trust fund college kids and you see the fallen dream in the raving chalk-legged men on 3 a.m. subways and sleeping on benches and in front of storefronts in the dead of winter. So I laid the guitar down and went out and got a job bussing and bar backing at big Texas BBQ restaurant in Manhattan. Although it isn’t much of a skilled trade, I can honestly say that I enjoy the work, much more so than I did being an electrician. Every day I ascend from the subway up into the streets and often I question whether or not—the buildings touching the clouds and the sun and moon somewhere out there though you can’t ever see them, the millions of cabs and people bustling about—I’m not still sitting in Portland, fast asleep; instead in some rather strange industrial dream in which I’ve yet to wake up from. Maybe something out of Metropolis. Soon I will open my eyes to the dark light of the morning and a constant drizzle and find myself stumbling around in a foggy haze and putting my boots on and grabbing my tool bag and growling back at the mean raccoon that hugs the tree in my front yard.

Thankfully, that’s not the case, so in my spare time I decided to type up all of my journal writings from the park and other musings from New York rambles. I also went through old columns from when I was writing for Razorcake and put them online. I hadn’t hardly written in over four years and now I felt rejuvenated with the word; not knowing if it was any good, but enjoying going through old and new tales, some happy, some sad, but stories all the same. I figured they were just gathering dust, sitting on the shelf along with rejection letters from a few I tried sending to other magazines, so why not throw them out there?

Now, as I sit in front of the window of my apartment, staring out at the warehouses and a huge carwash billboard and an air conditioning rooftop unit with wires fully exposed (definitely an electrical code violation. Stop it! Those days are over. Let it go!), a mysterious pair of underwear that hangs on the barbwire surrounding the back perimeter (foiled burglar maybe?), listening to the cars and semi-trucks racing along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway towards the Battery Tunnel as the rain washes the Christmas snow away, sending me into a calm, meditative trance of sorts, I’m left with these thoughts:

Life is merely a long line of fleeting moments, an endless array of frames we find ourselves in, and as much as we want to hold on to them, as much as we want to give them a lasting sense of permanence, they run away from us, like forgotten dreams that we’re desperately trying to grasp onto, swinging blindly, like an old boxer caught on the ropes, flailing aimlessly into thin air; then again, sometimes they’re engrained in our blood, tattooed thick, everlasting, forever following us around like shadows, that it is this ebb and flow over time that shapes our being, our experience, our view of the world and ourselves in the midst of the orchestra, in the vastness, in the dark and in the light, in the movement and in the middle, of it all. One moment we’re filled with love or belonging, amazement and laughter; in another we’re filled with fear or sadness, maybe despair, maybe anger, loneliness; but there’s a certain vivid truth in all of these emotions that form the spirit, that form the soul, that make us who we are; but I’ve come to realize that, really, when it comes down to it, maybe looking at life in this way is trivial; all things pass, from good to bad, old to new; emotions and experiences and relationships will come to take new shapes and new forms and, truth is, it goes on and on like this until one day, most likely, we part ways with the world as we know it…and now my mind drifts far from my room and downdowndown, into the underground: it is the end of summer and I’m riding the 6 train into Manhattan out of the West Indian streets of Crown Heights and emerging into the lunch crowds along Lexington Ave. (a world of separation) and I think of the good life and mimosas in the sun and neatly folded napkins and doormen in fancy suits and ornate iron fences that lead to courtyards and enormous suites, and oh, just for a little of that, and now I’m making a left down 59th St., standing before the opulent Plaza Hotel and feeling the spray of the fountain at Grand Army Plaza in the epicenter of the world’s fashion and consumer society and the idea of a ridiculous amount of wealth (Trump Towers, hundred dollar T-shirts, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Tiffany & Co.) hits me square across the jaw, and the buildings line up unending, down the blocks of 5th Ave. like enormous dominoes, and I stand in the middle of the crosswalk marveling at it all, but a few seconds later a cab driver brings me out of my reverie, yelling bloody murder at me with his horn and I wave my hand back at him and there he goes, blasting that horn again, but there is no anger in any of it, only a strange from of communication, an organized chaos of language and music of the city and the streets, and I now stand by the brick wall across the way, observing the crowds for a brief moment, a panorama left to right with the horse carriages lined up and street vendors and tour busses and sketch artists, then the ponds and carefully landscaped trees and bushes and flowers and with the winding sidewalks it looks more like an amusement park than something that would be in the middle of New York and far off I hear a sax be-bop-bopping in the distance and I walk into Central Park, now moving the feet a little quicker, excited to get to my spot, and the tourists are milling about like they just stepped out of a Pissarro or Monet minus the parasols, and then my mind drifts back to second lines and a wild array of colors and the Mississippi River and brass bands and jazz and old southern white ladies and young black girls dancing hand in hand in New Orleans, but I’m not there, that’s another time, damn parasols, I’m in New York, I’m in New York and people are smoking cigarettes on benches and snapping photos and I get around the corner and see the tunnel, dark and empty, just a walkway, a musty smell and some garbage to the side and I laugh as I see my pick from a few days ago still there underneath the remains of a cigarette butt and a leaf, so I prop the stool up, take the guitar out, tune it up, throw some dollar bills and change into the case when no one’s looking, and play a tune, and, for a while, things are quiet, a few people pass by paying no attention, some point at me from a distance and speak in undecipherable tongues in curiosity and vanish before they can hear more than a few notes, but then there at the end of the tunnel is a father and his little daughter approaching, all dressed up for the zoo, and at first they’re just walking, big hand in little hand, but I switch it up, play a happy ragtime instrumental piece I wrote, thinking it’s more fitting, and suddenly she starts dancing all the way down the tunnel and I keep playing the guitar and she does a pirouette, little ballerina and all as notes fly into the air, arching and echoing against the curved old stone walls, and as I find myself a mere actor in a part of a scene far from box offices and Broadway, I realize all the writing in the world won’t do any of this justice; there is no philosophy; there are no deep, profound truths, no cleverly written, insightful words of wisdom, no metaphors or poetic rhymes or well-versed stanzas, no critical analysis with playful linguistics to file into the pantheon of lyrical prestige for scholars to discuss and file on the shelf next to dusty bottles of scotch, nothing to put this all into its particular place, nothing to vividly capture the true essence of this one moment; no, no, this is merely just life; this just is and nothing more and so with that, I tip the hat and the girl places the dollar bill into the case and the father thanks me for the music and I follow them as they drift off, under a clear blue sky, around the corner, into the crowd, and then…disappear. 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

High, Low, and In Between


Chapter 10 

Nowhere but South

By the time I got to Nashville, it was midnight and I couldn’t find the hostel I’d heard about. I camped out off of Broadway near the Cumberland River, which, for some reason—maybe geographical dyslexia—I was convinced was the Mississippi.

I slept in my truck, but by six in the morning the summer heat was too much, so I went out and found a breakfast joint downtown. Sitting there, I knew I wasn’t quite in Mississippi, but I truly had the feeling that I was in the land of Faulkner. I was taken back to a time years earlier, driving through the Delta, in the land of abandoned churches and plantation homes. Muddy Waters on the speakers and catfish and kids on bicycles followed by their dogs. Hanging out on 61 and 49, eating a pulled pork sandwich at Abe’s, and staring out at the legendary crossroads. An old dilapidated donut shop next door and thinking of Robert Johnson and the nice fat waitress and the cops in the corner. The mother of the family all wearing U. of Mississippi shirts raving about, “That rhubarb pie. Oh honey, I jus’ got to have that rhubarb.”

And now, years later, I was in a similar joint in Nashville. There was an old black lady serving grits and eggs on a paper plate. A younger Italian guy (son of the owner, judging from the pictures on the walls) stood behind the register. A friendly cook huddled over a steamy pot and another guy who looked and acted retarded walked around the kitchen in circles. The random cast of regulars filed in through the door, all on a first name basis, ordering the same exact thing I imagine they’d ordered for the past twenty years.

The owner asked me if I was doing all right in a weird tone and I took it the wrong way, thinking, jeez, I must really look like shit. I did look rather ragged without much sleep. My stomach was a little shaky and I was feeling a bit lonely. Some days the blues get you; they get you good. Where was the woman of my dreams? Where was the romance along the road? Where was the great story I’d read about from countless writers who had traveled all around? Was it all just fiction? I didn’t want to wrestle with that thought so I brought my guitar down to the river with visions of Southern grandeur. I thought, it is times like these when great songs are written. Yes, it is in these moments when inspiring lyrics pour from the blood of the poets within all of us. But that heat was getting hotter and hotter: hell-hot and humid. All the benches shaded by the trees were taken up by the homeless so I was sitting out on the concrete, ass on fire and sweat dripping onto the guitar.

A little while later a guy, I’d say around forty-five, approached me.

“Hey partner, you got a song for me?”

I looked up at him and could smell the hard liquor on his breath. He was short and stocky, with fairly clean-cut blond hair. He removed his sunglasses and I noticed his eyes had a hard, reddish glaze to them. They had that strange, lost, glossy look. Eerie almost. I kept hoping he’d put those sunglasses back on and, eventually, he did.

“Sure. Original?”

“Yeah, that works.”

I played one, but half way through he didn’t seem all that interested. His name was Jim. He sat down alongside of me and stared out at the river. I suppose the real reason he came over to me was that he had a story and he wanted to tell it.

“Seventeen years, man. I’ve driven through every state. Seventeen years and they let me go just like that.”

“Damn. Sorry, man. Yeah, I spent some time out of work. How was driving a truck, as a trade and all?”

“Fuckin’ sucks. You ain’t got no friends and all you do is talk to yourself. You can’t never sleep. And they let me go in the middle of Tennessee. No loyalty. Nothing. Didn’t even give me the money for my last check. Just like that, I’m stuck in Nashville. No money. Nothing.”

I wondered how he could go straight from having a decent job to having no savings whatsoever. Something else had to have gone on. It wasn’t any of my business, though. I’ve learned there are some folks you just don’t pry on certain things. Jim seemed to be one of those types.

Jim noticed me looking at two large scars on his arms.

“That one’s from a Sawzall. Tried to cut a piece of aluminum gutter off a roof and fell. Sawed straight into my arm. Never was one for construction. This one’s from my ex-wife. Stabbed me when I tried to leave her. But look here, bud, that ain’t what I came over here for. Now you look like the hard-working American type, and I figure you might want to hear about this. The thing is, we’re in an economic crisis here. Just look around. People like yourself, hard-working blue collar workers are out of work. And you know why? Because everything we buy now days is going overseas to China. Instead of putting it back in the pockets of us Americans, it’s all going to them immigrants in them other countries. It ain’t right. No money coming back, no money to spend, no money to manufacture. We’ve eliminated all the good jobs.”

To an extent, I agreed with him. We’d pretty much sold our souls to foreign countries in the name of a few dollars and now we were paying the price. It was no different than what we’d done to other nations and I found myself remembering a poem I had once read by Pablo Neruda about the United Fruit Company and the impact it had on Chile and Latin America. Jim wasn’t bringing up anything new, but then he started to get real heated up on the immigrant slant.

“What it is is these damn Mexicans and Asians. Taking all these jobs for nothing, undercutting American wages. A man can’t earn a decent livin’ with these fuckers stealing our work. Don’t even pay taxes. I say we stick them all in jail. Yup. When they pay all the taxes they owe the government and the American people, we’ll let them out.”

I didn’t know if this was really a healthy solution, but I nodded my head and let him continue. I was kind of regretting telling him I’d been a union worker that had been unemployed. I suppose it gave him the wrong impression.

“But here’s what I’m getting at. See, I got this idea to make some money. I’m gonna start up an internet website. I’m gonna’ call it “Taking Back America.” Anyway, look here partner, this is my idea. I’m gonna go around the country with a camera interviewing people out of work, hard-working Americans, just like you. I’ll have them tell their stories on camera. Then I’ll put it up on a website and people will pay to watch the videos.”

“Isn’t most of that stuff free now days?” I asked, not trying to kill his dream, just being realistic.

“Yeah, but, these will be real stories, the stories they don’t tell on TV. These will be real Americans. People will pay for it.”

“Sounds like a good idea. Do you have a computer?”

“No, not yet, I’m working on it. Just need to take some classes, get a laptop, figure out how to use the internet. Get some money coming in, get a consultant, you know.”

It was then that I shut up. My days of playing devil’s advocate are over. I wasn’t going to be the one to keep the guy from his career aspirations.

“Listen here, Seth. When it comes down to it, I really need some money to get this thing going. I swear to you, a little dough for a camera and a laptop. So what do you say? You look like someone who would be into this. You got anything to contribute towards the cause? Whatever you can spare. It’ll go straight into the business. It’ll be like an investment. I swear to you man. No bullshit.”

“Sorry, Jim. Sounds like a good plan, but I don’t have anything.”

It was a nice hustle, but I had nothing financially to offer him. I told him I’d spent most of the past week sleeping in my truck.

“Well, shit.”

Jim stared out at the river for a few seconds shaking his head, not really angry that I hadn’t given him money. His mind was somewhere else. Maybe with that woman who had given him the scar. Maybe with all the money he’d blown somewhere along the line. It was hard to tell. He then got up, bid farewell, and walked down towards Broadway.

An hour later, a kid with a ragged-looking mutt on a frayed rope approached me. His name was Matt. He had a guitar on his back.

“You play?” he asked.

“Yeah, I mess around with it. You?”

“Oh, yeah. I play here on the streets. Only Christian music, though. I play for the Lord. That’s what God wants. I’m recording here for an album. This big label, they’re all into my music. I trained under the world’s number three-ranked guitar player. I’ve got a whole crowd of regulars that come back to see me. Sometimes they throw in twenties. Guitar Gary was giving me shit for playing on the corner the other day, but screw that guy.”

“The hippy dude?” I’d seen some guy on the corner who couldn’t even muster a single chord earlier.

“Yeah, he sucks. He kept telling me this was his street. I told him to fuck off.”

I saw him scratching at a yellow and purple infected hole on his arm. It wasn’t pretty.

“Recluse bit me last night. I dug the poison out with my knife. You have to get it all. I learned all that survival shit from my dad in North Carolina. I’m going back there soon. Been staying at the Flying J with my wife in our van. I’m so sick of that place. Almost fought one of the drug dealers the other night. Kept coming up to my door, asking if I wanted drugs. I don’t do that shit. I’m done with it. He wouldn’t stop banging on the door. He’s lucky I didn’t kill him. I’m trained in karate, you know. Black belt.”

“Are you trying to stay in Nashville?”

“No way. I’m sick of living on the streets. I’m sick of Nashville. This place sucks. Once I get some money, I’m going back to North Carolina. I’ve had it here.

I stuck my hand out and petted the mutt on the top of the head. Neither of us said anything for a while.

“Well, look man, I got to run,” said Matt.

“Yeah, good luck with everything.”

The kid was nice enough, but I had the feeling that everything that he said was a lie. Maybe just extreme exaggerations. The road allows for this, though. Be all you can be, but a little different connotation than what the green camouflage-wearing men in the commercial portray. After talking to him and Jim, I reflected that the hobo life is all and well, but nothing I wanted to delve too far into. Maybe the train-hopping punks I feel very indifferent to would beg to differ, but it was there, sitting on that bench, staring out at the river, that I said a prayer: “Please, Lord, Buddha, Abraham, well whoever it is that calls the shots, let’s not let things get to that point.”



Chapter 11

Reunions and Rebirth

Into Southeast Tennessee, winding down the road with the Smokey Mountains up to the right and cool-running creeks running to the left. Lincoln Log cabins and the smoke and clouds hanging almost low enough to touch. I stood on top of a mountain with one foot in North Carolina, one in Tennessee, and the Appalachian Trail running through it all. Before I could fully take it in, a torrential downpour came down in true rainforest fashion. It was all blue, blue, blue. I followed the hundreds of Harley riders racing around the corners, down into the Cherokee Indian reservation with the casinos and countless tacky tourist shops with souvenirs and wooden statues of chiefs in the front. They provided a strange paradox to all of this beautiful nature.

I arrived in Asheville to visit a friend of mine I’d met in Portland and was greeted with cold beers, burgers, squash, salad, and Rice-Krispie treats. When it comes to food, they sure do it right down South. I requested more BBQ and everyone got giddy with excitement as I was taken the next day to probably the best Q I’ve ever had.

In an art/industrial part of Asheville near the French Broad River sits 12 Bones. You walk into the little place that’s only open for lunch and read the board with the different rubs: Blueberry Chipotle, Brown Sugar. Meat falling off the bone and melting in the mouth, corn jalapeño grits, potato salad, all served on a big aluminum dog pan. A huge glass of sweet tea, and, for desert, a deep-fried Twinkie. I suppose the true sign of any good meal is immobility, and for the next six hours I lied down in a park downtown like a beached whale, unable to move, listening to a violin player across the street playing for tips.

Asheville was a nice, quaint, hilly town up in the mountains that I only knew as the hometown of Thomas Wolfe. It reminded me a bit of Portland with the whole hippypunkart vibe and large number of breweries, but it seemed to have a sense of Southern charm also. 

Two days later, I arrived back in Washington D.C. I was a bit tired from the trip, but relieved I’d made it in one piece without any major catastrophes. My friend Matt, guitarist from Crispus Attucks and owner of Smash Records and who I’d lived with years ago, was nice enough to split his basement with me until I figured what I was doing. I had to laugh how things sometimes have a way of coming full circle as we found ourselves in a similar living situation (sharing a room, large punk house with lots of roommates, listening to old bands) over a decade later. I hung out in his store in Adams Morgan and watched the young punks walk into the door, excitedly looking for records and CDs. It was then that a sense of nostalgia came over me. I was a little jealous and yet happy that my friend had his own business, one in which he was doing something he had a passion for.

I hung out with another old friend, guitarist, and bandmate from SCRM, Dave. He was now a big time DJ in the world of house and electronic music. He finds himself constantly on the road, playing clubs in Australia and Amsterdam and Canada and throughout the U.S. for thousands. We met in a hip bar from what I remembered to be a not-so-nice neighborhood. Times had changed like they do in every city and now, as I mingled with the young club scene, I was referred to as the old punker dude who knew and toured with Dave way back in the day. Yes, at the whopping age of thirty-three, I was a grizzly veteran. I had to laugh as I sat at the table, sipping a drink and watching everyone come up to him as if he was some sort of celebrity. He was very humble, though, knowing many of them from various shows. I couldn’t help but think that if anyone I knew was going to “make it big,” Dave was the one. Although I was unable to stand the monotony of the music, I enjoyed the scenery of beautiful younger women shaking all around with that good, get-down feeling, as they say.

New York was calling me and I knew it was the time to go. For the next two months I hopped around subletting small rooms and venturing around Brooklyn and Manhattan. I took the subway to Coney Island and to Harlem and to points in-between. I found myself walking hours on end through the streets of Manhattan, eyes fully exposed, often times lost, filled with a strong case of sensory overload with the carnival of New York parading around like it did every day.

Often discovering musicians playing in the subways and out on the streets, it was then that I started to really toy with the idea of playing music for tips. The money I’d spent months saving was dwindling and no jobs were coming in, so one day I took my guitar to Central Park. I sat down in a tunnel that looks out upon the Manhattan skyscrapers and plucked some tunes. I made it two hours before I realized that I was too lazy to stand and that the first thing I needed to do was go out and purchase a stool. That afternoon I came away with twenty-five bucks, a wealth of compliments on my playing, and some kids dancing. All in all, as first forays go, I considered it a success.


Monday, January 3, 2011

High, Low, and In Between

Chapter 7 
Monkeys, Dog Shears, and the Muse

There was another small place off of Glisan called the Coconut Café I did a few shows at. The place was owned by a quite entertaining and talkative Canadian named Allen. He’d spent most of his years in carpentry, ended up in Columbia where he got married. Then, on a whim, he decided to open a coffee shop in Portland. It was in another more desolate part of Northeast. He fixed up the place real nice with new paint and art on the walls and patio tables. He was hoping the neighborhood would make a change for the better, but again, hardly anyone was ever there. I felt bad because I really didn’t know enough people to bring in and the few I did often flaked out at the last minute. Times were hard, the economy had gone downhill, and people just weren’t going out as much.

The first time I played there was for a crowd of three eating dinner. An older Asian woman watched me and tapped her feet with a stuffed monkey dancing on her lap. At one point I caught a quick glimpse of her nipple and she looked like she was about to breast feed it.

I couldn’t help myself. “Damn, lady. You’re really digging that monkey.”

“Yeah, you know who it is?”

Suddenly I had a flash back to my youth and a similar stuffed creature sitting on my dresser.

“Curious George?”

“Yup,” she smiled and then George waved his arm at me and said, “More music! More music!”

Yes, the guitar was opening me up to a world I otherwise would have no connection to, and I’ll admit, despite the little money I was making, I was having fun.

Needless to say, I played a few more shows at the Coconut and my entire crowd consisted of Allen and some gypsy selling stuff out of his car on the street. A month later, Allen was going through his own troubles with the wife. He was spending all of his time at the café and where was the money he promised her and the other night she threw all of his clothes on the lawn. 

“Does that mean no more empanadas?” I asked him.

“Yeah, no más,” said Allen dejectedly.

He was all out of sorts, so I let him have the guitar. He played half of my set, singing insanely depressing ‘70s glam rock acoustical songs about love gone to the bowels of the crapper.

I tried to get gigs at the better clubs around town, but had no luck. Maybe it was the music. Maybe I just didn’t know the right people. Either way, I took the shows I could get. The following month I played at a video store/coffee shop in a small town on the way to Mt. Hood called Estacada. It was often referred to as “Incesticada” by the folks in Portland in regards to its small town vibe. The downtown spanned about two blocks. My first time there I got quite an animated crowd. People in Portland had all kinds of places to see similar music, but despite being thirty miles away, musicians rarely came out here. At one point, I had a little chubby kid sitting on the couch no more than a few feet away feet from me. He was digging the music, humming along his own words to the songs.

“What you singing?” I asked him.

“About the flying monkey,” he said, shyly.

What the hell monkeys and my music have in common I can’t say, but, lyrically, I figured he already had me beat, so I made a deal with him. Most people were sitting in the background, talking to one another, not paying much attention. I told him I’d play instrumentals and he could sing all about flying monkeys.

Later on, just as I was packing up, a family walked in the door. “What, where’s the music?”

The mom was a little drunk and was telling everyone how she’d cut her high school-aged son’s hair with dog shears the night before.

“Dog shears. What kind of woman are you?” I asked her, jokingly.

I then started playing the twelve-bar blues and told her to sing about it. She howled away about how her son worked at the Chinese restaurant and had that long, nappy hair (“I ain’t having no kid with a mullet!”). She was sick of looking at it, so she shaved it all off. We called the song “The Dog Shear Blues.” Needless to say, this was probably the best show I played in my months in Portland and the folks made my trip up into the mountains more than worthwhile.

In other news, work had slowed down considerably. I’d seen the newly built condos all along the Willamette River lay vacant for months and couldn’t help but wonder if that wasn’t a sign of the times. Riding unemployment, I practiced more and more with the guitar and compiled a book of about fifty various songs I wanted to learn. I’d go down to the park downtown off of Burnside and Broadway and play for the people from the halfway houses. Folks were all dealing with their own struggles, whether it was mentally or with drug addictions or poverty, but I’d become a bit of a hermit and didn’t get out much. I found them to be a lot more entertaining conversationally than most of the people I otherwise came into contact with. The music seemed to be the starter in conversation, a symbol for some sort of connection, and then I’d be there hours later, the guitar long packed away, listening to them tell me their stories.

With the time off I also decided to take a trip back to the East Coast for the first time in over five years. I hung out with friends I’d lost touch with in D.C. and visited New York. I’d been flirting with the idea of dropping the whole electrician thing and moving back there, but I wanted to see if it was even possible. I’d visited New York a handful of times, played shows at ABC No Rio and nearby on the radio at WFMU. I’d crashed in friends’ insanely expensive studio apartments, roamed the streets in utter confusion, marveling at the masses and the sheer enormity of everything. I’d always enjoyed my time there, but, truthfully, I found the place to be a bit intimidating. I’ve always thought there was just too damn many people and that, with my lack of skills, I’d never be able to afford it. But there I was sitting on a park bench in Central Park, quietly strumming my guitar (case closed), not quite ready to delve into the street musician life. The vibrant springtime crowds were all around and there was music every which way you turned: DJs, sax players, violinists, operatic Fellini-style performance artists. I knew instantly then that New York was the place I needed to be.

I was reminded of a simple quote by Che Guevara: “An expedition has two points; the point of departure and the point of arrival. If you want to make the second theoretical point coincide with the actual point, don’t think about the means.” It really wasn’t a matter of how or why; it just was. So I got back to Portland, worked on and off for a couple of months, and then in July I gave the landlord my thirty days. I quit my job, resigned from the union, and hit the road once again.



Chapter 8

Looking for Lily

My arm is out the window, wind in my hair, reality and dreams roaming across the landscape. Back and forth to places I’ve been, to places I’m going. There’s excitement, and yet there’s also a strange sense of peace driving towards the unknown. These wheels take me through the forgotten parts of this country: Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming; green planes interspersed with rolling hills and cows… cows… cows; everywhere you look. Just mulling about. Munching on grass. Heads bowed down in black and white uniformity. The deer join them close by, setting quite a picturesque scene of the Wild West. This is the land of abandoned freight cars and barren houses that look like they were vacated one day never to be returned to. Yet, somehow, after the test of time, through the harsh winters and whatever storms good ol’ Mother Nature has had in store, they’re still standing. They’re a little slumped to the side, the wood now decayed to form a dark gray, but still desperately holding on to whatever’s left of the past.

I made it as far as Rawlins, a hundred miles west of Laramie, Wyoming that night and slept in the parking lot of a Taco Bell. The only places open downtown after nine were the tent revivals; otherwise the place was a ghost town. It was another rough night as far as sleep went. I also came to the conclusion that at some point I was bitten by a spider, the gargantuan bump on the left side of my nose the next day being my marker.

The following morning I arrived in Laramie, sky early blue and the sun just rising. It was like a vision of a dream I’d had, except it wasn’t really a vision or a dream, more of a strange reality coming true.

Months earlier, I was sitting in my house and I don’t know how or why—I think the Clint Eastwood film Outlaw Josey Wales may have been on while I was sleeping?—does this take place in Laramie, Wyoming? I don’t know. I know nothing about Wyoming, but I woke up and wrote down the lyrics that night to a song I called My Days at the Prairie Café. In truth, it stemmed from an image I’ve had for a long time: a diner waitress living in the Midwest, maybe late forties, during the lull of mid-afternoon. The place is empty, aside from maybe an old regular sipping coffee at the counter. The waitress is staring stoically out the window and I’m wondering what’s going on through her mind. I wrote a song about her and a young homeless guy living in his car who visits town. I named her Lily; no particular reason other than that it seemed like a good waitress name. Usually you write the song from past experience, but in this case I was turning the tables; writing the fiction and then visiting the reality, figuring there’s nothing better than a little twist on the order of things.

Suffice to say, it was surreal as I rolled into the early morning streets of Laramie’s old downtown. The sun was just rising. The Union Pacific was roaring down the tracks of the Wild West, just as it had done for the past hundred and fifty years, and down at the end of 2nd St. laid the Prairie Rose Café. It was a name I’d stolen from some research I’d done. It looked just as I’d pictured it: a non-descript diner with a few booths and counter seats. The smell of greasy bacon and home fries filled the air. I went in and ordered a lumberjack breakfast. If an old waitress named Lily serves me, I’ll just have to say screw New York and stay here, I thought. I mean, the powers-that-be can only tell you things so many times in mysterious ways before you have to stop and listen to what they have to say.

But Lily was nowhere to be found. There was just a young blond college student named Emily taking my order. As I devoured the bacon and eggs and biscuit, I realized what a close resemblance that name had rolling off the tongue: Em-ily… Li-ly. Maybe I should consult an etymologist? But there was nothing startling that morning. There was a list of other waitresses who worked there on a board, but no Lily. Farmers in the back talked about the weather. A beer-bellied old guy with a John Deere cap asked me about my breakfast. I wanted to share my travel story with him, how I was off to New York with everything packed into my truck. I’d written a song about this place and now, crazy as it sounds, here I was, sitting in this stool, right at the counter, drinking stale coffee next to him.

“You see, sir, I’m living out the life of the characters.”

But I didn’t say anything. This was an early morning, much like any early morning in Laramie and in the world, for that matter. People woke, took a piss, shaved, put on makeup, ate some breakfast, went to work, walked to school, came home, flipped on the television, made love, slept, dreamt, and then did it all over again. Who the hell cared where I was going?

Despite my silence, my spirits were up. With belly full, I walked around town some more. I considered going into the Buckhorn Bar, but figured eight a.m. was a little early for drinking. I grabbed my guitar and sat next to the railroad tracks and played some tunes. I thought about all the greats before me who had done the same and the train-traveling songs of Woody Guthrie and Jimmy Rodgers came to mind, so that’s what I played. Some people looked at me oddly; others smiled and wished me a good morning. Later on, I went to a music store and jammed with a metal dude. He said there weren’t any metal bands in town, just country and bluegrass. He had no one to play with, so we sat down and he played and I tried to accompany him with my acoustic. Honestly, it just sounded like a lot of noise, but it was fun. I thought about sticking around Laramie, but once I got back to the truck I decided to head on.

Chapter 9
I-70 and the Simplicity of Solitude

East through the frontier, past Cheyenne, true cowboy and cowgirl land, where the biggest rodeo in the world was taking place. The streets were packed with tight wranglers and Stetsons and waddling couples. I took a pit stop, enough to snap a few pictures, and then headed South through Denver and on East towards the Kansas border.

Kansas seems to be long stretches of nothing: flat land that carries all the way into the horizon and somewhere beyond. Grain and corn crops and every twenty miles a tiny town with a silo, a factory, an old rusted freight car that just called it quits one day, a few homes, maybe a gas station, and a café. A half hour later, you see the same exact town and the mind has been drifting some and you’re thinking, wait a minute, am I in some strange repeating vortex of Midwest farmland? Is this some sick joke where the miles on the odometer are moving but I’m just rolling down an endless road of eternal repetition? Or, maybe this is a Twilight Zone episode, yeah, that’s it, the last man on earth or the psychic in the coffee shop. The image of Rod standing in the corner with his slick hair and sick, yet enamoring, smile. A huge John Deere kicks up dirt on the road next to the interstate as the owner’s brown lab runs alongside, tongue hanging out, with the blood red orange sunset behind him. A pink Cadillac that has no reason being on a grassy knoll has a sign next to it that reads: “WELCOME TO FLAGLER.”

Time goes slowly with the wheels on the road. I make up songs that I forget an hour later. I talk to the cows but they seem to be occupied in their own form of reverie. Kansas City: 400 miles… 320. I pass the birthplaces of Bob Dole and Walter Chrysler. I see a sign for the world’s biggest prairie dog at some sort of freak animal farm. I laugh to myself and say, “I’ll show you the biggest prairie dog.” It’s then that I miss touring with friends and bands and the stories and joking in places like this to pass the time and how different that type of traveling is compared to this. The truck sputters a little and I take that as laughter, not wanting to think of the alternative. Soon, with the sunset upon me, I’m in another city, with the hope that some fantastic surprise lies around the corner.

Thirty minutes later, I take a wrong turn off the freeway and find myself in an area known as the Bottoms. It’s an old industrial warehouse neighborhood that lies below the hilltop that Kansas City sits upon. It has an apocalyptic feel to it and reminds me a bit of a run-down Hollywood movie set. The streets are empty for the most part, but I notice a few lofts and spaces where I imagine the artists and punks and adventurous entrepreneurs have set up in. I think back to when this place was bustling with commerce and workers and trains rolling through and ponder about the existence of time and the stories it tells.

More importantly, my first thing on the list was to eat some BBQ and what better place than Kansas City? Thus a lengthy scavenger hunt ensued, all in the search for a place called Arthur Bryant’s. I suddenly felt like I was in the South, as I was sent all over the city. You know, “Make a left when you see the tree,” type of directions. I stopped in an arts district and asked a couple if they knew where the place was.

“Oh, yeah, shit hunny, where’s that place at? Hold on, man. Let me call my buddy. He’ll know.”

“Really, it’s all right, I’ll find it.”

“No way, this guy’ll know good BBQ.”

This went on for a good ten minutes as he dialed all of his friends. Everyone knew the place but couldn’t member the street it was on. I thanked them for the effort and told them I’d find it somehow.

Another lady told me it was just “up the road a bit.” I ended up in the old jazz area where the negro baseball hall of fame is. I threw an imaginary pitch in salute of Satchel Paige. I walked all around, found myself in some projects a few blocks back, but there was no BBQ to be found. Then I asked this older gentleman who was out in the summer heat, sweating good and wet in his purple basketball jersey, purple shorts, purple shoes and purple hat.

“Oh yeah, just one block up that way. On Brooklyn St. Just right there.”

I didn’t see anything but apartments where he was pointing. When I got to the light, the street sign said Woodlawn St. Later on, a local told me everyone in Kansas City is partially deaf.

An hour and a half later, I found the place five blocks away. There was a long line out the door, and too hungry to wait, I drove on to another place called Gates. It was one of those small cafeteria-style joints in a non-descript mall. Grab a tray, order some meat, and devour. I looked a bit like a deer in the headlights, not quite sure what to order, but, thankfully, the girl behind the counter was quite nice and pointed me in the right direction. She then shouted at the top of her lungs back to the cook, “BEEF ON A BUN!” Minutes later, I sat alone at a booth. All of the sudden, those thousands of miles of witnessing endless plains of cattle came to fruition as I stared at the brisket covered in sauce. I received a dirty look and comment from a local for using a fork, so, not one to offend when it comes to local customs, I dug my hands in, the sauce and meat seeping underneath my dirty fingernails. I gave him a nod and licked my fingers clean. I won’t say it was the best BBQ I’ve ever had, but it was quite good, and, overall, I walked out of the place more than satisfied.

After a long walk around downtown, I thought that Kansas City seemed to have a close resemblance to Baltimore. The old gothic architecture of the business district and then the newly built-up commercial section where all the weekend crowds hung out. Just blocks away were desolate, abandoned, boarded-up apartments and stores that gave it the feel of a ghost town.

Trying to keep up with the western theme of the trip, I later that night found myself at the Stagecoach Inn, a small dive bar with a vast selection of stomach-turning beers—Schlitz, Old Style, Milwaukee’s Best, that sort of thing. Soon after, free shots of some vodka concoction kept coming my way from the bartender. I had a lengthy discussion with a guy working on a crossword who said he’d been a bartender at some of the strip joints years ago in New Orleans. He told me some punk rock stories and something about G.G. Allin running around the French Quarter covered in blood. But his memory wasn’t so good. He told me it was because he did a shit load of LSD.

I went back to my truck parked in a church parking lot only to be woken by the local police around four in the morning. Squinty-eyed, I looked into the shadowed face of the officer and his massive Maglite.

“What you doing here?” asked the officer.

“Uh, sleeping.”

“You can’t sleep here. You know, there’s motels and hotels around here.”

“Uh, does it look like I can afford a hotel?”

“Is there anything in there I should know about?” the light now shining bright through the inside of the car.

“I do have a knife on the seat.”

“You been drinking tonight?”

“Oh, just a couple of beers,” I lied.

“Well, just so you know, this isn’t a safe area.”

After driving around town earlier, it was definitely lot safer than some of the other parts I’d been through.

“You can park on the street, but not in this parking lot. It’s private property.”

I always thought churches were open to the homeless, but maybe not in Kansas City. I was too tired and drunk and know the rule of thumb is don’t argue with the police, especially when you’ve got out-of-state plates. I pulled the truck in reverse, over the curb, out the driveway, and straight into the first spot on the street. I covered the windows with my sun shade and the police car was still there. Soon after, I was fast asleep.

Monday, December 27, 2010

High, Low, and In Between

Chapter 4
Old Hat, New Tricks

For the next six months, I lived in a small studio in the basement of an Orthodox Jewish family in North Hollywood. They were nice folks, but rather drab conditions for what I was paying and what I’d been used to. I pretty much went to work, came home, and watched them build make-shift homes in the backyard for religious holidays. I read, listened to the countless kids above me run around, and slept.

It was during this time that I started getting back into the guitar. I had my dad’s old acoustic for years, a weathered Yamaha that I had borrowed permanently, but rarely played. Towards the days before the breakup with my girl, I had tried writing songs.  Aside from a couple of jam sessions in New Orleans, and since the days I was playing in Super Chinchilla Rescue Mission, it was the first music I’d played in nearly five years. The songs were awful, though: sappy, depressing lyrics about lost love. I even bought a banjo, but everything I played sounded like the soundtrack for an old kung-fu movie.

I’ve always had a pretty diverse appreciation for all kinds of music, whether it be classical or jazz or punk, but, gradually, I found myself getting more and more into old acoustic blues musicians and lesser-known country folks artists: Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Blake, Doc Watson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Fahey, Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt, Woody Guthrie, and The Carter Family. Then through these I somehow stumbled upon the folks that followed in their footsteps, artists like Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, and Guy Clark.

With the old blues players, often times, it’s as if two people are playing at once, providing the bass and the melodies simultaneously, and the words, sung rough and mumbled, hit straight to the bone. In a way, these folks helped me keep my sanity in a time when I found myself teetering on the edge.

Prine sings about his father’s hometown in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky: “…sometimes we’d travel right down the Green River, where the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols, but empty pop bottles is all we would kill.”

Guy Clark tells the story of a man who, since he’s been young, has always jumped off his garage thinking he was Superman, “…he’s one of those that knows that life is just a leap of faith, spread your wings, hold your breath, and always trust your cape.” It struck a chord with me.

Van Zandt sings songs so true to love and loneliness and despair—“days up and down they come, like rain on a Conga drum, forget most, remember some, but don’t turn none away… everything is not enough, and nothing is too much to bear, where you been is good and gone, all you keeps the getting there.” Listening to these words, one can’t help but wonder if he isn’t channeling the words of some long-lost angels and spirits from some other time. 

All of these guitarists were fingerpickers, which is pretty foreign to the whole bar chord punk rock style of playing I or anyone else I’ve known has played. Despite what any die-hard punk musician says about Bob Mould or Greg Ginn or J. Mascis (musicians I admire in their own right), what the old fellas were playing was a heck of a lot harder and original. Emotionally, it was raw and true and it had more of an affect on me. So, in that little basement I started to put in the hours of learning on the guitar what they were playing.

I’d grown tired of Los Angeles, though. I just couldn’t let go of the wandering spirit. After living on the East Coast and down in New Orleans, Southern California, despite being where I grew up, just seemed so foreign to me. I looked around into trying to move and keep doing the electrician thing. Portland, Oregon was one of the few places that would take me into their union. Truth be said, I really wanted to let go of it all. I just wanted to hit the road, you know, let the chips fall, but I felt like I had to finish something for once. I always seemed to be leaving things before I ever finished them, whether it was school or music or relationships, and this was going to be the one time I could say, “I did the time. I graduated.” It took six months of paperwork and flights to and fro for five-minute interviews. Once again, I was sitting across from electrical big wigs and telling them what they wanted to hear. Before I knew it, I was renting a good-sized house with a big yard and huge trees and all of the neighborhood stray cats hanging out on my porch.

Chapter 5

Talking Fishing Blues


In every way possible, Portland seems to be the complete and utter opposite of Los Angeles. No concrete jungle or graffiti or unending suburban sprawl. No yelling motorists sitting in rush hour traffic. No bright lights. No glam. A thirty-minute drive and I could be hiking in the mountains of the Columbia Gorge, standing underneath gorgeous waterfalls and cliffs that had been carved for thousands of years. I could be fishing with a roaring river from the runoff of Mt. Hood all to myself, the hawks circling above, deer and bear somewhere close by. I’d never really spent much time in nature and I certainly wasn’t any survivalist by any means, but I found it all new and exciting. Soon, I would have a cabin and a pond and do my own hunting and refuse to pay taxes and continue in the tradition of great nature writers.

My first job I got sent out to a “tank farm” where they store gasoline and ethanol. It was a highly dangerous environment in an industrial area on the outskirts of northwest Portland, where, at times, one small spark could cause the whole place to explode. Hours of paper work were necessary for even the most menial tasks. It definitely wasn’t a job for the nervous at hand. It was mostly outdoors, rugged and dirty, and dealt more with control wiring and valves and processing machines. It was a completely different world from the typical commercial work that I knew.

There was a lot of down time, sitting around, waiting for various jobs and okays by managers. After a month there, I felt like I had very little in common with the guys I worked with. These were folks whose vacations consisted of driving out to Idaho to hunt for elk. They all knew how to fix their cars and build their houses. They were accustomed to the harsher elements of nature, and, for the most part, it seemed like they married the girl from their high school, got a job with the union when they were young, had kids, and never left the town they were born in.

As we sat around on breaks in the maintenance room, the conversation more often than not centered on guns, which, unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, I know nothing about. Often I stayed quiet, occasionally feeling the brunt of derogatory comments about the “California Boy,” and maybe the fact that I was gay because I wasn’t married and didn’t have any kids yet.

“Did you get a gun yet?”


“When you going to get a gun? You know, there’s a gun show coming up next week. Hell, my son’s twelve. He’s even got a gun. He’s even killed his own elk. What are you, gay? Who the hell doesn’t have a gun?”

They were kind of kidding and kind of not. Aside from an extremely intelligent journeymen my age who I actually quite enjoyed working with, these were folks who thought Obama was going to steal their weapons from them. These were tough, small town men who had stored up their ammunition in the days leading up to Y2K and it really bothered them that I didn’t have something to defend myself with.

“It’s your God-given American right, for Christ’s sake. Haven’t you ever read the Constitution? You lived in L.A. and New Orleans and didn’t have a gun? Are you fuckin’ crazy?”

When I told them all the places I’d lived in the past ten years and all of the various jobs I’d worked, I was granted with mystified looks and shaking of heads, as if I was some foreign creature. And how the hell could I be away from my family? What the hell kind of son was I?

One day, I brought up fishing, although I really don’t know much about that either. I would just go up to the Clackamas River, out to some desolate area off the road, and throw my line in. I’d drink a six pack, strum my guitar, and never get a bite. I was quite complacent sitting on my beach chair with the quiet and solitude. I’d come to the realization that if you went to the river and sat on a rock, you were deemed crazy, but if you had a pole in your hand, well, then you were all right.

“What did you fish for?” asked Frank, a very good electrician who was always high-strung and most likely bipolar. One minute, he’d be smiling and laughing with you, the next he’d be screaming bloody murder how you were an idiot:

You ain’t in no damn California no more and how long you been an apprentice? You don’t know how to do that? Boy, you and me goona’ be buttin’ heads. What the hell are they teaching you at that school?”

“Trout,” I lied. It was pathetic. I didn’t even know what I was fishing for.

“Yeah, well, what did you use?”


“Well, what color?”



Frank was all smiles. There were a few nods from the other electricians. I was then considered okay, if nothing, for a brief few minutes, and given privy to the good fishing holes outside of Portland. I’d hate to have seen what the ramifications would have been had I said yellow. 

Chapter 6
Freight Train! Freight Train!

Portland is a relatively quiet place, despite what anyone there would tell you. It’s a small city, not necessarily in size, but culturally and geographically. There’s an active music scene, but, for whatever reason, I felt myself disconnected from it. I tried to go to punk shows but I never could get into any of the bands. Maybe I just didn’t know the right ones, but it seemed like a lot of the bands I came across covered up their lack of originality with loud music. Over time, my visions of living the life of Thoreau dissipated and my restless spirit seemed to resurface. I suppose you can only hide the true self for so long. The place just seemed too damn safe for my blood. And here I had the nicest house I’d ever lived in, a decent paycheck coming in, and I still wasn’t happy. I may have been an entry-level working bum before, but at least I was around good people. I was playing music. I was writing. I was creating and was surrounded by people doing the same.

Portland lacked the danger and action and creativeness and spontaneity that I was used to in big urban cities like D.C. and Baltimore and New Orleans. The personalities were different. Whereas in those other places, I felt like I got a good idea of what someone felt instantly, whether it was good or bad. In Portland I always felt like folks weren’t really being honest with me. I think it’s just the way people were. They have a more reserved nature about them. Maybe it was just my own sense of social awkwardness, but I found myself becoming more and more of a recluse. Sometimes I was hit by long waves of depression, spending more time alone with the walls. 

I still didn’t think I was any good at playing compared to what I was listening to, but I saw minor improvements. I was able to pick out songs a little easier and, gradually, I began to learn a handful of old traditional folk and blues tunes. I was also writing my own songs—using past stories as the basis for most of them—trying to work together a theme of sorts with various characters. I wrote a song about Carson McCullers The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, then another about a street musician from New Orleans. I wrote one about a bum wearing a toga roaming around New York during the spring who’s convinced he was once a Wall St. millionaire. One from the point of view of Travis, the character played by Harry Dean Stanton in the movie Paris, Texas. Another about a married woman who leaves Alaska dressed as a pinup girl, driving a Mercury Comet. She meets an eighteen-year-old Indian in Sioux Falls: an affair ensues across the landscape. I even wrote some instrumentals. It was nice to feel like I was creating something, nothing new per se, but a little piece of life. I found myself with a productive fever, trying to catch up for the previous years I felt like I had wasted.

Eventually, I put together a demo CD and started playing shows. My first one was at a metal/punk bar in a desolate part of 82nd St. in NE Portland. There was nothing much out there at night aside from some cheap motels and a few roaming hookers and meth addicts. I went on after a really bad cover band. There were maybe ten people there and as I sat on the stage, I couldn’t help but miss the days of being in a punk band. Even as the lead singer, I wasn’t the complete center of attention. I had other friends along with me to throw in the funny jokes or liven up the crowd who, more often than not, were also good friends. Blast the guitars and bang out the fast beat. Who cares if the PA works?  Next thing you know, everyone’s jumping around and beer is spilling and we’re having a good’ ol’ time. This was a whole new world of performing for me. As I finished each song, I was greeted with blank stares and a few kind souls who clapped. It felt a little strange.

A month later, I got a gig playing Fridays at a Polish café. The owner had the right intentions: Polish food, music, cheap foreign beers, but hardly anyone ever came to the place. The first time I played there, my crowd consisted of a good friend of mine and two little kids and their parents. With chocolate ice cream covering their faces, I played Elizabeth Cotton’s song “Freight Train” for them. When I was done, the kids were yelling, “Freight Train! Freight Train!” I concluded that maybe next time I would wear a conductor’s hat and bring little toy trains for them to play with. I came away from that show with a mere five bucks and a few pierogies, but it was then that I had the feeling I was on to something here. I liked playing for kids. They seemed to innately feel the emotion of the music, more so than adults, and though what I was playing was entirely different, it reminded me of that same feeling of old basement punk shows I’d been at and played in years before.