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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.

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