Can The Can

You know things are bad when they take away your garbage cans.

There they were, sitting out on the curb that bright autumn morning, proudly doing their job of holding a week’s worth of recycling and rubbish. Then they were gone.

It’s true I’ve been lax paying the bill. Wouldn’t you? It’s bad enough having to pay for water, electricity and heating oil. Insurance is a con but we pay it. The pathetic internet service they call Mid-Hudson Cable, that we’re always threatening to cancel. AT&T for our phones – their “Have you forgotten to pay your bill?” reminder call is sometimes the only actual phone call I receive all month.

But paying to have someone take the trash away feels so wrong. What exactly do the taxes around here pay for if the town can’t provide this basic service? It’s the bill I consistently avoid acknowledging, until they pile up and now – this. (Yeah, yeah direct debit. Does it hurt less, in lean months, to have an overdraft fee tacked on too? No, this is a game I play, that they’ll get their money when I’m good and ready. It gives me the illusion of control. Until – this.)

Did the neighbors see the truck taking our cans away? Oh who cares, the last people who lived in this house installed an above-ground pool on a pile of their refuse – I’m still finding styrofoam chicken trays, clam shells and Diet Coke bottles in the yard. They blasted modern country radio through outdoor speakers and filled the front yard with inflatable Halloween crap. We’ll never be that low.

I feel so judged. County Waste don’t want us. And the cans we’ve filled and dragged dutifully every week, proclaiming cozy camaraderie with the neighbors and “we’ve got it together! we remember what day it is!” are gone.

We were determined to do it ourselves when we first moved in here. I was constantly crossing the Walmart parking lot with a small bag of garbage while the recycling piled up in the garage for an eventual outing to the dump that never seemed to come. The van became a traveling garbage can and we had to acknowledge the truth – that we’re just not organized enough to deal with our own refuse.

Maybe some day. But in the meanwhile, I have to beg them to take us back. We promise to do better, just give us this one more chance!

mr. & mrs.

PS They’re back. I didn’t hear a truck, just a scraping rolling sound and there they were. They’d even been cleaned. So that’s a small victory, right?

Driving Miss Combo

I accompanied Eric to Gonerfest in Memphis last week for the only US show of his legendary band the Len Bright Combo. LBC hold a special place for me because on a Saturday some fifteen years ago while sitting in Manhattan-bound traffic at the Holland Tunnel, I heard “Young, Upwardly-Mobile and Stupid” on WFMU and thought hmm that voice sounds so familiar! When Terre T back-announced the songs she’d played and talked about Len Bright Combo and Wreckless Eric I was so pleased to hear his name and that he was still out playing (not with LBC at that point but solo) and hadn’t disappeared into the ethers of time. Then a friend gave me a copy of Eric’s Greatest Stiffs collection, I started covering Whole Wide World and that led to us meeting in Hull of all places and the rest is covered in Do You Remember That.

For all sorts of selfish reasons I jumped at the chance to come along: wonderful friends to visit, barbq to consume, and a chance to soak up the Goner atmosphere that fits so well with Memphis – sweaty and loose with underpinnings of tradition and a healthy dose of dysfunction.

We stayed first with pals Ilene and Ben and their three kitties in a gorgeous mid-century house and had a great time eating barbq & catfish and watching American Pickers, Drunk History a bad HBO movie about the Loud Family and this poignant documentary Marwencol about Kingston artist Mark Hogencamp. It was a dream come true to lounge about with these two instead of the usual dashing in and out we’ve done when playing a gig in Memphis. In the midst of it all, we kept Facebook/email/cellphone vigil for word from the UK on the birth of Eric’s new grandchild – a son! a son! born to his daughter Luci and partner Simon. What a thrill and relief!

When the other Combo members arrived from the UK, I acted eager-to-please chauffeur like Norman in Robert Altman’s Nashville, happy to ferry the trio around town. I’d met Bruce the drummer before and he is a wondrous character but I hadn’t met Russ – I expected a bass-slinging brute but he was an urbane delight. Driving up and down the bungalow-lined streets of town, I got a kick out of the trio’s effortless banter – it’s something the way a band clicks back into place, where all their speaking voices even sound alike.

Russ, meet grits. Grits, Russ.

Russ, meet grits. Grits, Russ.

I threw my tin discipline to the wind and ate as much of the local southern food as I could: Payne’s barbq ribs and slaw; catfish, hushpuppies and collards at Soul Fish; cornish hen and ribs at Cozy Corner; sausage patties, eggs, grits biscuits and sausage gravy at Bryant’s. The rare time I ate a salad it was grilled and studded with bacon. We tried to stop for what has been called the best fried chicken in the US but the line outside Gus’s was too long and we were too hungry, though I don’t know how that happened because it seemed like we never went more than an hour and a half without food. At one point we met drummer Greg Roberson(who only last week was at our house recording for both me and Eric’s new records) and his adorable son at a Whole Foods for fresh juice but it was like throwing fuel on the fire, the vitamins only upped my desire for more fat and grease.

Where would you like this, ma'am? Bruce at Bryant's

Where would you like this, ma’am? Bruce at Bryant’s

 

The Gonerfest bands were energetic and often Australian, but honestly once I’d seen Len Bright Combo (preceded by Deaf Wish who had me worrying for the band that had to follow that energy) I got what I came for. The Combo were teetering and tight at the same time, and funny and ferocious. It was sort of like watching someone else play your guitar – after playing next to Eric so many nights on stage, and he’s always an awesome force, I stood there with goosebumps watching him take off and thinking “I didn’t know you could do that!”

Len Bright Combo photo by Greg Roberson

Len Bright Combo photo by Greg Roberson

http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/504-shake-appeal-a-report-from-gonerfest-11/

I needed a pic of Eric from the show, this is from Pitchfork’s great review

Afterwards I sold records from the merch table next to Deaf Wish and got hugs from Scott & Charlene’s Wedding who we hosted last week at home in New York. I love these Australians so much, wish I could adopt them. It was a treat to see them play at a backyard show the next day, feeling them turn the world on with their charm.

Me & the kids back home in Catskill

Me & the kids back home in Catskill

Then we faded away from Goner and out to the Stax Museum which contains many interesting artifacts, loads of info and the incredible wall of records, but lacks the emotional wallop you want – even though they’ve recreated the studio, Memphis is so much about place and…well, the real place is gone and the most feeling I get is being outside the building, on this street, in this neighborhood where the original theater stood. But it is still a must to visit.

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To cap off the Stax experience, we caught the end of Robert Gordon’s talk about his Stax book Respect Yourself. He’s a wonderful speaker, and had a guest Sidney Kirk, who had gone to high school with Isaac Hayes and played piano in his band and I wished they’d had him in the Stax Museum talking because he made history come alive, it’s often the people on the sidelines of the inside who do.

We were staying now with old friends Robert and Candace and their darling daughter Vivian and we all had birthday cake and I passed out on the couch, not from drinking but a complete sensation overload. The last day we accompanied the Maches to a front porch cookout with nonstop platters of fried chicken and beef tips, and then took Russ to the airport (Bruce left the day before). We went by the finale of Gonerfest and then sat down in a bar to hear barefoot soul lady Linda Heck play with Ross Johnson on drums. Ross took a phone call as the first song started, and played with one hand while hoisting a flip phone to his ear with the other. We’d seen Ross play earlier in the week with a whole gang doing Like Flies On Sherbert, the Alex Chilton album he’d played on, and he’d sounded great. I heard him order a “Diet Croak” from the bartender.

Yes no Memphis visit would be complete without a visitation from Chilton’s ghost. All the exes, girls he’d herded and produced in bands like the Clits and Hellcats were present, and there was a moment when two of them spotted Eric. It is well-noted and documented that Alex loved Eric’s records but they never got a chance to know each other. Still, the girls knew and I saw them fix their big shiny eyes on my boy and come floating across the room like hungry flesh eaters in Night Of The Living Dead. It was scary, it was sweet. I doffed my imaginary Norman chauffeur cap and took my leave. “You’re on your own here.”

Two minutes later Eric emerged from the bar, wiping sweat off his brow. We walked off into the sunset to find one more meal.

Bar-b-q's fine, wish you were here

Bar-b-q’s fine, wish you were here

 

Goodbye To You

We shared a moment didn’t we, L? Fleeting, glancing, but real as a gloved finger brushing snow off an officer’s bristly mustache. I had high hopes for how things were going to be. But…I’m breaking up with you.

It isn’t you, it’s me. I’m just not ready for this kind of relationship. I was tentative from the start. If someone said I was hedging my bets when we got together, they were right. I began with a feeling of dipping my toe in the water, never plunging completely in.

It’s just – I have so much going on in my life right now, and it feels like you require more of me than I’d be able to give. Maybe it’s foolish to say I know this isn’t the end; that one day I’ll have another chance with you. You’ll probably laugh yourself silly over that one – when haven’t you heard it before?

With heavy heart and no small measure of embarrassment (in the first flush of bright hope I crowed about you to anyone who’d listen. If only I’d heard the measured replies for what they were – care and concern; instead I saw them as jealous and grudging).

Now I make that sad trudge of shame back to the public library to return you to the shelves, so that someone more pure of heart, less self-involved and busy frittering their life away on worldly pursuits that bear slim chance of success, can find you. I’ll take a look at the shelf and eye War and Peace which I could maybe watch a film of one day, and for a second I’ll heft the slim Death Of Ivan Ilych in the palm of my hand, for your pull is so strong and that book is so short, I’ll think…perhaps?

But this is really goodbye Mr. Tolstoy, for now. At over 800 pages, I have to quit, barely forty pages in. I promise to have more faith next time, to shell out sixteen dollars (minus my thirty percent employee discount if I’m still working in the bookstore, which I hope I will be if only for the chance to see you go home with others more worthy – yes, I believe in you that much) for my own copy. With heavy heart I climb the stairs and place you on the returns cart, praying the kindly librarian doesn’t ask how things are going – there’s no lying to a librarian. I’d have to tell her I wasn’t up to it. When her back is turned, I’ll slip you in between Easy Hudson Valley Hikes and Guy Fieri’s Hot Barbq, and for a second all the other possibilities I’ve had to shut my eyes to will stretch out before me: The Southpaw; that book of Edna O’Brien short stories; good old McMurtry; a new Oprah magazine. But this moment of goodbye is just you and me.

There – it’s over. Adieu, adieu – until the next time.

(Maybe if they’d given you a better cover?)

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Made In Manhattan

I’m standing at the main entrance to the World’s Largest Store in New York City, the ground floor all bright marble and perfume counters and music blaring, and I’m wondering if you’re upstairs working. You found a job waitressing in the sleek new restaurant with stellar views of Manhattan and it’s really hitting me now that we both live in New York again. That for the first time in eight years, I live near you.

The city you’ve come back to is different from the one you were born in – like, do you remember so many visitors everywhere, all the time? And everyone has money, it feels like, except the ones who don’t.

And it’s different now because you’re the age I used to be when I lived here, and I’m – while not shopping cart old lady age yet – a lot older.

Some boys surrounded me in Bryant Park earlier. Maybe they were messing with me, I don’t know. But this was the Bryant Park of now, not long ago, and I was sitting in a section called the Reading Room on a pert green chair with a pile of books courtesy of Bank of America next to lots of other people browsing the classics, so it was more weird than threatening. The boys, young and black, twelve or thirteen years old, six of them, sat down all around me in green chairs. What are you reading? they asked, where did I live, and did I like basketball? I started telling them about growing up in Pittsburgh and how there was no pro basketball team, only a great football team the Steelers and the mighty 70’s Pirates and I think I bored them away because the next thing the one boy who’d been the first to sit across from me was shaking my hand goodbye. “Come back!” I wanted to say, and realized I’d liked talking with them, and that I was lonely. I wanted to be connected to something in the big city of my youth and my dreams, and if it was some kids with nothing better to do, well at least they aren’t the Benefit sales rep at Sephora or a coffee bar barista, so – fine.

I guess that’s how I ended up here at Macy’s, on my way to catch a train upstate. Wanting to text you to see if you’re working upstairs, but my phone battery is dead and I can’t find an outlet to charge it. I applied for a job at Macy’s a long time ago and wasn’t hired, so I’m proud of you. I don’t want to mess anything up, appear in the middle of your huge restaurant in your huge city in the middle of your shift and throw you off.

“Mom?”

You’d do a double-take and maybe even drop a tray load of food. (Of course you wouldn’t. But still.)

Instead I push through the revolving door and back out onto 34th Street, where I stop at H&M and look through a rack of clothes I don’t want to buy.

Tracks

Downward-Facing Dog

The first time I saw him, he stood silhouetted against the glass in the door of the bookstore/bar. Tall and lean, he had pale skin with ginger hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. He perched on a barstool and ordered a beer, then another, and a vegetable empanada after veryifying that there was no meat in it. Oh – one of those, I thought, then remembered how I’ve become more and more one of those myself – picky people who won’t eat this and won’t eat that, for health reasons, for philosophical reasons. Still, there was something imperious about him, like he was putting me through my paces. Fine, I thought. I’m here to serve.

After several hours of eating and drinking at the bar, he paid his tab and stood waiting for his change of fifty cents. There was something extra purposeful about the way he held his hand out that told me he wasn’t planning to leave a tip.

No tip! No tip? Had I done something wrong? I’d been pleasant but not obsequious (he’d been the only bar customer on a Tuesday early afternoon). I tried to remember if there’d been any hint of a foreign accent – Europeans sometimes don’t know that it’s customary to tip a dollar for a drink. He’d had three beers and a snack. Was he Canadian? Irish?

He stood at the end of the bar, draining the last drops from his pint glass. Ah, I thought, rushing to give him the benefit of the doubt – he’s really poor and spent exactly as much money as he has on something to eat and drink. That last fifty cents, that’s it for the week for him.

Then he ordered one more beer.

Again, no tip. It bothered me so much, I wanted to ask if there was something wrong. That’s crazy, I thought – a confrontation, over a few dollars? Let it go. But I felt bummed out for the rest of the day. That he hadn’t tipped me. That I cared that he hadn’t tipped me.

And then the next day – there he was again. Hi! he said, so cheerily I realized I was now his friend. I decided to take the high road – yes, I would continue to provide him with excellent service, service with a smile – no tip required! Still, his stinginess, determined or innocent I wasn’t sure, rankled. How could a person reach the age of forty or even fifty or more – he looked like someone who took care of himself and I knew he didn’t eat meat – hell, why was I spending even a second thinking about this guy – he wasn’t paying me enough to obsess over his eating habits! Let it go, let it go.

He came in another day needing change for the parking meter. I’ll be back for a beer, he promised. Okay, I nodded cheerily – looking forward to that.

It’s been a month, and he’s a regular now. I’ve verified with a co-worker that it isn’t anything personal – he stiffs everybody. With a pained smile I greet him once or twice a week and dutifully place a gleaming pint in front of him. Be zen, I tell myself – the feel of the glass, the grain of the wood I slide the beer across, a smile on his sandy face. Who cares about money?

I was looking up the schedule at our local yoga studio the other day. I’ve been going once a week for a little while and even though I’ve always had a problem with the aesthetics of yoga – something about the length of the pants, or the way the yoga people look so enlightened after class as they stand in the coffee shop with their mats over their shoulders that they don’t notice anyone else in the world and bump those blasted mats all over the place – I really like it. I’m scrolling down the yoga studio page and there’s a stark portrait of a man in an impossible twisted pose – torso bare, arms where his legs should be, legs horizontal, feet splayed and – it, it can’t be. My hands claw the laptop screen, maximizing to get a better look at the face. It’s him! Ponytail man, No Tip! The guy’s a fucking yoga master.

What do they say, when the student is ready the teacher will appear? Maybe he’s been sent to teach me.

Or maybe I’ll burn my yoga mat.

Or how about this – at the end of his time here, his master teaching session – he walks into the bar and drops a hundred dollar bill or two in the tip jar, like a guy who’s been staying at a luxury resort tips the staff at the end of his stay.

“You guys have been great,” he’ll say, shaking hands with all of us behind the bar. His hand is warm and dry. Then he’ll pose one last time, silhouetted in the glass of the front door, his shoulders broad. Then he’ll bow.

“Namaste.”

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