I have been trying to finish a writing project and haven’t been able to post anything lately. Found this story to read at my friend Adolfo’s 60th birthday a few weeks back – set in 1982.
Adolfo was as beautiful and well-groomed as all the gay boys who hung out with drag queens at the Pyramid bar on Avenue A, but he stood out, because he noticed me. We became friends.
Adolfo was European, you could tell by the way he smoked a cigarette. We talked about books and movies – he loved Woody Allen and J.D. Salinger. We ate cheap food at Dojo and saw double bills for three dollars at St. Marks Cinema.
Maybe because he was Italian, Adolfo appreciated fine things more than your average twenty-two year old. One August day, I asked him if he’d take the train uptown with me. Saks Fifth Avenue were having their annual summer clearance, and my mother had entrusted me with her Saks charge to buy something on sale.
“Why this is marvelous!” Adolfo said. “Let us go up there and see if you can find a nice something. After all, your unemployment will run out soon, and then you must look for a job, right?”
We took the Lexington Avenue IRT to 51st Street and walked west, sticking to the shadows to stay out of the sun. I was shiny with sweat by the time we pushed through the revolving door onto the ground floor of Saks. Adolfo was cool and impeccable as usual. The fifties housedress I felt cute in around the East Village suddenly seemed dowdy, and my white Adidas looked grey on the polished tile floor. As beautiful women swooped down on us waving fragrance cards, I wondered what kind of life you had to lead to look like that.
On our way up the escalators to the sales, we passed the shoe department. “Let’s look, just for fun,” I said. And then I saw them: the perfect shoes.
They were wingtips of softest burnished brown leather that seemed to glow from within. I picked one up and balanced it on my palm. Even the inside of the shoe was beautiful, magenta kidskin.
“Ralph Lauren,” Adolfo said admiringly. “These shoes are wonderful!” I checked the price discreetly hidden on the sole: $250. “Oh, I can’t even think about it,” I said. “My parents would kill me. Besides,” I thought about it for a moment, “don’t they look kind of like men’s shoes you’d find in a thrift shop?”
Adolfo shook his head. “Not at all! They are most definitely the shoes for you.”
“But I didn’t really come here for shoes. Just a y’know, shirt or something. On sale.” I kept rubbing the leather of the shoe, the softness hypnotizing me, like it could take any worry away and make life a fashion magazine-perfect dream. A salesman who looked like a Calvin Klein model came over. He admired Adolfo’s shirt and offered to find the shoes in my size.
“Oh, I couldn’t -“ I said. But ten minutes later, after resolutely walking away from the shoe floor, then turning around and heading back while Adolfo cheered me on, I left the store with the shoes individually encased in purple flannel sacks, swaddled in hot pink tissue, nestled in a deep green box with gold logo and cradled in a smart black and white Saks shopping bag.
“Maybe my parents won’t even notice when the bill comes,” I fantasized. “Or if they do, they’ll understand that I need these shoes, so I can find a good job.” Adolfo nodded encouragingly.
The next day, a letter came from the New York State Department of Labor saying my unemployment benefits had been extended for another six weeks. “I’ll be working by the time the bill shows up at my parents’ house, and then I can pay them back,” I thought.
I didn’t know I would start playing in a band and that music would be the most regular job I’d ever have.
I didn’t know just how mad my parents could get about a pair of shoes, or how long it would take to pay them back a little bit at a time.
Someone complimented me on the shoes and asked if I’d found them at the Salvation Army on Fourth Avenue.
I don’t know where the shoes went.
Pro-rated, not per wear but per year ,as a story that reminds me of being young and impulsive and hoping shoes could change my life; a memory of Saks and their sales, and my mother who loved the Saks sales; and my dear friend Adolfo, who always believed I deserved the best – the shoes cost seven dollars a year.
“Does that hurt?” the dentist asks as she inserts a needle into my gum to numb me. I think I might pass out. I can’t move to nod or shake my head so I slap my thigh. She tells me I’m doing really well.
I’ve stood onstage in front of ten or a hundred or a thousand people. Lived on the bad side of town when there used to be a bad side of town. Gone through childbirth without anaesthetics. Traveled to Swindon on a Saturday night. Used the restroom in Penn Station. But my fear of pain from dental work or gum surgery is enough to bring me near to fainting. What is it about that specific vulnerability of the dentist’s chair?
I listen for the bland pop music I heard when I was checking in, desperate to focus my mind on anything that isn’t Dr. Smith and her assistant passing tools back and forth. I hear her ask for “the 2 x 2” and practically rise up out of the chair. I try to celebrate my status as a living person, with tissue and nerve endings, when my head could be a clean, stripped skull (must be a result of just finishing this great novel about Georgia O’Keefe). I reduce my existence to two possibilities: potential for pain or skull. I press the nails of one hand into the palm of the other while a neighboring dentist pops in to take a quick peek at the progress.
“That is amazing! Awesome,” the dentist says and goes on her way. Pain or skull; pain or skull. Being afraid means I’m still alive.
I think back over the past several weeks of travel to distract myself. Memories crowd around. I am not here with kindly Dr. Smith and her assistant doing God-knows-what to my mouth. Instead I’m:
At Atwood’s Tavern, Cambridge MA. Feedback, fist pump and exit the stage to applause. I’ve had a wonderful time playing this late Sunday afternoon show to a nice crowd of fans and friends. I burst through the fire exit door in lieu of a backstage, panting and enjoying the cool May air on my sweaty face and damp shirt. Lean back against a brick wall, open my eyes and – I’m in the middle of a restaurant patio. Diners at picnic tables are tucking into meals; a few of them cast amused looks in my direction. Back in the bar, people are still applauding. Not long or loud enough to demand an encore yet but I weigh the options and emerge a little too soon back on stage because it’s easier than standing outside feeling like an idiot. Ah show biz, I miss you when I’m away.
Changing planes in Dallas, for a show in Amarillo. I hand my boarding card to the flight attendant. “You are a total rock star!” she beams at me. Really? I think. She knows me? I shoulder my guitar in its case a little bolder, prouder.
“Thank you, sir,” the flight attendant says to the businessman just behind me. “You are a total rock star!”
Checking into the Austin Motel – I discover Uber are no longer working this city as of a day ago and take the trusty city bus to town. After a long climb up S. Congress to the Austin Motel, I check in with my guitar looking sweaty and disheveled and discover there’s only enough in my checking account to cover one night. It’s odd how prices of everything have doubled and tripled since twenty years ago but earnings stay the same?
“When my husband comes tomorrow…” I promise them I’ll pay for the second night then, hoping the phrase “my husband” lends an air of legitimacy but wondering if it might do the opposite. I imagine the staff nodding knowingly every time they see me from then on – this ‘husband’ who never materializes, or changes every couple hours. I’m thinking they should be paying me, to bring back some of the old atmosphere of the place.
When Eric does arrive, he doesn’t disappoint. He’s been on tour for weeks, his straw hat and Buick taking on the seedy air of a con man. We look at the bland young people clustering around the coffee place next door and talk about renting ourselves out to add atmosphere; a couple of salty characters from the days when the world (and this town) was weirder…
On the way back to our room, we pass a man and woman who’ve seen better times. She’s got a pronounced limp and wears Hawaiian print pants, he’s in shorts, socks and sandals. They’re in matching bright orange t-shirts.
“Butt out, you two!” Eric says. “We’re the weird old couple in the motel.”
Joining Eric for a few songs every night – This is Eric’s tour and he asked me to come up and sing and play a few songs which is really sweet because since we’ve been together, a big part of our relationship has been playing music and even though it’s great to go out and do our own things again, performing together is special and romantic. The first night in Austin I’m waiting by the stage for my entrance in Whole Wide World and – wait, that very enthusiastic guy who’s been bopping and nodding his head intensely for the whole show is actually climbing onto the stage and striding straight up to the mic to sing the song as if he’s the special guest. Eric kindly deflects him and then our friend Mike Fickel helps him off pretty quickly. At least I have my guitar so people don’t think I’m just one more in the queue to sing Whole Wide World.
Spending a night in magical Marfa, TX –
To bring Eric to town, the residents held a bake sale. Maybe it’s a little like Hudson with more art and less antiques (and the nearest city is El Paso not Manhattan) but I fell in love with this place. There’s something about the sky.
Eating our way across the Southwest –
Sonoran hot dogs in Tucson. Bacon-wrapped dogs in freshly-baked rolls with salsa, pinto beans, mustard and yes, mayo.
Driving from Tucson to San Diego –
Some of the oddest landscape I’ve ever seen is on I-8. Rocks piled on rocks, we climb and climb in the car, feeling like no human should be here. We talk about early settlers, wondering how they kept going: “It’s got to be just over the next mountain…well maybe the one after that.” Of course the sun is directly in our eyes. We reach California.
“Eric, Eric! The Border Patrol up ahead…hope they don’t make us get out of the car.”
“Why hey there, you folks came all the way from New York just to see us?” the guard looks like Walter White’s brother-in-law. But he’s smiling indulgently into the open window of Eric’s Buick and it strikes me we don’t look like Belmondo and Karina, two mad outlaws on the run, but an older couple teetering on the edge of exhaustion. “You two have a great trip,” the border guard says and goes back to joshing with his buddies. But, but – we might be dangerous! I want to shout.
Flowers and flours in San Diego – We stay in a sweet old-fashioned motel on the edge of town the night before the San Diego show and spend the day eating: donuts for breakfast, beer and grilled cheese at Stone Brewing for lunch, tacos from the taco truck across from the club, pizza to kill time before the show. It’s the most fun I’ve had in San Diego, the club people and crowd are really nice and maybe I like the town better when it’s cool and overcast, not flaunting itself. The road construction is a nightmare getting north to L.A. at two a.m. – we stop in a Denny’s for waffles to cap off the carb-fest.
Checking into (and out of) a Los Angeles Airbnb –
“Ready to go? Let’s get started.” We’re on foot dragging suitcases but the saucy London lady on Eric’s Waze app commands: “Drive Safe!” Her voice pierces the sleepy Los Angeles neighborhood, its only competition a rooster that started crowing as we locked up the Buick a block away from the Airbnb camper I foolishly thought seemed like quirky fun when I booked it a month ago.
“Shut up you bitch SHUT UP!” I shout. Eric grapples with his phone while mine exhorts “You have reached your destination!”
“Where, asshole – WHERE?” It’s five in the morning and we’re looking for a lockbox . When we finally find it and pry the rusty numbers into formation to get out the key for the gate and the camper, we’ve woken up half the neighborhood.
I had misgivings about this place, the hostess constantly in text contact eager to know our arrival plans. The last thing you feel like doing after playing a show is making small talk with a needy Airbnb host. I’d informed her before booking that we would probably arrive in the middle of the night. “No problem!” her message shot back. “I’m usually up late anyway!” The red flags had been there all along but I clung to the idea of the camper as an antidote to L.A. hustle, the carefully staged photos promising verdant views and coffee on a cosy deck on a hillside.
We let ourselves into the vintage camper. If “retro charm” is another phrase for decades of grime, dusty screens riddled with holes and stained carpets, this place had it in spades. I was immediately fixated on the paisley sheets, rubbing between thumb and forefinger the sleazy fabric, as if rubbing could change nylon to cotton.
There’s a big silverfish and some slugs in the sink. I hate to be those people, the Trip Advisor gestapo looking for something, anything to be wrong (“the spaces in the parking lot were very narrow, making parking a challenge for my wife and I”) but this place feels rank. I scroll back in my mind through the glowing reviews and question my basic expectations: cleanliness, care and consideration – even the instruction sheet is grubby and dog-eared, as if using a fresh piece of paper cuts too much into the profits. We decide it’s not worth it even to tough it out the first night, because there will be our host in the morning, eager to explain all the charming aspects of this camper. Eric films the place on his phone while I whimper. We head back out, the rooster crowing, and check into a Holiday Inn Express – from what I read Neil Innes won’t stay in anything else and if it’s good enough for Neil and his wife, it’s good enough for us.
Playing at a beautiful wedding in the Valley – Sometimes you show up to play a wedding and the only people who’re interested are the bride and groom who’ve hired you; the rest of the folks just wish you’d disappear. This event is nothing like that, everybody is super-excited to see Eric play and they like me too. It’s a gorgeous twenties style-house in a ranch setting and even though I felt shy about coming (“Are you sure they want me too?” everybody is so cool and nice, and the bride and groom are so sweet, it makes my trip out west worthwhile.
I’m imagining myself drinking red wine at Wombleton Records in L.A. or driving through the Grapevine and past Bakersfield when Dr. Smith steps back triumphantly from her work: “And rinse and spit. You did great! One of our calmest patients ever.” This is a fairly new dental practice, but still, it feels like some kind of accomplishment. Must’ve been that canyon air.
It’s supposed to be a moment of calm, yoga class. A safe interlude where you unplug, unwind.
Why is the instructor talking about house concerts?
I know she’s trying to make an uplifting point but – please don’t.
Seems she was at a fabulous house concert last night, you know this area is just teeming with wonderful musicians and here she was, sitting not two feet from these incredible performers and they were clearly feeling their bliss, doing what they love to do…
And all I can think is – wait, what house concert? Why haven’t they asked us to play? Why was I sitting at home last night? Because nobody wants me. My relaxed breathing turns to a choked wheeze.
But c’mon, you played last Saturday and it went fine and then this weekend and another one this month too – and you’ve been working on other things, growing as a person and-
But probably nobody will come next time, I haven’t been proactive enough spreading the word, and the week after that, was I supposed to create a Facebook event for that one? I asked if they wanted a poster, nobody ever got back to me about that so hopefully it’s okay…I should make sure the show’s even up on the website.
Will anybody come?They would if I was as wonderful as these gifted performers who blew yoga teacher’s mind with their open honest sharing of their gift of music. Better rehearse some more, at least I can do that.
And…breathe. Oh where is Sondra, the regular teacher, the one who lifts me up by helping me into a shoulder stand rather than sending me spiraling into doubt and self-pity?
And, all together now – Ohmmmm.
Find a fixed point and hold it…Maggie.
Maggie Estep. She taught here, right here in this room. Her photo is up at the front on a little table, next to the one of the guy in the orange robe.
How can she be gone? I didn’t know her, just saw her around, walking her dog. When we first moved here, I thought this must be the coolest place if a great writer/performer/interesting person like her is a neighbor.
She died two years ago, at fifty. She’s here with us still, an everyday saint.
Looking at her photo in the yoga studio, I feel humbled. I feel honored. Because I get to be alive.
At the end of the class, the instructor brings up the house concert again. Wow, those two whoever they were really moved her. It should only make me glad. When she says to go out and share our passion like these inspiring musicians did, I promise I will too.
When she asks for one more ohhhm, I give it all I’ve got.
“Oh, late. I just wanted to hear your voice. Mmm, what are you wearing?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know…a big smile now that I’m talking to you.”
Remember telephones? The mystery, the illusion you could sustain talking to your love while they were far away?
Now we have FaceTime.
“Oh! Hello, yeah I’m just coming into the kitchen here” (catch glimpse of self in laptop screen and quickly block available light source to hide bags under eyes and eyeglasses sliding down nose. Try to look into husband’s eyes and avoid sneaking glances at my smaller image in corner of screen but surreptitiously adjust lighting in room, struggling to remember which is my better side) “There we go! How’s everything?”
It makes sense to use the technology available to us, right? It’s free, and immediate. It’s what we dreamed of growing up watching The Jetsons: “And someday, people will talk to each other on tv screens!”
I imagine someone will tell me about this marvelous program that is the equivalent of vaseline over the lens and glamour lighting that makes both parties appear twenty years younger and extremely well-rested and dressed by a stylist. (I don’t have the heart to search for it. We’re married, not dating here. But please let me know if you know anything.)
I listen and talk while trying to eat a slice of pizza just out of frame. “Where are you?” No illusions here, I can clearly see the Premier Inn headboard. Feel sad, thinking of all our times in Premier Inns.
“There’s the kitchen!” he says, and sounds sad himself. “Travel” as glamorous illusion is often better than the reality. “Home” as concept is a movie set that sits in darkness when you’re not there — the way a baby believes its mother stops existing when she’s out of the line of vision — but the actual sight of the untidy counter, amplifier in the corner, all signs of life going on without you, well they make you feel that distance.
Another problem with FaceTime is that aside from restaurant meals, encounter sessions and prison visits, there is something unnatural about sitting face to face with your spouse. We spend a lot more time side by side: in the car, on walks, eating dinner on the couch in front of (insert name of whatever series here), on stage even, or in bed reading and listening to the Archers.
There is a plus side to all this. That reunion you used to have, when you finally see each other after weeks apart but one of you has just been on a transatlantic flight, the other’s had a hellish drive through rush hour traffic and when you run to embrace, the first thing you say is “It’s so good to see you – poor thing, you look exhausted.”
After the flat screen, vicious lighting, bad timing, crap angles – the real thing looks wonderful.
Sunday dawned bright and hopeful: I would put more steering fluid in the Subaru and it would work fine, and I would have a peaceful Sunday morning in the coffee place of my choice.
Neither of these things happened.
First I packed up my stuff — it was time to leave the Airbnb for a stay at a friend’s place near Belmont — and when I brought it all out to the car, there was a large patch of steering fluid on the driveway. Add that to the list of annoyances my hosts were toting up: “and she leaked fluids everywhere!” (standard hotel guest behavior but rude when it’s not anonymous.)
Another trip to AutoZone and then maneuvered into the parking lot at Frothy Monkey – oh my God,there was a line from the counter, out the front door, down the porch steps and along the sidewalk. Same thing at Bongo Java. But it was 9:15 AM on a Sunday morning! What, do these people go to church or somethin- oh right, I was in Nashville. I remember being asked at my daughter’s school back when “Have y’all chosen a church yet?” and well-meaning parents bringing my heathen child to service…on Wednesday night!
I managed to maneuver the car out of a parking spot and drove to my friend Joy’s. She’s a great country singer who’s been laying low for some years. We walked her dogs through the neighborhood, gaping at graceful old cottages turned into three story behemoths. It’s still a beautiful part of town, Belmont. I love this time of year for looking at the bare bones of peoples’ gardens and landscaping, much easier to see how they do it before the leaves and flowers fill it all in.
So I was not going anywhere for a few days, except on foot. It was fun anyway, if a little stressful. I went to a yoga class at this incredible new community center for three dollars. Had to cancel my writing date with Bill Lloyd which sucked, he and I have written some good songs together. Joy and I sat talking for hours about the old days, I pictured us in another ten years, my car now on blocks outside, busting out songs and albums and photos for each other, a regular alt-country Grey Gardens “And then that guy, what was his name, y’know, that song plugger back in aught-three…”
Joy hooked me up with her mechanic Johnny, who assured me “You just sit tight baby and we’ll get you rockin’ and rollin’ in no time.” AAA paid for itself with a tow to his place and much quicker than he said he would, he called and said “Where you at? I’ll come pick you up.” He was blasting Led Zeppelin from my Subaru’s radio. What a sweetheart, Johnny. He told me to give the last garage hell for not tightening things properly and barely charged me.
I drove away from his shop and just around the corner was my daughter’s high school: Nashville School of the Arts. This was too good, I really wanted to take a picture to send her. My timing was a little weird – it was exactly three PM, the end of the school day. All of a sudden I was stuck in a line of cars picking up disenfranchised, creative teenagers — hair dyed in unnatural colors, black t-shirts, fingerless gloves, loose plaid shirts, Converse — as if the last ten years hadn’t happened. I was like a Mom who’d been put in the deep-freeze and comes to one weekday afternoon: “Must…make…school…run. Offspring…is…waiting, for…meeeee.” I felt kind of creepy sitting there in the line, trying to surreptitiously snap a photo, being careful not to aim my phone at any living creature for fear someone would notice I was just cruising by without there being a teenager waiting for me.
When I stopped for a coffee (whee! I seem to be one of those people who just goes around on foot or now by car getting coffee all day) I heard “Amy? Amy Rigby is that you?” It was like a TV show, “Steve Allen, what are you doing here?” My old friend and sometime guitar player Steve, who used to always joke that my life was a TV show. We had a lovely chat, and again it was that feeling of I know it’s all changing and being over-developed but I love this town (from a safe distance, as a visitor).
I said goodbye to Joy and decided to hang around in town a little longer – I’d really wanted to try writing something. I got together with Bill DeMain, who I wrote “Keep It To Yourself “with. It was great to see his new place and we sat talking for ages, and I kept thinking “it’s fine if it doesn’t happen.” But then, just like the old days, he said he had some chords and a melody on the piano and I said I had this feeling/idea and an hour later we had a song. I told him we were like Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam and part of the magic of me and Bill is he knew exactly what I meant.
Met up with friends Trip and Nancy and it was so cool how we were drinking cocktails in a bar called Duke’s and I heard this really familiar voice coming out of the speakers. “What’s that song…wait, it’s Eric/Len Bright Combo “You’re Gonna Screw My Head Off”! I think they play one of Eric’s records every night in this place. They make fabulous cocktails too and even serve deli sandwiches at all hours.
I was staying at another Airbnb now, a perfect entire home/apartment option. I had the odd experience of pulling away in the car from my little cottage and passing this kindly-looking couple out for a morning walk. “Do I know those people?” I thought. “They look so famili- oh shit, they’re the people from the Airbnb I stayed at last time I was in Nashville.” I practically ducked down as I drove past, not that I’m not allowed to stay anywhere I want but they were such nice people and I guess I could lie and say it’s a friend’s I’m staying at but – don’t you hate the new transparency sometimes? I can’t imagine ever having to explain to Mr. Howard Johnson that Mr. Hilton has more what I’m in the mood for. I’m sure they wouldn’t care, really. But sometimes the world is just too small.
More nice times visiting with friends, hearing music. I stopped in at Alex the Great where I recorded The Sugar Tree with Brad Jones. I went straight to the Fellini/Francoise Sagan sixties photo book of sexy ladies that sits on a shelf in the control room, like a kid at grandma’s house checking that the Hummel figurines are still standing guard. “They’re still here…I dream about this place.” Brad gave Hazel her first bass when we lived here, and I got to play him some tracks from her Outside World album, proud mama.
I’d stretched it an extra day because when I arrived in town I’d been greeted by a billboard advertising Burt Bacharach with the Nashville Symphony. Marc Nathan, a super-sweet music guy who’d done the convoy with my faltering Subaru, offered me a ticket – it really felt like the only chance I’d ever have to see Burt.
When I was leaving for the show and thought out of sheer habit “It’s time to hide the tour money”I realized what it is to be on vacation, not on tour because I HAD NO MONEY LEFT. On tour the wad grows and on vacation you get down to zero (or below). Economics 101. Still, I thought it had been really worthwhile, and I hadn’t even seen Burt Bacharach yet.
So I’m trying to drive down to lower Broadway in a massive traffic jam because it’s also March Madness AND probably Keith Urban playing. A couple police cars come through sirens and lights blaring and I’ve pulled over to let them through. When I try to get back in the lane of traffic (the other lane is the on ramp for the interstate), a big black Range Rover won’t let me back in. I try and try and the guy keeps inching in front of me. I roll down my window and say “Could you please let me back in?” He gives me a pitying look and sort of chortles, shaking his head. I couldn’t help it, I leaned out the window and said “You are a cunt.” Too many trips in the passenger seat on the M25 or the A11. When a light changed and the opportunity came, I shot in front of him.
I’m not proud of myself. He probably thought I said “you are a coot” but he deserved it.
Marc and I meet up, late cause of the traffic but we take our seats in Schermerhorn Symphony Hall, two rows back from the stage. When Burt walks on, he is as cool and suave and as much the man of my mother’s dreams — which was the beginning of my love for him, that album Reach Out with him in action on the cover — as he could possibly be. And the symphony sweeps in:
“What the world, needs now – is love, sweet love – it’s the only thing, that there’s just too little of.”
Oh why did I call that guy a c**t?
Because he was acting like one. But who cares? He’s not thinking about me. And I’m at Burt Bacharach! I’m on the edge of my seat and on the verge of tears for however long he plays, sings, conducts. talks to the audience.
“This is just what I do, play music,” he says at one point. “Try to make people feel something.” He is eighty-eight years old.
Who said, this is a marathon, not a sprint? A moment like this is a paper cup from one of those big orange plastic water jugs along the road to as long as I can keep going. Thank you Marc! Thank you Burt!
I felt so sad to leave Nashville. Jon Graboff said he was playing with Iris DeMent opening for John Prine at the Ryman on Saturday. And something great after that I’d have to miss. And something else. But I knew I’d be back.
Driving out of town, I popped the Lovin Spoonful cassette I’d bought into the player. Whoever had gotten rid of this Greatest Hits left it cued up to the middle of the tape:
I was stuck the morning I left for Nashville. I couldn’t seem to leave the house, kept washing dishes and straightening up. Afraid to go. I think it’s the first time we’ve both been gone at the same time. When I went to England in December my movements were tied to Eric: our friends and family, his gigs. Nashville was my place, but it isn’t anymore. Why am I going to Nashville? All these things went through my head as I wiped the kitchen counter again.
Freedom! When I was in the car and somewhere in Pennsylvania, listening to WNYC or WFMU, I started getting into my road trip. It was a beautiful day, the trees as bare as they could possibly be but the light hinting at spring, it was like the whole world was glowing.
Then it was getting dark and by Virginia I was cursing my poor eyesight. I wish I’d sorted out my eyeglass situation before I left. I have these Warby Parker frames which I don’t like with a new prescription, then my old sunglasses with the old prescription. The WP customer service really want me to be happy, they said I can switch out the frames whenever I want but I haven’t had a chance. Stupid glasses, I hate you!
Best Western at Staunton VA is a spot Eric and I have stayed in before. It’s retiree central, being near the Blue Ridge scenic route, and also home to the Statler Brothers though I may be one of the few people who knows or cares about that anymore. It also sits right next door to Rowe Family Restaurant which used to be one of the mecca spots in Jane and Michael Stern’s Road Food Good Food. Eric and I ate there once, they are famous for chicken and pie. It didn’t seem that special anymore.
The only thing open after I checked in was Texas Roadhouse. I imagined it’d be kind of fun and characterful in an artifiicial way but it was depressing and bland in a real way; grim with awful lighting and a weird mix of rock hits playing loudly throughout the restaurant. It made me miss Eric, he is the master of these situations, the grimmer the better. I ordered a huge glass of wine, mac & cheese and chicken tenders, not being able to face anything else on the menu that would require the use of one of the huge Bowie knives they were distributing to every table.
In the morning I finally got a chance to use the pool which I’d only looked at longingly the last few times we stayed there. I also had the experience of the fabled freight train they always warned about on check-in roaring past the windows of my room.
The rest of the drive, eight more hours, went by in a blur as I was listening to Helen Fielding’s “Mad About The Boy”. It’s Bridget Jones twenty years on, very entertaining. I know I should be improving my mind with Great Literature, I even thought of using this trip to listen to Anna Karenina but it just seemed wrong. Bridget Jones is about right for driving past “Jerky Warehouse with over 200 Varieties” and Frozen Head State Park.
I checked into my Airbnb, it was in a down home part of town untouched by the development that is rampant in Nashville, brick ranch house with a car port, v.g. I drove out to look for something to eat but by the time I got the the Smiling Elephant, a Thai place everyone raves about, they were closing up. The woman went to the kitchen and came back with two boxes of rolls and gave them to me : “here! you enjoy.” No charge. I devoured the rolls in the car in a parking lot, that’s a weird thing about a fifteen hour drive, in the end you don’t want to leave the safety of the car, it feels like a turtle shell.
I woke up super-early, on central time now, and feeling weird in a stranger’s house, got out immediately to go get coffee, thinking I’d beat the rush hour. It was 6:45 AM and there were already lines of cars, I remember how Nashville runs on this early schedule but there are lots more cars now. I went to the Frothy Monkey, I spent a lot of time there when I lived not far away. They were playing “The Grand Tour” by George Jones and “Set Em Up Joe” by Vern Gosdin, old school country and that made me happy. A little boy screamed at his parents “I don’t want to take a nap!” and I thought “wait, isn’t it only 7:30 AM? What time do these people get up?”
Later I took a walk at Radnor Lake, another of the places I just automatically head to out of habit. I’d forgotten how beautiful this nature preserve is, mist rising off the water, pine needles underfoot ontrasting with women impeccably sportily-dressed and coiffed in full makeup on the trails. Then I couldn’t help it, I was drawn to Green Hills Mall where a guy who looked like just like Luke Wheeler in the TV show Nashville was wheeling and dealing on a cellphone. I took in the splendor of the over-the-top family portraits outside a photography studio, so many things here remind me of hanging out with Hazel, it was a little us-against-the-world when we lived here what feels like a lifetime ago.
I went back to try and play guitar a little and take a shower but I couldn’t relax in my lodging and missed the anonymity of a hotel. Does anybody else have a similar problem with Airbnb? I think I’m just too self-conscious to ever stay in a stranger’s house when the stranger is present. I imagine my every action being cause for irritation and comment, maybe because I’d be intolerant myself. At night I kept picturing this couple in their room just next door, sitting up in bed, Kindles propped on their laps.
“Think she runs enough water?” he says. “Sounds like a hand washer.”
She’s the one who suggested they host guests to earn some extra cash, so feels inclinded to defend me. She listens. “No, I don’t think so.” She thinks a minute, and decides marital loyalty requires her to join in a little light guest bashing. “She does seem to wash her hair a lot! I heard her running the hair dryer again this afternoon if you can believe it.”
“And what’s with the space heater? I mean, we have heating. It’s practically spring!” and on and on.
Note to self: in future, check Entire home/apt. option.
The Bluebird was like a dream, everybody (Bill Lloyd, David Mead and Andrea Zonn were my in the round partners) was so good. The ole Nashville magic where you’re so surrounded by talent you just want to do and be your best and it all clicks together. Except for some old friends the room was full of tourists but it wasn’t the nightmare it could’ve been, everybody was super-respectful and into it, even the nearby table of bridal party night out twenty-somethings. I knew as we were playing that already my trip had been worthwhile.
I met up with my friends David & Jolean next morning and we went to the Country Hall of Fame & Museum, just happening to bump into Bill DeMain doing his Walkin Nashville tour on the way. It’s always felt like being in a TV show here, where all these interesting characters keep popping up in cameos from my first day in Nashville many years ago when I saw Billy Joe Shaver slinging a guitar case into the back of a pick up truck on Music Row. We had fun looking at the Sam Phillips exhibit and revisiting Nashville Cats which is so popular they’re keeping it up until summer.
Then I was exploring in East Nashville. It was seventy degrees so I rolled back my sunroof and was trying to listen to the Richard Marx cassette I bought at Fond Object when – I couldn’t turn the wheel of the car! Shit. It was possible to turn with great effort but didn’t feel safe, so I did what one does in these situations: went through Krispy Kreme drive-through. I don’t even eat donuts and stuff like that much anymore but I just couldn’t think straight without sugar and fat coursing through my veins. I bought some power steering fluid at Auto Zone and began to be able to turn the wheel so just thought phew, crisis averted and even felt kind of pleased with myself.
But when I was driving to join David & Jolean and their pal Marc for dinner later, the power steering cut out again to the point where I could only make a really wide turn to park out on the edge of town and had to walk over the interstate to meet them at this really nice restaurant. Yes, every trip to Nashville I have to end up feeling like the Barbara Harris character in Robert Altman’s Nashville at least one time, limping along highway traffic, maybe a few runs in my tights. forlorn and bedraggled but ultimately hopeful.
+ I love the new (to me) Subaru. I’m really looking forward to driving it to Nashville.
– The car needs a new head gasket.
+At least it was already at the garage when I found that out, and not on the side of the road somewhere.
– I was supposed to drop Eric off at JFK, spend the night at my brother’s in Manhattan and knock a few hours off the drive down south, but the car wasn’t ready yet.
+ The car would be ready Wednesday.
– It’s an expensive repair.
+ Eric has a few weeks of shows in Belgium.
+ There’s a great Subaru mechanic in Catskill, and he says once this repair is done, the car will be in great shape.
– They’ll probably tell us they don’t want our business again because I was such a pain about trying to get the car in time to leave for the airport and ended up practically crying and shrieking on the phone with the mechanic’s wife.
+I called her back and apologized in a phony calm voice and told her everything was fine and “We’ll just rent a car today, no problem! See you tomorrow, thanks so much!”
– This election is becoming real. I’m worried. On the trip to drop Eric off at the airport I drove past Donald J. Trump State Park, Trump Links and Trump Pavilion. I don’t want to live in a tacky oligarchy.
+I have the right to vote. Every vote counts.
+I still have my French residence card, just in case.
-I don’t want to live in France, I want to live here.
+ I’m playing at the Bluebird in Nashville on Friday with my old friend Bill Lloyd, and David Mead and Andrea Zonn. I may play my songs sitting in a chair that Roger Miller once sat in. It’s an honor and privilege to be part of the songwriting community.
+ Yesterday I received a quarterly song publishing statement via email and “Direct Deposit Credited To Your Account”. Great! I could use some money for my trip to Nashville.
-Grand total of songwriting royalties payment credited to my account: three dollars.
+ I could always use another cup of coffee on the road.