I usually resist going full-on self-promotion here on my blog (even though it can’t help but creep in regularly) but I have to go for it this time as I really want anyone out there in range of my upcoming shows to know about them. It’s been ten years since I did a solo tour and my head is spinning with fear and excitement. Still booking/trying to make a few more things fit/convince this club or that promoter but this is the general shape of things for now. Yep, I still have the coat…
“I’d like a birch beer, lots of ice.” It’s eleven AM in the bookstore/bar, I’m running behind, haven’t counted the register. “Take your time, take your time, I don’t want to be a bother,” the guy says “—Hey, don’t pour THAT much in the glass!”
Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty — “Hey excuse me, are you the only one working today?” the guy says. I guess I’m not good enough for you, buddy? Tough. Fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty — oh shit, wait, where was I?
Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty –
“Excuse me, miss — could you look up a book for me? It’s called Odds Against Tomorrow. They made a movie of it—“
A-ha! This is sounding familiar. I thought I recognized this guy. l know what’s coming next and try to head it if off: “Oh, right!” I say cheerily. “They shot it right here in Hudson”—
He won’t be denied his moment: “It starred Harry Belafonte. Directed by Robert Wise. I was in it.”
I admit I was charmed the first time I heard this story, over four years ago, of how famous noir film Odds Against Tomorrow was shot in Hudson in 1959, and this gentleman, then a young boy (“though you won’t believe it to look at me, I’m sixty-three now; I was ten at the time”) had a role in the movie as an extra. The second time, two years later, I was merely bemused. Now he’s sixty-seven, I’m four years older too, and this time when he starts launching into his story of how Harry Belafonte was so nice, I practically snarl “And every year, for years after, he sent you a Christmas card, yeah – I know, I know!” But I restrain myself.
“So, hey do you have that book in stock? I asked that nice girl, the one who wears jeans a lot, who works Tuesday and she said she couldn’t find it.”
“Nope, not in stock – I can see if we can get you a copy—“
“Nah, it’s out of print. There’s another book by the same name, but that’s not it.”
“Okay well, I better count this money-“
“Sure miss, take your time.”
Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty –
“It’s written by William…um, McGivern, not the other guy.”
What a pest. Maybe I’ve been at this job too long?
I’m curious and look it up. The McGivern book is out of print, and the internet search for Odds Against Tomorrow mostly yields results for Nathaniel Rich’s 2013 novel of the same name.
I pretend the guy’s not there and finish counting. Then I get out a broom and start sweeping, too busy to minister to the needy.
Later, it occurred to me I have my own story that I tell over and over. I guess we all do. My first solo album Diary Of A Mod Housewife came out twenty years ago this month. I’ve done plenty of other things before and since then (haven’t I? haven’t I?), but that’s the one the most people know. If we don’t mention what we’ve done, will it be as if it never existed? The album’s out on vinyl for the first time in October. You can pre-order it here.
Back in the bar, I’d felt a little guilty for being annoyed, and turned to ask the guy what it was like, working with Robert Wise – who directed over forty films including The Sound of Music and West Side Story. But there was just a sweaty, half-drunk glass of birch beer on the end of the bar, with a half-poured soda bottle next to it.
You probably haven’t missed me, but I’ve missed you. Yep, it’s your old pal, the Bag.
I’ve had almost two years of quiet contemplation in the garage. I know, it sounds like a lot. But in the world of nylon gym bags, that’s nothing. A blip in a long, long 600-denier polyester life. Guaranteed.
In case you’re wondering what I’ve been up to: writing my memoirs. I’ve got an agent and everything, who promises me things will really happen if I can just come up with a decent title. So I’m trying these on for size:
Holding It All In
The Things I Carried
The Longer The Arm, The Shorter The Handle
In It For The Long Haul: From Little League To Rock’s Big Leagues (I know, that one needs work)
That’s a few anyways. As you can see, I’ve really been working hard.
I kept starting to write an update, but figured everyone was so busy with all that’s going on in the world, they didn’t need to hear a grumpy old bag venting, or an annoyingly upbeat bag talking about how good life is, so I’ve kept quiet. But this thing happened the other day, and I need to tell somebody.
Okay, so I heard a lot of excitement from the house. There were houseguests coming and going, regular summer stuff. But this sense of anticipation, I could feel it. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought maybe those two lovebirds were going to have a new addition to the family, but I do believe that ship has sailed (for her anyway) and I don’t have them down as pet lovers, what with all the traveling.
Every day, she’d be out there looking for the UPS man. And she kept talking about how their lives were about to change for the better. I was all ears, sitting here in the dark with the recycling and old wood.
Finally I saw a box the size of a small child delivered, and heard some whooping and hollering. “It’s here!” she cried. She even did a dance around the breezeway, which was frankly embarrassing. I mean, have some dignity lady. But this was clearly a big deal to her, so I let it go.
Then – nothing. It was quiet in the house. No wild banjo picking, so there went that theory. No didjeridoo lowing in the night (“all I can say is – didjeriDON’T” I’ve heard him joke in a fake English accent, so figured that was a long shot).
I’d kind of given up hope of finding anything out when the garage door opened and somebody flung a cardboard box into the pile of recycling. I waited until it was all quiet and then crept over to take a look at the box that had held this new whatever that was rocking their world.
It’s a garbage can.
A kitchen bin. Stainless steel, with a foot pedal.
This is depressing.
I know they’re in there, taking turns popping trash into the bin.
“Remember when you used to be all about the music?” I want to shout.
But I was looking back over her old diary entries, and it seems we’ve been here before. “Ma Poubelle Nouvelle” she wrote, in 2011. My New Trashcan. It’s a touching read, about how things just weren’t right for the two of them in France, and the garbage can in the kitchen proved it.
In two weeks they’ll have been here five years. And they chose me not long after to help them along on the journey. They’ve been building a new life for themselves and this trashcan upgrade is some weird totem. I guess I should be a little more accepting.
Maybe even work all this bin business into my memoir?
It’s going to be a winner. They might even make it into a movie.
She has curly silver hair, loose pale linen shirt buttoned up to the neck, darker grey linen trousers. Cool glasses. Sort of Diane Keaton crossed with Melissa Leo. An interesting lady. Sixth Avenue and Twentieth Street, a weekday morning. She looks like she has an interview or an appointment.
I have an appointment too, and as usual I had a hard time getting ready to come to the city. When did I turn into a country bumpkin/hippie? Clothes that feel fine upstate, that even cause me to wonder if I’m trying too hard, don’t feel sufficiently armorlike in the city.
I bought a shirtdress two summers ago. Just dressy enough to feel like I’m wearing something better than what I’d cut the grass, tend bar or buy mulch in.
There’s no way I can wear the same dress to the city yet again. It’s reminding me too much of Long Black Veil, the lady with only one dress, driving up and down the Thruway as the dress grows more threadbare with every passing year, and the face and hair above it grow fainter: “She drives these hills, in her one chic dress.” I ended up wearing black jeans and putting the dress in a bag for the Salvation Army.
The silver hair lady is in front of me in the line to buy coffee. Am I staring? I don’t mean to. But when I see a woman who’s still making an effort, I look. I’m taking notes, I’m measuring myself against her. Not in a competitive way. Just registering – when a person looks at ease with themselves, I want to know how and why. Don’t we all want to be okay? Don’t we want to be seen a little?
I think about invisibility lately. Well, I have for years — it’s hard to believe I wrote a song about it almost twenty years ago! What did I know? I was in my late thirties. I remember feeling surprised and even moved when men told me they go through the same thing. It strikes me now how older ladies alternately mourn and feel relief at the loss of the male gaze. What goes unremarked on, and the thing that is even more painful as the years pile up, is how a woman might miss being seen by other women.
“You’re dead to me,” say a load of girls under…forty? As if getting older is catching. Or worse, that you have nothing to offer – not in terms of competition, inspiration, mere decoration. The loss of viability that isn’t sexual is the ultimate in humility because it’s not the loss of yourself as an object, it’s as if the very stream of life tumbles on without you. It’s a strengthening process, to plant yourself firmly in the tumble and flow, to stand like a rock or a tree; “I’m still here dammit!”: sturdy enough to at least delude yourself you have some say or influence on the direction the water takes. Or you just flow, running your own race now.
Ten years ago I became fascinated by those Red Hat Ladies. You know, the society of women that meet in large groups in restaurants and theatres. They wear purple clothes and loud red hats (the younger novitiates in pink hats) to refute their invisibility. “Don’t they look sad?” I’d say to my daughter. “Do you think they’d have me as a member? Just, y’know, for research.” Back then it felt like a little bit of a joke, Look at those kooky old ladies. But they made us look at them. Do they still exist? I haven’t seen one for ages.
The rest room door is locked and I wait for a chance to comb my hair, prepare for my meeting. The door opens and it’s silver-hair. I give her a giddy smile, like if a movie star you just watched on the screen appeared in the flesh. She stares at me blankly, almost looks worried.
“I see you!” I want to say. “You look great,” I want to say. But I look away.
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.