Dystopia On Toast

I had this dream our house was surrounded. Red trucks, engines of hell’s fury, filled the driveway. There were men everywhere. Fierce brutes in wilderness wear, khakis cut off at the knee, heavy boots; shirts without sleeves. Some wore bandannas tied around foreheads. Sweat glistened on every exposed inch of flesh.

Then there was pounding; the sound of ladders being slammed against the side of the house. The strain and squeal of boot treads on metal. And they were thudding overhead, grunting and cursing. Once they were inside, the whole house would be theirs.

But they didn’t come in – they didn’t seem interested. Up above, they pulled out crow bars. The sky rained black with asphalt shingle and tar paper. Inside, we huddled in whatever room was quiet but it was useless – as soon as we’d picked up and moved – laptop, coffee cup, phone – there they were, pounding and heaving. Or conversing. The language! There was nowhere to hide – outside the second floor bathroom two of them talked about the weekend ahead. Was it already Friday? They’d turned life upside down for almost two weeks.

We blasted music to put them off, or to placate them: Seger, Springsteen; Jay-Z? It only fueled the racket. Or they all wore headphones.

Then I prayed. I prayed like I haven’t prayed in years. Just let it end. Please let it end.

Then I woke up. They were gone, the pounding and cursing over.

Eric said they’d cleaned out his bank account.

But we had a new roof.

Back To The Country

Living in Nashville back at the beginning of this century was my first experience in a place where public transportation was not a real option. So my memories of my time there – me and Hazel in a sweet Victorian house with front porch swing; publishing deal; songs written; records made, shows played; friends and boyfriends, ups and downs – are punctuated with instances of car trouble. The Pontiac wagon that broke down on the move to town and died soon after; the Aerostar left behind in Virginia mountains; the Lumina, the Astrovan (for a brief period I drove a BMW but that’s a different tale).

There was one evening in Nashville early on when Hazel’s dad was living on the other side of town and driving a similarly ratty car. Me and Haze broke down out by Opryland and when the AAA guy arrived he took one look at my eleven year old daughter and said, “Hey, I already saw you once today.” She hadn’t told me about her dad’s car dying that morning. “Dang kid, you get around. Or try to.”

So when I visited Nashville last weekend it was a treat to breeze into the airport and pick up a rental car. No worries! It was pure muscle memory walking from the Southwest gate around and down to baggage claim – I’d forgotten how often I’d flown in and out of this airport. “You have a nice visit, now,” the Hertz lady said and it felt genuine, warm and familiar in a way I hadn’t expected.

The whole trip was sort of like that. I think I’d gotten it in my head that my time in Nashville had been if not a failure then a failed experiment, a sidetrack or foolish attempt to make something of myself, and that it was best to put it behind me and move on. Being there, I felt nothing but love – it was weird.

My pal David Eason met me at this great little Greek diner around the corner from my old house – I had never set foot in the place, it’s strange how living somewhere blinders you in a way. At the same time, the landscape of endless drab shopping strips has changed, there are now huge blocks of shiny new buildings everywhere that are horrible but serve as contrast to the charming old stuff they haven’t bothered to knock down yet. A lot of times I honestly couldn’t tell which direction I was facing there was so much development. Then I would look up and see a familiar old supermarket or liquor store I used to frequent and find myself rooting for the old trashy place for the very reason I used to think the town was homely.

David and I went in through the special guest entrance at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for a tour of the “Dylan and Cash & the Nashville Cats” exhibit. Signing in on the guest register, I couldn’t help but notice the signature above mine: Michael Nesmith. Yes, that Mike of my wooly hat childhood dreams. The ole Nashville magic was already at work. Great exhibit that made me want to go home and listen to every record referenced from Blonde on Blonde to Junior’s Farm. Curator Michael Gray and writers Peter Cooper and Michael McCall who all work at the museum came out to say hi and it made me feel welcome in town the way I’d always felt welcome but had forgotten.

exhibit

I was pretty shocked by East Nashville. It’s full of restaurants and bars now alongside the cute little houses. I stayed at an airbnb just around the corner from a house my late friend Duane Jarvis and his wife Denise lived in when I first came to town to write in the 90s. Back then this part of town felt like charming but on the edge of nowhere, now it seems like a cozy haven from the glitziness.

I took in Tim Carroll’s blazing happy hour show at the Five Spot and ran into Amelia White, another old pal. We clinked our $2.50 cocktails and toasted each other for hanging in there. It felt like Nashville was musical boot camp or even purgatory sometimes when I lived there, but I’ve come to realize if there’s anywhere in this world where people know my name and are happy to see me, it’s actually more like heaven.

amelias

Saturday I drove downtown and parked in the great big downtown Nashville library parking garage. I used to spend a lot of time in this place (the library itself, not the parking garage). There’s nothing like a comprehensive public library, especially one that validates for cheap or free parking. I was tagging along on Bill DeMain’s Walkin Nashville tour and I knew it would be good because Bill’s a great writer and fan of cool old stuff but he really blew my mind with his skills, taking a group of 30 visitors around various spots of musical interest. I was delighted to see Pat Sansone on the tour and meet his lovely girlfriend Mae and their friend Sanae, perfumer to the stars. At one point Bill gave Pat a shoutout for playing sold out shows at the Ryman and the young women in the group whipped out their phones “OMG, one of Wilco is on this tour” and then Bill sweetly mentioned me but my only Ryman story was having one of my songs covered by Laura Cantrell on its stage when she opened for Elvis Costello and the phones went back in the pockets.

old nashville

tootsie's wall

I’d been suffering for a few days from a tick bite I’d discovered earlier in the week and was seriously starting to think I might have Lyme disease, I know it’s fashionable now but…I tried to put the thought out of my head and we all went out to eat after Bill concluded outside Hatch Show Print – honestly, if you’re going to Nashville be sure and take this tour. It reminded me why I fell in love with country music and all its fascinating lore in the first place.

I had a nice walk with Joy Lynn White the next morning, she’s another super-talented friend who I met years ago as a fan when I first came to town and couldn’t get over how people who sang like her actually got coffee in the morning and drove beat up cars like mine.

When Eric arrived I showed him my old house for the tenth time and we had coffee at one of the many good new coffee places sprinkled around. There were two when I lived here, now there are dozens. The array of good places to dine and drink is really something, I thought it would bother me because Nashville was always about “meat and three”, the lunch places where you’d get say fried chicken, macaroni & cheese, collards and sweet potatoes and I still love that food in concept but it’s a once in a while thing and so bring on the arugula, the more fresh and healthy choices the better.

Now I was really hoping people would turn out for Eric’s show, and even when we arrived for soundcheck they were already showing up. It was all going so well. Then I went out to his well-traveled Buick to get some merchandise and –

“I’m just going to get a clean shirt out of the car,” Eric said, crunching out into the parking lot of the Basement.

“Uh, that’s a good idea but – I locked the keys in the trunk,” I said. With rental car keys in one hand and Buick keys in the other, the dreaded thing had happened. Blame it on the tick bite. Eric was astonishingly calm.

basement

It was like old times greeting the AAA guy who arrived immediately to open the locked car so we could get the keys out. But it turned out the trunk lock was on so a locksmith had to be called and meanwhile Eric played a mesmerizing show and I got to see some more old friends who’d turned out. The locksmith came just as Eric’s set finished – a little touch of downhone Nashville he had his young son in the truck at eleven on a Sunday night and it occurred to me how AAA guys and locksmiths have gotten closer to Hazel’s age now whereas I’m still the same as I was before.

A little later after drinks and sandwiches at another good nightspot in East Nashville we stood in the shadow of Woodland Studios (owned now by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings) and I remembered being in awe back when, attending a session there and feeling the magic atmosphere that created hits like “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro and “Comes A Time” by Neil Young, I got chills and warm at the same time and it wasn’t just the Lyme talking.

woodland

The Doxycycline’s working fine and I can’t wait to go back.

R & R

“What’s your name again?” the old guy said, as he’s said every Friday for the three plus years I’ve worked at this place. “How’s Emily, that other girl who worked with you? She’s so nice, I kept telling her if only she was twenty years older, she could’ve married one of my sons.”

“Uh huh,” I say through gritted teeth, the bar towel clenched in my hand. “Oh, there’s another customer who needs my help down there!” I say, and head to the other end of the bar to keep myself from smashing a pint glass and grinding the jagged edge into the old guy’s neck.

The old guy is so boring, if he recovered from my attack, I’m 100% sure he’d be putting people on bar stools to sleep with the story in no time:

“And then she came at me, I can’t remember what her name was, but it reminded me of the time I used to live in Hawaii, did I tell you about that yet? Well you see, back when I was in the navy, before I worked for the post office…”

Yes, it’s time I took a break from this place. I’m headed to Nashville for a few days. I don’t even have a big plan, aside from seeing the Johnny Cash/Bob Dylan exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, and tagging along on my friend Bill DeMain’s Nashville walking tour. I’m sure I’ll hear some music, and eat something fried.

And Eric’s Nashville show, I’ll be there for that and to make the long drive back home with him.

This is the first time I’ve gone to Nashville without a guitar. It feels weird, but free. I almost feel like a normal person.  It reminds me of that time I stopped at a Cracker Barrel, and they were piping old country music into the rest rooms, and I went and bought some of those striped pieces of hard candy in a paper sack…

Hello, hey wait – where’s everyone going?

wtf

Remembrance Of Things Past

I was on the cross-trainer at the gym, flicking through the channels on the TV, and suddenly the screen was filled with cyclists: Le Tour de France was on. The same thing happened that always happens to me when I see the Tour on TV- I think “That’s right near where we lived!” There was the Carrefour sign, the war memorial at the little place right across from the cafe, just around the corner from the bad boulangerie. That field full of cows, the crumbling stone wall, some rows of trees in even succession. Then as the cyclists descended and climbed and rounded another bend, there was the Carrefour sign, the war memorial at the little place right across from the cafe, around the corner from the bad boulangerie. That field full of cows, the crumbling stone wall, some more rows of trees in even succession.

Then I decided they were at least in the same department, or maybe the next one over – the stone on the buildings looked familiar and there was a sign for St. Leonard, there’s a St. Leonard in the Creuse, that makes sense, all those climbs, and the roofs have that certain pitch to them.

As they cycled on and I rode the cross trainer along with them, I finally thought it didn’t matter where exactly they were, they were definitely in France and for those few moments I was right there with them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s four years ago this summer that Eric and I moved to the USA. I love living in the Hudson Valley, it’s got so much beauty, like France, but a lot more to do, and it’s only two hours from New York City. It was wonderful having the experience of living in France, and sometimes, like when I see it on TV, I get a pang. At the same time, when I find an official French document in my files, I get another kind of pang, and remember the pain of trying to navigate the system. There’s plenty wrong with America but it’s an easier place to live in many ways.

Living in Europe is what got me started blogging in earnest (I’m almost embarrassed to use the word anymore, that’s how mid-last-decade it feels now) Writing my own and reading and commenting on other ex-pat blogs was a way to make sense of life in a new and different land. Nowadays I only check in with other blogs very occasionally but there was one Paris blogger I stayed with. I guess you could say I lurked, because I never commented. I kept my distance, but I regularly got a kick out of this American woman’s posts about navigating life in Paris, through finding a French husband, trying to learn French and become a citizen, and her quest to publish a memoir based on her experiences moving to the Paris that really only exists in Americans’ minds.

I’ve come to believe that place of dreams is a valuable one. If you imagine your reality is elevated by taking the you who’s stuck in a rut in the states and paste that person on a boulevard with a baguette under one arm, even if the boulevard is now obstructed by traffic bollards and annoying metal fencing and you still have to do laundry and find meaningful employment or any job at all then more power to you.

This American in Paris blogger died the other day, so suddenly – didn’t update her blog for a month and then her husband posted that she had passed away. I knew she was ill but I realize now she’s gone how much I was rooting for her, because the real her came through the cliche of Paris. It’s left a space, because she was a little link to the dream of France and so here I am on the cross trainer pedaling with the cyclists and getting choked up at the sight, not of an eleventh century church or a quaint tiled roof, but a blasted Carrefour supermarket sign and banner reading “Le Tour C’est Notre Tour!”

For Lisa, this Alexander Payne segment from Paris Je T’Aime

The Mild One

“Hi there! This is RJ? I was in the bookstore/bar a while back, you’re Amy right?” said the chirpy voice on the other end of the phone. “I’m with Albany Jewish Federation of the (something or other) and I’ll be bringing a group in to have drinks and snacks in two weeks, how does that sound?”

It’s a bookstore, with some beer and a few tables and chairs, not a VIP lounge but hey, I’m not going to try and stop you.

I didn’t say this, and RJ continued: “Just want to make sure you can accommodate us? We’ll be spending probably $100 or more, so it’ll be good for you guys, okay?”

Had I ever talked to this RJ before? It felt vaguely familiar…And the Federation, they did good work, I was sure…something involving the blind? I remembered a really good thrift store on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

RJ called again the next week. “Hi there, just checking in! So – we’ll be coming in next week, we like to call our little get-togethers Gin & Juice.”

“RJ, we don’t serve that kind of alcohol here,” I said, wishing I could make her disappear forever. At the same time, I couldn’t stop myself from trying to be helpful – it’s a disease I have. They should have a federation for people like me, The Meek & Mild.

“Next Wednesday, 5:30 PM? See you then!” And she hung up.

Wednesday, 5:15. The beer has been mostly foam for days until the cooler repair guy can come. Pouring one decent pint takes ten minutes. The customers are all prefacing their orders with “I’m really sorry to make you do this, but – could I have a beer?” I’m in a bleak mood – stupid foamy beer, stupid pocket-sized copies of The Art Of War all stacked up by the cash register – what, do you pull this book out when you’re waiting in line at the farmer’s market or at the bank, preparing to do battle with the manager about your overdraft fee?

Please don’t let the blind Jewish contingent show up, I think – the place is crowded and the beer is foam. I send vibes out the door, up the Hudson River to Albany – go to Pump Station, go to the Low Beat, go to Applebee’s, just don’t come here cause I can’t help you.

Still – I promised RJ. Or, I didn’t promise exactly, but I didn’t tell her NO. So I sort of save a table for the contingent and keep an eye on the door. If they’re one minute over fifteen minutes late – that’s it. Sorry.

“Hi, Amy! It’s me – RJ! We’re here!” There are 4 or 5 people and a baby carriage or two. This is manageable, the Federation people mostly had the good sense to stay home. But the ones who are here are thirsty, and hungry. They order drinks, they order snacks. Dirty dishes and glasses pile up across the bar while I fill glasses with foam. The regular happy hour crowd take pity on me and start helping by picking up snacks and drinks and carrying them to RJ and her group.

And then more of the Federation gang arrive. Not a blind person in the bunch – instead they’re all toting one year olds. Asking for water for the kids, in tiny cups. Gin & Juice…Gin and…Jews? Gin and juice –

The phone rings. “Have you got anything by Bemelmans?”

“Oh yes, we have plenty of the Madeline books -”

“No, not Madeline.” The woman’s icy voice cuts me to the quick. Sor-ry! I tell her I’ll check but RJ’s grinning at me, asking for more chips and salsa.

A member of the group comes over in a little while asking if I can look up a book for him.

“It’s by Bemelmans,” he says.

“We have plenty of the Madeli-”

“No, uh-uh,” he shakes his head. “Not those.”

“God that’s so crazy,” I say. “A woman just called for a non-Madeline Bemelmans book. Was there something on NPR?”

“She called me and told me to ask,” the man says. My head is spinning. I pour a beer for the yoga master, who’s on the phone and motioning for a refill by pointing his glass towards his preferred tap. “Yes, master, I live to serve you, you no-tipping motherfu-“…I don’t even know what music I’m playing tonight, it’s a pathetic playlist called Everybody Indie! on some discarded iPod. So that’s what Animal Collective sound like…

Gin and juice- I finally figure it out after RJ has paid the tab. It’s a playgroup for parents and toddlers. RJ has been doing this for a while – calling bars, dangling the Jewish Federation name and conveniently leaving out the part about bringing a load of tiny tykes in for happy hour – you’re kidding, right? I should’ve said no. But I wanted to do good.

For the Federation.

a little help

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