Ceci n’est pas un sac

Ooh look, there’s a Vera Bradley bag on the rack – what a great paisley. Pretty useful size, too.

But I don’t need any more bags, and I’m not exactly a Vera Bradley woman am I? I mean there are Le Sportsac women and there are Vera Bradley women and I was always more Sportsac but considered Vera bags a possibility. They’re not exactly old enough to make me nostalgic and I’m not young enough to wear one in the way I see women born in the eighties, nineties or this century look cute in Christmas sweaters and mom jeans. But they’re cheerful and practical.

“Taking Care Of Business” is chugging away through the thrift store speakers (where are the speakers in thrift stores? I mean, do you ever actually see where the music is coming from, or is classic rock and the sounds of the sixties just in the ether? Maybe it issues forth from the pockets of overcoats, Wranglers and nylon track suit jackets). I put down the Vera Bradley bag and—what’s this, another Vera Bradley bag? Different size, different shape. In excellent condition! And then I see—another, and another; and another. Seven on one rack, another two here and there.

An older man, masked up, all in beige, enters the handbag area and starts reaching towards the same rack and I practically snarl at him. Not from fear of coronavirus, although he definitely should be more careful, but because I don’t want him getting any ideas about these bags until I’ve decided whether I want one. That is law of the land in thrift stores so back off, buster. Wait your turn. Pandemic rules dicate six feet apart but the tenets of civil thrift shopping decree a force field approximately four feet square around a customer’s object of desire, like a privacy shield, a confessional—them’s the rules dude. A sharp elbow to the ribs is not unheard of if someone impinges but I wouldn’t go so far as to touch anyone right now. Anyways, he’s moved on and I’m left on my own to sort out my feelings about these Vera bags.

But enough about me for a minute. It dawns on me this is someone’s collection. The bags aren’t new, but gently used. What happened to the owner of these bags? A complete purge, as many people of a certain age seem to be attempting, especially with all the pandemic time on our hands? A woman (most likely) saying “you know what, I haven’t used these bags in years…it’s time to let them go.” But that’s not where my mind goes. My first thought is: somebody died.

That’s where my head is these days, and I wonder will it stay here as long as I’m still breathing? Is there a line and have I crossed it, when I see everything in terms of mortality— not necessarily my own but somebody’s? We’ve all been closer to death this year and I’ve touched it, held its hand in the case of David Olney or stopped it happening, driving Eric to the emergency room, running towards a security guard and shouting “my husband’s having a heart attack!”

Nearly every day has brought news of someone I knew or admired dying. Friends losing loved ones. Then last week it was my stepmother Lois. One minute she was coming home from the hospital post-heart attack, doing pretty well. The next she was back in, positive for Covid, having trouble breathing. It was hard to believe she wouldn’t make it and recover—she was that strong and tough and healthy but she was 93, and suddenly it started to feel like she wouldn’t get better.

I talked to her on the phone one last time and when I hung up it hit me how much I loved her. I don’t think I’d ever realized it. Maybe that’s the job of being a stepmother, you’re not the main event, you do your best to stay supportive and keep out of the way unless needed. She was an ace at all of that and made our lives so much better by making a life with my dad. And she always sounded so happy to hear from me, and interested in what we were up to and I took it for granted. And maybe she understood that too.

I frantically searched for a rapid Covid test so I could go to Pittsburgh for her very small funeral and to support my dad. There was not a test to be found upstate, and then I remembered I’d received an email from City Winery in Manhattan saying “buy a case of wine and get a FREE RAPID COVID TEST” and I said Fuck it, I drink wine, and NYC is almost on the way to Pittsburgh and I stopped in at their fancy new complex just off the West Side Highway at the appointed time, got a nasal swab in a room full of wine barrels, tested negative, picked up my wine which minus the cost of a Covid test came to about twelve dollars a bottle. I loaded up the trunk of my car feeling like a bit of a chump but appreciating the absurdity and comic relief. If only I’d booked myself a City Winery gig while I was waiting the fifteen minutes for my test results, it would’ve been a Covid hat trick.

Two days in an empty hotel, distanced condolences (and some bottles of wine) exchanged with my brothers and sister in law and niece…sharing in my father’s grief. He’d been quarantined for two weeks after Lois tested positive and had at last been allowed in to see the woman he’d married back when they were both seventy-seven. They’d been blissfully happy with each other until old age made them edgy but in the end they loved each other. My dad said. “This is it. I’m not getting married again.” I started to chuckle and then I saw the pain. It was like looking at myself down the barrel of a gun. No matter what age you are, love is love and loss is as real if you’re fifteen or fifty or fifty-three plus forty.

When I was getting ready to leave, my father asked me to take Lois’ purse. It was a chic Calvin Klein crossbody. “It’s a nice purse,” he said. Of course I’ll take it, I told him. I was glad I hadn’t take any of the Vera bags at the thrift store. I don’t need any more bags. But I’ll take good care of the one that belonged to my stepmother.

The things I Carried

Is it time to let you go?

Perfect fifties sandals of fine black suede I haven’t worn in twenty years except for the day Eric and I got married. I’m amazed now that I had room in my suitcase for a pair of shoes that impractical. I remember the tiny shop in San Francisco’s Mission, how I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I spotted you.

Green broad brimmed hat straight out of a James M Cain novel turned forties film – I found you in an antique shop outside of Santa Cruz, full of perfect old California stuff you’d never see back east. How the hell did I get you back home on the plane? I don’t remember ever wearing you in public, but wow I loved trying you on and pretending to be Ida Lupino.

A mohair cape in softest turquoise and green plaid, an artifact from my first tour dates in Scotland. I can see the massive vintage shop on a cobbled street in Edinburgh like I was there yesterday. I remember how thrilled I felt walking out with the cape over my shoulders even though if you’ve ever toured with a guitar on your back and a rolling suitcase well, you learn there’s times where a cape is just a little…impractical? But it was the fantasy of Scotland and the belief that I was a person who wore capes that has kept me holding onto that beauty all these years…even as I aged from I Know Where I’m Going to Miss Marple.

A black fur seventies hat with smart white band held in place by a snazzy silver buckle with a Pisces fish design. We told our French friends it was “le chapeau de Sly Stone” and in my mind now it really did belong to Sly Stone, in fact I think I can find a picture somewhere of him wearing it…

These are on the B list. The A’s are the hardest – the ones my mom found for me, the pieces I’ve carried from East 14th Street to Brooklyn to Nashville to Cleveland, stowed in a storage space there for half a decade and then brought to upstate New York. Art deco pins and twenties shoes too narrow to ever hold a twenty first century foot. Embroidered Mexican jackets of bright red and green wool; charm bracelets with charms so tiny I can’t tell what they are anymore without my glasses on. A black lamé pantsuit worthy of Catherine Deneuve from MicMac Saint Tropez, the boutique Brigitte Bardot’s husband opened in the sixties. I’ve worn the jacket and maybe I wore the trousers, but did I ever really step out in that outfit the way I should’ve? I wish I could say if I hold onto it I still might, but even when I weighed 115 pounds the pants were never quite the right cut for my hips.

Rhinestone necklaces, and earrings like chandeliers; chain belts and cigarette cases, rouge compacts with tiny mirrors, purses made of beads or bakelite. I sit cross-legged on the floor in jeans and hiking boots, holding them in my hands, stroking the material like talismans of former good luck, conjuring up images of every apartment and house I’ve ever lived in; of getting ready to go out at night when I still smoked cigarettes and wore red nail polish and didn’t own a bra and the world seemed full of every possibility but I had ten dollars to last until next Friday.

Is it time to let you go?

A beaded white leather bolero jacket so perfect and so ubiquitous in every closet I’ve ever had that it’s an apparition of a jacket – I don’t even see it any more. I couldn’t put it on if I tried and I don’t even remember when the last time I tried to wear it, but it’s moved everywhere with me and to give it up would be…freedom? Or defeat. I hold it up and ask: Will I even know who I am if I let you go?

There’s a new vintage consignment shop in town and I think it would be a good idea to take my little treasure trove down there and see if anyone’s interested. It’s not so much the money though that would be nice – just the idea of letting someone else have a turn with something beautiful and unique.

But what if no one’s interested? What if – even with the lowest, fairest, most reasonable prices -nobody bites?

It almost makes me sick to my stomach, picturing my treasures out there in the open for everyone to see and paw – and what if the people just turn their backs and walk away?

I don’t know if I can stand it.

I separate the pins and am sad to see some of them have lost their clasps, or the glue has dissolved and bits have fallen off. Elastic’s broken on a bakelite bracelet and the little wooden senor strumming a guitar is missing an eye. Why did I save this old junk?

Maybe the girl who works at the coffee place will buy the Scottish cape and wear it riding her bike? Just the thought of seeing that makes me smile and want to sob.

I think I’ll try to let you go, just to see what happens.

stereo pair

I’ve heard that the pandemic can be a test for couples – all that shared time alone. I’ve joked that Eric and I started our life together in the equivalent of lockdown, living in a small village in rural France, and touring for years just the two of us, so this enforced togetherness has been nothing particularly new.

The real test in this prolonged time at home has been having to deal with issues in our house that we’ve successfully avoided for years. I can’t count how many occasions I’ve cried “I don’t have time to deal with that right now! I wish I had time but I can’t think about it right now!” as we scrambled to pack suitcases on the living room floor and bolt the door yet again on a scene chaotic enough to repel intruders: a warehouse’s worth of record cartons in the middle of our living space; tour after tour’s worth of amplifiers, guitar cases, microphone stands and extension cords cluttering any available floor space until it all became just part of the furniture.

For the last eight going on nine months, we’ve had nothing but time. Finally, finally, we’ve been able to move most of the cases to the basement, set up a merchandise/shipping area down there. We got a washer and dryer for the first time, and this weekend, a coat rack! I see chairs I never knew existed and a patterned rug I’d forgotten even though it had been there all along, just buried somewhere back in the 2014-15 era.

One helpful thing was having my daughter staying with us for a little while, exposing some of our domestic dysfunctions to an outside eye (“Do you guys have a pepper mill that actually grinds pepper? Cause all that’s coming off this thing is dust.”)

Mice became a problem and we had to call in an exterminator. The plumber fixed a leaking toilet and an ancient pipe; the ladder we’d left leaned up against the house for a year has been hung on the side of the garage. We planted raised beds in the backyard (an abject failure) and got a cheap firebowl to sit around at night (a big success). The Buick that sat in the yard for almost a year, not quite on blocks but headed in that direction, has been donated, to be replaced by the aluminum boat that made this past summer something special post Covid, post Eric’s heart attack.

One big sticking point has been our stereo system. Listening to records used to be a favorite pastime, until one speaker kept cutting out. It started a few years ago. The only way to hear both sides of the stereo was to stand at the amplifier and flick the power switch on and off rapidly. If you got it just right, suddenly 75 Dollar Bill or Ian Hunter or The Minus Five would spring into full stereo, filling the room instead of one half of the room. For the length of a whole song even, sometimes. 

Got to fix that amplifier, we’d say. But we were always getting ready to leave, or just coming back and there were records to make and press up and books to write and tours to book and on and on…

After many months at home, I decided I would be pro-active, and surprise Eric with a fully functioning stereo system. I searched around online and found a pair of powered speakers that could be plugged into directly from the turntable. Easy! I thought, excited to get it all set up so that when Eric walked into the room, some fave album like Curtis Mayfield or Running On Empty (my favorite not his) could be playing in full 2D.

Only it sounded…weak. Thin. Awful, really. There was none of that visceral punch you get from records. I double-checked the reviews on the site I’d ordered from. How wrong can people be? (Well, look how many people voted for Donald Trump…)  But still, I told myself – it works! He’ll be happy I took action. I pictured all the albums coming out of the shelves and enjoying a renaissance, bringing us entertainment and inspiration and we could even enjoy them without having to flick a switch on and off like trying to invent electricity.

Eric walked in to the strains of “Superfly.”

“What is that? What are those?” He was eyeing the powered speakers as if some animal had relieved itself at two points in the room.

“I just thought-“ I said weakly. I don’t know how I could’ve imagined Eric would say “Gee this sounds great!” I knew he wouldn’t. The man knows sound. And I’m sixty one years old and still don’t always know how to be direct.

“Why don’t we just get another amplifier,” he said. And just like that, we did. Maybe it isn’t as impressive a vintage as the once fabulous one we’d sort of been using, but it WORKS. The powered speakers went back in the mail.

True, the old stereo amp now sits down under one of those chairs that had previously been covered by coats, but one can only make so much progress at a time. If things were too perfect here, we might never want to leave home when the time comes.

Off to live in isolation that first time, November 2006. Photo by Karen Hall

I’m doing a fun music podcast called Looking For The Magic with Elizabeth Nelson of Paranoid Style. It’ll soon be available via Apple Podcasts etc but for now you can tune in here.

Oh My Sole

I need to walk. I need to hike. But more than either of these things – I need a decent pair of hiking boots.

Why not go online and buy some? You’d think it would be that easy.

But me and shoes are never that easy. I don’t know if I set up these quests to keep myself always on the brink, teetering between possible success or, more likely, disappointment. It’s a hard lonely road when you set standards that are impossible unless you have a time machine to take you back a few decades.

I found a brilliant pair of Vasque boots on eBay some years back and have not met their equal since. Made in Italy sometime in the eighties they fit perfectly and were so well-made, I could tend bar for eight hours in them and never realize until I sat down at the end of the night that I’d been standing up the entire time. But as these things do, they started to wear out, to break down. I left them over in England back in February, figuring I’d reconnect with them in March but…we all know how internationaly travel is going these days. Hopefully we’ll meet again in 2021.

In the meanwhile, back in March I went on eBay or Etsy again and scored another pair of Vasque boots. Also Made in Italy, they were a decade newer design but looked promising. When they arrived I was thrilled – they fit just right, looked cool, had that indestructible Vibram sole I crave now that I know such a thing exists. 

I wore them exactly twice. The first time was a little bit of a breaking in period but I felt confident the boots would soon take their place in the pantheon of indispensable footwear. The second time was great. They were all I wanted a boot to be – not as good as the classic hikers but the perfect mix of tan and navy, Vibram soles; supportive, comfortable-

Goddamn it the sole fell off one of the boots. Just started flapping, came loose and completely detached itself. Thankfully it happened in the living room and not out on the hiking trail! I pictured myself limping back to my car…it’s bad enough to be on the trail in a mask let alone hobbled by a soleless boot.

That’s when I decided I’d get in touch with Mark the shoe repair guy in Poughkeepsie. I’d heard about him when I was tending bar last year, asking around because the local shoe repair man where we live had retired and there’s nowhere up here anymore to get soles replaced or repairs done. Great Barrington is the nearest, or down in Poughkeepsie.

I heard Mark was an artist – a guy who just really loved keeping good shoes alive. I’d emailed him last year about putting new soles on a pair of Arche boots I bought a dozen years ago at a depot vente, a used clothing store in France. He’d risen to the task, finding the (again, Vibram) soles, doing a beautiful repair, even cleaning the beige suede in the bargain. He’d salvaged a pair of boots worth several hundred dollars new. Even though we never met in person, doing everything by mail as Poughkeepsie is almost an hour away, I felt like I’d made a friend, someone who cared about his work.

So a few weeks back I emailed Mark if he thought it was worth trying to repair these hiking boots. The next day I heard back from his wife. She said she remembered my Arche boots and helping Mark with them. She said Mark had passed away of a heart attack back in December.

It’s been a very hard year. 

My heart went out to her, I was only glad I had said in my first email how thrilled I’d been about the repair Mark had done. I told her my husband had had a heart attack recently, that he had survived; that I could only imagine what she must’ve gone through. I hoped it was okay to say that.

Of course there are other repair people. Of course there are hiking boots. I could go on a website and get something. But I want more. I want magic. I want boots that feel destined for my feet, or to connect with an artisan who cares about their work.

Yes I want to hike. But I want to feel closer to God when I do it.

Is that too much to ask?

kroger plus customer

I grabbed my house keys this morning…

How often do you grab your keys these days? It feels so rare to go anywhere long enough to lock up the house. With an extra person here (my daughter is staying for a little while) it’s unusual that the house is even unoccupied for more than a few minutes. The boat engine is in the repair shop and the only concert coming up is an online one Eric and I are doing to benefit NY State Assembly candidate Betsy Staat on Oct. 8. We all work from home now… sometimes I can hear Eric in the studio working on a song, my daughter on keyboard in another room while I’m playing guitar in my office. 

But there’s grocery shopping and car mechanic appointments and doctor visits and umm, keeping our local wine store in business. When I grabbed my keys this morning, I had to wonder: what is a Kroger Plus card doing on my key ring? There isn’t a Kroger within two hundred miles of here.

I know why the 9Round gym card is on there, even though I haven’t been for a 9Round workout in over a year. To take that card off my ring would admit some kind of defeat I’m not ready for. I don’t think 9Round has been open since March, but back before the pandemic I’d let that high intensity workout lapse. I was just too crazed with getting my book out and the less workouts I did, the longer it took to recover when I did drag myself in there. Yoga seems a lot less punishing, more forgiving to me these days. But I hold out hope that if 9Round survives the pandemic, and I survive the pandemic, I will be strong enough to get through workouts there again. So that loyalty card remains.

And I know why my AAA card is on my ring. Even though I’m not traveling, it’s comforting to have the card there, like a wise hand on my shoulder JUST IN CASE I break down or run out of gas even in front of the house. AAA says I’m prepared, I’m a responsible person who forks out that annual fee, even pays the supplemental premium fee cause hard experience has taught me that if I break down without the Deluxe membership, it will no doubt be exactly one mile beyond the covered area and no way am I ever letting that happen again.

But Kroger Plus? I haven’t been to a Kroger in several years, since I lived in Cleveland or Nashville. Have I?  I know they push these loyalty cards on anybody, and MAYBE I stopped somewhere in Ohio on tour a year or two ago and MAYBE in that giddy headspace of supermarket shopping on tour I’d agreed to sign up with so much enthusiasm that I’d actually slipped the keychain card on my ring?

Oh that on the road megastore freefall feeling! You’ve been in the car six or eight hours. It’s a day off – between gigs – because otherwise you’d be loading in, soundchecking, throwing down food and getting ready to go on. Day off is crucial for maintaining some degree of sanity on the road – not because it gives you a chance to rest – no, never that. It’s most likely a large gap in routing that requires a drive impossibly long for the day of a gig. But there’s also laundry, and email; finding a post office and shipping stuff. Maybe you have a piece of writing or a playlist or an interview you told a blog you’d be happy to contribute, thinking “sure I can knock that out in my room after a show one night” which absolutely never happens because the only thing that got you through the whole soundcheck, dinner, getting ready, will anyone show up, playing, selling and signing stuff, hanging out, getting paid, finding your way to some hotel somewhere – the only way you kept your wits about you through all that was thinking “and then I can watch T.V.”

I’m not the only one who thinks that, right? Oh dear god please don’t let me be the only one.

So days off are for all the other stuff you can’t do on days you have a show. You get to feel like a person for a minute by going to a big supermarket and buying some granola and yogurt and fruit and some bread and cheese and ham to make your own sandwich and a bottle of screw top wine because carrying a corkscrew on the road would indicate too much dedication to wine drinking and lord knows it’s only an afterthought!

While you shop you feel in the flow of everyday life in the way you never can the rest of the time on the road. It’s easy to feel – as I stand shoulder to shoulder with the working folk and the shiftless in the produce section, where every minute or so a spray of water emits from an unseen point, anointing us all while Hall & Oates issues forth from the ceiling somewhere – like I’ll shortly be going home to one of those houses I passed on the interstate, with a trampoline in the backyard. There’s a deck with a grill and even though the interstate is right there and you live in an obscure part of Ohio, it’s autumn and the snow is still a month or two off and there’s just something so hopeful about this time of year, even as the leaves are dying.

I probably talked to a cashier at Kroger and I bet my eyes were gleaming because I was so happy to talk to a random person about random stuff after a day of driving and I probably gave the impression I was a retired schoolteacher with too much time on my hands who haunted all the big stores, not just this one, this might’ve been my third of the day – or maybe TJ Maxx – because there was always that one more thing I needed, a dishtowel or apple corer and let me just run out one more time because I WANT TO SEE PEOPLE.

These days I am the shiftless person with the trampoline in the backyard (not literally a trampoline, I’m not that kind of insane, yet) and I shy away from people. If someone went to shake my hand I would recoil as if their hand was on fire. But you’ll see me haunting the Walmart aisles looking for that elusive apple corer, in my bag the totemic key ring with the Kroger Plus card. I never imagined life could be one continuous day off between gigs.