I’m drinking a beer with my brother Pat and my sister-in-law Karen in a cool beer bar in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Along with nail salons/spas, these places have sprung up all over this town. Beer on tap and pedicures, two of the few remaining things you can’t buy online.
My father and his wife live in an apartment building on a hill overlooking my old high school, across the street from the library I grew up in. Mt. Lebanon Public Library is where I stood among the shelves reading Mary McCarthy’s The Group, missing the snark and wit and social commentary and going straight for the sex. That book weighed a ton, it’s a wonder I never developed much upper body strength. Today I ducked in to use the library wifi to download a few new books on my stepmother’s Nook.
They’re ninety one and two, my dad and his wife. She just got out of the hospital due to a broken pelvis and he wants to wait on her, protect her, but she won’t let him – she’s that tough. My father used to be my fiercest foe, or so it felt. He was the one who could push all my buttons and make me feel the shittiest. How can I feel fury towards him now, when I ring the buzzer to get in the door to his building and he says on the intercom “Are you downstairs?”
I’m staying up the street in a new hotel. It sits right next to the building where my orthodontist, Dr. Sassouni, would tighten the metal bands on my teeth. The view from my hotel room window is the same one I’d see when I was writhing in pain. My first night here I barely slept at all. I could just feel the hills out my door too much – the cemetery we’d cut through to smoke cigarettes and get home a little quicker from high school. The brick of the houses a particular color I’d never even noticed before, but I’ve been a lot of places now and seen a lot of brick and nowhere else has that color. This is where I grew up.
Usually I’m playing a gig when I visit Pittsburgh — I even wrote a song about that particular experience. This time I’m just visiting for a few days, family visit. To say I was here last year and the year before is not entirely true, when being here involved a soundcheck, the post-gig rehash and either Cleveland or Philadelphia the next day. It’s definitely been a few years since I just hung out. I should do this more often.
I go to pick my brother John up at the streetcar stop down by the old Grove roundhouse, where they held teen dances when I was young. I start off using the GPS and then think, wait, I know these streets, but I only know them as I’m driving them, a muscle memory from over forty years ago kicking in. The topography of Pittsburgh is extreme and my calves almost start aching as I roll up and down crazy hills. My older brother waves me down by the tunnel where our mom used to honk the horn of her orange Ventura once for every kid in the car. The best was when she had to do five quick hard blasts in the very short tunnel, an overpass really. With the reverb, it was cacophony.
My mom opened an antiques and country crafts store when we’d all gone away to college and the army and New York City. She really came into her own with this shop, in her fifties. Now my brother and his wife and I are drinking beer in the space where she displayed her flea market finds and quilts and wreaths so proudly. Over the noise of a Penguins hockey game, we try to explain to the cute young bartender, “Our mother had a store here!” We try to describe what it was, what it meant getting jumbled up with “isn’t it crazy, we’re all sitting here drinking beer now?!” Patrick describes how, if a customer wanted a piece of furniture that wasn’t in the shop, our mother would run home and grab a chair or coffee table from the living room, hustle back to the store and sell it. While the beer crowd cheers hockey, we laugh and laugh. This was our mother’s place; aside from the tunnel with us kids and the honking, maybe the place she was her happiest ever.
The past, and the memory of my mother, feels so alive, even with the craft beer and Penguins on ice, or maybe because of it. I should do this more often.
I don’t need anything from Guatemala or Mexico — just this alpaca wool blanket and that’s all I need. Just this alpaca blanket, this woven guitar strap and that’s it, that’s all I need! Just this alpaca blanket, guitar strap, a pottery mug and a blouse embroidered with roses and that’s it. Just this pottery mug, some flowy Guatemala pants, a necklace from Manuel down by the municipal beach and that’s all I need. Just these albums by artists I met at the Guitar Fest, this poem, the song I wrote in Mexico and a woven cotton blanket, the alpaca blanket and this pouch from Maria of San Marcos and that’s it — that’s all I need.
Just these memories and photos of sunrises at Lake Atitlan, email addresses of the women I met at Joyce Maynard’s writing workshop, this book revision, and a beaded woven bag from that little stall next to the dock in San Marcos, and that’s all I need. A bright blue embroidered dress I can’t wear because the dye runs, twenty words of Spanish, a love for Mexico and Guatemala, memories of boat rides and lake swims and tuk tuks and sunset at La Ropa and that’s all, really — that’s all I need. This clip of me and Joyce singing her song the last night in Guatemala and the blister on my foot and the last boat ride across Lake Atitlan and that’s all I need…
I’m up with the fishermen this morning. I’m up with the fishermen every morning in Guatemala. They sit on the silent lake, solo in their simple wooden boats. I smell weed, hear dogs barking in the hills, and birds sing just above my head, spread out in the branches of an ancient tree.
A boat, launchos they’re called, crosses the lake in the distance, carrying people to work or school in a larger town. Here on the shore, the water laps softly.
I’m staying in Casa de Lesly. I don’t know who Lesly is, but her house is cool. It’s circular, made of adobe and brick with a wooden ceiling and tiled roof. Not fancy – my bed sits on a base of brick, like a flower bed. But there are massive windows that open out towards the lake, and a beautiful tile floor that feels cool and smooth under my bare feet. Bright cushions, striped Guatemalan fabrics on chairs and day beds, and a big wooden table and benches with a coarse grain worn smooth by time, hands, legs, meals. In the corner (there really isn’t a corner, remember, it’s a round house) rather, at the edge of a day bed is a big stringed instrument, shaped almost like a boat. I pluck one of the nylon strings and can’t believe the depth and resonance of the note that rings out. I pluck the string next to it, which is more slack, and in a lower register I make out a note, the imperfect compliment to the full resonant one. I keep playing the two notes in rhythm. I’m not even sure if the second note IS a note – if it’s in tune, anything. I tighten the string but then the note is wrong, too high, so I loosen the string until that deep bass sound comes back, reminding me of a motel room in Bakersfield where I woke at 6 am to a similar sound. “Who’s playing bass this early in the morning?” I wondered. Over and over the note vibrated, until I realized it was – the sound of a man snoring.
I wish I could write about Guatemala.
There are so many things to say. Tuk tuk rides and boat rides, these intense physical excursions where your whole body is rattled and bounced up the side of a mountain on a rocky unpaved road, or projected across waves so the entire boatload of people are casually hanging on for dear life. Fuzzy hippie travelers contrast with the local women impeccably dressed in woven skirts, patterned belts, hair smooth and shiny. Ballet slippers on their feet. Miguel and Mateo, who work for my friend Joyce, sling my bag or a pile of firewood on their shoulders, moving gracefully up and down stone steps on the side of the mountain all day, fixing things, making things lovely, shaping bamboo and flowers, wood and stone. I try to speak Spanish and sometimes I’m trying so hard my arms start flapping and I feel like I’ll fly away. We laugh.
I talk to Eric on the phone. He’s in England cleaning out his mother’s house. “I hear Bexhill on Sea is very nice,” he says every time I tell him about some other wonder of Guatemala. We laugh. I’d love for him to see this place.
I wish I could write about Guatemala. I’d need to mention Joyce, how she brings women here from all over to work on their writing. They tell their stories and she coaches and helps guide them. Joyce can be tough with people, but there’s no “Is that the blue you’re using?” (see Hollywood’s Eve, a sort of exploration of Eve Babitz) or “You’ll never be an artist” (Old In Art School, Nell Painter) – the type of comments that can undermine confidence and stop people from even bothering to try and create. Why should there be those kind of snobby comments? Every other person you meet in Guatemala is an artist – a woman weaves fabric right on the sidewalk, a guy sews trousers and blouses to order in between putting people on and off the launchos, the dock a few feet away from his sewing machine.
I’ve been an admirer of Joyce Maynard’s for years, since her article an 18 Year Old Looks Back at Life appeared, and then her column Domestic Affairs. That column was a revelation to me. I’d grown up reading Erma Bombeck and Peg Bracken in my mother’s magazines Woman’s Day and Family Circle. Writing about doing housework and kids and being a mom was relegated to the rack next to the supermarket checkout, so it really struck me to read Joyce talk about cooking and craft projects and family in the mighty New York Times. It gave me freedom, along with songs by Loretta Lynn and Loudon Wainwright, to write about those domestic experiences of my own. I feel honored and grateful to be here in Guatemala thanks to Joyce, who I first corresponded with back in the early 2000’s and have been friends with for years now. I listen to the women’s stories here and share some of my own. I held hands with my housemates Bree and Emily this morning and waded into Lake Atitlan, when the fishermen had gone. We supported each other over the slippery paving stones, into the cool water, surrounded by beauty, talking about our lives.
I wish I could write about Guatemala. I guess I just did?
Eric and I came back from Madrid last night. It was a wonderful trip, too wonderful to write about, really – how to find inspiration in a good time? Then this morning I was combing through my purse and my fingers closed around a small, dusty, irregularly-shaped object.
It was a sunflower seed. I rubbed it, and remembered:
Waiting to board our flight for Madrid, a news story comes on the TVs at JFK, a van striking a crowded bike lane in Manhattan. Where did they say? Where? I ask Eric, thinking of my daughter out in the city. She just posted a photo of herself walking a dog, for sure Manhattan. Eric thinks it’s the Upper West Side. I feel bad to say I felt relieved “oh she wouldn’t be up there.” Then learn it’s downtown, west side. I text her, are you okay? Sometimes I wait forever to hear back from her when I text but she answers immediately that she’s fine. How awful for the people who lost their loved ones, out for a stroll or leaving work on a beautiful fall day.
Coming from the airport into Madrid, we struggle trying to communicate with the driver. His English is as nonexistent as our Spanish. For some reason, Eric tries French – “Ah, c’est plus facile!” the driver exclaims. He was born in Casablanca and French is his native tongue. Suddenly we are buddies, pals. It reminds me of our time in France, how I liked hearing Eric speak French and the way it made it easier for me to learn. Those years weren’t easy, but they were special. It brings that back to me a little, being here in Europe again. We’ll always have…Cussac.
Check into our servicable hotel and take a nap before going out for a stroll. I’m tainted by my relationship with New York forever into feeling that cities kind of work on a grid and if we just go down this one street, well it’s pretty much parallel to that street, and so by turning left here we should end up there – a sure fire way to get lost. A sure fire way to end up – climbing a wall into what seemed like a traffic island but is in fact a giant fountain with Neptune at its center. For the moment the fountain is dry but as we scramble across to the other side, I start imagining the two of us limping back to our hotel drenched and sheepish. “Run, Eric, run!” I shriek, beginning to panic. We climb down over another wall and across a few lanes of traffic, unscathed but a little less sure about where exactly we’re headed.
The next time we pass the fountain, I notice they have stretched red and white hazard tape all around the perimeter. I picture CCTV footage of two late middle aged morons’ ungainly clamber and sprint being the straw that broke the camel’s back – “Ai ai ai, we can’t have this – get out there with the tape, Jose Luis…”
We’re in Spain for Lindsay Hutton’s sixtieth birthday bash. Lindsay is Scottish and lives midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, but Madrid is his heart and soul, the place he comes to have fun and feel free. Lindsay, Eric and I are roaming the streets of Malasana neighborhood. What at first felt like another of the world’s great cities in a postcard-on-a-rack kind of way begins to come alive for real as Lindsay shows us his fave spots, like an Eggleston photo shows you Memphis. It’s in the details; knowing where and when to look. We sit in a tiny bar with cool seventies decor: “Gosh, how do these places stay in business?” We’re the only customers. “Don’t worry,” Lindsay says. “This place will be packed in a few hours.” It’s almost midnight. I take his word for it.
I’m sipping vermouth in Bodega de la Ardosa. Vermouth in Madrid is a revelation! Served on ice with a slice of orange. I’ve gotten some great tips from this Eater article and drinking vermut is one of them, accompanied by ham and anchovies and roasted artichoke and…the servers are so nice, after working hard to learn French I just wish I had spent some time learning Spanish. Rather than upselling, they dissuade us from ordering too much food. “If you want, you get more later, okay?”
Lindsay is spinning records at the Weirdo Bar. It’s one of the rock and roll bars all over this part of the city with name and aesthetic like you are in a garage rock Disneyland – Taboo, Angie, Madklyn, Tiki – not cleaned up but just those essential elements of the fairy tale and the only thing missing in this picture is you, preferably in a striped or band t-shirt, black jeans, unwashed hair with a pint glass in your hand.
The room is packed with friends, faces from years of gigs here and there swimming before my eyes. Lindsay plays Sonny & Cher’s “It’s The Little Things.” I shout along with him and the record, thinking of the Skeletons from Springfield Missouri who covered this song. I raise my glass to the late great Lou Whitney and dear departed friend Jim Wunderle, drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks also, Springfield buddies who are suddenly in the Weirdo bar with us, singing along too.
We spend a day finding coffee (good), finding food (great), getting equipment and songs together for the Friday night party. I wish I had more clothes to choose from but we packed one suitcase between us and it felt like a fun challenge to travel light (always with one eye towards finding some fabulous Spanish thrift store scores).
Standing in a bare bones cafe, cash only, I’m waiting for Amy Allison to come back from a bank machine. We’ve just eaten a crazy, delicious meal or snack, the type I would never have back home – cold white wine, a platter of jamon, the Spanish national treasure, another platter of cold potatoes nestled in pillows of fluffy garlic mayonaise. Hot chorizo, action-packed green olives. Anything else I asked for on the menu they were out of. The proprietress has not smiled once, and continues to not smile as I wait. But I ask her if I can have some sunflower seeds from the little bowl by the cash register and she grudglingly nods. They are so salty, I almost choke and not wanting to be rude, surreptitiously place the rest of the handful in my purse.
A half hour before it’s time to play, we’re hungry again. No time to find a real place to eat, we slam fresh juice and muffins at the most beautiful McDonald’s I’ve ever seen, just around the corner from the club. Hey it wouldn’t be a real gig without some hardship! I love how even in McCafe, in Madrid there is always fresh orange juice.
Me and Eric are onstage with Amy Allison. She’s singing Walking To The End Of The World and for one second I feel like Johnny Cash guitarist Luther Perkins. Amy is one of my favorite singers, songwriters and just the most delightful person. The sound of her voice stops a room, stops time – it’s a treasure, like her songs that stay embedded in your mind.
Eric and I haven’t played a set together in a while now – we’ve played his stuff and we’ve played my stuff but Eric & Amy is almost a nostalgia act due for a revival sometime soon? Here in Madrid we’re the old team again, I remember how lucky to sing with this guy I am, the way our guitars mesh and when we play Do You Remember That, it’s our story being sung along to by a good many members of the audience. I’ve had the chance to experience that with Whole Wide World a lot, but for my own song? We played it as a gift to Lindsay but it was a gift for me too.
At three in the morning we went out with Amy and our friends Jon and Karen from NY, hitting the only spot still open that might serve food. The food was peanuts, but the swanky cocktails surely had some vitamins and it was a different kind of Madrid crowd, where we got to be the slightly obnoxious ones, a feat that would’ve been impossible at Wurlitzer where the volume of music and pint glass-sized gin and tonics required a commitment to hardcore partying I don’t think I possessed as a twenty year old let alone now.
It took most of the next day to walk a few blocks to find breakfast. Entered a random cafe and Jon and Karen were just finishing coffee and pastries, and then Amy Allison appeared. Funny how these things work – even in a huge city, when you’re one of a group traveling for a shared purpose you tend to move almost as a single organism. We all have walk-on roles in each other’s TV show “Holiday in Madrid”.
Eric and I decided to spend a little time at the Prado – I know it’s one of those “a day isn’t anywhere near enough – it would take a lifetime to see everything!” places but really an hour and a half was enough for Goya’s Black Paintings and a couple really weird statues I can’t get out of my head. It was fun and no big surprise to see some other partygoers in the galleries, like we’d taken over the city. Of course the pressure to have the ultimate experience is off because I go to every city, good restaurant and museum fully expecting to return someday.
I’m watching Suzy y los Quatros play a fun, rocking set at the Wurlitzer Bar, all part of Lindsay’s Sesentafest. Lindsay is the connecting tissue between musical acts and fans and factions from Sweden to Seattle, and Madrid which he calls Mad-toon in the best Scottish accent is his favorite place and now he’s made it all of our favorite place as two hundred of his friends have gathered here to make merry. Oh wait, he’s up there on stage! This is such a blast. Oh shit – he’s stage diving, going over backward into the crowd. I’ve never participated in that type of thing but it’s Lindsay, I HAVE TO. I can’t let him drop. It becomes my mission to provide one of the pairs of upthrust arms keeping him aloft.
Wow, he seems like not the biggest guy AT ALL but he’s really heavy! Come on people, pull your weight here, WE CANNOT LET HIM DROP. I’m sweating way more than I ever do at the gym or yoga – is there a stage dive workout class like there used to be punk rock aerobics? Because this is hard. Aren’t we supposed to hand him off to the throng of people toward the back of the club?
Phew, he’s been passed back and now forward and deposited back on the stage. The festivities won’t end with our dear friend and host riding through the streets of Madrid in the back of an ambulance.
I met Lindsay almost two decades ago in Glasgow, after playing my first Scottish gig ever. That night, a girl threatened to beat me up in the ladies room of Thirteenth Note club, and drunken football fans harassed and terrorized me until morning at the B&B where I was staying – pre-cellphone and no phone in the room to call for help. I didn’t realize this was my initiation into the Scottish fraterni-sorority, similar to hazing – they break you down to let you in and once you’re a part of it, that’s settled, you’ll keep coming back forever. Lindsay has been like a guardian angel to me since then. He’s made sure I never have to go back to that B&B. He ran the Cramps fan club and Next Big Thing fanzine and he’s done it all for love. He’s one of the kindest ways people like me – people without “people” – can keep getting back out there. People without people need people. He’s our people.
We rock to the Nomads, a cool Swedish band Lindsay’s told me about for years, they are clearly warriors who’ve done this forever and make it matter. The Dahlmanns played a tight set earlier, they made me smile with their up version of Dancing With Joey Ramone, it felt like a dream to hear my song from a spot in the audience. And a quartet of cute women from Norway called Reine Laken played a brief set, hanging on for dear life as they don’t do gigs often. I loved their joy and enthusiasm – it reminded me that the Raincoats were probably that very moment playing a set in NYC in celebration of the 33 1/3 book about their classic first album. I thought of how they really lit the fire for me, that this isn’t about doing it right (though you try to as very best you can) but doing it real – that’s what will always matter most. I couldn’t be in two places at once but for a second it almost felt like I was.
Heading back to the hotel we bumped into friends who were going off in search of churros and chocolate, the thing to have when you’re needing something other than alcohol at three in the morning. After a half an hour or so walking in a general direction, sniffing the air for sugar-dusted fried dough, we started to resemble that group of bleary survivors in the Poseidon Adventure, bumping into another group or two of bedraggled revelers on rain-slicked cobblestones, greeting each other with one word: “Churros?” I expected a hellish KFC-stye counter bathed in fluorescent light but when we finally found the place, it was dark green and wood paneled and glamourous and snooty, with photos of celebrities lining the walls and porcelain cups of the richest chocolate. Each of us dunked and raised our swords of crispy deliciousness, individual Excaliburs, all kings and queens of Madrid fated to come back. The only thing missing was Lindsay, who was at the Wurlitzer club still rocking. But I plunged an extra churro deep into the chocolate, pulled it out and lifted it high, then ate it for him.
I always dreamed of going to Venice. Doesn’t everyone who ever saw “Don’t Look Now“? It seems so impossible that a city that preposterous and mysterious and beautiful even exists, we all have to go find out for ourselves eventually.
For my 49th birthday last month, Eric surprised me. We were visiting our friends in Norwich, including my soon to be goddaughter Daisy, and he told me to pack a bag for the weekend. I thought we were driving down to London. I even checked Elton John’s website to see if maybe he was playing there. But as we got near the Stansted exit Eric said he had to stop at the services. Then he drove past the services and asked if I fancied a trip to Venice. Being an American girl, to hear the words “fancy” and “Venice” in the same sentence? I think it’s the most romantic thing anyone’s ever said to me.
So we did all the things that lovers do in Venice: we argued about where to eat and should we go over this canal or that one to get back to that shop we saw – wait I swear it was back around the other way. No wonder it has a reputation for romance – if your relationship survives the challenges of the crowds, overpriced hotels, dodgy restaurants and too much beauty to look at everywhere you turn, then you are absolutely made for each other.
I know we are. Because we could admit to each other that we’d rather see the 20th century art at the Peggy Guggenheim museum than the Tintorettos in l’Accademia, but only because we were just there for 2 days. And we could accept and even celebrate the fact that the best meal we had was the pizza and calzone in a town outside of the city. We could spend precious sightseeing time watching an Italian documentary on AC/DC in the hotel. Sneak on the train without tickets and corroborate each other’s story if caught. Find perhaps the only thrift shop in the whole of Venice. And how cute do we look in our costumes for carnevale?