Just Say No

I was walking through Ross Park Fashion Mall with my dad a few weeks back. We were moving slowly, so it was hard for me to avoid the cute weasel dressed in a too small suit jacket, white t shirt, expensive jeans and soft leather loafers with bare ankles who descended on me besidesthe fly-by night looking skin care kiosk.  He thrust a tiny goodie bag in my hand.

“Ooh, I love your mask,” he said, getting right up close to my face. That right there should’ve been enough for me to put up a shield—a back-off barricade or at least a strong right forearm to his throat.

But I let myself be sucked into a conversation with this go for broke salesman. What did I use on my skin? How long had I been doing that? Wouldn’t I just love to try a tiny scoop of this amazing product, right here under one eye?  

Before I could stop him, he’d smeared this glop on my face in the area below my right eye and above my mask. “Wait til you see how this tightens up that (he made a sad face) area there. We’re gonna have to do both eyes, right?” he snorted. “I mean—it’s not Halloween!” He chortled according to his script.

Again, I should’ve been pushing my way out of there. Instead I found myself perched on a stool. My dad had not halted his slow trudge but turned around and was now standing a few feet away, watching this tableau unfold.

“So are you married or are you happy?” he asked, working some more of the glop with a little spatula.

“Both!” I nearly shouted and he came back right on cue: “So what’s your secret?” Then he was flipping open a book of photos of other victims, their right eyes taught and alert, the left eyes slack. “Amazing, right?”

Please Dad, say something. My dad looked like he was trying to remember if he knew me. 

I’ve always been a pushover. Part of it is not wanting to miss out on a potential experience — bad or good, I ‘m often incapable of saying no. I racked up a considerable amount of credit card debt years ago because I couldn’t say no to a Grand Ole Opry t-shirt. It’s that bad. 

Part of it is a defense mechanism. When someone comes at me with a sales pitch, I feel obliged to upend their assumptions. Maybe it’s ego:  You think you know me? You don’t know me. I’m not one of your losers in that binder there, who you plucked out from their lives of drabness-past-caring. Buddy I may look tired but I’ve tried every eye treatment, skin cream and dermatological invention known to man, woman or non-binary person (not completely true — those jade rollers seem really cool but just never got around to it) For this moment, I’m partnering with you, okay—you might even learn something.

And the opposite of that — of course kind sir, I am just  a player in this game of life, bend me shape me, move me around — what grand design placed this (what’s a word for a cute troll?) in my path — it is my job, my mission to go with it, who knows where this encounter might lead? You might think I’ve been around long enough to know it will likely lead to me with less money and some half-baked gimmick. Pride dented but…a story to tell.

I am my mother’s daughter. I remember accompanying her and my dad to a dim conference room in Front Royal Virginia — my mom was determined to collect this wonderful prize she’d been promised in the mail. Of course with the toaster oven came a pitch for a timeshare in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. No obligation of course! Only it felt like bars closed on the windows and doors as the slide presentation began. I sat next to my mother in the front row,. She wore a terrified smile that turned wicked as the slides rolled on. She willed ice water through her veins so that when the lights came up, she was able to march to the sign up table, grab her toaster oven, turn on her heel and flee for the family station wagon where my Dad was blasting the AC. We peeled out on two wheels. The views along Blue Ridge Drive were glorious…

For years, the family code Front Royal was a kind of safe word to ward off scams, and bring my mother back down to earth from her flights of fancy.I am my mother’s daughter and so there I was sitting in front of Eli, the skin care scammer. “And, let’s just get this other eye — it’s not Halloween, right?” Uh, you said that already. His charm was fading. The eye he’d scooped felt pulled taut, like when you put Elmer’s Glue on your hand. I suddenly found the will to bust out of the force field that had glued me onto Eli’s stool.

“Imperfection is the most beautiful thing of all!” I shouted. I grabbed my dad by the arm. “Keep walking,” I hissed. “Move!”

I dropped my goodie bag in the trash.

“What was that all about?” asked my dad.

“Remember Front Royal?”  I said. I don’t think he heard me. But somehow he understood.

AND IT GOES ON AND ON AND ON AND…

“Do you have the new book by Tracy Abrams?” The gentleman shouts to me from the doorway of the bookstore/bar. We’re not open all the way quite yet. In the middle of the pandemic a pipe burst back in the cookbook and children’s book section, flooding half the place, and the repairs are just nearing completion. New sheetrock, new floorboards at the back of the store. 

It’s been a relief to not have to work shifts in the ever-more bustling town of Hudson, wearing a mask, contending with strangers, searching for familiar locals and friends’ eyes over their masks. Thank God for unemployment, Bandcamp, Joey Ramone tea towels and some gigs, online and now in person. But I have missed my old part-time job.

Back in the old days (circa…2016?)

Tracy Abrams, Tracy Abrams. This name is not familiar to me, but then I’m out of touch. I’ve missed seeing the new releases every week, and customers coming in and asking for a book they’d heard of or read about recently. 

I do a quick search after the inventory comes up empty…a basketball player? Does he mean Stacey Abrams? Would it be insulting to correct him? He’s clearly over fifty and there’s no shame in getting these things wrong, right? So many names, so many books.

“That’s who I meant!” he says when I make the suggestion. Book found, sale made. We have to wonder, in between saving democracy in the state of North Carolina (umm…Georgia I correct him gently) how Stacey Abrams found time to write a thriller? Some people are superheroes.

I carry the man’s card and purchase to him at the front door. He waves goodbye, then turns back to shout across the floor: “Do you have a book called “Grilling Vegetables” by (insert author name here)?”

I look it up. Yes, we do, I say. Would you like a copy?

“No – that’s me, I wrote it. Yay!” he claps and waves goodbye again. Ah, authors. I’m back.

I’ve missed the books. I’ve missed the writers – well, most of them. From Dante to Dantiel W. Moniz. I pick up a rag and start making my way around the store, dusting the shelves. In an old building, bookshelves and books get dusty, and thanks to construction from the flood it’s even worse lately. Colson Whitehead. Peter Frampton. I dust my own book.

Two of my co-workers are here. Sara asks to listen to Journey. The first track begins, of course, with rolling piano chords…”Just a small town girl, living in a lonely world” and with the music playing, we’re in our own TV show. A young woman comes to the door and asks for “a fun cookbook, for my cousin who’s getting married today – y’know, just – stuff to cook?” Sara muses what a perfect gift, that cooking together is so sensual and I feel a desperate urge to play the salty veteran – be Flo in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore or Bea Arthur as Maude or Patty or Selma, one of Marge Simpson’s sisters – “You know what they say right?” smoker’s hack – “You start by sinking into his arms (hack) and wind up with your arms in his sink” but I resist.

Soon we switch to rocking country. Lots of George Jones, Alan Jackson. That’s How I Got To Memphis by Tom T. Hall. Things go a little off course when Alabama’s Song of the South comes on – I nearly hurt myself lunging towards the iPhone to forward to the next track. The lyrics are actually pointed and probably more relevant than ever, but in 2021 blasting Song of the South – the title of the controversial Disney film just feels wrong.

It’s not a full bookstore/bar day because the bar for the moment consists of plastic cups of beer or cans of cider handed out onto the sidewalk. We explain to customers over and over again – no, not all the way open yet. Just a few more weeks. 

Then the Flag Day parade is coming down the street. It’s a Hudson tradition, maybe an anachronism but along with the fire trucks and tractors there are a few pride and diversity dance troupes. Kamal Johnson, Hudson’s first black mayor, rides by on the back of a sleek orange convertible. A few friends sit out front drinking beer. We never had outdoor seating before – there wasn’t space for the barriers the state used to require. The pandemic made it possible, so that’s good. That’s progress.

I’ve spent years working at this place and it feels like home. When I think of moving on and not working here anymore, I think I would just miss it too much and would end up back here anyways so why pretend to move on? But I don’t want to be that grandfathered-in employee they wish they could put out to pasture but just can’t because I’ve been here so long either. My eyes have gotten worse over the course of the pandemic – so much time looking at a screen – but my fingers still punch in the codes for beer and cider like it was only yesterday I worked my last shift and not fifteen months ago. I still love books and my co-workers and the way the music we play behind the bar turns life into a sweet sitcom in a changing world. I find the old broom and sweep the weathered floorboards I know so well up to the spot where the new boards start.

Down In The Old Hotel

Eric and I weathered most of the pandemic watching Escape To The Country, a BBC show where couples nearing retirement age hope to leave behind busy, traffic-clogged London or the surrounding suburbs and start new lives in tiny villages and seaside towns of the UK. They’re all looking for the right property that’s “kind of chocolate box-y” and just waiting for them to “put our own stamp on it,” as long as it’s “not too much of a project” and has “bags of charm and loads of character” with scope for “running a business like a gite or holiday let,” boarding horses or housing their collection of bicycles or didgeridoos.

It dawned on me recently we’re older than most of these people, who somehow find themselves with the means to retire comfortably in their late fifties. They’re compelled to start over with the subtext “before it’s too late” ie they become too old and infirm or just lacking in the energy to invite chaos and upheaval into their lives.

We started running out of episodes in acceptable UK counties and countries (Wales is usually off the table – just too far from anything and…weird; rural Scotland, the same; I’ve seen enough Dorset and Devon to write my own travel guide and the counties closest to London are too rich for my blood). So lately we’ve switched to The Hotel Inspector. Each episode, a gimlet-eyed veteran hotelier with an adorable head of curly hair and a way with high heels and a red leather valise tries her damnedest to rescue Britain’s struggling hotels from going under. The episodes are all pre-Covid, so there’s a tinge of longing at the sight of some of these depressing shitholes, even though we long ago stopped taking chances with hotels in the UK and mainly stick to the boring consistency and good night guarantees of the Premier Inn chain.

Unlike the alien couples of ETTC who are ambling off towards a cozy sunset “with views to die for”, polarfleece arm in polarfleece arm, the hotel-owning couples and singles of Hotel Inspector feel more like us – deluded dreamers who took on a challenge years ago and are now found scratching their heads going “but we thought it would be fun! We thought it would be easy! We thought we’d make money!” For no reason they can fathom, their charming rooms are…(they glance around shabby, dusty, out-of-date reception area or courtyard)…for the most part empty. How to stay current?

It’s often so obvious what they could be doing better that we have to set our dinner trays aside so we don’t spill food all over while we shout at the TV. But one senior pair really touched my heart the other evening. They were so impeccably dressed: he a former farm machinery salesman playing lord of the manor in tweeds; she a one-time model in cashmere, pearls and a slash of bright red lipstick. They do everything so to their own taste, they just can’t understand how the world is not only not beating a path to their door but appears to have passed them by completely. Pink towels and toilet paper, dusty elephant figurines and four poster beds swathed in printed fabric so busy you’d need curtains over the curtains to be able to sleep.

But it was their website and the way they proudly presented it to the Hotel Inspector that broke my heart and felt a little too close to home: underlined hyperlinks, scrolled type and clip art from the late 90s – I felt like I was looking into my own grave.

“And can guests book online?” Alex the inspector asked. The ex-model’s handsome brow furrowed as she looked beseechingly at her husband. 

“Well where would those…inquiries be directed through the web?” the man of the house said, sounding admirably tech savvy for a septuagenarian…

And see that’s where I know we’re headed in a way. It happens to everyone – how long can you stay absolutely or even kind of on top of everything? As Eric reminded me, we actually got a landline when we moved to America in 2011. “Isn’t that how you get the internet?” I probably asked. I still find it hard to let go of that last telephone.

I guess I’ve already trod this ground with the whole Substack vs blog thing a few weeks back. Like a burnt out country innkeeper, the online housekeeping I know I should get to continues to sprawl. Being stuck at home would’ve been an excellent time to smarten things up, but first I wanted to make sure the world wasn’t going to end. Without live gigs, I’ve barely gone on my website to update things for over a year and all the photos from two to three years ago feel out of date. Should I use Linktree instead? Why do I have a Squarespace AND a WordPress site? How can I integrate things better, update; streamline? My YouTube channel is the swimming pool I keep forgetting to clean. And …oh god…MailChimp. My social media presence is a patched together B&B perched on the edge of a busy town. I shuffle out in a hoodie and hair curlers to greet prospective guests. We do a great breakfast here, I rasp, as Eric scurries by with a can of gasoline. Careful you don’t trip over that rug.

Listen here to the podcast version if your eyes are tired.

All’s well that…

Werewolves

Two summers ago, I struggled with a huge question – one that had plagued me for the ten years it took me to write a memoir – should I let my dad read my book? As the decade dragged on I probably thought somehow, maybe mercifully, my dad would die of old age before the question could be answered.

Now the question is moot. But my dad is still alive.

And two years feels like a luxurious lifetime ago. Imagine, when such a thing was even a possibility; an option!

There was nothing terrible in the book. Writing it actually helped me that see my dad had always been on my side, in his way, which maybe hadn’t been the way I’d wanted. But two years ago, he was ninety-one and I was sixty. Maybe if he’d been seventy-one, me forty; or even eighty-one to fifty – I could’ve shared my struggles and discoveries with my dad, and we could’ve gone on to have a new, deeper relationship, instead of the fumes of the one we’d always had.

Now my father can’t or won’t bother to read anymore. To be honest, he doesn’t really care about anything but why he is still on this earth, and how to keep living without his wife. My book – anything about my life, or my daughter, my brothers – anyone or anything – is an also-ran in the race to the end, a place he hopes to arrive as soon as possible. Yet he still walks a mile or two a day. My dad is still a puzzle.

Life is not fair, life makes no sense and Catholicism – my father’s balm and major organizing factor for most of his life – offers absolutely no solace to him now. The Catholic Church is in disgrace, with the archdiocese of Pittsburgh (my dad’s home his entire life) one of the main offenders. Whatever plan he thought God had for him has expired, passed its sell-by date.

My dad, the authority, sits and asks me “what should I do?” He says simply “I don’t know what to do.” No amount of positivity – look Dad, you have five kids, four grandchildren and a great-grandchild – we’re all healthy, almost sane and solvent – nobody’s in jail; it’s cause for celebration, gratitude. You still have all your own teeth for god’s sake!” None of it really works.

Maybe that’s why I found myself crying to the car radio, yes having one of those damned NPR driveway moments, the other day.

They were revisiting the story of a father who loved Warren Zevon’s hit Werewolves of London, and the guy’s daughter who absolutely hated the song – they often discussed it, he what a kick he got out of the record, she how its nonsensical lyrics were everything that was wrong with rock music. For her wedding dance with her father, she’d chosen What A Wonderful World but as the day approached, she knew that wouldn’t work, there was only one song she and her father could dance to. They hit the floor and waited for the music – she knew what was coming, he expected What a Wonderful World – when he heard the familiar piano/bass riff of Werewolves he stood in disbelief, then broke down sobbing. And then…they danced.

Another father and daughter duo heard the story and she’d sometimes toy with her Dad via Spotify, pushing Werewolves through whatever he was listening to. It became their signal for when she wanted to talk to him.

I listened to the story that begat a story on NPR and thought how much has changed – that my generation grew up too far apart culturally from our parents to ever have these kind of discussions about pop music. I think the closest my father and I ever got tastewise was a shared appreciation of Barbra Streisand. 

But it isn’t just a question of musical taste. In the world I grew up in, Dad was the authority, that was indisputable. You disagreed with him at your peril. 

BUT he came and saw me open for Warren Zevon in Pittsburgh in 1999. I’d been opening Zevon dates in the midwest and rust belt and Northeast. Warren saw my dad and mother waiting around during soundcheck and asked to MEET MY PARENTS. He wanted me to bring them backstage. It was a classy gesture, far from what his wildman reputation suggested, but it wasn’t even a gesture, it was sweet and sincere and meant the world to me.  Of course he played Werewolves of London that night and the place went wild. I’d love to say my parents and I sat at a table rocking and grinning but they’d left for home right after my set.

I just drove the seven hours to Pittsburgh see my dad.  We’re all trying to figure out what his next step is. I listened to an audiobook and yes, a little NPR here and there. Somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, I said “play Werewolves of London” into my phone and for a few minutes I danced with my dad on an imaginary dance floor, one where he knew all about me and was okay with it. I felt Warren smiling down on us, and maybe my mom was too.

Me and Dad, 1985 photo by Robert Sietsema

You can listen to the post here

Witness 2

Yesterday was our thirteenth wedding anniversary and to celebrate Eric and I left the house – together.

Last year at this time, we were under quarantine and a friend brought groceries and placed them carefully at the end of our driveway.

This year, to mark the day we got married those now starting-to-seem-like-many years ago, Eric and I made a plan to drive to Albany. Not exactly a romantic location, but we thought it would be a good idea to buy some actual life vests to wear on our little boat, and not those kiddie orange ones you can get anywhere. There’s a mega-marine store north of Albany.

“This’ll be fun!” I said. “A real outing together.” I think like most couples stuck at home for over a year, we use errands and grocery shopping expeditions as rare moments of individual exploration. I admit I visit our local Walmart on extra-grim days just to walk around and see people I haven’t sat next to watching Escape To The Country every day for the last going on fourteen months.

Funny, we actually live in the country already. Our country looks nothing like the British TV version.

Eric called the marine store, and I made a reservation with our friend Howard who has a burger joint/bar in Troy, New York we’ve been wanting to try. It was a blustery day but they’ve just opened for indoor dining.

Turned out the marine store only had XXL vests in a stars and stripes pattern and though we’re working our way in that direction, not quite there yet, so we changed our plan and decided burgers and then a visit to the music store north of Albany. Parkway Music is conveniently located in Clifton Park, just around the corner from where the Nxivm cult lived. I needed my banjo repaired. Eric had an issue with his Teisco bass. If we timed everything right we might even see the Nxivm house before sundown. You take your fun where you can find it.

It felt like old times as we prepared to leave home. First off- I couldn’t find my banjo.

I remembered cleaning the house and putting a load of extra instrument cases in the basement. This kind of thing was unprecedented until recently – both the idea of me cleaning and having a fairly tidy and dry basement to store stuff in. I remember back in January 2020 when I was coming and going with my book and tour dates, and Eric was working over in England, the guitar and merch cases filled our living space and I just wished we had “time to clean up this place! I’m tired of living in an equipment depot!” Be careful what you wish for my friends. Vacuuming has become my middle name. I even treated myself to a bottle of furniture polish the other day.

Eric located the banjo case in the basement but – it was empty. I looked all over. I started to feel like something really sinister had happened. “WHO…would steal… a banjo?” With all the guitars, amplifiers and other pieces of equipment in our house, what kind of madman would risk prison – and ridicule – lifting a humble banjo? I thought I must be losing my mind.

Years ago, in a hotel room in Mulhouse on the border of France, Switzerland and Germany, en route to some tour dates in Germany, we’d been getting ready to check out after a fitful night’s sleep, when I realized I couldn’t find my leather jacket. I looked everywhere, and became convinced a thief had entered our room in the night, tiptoed to the cupboard and removed my cherished jacket from a hanger while Eric and I both slept, then tiptoed back out, not even bothering to help themselves to at least one of the guitars that sat conveniently cased and ready to go beside the hotel room door.

Just as I’d been heading down to report a theft to the desk clerk in Mulhouse, I’d remembered rolling up my jacket and sticking it under the hotel’s flimsy excuse for a pillow — before trying to sleep under the thin “European-style” duvet.

These are the things memories are made of. This is what marriage is all about! We have a witness to our moments of occasional grace, but mostly our supreme idiocy.

Eric and I laughed and laughed as I suddenly remembered sticking the banjo out of the way and into a milk crate when I’d done a zoom concert the other week – “stupid broken banjo won’t even sit on a guitar stand”…

We put the instruments in the car, just like old times, and drove north. Had a great lunch and hit the music store. My banjo was repaired and while Eric chatted with his pals there, I strolled around looking at guitars. Inside little booths, the men of the Capital District wailed on various axes and amplifiers. I tried out some Martins and Taylors in the acoustic guitar room. A ten year old boy sat on a stool across from me for a few minutes showing off some heavy metal style licks on an acoustic. I imagined that we’d start playing together and how heartwarming that would be but he kept very aggressively shredding and that’s just the way it is in these places. Boys with their toys, be they ten or seventy.

After a while I wandered back out through the basses and amps. I heard a warm tremolo sound coming from one of the booths. It was a siren song, an almost visible current of sound – like perfume in a Disney cartoon – so alluring I had to follow it. Who…what…is making that gorgeous noise?

I peeked through a doorway. It was Eric, sitting there with a guitar and an ancient amp he’d had his eye on. The very thing I sometimes leave the house to get away from had pulled me back in.

“Maybe you could let go of some of the equipment you already have to get that one?” I said.

Yes, this is what marriage is all about.

“It was a cold December night, I was sorting out my life

You were headed for a mess but you didn’t know it yet

As I pushed in through the crowd, you were turning your amp up loud

Then our eyes met – do you remember that?”

Do You Remember That
Has anybody seen a leather jacket/banjo/extra Omnichord? (photo from Hello Goodbye show 2018)
A hose is a hose is a hose… As promised, a more lighthearted episode. 
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