Totally True Story Tuesday
One Tuesday towards the end of 2014 I posted a random autobiographical story on Facebook and tagged it
"Totally True Story Tuesday." I did it again the next week, and then decided to see if I could keep it
up for a year. I did - a total of 52 stories without skipping any weeks despite work and travel. To celebrate
I created this page, containing all the results of my efforts.
There may be more content in the future. Check back later.
Click on the titles to jump down to the actual stories.
If you are entertained, please support future literary endeavors:
|March 14, 2017 :|| ||SXSW|
|March 7, 2017 :|| ||Left Hand|
|February 28, 2017 :|| ||Laredo|
|February 21, 2017 :|| ||HPC|
|February 14, 2017 :|| ||Dickinson|
|February 7, 2017 :|| ||Bowling|
|January 31, 2017 :|| ||Free Ride|
|January 24, 2017 :|| ||Chamberlain|
|January 17, 2017 :|| ||Wahweap|
|January 10, 2017 :|| ||Camry|
|January 3, 2017 :|| ||Lights Camera Action|
|December 27, 2016 :|| ||Cows and Cemeteries|
|December 20, 2016 :|| ||Swiss Train|
|December 13, 2016 :|| ||Right On|
|December 6, 2016 :|| ||Panic|
|November 29, 2016 :|| ||Three|
|November 22, 2016 :|| ||Hundred|
|November 15, 2016 :|| ||Turnout|
|November 8, 2016 :|| ||Election Day|
|November 1, 2016 :|| ||Electricity|
|October 25, 2016 :|| ||Papers|
|October 18, 2016 :|| ||Plumbing|
|October 11, 2016 :|| ||Trespassing|
|October 4, 2016 :|| ||Gobs|
|September 27, 2016 :|| ||Greek Peak|
|September 20, 2016 :|| ||Buggy|
|September 13, 2016 :|| ||Observer|
|September 6, 2016 :|| ||Paw Paw|
|August 30, 2016 :|| ||Parowan Gap|
|August 23, 2016 :|| ||Leaving Brazil|
|August 16, 2016 :|| ||Paperboy|
|August 9, 2016 :|| ||Mountain View|
|August 2, 2016 :|| ||Pizza|
|July 26, 2016 :|| ||Mouse|
|July 19, 2016 :|| ||Diplomacy|
|July 11, 2016 :|| ||First miRthkon Gig|
|July 5, 2016 :|| ||Safeway|
|June 28, 2016 :|| ||New Home|
|June 21, 2016 :|| ||Honda|
|June 14, 2016 :|| ||Brett|
|June 7, 2016 :|| ||Feral|
|May 31, 2016 :|| ||Mike|
|May 23, 2016 :|| ||Dreamland|
|May 17, 2016 :|| ||Big Talker|
|May 10, 2016 :|| ||Toronto Gig|
|May 3, 2016 :|| ||Contractor|
|April 26, 2016 :|| ||Mystery Photo|
|April 19, 2016 :|| ||Garage|
|April 12, 2016 :|| ||Albuquerque|
|April 5, 2016 :|| ||Bed Time|
|March 29, 2016 :|| ||Alexei|
|March 22, 2016 :|| ||Family Bank|
|March 15, 2016 :|| ||C Notes|
|March 8, 2016 :|| ||Guitar Lessons|
|March 1, 2016 :|| ||Serbia|
|Feburary 23, 2016 :|| ||Dishwasher|
|Feburary 16, 2016 :|| ||Reagan|
|Feburary 9, 2016 :|| ||Blanding|| ||
|Feburary 2, 2016 :|| ||Aquarius|
|January 26, 2016 :|| ||Ode to Bill|
|January 19, 2016 :|| ||Fred & Ed|
|January 12, 2016 :|| ||Common Ailments|
|January 5, 2016 :|| ||Passing the Torch|
|December 29, 2015 :|| ||Bears|
|December 22, 2015 :|| ||Ticking|
|December 15, 2015 :|| ||Calculus|
|December 8, 2015 :|| ||Vegas|
|December 1, 2015 :|| ||Berlin|
|November 24, 2015 :|| ||Uncool|
|November 17, 2015 :|| ||Godspell|
|November 10, 2015 :|| ||Border Crossing|
|November 2, 2015 :|| ||Tide|
|October 27, 2015 :|| ||Wrong House|
|October 20, 2015 :|| ||Free Soda|
|October 13, 2015 :|| ||Inventory|
|October 6, 2015 :|| ||Crossbow|
|September 29, 2015 :|| ||Swordfish|
|September 22, 2015 :|| ||Gray's Papaya|
|September 15, 2015 :|| ||Dentistry|
|September 8, 2015 :|| ||Cancelled|
|September 1, 2015 :|| ||Waldo|
|August 25, 2015 :|| ||The Worst Job I Never Had|
|August 18, 2015 :|| ||Jeez|
|August 11, 2015 :|| ||Tent|
|August 4, 2015 :|| ||Yeah We All Know Each Other|
|July 28, 2015 :|| ||Blowout|
|July 21, 2015 :|| ||Clearance|
|July 14, 2015 :|| ||I Once Threw Up On Stage|
|July 7, 2015 :|| ||You Should Leave|
|June 30, 2015 :|| ||Pityriasis Rosea Blues|
|June 23, 2015 :|| ||Soggy Seattle|
|June 16, 2015 :|| ||Trona|
|June 9, 2015 :|| ||Party Boat|
|June 2, 2015 :|| ||The Shift Shaft|
|May 26, 2015 :|| ||Chicken Sausages|
|May 19, 2015 :|| ||Skankenstein Meets the Spin Doctors|
|May 12, 2015 :|| ||Michigan Stop|
|May 5, 2015 :|| ||Dusting Off the Apple II|
|April 28, 2015 :|| ||Hoopty|
|April 21, 2015 :|| ||Squat|
|April 14, 2015 :|| ||Keys|
|April 7, 2015 :|| ||Honk|
|March 31, 2015 :|| ||Cat on a Pole|
|March 24, 2015 :|| ||Itchy|
|March 17, 2015 :|| ||Boy Trouble|
|March 10, 2015 :|| ||My Doppleganger|
|March 3, 2015 :|| ||Pudge|
|February 24, 2015 :|| ||Zion Narrows, Brother|
|February 17, 2015 :|| ||Gringo|
|February 10, 2015 :|| ||Cousin Michael|
|February 3, 2015 :|| ||How to Succeed in SETI Without Really Trying|
|January 27, 2015 :|| ||Sledding on Thick Ice|
|January 20, 2015 :|| ||Tweezer Fetish|
|January 13, 2015 :|| ||SAG Awards Saga|
|January 6, 2015 :|| ||Pink Thing|
|December 30, 2014 :|| ||This World is Totally Fugazi|
March 14, 2017 : SXSW
Holy crap last time I was at SXSW was exactly 20 years ago. The following is not really a complete story, but I might as well write a little bit about the time there was a showcase of bands from the Vaccination Records label, and our journey there.
There were 13 people on the Idiot Flesh bus as it headed from Oakland to San Diego and then onward to Austin for the 1997 edition of South by Southwest: Idiot Flesh and crew (Nils, Dan, Wes, Gene, Lorrie, Paul, Heidi), Rube Waddell (Freddi, Kirk, Larry), and 2/5ths of Giant Ant Farm (Dren, Jenya). The rest of Giant Ant Farm (living in LA) would meet up with us on the road as needed. Since I was funemployed at the time I tagged along for kicks and ended up doing lights for IF just so I woudn't be such a useless hanger on.
The light rig was DIY and completely self contained - a couple cages full of bulbs and gels, various floor lights and strobes, all of which were extension-corded to a series of on-off switches in a panel which I controlled off stage. It was also my job to hunt around the venues for extra breakers needed by the four vacuum cleaners on stage (the exhaust vents were employed for the classic inflating-costume sequence during "Twitch").
Hijinks galore: crazy shows, audiences had their faces melted, hikes in various deserts, sleeping outside in the middle of nowhere under the glow of Hale-Bopp and the milky way, cooking countless pork chops in the bus's oven. Lots and lots of makeup. So much makeup.
Given Dan's penchant for efficiency and improvement, the bus was reworked to sleep all 13 people. This included rebuilding the couch so that the back was removable and a perfect shape to fit onto the armrests of some opposing seats to become a bed of sorts. Jenya and I were assigned to this, which we soon referred to as the "stunt bunk" as bumps in the road may cause the entire platform to shift off the armrests and spill us onto the floor at any second. After this flaw was discovered the stunt bunk was only utilized whilst the bus was stationary.
Things got weird after El Paso. Right after the gig we hit the shitty, shitty long road to Dallas. We were largely still in costume and whatever face paint we failed to wash off in the sinks of the sketchy bathroom at the venue. I woke from the large pile of sleeping people in the back as we pulled into the Tiger Truck Stop for a quick late-night break.
On our way to the restrooms in the garage we found, much to our horror, they had an actual young tiger. WTF? How the hell did these Texan yahoos get a tiger? It was kept in a cage so small it couldn't walk around, and so had apparently become limp, almost comatose during the course of however long its been trapped there. Or was it sedated every evening? We touched its outstretched paw and it barely flinched. Some pointed, angry questions to the half-brain-dead proprietor yielded no answers or comfort, and we left shocked and totally pissed off.
The gig in Dallas was annoying - it was just Idiot Flesh on this bill, treated like stepchildren until they performed and then everybody was nice to them. It's kind of of fun to watch people's bad attitudes change once they realize they aren't dealing with yet another rock band but instead some of the best musicians on the planet.
Anywho, sans running water on the bus, by this time in the tour we were smelling pretty frickin' ripe. Lorrie had an old friend that happened to also be in Dallas that night, staying at a fancy hotel on some business trip. After the gig we decided to park the bus near said hotel and take this opportunity to overtake Lorrie's friend's single room and maybe sneak in a shower or two. Or thirteen.
It was well after midnight so the main doors to this fine Dallas hotel were locked. Larry, Jenya, and I found one unlocked entrance around back, however. We leapt into the elevator and simultaneously noticed one button which read: "Pool/Hot Tub." I defy anybody in the same situation to resist pressing a button like that.
We jumped right on in. The hot tub wasn't terribly hot, but still refreshing after driving through the southwest without showering for days. But a minute or two into our dip we saw a large man through the foggy glass storming down the hallway in our direction. Uh oh.
He burst through the doors and shouted through his Texas drawl, "I thought I've seen everything." For a moment we were certain we were in some kind of trouble with security - or some archetypical crazy southern hippie-hating hothead - and were all set to apologize and get out, but he continued, "I figured *I'd* be the only one out here at two in the morning!" Then he showed us how to turn on the bubbles.
The man then split, leaving us younguns alone. Most of the others on the bus, who apparently found the same open back door and were also unable to resist the pool/hot tub button, eventually showed up and joined us.
Jenya and I still wanted real showers, and waited in line to take them in Lorrie's friend's room. When we finished it was like 4am, and the floor was already full of snoring people. No space for us, so we went back on the bus to sleep. Having just washed up it felt extra gross re-entering the olfactory world of pork, diesel, cigarettes, and sweaty costumes. Not restful.
We got to Austin and folded ourselves into our various little worlds. A bunch of the others took a side trip to San Antonio (to find the site where the actual Rube Waddell is buried). I hung out with my old NY pal Dave currently living in the area. Also caught up with Erik from Mumble & Peg - this was during the "middle period" of our band's history when he first temporarily lived in Houston before moving there for reals.
So came the night of the big Vaccination Records SXSW showcase. Giant Ant Farm, Rube Waddell, and Idiot Flesh all kicked ass. Erik & I did some guerilla interstitial performances on the floor as a Mumble & Peg duo - me on bass and him screaming while banging on a bucket. Good job, well done - and then the bands splintered off from there. Dren, Jenya, and I flew back to Oakland a couple days later, and I returned to my regular funemployment schedule.
March 7, 2017 : Left Hand
It was the first sunny Saturday in a while, so I took Laszlo to the good ol' Piedmont cemetery for a walk. This is a common locale for canine activity - it's large and hilly. But it's also an on-leash area so it's generally safe and thus good for dogs, like mine, who can't quite handle the stress of unchecked chaos at a dog park.
In fact, I ran into my friend Angela there and her new rescue pit bull. Our pups haven't met yet, so to avoid confrontation we quickly said hello from a distance and then chose different paths. She went up the hill, Laszlo and I went towards the giant tombs.
Thirty seconds later I passed Crockett tomb above which a woman stood with two dogs. Her bigger black dog, despite bring 40 feet away, lunged towards Laszlo. The woman yelled an apology as she tried to contain her hound. Laszlo didn't seem perturbed and we just kept walking.
About 20 paces later I heard the woman cry, "oh no!" And then saw the big black dog, sans leash and collar, racing top speed at us. Shit.
To his credit, Laszlo was still in play mode when the black dog pounced him, but it quickly escalated to full on brawl. It was just me trying to get Laszlo the fuck outta there by pulling on his leash, kicking at the other dog, or pulling them apart by their back legs.
The woman finally caught and helped get them apart, and there was a brief successful pause, but the other dog escaped and charged Laszlo again. I'm sorry but in my fear and frustration I shouted, "Jesus fucking christ!" as I wrestled them apart again somehow, miraculously not getting bit in process.
At the point there were several other people standing right there to help or at least witness. My pants were spotted with Laszlo's blood. I guided him away from the scene to get him in a down stay and check his wounds. Bites all over his nose, neck, and millimeters from his eye. He was a mess, but panting happily as he survived a round at the Fight Club.
The other dog apparently had no bites whatsoever. So Laszlo was clearly the 100% victim in this. That, coupled with his clearly better obedience skills and supermodel looks caused the witnesses to helplessly approach like zombies, except instead of saying, "braaaains," they said, "poor sweet doggie!" I had to get Laszlo away from them, saying he's not good with people. LPT: don't approach strange dobermans after they got into a bloody fight.
At this point I entered my body again and crumpled in pain. My left hand somehow got injured during all this, probably from pulling on, or getting pulled by, the leash.
The woman was absolutely mortified. In my agony and adrenaline rush I maintained calm and talked her down. Turns out her dog's prong collar simply failed and fell apart thus allowing it to escape her control. This also happened to me in the past, so I understood. LPT: always back up a prong collar with another collar.
She also explained her dog was a rescue, as is Laszlo, so once again I understood and sympathized. We exchanged info, but I kinda just wanted to go home and deal. I hobbled to my car, and drove away - the ache in my hand worsening by the minute.
Laszlo is such a bruiser. His wounds healed up fast and he's fine. I however went to the hospital where it was confirmed that I broke my hand. A clean break, nothing shifted, all the tissues are fine, but I'll be in a cast for 4-6 weeks.
A lot of people since asked if I would sue the woman, or report the dog. My only response is: shit happens - it was an accident - why make it worse? Besides the woman has been more than happy to compensate me for hospital/doctor costs. So it's all good.
February 28, 2017 : Laredo
After a late gig in NYC we needed to park the van and trailer somewhere safe. Luckily Toby lived in an apartment with a protected parking lot. However upon arriving we were horrified to find some brand new black Jeep Laredo blocking the driveway. We leaned on the horn to get whatever asshole's attention to come out and move their damn vehicle. Nobody appeared. So now what?
The police were called. A half hour later a cop arrived to tag the vehicle for towing, but he couldn't legally recommend an outfit to do the actual tow. After the cop split Toby called around to find somebody willing to haul this car away at 2:00am. Meanwhile Timba went to get some beers for us to enjoy while waiting out on the sidewalk.
Eventually the truck appeared. We cheered and drank up during all the following procedures which were incredibly glorious to behold.
First, since the jeep was so tightly parked in, the tow guy crawled underneath and hooked a chain to its undercarriage. It was then yanked sideways by the truck into the street. Screech.
Second, he had to get the jeep into neutral, which meant getting inside. However it was difficult to slim jim this brand new car. So, fuck it, he just pulled on the driver's side window. And pulled and pulled until the whole frame was sufficiently warped and he could effortlessly reach in and unlock the door.
But our tow hero still couldn't get it into neutral due to some modern theft prevention mechanism. And so, finally, he just lifted it up by the front wheels and dragged the fucker away. Those tires were immediately destroyed.
The fucked up jeep, the echoes of wheels scraping on pavement, and the stench of burnt rubber disappeared into the night. That was so, so, so very satisfying.
February 21, 2017 : HPC
I went to the High Performance Computing 2016 conference in Salt Lake City, just for a day and a half to check out all the geeky kiosks in the large exhibition hall. I got off the plane in the morning and went straight to the conference.
Since I was there for one night, I didn't want to deal with luggage, so I brought everything I'd need crammed into my laptop case. It was bulging and heavy and the strap was constantly digging into my neck. Soon I was also burdened with a couple tote bags full of silly shwag and literature printed on thick card stock.
After a couple hours I got off my feet to rest while watching some 5 minute demo of a random company's latest greatest NAS technology. The reward for sitting through the presentation was a chance to win an Amazon Echo. Long story short: I won the Amazon Echo, which I later donated to my lab at work.
But now with the unexpected prize I had simply too much to drag around (and still make a decent first impression with various vendors). Maybe this was a good time to check into my hotel. Since I planned this trip kinda late, by the time I made reservations all the nearby hotels were fully occupied, so my best bet was a 2-and-a-half star about a mile away. Or about 8 Salt Lake City blocks.
Fifteen minutes of walkin' later I was at the front desk and checked in, and they just automatically handed me two key cards. I loaded into my room. It was a huge relief to ditch my laptop, brand new echo, and other bags of crap, abandoning them in my room so I could enjoy the remainder of the conference tonight without the iffy optics of being such a nerdy hoarder of weighty objects dangling from my person.
Now it was a more fun and leisurely experience. I strutted back to the exhibition center and had a more casual looksee. One vendor was handing out free beers. "Just take one?" I asked. "Yep," they said. And so I did. Nice promotional gimmick, except I have no recollection of who that vendor was. Or maybe it was some educational or government institution. Who knows?
Anyway an hour passed and I had enough. Plus I was getting hungry for dinner. I figured I'd go back to the hotel and figure that out. As I left the hall I reached in my coat pocket for my phone/headphones so I could crank some rockin' tunes for the trudge back. But wait.. where are my keys?
I checked everywhere. I could have sworn I had them in my pocket - one that I apparently left unzipped. They must have fallen out. Or was I.. pickpocketed? As I double and triple checked my whole person for these keys I remembered they had the hotel name clearly printed on them. And a sleeve on which was scribbled.. "Room #18."
And I somehow lost these keys somewhere in the past hour. It takes 15 minutes to walk to my hotel from here. What if somebody found them more than 15 minutes ago? In my room is my laptop. And my brand new still-in-the-box Echo.
I called the hotel in panic and asked that they change the key codes for my room as soon as possible. They obliged, but wouldn't check the room for me. Since it was SLC, and the mood was fitting, I dialed Ether (the band) up on my phone, crammed my earbuds in, and hauled my panicked ass down the street.
I got to the front desk, panting, and claimed my new keys. I braced for the worst as I went to my room.
All my shit was still there. Phew. But I still had to check under the bed, in the shower, inside the closet, etc. for potential hiders. The coast was clear. I relaxed a moment, and honored the fates that could have easily instead punished me for such carelessness. I then went out to dinner, but not after safely tucking the laptop under the mattress.
February 14, 2017 : Dickinson
The dorms at the University of Binghamton were divided into four communities: Newing, College in the Woods, Hinman, and Dickinson. I lived in Dickinson.
During my freshman spring semester word got around that Newing had a huge secret party the previous night. Somehow a few students were able to sneak a keg into one of their dorms. This was highly against the rules, but Newing was all well established as the most rowdy of the communities. The authorities caught off guard adhered to this narrative and thus were less inclined to shut it down, and nobody got in trouble as far as I know.
About a week later Hinman followed suit and were also able to have an impromptu beer-fueled party under the radar. Once again the unpredicted nature of this left the campus police unable to do much about it.
But here's the thing. Dickinson - let's face it - was the nerdiest of all the communities. Hinman was a real close second. So having them successfully execute a surprise kegger was a real blow to Dickinson's collective ego.
So the plans emerged to have our own secret shindig the following week. Of course, by now the campus powers-that-be saw this coming a mile away and were wagging their fingers at us trying to nip further antics in the bud. Nevertheless, the whispers were that tomorrow night we Dickinsonians were to meet outside and get ready to partay.
And the campus police were there to join the crowd of 100 or so students. There was a bit of chaos as everybody on either side were just kinda winging it. Eventually I learned a keg had indeed been obtained and was in the trunk of a car parked in one of the adjacent lots. The cunning plan: somehow all gather around the vehicle to block the police as the keg is surreptitiously hauled into one of the dorms. As if getting the beer out of the car and inside the confines of a dorm meant "we won" and as such the cops then had to back off and leave us alone.
So we rushed to said car. And so did the police. And sure enough in the confusion of the roving crowd the geniuses behind all this were able to magically remove the giant keg out of the trunk and start hauling it up a short incline to the nearest dorm. Cheers erupted we all realized the game was on!
The kids encumbered by the booze weren't quite up to the strenuous task and they had no choice but to drop it and disperse lest they get caught and persecuted. So suddenly there was a keg on the ground, one single cop standing over it, and 100 kids in a giant circle around him. I happened to be right at the front of the circle.
The cop found himself in a scary position. He pulled pepper spray out and told everybody to back off. One bro decided to go for it and rushed the keg, and then got a squirt right in the face. "What the fuck, man?" the bro yelped while rubbing his squinting eyes. This heightened the mob rage factor and it was clear the cop, still sans backup, was in trouble.
So he again fired off the pepper spray while spinning in a circle for maximum dispersion. I ducked before the mist came in my direction. Yeesh! This brilliant maneuver by the cop was enough to weaken the crowd, more police emerged and squeezed in to claim the keg, and that was pretty much the end of that.
Students scattered, slowly and angrily, hopping on campus police cars in defiant indignation. This was all very frustrating and mortifying. Unlike Newing and Hinman, we won't get to have our beer. Many went back to their rooms in defeat while a smaller pack of us went to the campus police building to file a complaint about unfair treatment, but it was well after midnight and everything was basically shut down so there was nobody to complain at.
This was a completely lame and pathetic loss. But the silver lining was a smidge of pride that our community did have that unexpected amount of disobedience in us. Everybody thought Dickinson was weak and hopeless. But we showed them that we, too, were willing to fight for our right to party.
February 7, 2017 : Bowling
Around 8 years old I was in a bowling league, on a team with my older brother and his friends. Since they were a few years my senior, I looked up to them and mirrored their pre-pubescent antics, which included cussing and punching the ball return when things didn't go their way.
A year later I was on a team with kids my age, and to act all big and tough I too began swatting the ball return when I'd miss a spare. It felt good. So I started kicking it. And cursing louder. And louder. I felt a rush of sweet anger, and taking it out on the helpless contraption filled me with deranged, righteous pride. I almost wanted to fail just so I could take it out on this stupid machine that continued to puke balls at me like a taunt.
One day this bad habit, an addiction really, went well beyond unhealthy proportions. After screwing up another frame I found myself kicking and kicking the machine in an unstoppable rage. I was completely broken. That is, until this large man in the next lane stood up and yelled, "what the FUCK ARE YOU DOING?"
I was shocked by the anger directed at me by a very angry stranger and left speechless. He continued, "You stupid little shit you're gonna break the fucking thing! What's your FUCKING PROBLEM?! STOP IT ALREADY! Goddammit!"
All at once it hit me: "What *is* my fucking problem? What the hell am I doing? I'm being totally stupid. Shit."
I was still unable to speak or apologize. I was simply humiliated and drowning in a flood of shame as I sat back down. It was not unlike getting slapped in the face, but sometimes that's the only way to break a cycle of asocial idiocy and teach a lesson - swift, loud and clear - and with such nuclear force there's no room for talking back. I wish I knew who that guy was so I could thank him. I needed that.
January 31, 2017 : Free Ride
When Jenya and I went to Patagonia for a couple weeks the main feature was a five-day backpacking trip through Torres del Paine. We packed in all our gear - tents, food, clothes, etc. But as strenuous as it was we did set up camp the first two nights outside of a lodge where the less adventurous slept inside in rented bunks. The lodge also had a cafe where we happily bought sandwiches to supplement our supply and hot chocolate to reward ourselves after our epic day hikes before crawling back into our tent.
I wasn't planning well, and the low value of Chilean pesos (550 CLP = 1 USD at the time) clouded how much we were spending on treats at the cafe. At the end of the second night I counted our money, and much to my horror we only had about 38,000 pesos left.
The thing is, at the end of the five day trek we will be many, many miles away from our car. The plan was to take a privately owned catamaran (which would cost 32,000 pesos) across a giant lake to a different point in the park, and then catch a couple different shuttle buses back to our car. So the question was: do these buses cost anything, and would we have enough?
Back in the lodge we asked the young lady behind the counter but our weak Spanish and her strong Chilean accent proved impossible. She flagged down a young man who spoke better English, and he eventually met us over at this wall-sized map of the park.
I told him our story, and asked if the park buses cost anything.
He replied with a oddly pointed question, "where are you from?"
I said "California."
He harrumphed, then said, "I've been to California. Nothing there was free."
And that was the end of the conversation, as he walked away with a look of disgust having to deal with what he figured were estadounidense pigs looking for a free ride. Of course, all the buses in our national parks are free, so I was asking a valid - and harmless - question, but he already moved on so there was no point in chasing him down for an argument. As annoying as that was, I felt like I earned some global karma for letting a non-American tell an American to fuck off right to his face. In fact, I felt some relief, as if I just fulfilled some sort of civic duty.
Just so you know, the bus back to the main entrance cost about 3,000 pesos. From there we caught another shuttle to our parking lot for another 1,000 pesos. So we made it back with a wee bit of cash to spare. We used it up at a tiny kiosk beside the lot by purchasing two of the world's worst hot dogs.
January 24, 2017 : Chamberlain
After the Minneapolis show of that 2006 Faun Fables tour we were all loading into the RV when a bungee cord used to secure our gear came loose in the dark and the metal hook flew right into Jenya's eyeball. Luckily it was the round end of the hook, so the damage was far less than you would assume given what I described in the previous sentence. Our panic subsided as it was evident she still had her vision, but her eye got scratched up pretty bad.
We had the next couple of days off, and spent the first one resting up at Kai's house. We made pancakes embellished with dandelions plucked from his yard. I played prog riffs on his piano which summoned fellow like-minded musicians Blake and Marshall from upstairs to come down and we exchanged some ELP and Gentle Giant licks. Jenya's eye seemed to be getting better, but a bruise slowly formed on her face underneath.
Then we hit the road, going on highway 90 through South Dakota and took a detour to check out the current state of the Crazy Horse Monument but it was too dark to see anything. Meanwhile stops at gas station mini marts were awkward as I'd walk in with Jenya. Everybody inside would look at her and her black eye, and then stare at me like they were gonna fuck me up.
I took on the late driving shift. After an hour focused on the empty road ahead I noticed the headlights dimming a bit. Not 60 seconds later the RV started to madly backfire as the battery was dying. Oh shit - the alternator must be toast. I had enough juice to pull over onto the shoulder and then the whole vehicle went black. Since we couldn't put the hazards on, me and Nils dug out the flashlights and perched ourselves on the side of the highway to flag passing vehicles.
Yes it's a major interstate but it was about 2am in the middle of nowhere. We had no cell phones, but probably couldn't get any service out here even if we did. There was zero visibility in this void save for the lights of the two trucks passing us during the first 20 minutes of standing out in the cold. But the third truck pulled over and the driver came out to check on us.
We told him about our battery issue and discussed the possibility of getting a jump to maybe earn us enough juice to get to the next exit. The hope being we could maybe get help there or at least turn around and go back to this tiny town of Chamberlain we passed about 6 miles earlier. We were all skeptical about this idea but then I remembered that this RV has a separate utility battery for all the interior lights. We could swap that in instead of getting a jump.
As we embarked on this minor automotive surgery a police car pulled up. Once up to speed about the whole situation the cop helped us install the temporary battery and suggested we follow him back to Chamberlain. Not only did he save us several precious miles by guiding us over the median via an unmarked crossing (instead of going much farther out of our way to the next exit to turn around) but he also led us to a garage where his buddy worked. He then left a message for said buddy to expect an RV containing sleeping people who need a new alternator when he arrives in the morning. The battery survived the trip and we thanked the cop many times over and went to sleep.
I woke to the rumble of Nils driving us to another garage - this first one didn't have an alternator, but they suggested a place up the way and the battery still had enough to get us there. They got to work, and it would take all morning, so we had time to kill.
Jenya's eye was getting to be a concern, so she asked the mechanics if they could recommend a doctor. Turns out in this tiny town of 2000 people was South Dakota's best optometrist. He won an award for just that a couple years earlier. And the eye clinic was only a few blocks away. We moseyed on over and despite just walking in off the street Jenya got seen within an hour.
After the screening I got called in from the waiting room so the doctor could share his prognosis with both me and her. Her eye did get a bad scratch, but the good news is that it just missed her iris by like a millimeter. The doctor let me look at Jenya's injury through the microscope to see the scratch for myself. Sheesh. He prescribed some antibiotic drops which we picked up at the pharmacy across the street. All told the impromptu visit and the drops cost about $60.
January 17, 2017 : Wahweap
Jenya, Nat, Mike, and I were nearing the end of our Utah backpacking excursion that took us to a half dozen amazing locales over the course of 9 days. We were driving in the southern part of the Escalantes with 16 hours left to go before we had to return our vehicle in Las Vegas (about 6 hours away). Still, we decided to squeeze in one more adventure. Earlier in the trip we saw a photo at a Springdale gallery of this otherworldly geological formation. Jenya got the tip from the gallery attendant that these hoodoos were in the southern Escalantes. Well, now here we were in the general region. So Jenya convinced us to go find 'em!
We hit the closest BLM (Bureau of Land Management) office and mentioned what we were looking for to the guy behind the counter. He said these were the Toadstool Hoodoos. On a cryptic topographical map he pointed to the approximate location and the odd chain of numbered BLM roads that would lead us to a trail head and then we'd have to hike another mile or two. Okay then.
As we left I couldn't help but notice a photo on the wall that caught my attention. The others were already in the lot but Jenya and I stayed to investigate this photo as its caption was "Toadstool Hoodoos." But these hoodoos looked nothing like the formations we saw in that photo back in Springdale. It seemed the person at that gallery was clearly mistaken. Or the ranger. Or both?
This abnormality was somehow overridden and we continued to adhere to the instructions given to us. Fine. Maybe we're wrong. We entered the borders of the national monument, and the roads quickly became rough and the outside temperature quickly rose over 100 degrees.
We didn't get very far before we hit a fork in the road and got very confused about where to go next. It's not like there are big green signs and street lights around here. It was too bumpy to do much map reading so we stopped the car for a second to have a conference.
Out of nowhere a BLM ranger pulled up - which was rather unusual. I've been on BLM lands many times before over the years, and this was the first time a ranger or anybody official just happened to cross my path. He flagged us down and asked if we needed help. We told him about our quest. I made it a point to describe the formations we sought in clearer terms and he came to realize we weren't looking for the Toadstool Hoodoos. We were looking for the Wahweap Hoodoos. A-HA! We were right! So luckily we happened to notice that caption at the BLM office, and luckily we happened to run into this ranger, otherwise we would have been quite disappointed. Or lost. Or dead from exposure.
With a new set of directions clearly noted in pen on our map, the ranger continued on his way and we headed down deeper, warmer paths into the heart of the Escalantes. I turned onto a road "unrecognized" by the BLM, and we quickly saw why. It was scary. There were cliff ledges going off into small canyons below, major washouts and deeper dips, blinds hills and tight curves. I stayed on target though, though it became impossible to traverse without occasional stops to get out and inspect pointy boulders and sudden ditches and how to best avoid them without popping tires or getting the entire undercarriage scooped out. What are we doing?!
Eventually we reached a bend around which was a rather steep descent into a small valley and onward. This couldn't be the right way, could it? Once again we found ourselves stopped at the side of the road having a conference.
The silence in such a remote, desolate place is almost painfully quiet. This is why we were somewhat startled by the faint buzzing of unknown origin in the distance. The sound grew louder until a set of 3 ATVs and their drivers came into view.
They saw us and our stopped car and asked if we needed help. Once more we found ourselves describing our quest. One of them knew what we were talking about and said we were definitely on the right path. And we certainly did have to go down that steep hill, but the road ends just on up ahead at a wire fence, and then all you have to do is walk a mile or two down the wash and there you are!
As if to prove it wasn't impossible, they went on ahead down the hill and disappeared out of view, never to be seen again. Inspired, we got back in the car and made it to the valley without dying, and down the road, and to a wire fence. Yay! We did it!
Still, it was very hot and sunny. We had about on liter of water each. And we're about 10 very slow miles from the highway now. Any danger and we're fucked. We broke out our sunscreen and hats.
So... which way is *down* the wash? That way, or *that* way? Turns out none of our previous guides told us this key bit of information. And we weren't in clear agreement amongst ourselves. In a rare case of democracy actually working we voted 3-1 which way was down, and began our trek by foot. We didn't have much time to be wrong at this point, so we could only hope the majority was correct.
It was! After a mile or so we could see the Wahweap Hoodoos in the distance, just like in the photo. We leapt for joy and quickened our pace down the wash to this absolutely bizarre grove of unique geological shapes. They all towered above us, some maybe 20 feet high - these giant alien creatures with huge sandstone heads and long, flowing limestone cloaks. Many pictures were taken.
Pleased with our success we marched victorius back to the car and found our way out of the BLM maze and onto the refreshingly smooth highway. We still had enough time to make it to Springdale to drop off rental gear and eat some nasty burritos, and then to the Las Vegas airport to drop off our rental vehicle and sleep on the floor until our flight home.
January 10, 2017 : Camry
About 10 years ago we had a big party at the house for Jenya's birthday. The final stragglers left around 3am. The next morning Jenya and I woke up on the late side and decided to get some brunch. But her Toyota Camry was missing. Did we just forget and park it down the street? Nope. It was stolen during the night. Shit.
Once this sunk in we filed a police report and that was pretty much all we could do about it. Jenya had a gig that night and I rode a bicycle to a nearby U-haul to rent a pickup truck so she could get all her drums to/from the venue.
A couple days later we got a call from our friend, Wes, who just so happened to notice our car parked elsewhere in Oakland (easily identifyable due to its obscure rock band bumper stickers). I was at work, so Jenya went to check it out herself. The battery was dead and ignition completely destroyed.
Neither of us had cell phones, so she had to call AAA from a pay phone several blocks away from the car. She also called me to ask that I notify the police to let them know we found the car. I got through to the police and they did nothing but instill in me panic that if a cop sees Jenya with the car (as she waited for the tow) she might be in danger of being deemed the thief. I asked, "what are we supposed to do about that?" And the reply was, "just call her and tell her to not wait by the car until we're sure it's clear in the system." As if everybody has cell phones of course.
Infuriated and freaked out, I left work and sped over to meet Jenya. She was fine, and I took over waiting for the tow truck as she had other things on her schedule. While killing time for an hour I inspected the damage inside. Lots of junk food wrappers, the stench of cigarettes, and the face plate from the stereo gone. It looked like several people had a fun little joy ride.
The car was fixed in a few days and back in our possession. Jenya managed to get a new face plate for the stereo. We snapped it on an immediately music blasted from the speakers. But the radio wasn't selected. We quickly realized that there was a CD in the player this whole time, left by the thief. I hit eject and out popped a CD-R on which was scribbled, "Dominic's Mix." Nice one, Dominic.
A week later I got a letter in the mail - a ticket for going through the FasTrak lane at the toll booth on the Carquinez Bridge without having said FasTrak. Hunh? Then I noticed the date. It was the night of Jenya's birthday. At 2am.
So, let's step back a second and put all the pieces together: Dominic (and friends?) stole our car from right in front of our house during our party from which people were still coming and going every few minutes. They then hauled ass all the way to Vallejo and beyond while enjoying Dominic's mix, eventually to return and abandon it elsewhere back in Oakland. Anyway, I was able to get the ticket voided due to the police report saying the car was not in our possession at the time.
But that was that, until several months later. Jenya went to hang with our friend Lara a few blocks away when I got a call from her saying, "I think the car got stolen again." She was only in Lara's house for like 30 minutes and it disappeared. Jeez!
I was prepared to go meet her over there when she called back again right away with more news. Turns out the cops already found it. In Emeryville. Wrapped around a tree.
Jenya got the full story from the police when she went to the scene of the accident. Oakland police respond to a stolen car with, at best, a shrug. But since this all went down in Emeryville, seven cop cars awaited Jenya's arrival. Four kids stole our vehicle and then very quickly picked up speed, lost control, and crashed right into that tree. Despite the gravity of the impact, they all ran away. Except for one kid, who ran back because he left his cell phone inside the car. The cops nabbed the kid, and then arrests (and I'm guessing trips to the hospital) were made.
Of course, it's our car, so it was now up to us to deal with its remains. Being early evening we decided to just have it towed to the front of our house and we'll figure it out in the morning.
Jenya and the tow truck appeared an hour later and this was the first I saw of it. The front was completely smashed up. Tree branches were embedded inside the engine. I looked inside and found the steering wheel completely folded over - whoever slammed into that had to be in pretty bad shape. But whatever sympathy I had for them was lost when I noticed that - during the scant few seconds they possessed this car, they used a knife to carve up all the back seat cushions. So.. fuck 'em.
The next morning the neighbors were quite confused how our car got that way. It looked as if it suffered an attack by an Ent in the middle of the night. A tow truck came and carried the crumpled heap away. No more Camry.
January 3, 2017 : Lights Camera Action
Back when SETI@home was a new thing film crews from various agencies would come and document us in some form or another. At the peak this happened a few times a week. Usually it was one local news reporter and one camera person. They'd make me act out several mundane duties for B-roll, like inserting a DLT tape into a drive, or staring intensely at graphs on my monitor. On a couple occasions it was a Hollywood level film crew. One such production included a catering table full of donuts and coffee for the 20 or so people bouncing around the lab. They had steady cams and rails laid out for sliding shots and all kinds of other similar bullshit. They were such professionals that they made us sign releases.. which they then left behind on my desk.
The attention was nice but I got over the process pretty quick. It was always terribly disruptive and I had work to do. When yet another interviewer appeared with a pair of videographers in tow I made myself scarce, sitting elsewhere in the lab for a couple hours.
Upon returning I found the server closet (across the hall from our lab) was left with its doors wide open. Clearly they were still around, and had been taking shots of our racks teeming with exciting nerdy gear. Who isn't fascinated by all their glittering lights and deafening fans? But as I walked past I couldn't help but perceive a chorus of beeping sounds barely above the jet engine noise floor, in tandem with several red lights flashing on the faces of my servers. Uh oh!
I jumped behind the racks and quickly deduced that power supplies have failed on multiple systems, but why? At first I feared the doors being left open meant the air conditioner wasn't as effective and everything was overheating. Then I noticed the foreign extension cable plugged into one of my outlets. I followed the cable back out into the hall. Oh. Those video motherfuckers plugged several 500 watt bulbs into my circuits without asking or thinking, thus blowing a breaker.
I was livid. I stormed into my lab and requested they remove those lights immediately. I made them feel pretty shitty about it, even though nothing terrible happened - those machines all had redundant power supplies on separate breakers. But still!
December 27, 2016 : Cows and Cemeteries
I took a long solo drive from Portland, Maine to Oakland, California by myself in August of 2001. Upon my return I wrote a long, poetic essay about this odyssey and the state of my country called "Cows & Cemeteries: An American Adventure" but before I got to posting it on line 9/11 happened. The country split into flag wavers and fearful skeptics, and then the nauseating prevalence of google maps and smart phones atrophied our nation's already-crippled sense of true critical decision making and problem solving. The text file containing this prose was thrown into some digital folder until I added an epilogue a couple months later. Then it languished for well over a decade out of outright laziness. I stumbled upon these words recently and noted how much has changed and yet how much hasn't changed in 16 years. It's quite telling. Now I present to you this story:
"Cows and Cemeteries - An American Adventure - August 2001"
Dedicated to Edward Abbey
I flew into Newark, NJ and eventually drove up to Portland, Maine to attend my cousin Sarah's wedding. The day after the wedding I headed back to Oakland, California by myself in a '95 Chevy Blazer that my dad donated to my carless self. Jenya was supposed to join me for this long trek but remained on the west coast to take care of our dying cat. So I travelled alone, with boxes filled with old high school papers and a couple piles of ancient computer equipment (artifacts collected from my old house in NY), and 3,200 miles of highway ahead of me.
The trip started on Sunday at 9:30am. I was mentally prepared for this solo exploration. I had 24 CDs for entertainment. I also had four whole days before I needed to get back to work. All things considered, I felt I was in good shape to make this journey.
Under normal circumstances I would have just taken I-95 south to I-90, but I wanted to swing through Vermont. Why? Because at this point in my life I have visited only 47 of the 50 United States. The sole three not honored by my presence were Vermont, North Dakota, and Alaska. So while I was in this part of the country, I figured I better take this opportunity to put the Vermont feather in my hubcap. I got out my trusty U.S. road atlas - my only reference - and selected a route.
I headed north on I-95 one exit to get onto 202 West. According to the map 202 would eventually lead me through New Hampshire and then through Vermont, bringing me to Albany where I can pick up I-90. After five miles on 202 I realized this road would never be more than a lengthy, convoluted, rustic thoroughfare and definitely not the zippy highway I imagined (or desired). After ten miles I got lost in the middle of nowhere thanks to a missing or confusing interchange sign.
However frustrating it was to get lost so early in the trip, I was tickled by the concept that instead of lounging around in sunny California this fine Sunday morning, I was soaring down unkempt, unpopulated roads on the opposite end of the country, surrounded by lush green overgrowth and comforted by cold humidity - a testament to both modern convenience and total freedom which, in combination, allowed me to be in such a random predicament so very far from home, yet in no real danger.
After doubling back a few miles I was on my way, though this road took me through several small towns. Apparently, visitors are few, so the fabrication and installation of navigational road signs were not included in town budgets. The handful of inhabitants who regularly passed through these parts knew which blind turns to take to continue down 202. Me, I just had to trust my gut.
New Hampshire was much of the same. Highway 202 merged into 9 without much fanfare. The interminable, tortuous roads were getting to me and my stomach, so I stopped in some tiny hamlet for a snack. Every edifice in this part of the country is either a house, a church, an antique shoppe, or a gas station/convenience mart, and the musty smell is inescapable, even outdoors.
An hour or two later I made it to Vermont. Highway 9 became 7. In a state of self-hypnosis, I almost didn't realize I just attained my aforementioned goal of making it within the borders of this particular United State. I celebrated by estimating how much time left I had on these windy roads, i.e. these long pavement arms which hugged prosaic landscapes not unlike those scenes found on canvases, effortlessly conjured by old hippie art instructors who seemingly never tire of this stuff, eternally inspired by the omnipresent mountains in the distance, the cold, refreshing brook, the small family of clouds gathered in the corner of a crystal blue sky, the proud lone tree, a private collection of gravestones obscured by weeds and vines, and the colorful yet bleak overtones of an oncoming autumn. Within a mere two hours I'll be in Albany, New York, getting on an actual highway where I can get beyond this bucolic quagmire and attain more acceptable velocities. Yes, I admit to being anxious to get to Albany. How many people can say that?
I emerged in upstate New York around 3:30pm, and sped quickly beyond the gray sprawl of its capital city. Officially, I was now a full 2.5 hours behind schedule. Fair enough. I still had a ways to go yet.
I happily discovered an A's/Yankees game on AM radio. Though I'm from New York, I now live in Oakland, and within the past few years have become a fan of the scrappy A's. They were on a drive to make the playoffs after a miserable first half, recently swept Boston and were one game away from sweeping last year's world series champs. This final game would be a nail-biting pitcher's duel between two aces - Oakland's Mark Mulder versus Yankee's Mike Mussina.
Before the game started the announcer made the observation that all three games of this Oakland/New York series had starting pitchers sharing the first two letters of their surnames: Lidle vs. Lilly, Hiljus vs. Hitchcock, and now Mulder vs. Mussina. He did some research last night and found this has never happened before in the whole history of baseball. This is but one of seemingly billions of statistical factoids that baseball serves its numerologist fans, always thirsty for a long drink of history, chased by a shot of statistics.
What a game! A real pitcher's duel culminating with Giambi slugging a walk-off game-winning two-run homer thus closing this series with a sweep. I screamed in joy, alone in my car, until my throat could bear no more. Especially sweet was the fact I was getting color commentary from biased Yankee announcers, obviously stunned and depressed by this loss. Serves them right, as they kept mispronouncing the Oakland players' names.
So for a moment, there was a small bit of justice in the world. Despite their unyielding fanbase, the Yankees represent pretty much everything that is wrong with baseball today. They have too much money - they can buy any player they desire. Not only do they have the ability steal the cream of the crop from the talent pool, they are consistently raising the bar for what these players expect to be paid, thus preventing smaller market teams from having a fighting chance to keep good players. Their long, colorful history and countless die-hard fans always help to cloud this fact. In a nutshell, rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for Microsoft.
Baseball is the "American pastime," and fittingly so. The big boys control everything, and the small guys get no respect from anybody. Fuck the Yankees, the Braves, the Rangers, and any other big market team. They are the American Dream: earn enough money until you don't have to be bother being socially responsible.
Anyway, that killed a good 4 hours between the game itself and the lengthy post-game analysis. During this time I passed the turnoff to Binghamton, where I lived four years while going to college, and didn't think once about stopping to visit. Because why? And now Buffalo was in my sights.
Night was approaching, and I was already exhausted. When I started this journey I thought I'd have all this time and energy to make some random jaunts along the way. This plan included Niagara falls. But to do that would require a border crossing, and here I was, a single guy, rumpled from a whole day of driving, with a bunch of weird, ancient, suspicious looking computer hardware in my trunk. I had no itinerary or booked hotels. I started to fear being turned around, or detained, by angry Canadian mounties.
Right then I decided I didn't have the time or energy to make this trip interesting after all. I stopped for gas and called Jenya, telling her I'm gonna be on highway 80 the rest of the way.
So I didn't head north to the Falls - I headed south around Lake Erie. Instead of being blessed with visions of one the great wonders of the world, I was dinged with $11 worth of tolls before even reaching Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania was short and uninteresting. Night completely fell, some light drizzle hit my windshield, and I listened to a couple more CDs.
I didn't stop at all until I got into Ohio and just past Cleveland. Due to increasing rainfall and confusing lights diverting traffic away from construction areas, I missed an important exit and got hung up trying to make my way back onto the main road. Instead of freaking out, I took this as a sign I needed to stop and rest a minute.
I hit a gas station and took a breather. After pissing and buying some crappy snack foods, I got on the pay phone outside and called Jenya again. While chatting I noticed some lone fellow sitting on the metal guard rail towards the back of the station.
Two pieces of young white trash pulled up at the gas pumps, and after loudly gassing up and obtaining beer from the shop, they spotted and approached the weird character behind the station. I couldn't see exactly what went down, but I did see money being exchanged, and the two punks left quite pleased. Within minutes a single woman arrived and a similar exchange took place right before my eyes. After the woman sped off, the shady fellow glanced in my direction and walked away as well.
In a strange way I felt guilty for being there, yammering on the phone, possibly making him uneasy and hurting his business. On the flip side, it's nice to see occurrences such as these happening outside of the big coastal cities, proving how entrenched America's economic and social well-being is in the illegal drug trade.
I got back on the road and calmly back onto 80. I sincerely thought I was going to make it beyond Chicago tonight, but I crossed the border into Indiana just around midnight and I grew weary of driving. After passing South Bend, I found the next rest area to stop for the evening.
I got gas, washed up in the bathroom, parked between two other automobiles with napping passengers (as evidenced by the fogged-up windows), pushed all the cargo in the back to one side, and spent an hour trying to find a comfortable position in which to sleep. Just as I was drifting off, I heard the sound of somebody emptying their gun.
Not really sure what all the fuss was about, I double checked to make sure the doors were locked, and tried to get back to sleep. It sounded far away and like some yahoo emptying his death toy for fun. It's so great that our considerate and well-educated citizens have the right to bear arms, isn't it?
The Monday morning sun came shining through my windows around 6:30am, and I got myself going. Not very well rested and looking/smelling crappy, I plopped myself in the front seat and hit the highway. Quickly I felt weak from hunger, so I stopped at the next rest stop where all they had was a McDonald's. Who decided that people driving cross country get to eat crap, and only crap?
I freshened up in the bathroom and got on the slowly moving line. There was only one man at the register and a woman working the grills. Both looked completely frazzled.
The first customer gummed up the works by bitching about the cream packets being warm. "Excuse me... Ex-CUSE me... Hell-O?! This cream is bad." She rolled her eyes and loudly sighed as the cashier left his post to hunt for a carton of creams in the fridge. He returned with a box, searched for something for which to open the box (he ended up using a plastic fork), and then yanked out some cold creams for the impolite customer, who grabbed them and said nothing. As if McDonald's coffee is so good that bad cream will ruin it.
The next person in line ordered something that required hot sauce. When he noticed he was given mild sauce, all hell broke loose. "I asked for hot sauce. HOT sauce. This is mild sauce." The grievous error was corrected and the customer left the counter, grumpy and mumbling.
I approached the register with both a smile and a furrowed brow. I asked the poor cashier, "How are you doing?" Immediately recognizing my sympathy, he said he and the cook have been there all night, and should have been relieved by the manager an hour ago, but he hadn't arrived yet. So here they were stuck, living in the Nowheresville, Indiana, and getting paid shit money to peddle shitty food and deal with obnoxious travellers after pulling an all-nighter.
Upon receiving my pancakes and sausage meal with extra hash browns, I told the cashier to "have a good one," as sincerely and empathetically as possible, and ate alone at a table while glancing at my road atlas. I'm barely one third of the way home.
I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of rush hour traffic as I skirted beyond the Chicago metropolitan area, and I sped pretty much all the way through Illinois. That is except for one brief period where all cars stopped dead as we all appeared on the scene of a fresh truck accident.
One 18 wheeler was off on the shoulder, completely perpendicular to the road, and embraced by a second 18 wheeler and the crushed remains of a passenger car. I heard on local radio later on three people died in that melee.
This wasn't the first time I was witness to the aftermath of a fatal accident involving an out-of-control truck taking out a passenger car. It's terrifying, sad, and ugly.
Considering the increasing number of fatal accidents I've seen over the past ten years crossing this large country, we need to get our pavement bloodstream into better shape. One of the most truthful bumper stickers I ever read was: "If you bought it, then a truck brought it." If this is really the case (which it is), and our highways remains as crappy as they are (which they will), and increasing demands are forcing truckers to work longer hours (which they are), then we are in trouble, my friends.
In contrast, Iowa was quite dull. The only noteworthy event was one moment when three different John Cougar Mellencamp songs were being broadcast simultaneously on three separate radio stations. This is what this part of the country wants to hear... unlike upstate New York, where every other advertisement was a lawyer announcing their expertise in asbestosis litigation.
And Iowa was long. I started running out of CDs to listen to. Why did I think that 24 would be enough? So more and more I turned to radio, and more and more I found myself confronted with the most hostile, righteous and painful talk radio hosts in the world. Mike Savage and Rush Limbaugh were the worst of it. I found listening to these assholes spew caused my blood to boil, and time flies when you're pissed off.
Now... I'm all for free speech, and I understand that not everybody thinks the way I do. If anything, I feel sympathy for all those who live in the middle of this country who don't get anything to chew on except ignorance and hate and the impassioned fight for the right to bear firearms. Death to abortionists! Those homosexuals freaks should be put in mental hospitals! If everybody went to Church like a good Christian we wouldn't have gangs/drugs/etc..
However, lest you city types think that rural expanses are cultural wastelands, why do I find the people who live in liberal urban areas relatively unfriendly? I'd pull into an Iowa gas station and get "Woo-hee! You drove here all the way from New York" from a fellow customer who glanced at my license plate. Another person would launch immediately into pleasant questioning about how my Chevy handled the hills. I get nothing from grunts and cautious stares from the strangers in the left-wing, forward-thinking cities in which I choose to reside. Maybe it's all about the cost of living. Maybe it's all about anonymity in numbers. Maybe it's because in the mid-west and it helps that I'm just another white guy. Anyway food for thought.
So I made it into Nebraska as the sun set beautifully over the horizon ahead. The air was hot and thick with humidity and insects. I felt I could push though to Cheyenne where I promised myself I'd get a hotel and get some real sleep.
But as Nebraska wore on, the bug splatters on the windshield made it increasingly difficult to see. That and the fact I was dead tired and my eyes were beginning to spasm. And nearby lightning peeking through the trees to the south distracted me. And the ceaseless random road construction was growing more and more confusing. And the coming storm created violent winds attempting to sweep my car off the pavement and into an endless sea of traffic cones. I needed a break.
I got gas and squeegeed for a good ten minutes trying to remove all the bug guts coating the glass in front of my face. Apparently these creatures have glue for blood.
I still had a couple of hours before Cheyenne. But within seconds of returning to the highway, a kamikaze pebble struck, causing a tiny fracture in the windshield right there in my direct field of vision. Fuck! So I took this as a sign to stop for the evening.
As soon as I crossed the border in Wyoming, I found the first available motel and got a room. It was only like $40 and well worth it. I got an ice cream bar at the convenience mart across the street, watched crap on television, and got some welcome shuteye.
By morning the storm blew over and it was another nice summer day. I got another early start in hopes that I could make it all the way to Oakland by tonight. My rough calculation was that I already made it 60% of the way so far, which meant really pushing it for the remainder of the trip.
So without further ado I got back on track, passed Cheyenne and enjoyed a nice, swift ride through the small hills before the Rockies. All was well until I spotted a new LED on my dashboard that read: "Service Engine Soon."
What the hell does that mean? I pulled off at the next exit - no pay phone, no gas station, nothing but a long dirt road disappearing into the distant northern hills. I popped the hood and poked around. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but what do I know?
According to the manual the "Service Engine Soon" message could mean any of a number of random things ranging from mildly interesting to completely devastating. And the only way to find out was to take it to a Chevy dealer.
There were no Chevy dealers in sight, so I got back on the road, hoping whatever was wrong wouldn't get worse. An hour or so later I stumbled into the town of Evanston. At the gas station I called my folks to let them know the car was freaking out. While ranting on their answering machine I dug through a nearby copy of the yellow pages and found a dealer wasn't too far away.
I pulled up into the garage and they seemed busy. I waited at the counter for ten minutes, proud of my own patience. Once he was free, I calmly told the mechanic about my situation. At first he said it would be a couple hours, but then he returned a minute later telling me he'd check it right now. Cool.
These new cars have computers in them and shit. And so the mechanic simply plugged his special Chevy hand-held into my dashboard and it told him that two hours ago the engine got flooded with a little bit of extra fuel. Nothing else seemed wrong.
Of course, that made sense. I had cruise control on at high speeds, and while going up the hills the car kept throwing fuel into the engine trying to reach my selected velocity. He cleared the message (which only these special devices can do) and my dashboard was left free of scary warning messages.
He let me go without having to pay the typically required computer check fee of thirty bucks. That was totally cool. I was pleased with the nifty, informative technology and the mechanic's generous help, but also troubled by this power that car manufacturers have nowadays by forcing people to return to dealerships and pay extra fees just to remove vague, scary messages from their dashboards. What will they think of next?
So that was Wyoming. Hello, Utah! That little episode put me behind schedule, and the dead stop traffic outside of Salt Lake City made it even worse. Turns out there were two nasty accidents screwing up traffic in both directions. See what I mean about the health of America's highways? So I got off and took surface streets.
I hung out in SLC for the first time in my life a mere ten months ago. Since then I've been back three more times. Now here I am again. I feel like this is a home away from home. I even recognize the people who work at the Coffee Garden on 900 South.
I stopped for a breather, got gas, and called my folks to let them know my car was okay after all. Called Jenya to warn her I was on the home stretch. I then took a leisurely drive through the heart of the city to get beyond the traffic.
The next winter olympics are going to be here, so the entire city has been in the throes of a painful face-lift for the past year.
What a place to welcome numerous cultures from around the world to engage in friendly competition. The Mormon underbelly of this town has always fascinated me. References to bees and bee hives are both hilariously obvious (on road signs, for example) and frighteningly subtle (like small metal grates around the roots of sidewalk trees made entirely of hexagons). Mormons like their bees. Something about the drone mentality, I've been told.
Meanwhile there's the "No-Mo" half the city hates the Mormons. Nevertheless, they run the place or at least provide most of the city's flavor. Kind of like the rest of country and Christianity.
After wading through miles of mid-city road reconstruction I got back onto 80 and headed toward Nevada. I particularly like this part of 80 - the view of the lake, the endless salt flats, and that one insanely tall, weird sculpture in the middle of nowhere right off the shoulder. You know which one I'm talking about? What's up with that?
I made it to Nevada by 5:00pm and it was still hot as hell. So hot, in fact, that a large portion of the state was on fire. I kept a watchful ear on the news to see if I'd be caught in the midst of some wild blaze down the pike.
The sun set before me, and I was making good time, but I was feeling really crappy. Between exhaustion and poor nutrition from all the garbage I've been eating, I had to stop in Winnemucca for a break. There I went to an actual supermarket for dinner. Got an apple and a power bar. This didn't really help my general road-food-nausea.
With the sky almost completely dark, I noticed various glows over the horizon. At first I thought the casinos in Reno doubled their wattage. But as I got closer I sensed less oxygen and more smoke. So these were some of the fires I've been hearing so much about.
I only got to see actual flames once, but several large fires shimmered just over the hills around me. At one point the smoke got so bad I used my shirt as a makeshift gas mask. It was also hot as hell, even as it got to be around midnight. I stopped in Reno.
Several electronic road signs warned me that 80 was closed due to fires going over Donner Summit. I asked the guy at the gas station if he heard anything different and he said it should be open any minute now. Not wanting to spend any more time in Reno than necessary, I headed right in California, fingers crossed.
It was a relief to finally be back in my adopted home state. Though I suffered from severe velocitation and exhaustion, the fear of dealing with highway closure and the excitement of returning to Oakland kept me alert.
I hit the agricultural checkpoint and the guy there said one lane was open up ahead. Phew. I sped up the summit where the air became unbreathable and visibility became dangerously low. Luckily, traffic was as thin as it should be in the wee hours of a Tuesday night.
Right at the top of the hill fires enveloped small shrubs at the edge of the road, and droves of firefighters were spraying hoses and stomping on glowing bushes and doing whatever they could to kill these final remnants of what seemed to be quite a destructive burn. What an eerie sight, in a way. However fascinating, I was quite happy to zip by and get down from the mountain and into cleaner air.
The final stretch of the road was dull but fast. Didn't stop at all, really, until getting back into Oakland. Coming into the Bay Area after driving for days in this expansive, empty country is quite a religious experience. Or it would be if it weren't for all the shitty music on the radio.
There it is... The ring of hills around the bay, the familiar set of long bridges, the magical San Francisco skyline over the water, the growing accumulation of baudy chain stores in Emeryville, and finally the first exit into Oakland.
I made it to my neighborhood without incident by 3:30am. For those who can't be bothered to do the math, that means it took me 69 hours to get here from Portland, Maine. Whew. While unloading all my crap into the garage I became suddenly aware how dizzy I was from staring at the highway for three days straight. Everything in my basement, though stationary, felt like it was passing by at 70 miles per hour.
I spent the entire next day getting my new car inspected, insured, and registered. Dealing with all this was easily more exhausting than the past 3 days of travel. All the waiting in line afforded me the time to reflect over the past days events...
What an amazing time to be alive: Technology is sufficiently advanced so a single person could cross an entire continent on the ground in 3 days' time. As well, civilization hasn't progressed to the point where every last scrap of natural beauty is destroyed. So there's plenty of amazing sights to see on such a journey from one coast to another.
Still, this country is fucked. Democracy doesn't scale well, obviously. Everything is out of balance. Our quest for convenience breeds laziness, which in turn breeds a lack of respect of the important things in life, and there's a growing inability to conceive what these things are. Greed and stupidity rules. Willful ignorance is rewarded with false hopes and dreams, which in turn strengthens ignorance. This cycle generates fear. Fear evolves into pointless anger and rage. A nauseating amount of people choose violent solutions first. Nobody will admit they are weak or wrong. Empty goals like winning the lottery or screwing a model are way too common and only aggravate an already fragile state of public mental health. The climate is changing for reasons which are obvious, but nobody will dare disrupt the system to fix it. Blah blah BLAH BLAH BLAH!
This rant can be condensed into three poignant words, as uttered by a bandmate during a national tour the previous autumn. We were in Albuquerque, enjoying pastries and quality caffeinated beverages at a local cafe. Upon leaving this establishment we passed a McDonald's and witnessed the rush hour swarm of cars pouring out the parking lot, each driver waiting in line at the drive-thru window so they could get their brain-dead daily fix of greasy breakfast bites and shitty coffee. Meanwhile the much better, healthier and community-inspired cafe we just patronized was practically empty. We noted the disparity and he said...
"Basically, we're goners."
Epilogue (written October 2001):
A couple weeks after this essay was completed planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands of my fellow citizens. All sadness and sympathy I felt about this incident immediately gave way to anger and frustration as blind nationalism quickly took hold on our country.
Want to be patriotic? Put your fucking flag away, plant your fat ass in your gas-guzzling car and drive from state to state as long as you can stand it. Try to get off the highway as much as possible. Observe everything. When you are through, write down everything you liked and disliked about what you saw. Now do you still love your country?
Please... all I ask is that you just stop and look... and then think about it.
December 20, 2016 : Swiss Train
Jenya and I flew from Heathrow to Zurich, where we then hopped on a train which was supposed to take us from the airport to Basel, but midway it stopped all of sudden. An announcement came over the loudspeakers in Swiss German. Jenya was able to make out just a little bit - something about being brought to a different station. There was one person on the car with us: a young girl who spoke only French. We just smiled and shrugged at each other.
We arrived at the next station and everybody on the other cars poured out onto the platform. We still had no idea what was going on, where we were, and what to do next. We followed the general flow of passengers off the train, but then they started forking in different directions. Jenya and I stopped at one juncture, completely stumped. We found a map on the wall and tried to make heads or tails of our situation when a fellow traveler recognized our confusion. As he passed behind us he leaned in and said in what sounded like a perfect American accent, "gate number 8." He briskly continued on his way. I never saw his face.
With no other leads to follow we boarded the train at gate number 8. Everybody else on the car was part of some kind of Swiss marching band, laughing and cheering and singing folk songs in one giant, happy unison. We weren't at all convinced we were on the right train until we magically appeared in Basel an hour later.
December 13, 2016 : Right On
While new to the area I struggled to find a worthwhile music scene. I kept answering classified ads, including one from some hippie jam-band outfit looking for a bass player. They were nice enough. I met them at their rehearsal space in San Francisco. It was quickly obvious this wasn't going to work out but I stuck around for the whole evening just for the sake of practicing my own chops.
We took a break, during which I sat by the lead guitarist, an older dude with a weathered face but long healthy black hair. He offered me a bong hit. No thanks. As he selected a proper nug he asked, "your last name's Lebofsky, huh?" I confirmed this. He disappeared into a moment of silent thought while tamping down the bowl, emerging with a second question: "Russian Jew?" This I also confirmed.
At first he seemed unmoved by this data. He flicked his lighter and sucked hard on the glass water pipe - a deep, bubbly drag followed by a forced pause as the smoke tangoed inside his lungs, ending with a long, relaxed exhalation into the cool night air. But then he smiled at me and said, "Right on."
December 6, 2016 : Panic
I was in Texas and having a panic attack in the middle of a rock tour. I crouched behind the van parked behind the club, desperately trying to meditate and breathe it away, but the waves kept crashing in my chest and head. Months of travel, stress, sleeplessness and terrible diet finally caught up to me. Also, on hindsight, it may also have been that I played a gig at this same club 13 years earlier and looming in my subconscious were the blurry faces of two people at that show who died shortly thereafter in separate tragedies.
But the cause of the racing heart and inescapable flight response was unimportant. It just was. Luckily I'm centered and enlightened enough to realize the nature of my collapsed mental state even in hot midst of such chaotic and confused situations. Nevertheless I couldn't help but flee at top speed though various backyards and empty parking lots until I found myself hiding in dark shadows behind a post office. I called Jenya back in Oakland, and she talked me down.
I feared my hunger wasn't helping so once calm enough I wandered to the main square and discovered what seemed like an adequate pizza place. Despite what felt like electricity leaking out my eye sockets I managed to put on my best sane-person impression as I ordered two pepperoni and bell pepper slices at the counter. When absolutely necessary I'm pretty good at pretending to be human.
I sat there staring blankly at the brick wall behind the bar when I noticed the time on the nearby clock. Oh crap - they are officially closing up shop. I went back up to the counter to apologize and request the slices to go, but the cashier was cool. "You can stay while we clean up," he said.
Given my fragile state, this felt like the nicest thing anybody had ever said to me. In my raw mind it translated to: "We know what you're going through. We can tell. It's okay. You're safe here. Enjoy your pizza. Take your time. We got this."
I slowly ingested the greasy meal in the comfort of my solo table where nobody expected anything from me. I didn't have to explain. I didn't have to think. I only had to chew and swallow.
On my way out I thanked the staff again. So crazy how a small shred of kindness, or just mere welcomeness, can really help a guy.
November 29, 2016 : Three
I lived in a standard house-full-of-dudes in college. One night a bunch of us were watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. The episode was "Cause and Effect" where the ship enters a time loop, the end of which always results in their explosive demise. At each iteration of the loop the the crew experiences increasing feelings of deja vu (or nib'poH in Klingonese). Eventually [spoiler alert] they figure out what's going on, and Data somehow transmits the number "3" back in time such that during the next loop the number appears unexpectedly and often. This is clearly a message which the crew deciphers and thus they break out of the otherwise infinite and fatal cycle.
The next morning I emerged from my bedroom and entered the living room downstairs to find a giant, ceramic number "3" positioned on the mantle above the fireplace. That was hilarious, except upon questioning the others who watched the show we came to realize none of us put it there. Wait... are WE in a time loop?
No. Turns out we had another housemate who, instead of watching Star Trek with us last night, went out drinking himself silly. And on his drunken walk home he - for no clear reason - pried that number off the front of some random house and left it on the mantle before crawling to bed.
November 22, 2016 : Hundred
I'm hypergraphic, i.e. I have an irresistable urge to write. This compulsion began as soon as I could make readable words with pen and paper, and took the form of creating lyric sheets for fake albums. Eventually I successfully overcame the fear of being sincere, and began writing earnest words for existing or future compositions. I had thousands of such poems under my belt by the time I hit 18, basically. There was also a phase of making comic strips named after the nebbishy main character "Squarey." But my brother Ben was 1000% times better at forming hilarious and captivating comic stories and the accompanying artwork so I just bailed on that and stuck to music/lyrics.
Just before my 19th birthday my sister Lisa, 8 years younger than I, offered to buy me gift. I knew she couldn't afford much - I suggested a blank book so I could begin keeping a journal. Why the sudden motivation? I guess this was around the time my life was becoming interesting. And I found myself forgetting details over time, which was horrifying. I figured a daily journal could help.
Almost immediately I was drawn into the daily habit. Eventually I was spending an hour a day scribbling about the other 23. The entries were all handwritten. After filling about 30 such books I transitioned to using a computer. Now I could type twice as much detail in a quarter of the time.
My mid to late 20's went dark. More and more finding the time to write stressed me out, so I took to speeding up the process by speaking into a tape recorder. This was a complete failure. Instead of the meditative processing that naturally occurs when forming written sentences, blathering out loud made me frustrated and angry. Like I was opening up to an imaginary therapist who never returned with words of comfort and support. Like the eternal helplessness of a dog at the window barking at squirrels, never to catch and destroy them. Instead of calmly sorting my thought and emotions, spoken words simply made me feel ugly and stupid. After three cassettes I called it quits. I should burn those tapes.
I enjoyed the influx of free time and shedding the "responsibility" of the daily journal. Luckily this period coincided with the entire planet falling in love with e-mail. So there is still some sort of traceable record as I saved all my crazy long e-communications to/from friends and family. I also had a personal web site where I proto-blogged about all my gigs. I did get the urge once in a while to start up journaling again, but couldn't quite find the groove.
In short, coverage was spotty from ages 27 to 31. Then one night before a Dropsy rehearsal I was waiting outside the practice space near Telegraph Avenue. Erupting before me was this unexpected sequence of events. A woman with a thick Italian accent chased a chubby moustached man sprinting fast away from her down the sidewalk. She wailed, "Mario! Mario!!" but he escaped out of view. My bandmate Garth and I agreed she will never catch up to him, and then she collpased, sobbing and alone. But something that never happens in Oakland happened: a cab appeared out of nowhere. She jumped in and they sped after Mario. However sad and random, the real life Italian opera inspired me to think, "Huh. I should write that down." And so I started up again the next morning and have been journaling an average of over 600 words a day ever since.
The funny thing about these journal entries is that they are largely impersonal and contain very little analysis. Of course there's the occasional joke and gripe but I find myself simply listing the order of the day's events with perhaps a few colorful qualifiers. And since in this mode I am focused only on regurgitating the past 24 hours, there are no long-scale narratives. Greatly (and perhaps obviously) inspired by John Cage's "Indeterminacy" I began keeping a folder full of randomly scoped short stories which, in conjunction with my daily logs, added a whole other dimension to my autobiographical introspection.
Meanwhile Facebook happened. Yes, I posted a bunch of naive garbage at first like everybody else, but I got quickly tired of getting lost in the noise of others' uncreative links and embarrassing freak outs, so I took to keeping my posts constrained to haiku form. After about 200 of these I felt like it was time for some other compositional form. I reminded myself that I had those aforementioned stories. I pulled a random one out of the folder and posted it. Noting afterward it was a Tuesday, I retroactively called it "Totally True Story Tuesday." Since then, despite workloads and epic travels, I haven't missed a single week posting old (and sometimes new) tales. People seem to like it.
Anyway, this is my completely roundabout way of saying this is my 100th Totally True Story Tuesday in a row.
[blows horn, throws confetti]
I'm not sure how long I will continue with these. While I have a lot of material in the well, I stuck with posting the lightest and least humiliating yarns, which in turn means the remaining stash features more and more death, loss, failure, weakness, bitter grudges and crushing regret. Not sure any of that appropriate for this forum. So what's next? I dunno. I never promised anything. I know I have a few more good ones. Let's just see what happens.
November 15, 2016 : Turnout
My friends and I were driving cross country. By 2:00am the glow of Salt Lake City finally disappeared from the rear view mirror. I pulled off into a turnout, disappointed there was no bathroom. Still, a couple of the guys walked to the edge of the lot to take a leak over the guardrail. I got out of the car to stretch. While taking in some crisp mountain air a woman's voice emanated from the pitch black inside a nearby parked car - the only other vehicle in the lot - which I had until then assumed was abandoned.
"Your mama know you boys are out here so late?" she said. It was so dark I could barely make out her silhouette, much less her face.
"No," I responded, and nervously giggled.
"How old are you?" she asked. In reality I was 21 at the time, but for unclear reasons I felt like obscuring my true identity, and perhaps intensifying the situation out of youthful curiosity, by answering, "19."
Her hand reached out the window, waving a bottle - the only part of her person that I ever saw, and the first clear evidence I was indeed conversing with a human, and not a ghost. She offered me a swig of her homemade fermented prune juice, which I politely denied. The others returned from peeing and soon we were all being talked at by this drunken woman. As time wore on her blather made less sense, and we also became aware that there was at least one other person with her in the car - a man - sitting silently and motionless next to her this entire time. Creepy.
Okay, time to go! We abandoned her mid-rant without warning and fled, piling into the car and speeding back onto the highway. About three hours later I came within inches of hitting a full-size deer, having to swerve onto the shoulder while going 80 miles per hour to avoid it.
November 8, 2016 : Election Day
A few months after I reached legal voting age there was a presidential election. My older brother Ben wasn't as lucky - he turned 18 three years earlier, narrowly missing his chance to vote in the previous race. We were both attending the same college, and just before election day we bumped into each other near the main lecture hall, and got to chatting. He was anxious to finally exercise his democratic privileges, envious that I would have the same opportunity earlier in my life. However, the choices were rather uninspiring: Dukakis and Bush.
Ben asked, "so who are you voting for next week?" I admitted having no idea what was going on, nor did I care, and therefore probably wouldn't bother to vote. In absolute frustration upon hearing me admit this, he punched my arm as hard as he could. Then he yelled at me about being such a lazy, selfish idiot. Fellow classmates walked past and stared.
As obnoxious as that was, he was right. And so I voted. My team lost, which was like was another punch in the arm, albeit metaphorical. But still, better than being a do-nothing.
November 1, 2016 : Electricity
When I was around 8 years old, i.e. before computers were omnipresent, I was more of a hardware guy. I even took classes at the local community college for budding engineers, during which I made a simple radio and everything.
But a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. This came to light when one day the batteries in my art spinner ran out. Remember those things? You put these white cards on a tray attached to a whirling motor and squirt bottles of colored liquids at them to produce random Rorschach-looking "paintings."
Anyway, I couldn't find fresh D cells anywhere in the house. Frustrated, I felt like it was time to man up and put my electrical engineering prowess to good use, and figure out how to plug this thing in so I wouldn't need any stupid batteries.
I went down to the garage and marched right up to the metal desk in my father's work shop where I was certain to find supplies, and indeed I did. In a drawer containing a nest of wires I found the perfect, easy solution - an extension cord that's already been severed so one end was a two prong plug and the other was a pair of exposed wires for which to easily connect to my toy. Sweet.
I brought the cord back to my bedroom and got to work. It was a messy space, so in an effort to be orderly I plugged the cord into the wall right away while I figured out the rest of my project. I dismantled the spinner to find the ends of the battery chamber for which to attach the exposed wires. Fairly straightforward operation.
It was going to be a tight squeeze in there so I wanted to clean up the frayed ends a bit to make for an easier connection. To do so I needed something for which to trim the wires and then neatly strip off the insulation. I went hunting around the house again and soon found another handy tool for the job: a pair of all-metal hair cutting scissors. Everything is falling into place!
Back to my room I went right for the live cord with the scissors. I distinctly remember a part of my brain going, "what the HELL are you doing?" before I saw the blinding white light. ZzzzAP!
Luckily I was just knocked backwards and didn't receive too bad a shock. Stunned, embarrassed, and ashamed, I stood there for a few minutes as my noggin rebooted.
I calmly and quietly went over and unplugged the cord. I carried it back down to the work shop, opened that evil drawer, and plunged it deep into the nest of other wires. That was the end of my electrical engineering career. Screw hardware. Software is far less painful.
October 25, 2016 : Papers
Jeremy and I ran into Leslie on our way to music history class. She asked us which composers we chose for our papers. "What papers?!" we cried. The papers due today - a three-page biological essay assignment from weeks ago that somehow both me and Jeremy completely failed to remember.
Lucky for us, the professor's policy was to accept papers at the end of class, so we had an hour to get something done. We thanked Leslie for the warning and ran to the library - this was before laptops and the world wide web. Armed with pens and paper we selected arbitrary composers to write about and hit our favorite reference tomes, jotting down key factoids pertaining to our bullshit topics.
Lucky for Jeremy, I had a typewriter and could type really fast. We ran back to the dorms and I bashed out my own three page essay before Jeremy dictated his for me to crank out as well. We ran back to the music building and with seconds to spare we deposited the paper in the professor's hands. Leslie was impressed.
We celebrated over lunch. Ironically our forgetfullness was quite beneficial: instead of weeks of dread and procrastination while avoiding having to compose some lame essay we only had an hour of sudden hell and then it was over.
October 18, 2016 : Plumbing
On the day before Christmas I planned to replace a shower fixture. I needed a better pipewrench and some plumber's tape to finish the job, so I headed to a hardware store. It was open today to squeeze out a few more last-minute-gift sales before shutting down tomorrow. I ran into Dave there. In his basket were an assortment of pipe fittings and gaskets and such.
Dave and I were fellow musicians in the weirdo local scene but didn't know each other so well, so there was awkward conversation about holiday plans. We quickly came to realize neither of us had any particularly Christmas-oriented events to attend, so he finally mustered the courage to ask me, "are you.. jewish?"
I confirmed this, and he confirmed the same. He concluded, "I guess this is what jews do on Christmas."
"Yep," I said. "Plumbing."
October 11, 2016 : Trespassing
Jenya and I came home from a long weekend camping in the Sierras and heard our cat Alexei meowing his ass off inside as we walked up the steps to our front door. This was cute, but also kind of weird as Alexei previously never really gave a shit about us returning from travels before. Nor was he previously that talkative. He was completely silent and indifferent in most contexts. We opened the front door and, oddly, he was nowhere to be found. Weird.
When we went back outside to get a second load from the car we heard the meowing again. It was then we spotted Alexei's panicked cat face in our neighbor's window. He was trapped inside this other house screaming, "get me the hell out of here!"
Alexei had free reign to roam far and wide and likely snuck in via the back door before the neighbor left for the weekend. Poor kitty might have been stuck in there for days. I knocked, but no human answered.
I could see a side window was open so I broke out my ladder and - all too easily - climbed up and in. Due to the scary situation and mild starvation Alexei didn't run into my arms but instead freaked out and fled toward the basement. I chased him down there but he successfully hid in some dark, dusty nook. Crap.
So I went back out and grabbed a can of cat food from our kitchen to lure him out, then back up the ladder into the other house. Alexei finally did appear, magnetized by the savory fumes. He cautiously approached. I grabbed him and before he could shred me too much I basically threw him out the window. Now free, he immediately scurried back into our abode.
I did leave a message on our neighbor's phone in case he noticed anything strange when he got home. I said it was me breaking in to rescue my cat, and he shouldn't leave his windows open and unlocked like that.
October 4, 2016 : Gobs
Jenya and I had a weekend camping trip to Death Valley with friends Linda and Brad. On the last day we drove our Chevy Blazer over some rough road to check out the Devil's Racetrack, and then even rougher road to maybe explore further nether regions of the park. We were in an SUV, so no problem, right?
Wrong. The brakes were suddenly "softer" and a warning light appeared on the dashboard. Guessing (hoping) we were simply low on brake fluid we headed back to the crater parking lot and now on paved ground aimed to check the levels. This should have been easy, but the hood was stuck. Nothing we could do with our limited tools could make it unstuck. Well, shit.
We carefully managed to get the car through the park and toward the nearest mechanic. He spent a long time getting the hood to open again, which required going underneath and practically removing the radiator first. Once loosened he lifted the hood - and then it fell right back down on his other hand. He claimed he wasn't hurt.
The brake fluid reservoir was indeed completely empty and we filled it up with a freshly bought bottle. But it all then spilled out onto the ground underneath the vehicle. So the awful truth was finally revealed: we had a broken brake line. This usually isn't that big a deal, except he didn't have the replacement parts here in the middle of nowhere, and it would take 3 or so days to ship them. We were aiming to head home tomorrow.
The mechanic instead did us a big favor by clamping off the line such that the leak was fixed but only 3 of the 4 wheels will have brakes. This isn't standard (or safe) practice, but it got us back on the road. And he only asked us for $20 for all the above labor. Brad and I paid him $40. We made it back to Oakland in one piece, where I took it to a cheap garage to replace the brake line for real.
A few months later Jenya and I were on a separate trip exploring canyons in Southern Utah with my brother Ben and his girlfriend Lisa. We were returning from an epic stay in Coyote Gulch and were just barely at the end of the 50-mile dusty, unpaved, ungraded Hole-in-the-Rock road when the brakes went completely soft again. Goddammit! We were able to limp the car into the town of Escalante.
After breakfast, I bought some tools at a convenience store, only to succeed in covering myself with brake fluid and whatever else from the oily puddles in the parking lot. Luckily there were mechanics in the garage across the way available and willing to check things out.
As a team they quickly patched and machined a new flange at the end of the broken conduit. One of the guys - naked from the waist up except for leather vest, sunglasses, and handlebar moustache - explained the problem to me through his thick Utah drawl: the Oakland mechanic who worked on this left too much extra brake line just hanging there unsupported in the undercarriage to wiggle around and eventually fall apart, especially when riding on rough terrain.
He pointed at the conduit wrapping around the bottom of my car like a nest of snakes and said, "Ya see ya got *gobs* of brake line under there." He then pulled up his shades, pressed his face within inches of mine, stared deep into my eyes and loudly repeated, "GOBS!!"
They charged me $20 for the repair. We paid them $40.
September 27, 2016 : Greek Peak
Having never skiied before, I signed up for lessons at Greek Peak during my college days in upstate New York. They were conveniently scheduled at night to avoid conflict with regular classes. So all of the following time on the slopes happened in the dark. A very cold, upstate New York dark.
The first lesson was frustrating. The young instructor referred to me as Matt Lobotomy. He said I was struggling with my form - while the others quickly graduated to the ski lift I was kept behind at the bottom of the hill with another student, Vicky, to work on our moves. Later he confided in me that my form was fine and he randomly chose me so as to not single out and embarrass Vicky. So at the end of the night he led me to the lifts so I could go up at least once. The chair swung around faster than I thought and I wasn't paying attention so its full weight collided with my skull. This probably caused permanent brain damage as I collapsed into the seat. I dropped my poles in the process and they had to stop the lift to get them for me.
My floormate Joel was taking this class as well. We rode the lifts together and didn't critize each other if one should fall down while deboarding at the top. About 80% of the time at least one of us would lose our balance and collapse after pushing ourselves off the lift, clumsily landing in the snow then quickly scrambling and shuffling over before the next chair unloaded better skilled skiiers onto the slope who effortlessly glided past us struggling losers.
By the third lesson the class was learning hockey stops. The snow plow just didn't cut it anymore - in order to come to a halt you had to quickly turn to the side while digging in with your upper boot. When done properly you stop immediately and kinda look like a badass. The instructor led the students up to the top of a steep hill, then went down first to show us how it was done. Joel went next, and succeeded in his attempt.
I followed suit, and gained pretty good velocity before attempting the maneuver. I twisted and dug and hot damn it worked! I was quite pleased with myself as I looked up to see the the instructor and Joel staring at me, not with pride or joy, but with expressions of impending doom. I still recall their faces oh so vividly.
Because the next thing I remember was tumbling out of control 100 yards further down the mountain. You see, the next student wasn't as capable at stopping, and instead drove into me at full velocity. I didn't see it coming. The instructor and Joel did, hence their sorrowful visages. I eventually finished rolling and found myself miracoulously unhurt outside of minor scrapes and bruises. The offending student broke their ankle and had to be carted off the hill.
The remaining lessons continued with far less injury except for one night where I fell and painfully twisted the same knee five times. As we got deeper into winter the nights were much more frigid. Joel and I would have multiple heat packs in our boots and gloves to stave off frostbite. The crowds also thinned because who the hell wants to ski that badly in such miserable weather?
It rained during the afternoon before our last evening lesson. This added a delightful crunch to the snow, but also reduced the already meager attendance throughout the day. This increased the chances that certain chairs on the ski lift may never get warmed by human asses, and instead would eventually become coated with thick slabs of ice.
We only learned this was even a real possibility much too late, i.e. while watching in abject horror as the approaching seat glistened in the moonlight. No time to react, we were scooped up and carried up the hill, our buttocks pressing against an unforgiving inch-high bench of frozen rain. We squirmed on the lift for the fifteen minute ride, hovering 30 feet in the air, continually shifting our weight on alternate cheeks as they eventually grew numb. Owie owie ow!
Halfway up the hill the lift stopped, probably because somebody down towards the bottom got their head bashed in and dropped their ski poles. Nooooo!!!!
September 20, 2016 : Buggy
My brother Ben and I were slowly making our way down the west coast for days. We passed through Reedsport, Oregon and decided to camp there for the night. As we went to check out the sand dunes before nightfall we couldn't help but notice the dune buggy outfitters off the main drag. That sounds fun. This activity immediately got added to our itinerary the following day.
We hit the shop first thing after breakfast and the owner walked us through the basic safety protocols and penalties for mishaps like capsizing in the ocean or rolling over. Documents were signed. We paid for an hour rental and were shuttled to the launching point.
Ben strapped in and was the first to scale the massive slope into the sanctuary of several square miles of sandy hills to explore. His buggy revved effortlessly over the edge and out of sight, and then it was my turn. I hit the gas and vrooom! The power was shocking and exhilirating as I flew upwards and over to the other side, already feeling like a different person - a child again - a whole new universe available to me of swervy ups and slippery downs and sometimes taking flight for a second. None of this existed in my reality before last night. I had no idea such joy was possible much less this particular path to its attainment. But here I was fully experiencing this alternate dimension of pure freedom and happiness.
I was so captivated I suddenly realized I was alone in my bubbly world of sand and gas fumes for over 10 minutes already. I spotted Ben's vehicle belching exhaust in the distance and altered my course to catch up to him. Soon I was by his side, both of us gunning our buggies full speed across a small valley. Under his big, dorky helmut I could still clearly make out Ben's face to see he was laughing uncontrollably. It was only then I realized I, too, have been giggling non stop this entire time.
As our hour ticked away we parted ways to venture on our own and then rejoined our paths, attempting more and more daring climbs as we became more expert. Sadly our time was coming to an end, and we agreed to go around together for one last spin. This is when Ben took a tight turn on a slope and his buggy leaned a little too much... and flopped over onto its side.
I stopped my buggy and ran over. He was alright - these things have roll cages and such - but he had to struggle a bit to undo his seatbelt and get out. We pushed the thing back onto its wheels, and we wended our way back to the meeting spot. A shop handler, as per his regular duties, noted the various dings that were par for the course but also spotted the oil leaking from Ben's buggy - a clear indication that it took a spill.
Back at the outfitters the owner was nice enough about it but reminded us that, "rolling the buggy was a naughty naughty," and for this offense we were charged an extra $15. Worth it.
September 13, 2016 : Observer
I went to the giant chain drug store for household sundries. As I left I came across some commotion in the parking lot. A woman was freaking out because her three year old son was choking on some plastic toy purchased from one of the coin-op machines near the exit.
Before I could even register what was happening a store employee already ran past me to help. He was a large man. I watched as he clamly, effortlessly picked the boy up with one hand and slapped the child's back with his other. Slap! Slap! The impacts seemed incredibly precise in force and echoed around us while the mother watched helplessly and cried out prayers.
Within seconds the object was dislodged and the child, suddenly able to breathe, began wailing in panic. The woman was effusive with gratitude and nearly collapsing in relief. She hugged the boy and then, both angrily and lovingly, grabbed his hand and pulled him towards their car.
The employee's instinctual action was heroic but also so swift that he was left with little time to cogitate on the gravity of the situation. Now that it was over, he suddenly looked overwhelmed, on the verge of tears even, as he turned and simply went back to work.
As silence and calm fell around me I came to notice I was standing there motionless this whole time staring like an idiot. I snapped out of it, found my car and drove home.
September 6, 2016 : Paw Paw
I wasn't feeling the groove of this one Species Being national tour until we hit Kalamazoo, MI, of all places. We played a good set, the other band was pretty cool, the venue treated us well, and the small audience was super appreciative (unlike all the jaded audiences in the big cities). Then I was told we scored a place to stay tonight.
What place? Well, I'm a total introvert so I'm never part of the wheeling and dealing to coerce strangers to let me and a pack of fellow smelly men stay at their house. I usually just get in the van and go wherever everybody else is for the evening. Tonight our destination happened to be in the nearby town of Paw Paw.
I didn't question anything until we arrived. It was a party house. The average age of the residents and their increasing numbers of friends was 20. The decoration was archetypical of a late 90's college age shared living situation: Ironic photos on the fridge. Random dusty, uncomfortable furniture. Pictures clipped out of magazines all over the bathroom walls. A communal cigarette lighter dangling from the ceiling via duct tape and curly phone wire.
As the house filled I coerced myself to chat with these youngsters. Pretty soon it became clear that nobody here actually attended our show tonight. So.. how is it that we came to be invited to this shindig? Or are we just crashing it? This was never clearly answered. I did have a embarrassingly geeky discussion with one nerdy guy about SETI@home, so it turns out I had a fan of sorts here. I guess.
I was really hoping for sleep, but that wasn't gonna happen. Some of us older rocker dudes took over a couch and just sat there watching the festivities unfold. I came to learn the main reason for this party was one kid's 21st birthday party. He and all his cronies were snorting ritalin then freaking out dancing to the soundtrack of Trainspotting. This tomfoolery was hilarious and entertaining but I desperately needed z's.
Things eventually settled down by 4:00am. Somebody put in a videotape of The Outsiders. Given I was 50% older than most everybody here it was an apt flick, at least in title. I tried to close my eyes and maybe snooze but I gave up and went to try to sleep in the van. I walked outside.
Oh shit - the sun already rose. I woke up poor Mitch (already in the van) as I maneuvered into a barely comfortable position on one of the seats. Then Eli woke me up a half hour later as he attempted the same. I got maybe 30 minutes of shuteye before the rest of the band appeared because we had to hit the road for the next gig, which was tonight and all the way in frickin' Minneapolis...
August 30, 2016 : Parowan Gap
Jenya and I took the 4runner out to southern Utah for six days, making up our itinerary as we went along. One early evening we decided to head into some nearby BLM land - where it's always free to park and camp and you can do whatever the hell you want, pretty much.
We aimed for this geological feature called Parowan Gap, not knowing anything about it beforehand. It's a waterless wind channel cutting through the Red Hills which also hosts some interesting petroglyphs. We inspected those at a small turnoff as we entered the Gap, then headed up off the road onto some steep, rugged dirt path. We found a lookout flat enough to park our vehicle so we can sleep in the inside of it tonight and not mess with our tent.
The area had this mysterious weight. It's an uncommon destination on the way to nowhere, so we saw no signs of other living humans except for a few cars passing in the valley below before night fell. But given the carvings in the walls, and the faint clues of previous campers and automotive adventurers, the Gap certainly contained a force, or spirit. We felt alone and exposed up on our hill, yet not alone. We cooked up some dinner sitting on some rocks, watched the stars come out including one that shot across the heavens. Whoa. We felt the winds pick up, then crawled inside the 4runner and went to sleep.
In the middle of the night I woke with a start. A sound. I felt something. What was that? My heart pounding, I remained montionless thinking I was simply experiencing the rush of a nightmare. But then it came again.
The vehicle rumbled as I heard the thing again: something between a sickly moan and an approaching chainsaw. I sat right up and looked out through the fogged up windows into the moonlit haze shrouding our vulnerable 4runner. Nothing is out there. Everything is out there.
The rational part of my brain spun through its roledex of simple explanations. As a lay back down the creature cried out again, shaking the car once more. Sleeping deeply just moments ago, the semi-active dreamy corners of my brain pulled out all the stops. It's a UFO. It's an earthquake. It's some native american god angered by our presence. It's distant nuclear war. It's the revelation. It's a gamma ray burst. It's the Nothing. I spent several long minutes having a nigh religious experience. Am I even alive anymore?
But as these very real sensory waves kept washing over me I became solaced by two things: First, I'm still here - if there was something "out to get me" it would have done so by now. Second, Jenya was peacefully snoring next to me this entire time. She is okay, and therefore I am okay.
Now calmed by these conclusions, I was finally able to sort out the reality with some clarity. Given we're parked on this hillside in this range that exists inside an otherwise very flat expanse, we are getting bombarded by winds which just so happen to be sliding underneath the vehicle at a rate to rattle the undercarraige and resonate the frame. So that's what I'm hearing. And that's what I'm feeling. I now felt even more calm. And, eventually, I could sleep again.
In the morning I left the car and rejoined the world. Now outside of my cocoon I almost laughed as I got gently nudged by the breeze, as it now seemed so very common and weak. So be it. You haven't really lived until you stared down the demons until they back off - and then perch yourself outside under a wide sky, vulnerable and alone, and piss right onto the face of the earth.
August 23, 2016 : Leaving Brazil
My first rock tour in South America ended in Brazil. Alex, the guy who hooked us up with shows in the region, gave me a ride to the São Paulo airport on my way home. We left five hours before my departure because he wanted to also meet up with his parents who would be there during a layover a few hours before my flight. I didn't mind - I'd always rather be super early than super late.
But São Paulo is a big city with a lot of people. This is actually a vast understatement. Its population is about the same as the entire state of Texas. So traffic is kind of a regular thing. However Alex assured me what we were experiencing this afternoon was rather unusual. The whole trip was 15 miles - a torturous trek that took almost 3 hours to complete. Alex's many noble and creative attempts to improve the situation were all ultimately futile. It was very very stressful. Very.
Towards the end of this ordeal Alex called his folks who had already boarded their connecting flight. However his father could deboard to quickly meet him inside. To make this brief rendezvous possible Alex parked in a loading zone near the terminal and had me wait in the car.
He was gone for about 15 minutes during which I realized I had no idea what I was to do if some Brazilian cops started hassling me. I knew zero Portuguese, so I practiced all the appropriate Spanish I could if a situation came to pass and Spanish would possibly be more helpful than English.
Luckily Alex returned before I needed to employ my weak langauge skills. We drove over to the international terminal and loaded all my keyboards and crap onto a cart. He led me to the end of the check-in line and bid me farewell.
So despite all the earlier delays and stress I still had two hours before my flight. That should be enough, right? Well, the line wasn't quite moving all that fast - a lot of people with a lot of bags ahead of me. I finally checked in, but still had to wait in a secondary line to have my bags inspected. I had to pop open the keyboard case so the authorities could inspect the contents inside including all my very dirty laundry crammed into every available space. Bystanders got some insight regarding my favorite brand of underwear.
And then onto the passport control with an hour to go. Luckily it was only about 100 people ahead of me. Or so I thought. Once I got around the bend it was suddenly evident it was more like 200 people.
But the line forked and progressed in parallel. Then I was quickly ushered toward the exit visa/customs/whatever processing queue. As I waited I spotted a sign proclaiming we should have all our paperwork out in advance of reaching the front of the line. And then I remembered: I left some visa-related papers in my checked-in luggage. NooooOOOOOO!
Panic washed over me as I worked toward the front, expecting to be turned away and forced to miss my flight. I silently handed the woman at the counter my passport and braced for a public lashing, but she just stamped it and waved me through. Major relief. I guess whatever info I had in the passport was good enough.
I ran to the terminal and to my gate where boarding was near over. Of course, I have my carry-on luggage full of fragile music gear and feared that overhead space was running out and I'd have to check it.
When scanning my boarding pass I was randomly selected for further testing. What?! I was guided to a nearby private area where my palms, shoes, waistline, etc. were wiped with chemical swabs to detect bomb making materials. How annoying, and really just a general "fuck you" to Americans. I can't really blame them.
Eventually allowed to board, I was among the last people hopping onto the plane. I was pleased to find an overhead space near me for my bag, and I collapsed in my seat. Phew. I made it. Finally able to relax and relieve my thirst from all the above heart-racing anxiety I exhaled a big sigh then unscrewed the unopened bottle of water I've been clutching this whole time.
SHPLOOOSH! Turns out it was água com gás. And now I was completely soaked.
August 16, 2016 : Paperboy
Right after I turned fourteen years old I entered the working world as a paperboy. I had no crushing desire to lose my employment virginity, but since the kid who delivered in our neighborhood relinquished his post, I decided to give it a shot. Opportunity knocked, I answered the door, and thus began the long, long, painful journey.
I had about 40 houses on my route, a route in which I had to hike about 3 miles through thick woods, up steep hills, and down long stretches of unscenic pavement every day to complete. It seemed like fun at first, like some jobs do, and a great source of exercise (though this happened to coincide with my brief and embarrassing stint on the high school track team).
But the honeymoon didn't last very long. One big problem involved money collection. Most of the time the customers weren't at home when I went around begging for money. Occasionally people were inside but in the throes of a heated domestic crisis. I would gladly listen to their angry shrieks through the front door but never had the balls to interrupt. Frequently it would take four or five weeks before I caught somebody at their abode and willing to answer the door, and then they'd be all pissed off since they had an unexpected overdue $18 newspaper bill to contend with (and therefore they wouldn't tip).
Every Friday night all the newspaper boys had to meet with Kay, the chain smokin', big tinted glasses wearin' newspaper collection lady. She parked her car at some predetermined spot and we'd all have to pay her the cost of all the newspapers we've delivered that week, regardless of whether we collected enough money or not (see above). Even back then I thought it was kind of seedy and weird for a bunch of pubescent boys on bicycles to meet this gravel-voiced older woman at her car and give her a chunk of their hard-earned cash.
Pretty soon the original 40 houses got bumped up to 60 houses. Carrying 60 of the huge Thursday edition papers was completely painful. But I couldn't bear to split the route up into two trips, since it would take way too long to circle back to my house to get the second batch. So I just dealt with it, possibly causing irreparable damage to my spine. Around this time winter started happening, meaning slipping on ice and snow and spilling papers all over somebody's front yard, which was such an uplifting experience after a long day of being bored senseless at school. On one fine day Rockland County suffered a terrible hailstorm, starting without warning halfway into one of my delivery runs. By the time I scampered all the way home the papers were wet and shredded, and the back of my neck was red and throbbing, having been beaten with countless balls of ice falling from the heavens.
Mustering the energy to continue with this job would have been impossible had I not the burning desire to obtain some new music equipment, since all I had at my disposal then was an upright piano and a classical nylon guitar made in Korea which cost $50 new. After getting an extra $300 during Christmas (thanks to the convention of tipping heavily this time of year) I saved up enough to purchase the musical tools of my dreams. With great joy I blew all my earnings on a Gorilla 30-watt amp, a cheap ass knockoff Strat, and a Casio CZ-101 keyboard.
With this goal met, I gave my notice. Shedding this job was a relief but did have one drawback: Every Sunday my mom and I had the bonding experience of delivering the papers together. It would have been basically impossible for me to do it alone, since I could only carry, tops, about 10 of the monster Sunday editions at a time. So mom drove me around the neighborhood in the family wagon with the hatch open as I assembled papers in the back and hopped out to drop them on doorsteps one by one. Thanks, mom.
August 9, 2016 : Mountain View
It was a crazy morning flying from Buenos Aires to Santiago and making our way to this huge festival. At least 10,000 people there to see a long line of bands. We were the only group from the US. In fact we were probably the only estadounidense weirdos in the whole stadium.
While backstage waiting for our set one friendly locals introduced himself, recognizing me as an obvious foreigner. He said he just travelled to the US for the first time and wanted to know where I was from. I said California. Turns out he was just in California. I asked him where, exactly. He said, "Mountain View."
I was a bit stumped by this. People on their first visit to the US usually just don't go to Mountain View. He explained his was simply tagging along with his journalist girlfriend who was doing a news story about the SETI Institute.
Amused by the coincidence, I explained to him how outside of this music thing I also work in the SETI field, but at UC Berkeley, where among other things I helped start the SETI@home project. He was clearly confused. I could tell from his expression that he was uncomfortably putting two and two together: everybody in North America has a job looking for aliens.
August 2, 2016 : Pizza
I do recall a period of time, well before kindergarten, when the sight of a bowl of spaghettios didn't exactly turn my stomach. I also ingested a slice or two of pizza with nary a gag or moan in complaint.
But that was then. Sometime around my fifth birthday my entire digestive system rebelled, and I found myself suddenly unable to ingest cheese or tomatoes. This complete change in my diet stunned my family and confused the neighbors. From that point on I didn't eat a single thing containing these evil ingredients, nor any food that they inadvertantly touched. In extreme cases, I didn't eat foods that had even the potential of containing these horrid components.
As you can imagine, this pleased my mother to no end. Now she had to either change the entire family's dinner to cater to my picky eating habits, or create a special separate entre exclusively for me, free of the items on my culinary blacklist. It was no picnic for me, either. I had to withstand the horrible insults from my peers when I refused to eat the pizza served at every damn birthday party I attended.
During high school, it seemed impossible for any gathering of thirty of more kids to occur without dozens of pizza pies magically appearing on the scene. At every after-school function, jazz band post-show get-together, and long tech-week theatre rehearsal the pizza would materialize, the masses would dig in, and I'd be standing there feeling like a dork with my stomach grumbling.
At once such feeding frenzy my conscience cried out, "You're starving, you idiot! Aren't you tired of being an outcast? Just eat a slice! It won't kill you!" Before I had a chance to disagree with myself I lunged for a piece and wedged it into my face. My tongue woke up screaming, and quickly notified my stomach about the awful contents in my mouth. My stomach then ordered my esophagus to stop allowing any food to get past my throat.
Great. I continued to chew on this mushy ball of cheeze, tomatoes, and oily dough. As it got more and more digested I wedged chunks of it into corners of my mouth between my cheek and gum. All the while I tried to act like a seasoned pizza-eater, proudly holding the remainder of my slice up in the air and attempting to maintain a conversion with friends about life. Eventually I fled the room and spat all my mouth's contents into a napkin. Yuck.
I somehow survived four years at Binghamton University with nary a saucy bite of pizza entering my digestive tract. I'm serious. This may seem impossible to many of you ex-college kids who thrived on the stuff. Despite all my bitching and moaning, I really wanted to learn to like pizza, honest. I gladly noshed on the crusts my friends and siblings would toss back into the box after having eaten the contaminated parts. I also loved the smell of olive oil, which almost masks the scent of cheeze. But all attempts to truly consume pizza led to me coughing out half-chewed wads of it, throwing the rest of the slice away, and then searching frantically for something to help wash the horrible taste out of my mouth.
When I was 22 years old, starving, unemployed, and living in Berkeley, I got a one-day temp job up at Tower Records on Telegraph Avenue. I accepted this job without realizing my housemate borrowed my car, so I had to bike a couple miles uphill in the rain to get there. I hadn't eaten breakfast, and due to both my low blood sugar level and the sudden influx of exercise I nearly passed out during the trek. Upon arrival, I actually saw spots before my eyes.
I managed to make it through to lunch, during which the Tower management treated the entire crew to - you guessed it - four pizza pies. At this point my ravenous hunger caused me to be considerably less than human, and my base instincts led me to pounce on a pepperoni/sausage slice which I gulped down in an instant.
Regaining my senses, I thought, "that wasn't so bad.." Now sure how or why exactly, but the curse had finally been broken. Proud of my new-found ability to actually ingest the stuff, I had another slice, washed it down with some Pepsi, and felt like a normal person for once in my life.
More than two decades later my diet has vastly expanded. It helps to be married to one of the best and most creative cooks on the planet. I still can't handle strong cheeses or chunks of raw tomatoes. You know, like a lot of people.
July 26, 2016 : Mouse
One night Jenya and I noticed our cats, Alexei and Olga, were sitting on the kitchen floor staring quite curiously behind the fridge. We thought their vigilance was because the fridge made this funny trickling noises during its defrosting process. But they were perched there again the next night, and the next.
The wave of denial ended and we moved the fridge out of the way and discovered exactly what we feared. Mouse poop. A whole lot of mouse poop. We followed the trail of droppings, and found tiny turds behind the stove.. and underneath the BURNERS.. and INSIDE the BAKING SUPPLY cabinet.. AND ALL OVER THE INTERIOR OF THE COFFEE/TEA DRAWER!! AAAAAAAH!!!
We tore the kitchen apart to clean and disinfect everything, a process that took hours. Meanwhile we couldn't help but be angry at the cats for not doing their damn job. Humane traps were purchased and enabled, but were ultimately ineffective at catching anything. But a week or two passed with no further evidence of rodent infestation, so maybe it had moved on.
One weekend afternoon I was in my office at the computer when I heard a funny noise. It was unmistakable scurrying. But from where? I spun around and scanned the room. Nothing. I went back to typing on the keyboard when suddenly I felt like I was being watched. And sure enough, I was. I slowly raised my head and looked up to see high up on the picture frame molding was a little mouse face staring down at me.
Fucker! I couldn't help but leap out of my chair and try to snare it somehow. Not really thinking I chased it as it ran across the molding to behind a set of giant bookshelves. I forced those away from the wall. The damn mouse then leapt up onto the window sill. Curtains were yanked out as I followed it as it ran into the closet. I threw everything out of the closet - a disorganzied pile of old computer gear, boxes of books and clothes, and luggage. It ran underneath the guest bed. I pushed that out of the way. But that was the last I saw of it. It escaped. It frickin' escaped. My office was now a complete disaster area. And all this time Alexei and Olga were soundly sleeping in their respective sun spots in the den.
Another week passed and Jenya and I were in the kitchen prepping a brunch for ourselves. I was chopping veggies and washing dishes when suddenly in the corner of my eye I caught the mouse nervously hiding behind the dish rack. "There it is!" I yelled. I went after it, and it ran right across the countertop, behind the sink, and right into an empty plastic bag which had formerly contained some greens but had since been left on the counter.
The stupid idiot mouse trapped itself! Jenya grabbed the bag and held it up victorious. No we didn't kill it. We let it go down the block. And it probably got eaten right quick by a more predatory neighborhood feline. Whatever.
July 19, 2016 : Diplomacy
One day in high school my pal Mike told me about Diplomacy. It's a board game, based in pre-WWI Europe, and it requires 7 players (each playing a leader of England, France, Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Turkey), each vying to take over the entire continent. Luck was never a factor during play - it was more like chess, with a long round of diplomatic discussions between each move. Games would last hours, sometimes days. And also, quite like real life politics, backstabbing and cheating were keys to success. Apparently JFK, Kissinger, and Cronkite were all fans.
I was intrigued. So Mike invited me to sit in on one game with many of his friends, most of which I hadn't met before and some were, like Mike, of the young republican variety. Countries are randomly assigned at the start (the only time chance is involved). I got Russia and Mike got Turkey. Before the first move Mike pulled me into the kitchen to have a private chat. I was glad my buddy Mike and I were neighboring countries, as we could work together on clobbering the other players whom I didn't know as well. We made plans to consume Austria-Hungary right quick.
Moves were then written down and announced. Much to my shock and disappointment Mike didn't launch westward into like I did, but north up into the Black Sea, basically making a clear attack on Moscow - which I left unguarded since I thought we were allies. I felt humiliated and betrayed. Mike - quite rightfully so - simply shrugged as if to say, "not my fault you're such a weak-kneed bleeding heart liberal sucker." The rest of the game lasted hours, during which I never quite recovered from the disastrous opening. But many lessons were learned.
I followed the lead of my young republican friends and became quite deceiving, opportunistic, and aggressive during future games. Don't trust anybody and every player for themself. Through some ridiculous chance me and James played at least 4 games in a row where we were assigned England and France. And each time we would start with an agreement to not enter the English Channel. "Let's not waste each other's time and get to work on our bigger enemies," we'd tell each other. Despite that agreement James, or I, or both of us, would enter the English Channel on the very first move.
During college I didn't play so much, and then after moving to California some old friends got me to play on line. This was before the WWW, so moves - and diplomatic discussions - were coordinated through an e-mail based server. Each move took about 3 days, after which you could use a unix command line utility to generate a postscript map and see what's up. The other players were a mix of strangers and friends-of-friends, including this guy, Ike, who I sorta knew in Binghamton.
Given the slow pace the game lasted about a year. I was France and holding my own. Ike was Italy. We battled each other from the onset, but about six months in it was clear we were going to both fail unless we teamed up. So I finally opened a line of communication with Ike and after a lot of humble apologies I convinced him to coordinate an attack on Germany. He agreed. And as his few armies trudged north, my fleets swept toward Roma now that he left it wide open. Ike was absolutely livid. But hey, all's fair, right?
By the end of the year I was still not getting any traction, and Ike was down to one single army bouncing around. We hadn't spoken since my shitty aforementioned attack. It was clear we were both a few moves away from losing the game, so I reached out. Basically I admitted to being a real asshole before, but offered that we could at least let's get together and go down in a blaze of glory. He grudingly accepted this plan.
And once again he headed north, and I took the oppuntinity to take over his last Italian city. Unlike the all-caps vitriol I received from Ike after the ruthless attack months earlier, his silence this time around was deeply chilling.
Years later, as fate would have it, Ike was visiting a mutual friend on Berkeley campus. They both swung by the lab - the first time I saw Ike face to face since Binghamton, and since that heinous year-long game where I ruthlessly double-crossed him twice. It felt incredibly awkward, though he was a class act about the whole thing. Really if anything was awkward it was my palpable guilt, still lingering after all this time.
July 11, 2016 : First miRthkon Gig
Music-wise, I've been super lucky to get to do a lot of unique things. I've played big venues, toured weird corners of the planet, enjoyed some large crowds, and survived some stressful high profile gigs.. but perhaps one of my proudest musical moments was my first miRthkon show.
Rewind back to Saturday, Novemeber 11, 2006...
I played guitar/keyboards in a band called Research & Development - a rather large ensemble led by the bass player Nat, who also played bass in miRthkon. Nat called me up with some bad news: he blew a tendon in his right hand. The silver lining was he could (and would) get surgery to fix it, but he'll have to cancel all gigs in the meantime, including a miRthkon/R&D double bill the very next Saturday.
Of course, I'm a bit of an over-confident musical-challenge freak, and like being a hero, so I offered to take over playing bass in R&D while he heals. And, what the hell, I said I could also sub for him in miRthkon. He was into the idea, but what about this gig next weekend? Could I really absorb both books in seven days? "No problem!" I said.
That very afternoon Nat came over with R&D bass charts and walked me through them, and we had R&D rehearsal that same night. So there I was, having zero time to relearn that set of material on bass. I was slightly irked by some of my bandmates' initial lack of confidence about the last minute instrumental shift and having to play a "sloppy gig" but attitudes changed by the end of the evening.
I didn't really know the miRthkon gang all that well at this point (nor their music, truth be told), but I eat avant prog for breakfast - how hard could it be? Wally, the miRthkon bandleader, was very appreciative of my willingness to learn their material in a week, but also understandably skeptical.
Wally immediately sent me the charts and various live recordings and demos. I listened to them and read along. Oh - it's not just some riffs - it's actual advanced level shit. I was excited to dig into this stuff but as I leafed through dozens of black pages my heart dropped. I was totally in over my head. Damn. But at this point all the various other musicians involved were already informed about me stepping up to the plate and happy the gig wasn't cancelled after all, and thus I couldn't wuss out now.
Sunday I did triage on all the R&D/miRthkon tunes. During the week I spent every ride to/from work listening to songs in a loop and every lunch hour staring at scores and every night picking out the most absurd 12-tone through-composed basslines tangled in a mine field of time signatures, ledger lines, and uncommon tuplets. Actually it was a testament to Wally's and Rob's highly accurate and thorough notation that I was able to digest this material in such a scant time. There were also a couple miRthkon rehearsals which were ass-kicking but nevertheless encouraging. But I also had to simultaneously relearn all the R&D stuff on bass which wasn't any small feat, either.
The show was a musical success. Hot damn I played a lot of notes during those two sets, and most of them were correct. No trainwrecks, either. Not many people were there to witness the spectacle, but whatever. I know I rocked it.
This experience helped bolster my confidence a few years later when due to thwarted plans I played my first Secret Chiefs 3 live show with zero band rehearsal (that's a different tale).
July 5, 2016 : Safeway
After getting a filling some years ago I experienced some lingering pain. The next day the aching increased until it was so agonizing I couldn't think straight. I left work early and on the way home stopped by a Safeway. The only useful thing I could find in the drug aisle was Anbesol so I grabbed that, clutching the side of my throbbing face as I waited in line at the register.
Then I noticed the guy in front of me and his purchases for the day. The entire conveyor belt was piled high with every possible brand of ant trap and ant poison that Safeway offered. In fact I think he cleared out their entire current stock. His total bill came out to well over $100.
As he filled his bags with this incredible supply of anti-ant ammunition he saw me rubbing my cheek while ringing up the one tiny bottle of numbing liquid. Our separate battles were obvious, and both kind of hilarious. We nodded at each other with knowing shrugs and smiles that read, "We all have our individual struggles. Good luck, brother."
June 28, 2016 : New Home
I pretty much moved to California with zero plan, non-zero debt, and all the stuff I could cram into the back of my Colt. I wasn't really sure how long it would take me to drive from NY to Berkeley by myself, nor where I would stay en route.
After visiting my uncle Danny in Detroit for a couple days (noted in a previous TTST), I was on my own the rest of the way. From Michigan I made it to Nebraska until I was hallucinating people running across the highway at 3am during a freakish thunderstorm. I pulled into a rest stop, put a pillow on the steering wheel, leaned forward against it, and slept a tiny bit.
At daybreak I hit the road again. It was slow going so I only made it to Wyoming the next night. Completely brain dead, I had to get a motel room. Fearing for all my possessions I dragged them into the room with me before crashing to sleep.
My lack of planning and foresight had me driving through Nevada at high noon in early August. I - and my vinyl record collection - just barely survived baking for hours in the Great Basin. I made it to the California border and onward to Berkeley by around 10pm on a Saturday evening. I was beyond exhausted, but kept awake by the excitement of spending my first night in my soon-to-be adopted home.
What home, exactly? A college friend, Bob, helped arrange this apartment near the Berkeley campus for me, and I called the landlord yesterday warning him of my arrival. He said the door would be open and the key inside. Perfect.
Anyway, after four days of insanity-inducing solo driving coast to coast the enticing glow of San Francisco's skyline came into view. I anxiously got off the highway and followed Bob's written directions to my new apartment, where I can finally take a much needed shower, rest, and come the following sunny morning I shall embark on the adventure of creating a different life in a fresh new locale far far from home. I almost completely boiled over with giddy expectation. So much potential awaits!
Except I arrived at the apartment, beyond tired and road weary, and... the door was locked. Fuck. FUCK!!
I was new to the area, so I had no idea what to do next. As usual with these stories this was well before smart phones. So first thing I did was find a gas station and buy some maps of Berkeley and Oakland just to get my bearings. I then drove around some more to find a pay phone and try to reach the landlord, but he was already asleep, and thus all I could do was leave a panicked message on his machine. I used the bathroom at the McDonald's on the corner of University and Shattuck.
Then I drove back near my apartment-to-be, parked in the street, put the pillow on the steering wheel, and leaned forward one more time.
Welcome to California.
June 21, 2016 : Honda
When my beloved Plymouth Colt bit the dust I needed to buy another vehicle. I was still new to California and quite broke but luckily found somebody on usenet selling a '79 Honda Accord for $500 and got an e-mail through to them before anybody else.
So I quickly drove down to San Jose and met the seller, Rob, at his house. The car was beaten up but ran great for $500. Sold! I happily drove it back to Oakland and it survived the trip, which was also a good sign.
But the following day I took it to the garage to get the smog levels checked, and it failed. According to the mechanic the main issue was a cracked exhaust manifold, which will cost $800 to replace. I was devastated. I couldn't afford this repair. Now what?
By some miracle right after talking to the mechanic Rob reached out by e-mail and asked how the car was doing. I gave him the honest truth - it won't pass smog. His reply was "That's fucking bullshit. Bring it back down here and I'll see what's up."
I drove the Honda back to San Jose and Rob looked under the hood. He pointed out the tiny little crack in the manifold and said if I had a few minutes he could weld it. So I hung out a bit while he got to work. Once done I headed back to Oakland.
It passed smog the next day. I sent a very kind thank you e-mail to Rob. The car then lasted four years with normal maintenance.
June 14, 2016 : Brett
My housemate Brett was such a dick. He was a terrible, terrible musician but somehow eked out a music degree from Berkelee. This gave him way too much validation. However his girlfriend, Molly, was quite nice and, unlike Brett, a talented artist. I lived with both of them for about 8 months until I couldn't take Brett's condescending arrogance anymore and moved out of the house into a single apartment.
A month later I returned to get some leftover mail. Brett was home, and he filled me in that he and Molly broke up. With obvious pride barely hidden beneath false shame he admitted he cheated on her. And he couldn't help but to tell me two excuses for such behavior. First, this other woman was a total babe. A scuba instructor, in fact, he added while almost winking. Second, when he is old and looking back on his life he wants to remember all the "cool stuff" he did.
I felt bad for Molly, but happy she no longer had to deal with that psychopath. But a year later I was going to work at the lab and saw her in the parking lot. With Brett. What are they doing here? Why is she still hanging around with that dickhead?
I hoped to avoid them, but then I heard Brett say, "I know that dude," while pointing in my direction and approaching. Turns out they were both going for a morning jog in the nearby park. We exchanged some painful small talk, none of which answered why they are together again. Then after an awkward pause they turned to each other and giggled.
Brett finally said, "Okay.. I hate to ask you this, but.. neither of us could remember. What's your name again?"
At first I thought they had to be joking. I mean.. we lived in the same house for eight months about a year ago. But they weren't joking. They truly forgot my name. Fuck both of them.
Epilog: This was all about 20 years ago. After writing this I cyberstalked to see what's up with my least favorite couple. Looks like they eventually moved out of California, got married, had kids, Molly's made a pretty good name for herself in the arts, and Brett is actively pursuing a career in politics. Fuck the internet for making it too easy to find all this out.
[names changed to protect the guilty]
June 7, 2016 : Feral
When Jenya and I had cats, we'd leave our bedroom window open 24/7 so they could safely come and go as they pleased. Of course this meant other cats in the neighborhood easily gained access to our home. This was usually okay - one rather gorgeous feral cat which we named Fner (short for Fluffner) was a welcome guest. He hated us humans, but was good buds with our then current felines Alexei and Olga who let Fner share the warm couch on cold winter nights.
Jenya was off at a recording session one evening when I heard some odd noises in our bedroom. I went to see what's up and found Olga and a strange feral black/white cat in the bedroom having a hissing contest. I watched in fascination until the feral suddenly realized I was in the room and freeeeeaked out!
He (I'm guessing it was a he) couldn't figure out how to leave quickly - from outside the entrance through the window was wide open, but inside the exit was obscured by a curtain. He started a quick succession of panicked leaps while clawing at the thick fabric blocking the way out, almost yanking the whole works from the wall. Jeezus! I backed off, but not before he ran across the bed knocking over a glass of water Jenya left on her dresser onto the floor. Dammit!
I pretended to leave hoping he would calm down and figure out how to escape, and continued to observe from behind the partially opened bedroom door. Olga already left the scene, but this stupid cat just kept spinning around the room in absolute fear. Eventually he tried to jump onto Jenya's other dresser, but didn't quite make it. Instead he sunk his claws into decorative silk on top of which stood various containers of jewelry, random bowls full of tchotchkes, an electric fan and a fancy glass lamp. Unable to let go of the silk, the fucking cat slowly and helplessly sank down the side of the dresser taking him and all the objects above with him.
Ksssh!! Bang! Crash! Kssssh! The lamp fell first, all its bulbs and parts of the fixture shattering immediately. The fan crashed and split in two. An iPod nano hit the floor at warranty-violating velocity. A box of jewelry opened and overturned sending precious earrings, necklaces, etc. scattering among the sea of broken glass, shoes, clothes, etc.
Okay this was now officially bullshit. Fuck this cat. I stormed into the room, shut the door, and let him whirl around like a tornado as I went over to the window and opened it wide. He finally flew out, never to return given the trauma. This left me alone to start the cleanup procedure.
I took a deep breath and dug in. While on my knees separating the glass from the valuables a sudden horrific odor began permeating throughout the house. Turns out Fner was in the basement this whole time, and he took a wild stinky shit on the floor next to the boiler. The noxious fumes came up through the vents and seemingly right into my nostrils. So I had to deal with that first and air out the house before getting back to chaos in my bedroom.
Our next pet was a dog.
May 31, 2016 : Mike
Visiting from California, I tried to catch up with as many old friends as possible, including Tom who was working in Manhattan. He commanded that I meet him by the Tower Records near NYU at noon. I arrived on foot and about 100 feet away I spotted him standing on the corner. I waved to get his attention.
But the guy next to Tom waved back at me. As I continued approaching I finally recognized this other guy was Mike - one of the million Mikes from my high school who was a genuinely good person but nobody I really ever expected to bump into, or hang out with, again. I haven't seen him in, like, five years, and we would have nothing to say to each other. Plus I was here to meet somebody else. So, with some awkward guilt mixed with the dickish joy received by indirectly flipping off my shitty high school past, I completely ignored him.
A split second later Tom saw me and also waved back. Since my gaze was purposefully focused directly at Tom, Mike then wisely came to the immediate conclusion that he was caught in the social crossfire between me and the person I intended on meeting. In my peripheral vision I saw Mike turn to avoid embarrassment as Tom and I greeted and got on with our day which included an elevator ride to the top of the World Trade Center.
May 23, 2016 : Dreamland
Here's the story of the first gig on my first bonafide rock tour ever. The band: Dreamland. The year: 1995. The town: Chico, CA. The venue: Juanita's.
We pulled up in our rented cargo van and loaded in. The bill this evening was local band Silicone Milk starting things off and then us in the middle slot. Headlining were our pals in Idiot Flesh who were wrapping up a tour of their own and heading back to Oakland after a couple gigs together with us. Since they were popular enough at the time that meant we'll have a pretty good audience tonight.
The small venue filled up as the opening band started. They were fronted by several women - a fun and aggressive performance punk/indie band. I don't remember much about their music, but I do remember they kept throwing fire candies into the audience. We then played our set, and Idiot Flesh were face melting as always.
Mantra, the lead singer of Dreamland, worked her extroverted magic and befriended the singer of Silicone Milk, Annie, who then offered us a place to sleep tonight. Sweet. With that taken care of, we were slow to leave the venue - still getting our pack-up-and-load-out chops in order. While bringing stuff out to the curb I spotted a man taking a nearby piss in the street near our van. A flash-flood of urine was heading right towards a stack of Jenya's drums. We rescued them just in time. Phew.
We arrived at the address of our crash pad. Turns out it was an apartment complex. All we had was the address - we didn't know our host's last name, nor her apartment number. Dammit. But we noticed the front door of the complex was propped open. And once inside it was quickly discovered there was a trail of fire candies left on the ground, and up the stairwell, leading to an unlocked apartment. How charming! Inside were Annie and some of her bandmates along with a bass guitar tuned A-A-D-G. We chatted until 3am but then they all left, including Annie, letting us Dreamlanders have the apartment to ourselves tonight. Talk about trust in absolute strangers!
We still needed to get our luggage out of the van. Due to a rushed and clumsy packing job all the gear in the rear was situated against the door in such a manner that it was unlockable. This seemed like a major crisis but Dan drove it around the block, speeding and stopping abruptly in fits and starts, until everything shuffled enough to free the locking mechanism. We got our luggage out and then parked the van in an alley with the back door against a wall for "security." Jenya and Mantra took everything inside while me, Michael, and Dan managed this tricky parking maneuver.
While guiding the van into the spot we heard some late night commotion from the main street 100 feet away. Being in the alley only afforded us a small window between the buildings to view the following scene: At first we heard this guy yelling, "Stop! STOP!! Call the police! You can't do this!!" along with his surprisingly loud footsteps clomping down the pavement. Ahead of him was a speeding car that screeched to a halt at the red light, then going 20 feet beyond the light due to momentum. The running man finally appeared and, while still shouting, jumped onto the front hood of the car. The driver gunned it into reverse with the guy clutching on for dear life and out of our view again. Then the echoes of skidding and more yelling, and - now that the light was green - the car reappeared, the guy still barely dangling off its side, his shoes mere inches from scraping on the ground. They zoomed through the light at probably 60mph, never to be seen again.
Well that was something. Should we notify the authorities? Me and the bandmates didn't really know what to do, but I think Dan did ultimately call the police to let them know what's up.
Back upstairs we sorted out the sleeping arrangements. It was a tiny one room place. Luckily our band contained two couples - Dan and Mantra, and me and Jenya - so we could more efficiently deal with the very limited surfaces. In the middle of the night Jenya and I woke up and listened to Annie's obsessive cat scraping in the litter box for a half hour straight.
So yeah this first night on the road really gave me a skewed impression of touring - as far as I could tell it was going to be nothing but interesting adventure, fun strangers helping us out in every town, and great audiences. Pretty soon it would become clear touring is sometimes the above but largely ceaseless exhaustion, lonely difficulty, and crushing indifference from the world at large. Nevertheless it's still a unique way to travel and learn about oneself.
May 17, 2016 : Big Talker
For a while during high school I worked at a Baskin Robbins. A couple, both of college age, came in. The dude was chatty. After ordering he asked where me and my workmate went to school. I said, "Clarkstown South," as I assembled his ice cream cone.
Turns out he was a former alumnus and so he began asking about what teachers were still there. Every name I mentioned he would respond something like, "Oh yeah that guy was an idiot," or "Ha ha what a bitch she was." I guess he was trying to impress his girlfriend and act all tough and wise now that he's a big boy talkin' shit while back home visiting from whatever university.
I saw through his pathetic charade. Little did he know my dad was also a teacher at South so I asked, "What about Dr. Lebofsky?"
"Oh that guy was an asshole," he laughed.
Without missing a beat I said, "He's my dad."
His obnoxious smirk immediately disappeared. "No he's not," he whimpered in disbelief.
I pulled out my wallet and presented my driver's license that read, "Matt Lebofsky." That surname isn't common, so he knew I was serious. His face turned white.
His girlfriend, silent thus far, punched his arm and cried, "How could you *say* that?" And then the sad stream of wimpy apologies poured from his stupid mouth. "I'm sorry.. I.. I.. didn't even know him.. I was just sayin'..." He just went on like that as I wrapped up the transaction. Yeah, who's the big talker now, dickhead?
I gotta say that felt really good. It's rare that I actually get to call people out like that. Slam dunk.
May 10, 2016 : Toronto Gig
In 2006 Casino Royale - a cover band that largely works on the west coast - picked up a big Tuesday night gig in Toronto of all places. I was asked to do it, but alas I was to be touring with Faun Fables at the time. However as the tour schedule was finalized I noticed that very Tuesday was a day off between Monday and Wednesday shows in Burlington and Montreal, so I accepted the Casino Royale gig after all. What lucky timing and geographical positioning!
The Faun Fables show in Burlington was easy, as we were opening for Pinback and Pleaseasaur - what a weird bill - and thus we had a short and early set. Turns out Kenseth, an old bandmate in Species Being, was a member of Pinback, and I happened to know it was his birthday. So when the Pinback tour manager was giving us some terribly obnoxious grief for being late I diffused that guy's attitude by walking right up and saying, "if you see Kenseth, tell him Happy Birthday and Matt's here."
Anyway, easy gig, and Kenseth and I hung out afterward catching up and exchanging tour war stories well into the evening. We parted ways around 3am and then we parked our RV across the street from the airport. At 6am I woke up and pretty much just stumbled out of the RV, through the parking lot, into the terminal and onto the plane into Canada.
Somehow in my sleepless daze (and sans cell phone) I navigated through customs, found the hotel in downtown Toronto and met the other Casino Royale peeps. We ate some pancakes at a diner then I took a nap.
The band (about 10 of us) left the hotel in the afternoon and headed to the gig - a huge international law convention. Unlike the hellish nightly grind I've been dealing with for weeks I literally walked on stage to my backlined keyboard already powered up and with a proper level set in the monitors. I went "testing testing" into my microphone and all was well. My soundcheck lasted 15 seconds and required zero lifting - quite the relief after weeks of painful loadins and soundchecks that took hours.
It was a fun gig playing the usual Bacharach-drenched set for a thousand party goers. And then we set up camp in a rather swanky green room in back. Since there was an infinite supply of beer we kinda just parked it there all night after our last tune. For some reason we were also able to score free vodka shots at the bar as needed. So basically it was a big party backstage until about 3am when the staff suddenly turned on the bright lights as if to say, "okay enough you American assholes, time to go."
We cabbed back to our hotel. Good god I still had to get up in a few hours to catch my plane to Montreal. I was sharing the room with the bass player Dan who, bless his heart, presented me with a gift - a big bottle of elecrolyte-heavy sports beverage. He commanded I drink all of this before going to sleep. I consumed the whole bottle and when I woke up shortly thereafter I actually felt more or less okay. Thank you, Dan!
After the flight I rejoined the Faun Fables gang at a cafe near the Montreal venue and continued the rest of our adventures. It was a refreshing experience - and quite the perspective check - having a cover band gig in the middle of a rock tour with its completely different levels of alcohol consumption, remuneration, audience response, and heavy lifting. Such is the way of the music profession.
May 3, 2016 : Contractor
Long ago while visiting the Detroit part of the family my uncle Danny asked if I wanted to spend a day making some money helping him on a contracting job. I was only about 14 years old and didn't really know what this entailed. But I wanted to prove to myself, and perhaps to the rest of the family, that I wasn't the lazy nerd I so obviously was. I said yes.
The next day started bright and early. We got a truckload of supplies and headed to the job site. The team today would be me, Danny, Danny's contracting partner, and my grandfather Dave who was also happy to chip in and help out. We all entered this 1000 square foot office space and then it was revealed to me the goal for today: knock down all the current walls, and then put up a completely different set of walls.
I was handed a sledgehammer and began bashing. I didn't have the best upper body strength at the time, and was fairly destroyed before the first wall came completely down. However my grandfather seemed to be having no trouble whatsoever, so I had to man up. I kept quiet even though I was already dripping with perspiration, thirsty as hell, and woozy from low blood sugar.
By mid afternoon we were hauling all the debris out of the space. I'm pretty sure I was bleeding from several wounds and fairly bruised up at this point. Once the place was cleared out we had a dinner break. Danny went out and got Kentucky Fried Chicken for the whole gang. Given my current state of exhaustion and starvation I felt like this was the best meal I had ever eaten.
But we weren't over. The reward for surviving demolition and cleanup was a blur of 2x4s. I felt like my shoulders were going to explode, but there I was bang bang banging in all the nails, or on call to hold up drywall for installation.
When the job was deemed complete we headed back home. I emerged in the house with muscles twitching and my entire body caked with a paste comprised of sweat, dust and fried chicken grease.
My parents asked, "so how was it?" And only then did I let go, practically crying as I described the depths of agony and relentless torture during the long, long day. I felt betrayed - liked a was tricked into being a slave - and vowed to never be suckered into doing anything like this ever again.
Just as I was wrapping up this tirade Danny snuck up behind me and slapped a crisp $100 bill in my open hand and said, "thanks."
A hundred dollars was a lot of money for a young teenager in the early 80's. My bad attitude, along with all my bodily pain, disappeared instantly.
Shortly after returning to New York the $100 were converted into my first two guitar effects pedals (phasor and distortion).
April 26, 2016 : Mystery Photo
By the time we got to the mid west on that 2006 Faun Fables tour we were well into this blurry zone driving a sputtering RV around the country and throwing together ambitious shows in random venues. The gig in Minneapolis was especially random, as it was booked in some former church. We set up all the gear and sets, and then I spent hours hiding and waiting for the many opening bands to wrap up.
Just before show time I sleepily got on stage. I went to pick up my guitar and noticed a photo laying on its strings. It was a picture of me circa 15 years ago, at age 20. I recognized the photo immediately - a very dorky mullet-headed portrait of my younger self that once graced the glass walls near the entrance of my old college radio station.
What the hell? Somebody must have snuck onto the stage in between sets and planted this picture. But who? I squinted into the crowd, scanning to find the potential culprit. Then I remembered that Jason moved out this way from upstate New York around the same time I fled to California. And sure enough, after I played my set I found him in the audience and we spent the rest of the night catching up on the past decade and a half.
I kept the photo, which is now poised above the computer in my music studio - a reminder of unfortunate haircuts past.
April 19, 2016 : Garage
Every morning was a anxious, chaotic rush during my senior year in high school. Underslept and malnourished I'd speed across town, making it to homeroom in time to bash out the busywork I should have done the night before. Also, as the third child I was granted a long series of random near-death hand-me-down cars from parents and elder siblings. I just recently was granted a giant, clumsy Thunderbird and hadn't gotten used to its bloated size and inaccurate steering.
One morning my high-strung lack of focus finally bit me in the ass. As I was backing out of the house at unsafe speed I swerved way too early and thus rammed the front of the big stupid Thunderbird into the side of the garage. BAM! Shocked by my stupidity and the sudden grave situation I parked, ran upstairs, and yelled to my mom through the bathroom door, "I just destroyed the garage!" Then I fled to school.
Now here's the thing. My dad built the entire three-car garage the previous summer. By himself. Of course I would've and should've helped him but I couldn't because I broke my foot and was out of commission during construction. I watched helplessly from the bedroom window as my dad cleverly lifted giant joists into place as a solo operation using long 2x4s. The whole structure was a rather impressive feat of engineering, and now I just fucked it up.
And here's another thing. My dad worked at the same high school I attended. So after arriving late for homeroom I spend the whole morning avoiding him, knowing full well my mom probably called his office to let him know what's up.
I snuck off campus during lunchtime to drive back home and further survey the damage. It was pretty bad - the whole wall was knocked clear off the foundation. I actually tried to lift it back into place, praying for those mythical bursts of adrenaline that allow elderly farmers to lift whole tractors off their grandchildren. No dice. As well I looked like I took out the guide rail such that the garage door cannot close anymore. Fuckin' awesome.
I didn't see either of my folks until after school when I heard my dad pull up and walk slowly towards my bedroom. He peered into the door and said, quite simply, "give me the keys." I gladly did so. In fact I might have also said, "please take them." He disappeared for a half hour, only to return and hand me back the keys, acknowledging that it would be more of a punishment to him to have to schlep me to all my rehearsals and other activities. "But," he said, "you're paying for it."
I ended up being pretty lucky on two fronts. First, with some borrowed jacks we were actually able to lift the dislodged wall back into place without too much ado. Second, turns out there's a guy in town who collects a bunch of garage door guide rails and we bought a replacement on the cheap from the stash he had in his shed. Other than that it was just bolstering the frame and replacing a few shingles. I think the whole bill came to under $200.
April 12, 2016 : Albuquerque
My father, his cousin Larry, and I were all flying into Albuquerque and meeting at the baggage carousel. I arrived first. When Larry appeared he mentioned that I looked the same as when we last met eight years ago.
I thought about this for a second. My current hair was a bit shaggy, about shoulder length, which was about where it was eight years ago. But in between then and now it grew down to my waist. Then I cut it short, dyed it pink, buzzed that off, dyed it Gillian Anderson red, bleached it, let it grow out again, buzzed that off, and let it grow to where it is now. I also went through several beard formations during this time, and gained about 25 pounds but slowly returned to what is now my regular weight.
So the fact that I looked the same was a bizarre coincidence.
By the way, the reason I was there in Albuquerque was to present a talk at a science education convention with the aforementioned relatives. The text published in the resulting proceedings included Larry's wife Nancy, so the final author list was: Lebofsky, Lebofsky, Lebofsky and Lebofsky.
April 5, 2016 : Bed Time
When I first moved to California I lived in an apartment with Bob. I was beyond broke, living on a $20/week food budget. My bed was a sleeping bag on the floor.
Bob moved out after about six months as he got this really weird gig. A frat at UC Berkeley got into enough trouble that they were required to have an outside house manager on the premises until their behavior improves. Bob was this manager, and got to live for free in this frat house close to campus, even though you can imagine none of the student members in the house were happy to have a policing force under the same roof.
I heard from Bob a month into the job. Sounded like he was a bit miserable with his arrangement - he didn't like anybody and nobody liked him. He asked if I was still sleeping on the floor. Why, yes I was.
So he somewhat casually mentioned how the security in the house was really lax, and there were a lot of mattresses in room 217. Duly noted.
A few days later I drove up to the frat house early in the morning and parked right out front. I walked in as if I was supposed to be there. A few hungover heads looked up at me, and I smiled and waved and kept on moving. I found my way up to second floor and found room 217. The door was unlocked, and within a pile of mattresses were strewn about. On hindsight I shudder to think of their condition, but I really needed something more comfortable than the floor at this point. I chose the least-stained one and trotted back out of the house with it and nobody stopped me.
I had that mattress for years, eventually upgrading when I moved into a new apartment and found a futon left beside the dumpster around back.
March 29, 2016 : Alexei
There used to be a parade of stray and feral cats living in or around our house. One cat adopted us. Jenya and I named him Alexei. He was the worst cat ever - he refused to clean himself, he sprayed pee on everything, he scratched us, he would press his pointed paws into our backs as we slept. But we loved him and his bad attitude.
One morning, much too early, I woke to the sound of grinding out in the backyard. What the hell was that? I pulled the curtain aside and squinted into the daylight - it was a damn squirrel gnawing on a decorative cow skull we had hanging on the porch right outside the window.
I tried to scare it away by shouting at it. "Hey! Pssst! Get outta here!" The squirrel looked up at me for a second as if to say, "Really? Whatever, dude." And then went back to gnawing. Again I commanded it to leave but this time was completely ignored.
Meanwhile, Alexei was curled up at the foot of the bed, ignoring the commotion. Among his other faults he was also completely useless as an anti-rodent defense. Well, I knew this - but the squirrel didn't.
So I scooped Alexei up - he was all like, "what the fuck are you doing, bro?" and hung limp as I presented him out the window. "Hey, squirrel asshole - I got one of these."
The squirrel took one glimpse at the big orange cat dangling from my hand and fled the yard as soon as possible. Alexei paid no attention to the running critter. Instead he just writhed a bit, clearly wanting to be brought back to bed because whatever was going on was total bullshit. I plopped him back on the bed, he groaned a bit, then we all went back to sleep.
March 22, 2016 : Family Bank
When I was about 10 or 11 my parents called me and my elder siblings, Ruth and Ben, into the kitchen to discuss allowance. We older Lebofsky children (my younger sister Lisa was still a toddler) were getting a buck or two a week, but this was all about to change.
In an effort to teach us about saving money my parents decided to institute a "family bank." Instead of giving us physical dollars each week, they would "deposit" money into said bank. If we ever wanted cash we would have to ask them directly for a withdrawal. This saved my folks from having to come up with actual bills to dole out each week, and we kids would have to explain our withdrawals, thus forcing us to consider and justify our spending habits.
So what was in it for us children? Well, our allowance got bumped up to $3 per week. And, perhaps to teach us about math and economics, the parental bank would also give us 5% interest, compounded weekly.
I immediately recognized this incredible investment opportunity, and was happy to accept these terms. And in the first week my parents drew up a ledger and put each of us down for $3 in our respective "accounts," plus 15 cents in interest.
Unlike my sibs, who took money out regularly for reasonable purchases that any young teenager would make, I happily sat back and let my money grow. Admittedly this was easy for me as I had no life and no friends. Week two I got another $3, plus 30 cents interest. Week three I got another $3, plus 46 cents interest. You can see where this is going.
A month into this new regime there was discernible panic on my parents' faces. In a few months my weekly interest earnings exceeded the actual allowance. After six months or so I was pushing $200 in my account and earning about $10/week.
Anyway this is how I was able to buy my first synth. The family bank shut down shortly after that.
March 15, 2016 : C Notes
Jenya and I were driving towards San Pablo avenue when she noticed something thin and green floating on the breeze and landing in the middle of the road. She asked, "is that a dollar on the street?" She quickly stopped the car and I got out to inspect. It wasn't just a dollar - it was a crisp $100 bill! I held it up to the light to confirm it wasn't counterfeit.
Woo-hoo! What ridiculous luck! We guessed since we were passing a nearby Casino that some drunk gambler must have dropped it. Their loss was our gain! However the next day we got an $80 parking ticket. So that happiness was short lived.
This last summer I was walking around Williamsburg with my sister Lisa when I spotted not one but TWO hundred dollar bills on the sidewalk. Hot damn! I immediately lunged down and snatched them, only to look up and see this dude hauling furniture into a moving truck. Once he loaded the current item he reached down and noticed an empty back pocket, then turned in my direction in panic. I was clearly holding his wages for the day.
I've never seen such an expression on a stranger's face before. It was a mix of "fuuuuuuck!" and "please man be cool."
There really was no choice. I handed him the money and his waves of relief were measurable miles away.
March 8, 2016 : Guitar Lessons
By the time I was 15 I was already playing piano and taking weekly performance/composition/theory lessons for a decade. I was also messing around on guitar and bass for a couple years but found myself hitting a plateau on these instruments, so I figured I'd take some extra lessons to get my bearings. Since I had no leads I went with the local music shop and signed up with the in-house guitar instructor. I don't remember his name. Let's call him Don. He looked like a Don.
My folks paid for four lessons up front, and I went to the first one. Don figured I was just like all the zillion suburban teenagers with rock star dreams and sized me up by asking if I had any previous guitar training. I said no but told him I've been figuring out all the chords on my own and would like some next level pointers. He tried to show me how to play some basic blues progressions but I interrupted him saying I already kinda mastered piano and compose all these 12-tone odd-time prog rock epics so can you just get to the good stuff.
He grudgingly wrote down some scales and chord fingerings - so basically he was getting paid to regurgitate some Mel Bay books. His scribbling ate up most of lesson one.
I digested all that and came back next week hungry for some deeper shit, but I clearly hit the limit of Don's skill set. In desperation he asked, "can I just show you the solo to Stairway to Heaven?" Sure, dude. He wrote that down for me in tabulature and walked me through it.
The last two lessons were spent going over the solo in a loop, pretty much, along with how to play pentatonic scales. And thus ended my formal training on guitar and bass for the rest of my life.
March 1, 2016 : Serbia
On the crazy 2012 Euro SC3/a.P.A.t.T. tour we caravaned all over Europe in two Sprinter vans. Between the bands and crew there were 16 of us, all told. It was a blur of highways. Anyway for no good reason here are a few vignettes involving Serbia.
Our first entrance into Serbia was simply a shortcut between Bulgaria and Romania. We were driving all night, and in the morning I woke in the back of the van having to pee really fucking bad. And fully occupied Sprinter vans are such that there's no easy or private way to piss into a bottle.
So we had to stop. The tour manager was in constant freak-out mode about running late, and thus there was some resistance towards taking this unexpected bathroom break. Nevertheless we pulled over at the first obvious place after the border.
We couldn't tell if this dilapidated shack in the middle-of-nowhere was a gas station, but we stopped anyway. I was the first out of the vehicle, running from the dusty parking lot towards the crumpled structure, all the while wondering how the hell I'm going to convey to a Serbian "where's the frickin' bathroom?" Then I spotted the blessed, universally understood sign: "WC-1€."
Yes! The sign led me around back to a room with a giant pit dug deep into the earth. Need I really provide details about the nauseating visuals and terrible stench? I took an exhilarating wizz into the abyss for what seemed like a solid two minutes. Of course now that we stopped many of my tour companions took this opportunity to fill the pit as well.
Back at the vans the old Serb manning the premises emerged to collect his piss money. Since it was on me to stop in the first place, I dug into my pockets and basically handed him all my change which was likely not enough. He was disgruntled, but not knowing English he simply hobbled away with a dirty look on his weathered face. And we were back on the empty road.
The other van was leading for a while and going ridiculously slow. Eventually it came clear they were having mechanical issues. How confusing we must have seemed to the locals: vans full of American, British, and French people trying to locate the nearest/best garage off the highway. The lingual barriers were staggering. For example, the exit signs around these parts say "izlaz."
We did somehow find a mechanic, but of course they were out to lunch. So in the meantime we all napped on the curb or scattered and went wandering around the town. I took a trip up the hill by myself into this random, quiet neighborhood. Epic sonder material. I befriended a stray dog. Hours later the van was fixed well enough to make it to the next gig in Timisoara, but just barely.
The next day we doubled back into Serbia to play a gig in Belgrade. We kinda got lost and I was on navigation duty, which was stressful as the signs are in a completely different alphabet and don't match anything in our GPS devices. Eventually we stopped at the main train station and the promoter walked over to meet us there and lead us to the club. The venue was a shooting range by day, complete with bullet wounds in the walls and stage floor. Not very welcoming.
This ended up being a very fun gig with a great crowd, even though the power fluctuations on stage actually caused the computer to play samples out of tune. Afterward I reached my limit of tour exhaustion and fell asleep on a bench in an unoccupied area of the bar. When I came to all the gear was loaded out already. Thanks, guys.
We stayed at a hostel that night. In the morning I was struck by this little sign in the communal kitchen which happened to be in English - the first English I've seen in a while that wasn't the words: "Fast Food." It was instructions about how to make Turkish coffee. Completely and utterly wrong instructions. Not even close.
Unfortunately on the way out of town the other van broke down again, this time for good. So a.P.A.t.T. were stuck behind as that was all sorted out and missed the gig in Budapest. Eventually they'll get a temporary replacement van with a driver, because due to the rental company policy it was mandatory to have a Serbian at the wheel. The caused us grief when said driver tried to cross over the border into Croatia a few gigs later. But that's a story for another time...
Given that I slept through loadout last night I happily took the driving shift all the way to the Hungarian border. As an American you never really think about the long stretches in between these remote Eastern European cities. They have a unique charm, to be sure. Rolling hills, slightly different trees, impossibly large stork nests teetering atop tall poles. Google it.
The rest of the band was snoring as I enjoyed these visuals alone on this empty highway. I suddenly thought to check my speed and just about the time I saw I was going about 140kph I noticed the red lights approaching in the side view mirror.
Holy fucking fuck shit fuck. I'm about to get pulled over by the Serbian highway patrol. This is not good. My heart entered my gullet as I let up on the gas and continued to coast down this hill. I began practicing apologies and excuses in multiple languages as the cop approached. I visualized a future being held prisoner in a set from Kusturica's "Underground."
And then the cop passed by and kept going, apparently on the way to a greater emergency elsewhere. I made no noise during this brief moment of incredible panic, and then exhaled in utter relief. A couple hours later we hit the border, and that was it for Serbia.
Feburary 23, 2016 : Dishwasher
I lived in this second story flat for a few years with Jenya, Crissy, and Vicky. At the kitchen sink you can see directly into the neighbor's kitchen across the alley. None of us knew him, but from what we could glean during our simultaneous dish washing sessions he seemed like a regular guy. For some reason neither household bought curtains for privacy.
At complete random Jenya and I unexpectedly met this neighbor at a party hosted by a mutual friend. He was hard to recognize at first out of context, i.e. without windows fogged up with hot dishwater between us. We had a good laugh about our previous relationship as anonymous plate scrubbers and he invited us over for dinner at a later date.
We brought wine, he made pasta, we hung out and discussed life in Oakland. After dinner Jenya and I helped clean up. It was fun to peer into our own apartment from this new vantage point, and then suddenly Vicky appeared in our flat and started doing dishes as well. Jenya and I stared through the window until she looked up. Oh the hilarious expression on Vicky's face which read, "Wait! What the hell are you guys doing over *there*?!"
Feburary 16, 2016 : Reagan
I have vague memories of Jimmy Carter while he was in office, but the first presidential election I recall is when Reagan defeated him. This made a mark as my parents and other adult relatives were all somewhere between concerned and devastated by Reagan's victory. I was a young and clueless 10 year old, but based on my family's impressions it was clear that Reagan was some kind of evil idiot bent on destroying this fine country and everybody who voted for him was an ignorant sucker at best.
Then, months later, my fifth grade teacher came into the classroom with some breaking news. "Everybody, " he said, "The president has just been shot."
All I knew was the pain and anguish Reagan was causing my family, and so, naturally, I leapt up, punched the air and shouted, "YES!"
This reaction was met with complete silence, along with the dumbfounded expressions of my teacher and all my fellow classmates. I slumped back into my seat completely embarrassed and confused. There was a din of mumbling regarding how rude and crazy I was, but this attention fell away as I crumpled into a tiny sphere under a thick shell of alienation that contains me still to this day when people discuss politics.
Feburary 9, 2016 : Blanding
During one of epic Colorado Plateau adventures, Jenya and I were driving around the southeast corner of Utah looking for a place to rest for the night. Pleasant camping options were limited, so we ultimately decided to drive into the tiny town of Blanding and treat ourselves to a motel room. The streets were eerie and quiet. The only food establishment open at this late hour was the Taco Bell attached to the gas station.
Opting to save a few bucks we were eventually drawn to a locally owned motel on the dark and scary side of town where the rooms were advertised as being under $30. The only signs of life in the whole complex were the stirrings of the proprietor.
He appeared at the front desk, skinny and bald, with a round head slightly too big for his body and beady eyes staring out from behind thick glasses. The check-in procedure was by the book, but he spoke in painfully slow, deliberate phrases with the marked cadence of an aged cult follower. A smile seemed permanently chiseled onto his face, as if his friendliness was an exhausting act to deceive us while his chattering mind concocted evil fantasies about our violent demise.
When he saw me scrawl "Oakland" on the address line of the sign-in form he lit up and recalled a visit many years ago, where the highlights were seeing the big Mormon church and riding the "Bay.. Area.. Rapid.. Transit..." A lot of Utahns know about and flock to Oakland because of that church. Weird but true. Anyway, he then gave us the keys to our room... adjacent to his office.
I was convinced we were to be neatly butchered with an axe in our sleep, but no such thing occurred. We woke up refreshed and alive, and needn't have been so creeped out by the harmless motelier. Nevertheless, after we left Blanding Jenya hilariously referred to the odd man as "Mormon Bates."
Feburary 2, 2016 : Aquarius
Todd, Adam, and I rehearsed in Oakland at our rented space. After one rehearsal Todd needed a couple bucks for a BART ticket back to San Francisco. All I had was a twenty dollar bill. We briefly discussed buying a soda at the corner gas station to make change, but the whole process felt pointlessly complicated to me. It just seemed to be easier to give him a goddamn ride all the way to SF. I offered this option and he whined, "oh, you're such a fucking Cancer!"
He didn't actually know - this was him guessing my astrological sign, and he was correct.
And so I retaliated, "well, you must be a fucking Aquarius as only you guys give me this kind of shit for being a Cancer."
I, too, was correct.
He accepted the ride. By the way, shortly after that I met my wife Jenya, who is an Aquarius.
January 26, 2016 : Ode to Bill
I was quite musically active in high school, starting with passing AP music theory as a freshman. Seeing lots of potential the school music director, Bill Garbinsky, took me under his wing. As a sophomore Bill went far above the call of duty to give me private theory lessons which garnered me yet more advance college credit. And among other things I took part in two musical productions each year and played (and arranged original music for) the jazz ensemble.
But as a stupid young man I got very cocky about my skill set and began to pick and choose various gigs Bill offered based on aesthetics and remuneration. I also felt so above everything I'd spend every moment I could sneaking into the auditorium during the day and playing my epic compositions on the grand piano to the empty hall for hours.
This general lack of focus and respect drove Bill nuts. But this was all nothing compared to when, at the end of my senior year, I showed up unannounced to plead my case to the music board that I deserved an annual high school marching band scholarship worth $500.
You see, I wasn't supposed to be there because I wasn't in the marching band. I played the very non-portable piano and bass guitar - and not the musical toys you can manipulate while waltzing in formation around a football field. My fellow classmates who spent years in the marching band were a bit stumped when I crashed this scholarship defense party since I haven't spent a single minute in uniform.
But I made my case that it was quite unfair the only music scholarship offered to the students was for marching band when I, the supreme Matt Lebofsky, took part in every other musical function in the school far beyond the scope and skills of all my peers. The board seemed unconvinced by my rambling arguments, so I thought that was that.
A month later I was hanging with my stage crew and computer geek friends one weekend night over at Mike's house. The phone rang and it was a mutual friend wondering if I was there. Apparently lots of people were looking for me.
Because tonight was the marching band end-of-the-year banquet during which they announced this year's scholarship recipients, and - ha ha - guess what - I was at the top of the list. Until that moment I had no idea about any of this - the banquet, the announcement, nor why they ultimately chose me. I wish I was there to see the looks on everybody's faces when my name was called.
Monday rolled around and I was back to hiding in the auditorium playing piano alone to a sea of vacant seats. Suddenly I heard the sound of a door open at the back of the stage, and then close. Slow, angry footsteps echoed throughout the hall until Bill emerged from the dark of the wings, looking extremely peeved.
I knew the time of reckoning was now, and I stood up, walked over to Bill and took it like a man.
With plenty of cuss words and flecks of spit he shouted right in my face for a good five minutes, the two of us standing at the edge of the stage. Boy did he let me have it. He was incredibly frustrated and disappointed with my bad attitude over the years, culminating in not having the common decency to show up to accept my award. Of course I wasn't even notified about nor invited to the award ceremony, but I didn't feel like I should argue. Right or wrong, I let him get it all out of his system.
At the end of his confusing tirade he reluctantly handed me an envelope containing the $500 check, as well as a lovely pen and pencil set which I figured was part of the deal. That may have been the last conversation, if that was even a conversation, that we ever had. Which was sad as I still liked the guy, and was deep down grateful for his general support and encouragement. Plus he might have also had a point about my youthful arrogance and sense of entitlement.
Fifteen years later my family was poised to move away from the old hometown, so I took Jenya around for one last look at my old stomping grounds. This included a visit to the high school. As it was during non school hours I was surprised the front doors were open, and the doors to the unoccupied auditorium were also unlocked. I happily discovered the same old grand piano was still there. And also, I believe, the echoes of Bill yelling at me. His words made more sense now, especially after sitting at the piano once again and serenading the same damn seats, still empty.
RIP Bill Garbinsky (1940-2013)
January 19, 2016 : Fred & Ed
I grew up in Rockland County, where there was a small, secret waterfall off exit 14 on the Palisades Parkway, tucked away in the woods adjacent to some less-traveled hills. My friends and I would go there for no good reason other than to "just get away from it all." We called the falls "Fred & Ed" in honor of the proprietors of a nearby garage.
After one visit we were crossing the road returning to our car when a bicyclist came zooming around the blind corner. He didn't expect a herd of teenagers to be standing in the middle of the street and only had microseconds to react. He slammed on the brakes and his skinny ten-speed wobbled out of control.
He nearly swiped Kirsten, and then spilled out next to Dave. He tumbled onto the pavement but managed to land on his feet right in front of me. His bike was totalled. His forehead was scraped up and bleeding. The skin on his palm was completely peeled back. Nothing but awkward silence until he asked, "Anybody got any band-aids?" Kirsten and Evan gave him and his broken bike a ride back into town. Poor guy.
We visited Fred & Ed once more after that. Evan got bored with soaking his toes in the small pool at the base of the falls and went exploring. Me and James laughed it up as we saw Evan in the distance flailing around. He must have walked into a spiderweb. At least that's what we thought.
When Evan appeared back at the pool he was shivering and asking for help. Turns out he encountered a beehive, and there were several stingers stuck in both his arms. We plucked them from his flesh, and I felt really shitty for laughing earlier.
January 12, 2016 : Common Ailments
By junior year in college I had earned enough cred to have a college radio show in the afternoon. The prime time slots meant more opportunities to interview random bands coming through town. A Boston band called Common Ailments of Maturity were gonna play at the campus pub tonight and with about 15 minutes of warning I was told they would be in the control room any moment to promote the show.
I'd never heard of them, so I went to the record library and dug out their most recent vinyl. I happily discovered they were an avant punk drums/guitar/stick trio so they were right up my alley. When they arrived I asked them some pretty good questions. I'd like to think I perfectly touched upon their prog roots and use of the Chapman stick without giving either of those potentially off-putting topics unnecessary weight.
They were pretty cool, enough so that I dropped my plans and went to their set later on. They put me on the guest list, which felt like a huge honor and a reward for being such a great interviewer. I entered the pub feeling like a total VIP. Hey, I was still pretty green back then.
But the pub was mostly empty. It was a school night, after all. A couple other music geeks were there, along with a few non-music-fans just getting some brewskis. At this point in my life I knew nothing about the realities of touring, and hadn't yet built up the yards-thick callouses on my soul from playing hundreds of empty rooms around the planet, so I was utterly horrified by the shitty turnout. I also felt completely guilty that my promotional efforts didn't bring everybody out on this cold evening to see a traveling avant indie rock trio.
They charged through their set like pros. I tried to give them 1000% attention to make up for the lack of other human ears. And as they packed up the campus police arrived. Turns out while they were parking to load out their tour van kissed somebody else's bumper. No big deal, but apparently the campus police were called in as the student who owned the bumped car was putting up a big entitled stink about it. So this poor band was getting completely fucked by this lame ass Binghamton gig, pretty much.
I felt so ashamed how my chosen institute of higher learning was mistreating these hard working artists who trekked this far to share their music. The guitarist/singer registered my humiliation and sympathy, and said it would be alright. He even gave me a free band t-shirt.
January 5, 2016 : Passing the Torch
After graduating college at the University of Binghamton I moved to California. A year later I returned to Binghamton in the summer to visit many friends still there. I slept on the couch in my former house and jammed with my old band Green Eyed Monster. We even played an impromptu 10 minute set after seeing our friends Psquelch perform live at a local club - they let us borrow their gear as we pulled out a few of the old "hits." The soundguy complemented me on my mic technique.
It was a fun hang for a couple days, but it would not have been complete unless I checked out the status of WHRW, the campus radio station where I was tech director the previous year, and basically lived inside its walls. To this day I still claim that most of my college education happened not in classrooms but WHRW's record library, discovering and digesting many amazing albums hidden within its seemingly infinite collection during my all-too-brief four college years. Plus, let's face it, I was never ever cool in college, and nobody at the station gave me too hard a time about it, bless all their hearts.
However now the station, while live on the air, was pretty much empty. The control room was on auto pilot - the current deejay probably put on a long song and went to go to the bathroom or smoke out. So it was just me gazing at the flyers and posters still on the walls and smelling the same old musty couches. It was like a dream - returning to the past even though my new reality was 3000 miles away, and everybody had disappeared, just like I did. I felt incredibly lonely.
The spell was suddenly broken as Ron Drumm appeared from the record library. Ron, a fixture at the station, was an aging hippie dude who volunteered for decades organizing the library. Upon seeing me he made some snide comment about the emo music currently being aired and then he disappeared before I could say hi. I realized he probably assumed I hadn't graduated, that I hadn't had this other life the past year. Like in his mind time hasn't passed and I was simply just still there. In a way this made me feel even more lonely.
Well, this visit was a bust. I took one last look at the place and split. As I closed the door to the station I saw a very young kid timidly snooping around. It was quickly clear that, since this was the middle of the summer, he was probably an incoming student who was feeling out of place so he broke away from his orientation group to check out what's up with the campus station. A younger me, basically. But he stopped, thwarted by the closed door, and possibly scared by all the photos in the window of the countless hairy deejays of yore.
"It's cool," I said to him, "Go on in. Check it out."
He shyly and silently accepted the invitation, nodding in a manner to say, "okay thank you" and he disappeared inside the sonic sanctuary of WHRW. I turned around and left the student union for the last time, realizing immediately I had just now lived out the end of the cheeziest after school special.
December 29, 2015 : Bears
Jenya and I were in the midst of one of our many Colorado Plateau adventures, during which we spent a couple days in Rocky Mountain National Park. On the morning of the first full day we took a shuttle bus to the Glacier Gorge trailhead. The bus was full, and all the people disappeared into the park as Jenya and I were slow to get our jackets and daypacks in order. We had a rough morning - there were 60mph winds which prevented us from making coffee at our camp site, so cut us some slack. We were quite alone when we finally hit the trail.
Literally fifty feet later we turned the first corner and stumbled upon an adolescent bear walking a few dozen feet ahead of us. Jenya and I had the same exact reaction, that being a split second of "Aww look at that big fuzzy adorable critter. How cute!" followed immediately by "Fuck! Shit! It's a BEAR! Wait!! Where is its mother?!" It looked up at us, and we calmly walked backward to the parking lot.
We debated about what to do next. Is this actually a problem? Are we just being wimps? Or is this a real danger? We did the math - Yosemite is riddled with bear lockers and warning signs about leaving food in cars. When I couldn't find bear lockers here at Rocky Mountain I asked the ranger and he actually encouraged us to leave our food items in our car. This was 2003 - the bears around here were apparently still newbies when it came to registering humans and their vehicles as food sources, and therefore probably not terribly aggressive. So maybe if we aren't behaving in a threatening or delicious manner we'll be okay.
We braved it and returned to the trail, quickly encountering our bear again, this time with its full size mother by its side. They looked at us. Gulp. But after a tense couple of seconds they shrugged and kept moseying up the trail ahead of us. To reduce the element of surprise Jenya and I made continual noise, usually in the form of singing Bowie's "Boys Keep Swinging" except replacing the word "Boys" with "Bears." We were on their tail for a half mile until they eventually followed a creek elsewhere.
At the end of the day we hopped back on the crowded shuttle bus. We mentioned to the driver we saw a couple bears, and we suddenly became heroes as such sightings were rare. Cool.
December 22, 2015 : Ticking
Back in the Fall of 1996, Jenya headed off on a two-week tour with Giant Ant Farm. In her absence I had plans to spend one of those weekends up in Humboldt, and the next down in Austin, Texas.
The Humboldt trip could have been better. I hadn't yet checked out those parts of California's lost coast, and so I gladly tagged along with Casey, Shannon, Hope, Matt, and a dog who was then referred to as Beezer on their journey up north. The goal was to visit their friend, Paul, who lived deep in the woods with his wife and son. I expected this weekend to be a healthy few days outside, unencumbered by the trappings of technology nor deafened by the din of the city.
It wasn't until we got in the rental van and were a couple hours into a five hour trip that I started feeling the onset of a nasty flu. The last part of the journey consisted of twisting the van wildly around pitch black switchback dirt roads in the middle of the night. Somehow the guys found the edge of Paul's vast property and our gracious host met us at the van, led us into the quiet, dark wilderness, and showed us our sleeping areas.
There wasn't much of an "inside" anywhere. The family lived in a miniature silo (about 8 feet in diameter and 16 feet high). The guest house was a gigantic treehouse dangling from several branches which could hold three sleeping bodies. The toilet was a hole in the ground. I got a spot in the treehouse and prayed I'd feel better come sunrise.
Fat chance. It rained all night and the treehouse swung in the wind, ten feet above cold, muddy ground. By morning I was grouchy as hell. The air was cold and wet. My head felt twice as large as normal.
I wish I could have enjoyed the "roughing it" aspect of this weekend, but was wholly unable to in my condition. Paul's land stretched for arces, encompassing wild wooden hills and well-kempt agricultural lots. He killed one of his pigs just for our visit, so there was plenty of ham served every meal. We had a burn of brush collected from a currently unused field, which was pleasant given the misty rain evaporating right above the flames. I spent this rustic day doing a poor job of pretending I was having a blast.
As soon as the sun set I couldn't keep my aching eyes open. I was truly sick. I passed on a second night in the swinging treehouse, and opted to sleep in the van, crumpled in a ball underneath the seats, with Beezer the wet dog snoring right above me.
I crapped out for a good 15 hours, waking up near noon, stepping outside into the fresh clean air, and taking a hearty piss right there onto the ground. I felt my strength and ability to cope returning quickly. One more round of ham and pancakes and we were on our way back to the Bay.
The following night I attended a show at the Hotel Utah and only then noticed my right side was still pretty stiff, presumably from recently sleeping a long night in a cramped van. The dull pain didn't fade as fast as I thought it should and I practiced some old yoga moves I learned back in college.
The day before I left for Texas I dried myself after my morning shower and while glimpsing at my reflection in the mirror I discovered some redness beneath my armpit. I contorted to get a better view of my side and quickly it was revealed to me that, instead of muscular strain, my post-Humboldt discomfort was topical. In fact, it looked like a bite. Was this... a spider bite?! My brain reeled with all the photos of extraordinarily big and colorful arachnoids that freaked the shit out of me my entire childhood. What kind of critters do they have up there in the depths of the forest? I rubbed a generous amount of antibiotic on the red spot, put a band aid on it, and headed off to work, trying not to think about it.
After work I packed for the long weekend ahead of me, and checked on my spider bite. Oddly enough, it looked worse - the center was a little bit darker than before. Yug! I settled on taking a long hot bath, hoping to somehow boil the puddle of rainforest venom in my side. To help me relax I put on the sultry sounds of David Sylvian's "Gone to Earth."
I hopped out of the tub, dried off, and checked my side in the mirror once more. Yet again it looked worse. Unable to inspect this oddity more closely, I put on my glasses. Corrective eyewear was still new to me back then and I wasn't in the habit of wearing my glasses and thus life was happily blurry most of the time. However, with the sudden increased detail my spectacles afforded I could finally see the growing dark spot in the middle of my wound had... legs...?!
All my surroundings turned white. The strains of Sylvian's crooning baritone echoed with infinite reverb between my ears. I stared in the mirror for a good minute at my own pale face.
The numbers now added up: Humboldt county.. Woods.. I had a fucking tick! And it's been in me for four days! ALL the way inside me! And it wouldn't have come wriggling out of its new happy home except I rubbed some antibiotic all over its butt and almost drowned it in the bath!!
I suddenly regained my composure and felt the emergent need to remove this parasite, but couldn't remember how exactly to do it. Nothing from my minimal boy scout experience came to mind. Nor any words of wisdom from my father who spends a huge chunk of his free time gardening.
"Fuck it. I'm pulling this fucker out right now," I thought as I grabbed the tick's slippery ass between my thumb and pointer and yanked with all my might. Ignoring the pain, I yanked harder. And harder. It almost felt like it was hanging on to my rib for dear life.
But suddenly it was out. Oy. Now that it was free I examined it closely. The form of its alien body didn't make any sense to me. In fact, that was the first time I really saw a real live tick. Well, it didn't seem to be alive anymore. I put it in a plastic baggy and started making phone calls.
First I called Hope, assuming she'd know a lot about ticks (I don't know why). She suggested I call my doctor. Somehow I managed to claw my way through health coverage bureaucracy and got my doctor on the phone at this late hour. He said I shouldn't worry about it, being I was going out of town tomorrow and all, but I should check back with him upon my return.
I wound down from this panic with some alcohol and hit the hay. In the morning I got up, made it to the airport, boarded the plane, then had four good hours to dwell on the concept of a good sized bug nestled deep in my juicy flesh for days.
Dave and his friend whose name I forget picked me up at the Austin airport. They both got a unwilling earful about my tick during the car ride into town. Back at his house (which, as a completely pointless and random aside, was where the first two For Carnation EPs were recorded), we hung out and waited for other friends to arrive, including Jai Young, Lisa, and Jason.
Lisa worked at a pet store, and I happened to bring my trophy tick in a plastic bag to show potentially interested parties. She examined it. The good news was that it was definitely a big ol' dog tick, not one of those deer ticks that could carry lyme disease. The bad news, in her words: "it definitely has no head."
Immediately I remembered why you shouldn't directly pull a tick out of your body - because it'll hang on with its teeth and you'll tear its head clear off, leaving it inside the host, i.e. me. So for the remaining part of my trip I had a case of the willies every time I remembered that I, Matt Lebofsky, contained a chunk of a bug. Luckily I smashed my thumb in a car door early in the trip and the lingering pain from that injury helped keep my mind off that tick noggin bouncing around beneath my skin.
Upon my return back to California, my doctor inspected the slowly healing tick wound, and assured me that everything was okay.
"But what about the head?" I asked.
"Don't worry," he replied, "You will assimilate it."
That statement gives me shivers to this day.
December 15, 2015 : Calculus
Mr. Taylor was my AP Calculus teacher in high school. He was a rough dude. He yelled full volume at students who struggled, claiming his shoe could score higher on the tests. I found his cruelty so inappropriate that it was almost charming.
He eternally won me over as a fan of his bad attitude when one sunny spring afternoon he was at the chalkboard scratching out some equation. Though the window he caught a glimpse of the glorious day outside and stopped. His fingers slowly relaxed and the chalk dropped into the tray below, and then his head fell forward in what seemed like defeat. He let out the deepest of sighs. To see Mr. Taylor demonstrating such vulnerability was a little bit shocking. An awkward silence enveloped the room for a good five seconds.
He then swung around and announced, "You know, today is the kind of day where you just want to run away. Maybe call in sick. And just drive down to Rockland Lake. Sit there on the bench. Stare at the water. Watch the ripples. Feed the ducks some bread. Feel the breeze and sun on your face."
After a pause and a wistful look into the distance he continued, "and smoke a WHOLE pack of cigarettes."
The thought of that brought a rare smile to his face, but then the spell faded, he turned back around, picked up the chalk and finished the equation. Wotta guy.
December 8, 2015 : Vegas
My old pal Dave was visiting the Bay Area for a while then drove his pickup truck back to school in Austin, TX. I tagged along with him on the ride with plans for us to stop in Las Vegas. Neither of us had ever been there and - math geeks that we are - we were keen to test our probability skills at poker. This was before Texas Hold 'Em was a big thing, so we had our sights set on the 7 card stud tables. On the drive down we skimmed various pointers we found on usenet and printed out. Casino etiquette and stuff like that.
The first full day we just looked around town. This included going into Ceasar's Palace and, expectedly, being wholly unable to find our way out. We actually resorted to sneaking beyond an unmarked side door into some private parking lot and then climbing a wall to get back out onto Fremont Street. Felt just like Ocean's Eleven.
That night we found an open table in a lesser casino off the main drag - Dave and I got seats rather quickly. We promised ourselves we'd keep it real and I would only spend $20 at most.
I lost a couple shitty hands right away. Okay fine, so I adjusted my cutoff limit to $40. And then suddenly I was out $40. "Alright, alright," I thought, "I know what I'm doing. I swear I won't go below $60."
And next thing I know I lost $80. I looked at my watch. Only 45 minutes have passed.
I pushed myself away from the table and wished Dave luck. I needed to take a walk and clear my head, maybe get some air. But on the way out to the street I passed a bank of slot machines. I had two quarters in my pocket. Might as well give it a shot, right?
The first quarter - nothing, of course. The second quarter - cha-ching ching ching! I won $80. Ha ha HA HA HA! I'm back, baby!
I converted those coins right away into chips and proudly marched back to the table where my seat was still vacant. I announced how I just won $80 in slots and everybody cheered, mostly because I returned with a fresh pile of chips to give away.
Things improved, and I managed to break even all evening, mostly thanks to winning the biggest pot of the night on a bluff. I gotta say successfully bluffing in Vegas is one of the best fuckin' feelings in the world. Dave played well but was frustrated by a long and horrific string of bad luck and didn't get anything either. Well we got free drinks for the 8+ hours we were sitting there, so there's that.
The next day Dave was on a mission. As we visited the Hoover Dam he was constantly distracting himself, working out every combinatorical model in his head and scratching them down on paper so that he can vastly improve his poker odds. He tried to show me his notes but I was still "feeling lucky" from last night and just gonna rely on my intuition, I guess.
We went to the Luxor this time, and since it was busier we sat at different tables. While I ended up losing $100 over the course of 10 hours, Dave slowly earned about $300. The lesson: Math is your friend, kids. I actually should have lost more but (a) the Luxor was full of drunk newlyweds who suck at poker, and (b) I won a hand because one guy folded thinking all he had was a pair, and when he flopped his cards over in defeat I noticed he in fact had a straight but didn't realize it. Phew.
December 1, 2015 : Berlin
In the summer of '99 Mumble & Peg (Erik, Jenya, and me) went on tour for five weeks in Europe, mostly Germany (as the record label hosting us was German). This was my first time in Europe, let alone touring there. But any excitement upon landing in Amsterdam was slowly dulled by a seemingly endless series of shitty drives to perform shitty shows. There was also a momentum-crushing 10 days off in Berlin during the tour. Let's talk about that.
We were supposed to be recording our next album during those 10 days for free at the label's own fancy studio. But we got bumped last minute because another band, In Extremo, had to produce an emergency remix of their cover of the Sisters of Mercy tune "This Corrosion," among other things. There was no back up plan - without much warning we were facing an unplanned, money-draining vacation.
The good news was Berlin is an interesting city to visit, especially back then - the wall had fallen only 10 years earlier. Also, by incredible coincidence, our Oakland pals Nils, Dawn, Dan, and Carla were also in Berlin at the time performing with Ink Boat. And by an even more incredible coincidence we bumped into Dawn in the street when we first got into town otherwise we'd have no idea how to find out where they were staying and performing. I know I sound like a broken record with these stories, but before cell phones life was more adventurous and dictated by chance.
The first few days were actually kinda fun. Saw the sights, went to the zoo, ate a lot of bratwurst mit Senf und Zweibeln. Our driver for the tour, Holger, wisely escaped to his home in Muenster during this time off but before he split he left us with a pro tip: doner kebap. So we consumed a lot of that as well (scharf, ohne Tomaten). We did meet up with our Oakland pals a couple times. We went to their performance, and they came to our one Berlin gig during this 10 day stretch. It was the worst show of the whole tour - we almost knew everybody in the audience by name. And despite that somebody stole Jenya's camera.
After four days we were bored and restless, and our hosts - Arne the label guy and his wife Gundula - didn't know what to do with us. We woke up on day five and over Frühstück discussed some plans. Jenya went to go check out some museums, while Erik and I were invited to go see a soccer match.
Seemed like a fun outing, but there was catch.. Arne's friend Pete was moving into a new apartment today which was on the way to the stadium, and we got roped into helping to carry a few things. We were told it would be quick and not up any stairs. We arrived finding ourselves facing more than a moving truck's worth of boxes and heavy furniture including a fridge and a washer still full of water. And Pete's new apartment was on the fifth floor. And between the truck and the building was a 100 yard walk through a large courtyard.
It was weird. We didn't know Pete - Erik and I were just these two strange Americans who magically appeared to help carry all his worldly possessions for no fee. There was a whole team of Pete's friends also there to help, but it still took us all about an hour to get all this shit upstairs. By the end my shirt was thoroughly soaked with sweat and my muscles were stiff and twitching. You're welcome, Pete.
After quenching our thirst with cappuccinos we headed to the stadium. Pre-game mayhem in the parking lot. Beer, bratwurst, singing, and showing off your team colors. It was Berlin vs. Bremen today. Met some more of Arne's friends before entering, including two Brits, Trevor and Spencer. Of COURSE they were named Trevor and Spencer. They wondered what the 'ell two Americans were doing at a blasted German soccer game. Good question. Inside the old-school stadium we hit our seats and the crowds were singing various songs. Erik and I pretended to sing along lest we appear on the jumbovision screen with our dumb-ass American mouths' shut and looking confused.
The crowd had songs and random actions for every anomalous event during the game. It wasn't much of a game, though. Berlin scored early, Bremen scored late. The crowd was dealt a disappointing tie, and 90 minutes later thousands of bummed Berliners sulked all the way back to their homes.
The next day we wore out our welcome on Arne and Gundula's floor, and instead went to crash on Torsten's floor for the last few days. Torsten was our booker. And he lived in Potsdam, which isn't really Berlin but close enough. I don't remember much about our stay there except more train riding and more sight seeing. And many many hours watching German MTV. Eventually the only joy was spending hours sitting at a cafe and watching pedestrians across the way step in huge piles of dog shit.
By the end of the 10 days we were completely demoralized and logy. We were then overjoyed when Holger finally appeared to take us away to our next gig in Halle. I don't think I touched my bass once (except for that crappy gig) during that whole stretch. At least the next show was one of the better ones of the tour, both in audience response and delicious dinner provided by the club. So we got our groove back, at least a little bit.
November 24, 2015 : Uncool
Long long ago I had a job in downtown Oakland, complete with a daily morning rushhour train commute just like an adult. On one such morning I stood on the crowded train and smelled cat urine. Nasty. I assumed the odor was wafting off a fellow commuter and scanned around wondering which loser was the stinky culprit. And then I noticed unexpected moisture on my jacket. Oh no! It is ME that is the loser!
By the time I made it to work downtown, the warm cat piss had soaked well into my shirt. I arrived at the office and immediately asked my boss, "Can I take my lunch break right now?" She was confused at first, but upon further unpleasant explanation she kindly allowed it, and I headed right back to the train station so I could go home and rectify the situation.
On the return trip I ran into a random acquaintance who I hadn't seen in months. He was headed to work himself, and asked what I was doing on this particular train - he knew my office was in the opposite direction. At first I was going to concoct a lie but fuck it - once you're in public swimming in animal pee you can't sink much lower. So I explained the unfortunate pet related mishap with nary a shred of embarrassment.
The thing is, the perpetrator (or should I say purr pet traitor?) was Emily, my housemate Bob's cat. So it wasn't even my damn pet. I got home, threw my soiled items in the washing machine. I actually wagged my finger at Emily and said, "That was uncool. So uncool."
November 17, 2015 : Godspell
While moping in my dorm room during my freshman year at Binghamton the phone rang. The caller introduced herself as a member of a methodist church in the nearby tiny town of Windsor. They were putting on a production of "Godspell" and needed a bass player. So they reached out to campus and contacted the jazz ensemble director who in turn recommended me. Flattered at many levels, I couldn't help but say yes. It was my first cold call, and my first real professional gig.
I had no car so I got picked up by one of the congregants who was also one of the stars of the production. The church was simple and small, and I quickly set up in the "pit," i.e. four chairs off the side of the the 10' x 10' performance area. The whole orchestra led by an older woman playing keyboards, her daughter on drums, and a local high school senior, Chad, on guitar. I set up my bass and met everybody who were all so nice. The actors and actresses were incredibly welcoming and sweet as well. The first couple rehearsals were rough but we slogged through the material. No divas or drama. I was even more shy back then than I am now, so I didn't really talk to anybody.
During the second rehearsal I was noodling on bass during some down time. Chad recognized my riff and said, "King Crimson! Right on." Turns out Chad is a total proghead. We did the usual sizing up of each other, comparing our album collections. I didn't let on how little I knew about prog compared to him, since he was just some 17 year old high school kid and I'm an 18 year old big man on campus. He asked if I was into Frank Zappa. I couldn't fake that one and said I didn't really know much about his catalog. Chad commanded me: "Listen to 'Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch,' side two."
The next day at the campus radio station I dug out that Zappa album and gave side two a spin. Holy shit Chad was right.
Anyway there was about eight rehearsals total and the church players were really knocking it out of the park. I mean, it wasn't Broadway, but they really gave it their all and were having fun. The band was solid, too. A couple nervous tech rehearsals and some prayers and then it was showtime.
I was invited to join the whole cast and crew for dinner at the church before opening night. As I waited in the buffet line one of the practitioners had a sudden scared expression on her face. She cried, "Oh no! I'm really sorry but we're serving ham tonight!" I was completely confused, then I realized she correctly guessed that I'm a Jew, but wrongly assumed I was kosher. I insisted it was okay and that I eat bacon all the time. She gushed with relief. I felt honored by her concern.
There was hiilarious and almost predictable little mishaps during the shows, but the audiences ate it up, and we musicians got all kinds of accolades during the post-show mingling. It was a unique and unexpected experience, and I got $100 for all my efforts.
I figured that small chapter of my life was over but a month later they called me again. A sister church in Pennsylvania wanted us to reunite and recreate our version of "Godspell" down there. After one refresher rehearsal we piled into vans and brought the whole production over the border. So yeah that one little church in the middle of nowhere was responsible for not only my first real gig, but also my first tour, such as it was. And also responsible for turning me on to Zappa.
[Epilog: I only realized after writing this that last week's story involved Windsor, Canada, and this one involved Windsor, New York.]
November 10, 2015 : Border Crossing
On a solo drive from New York to California I stopped in Detroit to stay with my Uncle Danny. It was just me and him - the rest of the extended family was out of town. We went and got some delicious barbecue ribs for dinner. Over the meal he convinced me to stick around an extra day as he had a gig tomorrow and if I helped him out I could make a quick $100. A gig doing what? Industrial oil filtering. I wasn't in a rush to get to California, and needed the cash, so why not?
I'll spare you the details of the long day, but it was messy work. In fact Danny encouraged me to wear some manly work clothes as not to ruin my regular wardrobe of jeans and t-shirts.
On the drive back to his house we decided to celebrate a successful workday by quickly crossing into Canada and having dinner in Windsor. As we headed to the border Danny showed off his new car phone - this was 1992, so it was impressive technology during those simpler times.
Border crossings were also easier back then. As we approached the checkpoint, Danny proudly boasted how during all the many years living in the region he never got stopped and questioned when entering Canada. He was expecting to be pretty much waved on through as usual.
And then I remembered.. since I was working with oil all day I didn't bring my wallet. I left it at the house lest it get all gross and gunked up or forgotten in the pocket of those borrowed work clothes. The upshot was I had no ID on me whatsoever. I mentioned this to Danny, and he assumed it would be okay.
But if you know me you know my greatest fear is everybody finding out I'm a stupid idiot, and I have zero poker face skills. The border guard sensed my tension and asked to see my ID. I went, "uh.." and we were immediately commanded to go over to secondary inspection. So much for Danny's perfect border crossing record. Sorry, Danny.
I felt bad enough for causing the minor snafu, but the woman at the inspection desk completely harassed me, accusing me of being so arrogant to think I could just waltz into another country with no ID. I tried to explain what happened and how it was an honest mistake, but couldn't really get my point across through my nervous stuttering. Danny chimed in to defend me and the woman snapped at him, "I wasn't talking to you! Or does he have a mental problem where he can't speak for himself?" Sheesh. What a hardass.
I was mortified but the thing is, after the tongue lashing and finger wagging they still let us both through even though I had zero identification. Yup, 1992. Simpler times.
November 2, 2015 : Tide
Jenya and I went hiking around the hills near a popular beach in the north bay one lovely sunny weekend afternoon. We noticed the trail led us directly above a remote and private section of the beach so we slid down the slippery slope covered in ice plants to the sand below.
It was quite peaceful and romantic, having our own hidden alcove to watch the sun sink down the sky together. But the tides were clearly starting to come in, and I grew concerned especially as it was impossible to climb back up the way we dropped in. We had no choice but to trudge back on the sand.
As we started the trek we realized this was going to be a series of alcoves one after another. Fair enough, except the tide rose at alarming speed. We were fine until we ducked into the fourth alcove and found ourselves having to scurry to avoid the oncoming wave. Then we charged into the next alcove and had to sprint and moreso scramble up the far wall a bit to avoid the rushing waters barely lapping at our heels. Shit.
Clinging to the rock face we realized we had to time the next push just right, but couldn't see what was behind the next wall. The waters finally receded enough that we attempted a run for it, but it still wasn't enough time. Jenya went first around the bend but I jumped up on a nearby boulder to avoid getting consumed by the wave.
I couldn't see Jenya at this point but she yelled over the din of the waves that she was okay and I should just go for it. The water wasn't getting any shallower. I jumped in. it was only knee deep and I splashed beyond the bend and as soon as Jenya came into view...
Bloop! I was completely underwater, as the ground disappeared from underneath me. However startling, I still managed to quickly swim to where Jenya was standing on a raised bed of sand, totally soaked, as she just went through the same exact thing.
Now the main part of the beach was close enough and in our direct view, so we abandoned the plan of trying to cleverly outsmart the unpredictable tides. We were totally drenched already so why bother? We dove right into the ocean and swam away from the alcoves and back towards the shore, laughing at the unexpected twist our journey today has taken.
We emerged on the sand, the remaining few beach goers staring as we were fully clothed, dripping wet, and still laughing. We got back to the car, sadly lacking towels. We tried to dry off as much as we could but we (and the car seats) were basically fermenting in brine all the way home. By the next day Jenya's pants, made of some light material and left out all night to dry, had totally disintegrated into clumps of frayed fibers.
Luckily this happened 20 years ago, so we didn't have any technology on our persons to worry about. Instead of losing cell phones and DSLR cameras, we only lost a pair of pants.
October 27, 2015 : Wrong House
I was sitting on my porch enjoying the sunny day when some guy walked up asking if Frank was inside. He had the wrong house - Frank lived next door. I told him as much, he apologized for the intrusion, and went on his way.
The following evening I got a cold call from a local guitarist, asking me to play bass in his band. I had no idea who he was - he got my name from same random musician in the scene. Flattered by the recommendation I figured I could at least meet with this guy and find out what his band sounded like. Wasting no time, he said he wanted to come over right now with charts and cassettes, so I gave him my address.
He paused for a moment and asked, "did some strange guy walk up on your porch yesterday looking for Frank?"
I confirmed this and then he said, "Yeah that was me."
[Epilog: they were alright and I jammed with them once but that was that. Months later I randomly shared a cab from SFO to Oakland with a stranger who turned out to be the bass player they tried out after me. This was mentioned in a previous TTST. Decades later I saw the drummer on an episode of Check Please.]
October 20, 2015 : Free Soda
Over 20 years ago Jai Young took me to a show at the Night Break in San Francisco. He wanted it to be a surprise, so he asked I didn't look up any show listings before we go. And sure enough as we arrived I was delighted to discover one of my current favorite post rock bands was performing there tonight. Super fun! Afterwards I told the drummer "great set!" as he packed up on stage. He smiled and said "thank you!"
Last year I was on tour with Secret Chiefs 3 around the country. My memories of the venues in the disparate cities blur together, and the staff at each is even more fuzzy. But I remember one bartender in particular. It was a normal enough exchange - I usually don't drink very much if at all on tour, so I asked the guy for a coke. When I handed him my drink token, he wouldn't accept it, letting me have the soda for free. Sure it would have cost basically nothing, but still I appreciated the nice gesture. I smiled and said "thank you!"
I learned much later in the evening that this bartender was the drummer of the aforementioned post rock band I was so delighted to see decades ago. How random! In fact I saw him drumming in other similar bands coming through town during those wacky 90's. I still own a half dozen CDs on which he performs. But the passage of time and lack of context made him unrecognizeable. I went to find him later on and talk shop, but he already was done with his shift and gone home.
So our two conversations would be him thanking me for liking his music, and then, decades later and in a different town, me thanking him for a free coke.
October 13, 2015 : Inventory
After my sophomore year in college I had real difficulties getting off my ass to better my financial status with a summer job. My pal, Evan, was in the same boat, and eventually we attended an informational/training seminar for R.G.I.S., pronounced "ree-gis." Retail and grocery stores around the country call on R.G.I.S. to count their inventory, either because they are too lazy to do it themselves, or they need an official "third-party" count to see if any of their employees are stealing clothes or cigarettes.
Anybody with a pulse who showed up to this seminar got hired, starting at $6 per hour (great for 1990). During my first day Evan and I and a team of a dozen experienced R.G.I.S. auditors drove 40 miles to a grocery store in Westchester, and then killed five hours auditing every last item in it. We both got to count the freezer stock, and I have the fond memory of reaching into an icy bin containing bags of fresh fries, and yanking out one from the bottom to find it covered with frozen maggots. Once done with the frozen foods, we got to count all the pesticides.
Most of my coworkers fled after one or two days on the job. Why would people quit so fast (cough)? Most couldn't hack the schedule. Since stores usually preferred to have their inventory probed while no customers could screw up the inventory by shopping, we frequently audited during non-business hours. This meant getting up as early as 4:00am, or staying up as late at 6:00am, and in some rare instances, pulling an allnighter between two separate audits. Imagine gazing at racks of compact disks at the Nanuet Mall until two in the morning, killing an hour or so at the local Dunkin Donuts, and then driving 60 miles to count piles of jeans at a Gap on Long Island. It's not as fun as it sounds.
Some didn't mind the schedule since we always had the option of declining upcoming shifts. But many slowly went mad staring at endless rows of canned vegetables and sifting through bottomless bins of batteries. It takes a stable mind to be able to glance at an entire aisle of pill bottles, knowing full well you will have to count each and every one of them over the course of the next four hours. All by yourself. While listening to muzak.
Evan and I stuck with it for the remainder of the summer. Junior year rolled around and I had some play money for a change. However, my brother and I plotted to take a month off the next summer to explore the country by automobile. In order to save up some extra dough, I called the Binghamton R.G.I.S. office and re-enlisted at a higher pay rate. Cool. So now my college experience was peppered with random jaunts to Elmira and Ithaca to count loose piles of stuffed animals at ungodly hours in department stores caked with inches of dust.
I ended up working for R.G.I.S throughout the remainder of my college days. Some may call me a glutton for punishment, but I had to pay off my debts somehow, and I could only eat so much ramen. In any case, my final year in college probably would have been a lot more enjoyable had I not been forced to wake up on random cold winter mornings at 4:00am and drive for hours on ice highways in the dark, but that's the way the cookie crumbles. I was motivated a bit by being celebrated as the fastest inventory counter in the whole upstate New York region for a few weeks. To be fair, the true fastest counter was off the job for those weeks to heal up after mangling his hand pretty bad while working on his car.
I fled to California after graduation with no real plans or employment. After settling in at my new apartment 3000 miles away and spending a huge chunk of my scant savings at Amoeba Records, I needed to find a way to make some money. So I naturally called the local R.G.I.S office as a stopgap measure. I told the manager, all proud of myself, about my two years of experience working for the Binghamton and Rockland County offices back in New York. He responded, after a slight pause, "You mean to tell me you moved all the way from New York to California to WORK FOR R.G.I.S.??!"
...Well the guy had a point.
October 6, 2015 : Crossbow
As a young teen I'd frequently hang out with my older brother Ben and all his friends. Maybe "tag along" is a more appropriate phrase.
Anyway, one Saturday Ben and his pals Mike and Eric went to the mall. I glommed onto this excursion and happily lurked in the shadows watching them play games at the video arcade - I had no money so I settled for being an observer.
Ben and Mike grew bored and wandered off but Eric stayed behind to work on his technique playing "Crossbow." It was a new and groundbreaking game at the time, so I couldn't help but stick around and stare at the screen all mesmerized.
As we were completely engrossed by the visuals neither of us noticed the guy approaching to snatch Eric's wallet, which he foolishly kept so obviously stuffed down his tube sock. It was such an easy grab and run. Realizing he just been robbed Eric let out the cutest high pitched yelp and unsuccessfully chased the culprit.
I was stunned by the sudden crime. But any negative feelings about that quickly subsided when I noticed - holy shit - Eric just put a fresh quarter into the machine. Sweet! I immediately seized the opportunity and grabbed on to the controls. The unplanned and unexpected Crossbow game was like a gift from god, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
By the way Eric never got his wallet back. But who frickin' cares? I got to play Crossbow! For free!!
September 29, 2015 : Swordfish
Barbecue weather in Binghamton was rare. In fact my housemate Rick bought a new hibachi to celebrate this one perfectly sunny day. All we needed was meat. We went to the supermarket and got some cheap burgers, buns, etc.
The man ahead of us in line apparently had similar dreams of grilling outside. He plopped a rather large and expensive swordfish steak onto the conveyor belt along with a dozen little bottles of random spices. But this dude revealed himself to be a total prick as he berated the cashier - something about incorrect change. The manager had to come over and calm his overly irate ass down.
He was still yelling as Rick and I were getting rung up. We made silent sympathetic faces to the cashier and the bag girl and they rolled their eyes in confirmation back at us. The angry customer finally snatched up his groceries and left in a huff.
We paid up and split. In the parking lot Rick felt extra weight in his bag and looked inside - among what we purchased was that guy's swordfish steak. Back home we invited friends over to help eat the extra food while fantasizing about that asshole arriving home and discovering only spices in his bag. Sometimes there is justice.
September 22, 2015 : Gray's Papaya
Evan and I were bored so we decided to head into Manhattan for the day. We were underemployed, and therefore carefully watching our budgets. So our meager plan was to simply enjoy walking around downtown, and perchance get a Gray's Papaya special: two hot dogs and a papaya juice for only two bucks!
While waiting for the bus we came to realize we only had about $15 between us. This scant amount would barely cover bus fare and a few subway tokens, much less food on top of that. While debating the wisdom of going to the city without sufficient funds a wind from nowhere blew towards us. The unexpected breeze carried a five dollar bill which landed on the ground right by Evan's sneaker.
Sweet! We can afford hot dogs after all!
September 15, 2015 : Dentistry
When I started working at UC Berkeley I finally had dental insurance for the first time in my adult life. By the time I got around to seeing a dentist, it was many years since my last checkup.
I was nervous, but the dentist was kind and calming. After the initial line of questioning he took some x-rays, and then proceeded to poke and scrape at my teeth without causing too much trauma. After the routine cleaning he went to check on the results of those x-rays and disappeared for a few minutes.
Upon his return he said, "We have something in the upper right to take care of," and asked that I schedule an appointment in two weeks. I had some minor pain in that region so this came as no surprise. Suddenly his assistant barged in and asked the dentist, "what's the verdict?" and he replied, "double root canal."
"So I'll see you in two weeks?" the dentist asked again and I sadly agreed, "yes."
I've never had a root canal so the prospect of enduring not just one but two of them was horrifying. I spent the whole two weeks squelching my anxiety to face the operation like a manly man.
I returned to the dentist and without much ado or briefing he got to work, numbing the region up with novocaine and breaking out the drill. I gripped the armrests and went to my happy place.
But a few minutes later it was all over and he said, "Looks good - just don't eat on that side for a couple hours."
"That's it?" I said, somewhat amazed. That couldn't have been a root canal procedure, unless all the stories I heard about them were completely blown out of proportion my whole life.
"Well, yes, the cracked filling was pretty easy to replace," he said, packing up his tools.
"Wait - you only needed to replace a filling?"
"I thought I had a double root canal!" I said a little angrily, not that I was disappointed. The dentist looked terribly confused. I looked terribly confused right back at him.
There was awkward silence for some time before we put two and two together: When his assistant came in the other day asking about "the verdict" and the dentist replied "double root canal" they were referring to a different patient. Ha ha.
September 8, 2015 : Cancelled
I randomly scored a free upgrade to first class when I flew from San Francisco to New York for the holidays. All the regular passengers saw my long hair and thought I must be some kind of rock star or something. Though it was a red-eye I almost got some decent sleep in those big, cushy chairs.
I wasn't so lucky on the return flight, being crammed in the the back of the plane between two large people. At least we left JFK on time at 8:30am, which seemed highly unlikely given it was January 2nd - a typically chaotic travel day.
While hovering over Pennsylvania the captain announced that we had to turn around and go back. They discovered an engine fire warning gauge was broken. Though we weren't in any immediate danger they were instructed to return due to general safety protocol. Basically, the flight was cancelled in mid-air. Fuck. An hour later we landed back in NYC. How Sisyphean.
Now it was 10:30am and we were waiting on the runway back at JFK while a repair team diagnosed the problem. Every ten minutes the captain claimed that we'd be back up in the air in ten minutes. After sixty minutes of this he suddenly asked us all to leave and wished us luck in finding another working plane. The strong trampled the weak as we all grabbed our bags from the overheads and rushed back into the terminal.
After a half hour of mayhem at the gate some order took hold. The lady at the gate informed us that all 180 passenger names from our defunct flight were put in a lottery for the five open seats on the next plane to SFO, and she began selecting the winners. Four names that weren't mine were called. Things were looking grim. Then she announced, "The last open seat goes to Matt Le..." She fell silent, squinted the scary jumble of letters on her paperwork, and continued, "Leboo... Labiff... Loborfsky?"
I punched the air with my fist and shouted, "Yes!" which pissed off the 175 losers who'd have to wait at least another three hours for a chance on the next plane. When I boarded the stewardess said, "just pick anything open in first class." Sweet! So just like that I got to ride first class *again*.
I returned to California five hours late so my ride home from the airport had long since gone. While waiting for a taxi from SFO to Oakland I met three dudes going to the same part of town so I tagged along with them. I sat in the front seat next to the driver. Upon realizing he was getting an easy and lucrative fare he gleefully proclaimed, "I'm eating steak tonight!"
After some brief small talk I discovered that one of my cab-mates was in a band. In fact it turns out he was playing bass in a group I played bass in a few months earlier but bailed unceremoniously after one rehearsal. It's a tiny frickin' world.
September 1, 2015 : Waldo
San Francisco was different 20 years ago. Back then every Halloween a hundred thousand people descended on the Castro, clogging the streets, mingling, showing off or gawking at all the crazy costumes. When I first moved to the Bay Area I'd go every year, usually in my street clothes like the unmotivated loser I was (okay still am).
I finally thought of an appropriate costume - to dress up like Waldo in those "Where's Waldo" books. I thought this was a great idea as this character is frequently depicted lost in a giant crowd, much like I'd be come Halloween. I'm so clever!
As per usual I waited until the last minute to get my outfit together, and therefore couldn't obtain the proper items. For example, Waldo's shirt has red/white stripes, but I could only find one that was brown/white. And while Waldo's wool cap was also red and white, I could only find a red one with some superfluous orange and yellow stripes. Though the whole ensemble wasn't all that far off, I was ultimately unrecognizeable as Waldo, and therefore my costume wasn't really a costume after all. Nobody got the joke. Frankly, I just looked like a dork.
After that embarrassment I ditched the shirt but kept the hat. It was stupid but provided adequate warmth during outdoorsy adventures.
In fact, I had it with me twelve years later during an epic trek through the high Sierras. Fresh off the trail we entered the tiny town of Bishop in search of cooked protein. Having just spent many days unwashed in the wilderness, I kept my smelly, unkempt hair under wraps in this hat, which was the least I could do to maintain an air of civility when dining in public.
While happily munching on a rack of ribs a local resident walked by. She then stopped in her tracks, and slowly returned walking backwards back to my table. She squinted her eyes at me, smiled, and happily announced, "that hat makes you look like Waldo!"
I felt ever-so-slightly vindicated.
August 25, 2015 : The Worst Job I Never Had
At the time of the following episode (1992) I was stuck in the midst of the most depressing and financially insecure period of joblessness I have ever experienced, so bad that I threw money away playing the state lottery every chance I could. I spent my mornings sulking, my afternoons waiting anxiously for the mail to arrive (not that I was expecting anything), and my evenings eating crap and watching Jeopardy.
Occasionally I escaped outside to roam the streets of Berkeley which somehow seemed productive, especially after the one time I found a $20 bill on the sidewalk. During these excursions I collected all the free weeklies I could carry. These usually ended up barely read and scattered on the floor of the den.
Once in a while I accumulated enough will to sift through the classifieds, knowing full well this wouldn't lead me toward meaningful employment. I have a hard time lying to people, and an even harder time trying to act excited about work I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole if there wasn't a paycheck attached to it. So whatever few job interviews I snagged via my clumsy responses to these classified ads, I'd usually blow when I'd show up babbling like an idiot, obviously apathetic about the company's success, and always, always underdressed.
However, my hopes perked up one day when I spotted one special classified which read something like: "Comedy! Do you like to laugh? Come join our advertising team in a creative atmosphere.." It then went on to mention a lot of money could be earned. Well, I liked comedy, I'm somewhat creative, and I sure as hell enjoyed money, so I gave the number at the bottom of the ad a ring.
I found myself promptly in touch with The Events and Promotion Corporation. The guy on the other end of the line spoke like a disk jockey, and told me to come on by the office on Monday to meet and greet and talk about the job. The office happened to be situated in Oyster Point down in South San Francisco. That's a long drive to go discuss a job which seemed pretty vague but hey, I was bored and unemployed.
Monday rolled around and I put on my best (read: only) button down shirt and took a nice, long drive over the bridge and down to the office. The receptionist handed me the standard issue clipboard with the standard issue forms to fill out about my name, address, favorite sportscar, etc. Another potential hiree arrived wearing a total power suit. He sat down and scribbled on his forms as I watched him and wondered how much practice it took before he could make that perfect knot in his tie.
Eventually the manager called us in to her office. Her name was Shawnee, and she seemed like a normal person. A really friendly chat ensued about all our backgrounds, and she eventually launched into what the company did. Actually, despite her memorized speech about Events and Promotion, I found myself as uninformed as when I arrived. I did get an earful about comedy shows and managing, but the exact tasks I'd have to perform remained a mystery. Whatever. The meeting ended quickly, and she said she'd give us a call later about when we could come in for training. I repeat: Whatever.
By the time I got home I already had a message on the machine from the kind folks at E&P, asking if I could come in on Thursday for a full-day training session, and if so I should wear a nice suit. It wasn't at all clear if I was to get paid for this, and I didn't really have any nice clothes, but I called back anyway and said I'd be there. Hey, I was bored and unemployed.
I woke up way too early on Thursday morning and dressed up in a "mutt suit." That is to say I wore my sole white button down shirt still unwashed from Monday's "interview," a pair of blue dress pants which my father wore 25 years ago, some dilapidated black pseudo-loafers I bought for my old inventory job, black dress socks with white paisleys I got for a lame semi-formal back in college, a skinny black tie, and a grey sports coat borrowed from my housemate, Bob. God, I must have looked like a fucking idiot.
I avoided the Bay Bridge traffic by leaving at 7:30am. The upshot of this was I had about a half-hour to kill once I got there. So I aimlessly drove around Oyster Point, which happens to be one of the most uninteresting of locales in the San Francisco Bay Area.
When I entered the E&P office, the receptionist led me to the conference room, where two other "trainees" were already waiting. She left, and I got to talking to those guys, and they happened to be equally confused and wary about this job, but here they were because hey, they were bored and unemployed. One of them just moved to the Bay Area from SoCal, and the other just wrapped up a long stint as a soundman for a cruise ship cover band.
Our pleasant conversation abruptly ended when the business day started at 8:30am. A sudden and frightening blast of cheezy 80's-style heavy metal pop consumed the entire office, escaping from behind the closed door of the adjacent room. The walls shook as the guitars went chug chug chug chug chug chug chug chug. In time with the heinous music came various shouts from the E&P employees, "SELL! SELL! SELL! SELL!" We three trainees became very silent and afraid.
The music ended and in its place came a call and response reminiscent of bad high school pep rallies: "What are we going to do? SELL! How much are we going to sell? A LOT!!" The energy needed to generate these shouts so early on a weekday morning went far beyond what simple caffeine could provide. Were they all on coke? Or speed? All of the above?
Remember, I still had no clue what this company did exactly, and by merely overhearing this unorthodox morning wake-up ritual I knew it couldn't possibly be up my alley. The SoCal Dude agreed. We were both like fuck this shit and went as far as to get up and start heading out when the conference room door flew open, crashing into the jamb with a resounding "Whoomp!"
I fell back into my chair as the sea of chanting speed freaks from next door paraded inward and around the conference table. "I'm STEVE!!! Nice to meet YOU! I'm STACY! How's it GOING?!" They spouted these greetings in full chest voice as they circled us, forcibly shaking our hands or creepily grasping our shoulders. I was too stunned to respond. Even if I wanted to I couldn't get a word in edgewise as every second a new face with wide open eyes appeared and screamed, "I'm DAVE!! Pleasure to MEET YOU!!"
And then they were gone, the last one slamming the door behind them. Whoomp! Still calm enveloped the room, and we newbies entered a mode of serious private contemplation about the world and what draws people to do the things they do. During this brief moment of silence I checked to see if I wet myself. The three of us finally met each other's gazes and whispered in agreement: "whoa."
It was now 8:45am. The conference room door opened again, this time at a normal velocity. There stood the receptionist, and she spoke with a smug smile. "I hope that wasn't too scary," she said and added, "They're ready for you in the main office." We got our heads together and followed her there.
In the main office the big boss sat at his desk, with the dozen or so from the earlier freak parade forming a semi-circle behind him. The boss then began telling us about how much fun we were about to have today, our first day as "trainees." Great. We were going to go out on the town to spend a day with one of the "trainers" and learn the ropes. Wonderful. And at 5:30, when the day is through, we'd all meet back here for a "fun quiz." Splendid. I really wanted to make a break for it but just couldn't bring myself to do so. I'm such a wuss.
The three of us got paired with our trainers for the day. I was paired with Susan, a short red-head who looked like death and smelled like the floor of a tavern. So this would be my companion for the next 8 hours? It just keeps getting better.
As we left the office Susan got right to the point: She felt like hell because she got totally shitfaced drunk last night, and to add insult to injury, she's terribly allergic to alcohol. So before we could do anything, we had to drive to her house to get her car, since she crashed at a friend's house last night and got dropped off this morning.
After driving another five miles south to her damn house, I waited outside for 20 minutes as she searched for her keys inside. Once ready, I followed her back to the office and got into her car, a crappy, old Toyota which reeked of cigarettes. We headed on up to San Francisco.
On the ride Susan finally explained what E&P were all about. Everybody starts out as trainees, like myself. If you do well, you soon become a trainer. Playing your cards right as a trainer means you can make over $1,000 a week. Shawnee, who I met the other day, was a manager, which is the next step in the hierarchy, followed only by regional manager. The current regional manager was 23 years old and raking in $100,000 a month.
Well, the money sounded great, but what does a trainee do? Susan explained that E&P sold tickets for comedy shows, but these weren't just any old comedy tickets. They were sold in packs of twenty for the mere price of four, and not only that, they could be used at any comedy show in the Bay Area. Anyway, trainees sold the tickets. Trainers also sold tickets, but also trained trainees. Once you sell enough tickets as trainer, you become a manager, and so on.
Now I understood: The Events and Promotion Corporation was a living, breathing pyramid scam. Well, sort of. It definitely had very little to do with advertising and creativity like the classified ad suggested.
After this explanation Susan said that we'd spend all of today selling tickets. At this point she began rummaging fervently in her purse while absent-mindedly swerving the car into other lanes of traffic. Much to her dismay she realized she must have left her stash of tickets at some bar in the Castro where she got plowed last night. So that ended up being our first stop.
Surprise, surprise, the bar was closed. Well, she did find one pack of tickets in her glove compartment, and figured we could kill time selling those. Until now I figured we would go to selected businesses and regular distributors to sell these tickets. Never in my wildest dreams would I have guessed that the common practice was to harass complete strangers in the street! Good Lord!
Susan hit the sidewalk and began showing me how it's done. She approached random people as they walked by. "Do you like comedy?" she'd ask, stinking of bad cocktails. Nobody paid attention to her, but she'd still scream at them as they passed, "Well have a nice day!" I followed ten paces behind her, rubbing my eyes, pretending not to notice her.
This went on for a couple blocks. She practically assaulted one old lady, asking her "Do you like to giggle?" The poor woman looked scared to death, and as she fled Susan cried out to her, "Can you do me a favor? Have a nice day!" I felt completely embarrassed, but this misery ended when Susan stopped and told me she needed to relax for a while.
We went back to her car and just sat inside it. There she revealed to me various war stories about ticket sales in different parts of the city, but suddenly fell into a coma-like trance. "Susan?" I said, tapping her on the shoulder. She snapped out of it with the announcement, "I'm going to be sick." She left the car and bolted to the post office across the way in hope they had a public restroom.
I noticed she left her purse behind. I looked around to see if anybody was watching. One part of me really wanted to just take all the money I could find in her wallet and run. But once again, my good-natured passive side won this battle and I just sat in the car, awaiting her return.
Susan emerged from the post office with another announcement: "I think I'm gonna die." With nary a pause after making such a dire declaration she flung herself around as more people came down the street. "Do you all like to laugh?" she belched in a cloud of vomit breath. Yet again she found herself completely ignored. She told me earlier she sometimes made over $1,000 a week selling tickets in this manner. This became less and less easier to believe.
I told Susan we should just leave because she obviously wasn't up to it today and I could come back some other time (yeah, right). "No way," she insisted, and then limped into a nearby alley, crouched between two cars, and threw up again. When she was through, she came out of the alley and gasped, "okay, let's go."
I told her I should drive, but she wouldn't allow it. During the whole ride down 101 I poised myself to grab the steering wheel in case she happened to pass out. The way she drove with her head tilted all the way back and her eyes barely open made it seem that she was just on the brink of becoming completely unconscious. As we passed Candlestick Park I asked, "Are you sure you don't want me to drive?" "No," she said. That ended up being the entire conversation during the long journey back.
She dropped me off and apologized for this wasted day. I couldn't have been more happy to put an end to this madness since I knew very early this morning I didn't want this job. Bye! I got in my car, tore off the tie from around my neck, and sped home. Soon after that I went back to being an office temp, and I liked it.
About two years later I had a regular office job in downtown Oakland. One afternoon, a workmate and I were enjoying a peaceful noon hour in the company lunchroom when some blonde dude with a shit-eating grin waltzed right on in, waved a pack of tickets, and asked, "Do you guys like to laugh?" We snapped at him, "No!" After he left our office we called security which came right away and escorted him out of the building. Quite satisfying.
August 18, 2015 : Jeez
A long time ago when I first moved to Oakland I was living in Rockridge and ran a lot in the hills above the neighborhood at night. I always prefered evening jogs - it's cooler, there's less people, less cars, it's quieter.
But it's also darker. I was about a mile away from home when the lack of light made it impossible to negotiate the uneven sidewalk and I tripped. But instead of just dropping to the ground I lost my balance and ran even faster in a futile sprint as my legs desperately tried to catch up with my torso. This ultimately failed, and I skidded onto the sidewalk at full speed, badly scraping my hands. I quickly got up and raced home as both my palms were dripping with blood.
When I arrived my housemate Bob was on the phone. I flashed him my wounds and, without skipping a beat, he spoke into the receiver, "Look, I should go. My housemate just came home with stigmata."
August 11, 2015 : Tent
So regarding that trip my brother Ben and I took driving around the country as very young adults.. You see, we were very green at this camping stuff, and cheap, so we outfitted ourselves with the most inexpensive and minimal amount of essentials. Basically a clunky tent and some crap ass sleeping bags. Also two bota bags for carrying water - they seemed more smart and fashionable than stupid bottles but, as we would discover later hiking all day under hot sun in the Badlands of South Dakota, to sip from these botas was to drink warm leather soup.
Anyway that was about it. We also threw some pillows and my acoustic guitar into the trunk, and headed west from our NYC suburb. With no plan, and no real travel experience yet to guide us in committing any real decisions, we found ourselves driving all the way the first day to the border of Wisconsin. Just kept going and going. Even an epic midwest summer thunderstorm didn't slow us down.
Of course it was late by the time we pulled into our first KOA of the trip, and two malnourished and competitive brothers setting up a tent for the first time in the fading twilight was, from a third party perspective, kind of hilarious. And that night we learned that sleeping bags right on the ground without any kind of mattress or pad is quite uncomfortable. Not that we remedied this situation during the whole trip at all. We just suffered for weeks with our poor decision as some sort of penance.
The next morning Ben was washing up and I packed up camp. I crawled into the tent, took the pillows out, turned to put them in the car, spun back around and crawled into the tent again, took the sleeping bags out, turned to put them in the car, spun back around and.. where's the tent?
That's right: I looked away and during that fraction of a second the tent.. just.. disappeared.
I was utterly stumped, still in a daze from a night of non-sleep of a full day of highway driving. I couldn't wrap my brain around what was going on. I could have sworn there was a tent here, and I'm pretty sure I even slept in it all night, and now it's gone. Was I dreaming?
Finally I snapped out of it and while scanning the landscape I spotted the tent about a quarter mile away, picked up by the wind now that it wasn't weighed down by any interior contents, rolling full speed like a giant ball, and heading straight towards a rather large lake.
Shit. I ran full speed over ankle-twisting fields of weeds and increasingly swampy terrain and just barely caught up to the wayward tent in time before it hit the water's edge. Phew. During the anxious sprint I thought to myself, "So *this* is why you stake those things down."
August 4, 2015 : Yeah We All Know Each Other
The phone rang in my dorm room well after midnight, waking me from deep, necessary sleep. So my tone was rather agitated when I answered, "Hello?!" The caller asked, "Is this Matt?!" and I grumbled, "Yeah...?"
He immediately erupted into a series of panicked questions regarding end-of-the-semester term papers which I could barely parse in my current mental state. I eventually gathered enough wits to comprehend the situation - this idiot simply misdialed and his frenzied gibbering had nothing to do with me.
I interrupted, "I.. I.. I think you dialed the wrong number."
"Isn't this Matt?" he accused.
"Yeah, but... which Matt are you looking for?"
"Matt from American History 211?"
"Nope," I snapped, "You got the wrong Matt."
A long, dejected "oooooh" escaped from his lungs, and then silence.
Before I could hang up on his sorry ass he desperately pleaded, "Wait! Do you know which Matt I'm looking for?"
July 28, 2015 : Blowout
As young adults my brother Ben and I spent a summer month driving around the US, exploring our big and beautiful country. Here's one short chapter from this odyssey. There will likely be more.
After a few weeks we hit Denver and decided we had enough travels and started making a bee line back to NY via good ol' Interstate 80. It was fairly straighforward until we hit Nebraska and we had a blowout at 75 mph. I was driving at the time and proudly maintained control and got us onto the shoulder without any damage to us or to nearby drivers.
Our crappy tire iron seemed to be useless in removing any of the lug nuts. Ben planted all his weight on the thing to no avail. It was about 8:30pm. The sun was dropping. We were in the middle of nowhere, though I could see an exit of sorts a mile or two up the very flat road.
So I left Ben by the car to continue trying to remove the blown wheel as I walked to that exit, hoping for a pay phone to call AAA (this was 1991, i.e. cell phones didn't exist yet to deprive one of true adventure).
About a quarter mile into my schlep an 18-wheeler truck pulled over - the driver saw the car on the shoulder and me walking away from it and figured he could help a dude out. I didn't even think twice about jumping into this strange vehicle as I wasn't really looking forward to the dreary walk. And just like that I was hanging out with a trucker in his rather decked out cab. I wish I took a picture. I remember rabbit's feet and shag carpeting.
"Thanks, man," I said as I climbed in, "I just need a lift to that exit."
Turns out the guy didn't speak English very well. "No, I take you garage," he said and pulled onto the highway.
"Nah, that's cool, just drop me off right up ahead."
"Nothing there. Garage 30 miles."
He kept accelerating. I realized he thought I was operating alone, as Ben was obscured when hunched behind the car struggling with the tire. I tried to explain the situation, like I can't just leave my brother without telling him where I was going. But something was getting lost in translation.
Eventually my startled tone and frantic pointing at the approaching exit was annoying enough that he gave up and pulled up onto the exit ramp just in time. I thanked him again and jumped out as fast as I could. Quickly I noticed my unwitting nigh-kidnapper was right - pretty much nothing there.
Bless his heart, he actually stuck around and watched me for a minute or two as I looked around at abandoned barns and an clearly defunct gas station. I was obviously either stupid or crazy, so he threw up his hands in confused defeat and left me there.
I began walking back to the car. Luckily in the meantime Ben managed to finally get the blown tire off and swapped with the donut spare. He found me still on the ghost town exit ramp and we slowly made our way back onto and up 80. There was a pay phone at a station 5 miles up where AAA told us due to the late hour and our current remote location they couldn't help us. Really?
We tried various truck stops every 10 miles until one we found one that was open that had our tire in stock. Likely the very garage the trucker was talking about earlier. Anyway, the guy who helped install it was pretty nice but had a cockroach crawling all around his back the entire time. I couldn't ever find the right moment to surreptitiously flick it off.
July 21, 2015 : Clearance
Okay, here's another cover band gig in Seattle story. There's so many of these.
We had a big show playing the party at the end of a National Governor's Convention at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Being a high profile political event including 60% of the nation's governors, all band members needed to be cleared by the FBI. Naturally we did this well in advance, so I expected my arrival at the venue to be straightforward.
However as we loaded in I found they put the wrong name on my security badge (they printed the name of a former band member by accident). No problem, but their policy was such that they had to run a fresh background check on me before I could enter. This happened while I waited in the security check zone (and the national guardsmen with rifles stood by).
The agent only needed my SS# and then he got to work on his little computer while my fellow musicians easily went through security. They pointed and laughed at me through the windows from inside as I waited for the results. I joked with the agent, who was a nice enough guy, about what he's reading on the laptop screen just out of my view.
All clear. I was relieved I still got to play this gig, but slightly sad I never did get to find out what random notes the FBI has chosen to database about me. By the way Arnie, who was the California governator at the time, was a no-show.
July 14, 2015 : I Once Threw Up On Stage
As a performing artist, I've had good shows and bad shows. People only want to hear about the bad ones. Well, check this out: I once threw up on stage.
There once was a band called Herb that played classic Herb Alpert tunes. During my tenure in this super fun tribute band I subbed on some random gigs - a couple weddings, extravagant dot-com parties, and once even sharing a bill with Nancy Sinatra. On the fateful day in question we headed out to San Francisco on a sunny Tuesday afternoon to entertain a pack of lawyers at some luncheon downtown.
I arranged a car pool with Steve the guitarist to help reduce the pain of finding parking in the city during business hours. I drove to his house, plopped my ten-ton keyboard and amp in his pickup and we headed over the bridge. After finding the right office building we discovered the event was on the second floor. We hauled our heavy gear upstairs and down a long hall to the main room bustling with preparatory activity. We casually set up our equipment and dug into the freshly assembled lunch buffet with the rest of the guys in the band.
I actually didn't eat anything. I felt a bit hungover even though all I had was a couple beers last night. And I wasn't very hungry even though all I ate this morning was a banana I picked up at a convenience store on the way to Steve's house. But I always get nervous before a show, so I settled my stomach with some seltzer water.
I never did find out what the big event was all about. Nevertheless, the hall soon flooded with happy lawyers and their friends and lovers. It was a celebratory gathering of some kind, and in any case we were going to earn our money with two long sets of basically every tune we know from "Tijuana Taxi" to "Taste of Honey."
And just like that we began with "Lonely Bullfighter". We played a thunderous A major chord as Jab (the lead trumpeteer) appeared, leading the brass players entering dramatically from the opposite end of the hall, blasting their horns as they slid through the crowd and swankily approached the stage. I was parked standing behind my keyboard all the way off on the left, about ten feet away from the line of hungry people waiting their turn for the buffet. We leapt from song to song, each one finding me a little more tired and hazy. I thought I was just coming down with a cold or something - nothing to really worry about.
By the middle of the set I felt a tad queasy, but there were still 6 or 7 short tunes left before I could take a break and get some air and maybe some pepto bismol or something. As time wore on I became more and more sick, though I wasn't upset about how I felt shitty as much as how suddenly I felt shitty. With three songs left I was leaning against my amp, unable to support my own weight. With two songs left I took a deep breath and braced for the home stretch.
Then, finally, we closed the set with "Zorba the Greek," an epic piece that unfortunately required my undivided attention from beginning to end. I stumbled through the first minute or so without major incident, and then settled into the long middle section which broke down to me alone playing a sloooooow, repetitive oom-pah pattern in F major while the trumpeteers jumped into the audience, dancing betwixt the lawyers while deftly applying the melody on top of my wavering accompaniment.
The nausea was unbearable. I just had to get past this song but my hands were becoming more and more limp and unresponsive. It couldn't have been simpler: F in the left hand, F major triad in the right, C in the left hand, F major triad again in the right.. I kept telling myself to fight through it, but soon the triads became major sevenths, then minor seventh sharp ninths, then thirteenth sharp elevenths..
"I can't throw up on stage," I mumbled to myself, "I just can't!" Was this a command or just wishful thinking? The only strong argument I had against vomiting right here, right now was that I haven't thrown up in over eight years. Eight years! How could I even consider breaking this long-standing "vow of silence" at this rather inconvenient time? Besides, I come from a long line of iron-stomached non-pukers! I'll surely bring long-lasting shame to my family if I blew chunks whilst under a spotlight! But, man oh man, I felt like giving up and letting go.
As the clanging, wrong notes disappeared into my ears I recalled the last time I found myself unbearably nauseous in a public setting. It was my first year in college, back when I wouldn't dare miss a single class lest I had to desperately catch up on the material later. So despite having a raging flu I attended my regular Monday morning Data Structures lecture. About 30 minutes in I had the pressing need to throw up but was too much of a sissy freshman to interrupt the proceedings with an obvious exit for the bathroom. So I squirmed in my chair, praying for the awful feelings to pass.
Since my will to avoid the cause at hand was obviously strong, my brain made the executive decision to throw my body into a state of shock. My vision sizzled and faded to white. The professor's words eroded into a stream of faint static. I slumped in my chair, eyelids shut, arms fallen to my sides, unable to do anything but wait for the crazy ride to finish. Everything smelled like electricity. I opened my eyes for a second and everything was still white, except for the brown, pencil-like outlines of my professor. I closed my eyes again. Time lost all meaning.
SssssssssssNAP! Suddenly I could see and hear again. Twenty minutes have passed in an instant. The lecture was already over and most of my classmates have left the room. I found my notebook literally soaked with perspiration. I felt okay. Not great, but okay. Apparently I was able to break on through to the other side without giving in to the grotesque demands of my stomach. Victorious, I headed back to my dorm room to recover in private.
So I proved to myself long ago that I could stave off the urgent need to blow chunks through sheer willpower. But that was then.
Back to now: I was on a stage and I was so ready to barf barf barf. I could barely keep my eyes open - all I remember seeing were the horn players glaring back at me in horror. Then came the grand accelerando leading to the big finish of the piece. Duh.. da.. da.. da.. Duh. da. da. da. Duh da da da Duhdadada duhdadada.. Everybody joined in and the music swirled around me, getting faster.. and louder.. and faster.. and louder.. and faster.. and..
My mouth filled with undigested banana and seltzer water which I then spat on the floor as surreptitiously as possible.
Two amazing things happened. First: I managed to avoid getting this used food all over myself and the keyboard. Second: very few people witnessed this disgusting display of uncontrolled bodily function. Though the song was far from over, I collapsed behind the drumkit. The band had no idea why I was suddenly lying there in a pathetic, sweaty heap and took it upon themselves to sing the remaining keyboard parts into their microphones as the tune wrapped up and Jab announced, "We'll be back for another set in 15 minutes."
I still lied there as my stunned bandmates wondered what the hell just happened. Jab, who saw everything, informed them and their jaws dropped in disbelief. The tiny puddle of puke where once I stood had already soaked nicely into the yellow stage carpeting, concealing the hard evidence. Without the immediate threat of more songs to perform I collected myself and ran into an unoccupied office. As I fled the scene of the crime a food server handed me a bottle of water - apparently he saw the whole thing and felt pity.
Away from all the chaos of the event I lied on the floor and got myself together. Having released the contents of my stomach I felt a lot better, but the adrenaline coursing through my arteries made me dizzy. Oddly enough, I didn't feel a single shred of embarrassment. Everything went by too fast to even consider it.
Ten minutes of calm relaxation did a world of good. Jab finally found me and didn't have to say anything. We both saw each other and busted out laughing. Working hard to stifle the giggling, he asked if I was going to be able to make it through the second set. I figured I could. I got up and went to the bathroom to splash my green face. Then I dragged my sorry ass back on the stage for another onslaught of doofy songs.
I reconfigured my amp so that I could sit down on it and play, which helped immensely as I still felt a bit woozy. Feverish and high on hormones, it was almost as if I was living in a dream. Nothing really bothered me about my public purge, and I just floated onward in a trance. A simple four-beat countoff and the music was rolling out from my fingers with no perceivable effort.
Well, one might consider such a digestive mishap to be a real "show stopper." Luckily my stomach was relatively empty at the time. If I started the day with a healthy stack of pancakes with a side order of bacon things might have turned out quite differently. By the end of the second set the adrenaline wore off and I was feeling pretty fuckin' craptastic. On the car ride home I was clutching my stomach and sinking deep into illness. The slow crawl over the Bay Bridge was utter hell.
I almost drove off the highway as I sped home from Steve's place, and then I could barely lug my gear out of my car and into the house. With my last remaining shred of strength I threw myself into bed and turned on the television. The screen filled with images of busloads of children, all screaming and crying. It was April 20, 1999 - the day of the Columbine shootings. I laid there for 24 hours straight, assaulted with painfully repetitive news coverage about the terrible incident, too weak to roll over and turn the damn television off.
I was bedridden for days. Apparently I got food poisoning, which is known to strike as suddenly and violently as it did in my case. But how did I get it? Cheap Chinese food over the weekend? A bad beer the night before? Whatever. It took weeks before I could consider eating a full meal again. Not fun.
By the way, yes - I still got paid for the gig.
July 7, 2015 : You Should Leave
Eddie went to school in NYC while I studied upstate in boring old Binghamton. He came to visit once and frequently poked fun about the sleepy college town I currently called home. I didn't disagree, but he was taking the twenty-year-old-who-thinks-Manhattan-is-the-center-of-the-universe thing a bit too far.
Anyway, with no better plans I dragged him and some other friends to a party which ended up being rather dull. Lots of nerdy dudes, nerdy conversations, and crappy beer. The party sucked by my standards, which meant Eddie found it utterly unbearable. He proclaimed, "if this doesn't get any better soon I'm going to get us all thrown out."
Eddie kept his word. After ten more unremarkable minutes "Welcome to the Jungle" came on the stereo and that was his cue, I guess. He leapt into the living room and started flailing about. Stunned partygoers guarded their drinks and nervously backed up to the walls to avoid contact as he kicked and thrashed just barely avoiding slapping people's faces and knocking over lamps. He then grabbed me and my pals, threw us on the floor and began pretty much wrestling us to increase the general shock-and-awe value of this whole demonstration.
I broke free from the pile. Quickly the party host approached, tapped me on the shoulder and said, "I think you guys should leave." And so we did.
Disclaimer: Names were changed since I'm not sure Eddie is still proud of this. In any case, thanks dude for bringing to light another method for exiting a party beyond simply sneaking out the back door.
June 30, 2015 : Pityriasis Rosea Blues
I must have been enjoying my senior year at the University of Binghamton too much. I was feeling popular for once in my life, playing in a couple bands, holding a position of power at the college radio station, living with six other dudes in a big ol' house. As well, all the annoying class requirements for my two separate majors were behind me.
November rolled around, the entire campus wrapped up their midterms and got geared up to party down until Thanksgiving break. One of the biggest drunken gatherings of this period was to happen at my very own abode. Me and the guys already planned for the big bash to happen the weekend after next. I grew very excited about this party-to-be, enough that I ignored the two or three spots on my chest which have been lingering harmlessly for days.
The same day two of my housemates trekked to Pennsylvania to score some grain alcohol I entertained my parents who came into town for a quick visit. In need of a conversation topic, I presented my dad with the funny red marks on my torso and inquired, "what the hell is this?" His quick and definitive conclusion was I had some kind of fungus infection and should get some antibiotic right away. Yuck.
I waited anxiously until Monday for the campus infirmary to open to get some medication for my personal fungus garden. Meanwhile the six or seven cute dots hiding under my chest hair have grown into an unsightly army of a couple dozen lesions covering the area between my navel and nipples.
The nurse led me to an examination room and she seemed more or less uninterested in my story of infection until the moment I took off my shirt to show her the damage. Her expression turned from complete and utter apathy to total giddy surprise. "Oh, wow!" she said. "Oh, wow!" she repeated, and then summed up, "I have to go get the doctor." And as she disappeared my mind reeled with all the possible horrible outcomes of my affliction, an affliction so extreme it warranted a double "oh, wow" and having to go get the doctor.
"That's a pretty classic case," the doctor said first thing upon viewing my condition. This statement totally begged the question, "Of what?" The nurse happily fielded this question. "Pityriasis rosea," she said.
Before I could attempt to echo the name of my new disease I was presented with some photocopied info about it. I quickly gleaned I've been housing a relatively harmless virus and not some gnarly fungus, which made me happy. The doctor interrupted my reading, telling me pityriasis rosea causes funny red spots to form on a person's trunk, as high as the neck and as low as the knees, and usually never reaching the hands, feet, or face. But other than that it's a cute and fun-loving pathogenic microorganism.
This was all well and good, but I had a party to host in five days. I needed a cure and needed it fast. "So how do I get rid of it?" I asked.
"Oh, it'll just run its course in about 6 to 8 weeks," said the nurse.
"So there's no cure?" I whined.
By the day of the party the spots have made it onto my arms, peeking out from under the sleeves of my t-shirts. One pioneer spot had also made its way onto my neck for all to behold. I came to terms with the fact I was a freak and drank grain punch all night. During the course of the evening I acquired the nickname "Spot." How clever my friends.
The whole episode peaked during finals. The spots reached down to my knees, as high as my chin. I found it difficult to hold a conversation with anybody as they stared in horror at the ring of pox around my neck. Pityriasis rosea is not at all contagious, but no matter how hard I tried to convince people of this they still maintained their stance a few extra feet away.
When the virus finally had enough of me it began to die off. The good news was the spots, one by one, slowly turned from reddish brown to my natural pale skin tone. The bad news was after they converted color they peeled off like a sunburn. For about a week I had cute little pockets of dead flesh dangling all over my body.
On the bright side this last stage happened during winter break while I was away from my college friends and hanging out with the high school buddies back home, including one who had pretty severe hemorrhoids and therefore he took the spotlight off my unsightly skin for a while. By the time I arrived back in Binghamton for the spring semester, my body was more or less back to normal, though it wasn't until March that all traces of my pet virus vanished completely.
Later on... As an early adopter of the web in 1995 I had a home page where I posted autobiographical essays including a more thorough version of the above story. For several years this was the top hit on the internet about Pityriasis Rosea, and thus I got about a thousand e-mails from similarly inflicted people who thanked me for the funny tale which made them feel less freakish and alone in their suffering. Sometimes they shared deeply personal descriptions of their own experiences - before privacy was a thing. However sometimes people pleaded for more information as if I was a doctor and this new fangled internet owed them a goddamn explanation about everything. I actually responded to many with information I gleaned from reading everybody's stories. So among my life achievements I was the internet's foremost expert of Pityriasis Rosea for like half a decade.
June 23, 2015 : Soggy Seattle
Okay another cover band gig horror story. They're fun.
This time I was in a smaller ensemble (Me, Paul, Scrote, Jonnie, Wes, Jamison) heading up to Seattle to play the closing night bash of the Microsoft Techready conference - a geeky party with thousands of attendees from around the world. We were the last act on the main stage that night. A stage which was, as I only found out upon arrival, situated outside at Bell Harbor, i.e. right there on a pier off the sound.
This is Seattle. It rains in Seattle. The stage manager noted my concern and pointed out today was July 31st, and it hasn't rained on this day around here in over 20 years! I scanned the gray skies above and said, "uh huh."
It was also kinda windy out there by the water. I'm a pro and usually prepared for various contigencies but not quite this time - I didn't bring any clothespins to secure charts to a music stand.
After soundcheck I walked into downtown and looked for some clothespins. I browsed many stores and was completely unable to find any. Then I remembered that nobody in their right mind in this perennially soaked town could possibly be bothered trying to dry their laundry outside. So I hit an army surplus store and got some bungee cords to strap the music down.
The event started and I checked out all the exhibits, i.e. lots of nerds doing nerdy things. The litany of bands started and, pretty much on cue, the drizzle began. At least after soundcheck somebody finally had the good sense to put a tent over the stage (it was completely uncovered earlier).
The band just before us was Dengue Fever. I watched their set from my dry hotel room as the shitty weather picked up to full-on storm levels. I noted they weren't getting electrocuted, so maybe we wouldn't either.
When it was our turn I ran to the stage. Moisture swept in from the tips of rising waves tumbling in the sound, carried by the strengthening winds sideways into the tent and landing all over everybody and their gear. Ethan, the Dengue Fever keyboardist, had valiantly rigged up a spare mic stand and a garbage bag to act as a shield from all the water, but it was barely helping. He said, "good luck" and fled.
Where's my keyboard? In the chaos it was taken from the stage at some point earlier and left out in the rain. Luckily the keyboard was put back in its case and still dry.. unlike its power adaptor sitting on the ground nearby and exposed to the elements for hours. I picked it up and water poured from it. I shook it for a bit to release the remaining drops. Somehow it still worked.
We launched into our set of hits from the 70's and 80's. Some people were actually out there dancing in the puddles. But I was a bit preoccupied, spending the entire set freezing as I took my jacket off to use as a makeshift towel in a futile attempt to sop the mist literally beading all over the keyboard and dripping down through the keys onto my dress shoes. The music on my stand turned to pulp. I sang my backup parts far away from the microphone for fear of fatal shock.
If there's any silver lining, it was that this was largely all rented gear. At least all my stuff was - I think according to the post-gig damage report only Jonnie lost a guitar pedal or two. And we didn't die. After the final note I ran all the way back to the hotel and jumped right into a hot shower.
And, almost as a joke, the storm ended immediately after we finished. We went out on the town to celebrate our improbable survival, eventually returning to our beds around 3am. We crawled to the lobby at 6:30am for our flights back home.
Disclaimer: Before anybody gives me any flack, I know Seattle has many sunny days throughout the year - it's a beautiful town and clear skies are usually what I experience when I'm up there - and yes it is conceivable that the residents probably sometimes dry their laundry on clothelines..
June 16, 2015 : Trona
During one of our wacky off-the-cuff southwestern desert adventures Jenya and I were driving out of Death Valley via a route that took us by the tiny town of Trona. We were camping the night before and didn't plan our caffeine supply very well and thus we desperately needed coffee. The streets were completely abandoned but we spotted one small building with a giant sign that said "Espresso!" so we were in luck.
We parked and entered the establishment, which looked like any normal middle-of-nowhere cafe and was pretty much empty, except for the two women behind the counter. The older woman greeted us, and we happily ordered two cappuccinos. She sadly informed us the espresso machine was broken. Oh. Okay then. We instead requested two drip coffees.
But then the younger woman admitted that the espresso machine was fine, they just didn't know how to use it. This seemed odd, given the proudly displayed "Espresso!" sign outside. Maybe they just acquired this business and haven't learned the ropes yet. Maybe they failed to serve espresso drinks for years and are only just now coming clean with us.
In either case, Jenya is a trained pro in such matters and offered to show them how to pull a shot. They let her back behind the counter where she promptly whipped up two cappuccinos for us. Despite Jenya giving them the free lesson, and doing all the labor, we still paid for our drinks.
June 9, 2015 : Party Boat
Everybody loves a cover band gig disaster story. I have a few. For example:
We flew down to San Diego to play some huge private event on a Hornblower party boat. After landing we checked into the hotel, ate lunch while some roving street magician practiced some tricks on me, then went to the early soundcheck.
Here was the plan: the boat will go out on the water and everyone aboard would have dinner and drinks all night, and when it returns to shore we would start playing and keep the partying hopping well into the evening. The catch: for some reason we musicians weren't allowed on the boat until after it redocked. Liability issues? Needless expense? Who knows...
So the trick was to get us on the boat as fast as possible once it returned in fear that everyone, now seasick and drunk, would flee before the music started. Our promoter proudly claimed to have this sorted out - upon arrival an extra set of stairs in the back of the vessel will be immediately installed so we could sneak on within seconds, jump to our instruments (which we left all set up and ready to go after soundcheck) and hit the downbeat before anybody could think to leave.
The band met back at the dock at 9:30pm. The boat was supposed to arrive at 9:45, but of course was running late. We just sat by the water, soaking in the ocean air on this lovely summer night. Finally at 10:30pm lights appeared on the horizon, and the boat was finally beside the pier at 10:45pm. As it approached we kept getting moved from station to station by the party handlers speaking into walkie talkies with military-level intensity and enthusiasm.
The boat dropped anchor and, as planned, the crane dangling a metal stair frame pulled up. Very soon it became apparent no real thought or expertise went into this facet of the whole operation. The crane operator kept lifting the large, unweildy staircase almost into position, slapping it against the side of the boat, then lowering it again to regroup and retry. The apparently novice crane helmsman was not quite up to solving this puzzle, flummoxed by the weird angles and the edge of the boat constantly and unpredictably teetering in the high tide. We musicians started loudly kibbutzing on the third or fourth attempt to raise the damn thing into position to no avail.
Meanwhile the party attendees - out on the water for an extra hour - were happy to deboard down the main exit ramp in droves. Literally hundreds of people were streaming onto the pier and walking back to their hotels as the promoter panicked.
Plan B! Plan B! What was plan B? Actually there wasn't a plan B but we took it upon ourselves to try to squeeze up that same ramp everybody was using to leave, but the downward forces of the exiting mob proved insurmountable. I looked over to see those stairs still swinging from the crane, now with extra handlers down on the pier and up on the boat desperately flailing and grasping at it and failing to maneuver it into position.
This literally went on for about 10-15 minutes while we helplessly watched the boat get completely emptied of its 1000+ humans. Now that the exiting mob was reduced to a trickle we were able to trudge up that ramp into the main entrance. Our audience comprised of roughly 50 people who remained on board, made up of about 40 crew, 5 dancers-for-hire to fluff things up, and 5 actual party goers too drunk to stand at the moment.
So be it. We played our minimal contractual amount during which the hired dancers were the only people on the floor, the crew packed up the catering and broke down tables, and those scant few party goers gathered themselves and left.
Shout out to Paul the singer who, despite being totally sick with a cold, handled this entire situation with incredibly professional style and grace. We all (me, Paul, Wes, Chris, Steve, House, Jeff) had a pretty good laugh about it later at the hotel and flew back home the next morning.
June 2, 2015 : The Shift Shaft
My brother and a couple of his friends descended on the Bay Area sometime around April in 1998. I played chauffeur for most of their trip, including a day-long trek up to Napa for wine chugging. During the long drive back I first noticed my '79 Honda Accord didn't have its expected amount of speedy vigor. I brushed this off as the car being weighed down by four big dudes and their newly purchased collection of handsome wine bottles.
During the coming weeks I found it exponentially more difficult to climb hills in my groaning automobile. What at first amounted to a slight lack of velocity as I headed up inclines evolved into a deafening roar as the engine burned at 6000 rpm just so I could get out of first gear. Being as how I worked daily in the Berkeley Hills, this became a bit of a problem.
But like all car problems I willfully ignored it until it became a crisis. This crisis came to pass as I barely made it work one day, sweat dripping from the tip of my nose as I stamped down on the gas pedal with all my might, cursing and praying at the same time that I'd make it all the way up the mountain, which I did. The painful part was going home. I coasted down the hill and around the ramp onto highway 24 going into the Caldecott tunnel. My toasted car stopped dead in the right lane of this chronic Bay Area traffic snarl. Lucky for me the highway tilted ever-so-slightly downward, and shifting into neutral allowed me to eventually gain enough momentum to make it through the tunnel and even all the way to my exit ramp. Even luckier was that I timed all the lights to my house, so I made it home but that was all my poor little Honda could handle.
It was time to face the music: my clutch was blown.
I made some calls to several garages the next day, and generally speaking a new clutch would run me at least $400 installed. Considering the entire car cost me $500 when I first got it, and I was kinda broke, I couldn't conceive of paying such a high price for a small fraction of the whole. So once again, I chose to ignore the problem.
Three very inconvenient weeks passed until my housemate Vicky notified me that her drummer friend, Carl, does automotive work on the side and was willing to fix my clutch for only $300. I considered the reduced price and the annoyance of being a carless musician, and figured I should get this work done. Now the problem was: How do I get my car to his house?
Carl lived downtown, and I lived uptown. Vicky told me how to get to his hidden little street and described his place as "the house on the right with the lawn." Fair enough. I convinced Jenya to push with her car to help my paralyzed vehicle limp all the way downtown. I figured a good time to do this was very late on a Saturday evening when all the street lights are turned off thereby reducing my need to stop/start all the time.
I warned Carl of this plan, and he was going to be out of town that evening, so I was to just drop it off and leave the key under his door. He asked me if I knew where his house was and I said, "Yeah - it's the one on the right with the lawn."
Saturday night came around. Around midnight Jenya and I came back from a rock show and we got set for the big push downtown. Her car roared as we got up to speed and down to the end of our block, and I got onto Telegraph Avenue without incident. As metioned earlier, I fully expected all the lights to be blinking yellow at this point in the evening, but I was sorely mistaken.
At every stop Jenya had to ram my back bumper and force me into the intersection. I'd gain enough momentum to get me a block or two until the next light. This method of transport is, or at least should be, quite illegal. In fact, I more or less chose the worst route for such an endeavor as all the lights were poorly timed, and the cops routinely patrol this main thoroughfare at night. Luckily they seemed to all be occupied by a skirmish outside some nightclub, and ignored us as I sailed by a flock of them between pushes. Phew.
We somehow made it through and past the meat of downtown in this manner and to Carl's street. Considering how close we were to the city hub, this part of Oakland was bereft of streetlights and quite dark. Now all we had to do was find "the house on the right with the lawn."
Continuing behind me, Jenya and I slowly advanced down the lane. After a few houses, we noticed one on the right with a lawn. And then another one on the right with a lawn. Two or three houses down we spotted another house on the right with a lawn. In a word: What the hell?
Confused, Jenya stopped her car as I allowed the momentum to carry me further. At first I thought it should become obvious which house was which, but the street only got darker and darker. Once I stopped I couldn't see anything anymore except Jenya's headlights behind me a half block away. I got out to look around.
As I got further from my car my eyes adjusted to the darkness until I made out a large area with a wire fence. From the silence I heard footsteps. I stopped and listened carefully. I heard another set of footsteps, and was quickly able to make out the silhouettes of two large dogs before me. Then I heard snarls.
I backed towards my car as the footsteps continued coming in my direction, faster and faster. When these two beasts were within 50 feet I became quite aware that they were not encumbered by long leashes, or the wire fence for that matter. I gulped and remembered a valuable lesson from my paperboy days: when a dog approaches, hold your ground no matter how scary the situation.
And that seemed to work. As if there was a forcefield one foot in front of me these two rottweiler types screeched to halt at my feet and barked at my face, but no more. I yelled "Hey! Hey! Hey!" to shut them up. Now they realized I wasn't much of a threat they allowed me to slowly back up and walk away without much ado. Jeez.
I walked back to Jenya's car where we had a little meeting about what to do next. I didn't want to just abandon my car in the middle of some random street. With unrealistic hope there may be a pay phone nearby (ah, life before cell phones), we headed towards the main street.
Nope. No phone. We started to get a little irritated with this situation, and angrily discussed our options. The door of a nearby house, made entirely of corrugated metal walls, swung open, revealing its sole occupant who was wondering what all the commotion was about.
I asked this person, "Are you Carl?"
"No," they replied, "Do you mean the guy who fixes cars?"
"Yes! Do you know which house is his?" I anxiously queried.
The nice man pointed down the street and said, "It's the one on the right with the lawn."
"I *know* that," I squealed, "But do you know which lawn?"
"Yeah. The really *nice* lawn, by that van over there.."
Finally I had more detail to work with. I thanked this guardian angel and we resumed with the task at hand.
Sure enough, obscured by the darkness and a huge van, there was one little house with a really nice lawn. It made all the other nearby lawns look like worthless shit, so I figured this had to be the right place. However, there was no space to park except sandwiched in front of that van and behind some tiny white Toyota.
Oy. So now we had to try to parallel park a dead car into a tiny space in the dark. I pushed my car, still in the middle of the street, towards the open spot.
Our first attempt was a miserable failure. Jenya steered as I pushed my car backward and following my confusing hand gestures she cut it way too hard. We tried to maneuver it into place. I wedged my body between my car and the van and pushed forward until my front bumper hit the Toyota's back bumper with a satisfying thud. I then stood on the trunk of the Toyota and pushed my car until the my back bumper hit the Van's front bumper with an even more satisfying thud. We were still 45 degrees away from parallel, so I pushed the car out of the spot and we tried again.
Once again Jenya cut too hard and we hit the van with a thud. I pushed forward and hit the Toyota with a thud. I then climbed on the trunk of the Toyota to push the Honda and suddenly found myself hovering in midair.
Vrooom! The Toyota flew out from under me. While airborne I came to the immediate conclusion that somehow the force of me pushing my car backward while planted on top of the Toyota must have caused the Toyota to somehow jump start itself. But when I hit the ground I heard somebody inside the Toyota cry out, "I can't believe they hit our car again!"
So all this time, unbeknownst to me, as I'm climbing all over their automobile like a frickin' monkey and ramming its rear fender with my Honda, two people were inside wondering what the fuck I was doing. The Toyota zoomed down to the end of the street, turned around and back towards me and Jenya.
Now my mind reeled with the question: What would two people be doing hanging out in their car on this dark backstreet near downtown Oakland on a Saturday night? Making out? Dealing guns? I couldn't make out their faces as they passed, but I yelled out "sorry!" They just kept going, instead of stopping and (perhaps rightfully) beating the shit out of me. I was both embarrassed and relieved.
The good news was with that car out of the way I now had room to land my dead car into that space, which I did. I scribbled a note for Carl, wedged it under the door of his house with my key, and got the hell out of there.
Part of the sales pitch I got from Vicky about Carl was that he not only worked incredibly cheap, but also worked incredibly fast. However, somehow he caught wind I wasn't in that much of a hurry, so he didn't even start working on my car for weeks. I guess I couldn't complain given the price.
Lucky for me he was about to get married, so he eventually did attend to my car if only to tie up all the loose ends before his big day. Once finished, I happily headed down to his place, handed him a $300 check, took a gander at the old burned-out clutch he had laying around his shop, and headed home. My car's pep was back. Phew.
Six uneventful days passed. I went to work and back thrice during this interlude, and then had a Friday night gig with Herb (that Herb Alpert cover band). I hauled my heavy-ass keyboard, amp, and stand to the gig, which was at some nightclub on Van Ness in San Francisco.
I unloaded all my equipment and parked in a nearby alley. The gig was pretty mellow, though long. They didn't feed us, which sucked, but I made about $70 for my troubles. Having just dropped $300 on my car, the extra dough was nice.
After the show I went to get my car. Before I put my key in the ignition, I stomped on the clutch and it dropped to the floor and just sat there. Given the late hour, my location, and low blood sugar level, I was wholly unable to deal with car problems right now, so in a fit of glorious denial I turned the key.
SCREEECH! Though my emergency break was on, the car shot backward completely
out of control. With all the engine's force it flew up onto the curb. By some
miracle I avoided hitting the car behind me (or any pedestrians for that matter) and narrowly squeezed between two parking meters on the sidewalk. The car only stopped because it rammed into a closed metal garage door.
Quickly gathering my wits I stopped the engine and began a rather comical attempt of pushing it off the curb. Mind you, this is San Francisco, which has more than its fair share of hills. I popped the gear into neutral and tried pushing it from behind up the steep incline, if only to get it off the curb. No dice.
I might add that I'm wearing my nicest clothes, including very slippery dress shoes, having just played this formal gig.
I prayed for that burst of adrenaline you always hear about - you know, where the 80 year old woman lifts a whole tractor which tipped onto her grandchild. With my right hand through the window grasping the steering wheel and my bicep wedged against the frame, I managed to get the car up off the curb but no further. I needed help. Fast.
With my remaining energy I sprinted back to the club. Chris, the drummer, happened to be the first unfortunate soul I spotted. Huffing and puffing I explained my dire situation, and bless his heart, he ran with me back to my car.
He was also wearing dress shoes, but our combined artery-busting effort yielded a better result. We got the car back into its original parking spot. But now what?
We headed back to the club. I started making phone calls, but nobody was home. It was a Friday night, after all. I personally didn't have AAA, but Jenya did, and she was nowhere to be found. As my exhaustion waned, panic set in. I circled around the lobby, mumbling and panting.
Tom, the trombonist, practically slapped me with his voice of reason. "I have a station wagon. I'll take you and all your equipment home. You can wait for Jenya and then get your car." He was right, and we adhered to this plan. He shipped me and my stuff all the way back over the bridge to Oakland. We arrived around half past midnight.
I paced until around 2:00am when Jenya returned from seeing a show in Berkeley, quite ready to get some shut-eye. I cautiously sat her down and said, "I'm really sorry, but we have to go to the city now and get my car towed."
Being a real trooper, she dug out her AAA card and I made the appropriate phone call. I stupidly told the AAA rep I was still in Oakland, and she insisted that
I call again when I was by the car in San Francisco. So off we went in Jenya's car, heading back over the bridge at 2:30am.
We got back to the general area, which isn't very pleasant at this time of night, and at the nearest pay phone made the redundant call to AAA to get a tow truck out here at once. They plugged the order into their system and said that I should sit tight for 30-45 minutes.
Poor Jenya. She collapsed to sleep right there in the driver's seat as we waited and waited. Right on schedule I saw the tow truck appear at the corner behind us and turn the wrong direction down the street, disappearing down the hill. Ten minutes later it returned to the corner, this time turning the right way as I was outside waving my arms like a madman.
We caravaned all the way back to Oakland. Though this service was handled by AAA, it was hardly going to be fully covered by AAA. Upon arrival, I handed 55 bucks to the tow truck driver, which almost completely cancelled out any money I made this evening. What a fucking waste of time.
It was 4:30am, and I went to bed fuming with anger. I awoke around 10:00am with a black bruise five inches in diameter on my right bicep, presumably caused last night when the entire weight of my car was resting against my arm as I struggled to get it off the curb.
I called Carl first thing. With his calm demeanor he figured he forgot to include some very small but very important part during the entire clutch repair procedure. You'd think he'd take care of this gross error with all speed, but for reasons I fail to recall it got put upon me to find the part, buy it, and limp my car downtown so he could fix it. Maybe he used some Jedi mind trick or something.
In the meantime, he explained that I could get around by bleeding the clutch regularly by hand. I couldn't understand his directions, but lucky for me I bought a '79 Honda repair manual at a garage sale for fifty cents some time ago.
Following the diagrams, I managed to bleed the clutch without much difficulty. What happens is air bubbles get into the line and have to be belched out. Normally, you'd attach a tube to the clutch bleed nozzle and let it cough into a pail of water. Assuming this step was unnecessary and strictly for show, I simply pumped the clutch, turned the release screw, and squirt! My car ejaculated a long stream of dirty clutch fluid, coming within inches of my eye, landing with a splash all over my engine. Nasty.
But then I could drive around safely, at least for a while. Had I known how to do this, I could have saved myself some serious time, money, and stress last night. Oh well.
I had no time to deal with finding the stupid clutch part until Monday. After work I walked a mile in the hot sun to the local Kragen auto parts. Like all fucking American chain stores they were slow, completely unhelpful, and didn't have the part in stock. I walked up the way to the local Grand auto supply. Same deal. I schlepped home devastated.
Jenya tipped me off to a shop in West Oakland which, of course, had the part for five bucks. After getting the part and bleeding the clutch once more, I dropped my car off at Carl's. A day or two later it was done, I picked it up, and that was that.
If only I had forked over the 400 clams to get my clutch done immediately by a professional mechanic. Instead, after dealing with all of the above nonsense over the course of two months, I ended up saving a whopping 30 bucks.
May 26, 2015 : Chicken Sausages
Jenya and I have been living in Temescal (North Oakland) for almost 20 years. Before it become the incredibly desirable neighborhood it is today many pioneering restauranteurs tested the waters here long ago and sadly failed.
One such place had a chicken sausage theme, which seemed oddly specific for an area where there weren't many other choices at the time. We didn't know what to make of it until we heard they were offering a weekend brunch service. We finally checked it out, happy to finally have breakfast and coffee within walking distance for once. They even had a sunny back patio. How lovely!
We got a table outside and the young waiter took our drink orders. Two coffees, please! He warned us that the coffee was pretty bad. Like, really bad. I actually rescinded my order, but Jenya stuck with it. She thought maybe there was some humility or snobbishness involved, but the coffee arrived and it was impossibly wrong wrong wrong. For starters, it was almost as clear as water.
Jenya, almost in disbelief, took a sip and confirmed this was the worst cup of coffee humanity has ever produced. When it came time to order our egg and sausage plates the waiter expressed his frustration about the staff here not having their act together and the ridiculous coffee was but one example. It's bad form for a waiter to talk shit about the back of house plus this also inspired fear in us, but we still got something to eat, and we ate it, and we didn't die.
After handing us the check the waiter sat down at the next table and discretely informed us that he just quit a minute ago. He thought we should know. Then he went on about his other restaurant work options. We wished him well, and he disappeared. We weren't exactly sure, in this odd case, how much we should tip.
May 19, 2015 : Skankenstein Meets the Spin Doctors
For a couple years at Binghamton University I was in a band called Skankenstein. We dressed funny and played lots of ska-ified funk and alternative rock cover tunes. Not really my aesthetic, but it's always healthy to get out of one's comfort zone. Plus the other members were all badasses and fun to play with. I garnered a lot of performance chops during my tenure in that band.
One of our final gigs was opening up for the Spin Doctors at a club downtown. This was just before they made it big but were getting a lot of hype touring around the northeast. I wasn't a fan, but we were all stoked to play a real rock show.
Their management, however, was far from stoked when we showed up for soundcheck. The venue promoter failed to tell the Spin Doctors management about us, i.e. this silly local college band pointlessly tacked on as openers. They wanted Skankenstein kicked off the bill, but were somehow convinced to let us at least play a 20 minute set.
Being much older and wiser now, I totally understand the Spin Doctors side of the story. But back then I was less wise and instead of aiming all my rage at the venue promoter (who should take all the blame for putting everybody in this awkward position), I got really irked by the whole Spin Doctors entourage and what I perceived as bad treatment by them. Like they were on some power trip when in reality it was pretty cool of them to let us play a set.
Making matters worse was they were touring with support - a New England based jam band called Jiggle the Handle. So we had to sit through two soundchecks before we could set up our gear. We weren't allowed to strike anything, and thus barely fit on stage. We also had no time to run any tunes or dial in monitors.
Our set was stupid, shitty and mercifully short. Well, at least I felt that way. I played terribly. I was probably out of tune. And then it was over, and we were being ushered off the stage. In the sweaty chaos I threw all my stuff into my gig bag and noticed some really nice guitar cables just lying there unclaimed on one of the Spin Doctors' pedalboards. In a fit of misaimed youthful rage I grabbed those cables and also crammed them into my bag, thinking at least I'll get something out of this experience. Stick it to the man, right?
I had the choice to load out now (and not be allowed back in) or hang around all night. Fuck this stupid frat boy scene. I headed on home. My housemate Joe, also in Skankenstein, arrived shortly after me and we commiserated about the show. He was bummed, saying he couldn't track down some of his cables while loading out. Oh.
I got my gig bag and dug out those cables I nabbed and showed them to Joe. Turns out they were his. "You found them!" he said, and was super happy to get them back. Well, fine. So I didn't stick it to the man after all. And later when I unpacked all my stuff I realized I left my $100 wah pedal at the gig, never to be seen again. Turns out the man stuck it to me.
Lesson learned, universe. I guess.
May 12, 2015 : Michigan Stop
In the Spring of 2006 Faun Fables (in the form of Dawn, Nils, Jenya, and myself) embarked on an ambitious North American tour. We drove ourselves around the continent (and pretty much lived) in a "Minnie Winnie" Winnebago for two months.
I was in the driver's seat when we got pulled over at random on the highway crossing Michigan. No reason was given, but the officer curtly asked me to step outside and he led me behind the RV where the others couldn't see us. There he began a long barrage of questions, trying to get me to somehow admit we had pot on board the vehicle (of course we did not).
Cop: Do you smoke dope?
Me: No, sir.
Cop: I see this vehicle is registered to one Neels Frikedull. Does he have any dope?
Cop: Are you sure?
Cop: Where you guys from?
Me: Oakland, California.
Cop: Oakland?! You know Snoop Doggy Dog?
Me: Um.. No.
Cop: Are you sure there's no dope on this vehicle?
It went on like this for a while, with occasional long, silent pauses as he entered periods of deep thought, eyes scanning around, trying to find the perfect question to trap me. In a flood of drug related queries he threw this curveball:
Cop: Why weren't you wearing a seatbelt?
Me: I was - this model of Winnebago, from 1975, doesn't have shoulder straps.
He then grimaced as if to say, "Dammit - I thought I had him there!"
I was nervous when this all began, but at this point in the exchange I found myself quite relaxed as it was proving to be harmless and easy - like a lazy sunday game of badminton. Nevertheless it dragged on.
Cop: So are you some kind of band?
Me: Sort of - more like a traveling theatre show.
Cop: Are you any good?
Me: Yeah - but I still keep my day job.
Cop: What's your day job?
Me: I'm a computer programmer at University of California at Berkeley.
I thought this bit of info would prove I was a respectable member of society but his eyes lit up:
Cop: Berkeley?! They smoke a lot of dope in Berkeley, don't they?!!
Me: No - it's actually a far more conservative town than you think.
Eventually he let his guard down, realizing he was getting nowhere.
Cop: So.. being from the Bay Area.. I have one more question for you.
Cop: A's or Giants?
Apparently he gave up on the interrogation and now just wanted to be friendly. I'm a baseball fan, so this was a welcome change of pace in our conversation. We got lost in a nerdy chat about Bay Area baseball, the embarrassment that is Barry Bonds, the frustratingly slow progress of the A's this year, etc. The discussion ended with me providing some insightful and encouraging words about his Detroit Lions, and he let me go on my way.
Meanwhile the others were on the RV wondering what the hell was going on. For all they knew I was in cuffs and sulking in the back of a squad car. They were quite relieved upon my return, and more so when I said it was all good and got us back onto the highway.
May 5, 2015 : Dusting Off the Apple II
I got into computer programming when I was 8 years old right around when the family obtained an Apple II+. I also took some after-school programming classes taught by a bright entrepreneur named Ron Gindick. Ron had 20 Commodore Pet computer stations in his basement. Classes involved him and his teenage minions watching over the shoulders of the children basking in the glow of the Pet monitors. These monitors were attached to keyboards designed long before the word "ergonomic" existed.
I ported all my knowledge from the Pet onto the newly purchased Apple. Before long my programs contained graphics, music, and assembly language subroutines. I quickly generated a huge series of silly and violent animations, a bumper crop of games, and a vast amount of mathematically based computer artwork. I really dug the art of computing, and treated the computer much like the piano - a tool in which one, with great practice, can transform abstract creativity into something else.
Around age 14 I massaged my towering ego by entering the annual high school programming competition. Each year a bunch of kids would gather together and have a timed assignment, usually something like a bubble sort or guessing game. The first year I competed I blew everyone out of the water, finishing up thirty minutes before all the others. For my efforts I received a little medal the size of a half dollar which I promptly pinned to my bedroom wall.
At the next year`s competition I recall the fear in the other kids' eyes as I entered the room. "Oh, no," one kid said, as my presence meant a sure defeat for him and everybody else who dared challenge Matt, the Apple II wizard. Mwha ha ha ha. Another year, another medal pinned to the wall.
Somehow I got swept into taking part in a regional competition around when I was 16. The resident high school computer programming ambassador, Ms. Korn, escorted me to a school in an adjacent county where a hundred or so of the best young talent from downstate New York assembled for a big, bloody showdown.
Upon arrival we were herded into a lounge area where high school kids of all ages sipped on soda and munched on salty chips. Mmmm. Brain food. A congregation of young hackers usually doesn't make for an interesting social gathering, and for a while we sat around doing nothing, saying nothing, and smelling pretty bad, I'm sure.
Soon the silence was broken by a painfully archetypical dweeb, complete with button down shirt, pocket calculator (I'm not kidding), and hair all over the place. He shouted, "Okay. Let's face it. We're all nerds here. We know we all like Mel Brooks. So who here agrees Young Frankenstein was his best movie?" Thus began a huge debate, during which the finer points of Blazing Saddles were analyzed, and my favorite Brooks movie, The Producers, barely got mentioned.
Anyway, once all the computer stations and referees were ready, we got shooed into a huge gymnasium and handed a set of five programming assignments. The goal was to finish as many as possible within 60 minutes. The buzzer went off and the gym echoed with the clicks of 20000 sweaty keystrokes per minute.
The five programs proved to be no big challenge - all basic crap I can do in my sleep. Another bubble sort, another guessing game, a pared-down database, a text formatting trick program, and some simple math parser. I pretty much had it all wrapped up after fifty minutes, and spent the last ten minutes fluffing up the code to make these programs a little more "user friendly" with sound effects and animations - i.e. stuff to prove I wasn't just fucking around with this shit.
Some guy who looked like Judge Reinhold refereed my work. He sat down at my computer and ran the five programs one by one. The bubble sort worked of course, but then he had a problem with my guessing game. According to the explicit directions, I was asked to clear the screen at the beginning of the program, which in my smug haste I failed to do. Outside of that one stupid missing "HOME" command, the game worked perfectly. It even beeped and flashed some colors when the user guessed correctly. I didn't get any credit for it.
The only other screwup occurred in the database program, which asks for the user's name, and is to immediately reply "Hello, *User Name Here*." My version just said "Hello." Whoops. Conceptually all five of my programs worked well beyond the basic scope, each with extra features demonstrating rather advanced prowess, but I had to be taught the lesson that knowledge, expertise, creativity and obvious joy and passion for the craft of computing isn't as important as following mundane orders to the letter, so I got handed the embarrassing score of 3 out of 5.
Only one kid officially got the full 5 out of 5. He got a free IBM system. Two kids got 4 out of 5 and held a tie breaker for a free TRS-80 system. I went home with nothing but a sour taste in my mouth. That was possibly due to all the soda and chips I consumed earlier.
The next year I once again entered the high school programming competition, and of course kicked royal ass, but it didn't feel right. Times were changing. The family upgraded to an Apple IIe, but around this time other computer systems already pushed past Apple II's in popularity. I myself, in need of a fresh start, dropped a cool $1000 on an Amiga 500 system. Hey, it seemed like a good move at the time.
Today the Apple IIe collects dust in my basement. I do plug it in from time and time and it still actually kinda works. I miss those simpler times. And I have that Amiga, too.
April 28, 2015 : Hoopty
When planning our epic trip to Patagonia Jenya and I decided to rent a car to get around once we arrived in El Calafate, Argentina. Most tourists rely on buses, but we like our freedom. We also opted for a cheap, local rental car vendor, and thus got an old, beat up hoopty with a cracked windshield, a broken tachometer gauge, and - which we only realized as night fell on the highway into the middle of nowhere - a broken headlight.
But at least it ran, and got us to the Chilean border without incident. Another complication was dealing with the imperfect relations Argentina and Chile have which each other, which is evident and suddenly our problem when driving an Argentinian car into Chile. Lots of old school bureaucracy, filling out paperwork, all with serious language barriers.
Also the border crossing we chose had enough elevation that we also found ourselves driving in ice/snow conditions in this vehicle that was poorly equipped for such. But we made it through and into the warmer air of Natales, and had a grand old time on that side of the border.
A week later we were returning to Argentina over that same border crossing, only to be met with a locked gate and a sign that had the distressing words "cerrado" and "72 horas." It seemed completely abandoned at first, but luckily there was some young patrol person inside who let us in and even more he knew enough English to explain the border guards were on strike for 72 hours. Only tour buses were let through. Being stuck in southern Chile isn't the worst thing, but we already had hotels and flights booked. Eventually he admitted he heard a rumor that maybe this one much smaller border crossing south of here may be open at 5pm for an hour.
So we went back to Natales to eat more beef before heading to this other crossing well before 5pm, and sure enough there was a line of cars forming. We took a number, and after hours of waiting they let us do the paperwork and sent us through. Yay!
The road from this lesser crossing back into Argentina was still under construction. We were on dirt and gravel for miles. Fearing these aged tires would blow out I was relieved to eventually drive onto some newly installed pavement parallel to the main drag. I enjoyed smooth sailing on fresh highway until realizing we might be on the wrong side of the highway going the wrong direction. There were no other cars or previous signs to give us clues as to proper orientation, but in any case the highway inexplicably dead ended with impassible mounds of dirt, so I had to backtrack and get back on the gravel road again.
And then suddenly all the dashboard gauges died. No speedometer or gas gauge. Having no idea if we had enough fuel to make it back to Calafate I had no choice but to stop in this tiniest of towns and hope the car will start again after filling up, despite whatever electrical problems it was having.
It did start up again (phew!) and we went back to the hoopty rental to complain about its issues (using lots of broken Spanish and mime and drawings). They tried to convince us to fix it all ourselves (the blown fuses and headlight) and they would take the costs off our bill, but they ultimately caved and quickly put in new fuses/bulbs the next day.
So, yeah, having a car added a few more stresses to our journey, including random stops and inspections on the road by military police, or the constant state of running low on gas between the very rare fueling stations in this part of the world.
But we did gain a lot, of course. We could stop whenever wherever and bask in the emptiness of the region or commune with the guanacos. We also could stay in places long after the tour buses left, like on the shore of the lake right by Perito Moreno glacier. We had the whole place to ourselves by late afternoon, meditating as the recently calved ice chunks flowed to shore and melted.
April 21, 2015 : Squat
Oakland, 1996. The house next door from me was empty for a long time. The previous owners defaulted on their loan and were evicted by the bank which just ignored it for months. So, naturally, a homeless speed freak began squatting there.
The guy seemed harmless at first, but the sounds of him muttering incoherently while rolling a shopping cart up our shared driveway at 3:00am was kind of creepy and annoying. Then he started hurling bricks over the fence into our backyard when we were making too much noise. My housemate called the police about this, and was met with unsurprising indifference.
This went on for a month or two (it's amazing what we're willing to tolerate in our 20's). Then driving home from work one night I approached my neighborhood as an increasing number of firetrucks passed me, and eventually I saw smoke coming from what looked like my block. I hit a police barricade and could go no further. "I live there!" I yelled at the officer to no avail. I parked and ran to my house.
Sure enough that squat next door was engulfed in flames. Luckily my abode was okay and the fire getting under control, though I had to stomp out of few burning cinders that landed in my backyard. The culprit was nowhere to be found, but I told the police on the scene what's up and they said they have been "tracking him for a while," whatever that meant.
When everybody left the half-burned house was once again left unchecked. My curiosity took over, and the next day I went to see for myself what was going on inside the unburnt sections. Singed paper and scrap lumber (i.e. potential firewood), half eaten wonderbread-and-barbecue-sauce sandwiches, rancid human shit puddles on the floor.
A few days later I heard that shopping cart going up the driveway at 3am again. I guess this wasn't the last of that guy. We figured he was just coming back to collect his stuff and move on.
Soon after that I heard some odd sounds outside and walked out to my front porch to see the squat once again consumed by fire. Flames shot up 20 feet into the sky, and were already spreading to the roof of another nearby house. Before I could even consider calling 911 fire engines were arriving on the scene and spraying everything.
The cops also came by and assured us this wouldn't be a problem anymore. They were right - it wasn't - but I don't think because of any action of the police department as much as the squat was now completely uninhabitable, and the guy probably just relocated elsewhere.
April 14, 2015 : Keys
It was towards the end of my first semester at Binghamton University, just before finals week. To let off steam me and some dormmates went to a midnight showing of "Wizard of Oz" in one of the main lecture halls. Kinda random but whatever. It recently rained and snowed - the long walk across campus was cold and slippery and our balance additionally challenged with occasional gusts of wind well below freezing.
I wasn't as drunk as my companions and therefore kinda found the whole experience a boring waste of time. I was happy to trudge back after the movie and return to the warmth of my dorm room. I went to unlock the main door to the building when.. I realized my keys were missing. Shit! They must have fallen out of the pocket of my stupid pants during this pointless social outing.
Adolescent-level panic set in, and while the others just went back inside and happily to sleep I began retracing my steps in the frosty night air. The campus was quite dark and lonely now at 2am. I scampered back to the lecture hall, desperately scanning downward at the snow and slush and ice the entire way.
I arrived at the hall and still no sign of my key ring. I banged on various windows until a janitor finally let me in and look around. Nothing there. I actually sat there by myself in the dark hall for a good half hour, warming up and meditating on this new, unexpected life where I will be spending the scant few precious remaining hours before finals not studying but dealing with the painful bureaucratic process of obtaining new keys, replacing various locks at inflated costs, etc.
Now 3am, I left the hall and went back into the tundra towards my dorm, hoping somebody will be awake to let my sorry ass in when I come knockin'. I noticed it must have snowed again for a bit while I was inside contemplating my sad fate. The entire campus was now all asleep in their toasty beds. Just me, the big loser, out there all alone, considering completely dropping out of college if this is how it's gonna be.
I have no idea how to describe the following other than: a sudden pang of awareness stopped me in my tracks. Like somebody grabbed my shoulders and slapped my face. And then I was suddenly compelled to turn around and retrace my steps. And after about 20 feet I had to stop again, now drawn to this one footprint. I reflexively kicked away the recently fallen snow around this imprint further revealing some glinting metal caked beneath the ice below.
My keys. My keys!! My keys... which must have fallen there hours earlier. And stepped on by a fellow student thus encasing it in a cocktail of slush and ice. And obscured by more snow. And left alone for however many hours until I was magically drawn to them.
I carved them out, shook off the frozen bits and began the triumphant walk back to my dorm. The skies had since cleared a bit, and - despite not being a traditionally religious person - I couldn't help but look up at the cloudless heavens and say, "thank you!"
And right at that moment - I shit you not - a shooting star crossed the entire sky.
Wow. The whole way back I was giddy with a cocktail of joyous relief, mild hypothermia, and existential awe due to what could arguably be perceived as divine intervention, and was uttering to myself in a continual loop: "wow... wow... wow... wow..."
April 7, 2015 : Honk
Jenya's 1983 Toyota Tercel wagon was pretty sweet except it had one quirk: the horn didn't work. And so it became a regular comedy routine in this car beating incessantly on the soundless horn in mock anger while driving around town - sort of a safe way to get road rage out of our systems.
Until one day, in downtown Berkeley of all places, we were at a red light and this old woman with a walker slowly began crossing in front of us. She was barely halfway through and totally blocking the intersection when the light turned green. Jenya jokingly bashed the horn - which was meant to be a private laugh between us...
...but for some inexplicable reason the horn worked this one time.
We were mortifed. The old lady, and several witnesses on the sidewalk, glared at us - in utter disbelief that we could be so cruel as to honk at a such a helpless woman.
Of course, the situation quickly became completely hilarious to me and Jenya, and just us, as we were the only ones who knew the horn was broken and our intent harmless. Jenya and I busted out laughing, and the horrified expressions from these archetypical over-righteous citizens of Berkeley made us laugh even harder. Everybody here thinks we're the worst people on the planet! Ha ha ha!
The woman eventually reached the other end of the crosswalk and we zoomed through the intersection, away from all the hateful scrutiny and back to the safe haven that is Oakland, chortling the entire ride home.
March 31, 2015 : Cat on a Pole
Saturday afternoon the doorbell rang. It was the woman house-sitting for our neighbor Ann across the way. I don't remember her name. Let's just call her Mindy. "Is that your cat?" Mindy asked. She said a neighborhood kitty seems to have climbed up a telephone pole and was sitting there right next to all the high voltage wires, too scared to come down. Apparently it had been up there since yesterday. It was a stray with no clear owner. Because we had cats of our own Mindy assumed she did her duty and that the cat lovers on the block could take it from here.
Jenya couldn't bear the poor animal trapped up there being scared and hungry so she made a bunch of phone calls to various utility companies and fire departments. They were all fascinated by the predicament but claimed such matters were not their responsibility. Despite frustrating hours on hold or arguing with whomever she could get on the line, Jenya discovered nobody cared and the cat spent another whole night on the top of the pole.
By Sunday morning most of the block was involved. People were coming out of their houses occasionally to see if the cat was meowing and therefore still alive. Nobody was sure what to do except keep making those phone calls until somebody official with a heart comes with a ladder or a lift of some sort.
After night fell the Oakland Fire Department finally sent a truck and a dozen firemen. All the neighbors poured out on the street to celebrate as the firemen gathered and laughed amongst themselves and pointed up at the cat. They took some pictures and got back in their truck without saying anything to anybody. We thought they were going to the corner to turn the truck around for better access, but they never came back. We were all deeply disappointed and went back inside for the night. Later phone calls revealed they were unwilling to help given the proximity to too many power lines, and thus they felt it should be up to the electric company.
Monday morning Jerry down the block risked his life to save this animal. He took out a ladder and climbed up the pole sans harness. The cat, obviously freaked out, leapt away from Jerry's clutching hands and jumped onto one of the wires, eventually to drop onto the streetlight arm below. Jerry couldn't do much at this point, but minutes later the electric company unceremoniously arrived with a cherry picker truck. They snared the cat, and once on the ground it ran away, never to be seen by any of us again.
A year later Jenya and I went over to Ann's house for dinner and Mindy happened to join us. Mindy accidentally admitted during the meal that it was her dog that chased the cat up the pole - a very key bit of information she conveniently omitted when first telling Jenya and I about the poor kitty. So instead of taking responsibility for the situation, she simply informed us, i.e. her feline-friendly temporary neighbors, that some cat was in trouble and got on with her stupid life. Fucking asshole.
March 24, 2015 : Itchy
My brother, Ben, and I attended the same college for the year he was a senior and I was a freshman. Frequently I'd escape the drunken dorms to spend a more peaceful night at his house off campus.
I visited once on a particularly chilly evening. When it came time to crash, I required extra blankets to keep warm. He procured them from his dusty attic.
This next morning we were slow to wake up. He drove me straight to my philosophy class. I arrived a few minutes late, unshowered and wearing the same clothes as yesterday.
Still sleepy and unable to focus I noticed my nose was itchy. I exhaled sharply out my nostrils and suddenly a tiny spider appeared crawling on my notebook.
March 17, 2015 : Boy Trouble
My housemate Janet's boyfriend Rick called me all the way from Russia, where he had been for weeks. Janet wasn't returning any of his calls, so naturally he was worried. This was back before cell phones and the world wide web were a thing, so I have no idea how he got my number, especially from Russia. He must have been desperate. He asked if she was out of town, or in trouble, or just exceedingly busy - anything to explain why she was unresponsive.
I hadn't the heart to directly tell him there was already another man in her life. In fact I was surprised he didn't know, or that Janet didn't tell him, about her new lover, Christopher. Nor could I bring myself to lie about it. All I could offer was, "No, man. She's.. uh.. she's still here."
Rick was a smart guy and got the hint: Janet was simply ignoring him, and that he's old news and she moved on. After a long and painful moment of silence he whispered, "I see." He apologized for calling and having to put me through this awkward exchange. I apologized too and said, "take care."
I got off the phone and felt terrible. I just broke up with this really nice guy, and he wasn't even MY boyfriend.
[names were changed to be polite]
March 10, 2015 : My Doppleganger
Marc was a junior in high school when I was a senior. We looked so much alike (and had similar first and last names) that people got us mixed up all the time. My teenage years were punctuated with total strangers around town engaging me in confusing conversations thinking I was him. Some were unconvinced and quite angry when I insisted I wasn't Marc, like I was being a smart ass, and eventually I had to pull out my driver's license to shut them up.
I like to think Marc had similar problems, but I never found out since we had different social circles and didn't really know each other. In fact, we failed to exchange a single word with each other before graduation.
Two summers later the old gang was back from college and at a friend's birthday party experimenting with random cocktail recipes. I, myself, was quite inebriated when suddenly Marc appeared. He looked exactly the same as he did (and I did) two years ago - clean-shaven and short brown curly hair. I, however, had a bit of a misguided identity reboot in college and since mutated into a skinny, bearded, mullet-headed freak.
With the standard teenage social stigmas far behind us, and my inhibitions further weakened by alcohol, I felt the pressing need to have a word with Marc once and for all. I abruptly approached him, grabbed both his arms, and shouted in his bewildered face:
"You're my clone! You're my CLONE! YOU'RE MY CLONE!!!"
He kinda just laughed it off as somebody pulled me away from him. And that was the only conversation we really ever had. Recently I did some cyberstalking to see whatever happened to Marc. Turns out he also left our home town 3000 miles away and ended up living here in the Bay Area. In fact, not very far from me. And he's also a professional computer geek. Goddammit.
March 3, 2015 : Pudge
In the late 90's Jenya and I lived in an Oakland flat, along with our two housemates Vicky and Crissy, and our two cats Normal and Pudge. Normal was an awesome kitty and beloved pet, but Pudge was a stray we adopted out of guilt. She was just shy of feral and very rarely associated with humans, frequently disappearing for days at a time. She also recently taken to shitting underneath the kitchen table, so when she wasn't around it was actually a relief.
This house was fairly active. Touring bands would come through and crash on our couches, and we'd have backyard barbecues on the weekends and CD-assembling parties during the week. Normal tended to be social during all this activity, but Pudge would make herself scarce when the crush of humans became too much to bear.
Once again Pudge was absent for a couple days, possibly scared off by the last wave of musicians parading through the house. After a few days there was genuine concern, and after about six days we figured she finally moved on to a less stressful living situation. Kind of a bummer, but as I said we were already going above and beyond taking care of this unrewarding animal and there's only so much we could do.
Eight days passed since Pudge's last sighting. I returned home from a long day. I waved hello to Jenya who was on the phone, and headed to the kitchen for a snack. I passed the living room en route and found myself unexpectedly drawn to the couch. Why not enjoy a moment of horizontal bliss and wait there until Jenya gets off the phone?
I plopped myself down. Aaaah. And then a ghostly noise rose from beneath, as if this otherwise inanimate piece of furniture were suddenly talking to me: MmmrrrmrmrRRRRRRMMMMmmmmm.
This unearthly sound was a smack in the face that jogged my memory: Eight days ago we had a band staying over who utilized the pull-out bed in this very couch. That means it could certainly be that Pudge sought refuge in there and then got TRAPPED INSIDE!!! I leaped up and yelled something like, "FUUUUCK!" and began throwing cushions off and wrenching the damn thing open.
And there Pudge was, emerging from a dark crevasse in the back where a cat could just barely fit without getting crushed. She used her scant remaining fumes of life-force to angrily meow at me, then flop out of the couch interior and stumble into my bedroom and hide underneath the bed. The rest of the household heard my cursing and toiling and the near-death meowing and soon the whole apartment echoed with our collective screams of horror.
We put open cans of tuna and water under my bed until her strength returned. Almost right away she was back to her old skittish self again, none the worse for wear. Eight fucking days trapped in a couch? No big whoop. Nine lives, indeed.
The questions remained: Why didn't she meow for help? Why didn't Normal tell us either? What would have happened if I didn't feel that urge to lie down on the couch?
Epilogue: A month later I picked up some pictures I got developed at the corner drug store. Some of them depicted a recent party at the house, including one photo of friends sitting around our living room. Jenya and I pieced together the timeline and came to the uncomfortable realization: in that very photo, Pudge was stuck inside the couch and nobody had any idea.
February 24, 2015 : Zion Narrows, Brother
Zion National Park, Utah, 2004. Mike, Nat, Jenya, and I just finished the grueling (but beautiful) two-day backpacking trek down the Narrows. We re-entered the main part of the park and were surprised to find all the flags at half-mast. We were also completely starving and desperately needed protein.
We drove into town and hit one of the burger joints. It was a seat-yourself deal so we snagged a table. Another party entered after us and claimed the next open table. They were given water, menus, and even ordered drinks and appetizers before we were even acknowledged by the wait staff.
I tried to be an understanding adult but after 10 minutes I got so pissed off from the raging hunger, the exhaustion, and the unfair neglect that I stormed up to the bin in front to grab my own damn menus and get the meal process started already.
One of the hippie waiters caught this and beat me to the menu bin. He looked at me with this fucking smug "calm down city boy" expression written all over his bearded face. My impatience was obvious - he smirked and actually said, "Zion Narrows, brother" in order to Zen me out or something.
I don't think this guy realized how close I was to punching his lights out. I was apoplectic and speechless. But he held up the menus, I snatched up them from his hands and returned to the table completely livid but at least one step closer to burgers-in-my-face.
Eventually another waiter checked in with us and took our orders. We asked him why the flags were all at half-mast. The best he could do was, "Uh, I think it means somebody important died. Maybe a park ranger?" Nice try. Later a fellow patron at a nearby table who overheard this exchange turned our way and said, "Ronald Reagan."
We were all, like, "Oh." They shrugged, and we shrugged in agreement. Yup. Whatever.
February 17, 2015 : Gringo
In London, you are supposed to tip at restaurants but not at bars. But what about bars that serve food? The guidebooks said nothing about this. Unable to figure this out and feeling too sheepish to ask the staff, I sought the guidance of a fellow patron in the men's room.
I approached the man washing his hands and started with, "I have an unusual question." This is not really the best way to begin conversation with a stranger in the bathroom of a pub in a foreign country. But it was too late now - I charged forward with my actual query about tipping etiquette and soon came to realize his bewildered silence and intense expression were not due to his fear of unprovoked solicitation, but because he didn't know the english language. This was suddenly all too clear. Now what?
After an awkward pause, he made a hand gesture such that I should follow him. He led me to the only fluent english speaker in his family - his 10 year old nephew. They exchanged some words first before turning attention to me. I surmised they were from Mexico. I chatted with this kid while his extended family observed with fascination.
Of course the young boy knew little about tipping in general, so this was all a fruitless exercise. Turns out the boy's father did have a few english words in his lexicon. As I tried to excuse myself he blurted, "Where you from?" I answered New York.
His reaction was a smile and the word: "Gringo." I could only respond with my own smile and a single word: "Si."
February 10, 2015 : Cousin Michael
As I slogged through all the requirements towards my math degree, a team of fellow students on the same academic path followed me from class to class. While some became study mates or comrades, many of them I never acknowledged, including this one dude Michael.
Well, it turns out, unbeknownst to me, Michael and I were distant cousins. Right before senior year I was at a bar mitzvah surrounded by extended family that I haven't seen in forever and frankly didn't know very well at all. One older relative caught wind I attended Binghamton University and mentioned her son was also a student there. She showed me a picture - and it was that Michael guy. Fancy that. But the knowledge that he and I perhaps shared a few strands of DNA didn't change our relationship - we still never made contact before, during, or after class, or any classes were shared since.
Years passed. A couple weeks before I graduated I drove some younger friends around helping them scope out rentals for next year. I took them to look at one place, and coincidentally Michael happened to be currently living there. So as my pals examined the house I found myself suddenly alone with Michael in his den, unable to escape conversation any longer.
After a minute of awkward silence I broke the ice with, "You know we're related, right?"
"Yeah," he said, barely moving his eyes from the television set.
We never spoke again.
February 3, 2015 : How to Succeed in SETI Without Really Trying
I get asked a lot: How the *hell* did you get a job searching for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)? Here's the full story (plucked from my own work-related home page here at the lab):
The presumption, of course, is that working for SETI is some kind of elite, exciting, glamorous job for which only the most brilliant nerds qualify and requires some kind of rigorous security clearance, or mental stability test, or whatever. This isn't the case at all - it's just a garden-variety data analysis project just like any of the zillions at universities all over the world. Anyway.. maybe this will clear things up.
I was a computer geek of the nth degree as a young man, steeped in machine language coding every night for hours on end, but kinda got bored with it all during college. I also got disillusioned by how the world was adopting Windows more and more, while my beloved Amiga was falling by the wayside. So I wasn't exactly seeking work in the field with much verve by the end of my senior year.
Shortly after graduating I moved to California with absolutely no friends, no money, and no plans whatsoever. I'm a huge proponent of "making your luck," i.e. throwing myself head first into random, difficult situations and seeing what happens. Finding steady work was hard. I was competing with MIT and Stanford nerds for pre-dot-com jobs so that went nowhere. After random stints in various offices and six hellish months in the ad business I found myself jobless yet again. I applied as a temporary employee at UC Berkeley just to get some quick bucks. I never heard back, so I followed up with a call two weeks later. I misread the phone book entry and mistakenly called the director of temporary services himself, and he actually answered his phone. Luckily he wasn't busy and proceeded to look up my application. Seeing I had computer skills, he said a position just opened at the Space Science Lab that morning. I lied and said I was an expert at troff/LaTeX. I went to work the following Monday. Moral of the story: it's easy to get your foot in the door as a temporary employee, especially if you accidentally call the wrong number and then exaggerate about your skills.
I became a member of the Space Astrophysics Group (a.k.a SAG) which was a set of disparate projects that shared scientists and staff. The main projects at the time were EUVE, EUVIP, ORFEUS, and SERENDIP (a.k.a SETI). I held a mostly administrative role - I helped format papers and proposals, monitor/database purchasing and accounts, and help one completely computer illiterate scientist send/receive e-mails. Not very exciting, but it was steady work. This was February 1994.
A mere few months later my supervisor up and quit one day. It's a long story - let's just say the circumstances were unusual, and these circumstances include the words "Venezuela," "surgery," and "ten thousand dollars." I was promoted into her spot and became a full-time employee. I also got her office. Sweet.
One day was particularly dull so I started snooping around the network - nothing malicious, just curiosity. Jeff Cobb (SERENDIP programmer and SAG systems administrator at the time) immediately noticed me issuing "sudo" commands on his servers. Oops. He asked if I knew what I was doing, and once aware of my former life as a computer geek he asked for my assistance doing network backups and software installs. I accepted these tasks, and even got called on to do some SETI-specific analysis chores. Moral of the story: snooping around your own network is a great way to flaunt your abilities and interests to your supervisors and get more fun stuff to do.
Due to a huge oversight I managed to have one of the best offices in the lab for over a year. That is, until the director of the ORFEUS project (Dr. Mark Hurwitz) came in one day with measuring tape saying, "don't mind me." He then proceeded to take notes about the room's dimensions. Within a couple weeks I found myself displaced into the carrels next to the printer and fax machine. Mark is a really nice and brilliant guy, so I didn't begrudge him his own office, which he certainly deserved more than I. However, I was perfectly healthy for years up to this point and now my new desk was situated under this giant vent. Over the next six months I got an equal number of nasty sinus infections. I demanded a building inspector come and check out this vent. Despite my recent health record and the layers of dust and dead flies on my desk, the inspector insisted my chronic sinus infections must be due to something else. I was sufficiently annoyed by this and the lack of career advancement opportunities so I quit. That was December 1996.
I enjoyed a half year off working on music, touring the country, and slowly draining my bank account. During that time I offered infrequent yet free tech support to my former lab workmates. Right around the time I ran out of money they called asking me to come back. I said I would if I could be rehired as a Programmer/Analyst and work flexible hours. They agreed. Moral of the story: quitting a job is a great way to get a long vacation, followed by a handsome raise and promotion.
Now that I was doing primarily systems stuff, I was working directly with Jeff, sharing lab space with him and SERENDIP director Dan Werthimer. Due to proximity I ended up primarily working on SETI, helping to wrap up the final data analysis of the SERENDIP III project and ramp up SERENDIP IV. Meanwhile SETI@home was coming into being (Summer 1997). The remaining SAG projects (and their funds) were waning, so they didn't mind so much that all of my time was being spent on SETI. By the end of 1998, the SETI@home buzz generated enough funding to hire me full time, and that's basically the whole story.
January 27, 2015 : Sledding on Thick Ice
I grew up in that winter wonderland that is New York. In honor of the current blizzard (/cough), here's an old cautionary tale:
'Twas my sophomore year in college. I visited the grandparents in sunny Florida during Christmas break, but ultimately returned to the harsh New York winter weather. Mere minutes after returning my old buddies called and convinced me to go late-night sledding down the slopes behind our former high school - an offer I couldn't resist.
I met them there, and we did a few runs trudging up the hill and zooming back down. We quickly grew bored of this activity. One friend discovered the pavement path beside the tennis courts was completely frozen which made for much more interesting sledding. Why interesting? Well, the ice enabled us to achieve incredible velocities, but more so the path led to a long flight of stairs descending to the soccer field below. We made a game of going as fast as possible, and then somehow stopping ourselves at the last possible moment to avoid falling over the brink to our doom. Brilliant.
On my third or fourth attempt I panicked or miscalculated and failed to stop the sled in time, and right over the edge I flew. The high pitched scraping of metal against ice beneath me turned to eerie silence as I entered the air, soaring above scores of cold, hard, wooden steps.
I eventually returned to earth, smacking against the stairs with the sled still beneath me hardly cushioning the blow. Then I bounced back up into the dark, empty sky. These painful iterations continued every twenty feet or so until I finally landed the field below. Now out of my clutches, the sled rich with momentum continued to glide on its own beyond the soccer goals as I laid there in shock.
My friends eventually arrived at the scene, pointing at my crumpled body and tittering. Between stifled laughs they asked, "Are you okay?" I apparently managed to avoid serious injury, though my ribs were quite sore for a while hence.
January 20, 2015 : Tweezer Fetish
About 13 years ago Jenya and I made a lavish salad for dinner using vegetables from our new garden. It was delicious, but afterward my throat was sore and I had an interminable desire to cough. I ate ice cream and gargled salt water - this didn't help. I tried singing for a while, but the soreness only got worse.
I asked Jenya to look if anything was obviously lodged in my throat. She shined a flashlight into my gaping mouth and said, "oh my god there IS something back there."
She ran out to purchase a pair of long tweezers, then deftly plucked the offending item from my tonsil - it was a foxtail. Perhaps I should have washed the salad more carefully.
Nine years later I was telling this exact story at a party. The very next night we were eating take out Chinese food when suddenly I noticed that familiar weird feeling in the back of my throat. And just like before Jenya used a flashlight and saw something sticking out from the walls of my gullet AGAIN.
This time however those tweezers weren't long enough, so I ended up waiting in an emergency room for three hours until a doctor with super-size tweezers could pluck this foreign object out. It was a tiny bone shard from a poorly chopped spare rib.
January 13, 2015 : SAG Awards Saga
Nine years ago I had a cover band gig playing the after party of the annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, right there at the Shrine Auditorium in LA. We actually didn't know where to load in, and found ourselves (and all our gear) dropped off literally 100 feet from the red carpet as all the celebrities were arriving. We just stood there in our street clothes next to a pile of instrument cases beholding the hoopla as limos pulled up, famous people got out, and camera crews descended upon them. That was weird. We eventually got questioned by some policeman and told where to go, and hauled our stuff around the entire block to go through the non-celebrity entrance.
Anyway.. as musicians we were treated like at any other lower budget gig - we had an unheated tent to hang out in and gigwiches for dinner. We weren't allowed to mingle - but I wasn't given the memo on that and wandered off to use a restroom. I found one on some production trailer and upon leaving some high level event coordinator ran her hands through my (long) hair saying, "who belongs to these outrageous curls?" I turned around, she looked surprised, and I kinda just smiled and left. Later somebody came by our tent to remind us to NOT use the bathrooms other than the porta potties around back reserved for the low-paid workers.
During the ceremony some celebrities did hide by, or escape via, our musicians-only area. Among others Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi, and Julie Andrews were spotted from a safe distance. Kate Winslet and Jason Bateman were hanging right outside our tent. On his way out Johnny Depp walked right by us and said, "hey" with a polite nod. He was the only star to directly acknowledge us musicians all night. He knows what's up.
The ceremony ended and it was party time. We only played a couple short sets, with another band and a DJ switching off depending on the whims of a head party coordinator. At the beginning of our first set Danny the singer came on and said, "Hello, everybody! We're..." and this coordinator rushed to the stage and snapped, "No addressing the audience!"
As the evening wore down security was more lax, and we got to sneak in and get some morsels from the main buffet line. I also accidentally stumbled into the smoking tent, where there was a huge table of artfully piled cigarettes that any party goer could snag at any time and puff away.
January 6, 2015 : Pink Thing
About 15 years ago I rushed to work at the lab after a long night. Upon my arrival I was surprised to be greeted by a film crew - a news organization there to do a story about our SETI project. I didn't get the memo. I was unshaven, unshowered and, as it turns out, I recently dyed my hair pink. But I didn't think much of it as they mostly interviewed the project directors and then took B-roll footage while we were sitting around having a meeting.
By the time I got home around 6pm there was a message on my machine. It was my sister Ruth, who lives on the east coast, asking, "when did you dye your hair pink?" Turns out this news piece was broadcast nationally. Apparently I figured heavily in said B-roll, probably because I fit the visual description of weirdo looking for little green men. First time I was on television.
December 30, 2014 : This World is Totally Fugazi
Okay so in 1988 I was doing my very first college radio show, apprenticing under a savvy senior DJ named Pam. I was still very much a sheltered, ignorant, unsocialized prog rock nerd at the time. So much so that when Pam asked to fetch a Fugazi album from the collection it led to some "Who's on first?" comedy act where she was referring to the (very new at the time) indie rock band, and I was referring to an album called "Fugazi" by the band Marillion. The conversation was something like:
Pam: Get me that Fugazi record from the library
Matt: Oh I love that record, but I dig their earlier stuff better
Pam: What earlier stuff?
Matt: You know, Script for a Jester's Tear
Pam: Oh this is a different band.
Matt: Ha okay - but pretty cool that this Fugazi band named themselves after this Marillion album!
Anyway... fast forward 5 years and several random and unexpected twists of fate later I was living in Oakland, California and my housemate was the sister of one of the members of Fugazi. And as some kind of postponed karmic penance for being such a miserable prog-rock-centric dolt she had a cat that would frequently sneak into my room and shit on the floor behind my stereo.back home