CALIFORNIA, BY HOOK OR BY CROOK
(October 8, 2013)
California tours are always interesting. This time, it was an amazing reminder that I am not alone in the world. I have spectacular friends. This life is chock full of surprises! Crazy curve balls! However, I am surrounded by incredible people who will help me keep my head above water and my metaphors pleasantly mixed. Here’s how it went down:
The day before the tour began I learned that my Texas drivers license was suspended, due to a speeding ticket I received months earlier in Connecticut and paid. Problem solved, right? Nope, it turns out that Texas never received notification from Connecticut that the ticket was paid. Texas did write me a letter explaining the situation and offering me a 20 day window in which to provide proof of payment, but I didn’t see the ticket until I got home from tour 3 weeks after said window had lapsed and one day after the threatened suspension took place.
This left me with a choice between
A) Flying out to California and “winging it” (relying on public transportation and the kindness of friends and strangers alike), or
B) Canceling the tour.
Already exhausted from a summer chock full of travel, I weighed these two options carefully. This tour didn’t contain any “anchor dates” (that means high dollar gigs that make the tour financially intelligent). Instead, the “anchor” of the tour was actually the wedding of a dear friend. On the one hand, I definitely didn’t want to miss her wedding. On the other hand, she’s a great friend. She would totally understand if the license situation would cost a ton of money and hassle and make the trip no longer make sense. On the mystical third hand of mental logic, there was this: I don’t have a ton of experience touring on the West Coast. I’m still building my career out there. While the gigs aren’t super lucrative right now, it’s certainly not going to get any better if I cancel gigs with the people who are currently willing to host me.
I chose option A.
Before I left, I called a couple close friends to inform them of my situation and ask for advice. Tiff Jimber offered to help me with a little transportation. Ash offered to meet me at the airport and pick up my bags before I took the shuttle to the wedding, and also offered to let me stay with her anytime. Someone suggested I look into the train, though I can’t remember who. I checked out the Amtrak website. I looked at busses. I learned that the rental car I had reserved for the trip and now wouldn’t be using, due to the whole suspended license situation, was non-refundable. And then it was 4:30 am, I was waking up from a harried two hours of sleep and heading towards the airport.
DAY 1, Saturday, August 31:
My brothers 27th birthday. They are twins and I love them deeply. Happy birthday boys!
I flew from Austin to LA. When I landed I called my friend Ash. If you can only have one kind of friend, you hope it’s a friend like Ash. She is unwavering, calm in a crisis and looks at you like a privileged fool when you compare a suspended license to a crisis. She has seen much worse.
My flight landed at LAX at 10 am and Ash offered to swing by the airport and pick up my luggage, so that I didn’t have to haul it all to the wedding in Oxnard, about 70 miles north of LA. She actually scooped me from the airport too, and took me to a nearby Starbucks. We spent an hour catching up on our lives, jobs, partners, trains, tribulations, funny stories, sad stories, all of it. I re-organized my bag in the parking lot and she dropped me back off at the airport, minus my guitar and heavy luggage, so that I could catch the shuttle to the wedding.
Buffy’s wedding was glorious. When I say that it looks like Etsy and Pinterest had a baby all over the grounds of that rented family farm, I mean it in the kindest possible way. The bride looked gorgeous, the groom was a prince, and every single detail was charming, quirky, homespun and heartwarming. Also, the bride sang a badass Billie Holiday deep cut when the toasts were done. I couldn’t possibly do it justice with mere words, so you should just head over to Instagram and stalk the #JoshandBuffy2013 stream. It’s amazing (I’m totally not exaggerating about the homespun grandeur of this wedding — since it’s taken me weeks to get this blog up, I can tell you that the wedding was featured in Billboard Magazine, since there were so many music industry professionals involved and it was so badass).
Johannes Raasinna, a college friend who I hadn’t seen basically since graduation day, responded mercifully to the plea I had sent him on Facebook the day before and agreed to drive me back to Los Angeles after the reception. We had a great time catching up and I also got to know his lady friend Luna, and we listened to her new record that they have been working on together. It’s great! They dropped me off at Ash’s house and I fell asleep on her couch pretty much instantly.
DAYS 2-5, September 1, 2, 3, & 4:
After visiting with Ash and Joseph in the morning, they dropped me off at my friend Wendysue’s house. Wendysue is amazing! I met her at Folk Alliance in 2008, and we’ve been friends ever since. I was planning on staying with her for the week, but was a little nervous about staying without a car: 4 days is a long time to impose on someone! Ash took me to a grocery store, I bought flowers for Wendy and some provisions for myself. Ash dropped me off and I tried to be the best house guest of all time.
As it turns out, I think Wendysue kinda liked it that I didn’t have a car. Normally when I stay with her I am in and out, setting up meetings with various friends and business contacts in LA, trying to make the most out of the time I have in a town where music is one of the main industries. This time around I was totally at her disposable, available to experience LA from her perspective. I must say, I really loved the view! She has a new dog named Beanie (the first dog she has ever had! Their bond is very special to observe), and we had a lot of fun playing with him. We also went on a whale watching cruise (didn’t see any whales, but we did see a bunch of dolphins which was totally good enough for me!), went to a Korean day spa, watched movies on her couch and spent an afternoon on the rooftop patio of a swanky down hotel that allows non-guests to make use of the pool. In those three days I got a glimpse of what being a retiree or an heiress could look like and I think I liked it…
DAY 6, Thursday, September 5:
Tiff Jimber didn’t show up wearing a cape and tights, but she might as well have. She picked me up from Wendysue’s house in Los Angeles and drove me to San Diego, spent the day with me there, attended my show, dropped me off at the house where I was staying and then drove home to LA after the gig. Yes, that’s right. 1000% above and beyond the call of normal friendship duty.
Tiff and I have toured together before and it was really nice to be in the car with her again (even if the ride involved some silly LA mid-day gridlock). We got to San Diego plenty early, and she showed me around the Old Town area (I had never been before). The gig was at Le Stat’s, a funky 24-hour coffeeshop with a dedicated “alernative” crowd. We spent a couple hours there working on our laptops before soundcheck, and when the time rolled around we checked in with the venue and learned that the band I was co-billing with had blown a tire in the desert and was running late. Louis, who runs the joint, suggested we go on a walk around the neighborhood instead of soundcheck. He offered to buy us ice cream. We headed down the street to an art gallery where Gregory Page was DJ-ing old 78 records on a gramophone setup, using the name Gramophone Gregory. We returned to the venue, set up a little late (but the boss was with us so it didn’t matter) and played a very fun show with Into the Egress, a hard-touring 8 piece steampunk cabaret outfit out of Bethlehem, PA. They had even called ahead and found some local dancers to come join their set. It was a fun night.
At Buffy’s wedding the previous weekend I re-met an old friend of hers named MC. Over finger sandwiches we discussed my travel plans, and she offered to let me stay in her guest room in San Diego next time I was in town. I laughed and told her to be careful what she wished for. After wrapping things up at Lestat’s,Tiff dropped me off at MC’s house around midnight. I stumbled inside and made the most minimal of polite salutations and expressions of gratitude before collapsing into a comfortable guest bed in a room with a door that closed.
DAY 7 Friday, September 6:
I woke up mid-morning on Friday and stayed in bed for several hours, working on the computer and trying to remain quiet. Silent, actually. After a full week of socializing, I could feel my voice getting tired and the best remedy I have found for that is vocal rest, for as close to 12 hours as possible. If we have EVER met you know this is hard to me — I like to talk! So the best way I have found of achieving this is just by staying away from people.
When I stumbled out of my room at 1 pm, I found MC sitting in the living room painting her toenails. “You’re HERE?!” she practically shout-giggled. “I assumed you left hours ago!” We sat chatting for a little while, until she had to leave for work. I spent the afternoon pretending her beautiful house was my own. I read on the couch, exercised in the living room and took her bike down to the beach for a long sunset bike ride. I would estimate that I spoke maybe 100 words over the course of the entire day and it was absolutely sublime.
DAY 8 Saturday, September 7:
My reverie in Pacific Beach lasted until the middle of Saturday; I worked out some more, ran errands on MC’s bike, took myself out to breakfast where I started reading a novel that I had randomly selected from her shelf as if I intended to stick around town and finish reading it. I swung by the beach for one more glimpse of the ocean and all of a sudden it was time to head back to reality. I packed my bags and was ready to go when Jann Klose pulled up in his rental car to drive me to our gig that night. We played a house concert in Carmel Valley, about 13 miles north of San Diego. On the drive, I recounted to him my week so far. Right around Tiff’s heroics on Thursday, his eyes got very wide and he deadpanned through his metro German accent “You have really nice friends.”
I know, it’s true.
I made a few new good friends that night at a house concert on Fred Powell’s beautiful patio. I didn’t know anyone there but Jann, so I had a good time mingling over hors d’oeuvres and chatting with people who I think assumed I was also attending the show. It was really fun to get to know the guests of the concert beforehand, it made hopping on stage and singing for them all the more rewarding. After the show Jann and I drove up to Orange County where he had been staying with some friends.
DAY 9 Sunday, September 8:
Our only LA-area gig was actually in Altadena, about 45 minutes north of the center of town. It was an afternoon matinee show on a glorious sunny day. After the show I was back in Ash and Joseph’s custody, and they kindly drove me to a restaurant where I met up with a group of friends who had been at the concert.
Something it has taken me a long time to learn is that gigs (my gigs, specifically) are a TERRIBLE place to catch up with old friends. The hours beforehand are consumed with set up, then of course I am onstage and afterwards I am busy trying to engage with the audience I have just performed for, sell CDs when possible, sign people up for the email list and then I’ve gotta pack my gear up and load out. Basically I’m at work until all of my gear is in the car, and then it’s time to leave the club. Luckily, my friends have learned this with me over the years, and they are mostly willing to hang around and chat with each other until I’m available to go to relocate to a somewhere that we can actually relax and hang out. On this afternoon, that location featured microbrewed beers and dates wrapped in bacon. It was a good afternoon.
I got to catch up with my college buddy Frogs who I hadn’t seen in years. Turns out he is playing bass in a band called Stars in Stereo that is doing pretty well. He told me that at their most recent band meeting there had been heated discussion over whether their new album should be promoted to the “Modern Rock” or “Active Rock” format. Sheesh, I thought that the “Folk” vs. “Americana” vs. “AAA” debate was mind-numbing! It was a good reminder that there is a ton of stuff going on in the world that I have absolutely no idea about :-) How tiny we all are! What a wide, wonderful world it is!
DAY 10 Monday, September 9:
I left Southern California by train at 9 am on Monday morning. Ash drove me into downtown during Monday morning rush hour, and then walked into Grand Central Station with me and waited until my train came. She is seriously the best. The ride was lovely - I had never been on a long train ride before. I was seated next to a 92 year old man named Marion. He had fluffy white hair and very kind eyes. He was a total wiz on his smart phone, and when we said goodbye at the end of the day, I gave him a card and he had me enter my contact information into the address book on his tablet.
I arrived in San Luis Obispo around 3 hours before my gig started, and a wonderful woman named Cheryl picked me up at the train station and drove me to her house where I was able to shower and relax a little before the show (Cheryl happens to be the aunt-aged cousin of my friend Tiff, who drove me to San Diego earlier in this adventure. Generous genes!). I played a songwriter showcase gig at a Cajun-themed restaurant in the parking lot of a Howard Johnson Hotel. It felt a little like A Mighty Wind meets the end of Spinal Tap, but it was fun and the audience really listened (which, at the end of the day, is all I really care about :-). The plan was for Steve Key to drop me off at the bus stop after the show because, unfortunately, he train only ran from San Luis Obispo to San Francisco in the afternoon and arrived too late in the evening for me to make it in time for my gig that night.
My train was scheduled to depart at 12:20 am and, this being a folk gig, I was done by about 9:45 pm. Luckily, one of the other performers of that evening, Ryan Dishen, was a really sweet young man who had just returned from his first cross-country tour with his equally sweet girlfriend. They both had lots of questions about life on the road and booking tours, so we went out for a bite during the hours I had to kill before I had to be at the bus stop. We had a great conversation over pizza (I actually got a small spinach salad which they marveled at, and I told them that’s the first lesson of the road: eat fresh vegetables whenever they are available). We traded CDs as we said goodbye, and at about ten minutes til midnight they dropped me off at the bus station in downtown San Luis Obispo.
The bus stop was right outside of the large indoor train station, which was closed due to the late hour. It was a little chilly out. My phone was running very low on batteries. I jumped at the sound of every creaking branch, suddenly acutely aware that I was sitting alone on a bench in a town where I know almost nobody surrounded by all of my most valuable possessions. I channeled all of my available energy into not getting stabbed.
The minutes passed very slowly, and when 12:20 came and went without the appearance of a bus, I tried not to panic. Who had come up with this ridiculous plan? Oh, right. I did. I waited as patiently as I could and bounded eagerly onto the bus when it arrived at a quarter to one.
DAY 11, Tuesday, September 10:
I woke up with a start approximately every 45 minutes of the bus ride to San Francisco. This was a local bus that stopped in every town along the way, turning on all the lights each time. I actually tried to disembark in San Jose — startled awake, vaguely aware of having heard the prefix “San…” at the beginning of the stop announcement, I grabbed my belongings and stumbled off the bus into the dark. Luckily the driver was more aware of our surroundings than I and he sent me back to my seat. “Next stop,” he said. 40 winks later we pulled into San Francisco, in the dark of night just under the lights of the Golden Gate Bridge. I stood on the sidewalk for a minute to gather my bearings, and began to walk in the direction of the home of my friend Matt Moldover.
The plan was to take a cab to a restaurant near his house and wait for the hour to become a bit more decent before ringing his doorbell. Instead I took the trolley car as the sun rose around me and, finding no restaurants in his hip neighborhood open before 7 am, I rang his door apologetically at about 6. He ushered me inside, showed me to my room, and I slept deeply until almost noon.
When I woke up, Matt gave me a brief tour of the Upper Haight neighborhood where he lives. We walked to a nearby brunch spot and caught up over delicious veggie egg scrambles. Since many years have passed and I’m fairly sure noone will read this far into this blog post, I’ll admit that I had a bit of a crush on Matt when we first met 7-ish years ago. He was just coming out of a tough relationship and I was still figuring out how human interactions work, and for whatever reason nothing ever happened between the two of us. In retrospect, I’m extremely glad because I don’t think I would have the nerve to ring on the doorbell of an ex-anything at 6 in the morning and I was really, deeply grateful for his friendship that morning.
The afternoon was fun. Matt is known professionally by his last name Moldover, and has built a really impressive career for himself as an electronic musician and builder of musical machinery. His latest invention is an electric guitar with built in signal processing on the front of it — basically it takes all of the effects that guitar players plug into foot pedals and puts them all of the face of the guitar. He let me play it. I felt like a total rockstar. Right now there is only one of them in the world, but hopefully they will be produced on a large scale someday so you can all see what I’m talking about.
The last gig of my California tour was that night at Hotel Utah in San Francisco. It was a co-bill with a local guy named KC Turner who I like a lot - we have met on several occasions through mutual friends and he books house concerts and promotes shows locally (in fact, he hosted G. Love last night which I think is awesome). We had a great time turning a divey little downtown bar with a balcony that looks like a boat suspended from the ceiling into an intimate listening room.
DAY 12, Wednesday, September 11:
I’m pretty sure I did almost nothing on this day. Matt was busy preparing for a trip out of town, so we had breakfast together and then I retreated to my guest room to exercise and work on the computer and I think that’s all I did until evening when I ventured out to meet a friend for dinner. It was nice to give my body and mind a day off, a day to rest in one place, a moment to catch up.
DAY 13, Thursday, September 12:
My last full day in California! I met up with one of my favorite songwriters who also happens to be a close friend, John Elliott, for breakfast. We wandered through the Upper Haight neighborhood browsing the various stationary shops for bric a brac. I bought a small drawing for my house in Austin that I really love (it’s a tongue-in-cheek illustration of a map called “Growing Up: A Landscape” and features such sites as “Camp Should’ve Kept My Mouth Shut” and “High School Isn’t Everything Road.” John and I laughed out loud the whole time we were reading it, so I decided it would make a good souvenir from my zany trip). We accompanied each other on mundane errands (he had to go to the post office, I to the bank) and then we said goodbye in the early afternoon, promising to try to meet up at a rest stop in New England when we’re both up there on tour later in the fall. I took myself on a walk around the neighborhood, browsed for some clothes and set off towards the only “tourist destination” in town that I really wanted to see: The Dahlia Garden.
My previous tour in California was around this time last year, and a friend took me to the Golden Gate Park where there is a special garden of Dahlia flowers. I was excited to learn that Matt’s house is within walking distance and I headed that way. It took a long time to get there, not because it was terribly far but because I was very easily distracted by the boutique shops and co-op grocery stores that littered my path. When I finally arrived, it was breathtaking: a long, oval, wrought-iron fenced in enclosure brimming with dahlia flowers at full bloom. I walked around the oval two, three times, taking photos and staring into the center of many of the flowers, trying to imprint their bright colors on brain. It was impossible to pick a favorite of the flowers, all I know is that that spot is one of my favorites on earth.
Even though I had walked all the way around the flowers several times, I wasn’t ready to leave so I drifted over towards a bench where some folks were playing music. I pulled a stack of notecards out of my bag, and began writing thank you cards to the people who had helped me along my crazy journey. Suddenly, an SUV pulled up to the curb and a short middle-aged woman with curly brown hair and massive energy bounded onto the sidewalk carrying a tall stack over silver aluminum trays.
"OK guys," She said, "Mostly carbs today, but there are some hot dogs wrapped in bacon. Also some cupcakes, make sure you get a cupcake, they’re really good."
The musicians nearby hopped off the bench, and the aluminum trays were spread out to uncover a large amount of food. Plastic utensils, paper plates and napkins appeared. The woman apologized for not being able to stay and visit longer, she was running late to meet a client, but she greeted several of the men by name and said she’d see them tomorrow.
As she drove away, the picture came into focus: the musicians playing near the bench were mostly homeless and hungry. I learned from the man nearest me on the bench that the woman who brought the food runs a catering company with her husband, and she comes by almost every day with the leftover food from the lunch events that they cater.
What struck me most about the men was how, once the food arrived, all they wanted to do was share it. They offered it to every person who walked by, tourists, commuters, park employees. “Hey!” They would shout, “Want a cupcake? We have cupcakes! They’re really good!” One child excitedly accepted a cupcake, but for the most part people took wide steps in the opposite direction and quietly declined.
I stayed on the bench writing thank you notes. One of the men sat down next to me and asked if I was doing research, or maybe writing a dissertation about the homeless in the park. I laughed and showed him my cards. We talked about traveling, and he told me that several of them are in a band and that they go on tour every summer, up to a campsite about 30 miles north of the city where they camp out on the river every summer. Another man sitting next to me told me about his dad who was a professional saxophone player before immigrating to the US and how, even though the family was poor when he grew up, his father always made sure there was money for music lessons.
I wished I could have stayed longer, but I knew I had to make it back to Matt’s in time for my 6 pm pick up and I was running out of time. I said my goodbyes and walked back to the Haight as quickly as I could.
The final piece of my complicated California travel puzzle came together when Sajel and Krishna, friends of my mothers, came to pick me up at the end of their work day. I met them on the sidewalk with all of my luggage and they drove me to their apartment on the other side of town. We walked around their neighborhood and went to an Ethiopian restaurant they had been wanting to try for dinner. On the way back to their apartment we stopped at a fancy grocery store where we stocked up on red wine and dark chocolate, which we happily consumed on the couch while watching some reality TV shows they had stored up on the DVR (X Factor and Shark Tank…so scary! Watching shows like this, my PTVD - post traumatic voice disorder - flairs up and I get really anxious for the contestants. Luckily I had plenty of red wine and dark chocolate to medicate with…).
When 11 pm rolled around we piled back into the car and they dropped me off at the San Francisco airport for my second overnight travel experience of the week, this time on a red eye to Ohio.
In retrospect, the red wine might not have been the best idea, but it sure did help me sleep on the flights. The weekend’s travel with Ellis Paul, who I was opening for, was easy by comparison to my California odyssey. On Monday morning I found out from a friend at the Texas DMV that my license had been re-instated just in time for my flight home.
On and on I go!
Thanks for following along :-)