I looked up, bleary-eyed, squinting against the morning sun streaming through green leaves. Squirrels were playing in the bushes and vine-covered trees above my head. I took in the objects surrounding me: suit jacket, electric bass guitar, sombrero, empty water canteens, old trash from the last hobo who slept here. There was a cramp in my ass, and I rolled over and pulled a partially-crushed lime out of the pocket of my fitted corduroy pants.
Somehow I'd managed to unpack and crawl into my sleeping bag. I assessed my own body. The stale taste of old beer in my dry mouth. That very particular type of soreness that comes from sleeping on the ground, after too many nights in soft beds. Head spinning and ears full with the sound of commuter traffic rushing past on its way to work. I had passed out in an overgrown median outside a ritzy golf course in Mobile.
The show at David's old family home had been a success. Two local bands from Alabama opened, followed by two visiting New Orleans bands; “Big Leather”, and David’s own “20,000 Leagues”. Months earlier, before the pandemic, David had worked with Big Leather to record an album full of billowing, sometimes-thumping-sometimes-soft tunes. Their sound landed between The Cure and Bruce Springsteen. I'd laid down saxophone parts for that album, sitting in David's Mid-city living room, drinking PBR's from his fridge. Since cutting the record, I'd watched the band go through different bass players, until I finally mentioned that I had a Fender Jazz and could learn tunes in time to play their release show. Now the record had gotten airtime on independent radio stations in Louisiana and New Jersey, and I was the official fourth member of the young group. We were set to play in Mobile, live, for the first time in nine months.
I arrived at the backyard shack where we often rehearsed, and realized that at 2:30 pm, this was the earliest in the day I had ever seen these friends. Our drummer Ava sat with lead guitarist and singer Leo in makeshift chairs, on the grass of the backyard. They were dressed as 1960's White America ready for a night out. Him smoking Camels and smoothing the hemline of his crisp black pants, her staring off a little, red lipstick mouth set in though, cocktail dress flowing in the breeze. They both had their black hair slicked back, and you could see where the ends were still blond from being bleached several months ago, for a photoshoot.
These cats would look a little square from a distance. Ava's clean-cut look is betrayed by her tattoos, though, and the fact that she actually made that dress out of fabric found in a trash can. The dark circles under Leo's bright blue eyes are an indication of another nearly-sleepless night; hours spent pouring over old recordings and fervently creating art. Aesthetically, Leo and Ava were in a different world from the crusty wooks and hardened train riders with whom I used to travel. In terms of ideals and beliefs, however, these young new accomplices were about as punk as it gets. This distinction of style has taken some time for me to grasp. Authenticity doesn't require dirt, and alternative living doesn't have to mean homelessness.
We loaded up the van with music equipment, personal gear, provisions, and a 2-year-old Pit Bull named Elmer who never seems to belong to anyone but is always around when we play or hang out. We were still waiting for Chris, so I walked the two blocks to the corner store. Mask on, stooping a little to get under the low doorway into the dim bodega. Friendly Puerto Rican guy behind the counter, talking about coaching his son's soccer team. Two small isles surrounded on three sides by glass-faced refrigerators. I paid for snacks and beers and ducked again, snagging a firm, green lime on the way out, from a box that read "FREE LIMES - SHARE THE LOVE".
Chris had their nose buried under the hood of the van when I returned. "Think she'll make it?" I called, surprising them. Chris emerged, dark curly hair bouncing at the ends where it was still dyed blond. They peered out at me with big, intelligent brown eyes from behind oversized grandpa glasses. The mustard-yellow t-shirt and rugged brown slacks fit their friendly and consistent Taurus personality.
Chris’s reply was a smile and a gesture to the top-end of the rusty Ford V-8 that sat obscured like a caved bear in the deep engine compartment. "Your brother checked it out a few days ago” They replied, "I changed the plugs and wires. I think we're gonna be good as long as the tires hold."
We stopped on the way to pick up my partner, Nat. She brought her adolescent dog, Ori, who was like a smaller, condensed version of Elmer, with darker brindle fur and more spastic energy. Nat's halo of golden curls seemed to frame her whole being. The tight black denim and "don't fuck with me" makeup all contained by an oversized, genuine leather motorcycle jacket. I leaned forward as she climbed into the van, and she rolled her eyes and kissed me.
By the time we stopped for gas on the way out of town, the dogs were already losing their shit. They bounded impossibly over the bench seats, going back and forth between the front center console and the rear cargo bay. They tore around in circles, wrestling, teeth bared, on the mattress in back, spilling beers and spreading dishevelment as only excited dogs can.
We departed and Chris coaxed some speed out of the 15-passenger Ford E-350. The Odometer only ready 38,000 miles, but being from 1990, and as the mile counter only had five digits, it had almost certainly rolled back to zero once if not twice. Chris did a head check and pulled into traffic. I yelled "Band Trip YEEEUUP" and cracked a lukewarm IPA as we sailed up the freeway onramp.
As soon as we settled into cruising speed, an ominous shaking started from the rear end. The windows chattered audibly and the bare metal doors clicked as they jiggled. It was almost comical how insistent the shaking was, but the music was turned up and the van seemed to be rolling fine. Chris yelled over their shoulder "Yeah, I noticed that two of the tires had eggs in them. Is that bad? It's probably just from bumping into the curb, right?" The din continued.
We made it 30 miles before sudden smack and a loud slapping clank from beneath the van indicated a blowout. It took almost an hour to dig out the full-sized spare and remove the eight big lug nuts to replace the wheel and tire. A Louisiana Department of Transportation truck stopped to shield us from traffic, and helped inflate the spare a little. We thanked the overweight DOT guy in his bright-neon work clothes, and hit the road.
There was a moment of euphoria after we got rolling again. We'd survived a trial together, managed to keep the dogs from running out onto the highway, cooperated to dig through all of our stuff and access the tools and parts needed from the interior of our temporary shared home. After all of that, just the feeling of moving brought gratitude. I smiled and thought of traveling in sketchier vans through more dangerous places for weeks on-end. Even with the stakes much lower now, still the triumph of making miles was potent and golden.
The second tire blew about twenty minutes later, this time catastrophically. A sickening BANG-SLAM-SCRATCHSCRATCHSCRATCH issued from the right-rear wheel well. The rear end of the nearly 20-foot-long vehicle started fishtailing. Chris had to pull evasive maneuvers to keep us from spinning (and likely flipping.) Traffic was blowing past us on both sides as we lost speed. Cigarette butts bounced from ashtrays, beer somehow hit the ceiling headliner, dogs slid from the bed to wallow and flail on the greasy floor. Nat exclaimed in her matter-of-fact Tennessee drawl "Ohhhhh Jesus take me!"
We avoided getting crunched by any big rigs and came to a stuttering stop on the shoulder. Dust rolled, the motor died. Chris looked back from the driver's seat. Their glasses were askew and they seemed to have spilled coffee on their shirt. "Is everybody okay??" There was no damage done to anyone besides the upholstery, but now we faced a tight spot. The van only carried one spare tire,
We were still in the middle of Mississippi on our way East, and the show started in an hour. Our whole operation was halted, on the side of the I-10, and the sun was going down. The first blown tire was actually still intact (sort of) so we limped up the nearby exit ramp and into a parking lot. We waited, smoked cigarettes, used the dingy gas station toilets, made phone calls.
The van could get towed that day, but not fixed. Two of the guys from another band had their cars at the show. If they left now and maintained speeds that mildly endangered the public, we might make it in time to perform. For now all we could do was sit and wait.
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This was one part I had sometimes missed about traveling; The Waiting. So often you find yourself stuck at some junction or obstacle and the only options are to put yourself in the best position to get a ride somehow, or just start walking. Those hours and days start to become a replacement for home. The Waiting is when you fix your gear or practice your instrument. Those are the personal moments when you groom yourself, rub your tired feet, take the time to eat and recharge. You bullshit around with your friends or play with your dog for a while, eventually things mellow out.
You have to learn to overcome boredom, to sit comfortably with your own mind. This can be the scariest thing about living free from the bonds and distractions of conventional life. Your phone's eventually going to die. You're never going to be able to carry enough books to keep you occupied. The beer will run out. When you sink deep into The Waiting, your inner monologue will be the loudest voice. When everything is stripped away, your own mind is left to be confronted. Wherever you go, there you are.
Eli Danger screams into the parking lot in his Subaru Legacy and rips an E-brake turn, squealing tires and throwing the rear end of the car in a 180 degree spin, stopping right in front of our little group. We jump up, arms outstretched, cheering. His car is nearly as old as the van, but in much better shape. Eli is my brother, an auto mechanic by trade, and the best drummer I know. He booked it out here to the Middle of Nowhere to bust the rescue mission. Zach the bassist follows soon after in his pickup.
We throw all the gear in the bed of Zach’s bright yellow Ford Ranger, thanking him and Eli profusely. The girls and the dogs and I pile into the Subaru while Leo and Chris go with Zach and the gear. A stretch of driving east at breakneck speed gets us to the outskirts of town, past the strip malls, off the wider byways into the winding suburbs. Mobile seems to do this thing where streets shooting off of multi-lane roads run parallel, so you kind of have to dive in off the bigger highway into the smaller, slower road. It's sketchy, but people here seem to have gotten used to the move. We almost get creamed by a beater of a minivan as we're making our turn.
It's dark by the time we pull up to the house on the hill. They have a big backyard. My concerns from weeks earlier about neighbors are quieted, seeing how much space there is between these ritzy, Southern-style ranch houses. We're not the Ninth Ward anymore. The dogs explode out of the car, bounding up the hill, Ori nipping at Elmer's haunches and barking her small, high bark. As the lengthy sound of bass carries down to us, that familiar feeling of anxious excitement comes over me. How long has it been since I've seen live music? When was the last time I played on a stage for people? Do I still remember how to dance?
The show was a hit. We'd made it to catch the last two minutes of music from the act ahead of us: Alabama band "The Glutton". Big Leather played six or so tunes. I thumped out basslines along to Ava's bass drum foot, while Leo and Chris wailed and churned, trading lead and rhythm guitar roles back and forth. Leo's singing evoked The Smiths that night, more than ever before.
20,000 Leagues ended the night, and killed it. They're a full six-piece, with rhythm section and two guitars, a keyboard player who's actually legitimately good at tambourine, and David caressing the microphone out in front.
A little drunk by now, I grabbed Nat to dance, about 30 seconds before the song ended. I smiled goofily. She let me spin her around one more time before she sat back down in the grass. The next tune was a ballad, so I shrugged and walked over to stand closer to Zach the bassist, to watch him work. For a while, all was well.
The music finished. Friends milled about until the pizza was killed. It soon became just the musicians and David's parents, sitting around an outdoor patio table. Beers progressed into whiskey and tequila. Cigarettes started to smell of ganja. Popper whiffs were passed around from the little brown bottle. Brain cells were killed, glances were stolen, things were said, cards were dealt, jokes were told, chairs were fallen out of, and bushes were sought out for hearty pissing.
Nat was mad, and she had crossed a threshold of intoxication. We went in circles about the hotel. I tried to explain, feeling suddenly stuffy in my rockstar clothes.
"Hon, we can't do anything about it. It's late, we haven't checked in, and there are tons of people still displaced from Hurricane Sally last week. We're probably just gonna crash here. They have a shed..."
The night got fuzzy. We kept going back and forth. A frustration rose in me, one I've known before. A color of impatience and irritation. Despite having held down a house and a job for years now, I can’t untrain my brain. It’s still The Waiting. I knew it when I was scrubbing furiously in the dish pit, working hard and late for not-enough-an-hour to pay my rent. I knew it when I was running after the city bus, praying it would stop, knowing that I had to make it out to the audition in Jefferson Parish, because I needed
that gig. I knew it when I walked past traveling kids in the French Quarter and recognized them but knew that they didn't recognize me anymore because my hands were clean and wore no patches and I carried no pack.
I knew The Waiting and its frustration and anger, when the police raided my black neighbors. An undercover cop posing as a homeless man trespassed in the empty house next to mine, without a warrant, looking for crack that wasn't there. The shaved-head, crossed-arms, black vest standing out front blew me off, saying "there might be guns in there, we have probable cause" Ten dudes showed up to handcuff a skinny 61-year-old man on his own front porch and march him into his unmarked SUV. They found less than an ounce of weed in his house.
I Waited then and I was Waiting now and after the trials to get here the the triumph of the show and the hurt of the woman I love ragging on me, I snapped.
"You know what? I don't need this. I'm out."
I stood up and grabbed my pack and boots out of instinct. I grabbed my instrument out of habit. I pushed the sombrero back on my head, thanked David, and walked through the gate and down the hill. She didn't follow me.
I don't know how far I walked that night, but it felt like I was flying. My steel-toed boots felt like the powerful legs of a swift mounted beast, carrying me through the unsuspecting night. God, how good the fresh air feels, how lovely are the trees when you're passing them at a brisk walk instead of at freeway speeds. I made it a little over half a mile on that initial surge, that momentum from making a bold and foolish choice. But my pack was heavy. I knew I'd need to adjust the straps, rearrange how it was loaded, retie my boots a little tighter. I stopped and sat on a bench and stared into the night for a while, watching cars pass, drinking water from my metal canteen.
"I should go back."
"Maybe I need this. I want to keep moving."
"Let's flip a coin. Heads we turn around and go make it up to Nat. Tails we go to the train yard."
"Tails. Sorry hon. This isn't the kind of coin you can flip on a bluff."
"Let's do this."
Part 2 coming soon?