Friday, February 29, 2008
When I was 18, I was exploding. I was just like any other suburban white kid. My hormones were raging, My life was filled with wonder and experimentation. I had all of the answers and was more than willing to share them with you, especially if you disagreed. My sense of self-importance was boiling to the surface, and I was ready for the ride. I had opportunities presented to me which would not be made available to the ordinary teenager. And if they were, surely they would not succeed with the ease and grace that I had. On top all of the delusions of grandeur, many of which were not so delusional but staunchly steeped in reality, I was already getting high. I had already decided I was going to "take the road less traveled by."
With a copy of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" on my desktop and a paperback version of the "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in the pocket of my faded and torn Levi's, I just felt that I knew I was going to make a difference in the world. My Road less traveled had a soundtrack as well. I still really didn't play an instrument, I think at that point I knew "Dear Mr. Fantasy", "I know you Rider" and "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" on the bass. But the music was in my head, in my soul. I could feel it...even if my fingers couldn't quite do it.
Back then, I thought I was invincible. Well, I was. I could get high and drink with the best of them stay up all night; fornicate for hours; I could deftly backgammon straight opponents tripping my ass off, go home, take a 90 minute nap, wash my face and be ready to do it all over again.
There is a line from one of the Harry Potter books where Dumbledore says something like..."a time is coming where we must make a choice between what is right and what is easy." I had those choices to make when I was that age. In my post "Third Verse Same as the First" I described one of those choices. I chose to stop writing for the Newspaper to pursue a career in Culinary Arts. Translation - working in a restaurant, I could get high at work. That is an easy choice. Don't get me wrong, I did put effort into it and did excel, but there is that nagging feeling of developing a pattern of behavior which would always lead me to the road not taken.
I was standing in a store today and was watching the clerk behind a counter. She hated her job. To date, I have pretty much avoided or quit jobs I hated because, once again, it was the easier thing to do. I could see the loathe and anguish in her face. I could tell that she used to do something which was much more fun, more rewarding spiritually and financially. She had that look that better opportunities had been presented to her, but for whatever reason she compromised. She was doing what she was doing because it was safe. Perhaps the one who gave her that flashy diamond and bound her with the gold ring was the primary bread winner and her former lifestyle of free spirited travel no longer fit the mold of that of a loving, doting wife. Perhaps kids tied her down or a sick relative. I can only speculate. Perhaps she was just doing it for the check.
It was a lovely afternoon. It snowed most of the day. By the time I had gotten out of the work, the sun had come out and had done its job, for about two hours. And it did it well. There was no scraping of ice or swishing snow off of my vehicle. The shadowed trees still had their silver lining of fluffy white, making for a brilliant outline against the bright blue sky. I looked up at the few clouds left and was reminded of a time when I was a child.
I was a 5 year-old child, lying on my back in the front yard of my Grandfather's house. My brother and sister were there. I should have been more interested in what they were doing, as they were making Ice cream. Homemade ice cream in a stainless steel cylinder sunk into a wooden bucket of ice which was dotted with opaque lumps of rock salt to chill the ice even more, as if that is possible. They were noisily cranking and turning that cylinder, taking turns either cranking or holding the bucket down. They didn't need me, it was a two person operation. I lay on the grass. It had been cut recently, so it had that wonderful earthy smell. I was observing the clouds looking for faces and animals. Any kind of shape would do. There was a billowing cumulus cloud which looked like an ice cream cone. There was another which looked like Pluto, the dog, not the former planet. As I stared at the clouds, I saw movement. I saw little squiggles. I saw tiny moving objects racing around in static and random patterns. I thought they must be water molecules. They were shadows set against the silver screen which the cloud had provided. Shadows rimmed with glowing white electric membranes just swimming along. I tried to follow them but they always seemed to disappear from my periphery. There was a rather large one I kept seeing swim by it was zig zagging back and forth rather quickly. It hung around long enough for me to name it Ziggy. If I squinted a little bit I could see them clearer. It didn't occur to me at the time that this little show I was watching was happening on the surface of my eyeball. I studied these little guys. I heard my Grandmother ask me what I was looking at. I told her "I'm looking at the rain move around inside the clouds." I still wonder if anyone sees these things. I asked Greg, a co-worker, if he ever saw stuff like I had described. He said yes. "They are microscopic things that live in your eye." It sounds so weird when he says it. After all he is just as much a head case as I am.
The last time I saw these little critters, "I was lying in a burned out basement, with the full moon in my eyes." Yes, I was lying in a basement in the South End of Springfield, meaning I wasn't telling the truth. There was a moon and I saw my little friends scurrying along on my eyeball. There was a song playing in my head and I did feel like getting high. I was lost. I was with someone I had little interest in other than what she could do for me and what she could get for me. She came back quickly and I gave her an honorarium for not "beating" me.
Five minutes later I was back in my apartment anguished...I was on the verge of tears. I was depressed about what my life had become. I was desperate to know how I had allowed this to happen. Was this truly the road not taken? Was this the easy decision? How could I have squandered all of my youthful brilliance; all of my favorable press reviews; all of the goodwill I had accumulated in my career?
The tears did come as I repeatedly pierced my skin trying to find a vein. I was crying because I was in pain...I was sick. My stomach was turning inside out. I was sweating. The sickness was exacerbated by the guilt and shame I felt having allowed my self to become enslaved. I saw the blood gush into the syringe and with a sigh of resignation, not relief, I administered the dose. The self medication was a success, and I drifted away. At least I would sleep that night...at the very least, I would sleep.
I am amazed that somehow I found the strength to get away from that lifestyle. Life is life. It is not easy. I found out that I am not unique. And those who informed me of this know. Because they themselves had labored in the lifestyle of active addiction. They are speaking from experience.
I have been thinking about getting high lately. This is why I have to force myself to write such graphic and shameful memories of how things used to be so I can remember. I really don't care what you think of how I used to live. It was a speed bump, a blip on the screen. In a way I have regained some of the youthful bravado I spoke of earlier. I am tired most of the time, but who isn't?
These days I am still faced with decisions. I still intend to walk along the road less traveled. It is infinitely more interesting than any downtrodden littered path or lifeless uninteresting highway. Perhaps I will still make a difference in the world while traversing the span of that route. Wherever it will take me, at least I still have the power to make decisions. Let me continue to choose what is right.
As always, you will find me...Running hard out of Muskrat Flats.
Thanks for reading,
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Food For Thought
It is hard to compare the music business to a war, especially when there are Americans all over the world laying their lives on the line to preserve a quality of life and love of freedom that we hold near and dear. We are truly blessed to not have fought a battle on the soils of the lower 48 since the Civil War was fought to enact the greatest of freedoms. Freedom from physical and mental slavery. The Freedom from being bound to one person by a bill of sale, a binding contract without the consent or regard for another sentient, less educated but equally proud and empowered brother of ours.
One major component which is a grave result of war is the threat to our way of life. Fifteen years is a long time people. It is a long time to hold on to hope. It is a long time to throw caution to the wind to engage in a struggle to persevere...no matter what. It is a long time to be building connections and contacts only to have them wither away. It is nearly impossible to let the information soak in that something that was so precious and important just to weeks ago, has no future and will come to be a fond but distant memory in the near future. Fifteen years is a long time to keep throwing the dice; to keep letting it ride; to keep hoping to make point before crapping out. That is the music business. That is the Drunk Stuntmen.
The Drunk Stuntmen are in a unique position right now. They are poised. They are teetering on the edge of a precipice with all of the hopes and insecurities of the future staring them squarely in the face. It is like peering into a mirror which will tell you the truth no matter what...
"Okay boys, you have 5 records under your belts. You are going to go on tour. You have some great connections within the industry. You are riding on the coat tails of your Success with the Young At Heart Chorus. There is a Peter Pan Tour that could go international. Record deals could be made based on the performance of the next Album. Can You Do It? What happens if you don't? Do you have the balls to try again?
Exciting times lay ahead of the band. There is the connection with the Young At Heart Chorus. Freddy and Steve are featured at length in the movie, which is being critically acclaimed and due to be released by Fox Searchlight in April. The Album State Fair is mastered and being duplicated. The artwork is done. The band is working with a publicist who lists his first client as Andy Partridge of XTC fame. And of course there is the upcoming tour. The Stuntmen are going to persevere in the face of adversity. In the face of adversity? What does this mean? We need to sell albums, we need to sell tickets we need to focus on capitalizing on the support of the people who have been our allies all along. But sadly, some of these allies are disappearing. Two examples which come to mind are No Depression magazine and the Middle Earth Music Hall in Bradford, VT. In the close knit symbiosis of the live music business this is a grave hit to the morale of both bands and fans who have been associated with these two fine examples of allies who must succumb to the realities of life in music.
Steven Sanderson said, "No Depression is my favorite magazine. It gives me good information about the bands I want to read about. They don't have articles in there about who's dating who, or who got whom pregnant, or who didn't wear their panties getting out of a limo at an awards show...It was always about music. To lose a magazine like No Depression is a real blow to the music industry. Personally, it is like a punch in the face." Sanderson continued. "It is like a symbiosis. A magazine like No Depression who has a growing readership has to close, because they can't compete with the perks awarded to larger publications. Places like the Middle Earth Closing? With out magazines and with out clubs there will be no music."
In a world where the instant star, the instant "Idol" and the manufactured Pop Tart franchise dominate the music industry, losing magazines like No Depression and venues like the Middle Earth Music Hall are a real blow to everything which is right with the music industry. I know I can't tolerate a world where pre-set drum tracks dominate the recording industry landscape. Where soulless, but sexy and beautiful automatons pump out the latest dance remixes. That seems to be what most people want. I choose to preserve the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed. If you feel the same way this is what you need to do.
First of all - Go out and buy a copy of No Depression. The magazine may be disappearing but let's let them know that there are people who love music and appreciate what they have done. Peter Blackstock is a good friend to the Drunk Stuntmen and more or less discovered the band, bringing them to the front burner in the Alt. Country genre. Go to the Middle Earth. There are a number of excellent shows coming up on their schedule including the Drunk Stuntmen on May 17th. Tell your friends about upcoming shows, bring them to shows, support the band you love, create a new fan. It is that simple. It is easy to take things for granted, even become complacent about something as simple as seeing your favorite live band - live.
A good correlation would be in the instance of Sheehan's. Sheehans was a bar which we took for granted. You could always see Free Press there, or the Dog Act, or any other of the local heroes on any given night where there was an open mic. But then there was the day that Freddy was going downtown to Sheehan's for a drink and it was closed. Then a women's clothing store opened and prospered in it's wake. It didn't matter that magic had happened in that basement for years. It didn't matter that musical heights were achieved. Unfortunately, sometimes you just don't know when you are going to serve your last drink or play your last gig.
Thinking about the current state of things in these confusing times. Stuntman Steve does have a positive outlook, "We are losing time. We are losing allies. But does that mean I'm going to stop doing what I want to do? No, You can strum your guitar by yourself in your living room only so long before you have to either make a record or let somebody else hear you. I just don't know what that next record is going to be like, or if I have the energy to do it."
So, grab and ax handle or a pitchfork, Hang a few lanterns in the steeple of the Church and help us not only fight, but to win this war.
There are a lot of good things happening in Stuntland. Steve ironed out a deal with Selecto Hits, an independent music distribution company based out of Nashville, TN, to distribute State Fair. Selecto Hits, is an off shoot of the rock and roll music empire started by Sun Records' Sam Phillips. The company is currently run by his nephew Sam W. Phillips.
There are Tour dates on Drunkstuntmen.com. The first gig of the State Fair Tour will be on St. Patrick's Day Monday March 17th, at the Dutch Treat in Franconia, NH. The show is going to be taped live on 24 track tape for later rebroadcast. We would like to plan some special stunts, but need to get the approval of the NH state Fire Marshall beforehand. Regardless, we need your input. The choices are A) You can play the part of St. Patrick by participating in a snake chasing contest. B) Although thought to be almost as degrading as dodgeball, the second choice is Leprechaun Tossing. or C) Corned Beef and Cabbage Wrestling. Please post your votes on the message board. (you must provide your own snakes, leprechauns and corned beef and cabbage. The Surgeon General reports that certain snakes may be venomous, Leprechauns DO inhabit leprechaun colonies and corned beef and cabbage wrestling has been proven to raise your LDL. But, Guinness is Good For You.
Thanks and Do your Own Stunts!
Monday, February 25, 2008
From Parts Unknown...
What a foreboding point of origin.
This line was belted out by the announcer, a balding man with a mustache in a sharp looking but tattered tuxedo. From a distance it looked sharp, but from this new perspective, a ring side table, one could plainly see the wear and tear. The announcer had one of those voices perfect for public speaking as he boomed out the information I was furiously documenting on a spiral binder. I don't remember how much they weighed but surprisingly it was more than I did.
The announcer, who looked like a young Dennis Franz, gazed expectantly to the hallway from the dressing room area, as to perfectly time his banter. With a roar of the crowd in the smoke filled arena, Rex and King, The Moondogs made their way to the squared-circle, as unlikely WWWF Tag-Team Champions Tony Garea and Rick Martel were about to defend their belts...
On Monday afternoon after this event took place, I passed my first published article around the Newsroom of the Cathedral Chronicle. I was a junior at Cathedral High School and News Editor of the paper. My student adviser and former Journalism instructor, Sister Anne Lynch was less than enthused that I was making the jump to the big leagues of professional journalism. For whatever reason she felt a need to steal my glory that afternoon. She was determined that every thing I had absorbed in her class would be unlearned rubbing elbows with the like of Springfield's finest sports writers, Carlo Imelio, Jerry Radding, Gene McCormick, Mike Bogen, Dick Osgood and of course my father, Garry Brown.
So that sort of explains how a 16 year old kid was sitting ringside at the Springfield Civic Center about to embark on an abbreviated but never stunted career in journalism by covering his very first professional wrestling event.
One thing that I didn't realize at the time, after all I was 16....even though I did get the job because of my father...he wouldn't have asked me to do it unless I really could write.
Professional Wrestling at the Springfield Civic Center. Some may say, and I have to agree, it was entertainment that had no business ending up in the Sports section. On those Saturday nights, it was the only game in town and they packed the place. Even the Springfield Indians hockey franchise didn't draw a crowd like the wrestling did.
One of my first jobs, other than hanging the AP and UPI tapes , was answering the phones. In 1981, Al Gore had yet to invent the internet, Cable television was still in it's infancy and certainly didn't include 24 hour programming with the likes of NESN, and ESPN. So, where was a guy who had bet $500 on football cards to get his information? Why, call the Sports department of the local newspaper, of course.
There I would sit on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, with my brother Peter, and Jane Osgood and we would run down the list of winners and loser in all of the college games, as the drunks on the other end of the line would get increasingly frustrated that we could not find the score of the Wake-Forest game, the one game which would determine whether or not they would get the big payout from one of the boys who was running football cards out of the South End. This job was the first to clue me into the notion that "customers suck."
We did get the occasional call for professional wrestling results from the action the night before. These calls were actually fun. These guys actually wanted to talk to you about Bobby Backlund or Bruno Sammartino. They were genuinely concerned That Superstar Billy Graham had paralyzed Sammartino with a bone crushing pile driver.
So, I was totally unprepared the Saturday afternoon my Father called me and asked,
"What are you doing tonight?"
"I was going to hang out with Fred then go to the wrestling match, then come down to the Newspaper."
"Geno called in sick, we need someone to cover Wrestling at the Civic Center."
"Well, you're going to be there right, just come back and write three paragraphs that's all we need. But come back early, we need the story in by 10:30 for the first edition. Go to Will Call, the ticket will be in your name and talk to --------------- when you get there, introduce yourself."
OH MY GOD! Could this be happening?
So I grabbed a spiral notebook and a couple of pens. I went down to the Civic Center to collect my ticket. I made a few inquiries and got in touch with the PR man on site. He kind of sized me up. After all I was still in high school. We chatted for a few minutes. He gave me the information sheet for the evening, who the wrestlers were on the roster, where they came from and the line up for the main events. The first main event was The Moondogs VS. Garea and Martel. The second main event featured the former NCAA II Champion for the North Dakota State University Bisons and WWWF champion, Bobby Backlund. His opponent The man you loved to hate George the Animal Steele.
Also on the bill that night were Ivan Putski, Chief Jay Strongbow, Baron Miguel Scicluna, and the Badboy from Dorchester, MA, Pete Doherhty as well as a number of others.
As I pursued the roster, there it was next to the names Rex and King, the Moondogs, those three precious words jumped out at me...From Parts Unknown. I smiled to myself. This was kind of fun.
I actually found out later in the year one of the Moondogs King had to bow out of the act to be replaced by Moodog Spot. It seems that Parts Unknown refused to issue a visa to Moodog King late in May 1981 barring him from working in the US.
My contact brought me into the bowels of the Civic Center, past the Zambonis and other equipment used to maintain the ice. We got to the ramp leading to the arena and said, "You can sit at that table next to the Bell man." He pointed ringside. The lights were still on in the arena. It was packed people were milling about with their refreshments, finding their seats. Pink Floyd's the Wall was pumping through the sound system.
My seat at the ring side table was right in front a guy my friends and I had dubbed over the course of the previous years, Mr. Green. Mr. Green was an older guy who always had the same seat in the arena - Row A seat 1. He was always wearing a green polyester leisure suit and took wrestling way too seriously. He could always be seen jumping out of his seat to point, curse, gesture at and otherwise harass the...Bad Guys. Tonight Mr. Green would be five feet behind me over my left shoulder.
I cautiously made my way to my assigned seat. Fortunately the lights went down as I was halfway there. I grabbed my seat and bell man looked at me.
"Who are you?"
"I'm from the Republican."
"He's sick. I'm Garry's kid."
"Ohhhhhh!" "He then gave my first first piece of advice.
"Don't get too comfortable in your seat. This table usually sees some action."
Having been to wrestling many times in the past, I was keenly aware that I was sitting in the hot seat.
The show got on the road. I was fascinated as I had an up close glimpse of what was really happening on stage...I mean in the ring.
It was time for the main events. The Moondogs lumbered into the ring. Immediately jumping onto the lower of the three ropes in the corner leaning against the turn buckle and letting the jeering crowd know that they, the crowd, were number one. They were waving their oversized cattle femur bones ferociously as the crowd booed and hissed. After introducing Tony Garea and Rick Martel. The Detective Cipowicz look-alike belted out in a most worrisome and foreboding tone..."From Parts Unknown...the crowed got louder booing and jeering as the Moondogs met this noise by becoming more agitated and running around the ring facing the angry masses with more hand gesturing and posturing. The match began abruptly with the Moondogs attacking their opponents with their well chewed animal bones. Each grabbed an opponent and the battle began.
The referee finally got the match under control getting the Moondogs to relinquish their bones and allowing only one wrestler each in the ring. Rex and King did all of the dirty tricks they knew, switching partners without properly tagging. Moondog Rex was choking Tony Garea, from behind, holding him in the corner with a bone pressed firmly against Garea's neck while King unleashed his fury. Finally another foreign object was produced, and blood was spilled. This caused a riot. As the Moondogs mercilessly ravaged their opponents, Chief Jay Strongbow entered the ring, followed by Ivan Putski, and Bobby Backlund. The crowd erupted, Putski and Backlund grabbed one of the Moondogs and overpowered him. Chief Jay Strongbow cornered the other and started to do his little war dance. Moondog Rex was cornered and acted as if he did not know what an earth he could do to get out of this dire situation. Bob Backlund hit Rex over the head with his championship Belt. Strongbow unleashed on King. Spooked by the onslaught of goodness, the Moondogs grabbed their bones and hastily retreated to the dressing room. The good guys prevailed over the bad guys, helping a deftly defeated Garea and Martel back to their feet. The match ended in a draw.
The next match was where I got involved in the action. Bobby Backlund was getting his ass kicked by George the Animal Steele. He had Backlund in a sleeper hold and the WWWF Champion was foaming at the mouth, close to losing consciousness. Steele let Backlund drop to the mat. Instead of pinning his opponent. He took the opportunity to taunt the audience. More specifically, Mr. Green. They were pointing at each other. Mr. Green was giving Steel the "up yours" sign as his left fist was repeatedly shoved into the crook of his right elbow. Backlund got up to his feet, and attacked Steele from behind. Steele hit the mat and started rolling my way, The bellman darted away. I wasn't so quick. As Steele rolled off the mat and onto the press table he brushed against me. He sort of pushed me as I got out of the way, and he grabbed my chair. He attacked Backlund outside the ring with the chair, as the referee began counting for them to return to the squared circle. They both did. Backlund got the chair and hit Steele with it. The Animal started to bleed from his forehead. Not from the chair but from whatever sharp object he pulled out of his tights to slice his own skin with as he held his head in purported pain after Backlund deftly bludgeoned him with the padded seat of the folding chair. Backlund quickly pinned Steele and the match was over.
I looked at the clock, I had to get out of there. It was 9:45 and I had a five minute walk back to the Newspaper Building. As I left the arena, the quickest way to Main St. was through the dressing area. Since I had an all access pass, that was where I was going. I headed toward that back exit and past the curtain obscuring the back area from the auditorium. George Steele was standing there dabbing his forehead with a towel. As I walked by he looked at me and said, "Sorry about bumping into you, Kid" I mean like What? George the Animal Steele just apologized for bumping into me? And he sounded, normal? Not the blue tongued hirsute beast he portrayed on TV. WOW! Okay, that's really freaking weird, and deserves a little more of my attention, but I've got to go.
I hoofed it back to the Newspaper building. Logged onto the computer and began to write, remembering and applying all of the rules Sr. Ann Lynch had pounded into my skull. The 5 Ws and H. Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. I did my three paragraphs and saved the story. My dad edited what I wrote and made surprisingly few changes, But, when he did explained why. He sent the story to the composing room and went back there to finish up the first edition.
I sat in the Sports department. Watching all of the seasoned pros and the other stringers who covered individual events that day. I sat there listening to them telling jokes, and comparing scores. They looked at me a little differently that night. As I sat there that night, I was one of them. I had popped my cherry. Nobody made a big deal out of it, but I had never felt that way before, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of wonder. It was my first foray into the unknown world of sports journalism. Little did I know this was the very first of many action packed situations I would encounter over the course of the next couple of years.
About 45 minutes later, my father walked back into the Sports Department with a stack of freshly printed papers. He handed them out to everyone and it got real quiet. Everyone was reading what they had written that night. I heard my brother groan as he attacked his terminal fixing one of the box scores that had not printed correctly. For the first time ever, I participated in the same ritual as they had done every night they worked. I read my three paragraphs...Twice. And the best part of all was what made be giggle earlier in the evening. Seeing the line in print "From Parts Unknown, The Moondogs." And of course, below the article itself...
By Paul Brown
Just for Today, and any other day you can always find me...
Running Hard out of Muskrat Flats.
This young man, Garry Brown, is my father. Fifty-eight years later and counting, he is still the consummate newspaper man working his beat, covering the Boston Red Sox and, pumping out three weekly columns and peppering the sports section with various local sports , such as the AHL team the Springfield Falcons, in the off season. Being out in public with him is like hanging out with a rock star. People are always smiling, waving and more often than not, throwing in their own two cents or tidbits for a future column. It is great to see someone you love and respect so revered.
Garry is a second generation newspaper man. I am very fortunate to have had the experience I did growing up. I attended many Red Sox games, including the ’75 playoff series between the Sox and the Oakland A’s, Boy, did I hate Rollie Fingers, but looking back 30 years the man embodied vintage baseball right down to the handlebar moustache. I saw Yaz knock many a homerun into the bleachers. I went to the opening games of the ’75 World Series against the Big Red Machine. To quote the fictitious baseball announcer, Chico Esquela, “Charlie Hustle, You bet!” Unfortunately for Pete Rose, he did bet, pre-empting his well deserved trip to Cooperstown.
Another memorable Fenway moment was watching Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson go at it on the field as the manager tried to pull a player he thought was not performing, properly. Pretty funny actions from a manager of a player who would end up with five World Series rings. And yes, I was at the ’78 division tie breaker when the Sox lost to the Yanks. Don’t even get me started about Bill Buckner or Grady Little’s brain fart in the 7th inning of the 2003 ALCS Series.
After reading the previous paragraphs some maybe envious of the gilded upbringing I experienced. Don’t take this the wrong way Dad, but the man is a workaholic. I hear rumors that he used to smoke cigarettes and as far as I can tell, he never took a drink of alcohol. Work is his supreme motivator and sweetest narcotic that can be acquired. Needless to say if I wanted to see him, on say a Saturday night when he was working the editor’s desk, I would have to go down to the newspaper building and hang out with him while he did his thing.
I loved the Newspaper. All of the characters he worked with both in the Sports department and the Composing room. You can imagine what kind of graffitti ends up on the bathroom walls with a building full of professional wordsmiths. A true delight to the twelve-year-old mind. Obviously, since I was there I was put to work. One of my first jobs was hanging the tapes. Along one wall of the sports department was a row of tele-type machines. One was from UPI the other was Associated Press the two main sources of news in those days. The time frame was the late 70s. These noisy oily monsters did nothing but spit out and endless stream of news items all day long. Occasionally they would go idle and stop printing, but soon enough you would hear an alarm bell ring, indicating that the machine was about to fire up and spit out some more breaking news. Each of the news stories was numbered. Another machine would tick out a ¾ inch wide strip of yellow tape with a corresponding number. These tapes, which contained thousands of punched holes, had to be categorized and hung in the proper location of a rack. As the stories came over the wire, they were scrutinized by the editor. He would decide if the text was newsworthy and destined for the next edition. If so, the corresponding tape was retrieved and rolled up with a little spring operated machine, which contained a four-pronged flywheel. The lengthy tape was attached to this flywheel and wound up. Guiding the tape onto the spinning flywheel taught me all about paper cuts.
Along winding up the tapes and securing them with a rubber band, I would also be helpful by emptying the waste containers which would collect the little yellow dots of paper that were punched out of the tapes, when they began to overflow. The next step was taking the edited text with parts to be changed or deleted clearly marked, and the tape and sending it into a vacumn transfer system which would dump the tubes into a bin in the composing room. There the tapes would be run through a computer, which would generate a film of the story text. This was later run through a machine which would wax the back of the film and page set up artists would slice and dice the stories with razor blades and paste them on a mock up of a newspaper page. This was a lot of work and it was fascinating.
When I was much younger and merely an observer, all the text was produced on line-o-type machines. Seven-foot tall hot smelly monstrosities that would spit out lines of text in the form of hot lead, one line at a time. And these had to be laid out on heavy duty carts. Proof reading these pages was a trick as you had to possess the ability to read upside down and backwards as a mirror image of the page was produced. The most colorful characters used to work in the composing room. The brighter ones starting making provisions for the future when the switch was made form hot text to cold text. They knew the next step in newspaper production was going to include desktop pagination programs, where the editors could cut and paste the pages themselves. A lot of character and composing room personnel were lost when computers began to dominate the journalism landscape.
The newsroom used to be a raucous place with the sights and sounds of typewriters, teletypes, desk reporters taking dictation from a reporter in the field. Phones were always ringing. Raven haired interns would be up front answering the phones and taking in the obituaries. Photographers would run in with stacks of 8x10 pictures they just produced, so they could be cropped to fit on the properly on the pages, and copy boys (me) would run them to the engraving room. Nowadays people don’t think twice about desktop publishing or digital photography.
Thirty years ago, any kind of publishing was a major process. I was involved in the junior high school newspaper as well as taking journalism classes when I was in high school and participated in the production of that paper for three years. Much to the dismay of my journalism instructor, I ended up doing some correspondent work for the newspaper. I started out covering professional wrestling events at the Springfield Civic Center. Nepotism aside, I guess I impressed the editor with my ability to get a reasonably written story in ON TIME, before the deadline. This led to covering the local NASCAR races at Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam, MA, and Stafford and Thompson Speedways in Connecticut. I also ended up with a weekly column, a racing notebook. Since I was a correspondent, I was getting dicked financially. I was basically paid $10 per story, with no travel expenses or regard for the number of hours that were spent getting the story. So I supplemented my income by getting a job in a restaurant owned by two crazy Deadheads. I was hit by the culinary bug in a huge way. I had no idea that working in a restaurant could be so satisfying. I balanced the two jobs for a while.
In retrospect I regret my decision to leave the Newspaper. It seemed like it was my legacy. I don’t know if it had to do with planetary alignment, God’s Will or some unseen novelty creating machine, but the local NASCAR modified circuit was hit with tragedy after tragedy. One driver whom I knew, Corky Cookman, sailed his car into the crowd at one race. He wasn’t quite the same after that one and ended up getting killed at Thompson Speedway in the next season. Another driver I interviewed, Dave Furioni, from Agawam, MA, was making his big comeback. He was one of those people that I immediately connected with. A good guy with a good soul doing what he loved.
During race day we chatted and he told me how much he appreciated the story I had written about him. His heat came up and as the green flag came down the field took off for the first turn. As everyone slowed to negotiate the turn, you could hear his engine roaring as the stuck throttle launched his car into the first turn wall. He died on impact. I called the editor to find out what to do. “You are the man on the scene, you need to get the story.” There was a wake like atmosphere in the pits. I went to try to talk to anyone about what had happened, I saw one of his friends, a driver whom I had interviewed my times before. He took one look at me and turned away not wanting to have any part of it. More tragedy followed as the beloved many time national champion Richie Evans lost his life soon afterward at the Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.
I wish this scene took place when I was little older. I was a kid still in party mode. I didn’t need to be around death, and negativity, especially if it wasn’t paying much. I wanted to hang with my friends and see the Grateful Dead. I wish Dad had slapped me in the side of the head and said “Grow up and be a man, deal with it.” But that wasn’t his style. He supported my decision to quit working at the paper. I enrolled at Johnson Wales College and embarked on a career in culinary arts. It wasn’t until I hit my forties and my Mid-life crisis that Dad divulged the information that I was the best they had, covering Riverside. I never failed to make the early edition with the results of the Feature event written in a concise, fact filled and interesting style, three points the editor at the time perpetually failed to see or acknowledge. Being a recovering alcoholic perhaps he should have placed some principles before personalities. But he could never control the rumblings of nepotism being the only reason for my existence as a writer in that department. When I left, he sent out seasoned reporters with 15 years experience, who failed repeatedly to make the First Edition deadline.
Sorry, Dad, I don’t blame you for the path I chose, but that is a conversation we should have had the day after Dave Furoni got killed in that first heat as Aldo Cella looked on in horror after ceremonially dropping the green flag.
But the writing didn't end there. I still wrote. Devoting my writing time to more personal interests. There is a book in the works, and I write for the Drunk Stuntmen on a regular basis. And Now I am doing this.
Dad reads my stuff, online, I just wish It didn't make him and my Mom cry so much. The other day, he made a point to tell me, once again, that I was the best they ever had covering Riverside. He also noted that the blog titled We Gotta Get Back...To the Chicken Shack was worthy of publication as a column in any daily newspaper. It feels so good to hear him say that, especially after all of the heart ache and disappointment I have caused him in recent years, years where I should have been prospering and planning for the future. But all is not lost, I am alive and being creative. With his encouragement and the encouragement of others, perhaps I will get paid to write, one more time.
As far as the encouragement of others, I want to thank F. Alex Johnson for his support and critique during this renaissance I have experienced, through writing. You have been an inspiration to me and so many others. It was words and ideas which I read at "Fearless By Default" which prompted me to take a look at my past and realize that I have not been wasting my time, I just haven't written about it yet.
Coming up next....."In this Corner...From Parts Unknown" The tale of my first professional writing assignment.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
I've been thinking about food lately. On Sunday afternoon I was traveling from the Farm to the Indian Orchard Mills. I took the back roads, on the way to the Mill, for a change of scenery. I had to get a glass piece that I had left there. As I traveled the roads of Ludlow, MA, and surveyed people's properties, I noticed little tiny structures set back from the houses. They were odd shaped and not quite tall enough to be considered a tool shed. In fact we had one at the Farm. Then it clicked, why of course...they were chicken coops. Back in the day, when the Farm began, it started out with with the distribution of farm fresh eggs from that little coop.
Not that long ago, there was an era where we, as a society, were dependent upon agrarian folkways and traditions handed down from our ancestors. I am only two generations removed from a time where my Grandparents not only worked regular jobs but lived on a family farm where they grew their own vegetables, had a few dairy cows for production of milk and butter and of course, they had a chicken coop.
Since Ludlow, where the farm is located has a predominant Portuguese population, it is no wonder that you now see so many relics from a forgotten era. These relics being unused chicken coops as well as car ports with metal trellises which are used to grow grapes for that home made rocket fuel they call wine. Relics leftover from the previous more self sufficient generation. A friend of mine, a fellow glassblower, purchased a house that had one of these car ports and even has a wine room, complete with a floor drain, in his basement. The use of these structures has fallen by the wayside as it is so easy to procure "fresh eggs" and wine by simply going to the local supermarket and buying them.
My Grandfather used to own a plot of land where he had a house and a farm in Fairview, a section of Chicopee, MA. This little oasis which sustained his family through seven years of unemployment during the Great Depression, was gobbled up by the US Government to make way for what would become Westover AFB.
He moved his family to Chicopee Center, for a while during WWII, then made a move to Wilbraham, MA. Wilbraham was a sprawling underdeveloped town dissected by Rt. 20, a route carved out during Revolutionary times as it was utilized by Henry Knox as he trudged through the town with his cargo of artillery which he was transporting from Fort Ticonderoga, to Boston in the winter of 1775 . It is here along the fabled Knox Trail that my grandfather got back to his agrarian roots. It was a hard time. The Great Depression wasn't that far behind him. He embodied the symbiotic relationship we are supposed to have with animals and the land. His livestock were well cared for, as he treated them as they should be. As long as they played by the rules of the game, as nature intended, they could live a long healthy life.
I recall one story which has endured over the course of the years. One of my grandfather's hens had hatched a number of chicks. She was a bad mother who refused to take care of them. Why? I guess we will never know. Why does a mother turn her back on her children? Obviously some kind of genetic defect. He picked up those chicks and put them in the nest of another hen. She took them in as if they were her own, without question or hesitation. She got right down to it monitoring their progress, teaching them how to scratch for their food and how tasty ticks were. She kept them together as they grew...keeping them away from foxes, raccoons and hawks . What became of the bad mother?
Well...my Grandfather used to make a delicious soup with onions, celery, carrots and parsnips which he would serve with mashed potatoes and sprigs of fresh mint. All of these wonderful ingredients would come out of his garden. He would put them into a stainless steel pot which he would polish to a high gloss in a sand pit outside the house. He would then boil the pot clean and start with fresh cold water, the veggies and of course...a chicken. And what better way to decide which chicken out of that hen house would go into the pot than the one who lacked the good sense to perpetuate her species. Bad chicken... good soup.
A glimpse into modern day food production techniques has caused many people in the enlightened society where disposable income is the common thread, to eschew mass produced foods opting for the more expensive organic products from local farms via specialty food stores, or from co-ops and farmer's markets. Some have even taken a moral stand against the consumption of animal products.
Those in a lower income bracket who need food stamps probably don't think twice about the fact that the eggs they consume come from a fly infested sweat box where the hens are de-beaked, shocked and endure forced molting to produce more eggs. The air is polluted with the ammonia from their feces and male chicks, who have no place in the business of mass egg production, are tossed to the curbside with the rest of the trash. No wonder eggs are toxic unless cooked thoroughly. No wonder egg shells are so brittle that they shatter in your hands. And guess what? Those "free range" ones are not really any better.
Terrence McKenna an ethnobotanist and free thinker would talk about a "future which looks more like the past, than the future." I think how and where our food comes from is one of the aspects of the future to which he was referring.
The big news this week is that a California Meat Packer Hallmark/Westland recalled 143 million pounds of suspected beef. 143 million POUNDS! The average weight of a slaughtered dressed carcass is 1,400 pounds. That translates into 102,000 heads of cattle. The recall was started because a videotape surfaced of workers kicking the animals and moving and brutalizing the screaming cattle who could not WALK, with forklifts. Could not WALK? It was okay that these cattle dubbed "downers" couldn't walk as they had passed the preliminary USDA inspection for slaughter. The problem was that these animals who had become non-ambulatory were not being reported to the USDA. This affliction, of course being one of the symptoms of "Mad Cow Disease."
“The recall is obviously the big news,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society. “The longer-term problem is the inadequacies of the inspection system. How can so many downers have been mistreated day after day within a U.S.D.A. oversight system that was present at the plant?" Pacelle concluded “We need more boots on the ground at the plants."(LA Times 2/18/08)
More boots on the ground and less on the cattle I guess. This is a pretty embarrassing situation for the agency who insures our food safety.
As a chef, I am going to continue to try to shorten the gap between the wholesome family farm and the dinner table. I'm not going to do anything rash like become a vegetarian. I tried that, a couple of times. Labuda's kielbasa brought me back every time.
Perhaps a day will come when I will be driving down those back roads to the Mill, where an average price for one of my works of art will be in the three figure range. If this is the case I probably will not be getting off of work at the Farm, but I will be stopping by one of the road side stands offering fresh eggs which came out of that refurbished and gaily painted chicken coop which was on the property when they bought the house. But for now, I guess those chicken shacks will have to continue to contain old boxes, books, and unused forgotten bric a brac, as well the memories of a simpler and more civilized time in culinary history.
For Now, I am still...
Running Hard out of Muskrat Flats.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
New Orleans is a city where I have had the pleasure of attending three Jazz and Heritage Festivals. To try to describe New Orleans in a few short sentences would be a grave miscarriage of literary perplexity. I could describe it in paragraphs never ending but I could never approach the feelings a person experiences traversing the narrow cobblestone streets in the French quarter in those antique neighborhoods as themes of Civil War battles and occupations, vampires, artists driven mad by absinthe and above ground crypts paying homage to Marie Leveaux with dark looking trinkets bones and Triple Xs. I tried but those concepts can only be felt and experienced.
I love New Orleans I had a great time. The third time we went with my daughter who was about 4 or 5 at the time, she loved it. We saw some great music and had some wonderful food. When we were sans child, we did do the Bourbon Street scene drinking high octane Hand Grenades and Hurricanes keeping the fire rolling along with a little help from Dr. Hoffman.
Yes, we threw our share of beads to the ladies up in the patina smudged wrought iron balconies that night. We also went to a bar, which I insist was run by a vampire. Behind the bar I found my self face to face an older woman who had a white, pallid complexion contrasted with deep and darkened eye sockets. She was smartly dressed in clothes which could have been just as fashionable in the late 1800s. Her striking appearance was accentuated by the presumption that she had not been exposed to the sun's warming, rejuvenating rays in quite some time. Perhaps so long that you have to go back decades to a point in her life when she was the sexiest girl on the stage. Now, her main concern was to make sure all of the customers had a drink in front of them. The drinks were served in those little 4 ounce glasses that are usually used for tomato juice in those road side diners. The Diners where the equally seasoned waitresses, who do not have an aversion to the sun, call you "honey" or "dear" after meeting you for the first time. Those glasses were not meant to be nursed either. I gathered the expectation was you were welcome as long as you were drinking.
The bar manager's other concern was to make sure her dancers, male and female, were not smoking crack and having sex with the guys who were in town for the Software Convention out back in the private "champagne room." This was obvious when she bellowed in a hoarse and nicotine soaked voice to a young muscular male dancer,
"What the fuck did I tell you about smoking crack with the customers in the champagne room?!"
As if he cared. She rolled her eyes and shook her head and let it go as she eyeballed the mid-western convention goer. She shook HIM up that is for sure. He was geeking and sweating at her bar. She barked at him, his drink still half full. "You ready for another one?!" Practically daring him to refuse. He nodded yes, obviously more concerned about getting tossed out and arrested. Than having to explain to his wife that he got caught smoking crack with a nude black 19-year-old boy. Oh the shame. But that can happen in any city can't it?
That is Bourbon Street, but that is not New Orleans to me. New Orleans is all about good food and even better music. Good food happens at a little shack on a side street where a wooden panel is hoisted up indicating that the local hero is serving gumbo and mudbugs. Good music happens on street corners where groups of 5 school boys and girls are playing their horns and listening to each other. Learning, practicing, knowing that if they have the chops they will be playing with a local Krewe in a Mardi Gras parade, sooner than later.
I was first exposed to New Orleans when I was about 24 years old. It was Mardi Gras and I was the Head Chef at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton Massachusetts. That night we had a big band coming in. Maybe Buckwheat Zydeco, It could have been Queen Ida or Dr. John or maybe even Boozoo Chavis. Who ever they were, they had a sizable band with a horn section and I had the responsibility of feeding them.
Say what you will about then Iron Horse owner, Jordi Herold, but he always treated me with kindness, respect and took advantage of my youthfulness to open my eyes to new and interesting things both in the world of music and food. Much of the time we would talk about the menus for upcoming shows and tailor the food to the style of music. So, obviously, for this show I was doing some Cajun food. I had the K-Paul cook book at my disposal as well as Jordi's elaborate and careful descriptions of the food he obviously loved. Had I known then what I know now...I shudder to think of what I produced that night. I mean it was good, but I could have been better, more authentic. Regardless of my inexperience, the food was a hit that night. Jordi and his faithful customers John and Judy Bodnar, my culinary fans to this day, enjoyed it. For the band, I made some jambalaya, red beans and rice, BBQ pork ribs and some boiled mudbugs...crawdads. Jordi always like to impress the bands with my cooking prowess.
So, the opening band was on stage. I was in the kitchen flirting with Donna Broderick, a lovely young hippie chick from UMASS, when I saw a very large black man squeezing through the tiny space between our ice cream freezer and the service bar, into the kitchen. He spoke with a voice which was like pure gravel. He had a southern drawl laced with a bit of a French accent. He had a buzz on. His eyes were pretty glassy and he had some whiskey on his breath. He was a horn player in the band. He had a bowl of the jambalaya I had made and was picking at the pieces of sausage and shrimp as he spoke. He never stopped eating as we talked.
"You the chef?"
"Ya know, dem ribs and this heah jambalaya are real good." He continued to picking out the sausage with is meaty greasy fingers. "Yep, dem ribs was real good..but the red beans and crawfish, that shit was all wrong."
I was taken aback and perhaps even insulted but I gave this stranger the benefit of a doubt. He had that kind of energy that is both soothing and electrifying at the same time. A suspicion which was confirmed as I watched him on stage later in the show. I wish I remember his name.
He continued with the Jambalaya, holding up a piece of meat.
"What's this, kielbasa? It's real good. I'd use some andouille in it, me too. But dem beans and rice, Mannn....and the crawfish...You never been to N'awlins, huh?"
I admitted that I had never been there. My trips to Jazz Fest were to come about a decade later.
"Next time you make beans and rice this is whatchoo gonna do...First you take your trinity (onions, celery and green pepper) cut a good amount and divide it into two. Sautee em real good in bacon fat until they get nice and brown, add some garlic...don't burn it...git that caramel going on the bottom of the pan. Add your dried, soaked beans, not the canned ones you used. Then some bay leaf and a coupla good smoke ham hocks and stock. Just cover dem beans a little bit you keep adding stock slow like its gonna make its own gravy, ya know.
Then you simmer it until the beans are tender about an hour and a half maybe longer. Then you git that trinity you had left over cause the the one you put in they aw-ready gone to liquid. Take out the hocks get the meat offa dem. Now sautee the trinity getting dem nice and brown again, add the meat from the hock and a little stock to git that flavor off the bottom of the pan and add that to the beans. Now you season with some cajun spice and little thyme and you all set. Now, you git you rice, keep em separate not like you did mixing 'em. Pour the beans on top the rice with some nice blackened chicken or sausage. Oh yeah!"
The way I made it was totally ass backwards.
Wow, did he take me to school. He went into an equally intense description of how to do the crawdads, driving home the point that if they are frozen, there is no point. I thanked him. And watched a great set of music.
The next day, I rounded up all of the ingredients and made a pot of red beans and rice. It was like magic, every step made sense. and it was the best pot of food I had made in a long time. When I was in New Orleans, I went to a cooking class. It was one of those touristy type things but the chef was good. He had good knife skills and he was fat, so you know he knew his shit. Sure enough, he made red beans and rice, just as my mystery horn player had described. The chef used stock in his beans and rice, but he did add, "when I make this at home, I put in a coupla smoke ham hocks.
Laissez les bon temps rouler.
Don't forget to go to church and get some dirt on your forehead tomorrow.
For the rest of the Lenten season you will find me making clam chowder with out bacon...ugh!
That's enough to keep me...
Running Hard out of Muskrat Flats.
Monday, February 4, 2008
It was a crisp morning, there was a little chill to the air, but not cold enough to confirm that the warm summer months were truly over. It was about 6 am and the overhead traffic was pretty thin, after all, it was Monday morning, Labor Day. The only traffic he really heard was the rumbling of the combination vehicles and their “jake brakes” kicking in as they slowed around the Forest Park curve. Jefferson Payne Cooper III, rolled over and inhaled deeply. He may have slept underneath yet another highway underpass, but he relished in the humility and simplicity it afforded. This was his therapy. “Skimpy” was how he was known by most. But to his family of Boston Brahmins he was Trey, and expected to produce JPC IV. The more he thought of if, the more he longed for the opportunity to make it so. He did not for one second push the thought out of his head, dismissing it as a delusional fantasy. After all he was 35 years old, living as a transient, and more often than not pitching his tent in wooded areas near the highway or in the pigeon fouled shelter below an underpass.
He is a proud man who had walked a very hard road for the last couple of years. He was a successful man. As a child, although he had all of the creature comforts one would expect a child growing up in a wealthy Boston family to possess, something very important was lacking. It certainly wasn’t love. There was plenty of that in his house. His father was very established in the family law firm, which was started by his Great Grandfather, a Major in the Union Army, shortly after General Lee surrendered to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Southwestern Virginia. Stories of his Grandfather’s participation and service in the war had been passed down through the generations and filled Skimpy’s ears as a young child. He recalled tales of dead Union Soldiers being laid to rest in the front yard of Robert E. Lee’s Arlington, Virginia estate, to insure that the “traitorous bastard” who had forsaken the Union Army for the South could never return home. He heard of General Sherman’s brutal and unforgiving tactics which bombed and burned the southern infrastructure back to the bronze age. He heard the tale of how his grandfather, then a rising star in the Boston Legal community, met Abraham Lincoln, shortly before his death, prompting Jeff Cooper to do his part to “bind up the Nation’s wounds” by joining the Union Army.
Skimpy loved the stories his father would recall of his Grandfather’s legacy, including the one where he “almost” purchased the Boston Red Sox in 1914. Skimpy’s father and mother encouraged his youthful fascination with music. It was only the best teachers and music camps for their child. Never once did they push him in the direction of going to law school to follow in the footstep of his forefathers. Then it was a green line ride away from their house on Joy St. to the Berklee School of Music.
Skimpy found great success at Berklee, he also found a good friend and future band mate, Burleigh Coggins. Lee, as he is known, introduced Skimpy to a bass player Lee had met while busking with his girlfriend at a Grateful Dead Show in Hartford, Ct. It was Les, the bass player, Skimpy was traveling to see. He was coming unannounced, as he was wholly unsure whether or not his band mate had any desire whatsoever to see him. For all Les knew Skimpy was in the witness protection program, for he had completely dropped out of site. It was Les who found Skimpy, unconscious in the the band’s dressing room with a needle sticking out of his weathered and pocked arm.
Skimpy’s problem always came back to the little piece of the puzzle which were missing in his life. That little hint of alienation that he experienced as a child. Although, pretty unselfish, with others, he longed for what they had. Everybody seemed to have something he did not. The worst part was it was, what he craved was never anything tangible or material, it couldn’t be purchased or held. But what they had…he wanted. Skimpy descended from a long line of sturdy drinkers. His great grandfather remarkably sired his Grandfather on a very drunken 67th birthday. He died shortly after his 96th a whiskey glass in his hand. Skimpy took his first drink at an early age. He took his first drug, when he was 11. He and a couple of his dorm mates from Wilbraham-Monson Academy had one of the seniors who could “buy”, pick them up some beer. He also provided them with a joint of some very heady nuggets. They cut class and spent the afternoon in the woods near the reservoir drinking and getting high. This led to an appreciation of the finer things in life, good music such as the Grateful Dead and later on Phish. The appreciation extended to illicit substances, adventures on the road, mystical musical journeys on psychedelics. As the success of his and Lee’s Band progressed, So did his taste for more exotic items such as nitrous oxide, cocaine, Absinthe. Popularity took its toll. You see, that void… that emptiness never went away. The act of coveting what he could not acquire caused him so much pain. It was unbearable at times. He always filled the void with drugs, alcohol and sex. There were always enthusiastic and experimental young women seduced by the romanticism of the lifestyle a career in music produced. That void was always being filled for different reasons. Early on Skimpy shunned the family fortune. It was an adjustment. He didn’t totally cut himself off, it was available to him if he needed or wanted it. But he wanted to make it on his own. And yes there were days when the only meal he had was from the moldering deli platter in the backstage area. Drugs filled the void he felt in his hunger. The lonely days on the road when those most important to him were absent were washed away with the cooler in the in dressing room and the drugs the audience always seemed to want to share. As success came, so did alienation. He couldn’t go to the 7-11 without someone recognizing him. He got to the point where all he felt was animosity about, and the longing for what everyone else had. His band mates Lee, Les and their drummer, Fennel, could do nothing but stand by and watch him self destruct. They had tried to intervene, but he wanted nothing to do with it. He felt nothing at all. The only time he felt anything was when he was getting high.
After a gig he didn’t remember, he was resuscitated in an ER after being administered narcan. He OD’d on cocaine and heroin which he had been injecting for about two years. It was that night he decided he would check out. He went to a detox, something he promised he would never do again. The following three months he isolated himself on a remote island, owned by his family, off the Cape, near Hyannisport. He met with a counselor daily. He let his hair grow and grew a beard. He was unrecognizable as the clean cut prep school hippie who was the keyboard player for the Jam Band Pry.
He flew to the West Coast on a private plane, utilizing an alias. He landed in San Francisco with the clothes on his back, a knapsack which included a tooth brush, toothpaste, a couple of changes of clothes and, pens and a few moleskin writing tablets. The pack also included a passport sealed in a manila envelope and some foul weather gear and a stack of when and where pamphlets which would direct him to AA and NA meetings nationwide. He wandered around the Bay area for a few weeks. Taking in the sights and connecting with the people on the street. He talked with the junkies and the crack heads and shared his experience strength and hope. With $20 dollars in his pocket he earned doing an odd job, He began to walk back to the East Coast.
Once again he embarked on this journey with his family in the dark. They wouldn’t understand anyway, His attorney gave them a prepared statement that he was at a religious retreat in the Cayman Islands where he was studying to be a monk. So let them think the worst he thought. They would just dismiss this sojourn as “another relapse.” He made no excuses for his stubbornness. He had some Karma to work out and this was the way he wanted to do it. He had found spirituality in the meetings. He found his higher power in the teachings of Buddha. He was going to heal himself by giving freely of himself. Not family money, not contributions to charity. He wanted to give what he had always craved what was missing in his life. That is how the void would be filled. And slowly as he traveled, doing odd jobs, washing dishes and flattening cardboard in exchange for a meal in a restaurant, he began to heal. He helped downtrodden folks get on their feet, not with money but with caring and compassion and honest selfless action. He changed flat tires for mothers with babes in arms Refusing the money he looked like he needed in exchange for a gift of food from one of the shopping bags in their back seat. He accepted rides from people at meetings. He would enjoy their fellowship and shared recovery over coffee and food only to walk to his next destination after bidding them farewell. Sometimes he traveled north and back down south but it was always with an easterly bearing. Those he encountered accepted him at face value as one of them, a recovering addict who had managed to not pick up a drug, one day at a time.
His pride resurfaced. If he ever felt that another person he encountered was extending charity instead of an honest dollar for an honest day’s work. He would refuse the money. He thought of line from a song by the Drunk Stuntmen that he wished he had written, “I’m so Stubborn I’d would rather work for free.” Although he did look road weary, he did manage to stay clean both physically and spiritually. He ate a healthy diet and showered regularly. He occasionally popped into a music store to tickle the ivories and mentally run through some lyrics he had written.
This walkabout had produced 9 songs. Most of the stores he had stopped in were little mom and pop music stores in states such as Utah, Colorado, Missouri, Tennessee, and finally up along the East Coast. Nobody cares if you sit down to play in a music store, if you sound like you know what you are doing. He always turned a few heads on these little trips. His ego noticed.
The last time he hit a music store was in NYC five days ago. There were two kids in their 20s looking at guitars. One was wearing a Pry tour shirt. They kept eyeing him suspiciously, moving closer and listening to what he was running through. They kept whispering to each other. “It’s him, listen to that shit!”
“No it isn’t, look at him.”
“It is HIM! Nobody plays like that.” The kid who was trying to convince his friend they were in the presence of Skimpy Cooper strapped on a guitar he wanted to try out, and quoted a familiar line. Until he heard that guitar, Skimpy was oblivious to what was happening behind him. He should have known that if he hung around enough music stores, even incognito, someone was sure to recognize him. They say in the rooms if you hang around a barbershop long enough you are eventually gonna get a haircut.
But Skimpy was unprepared for how he would feel when he heard what he did. He heard that guitar line and a chill went up his spine like a bolt of lightning. He ignored it. The kid continued noodling with chords and scales for a few minutes. Skimpy returned to working out the new song, running through the lyrics mentally. From behind, he heard another blistering guitar lick from one of HIS songs. He thought to himself, “Fuck, that kid sounds like Lee.” The kid continued with the song playing it flawlessly.
Skimpy stopped what he was doing and listened. He turned to look at the kid in the Pry shirt. And he looked straight into his eyes. The kid was smiling and staring straight back at him. There was no need for him to look at the fret board, he had the music in his heart. He was a natch, Skimpy thought. Just like Lee . Just like himself. He never stopped loving music. He stopped loving what music had allowed him to become. But now he knew, sure as he was born, that it wasn’t music or anything else that had cause his life to crumble into a festering hole of obsession compulsion and addiction. He probably would have checked out if he were a lawyer or a stock broker or whatever else it was he chose to do, he would have ended up where he was. But guess what. He was happy. He had to go through those experiences to get to this point in his life. He had not felt that emptiness for some time. Even though he was living life very simply, he did have some money in his pocket. He didn’t have to walk the remainder of his journey, he chose to. It was a journey he felt was drawing to a conclusion. Of course it was, with every step he took back toward New England he was convinced he could handle it. It, being life. Eighteen months after his journey had begun, he knew he had to get on with it.
Where to begin? Obviously connecting with his old band mates was priority. Especially the one who found him unconscious that night, Les.
He had songs which were destined to be heard by legions of eager fans, two of whom were in his presence and caught a little glimpse. But did he have what he had left behind, that which was most important to him? There was only one way to find out. As all of these thoughts raced through his head he listened and observed.
He looked into the eyes of his young fan. The kid had gotten to the point in the song where it was Skimpy’s time to solo. The kid kept playing and looking at Skimpy expectantly. The kid built up to the lead in and Skimpy pounced on his keyboard. He played so freely, that guitar, those sweet sweet sounds egged him on. If he could only do this again with Lee and the rest of the crew, he had found happiness walking the country and doing the right thing for the right reasons. The kid playing the guitar leaned into his awestruck friend and simply said, “told ya.” A small but clueless crowd stopped to listen, not really grasping what was happening. The employees in the store lived for moments like these. It wasn’t as frequent as you would think that two musicians get on the same waves length and succumb to this brand of spontaneity. After the impromptu session the kid blathered at Skimpy. Asking all of the questions where have you been what are you doing, are you going to rejoin the band? And for a change these two fans had his rapt attention and in no way were bothersome or distracting.
Oh, what a release that was. That was the best he felt in years. He busied himself packing up and preparing for his short trek north. He was in Springfield and needed to be 20 miles north. He wanted to get rid of the current look he had and get some new clothes. He was looking somewhere between running man Forrest Gump and Howard Hughes the hermit.
He spied a Barber Shop in the South End of Springfield and walked in…
To Be Continued.
Once again…I’m Running Hard Out of Muskrat Flats.
Friday, February 1, 2008
I got a call from my ex-wife, the Lawyer, early in the week. And the most amazing thing happened. Something that I prayed for actually happened. Now don't get me wrong. I wasn't just idly standing around and letting my thoughts roam only to happen upon the thought, I wish that I could have this or I wish that would happen. This was a situation that was weighing very heavily on my mind. A financial situation, of course. The worst kind of distraction in my opinion. I owed the Commonwealth (an oxymoron is you ask me) of Massachusetts Department of Revenue meals taxes I had collected when I was in the process of closing a dying business. I paid a majority of the bill a few years ago, and actually received a refund from that transaction. Now this is the part where it gets weird. It is also the part where I must confront one of my flaws in character.
I theoretically owed $600 dollars after I had paid, and before I received a refund of $900. Then I had not heard from the DOR for two years so I assumed we were all set. I should have questioned the remaining bill and the refund when I had the check in my hand.
When I received another bill 9 months ago stating that I still owed taxes plus penalties and interest, I should have called them immediately to rectify the situation and probably could have gotten the bill either lowered or expunged completely. I owed .01 in one period. the penalties and interest were $350. The total bill was 2,000. But I did not do this. I was paralyzed I made a few feeble attempts at calling these people but never followed through. It felt better and easier to just ignore the problem, while fully realizing that the interest and penalties just weren't going to go away.
This is a situation I had discussed with my sponsor. He suggested that I start thinking about making arrangements to pay the folks or at least call them to find out what the situation was. But first he told me to pray on it. And I did. I got on my knees. I asked God for help. I asked for his guidance and wisdom. I gave God my will and begged to be shown the way to live. I prostrated myself. I humbled myself and worked to be more compassionate, and understanding. I worked to be an example to others, I weathered situations which I previously would not have tolerated when I was caught up in the grips of the disease of addiction and was at my most selfish and self-centered worst. I did this every morning and sought guidance and compassion from my higher power.
I finally got up the nerve to call my wife one day and explain the situation to her. In all fairness, the situation could have adversely affected her, financially. We had a good conversation. Then she began o tell me about a "huge" bonus she had gotten as well as a substantial raise based on her performance. I was happy for her. I didn't get jealous. But one thing I did not do was to ask her for help with the tax burden. It didn't feel right to bring it up in the conversation we were having. I also resisted my disease telling me to try manipulate the money out of her. I put the rest of the conversation on hold, determined to let her know what was happening within the next week. I continued to pray every morning. I bought a lottery ticket one day and in my prayers, I said, "Look - I know I bought this ticket. I am not asking to win the lottery, just help me out with this situation even if it is only to give me the courage to confront it and be a man about it.
She called me on Monday about five days after the previous conversation. I know she had her own reasons for doing this but she asked me "What about that tax situation? Have you dealt with it yet?" I was honest with her and told her no and why. The next thing blew me away. The last thing I expected to hear was..."Find out how much it is, I will pay it for you."
That freaked me out. It definitely brought me to the next level spiritually. What a relief. The lesson I learned was to be more diligent and confront my financial worries. For the most part I am doing it and getting better every day. But I really learned to trust in this higher power of mine
"Trailer Life is Good enough For Me" -
I went to a new meeting this week met some new people. I shared the above story in that meeting. Something funny but annoying happened after the meeting. I was given a ride to the meeting by an addict who also gave a ride to another couple of addicts. On the way back from the meeting there was a lively conversation. We spoke of candy cigarettes and how it is mind boggling that they are still produced. I suggested packaging little rocks of crystallized sugar with a clear plastic tube so the kids can pretend to smoke crack, just like mommy and her boyfriend of the week. Not much spirituality in that statement, but it got a laugh. The conversation turned to dogs. They were talking about their dogs. The female addict asked the driver,
"what kind of dog food do you use?"
"I feed them, Iams" She gasped.
"Don't do that, I saw on the PETA website that Iams does cruel testing on animals."
"Oh, wow, I'm gonna have to check that out. I won't buy it if it is true. What kind of dog food do you use?"
"I buy a 55 pound bag of Ol' Roy at Wal-Mart." I am thinking to myself "WTF?!" No, not World Trade Federation, the other thing...
I couldn't help myself...I had to ask. "You won't use Iams because of animal testing, but It doesn't bother you to buy food from a place that has a history of treating their workers poorly and buying products produced in sweatshops?"
"Wal-Mart is cheap."
"Of course it is cheap, that food was probably made by a 12 year old in Honduras who makes 50 cents a day and owes the factory 45 cents a day for the privilege of sleeping on a straw mat on the floor in a room with 20 of her coworkers."
She seriously replied she doesn't care about that. I mean seriously. How could anyone not care. On top of that I looked up the ingredients in Ol' Roy dog food. The food has been recalled in the past because it was tainted with salmonella. Second, feeding your dog Ol' Roy dog food is like feeding your child exclusively Fruit Loops. Corn is the first ingredient and it pretty much has no nutritional value other than providing your dog with empty calories.
Check out the ingredients Ground yellow corn, soybean meal, ground whole wheat, corn syrup, poultry fat, Meat and bone meal (Animal Fat Preserved with BHA and Citric Acid), The rest are a bunch of chemicals and vitamins including B-12. No wonder Fluffy is so energetic. Between the B-12 and the corn syrup, you might as well buy her a bean taco and wash it down with a Red Bull. And , furthermore, BHA is a carcinogen.
But it is cheap...It is funny how we addicts can be. I would spend $60-$100 dollars a day on drugs. But now that I'm clean, I am incapable of spending $4 dollars to park in a garage simply because there is free parking...out there...somewhere. I don't think that's what they mean when they say, "Keep it Simple."
I had a using dream last night. It wasn't a dream really, It was one of those super lucid, Technicolor jobbers where you wake up tired because you might as well have been fucked up and walking around Northampton looking for you car, all night.
I dreamed I was at home. James and Rachel stopped by unannounced. I felt an urge to cook for them so I made an eggplant casserole. But then I left to go do something else, abandoning them in my basement. I somehow ended up in Northampton, I was in the Iron Horse with Steve Sanderspoon and we we're watching Freddy Freedom perform. I was drinking a beer and then I had some wine. I could taste it, I could see the legs running down the side of the glass as I swirled it and sucked in its delicate bouquet. I know a lot about wine. A skill I have more or less turned my back upon since I no longer drink. Freddy who is also sober, left right after the show. I was concerned that he was pissed that I was drinking. Then I ran into James and Rachel who were pissed because I was drinking and had abandoned them in my basement. I left with Steve and we spent the rest of the night walking past houses engulfed in fire and very vividly lit police traffic stops all the while, looking for Freddy, who was probably pissed that i was drinking, as well. I hoped he wasn't. I was walking down the streets of Northampton in a t-shirt and tighty whiteys. And I had a gun. At least it wasn't warm and I wasn't wearing a slip and make up. Remember that guy? What a dream..dammit! A+ for content F for actually feeling refreshed for the day.
I'm going to ignore the fact that the lawn across the street was littered with about 75 of those huge ass blackbirds as I drove home this afternoon. Creepy.
Oh well, enough of that psycho-babble. I should probably go to a meeting at Some point tomorrow.
Until We meet again. I think I may slow down a little bit but I'm still going to be...
Running Hard Out of Muskrat Flats.