Day 8 – Pittsburgh

There are two ways that I sleep, when blessed with a normal bed. In one scenario, it is just me and the cat. I sprawl out with full abandon. In the other scenario, I am sharing limited space with Susan and the body pillow that the cat sleeps on. I am balanced perfectly at the very edge of the bed on my side, even in sleep. This is a very special skill that I have perfected over the years.

I awake in a Queens apartment, perched delicately on the edge of the bed, giving room for Jake who I shared the bed with. People are talking about breakfast, so I turn to see if Jake has stirred. No Jake. He got up possibly hours previously, leaving me balanced obliviously to miss out on a perfectly good empty bed. Our host hands plates of mystery food to David and Joel. They are instructed not to ask. I get vegan oatmeal, and it’s absolutely delicious. I decide not to ask, as often vegan is not really vegan, and instead decide to scarf it down. Numerous roommates start to arrive or emerge. I lose track of who all lives in this New York apartment. I reflect briefly on how this is the direction Seattle is headed.

I stand out on the balcony, taking in the sprawling view of the Queens bridge and the grungy cityscape beyond. The unmistakable echo of our van filters up to my ears from a few blocks away. Stuart and Jake must be near. Likely returning from picking up more CDs from the label, to refresh our stash for the rest of the trip.

I get packed by the time they climb the stairs, and we start to give our farewells while taking turns with the bathroom. And indeed, not only did Stuart and Jake pick up the CDs, but they also stopped by a mechanic. It seems the muffler was dangling uselessly under the van, so might as well remove that hangnail. Well that’s fine, we apparently had been muffler free for quite a while. We’re given a parting gift of a recommendation for a bridge and that we should use the Waze app, which uses crowd sourcing as part of giving directions.

We shuffle down to the van–yet again Stuart has deftly parallel parked the van+trailer–and we head off towards Pittsburgh. As usual, we know our route, but only have enough time to make it if there’s no traffic. And first we have to get through New York traffic. David has taken on navigator duty and is using Waze to much success. I am relieved, as I’m pretty sure he has been using the notorious Apple Maps. I am too afraid to ask.

Traffic sucks, and for some reason we are going North. I don’t ask. By the time we get across the George Washington Bridge, we all have to pee and pull over at the first fascist rest area. I take over as driver, and Stuart passes out in the very back. After all, he got up at sunrise, as per the usual.

We are on the New Jersey Turnpike. It is actually two parallel turnpikes–one for trucks and one for cars. I randomly choose the one for cars, not realizing that my choice is locked in until Pennsylvania.  This proves to be a poor choice. Traffic gets thick and slow, and the crazies start to set in.

David and I start into some kind of anachronistic parliamentary procedural retelling of a classic joke of a guy’s tour of hell. As we nobly continue from describing each level of hell, we pass various emergency exits that connect the two parallel freeways. There are always dudes in red sports cars illegally swerving through the break in the fence and then flooring it to get up to speed before getting rear ended. This seems like a thing that is done. I yield my minutes to the right honorable gentleman in the back left seat of the van, as we coast below jet after jet, and glide past electrical tower after electrical tower.

Eventually, we exit to a toll booth, I have the floor, and I summarize my soliloquy with the punch line, “Okay, coffee break’s over–back on your heads.”

I pay a frillion dollars to the friendly and chatty toll booth agent. In Seattle, there is one bridge where we are charged via a scanner above each lane. Even if you don’t buy a pass, they scan your license plate and mail you a check. Soon, these nice people will be looking for jobs, no matter how much their union fights for them. Automation of everything is inevitable. I’ve seen it with percussion. EDM is changing that irrevocably, and so sadly yet optimistically I adapt. I hope toll booth operators are ready to adapt.

Jake takes over the helm. Stuart rides shotgun. We enter a series of hills and tunnels. The road gets steep, and we start to smell gas. I try to type away another blog post. I’m hopelessly behind. I have three backup batteries, and yet I still have to carefully manage my phone usage. It’s all about battery saver mode and airplane mode whenever possible. Even though I have a double adapter to charge my phone and a battery, that often means the other two batteries haven’t charged overnight, and so it’s a constant battle to remember to rotate batteries to keep them all charged. I wish that I had figured out how to properly conserve battery life on my laptop. I promise myself I’ll figure this out for the next trip. And so I tap away in OneNote, so that I can later copy/paste to the WordPress app.

But yet again it’s too distracting. Joel is a road weathered warrior of the road trip. We rarely see him eat, or else it’s something meager. I have started to suspect that he has this grand system that he has learned over time, and these trips are nothing to him. After all, they must be his life. So easy going, always in a light mood. Perfectly fine with disengaging from conversation and putting on headphones or taking a nap. While this trip is a strange vacation for me, this is Joel’s day job. In many ways, I admire that he often appears to just happily exist in the moment. Yet, surprisingly I have been and continue to be engaged in all the conversation throughout this trip. I had hours of music saved on my phone, and plenty of material that I should be learning for an upcoming recording session. I ignore it, sometimes poking away at this journal. Even after a week, somehow we all have something to talk about–especially when we have the crazies.

Stuart advances the venue about our delay from traffic. There is some back and forth in calls, but we work it out that we will show up, load in, and play. No sound check yet again.

The weather gets thick with rain and mist as we cross the winding pass, and we worry about the smell of gas. We decide to start paying closer attention to mileage. Yet now we must start paying attention as we near Pittsburgh.

The rain continues as we pull up in front of the Brillobox, and humidity has risen. It’s warm outside, and steam rises from the streets. No place to park, so we pull around the corner. Not ideal, but we pull into a gas station and open up the van and trailer, while someone runs inside to gather intelligence.

We’ve arrived in perfect time. We start running in shifts through the rain across the street into the building. It’s a narrow glass door, and there’s a doorman, I see two flights of stairs ahead of me and there’s a second door at the base where people are entering and leaving a restaurant. Already chaos. I wait for some folks to come down the stairs, then I rush up to the top to encounter a rowdy and crowded room. It’s got that feeling that everyone knows everyone. Okay, this will be hard work, but I can tell these are good people, and there’s electricity in the air.

It’s a benefit for Karl Hendricks, a dude who consistently helped prop up and maintain the local Pittsburgh indie music scene. Joel felt a strong personal bond, and tonight we are just playing to support this benefit for him. You see, he’s sick, and insurance isn’t covering much. So I’m gratified to see such a packed turnout. I dump my stuff on the stage, then run back down the stairs for another pass. Everyone in the band is doing the same. Joel seems to be working the hardest, carrying anything and everything. Isn’t he supposed to be a vocalist? Like just show up with a microphone? No way, Joel works as hard as Stuart.

The stage starts to assemble, and the room is a sauna. I’m sweating like bacon. We start to do line checks and get situated. Again poor Dave is sitting directly next to my beautiful gong. He seems to like it. Folks are standing with beers, watching us, and we feel the pressure to start asap. Joel is talking to folks, and this is clearly his crowd. Stuart calls out the setlist, and it’s another abridged one, to be respectful to all the bands. It’s a packed lineup. Karl must be a rad dude, with all this turnout and support for the guy. This is what music is about. There’s no money in it for most musicians, unless you’re on the top 40, and so it’s a lifestyle. It’s family. It’s trust and it’s love. That’s why bands play benefits for free. Because they know that the scene would do the same for them.

We start with Moonshine and Lion, a pretty song with just Joel singing over some bells. I love starting with this tune, as it helps kind of get me in sync with the band. Jake and I are playing bells, and we follow Joel but we also have to play together. By the close of the song, I am in full focus and already switching around mallets in preparation for the next song, with my head in the zone.

We proceed to destroy the room with thunderous waves of bass, organs, gongs, propelling Joel’s voice into the room like a leaf on a fountain of holy water.

The last note fades out, and the bartender shouts, “YOU’RE DONE!!” The room is mostly empty. Apparently we’re not really their thing, but I don’t have time to reflect on this because we gotta tear down for the next band. People start streaming into the room as I fold up and push back my equipment against the back wall. This is a good trick to speed up the changeover, as long as there’s room. Well, it’s a bunch of indie bands tonight, so no problem.

I have to wrangle my beers from the bartender, who clearly is NOT happy about there being customers, and then run up another flight of stairs to get out of the sauna and attempt to cool off before I pass out from exhaustion. It’s a nearly empty high ceilinged room, with a few couches–and two adorable kittens! A black one and another flat faced one that is shaved like a poodle. They frolic and play around David and I, while I come close to napping. It’s a good life for these kittens. Lots of captive adults, and they have a cordoned off corner where they can always go hide if things get to frenetic. In fact, there are two kitty doors so they can relax in darkness. I envy them, and I down the cold beer and toweling off the river of sweat.

Eventually Joel comes upstairs, and shrieks in delight in discovery of Battle Arena Kittenden. Something that Joel, Jake, and I share is the love for kittens. For the rest of the evening, as rock and roll booms below us, Joe catches up with folks he hasn’t seen for a long time. I’ve gathered that his time in Vancouver has been a bit of a retreat. I can see that folks imply some kind of past history, and are enthusiastic about his recent adventures. Despite folks here being more interested in Joel’s indie rock side, and not so much any music lacking a groove, the night feels like a valuable opportunity for Joel to catch up with all the goings on–so I deem this a success.

Maybe Pittsburgh is more of a working town that just wants to blow off some steam and not get too fancy schmancy with more esoteric music, but they clearly are good folks (except for the bartender–screw him). As we fetch the van, a local reporter comes up and avails Stuart about his love for DAMA/LIBRA and the exclusive article he has written. Then, another random guy has us follow him back to his house where we can crash–but we can’t find reliable parking for the night so we have to abandon the offer.

The rain has subsided, and we drive down the lonely highway in search of a motel. We cram into a room with 2 beds and I crash out. Of course, Stuart and Jake carry on into the evening on the back patio, as I perch on the edge of the bed in perfect balance and drift off. I hope Karl is taken care of.

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