by Chris Bacas
During a blaze across Florida, our leader hosted a band party; his way of saying thanks.
Z's Florida house was modest and tastefully appointed. It sat next to similar homes in a jungly subdivision laid out like a medieval city. On the winding way there, our bus idled next to an unusual building: two one-story domes connected by a single arched hallway; an armored brassiere. A sign just off the sand-dusted berm announced in elegant cursive, “The Booby-Trap”. Within seconds, clammy road rats began to chant ” BOOBY-TRAP, BOOBY-TRAP”. We pressed on.
The shindig at Z's was a mostly a blur and awkward for me. Alcohol alleviated little of my social ineptness. It did induce a cranial hum, like the faux-stroke I made as a child by holding my breath, then savagely tightening neck and shoulders. The booze drone unraveled my emotional DNA. I was rarely a happy drunk, but I could act like one.
A road rat's capacity for free food and drink cannot be overstated. Leaving Z's poolside paradise, our tipsy bus joined into roaring unison.
A conference in front gave way. The primitive bus mic crackled. Road Manager, his eyes mostly shut, addressed us in Buffalo-ese.
“Giess…Giess…GIESS! Ok, so summa yous giess ha been eeh-skin abou'tiss place.
“Kuh-why-yet! Jeez. Lemme taahk, f'chrisakes! So, wuh gunna go”
He dropped the mic to waist level and tilted his head back.
“Look, wuh not stayin' aww fuckin' night. An' if any a youse do anythin' stupid, I'm leavin' yer ass. Unnerstand?”
“Do you FUCKIN' UNNERSTAND???”
We were already past him. A mountainous bouncer stationed at the iron bra's fastener checked IDs and warned us to behave. Once inside, we found choice seats. A stoic waitress appeared to take orders, another giant in tow. When my turn came, I hesitated. The mountain spoke:
“You gotta order something, NOW.”
For an even ten bucks, I had a draft beer. The show commenced. This was my first strip club visit. I liked seeing naked girls. The dancers looked underage and underfed, though. Behind me, a colleague pounded a fist on the tile table top. His beer bombilated across its' surface. To make him stop, a bouncer put a country-ham size forearm on the table. When the brief show finished, a dancer sat down with us. Were we a band? What kind of music? Where y'all from?
Even without having to speak, I sat paralyzed and grim.She told us she was a singer with professional management and real stardom ahead, just as soon as she got out of this shitty town. The pathos caved my chest in: a highly-trained young misfit, gainfully employed playing my grandparents' music for seniors around this great country, talking to a 19 year-old woman in underwear with surgical tape across her nipples. Yet, l felt insecure about MY career choices. She quickly caught on we wouldn't purchase lap dances or other extras and excused herself. My mind raced. Should I order another drink? A lap dance? Was it cool to just go? Would I look like a sissy? More discomfort. Then, Road Manager got up from his chair, surveyed the room and announced loudly:
“This place fuckin' SUCKS. Les fuckin' go, giess!”
I really wanted to hug him. I didn't, though. Our bus idled roadside. Home.
For therapy, I always walked; on streets I'd never see again, past homes in maw of life. Through the front window, a blurred TV, dining room set and scattered toys. Every few weeks, I ran through our personnel, mentally tagging each with their months or years on the band; finishing with mine.
A new bass player, dogged and self-effacing, endeared himself to us. He often wore a Budweiser t-shirt with their corporate superhero, an egg-headed man, caped and helmeted, painted on the front. We named him after that character: BudMan. Then came another tenor man; a virtuoso on clarinet and pretty fierce on saxophone. He had absolute pitch and relatively little concept; the kind of player I admired and resented. The Divine Road Manager brought him on to prod me. When he asked for and got a feature tune, I dallied a bit, then put in my notice. Decision made, time quickened, anticipating gigs and a lady back in my hometown. I knew what I didn't know: dam near everything. There were musical galaxies to explore and many more road miles, too.
Z lived a long time. The superhuman chops failed first. He saw many more road rats on and off that bus. A colleague said Z was a great American. A shtetl kid, escapee from the Pale of Settlement, became a master craftsman, folded his birth name under and walked with giants.
Coach had a massive stroke and lingers on. He once told me being a Red Sox fan “means suffering”. His boys finally won the Series in an improbable comeback. I hope he felt every bubble of joy in that champagne shower. Survivor's guilt is not specific to road warriors. Distance and time swell a moment. Sadness gathers there; fog on a window. Wipe it away, cool and wet, with your hand. Droplets remain in a swath of clarity.
Alto Man and Roomie are thriving, playing and raising families. I know about other guys, too, doing what they love and dealing. We got something for our service on the Iron Lung. Nothing a pawn shop would give a penny for: a certificate in advanced busmanship, a diesel forged mood ring, the strength to know it can be done, with style, grace and moxie, night after night after night.