¡Cuba Libre!

30 December 2013

Wow!  Looking at my last entry, I see it was the last day of 2012 — meaning I very nearly went all of 2013 without a post.  Clearly blogging has not been a priority for me lately, but I did want to take some time to document something worthwhile.  I recently returned from a trip to Cuba!  I cannot hope to capture all of my fond memories here, but as I’ve done for other big trips in years past, I’ll do my best to hit the highlights.

First, the obvious question: isn’t it illegal to travel to Cuba?  To which I answer: not so!  The seed for this trip was first planted by a coworker of mine who travels very extensively.  Just in the few years I’ve known her, she’s been to Antarctica, Afghanistan, Burma, Easter Island, and more.  If it’s remote and/or dangerous, she’s been there.  And she clued me in to the fact that under a “People To People” license issued by the U.S. government, in fact American citizens can travel to Cuba legally.  The catch is that you can’t go on your own and just lounge on the beach the whole time.  You have to go with one of a few licensed travel agencies (such as the one I used, Friendly Planet), and there is a curriculum of sorts that you must follow.  You need to participate in the cultural activities set forth in the agenda, but it’s not a hindrance at all!  Unlike the throngs of tourists from every other country but the U.S., we are given access to more of the real Cuba.  We saw behind the scenes and actually learned something!  We got to meet some fun people and make new friends.  Plus there was plenty of time to enjoy ourselves in the evenings.  I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

So without further ado…

Day 1 - Shel and I headed out to Miami, the plan being to get there a few days early to make full use of the weekend and explore a bit.  Coming from the brutal cold snap the Bay Area had been experiencing, the warm and humid night air as we stepped out of the airport was most welcome.  A hop, skip, and a jump over to our hotel, and we were settled in.  Tired as we were, we agreed to just walk across the street to a Cuban restaurant.  You know, get started with the cuisine early while still in the States.  Well, my vegetarian option was a grilled cheese sandwich with three or four times as much cheese as was sustainable by the bread.  Not to be recommended.  It was late.  We were pooped.

Day 2 - We grabbed a taxi down to the famous South Beach.  I was struck by the color of the place.  Seems like most everything in Miami is turquoise and peach, including the buildings.  And the hotels all look like they were built in the 60’s.  It’s flat out there, and I was reminded of having read recently that if the sea level rises, Miami is one of the first major cities to be S.O.L.  The “Miami Vice” connection is milked at every opportunity.  We got to ride on A1A (Beachfront Avenue!).  And Vanilla Ice wasn’t kidding.  The people watching out there is no joke.  If you can forgive the Jersey Shore feel of it all, people apparently really take care of themselves there.  Men and women, all in fantastic shape, tanned, bleached, and not wearing much in the way of a bathing suit.  All strutting up and down the strip, where maître d’s harass you like carnival barkers to get you into their open-air restaurants.  We chose one and had our first cocktails of the trip, along with an unexpectedly pricey lunch.  Afterwards, it was off to the beach!  I swam in the Atlantic for the first time, which was long overdue.  Clear water and hot weather.  We walked around a bit, had some tea, and then cabbed it back to the hotel.  On the way back, I noted the many mansions on the water and the yachts to go with them.  Fits with the Rolls-Royces and other fancy cars that abound in South Beach.

It was early evening, but the day wasn’t over yet.  We were determined to have a night out in Miami, but our research uncovered no appropriate venue.  There was a rockabilly event going on 40 minutes away in Ft. Lauderdale, but that’d be a steep cab ride.  Instead, we picked the only club that showed any promise of not being a douchey techno club.  We got gussied up and headed across town again to what would be perhaps the best meal of the trip.  City Hall had such delicious food that I was genuinely sad I didn’t have room to finish it all.  So while we couldn’t find a new wave club per se, we settled on the most promising option: The Vagabond.  It was a walk through a dodgy area of town.  Probably the most unsafe I felt on the whole trip, actually.  The Vagabond claimed to have burlesque that night, but it was cancelled.  The music was every bit the douchey stuff we were trying to avoid, not to mention freestyle rapping going on out in the patio area.  All reminiscent of San Francisco’s The End Up , if you’re familiar.  Anyway, it was a bust in all senses but for one odd thing.  They have a 10-foot portrait of Morrissey making a kissy face in the middle of their main room, which is a permanent fixture there as far as I could tell.  We each snapped a photo with it of course, and in our time before admitting defeat, I noticed may other girls snapping similar photos of them kissing Moz’s gigantic face.  I quizzed each that came along to see if they knew who he was, and of course no one did.  Only one girl claimed to be a Smiths fan, but did not recognize him.  Questionable.  So how incredibly strange that such a decoration would be in this club, or in Miami at all.  Were it in a San Francisco club, I imagine it would be famous in our circles.  It’s the face in the image below.  I suspect it’s exploited for its aesthetic appeal rather than the fact it’s Morrissey.  Though apparently, there is a monthly Smiths night there, and if we’d get along with anyone in Miami, it’d be whoever showed up there.  But the dates didn’t align, and it was not to be.  Later research revealed that there is a local Smiths tribute band called Ordinary Boys, which was due to play there the night we flew home.  Had we coordinated, who knows what might have been?  And not that you asked, but catching a cab home was terrifying.  We had to stand close to the bouncer to help ward off the street tweakers that descend on anyone who steps outside the club.

Day 3 - After brunch at the hotel, we headed to the mall so Shel could find a new suitcase.  I saw signs for something called Churromania.  I got on the horn with Sus to coordinate tickets for SF Sketchfest (thanks Sus!), and then returned to the hotel to lay out by the pool and watch the planes fly overhead.  We grabbed dinner across the street at the Cane Fire Grille, splitting several dishes.  At our own hotel, we met in a conference room for our Cuba trip orientation.  The group in total was 24 people, I believe.  We did basic introductions, made initial assessments of who would be friend or foe, got our questions and paperwork sorted out, and called it a night.

Day 4 - Finally, it was time to leave for Cuba!  There are a lot of rules and paperwork, but it all went pretty smoothly.  Out chartered flight was actually an American Airlines plane operated by an American Airlines crew.  The flight from Miami to Havana was only about 40 minutes.  After making it through passport control, we exited the terminal to a huge crowd.  In addition to having a welcoming party for arriving family members, there is something else going on too… since nothing can be bought directly from the U.S. (or even afforded in most cases), American relatives bring things like flat-screen T.V.s when they visit Cuba.  They bring whole palettes of stuff since it can’t be shipped.  Anyway, so we exit the terminal and enter the parking lot and get shock #1.  You’ve heard there are lots of old cars in Cuba, but you are not prepared.  There are something like 65,000 operational American cars on the roads of Cuba from before the embargo started in 1962 (not long after the revolution).  The parking lot was packed, and there were more classic cars from the 40’s and 50’s than not.

A Word About… Cars
Most of the classic cars or “Yank tanks” you see are taxis.  You constantly see them on the side of the road, hood up, and someone working on them.  It is said that everybody in Cuba is a mechanic (you have to be), and that Cubans are some of the most creative engineers around.  Parts are essentially impossible to come by, so the guts of these cars may be jury-rigged Toyota stuff or even diesel engines to make for cheaper fuel costs.  But the outsides are immaculate.  At any given intersection, you’ll see three or four of them, and that’s throughout the whole city of Havana.  We got to ride in a few of them.  All part of the charm.  We also learned that the ability to buy cars (since the State owns most of them) is restricted to people with special accomplishments, such as doctors who’ve worked overseas.  And even then, the cost can be astronomical.  We heard a used Hyundai minivan can fetch $80,000+!

The next thing you notice are the buildings.  It really is just like the pictures you’ve seen.  Beautiful pre-revolution decay.  Brightly painted in pastels, but fallen into disrepair and neglected for decades.  Salty sea air is harsh, and while the people take care of the insides of their homes, the outside is owned by the State and is generally left to crumble.  Dilapidated buildings are all there is there.  It’s everywhere.  We saw only a handful of buildings and parks in Havana that had been built since the revolution.  That’s the constant backdrop for our entire time in the city.  Another thing you can’t ignore: propaganda.  Images of Castro and Che, along with inspirational quotes… you see them as murals and bus stop benches everywhere the way you’d see McDonald’s ads around here.

After the bus trip to the center of town, we started off with a walking tour of some of the important buildings.  I’ll have to rely on Shel’s fancy pictures to capture the sights here.  The best I could do was camera phone.  We stopped for lunch, where I had the first of many so-so meals.  The consensus on the trip was that cuisine is not Cuba’s strong suit, and Shel confirmed that this is the case for other Central and South American places she’s visited.  My vegetarian needs probably didn’t help matters in that department, but I survived.  I got the usual yokel earful from the carnivores in the group, and Shel kept me from engaging in a debate and making some enemies early on.  Afterwards, we had a peek at one of the very few shopping opportunities of the trip: a used book market made up of vendors in a town square (Plaza de Armas).  We didn’t have any local currency yet, but we made plans to return on another day.  It was time to check in at the historic Hotel Nacional.  This place has been visited by celebrities of all kinds, both revered and reviled, from Winston Churchill to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hollywood royalty of the 30’s and beyond, and not a few pre-embargo mobsters (Meyer Lansky’s name comes up a lot).  We received our first “welcome drink” of the trip — in this case, a Cuba Libre (rum & Coke) using Cuba’s national Coke substitute “tuKola.”  (I say our first because apparently this is a thing in Cuba.  Each time we arrived at a hotel and many times when we arrived at restaurants, we were automatically issued a “welcome drink.”  With cocktails being free in some cases and only $3 or $4 in most others, I was unintentionally averaging about five a day.)  After a delayed check-in process and a quick dinner at the hotel buffet, we met up with some of our travel groupmates and made for El Polinesio, the ill-fated former Trader Vic’s tiki bar that was opened just months before the revolution.  Legend has it the original (American) manager was shot while running to catch one of the last flights out of Cuba!  The décor seemed mostly intact, but it was dead there and felt a bit rundown.  The drinks were tasty enough, and we spent some time getting to know each other.  From there, we visited a sports bar of sorts called El Conejito.  After a few more drinks, Shel and I turned in while the party animals continued on to yet more bars.

Day 5 - I awoke and washed my hair with communist shampoo.  We first toured one of Havana’s most famous cigar factories, watching and learning as workers expertly rolled three different kinds of tobacco leaves (based on shade) into the various sizes, shapes, and blends that make up their major brands like Cohiba and Monte Cristo.  We were not allowed to take pictures in there, but their quality control process was extensive.  Clearly they are deserving of their reputation as the world’s most expert cigar rollers.  There was a factory store built in where you could buy their official straight-from-the-factory products, but officially we were not to buy any, and certainly not allowed to bring them into the U.S.  So that’s all I’ll say about that.  The busy day continued as we toured an old folks home (where the elderly make crafts, socialize, and dance) as well as an elementary school where we were allowed to give the donations (officially “gifts”) that we’d brought them.  We learned about Havana’s city dogs, which are essentially State-owned dogs that roam the streets and are taken care of and fed, etc.  Like an institutionalize stray program.  These dogs are all over the city, usually sleeping in the middle of the street and accepting pettings from passersby.  We stopped for lunch at an Italian place (I had a pretty passable pizza), and then moved on to Callejón de Hamel, which is a colorful Afro-Cuban/Santeria art project consisting of an alley and the buildings around it, covered and filled with murals and sculptures.  We continued to Revolution Square (site of a tower dedicated to José Martí and government buildings bearing huge portraits of Che and Castro), and eventually to the vast and magnificent Colon Cemetery — one of the unexpected highlights of the trip.

A Word About… Water
In short, don’t drink the water.  Not from the tap, anyway.  You have to drink bottled water.  You have to brush your teeth with bottled water.  You have to make sure the ice in your cocktail was made with bottled/filtered water.  I mentioned communist shampoo, but the shower is no joke.  Don’t get the water in your mouth or you will die!  OK, not really.  But apparently, your “number 2’s” will turn into “number 3’s.”  Did I mention all the bottled water you get in Cuba was bottled in Cuba?  Hmmm…

We returned to the hotel for dinner and then attended a stellar lecture on the history of U.S.-Cuban relations.  There was too much to recount, but I feel like I walked away with a much better sense of the problem(s) and complexity therein.  For instance, Havana is old.  You walk on the same stones pirates and slave-traders and Russians and mobsters did.  Where else can you find a city that’s essentially been cut off and frozen for 50 years?  It’s crumbling all around them, and there isn’t money to fix any of it.  Now they could get money to fix it by further opening up tourism, but how long before there’s a Starbucks on every corner and Havana becomes another Cancun?  Another mini-U.S. like every other place on the planet?  It would absolutely ruin everything that makes Havana the gem that it is.  This is just one of the many problems Cuba faces, and it was explained well to us.  I feel so fortunate to have had a chance to see it before it all changes… because it will change.  It has to.

On a lighter note, after the lecture, it was a mad dash to get out to the local baseball stadium to see hometown heroes the Industriales play (for the towering cost of $3, which also got us into the only section tourists were allowed: the netted-in space behind home plate)!  I didn’t get to yell “¡jonrón!” as I’d desperately hoped to, but I must admit it was one of the most exciting sports events I’ve ever watched.  A real bottom-of-the-ninth nail-biter with a comedy of defensive errors.  Another comedy of errors took place outside the stadium after the game when — against my better judgment — we let one of the others in our group handle the taxi situation, leading us to stumble through the poorly-lit streets of Havana alone until we finally happened upon a cab about a mile out.  Still, Cuba is safe, and it seemed we were in no real danger.  For $1 a person, we were back at the hotel.

Day 6 - On our way to the first stop of the day, we passed Coppelia, described as “you’ve heard of an ice cream parlor… this is an ice cream cathedral!”  Our tour guide explained the concept of a “dollar date.”  It turns out that for about one dollar, you can have ice cream at Coppelia and see a movie nearby, so when you say you went on a “dollar date,” any young local will know what you did.  Incidentally, one dollar buys something like 20 scoops of ice cream or so we were told.

A Word About… Currency
Cuba uses two currencies.  There is the CUC, which is meant for tourists and visitors and roughly equates to a dollar.  Then there is the CUP, which is the currency of locals, and is worth about 1/20th or a dollar or five cents.  Locals are paid in CUP and can spend it in places visitors aren’t supposed to shop (such as subsidized stores for citizens only).  But CUCs are still highly valued considering many Cubans live on the equivalent of 20-30 CUCs a month.  This came up in unexpected ways during the trip, e.g. tour guides and taxi drivers making more than doctors simply because they have jobs that interface with tourists, giving them access to tips in CUC.  And you don’t have to worry about a maid going through your stuff, because none of them would risk their job which gives them similar access to CUCs.  Also worth noting is that American ATM cards and credit cards issued by U.S. banks don’t work in Cuba.  So you have to plan ahead and bring lots of cash.  For that matter, internet is slow and scarce, and U.S. phone providers are prohibited by law from operating in Cuba.  So no cell phone, no way, no how.

The tour continued through a neighborhood where aristocrats lived before the revolution, where the massive homes are now inhabited by embassy personnel, and where paradoxically simple Toyota sedans are parked in the driveways.  From there, it was off to our main destination: Las Terrazas national park.  We doused ourselves with bug spray, enjoyed a welcome drink, and ventured onto the trail.  We came across whole chicken families, visited the artist Lester Campa, and learned about the food rationing system and the rural medical clinic.  There was the park’s famous Café Maria, where we had the specialty: “Las Terrazas Coffee,” which tasted exactly like melted coffee ice cream.  We had a country-style lunch at a local farmhouse, chickens running around, and finished up touring the ruins of one of the many coffee plantations/haciendas.  It was interesting to see the layout of where they grew, dried, and milled the beans.  Also sobering to see the slave quarters.  Cuba’s main export was sugar, but its main import was slaves — outnumbering the U.S.

On the way back to the hotel, our final official stop was Fusterlandia, workshop of artist José Fuster, whose style falls somewhere between Gaudi and Picasso.  It was reminiscent of a McDonald’s playland made of trippy rounded architecture with every surface covered in colorful mosaic.

We hit the used book once more now that we had some money, and then returned to Hotel Nacional.  This was to be our big night out in Havana, including Shel’s long-overdue birthday dinner.  She and I dressed up and walked over to Café Laurent, a paladar in a 1950’s apartment building, with dining on the penthouse terrace.  It was the first broad selection of vegetarian food I’d found, so I pigged out.  Most of it was very good!  We caught a taxi over to Floridita for a daiquiri.  It was on our list as I’d read it was one of the top bars (worldwide) to visit before you die.  I guess it was a favorite hangout of Hemmingway, as images and sculptures of him abounded.  As luck would have it, two separate pairs of friends from our travel group walked in a while later.  Seems one of them had made friends with a local while playing chess earlier in the evening, and this local gentleman invited us all to a local spot.  We followed him for several dimly-lit blocks until we came to a building that looked dark and closed.  He knocked on the door, exchanged words with the doorman, and said he had to go talk to the boss.  He came back out a few minutes later and beckoned us in.  Turns out it was a locals-only hotel… a nice one at that!  And inside was a bar that was the most hoppin’ of any we saw in Havana.  Packed with young Cuban men and young and middle-aged Caucasian women tourists loving the attention.  All salsa dancing.  Exactly what you’d imagine when you think crazy Cuban salsa club.  Some of us danced with strangers, while others guarded purses.  Some of us were propositioned by working girls and/or their handlers.  Some of us danced with said working girls.  We gave our local connection five CUC for a round of drinks, and he kept the change — more of the CUC/CUP insanity.  We get a round of drinks for five bucks, and he makes money on the deal.  Anyway, when it came time to negotiate with the working girls, that’s when we decided to head back — much to the chagrin of one of our younger travelmates who was obliterated and miffed his dad blocked him.  We had a round a very late drinks on the back patio of Hotel Nacional and retired for the evening.

Day 7 - This was our day to leave Havana and head to Varadero.  We started out visiting the Morro Castle fort across the water from Havana.  We continued to the fishing village of Cojimar, inspiration for Hemmingway’s The Old Man And The Sea.  Then it was on to Hemmingway’s own estate: Finca Vigía.  It means “Lookout Farm,” and among other things (such as a pool and his boat) it includes a tower that looks out over the hillside.  It’s easy to imagine him being inspired to write with a view like that.  The drink offered here was a delicious daiquiri of pineapple and the juice from freshly-pressed sugar cane… which they do right in front of you with large cane stalks.   We stopped by Organoponicos, a large organic garden where residents grow their own food.  We got to wear stylish plastic bags on our shoes to protect them from mud.  In addition to puppies running wild, we got to see and try the “miracle crop” moringa and the noni fruit (which looks, smells, and allegedly tastes like blue cheese — I didn’t try that one).  We returned to Cojimar for lunch (and a honey-based daiquiri) and then hit the road towards Varadero.

On the way, we stopped at Cuba’s tallest bridge for some sightseeing and what is reported to be the best piña colada in the nation.  (Here, they pour the colada and leave the bottle of rum on the bar for you to complete it yourself, though I’m not sure if that’s what makes it the best.)  It’s a long drive to Varadero.  I napped on the bus some.  I think we all did.  One final stop before reaching our hotel was at a puppet museum in Matanzas.  Not really a museum I guess, as they still actively have performances.  I don’t know, but there were a lot of puppets.  Even “adult” puppets that flashed us.  Anway, on to the Meliá Varadero resort, where we were to spend our last two nights.  This is a big hotel for tourists, in an area for tourists, and it didn’t feel particularly “Cuban” to me.  It was very nice, but we could have been anywhere.  Our stay was all inclusive, meaning the entertainment, the restaurants, and the booze were all a mere show-of-the-wristband away.  We were given a welcome drink of course, but by this point in the trip, it was all a blur of sugary daiquiris, cuba libres, mojitos, and piña coladas.  Between having 5+ drinks a day and little in the way of protein, I was over it.  It was more buffet dinners, better than the Hotel Nacional’s but not much.  Afterwards, we met up with some travelmates, had some drinks, and explored the grounds.  There’s lots to do there… pool, activities, beaches, and romantic hideaways.  The “shows” ended up being strange dancing events, and after watching only a few minutes, we left.  We tried to get the giant game of Connect Four to work, but it was broken.  Instead, we played a game of giant chess, where some of us jumped on the board to replace and act as the pieces.  The outcome was an upset of our resident chess master.

Day 8 - This was our last day of real touring.  We drove by Elián González‘s house.  We visited an artist who makes award-winning tie-dyed textiles and is known for an incredible dress she put together with bicycle parts, including a parasol made of spokes.  She works using the sun on the roof while her husband crafts wooden humidors in the garage.  We visited another artist’s estate (Héctor Correa’s Coincidencia Farm) who also grows delicious fruit (like “apple bananas”).  We got a tour, but my favorite part was a small bamboo grove he had near a stream.  There were wild rabbits all around, and I thoroughly enjoyed a woman feeding their pet rabbit an apple banana.  I am easily entertained.  The final stop was a children’s community project where at-risk youth performed The Wizard Of Oz.  The wizard himself was an adult on stilts.  Each of the many children really had personality that came through in each role.  It was pretty adorable.

The rest of the day was open to us, and we chose to spend it enjoying the resort’s beach.  The conditions were just like Miami’s… hot enough to sunbathe and swim in the ocean.  Past the rocky part of the beach carved out of the cliff was smooth sand.  A hundred feet or so into the water was a sandbar which allowed you to stand and be only about knee deep.  Got some body surfing in.  As close as I live to the water in San Francisco, it’s so cold and murky that I never really get to take advantage of it.  So between Miami and Varadero, I wanted to milk it as long as I could.  As we drank our coladas in the sand, we noticed storm clouds in the distance.  Soon, we got a short and gentle sprinkle of rain, just long enough to give us the full (and nearly double) rainbow you see below (not Photoshopped… that’s a real picture).  When it cleared up, we walked to the next hotel over and watched an incredible sunset — our last in Cuba.  Back at our own hotel,  we planned to take a final dip in the hot tub, where we found a young Peruvian woman posing for bikini photos being taken by what appeared to be a security guard.  He walked away, and our group got in, one by one.  It was a small tub, and when the six(!) of us got in, it was ridiculous.  The water level reached the top when only four of us joined, so the last two pushed a ton of water overflowing all over the deck.  We were way up close and personal, legs all tangled.  If the Peruvian was freaked out (I would have been), she didn’t show it.  When the water started to cool, we exited, eventually leaving one of our guys behind to hit on the Peruvian.  Never mind the fact that when the rest of us exited, we left them in only about knee-deep water, jets sucking air.

After showering and dressing for the evening, it was another buffet dinner and drinks with travelmates.  By this last night, there was a clear divide in the group.  Factions, as it were.  There were some younger folks, but mostly older, and we had all had time to have run-ins with each other, good and bad.  We heard about how this couple was outraged at the rudeness of that couple, or about how that one lady had said something really offensive to so-and-so.  We’d all pretty much picked our sides, and so this last night, there were two separate tables.  Ours was the cool kids table.  The cocktail-drinkin’ and cigar-smokin’ one.  Your intuition might tell you differently, but if you know me then you can trust that ours were the easy-going folks who were not rude to the locals or each other.  We’d had enough of the wet blankets and the folks barking orders and taking pictures of locals like they were a zoo exhibit.  I will not miss them.  The tour guide did his best to spend time with both tables, and I did my best to drink and watch the lingerie fashion show taking place in the bar.  Eventually, Shel and I conked out, but I’m told the party animals stayed up quite a bit later.  There was karaoke and breakdancing, allegedly.

Day 9 - It was time to go home.  We got on the bus for the 2.5 hour drive back to the Havana airport.  Aside from the short pit stop at a roadside bar (where the picture below was snapped), it was a straight shot.  We went through the extensive process to get on the plane, including passport control, paying of exit fees, return of visa, etc.  While waiting to board, I got a real treat… I heard my name over the loud speaker in the crowded terminal.  It was hard to make out, but I distinctly heard my name and the word “customs.”  Naturally, I shit a gold brick, hastily explaining to Shel and others that I had to go, presumably to my death.  They took me into a small empty room, where my checked bag stood in the corner.  There were two uniformed officers who spoke no English.  I communicated as well as I could, and they motioned for me to put my bag on the table and open it.  I won’t tell you all the things that raced through my mind, but I was relieved(?) that they stopped at the first item they found: a bronze plaque I bought at the used book market.  They looked it over, then called in a third woman.  She was not uniformed, but had an air of authority and began examining the plaque closely with a jeweler’s loupe.  They exchanged Spanish a bit, and I only picked up “antiguo,” which I assumed was “antique.”  Turns out there are laws against exporting art or anything that looks old enough to be an antique without a special license, which of course I did not have.  They asked me where I got it and if I had a receipt.  I explained I had no receipt and that I bought it at the used libro market.  After some discussion, the woman waved me on, and I was allowed to repack my bag and keep the plaque.  Thankfully, they searched no further.

So after a short flight, we land in Miami.  All my travelmates sail right through customs and onto baggage claim… except me.  My printout has a big black “X” through it, and I have to stand in a slow-moving line where I am eventually interrogated by customs and asked face-to-face all the same questions on the customs form.  Though the agent was gruff, I was let through and finally out of the airport and free, back on U.S. soil.  The delay robbed me of the chance to say goodbye to the new friends I’d made travelling, but Shel didn’t, and I have contact info for them.  So after a long day of travel, and being detained by customs in both countries, I was ready to eat and then sleep forever in the Miami hotel.  We returned to the Cane Fire Grille, this time ordering all of the same food, but not splitting it… ordering all those same dishes each.  Uncomfortably full, but satisfied and relaxed, we hit the hay.

Day 10 - We had a late flight out of Miami, so we had time to kill.  We started off sunbathing by the pool, where — after getting no color the whole trip — I managed to get slightly burned in a very short time.  We walked down the street to see the new Hobbit movie.  Then we headed to the airport, got on a slightly-delayed flight, and landed in San Francisco after midnight.  And I was thrilled to be home.

What did I learn?  In addition to everything above, what miscellaneous findings did I take away from the whole experience?

  1. Cuba is safe and friendly.  Every time the bus rolled by a farmer on a tractor, or a child on the street, they’d wave at us and smile.  Shel noted that of all the Central and South American destinations she’s visited, Cuba felt like the safest by far.  And it’s not terribly expensive.  And Friendly Planet, based on this experience, is solid.  I’d highly recommend the trip if you can make it happen.  And do it soon before Cuba changes!
  2. Napkins and toilet paper are like gold in Cuba.  I don’t know why that is, but in some places they’re nigh impossible to come by.  And most public bathrooms have attendants that dole them out to you… for a price.  For as strong as the dollar is, I would have loved to just pay an up-front “unlimited toilet paper fee” so that I wouldn’t have to constantly worry about where I might get stuck with nothing to wipe with.
  3. My Spanish is better than I thought.  I pulled out some random vocab words and was able to understand most conversations.  I even had some rudimentary exchanges with out bus driver about his kids, and he spoke zero English.  Guess some of that stuff sticks with you after all!
  4. A lot of the weird regulations you’ve heard about, those ones that make you scratch your head on why our relationship with Cuba is so unnecessarily bizarre… well, they’re mostly true.  For instance, if someone tries to enter Cuba illegally by water… if they are caught in the water, the Coast Guard sends them back, but if they make land, they can stay permanently seeking political asylum.  Imagine now a Cuban who tries to visit the U.S. legally with a visa.  They apply and are often turned down by the U.S. as a flight risk.  That same Cuban can then make the easy trip to Mexico, walk right up to U.S. Border Patrol and say “I’m Cuban, and I want political asylum.”  Then we have to let them stay.  They have the option to become citizens.  They can still return to Cuba any time they want, and the Cuban government doesn’t care.  What sense does that make?  Just one example of many strange and contradictory policies we have.  After all these years, even the Russians and the Chinese are our allies now, and yet we hold this grudge against Cuba.  Unless I’m missing something, it sure seems pointless.  At least it’s purely between the governments.  The Cuban people seemed to love us, and they gave us no reason not to love them.
  5. Some places just have a charm all their own.  I will forever remember the feeling of cabbing through the late-night streets of Havana, crumbling but clean, and empty as a movie lot but for a few classic cars idling in this or that alleyway.  It was unreal.
  6. Cuba is not immune to the phenomenon I’ve noticed in other countries where English is not the native language.  People have shirts with English phrases on them that make no sense out of context.  Things like “Right on, brother!” and “Knock it off!”  I guess though maybe that’s the equivalent of when Americans get tattoos of Chinese and Japanese characters?

This was such an amazing and memorable trip.  I lost two combs, but I didn’t get Dengue Fever or the shits.  Big thanks to my favorite travelmates: Handcuffs, Jersey, Bobby Fischer, Mom, Indiandy, Andy’s Dad, the Chicago Two, and the Denver couple whom we did not nickname.  (My nickname was “Franklin.”)  And of course, Shel!  The trip would not have been the same without you!  Your friendship and tremendous help in planning were incredible from start to finish.  We travel great together!  Love ya!

(P.S.  I will not miss the Downer-Bickersons.)

The soundtrack of the trip:

  • Theme from “Miami Vice” – Jan Hammer
  • “Ice Ice Baby” – Vanilla Ice
  • “Santeria” – Sublime
  • “My Way” – Frank Sinatra
  • “Havana Moon” – Chuck Berry
  • “Guantanamera” – The Sandpipers
  • “Here I Go Again” – Whitesnake
  • “The Lazy Sunbathers” – Morrissey
  • “Badfish” – Sublime
  • “Come Monday” – Jimmy Buffett
  • “Smuggler’s Blues” – Glenn Frey

I don’t think Buddy Holly’s much of a waiter.

31 December 2012

You remember in 1994 when John Travolta appeared as hip gangster hitman “Vincent Vega” in Pulp Fiction?  Remember how it revitalized his career, bringing him back to the spotlight and letting us begin to believe him as something more than a pretty face who could dance?  Suddenly, he was able to pass as dark, quirky, and potentially even a badass in the right light (see Get Shorty, Face/Off, Michael, etc.).  It took something special though.  Not just the role, but the overall vibe of the movie.  It took the class and edge that directors like Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and the Coen Brothers bring to their features.  It’s not like Travolta didn’t have it in him all along — clearly he did.  But he needed the right opportunity.

Inspired by a conversation earlier this evening, I present my picks for actors that I believe deserve a John-Travolta-in-Pulp-Fiction style career resurgence.  Someone give these guys a chance to reinvent themselves and return to the spotlight!  I believe they’ve got it in them!

  1. Paul Hogan
    Yes, Crocodile Dundee himself.  I realize that maybe he was more of a 1980’s curiosity and one-trick pony, but he was charming as hell.  And though he must be way up there now (in his 70’s?), I feel like he’s got potential as a charming but menacing Bond villain or mob boss.  Someone get on that.  Time’s a-wastin’!
     
  2. Erik Estrada
    My love for Erik Estrada can be traced back to CHiPs and was in fact the subject of my very first blog post on MySpace many years ago.  I was briefly hopeful of a resurgence when he appeared in that great Butthole Surfers video in ’96.  Thought maybe he was getting hip again, but no such luck.  I just fucking love this guy.  He should be in every movie.
     
  3. Emilio Estevez
    Man, remember Breakfast Club and Young Guns?  This guy had just as much charisma as his brother or anyone else in the so-called “Brat Pack.”  There’s no reason Tom Cruise should be starring in these blockbusters year after year while we don’t hear a peep from Emilio.
     
  4. Ralph Macchio
    Perhaps “quirky badass” isn’t the direction to go here, but still, there must be something more we could be doing with Ralph Macchio.  It’s not like all his mega-appeal just suddenly dried up after the Karate Kid trilogy.  Couldn’t he find a place in a mob story or something?
     
  5. Robyn Lively
    Well since we’re talking about Karate Kid, ever since part 3 I’ve wanted to see more of Robyn Lively.  That’s all.
     
  6. Michael Keaton
    After Batman and Beetlejuice and several others through the early 90’s, he was all over the place.  Since then, it’s been all small parts or at least he’s been off my radar.  He’s totally ripe for a comeback, and as a real psycho too.  He used to do that well, and I bet he’d make an excellent brooding villain, assassin, or something of that ilk.
     
  7. Tim Curry
    He seems to be doing fine, but I think he’s vastly underutilized.  Look at Legend or It or Rocky Horror.  Aside from being one of my favorite actors, he has a natural creepiness that could be put to such great use.  I feel he’s being wasted on kids stuff these days, though that may well be by choice.
     
  8. Jeff Goldblum
    I know he’s been getting some work on television, and it’s not like Jurassic Park was that long ago, but still… Jeff Goldblum has a thing that only he does.  The same way Christopher Walken has a thing.  This thing Jeff’s got, well I’d like to see more of it.
     
  9. Clancy Brown
    Most memorable to me as the vicious Kurgan in The Highlander, his unusual look and sound have lent their talents to bit parts over the years, but I feel like he could really break out if given a central role — maybe paradoxically as an anti-hero — in a more serious film.  Why not?  The Highlander also introduced us to Chrisopher Lambert, who deserves honorable mention on this list.  Besides Highlander and Greystoke, I don’t really know his work.  But he was very entertaining in those.  Bring him back too, please!
     
  10. Tony Ganios
    I always relate to him as my first greaser role model through playing match-chewing “Perry” in The Wanderers, but he also appeared in the Porky’s movies and a few others.  I understand he’s retired from acting, and that’s too bad.  He had (and has?) more potential than we ever got to see him use.

Surely I’m forgetting some great actors and actresses, but these are the ones that occurred to me immediately.  Any other suggestions?

Benjamin: Doer Of Things!

28 December 2012

With the focus on my recent retreat last time, I neglected to get into general updates and current events.  As you may have noticed, I don’t use this blog as the detailed journal I used to.  The highlights though… my last TCB show happened at the end of September, and that was nice.  My favorite moment was the closure of getting to announce, “in our seven years together, we’ve performed 71 of The Smiths’ 72 songs” to some cheers… and then playing Golden Lights and getting to announce, “make that 72 of 72.”  So that’s a big chapter of my life behind me.  In the meantime, I’m on somewhat of a Smiths detox.

What else?  The Rumble Strippers spent a weekend (give or take) in the studio recording a half dozen songs.  For real this time.  Perhaps an EP in the near future?  And how about us getting a spot playing Viva Las Vegas 2013?  And signing with Tanoa at A-Town?  The hits just keep on coming!  Jared came to town for a few days, and it was so great to catch up with him and think about how life would be different if he lived here.  Oh and it’s December which must mean car trouble.  In the last couple years, it’s been drunk drivers, lightning strikes, and wild turkeys.  This year, it was me getting rear-ended and pushed into another car.  Sandwiched, if you will.  So it’s a rental for me for a while…

Recently I’ve been going out more, and all this going out has led me to explore the “spirit” world again.  Over the years, it’s often occurred to me that bartending seems like fun.  I guess I should probably confirm that with some of the bartenders I know.  I don’t see myself ever actually doing that for a living, but it couldn’t hurt to have those skills.  And maybe even fill in somewhere part-time just for fun?  The classes are more a time commitment than a significant monetary investment.  I’d like to know more about making drinks and what all the gadgets behind the counter are for.  I also have a minor fascination with the art of beer tap handles and of tiki mugs, though I don’t guess that would help me be better at the job.  And am I correct in assuming that serious bartenders generally aspire to have one of their own signature cocktails catch on nationwide?  I don’t know about taste, but in terms of pure cleverness, I’ve already got a couple up my sleeve.  First, the “Edwyn Collins,” which is similar to a Tom Collins, but also includes orange juice (get it?).  More recently, I had the idea for the “Ovaltini,” which would of course be a variation on the martini, but would include either Ovaltine, or maybe malt powder and some other creamy component… Bailey’s, Kahlúa, etc.  Maybe the malt flavor could even come from something malty like Guinness?  I’ll need to get into a bartending class and experiment.

UPDATE (December 2013): During my trip to Cuba, I had another great idea for a drink.  It’d be a shot.  A “Tetanus Shot,” which of course would have to be rust colored.  More research needed.

By the way, I just saw some interesting variations on my main drink: the White Russian.  Did you know there’s such a thing as a “White Mexican” made with horchata?  And a “White Cuban” with rum instead of vodka?  Yum!  Or that there’s actually a name for the White Russian variant I often end up with when bars don’t have cream?  It’s called a “Blind Russian,” and it involves substituting Bailey’s for cream.  Interesting…  I could see nerding out on this kinda stuff, but I’m guessing the local mixologists would just roll their eyes if you started throwing  terms like “White Cuban” around when ordering.

So anyway, as I said, I’ve been trying to get out more lately.  Throwing caution to the wind, and throwing myself to the wolves a bit.  And really just trying not to control every little aspect of my life.  Pushing myself to ignore the voice that always tries to shoot down new ideas, and then take it easier on myself when I fail.  Just cut myself some slack in general and let myself be imperfect and human.  A few very small experiments with this have taught me very quickly that life can drop some amazing things into your lap if you just let yourself be open to possibilities.  Putting myself in unusual or uncomfortable situations (at least for me) has paid off almost without exception each and every time I’ve tried it over the last few months.  Back-to-back days of back-to-back weekends of countless good times, new friends, and uncanny coincidences that would have never happened unless I loosened my grip on the reins a bit.  It’s incredible what’s out there waiting for you — all those possibilities — when you just take your damn hands off the wheel for a second.  It makes me think about all the opportunities I’ve wasted in life so far by being so rigid.

“For us, there is only the trying.  The rest is not our business.”
— T.S. Eliot

Yogi Bear returns from the forest.

16 December 2012

Well, I’m fresh back from my week-long meditation retreat as a Buddhist “yogi.”  The idea is that you go out into the forest with no cell phone and no internet.  You take a vow of silence and don’t even write notes to anyone.  You stay in a dorm-like closet, eat the food you’re given, have to do chores like vacuuming (chores! the very idea!), and meditate all day, every day.  Sound like fun?  That’s meditation, holmes.

First off, it’s beautiful out there.  You’re out in the middle of the relative/moderate wilderness (at least compared to The City), and you get some of those benefits.  Some mornings, I would see a few wild turkeys walking through the grounds, or a family of deer.  Being able to get 15 feet from them or so without them running off.  Not exactly the typical San Francisco experience.  The night sky was incredible, just being able to see so many stars that are all but invisible to me where I live.  (I wonder how the night sky is in Maui?)  And then having to be up every morning at 6am to go sit and meditate means you get to see a lot of sunrises.  And beautiful sunny hilltops from a valley covered in fog.  Pretty spectacular.

I mentioned Hawaii, but the whole experience did somewhat remind me of Hawaii.  I didn’t wear socks or shoes this whole time.  I was barefoot or in slippers.  This life of rolling out of bed, throwing on some slippers and starting your day just as you are is akin to that carefree lifestyle of vacationing on Maui that I loved so much.  Wake up, throw on your shorts and walk barefoot to the beach.  I should mention the food too.  It’s all taken care of for you, all vegetarian, and mostly delicious.  My favorite was on the first night… a salad dressing called “Hollyhock” which basically consisted of tamari, sunflower oil, apple cider vinegar, and nutritional yeast.  Ever had it?  I hadn’t, but it was delish!

There were some interesting rules, side effects, and observations I wanted to mention:

  1. Nike has perfected the sweatpant.  I haven’t owned sweatpants in a very long time, but I had to get a few pair to prepare for this trip.  They have it down in a way they didn’t when I was a kid.  The drawstring is sewn in crisscrossed, so you don’t even have to do the first half of tying them.  You just pull them as they are and they cinch up.  Amazing!  Plus they are reinforced at that stitch in the crotch that used to be the first place you’d get a hole every time.  Color me impressed.
  2. Right Guard works.  The teachers stressed again and again not to use any scented products out of respect for some of the other sensitive retreaters.  They said “trust us, we’d much rather smell you.”  I thought, that cannot possibly be true.  But they learned, and so did I.  One shower a day with their scent-free soap and no Right Guard, man I was pungent.  I didn’t realize how hard Right Guard (and Irish Spring) work for me every day.
  3. I didn’t want to use the alternative scent-free hair products, so I went au natural the entire time.  Turns out after five days of no shampoo or conditioner, I don’t need pomade.  My hair will stay slicked down on its own, all day.
  4. When I say silent, I mean silent.  People generally don’t make eye contact even.  The whole time.  It drove me nuts because it is in my nature to say please, thank you, excuse me, etc.  But you just have to accept that no one is intentionally being rude, you just can’t talk.  But this means that all the meals (which are taken in the dining hall) are face to face with people you can’t talk to or even look at.  Luckily, this is something for which I have much practice already.  A whole meal in silence and no eye contact?  So if you’ve dated me and thought I was good at this before…
  5. I got to see what I might look like with facial hair.  I decided not to shave until the final day, and when I did, I checked out my look with a goatee and various flavors of moustache.  I am most partial to the Hulk Hogan style or maybe something bizarre like a mini Fu Manchu with a separation in the middle… and though part of me would like to know what I look like with facial hair before I die (is there an app for that?), the overwhelming hipster-ness of moustaches these days will keep me clean-shaven, at least for now.  At least I have my chops.

Oh, and I had the Radiohead song “Reckoner” in my head all week.

As far as what did I actually learn spiritually?  Well, I won’t go into that.  I don’t think it’s done with me yet.  But I will say that being in silence all that time with a bunch of people on the same general quest as you… you cultivate a certain gentle demeanor and a sort or universal good will.  I mean, I always try to be “nice” in my day to day life, or at least I thought I did.  Fair, polite, etc.  I didn’t realize what a change this enviroment really was because we sort of eased into it.  It’s a disposition that I’m going to carry with me for as long as I can, with the goal of making it part of my natural habit.  The teachers warned us before leaving that we might be a bit sensitive as we transition back to the “outside world.”  Like a lobster without a shell is the metaphor I think they used.  They suggested we consider delaying before jumping right back into the thick of things, checking all our email, and so on.  I thought to myself, hey, I wasn’t that moved.  I’ll be fine.

Well, I wish I’d listened.  When I stopped for lunch on the drive home, not a half hour out of the retreat, I’d powered up my phone and first thing checked CNN.  The top five stories were about a school shooting in Connecticut.  26 victims, including 20 kids ages 6 and 7.  I don’t know how I would have reacted to that news two weeks ago.  But today, I admit — it was too much.

“If only [people] could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”
— Thomas Merton

You Know I Couldn’t Last

27 September 2012

On September 28th, 2012, I will play my 140th show with This Charming Band (not counting two radio appearances, an acoustic one-off with Orlando, and a Britpop set that 3/4 of TCB did under a different name).  That constitutes every performance TCB has given since its inception in 2005.  But this will be my last show with them.

You see, while I continue to love the music of The Smiths and Morrissey, the pressures of life and time management have made continuing simply impossible for me — at least at the level of quality this music deserves.  For some time now, I’ve found myself occasionally weighing the amount of time, effort, and dedication it takes to hold up my end of TCB against the joy I get from being a part of it.  For years and years, it was a no-brainer.  This Charming Band has been one of the best parts of my adult life, without question, and for a long time it was worth any amount of energy I could muster.  For dozens of reasons.  But it’s become clear to me that over time, the balance has tipped in the other direction to where the practices, the website, the flyers, the promotion, the Facebook, and even at times the weekends of shows… it’s like a second job.  It takes a ton of time and energy to keep that going.  And after seven years of doing it, I could feel myself starting to resent how much of my life it takes up.  Patience was wearing thin, and it was only a matter of time before something broke.  (That internecine moment finally came when we played a club ironically called “The Catalyst.”  Ha!)  I wanted some time back in my schedule and some relief from the commitment of giving my all to this project.  I love it, and I love the people I get to play with and for, but I know I’d never let myself phone it in for TCB.  So the only way out for me is to let it go completely.  And as it turns out, Paul and Michael are both leaving too, each for his own reasons.  Rather than watch as crowds dwindle over the years and we overstay our welcome, I feel like this exodus gives us a chance to burn out instead of fade away.  Disappear before we jump the proverbial shark.  End on top like The Smiths did.  I didn’t always think so, but I believe that TCB has grown into the best Smiths tribute that has yet existed.  And now we won’t be around long enough to lose our edge and let some up-and-comer pass us.  They’ll be chasing our ghost for years.  At least that’s how I imagine it.  :)

At this last show, Paul and I have planned out the set list, filling it with our own favorites.  Above all else, it’ll be a chance to say goodbye to all the great fans who’ve supported us over the years and made TCB what it is.  I’ll be absorbing as much of the night as I can, letting it cap seven long years of great experiences and rewards for what has been a lot of hard work.  Our friends For The Masses will be joining us, which I couldn’t be happier about.  They’ve always been my favorite band to share a bill with.  For those of you who are into mementos, I’ll bring whatever I have… I think I have a stack of postcards from the last few Slim’s shows, some picks, and maybe some other stuff.  It’ll be there for the taking if anyone wants a keepsake.  (I’m always embarrassed whenever people actually want and ask for set lists or picks, but hey it does happen occasionally, and so if you want them, they’ll be there.)

As I was weighing the decision to leave, I went back and watched old videos of our shows all the way back to 2005.  Many that we never posted for one reason or another.  Some were better than others, but even with their rough spots, seeing us do the obscure ones… Suffer Little Children, Pregnant For The Last Time, I Don’t Owe You Anything, etc.  We killed on those tunes!  I’m proud of that work.  Maybe part of that is just the novelty of hearing the songs I used to have memorized but haven’t played in years.  So many of the “hits” I have played now so often that when I hear the songs in my head, I hear TCB rather than The Smiths.  At the time of my leaving, This Charming Band will have performed all 72 Smiths songs and 35 Morrissey solo songs, for a total of 107 songs.  I have the list, but I figured it would take up too much room here.  Instead, I’ll share my favorite song nicknames we used behind closed doors (and I’m amazed how perverse many of them are now that I see them all together like this):  Accipitycept Yo’self, Axe, Back To The Out House, Barbie-ism / Babarism, The Boy With The Thorn In His Pants, Shirtlifters, Sweet And Sour Hooligan, This Chairman Mao, Unlubbable, (That’s) What She Said, Wonderful German, You Just Haven’t Urined Yet Baby, Boy Chaser, Certain Peepholes I Know, Jack The Tripper, November Spawned A Lobster, Now My Pants Are Full, Sling Your Wife, Mañana, and Fattycake.  There were many, many others, but just not as colorful, and I’m surely forgetting some too.

And while I’m at it, I’ll randomly dump some TCB ideas that were never used.  In the time TCB has been together, I’ve seen some of my favorite original ideas for tribute band names from way back in 2005 go on to be used by other new tributes, including my very favorite: “Unruly Boys.”  If tribute bands were judged only by cleverness without regard for recognizability and marketability, I would have added to the running: The Hated Salford Ensemble (which I still think is genius), Orchestrazia Ardwick, Duane Tremolo, The Paris Valentinos, White Dice, Freak Party, The Nosebleeds, The Tee Shirts, The Sulky Young, and Helen Wheels.  All have connections to The Smiths, honestly!  Go read up!

Suddenly, Last Summer
There were a lot of developments over the summer worth mentioning if only for the sake of having them be a part of my chronicling of TCB history.  We had the extreme honor of opening up for The Polecats, and Boz Boorer himself snuck out on stage to join us on “Jack The Ripper” and “Now My Heart Is Full.”  Afterwards, I got to talk shop and gossip with him a bit.  Truly a thrill.  (Later in the summer, I also caught up with his guitar tech Lloyd Tripp and talked more shop and gossip!  And it turns out a certain “quote of the week” was a memorable moment for all involved.)  And that same month, I spent an evening backstage with Andy Rourke at his Popscene DJ night.  In terms of music, we finally got to pull off some of the clever tricks we’d imagined in the past as well as some new ones.  We performed “Wonderful Woman” in its original “What Do You See In Him?” form.  We managed to seamlessly medley “These Things Take Time” with “Accept Yourself” and “You’ve Got Everything Now.”  We concocted a “Ballroom Blitz” intro for “The Loop.”  I finally got to do my recorded “you are sleeping” intro to “Asleep,” which includes a full minute of the original source recording of that sample (though technically, that happened last summer).  And we added “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get” to the end of “Now My Heart Is Full,” taking a page from Boz ‘n Alain’s book.  Our own Michael pushed it even further by instead adding the coda of “I Won’t Share You” into the mix.  Brilliant!

We got to hit some of my favorite places over the summer, making it an ideal last blast.  We made it out to SoCal, where even tribute guitarists get on-stage cheek kisses (from boys and girls).  In Riverside, I was reminded how much the Moz Krew magic can really make the show.  Getting home after dawn.  It was just like old times again.  Then we returned to Portland and Seattle for a memorable trip.  Great restaurants, a Lovecraft-themed bar, and a couple of packed shows with excellent bands that both rank among my favorite TCB nights of all time.  Even got to play a bit with For The Masses which is always a hoot.  Both of those nights were incredible all around.  The summer also included Slim’s and The Blank Club, two of my favorite venues to play.  And we’re wrapping it up at Du Nord.  TCB, this is your life!

A Crutch And A Cage
I’ve been honored to humbly attempt to share these songs and experiences with everyone who’d listen over the past seven years, and I will not soon forget the countless fond memories of playing shows and meeting all of you.  It’s a truly singular experience playing with TCB.  I hope my reverence for this music, first and foremost, is beyond question given my track record… but you’d have to be made of stone not to be exhilarated up there, pretending to be Johnny Marr, fans cheering and singing along to every word, anticipating every note.  But it’s a tether, too.  It’s both a crutch and a cage.  I was constrained by it in that the music, the arrangements, the expectations are all already laid out for me, with very few exceptions.  There’s a “right way” and a “wrong way” to do it.  It’s limiting.  But then I leaned on it as well.  It’s hard not to get addicted to the guarantee of a big crowd for TCB, which makes the prospect of slugging it out doing smaller shows with other musical projects less appealing.  I had intended my stint in TCB to be a stepping stone to an original project, and instead it kept me sedated when I should have stayed hungry.  I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s a strange relationship.  You depend on it, but you feel constricted by it.  And both too much.  In short, I knew it was time for me to move on.

And no sooner had I made that decision than something unexpected happened.   A weight was lifted off of me.  I could suddenly enjoy listening to Smiths songs again.  Of course I’ve never not enjoyed them, but after the relief of letting TCB go, it was like life as a civilian again.  I could listen to a Smiths CD and just enjoy the magic in those recordings, rather than analyze them into oblivion as I’ve been doing for the better part of a decade.  I could just be a fan again, because I knew that soon, it wouldn’t be my job anymore.  That small change of perspective made a huge and instant difference.  It moved me.  I had my Smiths back.

Things I’m Proud Of Accomplishing

  1. I’m proud to say this was my first band ever.  Not too shabby, eh?
     
  2. I’m proud to have gotten through all of The Smiths’ songs.  As much as I love The Smiths, to have really spent that kind of time unravelling the mysteries of each one I feel like was time well spent.  And with Moz solo, 107 songs is a mind-boggling number of tunes to have played, even over seven years.
     
  3. I’m proud of the reputation TCB has built up.  We made quality of performance priority #1, and I think it showed.  Pretending to be another band is a tricky business when you’re trying to maintain some dignity about it.  I think we all did a great job of being respectful of the legacy of The Smiths and doing them justice.  And then the connection that we’ve had with crowds, and making our shows a celebration shared with everyone… that’s something that TCB excelled at in contrast to the posturing of some of our competitors who took themselves far too seriously and suffered for it, reputationally speaking.  And with this reputation, we now hear from venues and bookers all over the world who are interested in booking us.  We heard from instrument manufacturers who want us to use their products on stage.  I can only dream of someday getting that kind of attention in future bands.
     
  4. I’m thrilled that we were able to help bring the music of The Smiths to a new audience.  We all know that Smiths fans are a small and dedicated bunch.  But we brought those people out of the woodwork and built up an audience that supported some big shows, even outside of our home base in the Bay Area.  It’s one thing to draw a crowd covering Led Zeppelin or The Beatles.  It’s quite another to succeed covering a little niche like The Smiths.  A lot of things had to fall into place for TCB to become what it has whereas many others have failed to thrive.  And we heard regularly from people who didn’t know or like The Smiths, but who were turned on to them by a TCB show.  The ultimate compliment!

Things I Wish We’d Done (“Regrets, I’ve had a few…”)

  1. We never got a chance to go head-to-head with our biggest rivals in the Smiths tribute scene.  There was never any competition with non-Smiths tributes because The Smiths are an unassailable choice of subject matter among most other musicians, and the fact that we did it well and had the success we did… we just couldn’t be judged by the same criteria as tributes to other bands.  We were in a class of our own.  But we had a nemesis or two among other Smiths tributes, and I maintain that in a face-to-face Pepsi Challenge, we would have objectively out-shined them.  Now I guess it’ll be left to the scholars to debate.
     
  2. We never played Tijuana.  We had an opportunity this year, but it wasn’t meant to be.  From what I hear from other tribute friends that have played shows down there, the fans are insane, and they love Americans.  Who knows what stories we might have brought back from a trip like that?
     
  3. We never toured Europe.  Granted, that would have been a colossal undertaking, with logistical nightmares that only a Virgo like Sus could have tackled.  And I’d probably have been too anxious and wound up to pull it off.  But can you imagine the fun that would have been?
     
  4. We never pulled off a reunion.  To explain, Orlando had the bizarre idea — but brilliant in its own way — to reunite Andy and Mike from The Smiths to play with us as a hybrid tribute band.  A show like that, those guys playing Smiths songs again, it could have been material for The Fillmore.  Sounds far-fetched and arrogant, I know.  The crazy thing is that he pursued it and got as far as discussing dollar amounts with both of their respective agents.  So crazy as it may have been, it had legs.  You gotta give Orlie credit.
     
  5. After my final show, we will have performed all 72 Smiths songs, which was my main goal.  Still, I wish we had gotten around to doing a few more of my favorite Morrissey solo numbers: Driving Your Girlfriend Home, I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me, The Operation, Spring-Heeled Jim, and maybe Late Night, Maudlin Street.
     
  6. We didn’t reach everyone.  It’s an impossible target to aim for, but I meet people all the time who love The Smiths, live in San Francisco, would love to see a TCB show… and have never heard of us.  I met such a person today as I write this.  We did an admirable job bringing people out to our shows.  Way better than anyone ever expected us to.  But it’s always disappointing to hear about potential fans that were out of the loop.  Where were you seven years ago, dude?

Things I Will Miss Most About Being In This Band

  1. Road trips.  All the travel and hotels, there are just too many memories to begin to describe.  But I think travelling together and sharing accommodations — while there’s good and bad there, and it can certainly be trying at times — does amazing things for bringing the band closer together.  I can’t think of many things to compare it to in adult life.  A band road trip is a special thing.  The camaraderie among bandmates in general is great, and a good road trip is the height of spending quality time, in my experience.
     
  2. I’ll miss late night eats with friends and bandmates.  There’s nothing better after a long show than a 3am dinner/breakfast at Sparky’s or Denny’s (or most recently Mini Gourmet and their bleu cheese buffalo jack sticks!).  And then of course getting to bed around sunrise.
     
  3. I so appreciated all of the fun people, new friends, and memorable characters I got to meet at our shows and just because of TCB in general.  It’s sad to think I won’t have an opportunity to see many of them again or meet the many more that are waiting out there somewhere.  There are the friends that come to many shows, and the friends whom we’d always see in certain towns.  And the people we all know and recognized time and again but had never actually met.  I’ll miss that zoo of nightclub dwellers and Smiths fans across the country.  Surely, I will see you again in far off places.
     
  4. I’ll miss the clockwork precision with which we were able to nail some of these songs in recent years.  Nick is an excellent drummer, and when the rest of us all weave our parts in… well, it’s an incredible feeling to be locked in with other great musicians who really know what they’re doing.  Of course credit is due to The Smiths for writing this stuff and having the textures be so rich to begin with, but participating in playing it and getting lost in it, even just at practice, it’s really satisfying.
     
  5. The weight TCB had in the world of tribute bands.  I watched as Nick did all the booking and built us up to bigger and better gigs.  He did it all himself, and that gave us a ton of autonomy so that TCB could go headline some big shows, pick whomever we wanted to be on the bill with us, pay what we thought was fair, and had to answer to virtually no one.  We built up a reputation with many venues and bookers to where we could count on cycling through each of them a couple times a year, year after year.  Calling shots like that and writing your own ticket doesn’t seem to be the norm, and I imagine I’ll come to miss that kind of power in my future bands.
     
  6. I will miss playing the first few seconds of “How Soon Is Now?” and hearing everyone cheer.  It’s hard to have that experience as an original band because not only do you need to draw a packed house of people, but they all need to know your songs really well.  And then you need to have written a song that is recognizable and iconic enough that the whole crowd knows it immediately and is absolutely thrilled to hear it.  So yeah, how many bands ever write a “How Soon Is Now?”  And really this points to getting to play to large crowds of superfans.  TCB shows were what they were not because we were there, but because there was a rabid crowd of maniacs hanging on every note of the songs that saved their lives.  It’s not gonna be easy to build that up again, or maybe ever have it again period.  I’ll be sorry to lose that.
     
  7. OK… the ego will show here a little.  If I’m being honest with myself, I guess I will miss the prestige, what little there is to be had.  I’m talking now specifically about the very narrow world of “playing Smiths songs on guitar.”  But being really good at something, and being regarded as somewhat of an expert in it.  Feeling important to that community.  That’s hard to walk away from.  Any amount of recognition for that stuff would be appreciated, but to be recognized and stopped in public at clubs and other bands’ shows to take pictures… or asked to sign a set list for someone… or for a total hack like me to be asked if I give lessons… I know it’s silly not to just brush that off, but I’m only human.  Or when people — musicians or no — would meet me for the first time, hear that I’m in a band, and then assume it’s some shitty little bar band like everyone else… and then getting to be like, “Actually we’re headlining Slim’s on Saturday.”  Oh, that feels good.  But in contrast, there were times back in the golden age of 2006 and 2007 when there were people who seemed to adore us and would come to see us regularly, or would clamor for us to return to this or that town.  I’ve watched over the years as those same people have settled down or disappeared.  They’ve moved on and forgotten us.  Of course, why wouldn’t they?  It’s definitely the sobering side of that same coin.  One moment you’re letting your ego get inflated, and the next you’re reminded that dude… nobody cares.  Ha ha!
     
  8. Along the same lines, I must also admit that I’ll miss the reaction I got from other musicians.  Typically, they’d know The Smiths and they’d know how complex the guitar work can be.  Being able to pull it off at the level I can now is a great way to show off some chops and — as Katt Williams would say —  show I ain’t bullshit.  Now I’ll have to rely on making an impression in other bands with other material (which is sure to be less impressive by virtue of the fact that it is something other than The Smiths).  I will no longer have the automatic cred.  And that confidence is worth something.  I’ll miss being able to walk into a new venue in a new town, and already have a following of curious locals who know us by reputation and/or love The Smiths, and then confidently exceeding their expectations.  I remember at our second show ever, I got totally psyched out when two guys stood right in front of me just before we started… they crossed their arms and said skeptically, “alright, let’s see it.”  Cut to: at a recent show, someone who hadn’t yet seen us came up to me and said, “I’m a guitarist.  I’ve heard good things about you, but you have some big shoes to fill.”  I smiled and said, “Wait and see.”  And after the show, unsolicited, he came up to me enthusiastically saying, “You were right!”  That’s another experience that will be hard to replicate anywhere else.

I think the current lineup of TCB is one of the strongest, if not the strongest we’ve ever had, and it’s not easy to leave something that’s so successful.   And so of course I’ll wonder if we could have taken it further.  I guess if Nick is successful in carrying on, we’ll get a glimpse of that.  Just as I’m burning out, I feel like TCB is getting renewed exposure in a variety of ways.  I wish it had come a year or two earlier, as I might have been along for the ride.  A lot of hard work went into learning these songs, promoting the band, building the name, etc.  It’d be a shame for any of that to go to waste.  I hope TCB’s reputation stands the test of time.  I also hope that some opportunity arises in the future to use my Johnny Marr knowledge again in some way.  Maybe some sort of reunion one day, if only for a birthday Slim’s show or an L.A. weekend.  Maybe filling in for another Smiths tribute somewhere.  Maybe some new one-off thing in the future.  Who knows?  I’m not bored of The Smiths, I’m just tired.  But I’m open.

Orlando once told me “bands get ugly.”  He was talking about the infamous Smiths court case, but that’s universal, and he had the personal experience to know.  Bands do get ugly.  Friends become enemies.  We may not all get along anymore, Orlie, Nick, myself, and some of the others… but we had an adventure in our time, didn’t we?

There’s probably more I could say about how honored I am to have carried the torch, and grateful for all the great people I’ve met, but I think I probably covered it more eloquently when I told the whole TCB story for our Five Year Anniversary.  It’s all still true, and that’s a good long read if you have the time.

Thank you to The Smiths and to Morrissey’s solo band for all of the great music we’ve celebrated and “borrowed” over the years.  It’s been amazing learning and playing the art you’ve created.  Thank you friends, fans, supporters, and especially bandmates past and present: Orlando, Wally, Nick, Peter, Isaac, Cameron, Dave, Paul, Virgil, and Michael.  It was a hell of a ride, and for a time, it meant everything to me.  I’ll be sad to go, truly.  TCB has been one of the most important things in my life for nearly a decade!  But you know I couldn’t last.

Hurtling towards the inevitable end,
With love and respect,
Benjamin

Memory: Freedom ’97

29 July 2012

I’m kicking off a new category of posts here.  It’s a category of Memories, and while in a way almost everything I post on this blog could be classified as memories, this category will focus on specific recollections I have that strike me and awaken a certain feeling.  You know what I’m talking about, where you smell a scent that you remember from your youth, and suddenly a ton of stuff comes flooding back.  I just feel compelled to capture those moments all of a sudden.  We’ll see how it goes in the months to come…

It’s funny how very specific (and not necessarily remarkable) moments can stick with you.  At the time I had no way of knowing that here some 15 years later I’d find myself thinking about that specific day’s mundane commute.  It was just a simple drive home from junior college, one of hundreds of identical drives I would make in my early college career.  And yet, here I am about to discuss it.

It was the fall of 1997, during my first semester of college.  I was returning from a Saturday morning event that my Native American studies class was putting on.  It was early afternoon, and I had the top down in my beat-up old Le Baron.  It had rained a little earlier, but the sky had cleared leaving crisp fresh air and my favorite kind of weather: sun shining through dark rain clouds, reflecting off wet pavement and illuminating the emerald hills of 680.

The feeling I get when I think about that drive… it really speaks to that time of my life.  These were good years for me.  Classes were easy, life was simple, responsibilities were few, and the path ahead of me in the immediate future seemed clear.  Every day, throwing my backpack in the backseat, putting the top down and driving home in the sun.  Cranking Led Zeppelin or Aimee Mann or whatever else I listened to in those days (that is if I wasn’t tuned to Live 105 or Alice@97.3 and tolerating that horrible era of post-grunge, but I digress).  To think of just the simplicity, at least in my memory.  And the hope and anticipation of it.  I was young, absorbing it all, the world laid out in front of me.  So much wonder about what that night, that year, college, love, and life might offer.  Basking in the simultaneous notions that 1) there was so much I didn’t know and that absolutely anything could happen for me in the future, and that 2) I was somehow invincible and in control of it all.  My every swing was a homerun.  And I was just biding my time and preparing for some opportunity for greatness that would reveal itself to me soon.  The memory is one of freedom.  A sense of wonder that I took for granted then, and that as an adult I don’t think I ever got back.

“What you have become is the price you paid to get what you used to want.”
— Mignon McLaughlin, The Neurotic’s Notebook, 1960

Digging In The Dirt

31 May 2012

I had intended to write about this some time ago… well, considering it’s been nearly two years since I first cleared out my storage unit (which started in earnest in September 2010, and was conceived at least as far back as April 2008), I have really dropped the ball.  (And in letting so much time pass, the Homeric epic I might have initially envisioned will now probably be a little anticlimactic.  But let’s give it a go.)

Most of that stuff sat on my living room floor for a few months while I picked through it slowly.  I threw away what was irreparably broken or otherwise ruined by time or neglect.  I cleaned what was dirty.  I kept precious few things, just a couple of office boxes in the end.  Not bad, considering I started with something like 39 boxes/buckets of all sizes.  For everything that was left, I organized it into piles, bagged it, and labelled it.  I gave some things away to friends with young family members who’d enjoy them and to teachers who could use them for their classrooms.  I donated many stacks of books and old VHS tapes.  The collectible type toys — figures and their vehicles mostly — I gave them to my aunt with the understanding that I’d organize them and tell her what they were, she’d take the time and effort to sell them on eBay, I’d have a clear conscience because they went to someone who could use them, and she’d keep the money.  When all was said and done, she built a new deck onto her house with the money she made.  Everybody wins!

The reason I’m finally getting around to writing about it is that while I got 99% of it done in the first six months or so,  I’ve let the last handful of things sit on my floor in the year or so since.  For no good reason, really.  I’m in the process now of finally wrapping it up though.  I’ve hooked up the VCR to see if there’s anything family-related or worth saving on any of the last few homemade VHS tapes.  I’m donating or trashing the last few little things.  It’s finally gonna be “done.”  Since so much time has gone by now, it’s hard to write about this and convey the same emotional weight it had when I was actually in the midst of it last year.  It was cathartic but also difficult to revisit all this stuff and to let it go.  These were the artifacts of my childhood.  There were memories attached to each one of them, and so much came flooding back each time I’d open another box and start sorting through it.  Memories of where and when I got them, where I played with them, and with what friends.  The ritual of uncovering each one, dusting it off, and carrying it to the sink.  Washing each figure as if preparing it for burial.  It was good to let it go and get it out of my life, but it was also good to have one last moment with each one and to experience each of those memories again.  I had a lot of mixed feelings dropping them off for donation or watching them disappear from eBay, one by one.  I did the modern thing: I took pictures of some of it since a digital picture can evoke the same memory and requires no physical space.  And I also kept a pretty extensive list of what I found, which I’m about to present.  As for the stuff I remember but did not find, I must have had the sense to sell it off in garage sales years ago before I left home.  I’ll warn you that this is for my own benefit.  It’s an inventory of all the noteworthy things I found when I cleared out that unit.  A list of memories for me to refer to in the future.

A big thanks to my folks for indulging me all this stuff.  I know it cost a lot of money, took up a lot of space, and came after no small amount of my whining.  But for what it’s worth, it really did mean the world to me in those days.  G.I. Joes and the like, they were my gold and silver.

Things I Found (And Only Kept A Little Of)

  1. Army Ants – I know at some point I had a ton of these and distinctly remember playing with them in the sand in the the little park by our house in San Jose.  I only found a few in storage though.
  2. Batman (from the 1989 movie, as well as some “new” DC Super Powers)
  3. Battle Beasts
  4. Battlestar Galactica
  5. Beetlejuice
  6. BraveStarr
  7. Captain Power
  8. Centurions
  9. Chuck Norris’ Karate Kommandos – Specifically just the purple ninja.
  10. C.O.P.S. – One of my all-time favorites; a bigger, more detailed, and more extreme evolution of the G.I. Joe approach to action figures.
  11. Dick Tracy
  12. Dino-Riders
  13. Flash Gordon – Specifically it was just Mandrake The Magician, from Galoob’s 1986 “Defenders Of The Earth” collection.
  14. G.I. Joe
  15. Glo Friends
  16. Guts!
  17. He-Man (a.k.a. Masters Of The Universe) – I had a ton of these, as well as Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain, both of which I think I “traded” for with neighborhood kids.
  18. Hot Wheels / Matchbox Cars
  19. Indiana Jones (from Raiders Of The Lost Ark)
  20. Karate Kid 2 – Specifically just Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese, but who else do you really need?  No mercy.
  21. Legos – Hundreds and hundreds of them, from as far back as I can remember.  Some may have even been my sister’s.  If those things could talk… millions of configurations over the years, and no doubt covered with my tiny fingerprints.
  22. Madballs
  23. M.A.S.K.
  24. McDonald’s Happy Meal Toys – Too many to mention, but I recall Muppet Babies in cars, Fraggle Rock in vegetable cars,  transformers that went from robots into McDonald’s food items, Tiny Toons reversible cars,  Mac Tonight (on a motorcycle, boat, jeep, etc.), and Berenstain Bears.
  25. Micro Machines – We’re talking cars, motorcycles, planes, and a few pieces of the little “town” playsets.
  26. Mighty Max
  27. Monster In My Pocket
  28. M.U.S.C.L.E.S.
  29. Playmobil
  30. Power Lords
  31. Rambo
  32. Robocop
  33. Rocklords
  34. Rocky
  35. Sectaurs
  36. SilverHawks
  37. The Simpsons
  38. The Skateboard Gang
  39. Skateboard Smack-Ups – Both of these were part of my brief flirtation with skateboarding in the 80’s.  I liked the video games.  I collected the decals.  I liked the culture.  I got a nice board (which was stolen, spotted, and then returned thanks to Jonah’s family… a great story actually).  But I had little interest in actually skating myself.  Go figure.
  40. Smurfs
  41. Spiderman – This also included some other Marvel figures like Venom and Sabretooth.
  42. Spinjas
  43. Star Wars – This was mainly the figures and a few vehicles, but there was also a Play-Doh set and a giant Darth Vader doll.  I can recall dozens of stories about Star Wars toys… like how I used to turn Yoda’s house upside down to make a boat for G.I. Joes, or how I used to chew on Luke’s scarf because it looked so much like chocolate.
  44. Starcom
  45. Starting Lineup
  46. Super Naturals
  47. Super Powers – These were the subject of the famous “T, G, & Y” incident which haunts my dad to this day.
  48. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  49. Terminator 2
  50. ThunderCats
  51. Visionaries
  52. Voltron – I had the big robot that split into five little robots and a few of the human characters.  I have a vague memory that the big robot was a big deal to get when I was young.  It was definitely the “big” present for that year.
  53. Wheeled Warriors
  54. Wrestlers – All sorts… some old hard plastic NWA guys, some WWF Thumb Wrestlers, several of the big LJN Wrestling Superstars, and a nearly complete set of the highly-detailed Hasbro wrestlers, ring and all!  Those last ones were just cartoony enough to be fun, but still so detailed.  Really unique.  I remember the magic of picking up my first one… it was Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake at the San Jose Target.

Things I Expected To Find But Did Not

  1. Fireball Island – I did find some of the pieces, but that cool volcano game board was lost.  Too bad, it would make such a fun table game at a tiki party.
  2. Gilligan’s Island Floating Island (Playskool) – I found the hut and the tree, but the island itself was gone.
  3. Inhumanoids – I had just two of those big guys, Metlar and D’Compose, the latter of which goes for about $100 on eBay.  Bummer.
  4. My Pet Monster
  5. Star Trek – I had a few figures from the original Star Trek show that I inherited from one of my cousins… don’t know if it was Michael (who also gave me a few pewter AD&D figures I was lusting over) or Steve (who gave me those early NWA wrestlers).  In any event, I don’t know where they went, but I bet they’re worth something now.
  6. Colorforms – I can’t seem to recall any specific sets I had, but I distinctly remember playing with these.  And during some camping trip with my aunt’s family, I got hooked on some Smurf-related knockoffs where you’d use a coin to scratch/transfer the characters onto a background.  Oh well.
  7. Stuffed Animals –  I didn’t necessarily expect to find many of these, but a few that I distinctly remember are a stuffed rabbit in an airplane with string attached (from Easter one year), as well as another pink bunny that was shaped like a ball.  I think that one pre-dated me.  Might have been my sister’s.  And then my old chicken feet slippers.  How I loved those!

If you’re curious, there is a favorite.  While at times I had major love for all of the things I’ve mentioned, the winner and ultimate toy of my youth was, far and away, G.I. Joe.  They were an absolute class act.  The attention to detail, every little part, every character unique and deeply developed, every weapon creative and exquisitely crafted.  The vehicles and playsets were clever.  The diversity was huge.  And maybe the best thing about them was that they lent themselves so well to acting as other characters… meaning that when I had just seen the latest action movie, it was easy for me to adapt my stable of G.I. Joes to instead be the characters from Predator or Back To The Future or Cyborg or whatever.  And the staircases and coffee tables of our house, along with bunkers and subway train cars fashioned out of odd-shaped Styrofoam packing, provided an endless array of variety for Little Ben.

I guess focused mainly on action figures up there.  There was lots of other stuff too, of course.  I mentioned the books that I donated.  There was my beloved stash of Garbage Pail Kids, as well as a vast collection of sports cards.  Baseball, football, hockey, basketball.  For a brief time in the early 90’s, I was into sports.  But not really playing them too much.  Mainly I was into the aesthetics and the idea of them.  I loved the artwork like Upper Deck‘s use of Vernon Wells paintings, or the “Visionaries” series from Fleer.  Even the colorful and stylized representations on early Skybox cards.  I liked the uniforms and team logos.  It was all about the imagined versions of sports (think NBA Jam) rather than the actual sports themselves.  I could probably write a whole separate blog about my experience with sports cards, but for now I’ll just mention how much I loved Upper Deck in those days.  Every little detail of their product.  The holograms, the multi-exposure photos.  Their foil packs and limited edition cards.  Heaven.

There were my old video game systems (Sega Genesis, CD, Saturn, and Dreamcast… I think my original Nintendo maybe too, but not the old Atari 400, which I hope Dad still has somewhere).  Some old (but still very cool) comics like The Punisher, Venom-related Spiderman, and Infinity, Inc.  There were some late 80’s issues of magazines like Mad and Cracked.  It was hilarious to flip through those, as each page jarred a memory.  Proof that so much of what you see really is all still up in your brain somewhere.  I had a dozen or so issues of WWF Magazine that I gave to Virgil.  I found my entire collection of cassettes, which I chronicled here.  There were remnants of all manner of sticks, swords, Nerf, Wiffle Ball bats, toy guns (like Entertech), throwing stars, etc.  Most of the ones I remember though disappeared long ago.  A Gremlins gumball dispenser.  My original View-Master, with tons of discs like Pete’s Dragon and Superman.  I found old metal lunchboxes… He-Man and McDonald’s, though the Thermos inside each was missing.  I found a collection of my mom’s old buttons from work in one of them.   Some little rubber ninjas and wrestlers that I remember playing with at Disneyland (which have since gone to Deanna’s classroom).  A rubber ape and a couple of rubber monkey face puppets from Cost Plus.  Some bigger toys like a red monster truck (reminiscent of The Animal).  This is all just what I noted down or remember.  There were scores of other trinkets, too many to identify or mention.  If I were to take the time to go through this list, I’m sure I’d have more to add.

I also had the experience of exploring my final backpack.  After wearing through a new backpack each year of middle school and early high school, the black Eddie Bauer I got sometime around junior year finally lasted… all the way through my entire college career, miraculously.  It still has the metal stud my older and cooler punk friend (Jeff?) put on it for me in Physics class.  Anyway, I opened it up and had to laugh.  Roughly ten years ago, after my last final, I must have come home, dropped it, and never looked at it again.  It was still filled with the textbook from my last class, tons of papers, a binder,  and my trusty TI-85 calculator, now crusty with corroded decade-old batteries.  Yes, that backpack served me well.  I haven’t been able to bring myself to dump it yet.

I’ll leave you with a little bit that I wrote as I was going through all this storage unit stuff sometime in the winter of 2010/2011.  I didn’t get around to posting it at the time because I naively thought I’d finish the whole task and write about it soon after.  It’s more than a year late, but it still captures something essential about this experience for me…

I’m going through my boxes, and I am astounded by all the college paperwork I have. All the transcripts, transfers, requirements, forms. So many hoops to jump through, places to be, papers to write, things to memorize. So complicated, so much responsibility… and no power yet. Hats off to any of you out there going through this right now.   It’s a wonder anyone survives that time in their life. I’d have a complete breakdown if I had to do all that today. There’s a reason people have nightmares of showing up to class naked well beyond their college years.  Maybe I was just less fragile then, but I’d be in tears today.

All this school paperwork.  Class schedules and those little certificates you’d get for being a good student in your middle school science class.  What is it that makes me think twice before chucking it?  Why is it hard at all?

Today I learned that my mom — bless her — saved every single report card from kindergarten on. I know this because I just found them. Along with what must be every chicken-scrawled paper I ever wrote in elementary school. Seems sad to throw it all out now.  I kept some of the early papers and the yearbooks of course.  A couple of fawning graded papers from professors telling me how successful I’ll be and a few margin doodles in class notes that were particularly good.  The rest?  Well like I said, part of me didn’t want to chuck it, but do I really need every little award and report card?  And I’m not kidding, there were hundreds.

Writing it and doing it are two different things.  In the end, I think I kept more of those early report cards than I let on here.  They don’t take up that much space after all, and someday maybe my kids will want to see this stuff.  Anyway… thanks, Mom!  :)

Dragon, Slain

24 May 2012

Well friends… I finally got on a plane and returned to Europe.  The first time since Jared and I went to Ireland all those years ago.  Fitting then that he’s the reason I returned: he got hitched!  I spent a couple weeks across the pond, first to visit him in London and see his life out there, and then to Italy for the wedding and festivities.  Verizon kinda fucked me with some bad information that led to me finding out just before leaving that my phone actually would not work in Europe.  That stressed me out at first, and I considered a loaner or a pay-as-you-go, but in the end I lived without it perfectly fine.  Grabbed some free WiFi when I could, and lived without phone the rest of the time.  Two weeks was a long time to be gone, and I missed home and people here.  But of course it was amazing too.

Part I – Smoke Lingers ‘Round Your Fingers
After a difficult airport goodbye, needless to say I was not looking forward to a 10-hour plane trip.  British Airways was great though.  Individual screens and on-demand movies made the flight a lot better than it could have been.  I finally got to see “The Boat That Rocked,” which seemed appropriate for a trip to London.  I was able to sleep, but only a little.  I didn’t leave my chair once in the 10 hours.  It was 11am local time when I landed, and Jared was kind enough to meet me at the airport.  We went to take the train into downtown, but just as we boarded, they announced that there was a fatality on the tracks… which I understand is a common occurrence there (suicides).  Jared is experienced enough in travel now to know that this means trains can be stopped for hours, and cabs are about to be in high demand.  We caught a cab right away and left.  Along the long ride, I learned about cabs in London.  It’s nothing like it is in the States.  For one, you have a city of 12 million people to memorize if you’re a driver.  And they do memorize it.  It takes three years of training, and they call it “The Knowledge.”  These guys are serious experts.  And it’s not a profession popular with immigrants.  Literally every taxi driver I saw during my stay in London — and there were many — was an older U.K. native.  They apparently have the reputation for being nationalistic and way into football (read: soccer).  For instance, when Jared gets in a cab, they ask what hotel he’s going to, and when he explains that he lives in London, they immediately ask “when you going home?”  All part of the charm I guess.  Also, all the cabs are the same model of car, specifically designed to be cabs.  And as such, they are very well laid out for their purpose.  I was thoroughly impressed with the efficiency of the whole system.  Not to mention that these guys are masters at maneuvering through insanely tight holes in insane traffic.  We’re talking regularly operating with a couple inches of room to spare, and at high speed.  At least the pedestrians don’t have an automatic right of way… which was amazing to see.  Pedestrians didn’t get angry or indignant when a cab sped around a corner in front of them, because they knew it was their bad.  So unlike California!

It turns out there was someone holed up in a flat not far from Jared’s place, threatening to set off a bomb or something.  The streets were blocked off and the traffic horrendous.  We got out of the cab and decided to walk the last half mile or so.  Of course it started to rain, and so that walk carrying luggage was not ideal.  Logistics were proving to be hit or miss, but eventually we got to his flat right downtown, where he graciously let me stay to save on hotels.  After freshening up there (I felt and smelled not so great after the long and humid flight), we set out to sightsee.  We were able to go on foot due to his proximity to central London.  We had some Indian food at what is apparently the oldest such restaurant in the city.  As luck would have it, next to us was a table of retired cabbies, all having lunch and sounding like Michael Caine.  At one point a wife called and was greeted with “I told you not to call me now, I’m with my mates!”  That’s how you do it, son.

Anyhow, we walked through Covent Garden and out to Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, and The Houses Of Parliament.  Then along Whitehall to Scotland Yard, and on to Westminster Abbey, St. James’s Park, and Green Park.  The parks impressed me with the bravery of their squirrels and pigeons, who will happily take food right from your hand, as well as the beauty of some of the exotic birds there.  My favorite was the “coot,” which is unlike any other waterfowl I’ve seen… almost dinosaur-like!  By the way, did you know it’s a big deal if you touch one of the Queen’s geese (which apparently live there)?  Hearing this reminded me of my continuing confusion over the royal family’s role in England.  They’re not really in control, but they’re not normal citizens either.  For instance, you can touch Jared’s geese all you want and no one cares.  (For some clarification, check out this excellent video on the U.K. vs. England vs. Great Britain, which seems to summarize a very complex system pretty well.)  In any event, we finished up at Buckingham Palace, mused about if the guards would shoot us if we stormed the gates, stopped for iced tea, and headed home through Piccadilly Circus.  By the time all this walking was done, it was becoming increasingly clear that I might die here.  Not only do the cars have the right of way (as I mentioned), but I was constantly looking the wrong way when stepping into the street (damn left side driving countries)!  But I’m here, so I guess I survived.  So that was Day 1.

Day 2 – In their infinite mercy, Jared and his wife let me sleep late.  We headed to Primrose Hill where they had an appointment to see a few flats for sale.  Still rainy.  The neighborhood seemed like the Noe Valley of London.  We walked through a canal there, which would be sketchy in the States but seemed safe enough here.  Saw a busker playing Bob Marley.  Saw the Pirate Castle, which looked cool from the outside, but we didn’t go in.  Jared’s wife split to run errands, and he and I went on to Camden, which I guess is like their Haight.  Music and tattoo shops everywhere.  Edgier people.  Went to The Elephant’s Head pub on Christina’s recommendation, expecting it to be a rockabilly bar of sorts.  There was a great jukebox that included a Link Wray album, but the afternoon crowd was decidedly “normal.”  After a valiant effort at some London Pride and a bag of U.K.-specific flavored Kettle Brand “crisps,” we moved on.  We checked out the Stables Market, which is like Hellboy II‘s “troll market” in almost every way.  A crowded, open air food market of all sorts, along with shops selling all manner of art and bootleg t-shirts.  On the way home, we’d intended to hit the Natural History Museum, but it was just closing.  That evening, we went to an 80’s themed American diner called “The Breakfast Club” and had great food.  There’s a refrigerator door there that’s actually the portal to a scenester speakeasy called “The Mayor Of Scaredy Cat Town,” but they would not let us in.  Clearly, I’m not American or hip enough.  Instead, we had a drink down the street at Ten Bells, owned by a friend of a friend.  Turns out, this is the place where Jack The Ripper used to select and stalk his victims.  Creepy!

Day 3 – Still sleeping till 1pm, which works out to about 12 hours a night.  The three of us went to high tea at The Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum & Mason.  It was my first-ever English tea, served with milk and sugar (a.k.a. “white tea”) and it was delicious.  I was hooked and ordered it many other places before leaving London.  If I recall, the meal included a cheese pie, along with a course of scones, and then two towers of amazing tea cakes.  By the time we were done, none of us could indulge in the final course from their “cake carriage.”  It was the most enjoyable meal of the trip!  Fortnum’s was neat in general.  Like a very upscale department store with shades of Brookestone.  Their beautiful blue color (which is essentially Tiffany Blue, though I don’t know how the copyright works there) is everywhere there, and it’s lovely.  Afterwards, Jared and I met up with a friendly MBA classmate of his from Spain, and we all saw The Avengers 3D, released a week earlier than in the U.S. for some reason.  Also renamed “Avengers: Assemble” there I guess to avoid confusion with their old television show.  More white tea afterwards, saw Jared’s office building, traded the Spaniard for the wife, and headed to Soho to find a late dinner.  The only thing open was Moroccan, which suited me just fine.  A long walk home saw us pass perhaps England’s only Baskin Robbins, which was sadly closed at that late hour.  Then another night of trying to make my body fall asleep.

Day 4 – Jared and I set out for the Thames, passing St. Paul’s Cathedral and crossing the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern.  We didn’t go in though, instead taking the opportunity to walk along the south bank.  We headed towards The Shard (still under construction), crossing again towards the Gherkin, then on to the Tower Of London.  We considered going in (and I’d love to next time), but there was so much to see and not enough time.  We continued on to cross Tower Bridge (which I was sure was “London Bridge,” but I was mistaken) , viewing more of the south bank, the HMS Belfast, and the distant skyline of Canary Wharf, where apparently there are a lot of American companies, and I must admit it looks a lot like Chicago.  That night, I read in a Starbucks and drank white tea while the happy couple completed their final pre-wedding dance lesson.  Afterwards, I had vegetarian bangers and mash with them at The Troubadour.

Day 5 – It was a travel day, and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t up at a decent hour!  We had breakfast at a Greek cafe, packed up, and took a very long and stressful cab to London Gatwick, due to traffic which nearly made us late for our flight.  But lucky for us, our boy’s extensive business travel and airline status meant that we were rushed through security, and when I say rushed, I mean we were shown to a private screening room, empty but for the standard X-ray and staff to operate it.  No one else in there.  No line.  It was a whole security line (in its own large room) just to the three of us.  Needless to say, we no longer had to worry about delays.  His status helped both of them get automatic upgrades to first class, and they would have upgraded me too just for being with him (not even on the same reservation), but first class was too full.  It was pretty neat to see how he rolls.  When it comes to travel, he is fucking elite.  It was off to Naples…

Part II – Americano
After a short and pleasant flight, we landed in Naples.  I was immediately faced with the stereotype of disorganized and somewhat rude Italy (at least by American standards).  From the moment the plane landed, the people all seemed boorish, pushing ahead, not waiting what I would consider their turn.  We deboarded the plane to get on a bus, which drove us all of about 100 feet to the other side of the building, where we were let out to go to border control.  It was comical.  Then people were climbing over each other to be first to get their bag.  For example, picture the conveyor belt that disperses checked luggage.  Imagine it is 50 feet long.  The first 25 feet of it was ridiculously crowded, and the last 25 feet empty.  We were near the back of the crowd, and rather than wait just 10 feet down the line to have open and sole access to get their bag, people would climb over us and push people out of the way to get their bag immediately.  I don’t know if I’ve described that clearly, but I was too shocked to even laugh.  It was so needless.

We had a driver to take us to our destination of Positano, and he was predictably crazy and aggressive when driving, as was everyone else.  The hour-long journey included a winding, white knuckle drive that makes Highway 1 look like I-5.  I was just about to reach my limit of car sickness when we finally arrived at the hotel.  I was so pleased with my room though.  Charming and plenty big enough for what I needed, it had tile floors and a drinking fountain next to the toilet.  It had a curtain-less shower that let me look out the window to the ocean while bathing.  That window view was incredible in ways I can hope to describe.  It looked directly out onto the beach and town.  I tried to take pictures and video, but there’s just no way to capture it in words… waking up each morning and coming home each night, and throwing open that big double window, breathing in that ocean air, and looking out over the peaceful Mediterranean Sea.  It was a postcard come to life.

Day 6 – The next morning, I joined the two of them at the breakfast the hotel offered.  I went on to do this a few more times over the next week… lots of good pastries, fruits, etc.  Jared showed me around town (what little of it there is).  Positano really is beautiful.  It seems there are a million passageways and staircases winding through the shops and restaurants.  So many ways to get where you’re going… or to get lost.  I had delicious granita (and later in the trip, mixed with iced tea).  I was tricked into sipping Jared’s disgusting Campari,  and again he suckered me into trying limoncello on an empty stomach.  It tastes something like kerosene and lemon, and without any food in your system, you can feel it searing its way down through your guts.  I tried a lot of limoncello over the course of the trip but never really got used to it.  Later in the evening, I explored the town and beach a bit more on my own.  I saw many of the town’s infamous stray cats, along with a lone pair of ducks, and an occasional dog.  I saw some of the little grocery stores selling produce like huge heirloom tomatoes and and the area’s famous gargantuan lemons — they were the size of cantaloupes.  That’s not an exaggeration.  It may not surprise you to learn that in addition to the art galleries and women’s clothing and jewelry stores, Positano’s other big export is all manner of lemon-related souvenirs.  Anyway, I finished out the night with dinner alone: a plate of gnocchi at Buca Di Bacco.

Day 7 – These first few days were pretty tame.  Relaxing and eating, you know.  Read a lot.  Took naps in the middle of the day, which I generally never do.  I took showers just for the ambiance and relaxation.  Sat in my window ledge and admired the view.  This particular day, I had a giant plate of caprese for lunch down at Covo Dei Saraceni which was so massive that I couldn’t even look at caprese the rest of the trip.  Picked up some Euros from the ATM, though virtually all of my valuables and important documents stayed locked in the room safe for the trip.  Picked up some Italian cookies and water for the room.  In the evening, we had our first massive dinner, this time on the lower level of Buca Di Bacco.  I experienced my first quattro formaggi pizza of the trip.  Got to meet up with Jared’s just-arrived parents as well as get to know some of his many brilliant and interesting international friends.  People from every corner of the globe doing big things with their lives.  Mostly I talked to a South African newlywed living in Singapore.  Oh, and Jared casually dropped a request that I be his best man… at the wedding happening in about 36 hours.

Day 8 – The next day basically consisted of two big meals.  First was the rehearsal brunch, of which I was now a part given my best man status.  It was a gut-busting several-course meal outdoors at the Michelin-starred Hotel Palazzo Murat.  Then for dinner that night, anyone in town for the wedding descended on Chez Black (noted for celebrity clientele like Denzel Washington).  It was another plate of gnocchi sorrentino, which is the only way they seem to prepare it in Positano.  It’s basically a sauce of tomato and mozzarella.  Now, I’m not complaining, because gnocchi in Italy is still gnocchi in Italy.  I’m just saying by the end of the trip, it started to taste like Chef Boyardee.  Of course throughout this time, there was more cookie buying and no small amount of hastily scribbling an emergency best man speech on hotel stationery.  By the way, that’s my room pictured below in white…

Day 9 – Wedding day.  Jared and his bride had spent the night apart, and so in the morning we were just killing time together.  In the early afternoon, I got dressed up in my suit and headed down to the cathedral with him.  The ceremony was beautiful.  Hard to go wrong in a place like that.  Got to pelt them with rice and flower petals.  Some confused tourists sat in the church to watch the ceremony and stood outside taking pictures of us taking pictures.  I don’t know how they thought that was appropriate, but such are the perils of wedding in Positano I guess.  We retired to Covo for pre-reception cocktails.  I got a chance to talk with a few more of Jared’s friends from Brussels and Genoa.  Super cool guys who may join Jared and the Spaniard for a tip to SF for a triathlon.  I had a sip of 20 year old cognac that the bride’s family had brought.  The reception included many delicious courses of dinner and dessert, as well as some entertaining Armenian customs and folk dancing, also courtesy of the bride’s family.  I delivered my speech, which was well-received (in that about two dozen folks who had ignored me thus far made a point to come and introduce themselves).  I danced my ass off, demonstrating that I have the moves like Jagger.  After the reception, the heartiest among us continued on to the town’s only nightclub, which was steadily filling up with crazy vacationing Eurotrash.  I chatted with a few more of Jared’s friends including one with great music taste, another telling me about real life in Moscow, and another from Australia who’d sailed part of the way to Italy… essentially solo.  Thanks to the DJ, I again demonstrated how I still have the moves like Jagger, and about the time I heard a dance remix of The Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin’,” I realized my one White Russian had done me in!  I started to feel dizzy and decided it was time to get back up the hill to my hotel.  Luckily, I ran into some buzzed wedding friends staying at the same place, and we all jovially walked together.

Jared has some great friends out there.  In another life, I could see myself in that circle.  All these guys I mentioned, these successful and handsome international playboys with charming accents… if we get them out to SF for that triathlon or Bay To Breakers next year… ladies, watch out.  That reminds me, outside of our wedding party, that night at the club was the only time on the whole trip where there was anything close to a concentration of good-looking people.  True, most of it was the European equivalent of the Jersey Shore, but I get the appeal of being young and converging on the only nightclub in town while on a remote vacation, trying to hook up.  Good for them.  Did I mention it was lonely on this trip?  Positano is for lovers.  Just ask the giant neon Durex vending machine in the middle of town.  I’m not kidding.

My last word on the wedding: damn, I look good in a suit.  Sometimes I forget, and cameras don’t ever do it justice.  I ought to wear them more often.

Day 10 – The next day was a huge catered goodbye brunch at Murat.  So much good food, and they just kept bringing it and bringing it!  People started to say their goodbyes, while others planned to stay an extra few days.  A big group of us took a day trip to Pompeii by bus, which was brutal and tested the limits of my car sickness.  But Pompeii itself was incredible.  The amazing craftsmanship and technology there, not to mention the good shape it’s still in.  My favorite was the polished white stones they put in their streets to reflect moonlight!  Beautiful marble everywhere.  They repaired after earthquakes.  Used concrete.  Had structures in the streets to control and divert traffic.  Saw a few of the dogs that live on the grounds and sleep all day.  I loved the bath house with a tiny mosaic floor and marble basins so preserved as to look almost new.  The size of the neighborhoods too… it really is a whole preserved city which used to hold thousands of people.  Alleyways, storefronts.  The old barracks and the odeon.  And then of course there was the famous brothel, with its preserved “menu” paintings inside, showing the services available there.  Among them was a man with two peckers (which Jared and I later referred to constantly as “due pini”).  And then there was the brothel street sign in the form of a phallus fresco on right on the side of the building.  (It may not surprise you that I purchased a bronze statuette of a disembodied phallus with wings at the souvenir stand.)  Pompeii was my kinda town.  I wonder what their rents are like.  To think that after 260 years of constant excavation, they’re still only 75% of the way done.  The mind reels.  That night was a challenger for best meal of the trip.  Il Capitano served me a bowl of mini zucchini medallions with basil and stir-fried in so much vinegar, they almost tasted like salt and vinegar chips.  Yum!  And also… weird!  It also didn’t hurt that their quattro formaggi pizza included a very strong smoked cheese.  Again, we were eating outdoors, admiring the nearly full moon reflecting from a clear sky onto the calm Mediterranean.  That huge reflection of the moon makes you feel like you’re in a painting.  It’s every night out there, but here in SF, it’s almost unheardof.  When is it ever clear out on Ocean Beach?  The serenity was only broken up by a fireworks from a private party down the coast.  Jared’s brother-in-law suggested it might have been a neighboring town’s annual “Bite This, Positano!” fireworks display.

Day 11 – Somewhere around this time, I had seen enough blue suede loafers that I felt confident in making the call that it is some kind of fashion phenomenon in Europe.  Mark my words, it’s a trend, and I’ll bet it comes to the States before long.  Anyway, it was time for us to take a day trip to Capri.  I survived the boat ride and the white knuckle driving along shear cliffs.  In addition to the fancy designer stores and coral jewelers, there were small shops selling homemade limoncello (read: moonshine).  We visited the breathtaking Villa San Michele, built by Axel Munthe on the ruins of Tiberius’ own villa.  Munthe was an interesting guy, building priceless archealogical artifacts into the walls and furniture of his house.  We saw a perfume factory, but ran out of time before we could see the Blue Grotto or do more than snap a few distant photos of the Faraglioni.  An average meal back at Caffe Positano finished off the night.

Day 12 – Our last full day in Positano.  I joined the happy couple’s respective families at their shared villa for brunch.  By this time, my knees were destroyed from all the walking up and down hills and stairs all over this vertical town.  We took a last minute boat ride to Amalfi, and there we saw the massive cathedral,  full of tombs and relics.  Had some great gelato.  Had a look at a nice and lewd public drinking fountain.  Discovered the shoe art of Inna Panasenko, and finished off with a quiet dinner at Covo with just the families.

Day 13 – Going home.  We shared a couple of vans to Naples, said rushed goodbyes, and took our separate flights.  I was fortunate enough to share a flight with Jared’s family though.  A layover in Frankfurt gave me the chance to compare Germans to Italians, if only for an hour or so.  In that time, I got the impression that the Germans are way more organized and polite.  That airport was humming along like a machine, and everyone I dealt with at the airport was super nice.  I stocked up on a couple of pretzels and a danish, and hit the last leg home.  Nearly 12 hours for that last leg, and so I invested $120 in moving to an exit row, which I ended up having to myself.  So worth it for a flight that long.  I will definitely do that in the future.  Had room to stretch out, was right near the bathrooms, and had a screen to watch movies on demand.  Which I did.  Like four of them, including Chronicle, The Immortals, Anchorman (tip o’ the hat to my previous Ireland trip, and the rest of Sherlock Holmes 2.  I didn’t sleep much, but I survived it just fine.  And nothing like getting home after a trip like that, and getting back to the loved ones you missed.

Well fuckity duckity (or fuckity doo dah, as Jared would say)… I feel like I should have some big philosophical wrap-up here, but I really don’t.  I have effectively gained back all the ground I lost to anxiety years ago in that I have proven to myself that I can handle those logistics.  It was my last dragon to slay, the last thing I was telling myself I was too scared to do, and now it’s done.  It was amazing to get to spend so much time with Jared again of course.  It was lots of fun, and I’ll remember it always, but there were no big revelations for myself or my life plans the way I had hoped.  I learned that Jaffa Cakes are delicious, and that London is expensive.  Ridiculously and wastefully so.  I’m serious.  For real.  I learned that t-shirts and jeans are not all-purpose wear in Europe the way they are in California — and that I need to pack some nicer clothes next time.  I learned that the high school game where you make a circle with your hand below your waist and trick someone into looking at it so you can punch them in the shoulder twice… it’s still fun.  I learned that Nicole loves lamb.  And thanks to the bride’s family, I learned more Russian than Italian.

  • previet = hello
  • paca = goodbye
  • pajalsta = please
  • spasibo = thank you
  • da = yes
  • nyet = no
  • fsyo = it’s done
  • golka = kiss (at least in context?)
  • zot kinees = shut up = susminna (in Armenian)

I can’t thank enough Jared’s family for treating me like one of their own.  It really kept me together on the trip.  And of course I can never thank Jared and his wife enough for their extreme generosity and thoughtfulness in making this trip possible for me… and honestly as easy as it could possibly be.  They watched out for me and had everything to do with making this vacation as amazing and memorable as it was.  I couldn’t have hoped for a better first foray back into international travel after a long hiatus.  I love you guys!  Come out to California again so I can at least begin to return the favor!  And hopefully I won’t let so much time go by before I’m out there again.

“The wild, cruel beast is not behind the bars of the cage.  He is in front of it.”
— Axel Munthe

Soul Purpose

22 May 2012

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to life lately.  Asking myself if I’m really making the most of my time on earth, or if I’m mindlessly going with the flow because it’s easy or because I assume I have no other choice.  I was reading the April 2012 issue of Guitar Player magazine a while back — bear with me — and the editor (Michael Molenda) offered up a gem, just the latest great quote encouraging us to be present and mindful and take the time to sit down and savor life’s great moments.  As he put it, “‘Live every day as if it were your last’ often gets rewritten as ‘Make sure every day is crammed with meaningless, self-important crap that allows you to feel busier and more valuable than the person next to you.’”  And that pretty much sums up how I’ve been feeling about a lot of the things that I spend my time and energy on.  I have this increasing sense that it’s time for some big changes.  Some once-every-ten-years kinda changes.  That could mean a pretty big shake up.  Maui might be one part of it, and just think of all the consequences that might have.

Before I get too deep, how about some more lighthearted updates?  I’ve seen some great shows lately.  Most astonishing was The Darkness at The Fillmore.  That show was jaw-dropping.  The ease with which Justin Hawkins seemed to set the stage on fire with his soaring falsetto, acrobatics, and guitar mastery… I mean it was stunning.  I saw him drop a plectrum, kick it back up sideways hacky sack style, catch it, and start his solo, all while looking not at all surprised it worked.  It is a contender for the best live show I’ve ever seen.  Other highlights include Devo (looking very old but not caring… oh, and also sounding amazing), The Buzzcocks, Pulp (another fantastic show), and a one-time reuniting of our old friends Dead Souls.  After dragging my feet about it, I finally broke down today and got tickets for Morrissey in Stockton this weekend.  Happy birthday, you old diva.  You get my money again.

My own music has been good, too.  The Rumble Strippers have had a few successful shows and seem to be climbing the ladder a bit.  Our name is getting out there.  We’re working on new songs.  We recorded four songs in an actual studio (which was new to me), including one I wrote.  It’s all very promising.  And then TCB has an incredible new singer (Michael) who is possibly the best I’ve ever heard outside of Mozzer himself when it comes to those songs.  He’s got the moves, the voice, and is a terribly nice person to boot.  We’ve got a ton of shows coming up this summer, including trips to Portland, Seattle, and SoCal, and even a date opening for The Polecats.  Not to mention the great shows last weekend at Slim’s and The Catalyst!  Slim’s had some epic moments like walking on to “Imperfect List,” playing the “Subway Train” intro to “Everyday Is Like Sunday” as well as having David’s help on keys.  He also joined us for “Jack The Ripper,” and Nick took on an acoustic guitar for “King Leer” and “Seasick, Yet Still Docked.”  We closed with “Now My Heart Is Full,” which Michael ingeniously medley’ed with “I Won’t Share You” and then bowed and walked off while we continued playing.  It was perfect.  But come to think of it, the last couple months were brutal in terms of shows.  I think at one point I had six or seven straight weekends of shows, alternating between TCB and The Rumble Strippers.  But I guess that’s a Cadillac worry, as they say.

I had a minor surgery which was new for me as well.  No stitches, but dealing with caring for it led me to have my first panic attack in ages.  It happened at the hospital.  Good times.  But at the end of the ordeal, I was left with a better sense of my own resilience and confidence in what I can deal with, and that’s the ultimate antidote for anxiety.  Let’s see, what else?  Had a fun time at the pinball museum in Alameda thanks to Eden’s surprise party for Margaret.  Damn, there was a ton of stuff in past months I never got around to mentioning, including my brief attempts at ice skating and Bikram yoga, as well as ongoing vocal lessons.  Then there were two big trips.  One was Europe (yes, Europe!), but more on that next time.  The other was Viva Las Vegas, which after all these years I finally attended, along with my expert C-Po.  I’d intended to write about it last month, but preparing for Europe kept me swamped.  I’ll do my best to recall it now…

I’d been waiting to go to Viva since around 2004, but the right situation just never presented itself.  C-Po calls it “rockabilly summer camp.”  And specifically for vintage-lovin’ girls, it’s the “Fashion Olympics.”  Both descriptions are totally accurate, it turns out.  We spent most of the time within the Orleans Hotel, as that’s where all the events were anyway.  We perused the many, many booths of clothes, jewelry, pomades (where I picked up some Layrite swag), stickers, etc.  There was a vegan custom shoe maker from the U.K. that I plan to work with in the future.  We gambled and won and then broke even.  (Penny slots, dude.  It’s the only way to go.)  We didn’t stick around for the whole of Elvira’s show, but we caught most of one of Charles Phoenix’s hilariously-narrated slideshows.  We took advantage of several free dance lessons, and though I’ve forgotten many of the steps already, I was a damn decent jiver and bopper for a few days there.  We skipped the car show due to time constraints, and limited our time at the pool party to a quick walk around it just to get the feel.  We took a walk through a fancy mall full of only the highest-end designers’ storefronts.  We saw tons of friends and spent a good amount of time with the drummer from Quarter Mile Combo.  I heard there were something like 8,500 paid attendees this year.  Then there was that damn wristband, pretty and detailed as it was… I did not appreciate having to keep it on 24 hours a day for four days.  The “rockabilly summer camp” vibe was really all about all these scene people under one roof, staying in the same hotel as if it were a giant dorm or a sleepover party.  And of course everything is open 24 hours a day.  Everyone getting all dressed up to be seen each night.  It was fun, I can’t deny.  And as for that “Fashion Olympics” aspect, I don’t doubt it now.  There were countless unique and wonderful outfits.  Obviously I don’t know what I’m looking at, but C-Po  and her friends all know and recognize who’s bringing it and who’s a poseur.  I actually held my own, poseur-wise.  You know, part of me was staying away from VLV just to avoid being anonymous in a sea of people who look just like me, and that’s valid.  But if I’m being honest with myself, I suppose there was also the fear that I would feel like an imposter among people who are rockabillier than thou.  But there was none of that.  If anything, I saw more neophytes than veterans, and I felt totally confident and comfortable in my own skin there.  It probably helps that I’m old now.  In fact, from what I saw, there were lots of badly dressed people, and I looked comparatively great.  It was interesting to see all the different directions the neophytes and the veterans alike have taken a relatively small amount of cultural reference and tried to make it look flattering and authentic.  What I saw ran the gamut from cherry print everything, to just a flower in the hair, to totally immaculate vintage from head to toe.  I saw full-on cat suits, incredible dresses, and even overalls.  For the record, I lost track of how many compliments C-Po got on her outfits, from friends and strangers alike.  It was an embarrassing amount though, so apparently she really brought it.  In terms of this scenester posturing that we’re all guilty of, my favorite moment was in an elevator when a wannabe queen bee — who didn’t know who she was talking to — responded to a casual compliment from C-Po with, “Yeah I don’t know if you know this, but my purse is like super rare.  It’s worth like $1300.”

Over the course of the weekend, the dining was hit or miss.  Right there in the Orleans, there’s a T.G.I. Friday’s, which disappointed us twice.  However, there was a decent Denny’s-esque diner and great Asian place there too.  The in-house food court had a Subway and Baskin Robbins, neither of which I took advantage of, but I got the obligatory veggie burger at the Fuddruckers there.  Their facade was decorated with jukebox record streamers, a cardboard cut-out of James Dean, and a cringe-worthy banner that read, “Fuddruckers loves rock-a-billy’s.  Welcome back!!”  There are so many things wrong with that, I don’t even know where to start.  We ventured away from the Orleans twice, and it resulted in the best and worst meals of the trip.  I’m fairly certain that food poisoning from Garduño’s is what led us to have to stay in sick one night.  But then brunch at the Mon Ami Gabi bistro at the Paris was one of the best meals I’ve had all year!  Warm brie with black pepper, honey, hazelnuts, and croutons?  Crisscut fries with blue cheese dip?  Some kind of amazing salad that I can’t remember now?  Yes, ma’am.  I even did my share of drinking over the weekend, mainly to collect the commemorative mugs, including a boot, a skull, and a bowling pin.  I vaguely remember some delicious Sailor Jerry punch.

Music was the main attraction for me, of course.  I got to see most everything I intended to.  Seeing Duane Eddy and The Ventures in person was definitely something I’m glad to say I did.  The “legends” show featuring older stars on the verge of senility was interesting.  J.D. McPherson was alright.  Saw our friend Irving play in The 454’s.  I forget who else now.  The highlight was The Polecats, who were just full of energy and sounded great.  Awesome to see Boz cutting loose and really playing!  We even got to meet him and Tim Polecat after the show!  Now with all that went on during the weekend, it’s just impossible to see it all.  The bands that — in hindsight — I wish I’d seen include:  Si Cranstoun (who is apparently Jackie Wilson-esque and amazing), Voola & The Jayhawks (which are all but a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins tribute), Jinx Jones (whom Paul has seen locally and has raved about), and Blind Rage & Violence (a Link Wray tribute).  There were tons of other bands too that might have been nice.  C-Po knew many of them, but I did not.  Seeing the massive list of events for VLV meant seeing a lot of rockabilly band names alongside each other.  And that led to some observations, and ultimately to us creating this:

So that was Viva.  I’ll definitely be doing it again next year.  Which I guess brings us back to the bigger “life” stuff…  I didn’t do a “New Year’s” blog this year the way I’ve done in the past, but that’s not because I haven’t been reflecting.  As I mentioned, I’m considering some big changes.  And I mean big.  Virtually no sacred cow is safe.  This public forum isn’t really the place for me to get into it, but I’m pondering things.  They’re not quite formed into specific resolutions, but instead loosely arranged into areas of my life that are due for an overhaul.  A while back at work, it was suggested that each of us take a shot at creating a personal “mission statement” to succinctly sum up what we’re all about.  At first, I thought it was kind of a silly exercise, but I admit that when I sat down and really gave it some thought, the end result was pretty valuable.  This is what I settled on.  My “mission” is:

To search for meaning and understanding, strive for absolute integrity, actively recognize and experience as much joy as possible in every moment of my limited time on earth, and do what I can to protect the right of all living things to do the same.

I wrestled with the precise phrasing of that statement, considering alternatives for nearly every word, and making sure the connotation and message was exactly what I meant to say.  Now that was written sometime back in 2011, and though I didn’t intend it, it really fits well as a kind of framework for me to work with as I do some life overhauling to get more aligned with my real goals.

  • So to search for meaning and understanding makes me think of Spirit Rock, the Buddhist retreat.  I’ve been thinking about doing a week out there for almost a year now, and I just know it would be helpful, but I may have to put it off (depending on my vacation time situation what with Europe burning up two weeks).  Spirituality is something that I had a real awakening with while I dealt with anxiety a few years ago, and I know that there would be a tremendous benefit to pursuing it further.  I really have to make this happen.
  • Then to strive for absolute integrity, that comes naturally to me.  It may not surprise you to hear that “Responsibility” was my #1 strength according to StrengthsFinder.  It isn’t always a good thing though, as I hold myself to an unrealistic standard sometimes.  That’s where the word “strive” comes in.   That’s to remind myself that I should shoot for perfection but remember that I am human too.  Another big thing for me here is to continue to get comfortable with anger — allowing myself to experience it, express it, and let it go, rather than tamp it down like I’ve done for years.  My progress and small victories there have been kind of amazing.  To see how fast you can let something go after you express it.  It’s still so foreign to me as I’m used to holding it in until it hardens into resentment.  There are many great quotes on that subject.  Anyhow, I feel like I’m still making slow progress in this area.
  • And then to actively recognize and experience as much joy as possible in every moment of my limited time on earth, that’s a loaded one.  A lot of key words there.  “Actively” because it takes attention and effort to see (or “recognize”) the value in everything you experience.  You can’t control everything that happens to you, but you can control how you view it.  Easier said than done, but that is the ultimate power to have in your own life.  That’s the ultimate goal.  Originally, instead of “recognize,” I was playing with variations of “pursue.”  I’m at least putting some of this into action this year by travelling.  Already VLV and Europe are behind me.  With my remaining vacation time, I still would like to try to pull off Cuba later this year, maybe combined with a Florida manatee stopover.  New Orleans is off the table for a number of reasons, but I’ll see it and the G.I. Joe convention eventually, even if they’re not at the same place in the future.  I’d like to make time to relax and rest and ponder and redistribute my time based on true enjoyment rather than just trying to use it to efficiently complete and endless list of tasks.  I want to feed ducks more.  I want to finally get an Ocean Beach bonfire going with friends, and throw more events like that to expand the circle of friends.  I want to finish my massive house clean and purge of all non-essential material things.  I want to purge non-essential commitments and usages of my free time.  I want to do something for a living that excites my passions and feels real.  I want to live somewhere (Maui?) that helps me “be here now” rather than silently prods me to work on a to do list.  That “be here now,” that idea of mindfulness is the really the key.  Pursuing happiness through vacations and simplifying my schedule, it’s certainly a valuable use of my time, but it’s too limiting as an overall goal.  It’s not enough just to try to improve what happens to you, because you can’t really control everything that happens to you.  Vacations are nice, but no amount of vacations or material things is going to guarantee your happiness.   The happiness comes from your mindset.  It’s easy to be happy on vacation with your friends, but that’s not where you spend the majority of your life.  It’s more important to find how to be happy the rest of the time.
  • And finally, to do what I can to protect the right of all living things to do the same.  For this one, I struggle.  I need to find something meaningful to do here, and if it doesn’t come in the form of a new career in that field, it might at least be some volunteer time.  Ideally though, I would do for a living something that leverages my talents towards a noble cause that matters to me and to the world and makes a real difference, rather than just the accumulation of wealth.

So those are the big plans, somewhat mapped to more actionable items.  It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by day-to-day life and commitments while your big plans… your important plans… your life plans… all stay on the back burner.  In some ways, that’s the biggest obstacle.  Some of these goals have been on my mind for months with no progress or answers yet, but hell if I’m not trying.

The quote of the week is just a question for you to ponder:

“If your life had its own board of directors, who’d be on it?”

I’ll get the car, you get the night off.

20 February 2012

Every once in a while, I find myself wondering about my next car.  Do I need a new car?  No.  I love my car, and there is every indication that it will last me another 150,000 miles.  But if not now, then someday… I will need a new car.  And it’s not a small decision.  I can’t tell you how much thought went into the one I have now.  Like any red-blooded American male, I’ve had desires for various “dream cars” over the years.  These include:

  1. 1987 Buick Grand National “GNX”
    This was probably my longest-running dream car.  The Grand National was a special edition of the Buick Regal for a few years in the mid 80’s (the exact same years The Smiths were together, as it happens).  A luxury car’s body, but with high performance.  Only came in black.  Darth Vader in car form.  The final year, 1987, saw a further upgrade to the already menacing Grand National package.  There were just 547 of these “GNX” models, upgraded by McLaren.  It was the fastest production car in the U.S. that year.  Faster than the Corvette!  0-60 mph in 4.7 seconds.  And all while looking scary as hell.  When it finally came time for me to buy my first “real” car after getting my first “real” job, the GNX — rare as it was — was still in my price range.  But by that time, I’d grown up a bit.  And the not-so-modern interior wasn’t wowing me anymore.  I ultimately passed on the chance to own one.  I’m not really sure I regret it either, but damn they’re fun to look at!


  2. 1971 Plymouth Barracuda
    As I got more into the subject, I eventually discovered the golden era of American muscle cars.  There are many in this category to admire, and in the Mopar family specifically.  They had the performance but also the style.  The Roadrunner, the Super Bee, the Charger and Challenger.  Plus who else was releasing cars in stock colors like hot pink?  I eventually got my heart set on a lime green ‘Cuda, but for the same reasons I mentioned with the GNX, it just never happened.


  3. 1957 Ford Ranchero
    As much as I love old cars, I am also very lazy.  The idea of owning a beautiful and iconic vehicle is trumped by the impracticality of maintaining it in modern urban life.  As a second car, maybe.  And then I also don’t know much about doing it myself, so then what — hire someone to maintain it?  That wouldn’t be very greaser of me.  In the realm of what you might call “classic” cars, the Ranchero has always seemed like the most “me.”  Don’t get me wrong, there are countless cars of all makes and models in that era that I would die to own.  But the Ranchero is the one that speaks to me most.  It’s got unusual lines and trim.  It fits the time, but it’s definitely unique even among those classics.  So I’ll go ahead and take one in two-tone turquoise and white.  Please and thank you!


  4. Monster Truck (unspecified)
    When I was in high school, I badly wanted a monster truck, and almost got one a couple of times.  I would have been happy with an older Chevy Stepside pickup, or a Scout.  Or even a lift kit on my Chrysler New Yorker would have done me just fine.  As long as it had big, ridiculous swamper tires.  It’s probably a good thing I never followed through with that.  Hell, those tires alone are like $200+ a piece.  And imagine if you had a blowout on the freeway while up on those things.  Not to mention whatever it might say about me psychologically to drive something like that.

  5. Big Rig (unspecified)
    Then for a while in college, I thought about how funny it would be to drive a big old diesel big rig to school every day, but with nothing in tow.  It would be hilarious to me to be known as the guy who drove that totally impractical vehicle everywhere.  But not so hilarious that I’d ever actually do it.

  6. 1959 Cadillac Hearse
    As an adult, the totally impractical car I’ve often considered has been a classic Hearse.  I just like the idea of pulling up to gigs in one, and pulling all my gear from the back of it.  It’s not like I’m the first person to think this is cool or anything… there are whole car clubs dedicated to the Hearse.  And in fact it is from those clubs that I’ve learned just how impractical it really is.  My current care is huge and hard to park at about 18′.  Hearses tend to be more like 23′, and require a commercial drivers license to operate.  And because of their increased size, a lot of the parts like brakes, etc. are commercial grade… and are rare and expensive.  And then there’s the obvious issue of how many corpses have been through that car.  I understand a premium is charged for Hearses that have had very little… uh, professional usage.  I don’t know if I’d want to drive one that had ever been used that way!  And that tells me I’m probably not the kind of person who should be driving one.

  7. 1998 – 2002 Lincoln Town Car
    My final dream car was a black Town Car within a very specific range of years.  In my mind I’d pictured a plush, blood red interior (which they do not come with).  Something that evoked some kind of Victorian carriage… and maybe Dracula.  It was this car, minus that red interior, that I eventually came to own.  So hey, I’ve had at least one of my dream cars.  And the most practical one at that.

I truly cannot say enough nice things about my Town Car.  There are lots of cool rides out there, but my personality is so wrapped up in the big black Town Car.  It says so much about me.  I don’t know if I’m ready to let that go.  Being both ominous as well as totally anonymous in a city filled with identical black limos.  A certain authority and mystery that comes with this particular model and color.  I’m ignored by cops.  Practically invisible.  Thieves must assume its an off-duty livery vehicle and unlikely to contain anything of value, so it has never been broken into.  Of course, it also means I’m constantly being flagged down by drunks wanting a ride 2am, a problem unique to my car.  But because of that livery tie-in, I am fortunate to have found a repair shop that specializes in Town Cars only, catering to the areas many, many limo drivers.  A whole (huge) shop dedicated to my model.  What other car can say that?

Come to think of it though, all of that is stuff I hadn’t anticipated.  It was all bonus.  So why did I actually choose this car?  When I finally had a “real” job and could afford a real car, I looked very seriously at what was on the market, but it was clear this was the only choice for me in terms of new cars offered in those days.  It was the first car that was really nice when I got it, so I was motivated to keep it nice.  Nearly 10 years now.  Top quality window tinting.  Upgraded stereo.  Kept it clean and well-maintained.  I will miss it someday when it’s gone.  I guess if I’m being honest, I was a bit enamored with the black Town Car as the quintessential hitman / mafia / g-man vehicle.  The kind of car you don’t want to see coming.  The kind of car where you might be asked to get in the back… the way back (i.e. the trunk).  And the Town Car has what you might call a “three-body trunk.”  You know how trunks these days have a little pull tag to release the latch in case you get stuck inside?  I used to joke that the first modification I made to the car was to snip that right off.  Because if you find yourself in my trunk, you’re there for a reason.  (Have you ever looked at the icon on those pull tags?  It pretty much says it all.)  But most of all, I can’t describe the feeling of getting behind the wheel of my car, especially after a plane trip where I’ve spent a week in a rental… like floating on a soft couch rather than riding in a simple car.  It’s unlike anything else I’ve been in.  Those of you who’ve ridden with me can attest.  The buttery smooth power steering that requires almost no effort, you could just blow on it to move it.  Turning it feels like you’re navigating a ocean liner.  I grew up on hand-me-down beat up luxury cars, and when it came time to pick one of my own, what was I gonna do?  I chose luxury over performance and have never regretted it.  A vision of terror and salvation all at once… a shining and steaming machine, a slick black carriage emerging from the silent gray abyss of a cold and foggy San Francisco night.  How could I ever give that up?

On August 29th of last year, the final Town Car rolled off the assembly line, discontinued after all these years.  This despite it winning the hilarious and bizarre Rental Car Olympics (where we learned that it may be the fastest car made… when it comes to driving in reverse).  I just can’t see myself ever getting rid of mine.  Maybe I’ll keep it forever as a hobby, to restore someday even after I have another car to replace it as my main vehicle?

OK, so how about a more realistic list of cars I’d consider when Town Car is some day laid to rest?  Modern cars have some really cool stuff, you know.  Luxury cars often get cutting edge features first, but these days my Town Car’s bells and whistles are standard on nearly everything on the market.  I want some new stuff.  I was in a friend’s car recently and it had a camera on the rear so you could see if you were about to run into anything while backing up… plus it overlaid dotted lines to show where your reverse path will take you based on the current orientation of the steering wheel.  So you could see the exact angle you needed to back out of a tight spot.  How cool is that?  So let us consider:

  1. Chevy HHR Panel
    Now I fully realize that virtually no one gets what I see in these things, but I am really drawn to these little guys.  The panel version only, though.  It’s little and practical, plus it looks like a cross between a delivery truck and a PT Cruiser.  And they’re cheap too!  Only problem is they were discontinued after 2011.  Well hell, I guess they’ll be even cheaper used!

  2. Dodge Challenger
    The modern Challengers are amazing looking beasts.  With Mopar’s history of innovative and retro cars like the PT Cruiser and the Prowler, leave it to them to reintroduce a 70’s muscle car that actually still looks like a 70’s muscle car.  I applaud what they’ve done with this, and the only reason I could see not to snatch one up right away is the fact that I’d never be able to transport my guitar equipment in it for shows!  Otherwise, I’d be all over this thing.

  3. Electric Car (unspecified)
    The idea is that these are the cars of the future, and my next auto purchase ought to be ready for what’s next.  I like what Tesla is doing, but all other electrics and hybrids are kinda boring.  If they made an electric Town Car, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, because I’d already own one.  Or even more ideally, I’d love to convert a classic (how about that ’57 Ranchero?) to an electric, with modern suspension, brakes, etc.?  I know that can be done (doesn’t Neil Young do it?), but it’s probably prohibitively expensive at the moment.  But someday…

  4. Smart Car / Mini Cooper
    On the same wavelength as an electric car would be something tiny and infinitely parkable in San Francisco.  Enter the Smart Car and/or Mini Cooper.  Ultra practical and — at least in the Cooper’s case — potentially even cool lookin’.  But again, where would put my guitar gear?  If I’m gonna go this small, I might as well get that motorcycle I was talking about.

  5. Ford Mustang
    Now hold on just a moment.  Let me preface by saying that in general I find Mustangs very uncomfortable to drive.  The complete opposite of a smooth Town Car.  However, given their current 70’s styling, all the cool internal lighting features and color changing stuff they can do, and most importantly the fact that they are the perfect convertible Maui car for when I move there eventually, I can see myself in one.  On the island though.

And remember too that I can always make any of these cars my own by adding some of those special touches.  Now when I was much younger, I dreamt about “cool” stuff like adding neon lights under my car, an obnoxiously loud subwoofer, or those kits to make flames shoot out of your exhaust pipe(s).  I’d like to say I’ve grown out of that stuff, but really my tastes have just changed some.  I still like obnoxious things.  I’d like to install black lights in the car’s cabin just ‘cos I think they’re sexy.  I’d love to set up a CB radio to talk to truckers while on road trips but that is also connected to a hidden PA so I can scream at jaywalkers.  I used to want to install a big rig truck horn just because I thought it would be funny and unexpected.  Nowadays, people install train horns, and even cruise ship horns.  Go look on YouTube and see.  I know there are a lot of reasons why that is a very bad idea.  But I still want to do it.  I mean imagine unleashing that on one of those urban brazen jaywalkers that look you in the eye challengingly even as they fuck you out of your right of way.  Makes me giddy to think of it.  I wouldn’t mind a crosshair hood ornament for pedestrians.  I remember when I was more into funk, I wanted to cover my car with mirrors like a giant disco ball, where all you’d see is blinding light as I rolled down the street, but I don’t guess that would be legal.  I heard the Loco Gringos had a Cadillac Hearse with — among many other decorations — a tequila bottle mohawk.  If I were a bigger drinker, I could go for that.  I also used to think it would be cool to have a replica of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel airbrushed on my car’s own ceiling, maybe so that the hands of Michelangelo’s God and Adam touched at the dome light.  Yeah, I was a weird kid.

A small digression… Prior to the Town Car, I used to drive a burgundy 1990 Chrysler Le Baron convertible.  The Mopar family isn’t exactly known for reliability.  My previous cars (an inherited Fifth Avenue, then a turbo-charged New Yorker) were both Chryslers and did not last long.  But good old Le Baron managed exactly 155,432 miles before I parked him for good.  I chose to donate him to PETA through a third party car donation program.  That was when the troubles began.  The donation company came with a tow truck, but decided first to try to start Le Baron.  He would not start.  Then they took a full jump box to charge him to get him to start… but the moment they touched it to Le Baron, it was immediately drained and rendered useless, something the tow truck driver had never seen.  They eventually got it onto the truck.  I later heard that they managed to lose the pink slip, which I had 100% for sure given them.  Could be coincidence, but I prefer to think that these events were examples of Le Baron’s curse.  The final proof?  Well, I took my plates off Le Baron, for use on my next car.  They were then registered to that new car.  Years later, I found out from the city of San Francisco that there was a recent parking ticket attributed to my licence plate number, in a neighborhood I never go to.  In researching the ticket, it was attributed to a burgundy two-door sedan.  So to recap… I donate a burgundy two-door sedan in the East Bay, physically removing and re-registering the plates to a black four-door.  Years later in SF, I am informed I received a ticket on a date and place I was not at, attributed to my same (and still current) license plate number, matching my old car’s description.  Could the DMV mistakenly have re-issued my plate number to my old (and I guess refurbished?) Le Baron such that there are two cars on the road with the same plates?  And that they’d get (and not pay) a parking ticket in the city I just so happen to have moved to?  It all seems impossible.  I maintain it was… the ghost of Le Baron!!!

Incidentally, I feel like I could and should write some memories of my first three cars, which are flooding back to me even as I type this.  Perhaps that’ll come in the future.  At that time, you’ll read about how we used to pick up roadside junk or even race the unsuspecting using passing gear.  The massive disco mirror ball I had hanging from the rear view.  Or how the New Yorker could talk (his voice was immortalized in the song “Malfunction“).  Or how Le Baron’s passenger door fell off, while its ragged rag top admitted more spiders than you would believe… which I had strategies to address (e.g. a tee-ball bat, a spray bottle of “Spider-B-Gone,” etc.), and only once nearly crashed the car when startled by an eight-legged hellion.  Ah, but another time.

The completely unrelated quote of the week comes from the archives… sometime last year, I think.

Friend: “Ryan Reynolds was just named People’s ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ this year. What do you think my chances are of being next year’s sexiest man alive?”
Me: “I dunno dude. You’d have to kill, like, a lot of people.”

Next Page »