If I had the sense to do that fancy colon thingie with my book Bluegrass, nobody would always ask me first, “So, what, is this a history?”
Talk about ethical relativism! Anyway, I’ve been chipping away at my last novel. It feels so nice to say that aha.
“Give me a lever and a place to stand, and I can move the world.” Socrates. Or maybe Pythagoras.
There are natural folcrums, breaking points, in a person’s life: graduations, marriage, the birth of your first child, promotions, firings, death, divorces. One’s life hinges upon such events, or becomes unhinged. No one should be surprised by this, exactly. We can be surprised at how all those things actually feel after thinking furtively about them for days or years, perhaps. But, as my mother would have said, when all is said and done, it is to be expected: when things change, it’s often best that we change with them.
There were only two odd things about my personal fulcrum, what a religious person might term a day of reckoning. Although I had gone through the litany of experiences, the marriage, firings, promotions, divorce, births and deaths, eventually it was an ordinary day upon which my life finally turned. And that day happened late, about the time you are looking at your watch waiting to see the end, when I was almost the grand old age of 50.
I was on my way to a bluegrass festival that first day of July, and the weather was pleasant, 75 degrees, light northwest breeze, and the sun shining brightly on the incredible green of a Pennsylvania afternoon. Despite that, I was feeling sleepy and low, trying to get to Benton before supper, or dinner, or whatever you want to call that late afternoon meal. I stopped at the Columbia County rest area on route 80 to get a cup of over-priced coffee and splash some water on my face, saw a spot near the door to the restrooms area and cut somebody off, zooming in ahead of the guy, who gave the universal shoulder shrug with hands palm up, Yo, dude! That was MY spot!
I shrugged my shoulders, a negligent apology, then jumped out of the van, scooting inside before he could park and get out of his car. It only took a few minutes to take care of business, but when I had finished and was walking back to my van, there he was, standing next to the van, waiting and watching for me.
He didn’t seem crazy or anything, completely average, maybe 40 years old, graying hair, ballcap, eyes perhaps an off shade of blue. He looked me straight in the eye, peeled a piece of paper off a round sticker in his hand, and slapped it on the corner of my rear window.
I’m something of a musician, and I’m used to some strange behavior, so I was ready to apologize for cutting him off, or to crack a joke, secretly peeved that about the gunk I’d have to get off the window tomorrow. But he just put up his hand, ‘Hush!’ and said a sentence that lived up to its name.
You’ve obviously not happy, my man. You should chill. Follow the bird, then, because you’re not going to rest until you figure out what this means.
And off he walked, shoulders hunched a bit, climbed into a VW square-back and drove off. The sticker was bright yellow, with an image of a small bird, banded neck and long legs, encircled by the universal red circle with a slash: No whatever the hell kind of bird it is.
I shrugged, tentatively tried to peel it off and discovered no point of purchase. This puppy was stuck on there good. A good story to laugh about when I had finally pitched my tent, heated my hot dog and eaten my store-bought potato salad, even though I didn’t feel like laughing, exactly. Truth be told, I felt a little like I’d been whittled down to almost nothing, like I was so light the afternoon breeze might lift me up and blow me into the mountain forest reaching down to the road.
I climbed back into the van, sped out onto the great ribbon of 80, thread of cement attaching people and places in a way they did not always do them good, and ways they seldom gave applause.
The festival was a bust for me. The boys got mad drunk by lunch, even though we had a mid-afternoon show, and every attempt to polish up some little bit of vocals or work on kick-offs or breaks ended in short order in a shouting match between the two hot-heads, while JA and I just rolled our eyes and sipped our beers. It began raining, and when we finally got our bedraggled asses down to the stage, we were already a few minutes late.
Jesus Christ, can’t you boys do anything right? I groused.
Where’s the set list? N wondered, as the MC shooed us up on stage.
I was surprised to see a few dozen folks in raingear seated there and waiting for us, many of them our friends. They needn’t have bothered: from botched intros and kicking off songs in the wrong key to blue language between the nitwit brothers, the show was the perfect illustration of why so many people don’t like bluegrass.
There is nothing worse than a bad bluegrass band. You can at least dance to a bad polka or rock and roll band, right?
So Walt came up to us after the show, which was to have been our first of three that weekend, handed us our envelope and told us we needn’t bother showing up for the remainder.
I know you boys have heard this before, and I understand you like that edgy reputation you all got, makin’ jokes about being the bad boys of grass, but it’s a damn shame you waste your talents being butt-heads. I don’t appreciate it, and neither does my audience.
By mid-June, promoters were exercising the kill-fee clause of the contract, sending 50 or a 100 bucks and cancelling our performances. We still had work at the local bars, every Friday at the Minisink we still packed them in, but it started grating on me.
And at home, things weren’t much better.