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Tales From the Tour -- November 2002
"Tales From the Tour" was a running travelogue describing my
experiences on the international tour of the musical Fosse.
Monday, November 04, 2002
Washington is truly a gorgeous city. Almost every building is either imposingly grand, such as the government buildings and the museums flanking the National Mall, or exquisitely quaint, such as the frosted-cake three-story terraced houses in Adams Morgan. On Halloween, Dean (the keyboardist I'm replacing - he's leaving to head up the release of his new jazz album) and I dined at the opulent Old Ebbitt Grill. Dating from 1856, it's Washington's oldest saloon, though it's been in several locations since then. It's richly decorated with large oil paintings, etched mirrors, and a collection of beer steins and animal heads above the bar. We happened to arrive just as the late-weeknight "oyster hour" was beginning - the whole raw bar was half-price! I seized the moment and had a dozen, along with terrific pumpkin soup. They always tell me which oysters are which, and I always forget instantly after the meal...but I hope to recognize a couple of my favorites if I see them on a menu again. On the way back to the Harrington, Dean and I stopped in at the equally plush Hotel Washington.
Around the corner from our hotel, the American Immigration Law Center was showing an exhibit called "The Enemy Alien Files: Hidden Stories of World War II." It was a little heavy on reading and light on photographs; the text described the treatment of German, Italian, and Japanese non-citizens in the United States during the war, and what few photos there were showed, among other things, the Crystal City internment camp in Texas and the Manzanar relocation center in California. I spent most of Friday afternoon in rehearsal with Dave and our music director, nourished by pork, taro, beef, and taro buns from Chinatown.
I couldn't get anyone to go for Ethiopian food with me after Friday night's show, so I headed to Adams Morgan myself - a woman on the subway congratulated me as I did a 50-yard dash to squeeze through the closing doors, braking just in time to avoid crashing into her. Exiting the train at Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan (now there's a whopper of a station name), I dashed into an elevator headed for the street level, saving several minutes on a long escalator.
I chose Meskerem, which got good reviews and participates in iDine
. I initially sat in the upstairs cafe area, but they kindly moved me downstairs when I discovered there was live Ethiopian music there. The shrimp appetizer was OK (though I liked the spicy sauce), and the zilbo (lamb cubes with onions and potatoes) was tasty and fresh, if under-spiced. Service was lacking a bit, though: I resented being handed my bill before I was offered dessert, and, come to think of it, they should have offered me a place downstairs if there was going to be live music. At least the proprietor was friendly. After dinner I walked up and down the street a few times (this is, apparently, the
area for nightlife in Washington) and popped briefly into one of the bar-nightclubs, where a man named Chris was celebrating his return to Washington by buying a round for everyone.
Saturday morning I took a long walk along the National Mall, a grand stretch of park flanked by the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial at its eastern and western ends, and on the north and south sides by museums. A demonstration was proceeding through, calling for atheists' rights and freedom from religious oppression. I can support the cause, though I thought the fact that "religion is bad because all terrorists are religious" (a paraphrasing of one sign) is rather like saying that all sporting events are bad because a couple of soccer moms once had a scuffle in a suburban park somewhere.
Saturday night I watched Fosse
from the house (for most of the week I'd observed from the pit). The music and dancing are really terrific, and a lot of the songs have grown on me in a very short time. After the show the cast threw a party for our company manager, who is leaving to work on another show. This is definitely a party crowd!
Yesterday I started playing shows, but as our bus is soon to depart for Youngstown, Ohio, you'll be in suspense until the next entry to hear about that experience.
Wednesday, November 13, 2002
WASHINGTON, DC / YOUNGSTOWN, OH / SPRINGFIELD, MA
(AND, STARTING WITH PARAGRAPH THREE, AN IN-DEPTH EXPLANATION OF THE EXPERIENCE OF PLAYING THE SHOW)
Saturday the 2nd, our penultimate day in Washington, had been a full day of eating for me: first lunch at the unlikely named Cafe Deli, actually a hole-in-the-wall Thai-Vietnamese place in Chinatown. Having deliberated between the $4.99 "Chicken Lemon Grass Curry" on one side of the menu and the $3.99 "Chicken lemon Grass Curry" on the other, I threw orthographic caution to the wind and chose the latter, along with a spring roll; both were appropriately spicy. After the matinee, Dean and I had an afternoon snack at the popular Red Sage, where, following up on the lemongrass theme, I had a Thai-inspired lemongrass ceviche along with the guacamole that we shared. Then there was our company manager's aforementioned party at the hotel bar, where I filled up on the free popcorn provided with our copious potables and the too-much-frosting-and-not-enough-fruit strawberry shortcake provided by a few of the cast members.
All of this means that for most of Sunday, I was not remotely hungry. Slightly hung over, I investigated the three rooms open to the public at the house where Abraham Lincoln died (it's across the street from Ford's Theater, where he was shot), and then I made my way to the theatre to play my first show, the matinee. I forced down a few apple rings (a wonderful snack from the Carlisle, Pennsylvania, farmers' market), but I was low on calories for the day, and I jokingly warned Dean just before the show that if I collapsed from hunger he would have to take over. (I was only half kidding: A few years ago, I hadn't eaten all day before an evening show at which I was the only accompaniment. I played the overture, but I could tell I wasn't going to last, so I sneaked out during the opening dialogue to grab a can of juice, hoping to return in time for the next song. I didn't make it, leaving the singer to perform the song a cappella. The song was called "He's Gone Away.") But
adrenaline trumped malnutrition, and my first show was a success. By far the most thrilling part, as far as I'm concerned, is the final number, "Sing Sing Sing," in which a few of the band members, including me, are onstage. I have to climb onto the bandstand offstage and hang on for dear life (and hang on to the clarinetist's music stand, to keep it from falling) as the stage crew wheels me onstage at about 200 kilometers per hour. Then, as the lead male is singing "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" in front of the curtain, the rest of the company and the band are behind the curtain, gearing up for the final song and wishing each other luck. Then the curtain opens, the lights change abruptly, and we're all in plain view. It is, quite simply, electrifying.
Oh, and about that difficult jazz piano solo: I don't actually have to play it. I've learned it, but for the first few performances, until we'd had sufficient rehearsal with the dancers, they'd mute my onstage piano and pipe in a pre-recorded track so it just looked as if I were playing it. I didn't perform it "live" until Springfield. Here's another secret: Almost all of the songs have at least some pre-recorded accompaniment, to which the live musicians add flavor. "Cool Hand Luke" has a beautiful acoustic-guitar part - all pre-recorded. The entire accompaniment for the "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries" reprise, and most of "Mr. Bojangles," is pre-recorded, since that's when the band heads onstage. At the end of "Big Spender," the conductor, Ross, gives a big cue for the final orchestral chord. He's simultaneously punching a button to sound the chord - not a note of it is played live.
You may also notice, if you visit the orchestra pit, that we all wear headphones. That's because in addition to the accompaniment that the audience hears, we hear a ticking metronome - a "click track" - to ensure that the songs are the same tempo for the dancers each night. My keyboard part indicates how many clicks (written in the part as "clix," as if anything with an "x" were high-tech) introduce each song, and Ross's responsibilities include pressing a button to start each song's click track. The clicks aren't necessarily even: In every performance, measures 38 to 40 of the second part of "Take Off With Us" will speed up, and measures 42 to 44 slow down, even though it's not written in the part, because the clicks speed up and slow down. That will most likely be true in every production of the show, around the world, forever, since they all use the same click track. In "Sing Sing Sing," a voice in a British accent (the click track is European) cues "Five, six, seven, eight" periodically over the click track, so I don't have to count out, for instance, the 44 bars before the trombone and I come in. Before our headphones were upgraded in Youngstown, front-row audience members listening carefully could hear the British guy announce, "Blackbird, bar one!"
Despite the lack of spontaneity and fulfillment that so much technology brings, however, the show really is fun to play. I don't have a whole lot of experience with sophisticated keyboards, and it's interesting to have to deal with a volume pedal and a pedal to change my "patch" (what sound I'm playing) and a vibrato wheel and a pitch-bending wheel. We recently got volume meters, so now my keyboard has a little device attached to it with a digital readout showing a number between 0.00 and - of all numbers - 4.93, representing how far down the volume pedal is depressed. (The volume meter that Liz, the other keyboard player, has, goes all the way up to 5.03. She must have negotiated this in her contract.)
My favorite song to play, other than "Sing Sing Sing," is "Mein Herr." It has a terrific piano part, and because the tempo changes so often it's one of the few songs that have no click track. We get conducted, properly, by Ross, and we have to follow the singer (and she has to follow him).
Now back to our travelogue. Between Sunday's performances, I headed to the intersection of 23rd Street NW and E Street NW - not a tourist attraction in its own right, but it's the apartment building where my parents used to live. It's in a nice residential neighborhood near George Washington University, though they're rebuilding the 23rd Street bridges so it's not at its peak of tranquility these days. By that point I really was starving, so, finding the Russian restaurant Maxim closed, I went back to Chinatown for honey spare ribs, tasty seasoned fish, and indifferent service at the Burma restaurant. After our final Washington performance, the production company hosted the formal transition-of-company-manager party at the ESPN Zone, across from the hotel. We had an open bar for an hour, though it took almost an hour to get our first round - and we paddled down the Nile, skied down slalom slopes, raced horses, and played basketball and air hockey at the newfangled arcade in the Zone's basement.
And the next morning I rode the bus for the first time. It is not as comfortable as I might have thought, but I can sleep well anyway. My bus-seat partner is the new cast member, Noel. That is not the same as my "bus buddy," Jessica, who makes sure that I am on board before departure and vice versa. Most seats are occupied, but four seats are designated "swing seats," so if Noel or I is designated a "swinger" for a given ride (there's a strictly adhered-to schedule), we each get two seats to ourselves. In practice, though, Noel likes to sleep in the aisle of the bus, so I tend to end up with two seats regardless. The first morning hour on the highway is a "quiet hour," which means, more or less, that anything louder than "I bid four spades" is taboo. Most people do sleep, employing an astonishing array of pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals; "quiet hour," like "happy hour," usually lasts more like three or four hours. Also astonishing is that there is nary an enthusiastic card player or Scrabble player on the tour, but I hope to convert at least a few of them. So what have I been doing on the bus, when I'm not sleeping? Making my way through The Voyage of the Narwhal
(an account of a fictional exploring expedition in Greenland), and tuning in any of Pennsylvania's great country stations on my little radio.
Our lunch break, an hour outside of Youngstown, happened to be near a Giant Eagle supermarket, where I sampled some mediocre offerings from the Chinese pay-per-pound buffet. Our Youngstown-area hotel was actually in Boardman, a few miles south of Youngstown. It's basically an area of highways and strip malls, so during our first afternoon and the next day, I investigated the dollar store, the Wal-Mart, and the excellent wine shop near the hotel - a place that also had an impressive selection of international beers, a place that inspired a wine-tasting (two merlots and a shiraz) that Dave and I hosted in our hotel room. At the Szechuan House restaurant, I was the only lunch customer, and the waiter congratulated me on my use of chopsticks; that broke the ice, and then we discussed travel through China (he's from Fuzhou). Oh, and much as it poured in Washington, it poured in Youngstown.
It was a ten-hour trip from Youngstown, Ohio, to Springfield, Massachusetts, but the time passed quickly. After the four-hour quiet hour we lunched somewhere in Pennsylvania, and of course we got stuck in the rush-hour traffic near Hartford. But we still arrived at the Marriott in Springfield in time for me to dine at Cafe Lebanon (another iDine member), where I had excellent toasted haloumeh cheese and a lamb shank with tomatoes and onions. I couldn't find any companions for the three-block journey, possibly because it was cold and...rainy.
Tuesday, November 19, 2002
SPRINGFIELD, MA / NEW LONDON, CT / NEW YORK, NY / WEST POINT, NY
Inexplicably, I could find no one dying to brave the frigid winds and hike a couple of kilometers to the northern part of Springfield on Thursday morning for the sole purpose of joining me in a walk through the McKnight District gazing at the Victorian houses. So I went myself, pausing at the Quadrangle for a look at the grand museums and the Dr. Seuss National Memorial. Several sculptures abound as a tribute to Springfield native Dr. Seuss, including the Cat in the Hat, the ever-popular Grinch, Dr. Seuss himself, and the entire text of Oh, the Places You'll Go!
The area around the Quadrangle is also graced with historic churches.
After walking down Oak Street, an Arabic neighborhood (there's a wonderful-looking Middle Eastern supermarket that would have made a terrific visit if it hadn't been firmly boarded up and chain-locked), I had an early lunch at the Family Kitchen, a soul-food restaurant by day and a rough-looking dance club by night. I was the only non-black person in the place, and I had a hearty meal of lovingly prepared chicken soup in a bread bowl followed by short ribs and candied yams, all the while watching the Black Advertising Network, which advertises black-owned markets and shops in the greater Springfield area. Would that I'd had the time to visit some of them!
The Family Kitchen is near the entrance to the McKnight District, home to a fine variety of Victorian homes and now a large black community. The Springfield Preservation Trust publishes a self-guided walking tour of the area. Following the brochure, I started on Bowdoin Street, which contains several types of architecture from the 1840s to the 1910s. Most of the houses are two or three stories, with a second-story terrace; it's the ornamentation, wall decorations, and roof shape, more or less, that distinguish a house as Italianate or Queen Anne or Colonial Revival or Tudor Revival or any of the several other styles. Sadly, quite a few of the homes on Bowdoin are in a poor state of disrepair, though most homes in the area have been well-preserved.
At the intersection of Bowdoin and Worthington (the latter is lined with some of the grandest mansions), I had a pleasant chat with a woman named Betty, who was from Dorchester (one of the rougher neighborhoods of Boston) and was visiting her grandchildren. We laughed when a tree branch nearly struck both of us as it plummeted, tossed around by the breeze. Indeed, despite the cold, this was a perfect time to be taking such a walk, as the leaves were showing their brightest autumn colors. And by some climatic miracle, it wasn't raining.
The walking tour took me to 25 homes over the next 90 minutes or so; overall, the prettiest stretch was Dartmouth Street, lined on both sides with stunning homes and divided in the middle by a wide grass median. And to bring the Abraham Lincoln theme of this tour full circle, at 80 Dartmouth stands the 1891-built home of Henry Safford, who was present at Lincoln's death opposite Ford's Theater.
Heading back downtown along Worthington Street, I passed a black residential neighborhood (one building invited the public to dinner at someone's apartment for a $6 entry charge - what a terrific way to meet the locals!) and then the main bar-nightclub area; then I crossed the Memorial Bridge over the Connecticut River into West Springfield, whose main highlight (at least as far as I got) was the Hofbrauhaus, a festive-looking German restaurant that of course would not be open late enough for us to dine after our show.
Following that night's show, most of the production members, myself included, found ourselves at Champions Sports Bar, part of our hotel complex, where we'd also been the previous night. While I understand that our waitress might not really have wanted us to push a dozen or so tables together so that all 30 of us could sit as one long party, she did give the go-ahead when we asked permission to do so, and it's no excuse for her to conveniently forget to take my order when there were only about six of us, or for her to require us to flag her down individually each time any of us wanted anything (a simple "Can I get you another round of drinks?" would have made it much easier for all of us), or for it to take an hour for some of our food to arrive.
The next morning, enjoying the good weather, I took a long stroll along the bike path flanking the river, stopping only to ponder the intentions of two large unaccompanied dogs, who barked uninvitingly at me and then limped away. I got two people to lunch with me at Sitar, a fairly decent Indian restaurant with slightly undersized lunch portions, and then we had an afternoon run-through of Fosse
to bring Noel (the new cast member) fully into the show. A bunch of us had an early dinner (I a snack of tortellini soup only) at the Red Rose, an excellent Italian restaurant at which we became friendly with our waitress, who couldn't attend the show in Springfield but hoped to see it in Amherst.
My parents attended that evening's performance, which was also the first time I played the jazz solo live. The show was especially good that night (just for them!), and afterward the three of us dined at the Student Prince and Fort, a recommended German place whose game platter of bear, buffalo, and ostrich won me over. We also met for breakfast at my hotel's restaurant, where I couldn't resist the buffet, despite my family's being collectively repulsed by a neighboring party of 12 or so, each of which had clearly overindulged in the buffet for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and interim snacks every day for the past 40 years. A couple of cast members met my parents and called them "adorable." Which they are.
Then it was on to New London's Garde Arts Center, a place with astonishingly skanky dressing rooms and a stage too small for the "Sing Sing Sing" bandstand (which means we stayed in the pit for the final number). We had two shows that day, with just enough time in between for us to check in at our hotel and for me to discover that the nearby Indian, Japanese, and Thai restaurants - and most everything else of interest - would all be closed the next day. After the second show, a few of us took Ross out for drinks at Tony D's to celebrate his birthday; I tried to remain festive despite the deplorable cosmopolitan (it tasted like gin with a little food coloring) and barely passable cranberry-and-vodkas.
Had I gotten my act together, I'd have caught the 8:45 bus to Foxwoods on Sunday morning. But having missed it, I spent much of the morning strolling through New London, impressed by historic Starr Street's attractive two-story homes dating back to the early 1800s, most of which are identical except for their varying bright colors. I did find a place open for breakfast and lunch, and I led Liz, Ross, and a few others there. It was a cute cellar restaurant called the Galley, and our wry middle-aged waitress was also the chef and bartender. When we sat down, she said, "I can do all breakfast or all lunch, but making both at the same time freaks me out. I don't have the lobster rolls - life's a bitch." She recommended the hamburgers; there was also decent chowder, though even the "creamy chowder" (the closest to New England clam chowder she could get) wasn't thick enough for me. Some people ordered stuffed clams with their burgers; when I asked for one upon receipt of my burger, the waitress scolded me for not having requested it earlier. We liked her.
Before that day's matinee, I took a long walk to Pequot Avenue, which runs along the ocean. It's not quite as pretty as I'd hoped, but it does have a couple of enticing seafood restaurants. Of course it rained midway through my walk; in case you're keeping track, New London was the fourth city I'd visited on tour, and the fourth in which it had rained.
After the final New London show, I left the tour for a few days to play a few gigs in New York City that I'd committed to before taking the tour job; Ross, Liz, and the track covered my keyboard part. The cast happened to have a day off in New York City after New London, so I took the bus back with them, though if I'd known we'd be leaving 40 minutes after the show instead of "right after" the show, and if I'd known that a hop-off-and-on-and-bring-your-burger-on-the-bus dinner stop would be an excruciating 30-minute delay in a Wendy's parking lot (how can anyone
heading to New York City, a metropolis with thousands of restaurants featuring several dozen countries' cuisines, condone a fast-food stop just 90 minutes before?), I might have raced for the 17:45 Greyhound express service instead. I was, after all, meeting a friend at my apartment at 21:30. But the tour bus dropped us all at the Astoria Boulevard subway stop, and I returned to impatient-New Yorker mode, taking out my MetroCard while still on the highway, running off the bus, barely catching a train, and entering my apartment with time to spare.
Fast forward to Saturday a week later, when the tour company asked me to make the trip to West Point to play one performance, at which a certain very important person affiliated with the show would be present. They sent a car service to pick me up from my afternoon cabaret rehearsal on Restaurant Row in Manhattan, and because of heavy traffic on that street I walked to the corner of Ninth Avenue, finding the driver just before he entered Restaurant Row, enabling him to make a very questionable several-point turn to re-orient the limo down Ninth Avenue. I slept for much of the ride, awakening in time to navigate the way from the Palisades Parkway to the entrance to West Point, where the driver ingeniously traveled down the wrong checkpoint lane (being a military academy, West Point requires visitors to pass through two security checkpoints and open their car trunks and hoods) to innocently cut in front of a couple dozen cars waiting to be searched. After the checkpoint, it was another two kilometers to the theatre - a huge building whose stage door I could not find, so I simply entered the house, unstopped, and climbed into the orchestra pit.
I must say, it was good to see the cast and orchestra members again. I'd been away from tour for only five days, but I'd just gotten to know them, and I'd missed them. Our VIP didn't have the courtesy to be on time for the performance, so we started 22 minutes late, to the audience's dismay; I borrowed Liz's mobile phone (I must be the only one on tour without one, but I'm holding out for the new Kyocera 7135 Smartphone
) to notify my driver of the delay.
It should be pointed out that the keyboard I play on is rather cantankerous. There are times when it'll suddenly stop working during a performance, a problem I can fix simply by turning it off and on again. That happened twice in New London, once in the middle of the second act, and once at the very beginning of the show - when I had just checked it a minute earlier to make sure it was working! Then there are times when keys will stick (remember, this is an electronic
keyboard) - I think something got caught inside the machinery and is rattling around in there.
But at West Point, all sorts of other bizarre things happened. One sound (patch 432, if you're curious) wasn't sounding, but it was because that sound is produced by an external device and it wasn't hooked up properly. Patch 404 wasn't sounding just before the show, but it worked during the show. The D-flat two octaves below middle C got stuck and wouldn't depress, but the high F-sharp, which had lost its weighting in New London, started functioning properly. All the keyboards stopped sounding briefly during the second act, and my volume meter, which normally shows a number between 0.00 and 4.93, wouldn't go lower than 0.07, and it started going up to 4.94. Oh, and now that I'd finally started playing my solo live (and brushed up on it at home), someone (not Ross) made the decision that it should be the pre-recorded track for this show - I guess it was more important to impress our late VIP with our fancy electronics than to show the true talent of the band. Oh, and did I mention that it poured relentlessly for the entire drive to and from West Point?
Saturday, November 23, 2002
ELMIRA, NY / LOWELL, MA / NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ
"You'll LOVE Elmira," my uncle wrote sarcastically.
I had two choices of bus to take to rejoin the tour in Elmira: the leave-early-in-the-morning-and-spend-the-whole-afternoon-in-Elmira bus, or the gamble-and-get-there-30-minutes-before-showtime bus. I chose the latter, which gave me a final full morning in my apartment and the opportunity to have Ethiopian food for lunch. ShortLine did not accept credit cards (what is this, 1930?), but at least the bus left New York City on time. I slept for much of the ride, awakening to learn that it had snowed upstate. When we departed Monticello, they started the movie "Topsy-Turvy," the film about Gilbert & Sullivan from a few years ago, so when I changed buses in Binghamton, I had various amusing patter songs running through my head as I listened to the passenger behind me wheeze and expectorate like a sick piglet.
The connecting bus, of course, left nine minutes late, and the driver followed the usual no-smoking-on-the-bus announcement with the very bizarre request that passengers not wear strong fragrances because they bother some people, a request made even stranger by the fact that there were only about five passengers. He made up for the delay by driving 75 miles per hour (as I calculated using the scientific method of counting estimated seconds on my hand as we passed the mile markers), and we pulled into Elmira at the scheduled time of 19:25 (which I'd described as "a little after seven" when I told people what bus I'd be arriving on). After the Elmira performance some of us ordered Chinese-food delivery, which I ate at the hotel bar with a few other people, using a fork, as no chopsticks were provided.
I had trouble sleeping in Elmira. Maybe it was the fact that I was excited about finally joining the tour for good. Maybe it was anxiety about leaving my apartment for seven months, even though I'll be back for a week at the end of the year. Maybe - and it angered me that this thought might be churning in my brain - it was because Dave wasn't back to our room yet, and perhaps there was a social event I was missing. I'd missed enough of them joining the tour two months after it had started, and then being gone for a week; I needed to get to know the cast better. I read a bit from The Voyage of the Narwhal
, a fictional account of an exploring expedition to Greenland. When I finally did turn the light off, I kept the book under the covers, as if doing so would provoke dreams of my time in Greenland this summer: the couple who had taken me seal hunting in Uummannaq, the ferry passengers from Upernavik who had invited me over for cards and traditional fare in Nuuk, the grateful teens in Sisimiut to whom I'd bestowed my leftover pizza. How wonderful it would be to relive those moments as vividly as in a dream.
Predictably, I was tired the next morning, so I slept on the bus to Lowell. I awoke a couple of hours into the trip to find myself not feeling well, perhaps with a fever, which astonished me: I've had a fever exactly twice in the past 11 years. And so at our lunch stop (it's almost always at a mall) I was not in the mood for food, but I did partake of a smoothie, which refreshed me and lasted until the next day. We passed a truck advertising the brilliantly named NBS Trucking
("We Care About Your Load"), whose circled-R "registered trademark" symbol is under the tail of a bull enclosed in a slashed-out circle.
Lowell was the first theatre I'd played in where there was no orchestra pit, so the orchestra was backstage, plagued by sound-mixing problems and invisible to the audience. Except for the final number, we might as well have done the show nude. My quasi-fever persisting, I went to sleep right after the performance, and I awoke much better.
It rained in Lowell, it had rained in Elmira, and it would rain in New Brunswick. I've been in eight cities on tour, and it's rained in all of them. I slept for the beginning of the ride from Lowell to New Brunswick, surprised, when I awoke, to find myself in Providence - I-495 to I-95 all the way along the coast through Connecticut? It seemed like a long way to make the journey. I finished The Voyage of the Narwhal
and hoped that they might drop us off in Manhattan for lunch and not force us into a New Jersey mall, but I dozed off and awoke as we were crossing the George Washington Bridge.
Lunch was at the Menlo Park Mall, actually very close to the Hilton Towers in East Brunswick, where we'd be staying, but there aren't many good lunch options near the hotel (except one truly stupendous option...read on). After a very unsatisfying sushi lunch (let's just say I've learned my lesson about having high expectations for mall food-court sushi), I wandered around the mall, recoiling and wincing at the signs as if I'd come face to face with a viper: Dog and Cat Lovers Paradise. Bring Your Pets In Sunday's December 1st and 8th. Mens Department. In the hotel there'd be a restaurant called Carlyle's and a bar called Sports Edition, but in the elevator it was Carlye's and the bar placard welcomed you to Sports Editon. Was there any
literacy in the vicinity?
The State Theatre in New Brunswick is one of those places where you can't get to the orchestra pit without going through the audience (as in Youngstown), so for that reason alone, we don't go onstage for the final number. At least we weren't backstage, and at least my keyboard seemed to be behaving itself. I toyed with the idea of going back home to Manhattan for the night - it was only an hour away. But I resisted the urge, deciding that I'd better say good-bye to home for a while, and in any case I've had so many poor experiences with New Jersey Transit trains that I didn't really trust any of them to get me to New Brunswick the following afternoon in time for the matinee, no matter how early I left. And so I found myself with many of the cast back at the hotel, at Sports Edit(i)on (there is really nothing else to do at night if you're staying at the Hilton Towers at East Brunswick and don't have a car), where, even if the food took nearly an hour to arrive, at least we got to play pool.
From my tenth-floor window, I could see that I basically had two options for the next morning: I could hike through the surrounding swampland, or I could walk along the New Jersey Turnpike. From the hotel lobby, things looked the teeniest bit more promising; I at least had the option of Route 18 instead. Taking my life into my hands and feet, I crossed over the turnpike on Route 18, hoping to find something of interest. There was no sidewalk, so I shared the lanes with fast-moving traffic - I eventually saw the sidewalk on the other side of the bridge, but of course there was no way to get there. So I hoofed it past industrial plazas, doctor's offices, a Kinko's. Walking over week-old newspapers, broken glass, abandoned shoes (perhaps belonging to unfortunate pedestrians of yore). Things looked pretty grim until, flash, bam, alakazam, I stumbled upon a branch of the Hong Kong Supermarket. "Oh, my God!" I cried out in ecstasy. I even made the "Yes!" fist gesture that Macaulay Calkin uses in "Home Alone" when he wards off his attackers.
The Hong Kong Supermarket, a wonderful Asian grocery store (and then some), is a place I frequent in New York City. There are branches in lower Manhattan and in Flushing, and they're both huge. I can spend an hour wandering around, and those are the branches that I know. So here I was in a new branch, equally huge, with 90 minutes to explore. I had the $3.50 lunch special (three hot delicacies over rice), and I picked up some Chinese pastries, hot roasted peas, sweet ginger, and fruit. I even got to do a kimchi tasting: A representative from Zongga Kimchi was offering four delicious varieties for sampling. She specifically recommended the whole-radish version - splendid indeed.
Between our Saturday matinee and evening performance, the theatre ordered pizza for the cast, and they did a splendid job of doing so: They followed the "(n/2)+1" rule that calculates the number of pizzas to get for "n" hungry people, and they got pizza with anchovies on it. Someone even brought out hot crushed pepper. I wasn't too hungry (that $3.50 lunch special was really filling), but the anchovies hit the spot. After the pizza I strolled along what seem to be New Brunswick's main drags, George Street and Easton Street, with their boutiques and somewhat diverse restaurants ("You can get ostrich!" I heard someone exclaim as I walked by). It was not a bad place to while away a couple of hours, but it was cold: In anticipation of Florida, I'd left my winter coat at home.
And Florida starts tomorrow.
Wednesday, November 27, 2002
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ / TALLAHASSEE, FL
Tallahassee," I'm inclined to tell anyone heading here, with complete truth. It is surprisingly gorgeous.
Getting to Tallahassee was accomplished by two AirTran flights on Sunday. The first departed from Newark International Airport, which ranks among the dullest and most inaccessible in the world (every airport designer should be required to spend two minutes at Singapore's amazing Changi Airport for inspiration). They claim to have free Internet access, but the terminals weren't working (I fiddled with them for a half hour), and so once we got through security there was virtually nothing to do, though I did lure two other people into playing hearts for a while. I also ate three of the four bananas from the Hong Kong Supermarket - I've never carried a banana more than about four minutes without it turning into a gooey mess, so I figured I'd better eat them soon.
At the risk of alienating my readers with complaints, I'm going to rant a little bit more about the Newark airport. (Skip this paragraph if you're bored.) From my Manhattan apartment, I can see planes departing from, and landing at, the Newark airport, and so it should be fairly easy to get there. There's a bus from Port Authority, but it's overpriced for the distance. Then they put in a train from Penn Station, which sped up the journey a bit, but they tack on an outrageous surcharge for people entering or exiting at that station, so the train costs more than the bus. It's actually about the same price to go round-trip from New York City to the Philadelphia airport as to the Newark airport, even though you stop at the Newark airport on the way!
Then there's the new airline, AirTran, which is too easily confused with the new monorail that gets you to and from the parking lots, AirTrain....
Our two flights - Newark to Atlanta, and then Atlanta to Tallahassee - were on-time, quick, and uneventful. We were met at the Tallahassee airport by a bus (much more comfortable than our tour bus, I must say), which took us to the Doubletree Hotel. This hotel gets top marks for having a free Internet terminal in the lobby, for giving out delicious cookies upon our arrival, and for being two blocks from the Tallahassee public library, which has 19 free Internet terminals. The Fosse
musicians had a band-bonding dinner that night at Marie Livingston's, a steak restaurant, courtesy of the touring company. I went for the ribeye, their top seller, combined with a half order of blackened shrimp.
The next morning, I turned on the radio: "Praise the Lord! The Tallahassee temperature is currently 35 degrees. Going up to 69 today, down to 42 tonight, tomorrow's high 70." There then followed a quotation from the Bible.
What was I to do, dress like an Eskimo but strip down to Bahamas beachwear in the middle of the day? I erred on the too-much-clothing side and headed for the visitors' center, where two friendly attendants plied me with brochures and information, including a 64-site walking tour. I also heard part of a voice-mail message left, I suppose, by one of the supervisors: "...I want you to have two or three beers and listen to the outgoing message. Then you will learn why people are not coming to Tallahassee." I never heard the offending outgoing message, but the voice mail was amusing nonetheless.
The walking tour started at the observation deck that tops the 22-story New Capitol Building, an austere, flat structure that dominates the downtown hill. The view was magnificent, no doubt in part because from there I couldn't see the New Capitol Building. The Old Capitol Building was more appealing; it's been restored to the way it looked in 1902, and it's also a museum of Florida politics and history. I didn't expect to be there long, but I spent about two hours, reading of interesting Florida court cases and gubernatorial-campaign tactics, such as Lawton Chiles's 1970 walk of 1,033 miles from the Panhandle to the Keys, in which he met Floridians personally, and Bob Graham's 1978 campaign strategy, in which he spent a day each as an orange picker, lumberjack, and garbage collector, to name a few. The museum also had a good exhibit on the 2000 presidential-election controversy, including a specimen of Palm Beach County's confusing voting machine, whose layout led some voters to punch out the wrong names using a sharp device not unlike the more intimidating ones found in a dentist's office. Then there was information on all the bad laws: the poll tax, the Jim Crow laws, the Blue Laws - and a most amusing typo: "Should immigrants be required learn English?"
Across the street was the Vietnam Memorial, and next to that the 1841 Union Bank building, now an extension of the Black Archives Research Center and Museum. Here was an impressive exhibit honoring famous black Floridians, such as Mary McLeod Bethune, whose Bethune-Cookman College was the result of a school she began with only $1.50 in capital early in the 20th century. There were also interesting displays on the Ku Klux Klan (one member's card actually had it spelled "Klu Klux Klan"), racist hate mail received by black Florida Congress members, and offensive advertising used by companies during the civil-rights era.
Four hours had passed, and I'd been to only four of the 64 places on the tour. It went more quickly after that; the tour generally led me through three districts: the rest of downtown, the Park Avenue district (a series of parks make up the median of Park Avenue for several blocks leading east from the Old City Cemetery), and the Calhoun Street district (which contains many historic homes from the early 19th century, though they're not as impressive as those in Springfield, Massachusetts).
Our performances in Florida were held at the Leon County Civic Center, more a sports arena than a theatre. They cut the arena in half, and half of it became backstage, where the makeshift orchestra pit was situated. But any drawbacks to the venue were more than made up for by the stupendous post-show reception, which included a raw bar, various sushi rolls, and, I'm told, excellent desserts (I never made it that far).
Five "canopy roads" lead out of Tallahassee, so named because the branches from the noble oak trees hang over the roads and are covered with Spanish moss, virtually enclosing the roads completely in places. I decided to rent a bicycle for the simple purpose of traveling the 18 kilometers to Bradley's Country Store
and back along two of the canopy roads. Finding bicycle rental was not entirely a simple process: I'd gone to Tec's Bike Shop the day before, only to find it closed on Mondays; upon returning on Tuesday, they told me they don't rent bikes, and they sent me to Higher Ground, on the other side of town (but at least in the direction I was heading). I was crestfallen when the sign at Higher Ground said "Closed,"
but one of the employees motioned me in: they had simply forgotten to change the sign that day. They rented me a Hotrock bike (one of those small 21-speed contraptions), a helmet, and a lock for $37 - a bit more than I wanted to pay (heck, more than two days' car rental in South Africa last year!), but it turned out to be worth it.
I'd never ridden a bike for more than about two kilometers (I still feel a tad pretentious in my belligerent adherence to the metric system, but I'm sticking with it, at least for now - this is one area where the USA would do well to play the lemming), and, except for two brief flirtations with such vehicles, hadn't been on one in about 15 years. As a pedestrian and as a driver, I don't take very kindly to cyclists, and even on a bike myself I'm not too fond of them (perhaps only school buses are lower on the vehicle chain), as I still essentially believe that roads are for cars and sidewalks are for walking - or perhaps running, if you're in a hurry. So this was a very new, and slightly hypocritical, experience for me.
I started off slowly, heading north on Magnolia Drive, which was to become Centerville Road, the canopy road on which Bradley's is located. I realized early on that I was completely unfit for such a journey: I can walk for hours on end, day after day, but I've never trained the muscles used for bike riding. The heavy traffic thinned out a bit after a few minutes, but the road was only one lane in each direction, and with each vehicle that passed me I wanted to say, "I'm sorry for being in your way. Thank you for not killing me today."
But finally, I got passed Interstate 10, and there was very little traffic. At times I had the road to myself, with only the thrum-thrumming of the pedals, the whoosh-whooshing of the wind in my ears, the tseek-tseeking of the birds, and the Spanish moss dangling like curtains above me, draped the branches whose trunks were on the other side of the road. Once I got used to the bike I didn't feel so tired, and I enjoyed the thrill of coasting down giant hills at what felt like Mach 3. It took about an hour and a half to reach Bradley's.
Bradley's was founded in 1927, though the estate and some of the buildings date from the 19th century. It's best known for its homemade sausage, so I sampled a foot-long sausage dog for lunch. And by all means it was probably the best sausage I'd ever had: spicy and smoky, but not so much that it obscured the flavor of the fresh pork. I sat on one of the rocking chairs on the store's front porch and ate my lunch as I watched the white-and-brown horses across the road eat theirs. I took a little walk around the property, past the pond, eventually coming face to face with a herd of cows, who stared at me blankly and noncommittally, as if unsure whether I was a friend or an intruder. I saw a building called "The Ole Smoke House" and the machines used for threshing grits and for extracting sap. I couldn't bring any sausage home with me, but I took some cheese and peanut brittle, and I barely resisted taking home a bag of Aunt Maggie's Sweet Cornbread mix, if only for the packaging: "Instruckshuns: Git ya oven to 425. Now while dats going on, put da mix in a bowl and add 'bout a half cup a wadda. A little more if ya need 'em, mix 'em up real good...."
I cut across Moccasin Gap Road to another canopy road, Miccosukee Road, to get back into town. This one had less traffic and was, overall, a little prettier: the canopy effect was more boldly stated, and the branches formed arches enclosing the roadway, as if suggesting a cathedral. On the outskirts of town a bike lane appeared, and then just as suddenly it became lost in a construction zone, so I was fighting traffic again. The folks at Higher Ground had asked me to return the bike by 17:00 and I made it with two minutes to spare.
Needless to say, I felt exhausted that evening, and more than a little sore - there must be no seat less comfortable than a bike seat - and so I didn't hunt down a restaurant for a post-show dinner; instead I joined several cast members in the hotel bar, saying good-bye to our interim company manager, Wendy, and welcoming our new one, Dave. Then I retreated upstairs and was out immediately.
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