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Tales From the Tour -- January 2003
"Tales From the Tour" was a running travelogue describing my
experiences on the international tour of the musical Fosse.
Monday, January 20, 2003
NEW YORK, NY / GRAND RAPIDS, MI
I have a habit of cutting it close when embarking on a long trip. When I left for Africa in 2001 I got my passport back from the Kenyan consulate with my visa only a couple of hours before departure. When I left for Scandinavia last summer I was buying shoes at the time I should have been getting on the subway to head for the airport. And we won't mention the incident when British Airways barred me from my flight because I arrived at the airport only 25 minutes before departure, even though they hadn't started boarding by the time I got to the gate.
So it may come as little surprise that I spent most of the last few hours of my New York City break, early Monday morning, not immersed in efficient packing, but instead figuring out how to transfer CDs to MP3s on my new Sony Vaio laptop computer so that I can listen to them on my new Kyocera 7135 Smartphone. You'll be hearing a lot about the 7135, probably more than you really want to - suffice it to say that it's the only electronic gadget I've seen in years that's made me say, "I've got
to have that!" It's a mobile phone, PDA, and MP3 player all in one, it's got programs that let me surf the Web and send e-mail, and boy, is it cool.
Thus, I headed out the door two hours before my departure from LaGuardia Airport with only the vaguest notion of what was in my luggage, though of course any airport security officer who might ask, "Are you absolutely certain of exactly what's in your luggage?" would receive an enthusiastic answer in the affirmative. I plugged the headphones into the 7135 and put on the musical Violet
(it starts with a bus ride from North Carolina to Tennessee, so it seemed fitting), got lucky with the W train and the M60 bus, I was at LaGuardia in an hour.
They've installed new luggage-screening machines that look much like something a hospital might use to X-ray, manipulate, and perform various experiments on your innards. My suitcase (darned checked luggage!) didn't pass the machine's tests and was hand-searched, apparently because of a box of blank recordable CDs I'd carefully hidden under a lot of clothing in my efforts to smuggle them into Grand Rapids. Empty CDs caught their attention, but no one asked for a demonstration of the super-neat 7135. People have the strangest interests.
There's not much to say about the first leg of the journey, from New York to Chicago - the fact is that domestic flights are generally pretty dull. The plane was only about one-fifth full, so I plunked myself down in the best seat on the plane - which was, of course, the window seat just behind the second exit row (a row that didn't have a window seat, so there was no seat in front of me) - and, with no one else in my row or the row in front of me, I was able to stretch out and relax to the fullest.
In Chicago I got to know Casey, a new dancer in the show, and Greg, our new drummer (and consequently my new roommate) - this means I no longer have to distinguish between Dave-the-drummer and Dave-the-company-manager. About a dozen of us boarded the same 43-passenger propellor plane for Grand Rapids, succumbing grudgingly to the draconian demands of our flight attendant: Rodrick was reprimanded for wearing headphones during takeoff, even though his CD player was off; a couple of people had to convince her why such things as personal computers shouldn't go in the luggage hold; and she's the only person ever to refuse me an entire can of apple juice instead of the three-ounce plastic shot cups that airlines seem to think are sufficient to quench my thirst.
It was cold and snowy in Grand Rapids on Monday, and it has been ever since. A bunch of us dined at Bobarino's, an Italian place in a building known simply as the BOB (that's Big Old Building). Many people had meals they claimed were excellent; three of us had the fettuccine primavera, which was pretty dull. Desserts were shown on a cart and proffered by a waiter who was on his first day (or perhaps his last); we were most amused by his elaborate description of one: "I have no idea what that is, but it looks really good." Following the meal, my Scrabble needs were fulfilled - at long last - by Erica and her roommate, Clista, the assistant technical director.
Grand Rapids isn't the most exciting of metropolises, but the downtown area has its charms, as I found out during my walk around on Tuesday morning. Every once in a while I'd come across a blue Civil War monument or a public ice-skating rink or the bizarre orange "La Grande Vitesse" sculpture. And walking along Monroe Center I happened to find myself in front of Gojo, one of two - yes, two! - Ethiopian restaurants in the city. This was encouraging, especially as a few minutes before I'd walked through a drab place called City Market. It was a dim store with half-full racks containing an odd assortment of snacks and kitchen utensils - it reminded me of supermarkets in Moscow before they actually started putting things on the shelves. I must say, however, that City Market was a reliable place to find ferret food.
I walked up a slight hill and through the concrete-replete campus of Grand Rapids Community College, and then I walked along Division Street. (It may have actually been Division Avenue - Midwestern roads have a habit of omitting "road" or "street" or "avenue," but I think technically they're each assigned one, so I'm more or less putting in whichever I think sounds best.) Division took me into a rather destitute-looking neighborhood; one block consisted of several attached buildings that were almost all for sale, and what few people I saw were either lining up for a charity meal or asking me for money. Oddly, this depressing stretch ended at a street called Wealthy, where I turned left and picked up a barbecued-pork sandwich at The Que (before I knew what it was, I had the urge to pronounce it "Tay Kay" - maybe it was a French tea house! - instead of "Thuh Kyoo," as in "the barbecue"). There was a sign at The Que advertising the Sekka International Market a couple of kilometers away, which I decided would make a good trip for Wednesday.
Tuesday afternoon we had a brush-up rehearsal to get the show vaguely in our bodies, minds, and ears again before Tuesday night's performance. The reunion with the cast was pleasant; even though we'd been apart for only two weeks everyone greeted each other warmly as if we'd been separated for a year. The band had dinner at Friday's between the rehearsal and the show, and I made the mistake of thinking that a new menu item - a tuna-wasabi sandwich - might be to my liking. The waiter assured me that it was chunks of tuna, as in tuna steak, and not that smelly chopped tuna that comes in a can, but the concoction that appeared in front of me was not much different from your basic tuna sandwich smothered in mayonnaise, albeit with the faintest hint of wasabi. It was not as repulsive as most tuna-and-mayonnaise sandwiches, and I didn't send it back (though the waiter offered to give me something else instead), but the further I got into it the more I felt as if I were eating an entire jar of mayonnaise, even though I'd procured extra wasabi powder from the waiter and poured it all over the plate. Even the "exotic greens" that came with the sandwich (maybe they were from Wisconsin or some such far-off place) were covered in an unappetizing vinaigrette. I kept thoughts of Sekka and Gojo in my head and looked forward to the next day's culinary adventures.
Our first show of the new year, in DeVos Hall, went off smoothly - no sound problems, no keyboard problems, and Greg's musicality and steady rhythm earned the band's and cast's respect. Even the electronic key for my hotel room worked, which means it may be time to move on to other rants, such as those silly automatic washroom faucets that shut off before I get my hands rinsed. Greg and Eric (who plays reeds) and I had a snack and a beer at a sports bar called Taps after our first show, and we were back into the swing of things.
The walk to Sekka on Wednesday morning took about 50 minutes, mostly along Eastern Avenue, which has churches almost every block (I would later learn at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum that in 1913, Grand Rapids had 134 churches). Eastern's churches range from beautiful brick structures to hole-in-the-wall single-story places like they have in the Bronx. Sekka opened only two months ago, and the shelves are only about a third full. The store specializes in African and Caribbean products; the proprietor is from (I believe) Nigeria, and I had a friendly chat with her. It would have been a wonderful place to shop if I'd had a kitchen at my disposal - the freezers were full of scrumptious things such as cow feet and beef tripe and snails, and there were all sorts of Nigerian flour and Jamaican beans and palm oil, but apart from some expensive dried fish there wasn't anything of interest that I could really take away as a snack or lunch. So I headed back downtown, cutting through an enormous, attractive cemetery, and coming upon a supermarket called Clark's Food Center, where I learned (from a sign, not from experience) that you can be jailed for 93 days and fined $500 if you attempt to redeem out-of-state soda (oops, that's "pop" here) cans for Michigan's generous 10-cent refund. I had a spicy pea dish at Little Africa, the Ethiopian place farther from downtown, and, tired from all that walking and put off by the cold and snow, rested up a bit before the show.
Gordon, the musical supervisor, pops (or "sodas") in every couple of months to check out the show and make sure we haven't done things such as add or delete songs. He was there on Wednesday and had a bunch of musical comments, but basically he was quite pleased, so Ross was pleased, and in turn so were we. On the destitute stretch of Division I'd passed a wonderfully divey-looking Mexican place, and that's where Erica and I dined after the show; we sat at the bar and chatted with the young bartender. He talked as if not a whole lot mattered in life, even when he recounted how he once worked as a cabdriver and had been shot by a robber. The bullet went through his body and knocked him out of commission for a few months, but apparently the worst part of it, as he claimed, was that "it fucked up my tattoo pretty majorly."
In 1908, Meyer May, who owned a clothing store, commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a house for him on the corner of Madison and Logan. A non-Wright addition was put on in the 1920s, but in the 1980s it was removed and the house restored to its 1910-1911 look, and since then it's been open to the public. I'd never seen a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and boy, was I impressed. His "prairie house" style - warm, earthy colors such as golden oak and ochre; patterns emphasizing the horizontal rather than the vertical; and an almost-hidden front door leading to a winding hallway opening up to a large, inviting living room - is certainly unusual. Sometimes form supersedes function; the beds in the master bedroom are narrow simply because they had to fit against a certain wall, and the dining-room table's legs double as lampposts, so you can't put a tablecloth on the table. I watched a 35-minute film that describes how the house was painstakingly restored for two years - a project involving dozens of people and immense research to determine the original carpet colors and tile layout, among other things. The furniture company Steelcase paid for the restoration and maintains the house, and admission is free - I thought it amazingly generous of them to spend all that time and money perfecting a building simply so I could saunter in out of the cold on a Thursday morning and be entertained for an hour and a half. My guide, Doris (I was the only one there at opening time, so I got a personal tour), was full of interesting stories about the house, and being also full of kindness, she even drove me back to my hotel on her way home.
There were matinee and evening shows on Thursday - an odd day for a matinee. An overwhelmingly exciting addition to my keyboard part was made on Thursday: I now pop up and do a triangle hit at the beginning of measure 20 of the transition music after "Crunchy Granola Suite." This relieves Greg of that responsibility; he'd had to contort himself awkwardly to hit the triangle whilst playing the bongos at the same time. Erica and I sampled Gojo's offerings between shows, which meant I've had three Ethiopian meals in the past week - but to pre-empt the inevitable craving when we're meandering through rectangular states in a couple of months, I figure I'd better enjoy it while I can. (In case you're an Ethiopian-food connoisseur, I can tell you that it seems injera is lighter in Grand Rapids than on the East Coast.) Heading back to DeVos Hall for the second show, we stopped into a recreational-vehicle expo in the same building. It was most impressive to see RVs with full kitchens and bedrooms bigger than my first Manhattan apartment, but for $60,000 I'd just as soon fly to South Africa and take the Blue Train 60 times and not have to worry about running out of gas. After the show, Squatch, to thank us for playing that show in Naples live when the sound system broke down, took the band out for drinks in the lounge area of Bobarino's, which in the late hours turns into a piano bar featuring singers of questionable intonation. It turns out Squatch is also into Ethiopian and Indian and Vietnamese food and the like, and for that matter so is Casey, so I may have a couple new people to join me on culinary excursions.
There then followed two mornings of bloody-cold excursions at attractions reached via bus number 7. Friday I headed westbound to the Blandford Nature Center, which is free and contains several kilometers of hiking trails. It's also a hospital for injured wild animals. They have, for instance, a couple of great horned owls, a few painted turtles, and a 16-year-old red-tailed hawk, all of which are blind or missing a foot or are otherwise unfit for survival in the wild. The center also has a few 19th-century buildings, has a small exhibit on Michigan's geological history (did you know that the area that's now the Great Lakes once contained coral reefs?), and, when it's not well below freezing, demonstrates the process of making syrup. It really was bitterly cold, but I was bundled up well - the only thing I wished I'd done was put on two pairs of socks. There wasn't much wildlife along the trails; the only thing I saw apart from a couple of birds was, I think, a mouse of some sort, who fled under an ancient plowing contraption before I got a good look. I had the trails to myself, and it was quite therapeutic; there was a large variety of plant life, mostly bare trees and shrubs, but on a few bushes some dried cranberries hung on for the winter, providing a spark of vivid color against the otherwise white and gray scene. And there are few smells as invigorating as the scent of fresh forest air on a frigid, snowy day.
Friday's rehearsal brought Casey and our other new dancer, Francis, into the show. It was refreshing to play a rehearsal; because of the anticipated stopping and starting, we played things live and didn't use the click track, so I got to play all those wonderful things I'd gotten to play when the sound system failed in Naples. Following the rehearsal I joined most of the band at Bobarino's, where I had a considerably better meal than I'd had Monday night - no doubt it helped that our waiter's name was Seth. Brian and Liz swore by the chicken chili, which was indeed excellent, as was the chicken-pesto pizza and the molten-chocolate cake. There was no outing after the show, but I joined a few people in the hotel's hot tub. Erica brought wine, which some of us drank out of the cone-shaped paper cups we found beside the gym's water cooler, tripling up the cups to prevent the wine from leaking - very classy.
Saturday's excursion took me eastbound on bus 7, to the Frederik Meijer Gardens. Admission was $7 but well worth it, largely for the temporary exhibition of glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly. They were simply amazing: stained glass heated and blown into all sorts of different shapes, some of which were arranged together to form a chandelier or tower. The indoor gardens had other exhibits of note, such as orchids and carniverous pitcher plants that, with their smooth curves and fine color streaks, look, coincidentally, much like the Chihuly sculptures. Outside I strolled around the sculpture park; I'd remembered to double up on my socks this time, and it was a good thing: a sign on the walk to the gardens from the bus stop showed the temperature at -15 degrees Celsius (actually it said five degrees Fahrenheit, but I'm saving for a "below zero" line coming up). The sculpture park's most famous attraction is the 24-foot bronze horse sculpted by Nina Akamu, who based the sculpture on a clay model of Leonardo da Vinci's that was destroyed by French troops before da Vinci was able to turn the model into a master work. I didn't fully realize the magnitude of the Akamu sculpture until I found myself staring straight up at the horse's vicious-looking teeth and nostrils. Other sculptures abound, such as Rodin's bronze Eve
, whose arms are wrapped around her body (well, of course she's trying to keep warm - it's 15 degrees below zero!). I also liked Bill Woodrow's aptly named Listening to History
, which consists of a human head lying on its side with a history book strapped to the left ear.
I'd tried to convince people to go for tapas at San Chez after Saturday's show (my attempts were thwarted by the fact that most people seemed to think I wanted to take them to a topless
restaurant), and to have a farewell gathering there for Jessica and Noel, but it had already been planned at Friday's. The thought of another meal there immediately put the vile taste of mayonnaise in my mouth, and Erica was even more vehemently opposed to a meal at Friday's than I - and so the two of us headed alone for San Chez, reportedly one of the top Hispanic restaurants in the country. It really was a splendid meal: monkfish and garlic cloves, ribs in a raspberry sauce, assorted olives, cheese casserole, raw tuna - and spectacular white sangria. We joined the others at Friday's afterward, catching people just before everyone dispersed.
Yesterday morning I crossed a pedestrian bridge over the Grand River to the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum, to which the DeVos Hall management had generously given us free tickets. The main exhibit was impressive, beginning with a multimedia room that took me back to the late 1960s and early 1970s (I wasn't actually around then, but it was, for instance, nice to see the "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" clip). The history wasn't quite chronological - Nixon's post-Watergate nomination of Ford as his new vice president was explained at the beginning and at the end, and then it was thrown in in the middle just for good measure - but it was thorough. I found it amusing, from a personal standpoint, that at Ford's presidential inauguration the band played the University of Michigan fight song instead of "Hail to the Chief" - my father attended Michigan and the fight song occupied a considerable part of my upbringing. Leaving the museum, I detoured along a trail by the Grand River to the Fish Ladder, a concrete sculpture that enables salmon to swim upstream during certain seasons, or some such thing - I couldn't find any explanatory information near the structure itself.
I'd been saving empty Pepsi cans from DeVos Hall's hospitality spread in order to bring them to Clark's today, and so I trudged through the snow, very nearly blown into the path of oncoming cars several times by gusts of wind, for the sole purpose of trading in my cans for 70 cents and purchasing a 99-cent package of salami slices for lunch. This was, of course, a bit compulsive, but I sort of relished the idea that I actually earned a dime every time I drank a Pepsi this week, and I relished the idea of obtaining a simple lunch for 29 cents. Heading back from Clark's I passed near that depressing stretch of Division, where someone on the street concocted a story about not having any money and offered to sell me a $25 Meijer's supermarket card for $10. I decided if I really needed $25 worth of groceries at Meijer's I could probably conjure up 250 soda (ahem, pop) cans instead.
I was very nearly able to say that we completed an entire week-long run in a theatre without any sound problems, but the onstage piano didn't work at all in "Sing Sing Sing" at our final Grand Rapids performance. So it was back to the piano tracks, and back to me faking the solo. This mishap (as you are no doubt aware by now) always sours my mood, but in this case it was particularly distressing, as it was Casey and Francis's first performance and Jessica's last, and I was hoping to be able to contribute meaningfully to the final 15 minutes of the performance. But I guess I should know by now to expect something like an 80% success rate with the onstage piano, much as I've come to expect only an 80% success rate with electronic hotel keys and an 80% - OK, let's make that 8% - success rate with automatic faucets in washrooms.
Sunday, January 26, 2003
CHICAGO, IL / PEORIA, IL / BLOOMINGTON, IN / SPRINGFIELD, IL
Our 38-hour break in Chicago started on a sour note. I'd been able to round up a half-dozen people to go out for Indian food, and I'd called Indian Garden, near our hotel, to find out how late they'd be open Sunday night. We arrived at the Lenox Suites Hotel - a place with wonderful rooms including kitchen facilities - at 21:20, ten minutes before the last seating at Indian Garden. I called them again to say we'd just arrived and would be leaving in a few minutes. We all rushed to our rooms to drop off luggage, and as we reconnoitered in the lobby I called once more to say we were on our way. This was 21:32, and whoever answered said they'd closed and couldn't seat us. I pleaded for a couple of minutes, saying we'd rush over and had been hankering for Indian food all day - but to no avail; I wished the 21:30 deadline had been explained to me as a slam-the-doors-shut deadline rather than a yeah-come-by-and-we-can-take-your-order-shortly-thereafter deadline.
Then, suddenly, I became angry. The only reason we didn't make it in time was that we'd taken a 27-minute rest stop because our bus driver needed coffee. I don't blame him for that - it was a long trip - but the stop was supposed to be only 15 minutes, and it had turned into an interminable wait reminiscent of the delays that plague local trains in India. We'd been headed to Chicago, for heaven's sake - a metropolis worthy of every possible moment we could spend there - and to pause for nearly a half hour at a rest stop when we were less than an hour away was the sheer pinnacle of unparalleled lunacy. (Actually, it had been paralleled. Remember the half-hour Wendy's stop on the way to New York City?)
Mainly, I was upset because I felt I'd let people down. I wouldn't have been angry if I'd been the only one trying to find an Indian meal. But here I'd promised people Indian food and couldn't deliver. I recall a children's poem - it's by Shel Silverstein or Judy Blume or one of those people - in which someone explains how boring it is to be known as the most reliable person, as opposed to the most pretty or the most peculiar. I'd be proud to be known as most reliable. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the last time I was severely unreliable (and you know I keep track of such things) was 17 April 1996, when I overslept (that's also the last time I overslept, and you know I keep track of such things) and failed to wake up a friend for work. I felt that mistake hang over me for days.
I take you on this long tangent in an attempt to justify the highly unprofessional fit I threw in the lobby when I realized we weren't going to Indian Garden. It involved throwing a city brochure on the floor, shouting something with more expletives than I'm accustomed to using, and storming out of the building and taking a walk around the block in order to cool off. That was all I needed to recover, and the next day I apologized for the outburst to Dave and the hotel receptionist. I unquestionably overreacted, but perhaps using a small tantrum to make my feelings clear, rather than the droll sarcasm I usually employ, will have more of an impact on our travel schedules.
Brian, Eric, and Tammy, amazing people that they are, were still up for Indian, even if it meant a long trip. And long it was: We took a $20 cab ride to Devon Street, a predominately Indian and Pakistani neighborhood in the northern reaches of the city. We walked along the street, peering into restaurants whose owners' children played inside while patrons dined, and eventually we settled on a place called Usmania, which was packed with Pakistanis. Thinking it was BYOB, we got some drinks at a grocery across the street, but in fact Usmania adhered to Muslim customs and didn't allow alcohol at all, and so we saved it for later.
The staff treated us extremely well, and we had a fabulous, cheap meal. The menu was small, but everything was expertly prepared with all the wonderful seasonings we'd been hoping for. Another $20 cab ride and we were back downtown, where we broke open the Taj Mahals (it's really not a wonderful beer unless you happen to be eating Indian food simultaneously) and listened to Brian's hilarious recording of a conversation between one of the Jerky Boys and some schmo who had answered a fake Village Voice ad offering common folk positions on major-league baseball teams.
Back in my room, I looked through a brochure to figure out what to do on our day off. Chicago offered plenty of attractions, but nothing leapt out at me until I found mention of the Baha'i Temple in the northern suburbs. Someone, somewhere - I don't recall who, or on which continent - had once told me I should go there, and on that memorable recommendation I purchased a $5 24-hour transit pass (annoyingly, you can't get them in the subway stations - I had to go to a supermarket) and set out the next morning for Linden, the northernmost station on the Chicago subway system.
Apart from the Taj Mahal, the Baha'i Temple was probably the most beautiful building I've ever been in. It's the only Baha'i House of Worship in North America; there are only seven in the world, and they are all nine-sided structures - nine, the highest single-digit number, represents completeness. You don't hear about the Baha'is very often, but there are about five million scattered around in almost every country. The faith is only about 160 years old, and it combines some of the best of the major religions and philosophies (one God, equality without discrimination, etc.). Reflecting this confluence of ideas, the domed temple is decorated with six-pointed stars, normal crosses, hooked crosses, ankhs, and the like. It's made of a mixture of white concrete and quartz, and the predominant design - carved into the walls and ceilings - is an extremely ornate and intricate lacy pattern. Every time I looked up at the dome, I noticed something new, such as how the elliptical pattern isn't the same in the ringed layers leading to the top, and then how it's not even the same within each ring. I also noticed that there was no donation box: The Baha'is accept funding only from other Baha'is, which may help explain why the temple took 33 years to build.
I headed to Chinatown for lunch - a 33-stop subway ride, mostly above ground, that gave me a good chance to look at the backs of apartment buildings, some of which were remarkably close to the tracks. Chinatown takes up a few square blocks, one of which is lined with a sort of Chinese strip mall called Chinatown Square ("Opening '92," announced a rather outdated sign near its entrance). I had dim sum at one of several restaurants that were all called Three Happiness, and I might have ventured up a staircase off the street into the Sun Yat-Sen Museum, but no one answered when I rang the bell.
The afternoon evolved into a sort of multi-ethnic pastry crawl, though I saved a lot of what I bought for later. I stepped into a couple of Asian supermarkets, got a couple of Chinese pastries at a bakery, and then headed northwest, to the Pilsen neighborhood. Originally bohemian-inspired, the area is now Hispanic, and the two- and three-story apartment buildings bear attractive, simple carved patterns. I walked along 18th Street, which was lined with wonderfully divey-looking bars, and found myself in front of a Mexican bakery called El Paraiso. There was nothing pretentious about the place - just shelves and shelves of huge pastries, and I took a tray and a pair of tongs and helped myself to a couple of the goods, which were only 50 cents each.
I briefly browsed a Mexican supermarket with a suspicious meat aroma before heading further north along Blue Island Avenue, through an area that must be none too safe at night. The avenue took me through a bizarre tunnel with painted human heads protruding from the wall. A short while later I was in Greektown. Here - you guessed it - I looked at cheeses in an Athenian market and paused for a couple of pastries in a Greek bakery. I also stepped inside a religious store full of candles and icons and good-luck oils. It had gotten dark, and I strolled through downtown just as most people were leaving work.
Casey had mentioned a strong desire to have Turkish food - I never thought I'd hear that one! - and so we checked out A la Turca, a few subway stops north of downtown. We were the only customers at the time we arrived, and we sat on the floor and had a scrumptious meal. She actually speaks a little Turkish and guided us toward a couple of the better dishes ("There's nothing like sigara börek" was her proverb of the day).
We got back downtown just in time for me to join about a dozen company members in seeing the new film Chicago
, which was excellent. It ended a little before midnight, far too early to call it a night in an exciting city such as Chicago - and, finding no one who might jump with enthusiasm if I were to incite an excursion into Pilsen's nether regions by asking, "Anyone want to check out the dive bars in a seedy yet architecturally stimulating Mexican neighborhood that's a 20-minute walk from the subway?" I made for Redheads, a piano bar just a couple of blocks from our hotel. I arrived midway through a 17-minute rendition of "Hotel California," and I obliged a woman of about 35 who for some reason wanted me to dance with her for the final 42 verses of "American Pie." I had two drinks called Shana's Studio 54 Martini, made with Finlandia vodka, Frangelico, and Amarula - yes, the Baileys-like Amarula, the most splendid of all liqueurs, which I discovered in South Africa and have never been able to find in the United States. The pianist was competent, the setting was intimate, and I stayed for a couple of hours, feeling generally very satisfied with the events of the day.
The next morning I boarded the subway nine minutes before my 24-hour pass was due to expire, got off at Belmont, and walked for a couple of hours through the Lincoln Park and Old Town neighborhoods. Lincoln Park is supposedly an eclectic, cosmopolitan area, but I didn't come upon streets lined with restaurants of every continent as I'd expected - either they're all spread out or I didn't walk along the right streets. The houses were reminiscent of Pilsen's, though, and so it was an attractive walk. Those were my last hours in Chicago, and it was sad to leave - Chicago impresses me more and more each time I visit.
Our next stop, Peoria, Illinois, was a lesson in gray, concrete-box architecture. Peoria's sister cities are Friedrichshafen, Germany; Benxi, China; and Clonmel, Ireland, as is proudly displayed on a sign outside City Hall. Peoria is perhaps best known for Big Al's Speakeasy, a nationally known strip club that I decided wasn't high on my list of sightseeing priorities. On arrival, some of us lunched at Bennigan's, and then I took a walk down to the Illinois River. I happened upon a visitors' center, where a friendly lady plied me with information and brochures and even gave me a free pass to the Lakeview Museum.
Our first show in Peoria was much like our last in Grand Rapids in that the onstage piano didn't work, even though it had worked during the pre-show sound check. I seethed through "Sing Sing Sing," focusing my mental energy on how to put it to our sound techies that the recurrent problems were starting to get on my nerves. In Chicago I'd thrown my first public semi-tantrum (what I do in private when Windows crashes is my own business) since 5 July 1996 and I didn't really feel like throwing another, but the I'll-just-sit-idly-and-wait-for-the-piano-to-start-working-again mantra wasn't having any results. So I explained the situation to Squatch, and we re-tested the piano the following night - it had just been a loose connection. After the show Erica and I headed for Martinis (guess what the specialty drink is), in what used to be Peoria's train station, and had $3 cosmopolitans and played Scrabble. Nobody ever walks anywhere in Peoria, except car-deprived visitors, so it was a pretty desolate trek back to the Holiday Inn late at night.
Wednesday morning I headed to the Lin Hing International Food Market, an Asian grocery store a couple of kilometers from the center of town, near the intersection of Main and University. They had a bunch of the same snacks you see in Asian markets all over the country (my favorite brand name is the friendly-partnership-sounding "Kasugai Peanut & You"), as well as jarred vegetables that sound beautiful until you read that they're all "in brine" - "Banana Blossom in Brine," "Lotus Rootlet in Brine," "Sliced Young Toddy Palm in Brine." This particular store had a good selection of Indian dinner mixes - just add water and you've got dosas or dhokla - and one kimchi mix that enticed me with "just add water," until I looked at the back of the package and realized I'd have to add about 14 other ingredients to get anything resembling kimchi. Then there was the bag of salted turnips whose directions admonished, "Serve with meats, fish or soy, if pleased." It's always interesting to read the packages in these places.
On the way to the store, along Main, I had passed several side streets with signs saying, "No Access Beyond Russell," and so on the way back I had to venture up to Russell and find out why each road was closed past it. Was it like the Peace Line gate in Belfast separating the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods? If I set foot beyond Russell, would I have to convert to a whole new set of faiths and relinquish my United States citizenship? No, sadly, it was not that interesting. It was simply that there was a diagonal concrete slab placed through each intersection, so that, if you were in a car, once you got to Russell you had to drive along Russell for a block and then head back to Main along the next side street. And if you lived on Russell you couldn't drive for more than a block without being hurled over to Main (or off in the other direction). I was hoping to run into someone who could explain what must be an irksome phenomenon for residents - no doubt some kid in 1932 had been nearly hit by a horse and buggy trying to beat the excruciating Peoria rush-hour traffic choking Main by using a side street instead, and in a fit of outrage the community had barred the street shut forever - but since nobody ever walks anywhere in Peoria, the mystery remains unresolved.
I met Erica for a Lebanese lunch at Byblos, where among a variety of standard appetizers we had the interesting fatteh (beef and chickpeas over crisp pita topped with yogurt). I could have gone to the Lakeview Museum after that, but it was far away, and the museum's explanatory brochure didn't actually explain what there was to see there. And so the free museum pass will no doubt spend the next few years in a very safe place in my apartment, waiting to be used if I happen to return to Peoria. (Copies of my tax returns from the past few years remain inveterately hidden within piles of variegated papers in my bedroom, but anything that may save me a few bucks the next time I happen go sightseeing in a dreary Midwestern town gets meticulously filed for quick access in alphabetically organized folders.)
Instead of heading out to the museum, I crossed the street and spent a couple of hours wandering about the fascinating Illinois Antique Center. It was like a hundred garage sales all rolled into one enormous two-story building - every article was carefully tagged with the owner, item number, and price. It reminded me of the Random Personal Stuff Museum in Buenos Aires (it's not actually called that, but you get the idea). Most of the "antiques" for sale were simple personal effects from the mid-1900s, such as Elsie the Cow paraphernalia, a 10-cent strip of Johnson & Johnson's moleskin adhesive, a June 1951 Department of the Navy instruction manual for using the new T41E1 76mm tank gun, an assortment of 1930s Ku Klux Klan membership cards, and the Secor, Illinois, telephone directory from March 1967.
What an amazing collection of nostalgia items! Especially interesting to me were collections of railroad memorabilia, such as dishware and train schedules. In the summer of 1964, I learned, you could go round-trip from Boston to Miami, a 32-hour trip, for $95.30. I was comforted by the fact that there were other people out there who collected transportation schedules: I've got a freezer-sized collection of airline flight schedules from the 1980s, back before the little airlines were bought up by the large ones. (Anyone remember Republic Airlines? People's Express? The little Florida carrier Devoe?) Could they possibly be worth something?
I picked up an employee brochure called "Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad - Speed Restrictions and Special Instructions: Illinois and Des Moines Divisions, No. S-8, Effective at 12:01 A.M. Standard Time Sunday, July 30, 1967." The rules were a mouthful:
"11. HIGHWAY CROSSING SIGNALS. Operation of highway crossing signals and automatic gates is such that when an engine or cars move toward crossing on main track, the crossing signal will operate, and after crossing has been occupied and cleared, if any movement by such engine or cars is again made toward the crossing without such movement having been started from the outside of the signal starting circuits, which vary in length 2000 feet to 3500 feet beyond the crossing, the signal or automatic gate will not operate, and before any such movement is made over the crossing it must be protected by a member of the crew on the ground at crossing unless it is known that the signal or gate is operating for the movement involved."
And then. . . .
"18. IN TERRITORY WHERE RULES GOVERNING MOVEMENT OF ENGINES OR TRAINS BY BLOCK SIGNALS ARE IN EFFECT. Where maximum speed permitted is in excess of 20 MPH, trains using a hand-operated main track switch, not equipped with electric lock, must have a portion of its train occupying main track or leave main track switch open while using such track."
They don't write 'em like they used to.
One dealer had thoughtfully cut interesting articles out of old editions of Life and the Saturday Evening Post, and I picked out a few about Brooklyn and the Dodgers for my mother, who grew up in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn article discussed the borough's main industries, which ranged in scale from sugar (Brooklyn in the 1940s was the greatest sugar-refining area in the world) to a person who earned his living removing tattoos: "This Sands Street man, a genius, has for years been able to render pristine the epidermis of many a groom-to-be who in a youthful yielding to temptation had allowed a bicep to become the rolling stomach of a lady from Singapore or his forearm to provide a runway for some undraped hussy set to dancing there by the needle of a Liverpool practitioner." I'm partial to long, well-crafted, comma-scarce sentences.
My college roommate Orin drove up from St. Louis with his girlfriend to see Wednesday's show, a performance in which fortunately all the sound components worked, and afterward we caught up on the past few years at the steakhouse Damon's, a chain with an unusual gimmick: They show several TV programs on giant screens and there's a tuner at each table to let you select the program you want to hear. (Or, in our case, you turn the volume way down and catch up on the past few years.) We continued the conversation at the Irish pub Kelleher's. Orin's also in the music business; he conducts and plays piano and organ for an Illinois Christian center called the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows.
An early departure Thursday morning brought us to Bloomington, Indiana, a town most noted for Indiana University and Hoagy Carmichael. I had a few hours to check out downtown, a hefty 40-minute walk from the Quality Inn. On the way downtown I stopped in at the showroom of the Butler Winery
(the vineyards are a few kilometers outside of town) and sampled a few of their products. You wouldn't think Indiana would be a hotbed of wine production, but, as I learned during a long chat with Amy Butler, the United States' first well-known, well-respected winery was established in Indiana in about 1800. I picked up two of their best sellers: a sweet blueberry wine and their peachy Indiana White.
Downtown Bloomington is pretty, with an attractive central square that contains the stone 1902 Monroe County Courthouse, topped with a perch-shaped copper weathervane of questionable origin. As I approached the square a helpful pedestrian signal indicated that I had nine seconds left to cross the street. There was much of appeal in and around the square: a store selling board games, a meat market that opens at 5:00 in the morning and closes in the early afternoon, an assortment of bars, a Yugoslavian restaurant, and the Bloomington Antique Mall, which was similar to the one in Peoria but with slightly more pristine, slightly less varied goods (largely table settings and the like). Downtown's main street is Kirkwood Avenue, which runs a few blocks east of the square to the IU campus. I walked around the campus a little bit; there's a small forest on the campus just south of Kirkwood. Our enthusiastically received performances in Bloomington were held at the beautiful IU Auditorium. I caught a TV program in which a reporter was interviewing Bloomington residents to find out their opinions regarding the mayor's proposal to route Interstate 69 through Bloomington; those who had opinions were against the plan, fearing an influx of strip malls and traffic - leave it to the inhabitants of a pretty college town to have the sensible opinions.
Friday morning I joined a few cast members for the hotel's free continental breakfast. The only other hotel guest in the dining room was a man who helped himself to three doughnuts, an act repulsive enough to put me off from taking any for myself. He had clearly made it a habit of consuming three doughnuts at a time for several decades, and when the hotel staff came around and announced that breakfast was about to end he took the ice bucket from his room, filling it with doughnuts in an effort to accumulate enough edibles to stave off any hunger pangs until lunch.
Let's see. . . besides wineries, what do you think of when you hear the word Indiana? Tibet, of course! The United States' first Tibetan Buddhist monastery, the Dagon Gaden Tensung Ling Monastery, is in Bloomington. As the crow flies, it's very close to the Quality Inn, in Cascades Park. But because it's on a road that passes under State Road 45-46, and doesn't intersect it, I had to take a long detour in order to get there. The brightly painted main building and the colorful thangkas flapping in the wind stood out against the stark, leafless, snow-covered trees of the park. It was just this one building and two dormitory buildings up a hill. I walked around the grounds for a while but didn't go in: All the shades were drawn, and there were no signs of life, so I doubted whether they wanted visitors or would know what to do with me if I rang the bell unannounced. In the monastery's driveway were a basketball net, a barbecue, and two cars. The thought of Tibetan Buddhists driving cars stretched my imagination, but presently I saw another car pull up and the driver went inside with his coffee and brown-bag lunch. I guess times have changed.
At Amy Butler's recommendation, Eric and I lunched at a Tibetan restaurant called Snow Lion, one of three Indiana restaurants owned by a nephew of the Dalai Lama. I had a scallop dish with vegetables and vermicelli over rice. We each had to indicate, on a scale of one to five, how spicy we wanted our food; after being assured that the spices would enhance, rather than kill, the taste, I went for five. It was indeed flavorful; the dish had a sweetness that warded off the spiciness for a few seconds after each bite, and then the peppers would kick in and I'd get a mouthful of hot fire. It was wonderful. It may well have been the third spiciest dish I'd ever had, the spiciest (and you know I keep track of such things) being the lamb jalfrezi at the Red Fort in London in December 1987 and a bowl of chili the following day. The Snow Lion also had a splendid dessert: rice pudding with raisins and cinnamon topped with yogurt.
I spent the next couple of hours at the Monroe County Historical Museum. It explained the history of important companies that have been based in Bloomington since the city and county were established in 1818, most notably the 99-year term of the Showers (later Showers Brothers) furniture company, begun in 1856. One exhibit was set up to look like the original one-room schoolhouse, and it contained quotes from people who attended the school and copies of a 1920 elementary-school reader ("O Kate! the old cow is in the pond: see her drink! Will she not come out to get some grass?" is a passage you might have recited from that book). In June 1834 a term's tuition at Indiana College (the predecessor of Indiana University) was $9.50, and in February 1919 the city-wide price of a half-pint of whiskey was established at 12.5 cents. Fascinating.
After yesterday's show I joined a few cast members and their friends at a jazz bar called Cafe Django, where a lounge singer performed sultry old standards respectably, and then at a pub called the Irish Lion. It was a highly enjoyable evening - college towns are dependable for having a laid-back and friendly atmosphere - and we were out until about 2:30, six hours before our bus was due to leave Bloomington. Lack of sleep, the scrumptious Midori-based cosmopolitans at the Snow Lion, the fact that I'd walked the 40 minutes between our hotel and downtown in double-digit-degrees-below-zero temperatures four times during the previous two days, and the thermostat in my room at the Quality Inn - which could be set to make the room either stifling or frigid but nothing in between, requiring multiple middle-of-the-night awakenings on my part so that I could switch it from "scorch" to "freeze" and back again - conspired to give me a case of the sniffles this morning and guaranteed that I'd sleep for virtually the entire four-hour drive to Springfield, Illinois. Today was a hectic day, as we had two shows after that four-hour trip - and to his immense credit Dave arranged for a catered lunch to be awaiting our arrival at Sangamon Auditorium, part of the University of Illinois at Springfield. The college may be better named the University of Illinois Just Outside of Springfield; there wasn't anything to do near the theatre, and so I spent the time between shows chatting with cast members and figuring out how to see the whole of Springfield during the couple of post-dawn hours before our departure for Evansville, Indiana, tomorrow morning. A well-catered reception followed the second show, after which we finally got to check in at the tall, circular Hilton in downtown Springfield. I might have joined a couple of people at the Hilton's jazz bar, but I've still got the sniffles, it took forever to check in, I didn't fancy forking over a $3 cover charge after making it through the whole day without spending a cent, and, frankly, I'm beat. It's a snowy, foggy night here in Springfield, and from my 24th-story window I just had the pleasure of seeing a freight train make its way along the white track bed just a couple of blocks away, the 100-odd cars spanning virtually my entire viewing range - a sight all at once spectacular and mundane, and one that didn't cost me a penny.
Friday, January 31, 2003
SPRINGFIELD, IL / EVANSVILLE, IN / COLUMBIA, MO / WICHITA, KS
Many trains passed through Springfield that night, and I heard every one of them.
I couldn't sleep. I was exhausted, but something in my subconscious prevented the onset of slumber, and the more I thought about how tired I was, the more awake I became. I heard Greg come home at 2:15, I heard other people come home at 3:15, and shortly thereafter I picked up Bill Bryson (I didn't have the energy for Fleming) and reread my favorite passages; an afternoon he had wasted trying to find a shortcut to Monticello seemed to trivialize my sleepless night. I read with a flashlight under the covers, but it was too hot, and so I eventually retreated to the wonderfully climate-controlled bathroom, where a rapid shih-shih
sound emanating from the toilet - I did not dare investigate - provided a constant background beat.
At 7:15, having not slept a wink, I went for a walk outside. It was brutally cold and windy. I found the domed Capitol building and the smaller-domed Old Capitol building (in use for a few decades in the 1800s), and at 8:30 the visitors' center for Lincoln's home opened and I was able to tour the house where Abe, Mary, and the kids lived until Abe assumed the presidency. I was whisked through the house in less than 10 minutes, emerging less than overwhelmed - there was nothing distinguishing about the beds or the kitchen or the living rooms, and in fact some of the furniture on display wasn't even originally Lincoln's.
I finally slept, deeply, for most of the ride to Evansville, Indiana. During the last stretch we watched an episode of American Idol
, which I'd never seen before. I loved every minute of it - every insult, every flat note, every exasperated contestant who had waited in line for 24 hours to audition and hadn't the slightest inkling that his or her voice's quality was inferior to that of fingernails on a blackboard.
I decided not to expect too much from Evansville when a billboard on U.S. 41 advertised, in a sensationally large font, "Merry-Go-Round - Family dining at it's best!" Imagine: a population of 120,000 and not a single proofreader. As will no doubt fail to astound you, I took a walk around town when we arrived. It was Sunday afternoon, and while Main Street had attractive-looking shops and eateries, not one of them was open. I walked around for 45 minutes and didn't see a single pedestrian. Main Street followed a basically straight path, but the engineers had made the street curve needlessly in places. Possibly this was to deter drivers from speeding down the street, or perhaps the street was proactively designed to generally reflect the driving habits and mental acuity of people who would be exiting the Main Street bars on a Saturday night. Or perhaps the construction crew had simply been drunk themselves.
Main Street ended at the Ohio River, and there lay the city's appeal: a perfect sunset over the woods across the river, with a distant train whistle thrown in for good measure. Just down the riverbank was the rest of the appeal: the Casino Aztar. It was situated on a permanently docked boat. You didn't even know you were getting on a boat when you entered. They couldn't build a casino on land, I suppose, but it was legal to have one in the Ohio River on a vessel that was entirely indistinguishable from land. What a great loophole.
And that's where all the people were, partly because it was the only thing to do on a Sunday afternoon, and partly because it was the only public place where you could go indoors. I stepped inside to check it out, but I withstood the temptation to play, as I had dinner plans and knew that if I played "just a couple of hands" I'd be there all night.
Walking back into town along Vine Street, I came upon the city's most elegantly spectacular building, a multi-domed structure with carved angels and Ionic columns. Roman numerals spelled out 1888, but there was nothing that actually indicated what the building was. The only hint was on the signs in front that said, "Parking for Old Courthouse Visitors Only," but I wasn't sure whether that meant that this was the old courthouse or that you couldn't park there unless you were old. Presently I came upon the decrepit-looking Greyhound station, in a pale-blue building more reminiscent of a 1950s diner than a bus terminal. Only the last three orange neon letters of the word GREYHOUND worked. In the distance I could still see the large, orange neon signs for the Casino Aztar, and, in the opposite direction, the Executive Inn's lights in the same hue, as if those two landmarks were meant to be the focal points of the city.
In between visits to various Super Bowl gatherings held by company members at the hotel, a few of the band members dined at Max & Erma's, in the casino; I can enthusiastically recommend the "garbage burger," which contained various oddities such as guacamole and marinara sauce. There wasn't much to do at night, and even the hotel bar closed early, but a few of us enjoyed the Butler blueberry wine, drinking it out of cylindrical paper cups - a good deal classier than using the cone-shaped variety.
There was a neighborhood of Victorian homes worth exploring, and that's where I headed Monday morning. On the way I stopped in at the Watch Shop, not so much because I wanted to browse watches but rather because I wanted to pet the forehead of the owners' adorable little basset hound, who eyed me coquettishly through the door the first time I walked by. Some of the Victorian homes, especially those on Riverside, were stunning, with large pillars, little statues, and iron or copper terraces. In front of one home on Cherry Street sat the largest dog I'd ever seen. It was seated next to two of those big clay pots you use to plant trees in, and it was much bigger than them. I thought it was a bear until it barked at me. There was a transportation museum of sorts along the river, but it was closed, though I was able to go around and gape at a fine locomotive from the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. (Have I mentioned I like trains?)
Four of us had a not-especially-authentic Korean lunch at Jaya's, led by company member Sae La, who was born in Korea and is constantly on the lookout for decent cuisine from her native country. Here ordering my dish spicy earned me a concoction that did not elicit the slightest response from my palate. The rest of the afternoon, before our show, was free, and, having already scoped out the town twice, I headed for Aztar's blackjack tables.
I played against a virtually characterless, expressionless dealer named Anita, who had an irksome habit of starting with 16 and drawing a four. When she took her break she was replaced by Paul, who to my absolute astonishment had even less personality. He said precisely three words to us during the two shoes he dealt. One drunk player came into and out of the game several times; he had slow speech and an even slower mind, and he'd do things such as ask, upon being dealt a ten and a three, "Can I split those?" I stayed for almost three hours, generally hovering around the break-even point, and I left with a modest gain of $20.50.
There wasn't much to do after the show; I had another meal with a few people at Max & Erma's, and then another couple of drinks in the hotel lounge. Still, unexciting as the town was, it at least had pretty sunsets and pretty houses, and you throw a casino on the edge of any town and it can't be all that bad. As we rolled along U.S. 41 Tuesday morning, however, a Taco Bell sign announced, "There Back - 7 Layer Nachos," and so Evansville's aftertaste mirrored its original impression.
Tuesday and Wednesday consisted of five-hour drives followed by short afternoons of exploration and evening performances. Tuesday's drive took us to Columbia, Missouri; Evansville's orthographical calamities aside, there's not much to say about the trip. Our immersion in cattle country was confirmed by one ranch's sign, "Enjoy Beef - Real Food for Real People," and a progression of a half-dozen billboards for Ozarkland ("Fantastic Gift Shop!" "Worth Stoppin' For." Promises of "bargins") no doubt exaggerated the true extent of the place's appeal.
In addition to numbered roads, Missouri had highways with names like HH, M, YY, and Z. Our hotel was one of a lifeless cluster of identical buildings near the intersection of Interstate 70 and Route 740, a few kilometers from downtown. I joined a few people - and it was solely because the company was good - in heading across the street to the Columbia Mall's food court for lunch, where, after trying a free sample of a vile concoction called strawberry chicken (I should have known better), I bloated my innards with crab Rangoon.
I went outside; the whole block smelled like fried grease. Route 740 was strip-mall, sidewalk-devoid country, but only up to the next traffic light. I walked to the following light, even though there few signs of life on either side of the road. Even the leafless trees looked bored. Route 740 took me up a hill; perhaps, I thought, I'd reach the top and see in the distance a sign for Zsa-Zsa's Hungarian Bistro ("Live Dulcimer Music and Gypsy Dancing Tuesday Nights at Ten!") or some such promise of evening stimulation and culinary gratification. But no, there was nothing of interest. I turned left at that second light (Route TT), and then left again, onto a residential street with the bizarre name of Clinkscales Road. I stopped into a Mexican grocery store near our hotel, and then a gaming store with beautiful pool tables, and that's about all I can say about the area.
Columbia's performance was held downtown at the University of Missouri's Jesse Auditorium, a place with a small stage (no onstage bandstand) and an exceptionally vocal audience. The area around the college looked neat (how could I pass up Osama's Mediterranean restaurant?), and I was able to convince a few people to eschew the bus ride back to the hotel and instead cab back after joining me for a walk and a bite. Osama's was closed, but we happened upon a student hangout called the Cherry Street Artisan, where I had an excellent eggplant panini. It came with hummus and tortilla chips, for the ultimate conglomeration of cultures, and, just to get South America in there as well, I had a glass of chalky Chilean merlot as well.
Wednesday's ride took us to Wichita. I dozed and read a little, but mostly I gave thanks that for this and the past ride we'd left at 8:00 and gotten to the next city in time for lunch. Occasionally I looked up to see whether there was anything of note along the highway; there was not, until we entered the Kansas Turnpike and enjoyed the simple, but gorgeous, view of haphazardly arranged hills interspersed with small streams.
Company member Lyndy, who had worked in Wichita for two years, knew a good Vietnamese restaurant near downtown, and a bunch of us cabbed there for lunch. It was called Saigon, and its generic exterior belied the freshness and superb flavor of the food. We each had a big bowl of noodles with vegetables and some sort of creature; I chose the char-grilled pork. I also tried a gritty, sweet sabota drink, made from a Vietnamese fruit.
Rather than make the trip back to our Holiday Inn on the edge of the city, I stayed downtown for the afternoon. I came upon the Coleman Company factory, a small room of which is a museum devoted to the display of old gas and kerosene lanterns, as well as old cooking gear, made by the century-old company. The second I set foot in the museum, one of the veteran workers launched into a lengthy explanation that perhaps exceeded the true extent of my interest, but at least he was friendly and passionate about his work.
Lyndy had suggested I stroll through the Old Town, which in the railroads' heyday was the site of the unloading of goods into enormous brick warehouses. The warehouses still look much as they did in the early 1900s, with faded paint saying things such as United Warehouse Co. and Advance-Rumely Thresher Company, Inc., but they now mostly house a collection of pubs and offices. One building, the onetime Cox Produce Company, now proclaimed itself the Wichita Farm & Art Market - no doubt the most audaciously deceptive misnomer I've ever come across. I ascended its steps visualizing crates of fresh fruit for sale, with a butcher hacking pork in the background and maybe a few live chickens meandering over a bed of straw. On the second floor, no doubt, there would be painters putting the final touches onto a barnyard or bridge, and amateur sculptors selling little wooden animals with lopsided eyes.
But it was nothing like that. There was a Mexican restaurant and a candy store, and on the second floor were gift shops selling generic trinkets made in China. The third floor, which according to the building directory displayed works by local artists, was empty and closed to the public. I left with a sigh.
I walked along Douglas Street, one of the main thoroughfares. There was not much of note - a couple of uninspiring restaurants, a bunch of office buildings, a lot of parking lots. The city didn't seem to have a focal point: no intersection or district with popular eateries or a place where people sat outside and read. And I couldn't figure out why there was a need for all those parking lots. What was the main industry? Or did everyone work in government or city administration? Along a couple of blocks of Douglas Street were sculptures (made by Georgia Gerber in 2000, according to a plaque in a park that housed a bunch of them) of people and animals: a girl leading her pony, a cow with her calf, a man reading a newspaper. I saw one person rummage through a garbage can and it took a moment before I realized he wasn't a statue. Obviously the city had taken steps to beautify downtown, and they were working, but the city's purpose itself seemed threadbare.
Our performances were held at an entertainment and convention complex called Century II, which was obviously named for the century whose technologies the building's planners thought would be employed at the theatre. They certainly didn't plan for large amplifiers and electric guitars: On our second night there was a rock concert next door, and the sounds crept up through our orchestra pit at the most disturbing of moments, though I don't know whether they could be heard from the house. On this first night, however, we had one of our most vocally enthusiastic audiences. After the show, passing up the momentous nightlife that I'm certain teemed recklessly through the vicinity of our suburban Holiday Inn, Erica, Clista, and I had a couple of games of Scrabble.
As I'm a Holiday Inn Priority Club member, I was entitled to a free breakfast, provided I knew where to go (hint: it's room 912, and anyone can get in). I headed up there yesterday morning, feeling secretly knowledgeable, as if heading for an underground rave party; I was rewarded with bagels and pastries. I browsed at a Barnes & Noble across the street before returning to the hotel for what was supposed to be a group lunch outing.
Lyndy had enticed people with the prospect of going to a country restaurant called Stroud's; the previous evening about 15 people had indicated they would like to go, but only Lyndy and I - and our new bus driver, Jim - showed up. As it turns out, Stroud's was closed, and so Jim took us downtown, to a place called Tanya's Soup Kitchen. It's on the edge of the Old Town, in the former train station, and while I rarely get excited about soups and sandwiches, those at Tanya's were exceptional. It was nice to chat with Jim, who before he started driving buses had been a railroad engineer.
Across the street from Tanya's, in one of the old brick buildings (it used to be the Hauser-Garrison Dry Goods Company, if I made out the fading letters correctly), was a gem of a find: the Player Piano Company. I stepped into a room crowded haphazardly with old player-piano rolls, decade-old catalogues, dust, repair tools, piano parts, and statues of cats. On the walls were painted murals of musicians. Still run by Durrell Armstrong, who got into the business half a century ago, this is one of only two stores in the country devoted to the restoration of player pianos, which enjoyed a brief but exciting popularity in the 1910s and 1920s before the Great Depression and radios came along. One interesting fact about early player pianos is that they still required a pianist, who would pump the bellows to make the piano roll scroll; the pianist would also be able to control a piece's tempo and volume.
At the back of the store was a wonder the likes of which will surely never be made again: a combination player violin and player piano, called the Violano-Virtuoso, built in 1912 by the Mills Novelty Company in Chicago. I put a nickel in and watched the gears spin to life. The violin lay horizontal, with soft wheels turning above the strings. When the wheels were down, they rotated against the strings, producing sound; when they were up, they rotated against a brick of rosin, to keep the sound resonant. Metal protrusions, as directed by the piano rolls, rose up to touch the strings and alter the pitch. The unusually large piano rolls also controlled the piano mechanism, of course, and all this whirring resulted in a discordant hum, like bagpipe drones. I played a few songs - there were hundreds on the piano rolls, but there was no way to control which song was going to play next - and I'm not sure what I heard, though amidst one medley I'm pretty sure I detected the hornpipe from H.M.S. Pinafore
. I was there the better part of an hour, examining the old instruments and talking with one of the associates, and I left feeling as if I'd stumbled upon a treasure. If Wichita's existence had seemed tenuous the previous day, it was now justified.
Next door was the Great Plains Transportation Museum, which was only open on Saturdays, but I was at least able to go up to the tracks and have a look at the old railroad stock. There wasn't much, and in fact it was more interesting when an actual freight train crept along the bridge over Douglas Street, with "Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway" emblazoned on the cars. A little ways away was a store called Dock 410 ("Purveyors of Antiques and Cool Stuff"), and I had a look at old Encyclopaedia Britannica maps and beer signs, though a lot of the merchandise was reproductions.
The intersection of Central and Main was, as it sounds it might be, the hub of governmental affairs. The boxlike city hall, the courthouse, and the jail were all in the vicinity, as well as a 24-hour bond-posting establishment that provided the only color in the vicinity and had all the neon garishness of an Atlantic City pawn shop. The area was surrounded with multiple-story parking lots, one of which seemed fairly deserted yet had an illuminated sign saying, "Full." With nothing better to do - really - I walked up a couple of floors. Less than half the spaces were occupied. I exited, trying in vain to escape the stare of the cashier, who no doubt puzzled over the thought that someone would both enter and exit a parking structure without a car.
I crossed over the Arkansas River and walked through the scruffy Riverside Park, eventually happening upon a flock of several hundred Canadian geese. Some scrambled along the thin layer of ice covering the river; some crowded the roadway and pecked, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, at potato chips tossed at them by one driver; all of them emitted sharp discordant grunts of various lengths and pitches. In addition to the geese were the crows, who had songs of their own. I closed my eyes and felt as if I were in a Brazilian jungle. Picking my way through the gray droppings of the geese and the white droppings of the crows, and making a concerted effort to avoid walking under tree branches, I found my way to the theatre.
Last night's show had a couple of eccentricities. I have already mentioned the rock concert next door, or whatever it was; the other was in "Sing Sing Sing." Duane, one of our techies, had tried to change the battery for my headset at the last minute, but the new battery didn't make it in. Having no headset power wasn't a problem for most of the piece, but I wouldn't be able to hear the clicking metronome during my solo, which meant that if I didn't play exactly in tempo for 100 bars or so, the band would have to wait or cut me off for the finale. I was able to explain the problem to Eric, who sits opposite me up on the bandstand, and just before my solo he thrust me his headset. I was able to get one earpiece in, with the cord dangling over the upper half of the piano, and I made my way through the solo, with my entire mental energy focused on whether my right hand would have to go over or under the cord to avoid knocking the earpiece out. Grasping at passages in whatever octaves I could, I approximated some version of the prescribed music; no one was thrown off by the acrobatics. Back
at the Holiday Inn, we were all in for a nasty surprise: None of our keys worked. This was the result of a crafty act of sabotage inflicted by a snooty front-desk bitch by the name of Chris, who had decided rather spontaneously that each double room would have to be secured with two
credit cards (I had already given one, which in the history of the world had always been sufficient). Apparently, once upon a time, a group booked by the same company that makes our hotel arrangements had failed to pay for all of its rooms, and Chris, in a scapegoat mode of thinking rivaled perhaps only by Hitler, had decided that the way to make things even would be to have us all line up and provide one credit card per person. One by one we went to bat against Chris, who eyed us like a warden and wasted no chance to toss out a wise-ass remark. James, our bassist and the first in line, was the brunt of two; his conversation with her went something like this:
"I can't get into my room."
"Did you think you didn't have to pay for it?" James, stunned by such rudeness, had no response.
An engineer would be required to come around and unlock each room. "He's going to have to unlock about thirty rooms," James said.
"Actually, twelve," replied Chris triumphantly, as she'd clearly been calculating this moment since the last time she read Mein Kampf
I didn't stick around, but apparently Dave let her have it once most of us had left. We'd just provided entertainment for the population of Wichita, and here we were being treated like squatters. If they wanted two credit cards per room, they should have told us in advance, or mentioned it to Dave sometime before last night. I resisted the urge to throw a tantrum - this time it would indubitably have been warranted - and instead will voice my opinion in an eloquently composed letter of complaint, which no doubt will refer to a publicly available travelogue that discusses at length the incident and the primary offender.
Roughly a third of the company dined at Old Chicago, a pizza place; we were then going to view an episode of Shipmates
, on which a friend of one cast member was due to appear, but those plans were rendered impossible when we discovered that Wichita - or at least the hotel - has no WB Network channel. (How do they watch Gilmore Girls
?) So we moved on to the next part of the evening, or early morning by this point: the creation of a spoof of Christina Aguilera's music video "Beautiful," starring one of our new cast members, Michael, lip-synching in drag. It was hilarious, we got it right on the first take, and it is perhaps the only time I have ever worn makeup in my adult life.
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