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Tales From the Tour -- June 2003

"Tales From the Tour" was a running travelogue describing my experiences on the international tour of the musical Fosse.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003
NEW YORK, NY / FORT WAYNE, IN / GREENSBORO, NC / NEW YORK, NY (HOME AT LAST!)
The final week proved to be an exemplary cross-section of the whole tour experience. There was one city of scant interest, one city of moderate interest, one downtown hotel, one strip-mall hotel, two uneventful plane rides, one excruciatingly long bus ride, one new company manager (Janice, our seventh), several meals of widely disparate quality, performances in which everything worked, and performances in which not enough things worked. The only thing it lacked was an extended lunch stop, and considering the resultant preservation of my sanity and the absence of a consequent boring, long-winded rant, for that you and I can both be immensely thankful.

New Yorkers in the company flew to Chicago and then to Fort Wayne. I'd spent considerable time on the phone with an American Airlines representative in order to divorce myself from the group booking so that I could check in on-line (the airline's Web site bars large groups from using this feature), which would let me live out my usual damned-if-I'm-going-to-waste-an-hour-of-my-life-at-the-airport fantasy by sauntering into La Guardia and up to the gate with my home-printed boarding pass 15 minutes before our 10:00 departure, bypassing all those painstaking and clumsy check-in queues. It was Memorial Day, and I figured there might be considerable traffic, especially because it was pouring out - surely the trip would take 45 minutes and validate all the homework I'd done. I got into a cab at 8:51.

But as luck would have it, there was no traffic, and at 9:12 I found myself at the airport with a hefty 18 minutes to kill before I'd even think about heading for the gate. There wasn't even a line at the check-in counter. I tried to make use of the extra time by mailing a letter, and with extensive effort I found a mail slot, but it was sealed shut because the post office wasn't open. (Damn holidays!) What kind of world do we live in where you can't even mail a letter at an airport any more? Are they that afraid someone's going to try to take advantage of an airport mail drop to ship some anthrax off to the U.S. embassy in Jakarta?

We arrived in Fort Wayne without a hitch.

There wasn't much available for dinner Monday night. (Have I mentioned that holidays are a nuisance?) There were a couple of fast-food eateries, a fairly appealing hot-dog place, and a rustic-looking restaurant with a big sign saying, "Open Memorial Day," but it was just closing when Erica and I got there - apparently 20:00 is an inordinately late hour to have dinner in Fort Wayne. One of the staff said there was a Kroger supermarket six or seven blocks north, and we headed off in that direction.

"Six or seven blocks" turned into a trek of well over a mile, during which we discovered that Fort Wayne is blessed with several attractive parks (a favorite haunt of rapists, according to a news story we saw on TV). We were about to turn back when we saw what appeared to be a restaurant. From the outside it looked like someone's house, but inside were tables set up for a meal, a counter of some sort, festively strung colorful Christmas lights, and a couple of signs referencing Polish cuisine. A man sat at one of the tables, smoking a cigarette.

I opened the door and asked, "Is this a restaurant?"

"No. It's a halfway house." For park-based rapists to rest on their way to and from the county jail, no doubt.

But the Kroger was just around the corner, he said, and we stocked up on an odd assortment of groceries (fried chicken, hummus, goat cheese, cocktail sauce) that lasted for three days.

Fort Wayne did have a few restaurants, we would discover the next day, but it seemed most were open only for lunch. Two such places of interest were the Mizpah Shrine (you could eat with the Shriners) and the cafe at the Firefighter's Museum. The prospect of dining amidst antique firefighting equipment, as one brochure advertised, and of having a sandwich of "seafood salad" served on a "bed of greens" in a pita pocket, as the menu advertised, was enticing - but in practice the decor consisted mostly of little ceramic Dalmatians, my "sandwich" was just imitation crab meat mixed with pasta and a side of pita bread, and there wasn't a green vegetable in sight. Still, the museum itself was worth a brief look.

I checked out the south side of the city that afternoon, finding yet another attractive park, before going to the theatre - we were back to a normal pit and normal onstage bandstand. After Tuesday's show Erica and I tried to check out a sleek, well-named martini bar called Club Soda that we'd passed the night before - it was housed in a former textile-company building nearly a century old - but the doors were locked, even though the sign etched on the window said it was open, and serving dinner, until half past midnight. (I hereby declare it lawful to demolish any establishment whose sign proclaims it open during certain hours, based upon which information you make a special effort to return within said certain hours, only to find it closed. What kind of world do we live in where you can't even trust a storefront sign?)

But there were a couple of people in there, at the back of the bar, and we peered in the window and then knocked. The bartender came out. He was handsomely dressed and, it seemed, fairly intelligent.

"May I help you?"

"We were wondering if we could have a drink."

"We're closed."

"What time did you close?"

"Oh, about ten thirty."

Two hours early! Maybe it was a freak occurrence. "What time do you usually close?"

"On weeknights, usually between ten thirty and eleven. Later on weekends."

"Oh, OK."

"If you're looking for a drink, there's a bar called Columbia. . . ." It was only a couple of blocks away, and it would be open until well after midnight. We thanked him, and we were about to head off, but I couldn't resist calling the glaring misstep to his attention.

"Did you know that the sign says you're open until twelve thirty?"

"Really?"

We found Columbia and had a couple of dirt-cheap beers (heck, pitchers were only $8), and we were, it seemed, the only people there over the age of 15. The next day, for lunch, we went back to Club Soda, and while we weren't surprised to see that the sign hadn't been fixed (wouldn't you have fixed it right away?), we were pleasantly surprised to find the place open, even though the sign said it would be. We had a terrific lunch (she a glorified fish sandwich, I the jambalaya) accompanied by elaborately described and well-concocted specialty martinis, and we were happy to leave Fort Wayne.

From Fort Wayne to Greensboro is a distance of about 600 miles. We were due to leave at 7:30 on Thursday, but our trusty bus, which had never emitted the slightest whimper of complaint, broke down before we'd even set off: The battery was dead. It was recharged before we left, and replaced en route, and we were delayed by only 40 minutes.

I'd forgotten how uncomfortable the bus was. I'd tried to stay up late so that I'd sleep for most of the ride, but I just couldn't get myself into a position that would let me sleep more than an hour. The drive was scenically unrewarding, save for Route 9 in Kentucky (which we'd enjoyed a few months ago) and the southernmost stretch of Virginia. It was pretty much also devoid of good lunch spots, and as a result we didn't stop until 15:15 - even I was ready for a break at that point. The stop was at a mall that Janice said would have "every restaurant you could want," but I didn't see a branch of FireBird or Meskerem or Bombay Brasserie or Boma, so I must have missed something. Someone tried to liven up the last four hours of this endless journey by showing the two most insipid movies I'd ever seen. Bring It On was about two rival cheerleading teams that, more or less, copied each other's material (so you got to hear everything twice), and Half Baked seemed to be about the trials and tribulations faced by marijuana dealers, poor old souls. At 21:08, two minutes shy of twelve hours after we left Fort Wayne, we sidled up to Greensboro's Drury Inn & Suites in a state bordering on comatose.

The Drury Inn was just off the interstate, across the street from a mall, but the dining options were surprisingly appealing and abundant. A bunch of us had dinner at Darryl's, a local institution famed for good steaks and odd decor (two of the tables are in re-created elevator shafts, and one seating area is in a jail cell). I had the all-you-can-eat beef ribs and two of their specialty cocktails - an Alligator and a Week at the Beach - which were sufficiently fruity and girly for me.

On Friday I walked the five or so miles downtown. On the way, I was pleased to find a Mexican supermarket, a Vietnamese fish market (complete with the proprietors' baby sleeping in a crib near the store's entrance), and a Vietnamese supermarket (which also advertised fresh fish, though most of the plastic letters had fallen off the sign and it was impossible to tell what fish were on offer). The supermarket was in a shopping center that also included two Vietnamese restaurants and a Vietnamese pool hall. From here I walked north along Freeman Mill Road, which for a stretch was also called the Lonnie Revels Greenway. It had a broad, well-manicured median with large trees, and it was flanked by a large, grassy walking area. It was exceptionally pleasant. It eventually turned into the Suddenly Sidewalkless Highway: all at once the greenery went away and I was stranded in the breakdown lane. It was exceptionally obnoxious.

I arrived downtown just in time to catch a tour of the Blandwood Mansion, the oldest example of Tuscan villa architecture in the country, according to my tour guide. It dates from 1781, though additions were made in the 1820s (when a house from down the hill was hauled up by mules and tacked on) and in 1841. In the 1840s, it was the home of North Carolina Governor John Morehead, and it contains period musical instruments, the original painted floor canvas (the old version of today's linoleum), and paintings of members of the Morehead family. The sliding doors and old beds were interesting, and particularly noteworthy was the little room on the top floor, the purpose of which can't be ascertained, but it may have been used by an especially lascivious family member for private encounters with his lady friends. The kitchen was in a separate building, and my guide was eager to show me the period utensils, including a "husband beater, which some people refer to as a rolling pin." (My guide had recently been divorced and made reference to this repeatedly throughout the tour.)

I had a late lunch at an Irish pub called McCoul's, and then I walked over to the War Memorial Auditorium at the Coliseum complex, our final venue of the tour.

I'll admit to performing two aberrations over the weekend. First, I actually visited the mall across from our hotel, though the trip had purposes: to redeem a Waldenbooks coupon (I picked up Bill Bryson's Australia travelogue) and, at Erica's recommendation, to see the cute little pug up for adoption at a pet store. Second, I joined people for dinner at Hooters Friday night. The chain is known for its chicken wings (OK, of course it's really known for its scantily dressed waitresses, but as far as the food is concerned it's known for its wings). Wings don't really excite me, but the Smoysters Rockefeller appetizer was pretty good (an embellished version of oysters Rockefeller), though the mahi sandwich was rather bland. Mostly I noticed the uninspired lighting, reminiscent of a high-school cafeteria.

On Saturday Erica and I had brunch at Jake's Diner. I was all set to have the Gluttonous Hungryman's Lumberjack Six-Meat Special, or whatever it was called, until I noticed that it was really all-meat-and-starch - there was no fruit accompaniment to provide a respite from all that fat. We looked at the extensive list of side dishes and noted that there wasn't anything remotely healthful on it. You could get a side of pork tenderloin, but you couldn't get a fruit cup or a grapefruit or even so much as a strawberry. What kind of world do we live in where you can't get a piece of fruit with your breakfast? I settled on the vegetarian omelet, and Erica had one egg and then went across the way to grab a fruit cup at a bagel shop.

Saturday night was our closing-night company party - actually the night before our final performance, but it was the only time to have a party. It was held at a club at the theatre, and it featured abundant food and drink and a DJ who brought to mind a bar mitzvah party. (It's been a while since anyone with a microphone has tried to get me to step onto a dance floor.) But the point of the thing was simply to have one final get-together, and that it did with success - lots of heartfelt mingling among people who have been traveling together for months, people who at once love and are sick of each other.

The Drury Inn offered some perks in its rooms: a refrigerator, a microwave . . . and free high-speed Internet access. It had worked when I connected the phone to my computer on Friday, but it didn't work on Sunday morning, when I really needed it (to get driving directions back to New York). I called down to the receptionist to see whether something was wrong, and she referred me to the technical-support line, which she said was available around the clock. But when I called, a recording told me it was closed and wouldn't reopen until Monday afternoon. "What kind of world do we live in where things don't open until Monday afternoon?" I blurted out. And Erica has made fun of this comment ever since, which is why I've used it at every opportunity.

And, asserting the puerile I-have-to-have-the-last-word attitude that I typically take with machines, I disconnected all the cables and tossed them on the floor along with the telephone receiver. Then I resorted to my trusty high-speed 7135 connection.

I had a lot on my mind at our final performance, but it was more about the future (and how I would finish up this travelogue) than our imminent dispersal. It didn't really start to hit me until we ascended the bandstand for "Sing Sing Sing," the curtain went up, and we started to play for the final time . . . and the piano failed. That cantankerous onstage electric piano, which had caused so many problems early on but had worked perfectly for months, just couldn't muster up the strength for one more performance. And all at once my heart was no longer in it, and I couldn't wait for the curtain to fall.

Most of the cast and band went back to Darryl's for dinner, and then Brian, Eric, Greg, and I drove a rental car through the night, back to New York City. There were several benefits to doing this: We got home sooner (most others left the next day), we didn't have to deal with an airport, and because we eschewed the group flight home our company reimbursed us the cost of the flight, which in my case was $173. Since the total cost of the car ride was only $32 per person, this was a worthwhile trip indeed.

And so, just before 11:00 yesterday morning, I arrived back in my apartment - 216 days, 189 performances, 94 hotels, about 40,000 bus miles, and 2,126,092 clicks after I'd left it back in October. It wasn't an emotional return. The fact is, it was time for the tour to end. We'd been away long enough and need a break. I look forward to going to sleep at night without hanging a "Do Not Disturb" sign on my door. I look forward to dining at FireBird and Meskerem and all the other places I've missed. I look forward to cooking - I can't make more than the simplest of concoctions, but at least it'll be in my own kitchen, and if I have leftovers, I have someplace to put them. I look forward to the upcoming production of one of my musicals this summer.

And I look forward to next season's tour of Fosse, because I'm going back. It starts in September, and the schedule is intriguing and, for the most part, splendid: It'll be at least ten months, including two three-month stints in Europe separated by a few weeks of the one-nighters we've all come to love. Lübeck to Lubbock. Madrid to Madison. Paris to Peoria. Or something like that.

But first, some rest in a bed I'm not charged for by the day.

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