Hey friends and family!
We're in Scotland, performing in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It's not as easy as we thought it would be to keep this diary up to date from here, so there won't be a new entry until we get back at the beginning of September. Just wanted to let you know that everyone is fine. Sorry to keep you hanging about Knavin. Roger got email from his mother a couple days ago to say that Knavin just had the staples out from his surgery and he's running around and playing and eating like a horse, or at least like a very hungry dog.
The entry below is from the week before the week we left. We'll post an account of our month in Scotland when we get back. Take care!
Diary in a Box, July 28, 2002
Ann Arbor, Michigan to Ft. Atkinson, Wisconsin
Sunday, July 21
In an email, the producers of the benefit asked us what we eat for breakfast, and they stocked our hosts' kitchen with soy milk, Kashi, whole grain bread, honey, an assortment of good tea, veggie burgers, sprouts, and greens.
Our hosts left a note on the kitchen counter that said, "Please be at home! We'll see you Monday or Tuesday." I assumed these people had jobs they love and children they're proud of. Their walls are full of photos and the shelves are full of books: philosophy and religion, science fiction. A very old unabridged Webster's dictionary. The bed in the guest room was made with white cotton sheets and feather pillows. No air conditioning, box fans. The air is heavy with humidity, but not uncomfortable. The air moves. The house feels open. It feels like summer a long time ago, before I grew to hate the heat and humidity.
We drove to Pease Auditorium on the Eastern Michigan University campus at noon, parked, and went in the back door. We met Jeanne, one of the producers, backstage in a maze of hallways and stairs. She introduced us to her partner Pattie, the stage manager, Robin, and some of the other volunteers, and she showed us to our dressing room. A door opposite the green room led right onto the stage where the Chenille Sisters were doing a sound check.
Last March, a few days after we were booked at the Ark, a folk music venue in Ann Arbor that's been here since the mid-sixties and which we've been trying to get a gig at since the mid-nineties, Jeanne emailed me to ask if we would perform in a benefit concert she was producing in Ypsilanti, a small town that butts up against Ann Arbor. Back up a little further. Some time ago, I'm not sure how long, Ypsilanti passed a law that made it illegal to discriminate against gay people. A neighborly thing to do. The owner of Dominos Pizza, whose headquarters are in Ypsilanti, was inconvenienced that he wouldn't be allowed to discriminate against gay people, so he funded an effort to create a law saying that not only are all laws that forbid discrimination against gay people illegal, any such laws in the past and future are also illegal. This new law is on the ballot in the November election. The citizens of Ypsilanti will vote on it. Jeanne and two other women produced this benefit concert to raise money for the organization trying to inform people why it's important to vote no to the new law.
The benefit was called the "Love Makes a Family Concert," and it seemed the audience was comprised of families, people of all ages and kids. I think all the performers were local except us. Jeanne performed a set with her band first, then us. After intermission, the Chenille Sisters sang and last was LaRon Williams, a storyteller. At the end we all sang a song together. I don't remember the name of the songwriter or the song, but the message was that we're all one family regardless of our religion or ethnicity or personality.
We missed Jeanne's set because we were getting ready to go on, and we missed part of the Chenille Sisters set because we were wolfing down some backstage food that we'd abstained from before our performance. (We don't like to be full when we sing.) There were sandwiches and brownies and lemon bars, and some other bar cookies that tasted like pecan pie. We ran out to hear their last few songs, one of which was an elaborate number with hand props and choreography that hypnotized the half dozen kids who were standing at the foot of the stage.
We saw all of LaRon Williams' set. He sat and played a finger piano between his knees -- I didn't get a close look at it, but it sounded like a finger piano -- and shook some kind of beads wrapped around his ankles to create background music while he told stories. After hearing Jay's story about his Mamaw and the earthworms, LaRon changed the characters in one of his stories to earthworms and improvised, making necessary changes as he went along.
After the show we signed CDs and books and chatted with the Chenille Sisters who were doing the same. There was a reception afterwards a short drive away on the lawn of one of the campus buildings. When we got there a local politician was making a speech. It was muggy and we were tired. We sat down next to Jeanne and Pattie. Jeanne asked if we had plans for Monday. We didn't really, except to get Knavin to the vet. She offered to show us around town, "and if you'd like to get together and play some music, I'd love that." I took a deep breath and sighed, "Mm. Yeah..." She laughed, and I said, "I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to sound so unenthusiastic. We're just so tired. And we don't know what's going on with the dog."
On the way out, we met Robin coming in. She sat down on a low brick wall and wrote down the name of her vet, a friend who owns two clinics in town. While we were talking and she was writing, a fat squirrel ran up to where we were sitting and watched us. If one of us moved, he retreated a foot or two but came back. Robin didn't see the squirrel or ignored it, but it drew Jay's and my attention and it was hard to concentrate on what Robin was saying.
I was hungry when we got home, and after all that backstage sugar I was craving salad.. I found two hearts of romaine lettuce in the fridge, washed them, and tore them into pieces. I put the lettuce in a bowl with some olives, a handful of grated parmesan, and a can of chick peas. I made dressing with the juice of half a lemon, two cloves of garlic, pressed, and olive oil (double the lemon juice). It was a lot of salad, but that was dinner. Jay watched I Love Lucy on TV. Roger made pixie pouches and I wrote for a while in my journal and then read on the screened-in porch.
I'm reading Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. It's about a season he spent as a ranger in Arches National Park in southern Utah, what was then a remote spot, before the park was developed and, from Abbey's point of view, ruined. It's a pleasure to read because the prose is beautiful, and it's one of those books that seem to change the air or the light all around me because I've learned something new about something that's been right under my nose my whole life. It's one of Roger's favorite books. I thought I should read it now, in case he takes it with him when he goes.
Before I went to bed, I went back to my journal. I typed on the porch with all the lights off except the light from my computer screen. At first it was silent, but my ears adjusted to the quiet and I started to hear the sounds of this neighborhood at night. A baby crying, teenage girls laughing, the ringing thud of a basketball bouncing on concrete, a window sliding open close by, a fan humming next door, something rustling in the bushes a few feet away.
It was warmer than last night, but breezy. I brought a white cotton blanket and a pillow from the guest bedroom down to the porch and folded the blanket in half on the couch like a sleeping bag. It was almost one o'clock and the girls laughing and the basketball I'd heard before had stopped.
Monday, July 22
Last night I had a vision of myself happy and not famous. It shocked me. That can't be me, can it? I looked closer and it was. Me.
I was half awake when Roger came out to the porch carrying Knavin, set him down, and went back inside. Last night Roger told me he planned to get up at seven and call the veterinary clinic at eight when it opened. I thought, since Knavin is in pain, the vet would want to see him right away, so I assumed it must be some time between seven and eight. I dozed. Knavin whimpered. I woke up. I found yesterday that if I softly said, "Shhhh," Knavin would stop crying. I tried it. It worked. When he stopped crying, I fell asleep and stopped "Shhhh-ing." He started crying again and I woke up. And so on. I got up, folded the blanket and went inside.
Lying down I hadn't noticed how warm and humid it was. I broke out in a sweat from the small exertion of walking from the porch to the bathroom. Lately I'm in a constant state of shock and indignation about the weather.
Monday is Y'all business day. There's less and less business to do since fall is pretty much booked and we're not looking beyond that. I took a cold shower, turned on my computer, answered some emails. Ate a bowl of cereal, made coffee. Jay and Roger went to Sam's Club to buy printer cartridges. Roger is preparing a press mailing to the Northeast. He's been printing out press kits for three days. Over a hundred packages.
When the sky got dark and two big drops of rain smacked onto the skylight over the kitchen, I hoped for a pull-out-all-the-stops thunderstorm. An all day racket. I was in the mood for it. But a half hour of heavy rain, some thunder, and a hint of a cool, fragrant afternoon pleased me enough.
Jay and Roger took Knavin to the vet at a little after 4. I made another pot of coffee. Better use that half and half before it goes bad. I sat on the screened-in porch. A blue jay lives in the back yard. He makes a buzzing clicking sound like a cicada when he flies. Either that or there's a cicada here who buzzes and clicks when the blue jay flies.
The humidity rose again until I felt like my skin was gathering moisture just by moving through the room. And then another storm, this one longer, less thunder, more rain. I ran upstairs to shut windows but too late; the corner of the bed and the carpet in front of the window in the guest room were already soaked, and there was a puddle on the bathroom floor. Rain was blowing into the porch, but the couch on the inside wall against the house was dry. I sat there and watched water gush out of the drainpipe on the corner of the neighbor's house and then skip the pipe altogether and spill up over the gutter.
The house next door has the same wide green siding I remember on the house I was born in. It's the color of patinaed bronze. Yesterday I sat here and watched the neighbor scrape mud from a path along the garage with a pink plastic toy shovel and carry it slowly, one pink shovelful at a time, to a flower bed at the base of a tree at the back of the back yard. Back and forth for at least half an hour.
Jay and Roger and Knavin got back from the vet near seven o'clock and Jeanne and Pattie and then Ayron arrived a few minutes later. Knavin won't lose his leg after all. The doctor is going to put another steel plate on his bone. He'll go into the hospital on Tuesday and have the surgery on Wednesday.
Ayron took us out to dinner with Jeanne, Pattie, and Bill, a graduate student who was one of the technical staff for the benefit concert. Ayron drove us all, except Bill who met us there, to the restaurant in her van. It was raining hard. The restaurant, called Seva, reminded me of the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York, the mother church of vegetarian cuisine, not just the menu but the decor, lots of unpainted wood. I had asparagus lasagna which was delicious but, as Pattie, who sat on my right and ordered the same thing, said, not lasagna. It was a thick layer of melted white cheese, a cheddary sauce under it, and under that a few thin stalks of asparagus, and not much pasta. I didn't pay attention to what everyone else ordered except Jay, who was on my left and had a burrito, but the plates were mostly clean when the waiter cleared them.
Someone asked, "Where are you headed from here?" This is the start of a conversation we've had many times in the last few weeks which goes something like this:
"We're playing in Chicago and northern Indiana and Wisconsin later this week."
"And then?" or sometimes just raised eyebrows and a nod.
"Then we're spending two days with Steven's family in Indiana. After that we're driving to Pennsylvania where we'll drop off the trailer at Roger's parents' house and fly to Scotland for the whole month of August.
Here we have a conversation about Scotland, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, how we got the gig, the folk festival we performed in last year on the Shetland Islands, etc.
"And in the fall we're touring the northeast, the southeast, and Texas, and then we're taking six months off."
I don't mean to say this conversation is tedious or unwelcome. I think the first questions that come to mind when people find out we live on the road are "where have you been?" and "where are you going from here?" We love sharing our experiences and plans. We write about them on the Internet for god's sake. But since we're with a new set of people every few days, there is some repetition in our conversations, and some of it gets to be almost rehearsed.
When we got back to the house where we're staying, the garage door was open, so we knew our hosts were home. We knocked on the front screen door. Cassie came to the door, wiping her mouth with a napkin. She and Ayron hugged, and Ayron introduced us. Cassie said, "Well, come in. We were just having our supper." They had driven all day from Maine where they were visiting family. Cassie's husband Corty and a friend, Martha, were at the table. Corty said, "Pull up a chair. Would you like a glass of wine?"
"That sounds great," I said. I think Roger and Jay passed.
Roger said, "I guess you met Knavin." (We'd left him sleeping on the porch when we went to dinner.)
Cassie said, "Yes. He's not doing too well huh?"
Roger told them the whole story. Cassie said, "You and Knavin can stay here as long as you need to."
I slept on the porch again. It rained hard all night.
Tuesday, July 23
Roger brought Knavin down to the porch early. Knavin's pain must be severe and constant. He hasn't stopped crying for more than a few minutes at a time since Sunday night. He circled and whimpered. I tried to sleep through it but couldn't so I got up.
The vet yesterday referred Knavin to a surgeon at a clinic about an hour away, near Detroit. Roger and Jay took Knavin there in the morning. Roger thought he would stay overnight and have the surgery Wednesday morning, but they were back a few hours later, with Knavin. It would cost over $100 for Knavin to stay at the clinic overnight, he would be in a strange place away from us, and they wouldn't be doing anything for him other than giving him pain medication that we could give him at home.
Knavin would, after all, have his leg amputated. The surgeon had given Roger two choices. She could repair Knavin's leg again with another steel plate and a bone graft. He would have to stay in a cage for three months to recover, and the low estimate was around $3,000. Or she could amputate his leg, he would heal in a few days, and the low estimate was around $1,800. The vet brought a dog, another lab, who had had a front leg amputated the day before, into the examining room to show Roger and Jay and Knavin how well he'd adjusted already. She said, "Dogs are really three-legged animals with a spare."
Knavin, despite his pain -- he cries with every breath -- has been sweet and steady, helping all of us through this.
We went to the Ark at 6 for a sound check. When we walked in, the room was dark except for stage lights, and quiet. Frank Goodman, our co-bill, met us back stage. He'd arrived early and finished his sound check. We did our sound check and found our dressing room next door to Frank's. Frank introduced us to his girlfriend, Annie Gallup, a singer/songwriter who lives here in Ann Arbor. Frank is from Nashville, but we never met him there.
By 7:45, the room seemed nearly full. The last Tuesday of every month at the Ark is "Take a Chance Tuesday." The Ark and a local booking agency sponsor the show. They present acts, like us, who don't have a following in the area. The concerts are free. The idea is that people might take a chance on an unknown act and the act has a chance to win over an audience that's predisposed to like their style of music. It seems to work. There was a good-sized crowd. Performing in that benefit on Sunday helped attendance too.
We heard bits and pieces of Frank's songs from backstage, but we were preparing for our performance so we didn't listen closely. (We've missed a lot of great live music while putting on our costumes.) The audience loved him and they were relaxed and happy when we got out there. They were a laughing crowd, loud howling, screaming, but listening. Linda and Herb, our friends from Estes Park, were in the front row. Linda's has business and family in this area and travels back and forth often. Ayron, Cassie, and Corty were behind them.
I don't remember what we had for lunch, but we had it at around noon. The day passed quickly and I didn't think to plan an early dinner or even a snack. I was famished by the time we started our set. So much so that I felt woozy about halfway through the first song, Fancy Pants, and my strumming arm felt like I was shaking a piece of rubber. I bounced back though. Sometimes extreme hunger can create a mix of relaxation and lightness of touch that makes for good performance energy. It worked Tuesday night. After the show, Roger, Jay, and I, and Bill went around the corner to the Ann Arbor Diner. Jay and Roger drove to Cassie and Corty's to check on Knavin and give him a pill. Bill and I went straight to the diner to wait.
I asked the waiter for a cup of decaf. She said, "It's instant and there are no refills. Do you still want it?"
"No, I'll have regular coffee."
When Jay and Roger got to Cassie and Corty's, they found Cassie and Martha and Ayron sitting with Knavin on the living room floor. Knavin was wrapped in blankets. While we were out Knavin had pushed the porch door open and wandered into the back yard. The door had shut behind him and he couldn't get back in. They found him lying in the wet grass shivering. Ayron heated some towels in the microwave and wrapped him up. He was snoring when Roger and Jay left.
Roger and I ate eggs and hippie hash (fried potatoes and vegetables) with toast. Jay had a Greek salad. Bill had steak and eggs. Jay and I had eaten at this smoky diner before. The first time was around 1995 when we planned a "Christmas in Indiana" tour which took us through New England and the northern Midwest in December. A blizzard followed us. Half the shows were canceled. I got the flu. We beat the storm to Ann Arbor and the weather was wintry but fine, but when we called the venue (I think it was a cafe called "Not a Cafe") for directions, they told us their sound system had been stolen the night before, so we didn't do that show either.
Wednesday, July 24
Corty and Cassie are early risers. Knavin was due at the clinic, over an hour away, at 9, so we got up at 6. Corty made scrambled eggs with cheese and chives, toast, and tea, and we all sat and ate together, except Roger who had no appetite.
At the clinic, there was another yellow lab in the waiting room. He growled and barked at Knavin. Knavin swung his tail back and forth and walked halfway to the dog to say hello but turned around and lay in front of the door, looking out. A few minutes later a technician came out. Roger asked her if he could speak to the surgeon before we left. She said she'd ask, and she led Knavin down a hallway and away. A woman in pink scrubs came out.
"Hi, I'm one of the technicians who'll be helping with the surgery today. You had a question?"
Roger said, "This may seem like an odd question, but I wanted to know if it would be possible to have the leg."
She opened her mouth, scrunched her forehead, closed her mouth.
Roger said, "I understand if it's not allowed, but I thought I'd ask."
"I don't think that's allowed. What we do is we send them to a crematorium. I can ask if the remains can be saved and sent back for you. I know they do that for people whose animals have died, but I don't know if they would do it for a leg."
"OK. Well, whatever you can do, I appreciate. Thank you."
"Someone will call when he's out of surgery."
All three of us took naps when we got home. When I woke up, Roger was typing and printing press kits at the dining table. Cassie told us she had a potluck dinner meeting at 6:30. They'd be using the porch, so we cleared our stuff from the table and couch out there, books, computers, some clothes.
Corty and the three of us were on our own for dinner. Just the guys. Corty made gin and tonics, and we sat in the living room and told family stories. Then Corty broiled a steak and sliced some mozzarella cheese. There were no tomatoes, so he sliced an avocado instead and arranged the slices on a plate with the cheese. Roger made pasta with butter, garlic, olives, and onions and a green salad, and he sliced a loaf of semolina bread.
After Cassie's meeting, her guests went home except Susan who is Martha's partner. Cassie asked Jay and me if we'd sing a song or two since Susan missed our show last night. Susan called Martha and told her to come over. We sang The Far Side Banks of Jordan, Don't Laugh, Bright Morning Stars. Roger insisted we sing The Baby Tree. Cassie got out copies of Rise Up Singing and we muddled through Moonshadow (the Cat Stevens song), Turn, Turn, Turn, and a few others.
Thursday, July 25
The trailer was parked at the curb across the street in front of Cassie and Corty's house, a fine place for it to sit until next Tuesday when Jay and I would be back to pick Roger up. But when we woke up Thursday morning, a road crew was laying asphalt on our side of the street, working their way toward us. The trailer would have to be moved so they could pave under it when they got to that side of the street. This side would be finished and the asphalt would be set enough to park the trailer on it in a few hours. We could move it while they were paving the strip down the middle of the street. But Jay and I had to leave sooner than that to get to Chicago and off the highway before rush hour.
Jay tried to back the trailer into Cassie and Corty's driveway but the hitch hit the concrete and would've dug a hole or torn the hitch off if we'd kept going up. The driveway isn't steep, but when there's an incline and then a level spot and then another incline (driveways in the city often slope up from the street to a level sidewalk and continue their grade on the other side), even if the grade is not steep, the hitch hits the ground.
Corty remembered that Chicago is on Central Time, so we got an extra hour. Cassie called her neighbor two doors down. The asphalt in front of her house was dry enough to support the trailer, so Jay moved it, we unhitched, and left for Chicago in plenty of time.
Jay switched back and forth between the alternative rock station and an oldies station. We passed a whitewashed panel truck converted into a camper. I thought of Fats Kaplin touring Europe with Tom Russell's band in a bread truck in the 80s. It was winter, and the band was lined up on a couch in the back of the truck with no heat and no seatbelts, just piles of blankets and coats. But when I looked over at the driver, he smiled and I thought, "You look happy. Can I have your life in January?"
"Amy" by Pure Prairie League came on the radio. A couple years ago, Fats was playing with the re-formed Pure Prairie League. Jay turned it up. A plastic grocery bag flew up over the car in front of the car in front of us, caught on the antenna on the car in front of us which shook it like a dog shakes a deflated basketball. The antenna released it and it sailed straight at us, then straight up, stalled, and spiraled over and behind us.
When we turned off the highway onto Lake Shore Drive, I called Dan on the cell phone. He said if we couldn't find a parking spot on the street, call him and he'd get us into the parking garage in his building. We did find a spot, right across the street. Dan lives on the block between Lake Shore Drive and the next street west, half a block from Lake Michigan.
Dan rode with us to the No Exit Cafe. He had a date, a woman he met on the Internet. I don't think he knew much about her appearance except that she was blond and small. He knew her name was Jo. Throughout our sound check and the opening act, every time the door opened all three of us turned and if it was a small woman or a blond woman we waited -- with expressions that we hoped said, "Jo?" -- for a sign. Twice, a woman smiled and walked toward our table, but as we all started to rise, she stopped short of us and hugged someone at the table in front of ours.
During our sound check, a black woman who struck me as conservatively dressed though I don't remember what she was wearing sat on a couch in front of the window, facing us. She wore glasses. She watched the whole thing, as engrossed as if it were the show, with a half-smile, "What is this?" look on her face. Believe me, I'm used to that look, but not when we're out of costume. I wonder what she was thinking? I didn't see her afterwards or I would have asked.
Scott Free, the host of what he called a "queer coffeehouse," sang three songs, anthems one, two, and three, he called them. After Scott, a writer read two or three short stories. I didn't listen closely. The settings were urban I think, fast-moving and densely populated.
Scott introduced us. The tables were full and people leaned against the bar opposite the stage, 30 people tops but it's nice to play to a full house even when it's small. While we'd been changing in the bathroom, Jo arrived. She was not blond, but she was small. She looked a little like Tori Amos, but smiled more. We did a 45-minute set, the same set we did at the Ark. Everyone faced us and listened. Piece of cake.
Jay and I and Dan and Jo went to the Heartland Cafe two blocks away for late dinner. Mostly vegetarian menu. I had a quesadilla with beans and cheese, avocado, greens, and tomatoes. Dan ordered a burrito, and Jay had a tostada. All the same stuff, just assembled differently. The Mexican entrees came with a choice of mashed potatoes or brown rice. I had potatoes, which were chunky and garlicky. Jo ordered an artichoke. She'd never eaten one before, and Jay demonstrated how to scrape the meat off the leaves with his teeth.
We all went back to Dan's apartment. This time we parked in the garage. The pipes running under the ceiling looked close to the roof of the van, but there were no signs prohibiting vans and parking garage ceilings always look closer than they are, so Jay drove in, slowly. When we passed under a garage door opener hanging from the ceiling, the roof made a soft kachunk sound like buckling metal. Jay looked up at an attendant standing 20 feet in front of us in the garage. He held up the back of his hand and wagged his fingers. Jay moved forward. A low scraping noise. Then we passed under a pipe. Another kachunk.
We went upstairs and watched a tape one of Dan's students had given him of Eddie Izzard. (Dan teaches acting students at DePaul University.) Very funny and smart and original. I was inspired and could tell that Jay was inspired. I thought, "Jay could do this. He could put together his stories and tell them in this style, this format, just stand in front of a crowd and talk." And I thought this is essentially what I want to do also. I want to include music, but I also want to tell stories alone on a stage, something along the lines of Laurie Anderson. And I don't know why I am so afraid sometimes because I have no doubt that what I have to say would be interesting, smart, and entertaining. I wouldn't take my material to comedy clubs. More likely to artsy venues, performance art places.
Friday, July 26
Dan took us to breakfast at a place called Orange. The staff were all showing their belly buttons, even the busboy. Dan said maybe their dryer was too hot. At the top of the menu it said, "If you want to build you own omelette, go to someplace with "Golden" or "Nugget" in the name. We don't do that here." There were 6 or 8 items on the menu. Jay had pancakes with berries, Dan had an omelette, and I had plain eggs with potatoes and toast.
I feel an infusion of energy here. I first felt this when I was a little boy and I'd visit my grandmother in Waukegan, Illinois. She lived downtown in an apartment. In the storefront of her building there was a candy store where she'd buy us bags of caramel corn. The Great Lakes Naval Base was in Waukegan and at night there were sailors in tight bell bottoms walking the streets in pairs and threes, some of them with girls on their arms. Grandma loved the city, the noise and people. In the morning she'd say, "Let's go out bumming," which was window shopping and lunch at "the dime store."
She told me that some people belong in the city, and I knew I was one of them. I couldn't wait to grow up and move to New York. I knew when I was 10 years old that I would live in New York. And I did love it there. But as soon as we left, and even more so when Jay and I left Nashville and started spending most of our time in nature, discovering real silence and open space and darkness, and I began to hear myself think, hear my own voice, I felt awake and whole. I thought I would never go back and live in a city again. Was that just the exhilaration that comes with a change? Was it no more than the feeling you get after you rearrange the furniture and you want to just sit and look at it, your whole new room? Would going back to the city be like rearranging the furniture again? Or would I lose that part of myself that flourishes in the silence?
Jay and I watched the last 15 minutes of the Eddie Izzard special, from the point where we'd started to doze off the night before. We left Chicago at 2:30. By 4 we were in Valparaiso. We killed 2 hours at a bookstore before we went to the Front Porch. Jane was sitting in her van eating a taco when we pulled into the parking lot behind the store.
Jay said, "Taco Bell?"
"No, Burger King. Two for 99 cents. They're really hot, which I like, but they're so hot, they make me sneeze."
"How's business?" Jay asked when we'd brought in our instruments and Jane was arranging folding chairs around the cafe tables which ring the small stage.
"Not good. A few months ago, we were talking about finding a way to end it gracefully. But things have picked up a little."
The Front Porch is a music store and a hub of creative activity in Valparaiso, Indiana, a small college town about an hour southeast of Chicago. They sell instruments, all kinds. They offer private and group lessons. (Jane said later when she was introducing us that over 400 students a week take lessons there.) And the basement is a coffeehouse-style venue. The best performers on the singer-songwriter circuit have played there since the early 90s when it opened. Jane introduces the acts and sells candy bars, little packages of cheese and crackers, coffee, and tea.
"I'm really looking forward to your music and your storytelling," Jane said. We've performed at the Front Porch a few times. We never have a very big crowd, but Chad, who does the booking, makes decisions based on the quality of the music, not the quantity of money. And Jane likes us.
Fourteen people came to the show. Two of them were fans from South Bend who travel to anywhere we play in northern Indiana. The others hadn't seen us before.
Jane arranged for us to sleep at her friend's house across the street. We usually stay at Jane's house but her son is visiting. We followed her home and she showed us into the guest room in her neighbor's house. I don't think anyone was home. I don't think anyone was home in the morning when we left either.
Saturday, July 27
It was raining hard when we woke up. We tip-toed out in case our hosts were sleeping. We knocked on Jane's porch door and walked in. Her daughter Ellie was in the kitchen and said hello. "My mother is getting dressed." Jane came down the stairs.
"Ellie is meeting a friend and they're going to Chicago for a concert. I need to drop her off at her friend's house. There are banana nut muffins in the oven. Eat slowly and I'll join you when I get back." She poured us over-sized mugs of coffee and she and Ellie vanished.
When Jane came back we talked about our plans. When we see people like Jane, whom we've known for years and whose interest in us has shaped our creative life and work, I want to tell them what's going on. But what is there to tell? The only certain plan we have is a plan to stop planning.
The country highways and even some of the freeways are flanked with tall stalks of Queen Anne's Lace. Unmowed fields are thick with it. Did you know that in the middle of each of those white lace umbrellas there is a single dark purple blossom? I like the landscape of southern Wisconsin more than any other I've been in. If I liked the climate as much, I wouldn't think twice about moving here.
Cafe Carpe opens at 5 and we pulled into town at 3. There was a sidewalk sale, so we parked and walked around downtown. All the stores had tables out front piled with things that wouldn't sell inside. It was all marked down enough to make us stop and look, but it was still a lot of stuff nobody needed or wanted. We passed Satchel, Bill and Kitty's son, walking with his friend Rob and stopped to talk. Bill and Kitty own Cafe Carpe.
When we got back to the van it was still only 4. Jay looked in the front window of the cafe. Bill was cooking and the door was unlocked, so we went in. We've played here twice before, and both Jay and I have written a lot about the place, so I won't write a lot now except to say that it's one on a list of many places, each unique but that all feel like home. Our first time here, it was December and snowy and we slept upstairs in one of several run-down rooms in a ramshackle apartment. Satchel used one of the rooms as a bedroom and band practice room. Bill and Kitty and Savannah, their daughter, were living across the street. Last summer when we were here, the upstairs was gutted and dusty with drywall and newly sanded floors. We changed amid the construction but we slept in our trailer at a campground a few miles away.
Bill said, "Have you been here since the upstairs was finished?"
"Well, come on up."
They moved some of the original walls and removed others to create an open living room and kitchen with a view through French doors of the river that runs behind the building, bathrooms, an office, and bedrooms. There was a weathered 2 by 6 across the outside of the French doors. Bill said there would be a deck there, but now it's a sheer drop-off to the back yard two stories down. Bill said, "Make yourself at home." Jay checked his email while I read.
We went downstairs at 5 and Bill made us dinner. Salads of mixed greens and vegetables with sauteed portobella mushrooms, garlic toast, and Caribbean-style vegetarian jambalaya -- Bill's recipe, with pineapple and coconut milk. After we'd eaten our salads, a man came in with a little boy maybe three or four years old. They sat next to us at the bar. Bill and Dennis, the waiter and bartender, knew this guy, a friend or regular customer. Dennis was telling him what was in the kitchen that wasn't on the menu. "We have jambalaya -- "
"Is it the real jambalaya or that girl jambalaya you had yesterday? I'm sorry. That stuff is for girls. What's it got in it? Like fruit or something? No thanks. There was this woman sitting here last night, and she asked about it and Bill brought some out for her to try to see if she liked it. I could tell by looking at her that she was the type who was going to like it. And she did."
The kitchen is at the end of the bar, and Bill had been listening. He brought our plates out to us and said, "Here's your vegetarian Caribbean-style jambalaya."
The guy slumped and blushed and said, "Oh my god. I can't believe it. I'm so embarrassed."
I said, "That's OK. We're vegetarians. We're used to people like you."
He said, "Oh god. I saw those empty plates and I thought you were done eating. I thought I was safe."
"Hey it's really OK."
He and his son got up and moved to a table.
No one came to the show. Well, not no one. Jay and I have a rule that we don't do the show if there are fewer people in the audience than on the stage. The room was empty at 8:15; the show was supposed to start at 8:30. We decided we wouldn't change into our costumes yet. We'd wait and see if anyone showed up. I wasn't optimistic. At 8:35, a man and a woman came in together, each holding a pint glass of beer. Jay and I were sitting in the stairwell next to the entrance to the listening room. They walked past us, sat down, and talked softly. At 8:50, Jay told Bill we were going to cancel the show. Bill said, "Yeah, let 'em off the hook."
I walked over to the waiting couple. "I'm sorry. We're not going to do the show tonight.
She said, "That would be really hard huh? To do a show for two people."
I said, "Yeah, for us and for you. I hope it wasn't too much trouble to get here. Did you come far?"
"He's from here. I'm from Waukesha."
The man looked past me into the middle of the room. He wanted out.
"Well, we really appreciate your coming. Sorry."
They stopped at the bar on the way out. Bill gave them their money back and chatted with them for a few minutes. Then they left.
I asked Dennis for a piece of carrot cake. Kitty makes it. She makes all the desserts I think. I have the recipe, but I haven't made it. I will as soon as I have a stationary kitchen with an oven. It's good. Jay sat down and had a piece of chocolate cake with cream cheese icing. It wasn't enough. I had a beer, a pint of a local amber ale. Jay had a pint of something darker, also local. A half hour later I was hungry again. Dennis said there was vegetarian pizza, two slices ready, just had to be warmed up. Bill makes small dense deep-dish pizzas in a rich pastry crust shaped like a bowl. The vegetarian version is stuffed with broccoli, zucchini, and onion. Before they heat it, they ladle homemade tomato sauce over the top. It's like a pizza/lasagna hybrid.
Savannah had a cold and wanted Kitty to sleep in her room with her. Bill made up his and Kitty's bed for Jay and me, and he slept on a cot in the laundry room.