This topic was actually the very first personal narrative ever attempted here on the blog, a little less than a year ago. While I still enjoy this previous post (with pictures of the described drive), the topic of all-night commuting is such a painfully bizarre one that I thought it could stand to be dusted off and revisited for this series.
As I neared the graduation date for my masters degree, I happened to land two orchestra jobs–one in Memphis, Tennessee and one in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The two schedules magically coincided, with nary a conflict between the two, and I was overjoyed at this, certain of at least 14 weeks of orchestral employment that first year out of school.
Examining the dates more closely, I realized that many of the 8 p.m. Saturday concerts in Memphis were followed by 11 a.m. rehearsals in Milwaukee. I panicked, seeing my future employment crumble before my eyes, until I took out a calculator and did the math:
|mileage from Memphis to Milwaukee||750 miles|
|time to complete drive (averaging 65 miles per hour)||11.5 hours|
|time between Memphis concert conclusion and start of Milwaukee services||15 hours|
|extra time after completing drive||3.5 hours|
No problem–I would still had a few hours to spare once I got to Milwaukee, and if the concert went long in Memphis I wouldn’t have to panic about making my next service. All that it entailed was an all-night drive. That’s no big deal, right?
2:30 a.m. Sunday morning – southern Illinois – February 2000
Squinting through inky blackness, I crank my wipers up to full throttle as I cruise through a February thunderstorm in the dead of night, my eyes glued to the thermometer on the car’s dashboard:
35 degrees….34 degrees…..33 degrees…..
My hands tighten on the wheel as I watch the temperature dip down toward the dreaded freezing point. Annoying enough in the rain, this drive becomes a horrific nightmare in the ice and snow. Still wearing my suit from the just-concluded concert, I press the accelerator to the floor, hoping against logic to make it through this storm before the roads start to ice up, my wheels gripping….hydroplaning….gripping…
I have just enough time to make the 750 mile drive north from the Tennessee/Mississippi border to the Wisconsin shores of Lake Michigan, trying like mad to make it to the all-day rehearsal that will be starting 8 1/2 hours from now. Cracking open the second of three Red Bull cans I have stashed under the passenger seat, I shake my head and slap my face, trying to keep from drifting off. Not normally one to drift off during torrential winter thunderstorms while alone at night in a scary rural area, I find myself nodding off, overwhelmed with exhaustion.
This was not what I had pictured in mind when I signed up to be a music student.
The 24 hour truck stop sign is illuminated like a friendly face on the horizon, the one sign that all human life hasn’t been abducted and whisked away during my solitary drive through the rain. I lucked out–the storm stopped before turning to snow and ice, and the roads are smooth sailing by this point. I fill up my tank (not wanting to think about how much I had spent on gas that week, not knowing that eight years hence I would laugh at the prospect of filling my tank for $18 like I could at that point), head in to the corpse-like cashier (looking mighty strange, no doubt, in my black business suit and red tie), fill up a Styrofoam cup with battery acid coffee, grab a bag of beef jerky and a pack of cellophane-wrapped cinnamon rolls, and get back in the car.
My stomach aches as I wash the beef jerky and cinnamon rolls down with the coffee, causing a nauseating mass to knot up in my stomach. Just a few more hours until the sun comes up. I know the precise point where the sun will come up, having done this all-night drive many times already (I would do it many more times in years to come). North of Champaign, in the desolate prairie just outside the rough-and-tumble town of Kankakee, the sky would always begin to light up the horizon, and I could soon expect early bird drivers to join me in my northbound zombified stupor.
I smiled as I sailed unobstructed through metro Chicago–the wee hours of the morning on a Sunday are in fact one of the few times that a commute here can be free and clear. It’s almost eerie to zoom along deserted expressways elevated on hulking concrete pillars above the suburban landscape, with Chicago’s downtown skyline rising along the distant shore of Lake Michigan.
As I leave metro Chicago and head over the Wisconsin border toward the industrial lakefront of Milwaukee, I think back to those happy, carefree days of music school, playing with the Civic Orchestra, leisurely walks around campus, and other, happier times from my schooling. Little did I know then that, only a few years hence, I would be zooming like a maniac on all-night tight scrambles from city to city across the United States–from Chicago and Milwaukee in the Midwest to Memphis in the south, Charleston on the Atlantic, and Medford on the west coast.
My Milwaukee rehearsals that bleary-eyed morning were happening in an old building along a row of taquerias and ethnic bakeries wedged between some Milwaukee factories. Arriving about 90 minutes early before the start of the first rehearsal, I eased my car to the side of the road, shut it off, and reclined the front seat, hoping for a few minutes of shuteye. Still in my suit, physically exhausted yet full of edgy adrenaline and covered in greasy flopsweat (the result of all that 3 a.m. gas station coffee and nasty beef jerky and questionable pastries), I found sleep impossible, which is completely maddening after driving all night.
I had to get some sleep! Not only did I have to make it through two (two!) rehearsals that day, but I had an hour-and-a-half drive back to Chicago plus an early morning of teaching the following day. I was completely and utterly spent, my muscles aching, my stomach clenching, my head throbbing….I had to sleep, if only for a few minutes.
I climbed out of the front seat and opened the tailgate, shoving my bags around in my station wagon to make a little room for me to lie down next to my bass. Although I would make a startling impression on any pedestrians who happened to glance in the car–bass, suitcases, and quite dead-looking unshaven guy in a black suit wedged between all of this business, I decided to give it a go, getting….straightened….out (ouch!)…. as best I could, and closing my eyes, wishing for sleep to come and heal me.
Sleep still eluded me, and after a few minutes I crawled out of the car, with nothing but a crimp in my neck to show for my efforts. I dug through my bags, looking for my toothbrush, then proceeded to brush my teeth in the middle of the street, my lame attempt at freshening up before the second part of my never ending day.
Alone in industrial Milwaukee on a Sunday morning, wandering around in the middle of the street in a rumpled black suit brushing my teeth, I again asked myself:
How did I get here?
What unfortunate decision in my life made this my particular musical employment experience?
What did I do to deserve this?
Finally, the orchestra manager arrived with the key to the rehearsal space, and I shuffled in, making a few trips back to the car to drag all of my luggage in along with my bass and stool. The rest of the orchestra began to drift into the hall, bright-eyed and clean-shaven, as I unzipped my bass case, took out the bass, plopped the case on the floor, climbed into it, and covered myself up in it, wedged inside like a body bag, my legs unceremoniously poking out of the bottom, dress shoes and black socks still on my feet.
I drifted off immediately, waking up 30 minutes later completely befuddled and bewildered. Where was I again? Didn’t I just come from Tennessee? Oh, that’s right–I drove 750 miles overnight…..and I still had five hours of rehearsal ahead of me!
Rehearsals are bad enough after an all-night drive, but I have frequently driven all night, gotten out of the car, and then immediately played a rehearsal and concert, still in my clothes from the night before. Theoretically, it works out to do this kind of thing (a Saturday concert one night followed by a Sunday rehearsal and concert the following day), and if it works on paper, chances are that I’ve tried it. Trying to focus enough to play a rehearsal and concert (inevitably with an ensemble significantly scrappier than that with which I had performed the previous evening) on no sleep, plus coming off of an all-night drive, takes at least a couple of months off of my life span every time it happens. I frequently get sick after these days, my battered immune system more susceptible than normal.
One of these all-night drive rehearsal/concert days found me sitting with a very lackadaisical, fairly low-quality player. This stand partner situation would always be a bit of bummer for me, but the combination of this lame partner plus the stress of the all-night commute sent me into a furious rage, and I found myself doing something that I rarely do–taking my aggression out on the music. For the entire concert, I played louder than I ever had in my life, pounding my bass with off-the-string attacks from six inches above the bass, treating my bass like a punching bag as I hammered each note, sending dirty looks toward my unresponsive stand partner.
I don’t recommend taking your aggression out on your instrument for any reason–not only is it really immature and disruptive, but you’ll likely hurt yourself in the process. My entire right arm ached from shoulder to fingertip only a few minutes into the rehearsal, but I persisted with my musical barbarism, slashing and smashing my way to the end of the concert. I can’t imagine ever doing that sort of thing these days, but I have also sworn off all-night drives, so it’s unlikely that I’ll be driven to do this anytime in the future.
Read the complete series: