Why do I keep getting drawn back to this story? What’s my deal with it?
The following story was actually my first personal narrative on the blog–I initially put it out three years ago and titled it All-Night Drives, then dusted it off two years ago as part of my Basses, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles series and elaborated upon the experience within the context of a typical freelancer’s perspective.
But I just can’t leave it alone. I also rewrote it for my next book (I actually am working on it–I just had to put it on hold for, er… 10 months or so), which will be titled (you guessed it) My Car Caught Fire and Exploded! It serves at the introduction to this new book and therefore exists in yet a third version.
I recently had to take an Introduction to Writing class for my teaching certificate. Now, I’ve already taken classes like this, back in the early 1990s at Northwestern University. But for whatever reason, I needed to take this class to fulfill my teaching certificate, so I found myself writing freshman comp essays about various subjects for the past 15 weeks.
Yes, I also see the irony of this…
Anyway, I needed to write a personal narrative for this class, and I couldn’t resist: I revisited (for a fourth time) this story, casting it in yet a different life, not as a early blog post (time #1), as a perfect example about why freelance life can really stink (time #2), or as a portent of disaster (time #3). This fourth time, it’s just a silly tale about the strangeness of the gigging life as I had come to know it. Here we go:
Night of the Freelancer
“What’s…..wrong with you?”
The violist was smiling at me as he said this, but I was taken aback nevertheless. Sure, I was being a little extreme, but it wasn’t that off-the-wall, was it? A precarious February drive from the Mississippi delta town of Memphis to the beer-and-brats haven of Milwaukee, to be undertaken in the middle of the night–that wasn’t so strange, was it?
For many years after college, I found myself inhabiting the odd role of a freelance road warrior, a sort of modern day troubadour roaming from city to city with my big bad double bass, playing whatever gigs I could to make ends meet. This haphazard career brought many logistical challenges with it, not the least of which was actually getting from one place to another with time to spare. I loved and hated it simultaneously, relishing the actual music making while dreading the next grueling commute coming up on my calendar. At 32 years of age, I’m not exactly headed for the retirement home anytime soon, but I’m convinced that this frenzied freelancer lifestyle has subtracted a good handful of years from my lifespan!
During these harried years, two of my regular commitments were located in Memphis, Tennessee and Milwaukee Wisconsin, while technically possible to be rolled together into the same patchwork work schedule, made for some disturbingly difficult travels. I frequently found myself playing an evening concert in Memphis one night and needing to be in Milwaukee the following morning, and driving all night long from one city to the other was the only viable option to make this commute. While most musicians would likely have ditched one or another of the gigs, my foolhardy (and cash-strapped) younger self was not dissuaded. Play one concert, then hop in the car for a 750 mile drive, followed by a full day of rehearsals? Bah! No problem.
To make matters even more perilous, most of these commutes ended up occurring during the slippery and snow-laden months of the year, and I had more than one white-knuckled drive over slick roads and through scary snow in the middle of the night. I usually felt like a boxer who’d just gone ten rounds in the ring, my eyes bleary and my brain a puddle of goo on the seat next to me as I neared the end of my zombie treks north.
I remember the first all-night drive between these two cities like it happened yesterday. Though, on paper, it seemed like I’d be able to make the journey with about an hour to spare (barring bad weather…a real possibility in the winter!), as the actual date for my crazy commute neared, I began to fret: would I actually be able to make that trip? It didn’t seem like the timing worked out. Even if I did manage to chug that long stretch across four states, would I be able to stay awake? Would the state troopers have to peel my foolish musician remains from a guardrail on a forlorn stretch of rural Illinois?
I was a frazzled ball of nerves on the eve of my journey, putting on my fresh monkey suit, snappy red tie looking impeccable, and loaded the car up in order to make a mad dash after the concert. My hair slicked back and my face smoothly shaven, I headed out for the hall, enduring the puzzled remarks of my colleagues, many of them inquiring exactly why I had opted to schedule work in such bizarrely distant regions of the country. Though I waved these comments off dismissively, part of my mind was unsettled–if all my colleagues thought that I was nuts, well…what did that say about me? Could 50 other musicians be wrong? We’d see, I figured.
The moment the last note finished ringing in the hall, I was a blur of activity, making a mad dash for my case backstage and hurriedly waving goodbye to my fellow musicians as I rushed out the side door in an attempt to beat the crush of post-concert traffic. I peeled out of the parking lot, my tie askew and my car lopsidedly stuffed with both luggage and instrument as I sped toward the interstate. After a mile or two I stopped to gas up the car and buy a handful of Red Bulls, a beverage that usually reminded me of toxic waste but which would probably be lifesavers during my overnight drive.
I coasted silently alongside the mighty Mississippi river, its muddy banks abutting the freeway, watching the traffic peel away toward downtown exits as I headed toward the Arkansas border. At this point, I was just another guy heading home late at night, indistinguishable from all the other cars on the road. That would soon change.
The delta flood plains of Arkansas on the other side of the river provide a stark contrast to the bustle of Memphis. Abandoned cars dot the shoulders of the freeway in various stages of rusty decomposition, like haystacks in some malevolent alternate reality, and as I made my way between them, I felt a certain trepidation–where were all the other cars? The second I crossed the river it seemed like all other traces of humanity vanished, leaving me all by myself, my twin headlight beams the only traces in the infinite blackness into which I was sailing.
Heavy drops of winter rain began to fall, like someone turning on a faucet directly above me, and the winds began to pick up, chopping the surface of the mighty river next to me and conjuring unwelcome visions of my little car being picked up by the gale and deposited directly into the river, like a quarter being tossed thoughtlessly into a fountain. Could I simply disappear without a trace, leaving all my friends and family to wonder what happened? These were not thoughts I cared to be having.
I soldiered on for what seemed like an eternity, and finally the bridge to Cairo, Illinois reared up ahead of me, indistinct in the whipping wind and rain, like a specter in the night, and a greasy knot began to form in my stomach. Cairo was a bad town with a scary past, and driving through it during the middle of the day as creepy enough. But here I was, at 2:30 a.m., with heavy rain and wind bucking my car around just slightly above the freezing point (please, no ice!), passing through a town that even on a good day looked like war-torn Sarajevo, and I hadn’t seen another car for miles and miles. Let’s just say that I wouldn’t be stopping for gas in Cairo! As I passed the exit for downtown Cairo, I noticed that the magnolia trees lining the freeway were choked with crows, resting on every branch, an ominous (to say the least!) Hitchcockian omen that didn’t exactly warm the cockles of my heart.
As I escaped the sinister halo surrounding Cairo, fatigue began to set in, and I found myself slapping my cheeks in an effort to keep from nodding off. My once-slick hair was now a mess, and I could feel a five o’clock shadow setting in (at the lovely hour of 4 a.m.). Stopping for gas and a trucker-size coffee, I happened to glance in the mirror as I splashed some water on my face and was horrified at what I was: my snappy suit now looked like I’d been rolling around on the sidewalk, my tie was askew, I was a sweaty and shaking mess from the caffeine and the stress of keeping awake, like some hipster doofus zombie wandering around rural Illinois in the middle of the night. All the truckers were asleep in their cabs, yet I kept up my trek, fanatically trying to make it to Milwaukee in time for my gig.
Chasing down a bacon and egg fast food biscuit with gut-rot coffee and a handful of vitamins presented me with a new feeling: nausea. As the sun rose over the horizon, my eyes were bloodshot, my muscles were twitchy with over-caffeinated exhaustion, and I felt like mites were crawling all over my skin as I sailed through metro Chicago, marveling at how desolate the city could be at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning. The Wisconsin border and my final destination of Milwaukee were quickly nearing, and the worst was surely over.
I exited the freeway and descended into the industrial area of Milwaukee which housed the rehearsal studio, pulling my car over to the side of the road and climbing into the back, attempting to get some sleep before people started showing up. My car was crammed nearly to capacity, and I had to squirm my way into a somewhat horizontal position, hoping desperately for sleepiness to wash over me and provide me with a few moments of shuteye. Alas, it was not to be; my relentless caffeine ingestion and the adrenaline that had been coursing through my bloodstream refused to let up that easily, and I twisted and turned sleeplessly for a few minutes before throwing in the towel.
I climbed out of my car, a hideous corpselike mess, and dug out my toothbrush and toothpaste, brushing my teeth in the street. I was all lathered up with toothpaste foam when the other musicians arrived and must have been quite a sight, with my hair a chaotic lion’s mane, my shirttails untucked, my tie undone, and my mouth filled with toothpaste. My colleagues looked fresh-faced and full of morning pep as they got out of their cars. I looked at them, then at myself. Maybe I really was crazy–I sure looked like it at that moment.
As the rehearsal space began to get set up, I unpacked my bass, feeling real fatigue set in now. Too bad that I had five hours of rehearsal to endure now, plus a drive back to Chicago! I gazed longingly at my bass case, noticing how soft and padded and…comfy it looked. Could I….? Well, I couldn’t possibly look any crazier to these other musicians right now. I climbed into my case, flopped the top over my exhausted torso and head, and fell asleep, on the dirty and gritty floor of the rehearsal hall, still in my suit, my legs sticking out haphazardly from the bottom of my case.
I wish that someone, at that moment, had snapped a photo of me. Talk about good anti-music school propaganda! I never, even in my darkest hour during music school, thought that this was how I’d be making my living. The saddest thing to me was that I didn’t do this drive once–I did it many times, even after going through all that pain, fear, and fatigue. Even though I could physically feel each one of those drives peel a few months off of my lifespan, I kept it up, willing to play anywhere and anytime for a buck, no matter how insane it seemed. Ah, the life of a musician!