Monday, March 31, 2008
You are hereby notified that effective 03/25/08 you are eligible to have your passenger license to operate motor vehicles in Massachusetts reinstated. To complete the reinstatement process, you will need to appear at any full service office of the Registry of Motor vehicles with this notice and four pieces of identification (not to mention shelling out the equivalent of one month's rent with a sheepish grin on your face). At that time, your license will be reinstated and issued to you.
Not to jinx myself, but I thought I'd share this tidbit of info that came from the RMV. It's an important letter and I almost didn't get it.
Last week I spent two hours on hold with the RMV waiting to speak to a person. I finally did. He told me that their records indicated that my license wasn't up for reinstatement until January 2010, and that I also still had the "fourth offense" on the books as well.
This is when I am glad I paid good money for a lawyer.
He told me he'd take care of it. Turns out he had to go down to the courthouse and raise some hell. He said he had to make them listen to the recording of the sentencing so they would see they were indeed in error. They did. And a few short days later, I got that letter in the mail.
I have an appointment to have my ignition interlock device put in tomorrow. It's going to cost $125 to install plus the first month's lease payment. Every month, for two years, I will have to bring my car over the Coolidge bridge and pay $85 or risk losing my license for a long, long, time.
If you're doing the math at home, then you know that comes to a total of $2,165 over two years to have the pleasure of blowing into a little box to start my car.
Hmm ... that'll surely drive all the girls wild!
"What's that, Alex?"
"Oh, it's part of the hybrid system of my car. It saves me money on gas while saving the planet at the same time. I call it my green machine."
"Wow, that's so altruistic. Kiss me now, you fool."
"Um ... didn't you just have a beer?"
"Yeah ... why?"
"It's a long story. I'll kiss you when we get to my place ... after your body's metabolized the beer ... in the meantime we can listen to the Big Book on tape as read by Jim Daly."
"You're kind of weird, Alex, but I like it. Hey, your hybrid breath converter is beeping again."
"Oh, yeah. Excuse me. It's time, once again, to save the planet."
Or, something along those lines.
I'll know more soon and I'll be sure to detail all the fun I have at the registry after I go there, via Peter Pan bus, on Wednesday. Keep your fingers crossed.
Just as important as all that is that my fantastic band, Drunk Stuntmen, performed at our CD release party at the Roadhouse in Millers Falls.
Besides the fact that it was tangible proof that indeed we did have a new offering of original material, it was a gig I almost didn't get to play. In fact, all of the gigs we have from now on will be gigs I almost didn't get to play.
You see, almost three months to the day of last week's Roadhouse show was our New Year's Eve party at the same club.
Winter had started nine days prior. I had gotten into my trouble with the law and all bets were off. All I knew at that point was that I had a court date at the end of the January and I had three gigs to complete before a hiatus that couldn't have been better timed.
Those were three of the most nervous gigs I have ever played. I was de-toxing. I was without a license and car and, for all intents and purposes those could have been my very last week of shows with my unfortunately named group.
The recording of the New Year's show (which I will put a link to at the bottom of this page) reveals a serious band at a joyous event. The tension was thick enough to cut and the stakes were very high. I hadn't started this blog yet and, quite frankly, I wasn't sure if I really wanted to quit everything and live like I've only read about. Never has there been so much pressure on me to perform at my best, not only from the 4 others involved in the making of the music, but from me as well.
I left the club that night after a round of big hugs from everyone in the band. Hugs that said, "Good luck, kid! You're gonna' need it!"
Flash forward to a few short but ever lengthening days after the start of spring. I have just celebrated ninety days clean and sober. My personal and professional affairs are in order. I have great new musical gear. I've been working out on an almost daily basis and my diet is in check. I'm going to LA to play on two nationally broadcast TV shows. I've been welcomed back into my band on condition of abstinence from booze and drugs.
And the registry is sending me letters saying they want to give things one more try --try and patch things up and see if we were really made for one another.
I think the break did us a lot of good.
Thanks for reading.
If you want to hear any or all of the New Year's show I refer to, go to:
Saturday, March 29, 2008
I don't take anything psychoactive or mood altering. I had my time with those.
At this present time I don't want to dive too deeply into that part of my magnificent crash that occurred last year, but let's just say it was fueled in part by a little green pill called Klonopin. Clonazepam. Poison.
Due to my recent upswing of health (knocking on wood) I take fewer meds now than I used to but I still have a few that my doctor and I feel are helping in my daily maintenance.
Today I had to go to my pharmacy to pick up one of them. I had called it in earlier in the day and they said it would be ready by the early afternoon.
I was enjoying the fine independent task of doing my laundry when I decided to walk on over to get the pills on order.
I walked into the pharmacy that I have been going to for a while now. I stepped up to the counter and was greeted, as always, by the friendly face of the pharmacist. I had the ten dollars in my hand which is the co-pay for this particular med.
"Can I help you?" he said.
"Hi. I'm here picking up a med."
"What's the name?"
"All right. Just a minute please, Mr. Johnson."
I watched him flip through a few of the bags in the "J" section and pull one out. He took a look at the label and held it up in front of me.
He looked at me and said, "One dollar."
I gave him a puzzled look and said, "One dollar?"
"Yes sir, Mr. Johnson," he said. "for the Clonazepam."
Oh my god.
I looked at the sheet in front of me that had the sticker the pharmacist had peeled off and affixed to the pickup sheet with a name and Rx number. It had my correct last name but certainly not my first. It was there waiting for me to add my scribble to it and complete the transaction. All I would have had to do then was to give the man my ten-spot, wait for the nine dollars change, and stuff the bottle of benzos in my bag. He hadn't asked for my I.D. and I know for a fact he wouldn't have.
This, of course, I would have been arrested for eventually. But not before I would have been able to shove enough of these green babies down my throat to make me forget all about it.
Hmm ... that's an awful loud knock on the door ... .
Relapse, as you may or may not know, is a process not an event. It is preceded by predictable behavior and thought processes. When these thoughts and behaviors build up to a boil and are not checked and dealt with, a lapse occurs. When a lapse occurs, the relapse is over and one has two choices: regroup and deal with what has happened, or continue using.
From my experience in self-help groups of many colors and stripes, I have been given a few tips on preventing a relapse from occurring.
One of the suggestions they offer is to change your whole room around. This is an inside joke that only a few of my friends will get, but such is life. In essence, I mean that professionals and volunteers will tell you to get a whole new circle of friends, find a new occupation, pick a different route to travel home, and generally create a whole new environment for yourself. Because the people, places, and things you had when you were using may trigger you to fall back into old habits.
In my line of work there isn't much chance of that happening anytime soon. I have no desire to change my surroundings. I like where I am. I like who I know. I love what I do and I love that it's so inextricably linked with a risky way of life. Excitement is born from risk and desire. Desire is an unpredictable beast and that's why it gets many of us into so much trouble. I wouldn't have it any other way.
But the difference in my life now is that I can watch people engage in risky behavior and appreciate it from afar. I am neither jealous nor judgemental. This is how I remain at peace with myself and keep in good standing with my friends, family, and associates.
The triggers are all around me everywhere I look. They'll be there until the end of time. And unless I buy an island off the coast of Indonesia there's always going to be somebody dangling one of my former vices in front of me on a string.
But I'm going to bet that they probably won't call me "Mr." when they do it.
Thanks for reading.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
They were both from foreign soil, had massive hit songs, used cool and dark imagery on their albums, and had lead singers with egos the size of hot air balloons.
And, just as when I was a pre-teen and wanted to look and sound like a combination of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, as a teen I had the same inclination with U2's Bono and INXS's Michael Hutchence.
Now, around 1985, Bono was still sporting a mean-ass mullet. Long and frizzy in back with a pomp in the front that said, "I am a musical prophet. Now bring me a mirror, knave, while I howl in the air like an Irish coyote roaming the Badlands searching for freedom." Well, I mean come on, it's true. Just watch some of the Joshua Tree videos and you'll see.
Michael, on the other hand, was pure slinky cool. Loose, webby tops with flowy sleeves coupled with ripped jeans and cowboy boots. He looked like he didn't care what he looked like. He didn't have to. He just exuded cool. And by far the coolest thing about his look to me was his hair.
He had the wavy curls.
Long, loose, slick, Australian, wavy curls that drooped and swayed as he danced in front of weird purplish backgrounds. It complemented the sounds of the band that played tight, angular, bursts of Fender Telecasters with slap-back delay.
I wanted that look and I wanted it bad.
Bad enough to ask my aunt if she would give me a perm.
Now, it wasn't until years later, after I went through the dreadlock phase and subsequent short hair phase, that I realized I actually had wavy hair. If I had grown it long and washed it more than once every two weeks it would have been apparent. But, unfortunately I didn't take the best care of my coif, I just brushed it and pulled it back with an elastic.
But back in my teens, it wasn't like I didn't have a hairdresser either. I did. It's just that she was completely stark raving mad.
Her name was Tia and she owned a small salon in the Flint section of Fall River where so many exciting events happened in my life.
She was a short Latina woman with a tiny frame, huge breasts, and the loudest mouth this side of Morton Downey Jr. Her hair was always kept short and pert and her nails were usually painted bright red with little blue and yellow stars.
She didn't take appointments over the phone. You had to come by and knock on the door and talk to her in person. I don't know if she was just extremely paranoid, extremely popular, or it was just another extension of her psychosis, but that's how she operated.
It was a basement salon. The few windows that were fringing the ceiling were covered in tinfoil. The general motif was maroon and black and of course there were mirrors everywhere. She didn't sweep up as often as she should have after doing business. Therefore, the floor was a bit slippery due to the clumps of hair. I'll always remember the way that floor felt.
I remember sitting in the chair getting a cut while she played music loudly and sang. She did that a lot. But she stopped suddenly one day and asked me if I knew U2.
"Of course I do, Tia.", I told her with an air of incredulity, "They're my favorite band ever."
"No Alegs", she said, "Du ju know dem."
"Like have I ever hung out with them? Of course not.", I said.
"Dass too bad. They all sooooo cool. And dat Larry Mullen iss a-dor-able." She said, rolling the "r" in "adorable" like a Spanish pussycat.
"How do you know U2?"
"Oh, we go back my fren. I haf a radio interfew dey dih and ju can hear dem talkink to me on de phone in de bagground. Ju wan to hear?"
"Um ... sure Tia. Let's hear it."
She put on a cassette of a radio interview with U2 where they were discussing the Unforgettable Fire with the DJ. It was all the usual questions: where did the song ideas come from, what about the artwork, what's it like working with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, that kind of stuff.
"Dis iss where I call and tog to Larry. Ju can hear hem laffink in de bagground, no?"
"Um ... sure ... that's really you talking to him."
"Iss de truf Alegs, I tell u no lie. He-is-so-a-dor-a-ble. Oh ... oh ... dis is where he han de fon to de Etch and I ass hem if he can geh me tickess to de Providenz show. Ju lissen."
And I listened. I listened some more. And I nodded my head slightly so as not to risk being impolite as well as being impaled on her pointy shears. And all I heard was a normal radio interview with the usual patter and laughs and people talking over each other.
I paid Tia, walked home, and I decided that I would grow my hair long and forgo the surreal trip to the looney bin for as long as I could.
In the meantime, I would just go to my aunt and have her give me a perm when the time was right.
So, I grew my hair long over the next year all through the fall and winter, spring and summer until it was down to my shoulders. It grew extraordinarily long in a short period of time and I brushed it and brushed it to give it body and shine. I was preparing it for a process which I had only heard about. A process which was legendary in the world of hair.
A process whose name I did not associate with the condition of said hair upon completion.
I wanted some loose curls. Sexy curls. Michael Hutchence curls. I wanted them so I could look the part as I played the guitar lines in my cover band. We did all the requisite INXS tunes: "Don't Change", "Fallin' Down a Mountain", "What You Need", the list goes on. They were hit monsters in a time of pop opulence and my band was a pocket mirror vainly trying to reflect their unprecedented Aussie mystique.
So I asked my wonderful aunt if she would do it and she, of course, said yes. Emphatically.
See, my mom and aunt enjoyed my strange fashion sense and tried to embellish and nurture it when and where they could. A perm was the next natural step towards becoming a real "rocker."
We went to CVS and picked out the box amidst a plethora of perm kits. I believe it was a Toni brand. The picture on the box looked like what I wanted. Loose and bouncy. Oh yes, I knew what I wanted to look like. It was just one procedure away.
We brought it home and I hurriedly went upstairs and washed my hair. I toweled off and put on a loose fitting t-shirt and shorts and headed downstairs to my aunt's apartment. She had on INXS's 1985 opus, Listen Like Thieves, to set the mood.
The chair was set in the middle of the room with plastic and newspapers covering the floor. I sat on the industrial metal stool which had undoubtedly come from my grandfather's printing shop. She draped the smock over my shoulders and quickly and firmly tied the fastening string around my neck.
I could feel myself swallow against the wrinkly plastic collar.
She began to wrap my lengthy, semi-straight auburn locks around thin plastic rollers. As she did this she would whistle and sing in varying intervals exclaiming every now and again:
"You are going to look soooooo good Mr. Johnson. And the kids at school won't recognize you at all. They'll wonder who the new rock star is who just came off a whirlwind tour."
Oh boy. I'm in for it now.
Every now and again my aunt's Lhasa Apso, Dandelion, would wander in and sniff the air around me and give me a lick on the shin. I think she was jealous of the attention I was getting.
"You know I just want a body perm right, Aunty? I don't want it too curly like Greg Brady." And she kept whistling and whistling and I think she even pinched my ear. She was in heaven.
The first bottle was opened; it smelled horrendous.
"Is that stuff supposed to smell like that?" I asked incredulously.
"You be quiet, Mr. J and let the professional work." she said.
I wasn't going to argue. I was covered in plastic and my hair was in rollers. Just like a rock star. Ugh.
"All right. Now, you just wait here. I've got some business to discuss with your mother. I'll be back in ten minutes, no longer."
And I heard the front door open and close. I heard the simple chime clang and then the "Ssssss ..." of the storm door as it closed slowly and latched.
And then it was quiet.
Side one of my favorite record of the year had concluded with "Biting Bullets" and I was left to sit and ponder my existence with a head full of rollers and an unbelievable desire to scratch my head.
Dandelion came in and sneezed in my general direction.
I don't know how much time actually elapsed between when I heard the front door close and when I heard the frenzied footsteps, but in she flew, my aunt, Lynda Johnson, recklessly throwing the front door open and running in to see me sitting there with her dog at my feet who was barking into the chemical air around her.
"Oh my god. I forgot all about you. Your mother and I got to talking and she finally asked if we were done with the perm."
"Well, are we?" I nervously asked.
"Almost," she said. "I just need to apply the neutralizer. We're almost done, we're almost done."
She meant I was almost done. In more ways than one.
I remember the way the first spring of hair felt as it broke free of it's cruel roller captor. As I tried to straighten it out from the root to the end it broke free mid-way and recoiled like a scared puppy. It wanted nothing to do with my advances. It was happy where it was, curled up like a Slinky and defying gravity.
And that was just the first roller.
I will always remember the tone of voice my aunt used as she was taking out the last few rollers. It was as if she had talked a blind man into buying a whole house full of gaudy furniture and he had somehow, miraculously regained the power of sight.
"Well, don't you look a-dor-able."
It was a valid question regardless of its rhetorical nature and one that I almost immediately answered as I slowly rose from the metal stool. The giant half wall mirror was waiting for my two eyes to see what had become of the landscape around them.
Inch by revealing inch it all became evident that this was going to take some getting used to. Because this was not a body perm. This was not wavey. This was not Michael Hutchence ...
I remember the looks I got as I exited my aunt's Datsun 280 Z on the first day of school. Looks that seemed so say- I'm not going to laugh right now, but when I get through these double doors, twenty steps ahead of you, I'm going to sprint to my locker and almost double over with uncontrollable fits of hysteria.
It was September of 1987. Sophomore year. A year that would prove to be my big breakthrough in both making money via music as well as enjoying the perks of the trade that would soon become necessities.
And in one short month INXS's blockbuster album Kick would be released. It would receive rave reviews and ensure a steady supply of rabid fans worldwide who would hang on Michael Hutchence's every move like so much Dep on a curl of hair.
As for me, I still had some work to do on my image.
But, at least I had somewhere to store my pencils.
Thanks for reading.
R.I.P Michael Hutchence 1/22/60-11/22/97
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Not to my friends. My friends I have a solid relationship with now after 3 full months of putting promises into action.
Not with my co-workers. Be it the folks in the Chorus or at the gallery where I work one day a week. With all of them I've been a pillar of responsibility. If I have to change the agreed upon time to go in for work I'll call and make sure it will be OK. Not just sit and rot away at home like I used to and screen my calls. That was always fun to do.
"Hi, Alex. It's _______ here from the ________. Didn't see you in today and we have a big show opening tomorrow. We could really use you. Give me a call when you get this and we can talk. Hope everything's alright."
Umm ... yeah, about that. I eventually heard that message when I came to at five and had to call the operator to find out if it was a.m. or p.m. And I would have known there was a show opening if I had called to see if it was OK to not come in the one day a week I work.
I'm still amazed they never let me go. It's a cherry gig and I never fully appreciated it until I almost had it taken away from me.
I did the same thing with the Chorus, except with them, I definitely called. That was a job I could not forfeit under any circumstance. You couldn't be a textbook functioning alcoholic if you lost your job, this much I knew.
I just had to hear it from the director's mouth that I could skip practice and then I would hang the phone up, raise my fists in the air and speed on down to the package store. I'd usually have to wait in the parking lot until they opened at 9 hoping no one would recognize my car, the one with my band's bumper sticker on it.
Standing and waiting behind the owner of a package store as he unlocks the door is one of the most humiliating things I did on a regular basis. That feeling didn't last for long though.
It was never easy to make the call to worm my way out of the two hour rehearsal that paid as much as my one day a week cleaning job. I played it in my mind from both sides of the assumed attitude of the director. I'd pick it up, dial four digits or so, and then return said phone to its cradle.
I waffled between feelings of superiority: They'd never get rid of me. They love me. I've been with them for 4 years now. It's a lock. Iron clad. They need me goddamn it and they need me in a good mood. I'm not the one who the practice is for anyway. I know the songs and there are plenty of rehearsals left before the big show. I deserve a day off.
And self loathing: They don't need me. They can do all those songs with just a piano. They didn't have a steady guitar player for a long time before I strolled in. It's no big deal. They're probably psyched I'm not there gunking up the works. It'll be fine. There are plenty of rehearsals left before the big show. I deserve a day off.
What a sick bastard.
No, the problems I'm having are not with my friends or my employers.
My problem is with me.
I can't seem to take a compliment from someone very close to me, someone who has known me longer than anybody.
This person told me how happy it made them to see the way I am living my life. This person said that they are so proud that I have begun to change my ways and experience the exploration of avenues that have long been under construction. This person said that they're super impressed with my writing and can't understand what took me so long.
This person loves the new me. And what did I do when I heard all this earlier today when they called to praise my efforts and offer me ideas to further my creative endeavors?
I got mad.
What a sick bastard.
And I've been trying to understand what it is that makes me so uncomfortable hearing words of encouragement and praise for the new accomplishments I can finally take credit for.
It think that, like a distant relative that you haven't talked to in a real long time because they have some serious problems, you miss them.
You know they're a little screwy. You know that a lot of unfortunate incidents have occurred. But you understand them and you don't want to hear anyone talking bad about them. You know their true essence. You know that they did what they did for their reasons and their reasons alone. And you know that if they had a way to change what was actually going on at the time things might have been different.
I've always had a fear of success.
I get so close to doing so good so often and then I screw it all up. Sometimes it'll be an act of immediacy like playing a guitar solo that is verging on perfect. It'll be out of control good and I'll have a whole bunch of people watching and listening and someone will scream "All right."
And I'll choke.
Or it will be a situation in a relationship that is just going too well to imagine. Finding a nice girl with manners and class and a fun fashion sense who likes my sense of humor and doesn't mind me drinking every night and snoring (believe me, there were a few). I'd have to always find some way to screw it up because somewhere, deep inside me, I felt like I just didn't deserve it.
Well, I've been thinking a lot about that distant relative. I've been defending what they did a lot. I've been overreacting because I don't want the memory of that person be lost forever and cast aside for the new and improved me. The me that couldn't have dreamed of taking all of this new found attention from both the media and the public in such stride. The me that feels more secure and focused than ever before.
I have a lot of accomplishments which were achieved during heavy periods of use. But they were always a game of catch up. There were always strings attached. I could never just write a song. I had to write half a song and be so happy I wrote a half a song that I'd take a walk to the liquor store to get a bottle. It would be under the guise of seeing if it was a hummable tune. I'd get back and start pounding glass after glass until after about 5 drinks I'd just push the guitar aside and put on Maury. I have a lot of half filled sheets of paper in boxes waiting to be opened.
But the thing is, I did write some songs back then. I played a lot of great shows. I wrote a good portion of a silent movie soundtrack. I spent time with my family. I remembered birthdays. I dated beautiful women, and I was in a popular band.
And it's like drinking a glass of razor blades to think what might have happened had I done things differently.
And that's why I defend it.
Because it's helpless. It is mute, deaf, and paralyzed and all I can do is look at it in retrospect and remember it as it used to be, not what I wish it could have been. That would be even more unhealthy than the actual abuse.
So if I seem a little hesitant at agreeing with people who say I should be happy my life isn't like it used to be, it's not because I think that you're wrong.
It's because you're right.
And, for better or for worse, I miss that crazy relative of mine.
He had some great ideas for songs.
Maybe I'll have to look over some of the letters he sent me and try to fill in the blanks.
Thanks for reading.
Monday, March 24, 2008
Wait ... hang on just a second ... I ... I must be wrong ... let me check that email again ... .
OK. I'm back.
Whew, just as I thought.
I am going to perform on Jay Leno's Tonight Show on the National Broadcast Network.
I wish I could say I was speechless. That would make it easy for me to just turn off the computer and go to bed.
As I said. I wish.
The itinerary says The Young at Heart Chorus will be spending all day at the Tonight Show studio on Wednesday, April 16th. It's probably going to air that night barring any unforeseen circumstances.
Umm...and we're going to be on some show called Ellen.
I wonder if she's like Oprah.
And there's a gig planned to take place at the Wilshire Theater in Beverly Hills. That should be fun too.
I've always wondered what it would be like when I got the news. What would the circumstances be as to how I ended up on late night television.
Would I be there as a puppeteer, a magician, a roller-skater (It was possible in the 70's) a comedian, or maybe a world class violinist.
Throughout the years I would fantasize about how my name would sound as the emcee of the show called it out, holding up my record for the camera. How would I feel as I heard the studio audience's applause wash over me, all the while knowing elsewhere unprompted claps and gasps would be emanating from the living rooms of my family and friends.
I think you know which one matters more to me.
I wondered how would I feel as I looked at the big cameras with their round red light on top, which I'm only aware of from seeing them filmed by an even more removed camera. Who will be the other guests? What will the green room be like? Will I meet a celebrity randomly who just showed up for the taping? Or better yet, would it be live?
Well, the only one of those questions I can answer with any certainty is the last one.
No, it will not be live. But once the song gets counted off I doubt we'll get the chance to take it again from the top.
All I know other than that is that I will be performing as a guitarist for the soon to be America's sweethearts, The Young at Heart Chorus.
I already cleared it with my probation officer. That was a huge sigh of relief.
Some people might think, gee, how sad. He has to get approval from an employee of the justice system in order to go out of state and play his guitar for the country. How embarrassing.
I am one hundred percent cocksure that if I did not have a probation officer to ask if I could fly to LA, if I hadn't gone through the humiliation of the two week confined treatment program, if I hadn't gotten myself in the most trouble I have ever been in in my whole life I wouldn't be going to LA at all.
90 days ago I was on a collision course with a pretty predictable end. It almost did end at the very least my professional career, and at the very most my existence.
I'm not being dramatic. I'm being honest.
Steve, who will also be part of the performances, told me that when he saw me show up at that gig in Boston with a head full of benzos and a bloated body covered with a torn Minnie Mouse t-shirt, dirty jeans and no equipment, he feared it was only a matter of a short time before I fell completely to pieces.
I knew it too.
Just about everyone in my network of family and friends knew.
And like a car on fire speeding at a brick wall at 90 miles an hour there's not much you could do to stop it.
All you can do is wait for the inevitable call to come down and help clean up the mess.
So I'll just cut this short and say I'm excited.
I'm excited that I have been pulled out of the way of a falling anvil. I'm excited that I'm about to enter a whole new chapter of my professional life. I'm excited to be going to LA, where I was born almost 38 years ago, and perform on what was my mother's favorite talk show. And I'm excited that I've found a way to express myself and be honest to not just myself, not just my friends, but to people who I don't know from a hole in the wall.
And you all will be able to clap for me when you see me on TV.
Like I said, I'll just cut this short and say I'm excited.
"In three-two-one... ."
"And now ... all the way from Northampton Massachusetts ... ladies and gentlemen, will you please give a warm welcome to ..."
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Now, I know how funny that sounds just as it is, but let me explain.
I was baptized Frederick Alexander Manuel Johnson.
I'm going to save the "Manuel" part for another day. This is not the proper time and it would undoubtedly cloud the intent of my story.
My grandmother was the last of the religiously inclined members of my blood family. Born from Polish immigrants, it was a huge part of her life. She made sure I was baptized.
Eugenia Cecilia Machnik Johnson was a beautiful woman. And calling her grandmother, even in print, seems weird. I always called her the Polish equivalent: Babush.
My Babush was a kind, gentle, giant-hearted woman with fiery eyes, well-bred eastern European features, and a smile that could make a bank robber change his ways.
Born in 1912, she was a woman from a time when men would lay their jackets on the ground to protect the fairer sex from stepping in a puddle; from a time when women would wear hats more for pleasure than necessity; from a time when going to church was a responsibility, not an option. And in keeping with her responsibility to Christ, on top of babysitting me while my mother worked, she would take me to church with her.
To me, church seemed like a fun hang. Everyone got dolled up and went down the street to the large but modestly appointed Holy Rosary Church. Once there, one could lose themselves in the beautiful stained glass which dominated the walls and ceiling. The iconography and statuaries piqued my interest as I had designs on becoming a great puppetmaker and performer someday. I had shown quite a talent for this lost art by first grade. Not just sock puppets mind you, large, two-handed, intricate, inventive puppets which lamentably took a backseat, as did all my preoccupations, when the six taut strings of the guitar made their way into my hands at the age of 10.
One thing I was always jealous of on our trips to the big stained glass castle down the street was the taking of Communion.
Being a large child, I ate a lot. Any chance for a quick snack and I would take it. Be it a Fudgsicle (pronounced fu-jik-l) a Hoodsie pop, potato chips, or an uncooked hot dog from Bronhards Meats. Anything was fair game.
So, when it was explained to me that I couldn't go up to the man who was giving out large, white, round chips to waiting tongues wagging from rapturous faces, I was devastated. When I was informed that I had to wait until I completed special schooling and passed a test before I could enjoy a much needed snack like my Babush right next to me, I was inconsolable.
She was forced by her faith to tell me to stay put as she went up with the rest of the rows of well dressed believers.
Now I wasn't just hungry, I was also a public misfit. The one lone leper of a freckle-faced Star Wars freak who had to stay seated while hundreds of parishioners got their snack on.
I don't know if this is the main reason that I started to steal Jesus statues from automobile dashboards, but it certainly was a big one.
Yes, I was a klepto. And Jesus statuettes were my thing.
Back in the 70's everyone had gigantic cars with high doors and flat glass windows. And, it being a largely Catholic and predominantly Portuguese neighborhood, there were many of these cars with gaudy, plastic, magnetic Jesus statues. It's a stereotype, I know, but these things do get started from a kernel of truth.
On my street a lot of people left their cars unlocked.
Hel-lo free toys.
I could almost hear the wah-wah pedal and the suspenseful horn section providing the music for one of my heists. Smartly dressed in overalls, sitcom t-shirt, and Pro Keds, I would ride down Bedford St. on my Huffy 3 speed with the yellow and black banana seat and slowly scan each car. My street sloped down in the middle, and as I made my way to the bottom of the valley I could get quite a glimpse of the dashes with help from the afternoon sun. It lit up the back windows of the Monte Carlo's and Continentals that dotted the curbside and spread the light around to the dash.
The telltale "lit candle" shape of the sacred simulacrum was easy to spot.
My height, which frustrated me at the amusement park, proved to be a great advantage in these capers. A quick glance at the large 70's style inside door locks made it easy to see which of the juicy fortresses were defenseless. At all of 3 feet I could swiftly sit on the curb and lift the latch with the thumbs of my meaty hands. I'd let the heavy iron door swing just far enough open to allow for entry, making sure it didn't swing open all the way and scrape the sidewalk. Cars were built differently back then. Side doors in the 70's were as big as some hoods are nowadays.
Once inside I would make a quick glance around to check the perimeter. My paw would then grab hold of our mini Lord and savior with a thumb to the body and my palm to his back and give a swift tug. Free from the perch of the typical leatherette dash, the captive mini-Jesus would sit awkwardly in the side pocket of my overalls until I could ride the 500 feet home and run in the yard, the front gate clanging shut with as familiar a sound as my mother's voice.
"Fred-er-ick...time for sup-per!"
And I'd run past her and into my room and put him in the bag with the others.
Safety in numbers I suppose.
I never did get caught. And with all the shaking up at the Johnson residence over the last 10 years I can't say I have come across the contraband of which I speak, but that doesn't mean they're not there. Everything I ever owned or was given to me until the time I was 21 is somewhere amongst the boxes of belongings which reside at my aunt's beautiful Mattapoisett beach house.
I'll be going there soon. I'll root around and see what I can see.
At the very least I'll bring some of my puppets home. It's an odd feeling to slip one of them on my hand and watch them come to life after laying dormant for 30 odd years. Like a coat from third grade that still fits.
I never thought I'd have anyone who might be interested in seeing them.
I did happen to write a song about the time I spent "collecting" for God.
Never understood my attraction
except to take attention away
of what they relied on to brighten those cloudy days
Oh, hold me
Carry the weight of the world
Let's sing a song for Father
Let's sing a song together
If I couldn't change my faith yet
I thought I could change everyone else's
And be the King of the stolen Jesus
King of the stolen Jesus
He'll rise from the dashes again.
Rise from the dashes again.
My Babush sadly passed away in 1980 when I was ten. As a result, I was given a choice on the continuation of my Catholic education and, consequently, on the taking of first communion.
In 1984, I accompanied my mother to the first of several parent/teachers night at Bishop Connolly High School (which I attended so as to avoid the horrendous conditions at B.M.C. Durfee H.S. where my mother and aunt were both teachers).
Upon meeting with the principal -the most revered, Fr. O’Brien- privately in his office, my mother decided to ask a question which would negate any and all inevitable haranguing over my lack of Catholic affiliation.
We sat there for a few minutes in uncomfortable silence as the principal fiddled with the papers on his desk, eventually finding my soon to be lengthy school record. As he looked up and locked eyes with one Judith Ann Johnson she asked him quite matter-of-factly:
"...so, Father O’Brien...how is my pagan baby doing?"
Yeah, she was that cool.
Since I started this before midnight on Sunday, March 23 I would like to wish all who read this a happy Easter.
Hope you got your Paas on.
And to one wonderful woman who will undoubtedly read this after her special day has come and gone...
Happy Birthday Bushy.
Much love from me.
And a goodnight to my Babush. I miss you dearly and still wonder what those big white chips taste like.
Eugenia Cecilia Machnik Johnson 1912-1980 R.I.P.
I remember thinking that if I had robotic parts I'd be oh so much happier. It all looked so glamorous and exciting.
Well, when you're a kid it's easy to skip over the parts of things that don't fit your ideal idea of a good time. And I'd conveniently forget that Steve Austin was in a horrible crash that left him with two useless legs, one mangled arm, and only one eye.
To me he was the luckiest guy in the world.
He was bionic.
These days I go to the gym 4-5 times a week. I eat very healthy foods. I don't smoke anymore, and the drinking and drugs are non-existent.
I also ride my bicycle everywhere.
I've been doing it since the beginning of January when my three week, intensive outpatient program started in Florence. I only asked for a car ride once and that was in the middle of a treacherous snow storm. Other than that it's been a non stop bike-a-thon from town to town and from county to county.
Strangely enough, my legs have only recently started to ache. It's a good kind of ache though. I'll live.
Today I took my longest ride yet. It was an all out marathon of a Saturday.
I started out at the gym where I blasted my shoulders for an hour. After that I slugged down a 42 gram protein supplement and a Gatorade, and began my journey towards the Salvation Army. The only one around is now located in tobacco and asparagus country: Hadley, Massachusetts.
My town, Northampton, has lost a lot of its charm since I moved here 17 years ago. The classic Rockwell appeal of Lizzotte's smoke shop with its pungent fresh cut tobacco aroma; The Baystate Hotel and it’s tacky but heart warmingly homey interior and cantankerous proprietor; Sheehan’s Cafe where I first made a speaker cone vibrate in what would soon become familiar surroundings; The Words and Pictures Museum which I felt lucky to have, but too jaded to frequent; Cha Cha Cha restaurant whose legend of gargantuan proportions I am honored to say I was a part of, and plenty of other businesses have moved on or been renamed and sucked dry of all their charm and magic.
It stinks, but I've gotten used to it. We find substitutions for staple necessities like bars, restaurants, and galleries. But it's not so easy when the only places that carried useful, used household items are six miles away.
So, as the Salvation Army moved out to make room for an office supply store, we lost another useful tool for the modestly heeled. The Goodwill has been gone so long that I can hardly remember it. Now, as I travel around and see one in almost every community, always bursting with customers, I feel sadness with a touch of jealousy. Because the world we live in, and the town of Northampton especially, will always trade up. The failed, for-profit business which is slowly moving out of where the Goodwill stood will most assuredly become an upscale trinket shop or a salon.
These days, once the saints march out of town it's very rare that they come back again.
But, I needed a new answering machine and so I chose the half hour bike ride over the speedy public bus.
It was gorgeous. Just brisk enough and windy enough to keep a lot of people at home or in their cars, but mild enough for those who were feeling adventurous to rejoice with the few folks on the bike path who know how delicious the longer days are starting to taste.
These recently extended days are like rapidly developing adolescents, almost exhibiting an air of cockiness. It's like they're saying, "I just got big enough for you to notice a change in me. I can see you all approve. But, while you're busy gabbing to each other about how great I am and how you can't believe the metamorphosis, I'm going so take so many liberties it'll make your head spin. When the dust finally settles and you can sit on the porch with a lemonade and watch the parade pass by it will be too late. I will be just a memory. You'll forget what I used to be like. I'm going to rebel against nothing in particular and withdraw to my room. You'll soon be longing for the days when you and I could spend all afternoon together without a care in the world of who's watching, laughing about the silly things without embarrassment, and discussing the future and how much fun it'll be when I grow up."
I rode along with my winter hat, gloves, and scarf and made it to my destination.
I had called earlier in the day and they said they couldn't tell me if they had any answering machines. They said something about it being a "thrift store" and not Walmart. The aggravated woman whom the cute sounding check-out girl pawned the phone off to said I’d have to come in and see for myself. She said it was a nice day for a ride anyway.
Volunteers. They can get away with anything.
I walked in, sweaty from the exertion and red faced from the wind. I put down my black bag which had gained a few pounds on account of the Asian products I had procured at the market near the bridge. I walked to the back of the store and there it was. One small, simple, white answering machine; a penny under four dollars and it was mine. I plugged it into the wall socket and heard the robotic voice of the internal message. The cursory and detached nature of the default function made me want to buy the picture frames beside it, packaged and shipped out with shots of uncles, aunts, cousins and doggies already in place. I could name them all and make up funny stories for when I had guests over. That would be some fun.
Then again, maybe not. My friends already think I'm kinda weird as it is.
I mouthed a "thank you" to my mom for the confluence of fortunate events, as I have for the last 14 months, and browsed for a while. I bought a couple of t-shirts in preparation for the future warmth and got on my bike. I pushed off in the direction of home and adjusted my even heavier bag on my sore shoulder.
The journey reversed always seems shorter when you know your work is done.
The sun was going down. It was about six thirty. In a couple of months we'll still have 2 hours of this stuff, but now, in the end of the third week of March, it was a free for all. I felt as if I was in one of those clear boxes on game shows that you get into and try to grab as many dollar bills as you can while they fly haphazardly all around you.
My pockets felt extremely full.
My legs didn't hurt so much anymore. I didn't know if it was the cold or if the muscles were finally adjusting to the new regimen of tear, repair, repeat.
I have a goal for the spring and summer. Right now I'm on a course to reach that goal and then some.
This train of mine is traveling down the same tracks as before but it's using a different kind of fuel. It can see the "W" on the stone markers which signify a pull of the whistle well ahead of time. It's more efficient, it's faster, and hopefully it will remain a viable alternative to the model which once was all the rage; the histrionic adolescent who agreed with no one in particular.
As sad as it sometimes is to see its beautiful retreat, the sunset lasts just a little longer if you watch it wave goodbye.
Thanks for reading.
"Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world's first bionic man. F. Alex Johnson will be that man. Better than he was before. Better ... stronger ... faster."
Pictures by F.A.J. 3/22/08 Norwottuck Rail trail. Northampton-Hadley, MA.
Friday, March 21, 2008
You can smoke on public buses.
Disco is in full swing and its trademark "mpt-sa! mpt-sa!" bass drum, hi-hat combo occupies a bandwidth in any given city on any given day.
Television is putting out some of the finest programs it ever has, and possibly ever will.
Everybody drives huge American cars.
And I am in love with the library.
It's funny the way in which I remember certain places that I frequented as a child. I oftentimes recall the way the sun hit a building on that particular time of day.
I always had a bunch of free time to do just about whatever I wanted, but I spent a lot of my day doing fun things at a consistent hour. That way it's easier to make sure you actually do the fun things rather than getting caught up in maelstrom of daily hum drum activities like school and chores. Hence the sundial consistency of my important appointments with leisure.
The library, to me, was like the greatest church bazaar one could imagine. Every day new items would arrive which, if your timing was right, you could snag before anyone else. The woman at the register always gave you the best price imaginable: free. And you could return any item after fully enjoying all it had to offer. If you weren't done, you simply brought the item back in and asked for an extension. They actually encouraged you to keep it longer. Heck, if they didn't have what you were looking for at the moment, you could reserve it. And if they didn't have said item there, they would ask around and procure it from one of the other affiliated municipal church bazaars.
You only had to pay if you forgot that its lease was up. Still, the fee was a mere pittance compared to the treasures contained between the covers. Oh, and they had a bubbler and a bathroom and a fun little round ladder which you could push around the floor like a droid, but which would lose its mobility when you stepped or sat on it and attempted to repeat this activity. How odd and unfortunate.
I went to the library about 4pm almost every day. During the warmer months the sun would be at my back. I remember the way it always would shimmer and shake in the reflection of the large tinted windows of the front door as I pulled it open. It had an unfair advantage over my short, stubby, Weeble of a frame and it resisted twice as hard as I could pull. Regardless, it always eventually gave in to my advances.
Inside, to the right, past the short inclined rubber covered ramp, was the large magazine wall rack. Next to that were some cushioned benches and overstuffed chairs. There you could sit and endlessly flip through thick pulpy pages in relative solitude.
There were a few kiddie toys with which overworked mothers would occupy their brats with while they signed out the latest Harold Robbins. I remember looking on in horror when, on occasion, a child would inadvertently begin wailing for attention as their mom furiously tiptoed to the desk. This reaction always amused me, as if by doing so would somehow not only quiet the little terror, but add emphasis on the fact that she knew it was supposed to be a very quiet place; it wasn't her fault. Spoiled little brats. I vowed then and there to never have children if their only preoccupation was to desecrate the sanctity of the quiet, peaceful, and powerfully intelligent library.
At the present time my books outnumber my children by an exorbitant ratio.
That perfect sitting area is where I would endlessly devour classic monthlies like Dynamite magazine. I remember its bright neon rainbow design. And, of course there were the big cover stories; the first Steve Martin issue complete with arrow thru the head and rubber chicken; the first Mork issue, followed shortly by the Mork and Mindy special double issue; the Kristy Mcnichol issue (my tomboyish love), Battlestar Gallactica, and later, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Each one burst at the stapled creases with games, pictures, cartoons, interviews, room decorating tips, and stories from kids just like me. The magazines were colorful, frenetic, and got banged up really fast; not unlike their readership.
The Flint branch of the Fall River library was near perfect in almost every way. Standing at the end of the ramp ,with the aforementioned magazines on your right, you could see 5 long stacks of books. In front of the tall stacks were several slightly too high bins filled with wonderful and mysterious records protected by thick, clear plastic overcoats. To the immediate left of the record bins was the checkout counter where a lovely curly gray haired woman in her 70's worked each weekday. Her name was Mrs. Fiore. She spent her days flipping countless plastic lined back covers open, and stamping both required peach or green colored cards with restrained authority.
Well, that, and calling me George.
I don't know why, and I never corrected her. She saw my library card each time I took a book out (which was often) and if she didn't see it then, I was just going to let her run with it.
"Hello, George." She'd say, as I ambled in on my flat feet.
"Hi Mrs. Fiore. How are you?"
"Just fine thank you. That book on magic just came in. I put it aside for you."
The illustrious magic book. It sounds as wonderful as that which it purports to instruct. What child in their right mind didn't want to at least have a magic act on the side. I mean, being a doctor or a fireman was all well and good, but you had to have something to impress your party guests with. You don't want to come off as dull and predictable now do you?
Of course not.
I loved to take out records too. It was the preferred medium for musical consumption in the 70's. It was, and still is a thoroughly enjoyable process. It's an experience which enables the participant to make a solid connection of where the sound comes from, what it's turned into, and where it ends up; quite unlike the cup and ball trick.
Magic and music. The man who can lay claim to both skills is rich beyond explanation.
As far as records go, the Flint library had a lot of good titles, but there were a few which I must say I was not just disinterested in, but actually scared to death of.
Now, granted, I was into some pretty tame stuff in the seventies; John Denver, The Beatles, The Captain and Tennille, and Christopher Cross. All with simple, sometimes clever, sometimes sentimental record cover art.
Enter the Grateful Dead.
Oh my god.
Now, it was bad enough that I was afraid of dancing skeletons ever since I saw Jason and the Argonauts, but here was a band which adopted the motif and even went so far as to portray said skeleton as capable of playing music. And not just any music:
Behold, Blues for Allah c. 1975.
Somewhere along the way I was given the distinct impression that The Grateful Dead was a heavy metal band. I can't imagine why.
It would be many years before I would make the connection that the gentle beta sounds of California's freakiest hippies were the same group responsible for such an unsettling album cover.
I remember flipping through the records in their thick plastic covers complete with pocket for one's library card. I would get a bit faster with my fingers upon the inevitable approach at the end of the "G" section. And then it was over. I was safe. On to bigger, better, and less horrifying things.
I brought my magic book up to the counter and waited for Mrs. Fiore to check it out.
"Magic is such a fun thing to do, don't you think George?"
"Oh yes, Mrs. Fiore. And someday I'll be able to cut a woman in half."
"That sure would be something. Practice makes perfect you know."
"I know Mrs. Fiore. Goodbye."
I opened the glass door to the loud, hectic, unpredictable Fall River day. The now oncoming sun was hovering right above the tenement buildings in the distance. A flash of it caught me in my eyes and I squinted and clenched my teeth. I clutched my new magic book in my hands, took a sharp left, and walked hurriedly home.
It was almost time for violin practice.
Magic would be a nice cushion to fall back on.
That is, if music didn't make me famous first.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
He can see right through you.
If you are in the midst of planning an act of impropriety, he knows.
If you just opened a jar of Classico four cheese pasta sauce to find out that a fifth cheese has been born atop the red landscape, and you threw it in the trash rather than rinsing it out and recycling it, he knows.
But Chico does not judge. No, that is not his desire nor is it his predisposition.
He just wants to lick your hand. Maybe, if things go alright, and he feels completely at ease, Chico will allow you to admire the texture and fine fiber with which his sweater was made. Go ahead, scratch it. Scratch his back. Feel him pull away yet come closer. You cannot resist. What good would that do?
Just keep in mind, when you start thinking about how no one will notice when you take the last brownie and conveniently forget to soak the baking dish, that you are being watched from 7 inches above the linoleum.
I played with my band, Drunk Stuntmen, over the weekend at a place called the Dutch Treat. It's in Franconia, New Hampshire and it happened on a Monday, on St. Patricks Day, with a bunch of freaky folk who like to rock out. How's about that.
That's where we know Chico from. He lives with Joe and Tony at the Mojo music studio located nearby. They set up a massive P.A. for us as well as recording the whole thing to 24 track. You can check out their link at the bottom of this page.
Our friend and 6th Stuntman, Pablo, will be writing all about the adventurous 24 hours we spent together after not having a show for two and a half months. You can read all about it soon over at our website. That much is certain.
But I wanted to introduce you to Chico, because he is one of the many subjects I take pictures of. Not all of them make the grade and are worthy of an upload, but I know you're going to scroll back and take another look at him before this is all over. I know I will.
Something else I found interesting enough to photograph and present to the public is something I found right here in Northampton.
Because it's ridiculous.
"Honey, I bought you something to keep your ear piercing spacers in...isn't it cute?"
"Oh Corbin, it's beautiful, and it's got one of your initials right on the top. You shouldn't have."
"I know, but I wanted to show you that I'm initially yours"
"What do you mean sweetie?"
"Well, I just want to be honest and say that I kind of want to keep my options open in case I meet someone next week with even more tattoos of movie monsters. So, I'm just saying that I'm initially yours with an option to re-negotiate at an unspecified date."
"Awww honey...that is so honest. I wish all of my relationships had started like this."
Leave it to the advertising geniuses at Ganz to promote a product using the most literal interpretation of the English language.
I have a feeling they work in conjunction with the fortune cookie people.
I have an old fortune taped to my monitor stand which reads: "You try, you fail. You fail, you try. So where is success?"
Wow. Someone at the cookie factory was on a philosophical tear. Possibly fresh off a promotion rejection.
I got one the other day which read: "All your hard work will soon be paid off."
This one is a bit more subtle. If you just read it quickly it would seem like one of the many predictions of a prosperous life which is accelerated by the consumption of Chinese food.
But it is not saying anything about the outcome of your efforts in the future in relation to how much toil and trouble you implement now. No. It is simply implying that if you have done any work which was completed and not paid in full, just wait a few days before sending out the repo man. The check's in the mail.
And my all time favorite; one that I have framed and hanging on my wall for anyone who does not believe me when I mention it (you'd be surprised how easy it is to slip it into a conversation).
Drum roll please...
"Ignore previous cookie."
Like I said, I have it framed for those who don't believe me.
I think that this little strip of paper says so much in three simple words.
Ignore. Previous. Cookie.
I think what it's trying to say is to not let appearances fool you; that just because it was foretold in words which we understand, doesn't mean that it is bound to happen.
And I'm not saying that the cute tradition at the end of a nice Chinese lunch special holds any real water. It's usually just a throwaway, overused, presage with lucky numbers inscribed on the back.
But it is a tradition and it is a fun part of the meal for someone like me who is a bit superstitious.
I mean, I just can't leave it on the table. I can't, with a clean conscience, walk away from the table, passing up the opportunity for a new and almost always entertaining experience in the form of a two inch by one half inch piece of paper.
That feeling transcends cookies. That feeling permeates my whole being. It is my essence.
It is me.
And it used to be a pretty tricky catch when I was doing all the wrong things.
I'd play the averages. I'd focus only on the positives while letting the negatives sluice through to the furthest reaches of my mind. I would rationalize everything I could and not learn from my mistakes.
I would ignore previous cookie.
Forget what they tell you about some how cultural exchanges sometimes end up getting lost in translation. Inflections speak louder than comprehension.
I travel down south a lot with my band. We play in places that are loud and dark, and when I'm talking to someone with a drawl as thick as marmalade I sometimes have to rely on inflection.
We laugh sometimes because we understand the meaning in the timbre of speech rather than the semantics of sentence composition, distilling the actual meaning a short time later when our brain is a little less overloaded.
We see text in advertising which on the surface looks perfectly acceptable and we make impulse buys neglecting the deeper meaning of the combined letters.
It doesn't matter if it's at the supermarket as you're walking by the beer cooler, or at the pharmacy where you get distracted by the little silver initialed heart shaped boxes. We all sometimes get fooled by how something's presented and forget what we came in for. We all sometimes let our lack of focus outwit our experience.
We all sometimes ignore previous cookie.
I think next time I can't scrape up the cash to send in to my dentist I'll just send the receptionist a note that says:
"Please be sure to inform Dr. ______ that all his hard work will soon be paid off."
In the meantime I'll just take the bill I got in the mail and chuck it in the trash. I mean, who has time to recycle these days?
Well, maybe not. I think someone's watching.
Thanks for reading.
PS: Happy first day of Spring. Open your windows for christ sake.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
What I received was an envelope containing my completion papers from the D.U.I.L. program; the two week, confined, state sanctioned, alcohol education course that I spent two weeks and one Superbowl Sunday at which I will never forget.
It's just about the last thing I need before I can go to the registry and attempt to wrangle my driving rights back from the clutches of the Commonwealth.
It's also somewhat of a report card which gets sent to both me, and my probation officer.
When I was there I encountered three kinds of people.
There were the people like I am now; people who desperately want to change their way of living; people who are asking, begging, and pleading for one more chance to show Massachusetts and the rest of the world that change is indeed possible.
Then there were the people somewhere in the middle who feel like they screwed up and were at the wrong place at the wrong time. They won't quit drinking but they will cut back. They'll probably make it through the 2 years of having a breath device on their car which can detect the slightest bit of alcohol in a person's system. If they fail this device's procedure twice in 30 days, and are deemed by the registry courts to be guilty, they will lose their license for ten years.
Can you say "I'd like a bus pass that's good until two thousand eighteen?"
And of course there were the people who got picked up at 8am on discharge Sunday and were blacked out before the cassette flipped over at the end of side one of Street Survivors.
And each one of these very different type of people got a two page document in the mail.
The first and most important page is the one that says when the program was completed and whether all fees have been paid for.
The second page outlines the person's participation level, their attitude, and their motivation.
It also lists recommended follow up treatment and has a space for comments from each person's individual counselors.
From page 2.
"Mr. Johnson's State of Change appears to be Action" (recovery speak for voluntary abstinence). He has a level of acceptance and willingness to change his drinking and/or drugging behavior and is in the process of taking action to be sober and drug free e.g. A.A. attendance, counseling, etc."
It lists me as exhibiting "above average" participation. Having a "positive" attitude. And having "High" motivation. This last evaluation point, my Aunt pointed out, is quite an ironic choice of words.
She's a funny lady.
Page two goes on to say: "Mr. Johnson would benefit from continued addiction education and treatment, individual and or group counseling and obtainment of a self-help support system."
Fair enough. But I have a feeling my counselor doesn't know exactly how deep I've been digging in my psyche, how many people I've been sharing it with, and what the general consensus has been from my peers.
When people who engage in excessive substance abuse start to listen to the inevitable screaming in their head and start to open the door even a crack to the possibility of cessation, there are the usual fears.
"How will I be able to hang out with my friends if they are using?"
"Will I become somebody I don't recognize and will I like that person?"
"Will I be able to enjoy myself in situations where I have always used my vices to feel comfortable?"
And of course, "Does it make a damn bit of difference to me or anyone for that matter?"
This last point is rhetorical of course, but I have to say I asked myself the question over and over and over again.
It's so easy to be a nihilist in the age we live in.
It's also very easy to excuse yourself from the table of life, go to your room, and slowly rot out your insides utill the alarm goes off. Especially if nobody cares, as it were.
But people do care.
People who you may not even know. People who know you by your reputation only. People who you may have knocked over on your way down the stairs at a party. And when I say "down the stairs" I don't mean that you meant to go that direction. But such is gravity.
People who paid money to see your band play and then wished they had spent it on a movie. Even a bad one.
"Some nights this guy is really on, but you never can be sure what kind of show you're going to get. Let's get outta here. I think they're doing karaoke at the bar down the street."
Hmm...I hate those kind of performers. Amateurs.
People who may have seen you make an enormous mess in a house that you didn't live at and witness you acting like it is the hands down funniest thing that has ever, or will ever happen in the known universe.
Like I did.
I have to admit that I probably wouldn't have gotten to this story, if at all, if it hadn't been for my friend and musical brother in the resistance, Mark Schwaber.
Mark is an amazing all around musician. Singing, songwriting, guitar playing, bass playing, you name it this guy can do it and do it well.
Mark and I came up in this same music scene over the last 18 or so years. We've seen each other on different stages as well as in varying stages of consciousness. I want to say we had drinking contests but that would be too easy.
We ran record breaking sprints to blackout. Coach was always so proud of us.
Yeah, it sounds like fun I know.
He listened to those screams in his head a bit earlier then I did; about 6 years earlier.
I remember what I thought the day I heard he had quit.
"Wow, Mark Schwaber, on the wagon. Well, it happens to the best of us. All in good time, I suppose."
And I drank a pint in his honor.
And then I went to the bar.
But we shared many nights drinking, laughing, drinking some more and falling down.
I'll let Mark tell this part of the story.
This is from his most enjoyable "Feedback" blog on Mass live which is part of the local newspaper online section. The setup for the story is that Mark's band Hospital had just finished opening for local heroes Sebadoh and we were all at the after party.
Take it away, Mr. Schwaber:
At some point a gigantic bag of popcorn was gently tossed against a wall. Still sealed. And as anyone that has drank from 6PM 'til 2AM can testify, it was beckoning us to eat it. Problem was, no one could open it. It was huge. I mean huge. It had to stand at four feet. It was one of those COSCO type things.
After a good three minutes (that felt like an hour) Mr. Johnson decided to interrupt the delicate popcorn purveyors and injected a bit of instant hilarity. Following a barbaric Yolp! I noticed that Freddy had lifted the giant bag over his head and with one swift motion of both arms he ripped the bag in two. Sending its contents throughout the dining room that a few of us were huddled within. The popcorn hit every wall in the room. And most comedically, at least one hundred kernels were suspiciously stuck to Mr. Johnson's dreadlocks. He looked like the world's only rock and roll popcorn tree.
Throughout the next few hours, I essentially made a meal out of it. Never eating a single kernel from anywhere other than Alex's hair. While I'm pretty sure he knew I was doing it, he remained silent to the act. It drew some quizzical looks from the onlookers, but hell, I've never been out to gain anyone's approval.
So as the hours passed, and the crowd dwindled to thirty or so, I once again took a little snack from the few remaining kernels that AJ's dreads donned. Finally he acknowledges it. His head slowly turns. His eyes glazed, but knowing. Most would laugh. But not AJ. His face was the poster child for deadpan.
"Will that be all?"
"Yeah, I'm good." I responded, as if I was the customer looking for a check from the waiter.
Without missing a beat, or casting a smile, the incredible comedic timing of Alex rears its head.
"That will be $4.99. You can pay at the register."
It's a damn good thing that some people back in the 90's carried expensive camera equipment to after hours parties.
I mean, when something like this happens, you just have to get a picture almost immediately right?
I love the one kernel in freefall. Freaking Pulitzer prize winning stuff there.
An even more amazing part of this story is that I was initially not allowed to enter the club that night to see Mark's band, Hospital, or Sebadoh play.
The club owner was at the door and he took one look at me and told me to go home.
He said: "Go home and sober up and come back in a couple of hours."
I even got Jason, the bass player of Sebadoh, to try and talk his way into letting me in. And I barely even knew the guy. He tried it and it didn't work.
So I went back to the Market St. house and drank some whiskey and tried it again.
I don't know why or who was looking out for me that night but he let my sorry drunk-ass in.
But it's now almost ten years later.
A lot of people have begun to look at me in strange and unfamiliar ways.
They tell me how they feel about things that I have done. That always used to scare the living piss out of me.
I hear it from my friends, I hear it from my family, and I hear it from strangers.
I heard it today while I was shopping at the market for pork chops and chocolate bon bons.
"Love your blog Al. Keep up the great work. You have a special talent and it's a pleasure to read your stuff."
So, when the counselors write things like, "Mr. Johnson would benefit from continued addiction education and treatment...and obtainment of a self-help support system."
I think they don't know me as well as they should.
Because if they did, they'd know that I already am benefiting from exactly that.
And I've got it in spades.
But it would be really difficult to get you all to come to the registry with me on Thursday.
So I'll just let you know how it goes.
A big thanks, of course, to Mr. Mark Schwaber. You can find the links to his "Feedback" column as well as his website at the end of this page. And a special thank you to Alexis Doshas whose info you can find there as well.
Oh, and I have another important story which he figures prominently in. But I'll save that for a date in the not too distant future. It's a good one, I can assure you. I'll get to it soon enough.
All in good time.
Thanks for reading.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
The skies are very much alive these days.
All you have to do is pay cursory attention to the outdoors to see and hear it.
"Honk, honk, hee-onk, hee-onk, honk, honk, hee-onk..."
And they fly overhead.
Geese. Lots of them.
If my environmental clock is right they're heading back home to Canada.
I don't blame them. It's more peaceful up there and their money's worth more than ours.
I've always loved how birds traveling in large groups fly in "V" formation. It's so civil and intelligent. One bird helping the next, helping the next, helping each other stay together, stay healthy, safe, and strong.
Nature's inventions are all around us constantly. If one took the time to look around at our world, it would appear as if the Discovery channel was making a special year round documentary. "TV imitates science" with your host Freddy Freedom. Now with limited commercial interruptions.
In fact, I just found out that not only does flying in the "V" formation double the birds efficiency, but when one of them gets tired, it allows for them to fall back to the end of the skein to pantingly cheer on his brethren while spreading flight fatigue equally among the flock members. The recently demoted captain may not be able to take the helm and lead the group forward, but it has another equally important job just like the rest of them: morale booster.
It's why they honk.
I mean, it's such a practical solution; so smart, so ingenious, and so simple that it's hard to believe it's merely instinctual. If it was a technique we as humans could possess we would never just leave it as is. No, if it were us, it would be researched, fended out to focus groups, touted in instructional DVD's and hyped in ads in every magazine so we could make millions on accessories.
But our brains are too big and sometimes we believe that the simplest of solutions are the result of hours of hard work which we would never do on our own. It's so logical that it baffles us to no end.
Right over our heads as it were.
I remember making my first funnel.
I had just started college at Southeastern Mass. University in North Dartmouth. It was 1989 and I was still underage. But I was going to school and although the school was hardly party central, it did have its share of bashes at the dorms.
And to attend one of these bashes in the accepted manner entailed having your own funnel. I have heard them called "beer bongs" in other parts of the country, but where I'm from we just called them funnels.
I mean, it has the word "fun" right in it. It's perfect.
Making a funnel was almost as simple as it sounds. You need a funnel and you need about two feet of PVC tubing.
Oh, and you need beer. Lots of beer.
You connect the two parts tightly together, pour a beer in the funnel making sure to keep the tube balanced so the beer stays within its clear confines, put the open end in your mouth, quickly raise it above your head and open your throat. A few glugs and gag reflexes later and amazingly you've just downed 12 ounces of Old Milwaukee in a matter of about 4 seconds.
I can remember it as if it was yesterday, shopping at the hardware section of Ann and Hope department store near the North Dartmouth Mall, walking around and picking up one of the many sized funnels which were available for sale, holding it in my hand, hefting it for no real reason and picturing the beer swirling around waiting to become one with my insides. I even held it over my head for visual measurements.
And then you pick your color, red or blue. It's such a hard question but I believe I went with red.
Then the really hard part; getting the right size tubing. Now, I knew it wasn't illegal to have this device but I still felt strange when the smocked stocker came by and asked me if I needed help.
"No thanks. I think I have what I need."
And then I spent the better part of an hour whittling the tube down so it would fit properly.
I sort of remember the parties I went to back then. I mean, I remember them better than some of the ones I hosted when I lived at the famous Market St. house back in the 90’s. Those were the days I was busy perfecting the underrated look of Goodwill formal wear paired with bleached orange dreadlocks.
I remember playing along with some random 20 year old drunk kid who was convinced that I was Adam Duritz from the Counting Crows. Who was I to tell him differently? He was just a drunk college kid and he was way psyched.
"Wow, I had no idea you lived right here in Northampton." He said.
"Yeah, it's pretty low key. I like slumming when I'm not on the road staying at the Four Seasons," I explained, "That rock and roll lifestyle gets old really fast."
"Wow! I bet. I can't fucking believe this," He said, "I love you guys. I've seen you at least 10 times. Hey, I gotta get my girlfriend and introduce her to you. She's never gonna believe this."
And, of course, she didn't.
"Can you please tell my boyfriend you're not really that guy from the Counting Crows?" She pleaded. "He's all freaked out and he won't stop talking about it."
I took a glance into the living room/casino and saw him yelling in someone's ear, gesturing wildly, and making the universal "dreadlocks" sign by pulling your fists down the sides of your head as if you were pulling a rope over it.
"Um...no," I said, "If he's happy believing that Grammy nominee Adam Duritz is living in a decrepit party house hosting his own kegger with Michelob in plastic red cups and a Yorx stereo system, then what's to say he's going to believe me if I try to tell him who I really am. Deal with it. I made his freakin' day. You should thank me."
And, of course, she didn't.
Hmmm...maybe I remember those days a bit better than I thought.
The great thing about the old college parties that changed a bit as I got older was the camaraderie of excess; the group mentality; the challenge to stay conscious and stay moving, drinking more and more, faster and faster, until you were basically letting gravity and instinct decide your next body motion. And if you had to stop and rest for fear of vomiting the precious foamy gold, you could drop back to the end of the line of madmen and women. You could take a rest and try and suppress the gag reflexes that were strangely becoming easier and easier to control. You could lean on a novelty footstool that was in the shape of a giant foot and you could hold your head and rub your eyes. You weren't going home. You knew that much. And this dorm room was definitely off limits. You had to make it back to your buddies place. But right now, there was a bunch of people doing funnels in the corner and you've got to show your support. You've got to root on your peers.
"Chug, chug, chug, chug, chug."
"Wake up man. This isn't your room."
"Hey. I said wake the fuck up and get out of here. I need this bedroom. And you just puked in the corner. Nice going asshole."
I woke up that morning in the student lot between two parked cars, neither of them mine and neither one of them occupied thank god. I rolled over on what felt like a curved broomstick. It had a red plastic top on it. And as I brushed the gravel off my face and checked for blood I felt the sharp pain crash around in my head like an electrical storm. I rolled up my funnel and stuffed the tube end under my shirt.
I had spent the better part of an hour whittling that tube down so it would fit properly. I was going to definitely need it next weekend.
My best friend and bandmate Steve and I have a new tradition.
When we were in France in December, I was on a quest for Foie Gras. I had seen a special on French television and knew it was a delicacy. Some call it animal cruelty the way they force feed the geese to fatten their liver. The indispensable organ becomes massive from the grain which is crammed down their throat via mechanical feed tubes. It is cooked, seasoned, and served in a square the size of a slice of bread with a small pile of coarse ground salt, a bit of chopped gelatin, some hot whole grain toast and spicy mustard.
It was good but not great. In the middle of the meal I said to Steve:
"Hey Steve, how about we call this your birthday meal" (as he had ordered it as well and his birthday was less than a month away).
He looked at me and I could see his eyes vibrating trying to think of a way to say no that was polite.
He said, "OK, but when it's your birthday, I'm going to take you out to a place I want to go to. And you're going to have to order something that I've been dying to try...OK?"
And of course I said OK, because it is a fantastic and unique tradition. And tradition is what keeps the living world from extinction. It gives us something to look forward to. It gives us a destination.
There go those geese again. Man, they sure do make a lot of noise when they get together.
Thanks for reading.
Happy St. Patrick's Day.