Sunday, April 27, 2008

Day one hundred and eighteen ... Trading up.

I spent a lot of time in Newport, Rhode Island growing up.

My Uncle Alex spent most of his life in the Navy. He lived, for a few years, in a home on the Newport Naval base with my Aunt Norma and my two cousins, Dirk and Heather, both three and six years older than me, respectively.

In 1980, their house was where my mother picked me up in her green Volvo, and told me that my grandmother had died. I was 10.

I have only once cried more exhaustively than that day, and that was when I was told that my mother had passed. I was 37.

It was Newport where, as a teenager, I worked at Almacs Supermarket in the dairy department, stocking the shelves with milk, cheese, eggs, yogurt, butter and other sundry dairy products. I remember the spoiled, fetid, stench that accompanied each walk back towards the dumpster. In the summer, the air around it was cloudy with flies and hummed with an almost ecstatic buzz. I remember the crusty, whitish, film which would coat my hands as I secured hundreds of color topped containers of milk in their proper position in the cooler, working from the inside out, like a bowling pin setter. It was bittersweet relief from the summer sun outside.
Dark, damp, cool and alive.

It wasn't a bad summer job, but it was still a job.

Occasionally, I'd get carry-out detail. This was an exciting opportunity to make some extra cash. The carry-out boy would bring the bags of groceries from the end of the register to the wheel- laced conveyor belt. The belt stretched along the inside front of the entrance and snaked its way out a small doorway and around to the outside of the building. The carry-out boy would have to make sure the bags made it down the line and outdoors, not far from the yellow painted curb. Then, as the tanned, trimmed, and tailored Newport clientele pulled up in their luxury cars, the carry-out boy would load up their purchases, carefully and quickly. The bags would go either in the trunk or the back seat or both. Then, one would smile and wait patiently in hopes of a gratuity.

Many tipped, just as many did not.

I find the inside of the trunk of a person's car to be very revealing. Some people keep them immaculate: possibly a sign of defiance from a life lived amidst mountains of indispensable memories. Others, couldn't fit a Frisbee on top from years of hording. It sometimes didn't stop the latter from opening their trunk, just in case there was room.

People are so strange.

So, a smile, some elbow grease, and some non-invasive small talk could earn a hardworking 16 year old carry-out boy an extra five bucks on occasion. Five bucks was a lot back in 1986. Now it won't even get you two gallons of gas.

A couple of years later, F. Alex Johnson would become the proud owner of a fake I.D. which he bought from a mail-order service that several of his classmates had discovered.

I remember going to the camera store to have the passport size photo taken. I wore a dark green, cashmere sweater with a white button-down shirt underneath. Gotta look the part, right?

Of course you do.

I sent that photo, $40, and a copy of my signature to a company in Bozeman, Montana. A few agonizing weeks later, my "Non-Government Issue Identification Card" arrived in the mail. The paperwork I had to fill out stated that the I.D. card would be stamped, "Non Government Issue" in "red, indelible ink."

When I received the card on an unforgettably glorious day in 1987, I immediately took a cotton swab, dipped it in alcohol, and gently wiped away the telltale "red, indelible ink" as I was instructed to do by the other nervous 17 year olds who were already in possession of the magical, laminated rectangle.

I was good to go, as it were.

Alex Johnson, from Milford, CT, D.O.B. 05/09/1966 was ready to enter the world of the legal adult.

This stuff writes itself. I mean, really. It all makes perfect sense when you think about it.

One day, after a particularly grueling shift hauling milk crates stacked on shaky dollies, I decided to try my new accessory.

I found the bar: a nice bar, an old bar, a bar with music blaring out of the doorway which I had passed on many a lunch break: a room which was very off limits to this 17 year old schoolteacher's son.

Until now.

"I.D. ?"

"Um ... (fumbling with my wallet) ... here you go ... "

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-one ..."

And the doorman stared at it. And he stared at me. And then back to the card. And then he said ...

"... O.K. have a good one."

And so, another extremely important piece of this puzzle was placed along the edges. A corner piece that made me feel like a king: a very paranoid, very overwhelmed, very recently appointed king. A king who needed ... no ... who wanted a drink.

The need was far in the future. For now, it was merely a desire.

To that end, thank goodness for frozen mudslides. I can taste that Kahlua, vodka, Bailey's, and ice cream as sure as I can breathe. It is my turning point. It is my starting gun. It is my jump from the nest.

I, Alex Johnson, from Milford, CT, D.O.B. 05/09/1966, in the confines of a very exciting, very historic, Thames Avenue bar, was an adult.

I even wore that same dark green, cashmere sweater with a white button-down shirt underneath to the club that first time just so it would seem more authentic. Gotta look the part, right?

Of course you do.

Today, twenty years later, I returned to work in Newport, RI. My job today wasn't to stock a supermarket's shelves with dairy products, or carry bags of groceries to waiting Aston-Martins.

No, my job was to play guitar.

It's what I do.

So, at 9 this morning, I strapped my guitar gig-bag on my back, threw my travel bag over my shoulder, hopped on my bike and rode the half a mile to the Clarion Hotel in Northampton, where we traditionally meet before departing on a trip.

I was the last one there, rolling up on my 7 speed.

Needless to say, I got a grand ovation upon my entrance.

"All right, Freddy!"

9:00 - 11:30 am: The ride went by quickly, and two and a half hours later and we were in Newport pulling up to the Jane Pickens Theater and Event Center.

We were greeted and given delightful tote bags filled with a box lunch and some other Newport specific goodies.

12:30-1:30 pm:

Time for a quick rehearsal on stage.

Ken Maiuri, Billy Arnold Jim Armenti, and I were placed in close quarters here up front. Dan Richardson and John Laprade worked from early in the morning to get both the sound, and the lighting just right.

The lovely, talented, and ever-so-patient Diane Porcella gave us the rundown of the rest of the day's events.

As it turned out, we were given some down time. I took a walk outside.

Once again, the line stretches down the block. It is quite entertaining for me to see the big ol' bus waiting. It's so rock and roll.

2:00 pm: The place filled up quick and many purchased the freshly popped popcorn that had perfumed the whole theater.

I mean, who doesn't love popcorn?

Meanwhile, the chorus was treated to a bus tour of Newport's many mansions. Steve, and myself had to stay and take care of the merchandise so we got to see the movie. I hadn't actually seen the final edit of the film. It was surreal to see such familiar people and places in such gigantic proportions. Much laughter, applause after certain songs (strange for any film), and tears wiped away conspicuously from many around us left me feeling confident that I was not alone in holding this documentary in high regard.

We set up and waited for the performers to get on stage. The director of the theater said a few words and then the chorus was introduced ...

... which prompted the first of several standing ovations we enjoyed that day.

4:30-5:30 The chorus put on a spectacular show. Brief, concise, powerful, and alive. The Young at Heart Chorus is getting better and better with each show.

Above-the view from where I sat.

And before we knew it, it was time to go to the reception.

5:45-7pm: We packed up and headed up the street to the Vanderbilt Hotel where there was a meet and greet in our honor. $100 got you a reserved seat, a few appetizers, and the chance to catch a little face time with a chorus member or two.

7:00-8:00: After that it was down a flight of stairs for dinner.

Chicken noodle soup, chop salad, beef tenderloin, mashed with gravy, gnocchi, wild rice pilaf, and sole stuffed with crab meat and lobster made for a relaxing, sleep inducing ride back on the bus.

The director of the theater had given Steve a case of Stella Artois, Belgian Ale. This was shared with whoever cared to have some. It did not bother me in the slightest.

At 10:15 we arrived back home, safe and sound.

This is my life now.

I've given up the days of pouring sour milk down the sewer and trying to stave off the inevitable swarm of flies, for pouring my heart and soul into my music. I've traded helping customers get their bags of groceries in their cars, for helping my extended family get their luggage where it needs to go at the airport. I've traded in feeling awkward in a cramped bar I shouldn't be in, for standing ovations in a theater that rolls out the red carpet for me and my group.

And I've traded my fake I.D. for a "Government Issue" passport. As for that "indelible ink," it now reminds me of the places I've been to, not the places I'm trying to get in.

These days, no longer am I the kid trying to prove he is old enough to hang out with the adults.

I am one.

Thanks for reading,


1 comment:

Scott Brodeur said...

Great post, Alex. I, too, was a supermarket shelf-stocker and carry-out boy (as well as a cartboy and finally cashier) when I was in high school. Good stuff and funny memories to think about now.

I'm happy to see this tour is so successful and rewarding. It is fun to read about from back here in Northampton.

Continued good luck!