Sunday, January 13, 2013

Road Stories: Cowgirls and Illinoisans

We were having a much too long discussion recently on an old roadie forum trying to identify various mustachioed youngsters in an old photograph, when my old roadie friend Jim made a comment comparing me to my old roadie friend Kevin, with the implication that we not only "favored," as they used to say in Texas, but that we were more or less interchangeable. I initially found this to be a ridiculous statement, since Kevin was a Chicago street kid about half my size, very high energy, and so cute that we tried not to have him around when we were trying to meet women. He also climbed like a monkey, which was a definite plus in our line of work. I was a lumbering, laid back, shy Southern boy with no real street smarts and a fear of heights. But then, as with pretty much anything anyone says to me ever, I was reminded of a story. Or at least a fragment of a story.

This is part of the lighting rig for the Hong Kong Trade Show, at that time billed as the largest fashion show in the world. It's also where I learned that many models really are as dumb as they are portrayed on TV. Some are even dumber. I'm seated third from the left, rocking the flannel shirt and three stripe Adidas. My roommate is on the far right, sporting the Quaker beard. As far as I recall, he never threw away a single piece of trash in our apartment. I should probably look for him on Hoarders.

Lighting roadies really didn't meet a lot of women on the road, or do much of anything else, really. We started work too early and stayed too late. The occasions when we managed to grab a slice of normal life -- a cookout at someone's friend's house on Lake Michigan, or a round of golf at Pine Knob -- shine much brighter in our memories than the endless shows and hotel rooms.

I found myself in Arizona once (Tempe, I think) with that rarest of road holidays, the day off with no travel. I don't remember exactly where we met Cowgirl and her friend. I think she may have been working at whatever bar and grill we wandered into. What followed was one of the most pleasant and comfortable twenty-four hour periods of my young life. We spent most of the day riding horses through the desert. She made a home-cooked meal. There was napping.* In short, we really hit it off. So much so that I kept her address, and promised to call on my next trip through.

Instead, it was Kevin who called on his next trip through. They apparently hit it off as well, because he left the road before too long to join her in the desert. They ended up married with children. They were an unlikely couple, but perfect for each other in many ways. Maybe we were more interchangeable than I thought.

It's probably impossible to adequately describe the culture that allowed Kevin to ask me for Cowgirl's number, and for me to give it to him, without an impact on our friendship. Frankly, it's hard for me to understand it myself, from this far removed. But I'm confident that it wasn't a matter of devaluing or objectifying women, at least not in this case. I saw Cowgirl as more of a friend and peer than any sort of sex object. He was looking for one of those slivers of real life on the road, and I thought they would enjoy each other's company. Plus, he had never been on a horse, and everyone should ride a horse at least once. I think it was more a matter of devaluing sex. And it cut both ways.

For example, when my roommate's girlfriend drove from Oklahoma one weekend for a surprise visit, only to discover that he was on the road, she seemed determined not to return empty handed ... or, whatever. So we drank some tequila, she pierced my ear, and we passed a very pleasant thirty-six hours until she had to drive home. No one felt particularly guilty, and we never spoke of it afterwards.

It seems that while Kevin and I may have been somewhat fungible, those years really are not like any others, and not just because they were the years I was young. It really was a different time, the full flower of the cultural experiment begun in the 1960's, right before it collapsed into the Reagan years, and the resurgence of traditional values. A better time? Maybe not. But definitely a great time to be young.

* It is almost impossible to overstate the pleasure of an afternoon nap to the chronically sleep deprived.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The melting pot

It's been a pretty good New Year's holiday, considering I'm still intermittently clocking a hundred point something fever, and if I cough one more time I'm afraid the top of my head will come off. But at least I don't feel like my skin is icy-hot anymore, or that I'm going to need a double hip replacement before the day is out.  And my sense of taste is coming back, though that can be a mixed blessing with the stuff that's being manufactured in my head and chest. Hopefully, I'm also making a little more sense. The weekend is a bit of a blur, but I would be willing to bet that little of what I said was worth writing down.

Once again faced with the biennial 1500 mile Christmas tour, Biscuit and I decided that longer stays weren't going to make the drive any shorter, so we scheduled two nights at each homestead for a total of five days away. It ended up being only four.

All went pretty much as expected at Biscuit's parents' house. Many treats and goodies were eaten, relatives' health issues discussed, Christmas Eve candlelight service was attended, and the latest project presented for consideration. Biscuit's father is a tinkerer on a scale which typically only mad scientists approach, and a visit to the shop out back is a high point of every visit. It was sometime Monday afternoon when the weather entered my consciousness.

I had checked the forecast around 700 times before we left, because I'm a middle-aged man and that's what we do. Apart from some possible light showers on our Christmas Day drive from Biscuit's homestead to my mother's house, it seemed like clear sailing, and even a little milder than usual. But by Christmas Eve, a monster storm had appeared from nowhere and was predicted to cross our path the next day*. Luckily, it looked like we would be driving well ahead of the storm, and safely at my mother's before we saw more than cold drizzle, whatever was going to happen.

Well, "whatever" turned out to be the largest snowfall since I was in elementary school**, over a foundation of a daylong rain and an inch or so of ice. We arrived at my mother's in plenty of time for Christmas dinner, since they were predictably two hours late (and losing ground) on preparations when we arrived at mealtime. We had a lovely meal, my mother gave her annual tearful speech on how special it was to have the whole family together, and everyone got home (just barely) before the roads became impassable.

Many people in my hometown are rethinking the whole "dreaming of a white Christmas" idea. The trees on the right are normally taller than the house, but are bent almost flat by the snow load.  Everyone in my family got power back on the fourth day, which is quite good by hurricane standards. Of course, after a hurricane we typically don't have to worry about freezing to death.

Little Rock is a city of steep hills and many trees. On Boxing Day morning it was also a city largely without electricity, nine inches of snow and ice on the streets, and exactly four snow plows. Since only one of my siblings had electricity (and heat), and since his house has four fewer than the six bedrooms required to put up the family, we decided that home was the better part of valor, arranged for my brother to fetch my mother, and we set off for our own blessedly electrified house. We had to shovel our way out of my mother's cul de sac, but after that we had no real problems getting home.

We observed another tradition of this trip, which is that one of us bring home a cold or the flu. This year was my turn. Probably because I dared to enter a church. I started to feel that nagging rawness at the back of my throat on the drive home on Wednesday, and by Thursday night I was feverish and unable to sleep. I've spent most of the last week tossing and turning on various horizontal surfaces around the house, coughing, and browsing for things on the Internet that I immediately forget having seen. But one or two things have managed to stick in my frying brain.

The diversity of New Year's traditions listed by my FB friends over the last couple of days reminded me that the American Culture many of us were raised to believe in is a myth, or at least a subculture made up of a dwindling -- if influential -- minority. Television would have us believe that we all party hearty on the Eve, and then watch football and make resolutions all the next day. I know millions of people do that -- I have been one on occasion -- but it may not be as common as some people at Disney or NewsCorp would have us think. I know a lot of people with different ideas on how to commemorate the turning of the year. Many African Americans pile into churches on New Year's Eve to hear the Emancipation Proclamation read aloud -- a tradition considerably older than college bowl games. Most Southerners that I know share the tradition of eating black-eyed peas for luck on New Year's Day, but the details of the meal vary widely from region to region, and even family to family. (We had black-eyed pea hummus (my first attempt), coleslaw with Greek salad dressing, and Mediterranean pork tenderloin.***)

I'm not really sure what I'm trying to say here, except that when I was a kid we heard a lot about America as the melting pot of different cultures and traditions. We celebrated the diversity of our origins, but assumed that all of the pieces would merge into some homogeneous American fondue. A great many people still believe in this vision, and more than a few of them think we have enough different flavors already. In truth, I think the United States is more of a stew pot. The flavors blend, but individual chunks remain. It's the partial blending that gives the dish its richness. Damn, now I want stew.

In any case, Happy New Year Internet Friends, however you celebrate. And whatever your hopes and dreams may be for this year, I hope enough of them come true to make this your best year yet.

* I'm not sure when was the last time I saw local television weather-casters so confused by a storm. They had essentially predicted somewhere between zero and ten inches of snow for Biscuit's parents, with the promise that they would have a better idea "tomorrow", which was of course the day the storm arrived.

** When we still didn't know what the Moon was made of.

*** In Southern Louisiana the tradition tends to go black-eyed peas for luck, cabbage for money, and pork for good health.