Insensible Cities

Three Places in New England, and One in New York

It was a long run: four consecutive days of ninety-minute sets bookended by two twenty-four-hour drives, the most miles I’ve yet logged in a single outing with my new boss, country singer Randy Houser. This sounds like a light load when compared to how other genres tour: rock acts, for instance, go out for weeks at a time, hitting all their fan bases at once before coming home to hibernate. Country music, not so. Country touring has the regularity of a day job but in photo-negative: the shifts start when the sun goes down and the weekends start on Mondays. You’d think this kind of scheduling would mitigate the chaos of travel, but consider the context: when you’re gone for six weeks or more, you have the time to assimilate into the rhythm of your moving environment; when you’re gone for four to six days at a time you must negotiate a compromise between your home routine and the way of the wheels. Country touring is clock-in culture at its most nomadic. Each night begins the long commute to the next office, and each morning begins the day-long smoke break until the cards are punched at the downbeat of the show. You’re neither here nor there, home nor away—only on or off. Mostly off.

Thursday, Salisbury, MA: Blue Ocean Music Hall

“Sand, teenagers, fat people… Hey, it’s a beach!” reads the billboard in my mind when I think of how to advertise for this curious mash-up of Atlantic City and the stereotypical podunk. Throw in two-dollar slices of pizza and some Kennedy-an accents (I recommend kuh-NEE’-dee-uhn), and you’ve got a great reason to binge drink. I recently changed the tuning of my bass guitar (Bb-Eb-Ab-Db), so in order to stay focused I limited myself to just one red Solo cup of iced Jack Daniels before performing. I am a professional, and that means knowing the zone. Drink too little, I look like a rookie; drink too much, I look like a pink slip. (I sound the same either way.)

The crowd was small but enthusiastic, and it included a sexy blond girl in nothing but a black tank top and Jägermeister panties. She introduced herself to me outside the bus after the show, which produced a serious dilemma: do I end this drought of sexual activity, or do I finish watching El Heat beat the Thunder in the NBA Finals? I chose the latter of course, but upon stepping off the bus in good spirits, I found that my girl had stuck around. This kind of thing happens frequently, almost daily, but I rarely engage in such pursuits as my feelings on the prospect of sex normally range from indifference to nausea, depending on my level of sobriety. But this young woman had something—a sweetness, an innocence—that won my attention, and I wanted to feel her close to me.

She and her friend offered to buy me a slice of pizza. Okay, but how about a drink instead? Alas, she’s old enough to wear panties in public, but not old enough to drink. Ah, pizza it is. So we dined and conversed at a table on the boardwalk, the three of us, my hand harmlessly exploring the shapes of my new friend’s body, the small of her back, her thigh next to mine.

“Guess how old I am.”

I removed my hand from her body and proceeded to guess wrong several times. Oops. The young lady’s friend, an older sister type much closer to my age, delighted in my embarrassment. Aw, he doesn’t like me anymore. Sure I do, honey, I just feel guilty for letting you pay for my food. So crusty old Hesiod and the girls continued chatting away in the night’s sea breeze, and then he saw them back to their vehicle, and left her with a kiss goodnight.

Friday, Portland, ME: Asylum

All over this country there are pockets of communities where the fashionable and weak-minded coagulate into their own little Brooklyn, an institution founded on Ray-Bans and insufferable pretension. These places include East Nashville (read all about it in the New York Times), downtown Portland (this one, not THAT one), and any proprietorship with track lighting and/or specials written in chalk. I’m not complaining, mind you. So long as I can make it in and out of these places without talking to anyone, I can get some good used book shopping done without triggering my gag reflex.

While looking over my purchased acquisitions (mostly history books) in a boutique coffee shop, I overheard two attractive hipster-chicks discussing their plans for the evening. I asked them if they were interested in seeing a country music show, but the one with the most tattoos responded abruptly:

“Hell no! We like good music.”

“Good music?” I said. “That went out of style decades ago.”

“I’m sorry,” the lesser-tattooed one said. “We’re just not into that sort of thing.”

“That’s too bad,” I feigned a deeper Southern accent. “Do y’all happen to know where I can find the biggest bottle of crab shampoo around here?”

“Try looking up your ass,” said the hostile one, while the lesser-tattooed one stood up to leave.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “That’s where I keep my keys.”

“We really have to go,” said the lesser-tattooed one.

“If you see him, tell Bon Iver to stop calling me. He thinks I can’t recognize his heavy breathing, but I know it’s him.”

Saturday, Oneonta, NY: Oneonta Theater

Might as well just skip to the strip club here. In my life, I’ve only twice patronized a club with exotic dancers. The first was when I was eighteen, and it was a place in Florida called 2001, A Sex Odyssey. My friends bought me a lap dance, and the lady touched my penis. The second time was by accident a couple years ago in Milwaukee: one of the roadies had recommended a “nice dinner at Walter’s.” Worst ribeye ever.

Normally I don’t have the stomach for the type of place whose business model involves pole-dancing, but the Novelty Lounge (nice name, huh?) drew me in for several reasons: it was only a block away from the place we were playing; it was on Main Street between a bookstore and a trendy clothing shop, ironically smack dab in the middle of a classy, small town downtown; it boasted two-dollar drafts and no cover charge. My interest was solely anthropological.

But these are sad establishments, most workers attempting to support both their own children and an addiction to smoking methamphetamine, the younger ones moving frenetically between songs to change the iPod, breaking up the awkward silence with the sound of their own coughing, the older ones not smiling in order to hide their rotting teeth, all topless, exposed and dying, like a salted slug writhing up and down a golden phallus.

The dancers occasionally played a game kinda like carnival basketball: the object was to toss a crumpled dollar bill into the front of the dancer’s g-string, quite literally to throw cash at a vagina. The saucier (younger) ones tended to show a bit more than they were supposed to, clearly an attempt to distract the shooter from making an accurate shot, but I’m Lebron James-clutch, and I ain’t talking about 2011 Lebron. I took a breath, aimed, and fired. Nothing but mutual sadness.

Sunday, Keene, NH: Colonial Theater

A lazy Sunday spent drinking coffee and reading Aristophanes. Perhaps inspired by the great curmudgeon of Old Comedy, I approached a teenaged dude with skinny jeans, thick-rimmed glasses, and gauged plugs in his earlobes.

“I couldn’t help but notice you’re reading Steppenwolf,” said I, the Southern man with the stout muttonchops.

“Yeah,” said the little shit, skeptical of my accent and cocked baseball cap.

“If you’re like me, you may become disillusioned with the writing of Hermann Hesse. Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, and even Narcissus and Goldmund… he gets awfully ham-fisted with his spiritual agenda. But he gets it right on his final book, The Glass Bead Game, or, Magister Ludi. I recommend that one.”

“I doubt I’m like you at all. I’d rather stick with the deep ones that don’t appeal to the masses.”

I deserved it, this stalemate. I could tell you I only wanted to guide this young man’s taste toward more substantial waters, but that would be a lie. The only reason I approached him in the first place was to point out his immaturity, to slap his brain around a bit, to steal his intellectual milk money. Why? Because I was tired and I wanted to go home, home to my stuff and my bed that doesn’t move. Fuck you, kid, and your whole table of young people too stupid to acknowledge proper condescension.

I consoled myself with ice cream, cookies and cream. Fanatically licking the sticky cone, I waddled down the sidewalk, pouting at each fresh-cut lawn, dreaming of a mortgage of my own and neighbors’ kids to sneer at.

Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.