I am appalled and amazed that it’s been over a year since my last newsletter. What originally was intended to be a monthly journal has become an onus that I dread lifting. It need not be so, for I find that once I get going I rather enjoy myself. True, I do put some effort into my updates, but the newsletter is a chance to divest myself of much more than a fleeting peeve I might have with some club like, say, The Grog, a place where the sun never shines, where all good things wither on the vine, where excellence is sneered at while mediocrity is exalted, except, of course, on every Sunday night when Parker Wheeler takes over and the Grog is briefly purged of another week’s accumulation of scum.
Where was I? Oh yeah. The newsletter. OK, here we go:
In bars I generally don’t do encores. Sometimes I’m asked why not. In answer I offer the following anecdote:
One Friday I played with my trio at the Dolphin Striker in Portsmouth. We were supposed to start at 9:30 so at 6:30 I started loading my amp and PA system into the car. By 7:00 I was on the road. I drove for an hour and a half, arrived at 8:30, and loaded into the club. Then I drove around the till I found a parking place.
I walked back to the club & set up the PA. I worked right up until 9:30. It was now time to start playing. We played three sets. At 12:30 we stopped. I took off my bass and turned off my amp. I sat down on my amp and put my head in my hands for a moment. The drunks were shouting for more. One bellow rose above the din: IS THAT ALL YOU GOT?! I ignored it and began to strike the equipment.
It took about half an hour to break everything down. Now it was one o’clock and the stragglers were getting the boot. I went outside, walked a couple blocks to my car, and drove it back to the club. I loaded everything back into the car which took about six trips. Now it was 1:45.
I sat down at the bar and took a 15 minute breather. It was just me and two bartenders. A nice little break.
At 2:00 I hit the road, drove for another hour and a half, and got home at 3:30. I relieved the dogs, brushed my teeth, set my alarm for 7:00 AM (I had to take my 8 yr old to his karate class in the morning), and hit the hay. It was now ten to four.
As my head hit the pillow and I plummeted into the arms of blissful forgetfulness, I heard the echo of that bellowed challenge.
I smiled and murmured, “Yep, pal, that’s just about all I got.”
Now, if there had been general sustained applause from a loving room I might have reconsidered my policy. But a bunch of drunks, annoyed at having their soundtrack curtailed, yelling “AW, COME AAHN! ONE MOAH!” just ain’t gonna do it. How about I come around where you work at quitting time when you’re looking at two hours of rush hour traffic and yell at you to stick around for another 15 minutes? AW COME ON! KEEP WORKING!
One morning last fall I was waiting with my 8 year old and some other knotheads for the school bus. O’er spreading the walkway is a tree that produces a nut-like fruit, the shells of which crack open when they hit the ground. Hard, brown shells littered the walkway. My son, getting an early start on his obsessive-compulsive disorder, picked up a leafy branch and began using it to sweep the walkway. A little girl, possibly a future sports commentator, came up to me and said “Your son’s sweeping nuts.”
“Hey!” my son, in high indignation, shouted from 20 feet away. “I do NOT have sleepy nuts!”
Actually, my boy, your nuts are not only sleepy, they’re unconscious. Dormant. Be grateful. Enjoy it. Because when they awake, there will be no peace for you, not for a long time to come. And for some time to come, at least, there will no piece either, and it will take you a very short time to come, which will be a problem when you do finally come to get a piece.
Which brings me to this: Why are Viagra and all the other various hardening agents so popular? Haven’t you guys had enough? I know I have. I feel, as a friend of mine once put it, as though I were shackled to a maniac. He intrudes and interrupts, pulls and pushes, torments and badgers. My 17 year old, mortified when he caught me leering at the same girl he was leering at, said “Geez, Dad, you’re a dirty old man.”
“Son,” I replied, “at what age in your life do you think an attractive girl will cease to be attractive?”
In fact, it gets worse with time. For one thing, as one ages one’s radar detects an ever widening range of prospective targets. When I was eighteen I was interested in 16 - 22 year old girls. Now I’m interested in 16 to 75 year old girls. This wouldn’t be a problem if I lived in a sexual utopia wherein I could act out every gut wrenching impulse to which I am subjected. But in the real world I must bend to cultural, ethical, and moral constraints.
That is why I would be happy to be rid of this tent pole. It would be a great relief, at the age of 56, not to want to hump everything that moves. And that is why I am mystified by the popularity of these erector drugs. It is an absolute wonderment to me why, when a man has finally got shed of that raging, aching, scratchy boner, he would ever want it back. Here! Have mine!
Take my boner. Please.
Some of you are familiar with my stand on the song Mustang Sally (January 2005 Newsletter). If you are, you know that I charged $20 to perform it alone, $60 with the trio. Well, the price has gone up. Troy, Mattacks and Brown were holding forth at Captain Carlo’s last summer when a young woman approached me and requested the dreaded thing. I told her it would cost her sixty bucks. She went around the club, collected the money, and returned with the requisite wad. I turned to the boys and said “We have to do Mustang Sally.”
“Why?” asked Mattacks.
“This chick just brought us sixty bucks.”
“Each?” Mattacks wanted to know.
“No. Twenty bucks apiece. That’s the deal.”
Mattacks gave me a look like I had just told him to clean out a septic tank. We did the song.
Afterwards we had a band meeting during which Mattacks demanded $60 personally to perform Mustang Sally. I talked him down to $50, and to be fair, figured that Brown & I should get $50, too. I mean, we should all get the same amount, right?
So from now on it’s $50 for Mustang Sally if I’m alone, and $150 with the trio.
But wait, there’s more! If you’d rather hear Brown Eyed Girl, a hundred fifty bucks will get you that, too.
Still more: If you want to hear both back to back, I’m prepared to offer a package. Only $225 for the both of ‘em. Now that is a deal, brother.
One thing about parenthood is that full circle feeling. For instance, when I was 8 years old my mother told me to stop picking my nose. Now my son is 8 years old, and HE’S telling me to stop picking my nose. “But what about the puppy?” I protest. “He’ll miss out on all that chewy goodness.” My son saw my point and now feeds his own boogers to Mackie, too. Everybody wins!
Good thing, too. There was a time the boy parked his boogers under the sofa arm rest but his mother found them, much to her horror and his embarrassment. When I got him alone I told him that his grandma found my secret booger stash, too, when I was a boy. Moms always find them. I told him that it was no use: Mothers have a nose for boogers.
That’s where Mackie comes in. He’ll eat anything. Your race, creed, gender matter not one whit to him. He’ll eat your boogers and wash ‘em down with au du toilette. Good boy!
Some of you have heard about this and I guess it’s time to announce that I’m moving to California in June. This will come as a shock to some, a relief to others, and a thing of no concern to the rest. For me it is a bubble that has been rising through the magma for a long time.
BUT WHY, JOHN?
I came to Cambridge in 1971. I was a 21 year old surfer fresh out of Southern California where I was born and bred. After one week on the streets of Cambridge I decided that I didn’t like it here. I didn’t know which was nastier, the weather or the people. I found a pinched, provincial, crimpedness of spirit among the general citizenry that I could not fathom. My accustomed habit of greeting strangers and striking up conversations was soon abandoned in the face of cold indifference or outright suspicion. I grew tired of defending Californian “superficiality” by explaining that, outside of New England, it’s known as friendliness.
I stayed because Jon Pousette-Dart and I had a goal. I saw my time here as something I would have to make the best of in pursuit of that goal. I told myself that I would give it five years, and that if by that time I had not achieved commercial success I would go home.
Well, life intervened. At the end of five years we were still in hot pursuit of that goal and there was no turning back. I had worked my way into the social fabric of the music scene in Cambridge and had more reasons to stay than to leave. In the years since, except for some stints in Los Angeles and New York, and the extensive national and worldwide touring I did, I have been here. I have made lifelong friends here, fallen in love here, broken hearts (including my own) here, married here, divorced here, had children here, buried friends and lovers here, lived here. But I have never lost that feeling, that first impression that went straight to my core. All along, my escape, my consolation, my salvation was music.
Musicians and the people around music share a special joy. It’s a place apart. This is where I have lived my life: in apartments in triple deckers, in nightclubs, in dressing rooms, in cars. In small spaces where we blew up the universe with booze and smoke and cocaine. And always there was music. We played it, listened to it, talked about it, thought about it, dreamed about it. Music took the place of the broad vistas I had grown up with and the beautiful waves I so sorely missed.
I love music. I love my friends. And, as bullshit as this might sound, on at least one level, I love you. And here’s why: If you like my music, if you buy my CD or sign up for my mailing list, you’re telling me that you like what I do and I love you for it because for me, speaking as a musician, music isn’t just something to listen to and enjoy; it’s my attempt to connect with another human mind. It’s what I have given myself to. If you don’t hear me then I’m alone in the dark. So I thank you for enjoying the music I make. You’ve made it all worthwhile.
I understand that some of you might not see why you should stay on my mailing list if I’m moving away but I hope that you do. You might be interested in how I fare in the Golden State. You’ll be getting letters from abroad. Plus you’ll know when I come back for a visit. My ex and big son live in the Northeast so I have reason to return. I’ll make sure to book some dates when I do.
My friends and my fans.
In the summer of 1972 Jon Pousette-Dart and I were not making enough money playing music to cover the rent so I was compelled to go out and find real work. A nightmare, I can assure you. I went through a series of mind numbing, menial jobs. It was almost as bad as playing in a wedding band, if you can believe that.
At one point I was a delivery boy for a Xerox store. Back in the days before computers & printers & faxes, bulk copy was handled by services like Xerox. Businesses & colleges in Cambridge would leave orders at this little basement shop in Harvard Square and I would deliver them. Boxes and boxes full of printed material. One benefit was that it was a crash course in learning the streets of Cambridge and the sneaky tricks of negotiating them.
This shop was always busy, especially in the morning when it was filling overnight orders. It kept me coming and going, I can tell you. I drove the little red Ford Pinto I had driven across country. I would park illegally and hustle boxes up the stairs and across the sidewalk to my car, fill every spot but the driver’s seat with boxes, and head out with a list of addresses. When I had made all my deliveries I would hurry back and do it again. All day.
On this particular hot, summer day I returned from a run, went downstairs to the little shop. My boss was a thirty-ish, petite, blonde woman who seemed to be in a perpetual state of frenzy. Right now she looked particularly harried. Customers were lined up three deep at the counter, the staff were all as busy as short order cooks, and my boss was in the middle of it. She saw me walk in and said “ John, get me a cotton!” and hurried into the back room.
“Get me a cotton?” I thought. Strange syntax. Oh well, OK, so I went back up to the street, walked a few doors down to the pharmacy, looked for and found a box of cotton balls, and made the purchase. I had been gone ten minutes when I returned. She saw me and looked furious. “Where have you been? I told you to get me a cotton!”
“Whoa, take it easy,” I said. “I got some cotton” and produced the box of cotton balls.
“The hell? I said cotton! Not cotton!” The room was crowded. People were beginning to take interest in our exchange.
“What are you talking about?” I said, getting angry. “This IS cotton.”
“No! I said cotton! COTTON!”
“Are you out of your mind? This IS fucking cotton!”
“No!” Yelling, she lifted the box of cotton balls and slammed it down onto the counter. “This is COTTON! I told you to get me a fucking COTTON!”
“Jesus Fucking Christ!” my voice filled the now silent room. “You fucking told me to get you some goddam cotton so here is your motherfu...” suddenly the clouds broke and sunny rays of realization shot through my mind.
“Oh,” I said. “You mean carton.”
Yep, carton. She wanted a carton. That was just one of the many leaps my mind had to make in order to understand what was being said around here. Often during my first two years here I missed someone’s meaning entirely because all I had to go on was what it sounded like he was saying rather than what he was actually saying.
My friend Chris Smither told me of his father, a linguist whose interests included North American dialects. One experiment he and his cohorts sprung on the denizens of Boston was a sentence specifically tailored for the area that they would ask the man on the street to read aloud into a tape recorder. The sentence read thus: I fear a fair short man shot Mr. Conner on the corner. They would then play individual words from the sentence back to the speaker. More often than not, the speaker, listening to his own voice, could not tell the difference between “fear” and “fair”, “short” and “shot”, or “Conner” and “corner”. Out of context they were interchangeable, as are so many others. If Smither the Elder had asked me I could have added “carton” and “cotton”. Often I had to guess at or infer from context what was being said. For a kid from California it was bewildering, frustrating, and finally, depressing.
Fast forward to summer 2001. I was on a road trip with my then 13 year old son. We were in St. Louis taking a tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery there. The final stop on the tour was an 1890s style bar complete with white tile floor, polished mahogany bar, copper hardware, and mustachioed bartenders in vests with garters on their sleeves. Very nice. We were allowed two beers, if we cared to imbibe. You’d never get one any fresher, that’s for sure. I had a beer. My son had a root beer. We sat at a circular, marble topped table with curlicued wrought iron legs.
One of the bartenders announced “We’re testing a new flavor if anyone’s interested. It’s called Dark Mist.” Hmm. OK. I finished my first one & had a paper cup of Dark Mist. Pretty good. Not bad.
I discarded my paper cups, went to the bar & said to the bartender “That’s not bad. Do you have a bottle I could look at?”
“Sure, chief” he said, and handed me a bottle. I examined it.
There on the label was a low pier going out into fog. Dock Mist. Dock, not Dark. Just like the bartender had said. He had said Dock Mist. I had heard Dark Mist.
“Jesus,” I thought. “I’ve been in New England too fuckin’ long.”
Ah yes, the driving. Where do I begin? I drive well over 20,000 miles a year. I’ve driven all over the USA, back & forth, up & down. I’ve driven wrong side stick shift in England & Scotland, including the narrow, fast streets of downtown London. I’ve mastered the grids of Manhattan and Los Angeles. I’ve driven in Germany, Italy (truly nuts), France, Australia, Japan, Central and South America. Nowhere, and I mean nowhere, have I seen a more perfect combination of heedlessness, aggression, rudeness, ineptitude, ignorance, and downright stupidity as I see every day on the roads of New England. I witness jaw dropping behavior on a daily basis.
I get on the interstate and putt-putt along in the right two lanes, like some granny, crawling along at a mere 60 or 70 mph, while people ZOOM by. They line up like ducks in the left lane, doing 80+ mph, determined not to let anyone into the 18 inch space between them. They drive as if they had choreographed the whole thing, as if each knew what the other was gonna do, as if they were the Blue Angels. Everyone is focused on the rear end of the car in front.
I put on an audio book, relax, and enjoy the show. I look down the road when I drive so I take my foot off the gas when I see brake lights coming on a mile away and getting nearer and nearer like falling dominoes. I get a kick out of looking in the rear view mirror at the guy behind me having a stroke, beating the wheel, hurling abuse at little ol’ me, pulling out and flooring it, only to slam on the brakes a moment later when he comes up against the traffic. I see rear ends rise and fishtail. I see smoke from locked tires skidding on pavement. And then, inevitably, BOOM. Whaddyaknow! A rear ender. So now we all slow down to get a good look at the crash. Once past it everyone floors it again, any lesson in the scene apparently lost.
On the interstate I’m able to remain relatively aloof. But driving on surface streets requires more interaction, regrettably. Take, for instance, the common four-way stop. At a four-way stop the rules are simple. Everywhere in the country they are understood and followed. Everywhere in the country there is no confusion. Why would there be? Everywhere, that is, but here.
RMV Driver’s Manual states the rules plainly: Four-Way Stop
Simple, right? Wrong. A busy four-way stop in this area is a great meeting of the minds wherein we all attempt to divine each other’s intentions. Lots of hand gestures are involved. Me go? No, you go. No? OK, I’ll go. What? I thought I was going. Well, are you gonna go or not? After you. No no, after YOU.
A local once told me he actually believed that cars could legally go through stop signs two at a time so that if the car in front of you comes to a stop and then goes you can follow him right through without stopping. I know what you’re thinking: “Really? You can’t?” No, you can’t. It ain’t legal, bub, here or anyplace else.
God I could go on and on. As if to counter the pervasive rudeness there is an equally maddening urge to hand over the right of way. I’m at a four-way stop intending to turn left. There’s a guy directly across from me coming straight through. Who has the right of way? He does. Whoever’s going straight through an intersection has right of way over someone who’s turning. I turn on my directional to indicate my intention. Instead of coming through he gives me the “come on, you go” gesture. I’m not asking for permission to turn in front of him! I’m simply telling the world and whoever else is interested that I’m turning left! So here we go: “You go.” “No, you go.” “No, you go.” So you know what? I don’t signal. I wait till he goes through, then I make my left turn.
I’m driving along, some guy in front of me stops to let someone in. Never mind that I might climb up his ass when he stops in the middle of flowing traffic nowhere near a light or stop sign, surprising the people behind him, to give his legal right of way to someone else.
Oh and here’s good one that’s common here and nowhere else: You want to turn left into a busy street. The traffic coming from the left and from the right never seems to offer up a space at the same time so you pull into a space in the traffic coming from the left and stop, putting your car athwart one or two lanes of traffic. All traffic in those lanes now must stop and wait for you to find an opening in the traffic from the right so you can complete your left turn. I can think of few things more stupid.
If I’m driving down the road and you pull out in front of me and stop, you’re taking a hell of lot for granted. You’re betting that I have my eyes to the front. You’d be right to argue that I should but that doesn’t mean that I do. I might be drunk, I might have sun glare and be temporarily blinded, I might be arguing with my kid in the back seat and looking at him to make a point, I might be looking in the back seat for a CD, I might be reaching for a ringing cell phone, anything! Who has his eyes on the road every moment that he’s driving? You? When you pull into traffic and stop to wait for your left turn, you are betting your life that at that moment the driver coming straight at YOUR DOOR is noticing you. True, if he hits you, it’s his fault. You’re dead, but it’s his fault.
I take great interest in automobile accidents and and the things that lead up to them. I avidly read what details are provided in the paper. A few years ago a man was arrested for vehicular manslaughter in Walpole. He was driving drunk and broadsided a car that had been attempting a left turn into traffic. Killed was a woman in her 30s, a nurse, wife, mother, you get the picture. She had been attempting a left turn out of a parking lot into traffic. There were no more details.
The rest of the article was about what a repeat offender the driver was and what a wonderful person the victim was. I wish there had been more print devoted to the circumstances leading up to the crash. Which do you think is more likely: that this sober, middle aged, professional mother lurched into harm’s way or that she pulled into traffic and stopped? My bet is that she did the latter. In fact, I assume that’s exactly what she did. I cannot imagine another likely scenario.
How do we respond? Any reasonable assessment should tell you that putting your car in the middle of and at right angles to the flow of traffic is just...plain...stupid.
So what should you do? Turn right, that’s what. Turn right, get in the left lane, take the first available left, turn around, and enter the traffic with a right turn. Simple, quick. Plus you’re not stopping traffic, pissing people off, or risking having someone’s grille in your lap.
Oh I’m just warming up. Hey, you can come back later. You don’t have to read it all now. Look, it’s been over a year since my last newsletter and I’m moving to California (woohoo!) so I have a lot to talk about.
Here’s another pip. You’re driving down the road and here’s a guy, coming the other way, waiting to make a left turn. But not just waiting. His wheels are already turned, and he’s inching, inching across the double yellow line, farther and farther into your lane, so that you now find yourself deliberating whether to veer around him (and crowd the right lane) or stop (and risk getting rear ended) to let him have his damn left turn. This, again, is stupid. I will illustrate with another grisly tale.
Not long after the nurse was killed in Walpole there was another bad crash on Cape Cod. A small car on Rte. 6 was stopped in the left lane, directional blinking, waiting to make a left turn. In the car was a young married couple and their baby girl. Father driving, mother shotgun, baby strapped into a car seat in back. A drunk driver doing about 50 mph plowed into their rear end. As bad as that was, it wasn’t what killed them. They were all strapped in and would have survived it. No, it was the second impact that did it. Their car was knocked across the double yellow line into oncoming traffic where an SUV clobbered it. All human life inside the little car instantly ceased.
Again, amazingly (to me, anyway), there was no mention, much less discussion, of how the victims’ car came to be knocked into oncoming traffic. There was considerable public outcry and letters to the paper, as there always is when something like this happens, about the evils of drunk driving which is all well and good but there was, in my opinion, something very important being ignored.
Reader, you and I both know the young man had been sitting still, waiting to make his left turn, with his wheels turned left. But of course! How else can you be launched across traffic to a diagonal impact with an oncoming vehicle unless your wheels are already turned?
All of this was covered in high school driving class in California. Didn’t anyone go over it out here? I mean, it’s basic stuff. Don’t turn the wheel until you start the turn. Don’t pull into traffic and stop. Don’t tailgate and leave yourself no room to react. Don’t put your dick on the sill and slam the window down. It shouldn’t take a genius to figure this shit out. What’s the matter with New Englanders? I mean, come on! Are you listening to me? I’m not gonna be here much longer. Maybe you should write this down.
Here’s a little sub heading under the main topic of Driving that I’d like to call:
No Sense On Red
With the obvious need for time saving strategies and easing of vehicular traffic flow in and around Boston and Massachusetts, the advisability of a permissible right turn against a red light seems clear. Guess again. Once more, our legislators are sitting backwards in the saddle. Read on.
As you know by now, I was born and raised in California and so, of course, I learned how to drive there. In California, then as now, unless otherwise indicated, a right turn against a red light is permissible. The rule states that you must come to a complete stop at a red light and that if it is safe to do so, that is, there is no traffic and no pedestrians in the crosswalk, you may then make a right turn.
You can imagine my youthful indignation when, upon arriving in Massachusetts, I learned that a right turn against a red light was not allowed. Well, that was one law I was not about to obey. I have NEVER waited for the light’s permission to make a right turn. If it’s safe to go (and there are no cops around), I go.
Eventually a right-turn-against-red bill came before the state legislature and for the next ten or so years it was debated, voted down, and brought up again. I watched with fascinated horror as people became apoplectic over grannies getting mowed down in crosswalks. Despite their hand wringing, it finally passed. But here’s where it got kafkaesque.
Between the passing of the bill and its enactment, a billion NO TURN ON RED signs were stamped out and put on virtually every traffic light intersection in the state so that now you can turn right against a red light except where it says you can’t which is everywhere. Pure evil. Exquisite torture. A perfect catch-22.
But wait. It gets better. Here we are at our red light, there’s the expected NO TURN ON RED sign, you look left and you can see a mile down the road. Whew, good thing that sign is there. If Stevie Wonder was driving Helen Keller to lunch and that sign wasn’t there someone could get hurt!
Or better yet, there IS no road. You’re at a light where the only street is coming in from the right...it doesn’t go through. There’s a goddam BUILDING on the left. Nope, sorry. You can’t turn. Building might fall on you.
But now look: the next time you come to a red light and there’s NO sign saying you can’t turn, where it’s OK to turn right, look left. What do you see? Get back to me on this and tell me if I’m right. More often then not, at an intersection where it’s OKAY to turn right against a red light, YOU CAN’T SEE. There’s a hedge or a building or whatever blocking your view so that you have to stick your car halfway into the intersection, at not inconsiderable risk, to see if it’s clear to go.
New England brains at work!
Driving in New England involves a lot of guess work because of the lack of decent signs. Or signage, I guess. I don’t like that word, though. Signage. Sounds like something that mixes well with pesto.
In my line of work I often have to find an address. It’s really hard to find an address when you can’t figure out where you are. The chronic, infuriating mystery is that the sidestreets are indicated while the main arteries are not. You know what streets you’re passing, but you can’t say what street you’re on. Yep, there’s Maple. Ash. Larch. Oak. Hmm, arboreal theme, these parts. Birch. Elm. Pine. Banzai...Have you ever pulled over and hailed a local with “Excuse me! Do you know what street this is?”
Everywhere in this broad land of ours, at every intersection, there is a streetsign displaying the names of both streets. Everywhere but here, that is. Here, you get a great rundown of all the sidestreets you’re passing but if you want to know what street you’re on, you can FORGET IT.
What to do? To address the want of sufficient information on our public thoroughfares would take money. Public funds. The prospect of raising taxes for streetsigns is not attractive. So where would the money come from? Hmmmmm?
Once again, I will draw from my own life experience to make a point. It’s a ready source. As a young man I held many jobs before I was finally able to cover the rent with music. Before I left California I was a longshoreman, a laborer at construction sites, etc. Physical stuff. I’m thinking now of when I was a ditch digger. I remember very well the days I spent down in a hole, laying pipe, and hanging on till lunch or quitting time. The crew consisted of the lucky guy (and highest paid, besides the foreman) up in the backhoe and the rest of us down in the ditch. We were worked hard. Every crew I was on in California worked hard. If you couldn’t find anything to do, the foreman would find something for you, even if it was digging up old holes to check pipe fittings, anything to keep you at it. They couldn’t stand to see anyone standing around.
Except, that is, for one person. Paradoxically, it was the one job everyone had and no one had: flagman. All the flagman had to do was stand with a staff that had a sign on the end. The sign read STOP on one side and SLOW on the other. Every guy on the crew got to be flagman for one or two half-hour shifts. To stand up on the surface of the ground in the sun rather than busting my hump down in the ditch, breathing dust, looking at either dirt or some guy’s ass, was heaven. And so easy! There was nothing to do. Just standing there, stopping and starting traffic, shirtless, chicks riding by & checking me out...man, I loved being the flagman. It wasn’t even a job. It was a break. And I was getting paid. If only I could have done this all day! I’m gonna bet that you can see where I’m going with this.
An off duty police officer on paid detail in Massachusetts makes roughly $35.00/hr.
Here’s a tidbit from the Beacon Hill Institute for Public Policy Research November 2004 :
in Massachusetts cities and towns earned an estimated $141.4 million
working off-duty details in 2003. Of this amount, officers working traffic
assignments received approximately $93.3 million. This estimate applies
to local police only. It excludes detail pay earned by state police
When I first came to Massachusetts I was shocked and angry at what I saw. Not only were there guys standing around, standing around!, there was a cop there. What the hell? What was a cop doing there? Wait a second. Are you telling me that cop is a fucking flagman? That cop is getting paid my tax money to do what I know from first hand experience is basically nothing? Sometimes he’s not even directing traffic because there’s no need. He’s just hanging out, shooting the breeze with the other loafers while one fat bum desultorily lobs an occasional clump of dirt out of the hole.
For me, coming from where I came from, it was outrageous. I was offended and worse, I was disappointed. You see, I like cops. I admire cops. They strap themselves and get between me and the bad guys and I’m grateful for it. I understand that me being Caucasian contributes much to my favorable regard of cops. I’m sure that if guys with guns viewed me with fear and suspicion it would make me not quite so comfortable around them. That is not my cross to bear. I admire guts and I’m grateful for what cops are willing to do for me. So to see them so shamelessly, conspicuously, publicly on the take is simply breathtaking when I think about it. They’re sullying their badge. I don’t see how they’re not embarrassed to be seen, in full uniform with all the tools of their trade hanging from their belts, blatantly and obviously doing nothing or else something that anyone, with no training whatsoever, could do.
Occasionally some freshman politician timidly mentions it and is immediately shouted down and painted as a someone who would take the food out of babies’ mouths. The policemen’s union’s refrain is that officers need paid details to make ends meet. Do you know that the median, median!, salary for a police sergeant in Worcester is $61,000? That ain’t enough, man? It’s more than I make.
What are they doing in California that they aren’t doing here? I haven’t heard about any morale problems in law enforcement out there. Quite the opposite. Seems like they’re pretty gung ho.
I was out there a couple weeks ago. I saw crews working hard just like we did back in 1970. Didn’t see anybody standing around. And no cops. Just a flagman. I remember seeing a little smile on one flagman’s face. He was enjoying the break. I knew just how he felt.
Now before any cops out there get prickly with me I want to say that I have a sense of how irresistible a temptation paid detail might be. If I was a cop and some easy (and legal!) cash was wagged in front of me I’d probably go for it. But that’s what I hate about it. It’s corrupting. It smacks of corruption, cronyism, skimming, and the whole wise guy mentality that preys on the middle income guy who’s just trying to have enough left over after paying his mortgage to pay his taxes. Contractors, plumbers, electricians, etc., all seem to be members of some men's’ club full of sweetheart deals. Smiling, easy going, confident, no rush. They say hey, if you don’t want to hire them that’s fine, someone else will. They don’t need you, you need them. And they know it. You balk at the price and they say “Go ahead and look around. You’ll see it’s the same everywhere.” And they’re right. You have no choice. You need the work done. You say OK but not before apologizing for making the guy wait for the nod he knew he was coming. Then you bend over, drop trow, and he proceeds to fuck you long and hard.
I don’t want my cops to be walking arm in arm with these fuckers, is all I’m trying to say. Stop fucking us, guys. Will you please?
OK that last bit was sort of a tangent. Getting screwed by contractors is definitely not just a New England thing. What I said was gratuitous and uncalled for. But I'm leaving it in.
Except for one freak dusting in Oceanside 1968 I never saw snow fall until I was 21. I’ve seen enough snow since then to know that I hate it. Yes it’s pretty, I suppose. But it makes everything I do in pursuit of a dollar harder if not impossible. The loss of money, the back breaking hours, the delays, that snow has caused me makes me hate it for the bastard it is. It is a wicked, capricious, relentless, indifferent, and let’s not forget cold, bastard and I hate it. Won’t miss it.
I was driving on a summer day long ago with a young woman who wanted to go up the coast and take in the scenery and have a picnic. Somewhere in New Hampshire or Maine we rounded a bend that overlooked a lovely, white sand cove, blue green sea shimmering. I pulled over so we could admire it. The amazing thing was that it was absolutely deserted. Well, this was just too perfect. Our own little beach! Nobody around. I considered myself quite lucky and hoped that I would soon get luckier. Like a scene from Beach Blanket Bingo we laughingly ran down to the beach, spread a blanket, and sat down. Then they came.
Flies. Biting flies. The air was thick with them. Beach Blanket Bingo was suddenly being directed by Hitchcock as we ran, she screaming, back to the car. When I got her back to her apartment she was NOT in the mood.
I have had it with the flying, biting things that come out of the ground every summer. Do you know that growing up in Southern California I never heard of a biting fly? There were no stinking biting flies. I had heard of horse flies but they were up the hills with the horses. The only flies I knew about were houseflies. Your basic, garden variety housefly. It never occurred to me that a fly would bite. Well, that’s changed.
Yellow heads, greenies, chiggers, noseeums, horseflies, black flies, and those dark, triangular ones that orbit your head mercilessly, bite painlessly and leave a hard, painful welt that lasts for days. Deer flies. That it? Oh no no. We can’t forget wasps, bees, and everyone’s favorite, hornets! I’ll never forget that exciting time Ralph & I blundered into a ground nesting swarm of hornets that proceed to kick our ass. Musta looked pretty funny doing the 100 yard macarena. Then I had to kill the hornets that were still stinging the dog which amounted to beating him. He didn’t forgive me for a week.
Well, that’s about it. Huh? Oh yeah. Sorry. I forgot mosquitoes. West Nile, spotted horrors, whatever. No problem, though. Before you go outside, just spray yourself from head to foot with some cocktail from the good folks at Dow Chemical, then put on a hat, a long sleeved shirt, button it up to the neck, wear long pants, and you are perfectly attired for a sauna-like summer day in New England. About the only thing more comfy would be crawling into a sleeping bag with David Ortiz next to a bonfire in Death Valley. And don’t forget to tuck your pant legs into your white socks so you can see the...
Ticks! Wood ticks, deer ticks, dick tics, reamer ticks, all poised and waiting to introduce you to the joys of the Rocky Mountain Shits and Lyme Disease.
You know what? I just want to go outside on a summer day and not be attacked by horrific, blood sucking, disease carrying, alien species. And that, my friends, is why I’m moving back to California.
But wait. I’m not done
I grew up surfing. I sat in the water and watched the horizon. My formative years were overarched by a big sky and broad vistas. When I came to New England everything closed in on me. If I was in town I was surrounded by buildings. If I was out of town I was surrounded by trees. God I’m sick of trees. For 35 years I have dealt on a daily basis with low grade claustrophobia. I want to see. I want to spread my arms and look out over the world. That’s just what I’m gonna do.
OK now, calm down. I know I’ve been running down your area for a good spell but remember, I’m not from here. Many’s the time I’ve listened to New Englanders disparage California and I’ve not become defensive because I know it is human nature to love the place that grew you. I love Southern California. That’s where I’m from. I miss it. My parents are in their 90s. I want to go home.
Yes, I'm scared. I'm walking away from a lot. I'm connected here. People know me. I have a trio, I have gigs, I get calls. Out there I got, um, nothing. I'm gonna be starting from scratch. I'd appreciate it if y'all'd stay with me, stay on my mailing list, that is. I mean to be more regular with my newsletters which will describe my trials & tribulations. Heck, there will HAVE to be more newsletters because there sure ain't gonna be any gigs for awhile, that's for sure.
Anyway, wish me luck & I wish you the same.
A few weeks ago I was playing at the Dolphin Striker with my band. I had Sal Baglio on guitar and Dave Mattacks on drums. The Striker is a small room. The band has to flatten itself against the wall. There’s just enough room for one person to squeeze between my mike stand and the closest table.
Early in the first set a drunk young man started dancing right in front of me. I mean right in front of me; close enough for me to reach out and touch him. He was having his white boy seizure right in my face. The comical thing about it, the Spinal Tap aura of it, stemmed from the fact that he was the only dancer in the room. It was a full house, everyone was facing the band, and this guy was right the fuck in front of me. I had to sing into the mike; there was nowhere else to look but at this guy. My blood began to boil.
Just beyond him, sitting at the nearest table, were a young man and woman, apparently his friends. He had a chair at the table, too, but he was too full of joie de vivre stay in his seat.
So there we were, in the middle of a song, we doing our thing and he doing his, when he began to teeter into me. I had to stop playing, reach out, steady him and gently set him vertical again. He barely noticed. Some moments later he lurched at the girl, took her head in his hands, and attempted to probe her molars with his tongue. In so doing he overbalanced and drove her head back into a ceiling support post. Her reaction was that of an annoyed big sister. “Ow! Cut it out!” or something like that. My teapot was beginning to whistle.
After a few more spasms he threw something like what we called in taekwondo a front snap kick at his seated friend’s head, all in fun, of course, but it was too much for me. I stopped playing and told the guy to get the fuck away from me. He looked at me in surprise and I lit into him again. My microphone was between me and him so every word I said was amplified throughout the room. I harangued him until he sat down. I resumed playing.
Before the song ended he skulked out. We finished the song and, amazingly, his friend stood up and leaned past my mike and into me because he wanted to explain something to me. I now pushed him away and told him to let me work. During the next song he and the girl got up and left.
When something like this happens it always spooks me a little. I watched the exits for the rest of the night and was more than usually circumspect as I loaded my car in the lonely street later that morning.
The reason I’m sharing this story is not because there is anything extraordinary or funny about it. There isn’t. I’m sharing it because of what happened next. There was something about it that bothered me and I didn’t understand what it was. I found myself feeling very fatigued and unhappy. I felt this tectonic shift in my center. Maybe it had something to do with the impending move. I finally realized what it was.
The thing that stood out about this incident was not that there was anything different about it but rather that there wasn’t anything different about it and that’s what hit me. I am tired, deep down in my bones tired, of dealing with drunk people.
Those of you who have been reading my newsletters since the beginning are well aware that I have scant patience for drunken fools. Writing about them with humor affords me an opportunity to channel my anger with some laughs. But I can’t laugh tonight.
After the fool’s two friends left I finished a song and apologized to the crowd for my outburst although everyone seemed to take my side in the episode. I told them that the drunk’s friend wanted to explain something to me, that there was something I didn’t understand. I told them that he was mistaken, that I knew with dead certainty that he was going to tell me that the drunk was a good person. I said that may be so but that when people get drunk they all turn into the same guy.
I’m tired of that guy. I’ve been dealing with that guy for too long. If a four year old was behaving in public the way that idiot was, any reasonable parent would be expected to take him by the arm and remove him from the room. That’s what I am, I guess. I’m the Drunk Daddy. I tell the drunks to sit down, shut up, leave the room. Why? Because I’m the Daddy, that’s why.
It’s not like I’m gonna do anything about it. I need the money. But in California, if there’s any way I can work it, I’m gonna try to pick gigs that don’t have drunk people. Do you think that’s possible?