Northwest Scuffing Along Contest

Work took me as far north as Seattle. After I made a turn and put some south backtracking down the Interstate 5. I veered east taking a road along the Cowlitz River. Mount St Helens had been rumbling. An active volcano might be something to see. Rain was predicted as ever to continue without letup.  As the crow flies I was twelve miles north of a volcano I would never see.

Highway 12 would take me over the Cascades to Yakima. My next dates were in Cheney, Pullman and Moscow. On the eastern slope rain, drizzle and fog was forecast to ease up. I transited through brush-steppe country crossing the Columbia River at the Vernita Bridge. Here in a state famous for its lumber was a treeless landscape. Irrigation pivots dotted the rolling barrens. The town of Othello was austere.

I set up for the show at Eastern Washington State College on the lawn in front of the student union building. I drew an audience of three hundred,  a sizable crowd for a no-name, small-time traveling comedy variety entertainer. I caught, built and held the audience. Then there were laughs. Applause points ranged to respectable not more.

My show at Evergreen State in Olympia had been not as big but was more energetic. I am 29 years old. My 60 minutes remained a frustrating work-in-progress. After most of a decade much remained to be done.

After my show a friend waited to say hello. I’d come to know her six years back from shows I played in Fresno. Her family had been a stopover for the small circus I’d traveled with. Striking the rigging, packing, loading, then hanging out, dinner and  an evening of conversation followed. Raised by a family of generous and good natured parents she extended her hospitality. I had a place to shower and sleep.

I had been out on the road one month. The hour long set had been much changed by the hundreds of sidewalk shows in San Francisco. New and better material was the result of the Fishermen’s Wharf experience. Next goal on my infinite to-do-never-finished list was putting my best thirty minutes together.

Mount St. Helens continued making news. US Geological Survey had instruments measuring the mountains bulge. Uncertainty prevailed. The volcano might not erupt at all. Then again there was no predicting how big an eruption there could be. A National Public Radio station from Spokane reported on the unstable volcano daily. I was well over three hundred miles east.

I rolled south by two lane highway atop the Columbia River Plateau. The distinct Palouse began to dominate. Overlarge dunes and hills are planted and dry farmed in wheat. Towns of less than one hundred citizens anchored by silos dot the landscape. The steep contoured landscape required ingenuity to cultivate and harvest. Clever equipment had been invented to take advantage of the fertility found in the regions undulating soils.

A Bay Area friend was studying in Pullman. Her current project included the creation of a series of sculptural pieces inspired by divinity and motherhood. My artist friend identified with my intensity and offbeat show. We were two misfits. Conversation cut to the marrow. I misunderstood the multiplicity of her moods and soul states. I was not nearly so multidimensional. I didn’t know what to make of a feral spirited nature. Intuition laced with impulsive spontaneity frightened me. I was not so unbound. I had emotions where she was emotion. My risk taking appetite was a fraction of my artist friend.

By calendar it was May but there were patches of snow persevering in the frigid shadows and chill wind. Rain was here and there in the forecast. A sharp crisp slap in the face wind made performing outdoors uninviting. My friend Susan lived with her mother and the two wanted to help keep my spirits high and my menagerie coddled. The doors to their home were opened. I had my own bathroom and bed. The two had a knack with animals. Thursday I performed in Pullman and the next in Moscow. Both days shows took place against the elements for paltry crowds.

Moscow just east of Pullman had morphed into a regional center for a younger more progressive non-farming population. In 1973 the Moscow Food Co-op was founded. Peace activists and draft resisters immigrated here. After my appearance we walked through downtown. Posters had been hung advertising a weekend crafts fair. We tucked into a tavern. After we found dinner on W. 3rd Street.

A mandolin player I thought I’d recognized appeared from out of the thin cool night air. His face was familiar but I could not place him. The musician towed along another three or four. This was the era of denim, knee high leather boots, crushed velvet vests, tie dye shirts, long haired unshaven men and granny dressed women.

I kept mulling where I had seen this mandolin player before. Where did I know this man from? Where had we seen each other before? How can I travel to furthest reaches of Idaho and end up recognizing a familiar face in the crowd? I had imagined a more remote and far flung world.

After running out of businesses on W. 3rd Street we turned and retraced our steps back on the other side of the street. A wooden arbor covered with thick bare vines was fitted between two old brick buildings. Antique street lights lighted the outdoor space. Patrons sat on benches while four or five played bluegrass.

I placed the mandolin player’s face.

“He set up across the street from where I was doing shows in Fisherman’s Wharf.” I explained to Susan. “He wore whiteface makeup.” This curious wisp of a man would stand still, like a statue, if and when someone stopped all at once he’d fiddle and jig step in front of his open carrying case. After so long he’d halt and freeze, wait and when he judged the moment right he’d resume his strumming and jigging.

I overheard someone call him by his name. His friends called him Crow. Crisscrossing the northwest for some years the itinerant musician played where and when he could find a crowd. He’d made the weekend fair part of his regular stops.

“Crow?” What kind of name is that? Seemed coined in recognition of his style of moving from one place to another. I had been nibbling at an unconventional life where this man seems to have swallowed the same path whole. By my eye the mandolin player seemed to be the lead picker.

Crow had by self determination scratched together a performing life of countercultural success. His non-mainstream incarnation and formula made a big impression. Just getting to Moscow is an achievement. I had thought I was near as could be determined one of the few street performers doing this kind of grassroots traveling and entertainment. All of sudden I find out that I am not the only one out here. I am not the only hot shot one man street act that knows how good the audience in Moscow can be. Crow was doing just fine thank you very much and in fact he had coined an even more inspired nickname and had an even more complex interwoven band of local artists he was working with on his visits here to this out of the way corner of the northwest.

If envy was worth anything then I was now a rich man.

edited red star

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