Tag Archives: Northwest

ooh-Pin-Her Part Tree

“My flight up to San Francisco was a little bumpy, but the water landing was very smooth. That was a real professional pilot flying that plane…”

More Northwest

Work pulled my low-budget quest for entertainment immortality as far as ten degrees latitude north of San Francisco. After playing a noontime date I made a turn and put some south backtracking down the interstate. After a rough and tumble forgettable “nooner” at South Seattle Community College it was all I could do to keep my head above water. My self-confidence was in tatters. After threading my way south on Interstate 5 in heavy commerce laden traffic I veered off to the east taking a twisting road paralleling the Cowlitz River. I was back out on the road where a down in the self-esteem department showman could use road miles to regain his footing.

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 mountain sized time bomb you would never know was even there.

Highway 12 would take me over the Cascades to Yakima. My next dates were in Cheney, Pullman and Moscow. On the eastern slope rain was forecast to ease up. Like that clouds dissipated— sunshine cheered the weary soloist. There was hope after all.

Tracks of my Years

I traveled through brush-steppe country crossing the Columbia River at the Vernita Bridge. Here of all things in a state famous for its lumber was a treeless landscape. Driving east irrigation pivots dotted the rolling barrens. The town of Othello was allotted less physical endearment than most other remote farm communities. Town folk were more likely here because they were born here. Home— I have come to believe is karmic. Pilgrim showmen are taught about the peril of permanent residency in their first thousand outbound miles.

I set up out on the lawn for a “nooner” in front of the student union building at Eastern Washington State College. I had drawn an audience of three hundred, a sizable potentially rollicking horde for a no-name small-time traveling juggler with not much more than a performing dog and dozen goldfish. The show was designed to catch, build and hold a crowd of undergraduates. Then there were laughs. Applause points ranged to respectable— not more.

At Evergreen State in Olympia my noontime show had been not as big but turned out to be more energetic. I am 29 years old. My sixty minutes remained a work-in-progress. After most of a decade of trying to figure this thing out I had to face up to the fact there remained much to be done.

At the end the show in Cheney a friend of the “circus” waving to me during my one hour set rushed forward at the end thrilled by my chance appearance at her school. Two fated talker’s is what joined up—a couple of ear chewers. I’d first come to know my relocated friend from dates I played in Fresno while out on my first national tour. In 1974 I was then a traveling performer with the Royal Lichtenstein Quarter-Ring Sidewalk Circus. Her home had been a stopover where her parents three-ring sized hospitality was teased as the ultimate soft spot on an otherwise austere list of one day stands. Augie, her father, by unanimous consent had long been enshrined the maker of the world’s greatest pancakes. Each hotcake was ‘from scratch made batter’—  an example and temple to the  high griddle arts. With outsized pride Augie’s daughter could barely contain her excitement waiting for the show to be over. After she would commenced to behave exactly as her family had trained her to. Having grown up around sawdust, tent poles and canvas she had literally been reared by parents that taught there was virtue in helping to care for the world’s smallest circus. Not lending a hand to strike the rigging and loading out would be  unforgivable. Familiar generosity silenced my pangs of isolation. Here was an example of how distance amplifies companionship. A traveling one man entertainer, go for broke type, was a particular kind of comic telegram and messenger in this era. Showmen arrive to far off corners carrying eyewitness insights into the lives of other people and remote hard to get to places. My Fresno friend demanded we depart immediately and on her dime for the nearby pizza parlor where we would burn the building down by force of fever pitched family informed comradery.

A week and half earlier in Olympia I had met a baker. In this instance I’d stayed up all night making bread with a sleep deprived crew of longhaired bandana wearing misfits. Helping at the bakery created a sense of my belonging to something all Cascade, Olympic peninsula and Northwest. I wasn’t simply passing through, I was a welcomed part of the vital enterprise of making this a better world by preparing fresh baked bread here on the southern tip of the Puget Sound.

Weeks before in Eugene I’d fallen into a clever back and forth with a blue eyed reddish blonde ruddy cheeked girl-woman who had recently returned by sailboat with her family after an eight year circumnavigation. There were practical concerns expressed whether she would manage to be happy living in one place now or ever. Fending off the peril of  maturity in honor of her free spirit she’d of liked to have dropped everything— joined up and taken off on tour with this jury rigged traveling enterprise. A narrow bunk didn’t worry her, she had put up with less. Touring would have been an easy and more familiar path. Going harbor to harbor, town to town could be an appealing form of land-yachting. Wanting to drop everything and run off on impulse with a kind of a sailor you didn’t even know the first thing about was not an uncommon desire.

Local actors from the theater program at Centralia Community College held a post- performance gathering in my honor. Together we danced, drank wine and exchanged tall tales about the fated struggles stand-ins, bit players and movie stars confront on their road to fame, gossip and paparazzi ruin.

Western Rangeland Touring

I had been out on the road six weeks. The hour long set had been much changed by the hundreds of sidewalk shows in San Francisco. New and better material was the result. Next goal on my infinite to-do-never-finished list was putting my best thirty minutes together. Whether it was sixty minutes, thirty or fifteen each show’s length was its own puzzle demanding its own particular answers. A showman among many pieces of hard earned wisdom becomes with more first hand stage experience a living breathing compendium of human nature. Being funny is one skill. Having the talent to disguise the lapse of time another. Stage time translates into a deeper seeing into the reins of our common human bonds. More time hustling on the sidewalk back on the streets of San Francisco was indelibly inked into my calendar. Instincts told me I would be all the wiser for doing more shows out there on that hardest of tarmac hard spots.

Mount St. Helens continued making news. US Geological Survey had deployed instruments to measure the mountains increasing bulge. Uncertainty prevailed. The volcano might not erupt at all. Then again there was no predicting how big a volcanic event there could be if this mountain let loose. A National Public Radio station from Spokane reported on the unstable volcano. I was three hundred miles east standing at 2352 feet above sea level, one-thousand miles from San Francisco. I’d traveled north and east as far as this up and coming showman would go. I had been holding up out here in the rough and tumble, but still there I stood between the places I had been and the places I was going. I gave in and amused my wanting off the road and allowed my mind the pleasure of anticipating my return.

edited red star

oPeNer Part Too

“This is a family show. After my show you’ll all want to go home and start a family.”

North Tour 1980

After four months playing the sidewalk in San Francisco I pulled up stakes and trucked to the Northwest. Instead of fifteen minute shows I’d present my one hour set. Instead of a sidewalk I’d play college campuses. Getting amped up for twenty-five sidewalk shows squeezed into three days was a gut busting iron man competition. I needed a change-up to my routine. The hope was I’d come back from the tour recharged. Sidewalk shows are always uphill at full speed from start to end. Contracted college dates dialed the intensity of a show back. Instead of sprinting I was long distance running. 

I traveled solo with my performing dog, chicken, cat and dozen goldfish. I had a sleeping bunk, cooking gear, suitcase, shave kit, typewriter, prop case and  costume. Under my front seat were a set of chains for my tires in the event I encountered snow or ice. Cooking was done off my tailgate. The price of gas was my mortal enemy.

I was hopping from date to date. My California plates were a tipoff. Provincial types reckoned I must be an infiltrator. Alternately conscious sympathizers saw me as an out of bounds homeboy on the prowl, they recognized the desperado— I was pegged a soul searcher. Six hours from Stockton and I was in Ashland, Oregon, six hours more and I’m asleep in my bunk in Corvallis.

At the end of any day I might have not spoken to another soul. Touring can be as simple as sixteen hours of bittersweet lonely silence fueled doubt. I encamped along lakes and rivers. I’d stock up on food, get out of town— sit still. Weekday’s out thirty miles from any population center was all wind whistling through the pine needles. I made small talk with local ranchers. Sometimes a highway crew was repairing a nearby roadway. Most of the week after a show I’d be camped alone.

This road dog veteran polished the skillful means of being comfortable in my own skin. I had a good bed in my truck and screened windows. I’d wash my pots and pans, brush my teeth. The dog, cat, chicken and goldfish rested easier once I settled in for the night. I’d try to finish my chores before sundown then curl up on my bunk with a book.

Once on the road the pace of life will work out best by keeping your wits about you. Getting into the rhythm takes time while you adjust. The idea is to not fixate on the destination. You will want to appreciate all the in-between moments, make each leg of the tour matter, the journey itself is the spacious location, the string of dates becomes a feature length wide screen modern day sprawling epic. It was alternately either all Clint Eastwood as Bronco Billy or Charlie Chaplin out there. Waking up, making cowboy coffee, caring for the animals, getting the truck started, leaving plenty of time to get to the venue for the show, this is how to bring composure to each new crack of dawn. You can’t let emptiness rattle your nerves.

I sought out insider knowledge from incidental conversations about the places I was passing through. If I needed a nap I’d pull off the highway slow roll down a dirt road park beneath a shade tree climb onto my bunk and fall asleep relishing the stillness. You want to take the time and make the effort to fill the five gallon jug with spring fed drinking water. I did all my own oil changes, kept my brakes adjusted, greased all the zerk fittings. The idea was to keep ahead of trouble, be sure to fix a problem before you had a break down.

I’d play a date and after go to the local bank where the check was drawn. When my wallet was flush I’d send the extra checks by mail to my bank back in California. I’d pull off and use a pay phone to get in contact with my answering service operator. I’d practice juggling and hand-balancing in parks. Product development required staying in shape and coming up with new tricks. I wrote music and lyrics for the ukulele. I tried teaching my dog Sunshine a thing or two.

I corresponded with clients. Solicitous letters were composed on my Smith-Corona manual typewriter. I kept a calendar with potential appearances marked in pencil. Once a client confirmed I inked the date in with expectation and permanence. In the event a booking was contracted I queried the surrounding communities for more work. Festivals, fairs, schools, libraries, and park and recreation departments were all targets of my mailing campaign. Once I had finished one show I turned my attention to finding an engagement for tomorrow. A sober eyed fiduciary responsibility to keeping the theatrical enterprise afloat filled my day and night. 

This past winter before heading north I went bar hopping and whiskey drinking. I befriended members of the Charlie Musselwhite Band at a down on your suburban luck saloon in Sunnyvale, California. Charlie’s players were moving north with spring. I’d pulled into Eugene and so was the band. Tacoma same thing. Between sets I’d drink beer, shoot pool and small talk with Charlie’s sidemen. My juggling business amused the vagabond musicians. They were envious of my running a solo entertainment enterprise. Unaware of a variety entertainer’s austere road life they instead traveled by automobiles and stayed in what I imagined were luxurious economy motels. Charlie seemed older than the hills even if he wasn’t. Musselwhite and his band all drank hard. The Chicago trained harmonica bluesman was punching out one-night stands trying to keep food on the table and a roof over his head. Charlie’s band was rarely asleep before dawn. You could be a blues player, do all that drinking, smoking cigarettes, skirt chasing-tom catting but that wore on a body  and you’re bound to wear out sooner than later. Charlie eventually stopped his liquor drinking. Sobriety is likely a lot to do with why he’s lived such a long life.

Charlie’s guitar player had quite the way with the ladies. The handsome picker had two or four aching to be his one and only. He’d come and gone through Tacoma enough to have made some sort of lasting memories with his throng of heartthrobs. He’d tried taking one on the road. Hard as he tried the guitar player couldn’t make that kind of arrangement stick. Music making seems to be more soulful when powered by heartbreak, two-timing and everlasting unfaithfulness. Charlie’s band was versed far more completely in all of these matters than some upstart one man variety show act. Even a better than fair looking comedy juggler was no match when going up against a quartet of rhythm and blues infused Don Juan’s.