Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Every Tuesday, Sandiegomomma gives writers a prompt to help inspire us and make writing fun! Today's prompt?

What is your craziest travel adventure?

We had a two-day trip from Fort Wayne to Des Moines, at the end of a series of three one night stands. We'd gone from a Friday/Saturday 3-show run in Erie, to Akron, then South Bend and Fort Wayne.

"The only thing good about Fort Wayne," said Steve, "is there's a great liquor store across the street from the theatre."

I'd been wanting to tour for a couple years, working as a local stagehand when the shows came to town. When I'd gotten a call for a job as Property Department Head on a bus and truck, I'd said, "Sure!" and there I was.

On the bus. The chartered Greyhound had been gutted of all seats except the first eight rows. The seats faced front and rear joined by tables, and behind them two tiers of plywood enclosures flanked the center aisle, fitted with foam pads and heavy curtains. Each crew member had a bunk. The toilet - called by all the Blue Lagoon - was in the back.

Mine was on the driver's side, top tier, second bunk down. A pillow and comforter; a shelf with my alarm clock and my cassette-radio playerwith earphones, all secured with bungee cords to stay put. A curtain drew across the window, to shut out the light or furl to watch the road go by.

But most nights, when we got on the bus at the end of the load-out, we were too hyped up to go to sleep right away. Each travel day it was someone's turn to clean out the ice cooler and stock it with snacks and beer.

If it was a good theatre, we could shower before pulling out. Some theatres even had laundry facilities - for a tip the wardrobe mistress would wash and fold your clothes. But the bad theatres, the shitholes and dumps, were too disgusting to take a shower in. The actors waited until they got back to the hotel to wash. The crew didn't have that option. When we finished the load-out, we had to get on the bus for the next town, sleep and wake up at eight the next morning to go to work. You got used to the smell of your coworkers' stinky feet and morning mouth in the closeness of the bus aisles. You learned how to brush your teeth with water from the cooler, spitting the scum out on the pavement outside the bus, before going inside to start the load-in.

And that's what this trip was like. It had been South Bend before Fort Wayne; a dump of a theatre, in a moribund downtown, dead and deserted. The load-in was particularly bad - all the wardrobe crates and orchestra boxes had to be winched down to the basement through a trapdoor in the floor just inside the loading doors - which meant that everything else had to stop while that went on. Since orchestra and wardrobe were my responsibility, it meant that Jake, the electrician, acted like it was my fault - like I'd traveled back in time to 1921 and designed the damn building personally just to fuck him up.

This was the eighties. This was the age of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Bus and truck legit touring theatre was just as rigorous as rock and roll, only without the stars and glamor. We had the same long hours, though, and we actually had better money than rockers did, because we were union.

Every workday started at 8 a.m. and ended at 2 a.m. You did what it took to keep going and then drank enough beer to put yourself to sleep, bouncing and rocking through the night on the interstate, then pull on a dirty pair of jeans and walk into another theatre the next morning.

After South Bend - no shower and no food, and on the bus as late as 2 a.m. - we'd gone to Fort Wayne. Fort Wayne wasn't as bad; the bathrooms were old but clean, and the showerheads spit out enough lukewarm water at 1 a.m. to give a feeling of well-being.

And Steve had laid in six bottles of French wine, from that surprisingly well-stocked liquor store across the street.

"Hey, my man - My Man Stee', " said Roberto, our bus driver.
He flexed his arms, and worked the kinks out of his shoulders. He wore a blue uniform shirt with a patch on the breast, embroidered with his name, "Roberto." He always wore a black leather vest over the shirt when he drove. He had a round dark face, a goatee, and oily kinked hair in a combover across his wide domed skull. "You got some a them black beers in that cooler?"

The cooler was stashed in the foot-well of the first row right behind the driver's seat. I had become accustomed to sitting right on the lid of the cooler, with my feet out in the aisle. Steve sat in the first passenger seat. Our soundman, Bill, for some reason, liked to stand in the stairwell in front of the divider panel before the seats, one foot up and one foot down a step, looking out the wide curved front window as Roberto steered the bus down the interstate.

"They're in the cooler," murmured Steve, sounding drowsy. He'd smoked a joint outside in the street after loading the carpenter truck, and he was mellowing out for the ride.

"Hey, Skinny Bitch," said Roberto, although he pronounced it "Beech." That's what he called me. All the women were Beeches, all the men were My Man. "Can you get me onea those black beers?"

I stood up, flipped open the cooler and dug around in the ice for a Beck's Dark.
Roberto had developed a taste for Beck's Dark. Whenever we could find it - and that was not always easy in these towns - we'd get a half-rack for him. I popped the cap, and leaned over and put the tall green bottle in his cup holder.

"Gracias," he said, and he took a big swig from the bottle. "You treat me right, Skinny Beech."

Then he reached into the little curved pocket made by one of the gauges on the dashboard, opened a paper bindle and, with a long nail on his little finger, hoovered up a snort for the road.

"Okay, my friends," he said, and he grinned.
"This is the Crazy Cubano talking to you." This is what he said every night when we hit the road. "You done your jobs, now I gotta do mine. I got to get the People to the Place! Here's what we gonna do. "

By this time, we all knew to say the last bit in unison with him. "We gonna sneesse tha sheet and get the fuck on down the road!"


Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

What a life you have led!
I can feel the grit -- well written!

Unknown said...

This was an absolutely amazing story. Very fascinating life. Are you still in contact with any of your old crew? Do you have facebook?

Joanie said...

what an adventure!

cactus petunia said...

Yes, I'd say it's a miracle we lived through our youth, isn't it?

Great story!

San Diego Momma said...

I love these stories. I will read your memoirs.