Thoughts From A Million Busses & Trains 11.01.21
Part I. The Bus
I’m on a fifty minute bus trip from Frederikshavn to Allborg in the most northern tip of Denmark. From there I’ll jump on a train headed South in order to camp out at my agent’s Summer house in As Vig for a few days. I have a co-writing session scheduled for tomorrow and there will be time to use the sauna or simply walk on the beach, maybe even jump in the water if I’m feeling brave enough. Yesterday, I visited Skagen—the very Northernmost tip of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula, where the North Sea meets the Baltic Sea in a visibly turbulent fashion. My tour guide was the local musician Chris Andersen, who also took me fishing. We didn’t have any luck with the fish but it was a great day for discussing music and family. Tourist season is more or less over, so the area, which is crowded in the Summer, was pleasantly quiet on a crisp, sunny Autumn day. We visited the tomb of the Danish poet, Holger Drachmann, who is buried between two World War Two era, graffiti covered Nazi bunkers. Every year on midsummer’s night it is a Danish tradition to gather and sing his words by the old light house in Skagen. I was up here to play songs with Chris with other Danish roots musicians for the Nordic Brew Fest, which was in conjunction with Nordic Ink Fest, so there were some great characters around as we played old folk and blues tunes for the people. I spent Halloween night resting in a hotel and getting emotional just looking at the pictures from back home. Without a doubt, the road has gotten more narrow for me, and although I enjoy the thousands of faces I encounter from the windows of busses, trams, trains, etc…I also must consider my daughter’s plea with me to perhaps be home for Halloween, which came after the whole trip was already booked. These are the realities of my life today, and I do not know why I have to share them, but share them I must. I have taken so many bus trips throughout Europe and North & Central America. There will always be the few that stand out the most-the time I took a bus from London To Barcelona and a general transportation strike was declared when we got to the border of Catalonia. The trip where I had some space cakes with me from Amsterdam to London and ate them in a holding cell in Dover while a customs officer processed some paperwork.That story also involves me stripped naked, bent over and pleading with the customs officers, upside down from in between my legs, to not do a cavity search, for I did not have any (more) drugs. There was that first midnight trip to Glasgow in the top front row of a double decker bus. The Greyhound trip to NYC where I was assaulted. A long ride through Oaxaca at night with a girl’s head on my shoulder. Romantic escapades through Ireland and Wales. Falling in love on the journeys from Prague down to Czeske Krumlov. I could go on and on. I have covered a lot of ground by bus. They are not as smooth as trains, but they get the job done. This short bus trip I am on right now would be completely uneventful if a full on skin head didn’t just sit down across from me at my four seat table section. Because my daughter has repeatedly reminded me lately that I cannot judge a book by the cover, I am doing my best. He is missing most of his front teeth, and he smells of old tobacco. There is gun insignia on his shirt, which he very much wants me to see after studying the Salmonfest sticker which covers up the logo on my laptop. There is a tattoo of the Om symbol on his hand, but he so very much wants to engage with me and is leaning in about five inches from the tip of my laptop as I write this. When our eyes meet, I smile. I do not know what else to do. This is my life on the road, and I am just telling it like it is. He keeps getting up and then sitting back down. He is clearly not at peace. I wish I could help him, but there isn’t much I can do. Now he is staring at his phone, like every single other person on this bus. Aalborg is 25 kilometers away. It’s a very clean bus, with everyday people on it. There is nothing dodgy about it whatsoever, but my hairless friend is definitely not at ease. The bus driver just told him to sit down. When I turned to look at him he was standing behind me, reading my words. He spoke Danish to me. I said I did not understand and he repeated in English, “I am not reading your words.” I said it was okay to read my words. He sat back down. There is clearly a lot on his mind, and again he just leaned in about five inches away from the edge of me, so that his face would be maybe three feet away from mine. I asked him about the tattoo. He said, it stands for Om. I wished him peace. He wished me peace, and got off at the stop just before the main station, where I exited and walked 100 yards to the train station to board the Southbound train to Horsens.
PART II The Train A whole different vibe. I have a very comfortable seat in the First Class Quiet Area. I have a row to myself and my window seat faces backwards. I can see where I have been, and it covers a lot of ground. Back at the bus stop in Frederikshavn, I had been doing a little bit of math in my head while all of the other waiting passengers were staring at their screens. I calculated it has been THIRTY FIVE YEARS since I first ventured across the Atlantic Ocean. My first big ramble to Europe happened between my Sophomore and Junior years at Ohio State, where I had already declared myself an English Major…ie, you drink a lot of beer, either become a writer, teacher, both, or go to law school. My parents, who had a knack for getting me to spend my Summers anywhere but at home, sent me to stay in San Diego at my Brother’s place for the Summer after my Freshman year. I worked as a dishwasher at Drowsy Maggie’s Folk Cafe and had a tumultuous relationship with the chef Marriane who seduced me on the first day on the job. For the Summer of ’86, I grabbed the reins and joined BUNAC (The British University North American Club) which was a pretty remarkable program where one could pay a small fee for a 6 month work visa in the U.K. They called it a “Blue Card,” and it was very much like getting a “Green Card” in the USA. This card enabled me to have full coverage under the National Health Care System. Within a few days of arriving in Bayswater, the cheap hostel district of London, I had scored a flat and a job. Thanks to the BUNAC offices and jobs for hire file they had there, it was very simple to find work and lodging. I am always telling young people to get the hell out of dodge and wait tables or tend bar in some foreign land and that is exactly what I did. I moved into a basement flat on Thurloe Square in South Kensington with four other college age Americans. I took a job as a busboy at The Hard Rock Cafe in London. I know this job sounds a bit strange and perhaps cliche but thirty five years ago that restaurant chain was not the global corporation that it is today. There was just one, or maybe two, and it was started by a Tennessean in London who was also married to Ringo Star’s first wife. I took a job there and began my first Summer abroad, marching to free Nelson Mandela at a massive demonstration, and seeing Big Audio Dynamite, Billy Brag, and Boy George perform at the same event. One day, as I was clocking in to work, I was informed that on this night the restaurant would be closed to the public and serving as the host for a special event. As it turned out, Bob Geldof, who had been the driving force behind Live Aid, had earlier that same day been knighted by the Queen for his efforts to feed the hungry of Africa. At the last minute, he rented out the Hard Rock Cafe to throw a party to celebrate. As you can imagine, it was quite a night for the new knight and for me the twenty one year old busboy who was just getting a grasp on American roots music. The guest list was legendary. Jagger, Clapton, Sting, Phil Collins, Duran Duran, Elvis Costello and his then wife Cait O’Riordan from the Pogues, and many more. These are the people whose tables I was bussing and whose drinks I was accidentally throwing out (sorry, Spandau Ballet). I was face to face with all of them at one or another that evening, including Patti Boyd Harrison. Sting carried in a sword for his friend Bob, because I guess that is what you give an honorary knight. He had a blanket wrapped around the sword, and that I later gifted that blanket-left behind in the coat check- to a waitress friend of mine. It’s not really that remarkable a story, but I just wanted to document how strange it is that I happened to be there that night over 35 years ago just because I had decided to get out of Ohio and see the world. Other takeaways were watching Ringo’s young daughter pretend to pinch Mick Jagger’s ass just to make her friend’s laugh, and that Bob Geldof was a gentleman, taking photos with his sword and jean jacket. He was very polite to the staff and stayed up there in my esteem where he was already ensconced because of his work with The Boomtown Rats (did he get that name from Woody Guthrie’s “Bound For Glory?”) and Live Aid, which I had watched the Summer before while living in San Diego. So, there I was, wearing a John Lennon pin on my shirt, bussing drinks for Elvis Costello and company, and assisting heaps of rock stars to party down. I was able to relay this story to Declan Macmanus years later, and of course he had no no recollection whatsoever. Somewhere, on some micro film cache somewhere—or on one of the paparazzi film rolls of The Sun or The Daily Mirror or whatever English tabloid was there, you will find a picture of Sting walking into the event with me standing in the background. In the last thirty five years I have met quite a few more rockstars, but not as a busboy. The big rock world slides into history with all of it’s parade and pomp. Thoughts of Live Aid leave me cold today when I contemplate what that event or that generation never quite accomplished and what is now going on in the world with starvation, war, environmental issues, and basic human rights all still struggling at a global level. I am more at home with trying to do good in a local way, around my own neighborhood. There are plenty of homeless right down the street from my house and I see them on a daily basis. I try to help them by helping raise awareness for an organization called The Southern Alliance For People & Animal Welfare (SAFPAW). I am more interested in the lives of the day to day people I see from the windows of cars, busses, boats, and trains. As Lucinda Williams wrote long ago
I walked out in a field,The grass was high, it brushed against my legs.I just stood and looked out at the open space,And a farmhouse out a-ways.And I wondered about the people who live there.And I wondered if they were happy and content.Were there children and a man and a wife?Did she love him and take her hair down at night?
We have to learn over and over again that we can’t change the world, but that we can only change ourselves. I like to remind people that we can work locally on issues that affect the people right around us, and make our own neighborhoods a more joyous place to be. There are stories in every direction. From the lonesome Danish skinhead of today to the pleasantly buzzed and grateful Bob Geldolf of the past, the world continues to fascinate. Enjoy your amazing life today, and call a friend to see how they are doing. Don’t just text them. Actually call them, you will be so glad that you made the effort. We all need your effort to keep us all connected, because in some way we are all just that.