The kind of friend whose hand is always extended in your direction, whose door is always open and who never “seeks his own,” as my father used to say: that is a rare friend indeed.
And as with any structure strong enough to stand the test of time, there is nothing haphazard about a friendship such as the one I’m describing. It’s something that gets built up, one brick after the other, over the years. That’s how the foundation becomes strong.
The years pass, and the structure that you and your friend have been building acquires form and character: an architecture peculiarly its own. And the two of you, the prime architects, know all of the secrets of this structure, of course. The tunnels you’ve dug together late at night, and the small, hidden alcoves that contain troves of important memories, carefully wrapped and stored and protected from the elements.
I’m fortunate enough to have a friend such as the one I’ve been describing. And every time we get together – even if a string of years passes in between – our friendship somehow becomes more elaborate. We put a few more bricks in place, or even add on an entire new wing, complete with frescoes and fountains and interesting archways. It’s hard work at times, but never boring.
So here begins my story, the account of my venture over to America that began in late April of this year, 2017. I had some work to do. And not entirely by coincidence, not long after I stepped out onto the curb at San Francisco International Airport, my friend – whose name happens to be Bob Gardner – pulled up in his big white double-cab Chevy pickup, ready for action.
* * * * * * *
It was always going to be a budget trip. The gigs I had booked – mostly in small and relatively out-of-the-way places – were not going to pay all that well. In fact, my financial goal, such as it was, was simply to break even over the 7½ weeks that I intended to be in America.
So, just where to hang one’s hat, in such a situation? Well, with friendship, asking for a place to stay when you need it is sometimes part of the deal. And my friend Bob had come to my rescue in these circumstances more than once before. Some of you may know this already: but Bob is the owner of two sailboats. Neither one is exactly what you’d call a luxury yacht, but both are docked conveniently near Jack London Square in Oakland, California. From wharfside it’s a 5 or 6 block walk through the produce markets along Third Street, where you dodge the pallets of vegetables scattered over the footpath until you reach Broadway, that main artery that takes you straight to the city’s heart.
And speaking of the heart of Oakland: it’s still there, in good working order, beating strong. And may she forever stand tall, along with all of her sister towns and cities of sanctuary, offering proud defiance!
As Bob piloted his pickup across the twin spans of the Bay Bridge and onto the Nimitz Freeway on the eastern shore, negotiating multiple lanes teeming with traffic, the sheer volume and enormity of this hugely populated and developed place whacked me (as it usually does) like the proverbial ton of bricks. My family and friends in the USA can’t always see it, but inside I’ve been a country man for a while now. Country has come to mean a lot to me; country is a lot of who I am.
But the roads around the patch of country I call home – they’re quiet and dusty ones, lined with trees, gently skirting the banks of rivers and creeks. A universe away from what I was looking at now.
“We’ve only just gotten a new Harbor Master,” Bob was telling me. “He’s keeping a better eye out than the last guy. The rules say that owners can only sleep on their boats two nights per week. So I’m still fine with you staying, but especially during working hours you’re going to have to keep a low profile – like, try to be invisible.”
My jet-lagged mind suddenly took a dark and cynical turn. “Oh great,” I said to myself. “Now, after enduring 13.5 hours on a cramped airliner, I’ve got to become invisible.” Bob had talked on the phone about some changes on the scene since the last time I’d stayed on one of his boats. But he had also emphasized that everything would be cool, and that I shouldn’t worry.
This new information, however, did not sound cool to me at all.
Yet – as I might have known all along, if I’d been able to leapfrog over my passing mood – Bob’s word was as good as gold, and things turned out all right in the end. With friendship, this is usually how it works.
One thing that you can learn over the years from a good friend is how to trust. To trust, for example, that in certain situations your friend can see the details of the picture more clearly than you can. And that at times like these, it’s safe just to allow yourself to follow his or her lead.
Nowadays, when my awareness is working well enough, I try to etch insights such as this one as deeply into my psyche as possible, to ensure that that they’ll be close at hand when I need them.
* * * * * * *
Because I needed to chill out below decks for a couple of days to catch up on my sleep, my initial invisibility around the docks wasn’t too much of a problem. Moreover, by carefully observing through a small opening in the main hatch, I soon noted that the Harbor Master and his assistant (both Latino chaps) generally headed off to lunch a bit early, about 11:30 AM. And this, of course, was the perfect jump-up-and-escape time for me, The Invisible Man.
In ten short minutes I could transport myself to the Sierra Café, where a lot of the workers from around the produce market area hung out during their breaks. From there I could walk another ten minutes over to Broadway and jump on the city shuttle up to 23rd Street, and then climb the steps up to the Central Oakland YMCA for a workout and sauna. It was like having my own personal membership in a kind of Everyman’s spa! The cast of characters I encountered in the sauna – Black men, Mexicans, Middle Easterners, Africans, Chinese, Korean, Japanese – made for an interesting mix of conversations, to say the least. Diverse minds, diverse insights, and diverse conclusions. About America, and race and money, and war and peace. About putting the pieces of the puzzle together, and making it through, each man in his own way.
And this was I had envisaged for my trip, most of all: to have conversations that would lead me to me taste the diversity of this place, The United States. And after this, if I was lucky, I might be able to piece the conversations together, like a patchwork quilt, into a picture of this particularly complex time in the history of this very complex land.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then, I contradict myself.
I am large, I contain multitudes.
Bob was mostly busy during the daytime, taking care of staff and students in his job as director of a small, privately funded English Language learning center. It’s a place where new migrants can come and feel welcomed and safe – in distinct counter-movement to some other current tides of sentiment in the USA. I never saw Bob miss a day’s work, no matter how short he may have been on sleep from the night before.
Something else about having a true friend, in my experience: you come to appreciate and respect the position they take on things, and where they put their energy. Wherever it is that they’ve got their shoulder to the wheel, you get the sense that it’s a good place to be pushing.
I mentioned nighttime and sleep shortages just before, because that’s when Bob and I would usually hook up and travel as a duo. Bob is an experienced navigator of the Bay Area and its surrounds, and – like a talking directory – he always knows the right places to go, at the right times. He has his own particular catalogue that includes (quite appropriately) high spots, low spots and in-between spots, more or less on an equal basis.
So – apart from the nights when I had gigs on – Bob and I did a fair bit of space shifting under cover of darkness: more than once capping off our adventures with some late-night chow fun (or some other delicacy that Bob knew about) at The New Gold Medal on 8th near Webster, open until 3AM every day of the week.
But on one evening I ended up discovering a spot of my own. A certain restaurant sign had caught my attention again and again on my walks along lower Broadway. Actually, it wasn’t a sign. It was artful lettering on a plastered wall, which read Souly Vegan. Souly Vegan? How could that be, I asked myself. It was an unusual juxtaposition of words. Still, the spot was kitty-corner from a very cool BBQ place where Bob had taken me before, one that featured live blues. So I told myself that I would have to check this new spot out sometime.
On this particular night I had decided to walk all the way back down Broadway after a late session at the YMCA. I was hungry after my workout and sauna, and on the lookout for something to eat, but nothing was open except convenience stores. No good – I needed something more than chips and candy.
Then I arrived at the corner with the restaurant sign painted on the wall. The lights were on, but I couldn’t see much through the front window. Maybe just closing up? I walked inside.
It was all happening in there! There was a lineup of people waiting to place their orders, and I joined in. You could read the menu on a long skinny chalkboard up against the wall. I noticed with interest that the girls taking the orders, and all of the other staff members I could see scurrying around the place, were all African Americans, or people of colour in general.
I ordered my meal – The Monster Salad, so it was called. On the menu it said that you could also order a “1/2 Monster” if you felt the least bit faint-hearted. But I was pretty hungry, so I thought, what the hell, let’s go the whole hog. I sat down at a long bench table and took in the scene. Mostly young people. Animated vibe. And out the back, just steps from where I was sitting, a whole other room with a few more tables and a long bar against one wall.
My Monster Salad arrived, on a flying saucer-sized plate. The mound of Southern-fried nuggets heaped on top of the greens and sprouts was not composed of recycled pieces of Godzilla, however. It was just, purely and simply, the biggest serving of tofu than I’d ever seen in one place in my entire life.
It seemed like a hopeless project (getting through The Monster, that is) but I munched on steadily and continued looking around. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes, but peering around the corner into that other room – the one with the bar along the wall – I started to notice some guys in hats, wearing white shirts and ties, lugging in instruments and sound gear. And the next thing, they crank up. Keyboards, guitar, bass and drums – it’s the blues!
They’re probably only just practicing, I thought. Warming up for a gig at the BBQ place across the street, or something like that. But no! I checked in with one of the waitpersons. The fellows who had started playing – Melvin Leonard and his Hot Sauce Band – were booked in for their weekly gig right here at Souly Vegan!
This was all of a sudden just too good to be true. I quickly tapped the Bob button on my phone. He was in his truck on the freeway, en route back to Oakland after completing a mission out in Contra Costa County. He said he’d be arriving in 20 minutes, more or less. Great, I thought. I was secretly hoping that he would be willing to help me finish my Monster Salad.
Bob wasn’t hungry, however, and I ended up having to leave almost half of that Monster behind. Yes, I know, the warning was right there on that chalkboard menu. But this only proves the old adage that reading a sign is one thing, but heeding it is quite another.
We moved from where I was sitting into that back room with the bar, and listened for awhile to Melvin and the boys lay it down. Have mercy! Those guys were the real deal, as they say. Then the band took a break, at which point the keyboard player walked right up to us.
“Bob! Man, where you been hidin’? I ain’t seen you in months. Not since that gig over at Everett & Jones, with Birdlegg! How you doin’, anyway?”
The guy talking to Bob, Thomas, goes on filling him in on his life and times, and how the music business has been treating him. He includes me in the conversation, too, and at one point he gives me his card. And then the bandleader – Melvin Leonard from New Orleans – comes over and introduces himself. I slip in something about being a singer-songwriter, and Melvin suddenly gets enthusiastic. “Man, I didn’t know you were a player! Next time we gonna get you up there with us, for sure!”
But this time, Bob and I just stick around and listen until the second set is over. And then we help the Hot Sauce guys carry their amps and instruments out through the back door and into the alleyway, where Melvin’s car is parked and waiting, before we say farewell.
Long experience should have prepared me for all of this, I realize. Bob knows everybody! He’s like the guy in the song “I’ve Been Everywhere, Man.” He comes from straight off the prairie in North Dakota, but the San Francisco Bay is now his oyster. He always knows where to find the pearls, and – just as importantly – he knows how to treat people in such a way that he is always welcome back. It comes naturally to him.
I’ve been saying a lot of things about friendship. But could a friend also be someone whose attributes we greatly admire, or even attempt to imitate? What are your thoughts about this?
It was great to be in town and to get to hear other musicians play at times. But I also had some gigs of my own to hold down, in the middle of all this hanging around.
I had met Alex Jimenez at a big singer-songwriter event back in 2016, on my last trip through San Francisco. While he was up at the mic, Alex mentioned his show coming up in a few nights at a place called The Bazaar Café. Both Alex and his show sounded interesting, and I was at a loose end on the night he had mentioned, so I got myself to the gig.
It was a relaxed coffeehouse evening of Alex’s original tunes, accompanied by his Egyptian/American friend Lindy LaFontaine on vocals and keys. I had brought my travelling guitar with me, and I asked Alex if I could play a couple of songs during the break. He looked a little doubtful at first, like, who is this guy trying to wedge his way into my show? But Alex isn’t a fellow who carries a heavy ego around, and he very quickly and graciously said ‘yes’.
And that was that. It all just sort of worked, right then and there. The songs I played, and my connection with Mr Jimenez. “We’ll have to do a show together next time you come through,” he said at the end of my set. “Let’s stay in touch.”
Oftentimes conversations like this one fade quickly into the region of pleasant memories. But not this time. Jimenez is a man of his word! Many months later I let him know that I was on my way back over, and he did all the rest.
Here I am, pictured with Alex and a few other gentlemen of his acquaintance, at San Francisco’s Bazaar Café, no less! “An Evening of Story & Song,” so the poster read. And Alex Jimenez, Enrique Martinez, Mario Di Sandro and Tommy P (with a little help from me) delivered just such an evening. Each man his own story; each man his own songs. Thanks to you again, amigos!
I haven’t been in the music business long enough to have met a whole lot of promoters. In fact, so far I’ve met only one. His name is KC Turner. And as an Aussie might say, this bloke is all over the Bay Area alternative music scene like a rash.
KC comes out of the Midwest. He loves new, original, undiscovered music, and old guitars. It’s impossible to tell the man’s age. He has a kid’s face, and a kid’s energy and enthusiasm for something that is his absolute passion.
I had run across KC in Kansas City in 2016, when I attended the Folk Alliance International Conference and Showcase on my “first timers” scholarship. He was very busy and had a lot of people around him, so I really only just shook his hand. But my piano-playing friend Wendy DeWitt (The Boogie-Woogie Queen) had already told me more than once that KC was one of the main guys to contact for gigs around the Bay. So I knew that I ought to keep him in my sights, and I made sure that I got onto his mailing list.
Well, back to present time. I was checking my emails one morning down in the hold of Bob’s boat, staying under the radar, when I read a message that suddenly popped into my inbox. KC Turner Presents Ssssh Singer/Songwriter Night at Doc’s Lab. Reading further, I saw that Doc’s Lab was a club in the North Beach district of San Francisco. The message specified that performer bookings would commence online at KC Turner Presents from 9AM the following morning.
Just to be sure, I got Bob to email the application at that exact hour the next morning from his office. The result was that I got a spot in the show, and the chance to show KC what I do. In a very cool below-street-level club in the heart of San Francisco’s old Beat district. Along with a good handful of players of all shapes, sizes, persuasions and denominations. Just what one would expect from this city, far out on the western fringe of America, where so much social and artistic innovation has happened over the years.
“Do you come through the States often?” KC asked me after the show. “Generally once a year,” I answered. “I’ll definitely let you know next time, with plenty of warning.” As I’ve said, KC has this intense passion and enthusiasm, seemingly working all of the time. He looked me straight in the eye. “Yeah, absolutely, let me know! Loved your song! And hey, I really like that guitar you’ve got there!”
I handed KC the little 1959 Gibson LG-1 that I travel with. He held it for a while, turned it over, and nodded appreciatively. I’m not sure, but I think there’s a good chance that he will remember that beautiful sunbursted guitar of mine over and above any other interaction the two of us might have had. But, walking up the stairs from Doc’s Lab to Columbus Street, I felt that KC Turner and I had had a good first encounter. And that was all that mattered.
I was due to leave for my next stop a few days after the KC Turner show: heading north to Sonoma County, and unknown territory, and another gig.
My entire stay in the Bay Area had lasted just a little over a week. Some of the moments that had passed had been rough, others had been smooth, and still others had been exhilarating or even inspiring. I had greatly enjoyed Bob’s company, and his uncompromising support had gone a long way toward smoothing out whatever rough spots there were.
My attempt at invisibility around the docks had worked pretty well, so it seems. No complaints from the Harbor Master about anyone overstaying and breaking the rules. Nevertheless, Bob and I had organized a mid-morning departure for the day I needed to leave, so my cover was going to have to finally be blown.
The night before had been a late one, and I’d slept in a bit, so I had to re-pack everything really quickly. I travel with just a medium-sized duffle bag, an over-the-shoulder haversack and a guitar, and with space at that much of a premium, packing everything in and out again and again eventually becomes a kind of art form.
Very often at times like this I recall my truck driving days in the Pacific Northwest. Back then we travelled some rough and treacherous roads, with a lot of delicate freight, and everything needed to be loaded in really tightly so that it wouldn’t arrive smashed or broken. I often used to pack up trucks at the warehouse with Viggy, one of my co-drivers, who hailed from New Jersey. At the end of a really long, intricate and complicated loading-up process, Viggy would almost invariably say the same thing:
“Well, we did it again. We just got six pounds of shit into a five-pound bag!”
So there I was, rushing up to the marina gate with my near-to-bursting duffle bag and guitar and haversack to meet Bob, five minutes or so behind the time we’d scheduled.
Bob had already come down to the dock, and he was talking to the Harbor Master, whose name turned out to be José. José was wearing sunglasses and a gold chain, and even though it was already a hot day, he looked pretty cool.
Bob is, among other things, a skilled diplomat. He knows just how to become the glue in any conversation. “José has just been telling me that his wife bought him a new saxophone for his birthday last week,” Bob offered as an opening. “He used to play jazz back in Argentina. That’s where he’s from.”
I knew that I had to think quickly. I didn’t want the conversation to drift over to the topic of how long I’d actually been around.
“Hey man, nice to meet you! It’s great that you’re going to get back into playing. Nice birthday present, man! What kind of sax is it?”
We chatted on for a while about music, and when I got the chance I slipped my singer/songwriter credentials into the conversation. “Here’s a copy of my latest CD for you, José. Let me sign it for you.”
As I handed him the CD, José lowered his sunnies and said, “So are you leaving right away, today? That’s too bad! It would be great if you could stay around for awhile. Oh well – maybe next time!”
Well, all right! A better ending than either Bob or I might have expected. And definitely one that left me feeling relaxed about the possibility of returning one day, if the compass should ever point in this direction again.
José and I gripped hands and said goodbye. Adios y buena suerte. Goodbye to the water, to the masts and the sails, and to the company of my dear old friend. Goodbye for now.
This life that we are living consists of moments: moments that flow on and on, but will never come back again. And herein lies all that we perceive as beautiful, as well as nearly all that we feel as pain. So much about my life depends, quite simply, upon how fully I am able to live each of these moments, and how gracefully I am able to let them go.
And this, as with every other creative endeavor, is always a work in progress. It is never completely done, never completely mastered.
Here is one of Francisco Goya’s final drawings, completed just two years before his death at age 82, and entitled Aun aprendo – “I am still learning.” What Goya seems to be calling our attention to with this picture and inscription is that learning is not about achieving some sort of mastery, or arriving at some kind of final outcome. Learning is, rather, a fulfillment unto itself: an expression of our most essential humanity, and a refuge from suffering, at any age and at any time. May this always be so, for every one of us!