Sunday, December 11, 2016



Sleepy Greg sends all the love in my enlarged cardboard heart to you people who come out to my gigs. I am living and breathing this music I write (and also the music steal from the masters) and it means the world to me to have you involved. Cheers.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

newly muddied waters

To my credit, I did try to adjust to the incessantly shouting woman. I just couldn’t. I didn’t recognize any of the words that were scattered among the shouts, but they might’ve been in a language that I don’t speak. I’m now sitting in front of the gorgeous, old, stone building that abuts the nursing home itself and sort of acts as a decoy for prospective residents and their loved ones.

I feel ill-at-ease here, but when I leave having helped out in some way - even if only by having a conversation about music - I feel better. When I’ve been away for a while, it’s a much worse feeling - a struggle I dealt with during my week in the North Carolina mountains last week. I had plenty of good times, but after a while, that dark cloud that followed me south 700 miles would find me again, no matter how many times I pivoted east or west.

I’ve been around long enough to recognize that you do have to go through these rough patches sometimes. You can choose to look at it like you’re earning the carefree moments of laying slack-jawed in a field under a morphing sky with a beautiful companion in your arms or mind’s eye. I do sometimes. Other times, I feel like it’s as simple as “some days are mostly good, some days are mostly bad; collect ‘em all, kids.” Lately, I’ve felt like “gimme dem goddamn cheddar puffs and gimme dat gushdang Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk, son.”

But wisdom makes the occasional cameo appearance. Brian Dillon walked onto the screen and reminded me in his way that life itself is not guaranteed and that it might be good if that fact informed my perspective on this new challenge.

I picture Brian and his speech bubble in a not-necessarily-stoned-but-beautiful cloud floating above me while I trudge through the metaphor mud and push the wheelchair, not knowing what I’m pushing it toward. I could just as easily focus on the mud below my feet as the colorful, slowly flanging cloud above me.

You can’t blame the guy for not being at the top of his game. Still, to tell people in a communal room that they should “blow [their] brains out” if they find themselves doing a long-term stay at the facility, not knowing anything of these sweet old people and the trail of years behind them, is a shade of ugly to which I don’t know how to adjust my eyes. This is not the person* who taught me to make the best of difficult situations.

But then there’s a moment like the one where I wheeled him back to the nursing home after taking a stroll around the university and he asked me, “what’s that place?” You can get mad, but you have to realize who you’re getting mad at.

Burn out / fade away? Marcella stood in the ocean off Topsail Island with me in June and checked out in September.

Still, with the help of my family, my girlfriend, and clouds shaped like my friends, I’ll figure out how to navigate these newly muddied waters.

And I will do so with some GODDAMN CHEDDAR PUFFS in my facehole.

-

*That fella, I suspect was Fred “Mister” Rogers.

Friday, August 5, 2016

With Zeal!

One of my work pals is a super-hip grandma from Lancaster who writes children’s books. She’s a well-traveled, well-educated Bernie Sanders supporter whose voice and unhurried speech remind me of Patti Smith’s. She’s walking along the Juniata River with our co-worker who, yesterday, praised Donald Trump in the casual manner that you might praise a new flavor of Lay’s Potato Chips. But they are walking together. I like that. 

This morning in Appalachia, two local teens named Canyon and Autumn Moore are singing sweet sibling harmony and accompanying themselves on acoustic guitar, mandolin, and fiddle. Even as kids, their musicianship is superior to the four sweaty, Red Bull-blooded men who played horrendous, harmony-free classic rock covers yesterday with Cheez Whiz-charisma and with a lead guitar player who played as if the chord changes happening elsewhere on the stage were figments of our collective imaginations. 

I dream of home, but I also dream of other destinations further south. I’ve been assured that there is no end to the good times that await my girlfriend and I in Asheville. Over in Nashville, a friend I made in New Hampshire has rummaged through pedal steel guitar legend Buddy Emmons’ estate sale and acquired some sort of quirky knick-knack that reminded her of me. What a lucky sumbitch I are.

--

I’m sitting in a field in rural New Jersey listening to Neil Young yell at English people in 1973. Outside my car windows, a rainstorm is shutting down the hot air balloon festival at which I’ve been hired to take photographs. There will be no more balloons ascending or human cannonballs descending today.

I am supposed to play guitar in a bar in Pennsylvania tonight and the thought of the freedom I can find with my instrument dangling from my torso is exhilarating. Singing is fun, too.

I play with these guys who like to make it all up on-the-spot. I think we had a setlist last time, but it was really just there to collect impressions of the bottom of dancing people’ shoes. Dirt paintings. It’s a cool way to make a buck. I’ve enjoyed seeing my work life get closer to being mostly jobs I do with a camera or a guitar. I decided a long time ago that I only want a life with joy in it. I do have a lot of that stuff.

Also challenges. The pain payments we make to earn the joy. 

--

I still get scared when the phone rings. Worried it will be The Call. Then I remind myself that everything’s probably OK and I just answer it. 

This time, it really WAS The Call, or nearly. 

No one could reach him, so I called various police department and hospital phone numbers until I found him. He’d been picked up by an ambulance at 9:30 AM and was in intensive care. That’s all I knew for a period of time that felt like an hour, but might’ve been more like fifteen minutes. While waiting to call back someone named Bernadette, I took note of how aggressively my heart was beating and I forced myself to sit in a chair and breathe. That helped.

Family helped, too. I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that there was a coalition of loved ones dealing with this, not just me. 

I was that much more relieved to call into his hospital room and speak to him. He didn’t sound great, but he was alive. It struck me that I was listening to a voice that I didn’t know that I’d ever hear again. 

He tried to act like everything was cool, but I recognized that, after so many years spent with little regard for his health, this new medical event - whatever it was - would make a precarious situation even worse. For HIM to request outside help meant that something had gone very, very wrong. 

He’d collapsed to the ground and couldn’t get up. I think he may have been there overnight. He’d been living in a second-floor apartment in some guy’s house in the woods near Nockamixon State Park, an hour from me and everyone else he knows. It’s been about four years of that and it’s only gotten worse. If the steps were icy, he just wouldn’t leave. 

Looking back, I spent an almost regrettable amount of my time with Marcella talking about how upset I was that he didn’t want to take control of his health. Two strokes should’ve served as a wake-up call, I thought. She would remind me that you can’t force people to do anything they don’t want to do. 

Still, it hovered over me like a dark cloud. Marcella had fought so hard to preserve her health after battling illnesses all throughout her life; why couldn’t he make a few basic changes to preserve his? I tried every angle I could think of to convince him it would be satisfying to take a walk every day. Landscapes to photograph, attractive jogging women to say hello to, some neighborhood dogs and horses to meet.

No dice. Even when I lived with him for two weeks after his 2012 hospitalization, he wouldn’t come with me for short walks around the block. It didn’t matter to him that I uprooted myself for fourteen days to help him recover from his latest stroke. So I’d go walk around the beautiful countryside of Upper Bucks County and he’d stay home. 

My last big attempt was in Nashville at a place called Southern Steak And Oyster. Waiting for our meal, I asked if he realized that to not exercise or make dietary changes after a stroke is to have a death wish. He assured me that he had no such thing. 

“The doctor probably mentioned something about exercise. But he didn't say anything that got me inspired about it."

--

It got dark and it got light. 

After work one day, I went to his apartment. I talked to his landlord and landlady for a little while and then gathered together important-looking paperwork, clothes, some framed pictures, a few electronics. I got it into my mind that I wanted to clean up all the trash, so I consolidated the pizza boxes, plastic bags, old piles of circulars. Hours passed and I realized I might not have even been halfway done. It was too big a job for one day. Things were being thrown out on the ground instead of the trash can, possibly for four years. 

Meanwhile, I’d forgotten to eat and, before long, I was spiraling into a whirlpool of low blood sugar and high angst. I revived myself with Swiss Rolls, Coca Cola, and Herr’s Potato Chips, staples from my childhood that, as it turned out, were still on-hand. Before I hopped back onto those dark country roads, I took out a little of my free-roaming anxiety on one of the zippers of my trusty black (Nicky: “dark grey”) backpack. That helped a little.

(I saw my backpack under direct sunlight a few weeks ago and realized she’s right. It's dark grey. Why do I bother arguing with my Ivy Leaguer girlfriend? She always ends up being right. OK, back to the story.)

The following week, I was having a rough day but still decided to honor my plans to visit him at the facility. After the visit, I turned to Nicky and told her how happy I was. Not just that I honored my commitment, but because he was so much more with-it than I’d remembered him being at the hospital. There’s a lot of work left for him to - maybe - regain use of his right arm and leg, but the dude seemed more present than he did during the period leading up to this last stroke. Amazing!

I visited again a few days later. My aunt and cousin were already there and we were soon joined by my sister and - via FaceTime - my nephew. We went outside to a gazebo under a warm, mellow sky and we all just hung out like old times. Just in a new environment, with some new complications. 

It wasn’t perfect, but we were all there and feeling the family love. A second baby was brewing and my friends down the road were about to welcome their second, too. With zeal!

A little more pain deposited, a lot more joy received. There is always gonna be some darkness to contend with, but damned if that summer sun doesn't always brighten everything back up eventually.

P.S. Swiss Rolls chilled in the fridge are just as good as I remembered. Something else to bear in mind.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Nobody Explained To Me Who Cap’n Fish Is



A little boy is staring at me. His mother speaks in what might be a Pakistani accent. I had planned to read a little more of a book down here in the lobby of this OB/GYN office, but I’m completely sucked into a one-boy-show that has unexpectedly begun. The script is roughly like this:

- The elevator dings. The door opens. Little boy says “hello” to whomever exits. They return the greeting.
- Then he walks back toward the door, not stepping into the elevator, and says to no one, “OK, I’LL BE RIGHT THERE!”
- Then he runs around for a little while.
- repeat twelve times

His mom is in another part of the room nursing a baby and trying in vain to control the boy. The father has now arrived and his parents are having a heated argument. It is time for me to leave the OB/GYN office.

Clean-shaven, short-haired, and baseball-capped, I am sitting in a shiny new blue car. I don’t look the way I appear in anyone’s memory or, indeed, on my recently issued driver’s license, but it’s me. Having lost a few days to norovirus last week, I feel like shedding some skin. Also got a big bag of items to give to the thrift store. Out with the old.

--

I always wondered what happened in The Bronx. We pulled in under a massive rainbow while hot french fries entered our faces and Neil Young sang on the car radio. Rainbows happen in The Bronx. Now I know.

There’s a stretch of Route 15 in Connecticut that feels like driving through a state park. We slept in a trucker-approved Days Inn in Sturbridge, Massachusetts before making our way to beautiful Portland, Maine for dinner, beer, and a walk. The next night was spent in Boothbay Harbor. We stayed at Cap’n Fish’s Waterfront Inn.

Nobody explained to me who Cap’n Fish was or is. I spent a lot of time thinking about that.

We picked up some postcards at Creature Comforts Thrift Shop and mailed them in beautiful downtown Damariscotta. I told my mom I was eating well, I told my dad I was happy, and I told my sister funny lies. We also bought a psychedelic penguin and a cheese grater ("it's a shredder," another other shopper informed Nicky).

After abandoning my new car in a field in anticipation of a few driving-free days, we scarfed down some seafood at Shaw’s Wharf - I chose the blackened haddock - and boarded the ferry. The ride was a little rough; at times, not unlike a toddler pretending to steer a parked car. A teenager came around offering everyone ginger candies.

The twelve-mile trip through the ocean is the cost and everything else is the payoff. Welcome to Monhegan, year-round population: approximately seventy.

It’s not hard to choose a general store here ‘cause there’s only one. Down at L. Brackett & Son Provisions, they’ll sell ya a freshly-made donut, clean water, a cup of Hawaiian coffee, Maine Root Beer, a Hershey bar, and a sausage, egg and cheese sandwich that, as my new friend told me, “makes life worth living again.”

On the cliffs, there is a big dog named Jake wading in a pond made of ocean water that’s splashed over a wall of rocks. Behind him is a woman with colorful socks who is painting the much higher Whitehead cliffs in front of us. Somewhere behind me, my girlfriend has found a perfect vantage point from which to sketch the scene in charcoal and ink. Big waves crash against the coast under sunny Fourth Of July skies. Everyone is kind, nobody litters, there are practically no cars, you can walk around with your beer, and I forgot all about the election.

I wandered Lobster Cove looking for beautiful things to feel and to photograph, but went a little too close to the ocean for my girlfriend’s tastes. She reminded me that our tourism literature stated that many have fallen and none have been saved.

Out on the deck, everything is still. Our Airbnb apartment is just a few feet away from Monhegan Brewery where a band is playing Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” in rockabilly format. It... works oddly well.

There was no shortage of fireworks on the island, but my favorites were the displays in various towns on the Maine coastline, so far away that they looked like strange multicolored stars silently exploding in the distance.

If you bring someone with you, maybe you can go out on the cliffs after dark and get a romantic oceanside smooch. If you don’t bring someone with you, you can probably just go find someone at the brewery.

Nicky has informed me that, with my big blue sweater and bucket hat, I look like a fisherman. I’ve just polished off a beer, having previously sampled four of the brewery’s creations. We did MOST of our high cliff walking before drinking alcohol. Most.

We ate fresh lobster roll along the coastline, gazing out at Manana Island where Ray Phillips lived for decades as a hermit with his pet gander Donald and their sheep friends.

A hot tip from Karen led us to the Fairy Houses within a pristine, old-growth forest called Cathedral Woods. I took photos of the houses, constructed of pine cones, twigs, and other forest accessories, but respected the fairies’ requests to not be photographed.

I took one last gaze at the ocean as viewed from our host’s front yard and felt a rush of mindless gratitude about being alive and free to roam. The Minus 5 said, “life doesn’t really half-suck most of the time.”

Ginger ale, Marc Maron’s Jeff Goldblum interview, light meditation, and the calm, steady energy of my girlfriend got me back to the mainland with my breakfast still in my body where I left it. We even saw some goddamn SEALS.

(As always, each time I heard the word "seal," "Kiss From A Rose" was immediately thrown onto my mental turntable, repeated incessantly.)

On the way back, we drove through impressive fireworks displays in The Bronx. Now we know - rainbows and fireworks are what happen in The Bronx.

--

I find myself sitting beside some fake flowers and a real cartoon caterpillar with big beady eyes on a bench facing the Juanita River. 584 miles from Monhegan, 151 miles from home.

A freight train barrels through the line of trees on the other side of the river while a rock & roll band plays adequately and some middle-aged people, all of a similar complexion, shoot [and kill] the breeze [without prosecution] at the local Republican party booth, three “Make America Great” signs at their ankles. Where I live, it’s hard to find someone who’ll tell you to your face that they’re voting for Trump. You’ll occasionally meet a lawn or a pickup truck bumper willing to make that pronouncement, but that’s about it. Suffice to say, I haven’t heard or read the phrase “Black Lives Matter” during my stay in Perry County, but I’ll update you if I do. For that matter, I’ll update you if I hear it in my hometown, the formerly whites-only Levittown.

This weekend, I live in a motel next to the Susquehanna River. I got a job taking photos at a music festival to which they remembered to invite vendors but, apparently, not the general public. I am using this downtime as a chance to read a little more of “M Train.” A thick, light amber film negative from my Holga plastic camera serves as my bookmark. One of my co-workers is reading Amanda Palmer’s book.

My girlfriend is driving in the opposite direction, up north to her old hometown. I treasure our time together and will miss her, but I also look forward to the isolation of a 2-star motel with nothing but a black suitcase, black backpack, black laptop, black notebook, and one gently used imagination.

One of my co-workers is sitting in our green beanbag chair like a six-foot-tall four-year-old. Another co-worker just asked, in an attempt to pass the time, “would you rather have toe-shaped fingers or finger-shaped toes?”

Here are some things I can tell you about Red Carpet Inn in Duncannon, Pennsylvania.

- It’s no Red Roof Inn.
- The carpet matches the drapes. (Red.)
- The bathtub stopper is broken, but no one can stop you from laying down and taking a horizontal shower.
- There is a red heat lamp in the bathroom that makes me feel like a rotisserie chicken.

Eighteen-wheelers are barreling down the Susquehanna Trail, reduced to blurred colors as they pass non-linearly through the flower petal-like shapes in my frosted bathroom window. Kinda like a malfunctioning Lite Bright. This place could get lonely fast, but for now, there are cookies, there are potato wedges, there are gummy bears and I am naked and I am happy.



















Saturday, May 21, 2016

I GET DOWN WITH THEIR MOMS

EARLIER THAT WEEK - I can’t find the sun, but I did find the butter. In the midst of a two or three day pause from the craziness of music and other freelance work, I am listening to Bob Dylan singing about vicious dogs in Nagoya a few weeks ago and trying to eat this bagel at eat-to-live speed (30 CPM - chews per minute) rather than eating-my-feelings speed (300 CPM).

I woke up wanting to shake the ugly feelings that arose yesterday and permeated my psyche like an especially pungent skunk. Don’t want to get stuck in any particular day from the recent past, even the good ones. Some bad and good ones both happened during an increasingly rare ankylosing spondylitis flare-up recently.

The performer’s bad show might have been a perfectly fine show for the crowd. Some of the bad shows are a little like trying to walk down the street while thinking too much about how exactly legs work. I probably sang a reasonable amount of correct words in reasonably correct pitches, but in my Tin Man-like state, I didn’t quite feel in command of my body, let alone the stage. Still, I didn’t let that dissuade me from my original idea of playing thirty original songs, many of which aren’t and have never been in my solo acoustic repertoire.

Doing that many self-penned songs in a row is like playing a series of short films about your life. So many places and faces. Mostly faces, for better or worse, that don’t tend to be found in the room when I’m playing. If I close my eyes, the gang’s all there! When I open my eyes, I see that I’m being supported by new friends and new strangers. I play for them, not some imagined audience from 1998 or 2007 or 2012.

I stared into the vast, backlit, late-night fog hovering over the lawn behind Mercer Museum, too exhausted to speak, alternately in awe of the beauty of the night and guilty about subjecting my partner to “The Many Moods Of…”. I kept thinking about a line from the Muddy Track documentary - “how can it be SO GOOD and SO FUCKING BAD?”

Still, I’ve been around just long enough to realize that it’s gonna get good again.

Twelve hours later, we were getting ready to drive to Lancaster so I could attend my friends Chris and Katie’s wedding as both a performer and friend.

As the bridesmaids walked down the aisle, I played "Rainbow Connection" and then switched to "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" for Katie's entrance. My girlfriend looked back from her seat and gave me a loving smile that said "nice work, ya schlub!" that I will never forget.

I did a little set for cocktail hour consisting mostly of songs they'd mentioned as being among their favorites - Fairport Convention’s “Come All Ye,” Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters Of Mercy,” Steve Earle’s “Galway Girl,” Townes Van Zandt’s “Be Here To Love Me,” “The Wild Rover” via The Clancy Brothers, and my choices: the traditional Scotch-Irish songs “Barbara Allen” and “Easy And Slow,” Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” and The Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me.” I was overjoyed to have Righteous Jolly spontaneously join me at the mic on some of the Irish tunes that we play in our group Uncle Argyle.

An older fella told me later while we both loaded our dessert plates that he wished I could have played all night. Ego = sufficiently stroked. Somebody else told me she was about to request one of the songs I ended up playing. ESP request = honored. Most importantly, the bride and groomed seemed pleased.

The love of friends, chocolate cupcakes, two Vodka Cranberries, tasty food, ceiling-dwelling peacocks, a startlingly loud turkey, goats on a hill, mine and others’ music bouncing off the shiny hardwood floors, emotional friends emoting, a bagpiper piping, and me doing something I was misguided enough to call “dancing.” (I could blame the joint pain but… it would be a cop-out.)

A rainbow appeared just a few hours after the medley of rainbow songs. It does get good again. Just keep moving. Of course, vodka doesn’t hurt. (Unless it does.)

The next day, we went shopping for souvenirs and stopped at Joni’s 340 Diner in Lancaster where the servings were so big that I started to feel like I was punishing myself for some undisclosed crime. We’d slept a bit poorly in a somewhat outdated (in a doorknob-falling-off kinda way) bed-and-breakfast near the wedding venue and took the whole day at ¾ speed - even our hike at Hibernia County Park. Still, that's a better speed at which to gawk at horse-and-buggys and little Amish boys walking down the road with fantastic black hats.

ABOUT A WEEK LATER - Nicky has just gone to sleep and I am on the couch in the brand new duds that I wore to my gig.

I got in from a strange job in Maryland at about 1 AM, slept restlessly, then put on some coffee and started brainstorming about songs to add to my repertoire. I kept thinking of incredible songs that I love but never tried on-stage. Lucinda Williams! Velvet Underground! Patti Smith! After the previous weekend’s musical challenges, I guess I wanted to keep the bar high and see if I could succeed with a whole new batch of music.

Nicky said that it went well. It was hard to read the crowd, but it seemed that each group liked at least one of the styles I played.

Except when I did “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Nobody gave a shit about “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”

For that matter, why did I think people would know “Cuyahoga”?

Such unreasonable expectations. Like my expectations that each show will be packed with friends and family. There's always a next show. How can they miss me if I don't go away?

There was a time when the crises were coming fast and hard and everybody was telling me they wanted to do something to help out. The truth is that coming to a gig was about the best thing anyone could do for me because it helped me to stay employed.

Still helps today, too. The funny thing is that the people who are the most resistant to coming to gigs seem to be the people my own age. When I started out and was learning my craft on-stage, they were at every gig. Now that I know what I'm doing, where the fuck did they go?!

Their moms can still get down, though.

I get down with their moms instead.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Ugh. Mein BRUDER.

Day Nine (But Way Later): We arrive back in Berlin. I hug a German tree just ‘cause I can. We get to our hotel room and my mind seems to be in a tug-of-war between the euphoria of having a quiet and private space for the first time in days and the petulant angst that is beginning to overtake me as I contemplate how much transit time still remains. By the time I’ve made my forty-eighth attempt to attempt to our wi-fi, it’s clear that Euphoric Greg has left my body and taken the elevator back down to the lobby so he can wait around to reinhabit me in the morning.

The bed is two small beds squished together, but is reasonably comfortable. Plus, I have good company. We flick on the TV and I scan around for something in a language that I understand. After a few German channels, BBC World News feels like a dispatch from my hometown friends. Then we switch to a Korean channel with an English-language interview show. Then we (meaning “I”) find a naked lady channel and share a string of witticisms in an attempt to buy a little time watching the naked lady channel.

Finally, we find what I was really looking for. Clarissa Explains It All with German voiceovers.

I find myself somewhere between Clarissa’s age and her dad’s age. Why does she have to give him such a hard time? Your dad is just a sweet man doing the best he can for you. Get it the fuck together, Clarissa!

“Ugh. Mein BRUDER.”

OK. Clarissa and I are back on the same page. If anything, Ferguson seems like MORE of a douchebag now. I’m sure the actor is a fine man, but Ferguson the CHARACTER is MOST CERTAINLY on the Ted Cruz campaign staff. What a dick.

Day Ten - Woke up in Berlin, sleep restless, dreams probably haunted by Clarissa Explains It All with German voiceovers.

The bottom half of the airport hotel room’s window is tinted red, so I spend a few minutes filming planes and birds that seemed to be flying through a violent-yet-beautiful red German sky. Like so many other places we’ve visited lately, I fantasize about staying in this airport hotel for the next three months befriending locals, recording strange music, learning how to navigate their cable TV, figuring out where the best coffee is, finding out what else is on the naked lady channel, watching more German Clarissa and seeing JUST HOW MUCH she explains.

She said “hi, Sam” in German, but the Sam’s entrance guitar chord was still in English.

We walk across Am Seegraben to the Berlin-Schönefeld Airport and enjoy two satisfying breakfasts, one before security checkpoint and one after. In my slightly sleep-deprived state, I find it very funny to sing a slow rendition of the theme song from Billy On The Street with a slight German accent. I tell myself I can’t go to foreign countries and mimic their accents, yet I can’t stop. Similarly, I have trouble not singing the “Check Ze Tweets” theme song from The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. I did not get punched during this trip to Germany, but maybe the next one.

“Euro Trash isn’t Euro Litter / get on the dancefloor and shake your twitter / boom boom boom boom boom boom / Check Ze Tweets / (...and emails)”

It strikes me that we encountered no outwardly rude, aggressive people in either Germany or Poland. Even the teenagers in the museums seemed more calm and collected somehow.

We are sitting on yet another Norwegian Airlines flight, about to fly from Berlin to London. Nicky is applying cartoon body part stickers onto the face of a model on another page. The source of these stickers is not clear, but she seems happy and content.

Norwegian Airlines, with its well-dressed and mostly young European passengers, mood lighting, and unfamiliar dance music is kind of like being in an H&M that flies.

I am starting to miss much of home. My cat. My guitar. I find myself singing Aerosmith songs with a German accent. I must miss Aerosmith, the McDonald’s of American rock & roll.

We are in the air starting… … … now. It’s a blue-sky day in Berlin if you go up high enough. Nicky has borrowed my green water bottle for a taste of the finest Berlin bathroom water. I am marveling at the speed at which I switch from a sweaty-palmed nerve ball to a nerd pointing at the rapidly disappearing landscape going “WOOOOOAH! COOOOOL!!”

On the ground in London. The female flight attendants have the most amazing red-and-black pillbox hats. The dudes have fantastic plaid suits. It is super-charming.

I spent my English layover trying to figure out the widely-publicized free coffee deal at a popular café chain. I got mad about the seemingly unredeemable coffee offer and took it out on Jay, the Gatwick Airport’s social media man. My traveling companion, sitting beside me on the second level of this mall-like airport, asked me why I had a crazed look in my eyes.

In the end, I just approached the coffee lady and she gave me a smile and a strong cappuccino and then life went on for me, Nicky, and Jay, the Gatwick Airport’s social media man.

As we approached our gate, we accidentally switched boarding passes. I approached first and passed for “Nicolette” with flying colors. To her credit, she didn’t pass for “Gregory.”

Meanwhile, on our Norwegian 787 Dreamliner, the cabin crew is doing a pretty good mime routine. I suspect that Youri could do it better.

I reflect on the beautifully eclectic collection of accents to which we’d become accustomed. Like cool cultural winds blowing in from all over the world and converging in Neo’s living room.

How fascinating to BE the foreigner. Obviously an essential experience, especially if you’re from the U.S., the home of the World Series.

Nicky and I are watching movies in-sync - Suffragette, Carol, and Brooklyn. Despite my talk of my fear of flying dissipating, she was very quick to hold my hand and look into my eyes and read them for any unspoken information about my emotional condition as the plane began its ascent. She is one of the golden-hearted people you get to meet in your life. Nearly two weeks by her side and I feel like I could spend tomorrow, our first day back home, with her. How weird is that?

I miss paychecks. I miss shaving the area around my mouth. I miss Neil Young movies and Everly Brothers harmonies. I don’t miss sweatpants with words on the butt. I don’t miss baseball caps with machine gun cartoons on them. I miss Larry Wilmore. I miss black people in general.

I miss the small recording studio I’ve set up in the attic. Before I left, I had a string of productive days up there. While driving to and from my beloved Cleo’s house, I wrote a song that her daughter Marcella had requested of me years before. She’s shown up in songs before, but now she has my first song entirely for and about her. I sang the verses into my phone, wrote music when I got home, and continued living the song for another day or two. I had the unusual sensation of playing a gig while still in the initial grip of this powerful new piece, as if my soul was playing a different song than my body was.

In regards to the current light turbulence, the pilot erroneously stated: “there is no need to return to your sheet,” to the amusement of seemingly everyone on this six-hour flight to New York City.

“Hey Marcella” opened the door to the completion of a long song that had spent six months as merely a few lines on a now-discarded pink post-it note. I scrawled some words while taking a late night power walk around the northern outskirts of Nashville last summer and, without really trying, wrote my first country song. Or second. Or eighth. I dunno.

A little bit more of my life with Marcella has been preserved in song. She’s hard to find these days, but she’s coming with me, anyway.

I think about the beautiful and dysfunctional country I’m returning to like an absentee den mother hoping the kids will have cleaned the house by the time I get back.

Some Other Day - I never noticed how good Jamal The Cat smells.

I drove through rural Bucks County the morning I got back and was as dumbfounded as ever by the beauty of its green fields and well-dressed horses. Europe was not without sunshine, but most of our most beautiful moments there occurred within very old walls.

My post-trip photo fatigue is wearing off and I find myself photographing colorful things that become transcendent when bathed in sunlight. My girlfriend’s blue eyes. Neshaminy Creek’s buttercups.

I came home to find that everything wrong remains so and everything right remains that way. There’s already been more than a few moments of cinema-quality drama and pop song-worthy euphoria since we’ve returned. 

It takes a while to get back home. It didn’t happen the day my body arrived in New York City. A week later, I was en route to a fast food joint with ‘60s rock and roll playing on the car stereo when I stopped for gas at a Wawa and suddenly my percussionist friend Skaggs was there shaking my hand. That’s when I knew I was back.

So, I am home. Now, let’s get outta here!







Monday, March 14, 2016

I HAVE A FOUR. SON.

Day Seven - We split from our friends and venture to the National Museum. By now, it takes a lot of effort to recall what day it is, but it turns out that it’s Saturday - admission-free day!

Having never lived in a dorm, I find myself slightly frightened by the prospect of hanging out with in a living room indefinitely without an acoustic guitar to occupy my mind and shield me from social pressure. But I recognize that one cannot travel almost halfway around the world just to read a book and occasionally gaze out at a mostly unchanging scene out the bedroom window.

By the second shot of Polish vodka, there was nowhere I wanted to be more than that smoky living room with my new friends. We settled into that couch like an old Żabka receipt (that’s the convenience store with the cartoon frog mascot) and had a blast playing Charades and listening to Youri’s very eclectic music playlist. In fact, it turned out that, as native English speakers, we were TOO good and therefore had to keep getting off of that comfy couch for our next turn. We eventually started holding back and letting other people win.

I knew I was in trouble when I’d correctly guessed “mitochondria” AND “transmutation.”

I retreated to my new notebook with its weirdly heavy, water-resistant paper and drew a self-portrait. My eyes look, indeed, a little tired and fucked-up, but they are wide open and taking in all sorts of information in all sorts of accents. Around my face, I wrote in various words I heard around me - people’s names, answers from Charades, brands of vodka. Then I poured drops of water, orange hand sanitizer, and polish vodka on in and smeared the ink in various directions. I called it “HAPPYSLEEPYUSATRAVELERINPOLAND.”

Day Eight - Neo and Dani take us to Bistro Narożnik, a cozy restaurant offering anything from breakfast to booze. I resist the urge to buy a bottle of John Lemon, a brand of Polish lemonade. Candles are burning on a disused piano in front of a wall with a map of the local neighborhoods as its wallpaper.

Neo and Dani then take us to a very dark movie called “The Singing Napkin” that left me thinking, “have I peered TOO far into the Polish psyche?” Like a dream in which two realities are blended together arbitrarily, the movie theater’s halls were also a very active craft fair.

We go to a small restaurant for kielbasa and bean soup and, as is my new custom, I go to the bathroom sink to collect some of the perfectly fine tap water that is never offered in restaurants. My water bottle proves to be very popular.

We go to see flamenco music at CASA De La Musica, but it’s too crowded to see the band. We settle into a table in the back. A Turkish friend of Dani’s is there, Jülide. As it tends to do, the topic of rooster sounds comes up. We share the sounds a rooster supposedly makes in our native languages. In Turkey, it’s “ü ürü üüüüüü.” In Macedonia, it’s “kukurikú.” In U.S.A., it’s “cock-a-doodle-doo.” In Korea, it’s “GGO GGEE OH.”

Next, Niebo Cafe. George and a slightly different band are playing. The transient Mexican drummer we saw last time, but a different bass player.

Earlier in the trip, we’d been advised to accept every drink that we are offered in a Wrocław bar. An excitable man comes in with a carton of orange juice and demands that I partake. Being very experienced with both crazy people and drunk people, I drink the orange juice and inform everyone within earshot that it is ABSOLUTELY the BEST orange juice that I have EVER experienced.

I have some Polish vodka. Then, I have some Polish vodka. After that, I have some Polish vodka. I realize that I’d be content to spend the rest of my life at this table watching George and his friends play blues rock while I cuddle up with my girlfriend.

An old man in a suit jacket is moving erratically - alone - on the dance floor. In his eyes are the eery leer of a man who is either thinking and feeling far too much or far too little. After he’s glanced over at my girlfriend and I for the seventy-eighth time, I smile, raise my shot glass, and give him a thumbs-up.

This turns out to be an error.

He comes over to us with energy that suggests we’re the first people to communicate with him in several years. He is determined to now tell us his life story and is not in ANY way deterred by the fact that I, as I’ve left him know, only speak English and I don’t understand what he is saying.

Each word is shouted over the loud music with PURPOSE and FERVOR. But we don’t understand ANY of them. Until, like a saxophone melody emerging from a free jazz improvisation, we hear traces of recognizable words. “FOUR. SON.” “I HAVE A FOUR. SON.””SYDNEY.” “SHEFFIELD.”

We feign understanding until he is satisfied and he returns to the dance floor. By now, there is also a carton of grapefruit juice on our table. Soon, he is on-stage with George and his band - not making a request, not singing; just being on-stage.

Day Nine - Last day in Wroclaw. My camera and I go dwarf hunting. I photograph all the interesting, confusing murals. Nicky and I pick up souvenirs. Vinyl Cafe. I get my Mom and sister some fancy candy made in a fancy candy shop. I get myself a small snowglobe and a great magnet for my Dad.

I put “Slovakia” into my GPS and find that I am about six hours from the ancestral homeland of the Vojnik side of my family. I’ve heard there might even be a little royalty in that branch of my family tree. On this trip, I’ve been simultaneously the furthest I’ve ever been from home and the closest I’ve ever been to my ancestral roots.

The sun returns after what feels like a fairly lengthy absence as Neo, Dani, and George walk with us to Cathedral Island.

I spot an unattended blue balloon traveling slowly across a big green field and start filming it. Neo runs over and picks it up and presents it to his girlfriend who accepts it gratefully.

We crossed the Oder River on the Tumski Bridge after stopping to check out the thousands and thousands of love locks.

“Chumps,” Neo proclaims.

“Why, because they wasted a perfectly good lock?” Nicky asks.

“Yeah.”

They take us to Hala Targowa, a large indoor marketplace that looks like a train station and dates back to the period when Wroclaw was part of Germany. Birds are hanging out in the rafters and we are hanging out in Bar Karmazyn. We knew the perogies would be amazing based solely on the fact that the place was so packed with locals that we could barely find enough chairs for ourselves.

Dani almost leaves the blue balloon behind. I reclaim it for her.

On the other side of the indoor market, we spot a nondescript cafe with a very tempting rotating pastry case.

(It should be noted: one of the pastries looks a LOT like an aerial view of twenty-five Donald Trumps standing in a courtyard.)

We place our coffee and pastry orders and then wander into the back, expecting to find a few mangy chairs. Instead, we find ourselves in a surprisingly ornate, two-level dining area with fresh flowers on the tables, chandeliers hanging from the high ceilings, sepia-tinted historical photographs and collections of tea cups on the walls, and drawers of dried fruit built into the wall for some reason. Another dreamlike moment where it’s all a little more fantastical than it seems it should be, but you just go with it. We go to the upper level and sit around a table on a couch and plush chairs while our food is delivered to us. Nicky reports, “the banana one is my favorite.”

It's like the green room for a talk show hosted by European royalty.

Neo walks us to the bus station and sets us up with hot dogs with rolls that are enclosed on the bottom - weird yet highly practical! We say goodbye to this funny, kind character and his sweetheart of a girlfriend and get on the bus back to Berlin which, after a few days in a city with less English speaking and signage, feels almost like home. (London, then, feels like it might as well be an island right off the New Jersey coast.)

As our Polish friends told us, the road OUT of Poland is smoothly paved. By now, there’s a bit of travel fatigue setting in and I don’t know if I want to scream or laugh at the fact that the fella sitting in the front of the upper deck of the bus is playing - through a cell phone speaker for everyone to hear - “Johnny B. Goode.”







Friday, March 11, 2016

Neo Slides A Shot Glass In Front Of Me As If He Hears What I Was Thinking

Day Five - How did I only notice the Dildoking Sexshop poster TODAY, just as we’re leaving?!

As we rush to the train, I also snag a shot of Blackland Metal Rock Pub with its black facade and large white skull on the roof. I’d seen it on our way into town and noted how much more intimidating metal feels emanating from Germany than it does from a suburban Philadelphia Hot Topic store.

What awaits us in Poland? How do you pronounce Wrocław?

The PolskiBus wi-fi is spotty, but the yerba mate is sparkling. Pan Ducale biscottis are a satisfactory road breakfast as we begin our three-hour drive east.

We roll out of Berlin and start seeing huge windmill farms every few miles. Then more trees. Then an Ausfahrt sign. Then more windmill farms. And so on. It starts to be like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon background in real life - just less colorful. The monotony is broken up occasionally by a huge McDonald’s sign leaping into the sky like a cross on a highway in the American South (or, for that matter, a McDonald’s sign in the American South).

At a certain point, I realize that “Ausfahrt” is not a city with a tremendous amount of exits on the A4. I could lie and say I realized this quickly, but I don’t like lying.

We stop at a huge yet seemingly unoccupied gas station near the Polish border and several police get on-board. We are on the upper level of the bus, but we can hear that, as they enter below, they are shouting, “MCGARVEY!! MCGARVEY! Where is this CRAIG S. MCGARVEY?!?” I begin my deep breathing exercises at this point, telling myself that my fake passport is of very high quality, the contraband is very well-disguised, and that my contact on the other side of the border crossing has almost certainly paid off the correct government officials. I ask my girlfriend to repeat my alias to me several times and she does. “Biff Scrimmage. You are Biff Scrimmage from Wales. You are traveling to Poland to participate in cultural events with your friends from university. And your name, indeed, is Biff Scrimmage.”

But my anxiety gets the better of me. I try to make a break for it. I take a brick I found in the dumpster at the Berlin airport and I began bashing in the window next to my seat. But it won’t so much as dent! By now, the authorities hear all the commotion and they race up the stairs. I am fully panicked and I start operating on instinct. I begin tossing biscottis at them and splashing yerba mate into their faces. They reach for their guns but one of them yells something in Polish.

The man behind me translated: “Yo, these biscottis are fuckin’ sweet, bro! Let’s just take the rest of the day off and enjoy these tasty-ass jawns! Shit! All we ever do is work, broski!”

OK, maybe I do like lying. Fiction writing is fun! The police WERE there, though, and they did check our passports. Some people were, indeed, pulled off the bus for unknown reasons, including the woman sitting across from us. She entered the gas station and returned with some documents that seemed to pacify the officials. We later found that this border stop was unusual and possibly related to the crisis in Syria.

After a short while, we were back on the road. The rapidly deteriorating road. It was that same repeating Hanna-Barbera background as we crossed into Poland, but somehow the driving experience had gone from a fresh LP on the turntable to a warped thrift store 45 on a children’s record player.

We are greeted at the bus station by Neo. He takes us to his home, the second graffiti-covered building we’ve lived in this week. He offers us some house slippers and begins preparing a fresh fruit-and-vegetable smoothie for us. Before long, the first of many home-cooked meals appears in front of us. It quickly becomes clear that, in this phase of the trip, we will trade spaciousness and privacy for deeper immersion into the local community - and that it will be worth it.

Still early in the day, we get back out downtown and look for Daniela, Neo’s girlfriend. We are told she will be wearing a coat that is a little bit like the orange coat that Kenny from South Park wears.

We walk toward St. Elizabeth’s Church and I fall quickly in love with its Gothic architecture and unusual stained glass window designs. Not wishing to disturb all the people praying, I resist the urge to sing loudly in the beautiful, fourteenth century church, but not the urge to walk up the 300-foot tower for a bird’s eye view of my new temporary hometown.

My new friends and my girlfriend follow me up, but we all find ourselves winded by roughly the 200th foot. High on adrenaline and motivated by the drive to see everything I can see, I continue my ascent.

The view from the top of the tower turns out to be as breathtaking as I’d hoped. As I loop around it with my camera, Neo points out landmarks and gives us a sense of what this city has to offer us. The colors of the gorgeous Market Square, the out-of-place but impressively large Sky Tower (Poland’s biggest building), the university, the river, the factory area.

Neo borrows my black marker and wrote all of our names at the top of the tower, sealing them in a cartoon heart. It is Graffiti Official - we are in Poland!

On the way down, I photograph city scenes obscured by mesh wire and reassure some fellow American travelers, on their way up, that they don’t have far to go. That wasn’t necessarily true. But it sounds nice.

Back on the street, we head over to a cafe called Kawiarnia Literatka. Just like the German cafes we’d visited, there is a sense that we could stayed there for five hours without getting in anyone’s way. A feeling that everyone was getting done what needed to be done, yet nobody was busy. I sit with my espresso and try to slow my travel-crazed mind down enough to be present in this new place with these new friends and new accents. I am successful.

I resist the urge to spend my entire trip taking photos, but take mental notes to photograph things such as the mural of a pig with red boots playing a concertina. The home with dwarves and Shrek characters fastened above and beside the front door. The many dwarf statues we passed on the sidewalk (turns out there are over four hundred).

After all the traveling and poor sleeping, the prospect of doing anything that night other than staring slack-jawed at a movie sounded horrific, but, on the other hand, why travel 4,200 miles just to say no to stuff?! I know that a night of music and vodka at Bohema Bar & Music Club with my new friends would eventually seem like a stellar idea.

Which, of course, it immediately does. My first Polish vodka of the trip. Tyskie beer. It seems everyone in this cave-like club knows someone from our group of friends. The artwork and sculptures are delightfully profane and become more and more graphic the closer you get to the men’s room stall. (The men’s room that my girlfriend and I briefly shared as it is, evidently, the only working bathroom.)

Our new friend George is tearing it up with his musician friends in front of one of the creepiest clown murals I’ve ever seen. At one point, I notice that my beer buzz was fading; Neo slides a shot glass in front of me as if he hears what I was thinking.

After midnight, Youri and his girlfriend stop at what turns out to be a very popular KFC - two floors, drunk locals everywhere, and both a large security guard and a dwarf statue observing everyone closely.

Day Six - First time I’ve ever woken up in Eastern Europe. I am sitting on a couch with Nicky at Neo's house. He lives with his Macedonian girlfriend Dani, his friend George from the U.S.A. and France, and their friend Youri from France. His girlfriend Jagoda has been around, as well; she is the only actual Polish person among us.

They are feeding us great. Homemade meatballs and fries tonight. For lunch, we went out to a cozy pizza place and ordered three pies, six different varieties of toppings spread out on each half. It was at this restaurant, on our second day in Poland, that we inexplicably heard “Johnny B. Goode” a THIRD TIME.

Nicky and I hit the streets. My Nikon and I are on the lookout for murals and odd things, i.e. the sculpture of a life-size alligator being lifted into the air by a small red balloon.

A friend of a friend suggests we go to Hydropolis, “the water museum.” Neo kindly accompanies us on this slightly lengthy journey to the museum that, as the web site states, is “a place for those thirsty for knowledge!” Get it?

Get it?!

GET IT?!?!

Back home, it’s common to see an elderly woman sitting on an overturned Wal-Mart shopping cart while waiting for a SEPTA bus. Both Berlin’s and Wrocław's public transit puts the U.S.A.’s to shame.

Later, we are asked if we want to hang out in a swanky bachelor’s pad occupied by an ex-Canadian military man with a very large TV. Yes, we do. We are told there is a chance of board games emerging and in our slightly sleep-deprived states, we say quiet prayers to the travel gods that they won’t.

The bad news is that the board games DID emerge and, in my sleepy absentmindedness, I managed to mess up one of my moves and briefly become the laughing stock of the party. The good news is that we got to watch the Redman episode of MTV Cribs on the very large TV while drinking expensive booze. I could call the night a wash, but the sheer weirdness of being in some stranger’s apartment halfway around the globe, drinking his whiskey, reading his books, and watching his TV means that we won the night. If not the board game.

  





Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Enjoy The Fucking Chocolate

Day One - I ask my traveling companion if she had a travel alias. She does not. I suggest Ginger Valentine. I flirt with a few aliases. Klaus Molasses. Tellicherry Peppercorn, but I leave them behind at the Hamilton, New Jersey train station where our friend Marianna has kindly deposited us.

I find myself observing the scenery more than interjecting myself into it. Once I get past customs, I won’t need a name or many more words than “hello,” “goodbye,” “thank you,” and “Haribo.”

In New York City (usually my final destination rather than a launching point), we have dinner at Tick Tock Diner, near Penn Station. Nervous about all the upcoming flying, I feel like an actor playing me more than I feel myself. I stress-eat all of my fries and then I stress-eat some of hers.

We quickly go back underground and find our way to a subway train headed toward Jamaica, Queens, en route to JFK Airport. We squeeze into our seats and are surrounded by more sleepy-eyed locals and regional accents than I’m accustomed to as a guy who usually ends up somewhere like Madison Square Garden or NBC Studios when he’s in town. About an hour away from where I was born, I already feel like a tourist. I try to imagine how much of a tourist I’ll feel like when I wake up in Eastern Europe later this week.

Day Two - I left the U.S.A. for my first-ever overseas trip with the clothes on my back and the same backpack I carry with me at home, just with the scissors and Leatherman multi-tool swapped out for extra socks and underwear. Oh, and a pillowcase-sized bag of various Trader Joe’s trail mixes. Big green water bottle. Small blue passport ready for its first stamps. No guitar. No computer. No electric razor. Girlfriend reports that a hairy-faced Greg is an A-OK Greg.

I’d had in mind to shove a bottle of wine into my face before the flight, but I found that I was totally calm shortly after take-off. Just some light meditation for a few moments was all I needed. Later, the combination of benadryl and Morgan Freeman's voice put me to sleep for several hours of our flight from New York to London. A remarkable nap considering the less-than-ideal airplane seats and the fact that I purport to be an anxious flyer.

A fire is roaring behind me at Ye Olde Six Bells, a ninth-century tavern in Horley, England, near the River Mole. One of the oldest pubs in England. Now that I've figured out what they are, fish & chips are en route to our table, as is chicken & leek pie. On the bartender’s recommendation, I got a pint of London's Best. I’m not in town long enough to find out if it’s really the best - after travelling 3,500 miles, it is AUTOMATICALLY the best!

If they could put their accents in a pint glass, I’d drink three and take two for the road. We take a walk past the beautiful, 800-year-old St. Bartholomew Church and into a narrow walking path squeezing past pasty-skinned English dogs and their human friends. I have to keep reminding myself that it all looks like a quaint English village not because I’m watching an especially hi-def documentary but because my body is actually in the U.K.

Nicky and I are no dummies. And she is no stranger to international travel. But it is NEVERTHELESS TRUE that we both almost walked into traffic. In our defense… they were driving the wrong way. (All of them.)

We are only in England for a layover. My mind boggles at the amount of digital friends I could meet in the physical realm if we stayed, the music we’d make, the booze we’d consume. All the U.K. sites I’ve always wanted to see. I could maybe find some of my McGarvey, O’Brien, and Burns relatives. I could play my first non-U.S. solo show. Maybe I could see some of the Irish landscapes that I used to dream of sweeping through like a bird when I was a child. I’ve just arrived in Europe and I find myself planning my next European trip. Auntie Donna told me early on that I am on a born traveler. “All I have to do is keep feeding you and you’re non-stop.”

I fantasize about all this as we fly over the North Sea and The Netherlands. We soon arrive in late-night Berlin and find our way to the train that will take us to the Prenzlauer Berg district. We chose an apartment in this area both for its affordability and because of its associations with the counterculture. I like to be where the artists and the gay people are.

We take a brisk walk down Greifswalder Straße. The graffiti on the buildings brings to mind some of the rough parts of places like Camden, New Jersey, but the look and demeanor of the mostly young people brings to mind places like the University City area of Philadelphia. The conflicting signals confuse my instincts and I realize the metrics of home will not work here. I am far from home. I am in Berlin, one of Earth’s great cities.

On this dark and misty night, it is almost more bleak than we both imagined it would be. But a very comfortable bleak.

Soon, we meet Stephan. He shows us around his Airbnb apartment. The building is old and covered in graffiti, yet simultaneously has signs of gentrification. It’s what’s inside that counts, it seems. Out our window, there’s a clean courtyard full of bicycles and recycling cans. Inside, there is a bed with two half-size blankets instead of one big blanket. There is a fridge stocked with Merci chocolates and a bottle of wine. I wasn’t explicitly given permission to eat the chocolate and I spend a fair amount of psychic energy trying to imagine what Stephan’s chocolate policy is. I realize the policy is PROBABLY “enjoy the fucking chocolate” and I do just that.

There are outlets that don’t fit my American plugs. There is wi-fi. As much as I like the idea of abandoning computers entirely, these days spent without cell service make the occasional digital dispatch feel about as sweetly scarce as a postcard back home (with the added pleasure of confirmed receipt).

We are ready to be somewhere overnight after about twenty-four hours of traveling, but it’s hard to sleep after so much stimulation and time zone hopping. That box of chocolate probably didn’t help matters, either. Out of habit, I grab the remote and look for The Daily Show only to find a). the cable doesn’t seem to work, b). oh, yeah; it’s 11 PM Central European Time and that means they haven’t even RECORDED The Daily Show yet. A trip like this requires breaking many daily habits all at once.

I finally have peace and quiet, yet I can’t find that sweet, deep sleep that I most recently found on a crowded plane while sitting upright in coach.

Day Three - Stephan’s shower washes three countries’ worth of Greg Filth down the drain and I shuffle my all-black clothes into a slightly different outfit that looks exactly the same as yesterday’s.

We get on a tram and begin Breakfast Quest. We find a pastel building and decide it will be our destination. For a moment, I question my policy of patronizing mostly purple and pastel-colored establishments, but I realize I am right after the first bite of my grilled Spanish Chorizo sausage, cheese, and herb sandwich at Café Hüftengold. My partner seems equally pleased with her choice. The only customers in the restaurant, we take our time eating, flipping through German magazines and listening to English-language dance music that we’ve never heard before.

Just a few sips of my coffee and I switch from Introverted Greg into Extroverted Greg. From mumbling weirdo to Loud-Mouthed American. I begin wondering if the “coffee” I order in Germany and Poland will be more like the “espresso” I order in the U.S. Is their bad coffee our good coffee?

This city is quite calm for such a densely-populated place. After a while, I start to realize that I haven’t encountered any rude people. Everybody seems pretty content. Moving through their day’s tasks with focus and good scarves. The German scarf game is STRONG. Young and old.

Waiting for a tram, I realize that I don’t feel compelled to hide a morose face. I don’t feel like I need to pretend to be happier than I am. It’s a little bit grey even when the sun is out. Maybe that’s why there’s so much colorful graffiti. I am content to be a black-clad stranger in this crowd.

I become interested in the psychology of modern-day Berlin. Michael Stipe calls our country a teenage nation; that makes even more sense when you see it from afar. With age and experience, perhaps, comes a sense of groundedness? Do the people who have seen the most horror have a deeper respect for the beauty of a peaceful day? Back home, they’re about to elect Donald Drumpf president. I think about the rampant racism back home while visiting Topography Of Terror, the museum at the old SS headquarters.

We marvel at the German dogs roaming the city leashless beside their humans. We notice in the park that people are reacting to this 8 degree Celsius day the way Americans would react to a piping hot summer day. We even walked past a few barbequers.

We walk into a park and stop at a pigeon coop called Flying Tippler. Soon, I’m standing among birch trees and filming Nicky swinging on a swing set with “FIGHT NAZIS” spraypainted on it.

I pause at the portion of the Berlin Wall that still stands in front of Topography Of Terror, photographing and filming street scenes through one of the big holes in the concrete.

We watch the sun set through the pillars at Brandenburg Gate, take an unauthorized bathroom trip at Starbucks, then - freshly out of plans - we wander the city freely.

“What’s that?”

She spots what we eventually realize is the Bode Museum on what we eventually realize is the Spree River. I photograph some of the seemingly endless street art and stare, mouth agape, at Evangelical Supreme Parish and Collegiate Church (AKA Berlin Cathedral). I run up and test the doors, but none of them budge. “Something this old will probably be here next time I’m here,” I reason.

We take a rest among the statues and monuments and watch the Berlin street scene playing out in front of us. On a bridge that crosses the Spree River, a man obscured by shadows is playing lightly-amplified guitar in the style of Chet Atkins.

Back in the Prenzlauer Berg district, Nicky’s research leads us to PraterGarten, a beer garden/restaurant/concert venue that dates back to 1837. We arrive and see minimal signs of life - the beer garden section is closed for the season and there’s no clear sign of the restaurant. We walk through the darkened property in the hopes that a nondescript building set fairly deep into the property is what we seek. It is! We are rewarded for our persistence with a mug of Prater Pils and two orders of roast pork, potato dumplings, and coleslaw.

I walk past a “Toiletten” sign that feature cartoons of a scowling man and a distraught woman smoking cigarettes with big red “X”s on them. Then I walk past signs that say “Damen” and “Herren” with the same characters smoking cigarettes WITHOUT red “X’s on them. This confuses me, but I don’t smoke, anyway, so I go into the one that says “Herren.” I can tell that the Prater Pils is working because I look up from the mirror while washing my hands and notice that, damn - I find myself very attractive.

As we leave, I walk the wrong way - deeper into the property - so I can photograph a fantastic handpainted sign with a big smiling cartoon skull who warns “Betreten verboten!”

We get back to the apartment and wonder, “did we walk almost all day?” My camera and I like to see everything. And I love having a traveling companion who can keep up with me.

Day Four - I miss music. I start the day with Neil Young’s song “After Berlin” and I follow it with R.E.M.’s “Überlin.” The music video’s graffiti-lined locale looks like our view down our block.

I don’t miss shaving, but I do miss playing guitar. I don’t miss choosing an outfit. I continue to rock black jeans, a black sweater, a black thermal shirt, brown Docs, and the earth-toned scarf that Cleo gave me - a little piece of Marcella and her family with me on my travels.

I get some sort of poppyseed-based pastry at a Jewish bakery called Bäckerei Kädtler. She gets kirsch streusel. I feed my addiction with yet another beautiful cup of coffee. Each table has a strange decoration that appears to be a piece of bread with a colored egg laying in it. We know we are the only American tourists here because there is no one else here - at one point, not even the proprietor. We watch locals pop in for a quick transaction; I wonder where they’re going next.

Out on the street, the crowds are likely void of anyone I’ve ever met in my life. But my eye still seems to search for them. “Hey, isn’t that Adam Honeycutt?” No, probably not!

My cell phone, having remained on Airplane Mode since flying out of New York, has been downgraded to a secondary camera. It’s an unexpected joy to be almost fully removed from the world of cell phones.

The wi-fi password at Flamingo Fresh Food is “ilikeflamingo.” But I didn’t tell you that. Let the pastry chef tell you. While you have his ear, you can ask him for his recommendation. That method served us VERY well.

Already on our last full day in Berlin, we commit ourselves three stops at Berlin’s Museum Island: Pergamon Museum (which itself houses the Collection of Classical Antiquities, the Middle Eastern Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art), Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) with its vast collection of mostly nineteenth century art, and the Bode Museum (sculptures, antique coins, and Byzantine art). Nicky seems especially taken by the huge Persian rugs. I am most drawn to paintings of colorful outdoor scenes with a sense of mystery. Where were those dandy monkeys with fancy hats riding a camel in front of a tavern? I’d rather leave with the question than the answer.

As we finish our museum tours, we pass a man on sitting in front of a Christ painting who appears to be moved to tears.

I soon find myself moved by art, too. The spirit of Britney Spears overwhelms me and I find myself singing a glacially slow, operatic version of “Oops, I Did It Again” in the highly reverberant front room at the National Gallery. The security guards don’t seem bothered. My girlfriend seems OK with it, or maybe has just succumbed to the fact that it’s far too late to leave me in New York City.

Where the Chet Atkins-esque guitar player was last night, there is a woman playing accordion and smiling a beaming and unwavering smile that I can’t help but imagine has been plastered upon her face since the moment she discovered her instrument and will remain until the day she dies. Beside her, a bride and groom prepare to pose for pictures while the photographer’s two assistants catch a white sheet in the wind.

We decompress at the apartment briefly, but soon hear the siren call of currywurst. I follow her and soon we’re at Konnopke's Imbiss, a locals joint that opened in 1930, chowing down on tasty fries and mystery meat covered in curry powder and homemade ketchup. Surrounded by locals and vaguely erotic artwork, we chow down on our dinner on a picnic table in a semi-enclosed shack right beside a transit station and in between both directions of traffic on Schönhauser Allee.









Monday, February 29, 2016

One Leap Year Ago

I met Marcella one leap year ago, four regular years ago.

We met at a coffee shop near her house. I bought her a drink and we chatted on the two plush chairs, bonding over our respective illnesses and who knows what else.

She was very scarf-y. Very well put-together in a tasteful way that I can see, in retrospect, shows that she is Cleo's daughter. I‘d had a bumpy winter (my Dad's stroke, my Mom's house fire) and couldn't have been my best self, but I liked her company.

Possibly motivated by the thought of getting some restless energy out through a walk. I suggested we go to IKEA. On the way there, I played her a brand new song called "My Grass Is Greener" during a critical gasoline fill-up. She probably heard "Knit Hat Girl" that day, a song of mine she heard infrequently but never forgot. It wasn't about her when I wrote it, but that doesn't matter; it is now.

I suggested we go to Johnny Brenda‘s next. I somehow got lost on the way there and fought feelings of frustration under cold, gray, Philadelphia skies, trying to stay in a good groove and be someone worth this stranger's time. I was relieved to finally park and be on foot with her, taking pictures around town before settling into a table at Johnny Brenda's. I'd only been there for rock shows previously and hadn't realized how cozy the dining area was.

We read each other poetry and song lyrics, respectively. Our best material about broken hearts. I think she might have told me more about her past cancer experiences to which I would've replied with my stories about my relatively puny experiences with iritis and ankylosing spondylitis.

I undoubtedly told her about meeting Peter Buck upstairs after a Robyn Hitchcock concert, tilting my head back like a Pez dispenser to make eye contact with the tall guitarist, handing him a note I wrote earlier that week: "A Letter To Peter Buck That Got Rained On."

On the second date. she came to my rental house and I walked her to the old, burned-down house, showing her where I used to live. My piano. The small handful of records I left there. (I left The Monkees' Headquarters. Changed my mind a few weeks later and recovered it.) The Stuff Wall. A gaggle of knit hats and fedoras and bucket hats. Later that year, she filmed me performing a song on top of a pile of post-demolition rubble.

I was not easy to be close to during that period and I was continually astonished at the effort she was making to remain in my life, no matter how standoffish I was acting. I think she knew I was the guy who was gonna make things a little better if things ever needed bettering.