She just keeps giving to me. Gone almost two-and-a-half years, she manifested in my latest musical move and the highlight of the day so far - a phone call from the leader of an amazing orchestral ensemble. When I thought about how to best approach the songs of mine that require strings, I thought of them first. But initially I felt sheepish. Could I really work with musicians of that caliber? The idea that I was able to gather interest from the people I really wanted is a Marcella-inspired idea. Like my 2015 photography show ‘A Few Moments With Marcella,’ doing this work in someone else’s honor has given me the incentive to have big ideas and not compromise them.
I am taking the same approach to the record about my time with Marcella, my first album after ten years of songwriting, and its accompanying record of older songs. I looked at the song list and tried to be honest with myself about how I want to approach each piece of music. It was gonna involve getting some outside help from people that I didn’t yet know, as well as people I do know who I know to be busy people. It’s been the greatest thrill to have all of these people tell me yes.
We did our first session the other day at Sweet Creek Studios in Upper Bucks County. I will tell you about it soon, but I am currently distracted by the clouds underneath me. Mountains in the distance, unidentified. Go west, youngish man!
I got Mini Rainbow Frogs all over the plane. The woman next to me told me, "let them go."
Flying over the upper tip of Texas, my right pinky finger scans two nearly imperceptible hairs on my nose. Nicky is asleep and I am the meat of a Sleeping Lady Sandwich. Passing over Oklahoma City now. Most of these mid-USA places are all about as foreign to me as Wrocław, Poland was. I want to see them all. Newtown, Pennsylvania to Los Angeles, California feels like a long journey to me, but perhaps not to the woman next to me who is traveling from Quebec to Hawaii.
The first place we take the rental car is In-N-Out Burger. I hope this will be my first “WOW!” moment in California. It is not.
Parking the car in our new temporary neighborhood, the first thing that strikes me is the delicious aroma. Nearly every inhalation fills my head with honeysuckle and jasmine and perhaps trace amounts of ocean breeze. Like we're in the middle of a garden no matter where we go. NOW I am in love with California.
Here in Los Feliz, we stay with Shannon, a friend of Nicky’s who works in the film industry. We discuss celebrities a little bit, but we discuss Marty The Dog a lot. He is a small white dog who is a known man-hater. I work hard to present him with my calmest energy, soft-voiced, limp-wristed. It works. Before long, I am serenading him. I made up a song called “If I Wrote A Song For Marty (How Would It Go)?”
if I wrote a song for Marty
would he look me in the eye?
would he say that I am OK
even though I am a guy?
We take a short walk to H Coffee on Shannon’s recommendation. The Australian man in front of me in line thinks it's freezing. (It is sixty degrees.)
I pass women on the street and wonder, “have you known Anthony Kiedis?”
What is John Frusciante doing right now? It's none of my business.
What does Flea’s house look like? Do I think about the Chili Peppers this much on the east coast?
“It’s a ‘Crenshaw’ sign! Like in the Snoop Dogg videos!!”
Driving around this huge, oft-romanticized, historic city for the first time is a thrill. We stop at the Walk Of Fame just ‘cause we can. I give a guitar pick to the recently departed Chuck Berry, photograph some teenage girls flipping their respective birds on the Donald Trump star. In front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, a hip hop guy accuses me of being afraid of black people when I fail to take his free hip hop CD. “I don’t have a CD player!” I lie emphatically. Every few feet, someone asks us to take a tour of the stars’ homes. I judge their invasive industry, and resume my thoughts about the whereabouts of John Frusciante. It is evident that the Walk Of Fame is something to do once, and probably just once.
Does the impeccably dressed, cheerily chipper CVS manager aim to be discovered by a casting agent? I like his pep. I also like how merchants in California aren’t confused about my desire to take my items without a bag like they often are back home.
We take in the amazing views at the top of Griffith Park, sun beating down on our pasty skin. It strikes me that I haven't made enough plans for my first journey to California but that it doesn't matter. These mountains are the event I want to attend. I scan them for hikers and fantasize about days spent investigating the trails that surround us. I imagine hiking as close as I can to the Hollywood sign. It quickly dawns on me that this region will require many return visits to see everything I think I want to see, let alone the things I want to see that I don’t yet know that I want to see. It's like visiting five or six east coast states at once.
The Target men’s department looks the same no matter how far you roam, like some sort of portal back to - for me - Langhorne, Pennsylvania. It’s as disconcerting as it is comforting. Corporate America - It’s As Disconcerting As It Is Comforting!™
“I always knew I'd kiss you in the West Hollywood Target.”
I buy new pants for the wedding and am disturbed by my changing waist size. But not so disturbed that I don’t grab a Toblerone for the elevator ride down to the underground parking garage.
Shannon calls a Lyft and takes us to dinner at the delicious Wurstküche. It’s the kind of place that is probably proud of their long line, something we typically don’t bother with in our suburban lifestyle. They even have a Wandering Bro to help you decide what sort of meat and beer you might want to put into your face when you eventually order. I ask Nicky if she thinks he saw an ad in the paper that stated, “WANDERING BRO WANTED.”
I’d been talking with my dad for years about getting a rental car in Los Angeles and driving up the coast. That has sadly turned out to not be in the cards. Instead, I am doing it with a woman I met through my cell phone in 2015 and two of her friends. And it’s great! It’s like that song says, “life is what happens when you’re busy trying to find the In-N-Out near Camarillo… not the one in the outlet mall, but the other one.”
I failed to grab my AGPTEK MP3 player from my car in Pennsylvania, so the car radio is playing whichever staticky college radio station I happen to land on. We stay left-of-the-dial when traveling, and occasionally far-right. As we make our way toward the lower end of Northern California, my original primary California reference point - Neil Young - comes on the radio with his recent piece “Peace Trail.”
We’re playing jazz by the time we get into the Santa Barbara region, jaw-dropping mountains out the right window, Pacific Ocean and some massive tankers in the distance out the left. Someone speaks of the hiking trails in these mountains and I get another craving to extend our trip for another two months so I can see EVERYTHING.
A moment alone under palm trees on the main drag in Santa Barbara. Nicky and her Bryn Mawr pals are shopping. I’ve been warned all my life that I’ll never come back from California. It’s indeed a risk. I also had trouble fleeing Nashville and Berlin, but I always come back to the area of the world where Jamal The Cat lives.
Fueled by unbelievable fish tacos from Corazon Cocina SB, I wander Santa Barbara in search of a cheap haircut. I enter a place that promises a $45 cut after a ninety minute wait. I’m not in Tullytown anymore! I will be a shaggy Greg at Ari and Drew’s wedding. People are used to a shaggy Greg.
Nicky does a reading from the altar at this beautiful Unitarian church. I’ve never seen HER on-stage! She does her friends justice and everyone is happy-crying by the time the bride makes her way out. These people are cool and these people love each other! As The Minus 5 said, life doesn’t really half-suck most of the time.
Surrounded by a bunch of celebratory gals, I barely have to speak. Perfect! Sam and I are unified in our near-silence under palm trees and beautiful California skies. Marty The Dog waits in the hotel room. Sam loads a Pez dispenser for the first time in his life and feels appropriately euphoric. I try to catch up to his level of euphoria by drinking lots of booze. It works! A Manhattan and a margarita; east coast and west coast together in my bloodstream!
Or a guy getting drunk on free booze. Either way.
I drink enough to do my version of dancing. Nicky is beautiful, as usual. No matter how many new contexts I see her in, she keeps being beautiful. I am so lucky to be traveling with her.
Just as the bride is doing, I dance a little, then reach into the bowl of Haribo Peaches for a sugar fix, then dance a little more. My addictions are delicious.
I spot a piano in the corner of the room and play along to “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” hoping that Nicky won’t notice. She does and tells me that she does not approve of my unauthorized use of the Unitarian Society Of Santa Barbara's piano. Drunk Greg decides that she’s full of shit and fumes for a few seconds before grabbing another Haribo Peach. I find on this instrument-less trip that I gets squirmy FAST. I miss playing guitar by Day Two. My addictions are delicious.
Marty accompanies us to breakfast at both the hotel and, on New Friend Lauren’s advice, Savoy Cafe & Deli. We say goodbye to everyone and get back on the road, going north up the Central Coast.
Our room at Monterey’s adults-only Hotel 1110 has a large portrait of Tina Turner above the headboard. The rooftop bar has an excessive amount of succulents and a great view of Monterey Bay, presumably (it’s very dark right now). The barman invites us for a complimentary drink. We promise to return the following evening but instead we - more than likely - never see him again in this lifetime.
Inspired in part by my quest to get a great cup of coffee somewhere new each morning, we find ourselves in Carmel-By-The-Sea. I fantasize about having a three-day writing bender at Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Co., but I get my latte and we stay on the move. Elsewhere in town, I'm knocked out by the beautiful garden outside the Church of the Wayfarer. I like seeing a church that doesn't discard natural beauty but celebrates it.
On our friend Lauren’s advice, we travel to Point Lobos. We park right on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway and enjoy a brisk walk through a sweet-smelling forest. As we approach the shoreline, Nicky wisely advises me to not get my hopes up about seeing sea lions. What she doesn't know is that I've decided that I MUST.
I gingerly wander the cliffs and the pterodactyl-era sandstone rock formations known as the Carmelo Formation. To my great relief, the relatively cautious Nicky joins me. Walking these strange fossilized rocks with my partner, I'm reminded that, whatever I may think of myself, I am merely one of the animals on one of the planets. I steal a shell for my nephew Nolan who is busy being an animal on the other side of this continent.
Someone nearby smokes a joint. “I get it,” I think. “A redundant high in a place so beautiful. But I get it.”
(I did look for them, though.)
We find the sea lions. My camera battery hangs in there just long enough for me to take their family portrait. Just a buncha bewhiskered sea schlubs trying to get a nap, unknowingly representing an achieved goal for this human traveler.
A day and night in Big Sur was cancelled after we learned of the recent mudslides, but we did drive to the point where the PCH was closed and wander around the forest a bit. Passing a homeless and/or hiking man who blended into the scenery almost to the point of invisibility, I touched my first redwood tree and walked up to a sunlit creek, kneeling down to steal a cookies-’n’-cream-style stone.
Back in the rental car, I scarf down my fish and chips leftovers while Nicky cruises through the awe-inspiring scenery around the Carmel Highlands. We marvel at the seemingly inaccessible luxury mountain top homes with their treacherous private roads, alternately scoffing at the rich assholes who must own them and hoping to be those rich assholes one day. I wave to more hill-dwelling cows and horses than I’d like to admit.
Home is a long way away. We drive from Monterey to Los Angeles listening to My Favorite Murder Podcast and You Must Remember This. Third try at In-N-Out, somewhere on the 101. Better, but still not as good as I'd expect for being mentioned in a Neil Young song. Aside from a stop at the Carmel Mission Basilica, this day is essentially one of two travel-home days. It is exhausting, yet I feel that the time spent along the Pacific Coast Highway would have been worth MUCH more effort than that.
We stumble onto Venice Beach ‘cause we can and then collapse in an inexplicably handicapped-accessible Super 8 room in Culver City, resting before traveling to Houston and then Philadelphia the following day. The Super 8’s free orange is too bland and the Super 8’s free orange juice is too sweet. In my weary delirium, the lifesize standee of a man who looks a little like Sam Phillips in his prime seems to say, “IT ALL BALANCES OUT IN THE END, JACK.”
Waiting for my suitcase to be hurled onto the carousel in Philadelphia, Nicky spots the caged bird that rode on our flight. I hit Record on my cell phone and record one final animal sound on this trip.
My sister kindly drives us home from the airport, catching me up on moments of east coast life that I missed. I wheel my suitcase down the sidewalk in front of my beige home, Nicky by my side, and I realize things ain't so bad here. There is some stressful business to deal with, but so many joyful things, too.
It all balances out in the end, Jack.