Fall Tour: Lodging with the Elks

Our show in Pittsburgh is at the Smiling Moose. The streets are wide enough for roughly one and a half cars, so loading is a dodgy affair. I do not intend to pass judgment on the fine city of Pittsburgh based on one of its residents, but one of the first people I see after parking is a fully decked-out neo-Nazi. He is burly and tattooed and has a big black swastika with a red background on the back of his denim jacket. You can’t miss it. The fuck is this? I’m sure everywhere we go has its share of avowed racists, but usually they feel obligated to hide it a little better. I just recently read this article about how the xenophobic far-Right in Germany has to adopt all these obscure symbols known only to them due to public antipathy. The fact that this guy can just walk around like that without anybody fucking with him sets me ill at ease. I don’t see any others of his ilk and try to put him out of my mind. It’s an old blue-collar town with a lot of pissed off white people; I guess a certain amount of this is to be expected. Everyone I will actually meet in Pittsburgh is good people.

We have some time to kill before the gig, so we wander off in search of food. The food at the Smiling Moose actually looks amazing, and is very cheap, but I can’t resist the allure of this janky-looking Cambodian restaurant. I order crab fried rice, which is something I have seen on television and always been curious about. It is an A+ idea with a C+ execution. There is indeed a shit ton of crab meat, but excessive pineapple makes it overly sweet. There is no particular salt or spice to balance it out. It’s basically junk food. I eat damn near all of it because I’m very hungry, and I spend most of the meal trying to figure out whether I like it or not. Julian hates it and everyone else who tries it is undecided. Next time, it’s the Smiling Moose for sure.

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The venue is right across from Pittsburgh Guitars, one of the more fun guitar stores I’ve been to on tour. The vibe is low key, and they have a way above-average selection of cheap instruments for such a small operation. They know what you’re actually likely to buy. I am sorely tempted by a Squier Tele bass with a butterscotch finish, but I can’t even remotely justify its purchase. Since I’m trying to fix up my shitty old Sorina and making plans to build another bass from parts, I’m already knee-deep in instruments. Nothing holds a candle to my G&L, anyway. The lady behind the counter hears me testing it out with “I Want You Back”, and says I’m the last person she’d expect to know that song. I choose to take that as a compliment. I do look pretty scruffy, and probably smell like the underarm of a Waffle House. So, thanks, I think. As long as there are electric basses, there will be people playing that line in music stores.

The show is decently-attended, and the sound is impeccable. It’s all ages, so it’s over pretty early. We have a hot tip for a late-night activity: banjo night at a nearby Elks Lodge with our local hosts. Some bad directions lead us to miss the actual banjo music, but we do get to hoist a few cheap Yuenglings in an Elks Lodge, which is a novel experience in itself. If you’ve ever been to Gottscheer Hall, it’s sort of like that. We are definitely the youngest crew in there by several decades, but we are well-behaved and they treat us with courtesy. As far as I can tell, Elks are sort of like Masons without all the pseudo-religious business. My great-grandfather on my dad’s side was a pretty high-ranking Mason, and I’ve always been interested in stuff like that. It strikes me as mostly a community-sanctioned way for guys with families to bro out. “Drinking with the boys” has a potentially suspect ring to it, but “Elks Lodge meeting” sounds legit. And I think there’s some sort of charity component? Anyway, I am grateful to the Elks for their hospitality and cheap beer. But it closes early, and we’re still up, so our journey continues.

We drop our stuff off at the house where we’re staying and head out to a bar. Pennsylvania has this weird thing about beer where you can only purchase it in a bar, so all the bars have big fridges full of beer for takeout. We would probably just go to a deli and grab a six pack if such a thing existed. Instead, we find ourselves in a smoke-filled room where they are playing the entirety of Bob Marley’s Legend on the jukebox, accompanied by at least one guy so possessed by the spirit of the music that he simply must sing along. Smoking in bars is another big cultural adjustment for a New Yorker, and I must say I don’t like it one bit. I’ve been known to bum one every now and then when deep in my cups, but I’ve never minded and in fact rather like being made to go outside to do so. You get a breath of fresh air to make you feel less self-conscious about what you’re doing to your insides, and it provides an excuse to break away from the group with whoever you might be talking to. It is classy, relatively hygienic, and socially useful. Tonight, when I am in no mood to smoke and in fact have been quite good about it for some time, I will leave smelling like tobacco piss. Still, once there, we decide we like being out and want to stick around. I order a Campari and soda, and the bartender has trouble finding the Campari. No one ever orders it. In case it were not already obvious, I have outed myself as being Not From Here. But anyone who orders Campari and anything knows it’s kind of an affectation, and has made the calculation that its bittersweet candy-red goodness outweighs any accusations of toolery. I fucking love Campari; haters of my paranoid fancy to the left.

Closing time in Pittsburgh is 2, so we get some beer-to-go and head back. One of our hosts moonlights as a stick-and-poke tattoo artist, and Greg has decided tonight’s the night. He asks Felicia to draw him something, and she produces a cool abstract geometric thing on a slip of scrap paper. I am tired, but stay up to provide moral support and put on tattooing music. Greg shows me this fucking amazing video which I am still processing. Apparently this guy was on Miles Davis’s Live/Evil and has a bunch of his own records. One to add to the list for when I get home. By the time we go to bed, there are no more sleeping spaces available, and I decide to camp out in the van. It’s actually really comfortable in the back seat, and if you’re a short guy like me you can stretch out all the way. The only drawback is there’s nowhere to pee, so you have to get in a real good one before you retire. I do, and I sleep awesomely well. In the morning, we walk to nearby MauraMori Café for breakfast. I get this awesome grilled cheese, which I highly recommend. It has Havarti and spinach and peppers and onions, and every element is en pointe.

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Next stop, Buffalo. We are playing at Mohawk Place, a local institution that has been closed for some time and only recently reopened. This happy accident provides us with a surprisingly goodsize crowd. We arrive on the early side and the soundman is nowhere to be found, so I head off with Max and Greg in search of food. We are in what appears to be a non-ideal food neighborhood, and Max makes a snap decision to go to the Tap House. Great, another meal of bar food. Just what my decaying body needs. My resignation turns to joy when I see a local specialty on the menu: a beef on weck.

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I remember reading about this or seeing it on TV or something. It is basically a French dip, but on a particular special sort of bun native to the Buffalo environs. The kummelweck is a pillowy-soft round white roll dotted with caraway seeds and kosher salt. It is awesome. My beef is served rather medium-well instead of the classic rare, but the whole thing hits the spot nonetheless. The bun soaks up the beef juice, and some fresh grated horseradish cuts through. I also help Greg out with his buffalo wings, because I’m just a helpful kind of guy. They are great, which they goddamn well better be up here. The bartender is displaying more cleavage than I have seen displayed in public ever. She is quite justifiably proud of what God has given her. The food is amazing, but the overall experience somewhat dampened by the bathroom, which smells more like pee than literally anywhere else I have been in my life, including the portable toilets at an outdoor festival in summer. Look at this bathroom, with its combination of faux-wood formica stuff and grout that makes up not just the walls but also the urinal. What a weird idea, so much more complicated than straightforward porcelain and probably infinitely harder to clean. Someone had a vision of this bathroom, and they were not to be dissuaded. I have to admire their focus, even if the end result reeks of a deep and ancient pee.

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Back at the venue, we are given a bar tab instead of drink tickets. I am in no mood to indulge, and instead order Red Bulls to stay awake. If I’m ordering Red Bull, you know it’s real bad, because I hate that shit with a passion usually reserved for the Koch Brothers. Somehow, despite my abstinence, the band manages to rack up a $110 tab. Not pointing any fingers; you know who you are. The manager graciously waives all but $40 of this, but I wish he had just cut us off. $40 is half a tank of gas. Whatever, it’s a solid show, and we have a great time shooting the shit with opener Mink, whose guitarist is a friend of a friend. The DJ is spinning some top-notch material, and I hit the dance floor for a bit, where it is basically just Sam and Becca and myself. Those two can generally be relied upon for dance company; if everyone else is dancing, that’s when you know it’s really a night. But I’m beat, and very much looking forward to sleep. By some miracle, I actually get my own room with a bed to myself. I hit it like a ton of bricks, phone right next to my head in case anyone from work calls. Of course no one does until I’m in the shower, from which I return to find missed calls from both my boss and my project manager. Fucking hell. Fortunately both pertaining to the same thing, which is not urgent. I have to knock out as much as I can in the morning, because we’ll be going to Canada, where roaming data charges threaten to bankrupt the unwary traveler.

Crossing the Canadian border is probably no big thing for your average Joe or Joette with no warrants outstanding, but for a touring band it can be a real undertaking. Depending on their level of savvy and what sort of day they’ve been having, the border guards can give you a really hard time. Their concerns are twofold: you are trafficking drugs, or you will be making a lot of money in Canada that you do not intend to pay taxes on. The first of these concerns cause some problems for Celestial Shore, whose crystals of selenite from Atlanta are regarded with suspicion and hostility. One guard gives them the whole “we know you’ve got drugs, it’s gonna be a long day for both of us” speech and actually goes so far as to field test the crystals. The idiocy is staggering. I’m a sufficiently big-money drug trafficker to be in possession of a column of meth or crack or what have you that is roughly the length and width of my forearm, but I’m dumb enough to transport it in that form in plain sight, surrounded by a bunch of suspicious-looking music gear in a large and conspicuous vehicle with several people I’m not related to? I suppose there are people who have tried to move this amount and more without any precautions whatsoever, but it’s still pretty funny to think about if you know the Shoresmen. Pablo Escobar they are not. Our crossing is surprisingly straightforward. We have the necessary documents from the promoter in Montreal, and the show in Toronto is sufficiently under the radar to not warrant any further inquiry. We have had the presence of mind to load up maps before we lose cellular service, and since the crossing took so little time we decide to make a stop at Niagara Falls. It’s our first time making the border crossing at this location, and we’ve never been, and it’s a place people go, I hear.

It is scenic as hell, I must admit. Look at this rainbow!

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There are several fudge shops that sell fudge in great big slices the size of a hamburger patty. More fudge shops per capita than I have seen elsewhere, the servings of which appear to be roughly the amount of fudge it would be advisable to consume in a month if the eater observes a scrupulously healthy diet the rest of the time. More than anything else, it seems like the owner of the first of three fudge shops visible from where we park does a brisk business in parking spaces, which cost $5 for a half hour. We get an hour, figuring a half hour is probably not quite enough. There are a lot of people in colorful ponchos taking pictures. I am suspicious of places like Niagara Falls. I’m just too much of an asshole contrarian to enjoy the ostensible pleasures on offer. It reminds me of Phoenix, with its manicured corporate deliberateness, only even moreso: Niagara Falls is explicitly a tourist attraction, not even pretending to be a real place. I always wonder where the dark underbelly is. What must it be like to actually live here? What do the kids do for fun? Who does the extensive and constant landscaping necessary to preserve the aesthetic, and where do they live? Where is the chain gang of stooped Morlocks in the cave beneath the falls, eyes blind-white from the sepulchral darkness, toiling day and night to churn out all that fudge? An hour is plenty.

Milk Glass Gallery is a small space, configured in such a way that the band has to play right by the door, sort of in the way. During our set I will get a kick out of watching people enter and try to weave their way between me and Carlos mid-song. They are quite justifiably confused about how to proceed, and wary of getting hit with a guitar, but they are determined, and eventually succeed. We have some time to kill, and I take advantage of the WiFi to finish the work I didn’t get done during our data blackout. I am fortunate that it is a Friday and I only lost part of a day. After I’m done, I ask some people at the venue what’s good to eat around here. They recommend pizza, which they are eating, and which is not the sort of thing I’m looking for. I’m from New York, man, I’m not going to eat your weird Canadian pizza unless it is free or I am under great duress. We had passed a legit oasis of Asian and Caribbean shops on our way in, and I’m hoping they might know something about one of those. But that neighborhood is slightly too far to walk, and they recommend a Portuguese chicken restaurant a block away. Sold.

The restaurant looks rather like hometown favorite Loma, with lots of rice and soupy bean things in a steam table and a rotisserie brimming with perfectly-browned chickens, except that it is small and quiet and spotlessly clean. I don’t care if this food is special; I would eat the hind leg of the Holy Ghost, as my mother used to say. But this food exceeds all my expectations. I order a half chicken with rice and beans. It is an obscene amount of food, but the quarter chicken meal is half as big and only two dollars cheaper.

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Where to begin? The chicken is impeccable. I think it may be the best rotisserie chicken I have ever experienced. Sorry, Flor de Mayo. The skin is unbelievably crispy for rotisserie, and the meat is juicy and flavorful. Dry rub is just caked on here, and the combination of spices is perfect. The flavors come through really prominently inside the meat, not just on the exterior. It must have been brined as well as dry-rubbed; I don’t know how else this depth of flavor would be possible. I have the option of sweet or hot sauce. I choose hot, which is brushed on and soaks into the meat. It is a sort of vinegary hot sauce, not unlike Frank’s but with a higher ratio of spice to tang. Then there’s the rice, which has peas and black olives and all sorts of nice little surprise bits in it. The olives have pits, which necessitate some caution on the part of the eater, but the rice is much improved by their inclusion. The beans really take it over the edge, though. Garbanzo beans are the base, cooked slightly al dente. They sit in a soupy broth with a strong smoke flavor. What is the source of that smoke? Over the course of eating I find a ham hock, slices of sausage, and some chewy whitish bits that appear to be tripe. These beans contain at least three kinds of meat. They are sublime. I am freaking out eating this food. It is the definition of “stick to your ribs”. I get close to finishing, but I am conquered. I hope it’s good cold. I bet it is.

Back at the venue, we have some more time to kill. The surly bartender cracks me a PBR like it’s the last thing she wants out of life at this moment. We meet opener Omhouse, which has some member overlap with Doldrums. They turn out to be fucking spectacular, and we eagerly trade for one of their tapes to blast in the car. The rhythm section is murderous, and the singer has the sort of voice that sounds like it has all sorts of compression on it just naturally. Real nice guys, too. The venue is packed; definitely the first well-attended show we’ve played in Canada ever. I’m thoroughly stressed out at the start of the show, trying to find outlets and space to stand and my clip-on tuner, which appears to be lost forever. Fuck it. I try to channel my momentary ill will towards the universe into playing, and I think it works. I can’t tell if people are actually loving our set or if they’re just extremely fucked up. Enough people buy enough merch that I decide it must be both. I dance for a while, and this time all my tourmates join in. It’s on. But only for a little bit; we have a six-ish hour drive plus an early loadin the next day. Plus we’re staying with Felicia’s aunt and uncle, who would not think of hosting us without staying up to greet us and give us a tour of all household amenities, and we don’t want to keep them up any later than necessary. It is already 2.

The house is large, and there is an impressive spread of food laid out for us. Spaghetti with bolognese, salad, and fresh fruit. Plus ham and eggs and toast and cheese for breakfast in the morning, and some promising-looking guava pastries. Halfway through a plate of spaghetti, I see a repurposed peanut butter jar half-full of a red-flecked yellow substance on the kitchen counter. Is it homemade hot sauce? Fuck yeah it is. The last time I had hot sauce made by a member of Felicia’s family back in Miami it knocked me on my ass, and I loved it, and this hot sauce is no exception. Our hostess confirms that the yellow color comes from mustard, and the heat definitely comes from scotch bonnets or something closely related to them. This hot sauce is just the ticket. I have another plate of spaghetti and meat sauce supplemented with it. To my great delight, there is also a large decanter full of sorrel, another favorite of mine. It is agua de jamaica, basically; hibiscus tea with just enough sugar. I love this house, I still remember the pelau they made last time we rolled through, studded with little bits of yam. And as an added bonus, we can do laundry. If I play my cards right, this will be my last laundry load of tour. One less logistical thing to worry about, but also a depressing reminder of the proximity of home. I sleep on the couch for what turns out to be just over five hours before it is time to get up and go to Montreal. Miraculously, Becca has woken up before us and begun to make breakfast. I have some ham and eggs and toast, supplemented by more hot sauce, and make myself a sandwich to go. After some delays related to laundry drying, we’re off to play Pop Montreal. I’m excited to hang out with my brother, who is a senior at McGill, and to eat the shit out of some Schwartz’s smoked meat, and if I’m really lucky some Montreal bagels.

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