Neighborhood man cool with kids walking across his lawn

It was one of those delightful summer Saturdays with cloudless blue skies, buckets of sunshine and comfortable warm temperatures.  Due to recent severe weather activity with accompanying high winds, many in the neighborhood were out gathering fallen branches and debris and stacking it out by the curb for the street department to pick up.  Traffic was scarce with the locals opting to walk or ride bikes.  Children played on the sidewalk and groups of aimless teenagers slunked around the neighborhood.  

As I worked in the yard, one such group of foot-draggers emerged from the alley next to my house.  Unused to performing ninety degree right turns, this cohort opted instead for a softer forty-five degree angle across my front lawn.  From my vantage point in the bushes where I was pulling weeds and gathering debris, I could have barked at them to “Get off my lawn!” and scared the living daylights out of them.  However, as tempting as that was, it’s just not my style and it just wasn’t one of those days.  

It was a day for taking it slow, for hearing laughter in the wind, for observing streaks of sunlight flickering through the trees, for unexpectedly intercepting the aroma of a distant backyard grill.  There is truly something surreal about days like these.  Time slows.  Space is deep-focused and static.  Noticeably absent is the relentless barrage of stimuli that mark most afternoons.  Even the temperamental teens had pocketed their phones and were just enjoying each other’s company.  It could have been 25 years ago.  It could have been 50 years ago.  Hell, if there weren’t a bunch of shiny metal boxes sitting in the street, it could have been over a hundred years ago.

However, somewhere beyond the tranquil scene lay an unseen realm.  If at that moment I could observe it, I’d probably notice unremitting algorithms passing over my head, demanding care and attention.  I would hear sniping voices, users getting ‘owned’ and people presuming the worst and often getting it from one another.  An illusory world casting a dark shadow over our psyches, while increasingly vomiting its madness into the real world.

Thankfully, I was far away from that chaotic place, and all I could think about was how remarkable and strange it is to be alive and standing beneath the sun and these trees in this perfect moment of stillness and peace, while a group of foot-dragging teenagers walked across my lawn.

Guided by raindrops

It’s raining and it has cooled off considerably and we’re standing outside the Fountain Square venue for this evening’s Guided By Voices concert.  The show has been postponed for one hour to allow for the foul weather to pass, but there are people out here hungry for rock and roll and lacking sense enough to come in out of the rain.  The stage is covered and the band is performing a soundcheck.  A few of us hearty souls are milling about in the alley, peering over the chain link fence, getting soaking-ass wet, and listening to the band warm up.  They run through Game Of Pricks.  They play a few bars of Good Times, Bad Times by Led Zeppelin.  Hanging on the fence nearby is a young gentleman who drove up from Nashville.  We learn that in addition to being a Guided By Voices fan, the 22-year-old is extremely passionate about Ween and has the band’s logo tattooed on his shoulder.  Just when you’re ready to write off this younger generation, you meet a promising young guy like this with a Ween tattoo and a Devo t-shirt and you realize the future is actually in quite capable hands.  Turns out he’s seen Ween over 40 times and frequently travels out of state to see similar nineties era rock bands.  One can’t help but be impressed by the youngster’s pluck and initiative.  As the hour approaches, the alley dwellers grow increasingly restless.  Any strum of a guitar or pounding of the bass drum coming from inside the venue is enough to send them scattering to and fro.  They can sense it is close to feeding time and they are ready to feast on rhythm, noise and feedback.

Eventually, others pour into the alley.  Something resembling a line begins to form and we are about six places from the front.  My friend is quite concerned with being first in the venue wearing a “Pollard throws no hitter” t-shirt, so he tells a guy in front of us to beat it to the back of the line and the guy complies.  The Ween kid continues to regale us with stories of recent adventures in rock and roll.  He tells us that at his last GBV show, Robert Pollard, the lead singer and creative force behind the band, halfway through the show, took several gulps from a bottle of tequila and then handed it to the Ween kid who was beckoning for the bottle from the front row.  The kid then took a long pull from the bottle and passed it along into the crowd where others also drank from it.  For reasons I can’t remember, I bring up the band, Mudhoney, and the kid tells us how he’d just the previous weekend, almost by accident, stumbled into a free Mudhoney concert in Nashville.  I continue to be highly impressed and a little envious of this young man.  He is basically living my dream.  So many these days complain about how hard it is to achieve success in this country.  However, this dude is living proof that you make your own good fortune, and that if you simply apply yourself and set short-term, attainable goals, people will freely shove bottles of tequila and premium quality cannabis in your face. 

The barbarians at the gates of rock and roll are beginning to protest quite loudly and forcefully, and it is unclear how much longer staff will be able to maintain peace.  Soon, however, the gates are thrown open and the barbarians present their photo identification and entry is actually quite calm and orderly.  Next, the barbarians pay $8.00 a can for locally brewed craft beer and take their places in front of the stage.  People are streaming in fast and we’re holding our positions in the front as space fills in around us.  The other guy with the “Pollard throws a no hitter” t-shirt comes ambling forward and my friend stops him and reminds him that he, my friend, was first inside the gates with the shirt.  The other guy seems a little confused and shame-faced, and for a minute it appears he might turn his shirt inside out, but he chooses to back away slowly into the crowd instead.  Pollard and his bandmates can be seen assembling offstage and the front row begins to call out to them.  Pollard gestures back with double alternating fist pumps and the front row knows its rock and roll time.  

GBV opens with a song from their new album.  The front row is pointing at Pollard and hurling his words back at him.  I know the lyrics to a lot of their songs, but not the entire catalog.  I begin to feel unworthy of my place near the front and slip back to the third row.  The band is quickly into Game Of Pricks.  Now the lid is blown off the whole affair and energy is released.  There is turbulence in the crowd.  Arms entangle and disentangle.  Feet leave the ground while hips and shoulders collide.  But patrons remain upright and voices howl in unison.  Between songs, Pollard talks about slowing it down for a few, “You can’t just beat them over the head with punk rock for 40 songs,” he says.  As the music mellows, the pungent odor of psychoactive compounds comes wafting rearward from the front row.  My buddy and the Ween kid are huffing away on their devices.  The only thing I recognize about this activity anymore is the aroma.  Everything else about the ritual has been updated for the new digital age.  Pollard fishes Lite beers out of a cooler onstage.  He is loosening up and beginning to perform some of his signature rock moves and poses.  Now in his 60s, he is still pretty flexible and light on his feet, routinely executing rock and roll high kicks where his foot reaches an altitude higher than his head.  Soon, they’re playing I Am A Scientist and the band really seems to be enjoying this one.  The bass features prominently, so he’s having a good time.  Gillard, the lead guitarist, is drawing some cool sounds from his guitar culminating with a burst of well-timed feedback as the song closes out.  I look to my left and Bobby Bare Jr. is strumming away while bobbing his head and turning in circles like a wind-up toy.  

As the set nears its end, the bottle of tequila comes out of the cooler.  Pollard walks to the front of the stage and takes several large gulps.  The Ween kid is reaching across the gap between the stage and the barricade for the bottle.  As if the kid has become a regular feature in this bit, Pollard heads straight over and thrusts the bottle towards him.  The kid grabs it and takes about four chugs before passing it to my friend who also takes a few.  Others nearby swig from the bottle, and then it’s like the crowd knows there’s a hardcore fan about fifteen feet away who really deserves a drink.  He’s been singing along word for word to every song all night long.   The crowd appreciates his hard work and dedication and rewards him with the remainder of the tequila.  As for myself, I’m feeling a bit ashamed that I’ve become too old and uptight to drink from a bottle that’s been swigged on by half a dozen complete strangers.  For the band’s “killer encore,” GBV performs Chasing Heather Crazy and Glad Girls, a couple of their more accessible rousing rockers.  A dude from deep within the bowels of the crowd comes forward for the encore.  I become aware of his presence because he’s holding onto my shoulder to keep from falling over.  Drunk as hell, he’s still trying to move to the music despite his obvious difficulties.  Under normal circumstances, I’d probably be a little annoyed.  But what the hell, we’re all having a good time here, so I’m happy to be of some assistance.

This is only the second live rock show I’ve been to since the onset of the pandemic.  For me, there is simply no substitute for live music, or for that matter, live theater, sports, church, etc.  You can’t gather on Zoom or a livestream and simulate the experience.  An event like this isn’t just the sum of the performers plus the audience.  The gathering itself becomes its own thing and the participants are carried along.  With music at the center, this particular gathering brings out some of the best features of its participants:  goodwill, respect, joy, friendship and camaraderie.  Maybe this sort of thing happens all the time online, but it hasn’t been my experience.  All I know is I could handle more of this in my life and maybe others could too.

Strange scenes in the alley

While cable television, Netflix and YouTube are all very well and good, sometimes the most compelling drama plays itself out in the alley next to my house.  A very popular pedestrian throughway, it terminates a few blocks west of my property where it runs into a brick wall that is attached to a popular national pharmacy chain.  Among the procession of shoppers, there are recurring characters that frequently shuffle by, like a gentleman who puffs on a cigarette with his right hand while carrying a case of Busch beer in his left.  By my estimation, this gentleman regularly “heads for the mountains” every couple of days or so.  Undistracted by the activities of the neighborhood, his stare is always fixed at a point far in the distance, like he’s sizing up some far away summit.   

One day, from my kitchen window, I see a man in the back alley engaged in a heated exchange with a stop sign.  Struggling to keep his feet underneath his swaying torso, the man is pointing at the sign and threatening to violently disassemble it.  This particular stop sign normally minds its own business, so it is unclear why the man has such a beef with it.  I’m busy working on the dishes and allow my attention to wander away from the tense standoff for a brief moment.  When I again look up, it seems that in the interim the stop sign has performed some lightning-fast Karate move, leaving the belligerent fellow laying face down in a heap in the alley.  

One drawback to viewing this live drama is that you cannot pause and rewind, so I’ll never know how that sign bully was brought to his knees by this normally docile stop sign.  Anyway, the man lay there incapacitated and munching on gravel for quite some time.  Still, from that unflattering position, he continued to curse loudly and issue violent threats.  However, it appeared his arms had stopped working, because he was unable to push himself up off the ground and back onto his feet.  After the thrashing he had just taken, I began to wonder whether he was in need of medical attention.  

Just then, a police cruiser turned into the alley and slowly crept up on the scene.  By now, three cars had driven around the dude without diverting his attention from the finer details of the asphalt on which his face now rested, but let a police car creep into the vicinity and old boy was on his feet faster than you can say “lickety-split.”  The amount of time it took for this guy to go from crumpled heap to bolt upright could be measured in nanoseconds.

There must remain in modern man some primitive holdover operating independent of our five senses that can intuitively perceive a threat and generate an instantaneous physical reaction.  Where it once may have perceived wild animals or enemy tribesmen, it now seems to zero in on law enforcement or killer clowns.  Whatever fight or flight evolutionary forces got this guy on his feet, they were also now enabling the man, who until moments earlier was arguing with signs and lampposts, to communicate coherently enough with law enforcement that they allowed him to go on his merry way.

The officers grilled him for quite some time and undoubtedly concluded that he was drunk as hell.  But since he wasn’t driving and he seemed more or less capable of walking, if not in a straight line in the general direction of his home, and since whatever grievance he had with the stop sign seemed to have resolved itself, the officers let him totter out of the alley a free man.   

Much respect, “dude in the alley,’” you may never win an Oscar or even a Daytime Emmy, but, when it mattered, you gave the performance of a lifetime.