Reasons For Being
There is ergonomic beauty in the way a cowboy hat fits just so between one’s thumb and middle finger, and slides gracefully onto one’s head. Still, I felt a little anomalous wearing mine on the final leg of my five-hour, ferry to car to subway commute from Block Island.
Our 36-hour adventure began at five yesterday morning when a car service delivered me to The Slope where I met up with Kevin and Nick for the three-hour car ride to Port Judith, RI. I was into the back seat of The Reverend’s Maxima wedged between a guitar and a handcart. It was a long ride.
We arrived Port Judith for the 9 a.m. ferry as a white sun burned through the rain clouds. Lobster boat deckhands were hosing down their boards. Seagulls circles overhead, foraging for scraps. It was a perfect morning in a typical Northeastern fishing town. New York was already lifetimes away.
Our crossing was uneventful, punctuated by fair weather, and bad coffee. Soon, Block Island broke through the haze. I looked down at my watch and laughed: my colleagues were just wrapping up their morning news meeting, and I was stepping off a boat onto a tiny spit of America some 13 miles off the mainland.
We found our way to Captain Nick’s, host venue to the Block Island Music Festival, just a few blocks from the wharf. Nick’s was little more than a hollow shell of a house. Imagine ‘Animal House’ battered by hard-parting summers and long, harsh winters. But what it lacked in architectural integrity, it made up for in charm. Huge, hand-painted festival signage hung just below a ragged pirate flag. We walked inside to find the cavernous space completely empty.
Hours later, as the sun slowly fell into the sea, Nick’s was full. Pink from sun, and nearly slowed to the island’s pace, The Smith Family opened the Block Island Music Festival. There were burgers on the grill, $.99 Pabst Blue Ribbons at the bar, and a patio full of locals grooving to Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and the like. They may not have been sure what make of these cowboy hat-wearing thirtysomethings from New York City, but they knew well enough to sing along. There, behind my black sunglasses, I saw at least that much: people singing. Which is pretty much my raison d’ïtre.
Ren, Kevin, Nick and I were joined on bass by a long-last Smith Family brother: Mike Taylor Smith, who did a bang-up job playing along on about 20 minutes notice. Kevin broke a string mid-set, but we laughed it off and persevered. We even dropped ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ and ‘Shortenin’ Bread’ into the lineup. There were smiles all around as we wrapped up with a rollicking ‘It’s Alright Mama.’ It was ball.
Moments later, I put on my other hat (literally): Benjamin Wagner, singer/songwriter. Kevin played along on mandolin as we ran through some 10+ of my songs (‘California,’ ‘Summer’s Gone,’ etc), and a few that aren’t (‘Here Comes Your Man’ and ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’). By 7:30, it was over. The sun had scarcely set, and all we had left to do was party.
Which we did — party — in spades. I lack the column inches and, honestly, Dear Reader, the patience, to recount for you our eventful evening on Block Island. Suffice to say, I was hoarse from laughter this morning, and pieced together the evening through a series of scattered snapshots and phrases that, taken together, formed my Tuesday night.
Smarty shots (Red Bull & vodka)
Stern warnings against hitting on the bartender (who was, apparently, the owner’s girlfriend)
The pirate joke with the punch line, “Fuck you, one eye!
Climbing through a cubbyhole at the High View Hotel with Ren in search of booze
Margaritas at Eli’s
Nick: Oh shit, I forgot my earplugs
Me: I can always put my dick in your ear
The terrible Boston-based rap duo who punctuated their set with the so-not-street chant, “Block Islaaaaand!”
And on and on and on…
In fact, so rich was our evening that we were still laughing about it on the ride home today.
This morning, after gobbling a fistful of Advil and a few cups of coffee, I talked the guys into renting moped, and showed them around the island. I’d been with Polly there years and years and years ago. And as I led our little scooter gang to spots that she and I had visited (the island isn’t that big, after all), I couldn’t help (between gasping at the island’s many and magnificent vistas) but reflect on just how much I’ve changed since then. I had just turned twenty-five, barely at The MTV, still living with a roommate (my brother), still getting stoned daily (with my brother), and still dreaming of rock stardom. Most memorably, though, I was completely uncomfortable in my own skin, and far too anxious for my own good. Everything was stressful: dinner reservations, moped rentals, you name it. Polly had to have hated the trip, and me.
Years later, I’m pushing 33-years-old. I’m zipping around the island full-throttle grinning under my ridiculous red helmet. I’m taking photographs of flowers and rocks. Years later, I’m chatting up the waitress at our table. The rocknroll dream is alive, but it’s real, not delusional. I’ve never had more music in my life, or more friends and family in my life, audience participation notwithstanding, is truly my raison d’ïtre.
And so it is: I am home now. The blue sky is gone again, choked by a thick brown haze. There is constant noise: the collective hum of a thousand air conditioners, engines, horns, sirens, alarms, and helicopters. Everyone is rushing around all straight faced and grim. The city is hot, wet and smelly. But still, it feels good to be here, to be home, again.
Sometimes you need to step off the known world for a second, look back over your shoulder and go, ‘Yeah, that’s what it looks like. So beautiful. So alive.’ And it is. And you are. And it’s good.