Russ Ringsak

A Well-Earned Respite

January 1, 2002

We toured northern cities this December, presumably to soak up as much snow and cold as we could and see how the rest of them are taking it; and, having seen it, we'd slip off to Hawaii.
The first stop was in North Dakota, at the Chester Fritz Theater in Grand Forks, on the Minnesota border and just 40 miles from my home town. It was a terrific show, with Robin and Linda Williams, Molly O'Brien, BeauSoleil, and Kristin Rudrüd and Martha Hoghaug. Kristin and Martha were booked separately but discovered backstage that they were relatives.

I had relatives of my own there, sisters, one in town and one on the farm, who have lived in such far-flung places as Alabama and Germany and who both ended up in Grand Forks; one doesn't question family on complexities like this, but I think they just like it there. And the newspaper found out we had a local with the show, myself, and they ran a fairly impartial piece on Sunday after the show. A slight inaccuracy in the last paragraph, however, said I oversaw the evening load-out; I told the reporter I do that, but in fact this time I was already over at Whitey's in East Grand Forks, drinking Jack Daniels with relatives and in-laws, when the truck was loaded. Our able stage manager, Albert Webster, supervised that. Albert is bigger, younger, stronger and no doubt smarter than I am, and I'd rather not take credit for his accomplishments. Further, I wouldn't want to cause trouble between Albert and the Grand Forks Herald, who have won a Pulitzer Prize.

A cynic would say that I report this only as a sideways scheme to mention that I got my name in the paper and what a transparent ploy it is, too, and how pathetic; and as is so often the case, the cynic would probably be right. Some of us just can't help ourselves, try as we may to be cool.

Got the truck Sunday morning and cruised easy back to St Paul; left for Michigan that Wednesday, a rainy day that felt more like March going into spring than December heading into winter. Chicago traffic was the living locked-solid hell it always is; you come into it on I-90 from the northwest and sometimes make it through all five cash boxes without hitting the dead stop backup, like this time, but no use to kid yourself; once you hit it, you can write off two whole hours of the precious few you have left in your life. Grind along, stop, grind some more, and in ten minutes of rowing the gearshift lever you're thinking you'd rather have a job biting the heads off chickens than oozing a truck through Chicago. You'd rather be walking five miles to school in a blizzard. You'd rather be having a root canal. You tell yourself to be grateful you're not stuck for 2 hours at an Al Gore speech, the only thing more maddening to a trucker than Chicago traffic. You vow, as you always vow, to only drive through this remarkable place at 3:00 A.M.

You get through it, and it does take two hours, and then you are on familiar Interstate 94 into Michigan, always a more intense freeway than you remember it. Somewhere towards midnight the CB radio traffic quiets down and in the darkness a driver feels compelled to sing The Gambler; the last verse and the chorus, in their entirety, a cappella. The gambler smokes his last cigaret and passes on, and the driver wails, mournfully and out of time: "Yew got to know when to hold 'em -- Know when to fold 'em -- Know when to walk away -- Know when to run.... Yew never count yer money -- When yer settin' at the table -- There'll be time enough for countin' -- When the dealin's done."

You wait for the inevitable music critic and you're never disappointed. A crusty trucker comes on and says, "Yew better keep on drivin' that damn ol' truck, or yer gonna starve to death."

The directions from the front desk are good and you slip into Ann Arbor, a quiet place, and find five curb spaces beside a downtown church a half block from the hotel. You have years ago adopted the "Don't Ask - Don't Tell" doctrine for parking a semi: if you ask anyone -- a desk clerk, a cop, a local contact, a hotel concierge -- where you can park the thing, you will get either a flat Don't Know or way more help than you need; long and complicated directions to a gigantic empty lot on the far edge of town, and perhaps a ride back or perhaps just a taxi phone number. But the reality is that nobody's going to tow a tractor-trailer anyway; without air the brakes on all 18 wheels are locked tight as submarine hatches. The rig sits there like a bad drunk at a reunion. People ignore it and wait for it to leave, and the next day it does. So you don't ask where you can park, and you don't tell where you did park.

A great audience in the Hill Auditorium there crackled with energy, and afterwards I managed to keep the drummer up very very late, leaving him to face his terrible early hangover flight while I slept in. That'll teach him to disagree on important issues. I left for Buffalo at noon and took my sweet time getting there, and had a few days to check it out. No snow; first November without snow in 120 years. It was so warm dandelions were blooming back in Minnesota, confused, and you could walk right up to the edge of Niagara Falls, the place where the phrase "what a rush" originated. Normally in December the mist freezes everything solid for blocks around there. I had the place to myself. It was amazing; damp and lush.

 
Downtown Buffalo after our departure - coincidence?

Buffalo itself was amazing, especially the old Shea Auditorium, restored to lavish glory and fitted now with one of the world's most nearly perfect loading docks. It's a town with a wild history and a sense of humor; the fulcrum of the former Rust Belt, getting itself back together for another run at destiny. Great strip of music bars and restaurants behind the theater.

Bolted westward after the show and made it home Sunday night, in time for Christmas, and heard that right after we left it started to snow in Buffalo. They got 7 feet of snow in 5 days. A new record for any month in the storied history of Buffalo snowfalls, set in less than a week. You don't dare feel good about things like that. You know you won't get away with sneaking through these weeks of mild weather. There's payback coming from somewhere.

And then we went down to the fine old Oscar Meyer theater in Madison and got lucky again, lucky in that it was bitterly cold, 3 degrees above zero; the exact very thing we need. Something to ponder while we wait long hours in the airport for the flight to Hawaii.

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