Three months ago, in the throes of bored thirtysomethinghood, I called Mike Oliva of the Harlequins at 11:30 at night.
"Heard you're headed to Austin this year."
"Yeah, man, we got an official showcase. We're psyched."
I cleared my throat.
"Care to take along an imbedded reporter?"
I grew up in a Midwestern insurance family that clung, I realize now a little too desperately, to the coattails of the suburban middle class. My parents are flag-loving, law-abiding, Republican-leaning, God-fearing Christians, like their parents, and their parents' parents before them. I was raised on "Old Dan Tucker," John Cougar Mellencamp and the American Graffiti soundtrack. I didn't hear my first AC/DC song until the summer of 1991. My cousins accused me of devil-worship – my people are risk-averse.
At 14, I took a quintessential major-minor job (Mickey D's drive-thru runner) to earn money for a school trip to Germany. This quickly turned into two, then three, concurrent employs. The vast majority of days since have been spent in the same fashion. I worked full-time while getting my undergraduate and graduate degrees.
I took out student loans, applied for credit cards, financed cars. I rented. I bought hundred-dollar text books, sold them back for pennies. I bought CDs, DVDs, shoes, clothes. I shelled out for pizza, beer, bourbon for myself and my friends at over-priced college bars. I tipped commiserating service industry types well — sympathy breeds solidarity.
My twenties were spent strictly as a conduit for the flow of wealth to others.
In the last nine days, I have slept a grand total of fifteen hours. It's 6 am. I set five staggered alarms to be up this morning; they have been cawing like an incessant crow murder since four. I hit the snooze bars until 7. The Harlequins will be here at 9.
I finished packing two days ago. Changed the cats' litter last night and gave my adorable neighbor, who had no idea what she was getting into when she volunteered to watch them, the caretaker's tour.
"If there's a vet emergency, Dr. Merry's number is on a magnet on the 'fridge," I said. "Or if you need to evacuate the building and it's safe enough to come get them out, their cages are in here." I opened the closet door.
"OK . . ." She squinted apprehensively. A half-laugh.
Shit. Shutupshutupshutup Jonathan.
She knows. I'm . . . a worrier.
I am prepared. So prepared. Last week, I made three checklists:
1. THINGS TO DO FOR WORK
2. THINGS TO DO TO PREPARE FOR AUSTIN
3. THINGS TO WRITE
Items have been bought, tasks completed and each checked off meticulously in turn. Two new pairs of jeans, new pair of shoes, laundry done. Tent and sleeping bag borrowed. Apartment cleaned. Batteries, chargers, voice recorder, camera, laptop, comp book, pens, hard drive, USB cords — all located, rubber-banded or bagged, packed and stacked neatly next to the door.
It's 9 am. The Harlequins haven't showed up yet. I have time to run to the post office, mail two packages, go to Clifton Natural Foods and buy vegan road rations, drink a cup of coffee and check my lists one last time. Oh, and gum. I need to buy gum. I have chewed the same brand and flavor every day since I stopped covertly smoking two years ago. UDF is out. Had to run to Kroger down the hill.
At least the Harlequins and I arrive back at my place at the same time. That would have been awkward.
It's 11 am. We were supposed to be on the road two hours ago. We start driving to Northside. We have to pick up the sound guy.
We're parked illegally, waiting on Rob Stamler, the Harlequins' drummer, to come back outside. He has run in to work to pick up his paycheck and let his manager he'll be gone on tour for the next two weeks. He wrote a note on spiral-bound paper. It begins, "Hello:" If it had been written in pencil, I would have given him $10. Amusements like this should be paid.
It's noon. The bassist is waiting on us to come get him.
Mike Oliva, the lead singer and guitarist, is talking with his sound engineer Aaron Modarressi. We're discussing a favorite childhood topic at my house – the risk of contracting salmonella – and the conversation has become scatological.
"That night at BW-3s. I had the shits so bad the next day," says Oliva. "It smelled like a holocaust."
Stamler is back in the shotgun seat. Various friends recorded mixes for the trip. One CD spins now.
"Brad made a mix?," Modarressi asks.
"Yeah, it says 'South By or Bust,'" Stamler answers. "Then it says 'Fuck Yeah.'"
"You have the second set of van keys?" Oliva asks.
Stamler checks his pockets. "Did you give them to me this morning?"
"Um, then no."
I begin generating actuary tables in my head.
The Beatles' "Baby, You're a Rich Man" plays. Extensive empirical observation has led me to hypothesize that God, or the Universe, or the Great Grand Beyond – what-have-you – speaks through shuffled playlists. The apropos song will play at the apropos time.
Alex Stenard is a quiet, thoughtful guy.
To date, I'd never talked to him; I wrote about the Harelquins a year ago, but he couldn't make it to the interview. I've seen the guy play, but I've never heard him speak.
"When did I show it to you?" asks Stamler, turning around from the front seat.
Stenard doesn't look up from his laptop — we are not yet on the freeway. "Practice."
Stamler: "What breakfast?"
Stenard looks up. 'Practice."
"PRACK. TISS." Stenard has stopped typing.
Silence. The laughter comes in like a breaker.
"It was a breakfast practice," Modarressi offers.
"No," says Stenard, burying his nose in his laptop. "It was a practice breakfast."
Waffle House is just down the highway. There is wisdom in coffee. I will attempt to read fortunes in my grounds.
We'll make one last stop to make before making an earnest effort for the Southland.
(Leviticus and Numbers tomorrow.)
Follow along, or interact with, Jonathan real-time during South by Southwest: like his WVQC radio show, Salina Underground, on Facebook, or follow @salinaundergrnd, #SxSWSojourn.