Friday, February 3, 2012

Busted Flat in Thousand Oaks

Not so long ago, when alcohol was my life-blood, I had an epiphany. I realized that my world was shrinking. I'd had a DUI and some jail-time, and I had reconciled myself to staying house-bound for the drinking unless I had somebody - usually a girlfriend - to see me safely home. Or I would walk to the only bar close by when my need for company was sharp enough. The world was shrinking. I'd driven off a lot of good people with my behavior and would avoid many others, not wanting them to see me drunk. The closest ones to me were the ones who would accept the binge along with all the lovelier things. There were fewer and fewer as the world shrunk in upon itself.

And as I turned the corner on the boozing, fitfully at first, and then more confidently, the world began to grow again. Last year I took eleven out-of-town trips to play my music to people who I'd never met before. In Tennessee and Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Oregon, Washington ... wherever they'd have me. I didn't do it on my own. My dear Alexia was there every step of the way, encouraging me and helping to make it possible. It strikes me that the frequent-flier miles she shared with me serve as a metaphor for much of it. I could fly a little because she had flown a lot. The world got bigger. Big. And I, as a traveler there, grew as well.

The best year ever, 2011. Now, a month into the new one, the world has begun to contract again. Not because I've gone back to the bottle - I haven't. And not because the music has failed me or friends let me down. No, all of that is in place, and I am healthy enough. And grateful even.

The world has shrunk - quickly, for the most prosaic of reasons. I'm broke. I saw it coming, and might have prevented it, but I didn't. Just like the hangover is the cost of the last night's blurred euphoria, I am paying now for last year's wild revel. I chose to spend those many weeks out in the larger world, spending what I made as I went for the next day's food or bed or car rental, while at home the rent-cycle went round as always. There just wasn't anybody nearby turning labor into those nice numbers in the checking account. Don't get me wrong. I worked when I was in town, and hard as ever. But the math would not be denied. And the money ran out. And now it's my slow season. And the economy is still groggy.

We got the recession earlier than the rest of the country, we in the home trades. I paint houses as my day job, and the pinch was felt as early as 2007. I won't go into the reasons here, but suffice it to say that tough times, like a drunk at the party, came early and stayed late. If your recession is over, you do not rely on a lively exchange of dwellings for much of your business. God bless you. I'm happy for you. Why not celebrate with a nice face-lift in those drab rooms of yours. 626-644-3245 Ask for Dave. :0)  But I digress.

I had little cushion anyway due to a string of cocktail-hour financial decisions, and the stubborn belief that a blue-collar job was where I needed to write from. And what buffer there had been was gone. I scrimped, but there was nothing extra to save.

Now, I know that nobody hires a painter in January. I know that. And I know that nobody pays a singer-songwriter much in Los Angeles. January has always been the black hole. I traditionally consider it my vacation month and live on what I squirreled away in the summer. But, last year, as outside my traditional path I did roam, that bit of preparation was missed. I chose to risk what's happened to pursue what might.

I saw the writing on the wall in the Motel 6 in Katy Texas round about December 7. I had two gigs in Texas, and a week between 'em. Alexia had left the team a couple of months earlier and I burned the last of my frequent flyer miles getting to Houston. The gig was lean and the money was too, and I was stuck in a shitty motel, in a cold rainstorm, with just enough left in the checking account to get to Austin for the next Saturday's show.  I lived that week on cheap wheat-bread and peanut butter from the H.E.B., spreading it with the handle of my toothbrush. My luxuries that week were two breakfasts at the Waffle House across the highway, a daily 42 oz. Diet Coke from the gas-station fountain, the 3 bucks for in-room wi-fi, and HBO on the TV. I played guitar a lot, promoted my Austin show, and had as good a week as I ever spent sober and alone in a motel. Which is to say that it was no party.

Austin rocked, and paid it's way. I made it home and finished the job I'd left undone, taking out the last $700 owed me, went to Seattle on Bonnie's dime to help her get some inventory to L.A. and got home in time to spend New Year's eve alone in a freezing RV in a horse-corral. And that is where I've been ever since, with short breaks here and there for this small gig or that one, watching the ratcheting motion of my cash reserve as it gained a few CD-sale bucks and lost a few more gas-purchase bucks. I didn't leave the yard at all today. I had a nice burger (CD sale) in Tujunga

And down and down it goes. And the world gets smaller and smaller. This is what the spiral into poverty looks like. Eventually, given the right combination of down-turns, some personal and some societal, the person with slim margins loses those margins altogether and tumbles from the table. The truck breaks down or the factory closes. The back goes out. The wife takes the house, or the husband drinks up the paycheck. Or the whole economy goes belly-up. And when it's most needed, the cushion is not there.

I'll be okay. Because I have friends and family to catch me if I should fall any farther. And because I am healthy and intelligent and in possession of a marketable skill or two. And because winter here is brief and not so cold that I'll freeze. There will be work soon. I've got it pretty good, even at the low economic rung that is my home-turf. Many others have it much worse. I'm pleased that as the belt got tighter and tighter, I still could give a little over the Holidays, helping to send a couple cows and a couple goats into the developing world where some families now have milk. I know that they will share it.

We are in an election year. And I have watched as the angry words fly. I heard Mitt Romney's comments yesterday. I know what he meant to say. I don't share the doggedly anti-wealthy sentiments of so many of my Lefty friends. I know damn well that most of the programs that do indeed constitute a safety net here in this wonderful country are funded almost entirely by the people who have a lot of money. I also know that conservatives give a lot to charity, and that their general belief in boot-strap effort over social programs is not because they hate the poor. I agree with them that if a person can earn his way, he'll be better off long-term than if he'd simply received a pay-out. I've lived it. I know.

Having said that, I doubt that Mr. Romney has much up-close experience with hand to mouth living. And if not, he does not really understand millions of Americans.

I also resonate with the intentions of the Left. I stand with them in awe that anyone could even WANT a billion dollars when anybody anywhere is starving. It's true that I am disappointed in them lately for the callowness of their thinking and their willingness to win ugly in the war of rhetoric. But I know that their hearts are large. Unfortunately, I have lived long enough in this world to know that most of their solutions are as prone to failure as all other decisions made with an excess of emotion and a shortage of hard-headed pragmatism.

Somebody brought up Michael Moore the other day. I remembered him saying in one of his films that capitalism was just a bad system. I remembered sitting in that darkened theater (The Academy 6 in Pasadena Ca.) and wondering if he planned to give me back the cost of admission. I marveled at his thinking, his ability to filter reality so perfectly as to set his very successful career somehow outside capitalism.

It's not a bad system. It's a basically good system, because it derives it's energy from the drives of the humans it is designed to serve. Communism, by way of contrast, is based on a fantasy version of how humans are wired. It won't ever work. It leads inevitably either to collapse or totalitarianism. A democratic political structure coupled with a capitalist economy is the best thing we've found yet. When we doubt it, we need only ask our local immigrants.

The system is good. Our current version of it is badly out of adjustment.

Among the things that were stripped from me this year as I descended the economic stairs, was an old and beloved truck. I'd had it for 27 years. It was a good friend for a long time, a champ of a camping vehicle. It was the place that I first knew I would marry Wanda - sitting happily in the shot-gun seat as she drove us home from a party, so cute in her red jacket. I left the truck on the street in Altadena when I moved out to Thousand Oaks, intending to tow it along when I got a little money up. But I lost it to the impound and couldn't bail it out.

I learned something about systems from that truck. It was an early GMC Suburban, based on a work truck chassis. They'd added seats and carpet and other niceties at the factory in '68. They'd increased it's weight, and added some power to it's engine as well. They had also softened its springs to please the suburban housewife they hoped to sell it to. But they'd not done anything for it's braking system. The truck could always go better than it could stop. A few years later the guys at GM stuck some disc brakes on their trucks and they stopped running off as many cliffs. Our capitalist system is a conveyance.  It is not sacred nor is it evil. It is a vehicle to transport as many people as possible to as comfortable a life as possible. But as we add power to its engines, and weight to its chassis, we must also keep improving its handling and brakes. That or keep sailing into the chasm.

I've had just two interruptions as I wrote this piece, here in my Hobo Dojo, on a blustery Thursday night in February. Two phone calls. One was from Bonnie telling me that Dove, her actor-daughter, was up for a great project. A career maker. The other was from a friend telling me he'd referred me for a painting job. We work. We dream. We get our hopes up. We screw up our courage and take a risk. We fall ... and sometimes fly out into a brand new sky. And with a little luck we survive to tell the tale.

Dave Morrison ... February 3, 2012

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