We charm the waitress in her colorful sombrero at Paradiso Mexican Restaurant when our party of seven arrives. Three tables pushed together against a long booth, the scrape of metal on ceramic tile. It’s $2 margarita pitchers this afternoon, and all the chips and salsa you can eat. The piped-in Tejano music insists on our liveliness, harmonizing trumpets and a tenor sax with a two-step accordion.
If you saw us walking down the sidewalk, you would know we’re a band. We move together in a fixed constellation, The Look. Torn jeans and worn thin t-shirts. Jackets too small and inadequate for the season.
From this distance, I can locate myself with the help of a black-and-white photo taken earlier in the fall. We’re lined up near the trees in Lindenwood on the northside amidst ashes and maples. We’re standing in fallen leaves. Alan is turned sideways with a branch he’s picked up for a walking stick. On his head is a straw cowboy hat with a torn rim. Greg stares forward in his leather jacket, hands in his pockets.
I’m third from the right, the sapling girl in tight bell-bottoms so long they cover my three-inch platforms. I’m flanked by tall beautiful boys, their scruff of two-day whiskers, their long hair razored into shaggy layers. My own hair falls long and whip-straight to my waist—thick and brown and parted exactly down the middle, as if it were the 70s. But we’ve already crossed the Rubicon, into the 80s.
On the mural behind us at the Paradiso, the verdant green valleys of Mexico give way to scallops of mountains. Toucans and burros are sprinkled throughout the landscape, drawn in colorful detail, but not to scale. In the mural’s far right corner, a cartoon of a mariachi player in a sequined black vest and sombrero, holding a guitar, waves his hammy hand in welcome.
Half of us slide into the booth side. Half take the chairs. We’re bound around this table by hunger and thirst, just as we’re plaited together in music and sweat, leaning in, listening. Our bodies are synchronized from the routine practice of loading in, loading out the heavy equipment boxes with sharp metal corners. We enjoy the bite of it, the desire to keep playing. These are the burdens we’ve raised out of truck beds, carried across snowy parking lots, up narrow stairs, down dark hallways.
Now the pitchers come and go, empty and fill. Tequila sweetness wedges bitter between our lips. What are we talking about? What else? The lawsuit. There is no other subject. We swallow the acid lime, the burn of salt on the rim.
Our bass player sits at the end of the table, willowy and brown-eyed with a soft, close-cut beard. His pale hands float through the air like magic tricks. Randy, our other guitar player, and our drummer Mike are on the booth side. Randy is tall and thin, his eyes ranging from hazel to gray to sea-blue, depending on the day. Mike is shorter and sturdy, the level-headed timekeeper, always tapping a beat on thighs or countertops, always taking things apart and putting them back together.
Over flamenco and mariachi, we talk about the lawsuit. Our voices rise, we begin to shout, the guitar players waving their hands in the air, those long fingers so accustomed to guitar necks and beer bottles.
I had a bad feeling about tonight. Today was supposed to be a celebration, and our business manager, Jim Johnson, has come out from his office on the edge of Moorhead in his navy-blue suit to pick up the check. We’ve had some good news lately, and tomorrow we’re heading to Rapid City to play all week.
But when I went to the band house to pick everyone up, Randy was sleeping on the couch in the dark living room. “The lawyer called,” he said when I woke him. “The trial’s been pushed back again.”
Now we have reached the unhappy hour. The waitress has summoned two of the biggest cooks from the kitchen, for lack of bouncers, to tell us it’s time to leave. We argue, but her disapproving sombrero moves side to side, going no, no, no.
I don’t think we’ve been too loud. The restaurant was busy. Yes, drinks were spilled, and napkins are wadded on the floor. Our three tables are sticky with tequila and lime, but all the little nacho plates are gathered together at the end, stacked in a neat pile.
A little under a year ago, nine months to be exact, we lost all our equipment in a truck fire—$60,000 worth of equipment, to be exact. And no, no insurance, because who would be stupid enough to insure a rock band?
Yes, it sucked, and, yes, we decided to sue Ryder Truck because of a small defect in the truck that we rented—which we all agree did not contribute directly to the accident itself, but did directly cause the gasoline fire that followed the accident.
We go over it all again. How our soundman went to pick up the Ryder truck, which was much larger than we’d reserved, way too much truck for our equipment. But what can you do when it’s four o’clock and you still have to load up the equipment and get on the road.
And when the rental agent walked our soundman around the truck for the dents-and-dings check, he pointed out, ever so casually—oh yeah, the large piece of plastic with a wide rubber band that was covering the tank where a gas cap should have been.
And then the rental agent mentioned that he’d reimburse us if we could pick up a gas cap somewhere along the road over the next four days when we were traveling from town to town playing at county fairs.
Because, you know, small town gas stations in the middle of nowhere just have shelves overflowing with gas caps for twenty-six foot straight line Ryder trucks.
We’ve been over this a million times. How our equipment would have survived the truck accident. And we have proof. We know this for certain because of the other accident we had three months before the truck fire, when our light man fell asleep at the wheel on the way home from a gig and our orange and black school bus rolled in the ditch.
That time, when the bus was totaled, the equipment stayed nestled heavy in the Anvil cases. And all we did was pull the cases from the wreckage and go on to the next gig, which is exactly what we would have done if that piece of plastic serving as a gas cap hadn’t come loose in the crash.
And if only the Ryder truck—after it came to a halt from its long, sideways slide into the wheat field and our road crew escaped—hadn’t erupted into a ball of burning equipment and truck parts.
That’s our argument. That’s our best legal argument.
We’re still in the discovery phase with the suit, but what we’ve mostly discovered is that Ryder Truck has many lawyers, entire suites of lawyers. Every week they pepper the court with motions and demurrers. We imagine them working endlessly against us in the glass-walled skyscrapers of their corporate offices in St. Louis, rocketing off requests for lists and depositions and affidavits.
Who has time for this? We have songs to practice. We are weak, and they are strong. Their strategy is to wait us out. How long can a rock band with no truck and no equipment pursue a lawsuit against a major corporation?
But our lawyer, our brave warrior, is our drummer’s brother, Chad, who practices law in a two-man firm up north near the Canadian border in International Falls, a town most often famous for being the coldest spot in the nation. Chad only charges us for filing fees and photocopying, but those costs alone are killing us. And the time he’s putting into our case working for free, we know, it’s killing him.
So this is how we even got into this mess renting Ryder trucks. After our school bus was totaled, we needed a new truck. We made a fat downpayment on a shiny Ford truck, and in the weeks we were waiting for it to be delivered from the factory, we rented Ryders. To add insult to injury—after we lost all the equipment and we no longer had need for a shiny new truck, we canceled the order and our fat downpayment was forfeited.
Which brings us back to the unhappy hour, also known as how we manage to eat. On Wednesdays, it’s free pizza bar at Chumley’s. Tuesdays, it’s $1 beers at Old Broadway with free popcorn and unlimited bowls of mixed nuts. Monday is nacho bar at Paradiso’s with $2 margarita pitchers.
Tonight tequila flows and Jim Johnson is springing for the pitchers. The drinks go into our mouths, the complaints come out. We work every week, we’re telling Jim Johnson, but all the money goes to expenses—hotel rooms and gasoline.
And we’re mad about our equipment. Our musician pals in Fargo, who seemed genuinely sorry for about twenty minutes—bummer, man, a truck fire—dug into their dusty basements and garages and came forward with second-hand drums and amps, their third-favorite guitars, so that we could keep playing. But it’s all substandard gear.
Sometimes at the end of the night after gigs these last few months, I’ve gone outside the club and found Greg sitting on the curb with his feet in the gutter—literally, in the gutter—nursing the last half inch of spittle in his beer, just fisting the tears out of his eyes about the way his guitar sounds, how we cannot make it sound any better.
I try to pick him up. At least we’re still playing together, at least we’re making some kind of noise. But Greg is probably right—we should have abandoned each other months ago, right after the fire. We’d all be absorbed into the folds of other working bands by now, those hawks who lurk around the edges of floundering bands waiting to steal the good players.
Money and equipment, money and equipment. You’d think there was nothing else in the world. Our finances are like a bathtub with the tap turned on high, funneling hot water in, but never filling up. Why? Because, too late, we realize that we have forgotten to lift the little lever that closes the drain.
The biggest slice of our money pie goes each week to Marguerites, the local music store who gave us some equipment on credit after the fire, which is generous since we still owe her money for some of the equipment that burned.
Next comes the payment for the loan that Randy’s parents co-signed for the PA we bought after the fire. With the loan, we bought a Leviathan PA made of black Plexiglas speaker towers that look like Easter Island statues—shiny black horns stacked on top of side-by-side fifteens that look like two staring eyeballs, balanced on an eighteen inch speaker with a wide horizontal sound baffle at the bottom that looks like an ominous mouth. Does the Leviathan want to smile at the audience or eat it? No one knows. Even still, it’s half of what we needed, and a quarter of what we lost, but who can go forward by looking back.
Next, we have to pay out the 15% booking fee for Jim Johnson and our management company. Then the rent for our broken-down dive of a band house on Main Street, then the weekly salaries for our three roadies—a soundman, a light man, and a monitor mix guy. Whatever’s left, we divide six ways between the band members. Basically, we each live on $7 a week.
But who’s counting? Tonight is a celebration. One of our lightman’s girlfriends (Rich is gorgeous and has many girlfriends) named Tina, a diminutive dark-haired and very sweet young woman in Rapid City, has come into an even sweeter inheritance.
Tina has called Rich to tell him that she wants to lend the band $5,000 on fluid repayment terms, so that we can buy our very own school bus and stop hemorrhaging money on rent-a-wrecks. The mileage has been eating us alive, especially when we’re ping ponging from state to state, which is Jim Johnson’s favorite way to route our tours.
So suddenly life is good again. It takes so little, we find.
We have free chips and salsa and margarita pitchers from Paradiso that Jim Johnson is paying for out of his expense account, and Tina’s grandmother died old and of natural causes—we’re assuming—nothing to feel too heartbroken about. And there’s this nice chunk of cash Tina is getting, around $100,000 we think. And she has decided she loves either us or our music or Rich enough to risk a small percentage of her windfall on us.
At the Paradiso, Jim Johnson is signing the credit card receipt for the margaritas after the big cooks arrived from the kitchen to tell us it was time to leave.
We look around for Greg and Alan, our other guitar player. They’ve been in the bathroom suspiciously long. Right about then, they show up and slide into the booth at the end of the table. They are hunched over, laughing into each other shoulders.
“You’ll have to pay for the damages,” the biggest cook directs this statement at Jim Johnson, mostly because he’s the one with the credit card.
Jim looks around in amusement. He’s not much older than us, only a few years, but he’s married with an office. He’s a tall man with wide wingspan shoulders that look good in suits. His hair is dark with short, loose curls. His eyes are memorable—the pupils, shiny as hematite, the skin underneath his eyes, rimmed with dark circles.
He has a chipped right front tooth, which shows as a little dark triangle when he smiles, and I can see it now when he laughs and asks the waiter, “What damages?” The tone in his voice is boys-will-be-boys.
Then Mike and Richard, our bass player start laughing too, all of them rolling around in the booth holding their stomachs.
Sometimes I’m embarrassed to be around these guys. For the last few months, Ryder has been stonewalling us. They probably have an office pool going about which motion will be the one to topple us.
Several mornings, we’ve had to report to Dan Vogel’s law firm—this is the local lawyer that Ryder hired to collect the depositions. For reasons that might seem obvious, Vogel’s office sets up the appointments for 8:00 AM, always with some excuse about how that’s the only time when the stenographer is available.
And when we walk into the building, which is all marble and glass-walled overlooking Broadway, and the secretary soundlessly walks us back to the boardroom where the lawyers are waiting with their briefs in front of them, and when we settle into the leather chairs in that sunny room of mahogany surfaces, I even start to believe it myself, what they must be seeing—that this is a spurious nuisance case, and that we, the musicians pursuing it, are all scam artists and derelicts.
When we go to Vogel’s office, I always try to wear a wool skirt and a sweater, but these guys show up in ratty jeans, looking like they slept in their clothes. And maybe they did. But what really embarrasses me is the way they start in right away, wolfing down the coffee, emptying the little carafe on the table that no one else—certainly not the lawyers—has ever touched.
Quickly, they drain the carafe into their Styrofoam cups and shake the container upside down for the last drop. Then they set to work exhausting the supply of sugar packets and coffee creamers.
I’m thinking that Vogel is noting all this to report back to Ryder, already helping them construct an argument for the trial. We’re musicians, right? Irresponsible drunks, and probably drug addicts. We likely wrecked that truck on purpose just to watch it burn, like the Strat that Hendrix doused with lighter fluid then coaxed into flames while rocking on his hands and knees at Monterey.
At these moments, I forget that I went to college, that I came from a good family—a country family, but a good solid family. We all did.
I forget that the guys in my band spent their childhoods and adolescences practicing guitar, practicing bass and drums in their bedrooms. Like me, in my bedroom strumming an acoustic and choking out the words to folk songs—obsessed, thunderstruck, my blood pulsing music. Music always calling, calling. Just living and breathing it, deaf to all else. Songs streaming in fever dreams.
Now the Paradiso waiter in her sombrero, flanked by the two big cooks, is explaining to Jim Johnson (but we all can hear it), that the extra charges on his credit card are from the damage to the men’s bathroom.
Jim looks down at the featherweight layer of carbon he’s just signed and nods his head.
They explain that the whole roll of linen hand towels was unraveled onto the floor and is sopping wet. The soap dispenser was knocked off the wall, too, so the floor and surface of the counter are slathered in pink suds.
“It was barely attached when I used it,” Greg tells the waiter.
“I’ll handle this,” Jim Johnson says. He stands up and draws the Paradiso staff to the side.
We take this as our cue to rise and exit, leaving behind overturned chairs, sticky margarita pitchers, balled-up napkins.
Out in the parking lot, the guys run toward the van laughing.
“We were trying to get back at big business,” Alan explains.
“Stupid.” Randy smacks Alan on the back of the head. “Paradiso’s is not big business.”
It’s easy to forget, in the daylight, in the sober boardrooms of law firms, how gifted we are; how we were gifted by music and how we have the ability to gift music back, in those moments on stage we work for, when it all comes together. And how lucky we were to find each other, our musical kin, here amidst the shimmer and noise.
And this lawsuit, what is it to us? Only our whole lives. It’s an unfair fight, the thousands that Ryder will pay lawyers to avoid paying thousands to us. And will we never learn that life is not fair.
Tomorrow I’m going to get into the rent-a-wreck truck for what I hope is the last time and travel 577 miles with these guys to Rapid City where we’re going to play a week and make some money.
The day after tomorrow, our newly-wealthy friend Tina is going to take us to her bank and cut a certified check for $5,000 made out to The Look, which we will promptly put in registered mail back to Moorhead, so that it can be deposited into our band account.
The plan is that Jim Johnson will purchase a new (used) bus for us, get it licensed and road-ready, then drive down to meet us in Sioux Falls next Sunday, where we will be passing through on our way to southern Iowa for another gig.
We’ve already identified the Wendy’s parking lot on the South Dakota border where we will rendezvous with Jim Johnson and exchange vehicles—then we will get in our shiny new bus and head east for the rest of our four-week tour, and Jim Johnson will get behind the wheel of our blood-suckingly expensive rental truck and head north, back to Fargo, to drop it off and pay off the last excessive mileage charge to the rental company (which is thankfully not Ryder, those bastards).
The plan has a lot of moving parts, everyone agrees. And we haven’t had a lot of success with complicated clockwork plans.
But everything’s going to work out fine, Jim Johnson assures us. Just you wait and see. He’s repeated it so many times, we’re almost starting to believe it.