please don't

A Tour Story
by Hugh Johnston

I was in a band and we were on tour. Things were going fine. Until we got to the Bay Area.

We pulled into town with our rusty 1991 Dodge Charger tugging a trailer full of equipment behind us. It was Don's van, I think he got it for free, and it stunk like gasoline and dog hair. We were all surprised that it had taken us this far, given its disabilities.

When we embarked from Chicago, Don turned around and said, "Oh yeah. Her gas gauge is broken." Great, I thought. Three thousand miles in a car without a gas gauge.

"That's fine," I said, pulling out a pen. "What's the odometer at? I'll write it down and we'll stop every so-many miles for gas."

"That's busted too."


We hadn't run out of gas once in the week between then and now. But as we chugged and chortled up and down San Francisco's hills looking for three adjacent parking spots to fit our van/trailer, Don now told us that he was unsure of our vehicle's brakes.

"We're all going to die," I thought.

But we didn't. We parked.

We were going to stay at my uncle's place. We didn't know anyone else in town. Finding a place to sleep on tour is a big deal. For a band like ours, motels really aren't an option. Gas is priority No. 1. Food is No. 2. Booze is a close third.

My uncle Joseph, in his early sixties, is a shy and solitary man. He's probably gay, but has never admitted it to anyone. He lives alone in an apartment that he has rented from an old woman for the past 25 years. He collects little books and religious trinkets and tucks his flannel shirt into his jeans and has a moustache. His apartment is uncomfortably neat. Allowing three sweaty, smelly rocker dudes to invade his world was probably a big deal. I felt guilty.

He was very accommodating though. Having taken the day off from work, he immediately took us out in his car to do some sightseeing.

When we got back to his apartment, he offered to buy us dinner. Food, being our No. 2 priority, was much appreciated. I quickly agreed. Sean and Don, however, said they weren't hungry.

"Hey, Joseph, is there a liquor store around here?" Don asked.

Uh oh. It looked like my bandmates had rearranged their priorities.

My uncle directed them to the nearest place, and he and I set off for dinner. Turned out he wanted to eat in the Castro district, the gay area.

"I wonder if he's trying to tell me something," I thought to myself.

He told a story of a famous raid on a gay bar after a hotly-contested mayoral campaign involving a gay candidate.

"The people who were at the bar that night are mini-celebrities," he told me. I wondered if he was there.

On the way to dinner, I kept looking into the storefront windows. It was your usual gay district stuff. Then I saw a T-shirt. I would have totally bought it had it not been for my possibly gay uncle. As ambigious as his signals were, I didn't want him to pick up the wrong idea about me. Who knows what he'd do if he thought I was gay. He might seriously unload four decades of pent-up closetedness. He might tell his sister—my mom—that he thought I was gay. She already thought I was gay. Even when I brought girls home. My high school band was called Citrus Boy. She thought it was my indirect way of telling the world my sexual orientation.

"Hugh, are YOU the citrus boy?" she asked, after my father pointed out that the name sounded "Kinda queer. Like Queer Boy. Or Homo Boy." So that's all I needed. The shirt was glorious, though. It was the logo from the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Except it said, "Put my Willy Wonka in a Chocolate Factory."

After we ate, we went back to my uncle's place. It was obvious that Sean and Don were quite drunk. They'd successfully polished off a fifth of whiskey on empty stomachs and had now taken to giggling. My uncle noticed they were out of booze, and probably thinking it normal, offered them some microbrews from his fridge. He's not a drinker, so he probably bought them for us. My uncle said he had to wake up early for work the next morning and went to bed.

Somehow, I needed to get my bandmates to go to sleep, too. I'm all for having fun, but we were seriously imposing on my uncle here. I pulled out a laptop and put on "This is Spinal Tap." That's a good tour movie; that oughta lull them into docileness, I figured.

Sean sloppily knocked over his glass of stout onto the white rug.

"You motherfucker," I whispered.

Don got up and grabbed some paper towels and cleaned it up. Maybe he sensed the turmoil. There was definitely still a brown blob on the rug. Well, more of a stain, really.

I got in my sleeping bag. Sean and Don went into the kitchen. I drifted off to sleep, only to be woken up by their muffled giggling.

"Do it! DO IT!" I heard Don say.

Great, I thought. He's encouraging Sean to drink more. What were they doing? Shooting beer?

I heard more giggling before I heard Sean throw up in my uncle's kitchen sink. Then more giggling. I'd later find out that they had found my uncle's liquor cabinet.

I went back to sleep, thinking they'd pass out sooner or later.

I woke up in the dark to the sound of breaking glass and scurrying.

"What the fuck was that?" I asked in Sean's direction.

He groggily raised his head, rubbed his eyes, and said, "What do you mean?"

The asshole had kicked a beer bottle into a glass, shattering it, then hopped in his sleeping bag to deny any participation.

"You motherfucker," I whispered.

He got up and cleaned up the glass and put it in the bottom of the waste can.

We woke up and my uncle was gone. We left him a note and cleared out of his apartment. We had a show in San Francisco that night and another in Oakland the following night. Joseph had invited us to stay both nights. In the note, I said no thanks. I didn't tell him why, instead saying we'd invaded his private space enough and that we'd figure it out.

So we tried to find a place to crash with one of the other bands on that night's bill. Nothing. We tried to make some new friends. Nothing. After the show we drove to a Safeway, bought a case of Pabst and headed toward downtown. We found a spot outside a swanky tennis club where the meters gave us free parking until 8 a.m. Then we took the case of beer out onto a pier in the San Francisco Bay. The wind was blowing. It was cold. We were all covered in sweat from the show. I wasn't too into talking to them, but knew there was no sense in starting a fight midway through tour.

"I'll just let it go until we get back and then kick Sean out of the band," I thought to myself, cradling my Pabst. "Motherfucker."

We drank our beer and pissed into the bay. It was just the three of us and a pelican.

The beer ran out and we found our way back to the van. We had a few hours to sleep before we'd have to move to another parking spot. It wasn't comfortable.

We woke up at 7:30. People with tennis rackets were arriving for their morning game at "the club." The sun was beating sheets of light through the van's windows. It was only then that I realized that Don used this van to transport his dogs around town. The sunlight was refracted by hundreds of slobbery tongue-licks on every window in the car. It made me feel sick.

We were exhausted, smelly and hungover. So we drove around downtown San Francisco. Oakland's just over the bridge, so we had a long day to kill. We stopped at an IHOP and miraculously found a parking spot big enough for the van and trailer. Inside, we pooled our money and came up with enough for one breakfast and three coffees. We overstayed our welcome. The waitress stopped coming by for refills so we left.

"Where to now?"

"Remember the beach on the other side of town? When your uncle was showing us around I think I saw some free parking."

We rumbled through town, past the City Lights Bookstore, and found the beach. It was true. Free parking. Goldmine.

Don and I plopped down in the sand and smoked a cigarette.

Sean called his crazy wife back in Chicago and paced back and forth, out of earshot. I didn't care. I didn't give a shit anyway. She was going to kill him in the long run. That's what you get for marrying someone after three weeks. Before we'd even gotten through South Dakota—we literally hadn't gotten out of the van for anything other than to fill up the tank—she was on the phone with him, saying she knew he was going to fuck someone else, so she was going to as well. "Vegas, Baby!" she texted him. A plane ride to Vegas and a Def Leppard concert later, I think we were in Portland at the time, she called him and they started making up.

It was as disgusting as those dog-licked windows in the van.

As Don and I sat, watching the waves bounce against the beach, we saw some sand move about halfway between us and the water.

"What the fuck?"

We both stared.

Then a torso snapped upright. It was a person. Don and I looked at each other.

The person shook the sand out of his hair, swiveled at the hip, saw us, and got up. He waddled over to us and sat down.

"Want to smoke a joint?" he asked.

"No, thanks," we said.

"I've got some advice," he responded. "Never bury your sleeping bag in the sand. It feels like you're gettin' crushed all night."


We chatted. He smoked his joint. We smoked our cigarettes. Another buried body popped out of the sand not too far away. Our new friend hopped up and joined the other sand-dweller.

It was at this point that I took stock of my situation. I was covered in 12-hour old sweat. I just shared a meal with two other guys. I've got nothing to do for the next 12 hours. And now homeless people were offering me stuff. I was homeless.

We still had most of the day to kill before playing in Oakland. Then we remembered that Ben, a buddy of ours from Chicago, was currently in San Francisco. We called him up and he gave us the address of his hotel. Our plan was to use the place to shower. The room was wrecked when we were done.

Ben was in town visiting his cousin, who was sitting beneath his long, gray ponytail in the corner of the room. Ben's cousin had some sort of lung disease—I can't remember which one, maybe pleurisy?—and did some sort of breathing treatment every day. Ever since he was like 12 or something. Whatever. He was just another aging hippie to me. At least they were coming to our show that night.

Ben felt bad for us and offered to buy us sandwiches at "The Wharf." Besides, Lung Disease wanted to show off his city to us. Fine. Free sandwich.

We walked for ages to get there. We stood in line at a sandwich counter before it dawned on me that they only served fish there, to which I'm allergic. I got in line at a different place and ended up buying myself a chicken sandwich. So much for a free sandwich.

The line took forever. The other guys had already eaten their sandwiches while sitting on a bench, overlooking the bay.

"Motherfuckers," I thought.

I started to eat my sandwich. I don't know if it was the tediousness of the tour that had gotten to me, the long nights without enough sleep, the too-many beers or what, but I'd suddenly become very surly. Lung Disease started talking about how beautiful San Francisco is.

For some reason, this put me over the edge. I stood up and said, "This is what I think about San Francisco," before slamming my half-eaten sandwich and its wrapper straight down on the cement and walking away.

I had just offended Lung Disease.

Like, offended him on par with raping his children."He was pissed," Ben told me, weeks later, back in Chicago. "For you to litter like that, right by the edge of the ocean! Oh! He was super pissed."

They didn't come to the show that night because Lung Disease couldn't stand the sight of me.

After the incident with the sandwiches at "The Wharf," Don pawned some equipment at a music store so he could afford Korean food in Oakland, down the street from the club we played. The show went well. People were there, we got paid. We even found a place to stay. In the morning, we filled the tank and hit the road for Los Angeles.

Hugh Johnston grew up in the lonely town of Avery, Iowa. It's not on most maps. Thankfully, the grunge boom of the early '90s brought guitar rock to the mainstream—even in Avery—and Johnston soon procured a crummy, used guitar and started writing songs. He's played in bands ever since. Non-fiction writing is his other passion, having gotten the journalism bug from Christopher Reeve in the early Superman movies. He now is a professional reporter in the Chicago area, and also likes to change outfits in telephone booths.

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