Notes from a Female Roadie
by Tavi Black

 

Bangkok, Thailand

Hi Honeyó

Just a note to say Iíve made it across the water. The first show went well last night, so a bunch of the crew and the band went off to a beach resort today in Northern Thailand. I opted to stay in Bangkok because the thought of getting on another airplane was completely unappealing (at least management gave us the choice).

After the show last night we took a trip to the night market at Patpongóa bustling, loud hubbub of bartering. Most of the wares are cheap knock-offs, but I couldnít resist the women who pleaded with me for just a few dollars. They were practically on their knees, grabbing at my shirt to buy a pashmina or a watch. ďPlease, Lady, please,Ē they begged in broken English. Some of the crew went into a strip bar next to the market.  Half-naked, skinny women with glazed-over eyes gyrated in high heelsóI saw them from the entryway. They looked detached, inhuman. When the crew came out they told me how the women on stage shot items out of their vaginas: ping-pong balls, bananas. How do you live with such images in your head, without wanting to do something for these women? I donít have an answer. But Iím glad I didnít witness it first hand, that I didnít have to sit beside my co-workers while they laughed. 

This afternoon I took a ride in a longboat down the canal, colorful lanterns swinging from the canopy. Children leapt in and out of the dirty, brown water. In China Town I wandered amidst the plastic wares and rancid-looking food, cooked right on the street, while smog burnt into my lungs. Locals donned surgical masks as if in the middle of an epidemic.

I visited the Wat Pho temple with a gigantic reclining Buddha plated in gold, where at the other corner of the grounds thereís a Thai massage school. They gave me a thin cotton outfitó blue and turquoise with strange wide pants that I couldnít quite figure out how to tie.  Everyone lay on beds right next to each other, fully clothed, while cross-legged masseurs poked and prodded, pushing and pulling and turning us like a sack of grain until weíd reached an ecstatic state, eyes fully rolling back in the head. And then itís over.  I just know that with a little more time he could have worked that nagging sore spot out of my lower back.

So the funís almost up, just one more sleep and weíre on our way, touring the Pan-Pacific rim.

Seoul, South Korea 

Hióhello, hey, baby, I never know quite how to start these things in order to make it sound as if I were talking to you from the next room, on the telephone, or sitting in the car. Anything but half a world away.  Which is, of course, exactly where I am. I just climbed out of the bath, all soft and sweet smelling, and will soon be snuggled under crisp white sheets. I spent the day in downtown Seoul, which, as far as I can see, has very little to offer. Granted, all I really saw was the venue where the band played, the hotel, and an attached underground mallólots of neon, loud noises, teenagers.  

Thanks for sending me the little e-mail from work.  I know you canít write me much while youíre busyóI just find myself waiting like a child along a parade route for your next stream of sweet words.  Iíll get better as I go along about weaning myself from you (and you can tell me if all these messages become tedious. Really, Iíll understand.)   

Shanghai, China 

Just a short one tonight, as I'm thoroughly exhausted. It was a long gig day, with a local crew that didnít understand me. So many of them were sweet, and tried their best, but the language barrier was frustrating. During the load-out I was told that many of the laborers work only for lunch and dinner, no other wages.  It just about broke my heart. 

It seems to me that human life is not valued here.  Itís similar to what we found in South America: no ground for the electricity, no safeties on the rigging. It's frightening to see how they hang the rig, and there are absolutely no regulations. 

I didn't get to see much of Shanghai, other than more mountains of smog, hoards of bicycles and autos, more people shoving each other out of the way, begging us in a shameful manner for our patronage.  

Hong Kong tomorrow.  Another flight, another hotel, another day without you.  I loved hearing your sleepy voice this morning, imagining you in my house.  I want to call you again and again.  I haven't seen any other e-mails from you, if you've sent any. I'll keep writing, though.  I'll keep picturing your face. 

Hong Kong

Hong Kong todayóitís pretty much like youíd imagine, like you see in movies: all the neon signs, millions of people, the never-ceasing smog, bicycles and cars for days. Yet thereís something extra here in Hong Kong that is never captured on film.  Itís a sort of soul, a dignity, and a cleanliness underneath the grime.  In Bangkok they beg you to buy wares; here they could do without you.  In Shanghai they shove you out of the way; here they beg your pardon.  I feel about Hong Kong like I do about New Yorkóitís great fun for a few days: wonderful, stimulating, exciting, but it canít last, is too much for this sensitive system.  I need a beach and a float in the ocean.

Hong Kong, again

Itís midnight in Hong Kong and weíre leaving at 6am for Manila, where there will have been a cock fight tonight in the arena weíre playing tomorrow.  I have trepidation about chicken blood, but others on the crew speculate that chickens are small, so there shouldnít be too much blood. 

Iím having one of those down days, as we were inside a convention center all day and I couldnít figure out why, if I had to sit inside for hours on end, that I couldnít just do that in Seattle. Right now I should be sleeping, but I have these dialogues that run through my head all day of things I want to tell you, like the fact that my bathroom here is completely glass and marble, sparkling clean with two shower-heads and a deep Jacuzzi tub. Some people will never see the inside of a hotel like this. Some people dream of being pampered in this way, while others act as if theyíre entitled. I work with some of them. 

An example: the other day we had a few hours before our flight and the tour got a couple of passes for the first class lounge.  Some of the management fly first class with the band (and some of them love to brag about it).  So, they lead us all to the lounge without telling us where we are going, some of the guys actually start mooing and baaing, and then we stand in the lobby of the lounge because they donít have enough passes for everyone. They argue with the girl who barely speaks English. The airline rep is on the phone, and this just goes on and on. After a few minutes I took off.  It felt so pathetic standing there, begging to sit on the sofa and have a drink; something I could easily do outside that lounge.  Simply being in first class could not grant the dignity some of the people I work with seem to think that money or air miles, or whatever they are searching foróa false sense of respectócan give them.  That didnít even make sense; thatís how incensed I am about this pathetic attitude of entitlement.  This is exactly why people hate Americans; well, one of the reasons. 

I did not intend to rave.  I just wanted to write and say I miss you, and in case you canít tell, Iím about to start my period.  Keep your spirits up, okay?  And I promise to try hard to do the same. 

Manila, Philippines

Iím on my way to Taipei, leaving Manila, which I never really saw to begin with.  I have images in my head of shiny vehicles, construction rubble, shanty towns and a lot of Jesus images. In fact, there was a huge, disturbing crucifix upon entering the venue, hanging over the loading area. And when I say huge, I mean bigger than life-size.  The people seem nice, but wary.  Items are cheap here, and itís naturally pretty, but the population, the division of wealth, is hard to swallow.

The native language in Manila, called Tagalog (thereís 52 Philippine dialects), is a mixture of many different languages, so when you overhear it, for a minute you think theyíre speaking Spanish, then Italian, maybe Chinese, and then they throw in a little English.  These island nations that were once colonies, Iím finding, are often infiltrated in this way. But at least most tend to hold on to their culture some.  There are a lot of people who speak English all across Asia. Itís incredible how westernized most of the world has become. There truly is a Starbucks in every city weíve been to. Itís not hard to find American products, but itís hard to find a trash can. It goes hand in hand with the absence of paper products, like napkins or toilet paper.  They donít seem to believe in them.

The over-population in these cities is staggering.  The people of Manila sit in unmoving traffic, riding on public vehicles called jeepnies, all decked out with paint and shiny metal objects. Locals jump on after darting through maniacal driving and pass the money up to the driver, rider to rider, jumping off when they want to leave. They push and shove, similar to the crowds in China; thereís no other way to get where youíre going.

Taipei, Taiwan

You should see the clouds today, all puffy and solid like a quilt covering the sky, the blue just peeking through holes worn in the blanket.  Iím staring out at one of the worldís tallest buildings, spectacular architectureóit looks like little square cups sitting one atop the other.  It towers over the decidedly un-spectacular city of Taipeióanother busy, crowded place (where at least they will say excuse me). 

The hills looming in the distance seem not so much to offer promiseóas they might at first glanceóbut seem instead to be holding the city in its place, containing it, not allowing a step beyond. 

I have to run to work. An easy enough day ahead, except its cold hereóoh, and we're hearing that China's going to attack Taiwan for trying to secede today. Here's hoping we make it out.  I'm going to try to call you tomorrow before the long flight to Australia.  Sure would be nice to get a word from you. 

Perth, Australia         

Today was a fairly good day.  We played at a botanical garden in Perth, a city I thought was on the ocean or a bay (turns out itís on a river).  A wide expanse can trick the eye, can force us into believing in patterns that are comfortable, things we recognize.  I may ramble a bit as I still havenít recovered from the long flight, long work days, the sun so hot it feels like heavy desert air surrounding our bodies, claiming moisture the moment it is released.

I must say itís nice to be back in an English-speaking country. I hate to admit that, but when youíre tired, itís just easier. I was refreshed by a long walk overlooking the river, along the paths lined with native fauna, birds like the willy wobble-tail (I swear, thatís what they call it), a kookaburraóso cool looking, youíd think he was trying to have a conversation with you. And the ducks in the pond near the stage just come right up to you, expecting something.  Like the roadies of the bird world. 

Melbourne, Australia 

These days are so long, we start to live in a sort of delirium, a motionless, repetitive cyclone, winding its way across the world.  Itís beautiful today here in Melbourne, right on the ocean. We walked the boardwalk, watched children leaping into sand piles and fishermen measuring their catch off the pieróthe pier that seemed to go miles out into the open ocean, the horizon shadowed with oil tankers.  Right now the band is singing a sad, sad song while in the background thrill-seekers scream from the top of the rollercoaster across the streetóthe sound of banshees peppering the ballad. 

Iím trying not to fall asleep before load out, trying to understand why I cannot simply love this life.  It would be so much easier if I could.  Daily meditation helps, making me calm and accepting of my lot.  Today, I can barely remember what you look like, other than your smile. Our romance seems like something that happened a year agoóor perhaps it was a sweet dream I had.  My letters are getting shorter, but that may seem a blessing. Iím writing you a novel of trivialities.  I canít seem to stopóitís causing me to pay attention to my day, to my life. 

Auckland, New Zealand

We had half a day off for the first time in a month, got to sleep in and then took a ferry out to an island. Yet I hated everything. Iím crawling out of not only my skin, but my veins, my blood, my grey matter, just out somewhere beyond the means of thought, beyond the ability to reason or to talk or to scream or to make guttural sounds.  You cannot rationally talk yourself down from this.  You cannot make everything okay by thinking about how good you actually have it.  Thinking about that does not take away this longingóa longing so strong, yet I have no idea what it really is.  It cannot be a drug.  It cannot be my love for you.  It cannot be a place Iíve grown attached to.  Itís deeper than all that and you know exactly what Iím talking about. Itís the thing that keeps us in a pattern of self-destruction.  The questions weíre tired of being unanswered, so gut-sick of that we numb ourselves instead.  Oh, poor pathetic artistic types.  I even hate that Iím a type.  Iím a type that on a good day I would make fun of. 

Today I wondered if youíre still in love with me, or if Iíve become a ghost in my own house, if the memory of me is fading from your head, if youíre becoming accustomed once again to the bachelor life, and if once Iím home youíll actually miss the relationship you had with these rambling, meandering versesóa girlfriend made of words you can engage when it suits you only.  Now Iím making myself laugh, though the laughter has a bitter edge.  Nothing mirthful from these lips today.

Noumea, New Caledonia

I wouldnít have guessed that a storm could last so long, that the wind could keep pushing for days on end with that kind of strength.  It makes me wonder where it comes from, this force. The air is so heavy you can almost lick it, so salty I am feeling like a sea urchin. The rest of the crew seems to be depressed by this.  Maybe itís my comfort with grayness, or my need to be left alone; whatever it is, Iím fine.  I took a bike for a long ride this morningóthere was nowhere to go, except on the main auto route, so it was a bit nerve-wracking but I soon relaxed, biked with no certain direction, just up the hills and along the ocean.  I found a little market and purchased some toothpaste and wine.  There were baguettes just hanging out in a pile, with no wrapper.  I thought of all the germs, strangers touching it; god knows how long it had been there, sneezed on, rubbed on, but I thought, hell, all these people do it, so jumped in and have now eaten the diseased bundle of carbs with some local cheese, washed down with a glass of wine. 

I had a truly European moment on the way back (though Iím aware Iím in the South Pacific) of tooling along on my bike, balancing groceries.  I came around a bend and for just a few seconds there was not an automobile or a person in sight.  It was just me and the sea, and my bread sticking out of the sac like a flag.  I felt cultured and foreign. 

Even the kite surfers have packed it in this afternoon.  The stores were mostly closed, and itís quiet in this fading resort town; itís on the downslide, I can feel it, the buildings decaying in the salt air, the casinos pathetic, heavy with smoke and people with bad teeth. Thereís an old Club Med next door thatís abandoned, fenced in.  Iím tempted to jump the fence and explore the huge tree I can see from the road. Things are good hereówould be better if you were next to me.   

Nagoya, Japan

Weíre on a train right now, our second train of the day, heading to Nagoya, our destination after a nine hour flight.  Hours refuse to hold any meaning when you travel through time zones in the middle of the night.  We watched the seats on the first train swivel and turn to face the other direction before we boarded, like a ride at a carnival. We bought Japanese treats at the kiosk while waiting for this caróa bullet trainóall sleek and modern.  Everything here is explained by cartoons, on the outside of packages, in brochures. 

Iím feeling low, feeling neglected.  Iíve had a rough day and still no word from you.  I donít know what youíre going throughólonely, busy, apathetic or high? I donít know because you donít tell me.  You said you donít feel like writing; well, sometimes I donít either, but I write because thatís what keeps me connected to you.  I donít expect a note every day; Christ, just an ďIím okayĒ every week, something to make me feel Iím not writing to a phantom.  Iím just so sad some days, and it hasnít stopped raining.

Tokyo, Japan                           

Tokyo is like any other city.  Weíre staying near the business district, so itís quiet; tall cement buildings loom.  Mirrored windows stare back at me, reflecting more tall buildings.  But theyíre white and tan, not dark like Iíd imagined. Thereís a subway a couple of blocks away, and it takes you into the heart of the action.  And on a Sunday the action is shopping.  I couldnít move, couldnít breathe.  It shocked me that the locals werenít affected, werenít panicking like I was by the lack of space. They are desensitized the way we are to bad TV, almost attracted to it.  It must be an acquired taste, this human funneling. 

The teenagers were dressed in every clothing combination possibleóbaby doll dresses with punk hairdos, Goth make-up with striped sailor tights, polka-dot stockings, and lace skirts.  The more outlandish the better. We stood waiting for the light to change, looking across the wide street.  We stared en masse towards the other side of the street, two gangs waiting to rumble, more people than Iíve ever seen on one street corner.

So, after describing yet another city, I can do nothing but wonder: where are you? You donít answer, donít send anything on to me. It makes me want to stop trying.  Iím rollercoastering because of your love, because it has become like a drug for me, a tonic that mellows out my mood. But then I canít find you and I think: God you are fickle. Or maybe I made it all up. Or why does everything always seem like a test?  Or why canít I just get drunk and forget it like everyone else on this tour?  Iím trying so hard to be good, to live a clean life, but it doesnít seem to matter. I still get sad, still hate my job, still have a boyfriend I canít find on any given day. And even after all this, Iím still an American who expects to lead a stunning life. Iím coming home soon. I hope youíll be there.

###

Tavi Black is a writer and a painter living with her husband on Vashon Island in the Puget Sound in Washington State. She recently graduated from Lesley Universityís Low Residency MFA program in Cambridge, MA. Throughout her varied career, she has worked as a ballroom dance instructor, a producer, a stage manager and a lighting technician. Sheís toured the world with groups such as Phish and Norah Jones, before finally working up the nerve to go back to school and pursue writing. She is currently working on both a novel and a memoir of her years on the road.