To Pittsburgh, September 17th 2014
We are out of Cleveland by 9am, pale blue skies above. There are three tasks to be completed today. A live performance on radio, getting me a US social security number and finding a nut wrench to loosen the truss rod of my Taylor. Ooh, missus. It’s enough to make Rod Taylor blush. If he weren’t long dead, pecked to death by deranged birds. Pittsburgh is the destination, a city I last visited in the early nineties for some outdoor radio event. The most recent proper gig I did there was 1986. It was the Electric Banana as I remember and we stayed with a Dels fan’s parents in suburbia. I have unforgivably forgotten her name but I do have a photograph somewhere of me and our guitarist, Brian eating out of a dog bowl on all fours wearing pet collars. It was near the end of the tour. The whole thing was madness, folly and epiphanic.
The route takes us through scrubland and light forest with pretty little clapboard farmhouses in the clearings. We pull over for fuel on the turnpike at a spotlessly new facility. There is a group of grizzled men with their wives who are sporting baseball caps embroidered with Iowa Veterans. They look about Vietnam age, I’d say, or maybe Korea. Either way they don’t look like men who have killed. They have an avuncular rural innocence about them and I notice one of them taking a photograph of the floor, because it is new and has a mosaic of the state of Ohio on it.
It turns out the radio appearance is in front of live audience on a little stage. About ten people shuffle shyly in which is one more than have bought tickets for tomorrow night’s show. The host is a nice guy called Mike and the chat between songs is of the more enlightened stripe you get on public radio. Everyone is curious about the referendum. It has really permeated the collective consciousness here. For the first time in my life I find myself hoping for an ex-pat presence in the crowd come the show. I’d like to feel that solidarity there. No matter. What’s done is done. Minds are made up, my vote is cast and the result is now in the grip of the hands of fate. Roll those fucking dice.
We decide to have lunch downtown and take a doglegged wander through the angled streets, the towers hanging over us like bodyguards. There are some spectacular buildings from the turn of the nineteenth century, elegantly modern and beautifully detailed. It feels eastern unlike Cleveland which has enough of the Midwest about it to make this place seem somehow much more cranked-up and raw in comparison.
In the morning I dial “breakfast” into a maps app and am directed over hill and dale to Eggs ‘R’ Us which turns out to be a proper diner style establishment. I am a little behind so it has to be hit and run. 27 minutes there, twenty minutes for scran and back up the hill. I’m in suburbia so walking is not easy. The sidewalk just disappears half the time and you take your life in your hands at major junctions. You’re a non-person without a car. Even pets have their own cars. You see them, the dogs, looking smugly down at you from those high seats in their SUVs, one paw nonchalantly spinning the power assisted steering-wheel as they scream round corners. My breakfast arrives late and is so repugnant that I fling ten bucks onto the table and flee.
Next up is a return trip to the NPR station to talk on a news show about the state of the music business and the state of the union. Followed by a my second trip to the social security office, which was closed yesterday. This truly is groundhog day. The news show host is quite obsessed with my paltry ticket sales and is touting an angle that, having been a hit turn, it turns out I have now hit hard times. A forensic discussion on the finances of my job ensues which is all rather odd. I’m being framed as a victim when I’m entirely the opposite. I’m the perpetrator.
At the social security office a lady with crazy eyebrows about an inch from the top of her head throws my application form back at me saying, “I don’t know what this is”, but she does really and finally gives me a numbered ticket and tells me to go sit and wait. I am suddenly in the real US, not the sanitised luxury the tourist sees. There are metal detectors at the entrance and they ask you if you have a gun which is a little rum because these guys do, strapped to their belts like a mute threat. They bark orders at you like you’re a school kid. The waiting area is typical of every other state bureaucracy shithole you could think of: grey, soulless and lit like a horror movie. The tannoy system screeches intermittently like an instrument of torture, the woman’s voice broadcasting over it like a fucking strangled banshee. The bloke next to me asks for a dollar and I feel awkward digging around in my pockets for cash so I refuse. He’s desperate, I’m awkward. Don’t you love this life?
Most of the folk here are querying benefit claims. It is a roomful of people with real-world problems. The dollar guy next to me starts complaining to me that his teeth hurt from his new braces. I suggest painkillers which sends him into such a tailspin of confusion that he decides to up sticks and insert himself between a pair of possibly more sympathetic suckers. Either that or my accent made him nervous. He keeps muttering and gets ignored. In a miraculously short time I am at a window where I am greeted by two employees who seem amused by my case. I don’t think they get my sort around here much. The woman at the keyboard is assisted by a bright spark geezer who tells her the R-01 on my visa means I have extraordinary awesomeness. I refute the allegation and polite tittering ensues. This is a reference to the kind of work visa I have where I have to claim “extraordinary ability” to assure the authorities that a US citizen couldn’t do my job equally well, which of course they could – and do – but not with my trademark slovenliness. I am rubber stamped and on my way, leaving real people with real pain in my unthinking wake.
There is time to kill in the sunshine before load-in so I explore Carson Street, a bar lined thoroughfare of the sort you find in every university city. I browse in a second-hand clothing outlet, fingering the plaid shirts like a grieving lover but I’m far too old for their selection of gaudy garb. I cruise around idly. I am a temporary tourist. The votes are pouring into the ballot boxes in Scotland and the constitution hangs by a slender sinew. One hour before the polls close. I sit and sip some American coffee, praying the people plump for change, swallow fear and take that left turn out of all this traffic streaming into oblivion. Take the high road to some other destination far removed from this bent and fucked-up world.