Excerpt from the memoir ARE YOU FAMOUS? (Catalyst Book Press, 2008)
Early June 2001, I stood outside Coffee Roasters on Geist Road in Fairbanks. The night before I’d been out late, celebrating the release of my second CD, Burnt Down House, which I’d recorded in town six months earlier. After the regularly scheduled tourist show, I’d played a set in Ester at the Malemute Saloon, and then we’d had a jam session. We’d gone until almost 3 a.m., long past dusk, and ended the evening driving home in the quiet late-night daylight. It was one of things I loved about Fairbanks, how the summer light turned time upside-down. Another was this scene at Coffee Roasters, dawdling before getting on the road, in no hurry because, though I really did have to get back to Anchorage where I had so much to do the next two weeks packing up my apartment before leaving it for good and going on tour, hurrying didn’t matter. In June there was always plenty of time. My pal Cindy was there. And so, unexpectedly, was Patti, whom I’d always liked but who had also always lived in Juneau with a boyfriend. Somehow she was working on Mike’s little farm. This was the third time I’d run into her in three days. Each time had made me happy.
That was also what I liked about the state and especially about Fairbanks. In certain circles, everybody and everything related. Mike was a fiddler, had even played on one of the cuts on the CD. He’d been by last night, but had left early, since this was the busy season. A native New Englander, Mike used to work for the park service in the Brooks Range. Now he grew flowers, had a dog team, was building a house, had recently gotten married. The privileged poor, he’d once called us, explaining the choices we’d made, and how it was we’d come to this stage in our lives—a pair of guys in their forties, free to follow dreams, work nonstop, skirt financial ruin, be the envy of certain friends.
Cindy was one of the few people I let worry about me, and she was worrying now. She knew I was nearly broke and couldn’t understand why, instead of saving up to apply for a teaching job somewhere, I’d put my money into making CDs—indeed, was planning on recording another in Fairbanks this winter and was going to drive out of state with no plan other than to somehow go from job to job. I can’t even get hold of you, she complained.
Of course you can, I said.
No, I can’t. You don’t even have e-mail.
So what? I said. You can write me a letter. It’ll get forwarded, and I’ll write you back. You can call my voice mail; I check messages all the time, and I’ll call you back.
No, she said. If I needed to get hold of you, I couldn’t.
We hugged, and I watched her pull out of the parking space. Then I turned to Patti, who was still standing beside me.
Did you hear all that? I asked.
Am I crazy? Am I? Doesn’t a phone count as a way to get hold of someone? What about writing letters?
Patti shrugged her shoulders. People are funny, she said. I don’t have e-mail either, but people who do just act funny sometimes. She smiled. I understood what you meant.
So, hypothetically, if I were to invite you to join me on this tour, and you wanted to, you’d be able to find me, no matter what.
Patti smiled. Oh, I’d be able to find you.
I went into my back pocket. Just to be sure, here’s my latest card. I found a pen, scrawled a phone number. Where are you going to be in the fall?
Patti continued smiling. I’d been inviting her places, hypothetically and not, ever since we’d met. I bet she had no idea where she’d be but knew it wasn’t going to be on tour with the fiddling poet. Still, I’d always liked Patti. I liked all kinds of women, never felt I had a single type. But if I did, it would have been like Patti. Smart, pretty, earthy, with a sense of humor. Long blonde hair. Pretty blue eyes. Like my first girlfriend, Frannie. It never hurt to let her know I liked her, I thought, as I gave her a hug, turned to get in my car.
For a year now, ever since my first CD had been released and I’d begun using the internet to look up information, I’d been mulling opening an e-mail account. Cindy was only one of a myriad of friends who’d converted to communicating almost wholly online. And though I’d had fair luck on the phone, I’d begun meeting club owners and presenters who refused phone calls and conducted all business electronically.
There were reasons to get an account, I knew. Of course there were those who rolled their eyes, who I imagined hissed Luddite when I said I didn’t use e-mail, or who’d say, You of all people, doing what you do, you need e-mail more than anyone I know. But there were others who’d cheer me on, who’d say, Good for you, e-mail takes up all your time, and once you start you can’t go back—hold off as long as you can.
So I held off, and continued with the system that I had.
It was a rickety system, granted, but one that had naturally evolved. In Juneau, where I had a post office box, when I traveled for weeks, I depended on my friend, Jan, who lived next door to the post office. I gave her a spare key. When I was on my longer trips, every several days she’d walk next door with her little boy, Riley, let him put the key in the box, and turn. She’d put the mail in an envelope, and forward it to where I’d be the following week. Back in Juneau some weeks later, I’d stop by to visit, maybe play a few fiddle tunes with her husband, Tom, and reimburse her for the postage.
In Anchorage, even before I’d decided to rent the basement apartment close to downtown, I understood I needed not only a permanent address but one where I wouldn’t have to depend on friends. Everywhere there are businesses whose service is to provide an address for a fee and, for an additional fee, will forward mail. I simply found one that was well-established in Anchorage. Summers when I was in town, it was a pleasurable part of my day to ride the two miles one way to my mailbox, pedaling uphill along a section of the Chester Creek bike trail, then up another trail toward West High and Romig Junior High. On the sidewalk then, across Northern Lights and Benson, across Minnesota and Spenard, I’d hop the occasional curb to 36th and Arctic. My box was less than a half-block from the corner. Winters, I drove. And when I was out of town for more than two weeks so needed mail forwarded, I could call anytime between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. Alaska time. It was a matter of calculating not only where I’d be in a week or ten days, but also figuring a place which felt safe to have something sent. Over the years, the folks working there had gotten to know me well. I’d call, leave an address, then would forget about it until I rolled into wherever I’d thought to have my mail forwarded. Invariably, a packet was awaiting me, and I learned most times it would take three or four days to reach the destination
Seven years now, the only time the system has gone even slightly awry was recently when I had almost three weeks worth of mail sent directly to a house I was subletting and had to wait more than a week. After almost two weeks, I contacted both the local post office and my mail service, checking too to see if the forwarded mail had somehow been lost or misplaced. Already I’d called to have a second pack mailed, which had already arrived, three days after mailing. Checking the postmarks from this second pack, I had proof there were indeed three weeks unaccounted for. Afraid the first packet of mail might never appear, I began contacting people I’d been expecting checks from, letting them know I had a problem.
One afternoon the following week, there was a knock on the door. An elderly neighbor handed me the packet, which he said had been delivered to his house instead of the one I was in. Several times I’d seen the man working in his yard the previous week. I could only wonder why he hadn’t returned the misdelivered mail to the carrier or why he’d taken so long to bring it over. He’d likely had it almost two weeks. Though the packet didn’t contain the two larger checks I’d been expecting, there was still over $800 worth that needed depositing, as well as other pressing business.
I learned to attend to all my business on the road. Banking was easy: simply sign the checks, stick them in an envelope, and send them to my Anchorage credit union. I always had stamps handy. I not only knew the due dates for all six credit cards, but knew when my phone bill was due, when my semi-annual car insurance bill was due, when my AAA service bill was due. I always paid on time, whether I had the bill in my hands or not, though I did run into trouble two or three times when the bills weren’t credited correctly, and I had to explain the errors.
Because I didn’t use e-mail, I’d grown especially dependent on the phone. When I first started my business in Juneau, even before I had my own place, I bought a voice mail account so there was a number to reach me. When I moved into the studio, I kept that number—kept it until I moved to Anchorage—plus had my own phone line. Home, I’d spend full days making calls. Traveling, I started buying phone cards, which I’d use to check my message phone number or else to call people directly.
As the technology has changed, so has my system. Though I found phone cards with cheaper and cheaper rates—and the phone card choices can be dizzying—they’ve become harder to use in public. Just a few years ago, pay phones were plentiful, and certain phone cards could be an excellent deal. But because of the proliferation of cell phones, the few pay phones you can still find now charge a connection fee that has risen to up to a dollar per call. There was a time that I’d make fifteen or twenty phone calls at once, leaving quick messages, sometimes even reaching someone. That’s no longer economical on pay phones, though I’ll still do it on motel or private phone lines since the dollar connection fee doesn’t apply there. Many mornings in a Motel 6, I’d race to make cheap phone card calls before the noon checkout, when I’d hurry out the door at 11:58, lugging my music instruments and overnight bag to the front desk, where I’d drop off the key and head to the minivan to begin the day’s drive.
Until fairly recently, the cell phone option was the one that always seemed impractically expensive. Sketchy service areas, huge roaming charges, and for what benefit? I wondered. Pay phones used to be fine. And even when those rates soared, as long as I had access to a motel phone, or was staying with somebody who didn’t mind if I tied up the line, the phone cards worked. To reach me quickly, I have my Anchorage voice mail number, which I plan to keep indefinitely. The number is on every piece of promotional material, even my CDs, and I check at least once daily. To contact me cheaply, and at length, there’s the postal service. For years now, I’ve been corresponding that way with my Denver poetry buddy, Bob. We keep faith in what is slower and steady.
Saturday, September 8, 2001, I was attending a conference in the Texas hill country west of Austin. The national Folk Alliance conferences in February had grown so large that most regions now held more intimate regional conferences in the fall. I’d been wanting to play more in Texas, and had a friend, Jerry, who I’d originally met as a correspondent. He was co-editor of a poetry journal I’d published in, Nerve Cowboy. An excellent clawhammer banjo player with a style similar to Andrea’s, he was a friend of Fiddling Wolf, whom I’d known for years. Jerry and I began playing music whenever we had the opportunity and performed together several times. In December I’d be recording my next CD up in Fairbanks and Andrea had indicated she didn’t want to commit. Jerry was happy to. Here, at the Folk Alliance regional, we were even showcasing on the main stage. Also attending the conference was Marilyn, a pretty singer-songwriter who’d been flirting with me.
I missed arranging a roommate at the conference, which cost me an extra $35/night for three nights, but which allowed me to invite Marilyn to stop by after my showcase to play music, talk, share a beer. I’d been attracted to her the first time we’d met, a year earlier. The way she’d been flirting, the attraction was obviously mutual. We tried playing one of her songs, but had hardly started before we put down our instruments, began kissing and cuddling. I got up to close the door.
Sunday afternoon, I followed her back to Austin, where she lived. Her apartment was south of downtown. I’d be staying several miles north, with Jerry and his family. One more sexy hug and we made a date for the next night.
I can hardly wait, I said.
Neither can I, she said, kissing me deeply.
Past midnight Monday, after a couple of beers, more wonderful conversation, Marilyn asked me to walk her to her car. Come in for a minute, she said. We hadn’t even settled before we started cuddling across the front seat, Marilyn burrowing closer. She didn’t know what to do: get a room at this late hour or go home and figure it out tomorrow. Being with me, she said, was clarifying things for her. She’d told me her life was complicated. I knew she’d recently been in a long relationship, and was still sharing an apartment with him. What I hadn’t known was he was threatening to kill himself if she left, so she felt she had to be careful. But she wanted to be with me, could see driving off with me in a few weeks. A few weeks, that was all it would take. She needed to get out of Austin. Besides, touring had been a dream for her. She clung to me even closer.
I let her cling. If she wanted to get a room, I was all for it. If she wanted to wait, I could wait. I knew I wanted her. I’d make space in the car, buy something bigger, do what seemed best. Marilyn wasn’t part of any immediate plan, but she sure could be. Patti up in Alaska was never going to call me. I kissed Marilyn, and let my fingers slide downward. She kissed me back. We could buy a room now, we supposed, but no, we thought. She had to be careful. I didn’t want to push. We were here in Austin, not out of town in the hill country.
The next morning I woke at Jerry’s, and his wife Megan was watching the news. In New York City, a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Centers and the building was on fire. We watched live as what looked at first like a little commuter plane improbably circled and then hit the second tower. We sat transfixed most of the day. When I called Marilyn, she picked up the phone, said she couldn’t talk to me, but whispered she’d call Jerry’s and leave a cell number, and she hoped to see me at my Wednesday night concert at the Cactus Cafe. Though our club date went on as scheduled—one I only felt able to do since the day of the attacks I’d written a poem about September 11 and could integrate it into the show—it was poorly attended. Marilyn was one of the no-shows. Of course, who could predict anything during that extraordinary week? Earlier Wednesday, we’d been looking forward to appearing on a popular University of Texas public radio station interview program. After the terrorism, our guest slot had been cancelled.
That weekend I was leading workshops in San Antonio, and then I had two more weeks before heading to West Texas, my next gig. A few days earlier Marilyn was considering coming with me; now, with the tumult of 9/11 and her complicated relationship with her ex, she was nearly impossible to reach. Once that next week we went out for dinner. Once for drinks. I couldn’t write her, couldn’t call, except on the cell when it was safe. You should e-mail me, she said.
This isn’t as much fun now, is it, I said, sitting in her car again, the night we’d eaten dinner together. Though we still kissed and hugged, I heard her say now that this was going to take awhile. She hadn’t said that before. Her ex was going through hard times, she said. He needed her.
What about me needing you? I said.
She shook her head. I’m sorry. 9/11 made everything weird. Or maybe I just shouldn’t have gone home that night, and just gone gotten a room with you. She shook her head, then buried it in my chest. Now you’re just going to have to be very very patient with me, I’m afraid.
I’m afraid we don’t have a lot of time, I answered, putting a hand in her hair and starting to tousle. I didn’t know exactly how Andrea and Mark began a relationship that withstood distance for so many months, but I knew it hadn’t been like this.
Later that week, Jerry helped me open a Hotmail account. The next day, at the downtown Austin library, I spent half my hour on the computer trying to figure my pass code and the other half staring at the screen, thinking of Marilyn. I ran out of time before I could type a quarter of what I’d wanted to say. The next day, back again, the process was quicker. At least most of what needed saying got written. I pressed the send button, and assumed the words would reach her. And the day after, having received a note back from Marilyn, I guessed this was how it worked, so wrote her another. Beginning early October, I had jobs west. Thanksgiving, I’d be flying north from Seattle. Probably I’d be back through Austin in January, but only for a few days, and it seemed our time was now, in person. But the time was passing. I’d be leaving alone, and that would be it. Typical, I thought, how it took a doomed relationship to induce me to begin using e-mail. I saw Marilyn one more time while I was in Austin. She couldn’t leave her ex-boyfriend now, she said. We were back in her car, her right hand on my knee, fingers probing. You’ll just have to understand, she said.
What followed was exactly as I suspected. Writing Marilyn, and waiting to hear from her, spurred me for awhile. But from the beginning she responded erratically, then barely at all. Gradually, I let work contacts know I could be reached electronically, which obliged me to continue checking daily. As I traveled west towards California, and then north into Oregon and Washington, I found myself imperceptibly changing my routine, incorporating a daily visit to my e-mail account. At first, since I received few messages, I didn’t have to do much. Still, one of my concerns was the difficulty in finding computers. Phones were everywhere, I reasoned; computers were not. And if I was going to do this, I wanted to do this right, which meant going on-line daily.
It was easier than I thought. When I stayed with friends, if they were wired, as most of them were, they were quick to offer me time on their computer. I also found I could use internet cafes, which were fairly economical or, in a pinch, a copy shop, which often rented time for $10 or $12 (or more) per hour. My favorite way to check e-mail, though, was by going to libraries, sometimes on college campuses when I had work there but especially public libraries.
More than six years using e-mail now, I’ve found it is better—and worse—than I imagined. As my business endured, it was more essential than ever to stay current. Any day, anything could happen: an invitation to perform somewhere, a presenter or bandmate checking in about an upcoming gig, news about a conference. For me, receiving messages meant replying promptly. And while it would have been convenient to have had internet access on the laptop I carried, the laptop was older, and I used it only for word processing. Being dependent on e-mail like this meant my first stop in a community now—and sometimes a stop in the midst of a long 500-mile-day drive—was the public library, where I could get on a computer.
As a result, I’ve become experienced in the ways of public libraries, and their computer stations.
In my old hometown library, Anchorage, most computers were accessible only through typing in the numbers on a library card, which meant only residents were eligible. There was a strict one-hour limit per day; the computer shut down when your time was up (first giving the appropriate five-minute, then the two-minute warning, asking you whether you’d like to save your work). Six computers, however, were set up for all comers, whether resident or not. I’ve found if I need to get as much work done as I can, I arrive early, sign up for one of those, and, after my hour is up, go on to the resident-only flank of machines.
The rest of the country, I found, was a variation of the Anchorage system. In Seattle, you had to have a library card. If not, you could get on a computer only if one was available and you asked politely at the reference desk. The reference librarian would then walk you to a computer, punch in a code, and let you get to work. In Albuquerque and Buffalo, non-residents needed to buy library cards that enabled you to log on and both places had a one-hour limit. (In Albuquerque, you had to put the card in a slot to start the computer; not used to the system, I left the card in and lost it, so my next time in town I’ll have to buy another.)
In New Orleans, which also had a one-hour limit, you were assigned a name and a password, which, when typed into a central computer, assigned you a computer. When your computer was immediately available, the process worked well: just type your name, enter your password, and follow the instructions about which computer to begin using. The trick here was that if you had to wait, once your turn came up, you only had five minutes to log on, and the turn was announced only on the computer screen. At busy times, there was always a group huddled by the central reservation computer, checking the approximate wait times.
Approximate, that was the key word, which I learned the hard way. One morning, waiting for a computer at the downtown library, I resigned myself to more than an hour wait, as my name was far down the list. I busied myself with the current magazines. Forty minutes had passed when I went back to the central computer, and found the line had passed quickly, and my turn had come and gone. I now faced a 90-minute wait. I left the building, shaking my head and grumbling.
New Orleans, though, had one of my favorite branch libraries anywhere, a converted mansion on St. Charles Street, uptown, not far from Tulane. Early September 2002, I spent a few weeks nearby. Part of my routine was to bike to this library and be waiting at the front when the doors opened at 10 a.m., to be first in line for the computers. (One of the tricks for getting on computers at popular places is to be there when the place opens for the day). By 11 a.m., I was done, and most people were facing more than an hour wait for one of the five computers at that branch.
On a drive from Elkins, West Virginia to Glenville, where I was to perform at the college there, I stopped in the town of Weston, found another library housed in a mansion.
In Tuscaloosa, two minutes before the hour-time limit runs out, if you were lucky, you’d get this message: Presently, there is no waiting list for computers.
Press enter for an extra hour of computer time. Again, excellent (though if you pressed enter you’d lose whatever you were currently working on).
In Newberry, South Carolina, you were allowed a half-hour, once a day, no exceptions.
In Peachtree Corners, a suburb of Atlanta, you were also allowed a half-hour, but since the system wasn’t managed by computers, you were free to stay on as long as you needed, until a librarian announced there were people waiting, which always set off a mad scramble. If you did have to get off, you were allowed back on once the computers freed up again.
In Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Opelousas, Louisiana, the libraries opened at 8 a.m. on weekdays. It must be a Deep South thing, the promise the day might get off to such an early start. In Lafayette, Louisiana, though, the library opened at 9 a.m. What was unique there: the hour sign-up started and ended on the hour. If you logged on, say, at 9:20, you were only guaranteed 40 minutes.
In Las Vegas, the libraries opened at 10 a.m. on Sunday mornings and the computers had a two-hour limit, which felt luxurious.
In Boulder, it was first-come, first-serve, stay-on-as-long-as-you-wanted, though the computers, two rows in the library foyer, were set up so you could only use them while standing, which made for a kind of survival of the fittest.
In Hagerstown, Maryland, the computers were assigned by a single reference librarian, so while there was usually a wait to get on, the computers could be empty for 10 or 15 minutes while the librarian was helping someone on a reference task.
In Mobile, Alabama, and Roswell, Georgia, Hotmail accounts could not be accessed. In Council Bluffs, Iowa, where I spent a weekend prior to performances in Omaha, as long as there was no one waiting, you could stay on as long as you wanted—and it was a beautiful new library too.
In Eugene, Oregon if you were a fiddling poet and had a friend who worked at the library (and who also played music), you could say hello and receive an invitation to use your friend’s office computer.
In Weaverville, North Carolina, if you used the library’s computers everyday for a week, you were well-known by the staff, greeted by name, and, though there was a one-hour limit per day, encouraged to hop on any computer that was not being used.
Early May, 2002, New York City, nearly eleven months on tour, I now faced the 5,000 drive to Anchorage, only a single small gig en route—a performing space in Prince George, B.C. One long day out of Manhattan, sleeping for a few hours in the back of the van, and I made it to Minneapolis where I holed up two days reading poetry in a motel, doing my job judging a South Carolina state arts council fellowship. Another marathon drive and I was west of Havre. Turning north, I spent two days in Banff, two more in Prince George, then an overnight in Whitehorse. The travel routine on this trip was similar, and different, than others. It was always similar, I reflected, coping with the long days behind the wheel, a cassette in the tape deck, the need to reach a fixed destination. It was always different though; there were always new towns, new landscapes, the possibilities of a surprise. Canada was always a pleasure, invariably cleaner than the States, and smarter somehow. In Banff, the internet cafe was packed, and incredibly cheap. My second day there, I drove uphill to the performing arts center, where I met the manager, handed him a CD, and immediately began scheming how I might make it back through sometime with Andrea, who I knew would love to play in the Canadian Rockies.
I arrived in Anchorage ready to promote my new book from Fairbanks to Homer, and finish mixing my third CD. Also, David McCormick had made headway on the plan for a website. Working at his music store was a teenager who assured him he could put Ken Waldman dot com on the web. What was best, David assured me, was that he’d do it cheap so we could oversee and make sure it was done right at a fraction of what it would cost professionally.
We paid for a server, and chose the one affiliated with the internet record store, CDBaby. This server specialized in working with musicians and had a prime advantage: once it was set up, I could update both my calendar and news pages without having to learn code or pay a webmaster (and I understand it’s now even possible to design a simple site that allows you to go in and handle everything yourself). We still had to deal with the technical issues, so we arranged a meeting—or tried to arrange a meeting—with our young web designer, Brinton. Eighteen years old, he could have been my son. We asked, we demanded, we pleaded, we cajoled, we wheedled. One week, he was studying what the job entailed. One week, his computer was down. One week, he was ill. One week, he didn’t show up at work and didn’t return phone calls. Finally, late June, one week before I was to begin driving south, we met at Brinton’s house. A recent high school graduate, he was still living at home, sharing a room with his brother. Checkbook in hand, feeling slightly disreputable, I watched from the side as Brinton sat in front of his computer, scanning in photos, typing in text. David, who had an eye for color and layout, stood at his shoulder, whispering instruction. During a four-hour session, the website began taking shape. One more meeting, two at most, and we’d be done, ready to post online.
But Brinton was busy, David was busy, and I had a gig in Whitehorse on July 4th, then shows in Skagway, Haines, and Juneau. This year I’d take the ferry to Prince Rupert and drive south through Prince George. Though Brinton promised to meet with David and finish the website, he failed to return my phone calls. Three weeks later I entreated my pal Woody, in Colorado, someone who knew his way around computers, to look into the problem. It took him most of a day—all he had to do was figure what exactly Brinton had done—to go into the nearly-complete design and finish it. By the time I arrived at Clifftop the following week, Woody called to tell me I should go find a computer somewhere; he’d posted the website so I should have a look.
By then, I had no doubts that having a website was a good thing. But even so, I hadn’t expected it to be as useful as it was, even from the start. October I was to be back in Colorado, performing at a library. My contact there was trying to arrange school visits. She asked teachers and administrators to view the website, which led to three schools booking me for a total of four assemblies, and an extra $1300.
What I loved about this life was that even when a half dozen plans failed, a dozen plans failed, two dozen plans failed, as long as I had my wits, I could pick up the phone, or type an e-mail, and make one more plan which might well fail, but, who knows, might even succeed.
When the third CD, Music Party, was released in late 2002, I thought it would lead to a number of summer festival invitations around the country. I applied to dozens of festivals from Yellowknife and Dawson City to Chattanooga and Birmingham—many I discovered online—and as I toured the first two months of 2003, driving from Seattle south through California into Arizona, West Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Maryland, I waited to hear back. Recording and releasing three CDs in two and a half years had been exciting. I’d received radio airplay. I’d been featured in newspapers, and recently in a highly-regarded folk and world music magazine, Dirty Linen. I’d received good reviews. I wondered where I’d be invited this summer.
March, I realized wherever I might be other than Clifftop, it would have nothing to do with festivals. That’s when I called Patrice in New Orleans. When I saw her in January, she told me she’d received a writing residency in New Mexico and she’d be needing to make arrangements for her house and dog. I wondered then, as we talked, if she still needed someone to housesit and watch her dog. I was getting ready to take care of that, she said. Good thing you called.
And so that became my plan: to stay in one place and write. I had an Alaska memoir that had been demanding attention. Once people heard about my plane crash, they always wanted to hear more. Well, I’d tell them all right, make the plane wreck the central episode of my life from 1985, when I arrived in Fairbanks, to 1998, when I moved to Anchorage. Writing about every aspect of the wreck in depth, I’d flash back to my graduate school days in Fairbanks, my year in Juneau, my year in Sitka, and most of all to my two years in Nome, when I lived in the region.
I arrived in New Orleans prepared to write. I plugged in my computer and my printer, an Apple ink-jet no longer being made. The printer, I found, had somehow gotten broken. It was a small part, but to replace or fix it, I soon discovered, would take ingenuity. Eventually I decided what would be quickest, easiest, and cheapest was to buy another printer on e-bay (incidentally, my first, and, so far, only e-bay purchase) and immediately purchased one. While I waited for the printer to arrive, instead of beginning the manuscript, I had an idea. Patrice had a home computer with internet access and she’d invited me to use it as much as I needed. I imagined what it would be like to work more deeply, not being constrained by the half-hour or hour time limit I ordinarily found at libraries. Already I’d learned to research all manner of material on the internet. I’d started with folk music disk jockeys. Since then, with varying success, I’ve become much more knowledgeable about literary agents, book publishers, club owners, concert promoters, newspaper calendar editors, music writers, and more. With a little digging, I learned, you can discover almost anything.
At Patrice’s, I tried an experiment. Late March 2004, the AWP Conference would be held in Chicago. I thought, Why not try to find work in colleges and universities in Wisconsin? Referring to a book I owned that listed colleges state-by-state nationwide, I went down the list in Wisconsin, clicked to each school’s English Department website, figured out who taught the Creative Writing classes, and queried. My letter, I thought, was a reasonable one, and included credentials that might likely pique interest: book publications, journal publications, other appearances, the fact that I could play fiddle as well as read poems. Reviewing schools, and the particular writers teaching on the campuses, intrigued me. Receiving several replies encouraged me to keep at it.
One year before, May 2002, beginning that long drive from New York to Anchorage, I worried how I could afford continuing. I was working, but not enough. Expenses were too high. Maybe this wasn’t to be, I reflected. The plane wreck settlement money was long gone. I spent the money on making CDs, on books, on marketing, on getting from place to place. I’d done the best I could and failed. The Monday morning after Mother’s Day, at a pay phone in Shelby, Montana, I was checking messages and heard I’d been invited to spend a week in Louisiana where I’d work in schools in two communities and perform one evening show, the total fee the equivalent of the minimum I tried to earn each month. If I needed a sign, I’d received one, so stopped worrying. Now, house-sitting at Patrice’s, I was again feeling poor and again in doubt. No one in Wisconsin was hiring me, but the cold query had at least warranted a few responses. I read the e-mail letter again, the one I was sending out. Hell, it sounded pretty good, I thought. I decided I’d try another state. Illinois was just too big. I started going down the list of colleges in Iowa.
Quickly, but maybe not quickly enough, I realized what I’d committed myself to. I thought of my friends Mike and Tania, musicians who split time between Puget Sound and Ireland, who’d been performing far longer than I had. They’d managed to cobble together a life out of this. They weren’t famous; they were just excellent, fun, professional. The trouble, Tania once told me, was once you started on this path, you found you got good leads everyday everywhere, and while all the leads looked equal, at least at first, only two out of ten would even come close to panning out. And you never knew which two they were, so you were bound to follow all ten to conclusion.
Sure, the process was interesting for Wisconsin, then Iowa, I thought, as I sat in front of Patrice’s computer. But did I really want to look up every college in California, in New York, in Massachusetts? Already I was finding every college website was different. Some schools I already knew the faculty I’d want to contact. Some, once I saw the department list, I’d say to myself, Oh, so that’s where they teach. Some, the department website described what each faculty member taught, which made it easy. And some, some were designed as if to thwart me at this stage, so I thought more deeply, and learned to go into the registrar’s site to see who taught Creative Writing or Poetry the preceding semester, or would be teaching the upcoming semester. And for some schools, to get the name I was looking for, I had to maneuver even more deftly.
Did I want to do this?
I thought of my latest credit card bills, and the few events I’d lined up for 2003-2004. Small shows in North Carolina and Virginia for the fall. A concert series in Florida in January. Despite the new CD that had come out the past year, it looked grim. Patrice’s computer was in front of me, and I had all May, June, and early July to use it all day and night if I wanted. The novel hadn’t sold. Why did I think a memoir would? It was one thing if it was well underway, but here I was, still waiting on a printer in the mail. At least if I queried every college in the United States, I’d get a few jobs. I’d have to. How could I not? I had two books, three CDs. The past year I’d played at the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. The past year I’d been a visiting writer at University of Tennessee in Knoxville, at the College of Charleston, at SUNY Plattsburgh, and at more than a half dozen other colleges and community colleges. Since 1989, I’d had close to 400 poems published in excellent journals all over the country.
Ohio. Lots of schools in Ohio, I thought. I’ll start looking up Ohio.