Christmas in America
In December 1990, back when it was just the three of us, when no self-respecting fiddle-player would associate with us, and the bus station was fresh out of bass players, we were hired to fill in for another folk trio on the Northeast leg of their US tour as an opening act. It was short notice, but, unlike now, we would play pretty well anywhere. Besides, we would be paid in US currency, which at the time was worth more than the Canadian dollar! (true fact — look it up). Bruce was able to take time off from IBM quite easily — Big Blue was feeling generous that year, pretty confident that their new OS2 operating system would drive Microsoft out of the computer business once and for all. Declan’s window-cleaning/gigolo racket was in its usual post-Halloween – pre-Christmas lull, and my duties at Auto Trader often allowed me to disappear for weeks at a time; even in those days it was common for the Trader to simply print up a new cover and sell the same magazine week after week. (Darned investigative journalism students from Fanshawe put an end to that gravy train in ’06, but that’s another story…)
We were filling in for the Weisemanns, some sort of Klezmer/Bongo act out of southern Europe. They had run into work visa problems arriving in New York, and they had to leave the country until these difficulties were sorted out. (Interesting side note — the Weisemanns went to Nova Scotia to wait while their paperwork was resubmitted, and they got comfortable and stayed! You know them better today as The Rankin Sisters) At the time, our repertoire consisted largely of TV theme songs, Happy Birthday, and about 8 mournful dirges Declan was learning from his guitar teacher Bob. Thankfully, the music business in North America had hit a spectacular new low; compared to Vanilla Ice and that ‘Pump-up-the-jam” girl, not to mention an endless stream of mediocre one-name Canadian pop sensations — Zappacosta? Luba? Gowan? — we were considered fresh and interesting. We miss those days.
We set out in an Auto Trader delivery van on a foggy Thursday morning. I had about 50 bundles of books to deliver to Beckers stores in Oxford County — afterwards we planned to cross the border at Niagara Falls and head for the big time. By 9:30 we had delivered all of the Auto Traders to random Amish families in the Aylmer area — Free Fuel! Merry Christmas! — and we were able to make very good time, despite the van’s malfunctioning wiper blades. At the border, Declan launched into his now famous ‘repentant IRA bomber seeking asylum’ routine, and since at that time the US was still welcoming, sheltering and giving flying lessons to terrorists of all denominations were were waved straight though. We had lunch at Denny’s.
The headliner of the tour was Billy Ray Cyrus, who would that very next year make Country Line Dancing the single most debilitating epidemic to sweep America since polio. In fact, after hooking up with the tour convoy in Buffalo we actually jammed with Billy Ray and his band, and I still swear to this day that a song we were working on about quitting smoking — working title: Achy Breaky Lungs — was stolen by Billy Ray, clumsily reworded and released as a single. We’ll never know for sure. (Interesting side note — clearly having read the writing on the wall, BRC had the foresight to father a daughter and groom her to become a teen pop sensation, and he is now living pimp-like on the proceeds of her career. Billy now weighs over 600 pounds, and has never cut off his mullet.)
Anyhow, we spent most of the next two days stuck in fog on the US Interstate system behind Billy Ray’s ostentatious tour bus. On the back of the bus Billy Ray had emblazoned a giant reflective gold star, a testament perhaps to his essential humility and his devotion to his craft. Owing to the fog and our dismal wiper blades, we could often see nothing ahead of us other than this big star, and a portion of the sticker below reading ‘Don’t Like My Driving? Call 1-800-eat-s**t!”.
We were just outside Bethlehem Pennsylvania at about 10 pm Saturday when the wiper blades gave out completely. My plan had been to stop at a Canadian Tire and get new blades, but we hadn’t found a single outlet in the entire country. We pulled off the interstate, and watched the big stupid star fade off into the fog. We’d have to catch up with them in Pittsburgh. Luckily, not far from the interchange was a Red Roof Inn, and a collection of strip mall shops selling truckers the necessities of road life — cigarettes, liquor and porn. We inched our way to the hotel, pooled our resources — 89 dollars, including a glove box full of apparently useless Canadian Tire money — and entered the lobby.
It was a busy night at the Red Roof Inn. The staff — underpaid, undertrained locals in red vests — were clearly overwhelmed by the throng of fog-stranded holiday travelers. A bowling team from Heidelberg, Nebraska, cleverly named the German Shepherds, was arguing with a young trainee named Wally about their rooms. Beside them, an exasperated clerk was telling a very pregnant young couple that, unfortunately, despite their confirmed reservation, despite their exhaustion and delicate predicament, the hotel was overbooked — there was no room at the Red Roof Inn.
The bowlers were oblivious to the drama developing beside them at the front desk. They had clearly checked in hours ago and after fueling themselves with variety store beer — What a country! — they had decided to badger the Red Roof staff into moving the team into adjoining rooms for God knows what reason. The German Shepherds from Heidelberg Nebraska had by that point sucked all the peace and goodwill out of the room, and the shy distraught couple retreated out of the building into the night.
Shortly after we did the same; there was no room for us either. The bowlers staggered out too, and fired up cigars. The parking lot of the Red Roof Inn was strangely quiet, with a soft halogen brightness bathing the damp vehicles and industrial grease dumpsters behind the kitchen. Somewhere a dog barked. A Peterbilt 390 Diesel Road King with a full sleeper cab percolated gently in the corner of the lot, and a lone trucker, a towel over his shoulder, was making his way stiffly through the mist towards the gas bar washroom. Suddenly, the trucker stopped, and listened with the rest of us to the sounds of a young woman in some sort of rhythmic pain. This sound, an unnerving pattern of heavy breaths and short exclamations, was coming from the open rear hatch of a 1987 Mercury Sable Station wagon. It was the young couple. She was on her back in the rear of the vehicle, crammed in among a collection of stuffed garbage bags and cardboard boxes. He was holding her hand, patiently counting out the seconds between contractions. She was swinging a wooden snow brush, desperate to cause him injury. She finally caught him in the eyebrow with the end with the ice scraper.
“For crying out loud, Mary! That hurts! Dang!”
But she wasn’t moved by his suffering. ‘IS THE BEST YOU CAN DO?!?!? IS THIS WHAT I HAVE TO LOOK FORWARD TO…” but these last words disappeared in a great whoosh of groaning breath. And then a baby appeared. Bruce fainted dead away. The trucker offered the couple his towel as swaddling. It smelled vaguely of Aqua Velva. The Shepherds just stood there smoking their cheap cigars, and all was quiet again for just a moment.
The universe had converged on this anonymous patch of asphalt in America, and a dozen strangers stood in wonder while a tiny child took his first breaths and drew into focus every hope we shared, every trace of innocence that persisted in our troubled hearts. All was calm, and then, all was bright. In an instant the Peterbilt’s headlights flared on, two beacons from the east illuminating the newborn babe in the Sable. A car radio swelled up in the mist, playing Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. One of the bowlers farted, and popped a brewski. I lost my patience with them at that point.
“Would it not be possible for you stupid bastards to double up and give these people a room?”
It was no trouble as all, as it turned out. Three bowlers — their names Goldy, Frankinsense and Murray stitched on their shirts — improvised a stretcher out of a buffet table, and carried mother and child to room 104. A philandering doctor was located on the second floor, holed up with a floozie. He sheepishly presided over the young family, and even managed to revive Bruce, who, typically, denied swooning in the first place. The floozie convinced Wally from the front desk to let us camp out in the lounge, where we played TV Theme Songs and Irish dirges deep into the night. Typically, there was soon nobody there to listen, so we finally just let the peace and magic of the night — and about nine cans each of variety store beer (again, what a country!) — carry us away.
The next morning we thought it would be appropriate to give a baby present of some sort, but our cash supply was low, and it was unlikely we would find any gift shops open. Declan suggested he could play his Bodhran as a shower gift.
“I could play a song on my bodhran for the wee babe.”
“As a gift? A song on your drum? What kind of stupid gift is that?”
Instead, we bought the kid an MC Hammer travel mug at the gas bar, along with some new wiper blades for ourselves. By noon we were in Pittsburgh, where Billy Ray Cyrus fired us for getting lost.
They named the boy Murray, and we still exchange Christmas cards with several members of the German Shepherds. Wally and the Floozie got married. We always thought that the MC Hammer travel mug would appreciate in value, and perhaps pay for the boy’s college education, but by last report it was still worthless.
That won’t matter. Turns out the kid is pretty special.