My warmup for a gig starts many hours before. First I walk a mile to Andy’s and borrow the Neon. I head downtown to Market Square, park in the alley, enter Cafe Four and go down the elevator to a storage room. The keyboard case is in the back, through piles of crates, music stands, cymbals and a kick drum. A metal sign is always the last thing put back, “All Souls Church 6:00 PM, the Square Room.”
I clear a trail to the Roland RD 700SX, pull it free, and lock the door behind me. It rolls rather mightily back to the elevator and out into the alley. A cook is always smoking a cigarette and the smell of bulk restaurant ingredients follows me out.
The 88 key nylon shell is not an ideal fit in the Neon. Opening both rear doors, I lay it across the back seat. I roll the passenger side window down and shut the door, pulling the keyboard up and out of the car a few inches. Then I shut the other door and it still hangs out.
For years my home studio has migrated all over the house. I agree with Ashley that keyboards are ugly things, sitting on black X stands with cables hanging all over the floor. Speakers rest on nearby books shelves or across the floor, more cables run to those. Cables in the home are a good way to congregate pet hair. Sound equipment has almost gotten me put on the street.
We finally designated the second bedroom upstairs as my studio. The rest of the house is Ashley’s studio. When we needed a nursery, my studio relocated once again. I have a closet studio now. More accurately, an IKEA wardrobe studio; a mic stand, keyboard stand, cables, and guitar cases violently shoved behind the door. Ashley is happy with the warm, cleaner look.
There was already a sound system at my gig. I grabbed the rest of my gear which I conveniently keep in a large knot so I can move it easily, kind of like a bowl of ramen. Everything goes in the Neon.
There were only two things left to do. One, decide on my books. I keep them in a green handbag. Ashley embroidered the side, a little bird and the title of our blog, “No Room for Hipsters.” The books haven’t changed. A Jazz Real Book, Billy Joel Anthology Volume 1, the The Ultimate Pop/Rock Fake Book, and a binder full of chord charts ranging from Lisa Loeb to REM to Elton John to Bob Dylan. Little curled ends of post-it notes stick out, holding places of songs. Loose pages of songs pile out of the binder. A handful of CDs are in the bottom, a reminder of why I go, and the songs that don’t need charts.
Secondly, I got dressed. The black suit hung in the corner, always with anticipation: the uniform. I bought the suit when we moved from Nashville with the hope of a future in financial services. The suit had cost two weeks of restaurant tips and had ended all the music nonsense. The suit and I had faced the most distinguished clients. We had battled imaginary objections in the mirror of the apartment. We had busied ourselves around downtown, buying lunches and handing out business cards. It was my only suit left. I sat on the bed and put on my piano key socks.
If there had once been a rack of suits, then there had been too many ties to remember. There were ties going down side of my closet. Ties bundled over a tie hanger. Ties in the backseat of my Corolla. I could tie the half windsor while driving. I could tie while shaving, on a good day. A day could be ruined by a missed tie length on the first try. My closet floor was a wad of ties: ugly ties, stained ties, wrinkled ties, ties accidentally found in the wash, ties too young, ties too old, mixed in with some keyboard cables.
One night we gave a tie a ceremony. The night I quit banking. Rather, the day I was invited to my little surprise meeting. It was the height of the banking crisis, more accurately the subprime financial crisis of 2007. I found myself standing by the coffee pot, at the bottom of the retail chain, given charge to stop a panic in North Knoxville.
Big news came everyday in emails. ”We are laying off the local mortgage processing division, so call Memphis,” in an email. ”Bank of America buys all our branches in Georgia, but don’t worry,” in an email. ”Please take a moment to review your new sales scorecard,” in an email.
I was opening on desk side by myself one morning. There were already some very nice vehicles in the parking lot, and whoever driving them had let themselves in. There were dignified handshakes as I was invited into a closed office, at a closed bank. They thanked me for my service. They queried about my satisfaction in the company. They discussed the critical moment for our bank and how numbers should line up in times like these. Then they slid over the sheet of paper that broke it down for me.
It was my new sales quota. And a verbal warning for not making my last, lower sales quota. And an ultimatum I knew they were pulling loose teeth. I said I could do it and signed the paper. The other option was to walk out the door, with a two week vacation and a little bit of hope.
I opened the bank and sat there, staring in my coffee. Nobody knew. Ashley was in class. I looked at my sales sheet. It was a big number broken into categories: deposits, loans, insurance, investments, financial planning referrals. The bank was looking for it’s fighters. I was a good banker, for helping someone with the complexities of an aging parent’s finances, disputing the chaos from account information given on the internet, or helping grandma get her checkbook straight. I was the first guy in line to refund overdraft charges when they were due to the bank’s unfriendly tactics. I was the first guy to refund Junior’s savings account when it got a charge for being too litte. I’d never been a salesman, though. And if a bank wanted to fee its way out of making bad loans, (products which mysteriously vanished from the computer one morning) I wouldn’t help them there. And I wasn’t going to print off a screen of Grandmas to call about annuity rates. Who cold calls Grandma and gets her worried about money on a Tuesday morning?
It was time for me to go. They weren’t paying me to serve customers, they were paying me to sell them. They’d even reminded of that, “We are a for-profit enterprise, you realize?”
Yes, but you have all of someone’s Grandmother’s money and she trusts you. Somebody swindled mine for all that she had. And you make me sit there in front of a ruined family, defending an overdraft policy designed to turn a wrist slap into a beat down.
I had a wife in school and a mortgage. I couldn’t let go either. It was a young man’s disillusionment that made me so unhappy. If I could settle, and fight like hell to settle, maybe one day I could make up for everything later, but until then I’d hit with all my power, grow some backbone, and settle like a man.
But I knew the numbers couldn’t happen, they would be raised again, and my time here was up. When Ashley got out of class I told her about my surprise breakfast.
“Then quit,” she said. Like she’d said for over a year, not understanding the necessity. ”You don’t have to do this,” she always said.
Yes I do. Her idealism was made possible by me, I thought. She hadn’t had to settle yet. We had marital problems often back then.
That night we buried my golden tie in the yard. It had little glistening triangles of gold that could bounce light onto the shoulders of my black powersuit. It was the color of the gold pyramid atop the New York Life Building in Manhattan. The New York Life Office was on Gay Street, my first job in Knoxville.
Ashley and I sunk the tie in the dirt with a shovel. You’re weren’t supposed to struggle with your backup plan. I tamped the ground level again and went inside. I didn’t even look up at the moon or feel like I should take a walk. I just went back inside.
Andy’s neon was ready to go. I hung the black jacket in the back, a tie for a young man on the hanger. The jacket lay bent along the keyboard. I fired up the horses and drove away for the banquet hall of the Holiday Inn Convention Center in Pigeon Forge.
(I may edit some of the rant out of this, been writing since 2:30 AM. Don’t know where it fits but I feel better.)