Write What You Know

I’m paying my fare on the Greyhound bus line,
I’m riding the front seat to Jackson this time.
Hallelujah, I’m a-traveling,
Hallelujah, ain’t it fine,
Hallelujah, I’m a-traveling
Down freedom’s main line.

This past weekend, for the first time in over four years, I took the bus from Boston to New York.  I was amazed at how bus travel has changed in such a short time.  My Greyhound ticket (the new BoltBus and Megabus schedules were sold out) came with a specific time and a boarding number.  I didn’t even notice the boarding number until I showed up at South Station and a very friendly and polite employee with a clipboard inspected my number, put me in a special line, and checked my name off a computer-generated list.  A list!  For the bus!

Things were a little different a few years ago.  Before I began teaching at Xavier in the fall of 2008, I rode the bus between Boston and New York at least once a week, usually twice a week.  I was living and working in Boston, but also going to school and teaching in Manhattan.

Back then, affordable bus travel meant one of the so-called “Chinatown buses”—Fung Wah, TravelPak, or Lucky Star—which went directly from Chinatown Boston to Chinatown New York, for $20 round-trip.  They saved money by avoiding South Station or Port Authority and departing from a floating bus station (think “floating crap game”), which made taking the trip seem vaguely like participating in a criminal activity.  As you cautiously approached Harrison Street in Boston on foot with your suitcase, a mysterious, hooded figure in dark sunglasses would hiss, “New York!” wave his or her  (it was sometimes impossible to tell) hand, then dart into an alley.  You would look around to make sure you weren’t being followed, than take off desperately after him/her.  Eventually, like the children of Hamelin, you were one of about forty people running through the back streets of what used to be known for various reasons as the Combat Zone.  A bus would emerge screeching from the shadows, two hooded toughs would hop off and shriek, “OKAY!  OKAY!” and before you could even take a seat the driver had jolted down the alley, maybe picking up a little bit of the sidewalk on the way, and was running a pair of red lights to get onto the Mass Pike before the police came.

And the police did come.

Usually on the New York side, where they pounded on the windshield of the bus as the driver was trying to leave. Passengers halfway onto the bus would hold on for dear life, the police would try to hold onto the front of the bus, yelling, and the driver would go careening down Chrystie Street amid hysterical screaming in multiple languages.

But, you know, $20 round-trip.

Eventually the Chinatown buses were forced to raise their prices a little, Greyhound and Peter Pan lowered their prices a lot, and it didn’t matter too much which bus line you rode.  Your chances of having a bus break down in the middle of the highway were just as good, although Greyhound tended to send a replacement bus within an hour, and Fung Wah preferred to send The Guy With The Wrench who might be able to fix the brakes within three hours.  I have actually seen Fung Wah bus passengers hitchhike back to Boston in lieu of waiting so long for The Guy With The Wrench to make it up through rush-hour traffic to the side of the road in East Armpit, Connecticut.  Oh, also the Chinatown buses sometimes went up in flames due to the violent and retaliatory nature of the competition between rival companies.  Usually no passengers were injured, although more than one driver was found shot to death.

But there was nothing violent about my bus or bus driver Saturday morning on I-84, unless you count the intermittent invective poured at other vehicles or his proud account of beating up a cab driver and bashing his head against the front of his car.

“You know how many Hail Marys I had to say after that?

How many?

“A whole mess of ‘em.”

Now that I’m back in the northeast for the year, I imagine I will be spending a lot more time on the bus.  When you’re traveling between New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Washington, and you’re living on an artist’s salary, it’s the most cost-effective and efficient way to go.  And as all musicians, actors, dancers, and writers know, you simply HAVE to travel between these cities.  There are meetings, rehearsals, performances, workshops, classes, and last-but-not-least, auditions, which are always in New York regardless of where the final production may be.  I am hoping, however, that my schedule will not be as intense as it was five years ago.

Back then, on a really bad day, I would take the 12:30am bus from Boston to New York, show up at about 4:30am and have a long, working breakfast at the Westway Diner, walk across town to Baruch College, teach all day, ride the 6 train up to Hunter College for my playwriting workshop with the amazing Tina Howe, take the crosstown bus over to the West Side, browse the now-defunct Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble or the now-defunct Tower Records, then ride the 1/9 train down to Port Authority to catch the 12:30am bus from New York back to Boston.

There are many, many serious reasons why I feel compelled to write this opera and help share the story of the Freedom Rides with a new audience.  But somewhere in the back of my head I also hear that little voice reminding me that you should “write what you know.”  I can’t ever know, or even begin to know, what went on in the minds and hearts of the heroes who fought for Civil Rights—and perhaps composing this opera is my own way of coming to terms with that.  But at the very least, I do know a little something about riding the bus.

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The Pilgrim’s Progress

I am spending a lot of time here in Arlington, VA, and so I need a place where I can work.  I asked my friend Andy, who is a DC theater stalwart, where I could rent a practice room or rehearsal space, and after a few moments of demonic laughter, he patiently explained to me that these things were simply not available in the Washington area.

“So what do YOU do when you rehearse for shows?”

“Me?  I go to church.”

Church?  I have never been a regular churchgoer, unless you consider the time I dated a girl who was a regular churchgoer, and it’s probably best NOT to consider that time, especially since the woman in the next room subscribes to this blog.  I was leery at best.

But Andy persisted, and told me he was sure that the pastor at his church would let me use the choir room, since it was essentially free all week anyway.  Then the emails started coming in.

Would I be able to play a church service?

Uh…sure.  (That’s, like, hymns and stuff, right?)

Would I be able to play two or three services?

Um…okay.

Would I be able to play six, or even eight services?

Um…okay.  (Now, I had never actually played a church service before, but it is customary in the music business to say “yes” to anything that even remotely resembles a gig.)

Would I be able to play an African-American lesbian wedding?

Ah, well, I do indeed have some experience with lesbian weddings, which—incidentally—are incredibly similar to non-lesbian weddings.

And so here I am, substitute organist at the beautiful Church of the Pilgrims in our Nation’s Capital, very close to the Dupont Circle Chipotle, and right by the statue of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko.  I use the word “organist” (and I use it quite loosely) because in addition to the astonishing series of stained-glass windows, one of the glories of Pilgrims is a fantastic 1928 Skinner pipe organ.  Playing the organ is very different than playing the piano, and while I like to consider myself passable at the latter, I am absolutely abominable at the former, as my classmates from two semesters of Donald Teeters’s “Choral Conducting for the Organist” seminar way back when will readily attest to.  Also there are these pedals, which apparently real organists can use to make music with their feet.

Fortunately the ability to play the organ here is subsidiary to a general ability to accompany, conduct, arrange simple instrumental parts, rehearse the choir and volunteer musicians, lead an ensemble with the back of your head, sight-read, improvise, pick out appropriate music, deal with a wide variety of musical styles (and a wide variety of singers), and have a good enough sense of theatrical timing to know when to start playing, when to stop, and how fast or slow everything should go at any time.  Oh, and of course what Sir William Osler, one of my father’s favorite authors, refers to as “Aequanimitas”—the ability to remain unflappable in any and all circumstances.  In other words, it turns out that being a church organist isn’t so terribly different from running an opera workshop.  Plus there’s free coffee!

And with enough coffee, I might just make some progress.

At least on this opera.  Those pedals are on their own.