Just a song before I go
To whom it may concern
Traveling twice the speed of sound
It’s easy to get burned
Riding out of my gate in Oakland at sundown, with gear for four days, including stage outfit, snacks, tools, and a few musical instruments, I think about adventuring as survival-tool for these hard times. I’m fully loaded with bright lights front and rear, and the summer night air fills my head as I ride a smooth wave of pavement down Coolidge Street to the Fruitvale. I roll through a neighborhood park between a gospel church and a panaderia, skirt the basketball court, over a short bridge to a tiny garbage-strewn dead-end street, cross International Boulevard with the oom-pah, accordions, and guitarrónes pumping from truck stereos, cruise under the BART tracks, over the railroad tracks, and down a tiny road along the Nimitz freeway to dive under it through a narrow walkway that it is almost too late in the evening to safely do. Over Fruitvale Railroad Bridge and along Tilden Way to Lincoln, thinking about traveling troupers, bands of actors, acrobats; bands of traveling performers like my (chosen) Irish family. They took me in ‘cause I picked up the dancesteps, and I seemed to not have folks of my own. How many of us can tell this story! We traveled all over, putting on shows. There was fantastic togetherness. The world could use a bit more of this kind of togetherness and belonging as a cure for losing our touch with each other, and with nature.
When you are traveling a road at night, and you find a bar with its lights on and you hear singing and laughter from inside, and you press your nose against the steamy window and see a crowd, led by the performers in song, and you lock up your bike and get in the bar, smiling as you nudge people’s knees with your bags, and you find a place in front and greet some old friends and new ones, and you pile your packs on the floor like it’s summer camp, that belonging feeling hits you as though you are no longer outside looking in. That togetherness is wealth.
Penny Opry—Rosie Steffy (drums & vocals) and Joan Wilson Reuter (accordion & vocals) were at the helm, singing pirate songs and sexy rhythmic sea shanties.
The venue in Alameda, Forbidden Fruit, decked out as a tiki lounge, serves fantastically fruity hangovermakers in great ceramic pots with scalloped edges. Some drinks are on fire. Most have multiple straws. I asked a few people why the bar was so packed on a Thursday night, and most said—The band, and that made me very proud. Penny Opry ended their set with a rambunctious version of “Boozing Bloody Well Boozing” and paraded around the bar playing music, carrying a boot for tips.
Rosie had: A large vintage suitcase that was both kick drum and snare drum case, a stand for both high hat and ride cymbal. A throne, mic stands and a mic. Joan had a Hohner button-key accordion, mic stand, mic cables, pre-amp…Both had cute outfits, snacks, tools, and now a fat wad of cash. With only a four-minute ride back to Joan’s house we could have easily walked round-trip several times for all it took to load this gear onto their cycles. But this exemplifies the whole tour: Fun and musical inspiration transcend what some may perceive as efficiency. We hit the quiet streets of Alameda, and they taught me the refrain of my first song. Not an official Sea Shanty but one that rocks like one, with call and response:
JOAN: Oh, the year was 1778,
ALL: How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!
JOAN: A letter of marque came from the King,
To the scummiest vessel I’ve ever seen
ALL: God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the seas for American gold
We’d fire no guns, shed no tears–
Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett’s Privateers
In the morning, over home-hatched eggs and homegrown greens, we assessed the ferry schedules, loaded our mounts, and pedaled down the wide streets of Alameda, bound for the Ferry at Alameda Main Street Terminal, our excitement sizzling into field hollers.
Our bikes are not new. Rosie, her dad’s trusty touring bike, many a mile did his long legs push. It is, or was, gold. Steel frame. Puegeot. Joan, a non-descript hard-tail mountain bike of 1980s vintage. Flat green, no decals. I ride a Univega hard-tail, also 80s vintage. Red and black with cryptic graffiti. Panniers front and rear. A handle-bar roll harness that I made from this article. I have a violin in one rear pannier, drum hardware in the other, and Rosie’s bass drum pedal on my rear rack, as if to thump my ass as I pedal. Yes, I made my leather fringe handle bar grips.
I have a bad habit of eagerly shooting ahead of my pack, then realizing I am not the navigator, so I pulled over to wait at an intersection. Rosie’s pedals were turning, but not engaging the wheels. Joan found a bike repair shop close to the Ferry Terminal, and we rode straight there. Changing Gears is our kind of shop, giving back to the community, with earn-a-bike programs, mechanics on hand, do-it-yourself stations, and sales. And we all learned something: If you replace your worn-out chain (and you don’t replace that often), check your cassette as well. Those cogs can get worn out together with the chain. With heavy pedaling pressure, the chain was skipping cogs. While Rosie’s bike was on a stand getting a new cassette, Joan noticed a sign on the wall, “Please allow us three weeks to service your repair.” Guess we got a little preferential treatment for both our dilemma (gig tonight out of town) but, too, our grit (getting there by bike).
Traveling at the Speed of Human Power, it’s easy to make friends.
On the ferry landing I changed the strings on Joan’s “beater fiddle,” a three-quarter viola that she found in a dumpster shortly after informing the universe of her desire for a fiddle. But when I got to the “G” string I looked up at Rosie and said, “we have to stop at Amazing Grace Music Store for rosin, and besides it’s John Pedersen’s birthday.” We’ve done this stop before, playing $8,000 fiddles and buying slide whistles on the way home from a show at Smiley’s Saloon in Bolinas. Just as I spoke, the “G” string snapped. Further excuse, and second breakdown of the day.
So far. It was a mild sunny summer ferry crossing. Auspicious and dreamy. Every moment was a memorable gem, every problem was only a hic-up, as we have all toured together before, in Europe, no less. Add to this ease the bikes themselves, somehow characters in the band. Peacemakers. Funmakers. I’m not sure if it was our charming outfits, the humble and cleverly decked bikes, our gender, or the instruments, but people approached us.
In San Francisco, Joan discovered a flat, the first of two, and as Joan and I went to the second-storey rest-room in the Ferry Building, Rosie began to change the tire. Like a well-matched chain ring and cassette, so many jobs were passed elegantly without fuss or even conversation.
We were a revolving door of meetings with strangers. They’d ask “Where did you come from? Where are you going?” I marvel at how we could have plastered the towns with handbills, we could have posted videos on social media, done a few radio spots. But nothing would touch people like our loaded bikes. At Larkspur Landing, the Golden Gate transit worker—who yes, stopped working to chat—told us about the drinking fountain, but also about the hose, as though we wanted to wash our bikes? Our feet? Instead, we made rain showers for each other and stood under the waterfall as much for fun as to cool off. Then we rolled towards Ross and San Anselmo, along Route 20. We had about 17 miles to the Papermill Creek Saloon in Forest Knolls, and a few stops to make, first a surprise stop to yet again fix a flat for Joan, during which time we chatted with 6 or 7 Ross residents in the park who were walking dogs, curious about us, but not in a get-out-of-town-you-punks sort of way. Then another for a flirt and a fresh inner tube and then to Amazing Grace. We had only 17 miles to ride and I had plenty of shanties to learn, but on our minds the most was the climb out of Fairfax into San Geronimo Valley, over White’s Hill. Today’s only real discomfort would be this climb. So, we pulled over in Fairfax after an easy discussion, to eat some snacks in the park, and answer strangers’ inquiries. My favorite: As I entered the back door of the Coffee Roastery to use the restroom, a man asked, “How’ve you been?” I said, as casually back, “I’ve been cycling a lot, so life is good.” He said, “Do you know what night Friday is?” “Tell me” I said. “Friday night is when we shift from the sacred to the profane. And do you know why there is a no-work rule on sacred days? Not so that we don’t work for others, but so that we don’t work for ourselves!” Oh, the sense you speak, eccentric handsome weathered poet! Gotta go!! And with full water bottles and empty bladders, we joined Rosie in the park for pumpernickel bread and home-made humus, home-baked brownies, almond butter, home-brewed kombucha, apples, and cheese.
On White’s Hill, I couldn’t shift to my granny gear, so unwilling to stop on the slope, I stayed in the middle chain ring, pushing the cranks and breathing hard. I stopped at the windy summit to chat with two mountain bikers and wait for Joan and Rosie to catch up. Chilly now, and happy, we flew into Woodacre. In a protective den-motherly way, I watched the back roads carefully on our way to the venue. It was going to be a chilly dark ride back from the saloon, and those who like their spirits know their back roads. But these are sweepy and nicely paved, and we will have no trouble on them in our post-show bliss.
Our next leg the following day took us not swimming in The Inkwells as we had hoped, but we spent the time rehearsing my parts, as the only way for me to be let into Saturday’s private event was to be one of the performers. And we ate.
Typically, people eat with great guilt. Yet people who move like to eat. We ate and ate and ate with glee. People who—free of guilt—eat are fun. End of public service announcement.
Then goodbyes to our kind and hospitable hosts and off the way we had come, stopping for a dumpster find of a vintage bicycle cap for me, and onward and over the Hill again. Rosie only stopped once on the downhill to move her tire away from her old man’s frame, which was buckling and straining under the weight of her drum kit on the rear rack. This time in Fairfax we ran not into strangers, but into old friends. One bearing a load of bad memories, from whom we lithely escaped, and the other Aaron, who built my bike, who lithely hugged and escaped us, as he was riding to Nicassio, and running late.
It was now the weekend and the bike trails were a parade of skinny-tire road bikes, whose retail price cold support me for a year. The lanes were so packed with cyclists I could smell sweat on the air. Rosie led us through idyllic bike lanes, back through Ross and San Anselmo, to Larkspur, where, thinking about the task of Wolf Grade between us and Sausalito, we pulled over to scarf burritos down in a park.
The hardest part perhaps was wanting to document and promote the shows in advance, but there was no down-time during a long car ride, for example, in which to diddle a device. There was a moment when I was too far from my camera to grab it, and was laughing too hard anyway: After an all-too-brief swim in refreshing salty water at a local’s beach in Sausalito, the two girls in boy shorts and half-shirts, were wrestling Rosie’s bass drum suitcase from the bike, their muscles flexing, tattoos dancing, water dripping. I saw it through tears of laughter. Some moments can’t be harnessed.
The culmination of this mini-tour, merely two days after it began, though it felt like two weeks, was at a Yacht Club, Sausalito’s namesake. We arrived dressed and quite professional, having crammed into the wheelchair-access stall of the women’s room at the beach and transformed into stage wear from salty wet togs. We shared the stage with another Troupe called Brass Farthing with great comradery, lit up that yacht club, and left them thirsty for more. Soon, I hope.
More to it than Not Driving. The night had many more hours to go for us, visiting, swimming, watching shooting stars from a sailboat. And the next day, making our slow way back home in great glory after fiddle tunes on the dock, a video shoot, a last swim, we kept marveling that it felt as if several weeks had gone by, that so many deep experiences were crammed into one four-day span. We had time-traveled. We rode up-hill out of Sausalito, around the Presidio with the lawless Summer Sunday tourists. And over the windy, fog blasted Golden Gate and down through the also frustratingly tourist strangled Embarcadero onto our last ferry ride home. After landing in Alameda, a couple asked us for a verse or two of our epic story and the man, with the Sunday New York Times tucked under his arm, said to us, “You are the top 1% of the top 10% of living the good life!”
Penny Opry’s upcoming shows are here: http://www.pennyopry.com/