Rojo’s, Birmingham AL

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How I roll, winter 2013. Green bag contains my Austin-bought boots and a bit of lunch, when times are good.

My suitcase on tour contains a ZT Acoustic amp (5″ speaker, 200 watts…awesome for a traveler, though heavy), a music stand I’ve converted into a mic stand, a merch table made of cardboard which attaches to the top of the suitcase, one box of CDs (I get more shipped to me halfway through tour), some extra batteries and cords, one pair of jeans, four t-shirts, five changes of underthangs and socks, a long-sleeve shirt, a razor and a toothbrush. Carrying along a full PA setup (mics and adapters are in my guitar case) means that I don’t have space for two weeks’ worth of clean clothing, so I count on doing laundry at least a couple of times per tour.

I had a five-hour ride from Jackson to Birmingham, but it started early in the day, and I was looking forward to arriving at 12:30. It’s very rare that I get many quiet hours in one place while on tour, and I was looking forward to an afternoon of relaxing while doing laundry. Some practice, a nap, a long shower…a dream.

I couldn’t find any hotel bargains in downtown¬†Birmingham, so I’d chosen one south of the city, but seemingly accessible by a local bus line. Piecing together a plan from the typically inscrutable local bus map (is it too much to ask that actual street names are used, rather than just the shape of the route?), I found that I could walk just two blocks from the Greyhound stop and grab the bus down to the hotel.

birmingham

(My hotel was located somewhere on the grey line just to the left of the red line on this map. Street names? We don’t need no stinking street names!)

The journey was painless, my Greyhound pulled into Birmingham ahead of schedule (!), and in just a few minutes I was waiting at the bus stop. Things were looking great for my afternoon. The local bus showed up about 10 minutes late, but that didn’t ruffle my feathers a bit. I got settled and pulled up the GPS on my phone so I could follow where we were going.

The bus seemed to be stopping awfully frequently, and when I looked at the distance between where we were and where we were going, I realized that this was going to be a long trip if this kept up. We soon left behind the downtown buildings and entered into the outskirts with their lawns and fences, but we continued to stop at what seemed to be every other intersection to pick someone up or drop someone off. I watched the minutes tick away on this bus, and before long we had been in transit for an hour.

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The golden lady of Birmingham.

The vagueness of the transit map meant that I wasn’t entirely sure where I should be dropped off in order to have the shortest walk possible to the hotel, though there was a loop that seemed to circle my destination so it seemed certainly I could get pretty close to it. I spoke with the reticent driver when we seemed to be getting close to the beginning of the loop, and she indicated that I should stay on the bus to go around the loop, because there would be a stop closer to the hotel on the return trip. Fifteen more minutes of driving, and she left me off by a Waffle House (a staple of the South), with a vague wave pointing in the direction of my hotel.

I descended with my gear, then had a good look at my phone, as I couldn’t actually see the hotel from where I was and there were several streets to choose from, all heading off in different angles. I probably spent five minutes with the map and a compass app, trying to figure out how best to walk there. I finally set off on the quietest of the streets, and soon spotted a tall sign advertising the Super 8. Cool.

Unfortunately, the small street I was on terminated in a whizzing four-lane highway, crossed by another four-lane. Not only were there no crosswalks, there were no more sidewalks. I headed towards a stoplight, and ran across after a few minutes when a break appeared between cars turning left. I cut through a parking lot, keeping the hotel sign in sight, and came upon a smaller two-lane road, which didn’t have a sidewalk either. I couldn’t roll my heavy suitcase over the grass, so I picked it up, sweating with the effort so far, and trudged up the road. It soon turned into an upward slope, the hotel itself appeared in the distance, taunting me from the top of a hill.

At points along the road, even the grass petered out, with nothing but road to walk on. I had to jog in between driveways and gravel lots to avoid the many trucks coming up and down this busy stretch. The hotel seemed to be receding from sight, but finally I found myself in its parking lot, panting. The office was far on the other side, of course, so another few minutes of walking and I fairly collapsed into the lobby.

It was nearly three o’clock by now. So much for a restful afternoon. I checked in, threw my clothes into a washer and sat down with the transit map to figure out how much time I’d have before I needed to leave again to get to the gig. Though I looked at every possible combination of routes, the only way I could get to the 7 pm gig on time, allowing 20 minutes to walk to the bus stop, was to leave again at 4:30.

Of all nights, tonight I had to bring my own PA, so I needed to bring all my gear with me in the suitcase besides my gig bag with guitar and cords.I pulled everything extraneous out to lighten the load (which wasn’t much), pulled my clothes out of the dryer, then headed back out again, cursing my decision to stay so far South and wishing I’d spent the extra fifty bucks it would have cost me to stay in town.

I realize I’m just begging for pity at this point, but this trip was even worse. I dragged everything down to the bus stop, and shortly after arriving it started to rain. I took shelter under the overhang of an office building nearby, then waited for an hour for the bus to arrive. When we finally arrived in the city itself, I got off at a transfer point, then called a cab to pick me up, rather than risking another late bus. But when the taxi didn’t arrive in 15 minutes (they’d told me “10 to 30 minutes wait”), I took the bus that came first, and arrived at the gig five minutes after my start time.

Rojo’s was a nice-looking Mexican restaurant, with a lot of people inside. My spirits rose at the thought of playing to a good crowd, but I was immediately shown to the bar area, a room separated from the dining area by a soundproof door, and deserted inside but for the bartender and one table of three gentlemen engaged in loud conversation.

Tamping down my array of frustrations, I set up my PA as fast as I could, ordered some veggie tacos, and started to play, hoping to draw some people in. Gradually a few folks wandered in, and by the set break I was actually drawing a bit of attention. I tucked into the tacos – which were excellent, packed with top-notch soyrizo – and had a bit of conversation with someone who had seen my bio and decided to stop by and check me out. I played another set, and though the place never really got hopping, I did OK by the end, with several people stopping to pay compliments or buy a CD. I finished up, enjoyed a great local lager, and called a taxi to take me home through the pouring rain. Fifteen minutes later, I was back in the hotel, dry and happy but swearing never to put myself through this kind of local transit hell again.