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Birmingham, AL: Transcending Space & Time – Matt Martino

As you may know, Dennis and I have been doing some traveling.  January began with a trip north to St. Louis, Rockford and Chicago, where we reconnected with a lot of old friends, made a lot of new ones and visited a few of our old haunts.  The trip was a blast and could not have gone any better.

 

Last week we went south for shows in Birmingham and Pontotoc, MS.  While we did meet some friendly people and see a few friends, it might have been the roughest stretch of gigs I’ve ever had.

 

First, the trip was supposed to include a third date, Panama City on Saturday.  But a few days before we left I learned that the venue had closed.  So….not a good omen.

 

Dennis and I left in plenty of time to make it to Birmingham.  About a three hour trip from Nashville, we left at 4 pm, thinking we would beat rush hour traffic and have enough time to check into our hotel before going to the club.

 

As Dennis was loading his gear into the truck, he realized he had forgotten an important piece of equipment so when we left we headed towards Dennis’s house to pick it up.  But about a block away from my house I realized that I had forgotten to print out set lists.  So, after going to Dennis’s and then back to my house we managed to hit the interstate at exactly 5 pm.

 

I never heard just what had happened but there must have been a horrible accident on I-65.  Three lanes were completely closed.  We exited and took back roads to get out of the city, which were equally congested.  By the time we were outside the city and traffic was clear, we were running late.  No more time to go to the hotel.

 

Near the Alabama border we were both starving so we decided to stop when we saw a sign for Dairy Queen.  Dennis felt a craving for some cool treats, while hot eats sounded good to me.  So we exited and followed the signs.  To our disappointment, the restaurant was nowhere near the interstate.  After a few minutes of driving we came upon an abandoned Dairy Queen, seemingly vacant for years.  Subway was next door, so with frustration in our hearts, we pulled in.

 

Subway seemed very clean and normal.  I ordered a footlong Spicy Italian sandwich on Italian Herbs and Cheese bread.  I also asked that it be topped with several toppings, one of which was lettuce – the most potent and dangerous lettuce I’ve ever encountered in my life.

 

We ate and continued.  It was roughly another hour to Birmingham and for the entire time I felt normal and sated.  But oh, how quickly that changed.  Almost instantaneously upon entering Birmingham city limits, I felt a roaring earthquake of fury in my colon.  I continued driving, thinking I had only a few miles more to get to the club and we were already late.  But soon it became clear that time had run out.  So I took the next exit I could and pulled in at the first gas station I saw; a dark, poorly lit service station in what was clearly a less-than-desirable area of town.  I parked and hurried gingerly to the entrance where I was met by a large, hand-written sign that declared “NO PUBLIC RESTROOMS”.

 

Across the street was a chicken and soul food restaurant and without regard for my well being or the potential consequences of loitering in the area we were in, I hurried across the street and entered the restaurant.  I was met with stares and silence.  I tiptoed through the restaurant to the bathrooms where I was met with another sign, this one professionally printed and permanently hung, “Restrooms for paying customers only”.

 

I stopped, read the sign and turned back to the cashier who was staring at me, along with two other dangerous looking gentlemen who were waiting at a nearby table.  The cashier, possibly sensing my anguish said, “You can order when you come out.”  I smiled and quickly thanked her, thinking the joke was on her, since I was certain that my intestines were going to explode and I would never again emerge from that bathroom.

 

What happened in the next couple of minutes was ethereal.  A magical and terrible change.  I remember the light was dim.  It was cool and oddly quiet.  The sink dripped.  My forehead was clammy and my pulse was slow, yet forceful; a throbbing drumbeat that cadenced what were certainly the last moments of my life.  I did not wait long.  My soul clinged to life as my peripheral vision began to blur and the Spicy Italian sandwich that had been all but forgotten only a few minutes prior returned, undigested and vengeful.  I hugged myself and rocked slowly as I sat quietly, assessing the situation.  I was alive.  But I would never be the same. 

 

I took my time exiting the bathroom, as the quiet moments alone had afforded me time to grasp more accurately my current situation.  I would have to make a purchase and obviously, I was not hungry.  I washed, left the room and approached the counter where the cashier was waiting.  The surly looking gentlemen who had watched me enter the restaurant were seated in the same place.  We made eye contact and it was the type of exchange that made me feel I had been a topic of discussion.  I asked if I could simply buy a soda and the lady, who was very kind, said that would be fine.  But as I pulled out my wallet I recalled spending the last cash I had on my since departed Subway sandwich.  I purchased a $.99 soda with my credit card.

 

I returned to the car where Dennis was nervously waiting.  As we got in he commented about the disagreeable neighborhood we were in.  We pulled away and continued towards the club, now roughly an hour late. 

 

But less than a mile up the road, the pangs of indigestion returned.  The cramps were searing and it was clear that I had only experienced round one of what would be at least a two round fight.  I u-turned and pulled into another gas station.

 

I hurried into the building and past the cashier to the restrooms.  As I approached the cashier called out, “bathrooms is closed!”  I froze, horrified and weighed my options.  I had none.  I turned, with my hands on my head.  My condition must have been clear because the cashier, very quietly and sympathetically said, “Go ahead, honey.”  I went. 

Round two was considerably worse than round one, as unfathomable as that may seem.  Round one lacked the violence and finality that round two did.  Time stopped.  I saw a great, white light.  The roof of the bathroom opened up and I saw the glorious, black sky, alight with more stars than I had ever seen.  The walls around me melted like butter and I was alone on the toilet in the middle of space.  A warm breeze kissed my face and calmed me.  I floated silently and blissfully, having completely forgotten about the events of the evening.  It was the moment when Gollum and The Ring fell into the lava.  It was when Mel Gibson cried “Freedom!” in the final moments of Braveheart.  It was everything and nothing.  My soul left my body and hovered overhead.  It looked like me earlier in the evening, before I had eaten.  It smiled at me and I felt a strange, quiet peace.  I smiled back. 

 

I’m not sure how much time elapsed but eventually I began to notice again the noises outside the room where customers were purchasing gas and other items.  I washed and quickly left the building, got into the car where Dennis was waiting and proceeded on to the club. 

 

We finally arrived in time to discover that we were opening up for a reggae/metal band that was also running late.  The crowd at the venue was clearly not expecting an acoustic pop duo to open the show and there’s no real way to sugar coat their reaction to us.  They didn’t hate us, I feel.  But they certainly didn’t like us.  They felt nothing towards us.  They nothinged us.  We hung out for a while after our set before we decided to get to the hotel and put an end to the day.

 

But when we arrived at the hotel, we found the reception area dark and empty.  As well as locked.  We knocked on the doors and rang the buzzer but nobody came.  We stood in the cold for nearly half an hour, waiting for someone to let us in so we could check into our room, but nobody ever came.  We ended up driving a few miles down the road where we got one of the last rooms available in a Best Western Suites; a very nice and comfortable room, which cost nearly three times as much as the room we had already paid for at the hotel down the street.  But in what was one of the only pleasant moments of the evening, Dennis surprised me by revealing he had picked up a six pack at the gas station while I was clinging to life.  We polished it off and hit the sack.

 

When we arrived in Pontotoc the next night we discovered that, in my haste to load up after our gig in Birmingham the night before, I left several items behind.  Some of those items I need and can’t replace easily, so I’ll be returning to Birmingham this weekend en route to Savannah, GA to pick up what I left, allowing me to relive the events of last week.  Sweet Home Alabama?  Not really.

 

 

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One Comment

  1. Ayodeji
    Posted March 3, 2009 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    Just dropping by.Btw, you website have great content!

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