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Hand Grenade Job was on tour in the great American South and Northeast over the past two months. Over the course of the tour, HGJ’s Beck Levy chronicled her experiences on the road. After the first leg concluded, she came home for a short break before heading back on the road. Read previous entries here.
April 12, 2017: Montreal, QC at Brasserie Beaubien with Gauche and Jeu De Bouteille
I wake up at Bonnie Schlegal’s house. It’s a damp, foggy day, and yet again I’ve managed to not sleep despite a comfortable, dark room with a king-sized bed. Bonnie’s at work but she has left me a sweet note and a jade clipping. I haven’t seen her since Katy Otto’s wedding, I wish we had more time to catch up.
I’m determined to eat breakfast with Gauche because our shows together are almost over and we have barely hung out at all. We eat bagels together at a small shop off a muddy gravel parking lot.
Afterward, I drive to a coffee shop near the river. I find a five dollar bill on the ground which feels incredibly serendipitous. Maybe my luck is about to change. The coffee shop is also an art gallery where it looks like everyone is a super serious graphic designer. In contrast, I am disheveled, several days past my shower sell-by date, wearing stained overalls, a Narcan shirt, and a matted faux fur hat. I spend the five dollars on a decadent latte—vanilla with lavender.
Back in my car, I call my family to check in. Of all the hard phone calls, it’s the hardest one yet. It’s so hard not to be there, to hear people I love hurting and not only can I not fix it but I can’t even be there to witness it, to comfort them with my presence. In that moment, everything about where I am and what I’m doing feels wrong. I feel so exhausted that I can’t imagine driving to Montreal, nor to home, to anywhere. I slouch in my seat, mind fuzzy, not working right, not forming complete thoughts. I take out my phone and check the motel prices in the area. What’s my plan there? Am I thinking of taking a nap, or giving up and going to bed? Should i see if I can go back to Bonnie’s house?
Looking at the current time, and the driving distance to Montreal, I don’t really have much time to kill. I text my New Orleans group chat and ask them what I should do. There isn’t immediate consensus or participation in solving my problem, but as usual, Lauren tells me not to drive if I’m too tired to drive. Great advice, though not the most practical for someone in my situation. I text Katie Alice Greer, who has been supportive every step of the way through releasing Devotionals, through booking the tour, and through the big upsets: Erin leaving and the sudden illness in my family. She knows everything I’ve been going through, she knows I’m not someone who even considers quitting, and of course, she knows what it’s like to be on tour. “Set a timer on your phone and take a nap in your car for half an hour, then drive to Montreal. Play the show. You’re not far.”
It turns out all I really need in this moment is to be told what to do. I set a timer on my phone and lean the driver’s seat back. I close my eyes and breathe, knowing that when you can’t sleep, resting is almost as good. But I can’t sleep, and I can’t rest. Suddenly, the part of me that is a calm, strong, disciplined leader appears and commands charge of the situation. I put the seat upright and drive to a gas station, where I clean all the trash out of my car, buy three bottles of fizzy water, a cucumber-lime gatorade, and a disgusting amount of maple sugar candy. Chugging the gatorade while I hit the highway, I realize how dehydrated I was. A rookie mistake.
The drive is instantly beautiful. I’ve never been this far north before. The mountains and trees help ease me back into feeling like a somewhat capable person. Not rejuvenated, nor renewed, but workable. I pass a sign informing me that I’ve reached the midpoint between the Equator and the North Pole. I smile. When I see signs for the border, though, I get anxious. This is my first time leaving the country. Until November, I didn’t even have a passport. I pull up to the booth. A female border cop takes my passport and starts asking me questions. I’ve had enough friends tour internationally to know what to do—if asked, deny that I’m going to be playing music for money. Since I’m in a passenger vehicle, I didn’t anticipate any problems, nor did Gauche, who, because they had lots of people, gear, and merch, told me they’d prepare by printing out a “contract” from the venue.
“What is the nature of your visit?” The question I’ve been preparing for comes. The cop is unimpressed with my answer that I’m just on a road trip. She scoffs and says “it looks like you have your whole life back there or something,” gesturing at the backseat of my car. I don’t know what to say to that, so I don’t say anything. She asks what I do for a living, a question I hadn’t anticipated. I say performer, and she asks what that’s supposed to mean. I tell her I play guitar at a museum. I’m starting to realize that this whole time I’ve been worried that it would look like I was a touring band, when really the risk was looking like I was trying to move to Canada. My lack of conventional gear comforted me—instead of having drums, a big amp, or loads of records, I just have clothes, candles, a chair, and a table… yeah. It totally looks like I’m trying to illegally immigrate.
Finally, the cop scowls at me and tells me to pull over up ahead. I pull over and a different cop comes over and tells me to get out of the car. I get out and sit on a nearby bench. He slowly goes through every compartment of my car, occasionally pausing to disdainfully kick something out of the way, or to ask me to identify an object.
When he gets to the backseat, he encounters the large plastic tote I use to contain toiletries, snacks, and my medications. I have a pill organizer in my backpack that holds a week’s worth of medication, with three little boxes for each day. Because I’m on tour for longer than a week, because I take so much medication each day (five pills in the morning, two in the afternoon, five at night), and because there are still other medications I just take as needed, there’s a lot of bottles back there. Instead of downsizing by just packing a second pill organizer or just a couple baggies, I’ve been travelling with the bottles in case I got pulled over. I don’t really take anything too juicy, but it’s best to have evidence that you’ve been prescribed the drugs you’re carrying, and thus preempt one possible line of trouble.
Viewing this pharmacological cornucopia, the pig is startled. “Why do you have so much medication?” he asks. “Because I have illnesses,” I reply, not sure what else to answer. He looks at each bottle and asks me what each drug is and what its meant to treat, often moving onto the next bottle and question before I’ve finished answering, in case there was any doubt about whether or not he actually cared. At one point he stops and asks suspiciously “What did you say your name was again?” I tell him, he cross-checks it with the name on the label, and resumes his survey of my meds. When he’s handled each bottle, he says “So what did you say was wrong with you?” I don’t say anything for a moment, working to manage the fury inside me, keeping my face expressionless, my voice controlled. “I have a chronic illness,” I answer, and stare into his eyes until he looks away.
My eyes are hot and wet. I’m alone, I’m not sure if my phone will work if I need to tell someone I’ve been detained, and even if it did, I don’t know who I’d call. I don’t have the phone number of the contact at the venue. Gauche is probably an hour ahead of me, with all their phones off. I feel stupid, naive and underprepared. Then my decades of training as an anarchist kick in and I remember that stupid and alone is exactly how the State, and in particular I remind myself that my internal sense of dignity isn’t something a cop can take away from me. I remind myself that institutional power is arbitrary.
I focus on my breathing and return to a state of calm, adjusting to the fact that I might be here a long time. I can’t look impatient or it will appear suspicious, seem like I have somewhere to be. The cop pulls my guitar case out from the back seat and sets it to lean it against my car. It slides toward the ground a bit like it’s going to fall over, and I’m just about to leap up and catch it when the cop notices. He sets the case on a nearby cart, making me wonder if it will be rolled away somewhere, possibly dusted with that powder that tells you if something is an explosive. The cop passes by the the bin holding my tapes and the duffel bag holding the Hand Grenade Job shirts quickly and without interest.
When the cop opens my trunk, I remember that I have a large metal box in there, covered in mysterious tubes and visible weld. It’s my veggie oil tank, but it has been mistaken for a bomb by a security guard on one occasion. “That’s my veggie oil tank,” I call out, but the cop doesn’t seem to notice it or care about it and ignores me. He removes every object from my trunk: my little Orange amp, my autoharp, my pedal box, and my box of cables. I’m worried about the autoharp—the case is flimsy, and dropping it could cause a fatal crack. The cop unsteadily balances each thing on my bumper to inspect it. My cable box has candles and crystals in it, and needs to be packed a certain way to close correctly. I see the cop struggling with the clasp, then hear a popping sound. He quickly replaces each object in my trunk, hands me a piece of yellow paper and sends me inside the station.
A cop at a counter motions me forward. He looks exactly like Chief Wiggum, even down to the slightly lazy eye. I hand him the piece of paper and my passport. He asks me all the same questions again, and then some new ones. “What is the address of where you are staying?” he asks. “Oh,” I say, trying to think fast, “I am not sure. I’m meeting my friend at a bar in his neighborhood.” “And who is your friend?” Chief Wiggum asks. I basically don’t know anyone in Montreal. My friend Allie lives there but already told me she won’t be in town, and I’m pretty sure my friend Amanda moved to Toronto. The only other person I know in Montreal is my acquaintance/sort of former employer’s wife’s brother. I’d e-mailed details about the show to him a couple days previous. The acquaintance, that is, not the brother, who I’ve never actually met. But that’s who I identify as my friend who I’m visiting, certain that I’m mangling his Québécois name. The cop stares at his computer screen for a while then hands my passport back. I’m confused. I almost say “Am I under arrest or am I free to go?” Damn those decades of anarchist conditioning. But before I can say it, Chief Wiggum dismisses me.
I want to peel out, but the second cop has done such a lazy job repacking my car that I can’t see out the back, so I have to reconfigure everything. Finding my emergency cigarette in the glove compartment, I hit the road. I’m thinking about how upsetting my border crossing was, as an incredibly privileged person—white, cis, straight-passing, literate, educated and quick on my feet, a documented American, monolingual but dealing with border guards who speak my language. I hated borders before this incident, supported their abolition, knew them to be a tool of the ruling class. But now, having experienced perhaps the most benign border under the most privileged conditions, having had just the taste of that fear and helplessness, my hate is even more robust.
The landscape already looks somehow foreign, even barely over the border. The fields and the little houses a little strange. I prepared for the loss of my phone’s capabilities by screenshotting the directions, but I wasn’t prepared for all the signs to be in French. That’s how clueless and ignorant I was… I forgot that the official language of Quebec is French. It’s just one more thing to juggle, along with consulting the phone and operating the vehicle.
Somehow I make it to Montreal, somehow I find the Brasserie Beaubien. I double park and go inside. It’s a small, dingy bar that smells like cigarettes and has slot machines in it. Could this be the right place? Then a woman says hi to me, recognizing me as a lost performer. I load my gear in. When I open my trunk, I see what I suspected: the pig broke the clasp on my cable box. My dark mood darkens further. I finish loading in and go park my car. When I’ve returned, Gauche is there too. They’re chillin, they’ve been there for over an hour, they got through the border easy, didn’t even have to show the contract.
Mary and Jason let me vent to them for a while. It starts out being just about the family phone call, the exhaustion, the border crossing, but it becomes about the last year of my life. They listen sympathetically and give me hugs. We get a pitcher of sangria and I do Mary’s makeup. Then I change clothes and do my own makeup, opting to continue the orange/pink eyeshadow, putting on my most girly outfit: high waisted flared skirt, tucked in white tank top with no bra, black high heels. Jeu De Bouteille soundchecks. They’re a three piece, all women, and it’s their first show, though they’ve all been in other local bands. In the song they soundcheck with, the hook is “I don’t care/ (She doesn’t care)” and it’s brightening my mood a bit. I’m anxious to deliver a good performance tonight, my last night with Gauche, my first show outside the U.S. I ask Gauche if they’ll stand up front for me, so I can see familiar faces. “Sure,” they say. Jason tells me he likes the hand motions I do when I’m singing, my little diva dance for hitting those high notes.
I’ve volunteered to play first—always my preference when playing with bands louder than me. The bar has a decent amount of people in it when it’s time for me to play. The lights drench the stage in purple. To grab people’s attention, I open with a vocal improvisation on a continuous liveloop, so that it builds louder and louder until it’s almost unbearable. The cacophony clears my mind. I sing my next song, pointing up to heaven when I stretch to the top of my range, looking straight at Jason. There’s an ATM right in front of the stage, and during my guitar songs, two people come up to use it, which is distracting and noisy. After the songs, I tell the audience that if they use the ATM during my set, they have to either hit the buttons in time with my song, or throw money at me. “It’s okay if it’s just ones,” I say, “I’m not proud.” “We don’t have ones here!” Someone yells out. I put my head in my hands and everybody laughs.
ATM beeps notwithstanding, the crowd is polite and appreciative. In order to play “New Year” solo, I’ve adapted to an arrangement where I make a loop of my guitar playing notes to the rhythm in which Erin’s bells would be shaking if she were here. I put “New Year” directly after a guitar song in my set so that the transition to autoharp is seamless, and the loop-setting doesn’t become too much of a performance in itself. But tonight, after I set the loop, set down my guitar, pick up my autoharp, and strike the first chord, I accidentally erase the loop instead of hitting the footswitch that plays my loop. “Fuck,” I say, and move to pick up my guitar. “I’ll play with you,” Mary offers, stepping up, her eyes all shiny. I hand her the guitar and explain the idea. We play the song together. I play a couple more songs then thank the audience and bow. People clap, I turn and start to pack up.
Immediately, a guy comes up holding one of my tapes and offering me a piece of Canadian money that I can only assume is approximately $5. “Thank you,” I say, surprised. I haven’t been selling much on this leg. I bend down to keep putting pedals away. “Excuse me,” I hear. I stand up. A tall man with piercing light blue eyes is standing next to the stage. “Hi,” I say. “I really loved your set,” he says in Québécois-accented English. “I think you know my brother-in-law?” “Oh shit! You came!” I yell, the meeting having taken on a mythic quality. “Are you leaving right now?” I ask. Angled toward the door, he is holding his jacket. “I gotta pack up, stick around a bit,” I suggest.
A few minutes later I find him at the bar. He is drinking a glass of orange juice and reading Adorno. I thank him for coming. He says he checked out my music online before the show and liked it a lot. “So do you… really like Hatebreed?” he asks, but since he is French, it sounds, adorably, like “‘atebreed.” “I love Hatebreed!” I say. “Oh, because I was wondering if it was ironic or like a joke,” he explains. “No, I really like Hatebreed. Do you?” I ask. “Yes, I like ‘atebreed a lot,” he states with intensity. “Yeah, Satisfaction is the Death of Desire is a perfect album,” I say. He agrees. I ask him if he likes All Out War. He does. He asks me if I like Earth Crisis. I admit to it. And there you have it. I travel further north than I’ve ever been, all the way into another country, just to end up hanging out with a man who loves straightedge hardcore.
To be continued…