Warning flags at the Jacksonville beach.
Warning flags at the Jacksonville beach.

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 of the tour concluded, Beck came home for a short break before heading back on the road. Read previous entries herehereherehereherehereherehere, and here.

March 22, 2017: Gainesville, Fla. at The Atlantic with Sun Moon Star, Guts, and Shara Lunon

I wake up early and wake Bryan up early and we meet up at a café uptown. I arrive before him. “You’re eating cookies for breakfast?” He asks me. “You brought your own coffee?” I ask him.

The drive today is at least eight hours, plus I lose an hour headed back into Eastern Time from Central. It’s a clear sunny day. Eight hours sitting in the sun in a car. I throw on a Phillip Pullman audiobook. Radio interference over my cassette tape/aux adaptor lends the book a beat. What I need is to get into the zone wherein I resign myself to driving as long as it takes, rather than thinking about how much time I have left, and the best way to do that is to immerse myself in an audiobook. But it’s just too hot, and there’s too much static, so my mind drifts.

Isn’t it weird to feel safer walking around within a group of men? Even though statistically men you know are more likely to harm you than strangers are?

I keep smelling something putrid. Oh god, is that me? I hope not.

Traveling is filled with ghosts and shadows and trauma. I don’t feel like I’m forming new associations that rewrite old memories, just adding clutter to an already teeming landscape. Disorienting. When Turboslut drove from New Orleans to Gainesville we forgot about the time difference and sped to make up time. We rolled up to the venue blasting Toadies‘“Possum Kingdom,” then smoked weed in the van. It would be an understatement to say that it wasn’t my first romp with the devil’s lettuce, but for some reason this toke did me in. I was so paranoid during our set that I could hardly move my fingers to play. It didn’t help that Gainesville is a weird town with a weird vibe, something’s just a little off and off-putting; it’s southern but not friendly. Florida. After we played the paranoia got worse. I went into the van and got into my sleeping bag, where I hallucinated that I was visited by the ghost of my mother’s mother, who revealed to me my mother’s true time of birth.

I’m remembering all this as I cross over the state line. I’m applying Icy Hot to my neck while I drive because I don’t have time to stop or I’ll be late to the show. If I stopped maybe I’d get more Tylenol and some ice packs. I haven’t brought any Tramadol with me on this leg of the tour. (As I’ve mentioned, Tramadol, as a synthetic opiate, shouldn’t even exist.) Even though it helps a tiny bit with the pain, it makes me so cloudy. I can’t afford that, traveling alone. No one to pick up the slack, gotta stay sharp, can’t afford to be tempted into addressing my pain.

I don’t think people who aren’t in constant pain understand what it’s like. When you’re in constant pain, relief is irresistible. At almost any cost. With relief comes happiness, a kind that even at your lightest moments you can never fully access, when you’re in pain. When I was a patient at NIH, I ended up getting an endoscopy (for non-research purposes) and woke up still high from the anesthesia. When I got back to my unit, my nurse and supervising neuropsychiatrist were shocked to see my demeanor. “This is the happiest we have ever seen you,” they said. They had been studying me—literally, they were studying my mood for scientific research—for five months at that point. And it was the happiest they’d ever seen me. I wasn’t on anti-depressants at the time.

The sun is red in my rear view mirror. I’m so hot and so tired. I want to get home and write new songs. Is that snow or sand over there? Am I hallucinating? Does being in Florida make me hallucinate?

As usual, I think I’m late when I get to the venue. As usual, I’m still the first band there. The mall hesher doorman watches me load in. One of the two drummers of Guts is wearing the same Crocs as me and we both have side braids. When I change into my show costume, I wonder if she feels abandoned.

My friend Chem drove from Jacksonville to see me play. She sits with me behind the merch table and we watch people trickle into the empty bar. I know about three people who live in Gainesville, and two of them are out of town. My one remaining friend Tony is splitting his time between this show and Tortoise, who are playing down the street. My nerves are raw. I’m jumpy like a rookie. Sun Moon Star looks like a Sailor Moon character, she stands at her noise station and dances while she generates her electronica. I wish I was cooler and I could tell you exactly what genre she is, but I’m not and I can’t. It’s one long uninterrupted song, her set is short, she’s done and it’s my turn.

I’m still not feeling right. Maybe it was the heat, the long drive, dehydration. The bar has a decent number of people in it, but they’re all standing miles away from the stage. If I weren’t so nervous I would tell them to move closer. Instead I play despite the gulf, despite my racing heart, despite my stiff hands. The audience is unreadable to me. I can’t tell if I’m playing well, if they’re liking it, if they’re paying attention. It’s pretty quiet. Watching people leave is unavoidable. Even though there are so many legitimate reasons someone might exit that have nothing to do with my performance, it feeds my anxiety and self-consciousness. All my banter sucks. I tell them about my botox and ask them to imagine my face contorted in misery while I play. At this point I’m just trying to lean in to how bad I think I’m doing. As a final act of masochism, I perform an unplanned and unrehearsed new a capella song to finish the set.

Feeling sad about old men.

Later, sitting by my merchandise, an old man with a white beard slides into the booth next to me, effectively blocking my exit. I’m instantly pissed. “Welcome to Gainesville,” he says, then launches into a pointless description of the town, music scene, and history of the block. I’m scooted as far away from him as possible, not facing him whatsoever, and not even looking at him. In other words, I’m giving no cues that I’m interested in continuing this interaction. This is necessary because men are very, very dumb. They do not have emotional intelligence. Eventually he leaves. I’m irritated.

Guts is refreshing—their instrumentation is two drummers and one bassist. All of them sing. There is some switching of instruments. During Guts, Chem departs, leaving behind a fast-food salad and detailed instructions on how to get to her apartment in Jacksonville.

I go stand up front to see Shara play. She is a professionally trained opera singer who works with electronic, experimental, and hip-hop elements in her set. Her first song is mesmerizing, vocal loops and samples. I’m entranced. At one point in her set, she invites people to come closer, move, dance, feel alive. I am exhausted but I move closer anyway. I feel a hand on my back and it’s the old man, trying to touch me and dance with me. I say “NO!” and move away, disgusted. In my mind I decide that if he fucks with me one more time, things are going to get ugly. My blood is boiling as I try to focus on Shara’s set. After a couple more songs, I feel a hand on my shoulder and get ready to fight, but it’s just Tony, returned from Tortoise. The old man doesn’t bother me for the rest of the night. Probably because he saw a man with me. Despite the companionship, despite watching Shara’s masterful performance, despite the kindness of the other bands as they bid me farewell, despite the praise of the bartender as she pays me, my mood just doesn’t recover. I can’t stop remembering all the different times I have been harassed or even assaulted at shows. Inside me there’s a fury with no outlet.

I drive to Jacksonville in the dark, avoiding the speed traps everyone has warned me about, feeling grim.

March 23, 2017: Day off in Jacksonville, Fla.

I wake up late, sweating in my sleeping bag on Chem’s twin-size air mattress. She’s working on her computer at a desk in her front room, positioned in such a way that she looks like a receptionist. It’s appropriately surreal. I’m in a fog. She lives in a building right next to the river. The river is high, level with the street. The street is lined with palm trees and ferns and all the prehistoric-looking flora characteristic of the region. We drive around town in Chem’s pickup truck. I can’t focus on anything and keep checking my phone like a teenager. We go back to her apartment and a headache hits me and knocks me out. Sleeping like a camel stores water.

Chem Lawn and Florida culture. Credit: Beck Levy

March 24, 2017: Day off in Jacksonville, Fla.

I have two days off now, yesterday and today. I didn’t originally plan it this way, I had originally intended to have these two days off in New Orleans. But the only date available for me to play in Gainesville was the 22nd, so here we are. Here I am. I slept from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. Today, Chem and I eat lemon teacake and doughnuts and drink coffee. We bring carrot cake to the beach. We lay in the sand in our underwear and watch a mother videotape her toddler pissing into the ocean. Florida!

On our way back to Chem’s apartment, we see the news: the GOP healthcare bill has failed! The ACA is safe for now! We are giddy. We stop and get margarita ingredients and a frozen pizza to celebrate. Without Medicaid, my medications would cost about $1,500 a week. Almost all the precarity I experience is around this, this vulnerability of mine.

Chem and I drink and snack and watch videos of Paul Ryan being sad, laughing hysterically.

To be continued…