About a week before I was due to leave Nashville to start the tour proper in Chicago, I called into a well-known car rental company to book a vehicle. They are an international firm, and they have an advert that runs on UK television where they espouse the American virtues of courteousness and are very proud of their friendly service.
The girl behind the counter gave me a big beaming smile, told me her name was Tammy and asked how she could help me. I told her and she put together a special deal for me as I would be hiring the car for two months. It was booked from the day I was leaving Nashville until the day I flew back to the UK. But there was something in the transaction that didn’t feel right and as I walked away I made a mental note to check on the booking before the day arrived.
Three days later I called in at the rental office. Tammy was nowhere to be seen. There was now a very smiley man in her place with a name badge that read William. I’d like to check on my booking, I said to him and gave him my name. He could find no booking of that name. He offered no explanation and no apology. I suppose from his point of view, if it didn’t exist, why should he apologise? I asked if I could re-book (or from his perspective – book). Yes, sir, he said. What’s the name? I wanted to say that it was the name you were just looking for but gritted my teeth and told him. There was a flicker of recognition in his eyes. “And the date?” he asked. Still, June 1st until August 1st I said.
The deal he offered was more expensive. I showed him my notebook with the deal I was previously offered. I had even made a note that I had been dealing with Tammy. He stared at his computer screen and then tapped furiously at the keyboard. “Oh, I see what she’s done!” He mumbled something about monthly rates vs daily rates and seasonal discounts and eventually agreed to honour the deal that never was. I watched him type my name into the computer and felt satisfied as he clicked enter.
The following Monday morning, my friend Sonya dropped me off at the car rental office.
Tammy and William had been replaced by Brandy. Brandy confirmed my booking and we started on the paperwork. Everything was going swimmingly until I tried to pay with a debit card. Brandy insisted on a credit card, saying it was company policy. Then why hadn’t Tammy and William said so. Brandy smiled at me. It was the same smile I had seen on the faces of Tammy and William. It was as if they were all on the same one-day Smiling Seminar in Car Rental College. I didn’t have a credit card with me. Along with my debit card, I had a ‘Cash Passport’ with enough money on it to pay for the hire. It’s not easy to keep a smile in place while saying no but Brandy managed it, admirably.
I felt like the whole tour was now in jeopardy. I told Brandy that my wife had a credit card. I could call her at work. “Okay” said Brandy.
I called my wife back in the UK and told her the situation. She had her credit card with her and gave me all the necessary details. I breathed a sigh of relief and handed the notes I’d made to Brandy. The smile didn’t falter. “I’m sorry, sir, but the cardholder has to be here in person.” My smile was much weaker than hers. “Are you taking the piss?”
In the best English upper-class accent I could muster, I demanded to see the manager. Brandy went into a back office and came out with a man whose smile put all the other staff to shame. He must have gotten an A* at the Smiling Seminar. I notice that he didn’t have a name badge – I’m thinking that that might be some kind of status symbol in the world of car rental. He was extremely apologetic but rules is rules and company policy could not be ignored. And then he offered me the gem that the branch out at the airport did take debit cards as long as you could produce your flight itinerary to show that you were leaving from Nashville. I wanted to argue the point that it was not then company policy if one branch did accept debit cards and another didn’t. Or was the airport branch staffed with a bunch of do or die mavericks that play hard and fast with the rules? I settled for him phoning the airport branch and confirming that they would give me the same deal.
Thirty minutes and a 30-dollar cab ride later I was in the airport. The woman behind the counter (Sheryl) had no record of a phone call from the downtown office. As it happened, she offered me the same rate as before. At no point did she ask for my flight details. I tell you, those airport rental guys are just crazy!
The Steel Horse I ride - a Buick LeCrosse
I left Nashville in a big old Buick La Crosse and headed north for Chicago. I had programmed my Sat Nav / GPS to avoid the Interstate highways. I figured that if I wanted to meet and interact with the good people of the US, it was better to go through the small towns and counties, stopping at diners and cafes along the way. I meandered through Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana, taking in the countryside. I saw quite a few barns. At one point, I passed a wind farm that took 20 miles to pass; there were hundreds of blades, twirling away like a nightmarish collaboration between Philip K Dick and Busby-Berkley.
In Huntsburg, Indiana, I got talking with two guys in a diner. They were fascinated with my story and bought an album each. I felt like this validated my reasons for not going on the interstate.
Touring is an expensive business. There are travel costs – flights, car hire and fuel – plus food and accommodation. To help with the last of these I had signed up to a website called Couchsurfing. This is a site where people who would be happy for you to stay one or two nights in their home put out a digital welcome mat. You have to fill out a profile (I expect that this is to prove that you are not an axe-wielding, homicidal maniac), you then send them a request that they host you. They then read your profile and decide if they like the look of you or not. Most hosts want some sort of cultural exchange for their hospitality, and I suspect an awful lot are hoping that karma is watching their kindness and somewhere down the line when they go travelling, somebody will host them.
I was booked to stop with Brad in Chicago. Brad lived in an affluent suburb of the Windy City. It was dark as I approached Chicago and the night-time skyline looked amazing.
I was somewhat surprised when I pulled up outside a grand-looking brownstone house in a leafy suburb. I hadn’t given much thought to what I imagined the average couch surfer host’s home might look like but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the magnificent building that stood before me. I had thought most hosts would be people who travelled a lot themselves – students on gap years and backpackers.
As I approached the front door it was opened by a man who looked very like the actor John Malkovich. I found this quite unnerving. He was, however, very friendly and welcoming (not that I’m saying John Malkovich isn’t). He showed me to my room. It had its own en suite bathroom. He asked if I would like to shower before supper. I said I was fine. Then he offered to fire up the hot tub on the roof which he said would revive me. I declined.
He cooked me supper. He said I looked tired and offered up the hot tub again. I declined, again.
He made us tea which we sat and drank together. He spoke of a wife but she was nowhere to be seen. He said that there were two other couchsurfers staying that night, a Turkish couple but I could see no sign of them. I’m pretty sure that we were alone in the house.
I was convinced that my host was a serial killer who lured innocent couchsurfers to his house and drowned them in the hot tub. I was to be a victim of what the media, in years to come when he was finally caught, would call the Chicago Hot Tub Killer. That night I slept with my suitcase placed up against the bedroom door.
The next morning I sat and had breakfast with a lovely Turkish couple. Over coffee, Brad explained that his wife was away on business. They were a successful couple and, as part of their Christian ethos, wanted to give back to the world. One way to do this was to open their home up to couchsurfers. I felt somewhat contrite.
After breakfast, I went out to explore Chicago. It’s a bold, confident city; there’s a bit of a sassy swagger to its manner; but the people are friendly and eager to assist. I stopped to ask the fattest policeman I have ever seen for directions. As he gave me precise instructions, I remember thinking that if he were to chase me for some misdemeanour I had committed, there was not a chance in hell that he could catch me. Then my eyes drifted down towards the gun he wore and I realised that he probably wouldn’t bother to give chase – he would just shoot me. I started paying attention to what he was saying.
I stood on the shores of Lake Michigan. Up until that point, I had no idea just how big it was. You can’t see the other side; it’s not so much a lake as a small ocean!
I had made a list of places in the city that had been used for Hollywood movies and was happy to spend the day searching them out. I think it’s safe to say that Chicago is Gotham City. And some of these locations have appeared in more than one movie. The bank that The Joker robs in The Dark Knight, is also where Ferris Bueller’s Dad worked. I also spotted locales used in Harrison Ford’s The Fugitive and John Cusack’s Hi-Fidelity. And, of course, The Blues Brothers – it’s everywhere. I just had to pay a visit to Richard Daley Plaza where the authorities chasing Elwood and Jake finally catch up with them in spectacular style.
Of course, you can’t go to Chicago without hearing some blues so I went to see the Shirley Johnson Blues Band at Blue Chicago. Think Mahalia Jackson and Etta James, with a hint of Ruth Brown thrown in for good measure, and you might have some idea of what this powerhouse of a woman sounds like – and, with a kick-ass band to back her, it was without a doubt the best blues I have ever heard.
Reggie's Chicago IL
My Chicago gig was at Reggie’s on South State St. As I pulled up outside, my heart sank. There was a line of about 30 young men, all in black, sporting mohawks, and with more metal in their faces than a car scrapyard. I wondered “what have I been booked into?" Turns out there are two Reggie’s – the Rock Club (where the young men were headed) and the Music Joint (where I was headed). I breathed a sigh of relief – I’m pretty sure those kids didn’t want to hear an acoustic singer-songwriter.
It turns out that local ice hockey team, the Chicago Blackhawks, were playing an important game that night, and Reggie’s was showing the game on a large TV just above the stage. The game had gone into extra time. The owner called all the bands together, saying: “Listen guys, if I turn the TV off, there’ll be a riot.” The bands agreed that it would be sensible to each cut our set short and go on later. So I ended up watching the game, rooting for the Blackhawks; not because I have any affinity with them – but if they were to win, I knew I’d be playing to a happy crowd. Thankfully, they won.
On stage, I made a big thing out of it being my first ice hockey game, saying that I would now forever be a Blackhawks fan. The crowd cheered. They were a good audience and they were up for the cup in more ways than one.
To my surprise, I got to hear the punk-metal band playing in the rock club next door – through the wall. I decided not to play my quiet introverted finger-picking songs.
I said to the club owner afterwards, you need to soundproof that wall. He had a pained expression on his face. “It is soundproofed. You shoulda heard how loud it was in the room.” Ouch!
The next day, I left for St Louis where I would learn about the true state of race relations in the US, and about the importance of knowing which way is north and which way is south.
Playing at Reggie's Chicago IL