So where were we? Oh yeah, in Pensacola, Florida, accidentally turning in the “Bernie” story three weeks before it was due.
I was kind of sad to end my semi-residency at the Days Inn out by Interstate 10. The pool had a fine umbrella-shaded spot for cigar-smoking and work-avoiding. I made friends with a crack addict who was two doors down and picking up day-laborer jobs with a local moving company, hauling carpets and furniture for $20 a day, even though he just had a heart attack last week and doctors told him he probably ought to rest for a while. This may have all been bullshit, of course. He got kicked out of the Days Inn, because he accused the maids of stealing his wallet. I gave him a ride to the Howard Johnson’s down the street. I doubt if he stayed there long.
I headed east on U.S. 90, the familiar road from Florida to Baton Rouge, a route I’ve driven a dozen times before. The last time was three years ago, when I first purchased the Traipsemobile from a guy in Clearwater who owned a scuba shop and was going through a divorce and, near as I could tell, trying to unload as many of his assets as possible before the courts started divvying things up. That’s how I got the vehicle, a former tv news van, for $20,000, with only 20,000 miles on the odometer. I made the deal over the internet, flew from Dallas to Clearwater, gave the guy a check and drove the van back to Texas, with a stop in Baton Rouge.
It’s weird to think about how much has changed since then. The van was white then, bare on the inside and seemed, to me, gargantuan. I had a hard time with it on tight turns and wondered if maybe I’d made a huge mistake. Could I really live in this thing? (Answer: Yes.) Would it really get 20 miles a gallon? (Yes.) Would I ever learn how to park it without taking up every space in the lot? (No.)
I felt better by the time I got to Baton Rouge, where I showed the van to my buddy, Malcolm, (one of only a half-dozen people who ever saw the van in it’s pre-Traipsemobile condition) and bought myself a King Cake, which I planned to eat entirely by myself, just to make sure the plastic Jesus baby and its accompanying good luck was mine. It turns out there was no baby. Or maybe I swallowed it without noticing. In my defense, it was a damn good King Cake. I should probably get an MRI.
This time around, I hung out with Malcolm at the Baton Rouge Blues Festival (Henry Gray was awesome, Johnny Winter was surprisingly lively for a skeleton and my friend David Egan’s all-star swamp pop band, Li’l Band O’ Gold, had the worst sound mix in the history of the amplified world. I’m sure they were also awesome, but all I could hear was sludge.
I went to Austin from there, to spend another year floating around the edges of SXSW, avoiding the big-name laminated-pass-required events and enjoying the free showcases, which are everywhere and full of wonderful unexpected pleasures. I saw Joe King Carrasco and the (original) Crowns for the first time in 25 years, playing under a tent in the parking lot of The Dog And Duck Pub. I walked into the Dogwood Tavern, just across 6th Street from where my friend, Kevin Bronson, was having his annual BuzzBands L.A. showcase, and who was on the tiny stage? The dB’s. The original, wonderful goddam dB’s. For free. In the afternoon. Life is good.
And there was also the matter of the finally-official red-carpet-and-after-party premiere of “Bernie” which was right in the middle of South by Southwest, at the Paramount Theater on Congress Avenue. I walked in right behind Kyle Gass, the less-famous half of Tenacious D. No one seemed to recognize him. No one recognized me either.
The Austin crowd – most of which seemed to know director Richard Linklater personally – loved the movie, laughed at all the East Texas in jokes and generally reacted as if they’d just seen Jack Black win an Academy Award. Which he won’t. But he might get nominated for one. He’s really good in “Bernie,” surprisingly subtle in a role that could easily have turned campier than a Boy Scout Jamboree. There will be awards for this.
I talked to him briefly at the after-party, in a hidden back-alley-entrance bar mere feet from the SWXW throngs, who probably had no idea that Jack Black and Mathew McConaughey were hanging out so close to them. He was friendly and a little taken aback when I told him who I was. (If none of these references are making sense to you, by all means go here.) I said something dumb about him murdering my aunt. He put up with me. I drank more beer.
And then, for the next three weeks, I waited around for my “Bernie” story to finally appear. I honestly didn’t know how it would be received, by my family, by people who already knew the story and, most of all, by people who didn’t. After 16 years of telling and re-telling the tale, I wasn’t sure which parts were still interesting. For all I knew, the story would bore strangers to tears. I mean, sure, it’s interesting to my friends. But would people in Milwaukee or Tacoma give a shit? Or was this only a Texas thing?
So I was kind of shocked by the response, which was overwhelmingly positive. The New York Times comments were particularly mind-blowing, people talking about how much the story had entertained them and, yes, even made them cry. Apparently, a lot of people had Aunt Marges in their lives, overbearing relatives that they secretly wished someone would toss in a deep freeze. I had no idea.
The Times story ran in England and Ireland. I did a little interview on the CBC. And the movie was, in it’s limited-release not-a-blockbuster way, a tremendous hit, which I wasn’t sure it would be. It’s had the highest tickets-per-screen average of any art house film this year and the reviews have been consistently positive, even gushing. As my mom says, “Aunt Marge always wanted to be famous. And now she is.”
I’ve been in Dallas while most of this played out, drinking Deep Ellum ale, going to shows at the Kessler Theater (Karla Bonoff and Sara Hickman were great, Amy Sedaris was an abomination and is now dead to me) checking in with old friends. I thought I’d just be there for a couple of weeks, taking care of clerical matters. I needed to renew the Traipsemobile registration, clean out my very small storage space, make a couple of obligatory doctor appointments. This turned out to be my undoing.
I had a belly ache, a small one, but familiar. It felt like I’d been doing too many sit-ups, which we all know wasn’t the cause. It was, I suspected a small gastro-intestinal infection. I’ve had these before and I wanted to zap it with antibiotics before it got any worse. So, proudly pro-active, I dropped into the local walk-in clinic, expecting to get a prescription and walk out.
There was indeed an infection. But there was also a dangerously high blood pressure reading, high enough to frighten the doctor and trigger some further tests. The bad news came back. Cholesterol too high. Blood sugar too high. Blood pressure, still, too high. Considering that I live in a van and subsist mainly on beer and “tavern food,” I’m as shocked as you are.
All of this could probably have been avoided, if I hadn’t gotten so fat. I really had convinced myself that I was having so much fun living on the road, that I was so damned Happy that I was immune to pretty much anything, even the consequences of spending every night at a different pub, guzzling the local IPA and, inevitably, eating whatever crap they served at that particular bar. This usually was not salad. There were consequences. I hate consequences.
The doctor put me on some cholesterol meds, which I’ve taken before, and some blood pressure meds, which I haven’t. The blood pressure medicine was a generic combination of Ace inhibitors (which, I believe, make you less likely to play cards) and a diuretic (which, I believe makes you pee out your blood pressure. I wasn’t paying close attention.)
Within 48 hours I was tired like I’ve never been tired before, tired as I usually claim to be whenever anyone asks me to do anything. I was exhausted just crossing the room, could barely lift my arms, and felt like my legs were made of something much heavier than actual leg fat. It was as if gravity had changed. I might as well have been on Jupiter.
I was, even by my standards, incapacitated. Nauseous and tired in a way that increased my respect for chemotherapy patients everywhere. If I’d had medical marijuana, I’d have smoked it. Although I probably couldn’t have lifted the spliff.
I was like that for a week, most of it spent in a friend’s guest bedroom, sleeping like a drummer on Celebrity Rehab. I crawled back to the doctor, who told me that, yes, blood pressure medicine sometimes causes fatigue. She gave me a B-12 shot. Which didn’t help at all.
Finally, genius that I am, I decided to stop taking the blood pressure medication. If my choice was between high blood pressure and being a pre-op zombie, I’d take the high blood pressure.
I felt better within 24 hours, pretty much normal within 48. It was, it turns out, the diuretics that did me in, draining my electrolytes and leaving me woozier than Miley Cyrus after a bulimia binge. The good part: I lost nine pounds in a week.
So we changed the medicine, kept the ace inhibitors and dumped the diuretics. It worked. I’m no longer on Jupiter and my blood pressure is fine. Lifestyle changes will be required but I want to be clear about one thing: I will not stop drinking beer. Also, I will not drink crappy beer. Do NOT put a Miller Lite in front of me. I will slap you. I will, instead, drink two pints instead of three. I will avoid the pizza and the onion rings and the buffalo cheeseburger with the sweet potato fries.
For a while, anyway. But if someone offers me a King Cake, I may have to take it. I still could use the good luck.