Riding a Night Train [Part II]: New York Minute

For Part I, click here


You join me very early in the morning at the “world famous” Tastee Diner in Bethesda, where I’m having a greasy and much needed breakfast for the second time in 24 hours. I look like all sorts of disheveled hell, but the good kind (or so I tell myself). In a better, more forgiving world, you’d find me fast asleep on the Serenas’ living room couch, dreaming of things I shouldn’t.


Behold the [sic] “Tastee D”

However, the world I live in features multi-instrumentalist and prolific jokester, Anthony Ortiz, waking me up rudely with the din he’s making from the basement — by which I mean belligerent snoring. That big, goofy, beer guzzling bastard sounds like a diesel engine full of grits. My efforts to smother him with a pillow are unfruitful, perhaps to the band’s benefit.

And yet the world I live in is still pretty damned good, because we brought the house down last night, plus my steak and eggs have just arrived. Both are welcome developments, as it was imperative we start the tour off strong, and also because my stomach’s only inhabitants since this time yesterday have been tequila, amphetamines and coffee — in that order.

Three hours from now we’ll leave for New York, where I have no idea who we’re going to stay with, much less where we’re going to park. Fond as I’ve grown of the Night Train, it’s hard to imagine a universe in which it’s possible to find a twenty foot parking spot in East Village with eight million people breathing down your neck, waiting for you to give up and pull away or preferably just kill yourself. No matter, though, we were in good spirits, improvising travelling blues tunes with the help of Peewee’s portable amp.


A brief pause from scribbling in the interest of vanity and documenting our lead guitarist’s supreme skill on the road

As invigorated as everyone was, is about the success of our first gig, tonight’s feels less certain and, in a way, more significant. We already had a built-in fan base in Washington as a result of Nick’s roots in the town, but Manhattan sure-as-shit ain’t Bethesda, so it’ll be interesting to see how the live performance is received by a fresh audience in a foreign setting.

Whatever awaits, I’m confident in the boys’ ability to make the most of it, so long as Nick maintains perfect bone structure/vocal technique, Peewee maintains the finger dexterity of a post-heroin John Frusciante, and Jacob maintains unmatched musicality (in addition to a wardrobe of exotic overalls and deafeningly loud silk shirts I can only imagine were inherited from a 1970’s pornographer). Remember, this is their first real tour, likewise New York their first real proving grounds.


[Circa 2012] Action shot: and yes, they rock exactly as hard as it looks

While Nick and I grew up on the East Coast, every other band member is from Texas, and decidedly so. Their interests include fishing, barbecue, tacos, Stevie Ray Vaughan, skateboarding, and fishing. Since meeting at Loyola University in New Orleans, none have left the city of Houston. Jacob’s father, Albert Rodriguez, is hands down the most humbly ferocious pool shark I’ve ever met; his accent is thicker than his world class brisket, and just as Southern.


Exhibit A: Tony “Bass Pro” Ortiz

So before embarking on the voyage to NYC, I felt an obligation to prepare them for what was to come, and really did try my best. I told them it is claustrophobic and unapologetic and often overwhelming. I warned them of the perils of driving anywhere near the city limits, of its inhabitants’ well-earned reputation for impatience/aggression, and of its ability to incite sensory overload for those unused to its abrasive metropolitan charms.

With the best will in the world, it didn’t work. Per usual, everyone was thrilled to first lay eyes on Downtown. Carlos spots the Statue of Liberty, but excitement turns to disappointment at its stature by comparison to the skyline itself. Jacob asks me “what the new World Trade Center is called?”, and means it. Everyone struggles to grasp the notion that the sprawling metropolis could possibly be any more vast than what they were seeing already. En route to the Lincoln Tunnel, traffic starts to worsen, and I braced for impact.

thurgood new york

Bassist and native Texan, Jacob Rodriguez, as we make our way into Manhattan

At this point everything went to shit. We left D.C. just after 1 PM, which we thought would give us plenty of time, seeing as the drive was estimated to be five and a bit hours with traffic. Needless to say, this was naive at best, a fact I should’ve accounted for, considering the number of excruciating bus rides I’ve endured in my day. While it only took 30 minutes longer to arrive on the outskirts, all four miles to The Bowery Electric, where we were scheduled to play at 930 PM, would turn out to be a hell most fresh.

The abuse welcomed us at the Lincoln Tunnel toll, where an unamused attendant informed us that trailers were not allowed entry, so we had to be escorted humiliatingly to an emergency detour by a police officer with a goatee. As a consequence, we got hopelessly lost going off the beaten path, only managing to get back on track after meandering around the industrial decay of Jersey City for upwards of 20 minutes.

And so to save time we decide to pull over and get changed at a gas station, which must have been quite a sight for passersby, in light of the fact that outfits commonly worn onstage by Handsomebeast include such items as a tiger striped satin shirt, corduroy train conductor’s hat, white leather vest befitting Thriller era Michael Jackson, burgundy snakeskin shoes, sunglasses James Brown would have to think twice about — you get the idea.

My dear Nicky, for reasons known only to himself, felt compelled to change underwear before the show — “compression shorts…for mobility”, I’m told — so he hides between the van and trailer, myself obstructing the ludicrous scene by indiscreetly putting on a tie. Yes, that does mean there was nothing but three feet of polluted New Jersey air between myself and his gentleman’s cane, but some friendships transcend sexual insecurity; and besides, the man is objectively gorgeous.


As evidenced by this candid of the lead singer and future rockstar

Round about 630 PM we reach the Holland Tunnel, which mercifully lets us through, but then mercilessly extorts us immediately thereafter for the eye watering price of $33. Nick observes that it seems this city does damn near everything possible to keep people out (correctly, I might add), further wondering aloud why so many people are so intent on putting up with it all….a question for which I had no articulable answer.

We enter the tunnel somewhere near 645 PM,  but despite being a Saturday evening, the traffic was practically apocalyptic. And lest we forget, bus drivers in New York appear to possess the same capacity for empathy as those depraved children who torture animals in their spare time. They swerve blindly, abruptly, and with no discernible concept of spatial awareness.

Tony is baffled by the general absence of lanes, and even more so by drivers’ complete neglect for their usage when said [lanes] were present. Jacob’s understanding of honking and car horns would never be the same (that poor, folksy Southern boy). It dawns on us that we might not be there in time — for our first show in New York — and it’s worth pointing out that The Bowery Electric is a very reputable, well known venue which would not take kindly to being stood up.


Outside The Bowery: Tony in a rare moment of pensiveness, and Peewee smiling like the ray of Mexican sunshine he is

Okay and if that wasn’t enough, the booking agent informs us — only two hours before we were to go onstage — that there was a private party booked, so we’d get cut off at 10 PM sharp. Thus we were now running late to a show that had already been substantially shortened, so we might as well just go fuck ourselves, right?.

Nick and I do our best to stay positive and rally the troops, but morale is at an all time low. No one’s GPS is working, because of course it’s impossible to get phone service when you’re surrounded by a biblical wall of steel, glass and concrete. As a result, we just kept getting turned around, drifting aimlessly back from our destination.

But such an onslaught of misfortune brought out a bona fide hero in Tony — who, just take my word for it, can only be described as an absurd redneck savant — a lone Houston boy faced with this daunting challenge of conducting our aging Night Train through the feverish nightmare that is Downtown Manhattan.


Mr. Ortiz at the helm

He wove between traffic, boxed out trucks, flipped off Philistines, and thread the needle through gaps too narrow for the likes of most pickup driving Texans. Suffice it to say the man’s got some cajones, not to mention more god-given musical talent than anyone I’ve ever met, except perhaps Jacob….or Peewee — take your pick.

But so our navigation systems still aren’t working, and we keep moving farther away from The Bowery, despondence spreading in the van like herpes at a state university. You won’t be blown away to learn I then turned to the bottle of tequila in my handbag, while Nick stayed sober and focused on the task at hand. These responses are very telling of him and I, but luckily, he refuses to give up on me.

Then miraculously Peewee manages to get service for long enough to determine a tentative route, which puts us at the venue five minutes before our set. We’re hauling ass down side streets and through construction with maybe fifteen left before soundcheck, and there emerges a glimmer of hope that we might actually pull this off — only one variable remained. 

None other than the Night Train itself, all twelve feet of bulky retro style and verve, to say nothing of the additional eight feet of trailer attached. Coming in hot towards the venue, Nick turns to me — with an apologetic, sincere look — and breaks it to me: I’ll probably have to take the bullet by taking the wheel.

So I did. Tony pulls over and throws the hazards on, we switch seats like racing drivers while the other troops leap out and start grabbing all the gear they can carry; cymbals, guitars, mic stands — everything that could be set up in as little time as possible, but it still wasn’t fast enough. We’re parked on a one way, and all of East Village is stuck bumper-to-bumper behind some ungainly van full of asshole tourists blocking the road.

We sensed a mob was about to gather, but then salvation came in the form of those few and fabled good Samaritans of New York. Four random dudes just sort of appear out of nowhere and begin to lend a hand, unloading instruments and passing them along firemen style. Nicky, overcome with gratitude, turns to thank them amidst the chaos, explaining they were here for a show that was supposed to start in a matter of minutes.

“Hell yeah! What’s your name, brother?”

“I’m Nick! What’s yours?”

“I’m Will. We’re coming to your show. You’d better have a drink with us.”

“Dude, that’s a deal.”

Two knocks on the rear signal the time has come, so I drop it into gear and step on the sluggish gas pedal into Manhattan. I have driven a trailer once before, and never in the city, so I wasn’t overflowing with confidence in my abilities to maneuver the Night Train through what stood in front of me — never mind to park the husky bitch — but this was no time for cowardice or self-doubt. Forward unto glory.


“Gayly forward” – Peewee

Only by glory, I mean acute stress. Tony tried to explain how to turn the hazard lights off, but I was so distracted and in such a rush that none of the information stuck, which left me pushing every fucking button and pulling every fucking lever — of which there were more than could possibly be necessary for such a vehicle — in, on, or around the steering wheel and column. On this occasion, blind luck did not come to my aid.

Then there was the matter of finding a place to stow the thing, lest I spend the rest of time wandering around New York in a hulking, flashing van with no possibility of escape (or in other words my version of hell). We’d mapped out a few parking garages in the vicinity, all of which were prohibitively expensive. That turned out not to matter, though, because none would even consider accommodating me.


The Night Train parked in Bethesda. As you can see, it is roughly the same size as a single family home, and about as easy to park

Well so now I’m racing through East Village — hazard lights still going, mind you — desperately scouring the streets between curb-hopping and mangled three-point turns. There was nothing else for it, so at the fourth lot, right as the Latino attendant on duty was shaking his head at me, I pulled over and got out. At this point I’d seriously have considered selling my body for a way out of this nightmare, so I took a leap of faith and appealed to this complete stranger’s humanity.

[exchanged in Spanish]

“Sir, no, we can not…”

“I know, but — hey, look at me — I need you to listen. Man-to-man, I am going to lose my shit if I don’t park this fucking van, and you are my last hope. Please, will you help me out?”

He was no Samaritan, as I had to bribe the shifty bastard an undisclosed sum to let me in, but it mattered not. The Night Train was stationary, and I was no longer driving it. We finally killed its hazards (the manufacturer evidently thought it wise to hide that goddamned switch underneath the wheel), I gave him the keys and a handful of cash, then sprinted to The Bowery.

Of course I only caught the last, say, seven minutes of the set — and those were spent pounding tequila like shots of holy water. Nick and I reunite some minutes later, but I was too stressed to tell him what happened (remember, I’m still running on three hours of sleep). Turns out the boys had slain yet again. Better still, Will and the other patron saints of East Village had actually shown up, proving excellent drinking buddies, too.


Shortly after the show, when we finally had a moment to breathe

Inevitably, we make our way back to the parking lot for added indecision and extortion. Once having paid another kingly sum in cash for fewer than three hours, we split up to grab food/drinks, then huddle around the Night Train at 130 AM. Given that we had nowhere to stay or leave thousands of dollars worth of gear, merch, and van, the whole team made a judgment call unanimously. It was decided we’d drive to Boston that night.

to be continued

Check out Handsomebeast on Spotify and/or Soundcloud

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