In 1998 I was a lot of things. I was a college dropout, a blood donor, a recalcitrant philanthropist, an intermediate admirer of the ladies, the singer of some world-touring ska band just teetering upon the cusp of greatness, and an occasional homeless person. I was also late to one of the biggest concerts that band had ever played. Not because of any prima donna-type, “I want my M&Ms sorted into individual colors” outburst that one might expect, but because I was very exhausted, and as I said- occasionally homeless.
Five Iron Frenzy was somewhere in the middle of the lineup on the Ska Against Racism Tour. It was our first, and greatest tour with “general market” bands. The lineup included Less Than Jake, MU330, The Blue Meanies, The Toasters, Kemuri, The Bruce Lee Band, and us- with occasional appearances by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, and Link 80. It was an honor to be part of such a great tour with such an amazing group of bands. It was also a turning point for Five Iron Frenzy. We stood on the verge of becoming something more, straddling the line between the very profitable but small Christian music market, and the ability to enter the far larger and "higher on the street cred" pool of the general market. Worldwide fame may have been in our grasp, that is, until the night that Brad and I blew it for everyone. Yes- by being homeless.
On April 23, 1998, we were to play the Roseland Ballroom in New York City. Two nights before that, we had played the famous 9:30 Club in Washington DC, and were riding high on the recent frenzy of American Third Wave Ska. The 9:30 Club was and is, a place of American music history. To put our show into perspective, 5 months earlier- Bob Dylan had played there because he was bored, and in town to receive his Kennedy Center Honors. This club had cut it’s teeth by being the stomping grounds of Dischord records. Minor Threat, and later, Fugazi used it as a home base, while bands like the Ramones, Hüsker Dü, Erasure, the Bangles, the Police, the Violent Femmes, the Butthole Surfers, X, and the Go-Go’s played there on a regular basis. It was a pretty crazy thing for Five Iron Frenzy, an openly Christian band to even set foot in such a prestigious and very secular venue. But we played there. And we kind of rocked it. So we were more than hepped up on our own euphoric sense of accomplishment that night as we headed into our first ever show in New York City.
It started with a day off, a very coveted thing on most tours. And did I mention that it was in New York City? No one in our band had ever been there, so we felt that this could only be amazing. The plan was to leave DC after the show, park our school bus in some parking lot in New Jersey and get some sleep, and then take the train into Manhattan first thing in the morning. Keith*, our bass player, had volunteered to go back out to New Jersey sometime the next night and drive our bus back into the city around midnight, so we would have a place to sleep without having to pay for a hotel. This was great in theory, because no one wanted to drive a school bus with a trailer into any metro area, especially Manhattan.
The first problem, was that it was 1998 and no one in our income tax bracket had a cell phone. We had one pager, that Keith carried, some tourist maps we found at Penn Station, and a vague promise that the bus would be back at the venue sometime around midnight. But as the day progressed, we discovered that this one pager our band had to communicate with, was useless amidst the skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan. We could only hope that nothing would happen to Keith, and that the bus would be there on time.
The second problem, is that we were idiots. We were only armed with some vague idea that there were cool things to do in New York City, and no idea of how to get to them. Did you know that they have a Statue of Liberty? Also, there may be some sort of Chinatown, and someplace having something to do with a pizza. We were young, bright eyed fools, being turned loose after half a nights sleep, running amok with our backwards baseball caps and baggy cargo pants, and not a care in the world.
In the rare case that our band would have a free day, our eight members usually polarized into factions. Eight people is way too many to be parading through the streets of any metropolitan area, so after a few tense discussions over where to eat, our group usually fell apart. For me, this almost always meant that I joined up with one group- what we like to call Team One.
Team One is composed of Andy, our drummer, Nathanael “Brad” Dunham, our trumpet player, and myself. We are inseparable. The three of us have jauntily traipsed across cities all over the world. We have been mugged by police officers in Budapest, hoisted beers together in Munich, evaded cranked out drug dealers in Amsterdam, surfed in New Zealand, and ridden scooters onto a freeway during rush hour on Oahu. I love that entire band, but Team One- those guys are my brothers.
Brad, Andy, and I emerged from Penn station at around 9:00 AM that sunny April day. Having only a vague idea of what there was to do, and no concept of how the subways functioned, we decided to walk from there to nearby Times Square. As you can imagine, we were enthralled. Our wide-eyed, Denver Colorado enthusiasm knew no bounds. Times Square, despite being the tourist destination in New York City, is still spectacular. Since then, I have been there at least 20 more times, and every time I am still awed by its magnificence.
From Times Square, we set off for Central Park, again with our tourist maps, and some vague promise Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had impressed upon us that it would be incredible. It was, and it still being early morning, we walked everywhere we could see in the park to do or observe something new. I need to mention at this point, that none of us had any type of clue as to what time the school bus would actually be back. It could have been noon, or it could have been midnight. No clue. So we had all three packed somewhat heavily for the day. I, for one, am notorious for heaving about at least thirty pounds too much in my backpack. So, on this particular day I was carrying an old clunky Macintosh Powerbook with an external zip drive, an entire spare set of clothes, a jacket, a gigantic camera with extra film and a spare lens, some extra long sleeved shirts, three pairs of socks and underwear, and about 43 pairs of sunglasses. But hey, it was New York City, and we were young, so what were a few extra pounds to lug around?
From Central Park we headed south. We had some amorphous idea that we wanted to see Broadway, The Empire State Building, Chinatown, the World Trade Center, and the Statue of Liberty, and there was also supposed to be some sort of tour party for everyone somewhere in SoHo at about 4:00 PM- so we just kept walking.
It was so insane. We were eventually so tired that I can only now remember it in tiny, horrifying fragments. I know that we just barely stumbled into that party, being put on by Bucket, the guitar player for the Toasters and the owner of Moon Records, when we got there. We had seen all of almost everything from Central Park to SoHo in the process, and I am pretty sure that I fell asleep in a chair for about two hours as soon as the party started. Brad woke me up, hours later, wanting to go see the Statue of Liberty before it closed. So we resumed our madness, and headed back out on our marathon walking tour of Manhattan.
Andy was officially done, and after a few blocks, declared emphatically that he could not go on. We made our goodbyes, and then Brad and I kept going. We made it to Battery Park around 8:30 PM, and learned to our dismay that the closest thing to going to the Statue of Liberty at that hour, unless we were really good swimmers, was the Staten Island Ferry. So we rode it to Staten Island, and waved to her as we passed- both ways. I think I also fell asleep on the ride back to Battery Park, and it’s a good thing, because there was still a lot of walking left to do. Little did we know, neither of us would get much sleep that night.
Again, we were too naive to figure out the subways. We did, at that point, contemplate getting a cab, but we were young suburbanites from Denver, and neither of us could wrap our heads around the concept of hailing a cab, much less pay for one. So we just kept walking back towards the Roseland Ballroom. Here is approximately what I remember the route to be that day:
Google Maps lists it as about 23 miles total. If we had intended to do this, we could have left our backpacks and jogged it, so as to at least get sme credit for running an actual Marathon. The worst part of it all, was that we ended up getting back to the venue at about 11:15. Had we have slept a bit more at the party, or added one more stupid step to our trip, the next part of this story may have never happened. Because, when we arrived at the venue, there was no school bus. We walked around the block a few times to make sure we hadn’t missed something, but we were right. It just wasn’t there.
It was at that point, that we gave up and fell down dejectedly in the entranceway to the club. We talked about trying to page Keith again, but we knew from attempting it a few times before, that no calls had gotten through all day. We mulled over the idea of getting a hotel room, but our hearts sank as we realized that neither of us could afford even a cheap hotel in Manhattan. And seriously, what would a cheap Manhattan hotel look like? So we balked.
After about a half hour, three or four of the guys from MU330 stumbled up to us, fairly inebriated, bemoaning the fact that their bus was also missing. These guys had hit that stage of drunkenness that requires you to buy greasy food in a dirty restaurant no matter how late it is. Brad and I had nothing else to do but wait for the bus, so we got up and went with them.
About an hour later, we left the guys from MU330 out of nothing more than sheer exhaustion, and the nagging drive to find someplace to only lie down and sleep. This was another big mistake for us, because, had we stayed with them, we would have found the buses. Somewhere in their sobering up process, those guys had thought to check in the alley behind the venue when they got back, whereas Brad and I, in our exhaustion, did not. We had done it the first time, but when we got there the second time, we were so debilitated with fatigue, that we just dropped our bags and gave up. It seemed to us in our tired capacity for reason, that we must have missed something we were supposed to do, or that there was some new message about the bus moving somewhere else that we had just missed. Maybe, we thought, the rest of the band just got tired of waiting for us, and left.
The first thing we noticed, was that the entryway to the Roseland Ballroom, where we had just sat down an hour or two before, was now occupied. There was an obviously homeless person or thing, in a lump off in the corner. But, it was a fairly spacious entryway, and it seemed less chilly in there, so we just plopped down on the other side- away from the lump. This was done partially out of fatigue, but also somewhat from our flagging mental capacity to reason out anything past the fact that this place was were the bus was supposed to be. Some dying brain cell of mine, made the connection that this place was on the exact corner of West 52nd Street and Broadway, which had recently been cemented into some sort of punk rock lore. You know the Rancid song, “Olympia”, where Tim Armstrong says, “Sitting on the corner of 52nd and Broadway, cars passing by, but none of them seem to go my way”? Yeah, that place. Because of that, it made sitting there at 2:30 in the morning seem all the more cool.
At first, Brad and I just started dozing off. It was pretty cold, still being April in New York City, so we kept scooting closer and closer in the least homosexual ways that our exhausted brains could form. We seemed to have some unspoken pact that one guy would try and stay awake while the other dozed for safety, but that resolve faded quickly with each tiny nap. And then... the lump woke up.
A thickly-bearded man in his late fifties rolled out of a heap of blankets and just started having a conversation with us. He smelled like weeks and weeks of the sweating out of some mouthwash he had been drinking, and possibly he had peed himself. To be fair, he may have also been sleeping in some sort of default, New York City, pee-corner, because everything always kind of smells like pee there. The things he said to us, even in our feeble states of lethargy- seemed insane. He said that he used to be a real-estate agent. I remember that he told us that he was friends with Janis Joplin, and that he was at Woodstock. Then he insisted that I listen to some of her music, immediately producing a completely filthy Walkman. It looked post-apocalyptic, and when he thrust the faded orange-foam, soiled-beyond-naming, headphones into my face, I was too tired to refuse. So I put them on, and noted immediately that it was not Janis Joplin. It was Steve Winwood. I listened for about half the song, and handed them back, asking how long he had known Janis Joplin. “About seven years,” he had told me.
He said that his name was Johnny, and that if we had to take a crap we should go around the corner and squat over a grate in the alley. But, if we had to pee, the next entryway down was okay. It was one of the exits to the club, so they didn’t clean it as much, and thusly, no one ever slept there. He also pulled from his pile, two crumpled, brown, blankets. There was some common-sense part of me that told me to decline this offer, some latent fear of body lice or bedbugs, way deep down. But the reality of the situation was that we knew that this was already going to be one of the best stories of our lives, so we just took the blankets, thanked him, and covered up. Besides, I reasoned, if we fell asleep and this guy wanted to kill us, Brad was the closest, and because he was the heaviest snorer, he may have deserved it.
Early the next morning when the sun hit us, we woke up and thanked our new friend, trying to roll the blankets back into the same confused glob that he had handed them out in. I tried to give him what little money I had in my pockets, about $10, but this only seemed to offend him. I quickly shoved it back into my wallet and shook his hand.
We busied ourselves slapping our faces to wake up while walking around, looking for somewhere to get warm and maybe buy some coffee. As we passed the alley, we finally saw the stupid bus. We climbed in, lightly swearing as quietly as we could, dropped our bags, threw ourselves onto our bunks, and entered into what was probably one of the deepest sleeps either of us had ever known.
I have no idea if that guy remembers Brad and I from that night. In fact, I’m fairly certain he doesn’t. But I remember him. Maybe it was some suppressed and underlying version of schizophrenia that caused him to just fork over two blankets to those strangers laying next to him in the entryway to some building. Or maybe, it wasn’t, and that guy was just a truly amazing person. Nevertheless, some guy that had to poop in the alley as a means of survival, who barely had anything more than the clothes on his back, a few blankets, and a Steve Winwood tape- shared what little he had with two nameless fools, shivering against a building on some random New York City night, and they are now better people because of it.
* The real reason Five Iron Frenzy ever made it anywhere, has to be that Keith Hoerig held us together. He acted, for years, as a road manager and a buffer between shady promoters and record labels, tirelessly suffering on our behalf for the entire first incarnation of our band. He was always planning fun things to do for us all, driving all night, making the hard phone calls, helping to load in and set up- without ever complaining. If you like Five Iron Frenzy at all, you pretty much owe that guy for it.