Zion Narrows, Brother

The setting: Zion National Park, Utah, 2004. Mike, Nat, Jenya, and I just finished the grueling (but beautiful) two-day backpacking trek down the Narrows. We re-entered the main part of the park surprised to find all the flags at half-mast. We were also completely starving and desperately needed protein.

We drove into town and hit one of the burger joints. It was a seat-yourself deal so we snagged a table. Another party entered after us and claimed the next open table. They were given water, menus, and even ordered drinks and appetizers before we were even acknowledged by the wait staff. I tried to be an understanding adult but after 10 minutes I got so pissed off from the raging hunger, the exhaustion, and the unfair neglect that I stormed up to the bin in front to grab my own damn menus and get the meal process started already.

One of the hippie waiters caught this and beat me to the menu bin. He looked at me with this fucking smug “calm down city boy” expression written all over his bearded face. My impatience was obvious – he smirked and actually said, “Zion Narrows, brother” in order to Zen me out or something.

I don’t think this guy realized how close I was to punching his lights out. I was apoplectic and speechless. But he held up the menus, I snatched up them from his hands and returned to the table completely livid but at least one step closer to burgers-in-my-face.

Eventually another waiter checked in with us and took our orders. We asked him why the flags were all at half-mast. The best he could do was, “Uh, I think it means somebody important died. Maybe a park ranger?” Nice try. Later a fellow patron at a nearby table who overheard this exchange turned our way and said, “Ronald Reagan.”

We were all, like, “Oh.” They shrugged, and we shrugged in agreement. Yup. Whatever.

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Pink Thing

During the early days of SETI@home I rushed to work at the lab after a long night. Upon my arrival I was surprised to be greeted by a film crew – a news organization there to do a story about our SETI project. I didn’t get the memo. I was unshaven, unshowered and, as it turns out, I recently dyed my hair pink. But I didn’t think much of it as they mostly interviewed the project directors and then took B-roll footage while we were sitting around having a meeting.

By the time I got home around 6pm there was a message on my machine. It was my sister Ruth, who lives on the east coast, asking, “when did you dye your hair pink?” Turns out this news piece was broadcast nationally. Apparently I figured heavily in said B-roll, probably because I fit the visual description of Berkeley weirdo looking for little green men. First time I was on a major television network. I never saw the footage.

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Gringo

In London, you are supposed to tip at restaurants but not at bars. But what about bars that serve food? The guidebooks said nothing about this. Unable to figure this out and feeling too sheepish to ask the staff, I sought the guidance of a fellow patron in the men’s room.

I approached the man washing his hands and started with, “I have an unusual question.” This is not really the best way to begin conversation with a stranger in the bathroom of a pub in a foreign country. But it was too late now – I charged forward with my actual query about tipping etiquette and soon came to realize his bewildered silence and intense expression were not due to his fear of unprovoked solicitation, but because he didn’t know the English language. This was suddenly all too clear. Now what?

After an awkward pause, he made a hand gesture such that I should follow him. He led me to the only fluent english speaker in his family – his 10 year old nephew. They exchanged some words first before turning attention to me. I surmised they were from Mexico. I chatted with this kid while his extended family observed with fascination.

Of course the young boy knew little about tipping in general, so this was all a fruitless exercise. Turns out the boy’s father did have a few english words in his lexicon. As I tried to excuse myself he blurted, “Where you from?” I answered New York.

His reaction was a smile and the word: “Gringo.” Fair enough! I could only respond with my own smile and a single word: “Sí.”

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Cousin Michael

As I slogged through all the requirements towards my math degree, a team of fellow students on the same academic path followed me from class to class. While some became study mates or comrades, many of them I never acknowledged, including this one dude Michael.

Well, it turns out, unbeknownst to me, Michael and I were distant cousins. Right before senior year I was at a bar mitzvah surrounded by extended family that I haven’t seen in forever and frankly didn’t know very well at all. One older relative caught wind I attended Binghamton University and mentioned her son was also a student there. She showed me a picture – and it was that Michael guy. Fancy that. But the knowledge that he and I perhaps shared a few strands of DNA didn’t change our relationship – we still never made contact before, during, or after class, or any classes were shared since.

Years passed. A couple weeks before I graduated I drove some younger friends around helping them scope out rentals for next year. I took them to look at one place, and coincidentally Michael happened to be currently living there. So as my pals examined the house I found myself suddenly alone with Michael in his den, unable to escape conversation any longer.

After a minute of awkward silence I broke the ice with, “You know we’re related, right?”

“Yeah,” he said, barely moving his eyes from the television set.

“Weird, huh?”

“Yeah.”

We never spoke again.

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Sledding on Thick Ice

I grew up in that winter wonderland that is New York. In honor of the current blizzard, here’s an old cautionary tale:

‘Twas my sophomore year in college. I visited the grandparents in sunny Florida during Christmas break, but ultimately returned to the harsh New York winter weather. Mere minutes after returning my old buddies called and convinced me to go late-night sledding down the slopes behind our former high school – an offer I couldn’t resist.

I met them there, and we did a few runs trudging up the hill and zooming back down. We quickly grew bored of this activity. One friend discovered the pavement path beside the tennis courts was completely frozen which made for much more interesting sledding. Why interesting? Well, the ice enabled us to achieve incredible velocities, but more so the path led to a long flight of stairs descending to the soccer field below. We made a game of going as fast as possible, and then somehow stopping ourselves at the last possible moment to avoid falling over the brink to our doom. Brilliant.

On my third or fourth attempt I panicked or miscalculated and failed to stop the sled in time, and right over the edge I flew. The high pitched scraping of metal against ice beneath me turned to eerie silence as I entered the air, soaring above scores of cold, hard, wooden steps.

I eventually returned to earth, smacking against the stairs with the sled still beneath me hardly cushioning the blow. Then I bounced back up into the dark, empty sky. These painful iterations continued every twenty feet or so until I finally landed the field below. Now out of my clutches, the sled rich with momentum continued to glide on its own beyond the soccer goals as I laid there in shock.

My friends eventually arrived at the scene, pointing at my crumpled body and tittering. Between stifled laughs they asked, “Are you okay?” I apparently managed to avoid serious injury, though my ribs were quite sore for a while hence.

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Parowan Gap

Jenya and I took the 4runner out to southern Utah for six days, making up our itinerary as we went along. One early evening we decided to head into some nearby BLM land – where it’s always free to park and camp and you can do whatever the hell you want, pretty much.

We aimed for this geological feature called Parowan Gap, not knowing anything about it beforehand. It’s a waterless wind channel cutting through the Red Hills which also hosts some interesting petroglyphs. We inspected those at a small turnoff as we entered the Gap, then headed up off the road onto some steep, rugged dirt path. We found a lookout flat enough to park our vehicle so we can sleep in the inside of it tonight and not mess with our tent.

The area had this mysterious weight. It’s an uncommon destination on the way to nowhere, so we saw no signs of other living humans except for a few cars passing in the valley below before night fell. But given the carvings in the walls, and the faint clues of previous campers and automotive adventurers, the Gap certainly contained a force, or spirit. We felt alone and exposed up on our hill, yet not alone. We cooked up some dinner sitting on some rocks, watched the stars come out including one that shot across the heavens. Whoa. We felt the winds pick up, then crawled inside the 4runner and went to sleep.

In the middle of the night I woke with a start. A sound. I felt something. What was that? My heart pounding, I remained montionless thinking I was simply experiencing the rush of a nightmare. But then it came again.

The vehicle rumbled as I heard the thing again: something between a sickly moan and an approaching chainsaw. I sat right up and looked out through the fogged up windows into the moonlit haze shrouding our vulnerable 4runner. Nothing is out there. Everything is out there.

The rational part of my brain spun through its roledex of simple explanations. As I lay back down the creature cried out again, shaking the car once more. Sleeping deeply just moments ago, the semi-active dreamy corners of my consciousness pulled out all the stops. It’s a UFO. It’s an earthquake. It’s some native american god angered by our presence. It’s distant nuclear war. It’s the revelation. It’s a gamma ray burst. It’s the Nothing. I spent several long minutes having a nigh religious experience. Am I even alive anymore?

But as these very real sensory waves kept washing over me I became solaced by two things: First, I’m still here – if there was something “out to get me” it would have done so by now. Second, Jenya was peacefully snoring next to me this entire time. She is okay, and therefore I am okay.

Now calmed by these conclusions, I was finally able to sort out the reality with some clarity. Given we’re parked on this hillside in this range that exists inside an otherwise very flat expanse, we are getting bombarded by winds which just so happen to be sliding underneath the vehicle at the perfect rate to rattle the undercarriage and resonate the frame. So that’s what I’m hearing. And that’s what I’m feeling. I calmed down. And, eventually, I could sleep again.

In the morning I left the car and rejoined the world. Now outside of my cocoon I almost laughed as I got gently nudged by the breeze, as it now seemed so very common and weak. So be it. You haven’t really lived until you stared down the demons until they back off – and then perch yourself outside under a wide sky, vulnerable and alone, and piss right onto the face of the earth.

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SAG Awards Saga

Nine years ago I had a cover band gig to perform at the after party of the annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, right there at the Shrine Auditorium in LA. We’re a large group and went in separate cars. Nobody in mine actually knew where to load in, and we found ourselves (and all our gear) dropped off literally 100 feet from the red carpet as all the celebrities were arriving. We just stood there in our street clothes next to a pile of instrument cases beholding the hoopla as limos pulled up, famous people got out, and camera crews descended upon them. Hey there’s Julia Louis Dreyfus, for example! This was all very weird as we were clearly not where we were supposed to be. Eventually some policeman told us where to go. We hauled our stuff around the entire block toward the non-celebrity entrance.

Anyway.. as musicians we were treated like at we would be any other lower budget gig – we were confined to an unheated tent and had gigwiches for dinner. We weren’t allowed to mingle, but I wasn’t given the memo on that yet as I wandered off to use a restroom. I found one on some production trailer and upon leaving some high level event coordinator ran her hands through my (long) hair saying, “who belongs to these outrageous curls?” I turned around, she looked surprised at my obviously unimportant face, and I awkwardly smiled and left. Later somebody came by our tent to remind us to NOT use the bathrooms other than the porta potties around back reserved for the low-tier workers.

There was another band on the bill with a Brazilian lilt, and neither of us had much time for a proper sound check. Instead we were forced to practice switching off as quickly as possible so that there was zero dead space between acts. A-list celebrity parties must never miss a beat! When this other band finally checked their levels they played “Look of Love” and “Mas Que Nada” – two songs we planned to play in our set. Dammit.

During the ceremony some celebrities hid by or escaped early via our musicians-only area. Yeah that’s right – this is where all the cool kids hang out. Among others Ellen DeGeneres, Portia de Rossi, and Julie Andrews were spotted from a safe distance. Kate Winslet and Jason Bateman were hanging right outside our tent. On his way out Johnny Depp walked right by us and said, “hey” with a polite nod. He was the only star to directly acknowledge us musicians all night.

The ceremony ended and it was party time. The Brazilian band was on first, and then I lurked behind the keyboardist until I got the cue. Within seconds I was in position and hammering out the riff to “Spanish Grease” until the other musicians kicked in. We only played a total of 40 minutes, tops, with us bands and a solo DJs switching off depending on the whims of a micro-managing party coordinator. At one point our singer Danny announced, “Hello, everybody! We’re…” and that coordinator rushed to the stage and snapped, “No addressing the audience!”

As the evening wore down security was more lax, and we got to sneak in and get some precious morsels from the main buffet line. While snooping around I stumbled into the smoking tent, where there was a huge table of artfully piled cigarettes that any party goer could snag at any time and puff away. What a party.

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Early Bird

I’ve known Jai Young forever. We’ve been musical comrades since 1992. In fact he knows everybody – he’s a true Gladwell-ian “connector.” Still, despite his wide social network, I was his go-to guy when he needed a ride to the Oakland airport one Saturday morning soon after we first met. It was an odd request as I lived in Oakland, and he in San Francisco, but I had a car and was trustworthy, willing, and available.

His flight was at noon, so he asked that I get to his house around 10am just to be safe. No problem. Even back before GPS navigation I was a wizard at being precisely on time to things, and arrived at his doorstep right at 10am. He almost seemed shocked as he opened the door, and also a little distracted after he invited me in and gathered his luggage. We loaded into my car and I expertly hauled ass back to Oakland, dropping him off at the terminal around 10:30am.

He sort of slumped in his car seat for a moment before he finally admitted something: his flight was actually at 1pm, not at noon. He assumed that I, like most other humans, would be late to his place so he factored in the extra hour to account for that. But now he knew: Matt Lebofsky is, and will always be, one seriously on-time motherfucker.

Also: what kind of person would show up an hour late when giving a friend a ride to the airport?

By the way I fully admit the earlier I get to an airport, the happier I am. I know that most people are not like this. I’ll never truly understand the motivation for striving to be dangerously late to an airport. Don’t bother trying to explain it to me. I had one workmate quote another colleague who said “if you aren’t missing 10% of your flights, you’re arriving too early.” Now that’s a freakin’ psychopath.

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Warsaw

Okay here’s a tour vignette. I’d like to preface the following by saying I fully admit I have little influence on any of these experiences and happenings. I’m just some guy who happened to fall into the interesting folds of other people’s timelines. I can only report from my perspective, and try to be honest as to my tangential role.

The setting: Wednesday, September 13, 2017 – Secret Chiefs 3 was on the road for many weeks opening up for Dead Cross. We already played a swarm of big, amazing shows, but by the time we got to New York City I was a bit burned out from the long drives, rushed sound checks, and frenzied load-in/load-out scenarios. We played in Manhattan the previous night – a gig beleaguered by technical gremlins. And tonight had a show in Brooklyn at Warsaw – a huge venue which is part of the local Polish community center.

The morning/afternoon was spent tooling around the city, hanging out with the band and some friends, and I also enjoyed some alone-time trekking solo from Greenpoint to Williamsburg. En route I passed a piano just parked there in some lot near some tables. I couldn’t help but stop to play it for a minute. I wasn’t feeling terribly inspired and the instrument was in crappy shape. When I got up some guy zoomed up on bike and took my place, tucking into some hackneyed but nevertheless well executed classical something-or-other. The fact that so many randos in the world have much better classical chops than I is always perfect fuel for imposter syndrome. Of course I have other musical super powers, but still.

Got a kale/almond milk smoothie in Williamsburg and shuffled back to the Warsaw, soaking in the sights and sounds and smells and even the refreshing spectacle of light rain creating darkened dots on the sidewalks of NYC. Though I was early some of the other guys were already there – Pej, Steve, Jason. The tour was finally catching up to me and I felt the hint of an opportunistic cold coming on. I went with Jason to hit another juice shop down the street. I tossed down a ginger/lemon shot.

Back to the club where I waited out front for like 15 minutes until a spot opened up right in front of the load-in doors. We put out cones for when the others arrived with the van. Loaded into the club which, as advertised, was very much a Polish community center, including a big boomy performance space that looked over 100 years old, a huge bar, and a giant kitchen area where a Polish grandma will be serving up pierogies and kielbasas later. Our green rooms were up two flights of stairs well away from the stage. Fine.

Dead Cross soundchecked without Patton and thus were finished pretty quick. And so we had a rare, luxurious 45 minutes to set everything up and get dialed in. Nevertheless it was slow going for us. The stage was small, and as keyboardist I’m the first to get fucked on space. But I just dealt with it as usual, managing to situate far enough from the guitar amps to minimize damage, and I had a side fill as a monitor. Meanwhile the local crew still had yet to rewire the stage to add extra inputs for us. Ultimately we ended up with 15 minutes before doors before we could even make a sound and work out all the kinks. As usual I had to just roll with it. That’s what they’re referring to when they say “rock n’ roll.”

Doors opened, and I immediately pounced on the pierogi station and ordered a $6 combo plate. Ate with Luke (Dead Cross soundperson) who just did the same. We were stoked. That was a real treat and put me in a good space for the show. Still, we had time to kill before start time and I wandered back to the main strip and maybe looked to get another healthy snack but no dice. While walking back I got stuck behind two guys on the sidewalk, one telling the other the most inaccurate information about who was in Secret Chiefs 3 and what we sound like. I resisted correcting them.

We really enjoyed this show, making up for the previous one. I felt the crowd get more and more stoked over time. I took a crazy solo in Brazen Serpent to close out the set. Beforehand Pej and I joked about a secret plan: he would start the Brazen drum solo by diving into the audience, I would take over on the kit, and then he’d reclaim the throne upon his return. The never came to fruition. Oh well.

I smartly brought my shirt to the stage so I could quick change off to the side (instead of hustling back to the green room) before hastily loading off the stage. While changing Patton appeared back there wondering where the hell the green room was. I broke the news to him that he had to go through the audience to the other side of the venue and up some stairs to get there. Sorry, dude and good luck.

Finished the load off, and it was a bit hectic as we had to spill into the kitchen and serving area with our cases and whatnot to pack up. I hate when we have to fuck with the back-of-house staff while doing our music thing, but if anybody can manage around chaos, it’s back-of-house people. Especially those from NYC.

Eventually somehow ended up into some boiler room netherworld, guarding all the gear with Joe until we could get some door unlocked and throw everything into the van. Steve, Joe, and some of the venue staff helped tetris all the gear into the back of the Sprinter pretty quick. This afforded me time to go back to baba and buy a whole ‘nother $6 combo plate. I burn a lot of calories on tour.

Dead Cross did their crazy set. Then lots of hanging around the merch zone with local friends new and old. It was a chaotic scene, even after Dead Cross wrapped up, so Steve and I went out to chill for a bit. He was keen to get a NYC pizza slice so fuck it I’ll have a slice, too! We went to the Pizza Prince and got some of whatever slices they still had available. Sausage/peppers/onions for me. I pretty much consumed the whole thing – a total mess – by the time we moseyed back.

Per previous plans, I was on the hook for driving tonight (staying at a hotel out of town on the way to the next show, which is our usual MO). So as the adrenaline of the show wore off, and I was left with indigestion and certain oncoming illness, I became a bit of a nag wondering when the hell we were gonna leave already.

But there was much post-show revelry in the bar, and I finally got the hint that Patton, Trey, Trevor, and Lombardo were busy having an important Bungle-related (and now historic) conversation. I helped count out the merch totals to stay somewhat preoccupied. Then Steve and I loaded all the remaining unsold shirts and records and stuff. All packed up and ready to go and it’s only midnight!

Waiting and waiting, bouncing between outside and inside. Even the die hard fans outside waiting for Patton had split. It was after 1:30am by the time we finally left and by then I felt like death. A bit woozy I got behind the wheel and almost clipped a car while waving goodbye to the Dead Cross van who was also pulling away. And for some reason google navigation absolutely sucks in Brooklyn, and predictably fucked up by making me miss a critical turn getting out of the neighborhood. So frustrating, but I got on the highway soon enough.

About five minutes into the ride I noticed the driver’s side view mirror was kind of wobbling around making it hard to see behind me. The wobbling quickly got worse and eventually I rolled down the window to adjust it – and suddenly the whole glass part (still hooked to various wires) fell off. Uh oh.

So there I was, arm extended outside the van, clutching the mirror glass tightly with my left hand while using my right hand to steer off the next exit and find a safe space to park and deal. Of course this was an airport exit so it took forever to find a suitable place to stop. However unsafe, we survived the little mishap. Steve (riding shotgun) went out and around and was able to quickly pop the glass back into position without much ado. Not sure what happened there but okay then.

Of course getting back on the highway was confusing as fuck and google once again didn’t help. Steve helped me guide back going the right way. Just get me out of this fucking town! Soon enough I was on the GWB and into New Jersey. And silently working my way across the state and toward Pennsylvania.

Once out of Jersey I pulled over at a gas station. Joe, bless his heart, knew I wasn’t doing so well and valiantly took over the remaining 90 minutes of the trip to the hotel. I slumped in the back and tried to sleep but couldn’t really. Brutal.

We arrived at the hotel in Clarks Summit around 4am. I was the first one up to one of our shared rooms and started settling in. I snapped the eye mask on and was basically out cold well before everybody else.

Got up the next day around 9:15am due to anxiety. So I got like 4.75 hours of sleep which, tour-wise, is not so bad. I laid there until everybody’s alarms went off in advance of the 9:50am lobby call. I just put on the same damn clothes and washed up real fast. Downstairs I poked at some eggs and sausage in the continental breakfast area. La di da.

Trey drove a bulk of the day, and once again I found myself passing the town of Binghamton, where I spent four years in college. Over the past 20+ years I’ve driven near Binghamton about four or five times and never stopped. The streak continued – insert Steely Dan “My Old School” joke here. Before hitting the border we spotted a pre-Canada Tim Hortons and had to stop. I got a chicken soup and donut. The soup was healthy (not so much the donut). That plus a vitamin C pill, a vitamin water purchased earlier, and getting a few moments of sleep in the van all helped my immune system. Hey! I may survive after all!

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Tweezer Fetish

About 13 years ago Jenya and I made a lavish salad for dinner using vegetables from our new garden. It was delicious, but afterward my throat was sore and I had an interminable desire to cough. I ate ice cream and gargled salt water – this didn’t help. I tried singing for a while, but the soreness only got worse.

I asked Jenya to look if anything was obviously lodged in my throat. She shined a flashlight into my gaping mouth and said, “oh my god there IS something back there.”

She ran out to purchase a pair of long tweezers, then deftly plucked the offending item from my tonsil – it was a foxtail. Perhaps I should have washed the salad more carefully.

Nine years later I was telling this exact story at a party. The very next night we were eating take out Chinese food when suddenly I noticed that familiar weird feeling in the back of my throat. And just like before Jenya used a flashlight and saw something sticking out from the walls of my gullet AGAIN.

This time however those tweezers weren’t long enough, so I ended up waiting in an emergency room for three hours until a doctor with super-size tweezers could pluck this foreign object out. It was a tiny bone shard from a poorly chopped spare rib.

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