Dec 1, 2009

A Million Miles Tour: Wichita to Diane

I’d never been on a tour bus. When I was young we rented a motor home from our neighbors and drove to the Grand Canyon. IT was a terrible trip. My sister and I were in junior high; the last thing we really wanted to do was be stuck on a bus with our parents.  Our older brothers didn’t even go.  My mom hated cooking on one burner, my dad hated emptying the septic tank, and he was a terrible bus driver.

But we’d been used to driving in a large van, so the bus was gonna be great. “You’ll love sleeping on a bus,” My friend Mark Gersmehl said. He was in the first Christian hair band called “White Heart.” He met my friend Brynn on tour, they fell in love and got married. So of course he has great memories of tour buses. Mark said “the motion of the bus will rock you to sleep like a baby.

Yeah, a baby with colic. The first night on the drive to Kansas, I was awake for every lurch and blip on the road.  The bus arrived in Wichita, Kansas, some time around dawn. I slept until noon.  By the time I’d awakened, Jim Don and Brent had already gone to breakfast and back.

Wichita. What was in Wichita? I could only think of that line from “Planes Trains & Automobiles. “Train don't run out of Wichita... unlessin' you're a hog or a cattle.” This was a last minute gig: some guy in Wichita heard we were looking for a venue between Denver and Arkansas, and he called our manager. He only had two weeks to put it together, so we had no idea what the night was going to look like.  The guy showed up around 1pm to give me a ride to Wallgreens. His name was Kirk; used to be a sound engineer in Hollywood. The minute he heard Don was looking for a venue, he jumped on it.  He drove me back past the mayor’s old mansion, through streets with big old houses and tire swings and front porches.  Past the boulevard of cars and old hot dog stands and under the train museum, back to the bus. It felt good to be in the Midwest.

The venue was at the Wichita Women’s Club: an old mansion that the local junior league converted for their use. They renovated it, installed an old theater, with an elegant proscenium and old theater chairs.  It almost looked like the theater where Lincoln was shot. Not to be morbid, but it was that old and dignified. 

There was a wedding taking place  we arrived. I was snoozing in my bunk when the bride and groom emerged to a hail of bird seed.  Don and Melody said they looked like they were 16. "How old did you have to be to get married legally in Kansas?" Mel wanted to know. One of the guests at our show that night was at the wedding and assured us they were out of college.  This is what happens when you get older. Anyone younger than you HAS to be in high school.

Kirk’s volunteers showed up en masse. They were young, educated hipsters; smart, enthusiastic and lots of fun. And get this:  the best prescription eyewear I'd seen. A youth pastor named Grant had a pair of prescription Rabyans, and another guy named Todd had some really hip looking frames. I know these things; my father was an optometrist. They were styling. And great people.

The show went terrifically well. Performing on a real stage helps the audience know what they are getting. And well, the audience was enthusiastic and eager and hungry for good things. There was a young couple with dreadlocks and two infants. There were some over forty types.  Hipsters and even  a few Mennonites.  They all came to see Don because they’d read his books, and I was just the whipped topping on the sundae.  This was the first night I had my T-shirts to sell and they loved them.  I really have to reserve my sense of judgment on a town, just because they made a joke about it in a movie. These guys were great.

The next night we were in Oklahoma City at a Nazarene church.  Brent forgot to tell me that the pastor didn’t want me using the word “ass.” But after the show the pastor was cool with it, he’d heard it in context. Language was going to be an issue on the tour. Different parts of the country have vastly different ideas about what a cuss word was, as I was going to find out.  I met a young man just out of college at the intermission.  He’d come to the Midwest for college and was still sort of finding his way.  I enjoyed speaking to him but he slipped out when two women came up to say hello. The next day they took Melody and I for lunch and drove us to see the Oklahoma City memorial. It was beautiful and tragic.

The next night we were in Little Rock, Arkansas. This would prove to be my worst show on the tour. No fault of the church itself. It was a great church. The head pastor had left his cush job at a wealthy mega-church to start this one. It was right in the ghetto. They bought an abandoned Walmart space in a depressed strip mall. They had a vision to reach the underprivileged. When we arrived they were in the midst of their weekly food bank distribution.  Needy families were walking out with food and clothing.  Inside, they were running an after-school program, helping kids do their homework, giving them a sense of belonging and keeping them off the street. This really is the work of the church. It was great to see that.  They treated us to an amazing dinner, too.  The chef, Larontia, had her own catering business. I caught one of the guys doing a little bowing motion to her, but when I tried to get a picture of it he wouldn’t let me. “She’ll use it against me when I need something form her.” All he allowed was a handshake on camera. They were fun, too.

But the show itself would prove to be difficult. The problems started when the crowd walked in. Don’s audience is predominantly young, 20 and 30 something white educated hipsters. And they were in the ghetto. The local police even brought a car to the parking lot to watch out for everyone. We wondered later if the audience wasn’t sure if it was OK to laugh. Because they didn’t. They were so, so quiet. Of course I may have sucked in my performance. And I myself felt kind of idiotic, standing up there talking about my middle class white-girl’s problems, when the church itself saw real life problems every day at their church. But you just have to do the show, hope it edifies someone, and work on doing better the next time.  I was sure that anything next was going to feel better. Little Rock: My slice of Humble Pie.

The next show was in St. Louis. I got to meet a friend I’d made on facebook. Kim had read my book and emailed me, and we’d struck up an e-friendship. She came early and had dinner with us. She was in charge of spiritual direction at her church, and told me a bit about her history and involvement in spiritual direction. It’s like having a mentor guide you through your spiritual life. I had been thinking I wanted to do something like that when I returned from the tour, and talking with Kim really piqued my interest. Plus I enjoyed talking to Kim. When I got home from tour I would find a box full of books on spiritual direction. Kim sent them to me.  I love my tweet buddies.

It was great being in the Midwest.  They made real goods here.  Factories dotted the landscape: places where they made shoes or furniture or cut meat.  And the trains shipped it out.  I live in LA, I don’t see real things being made. LA is a vast sprawl of services. Sure, movies get made, but not stuff you need like beef and coal and shoes.  But here they made real things.

We had a day off and Don rented a car and we drove to downtown St. Louis. We visited the City Museum, which was an old shoe factory. Some freak genius creators came up with the idea. It’s a museum/play park filled with castoff items; everything from conveyor belt dowels to abandoned school buses. It was packed with kids.  Later Don treated us to a showing of Phantom of the Opera, and we hung out with a couple of his twitter buddies.  I was really loving how twitter and facebook brought out new friends from everywhere.

Next up was Des Moines, Iowa. My friend Diane Neinhuis was coming to see me. I met Diane through the Burnside Writers’ Collective. We’d gotten to know each other through email and spent time together in Portland in the spring. I felt a kindred fun spirit in Diane.  We were allowed to bring one or two guests on the bus, and Diane got the coveted spot.  It was going to be great for Diane: she needed to get away from her routine. Oh, what with her missionary brother in law dying in a plane crash. Horrible crap like that.  But I had just completed the first ten days on the bus with a show every night, and I was tired. I didn't know if I was going to be up for guests. Any guest. Even my husband.  So I was nervous about her arrival. but the moment she showed up, she lit up the bus. She brought gifts, too. Diane is an amazing cook. home made eggplant parmesan and chocolate raspberry biscotti.  YUMM.

She would come and ride the bus for a couple of days, then get off at our next venue in Grand Rapids.  When we first made the plans, there was talk of taking a day off at our tour manager's family's summer house on Lake Michigan. But plans changed; we would drive straight through to Chicago.

We drove all night and parked the bus in Chicago, right outside Oprah's studios. The reason being, Don had an interview for Oprah radio (!!!)  Don and I had the same publicist. I asked her if she’d take a copy of my book with her to the studio.  So while Don was being interviewed at Harpo Studios,  Diane, Melody and I went walking around Chicago, checking out the cold gray day and looking for Starbucks.  When we got back and Don returned to the bus he told us that they walked into the studio and came up to the guy at the security desk. His name was Ezra, and he was reading my book! I went back later with Diane to take a picture.
From there we drove straight on to our next venue: Calvin College in Grand Rapids: Diane’s hometown. So much for Diane’s road trip. But she stayed with me at the conference center. It was like being in college again, the cinder block walls and small desks. But we had a great time. The breakfast at the conference center was great but the coffee was terrible.  Watery and bland. Diane loved it. How could she? She was Dutch. Didn't they make great coffee?   Diane and I went out and she showed me around Grand Rapids. She herself had been a student at Calvin College back in the day.  So she zipped me around the campus, on to East Grand Rapids area. We also went to her favorite sushi place and her personal Mecca: Meijer.  Meijer is like Walmart and Target rolled into one. Meijer, Diane sighed. "I just like going there and looking around. It makes me smile." Oh  you can mock the stuff from China. But some of us buy it. I got a few things.  I didn't have to worry about having Diane to play with for a couple of days.  It didn't tire me having a guest, it energized me. Well, it was Diane.  It was a balm in Gilead to spend time with her.

The show at Calvin College was going to be a challenge. I had work to do. Like: cutting ten minutes out of my piece.

Next: A Million Miles drives into winter .... 


jenna said...

The City Museum is one of my favorite places for sure! We took our teenagers on a Mystery Mission trip last Spring Break, our final destination being St. Louis, so we got to go there for our "fun day". How about that 10 story spiral slide?!

I enjoyed meeting you on tour in Nashville!

Cynthia said...

I hope there's more to this because I feel like I just finished a movie that leaves you with one of those cliff-hanger endings:) I've been thinking about you a lot, wondering how life beyond the tour's been going. Is it like re-entry after a life-changing mission trip?:) I know you're glad to be back with Larry! Thanks for blogging! I hope there's another book in the works soon!

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this. Can I have some more, please? - aazmom

Susan Isaacs said...

Jenna: we LOVED that slide. In fact Don posted a twitvideo of him going down it. What a spectacular place. I have to go back some time

dubdynomite said...

Great post. I hope there is more coming.

Sounds like you could almost write a book about the book tour. ;)

I really enjoyed meeting you in person in Birmingham, and am anxiously waiting for the full Angry Convos show to hit the road. After you've had some rest.....

Bill Todd said...

Susan, thanks for posting this travelogue. You are far more kind to Wichita than I would be... and I lived there. ;-)

Like others, I am asking for a companion post about the rest of the tour.

Like,say... Nashville?


Susan Isaacs said...

Bill: absolutely. Just going in order. Nashville is last, so be patient. :)

dave said...

Funny: anytime brushes with celebrity come up in conversation, my dad regales the story of when he had lunch with White Heart.

diane said...

I am just re-entering the blogging world. Like you said, having Ryan died kinda messed me up for awhile. Anyways, so I just found this. Thanks for writing such a lovely piece. Your words about me and my presence on the bus are very kind! Thanks for inviting me. It was a treat for ME to spend 3 days with you, without interruption! I'm such a lucky woman to know you.

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