Originally posted at The SFCritic
A couple weeks before I left on my cross-country trip I gave a friend in Washington D.C. a call. Although he has been unreliable in the past, he was always a fun guy to hang out with in San Francisco and he had offered to show me around if I could make it out to D.C. I am also, tragically, always the person to give a benefit of the doubt to those who don’t deserve it.
When I spoke with him last, he was “ballin.” “Yeah, baby, I make like $20,000 a month, blah blah blah.” (Yeah, the dude really talks like that.) He convinced me that it would be a good idea to rent a car one-way from Louisville, KY and drive to D.C.; he said he had a place for me to stay and would pay for a portion of the rental car, which is pretty expensive when you drive one-way ($400+ a surprise, later).
I rented a car at the Louisville airport and set out for the 11-hour trek in a 2012 Ford Focus with Sirius radio through the low rolling hills of Eastern Kentucky and then up into the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia. This truly was the best part of the trip I could have chosen to drive—the mountains of West Virginia, albeit sparsely populated and devastatingly impoverished, are gorgeous.
To break up the trip I reserved a hotel in Charleston, WV, the state’s capital and a good half-way point between Louisville and Washington D.C. ($85).
On my way to Charleston I got a call from my friend and former Editor at the Golden Gate [X]Press (The San Francisco State Newspaper), Ian Thomas. He saw on Facebook that I would be driving through his hometown of Huntington, WV, where he was spending a couple weeks with his Mom before heading out to Taiwan to report for the news and culture website he and another alum started together, Spark Jam.
Being a fan of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (don’t judge me), I was excited to visit Huntington, the setting of Season 1 and then-fattest city in America. I met up with Ian and his incredible mother in Huntington and we went out for lunch and discussed everything from music, gay rights, marijuana legalization, Jamie Oliver and how West Virginians were portrayed on the show and viewed by the rest of the nation (in hushed voices of course, I get a little paranoid about these things when I leave California).
I arrived in Charleston and called my friend in DC. All of a sudden he never made “$20,000 a month, baby” and he could no longer pay for my hotel in West Virginia or my rental car, and oh, all of a sudden his roommate who had a 7-year-old son and didn’t want me staying with them (…wonder what he told her was going to happen that wasn’t). Fine, I thought, no worries, I booked a hotel in DC with two beds ($150), in anticipation of us platonically sharing it the next night. I could suck that up, I guessed.
“Ok, so everyone on the street turned their head at the site of me, whenever I spoke people looked up to hear where the funny accent was from, but I couldn’t judge the entire state by violent hicks on TV and the local’s standoffish reaction to me.”
I have to admit; excluding my brief stop in Huntington I didn’t have a good first impression of West Virginia or West Virginians. After checking into the hotel I turned on the local news, as I always do when I am traveling. The headline story was about two guys who brutally beat up another in the town of Charleston over a pack of cigarettes, leaving their victim with a smashed-up face, covered in blood and in a coma. The reporter followed the shoeless, shirtless tattooed white-guys down the street to the courthouse.
“Did you beat that man up?”
“I don’ knooooow.”
“Did you post it on your Facebook wall afterwards?”
“I don’ knooooow.”
Ok, so everyone on the street turned their head at the site of me, whenever I spoke people looked up to hear where the funny accent was from, but I couldn’t judge the entire state by violent hicks on TV and the local’s standoffish reaction to me. I headed out to the Empty Glass, a popular bar hosting a local music showcase that evening. It sounded promising but when I got there, everyone in the bar stared at me out of the corner of their eyes, the bartender ignored me. It was obvious to everyone in the room that I was out of place and unwelcome. So, I judged, because this was an inhospitable culture of inbred hicks jaded by the stereotypes forced on them by the outside world.
I decided to step out front for a cigarette before deciding completely whether or not to throw in the towel and go back to the hotel. Outside I met a wasted businessman who was impressed that I was traveling cross-country. He offered to buy me a beer.
Obliged, I went inside to have that beer. As he disappeared to the bar the music started, I settled in to see how things would play out. After a couple moments I started watching the bar suspiciously out of the corner of my eye. He came back with a local IPA. I took a sip. Sweat started beading on my forehead and I began to feel nauseated. No way was I getting roofied, alone, in the middle of bum-fuck West Virginia. I got panicked, paranoid… I started feeling my head spin.
I leaned back in the chair and looked at him. “I really gotta be careful,” I said “I drove here tonight [really I took a cab], I don’t want a DUI, do you mind sharing this with me?” He looked at me with a confused expression before agreeing. We chatted a little and listened to the music. I grabbed a glass of water from the bar. He drank half the beer, relaxing a bit I start reading the label—12% abv. He drank 3/4s of it. I chugged my water, relieved that there was no bullet to dodge.
Then the fun really started. I stepped out the back door and was slapped in the face with my prissy, judgmental behavior. I was immediately called out for being stand-offish (yes, in hindsight it was me, not them) and quick to judge. This is where I met Bryan Flowers, Ian, and a couple others that had my stomach cramping with laughter. Lesson learned: people think the worst of you when you think the worst of them.
“A lot of people don’t even know we are a state,” said Bryan Flowers, a Charleston native and self-described socially awkward hermit and dedicated musician who has played with five bands, two of which are still active. “I’m sure the Black Eyed Peas thought they were coming to play a show in West Virginia when they played the Greenbriar Classic a few days ago. I suppose they didn’t stop the party long enough to learn their U.S. geography.”
“My awkwardness gets the best of me,” he said, although it seems he has turned his awkwardness into a real crowd pleaser. His song about being Diabetic, “Diabetes,” engaged the bar. “The song itself was an idea thrown out when the drummer of Drop Dead Phred [one of the bands Flowers has played in] and I got together to play one day. By that time, the sympathy for my condition got old and some of my friends would mock me by offering me chocolate and cupcakes before stopping and saying ‘Oh, that’s right! You can’t have it!’ Great friends right? When the drummer and I decided to write a song about it we agreed it had to be a party song.”
Diabetes made me giggle, but “Zombie Transvestite” which incorporated other audience members as back up vocalists and percussion, had everyone in sidesplitting laughter. Zombie Transvestite is kind of a kitschy 50’s sock-hop throwback about a lovable, undistinguishable-gendered dead lover.
With that I went back to my hotel to get a good night’s rest for the day ahead of me. I had a six-hour trek through the Appalachians and then the whole Western half of the state of Maryland before I got to DC.
I woke up early the next morning, packed up my bags, put on my wireless-cell phone headset and headed out through the mountains on I-64 east. I wound through the beautiful, desolate, Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia towards Maryland. At 9 AM I called my friend in DC whose name I won’t disclose (Andrew McConnell), and he didn’t answer. I left a friendly message, “Hey, its Angela, it is 9am I am about 5 hours out of DC, see you soon.” That message was friendly.
11am, I call him again. “I am about 3 hours out of DC. Where are you buddy???” Still, there was no answer.
As I crossed the border into Washington D.C. and was in eyesight of all our national treasures: the National Monument, Arlington Cemetery, The Potomac river, the Smithsonian; I pulled into my hotel in Central Washington, D.C. I called Andrew, still no answer. At this point I started really fuming. I spent over $800 to get to D.C., and here I was flaky-friendless.
Furious, I booked my Amtrak ticket for New York City the next day, a place I knew I could at least stay free of hotel-fare. I called up my rental car company to find the fee they quoted me one-way was really simply 24 hours, not the 48 I needed (and was clear about needing when booking the car), which added yet another $100 to my DC expenses. I had spent $800, so far, just to be in Washington D.C. for the night!
I stewed, I spit, I screamed. I called Andrew McConnell and left terrible messages. Where was this mother-fucking terrible flake? I was ready to write the entire city off and just leave. Then, I decided, if life hands you lemons, make hard, hard, extremely alcoholic lemonade.
I called a friend in San Francisco, who was native to D.C., and asked where I should go if I only had one night in town. She recommended the Black Cat Club, so I got dressed, cleaned up my nasty East-coast humidity sweat and flagged a cab.
Outside this D.C. hipster hole, I took in some amazing beats from opener Gardens and Villa, I was enthralled by what I could hear from outside the club. I went inside and caught an incredible and thumping sound from the little-known opener, Craft Spells.
Craft whom? Who gives a shit? Gardens and Villa are incredible and there is no reason to even discuss the headliner, which was simply mediocre. The back room in the Black Cat was un-air-conditioned but the sound coming from Gardens and Villa was more intoxicating than my sixth glass of FUCK YOU ANDREW MCCONNELL white wine.
I stepped outside to get a break from the un-air-conditioned air. I met a guy named Bernard, a native of the Bay Area who just happened to know me from the bar I bartended at in downtown San Francisco (or at least that is what he said…)
I begged him and his friend, Greg, to take me to a liquor store so we could buy a bottle and drink it in front of the Washington Monument or White House… or something. They started arguing because Bernard was down but Greg wasn’t. We all compromised on a gay bar down the street from the Black Cat that had a popular karaoke night.
I snuck up to the bar and signed myself, Bernard, and Greg up for a song. We took more shots and they had no idea I had enlisted us for the entertainment.
‘Angela and friends… come on down!!” I grabbed them both and dragged them to the mic and I forced them to sing my backup. “All the leaves are brown (all the leaves are brown)/and the sky is gray (and the sky is gray)” the entire bar joined in, “CALIFORNIA DREAMIN! (CALIFORNIA DREAMIN…) ON SUCH A WINTER’S DAY! (ON A WINTER’S DAY…) I danced on top of a low table with the mic in my hand as the entire bar yelled the lyrics and danced as well. That moment alone was almost worth the $800 it took to get me there.
The next morning I dropped off my car at Ronald Reagan airport and took the DC Metro back downtown where I did a two-hour-self-led tour of our nation’s capital: the Washington Monument, the Holocaust Museum, the Smithsonian, the Federal Reserve and the White House. All of which really are smaller and way more run down in person.
And then, off to Union Station for New York City…