Gentle reader, if you’re laboring under the misconception that my job is glamorous and high-brow, let me set the record straight.

That picture up above? It’s me (already in concert makeup) and an internationally renowned pianist crawling around under a resoundingly mediocre rented grand piano an hour before our recital together, trying to identify the source of an annoying pedal-related squeak and WD-40 it out of existence. We only kind of managed, but in the meantime, the presenter, laughing uproariously, snapped this picture and declared he was going to use it in next year’s season brochure.

That was just one of many moments when I’ve found myself in a ridiculous position at work (and also only one of many problematic pianos this fall–there was also the music rack that I fixed with a guitar pick, a pencil, and a rubber band). Yesterday, as I was on my way to my fanciest gig ever (Entführung–I’m sure I’ll be posting more about it soon; today was the first rehearsal, so exciting), I had a particularly undignified moment. Earlier this fall, I finally spent a significant chunk of money on a REALLY good suitcase–high-tech engineering, an amazing review on Wirecutter, expensive and worth every penny. I usually travel as light as possible in a little carry-on, but for this trip to Clermont-Ferrand, France, where I’ll be for six weeks, I pulled a diva move, brought out the big new suitcase, and stuffed it absolutely to its maximum. It’s certainly fifty pounds or more, but because of its beautiful engineering and soft-as-butter rolling spinner wheels, you can push it along in front of you while hardly noticing its weight.

…. Until yesterday. I got off the train in Clermont-Ferrand after traveling all day, and, having already taken one taxi to cross Paris in a hurry for a train connection, I decided to do the anti-diva thing and walk the easy 20 minutes from the station to the hotel. It wasn’t raining THAT hard, I told myself.

About halfway there, I was going up a hill (a hill! Living in the Netherlands, you forget about things like hills), the rain was getting worse, my umbrella had already turned itself inside out once, and I was heartily wishing I’d just taken a cab. I pushed on, trying to quicken my pace a little. My suitcase, the rolling dream, got stuck in an uneven section of sidewalk. Cursing slightly under my breath, I pushed hard…. and the wheels didn’t come free, but the fifty pounds of weight finally began to move. Forward. Downward. Taking me with it, because that suitcase is HEAVY and will wait for no one when it finally decides to tip over. The suitcase, I, my stuffed backpack, and the umbrella went DOWN, hard, into a huge puddle covered in decaying December leaf sludge. It’s such a cliché, but it’s still true–while you’re falling, time slows down, you experience every second of the fall as agonizingly long, and still you’re powerless to stop it. When I could finally get up again–cursing, wailing–my entire left side was soaking wet and covered in mud, and an odd ache was beginning to spread through my foot and ankle. I’ll be fine, but it’s been quite painful ever since; mostly I’m just grateful that I don’t immediately have to start rehearsing in my fabulous red costume heels, and I’m relieved that none of my colleagues saw me. It was bad enough to have to present myself to the hotel reception desk while covered in mud, out of breath, and tell the skeptical concierge that I’d be staying a month. The anti-diva, indeed.

Finally, the king of all undignified anecdotes from this year: I was in New York in September, staying with a close friend for a few days before going on a recital tour to Wyoming with him. It was on this friend’s recommendation that I had bought my own fancy suitcase, because he owns the same one and loves it. We left his apartment at five in the morning to get our airport taxi. He lives in a nice building, the kind of building where someone comes out at six a.m. every day to hose down the sidewalk. But–BUT–it was still only five; and as we blearily rolled our nearly-identical suitcases out to our waiting cab, I–then he–walked through a pile of the vilest, most rank, steaming dog shit you can imagine. New York has a lot of dogs, a lot of dog shit, and I’ve seen, stepped in, and smelled a lot during my years there, but this was absolutely the worst ever, and probably only three minutes old. I was lucky and just got a little on one edge of my shoe. (Later, in the airport, trying to clean it off at a bathroom sink, I nearly gagged from the smell.) My poor friend, though, ROLLED HIS EXPENSIVE SUITCASE THROUGH IT. It worked itself up into the wheel well…. those fancy, smooth-as-butter wheels. Those wheels that are engineered with such bulletproof precision that nothing can get inside the mechanism… nothing except little potent morsels of literal wet stinking crap.

The suitcase made it to Wyoming in the cargo hold–I pity the poor baggage handlers who had to get it on and off of the plane. We drove an hour or two to the little town where we had one free evening before beginning our packed schedule of performances. I took a nap in my own hotel room while my friend did his best dealing with the mess: he soaked the wheel in the hotel ice bucket then tried to get it clean with copious paper towels. (Word to the wise: ALWAYS use the plastic bag that comes with your hotel ice bucket. You can’t know what literal shit that bucket has seen.) These efforts made no difference, so later, after dinner, we began to try to think of other solutions.

We pulled into a Walmart–the only place in this tiny town still open–and proceeded to have the most hilarious, jet-lagged, punchy hour there trying to solve the shit problem. We walked every single aisle looking for something that might help; I had fixated on the idea of pipe cleaners–like, what kids use for craft projects. We literally walked EVERY aisle, including crafts, automotive, house cleaning. No pipe cleaners. We bought some obscure pet deodorizing product…. I spent a long time analyzing the compressed-air capabilities of super-serious painting tools…. we stopped longingly at every scented item…. we bought a gallon of white vinegar…. and, because some weirdo on the internet recommended it, we had a hysterical giggling fit in the women’s sanitary-products aisle, found what I’m sure is one of the only remaining douching kits for sale in the whole world, and my friend–what a man–bought it. He pulled himself together before we got to the registers, and he didn’t even blink at the cashier’s dubious look.

In the end, nothing worked–not even the douching kit, much to our immature disappointment. The Shit had done the opposite of Hitting The Fan, i.e. concentrated itself into a tiny area with the mass and destructive effect of a black hole.

The happy ending of the story is that my friend wrote to the manufacturer asking for help in solving the problem, and they offered to ship him an entire new wheel free of charge. But we were still measuring the rest of the week-long tour in Shit Stench Index Factor.

Morals Of The Story:

–being a touring musician is not glamorous;

–being a touring musician requires some REALLY dirty work and creative MacGyvering;

–spending money on well-reviewed good luggage is probably worth it, but doesn’t save you from your own clumsiness;

–and finally, most performers are usually up on stage looking immensely self-possessed and in control but actually are battling a cold, a smelly shoe, a turned ankle, a squeaky pedal, or some other embarrassing handicap. We are just hoping that you, the audience, are far enough away from us that you won’t notice.

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