(NARROWLY ESCAPING) A MOST IGNOBLE DEATH
I have cheated death on several occasions. Somehow I survived riding with teenage drunk drivers in high school, jealous men bent on revenge killing, and even playing on a cruise ship to Mexico with Kid Rock and 2600 deranged Kid Rock fans. The closest I’ve ever come to the precipice of eternal sleep, however, involved a chocolate chip cookie. Thank god I’m alive to tell this story, otherwise I would have undoubtedly wound up as a third paragraph in ‘News Of The Weird,’ people chuckling about my colorful demise.
I make my living as a touring musician on the road. One thing that really means a lot to me is how supportive and nice that people can be, often times complete strangers met on rainy roads in the middle of the night. These ‘patrons of the arts’ make up the gap between a very depressing existence and a satisfying life. Whether it is in the form of laundry, free dinner, shelter, vehicle repair, or the like, people help musicians out of the goodness of their hearts. With that in mind, please note that I do not wish to sound ungrateful in the telling of this story, nor do I wish to place the blame on anybody for what happened. The villain and the clown in this story without a hero are both one and the same, and they both camp out, like squatters, inside the empty warehouse between my ears.
This story begins when some very nice fans made ‘care packages’ for the band after a show. These were little gift bags for each member of the group, with crackers, cookies, raisins, bananas, and nuts. We were grateful, fawned over them as you’re supposed to do to show our appreciation. The care packages went into the van, shoved into our own little found cubbyholes for gradual consumption.
Perhaps the most difficult part of being on the road for myself has been living with Type One diabetes. When you’re a diabetic under the best circumstances, it’s difficult to control your blood sugars and eat right. When you’re in a touring band, you find yourself eating at odd times of the day or night, stranded in places where fried corn nuggets pass as a vegetable. Even with the best of intentions and effort, I always find myself fluctuating between periods of really high blood sugars, which make you lethargic and exhausted, and really low blood sugars, which make you shaky and weak.
I wish that the tale of my closest brush with death involved swashbuckling on the high seas, motorcycle stunt jumping, rescuing a baby from a burning building, or the martial arts. It does not. My near-death incident involves a chocolate chip cookie. In my mouth.
My band and I were scheduled to play a record store ‘in-store’ appearance in Atlanta, and it was looking to be a great show. Record store appearances can be a great boost to your following, or they can be depressing reminders of your obscurity (insert Spinal Tap reference here). This record store had done their promotion, as had some local friends and fans, so the place was packed in anticipation of our appearance.
As is my preference, I was out in the parking lot getting changed in the van. Many times, people have asked me why I prefer getting changed in the van to other options like a dressing room or a bathroom. The answer is simple—I have left too many pairs of jeans and shoes behind in dressing rooms, because I am a forgetful moron. I have my routine, and it works for me. No need to feel sorry for me—in my van I am a king.
There I was in the van, stripped down to my boxer shorts. A crowd of people and my band members waited for me to stroll in the front door, looking confident as a cool breeze, ready to rock the house. There was nothing but a dress shirt, a pair of pants and some brand new slick Stacy Adams dress shoes between victory and myself. Then, I felt a low blood sugar incident coming on.
Diabetics will know exactly what I’m talking about, but for the rest of you, when you feel a low blood sugar crash coming over your body, you know that you have to eat something right then and there to prevent looking like a drooling and shaking object of pity fifteen minutes later. There’s also a chance of passing out, or going into a seizure. It’s serious stuff.
A quick visual check through our bug-splattered windshield told me there was nothing in a one-block radius where I could buy anything to eat. A mental checklist reminded me that somewhere in the van was the ‘care package’ handed to me several days earlier. In that care package was a chocolate chip cookie. A chocolate chip cookie—that would do the trick. That would get me over the hump. I was shaking, but I would be fine.
Rummaging around the floor of the van, I found my care package, where it had been seared by floor-of-van heat in the several thousand miles we had covered since the care packages were handed to us. Anybody who has ever crossed the country in a van knows about floor heat. You do anything to keep your feet off the floor—lie on the bench seats, put your feet up on the dash. A fool who keeps his feet on the hot van floor during a tour winds up with wicked athlete’s foot, and never does it again. The heat is like a griddle, and when I got to my little care package, the bag was hot to the touch. Inside the bag was the chocolate chip cookie. I noticed right away that it didn’t look fresh. In fact, it looked terrible, the way that worms look on the sidewalk after a heavy rain, when they realize they’re dried up and they’re not going to make it to the other side of the sidewalk. Whatever it looked like, that chocolate chip cookie was going to have to get me out of my low blood sugar situation.
I unwrapped the Saran Wrap and put the whole cookie in my mouth as I began trying to wrestle on my dress pants. This cookie is dry, I thought. Every bit of previously delicious Toll House moisture had been soaked out of the cookie from the hot drive and the days since it had been made. I kept working on it, trying to soften that sonofabitch up with my saliva. It was hopeless. This cookie was like a chunk of the Saraha Desert in baked goods form, a black hole of anti-matter vacuum-pressed into a deadly edible.
Somewhere in between the attempts to soften the damn cookie and chew the thing, I took a breath. Fine particles of cookie dust flew into my windpipe and lungs. Within a space of one second, the effort to get the cookie in my mouth instantly became an effort to get the cookie out of my lungs so that I would not die.
Suddenly, as they say, my life flashed before my eyes. I was dying. I was going to choke on a goddamn chocolate chip cookie outside a record store in Atlanta. My ignoble death was going to be the sole reason I was ever remembered. People would howl with laughter. Even those who loved me would agree: what a way to go! Beads of sweat rolled down my forehead. This was not good.
In those few seconds, I thought of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Bon Scott--all Rock & Roll legends who choked to death on their own vomit. Even that had a sense of rock and roll flair to it, a departure that mirrored the life of drugged excess those stars led in their brief times. I saw a vision of cool looking rockers hanging out at Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, then I saw my fated flat slab marker in a budget boneyard, with some fan’s lacquered chocolate chip cookie on my headstone, mocking me in tribute.
I thought of Buddy Holly’s plane crash, Otis Redding’s plane crash, Stevie Ray Vaughn’s helicopter crash. Eddie Cochran’s car crash. Johnny Horton’s car crash. All of these places where talent had been snuffed out so suddenly I had visited as pilgrimages on my travels, to honor my musical heroes. I imagined one fat kid thirty years from now reading a footnote about an obscure musician who choked to death on a cookie, and him deciding the two mile trek to his local graveyard not worth the visit.
Mama Cass, the celebrated fattie opposite the hottie in the Mamas and Papas, famously choked to death on a ham sandwich. Oh god, I was going to be at the end of the list, right next to goddamn Mama Cass. I was going to be the guitar player who choked to death on a dusty old chocolate chip cookie. This was not good. It was most certainly not cool. It was the exact opposite of cool.
Chocolate chip cookie dust sealed my lungs like a construction worker blowing insulation into a wall. My pants were halfway on. I was wearing no shirt. God, no, I’m going to be the shirtless fat guy on the stretcher! Hot nurses will stare at me and give each other looks that say good god, that’s disgusting! Is that poo on his chest? No, it’s a chocolate chip! Gross, they would say, correctly.
General Douglas MacArthur once gave a stirring speech to his soldiers, telling them that the human body is weak, but the mind is strong. If the mind decides something is possible, the body will follow, even if the body could not do it before that moment. It is the concept that allows martial arts experts to break concrete with their bare hands, or for ordinary people to do incredible things that defy explanation. It is the Jedi Mind Trick that allows petite mothers to lift cars off of their babies when terrible accidents happen. MacArthur spoke the truth, and these things are real.
Staring out the windshield at the dumpster, some inner force decided that I was not going to be the fat guy with no shirt on that died choking on a chocolate chip cookie. I finished wrestling my pants on, jumped out of the van and wheezed out cookie dust like a coal miner with black lung disease, convulsing my body into whatever shape it needed to expel the Famous Amos from my piehole. A homeless man in the alley saw me and undoubtedly thought to himself, Man, those hillbillies cannot dance, and have no rhythm. Somehow, I prevailed. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t do anything but cough and hack, but I fought the cookie, and I won, dammit. It was not my time to die.
Five minutes later, given a bottle of water and time to regain my composure, I strolled in the door of the record store to loud applause.
If they only knew, I thought. I put on my guitar and rocked the house.