About a month after I started playing the drums, we got a gig at the Red Line Tap and I suggested instead of practicing at home that we should rent a rehearsal space for a few hours to hear how we sound at a louder volume. We found a practice space just south of Wicker Park in the old industrial district that rented rooms with equipment for $10.00 an hour. Ten dollars got us a room full of amplifiers, a P.A., and a drum set. The usually smelled of sweat, bear, and stale smoke which filtered in from one end of the hallway where people were allowed to smoke since smoking wasn’t allowed in the rooms themselves. For me, the advantage of playing there was being able to hear myself play loud. At home, I covered my drum et with an assortment of kitchen towels and placements to dampen the sound, but no matter what I did to the drum set, it was loud, so loud that if Brian was playing it, which he often did when he was recording a new song, I could hear it halfway down the block. Despite my enthusiasm to learn to rock, at 38 years-old, I could imagine how annoying it would be for the next door neighbor who just moved into that million dollar single family home next door to hear me banging on drums at one o’clock in the afternoon. So I covered them with towels and did my best to play quietly. But that’s antithetical to the instrument and in order to hear how I really sounded, especially when I played with Brian, we had to rent a practice space by the hour in four-story factory building. The first time we went, Brian insisted on bringing his own tube amplifier, which is a heavy kind of thing be carrying up four factory flights of stairs. As time went on and the more we practiced there, the less we brought so that eventually I only brought drumsticks and a bottle of water and Brian brought his guitar and his pedals. It was on one of those evenings that I discovered the magic of playing music.

It was an awful rehearsal. I sucked that night. There was something going on in my head. I thought everything I played sounded terrible and at the same time I could play what I heard in my head. Brian would hit some chords and in my head, I would think: “Okay, double snare hits, right here.” Instead I would miss the space to play them entirely and I would play out of rhythm. I stopped several times, just gripped with a kind of panic, that all of sudden, after almost a year of practicing I couldn’t play even the simplest thing – something I could have played in the first month. Each mistake just made me more panicked until I became focused only on what I couldn’t do and not what I could do. After an hour, I felt paralyzed. I sat behind the drum set almost unable to move. It was made worse by the fact that we weren’t at home, where I could get up, take a break, maybe have a cup a tea and then come back in an hour. Here we were paying to play and I wanted to make the two hours worth the money we spent on it. My shoulders slumped over. I sighed. Brian smiled sympathetically.

“What’s wrong?”

“I feel like I can’t play.”

“But we’ve played this before. We’ve played it out.”

“I know. There’s just something going on my head. I think I can’t play.”

“You can play.”

I sighed. If I was a Peanuts cartoon, someone could have looked at me and seen the word balloon with SIGH written in it above me. I almost didn’t know what to do. I tried for a few minutes, continually looking at the clock, thinking “another hour.” Then after half an hour, “another half-hour.” And then later, “okay, it’s 15 minutes before the end of the reservation, I can pack up now.”

The two hours ended with me, unhappy and depressed – dejected. I wanted to give up. Who was a I kidding anyway? The thought was embedded in my brain as we walked down the four flights of stairs to the street. I barely spoke.

I was in front of Brian, opening the door, so I saw them first. It was 10 o’clock at night, dark in the street between the factory buildings, but even in the darkness I could see the huge forms of grey elephants, walking tail to trunk. I stopped. My mouth opened slightly and then as if I was twelve, I shouted “Elephants!”

There they were a line of four or six elephants lumbering gracefully with their giant padded feet down a street in a Chicago. Next to them were keepers, who smiled as I shouted. What it must be like to take elephants for a walk down a street in Chicago! I heard a footsteps racing down the staircase behind me and the door burst open. One of the managers of the practice space had raced down the four flights.

“I saw them from upstairs,” he said, breathing heavily. “And I wanted to see them up close.”

The three of us stood there, watching, mouths slightly agape as a short little parade of elephants and then zebras passed in front of us quietly and calmly. And it was in that moment of awe, of wonderment, that I forgot the very thoughts that had kept me paralyzed for the last two hours. For three endless minutes, it wasn’t about me being disappointed in myself and fearful of the future, but me with elephants and zebras standing in wonderment of the circumstances that brought all of us together.

“Where are they coming from?” I asked the manager.

“The circus is at United Center and there’s a loading ramp to the trains behind the building so they walk them to load them into the train.”

“Wow.” I said

“Yeah.”

The last zebra twitched its tail in good-bye to us as the parade receded into the dark, damp mist of a Chicago November night. From that night on, I tried, whenever the fear of my inadequacy loomed large in my head, to think of elephants, and their magic which helped me forget that the largest part of who I am is not the part that can’t do something, but the part that can.

 

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