Saturday, June 27, 2009

An Incredible Journey, Part III

The first time they met, Stewart was playing a gig in a pub. She liked his music— or maybe she liked him— enough to invite him to play at her 40th birthday party. He accepted.

At the end of the engagement, she told him she looked forward to having him play at her 80th birthday party.

Stewart found the comment odd, but he said nothing about it.

Some weeks later, she showed up in the audience at another gig. There, she presented him with an album of pictures from her party. Little captions accompanied the photos, along with her declaration from before: She looked forward to having him at her 80th birthday party.

Stewart found the photo album odd, too. But again, he said nothing.

Nearly two years went by. During that time, he saw her in the audience at a couple of performances, but he didn’t think much about it.

Then, in 2008, he was playing a gig in Hamburg when she showed up again. This time, she said she happened to be in town for a conference on Asperger syndrome, a disorder from which her son suffered.

After the performance, she asked him out to dinner. She was married, and in any case, he wasn’t interested in her that way. But he said yes. Said yes as one person being friendly to another.

A week later, the woman asked Stewart over dinner if he would be interested in accompanying her son to school. It would be a job; the woman hoped Stewart could keep her son on track with his studies.

He said he would think about it.

Three days after that, he got a call on his cell phone. It was the woman’s husband.

You called my son an idiot in public!, the man bellowed. You blabbed it in the pub! Stay away from my son and my wife!

Stewart was shocked. He had never done any such things.

He immediately called up the woman and told her he didn’t appreciate the nasty call from her husband. He added that he wasn’t interested in accompanying her son to school anymore, and that she should leave him alone.

A couple weeks later, Stewart played a private party in a small town. On his Web site, he listed the name of the town, but not the exact address.

Just the same, the woman showed up.

She asked him to come back to her hotel. She wanted to talk. She said she had gotten him his own room.

Stewart declined. He said that he wasn’t attracted to her, and in any case, since she was married, he wouldn’t do such a thing.

She pleaded with him— begged him— to come. Made a scene in front of everyone at the party. Eventually, he relented.

At the hotel, they sat in her room, talking. Talked about her life; her marriage, her son, her depression.

Stewart finally asked for his room key. The woman confessed that she hadn’t gotten him a room. Instead, they stayed in her room all night— again just talking.

A few days later, Stewart flew to the Dominican Republic. His cousin was getting married, and he was to play at the wedding.

After five days on the island, he visited the U.S. before returning to Germany. When he arrived in New Jersey, he turned on his cell phone to find his voice mail full and his phone filled with text messages. All of the messages were from the woman.

Stewart deleted them all.

He called the woman to tell her that he didn’t want to hear from her again. That if he did, he would call the police.

A minute later, he received another text message: “Stewart, I will kill you.”

Meanwhile, back in Germany, the woman had gotten off a plane from a trip of her own. An unusual entourage awaited her at the gangway: Her husband, mother, and father, and two police officers.

When she arrived, the officers took a look at her. Deciding she was okay, they then left.

Once they had walked around the corner, the woman swung at her 80-year-old mother. Her father intervened in time to prevent the blow.

When Stewart himself returned to Germany, he immediately headed to the airport police to file a complaint. When he explained the situation to an officer, the man laughed at him. You? Afraid of a woman?, he chortled.

The next few months went downhill from there.

The first lawyer Stewart consulted laughed at him, too. He tried another lawyer, but that one wouldn’t take the case, so he moved on to a third.

During that time, Stewart learned things, too. He learned that when the woman coincidentally showed up at the pub he was playing during the Asperger conference, it was no coincidence. She had tracked him down through the performance schedule on his Web site. She hadn’t come from a conference, either; she was staying at a pain clinic for supposed back pain (no doctor ever found anything wrong with her back) and took a 150-dollar taxi ride from there to the pub.

Stewart learned that the woman found his private party in that small town by, again, consulting his Web site, but this time— lacking an address— she combed the area until she heard live music.

Stewart also learned that, completely unbeknownst to him at the time, the woman had followed him to the Dominican Republic. After taking a 15-hour flight, she searched for him all over the island country. She went so far as to plaster in hotels “wanted” posters with a picture of him from her 40th birthday party.

When that didn’t work, she told the authorities that Stewart had stolen her purse. She said he was a drug courier. Told the police she wanted to ride with them so that she could be there while they performed a cavity search on him.

The police waiting for her at the airport in Germany? After a trip of her own? The trip was to the Dominican Republic, and it was the woman’s mother who summoned the police. By then, she knew of her daughter’s threat to kill him, and she wanted to press charges. She wanted Stewart to press charges, too.

Which he did.

His court date was set for October. In the weeks leading up to it, the woman’s husband called Stewart often, taunting him by saying, She means what she says! She says she wants to kill you; you better look out! You better stay away!

In the end, he did stay away— from the courtroom. While his lawyer showed up, Stewart didn’t want to give the woman the time of day, didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of seeing him. His lawyer told the judge simply that Stewart was working then.

It turned out to be a strategic error. German law holds that when you file for a restraining order and don’t show up in court, you get a restraining order placed against you, too.

And so, from that day on, not only could the woman not go near him, but he also couldn’t go near her.

Not that that bothered him.

This past January, 17 years after flying to Germany for a four-month European vacation, Stewart returned to make his life once again in the U.S.

He left because of the woman, yes; of course. But it wasn’t just the woman. It was women— the lack of romance in his life in Germany. It was the physical sickness he had come to feel there. It was for a real estate venture back here that had gone sour when a worsening economy made for more tenants not paying rent. (He wanted to be here with his partner to unload the property.)

There is, unfortunately, one thing for which Stewart did not come back: His dad.

He passed away in 1994.

It can not be said here exactly where Stewart is living now— just as his last name can not be revealed— since that woman is still living freely in Germany. Suffice it to say that he got himself an apartment and continues to make new friends. Continues to date, too, hoping to find that special woman for more than friendship.

These days, Stuart shuttles back and forth between the U.S. and Germany, where he now only plays private parties, so that his whereabouts aren’t publicized. Oh, and he got a job teaching music here in the U.S., too.

A funny thing about how he got the teaching job: While touring the school where he was interviewing, he happened to cross paths with two teachers. “Stu!” they cried out when they spotted him.

The two women were former students of his at Banner Day Camp in Lake Forest.

Upon their recommendation, Stewart was hired on the spot.

There’s a line in “Forest Gump” that Stewart, now 49, thinks back to. “I don’t know if we each have a destiny,” says Gump, “or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both.”

Stewart thinks so, too.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

An Incredible Journey, Part II

As the plane touched down at Frankfurt Airport, Stewart felt agitated. He was tired. So tired. With all the excitement of the trip, he hadn’t slept in the last 48 hours.

When his traveling companion asked him a question as simple as where Stewart had put his bag, Stewart snapped at the guy.

He had to lie down.

They arrived at their hostel at 10 a.m., only to find it was closed until 1 p.m. for cleaning. So, Stewart grabbed his backpack and guitar and headed around the corner to a pizza place.

As he stood in line waiting to place his order, a woman behind him tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, can you play that?” she asked with an Irish accent, pointing to the guitar.

No, he felt like growling at her, I just carried it all the way from America… rghrghr…

Yes, he said.

She and her boyfriend had just opened an Irish pub around the corner, the woman explained. The musician who was supposed to play tomorrow night was sick; could Stewart come by tomorrow afternoon to play for the bartender? If the bartender liked him, he could have the gig.

Stewart thought about it.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’ll be there.”

When he caught up with his friend later, he shared the news. The two were supposed to leave Germany together the next morning for… well, for anywhere. But this changed things.

His friend didn’t want to stay in Berlin. So, the next day, he took off with a guy from New Zealand who was staying at the hostel, leaving Stewart on his own.

At 2 o’clock that afternoon, Stewart arrived at the Shamrock Irish Pub. He stood in front of the bar with his guitar and began to play “We Gotta Get out of this Place,” by the Animals, while the bartender, himself a musician from Northern Ireland, stood by watching.

“Stop!” cried out the bartender just ten seconds into the song.

“Was it that bad that I can’t even finish?” asked Stewart.

“It was all right,” said the bartender. “Can you play tonight?”

Stewart returned to the Shamrock that evening. A diverse crowd of American soldiers, Germans, people from all over the world packed into the large, dimly lit room. Stewart played 30 songs for them, all that he knew, among three sets.

Between songs, people cheered. Stewart wasn’t used to that kind of reaction in the U.S. When he walked around the room between sets with a hat in his hand (a green, felt top hat— a gag provided by the bar), the customers threw money into it. He wasn’t used to getting tips this way, either. Back home, there was just a tip jar.

Though the ruse did its job: He got 100 dollars in tips on top of the roughly 100 dollars the pub paid him.

With the performance such a success, the owners invited him back to play the next night. And the next night after that.

On that third night, however, his luck ran out. In the middle of a set, the bartender suddenly told him to stop playing, because police officers had arrived. Unbeknownst to Stewart, the pub didn’t have a license for live music.

His stint there was over.

Heartbroken, he returned to the hostel. Three nights of his dream, of getting paid to do what he loved— it was all over now.

As he sat in the hostel brooding, and talking to other guests, the proprietor of the place called out over the PA system, “Stewart!” It was a phone call.

Stewart was shocked. Who knew he was there? Not even his family knew he was there.

He walked to the front desk and took the phone. “Stewart,” said the man at the other end of the line, “what are you doing for the next month or so?”

It was one of the patrons at the Shamrock. He found out where Stewart was staying from the owners of the place.

Turned out the man managed seven Irish pubs throughout Germany.

And would Stewart be interested in playing for him?

Have I died and gone to heaven, or what?!, Stewart thought. He was just a “hobby musician”; not good enough to play professionally. He didn’t even have enough songs, just the ten he repeated.

“Well, let me check my schedule,” he told the man, wanting to sound professional.


He felt elated. Here he was, barely off the plane from America, and in his mind, he had stepped into the rabbit hole.

So began the touring. He started in Frankfurt, then moved on to the German state of Saarland, and then Saarbr├╝cken. He pushed himself to learn new songs every day.

A week into his travels, he was performing in the small town of Sankt Ingbert, near the border with France, when a man approached him.

“Where do you live?” the man asked in broken English.

“Well, nowhere,” Stewart replied.

“No!” shot back the man, in a burly voice. “You live with me now!”

It so happened that the man was a German soldier who spent most of his time out of town for training, leaving his apartment empty. The American musician he had just seen perform was to be his tenant— free of charge.

Stewart was almost speechless at the offer.

Indeed, he accepted, taking up residence on the living room couch that very night.

A week of traveling turned into a month, and a month turned into two-and-a-half months. All the while, Stewart remained in Germany, never making good use of the Eurail train pass he had bought for traveling throughout Europe.

When mid-February came around, it was time to return home— well, for as much as it could be considered home— to Madison, Wisconsin. He had reached the end of his four-month vacation.

Well… sort of.

When he arrived in Madison, Stewart headed to the nursing home where his father was living. When he got there, what he saw saddened him: His dad was asleep in a chair in the dining room, drooling and wearing a soiled adult diaper.

Stewart put out his hand. His father took it. The two walked around the grounds for a while, talking.

Stewart saw indications that his dad’s Parkinson’s had progressed. His speech had worsened, and talking was more difficult now. In any case, without his son there, he didn’t talk to anyone around him. He looked and sounded as if he had aged tremendously over the past four months.

Sorry, Stewart told his dad. I got a job in Germany. I’m going back.

Go, said his dad.

Though he couldn’t be sure, Stewart suspected that his father understood that this was a dream come true. That his dad wanted him to live his own life; certainly not stay back on his account.

Stewart’s father was a selfless man that way.

Maybe his dad was even living vicariously through him.

After two weeks back in the U.S., visiting with his dad more or less every day, Stewart got on a plane and went back to Germany. Returned to his new life, whatever it was. All he knew then was that he had a place to live— or rather, a place to use as a home base as he toured— and income from doing something he lived.

At the same time, Stewart saw the situation as a fluke. The gigs couldn’t last forever, he thought, so he booked as many as he could early on.

He played for weeks. Weeks turned into months. Gigs turned into more gigs, along with offers to play at private parties.

Two years had gone by when he found himself one day in 1993 playing an outdoor festival for the opening of a music store. There, he started talking to a German woman. Stewart was now 33; the woman was 23. He thought she was cute.

He asked her out, but she just said eventuell— “maybe.” She had a boyfriend.

Two months later, she no longer did.

He moved in with her right away.

Later that year, Stewart had another fortuitous encounter. A man who had hired him to play his 40th birthday party— someone who worked for the Finanzamt, the German equivalent of the IRS— told Stewart to apply for residency in Germany. That way, the man said, he could have medical insurance from the government. Plus, as a musician, he would be able to deduct essentially all of his expenses from his tax returns, since most everything he bought contributed to his image on stage. (Or so the theory went.)

Up until then, Stewart had been working under the table. What with the transient nature of playing gigs all over the place, he wasn’t concerned about the authorities’ pursuing him. But medical insurance sounded appealing, as did being able to make so many deductions.

A few days later, Stewart submitted an application to his local branch of the Federal Foreign Office. In return, he received a stamp that allowed him to live and work in Germany for one year. A year later, having paid his taxes and not having committed any crimes, he got another stamp valid for two years. After that, he got another two-year stamp.

Then, in 1998, with five years of residency and taxes under his belt, Stewart finally secured a life-long green card. He now had all the rights of a German citizen except the ability to vote.

Not bad, this new life in Europe. Here he was, seven years after coming back, doing what he loved, getting paid to do what he loved, and even traveling to other countries in Europe to perform.

Not bad.

Except for the part that was: His relationship with his girlfriend.

In 1999, after seven years, it broke apart. The truth was, it had been breaking apart for a long time. Stewart traveled a lot for his gigs, and that caused problems for her. She had a hot temper, and that caused problems for Stewart. They had even broken up a couple of times before.

Then, too, there was another issue. One day, as Stewart was standing over the sink in the bathroom, brushing his teeth, his girlfriend walked in and asked him bluntly, “Are you going to stay true to me?”

The question socked him. He stood there, silently— one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand.

He thought back to his ex-girlfriend in America. To his high school sweetheart, a woman he wanted to trust but who had let him down again and again and again. That experience had hurt him so much.

Now, here was another girlfriend asking if he would be faithful.

How did he know she would be?

One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand. As he mind spun, Stewart remained silent.

His girlfriend turned on her heels and stormed out of the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.

After the breakup, Stewart wandered around. He followed the philosophy of an Irish friend of his: Gig as much as you can, because when you do, the place you’re playing will provide you with a hotel room or a musician’s room. A musician’s room was just what it sounds like, a small room provided to visiting musicians for an overnight stay.

Only, these places were pigsties— disgusting, horrible places not fit for humans. On the other hand, they were free. Stewart would bring his own sheets and hope that the creepy-crawly creatures wouldn’t get to him during the night.

Stewart continued gigging and traveling for several years. But over time, he grew increasingly unhappy. After his German girlfriend, he had no significant romantic relationships. He dated a lot, but he just didn’t feel compatible with any of the women he met.

Then, too, he began feeling physically ill, as if a weight were pressing on his shoulders.

Then his life really a took a turn. It would start, simply enough, at a gig in October 2006, a gig like so many others he had done.

Little did he know then that that would be the start of a series of bizarre, scary events that would alter the course of his life. 

Click here for part III

Thursday, June 11, 2009

An Incredible Journey, Part I

Stewart (he doesn't want his last name used in this article, for reasons that will become clear later) grew up in suburban Glenview in the 1960’s and ’70’s as a typical Glenview kid in the 1960’s and ’70’s might. He attended Wilmette public schools until high school; moved on to New Trier West (now the school’s freshman campus) after that. Upon graduating, he enrolled at Northern Illinois University.

Two years into college, though, he had a problem: He had to declare a major. He didn’t know which to choose, and the decision was too much for him. He had difficulty making big decisions like that.

Instead of deciding, Stewart dropped out of college. He got a job working at the Greyhound station in Northbrook. Moved back in with his parents.

Here, it must be said that there’s a girl in this story, too. A girl Stewart had met in high school. The girl of his high school romance.

In 1982, when Stewart had been working at the Greyhound station for two years, this girl was studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Stewart missed her. So, he did what any typical 22-year-old guy who’s in love would do: He joined her.

When he arrived in Madison, he wanted to enroll in the university to continue his studies. Only, he couldn’t get in-state tuition until he had lived there for a year. So, he did that. Worked for a whole year in a store that sold children’s corrective shoes. When the state of Wisconsin finally considered him a resident— or, more to the point, considered him eligible for reduced tuition— he started classes.

So, there was the girl, the reason he came to Madison. There was the university, where he could continue his education. But there was still the issue of what to major in.

He wanted to be a dietician, so he started out pursuing food science. When he took a chemistry class, though, he found it too fast-paced; too competitive, what with all the pre-med students. No, the stress of hard science wasn’t for him.

Rather, he thought to himself: The hell with that. I’m going to do what my dad did. I’m going to become a teacher.

Oh, yes— his dad. His dad plays a role in this story, too.

Stewart’s mother had had a hysterectomy to remove cancerous ovaries in 1973. Unfortunately, she succumbed to the cancer in 1985. After his wife’s death, Stewart’s dad moved into a so-called retirement hotel.

One day, Stewart got a call from an administrator there. It seemed his dad had called for an ambulance on three occasions. That was a problem.

The calls weren’t made without reason. You see, Stewart’s dad had Parkinson’s’ disease. The Parkinson’s caused him to fall face down on his bed multiple times. Hence, the calls to 911.

The problem was that ambulances scared the elderly people there (or so said the administrator). The calls couldn’t continue. Stewart’s dad would have to leave.

What was Stewart to do? Would could he do? Only one thing: Bring his dad up to Madison to live with him in the dorm.

And it worked. Stewart's father, then 62 (he was forced to retire at 60), became one of the guys. Everyone liked him. No one asked him to leave. He would nod off in front of the communal television— the only man in the place over 30, let alone 62— and no one said anything.

He stayed there until the following May, when Stewart graduated.

Yes; after five years of classes between two schools in two states, Stewart finally graduated college with a degree in elementary education.

Now he was set with that.

But not with the girl.

She had broken up with him.

And so, after graduation, Stewart and his dad moved to Evanston, where they lived while Stewart worked during the day at Banner Day Camp up in Lake Forest. It was a job that Stewart, then 26, had taken on every summer since he was 17. He worked his way up from counselor to counselor-and-bus driver to musical director.

Ah, yes— music. Music was something Stewart liked. A lot.

He would lead songs for groups of campers. He played guitar, performed for the whole camp at the yearly Bannerama festival. When it rained, he would spend the whole day singing.

Yes, Stewart really liked music.

As the summer of 1986 wound down, he didn’t have a job lined up for the fall. Then, on the last day of camp, he received a call from an official at Milwaukee Public Schools. He had gotten a job teaching eighth grade math and science.

For the next three years, Stewart and his dad lived in Milwaukee. Halfway into that time, Stewart reconciled with his girlfriend. At the end of it, he quit his job. He was going back to Madison.

With his father, of course.

Stewart was now 29. He had been with this girl on and off for 12 years, almost half his life. He had moved to Madison for her not once, but now twice, this time leaving behind a job he enjoyed.

Four months after he arrived, she broke up with him again.

It was the same story— the same story over and over. She would cheat on him; he would take her back. She would cheat on him again; he would take her back again. He thought it cruel, her doing whatever she wanted, knowing that she could, because Stewart would always take her back. (He always did.)

Only, this breakup was different. It would be their last.

Soon after, she married another man.

A man she had been seeing in secret.

Stewart stayed in Madison for two more years, doing substitute teaching. But he was distraught. The breakup was traumatic; very traumatic. He enjoyed teaching, and he loved taking care of his dad. But this… this was too much.

He knew he needed to make a change in his life. A big change.

In the summer of 1991, one would take shape.

Now 31, Stewart was back at Banner Day Camp teaching music. (It was a job he had taken on every summer since he was 17.) One day in the middle of the camp season, he was participating in the daily singing session that took place before campers boarded their buses for home. As the children were gathering, he took the microphone on a whim.

“Is there any staff member interested in joining me on a tour through Europe?” he said.

The idea had been stirring in him for a little while. Stewart was burned out. He felt he was getting old before his time. He thought a vacation in Europe would make him a better teacher; would make for some interesting stories to tell his students when he got back.

Stewart's moves from 1981 to 1992. (Click here for a more detailed map.)    

He also had never traveled outside the U.S. before. Europe’s different cultures, different currencies (at the time), different languages— all of that appealed to him.

So, Europe it would be.

And why not have a travel partner? That would make the trip more fun.

From the crowd, one of the counselors approached Stewart. It was a guy in his early 20’s. Yes, he said, he’d be interested in going. In fact, he also was thinking of making a tour through Europe.

And so it was that at the end of the camp season, Stewart put his dad into a nursing home, gathered his guitar and some other belongings, and boarded a plane to Frankfurt, Germany.

Only, the trip wouldn’t go quite as expected.

Not at all.

Click here for part II