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

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