We got picked up by Deep Elm Records in April of 2011, so I figured I’d buy us a van and try to do it for real. Scored ’87 Dodge with only 83,000 miles for a little over a grand. It ran like a brand new vehicle, and was almost mint inside and out. Passed inspection with flying colors. Two months later I managed to land us our first show in NYC at a place called Ella Lounge on the Lower East Side. Nothing huge, but our first real chance to get out of Rhode Island and start building some street cred. Maybe we can actually be one of those real bands after all…
The day finally arrives. I’m nervous but ecstatic. We’ve played plenty of shows, but this is completely new ground. It will be our furthest drive ever into a foreign and busy metropolis. We pack up. Check and re-check, then cross our fingers and hit the road.
La Fonda drove like a dream for the first 2 hours. Smooth and steady like a god damned river boat. I had nothing but faith in the old girl. In case you’re confused, La Fonda is the name of our van. Don’t ask me why.
Took a wrong turn half an hour outside the city, so we stopped at a McDonald’s for a quick stretch and bathroom break. Go to leave and the van won’t start. No battery at all. Shit. I’d left the interior lights on over night about a month before and killed the battery. After a jump start it had run fine ever since, but I figured maybe the battery had finally just shit the bed. We got a jump start and immediately drove to the nearest place to buy a new battery. Luckily we found one and made it to the venue right on time.
The show was amazing. Overall, probably the best set we’ve ever played. We pack up, check into our hotel, and start making plans. Hey, why not visit some friends in Brooklyn while we’re in the city? It’s late and our destination is almost an hour subway ride away, but we can make it by car in about 30 minutes. Fuck it, lets drive.
We escape downtown and hit the FDR Expressway at about 1 am. I make a wrong turn and get us stuck in traffic for 20 minutes. So we reroute and head back down the FDR again. Out of nowhere the van starts acting funny. The dashboard display lights are fading in and out. Suddenly, La Fonda dies. No engine, no lights, nothing. Fuck, this can’t be happening. Fortunately there’s a break in traffic and I’m able to merge all the way to the right. Funny, there’s no breakdown lane on this highway. I try to start her repeatedly. Nothing. No power at all, not even for hazard lights.
We are all in shock, and there are now cars flying past our left side traveling between 60 and 80 MPH. We happen to be stopped on an overpass section of the highway, and to our immediate right is nothing but a small concrete barrier followed by a 50 foot shear drop onto concrete death. Did I mention there is no breakdown lane, and we have no hazard lights to warn off fellow drivers who are rapidly approaching from behind in the same lane we are stopped in? We try not to panic as car after car barely miss slamming into us. It takes 20 minutes to get a hold of emergency services. It’s 1:30 am in NYC, we are sitting ducks on a busy highway, and nobody gives a fuck about us. I can only imagine terrible things happening. If we don’t do something, there’s an increasing chance that somebody will get injured or worse.
Matt and I find two small flashlights and start frantically waving them out the windows. We need something, anything, to make ourselves visible before something tragic happens. More near misses. It’s not working. A general sense of panic sets in. We try for a short while standing outside the back of the van, desperately trying to make our puny flashlights more visible. Only more near misses. Tyres screeching. Horrible visions of death and mutilation. This isn’t happening. But it is. What else can we do? Nothing is making sense. How did we end up here? It’s the first time in my life that I’m truly afraid I may die. Am I being punished for something? Please for the love of god somebody help us! I just start screaming. We’ve been stuck for half an hour. Nobody cares.
I notice that the highway eases back down to ground level about a quarter mile ahead of us, so I make a judgment call and hope it’s the right one. Everyone out of the van! It will be risky to run down this busy highway in the dark, but just sitting there was seeming more and more like a death trap. As soon as the traffic eased a bit the six of us exited as quickly as possible and ran like our lives depended on it, because for all we knew they most certainly did.
I’m here writing this, and my band still exists, so needless to say we escaped the highway unscathed. After another half hour or so a cop and a tow truck showed up and moved the van out of harms way. Albeit not the most exciting ending to this story, but I’m certainly not complaining. I just seem to figure that this type of shit would happen to us on our first real attempt at putting ourselves out there as a legitimate band. And that, my friends, is a perfect example of how being in a band has and will forever continue to ruin my life. But in all honesty, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Russ Baker
The Ghost of Otis ‘Hopes and Denials’ is out now on Deep Elm Records www.deepelm.com