"You will be the only lady on board."
My friend Gene stresses this point when he offers me my first roadie job. And I'm so thrilled by the idea of going on tour that I'm undaunted by the warning I detect in his voice. After having spent a year seeking meaningful employment in my recently adopted hometown of San Francisco, Gene's job offer holds real promise.
The band is a known commodity from my New York punk rock days, the testosterone-fueled mosh pits of my youth. That scene doesn't scare me. I've been the only lady plenty of times, as a bass player and lead singer in a handful of bands, and doing administrative work for music festivals. But I've never been the only lady in a traveling entourage, living cheek-to-cheek with a pack of guys in the cramped living quarters of a tour bus for two straight months.
"Just think of it as an extended family outing with a bunch of cousins you've never met," says Gene, whose real name, like the others in this piece, has been withheld to protect his privacy. That's his way of advising me to steer clear of road romances. I don't think he needs to. Internally, I'm already rehearsing my reassurances to my boyfriend that he has nothing to worry about. I tell myself I have nothing to worry about. At 25, I've worked hundreds of shows. I've mastered the dodge of the unwanted pass, and I've also had many casual flings. At the moment, I'm enjoying the predictable ease of a settled, stable home life — I'm not looking forward to a road romance. I'm looking forward to testing my skills on a new playing field. And I'm hot on the idea of flexing my feminist muscles in what's considered a distinctly male role.
Gene is a top-tier tour manager and soundman, and as his assistant, I'll be well-trained for future road work if I want it. I already own the uniform: black jeans, Doc Martens, and loose black T-shirts that downplay my curves. I'll avoid looking sexy or cute. I will carry my own weight. I will not flirt. I'm determined to be the incidental female.
The tour bus is decked out in mirrors and dark velour, a glitzy '80s disco on wheels, with a front and back lounge, kitchenette, and micro bathroom, all expertly engineered to accommodate a traveling party of 12. We sleep in triple-decker bunks split by a shoulder-width strip of hallway. On day one, I feel like the sole frontierswoman in a band of outlaws.
Long show days unravel into ragged all-night drives. Members of the crew commandeer the back lounge for porn parties, audible from my tiny bed. I fumble for my earplugs, trying to escape into a book. Tucked inside my flimsy blanket cocoon, I'm bothered more by the feeling of exclusion than their raunchy giggling. I envy their easy bond: the kind of camaraderie that eludes the only lady on board. Times like these solidify my sense of otherness. I know that around me, the guys act differently — speak differently, behave differently, try to tone down the locker-room banter. I wish they wouldn't bother.
In the mornings, a chorus of alarm clocks stirs our zombie team, rumpled and smelling of beer and sweat. I try to be the first one up in order to avoid the tussle at the bathroom door. On show days, I set up our office inside the venue. While the crew spends all day humping gear, I deal with guest lists, dressing-room hospitality, incoming and outgoing laundry, any pending hotel issues, and replenishment of everything from bass strings to Visine, tube socks, cigarettes, and whatever else anybody might need. This means that when our guitar technicians want to bait eager fans intent on meeting the band, they come to me for extra backstage passes. I'm complicit in their best chance of getting laid. When they miss the wake-up call, it's my job to round them up and make sure they're all on board before the bus pulls away. There's no reciprocal caregiving here, no way for them to scratch my back. I feel more like their babysitter than their friend.
Our bus driver, Chuck, is a potbellied biker who looks straight out of ZZ Top. On day three, he catches me off guard, alone on the bus, and sweetly thanks me for my "positive female influence." He appreciates that the guys are keeping the bus tidy, and credits me with the lack of strewn skivvies and food trash. From then on, Chuck is my buddy. He addresses me as "Little Lady" without irony or crudeness, and I'm comforted by his paternal ways. Chuck is married and has fathered a small tribe: "Two generations of proud rednecks," he calls them. But he's spent 20 years driving buses, essentially alone, so I'm honored by his invitation to ride shotgun in his quiet company, with the crackle of his CB radio, rolling over endless waves of road.
We don't discuss his numerous lady friends. In Austin, there's the redhead in the yellow cab outside the backstage door, where I happen to be catching some fresh air. Chuck sees me watching and smiles, as if affirming some agreement we haven't actually made. In Memphis, I'm loading leftover beers into the bus bays when a middle-aged blonde in a black Mustang pulls up, and the door opens to let Chuck out. The warmth in his "Bye, darlin', I'll be seein' ya," says he means it, just like he's meant it before.
I learn to recognize his swagger on the nights he hasn't slept alone. But unlike the other guys, who announce every conquest as if someone's keeping score, he doesn't flaunt his liaisons. Chuck has a certain ease about his practiced infidelity. It makes me question my initial skepticism about his loyalty to his wife. I overhear the way their phone calls ooze with tenderness, even in their mundane chats about their kids, their dogs, and all the household maintenance issues waiting for his return. I trust that after so many years of nights spent apart, he and his wife have come to an equitable understanding.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.