I first met them on a dimly lit Facetime call last summer, hours after they had met each other. It was late for me, well past one in the morning, and I was already in bed when my phone rang. They were in the studio with a musician friend of mine. He had found them. Or the universe had led him to them.

A shy but funny trumpet player from San Francisco who was busking on the street. Three Canadians who had ended up roommates thanks to Craigslist. A quiet, contemplative, wickedly talented singer who had been playing a showcase in New York and had no idea my friend was in the audience. It was circumstance, happenstance and perhaps a little bit of fate that brought them to him. It was he who brought them together.

I’m limited by contract and conscience how much I can write about him, my friend and client. But I woke up this morning needing to write about Crystal Garden, the band brought together in a way that Hollywood would reject and who, for the last few months, have been finding their sound.

The next time I saw them was a month later, the end of August in Central Washington. I’d been flown in to meet them and while I slept in a cushy yurt, they emerged from tents and sleeping bags at a campground. They were tired, dirty, having slept in the same clothes they’d been wearing for the last couple of days. They were happy, excited, full of hope.

Joel, a percussionist, with his electric smile and faux-hawk. He would leave the band in a few weeks, but I didn’t know that then. He’s got a music school to run back in Toronto and, having kept in loose touch, I’m sure he’s going to be a success.

James, the trumpet player with the family crest tattoos and patchy beard. He wore a Giants hat low as he told me about growing up in Vegas, about his parents passing away, about how long he’d lived homeless, busking on the street to provide his living.

Matt, a quiet tactician of a drummer and devoted music student from just outside Toronto. His blond hair would glow later that night when they would play an impromptu show at the campsite – banging away on a bucket with a bunch of glow sticks I taped together.

Charlie is the bass player. Funny, effervescent, the energy of the group, constantly bouncing around, charming everyone he meets. He’s got the deep soul of an artists, but the perspective of his 24 years.

Mycle, whose voice leaves people speechless when he steps to the mic and sings one of his songs. He’s the former Army Chaplain’s Assistant, the contractor from Seattle who has a career of his own, but who can’t help but make music every chance he gets.

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We spend a couple days together, on and off the tour bus, standing in the wings. Every quiet moment is filled with music. Charlie beat boxing. James blowing something smooth on the trumpet. Matt, like a kid off his meds, beating on any surface he can. Mycle scatting, belting out lyrics to old R&B.

They have the excitement of freshmen unleashed on campus for the very first time. They know – beyond their years – how incredible this opportunity is, how surreal.

A few months pass and my phone dings again in the middle of the night. It’s a track off their album, just mastered and not ready to be shared. I listen and am confused. It’s great, but I’ve never heard anything quite like it – a mix of mid-90s Morphine and Al Greene soul. I can’t wait for more.

They follow my friend on tour. They move in together in Seattle. They play and play and play – honing their sound, honing those silent communications that bands have: the head not, the bass riff, the drum line, the scat. They finish the album – Let the Rocks Cry Out – and you’ll be able to get it soon. I listen once then walk away. I listen again, then again, then again.

Three weeks ago, I get an email at 10 pm on a Monday night. Can I be in Virginia the next day for their first show? I thought this might be coming. The ticket is attached and I’m on my way to the airport at 4 am. At noon, I’m helping them load their gear onto the bus that will take us all to the venue for sound check and a whole lot of waiting around. Sound check in a beautiful old theater starts off a little nervy – it’s the first show and hundreds of people are expected to come. Most are probably coming because my friend is going to sit in, but others, true enthusiasts, are coming to hear something new.

They settle down, kill their sound check and then it’s back to the bus – to drink water, to talk, to do whatever they have to do in order to pretend they’re not nervous. They are nervous. I can see it on their faces. I can see it in their eyes. I talk to them individually. I tell them they sound great. I tell them to relax and enjoy the moment. It won’t always be pomp and circumstance. They will have to pay their dues. This is just the beginning.

“I can’t wait for that part,” says Matt. “I can’t wait to be in a crappy van, going from county fair to crappy bar. That part excites me.”

There’s time for that. There’s still time, lots of time.

They come out on stage to polite applause. Their first couple of songs sound good, but the nerves are still there. By the middle of the set, there are people dancing in the aisles, while others sit and watch. By the time they do their encore – my favorite track from the album called “Devil Woman” – Mycle has them eating out of his hand. Charlie has worked up a sweat bouncing around on stage. James has found his solos. Matt is playing with his eyes closed.

They finish and the applause breaks out. It’s no longer polite. It’s enthusiastic. It’s the same mix of confused “what was that?” and “how do I get more?” that I had when I heard the album.

The next day, I’m worried I’m going to miss my flight. Charlie and Matt volunteer to drive me to the airport and we talk the entire way – about music, about the world, about the kinds of things twenty-somethings talk about and I miss in my life. I take my window seat next to the propeller and can’t help but wonder what’s in store for these guys, this Crystal Garden.

I text Charlie and thank him for the ride.

“Absolutely,” he tells me. “You’re part of this too.”

I don’t know what comes next for a band like this. I don’t know what the future holds for a group brought together by fate and my friend. But I know one thing for sure – this is just the beginning of the journey and it will take them places they haven’t considered before, places they have yet to imagine. But as long there’s music, I’m sure they’ll find their way.

The Cavs are in the playoffs. The Republican Convention is coming to town. Over the next couple of months, Cleveland is going to be getting a lot of press. There will be stories about the ever-disappointing sports franchises, the attempts at rebirth, the depressed economy, the deranged man who kept three women locked in his house for more than a decade. Reporters will speak lovingly, condescendingly, disgustedly about the city. They will talk about its former heyday. They will talk about the industry disappearing, the people becoming depressed and hardened. They will most assuredly talk about the Cuyahoga River lighting on fire and maybe throw in a mention or two about the Flats, the Drew Carey Show, Great Lakes Brewing and Johnny Manziel.

But they’ll never talk about the things that make Cleveland great. Really great. The MetroParks, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the people who are loyal and tough as only a community assaulted and often on the butt end of jokes can be. They won’t talk about the strange mix of pride and hope, the feeling of being us against the world.

They never do.

I grew up in Cleveland. I wasn’t born there. I was born in Wisconsin and lived in California and back in Wisconsin before my family settled down in Cleveland. It’s the place I consider home, the place I return to on holidays and special occasions. Sometimes, just because. It’s also the place where my mind returns when the weather finally breaks in Cincinnati and we get that one perfect week of spring.

A week like this one.

Cleveland is a place of extremes. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty. Extreme optimism and extreme pessimism (sometimes within the same person in the same day). The weather is freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer.

But for a few weeks every year, it is idyllic. When the snow has thawed, the leaves have begun to sprout and the flowers bloom. Lake Erie is still too cold to swim in or boat on, but you can’t help but be outside. A light layer to buffet the cool breeze off the water. Sun coming down in gentle rays, you want to explore. You are compelled to wander – along the lake, downtown, through Little Italy. You look forward to the summer season at Blossom. You check out that new restaurant on West Sixth or East Ninth, you able down the paths of the Rocky River Reserve.

Spring means baseball and the return of the Tribe, but also the little leaguers taking over the parks. It means excitement for the NBA playoffs, which you’ll more than likely watch with friends, your hearts on your sleeves, a Commodore Perry IPA in your glass. It means the return of color to a place dominated by gray through the winter months. You walk through Lakewood or Tremont or Cleveland Heights and you hear music coming from the bars and restaurants. You meander downtown, you sit at Huntington Beach in Bay Village and dream across the water.

It will get hot, you know that. Once Lake Erie has warmed up, the humidity will be intense, the summer storms frightening. But all of that is ahead of you, just as the lake effect snow is behind. Your teams are more than likely to disappoint, but you hold out hope – for the Tribe, for the Cavs, even for the beleaguered Browns. Last season’s wounds have scarred over and you still have wishes left in you.

Sure, the construction on I90 is causing delays. But you don’t mind being in your car for a little extra time. You’ve got the sunroof open, the top down, the windows lowered. You’ve got music playing and you smile – you’ve survived another winter. You’ve made it through to these few special weeks that, along with the chilly late October when the leaves turn and the world smells like grass and high school football games, seem to make it all worth while.

You can’t understand what it means to be from Cleveland from a headline. You can’t understand why people love the place so much when you only know whats in the news. To know Cleveland, to love Cleveland, is to understand and embrace the extremes – the cold and the heat, the rich and the poor, the optimism and disappointment – and to appreciate the in-betweens.

I’m proud to be from Cleveland. I’m proud to know the truth. It’s far from a perfect city, but that, in and of itself, is where its perfection lies. Cleveland is your favorite old pair of boots that have seen much better days but you can’t bring yourself to throw away. It is your mom’s meatloaf – you’ve had better, but never experienced anything that compares. It is your first car, your first love, your first heartbreak and all those things that come to define you later on in life.

A lot of people are going to be talking about Cleveland over the next couple of months, but I know they won’t have much to say. And the things they do talk about might be factual, but they have little to do with the truth of the place. To know the truth of Cleveland is to be from there, to experience the highs and lows, to suffer the outside world’s slings and arrows and love the place anyway. Because you know they can say anything they want, but they can’t take away those few perfect weeks, those in-between moments where everyone who has lived there remembers and those that still do look forward to.

Cleveland is not what you think.

image from: https://www.csuohio.edu/international-admissions/international-admissions

And now, I’m in a hotel in Bucharest, Romania and my shower has just exploded. It’s late, well passed midnight local time, but I’m not quite ready to sleep. My mind is still on London time, but just barely, and its not even time for dinner back home.  Jet-lagged and weary, I’m not sure what to expect. Jenn and Kristen have gone to bed. By now, I know what  traveling with Jenn means. Kristen and I have only been out a couple of times.
Already this.
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And now I’m sitting in a room older than my country, like a wine cellar with leather chairs and low lighting, an arched ceiling and a flat screen hung in the corner, on mute and being ignored. I’ve known Andrei and Adi for three days and, already, they are friends. I’ve known Miruna and Cristian a few days longer, but those days were more than a year ago, in a different country, for entirely different reasons. The last few days I’ve fallen in love with them – the way they love each other. I’ve fallen in love with the way Andrei has fallen in love with a girl he’s met since I’ve been here. In love with Adi’s quiet, intelligent grace – the stoic sadness he carries with him and the way it melts away when he dances in the passenger seat without irony, pity or self-consciousness. He dances to “Betty Davis Eyes” on the stereo. And how we talk and drink and get high in English, with how they seem willing to change their minds about me, about Americans, about my country. How completely unaware they are of just how happy, how welcomed and appreciated they have made me feel.
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And now I’m sitting on a rickety picnic bench in the garden of a house in Viscri. The sign on the wall read ‘Cafe,’ but it’s a house and on the white table cloth- the kind my grandmother had for years spread across the big wood table in her Iowa dining room – are plates of food, incredible food. Incredible soup with fresh vegetables, chicken and pork, a pickled pepper on the side. Incredible fresh vegetables on a plate which were, moments ago, still safely ensconced in the soft Transylvania soil. And fresh goat cheese with chewing gum strips of raw pork fat, a cheap paper bag colored mustard on the side. We drink Elder juice and sparkling water and homemade wine the shade of watercolor roses. Fresh chicken and potato salad with crunchy green onion right from the garden. Andrei and Adi step away to smoke between courses so we aren’t bothered. We decide to share the cake – hot, not warm – from the oven with berries and rhubarb. Kristen takes Miruna to the garden to show her what a rhubarb looks like and it feels like a contribution – finally a contribution to the finest hosts I have ever encountered. They refuse – Cristian, Miruna, Andrei and Adi – when I offer to contribute to the bill, which works out to less than $15 per person, all included. It is their honor, their collective sense of innate duty to be sure we want for nothing. Later, I buy Andrei a bottle of Jim Beam over protest. It is the least – and the most – I can and am able to do. I toast him to celebrate his new love, new friendship, a new perspective.
Adi laughs with his whole body when, after dinner, I tell him a joke. It’s the one about Seamus in Scotland and the bridge and the barn. Miruna stands next to Cristian while I talk to Jenn and Kristen. She lays her hand on his shoulder unconsciously. He stands, twirls her in music-less dance and sings an American love song to her badly, his accent thick, his pitch non-existent and perfect just the same.
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And now I’m sitting in the garden of the hotel. It’s late and we are all of us wine drunk. Jenn has gone to bed. Andrei too. The table is lit by a single candle on the table and Adi comes and sits next to me. We talk about growing up and regret and God and how we both put feet on our own necks – holding ourselves back. And I tell him about my friend who died in middle school. And he tells me about his brother and the woman he was in love with, the accident and how his wife came to his rescue. We talk about America and what he thought it was and I tell him and the others about September 11 and why America still bleeds through a mostly closed scar. I tell them about being a reporter, about the smell at Ground Zero a few days on. I tell them how it used to keep me up at night. And we drink more wine, good wine. Romanian wine that does not create a hangover and does not make me angry. Kristen has had enough. She goes to her room. I stay up a little while longer, talking with Adi and Cristian and Miruna – about music, about politics, about the videos we’ve seen on YouTube. We laugh about things that cause laughing. We talk about mad things, incomprehensible things. We talk like friends of 20 years, not 20 hours. And all the time we laugh, so hard the hotel will get complaints about our laughing the next morning.
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And now I’m in Bucharest in a conference room talking to a woman with bottle blond hair and stylish, oversized glasses. She Andreea. She is brilliant. She is 24 years old and older than that. She is serious and impressive and nervous to talk to me. Is it her English? It’s much better than mine. Is it that I have come all this way? I can’t be sure. Most likely, it is that she is serious and brilliant and 24. And Stefan, another Romanian genius in high tops and bright colored skinny pants. Stefan is slow to speak and quick to listen, which makes his brilliance somehow more brilliant. I find myself hoping that I have something interesting to say, something worthy of their listening – Andreea’s and Stefans, Andrei’s, Adi’s, Miruna’s and Cristian’s. I want desperately to have something worthy to say.
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And now I’ in the backseat of Andrei’s Seat Leon, listening to his party mix. Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, the theme from ‘Knight Rider” and Dire Strait’s “Brothers In Arms,” as we wend our way through the Carpathian Mountains. The music is a step too loud for conversation, but the songs reveal who he is in words he does not have. And it’s raining as we come down the twisting mountain road and I can’t get my ears to pop and voice is gone from all the talking, from not sleeping,  smoke, exhaustion. And I don’t mind the music. I like it and the rain clears as we make our way through Brasov, a big city in some high mountain plain – like Calgary, I think, but Eurpoean like Brussels – and the sunset takes my breath away. It’s the color of pink lemonade and blood orange against the indigo corners of night. And it seems to take forever, much longer than it should. Much longer than a sunset could last. And the music lowers and we talk some more… about cars, about music, about Romania and everything else.

When I took the job at the agency six years ago, I could not have imagined all the places it would take me – literally. Japan, China, France, London (regularly), Switzerland, Brazil, Romania (hello to all my friends there) for heaven’s sakes. I’m in New York and San Fransisco enough to have preferences of hotel rooms. I have a favorite place for poutine in Toronto and a favorite BBQ place in Austin. I’ve sweltered in Singapore and sauntered through the streets of Barcelona. I’ve prayed in a temple in Kuala Lumpur before buying a knock-off Bell & Ross at a Chinese night market.

All in all, it has been an incredible, unexpected journey. It’s meant a lot of time away from my family. It’s been navigating customs and airports, bridging language barriers and overcoming cultural flubs (if you ever do business in Tokyo, make sure you have plenty of business cards). I will go through periods of extreme travel – New York, Shanghai and Raleigh, North Carolina inside of two weeks – and long dry spells, where I am at home, commuting and living a day-to-day life. Both are exciting. Both rewarding. Both can be exhausting in different ways. I get tired of the unfamiliar when I travel. I grow weary of the familiar when I am at home.

I don’t have a need to escape, but there’s something about being away that makes being home better and I think I’m finally starting to understand why. True, home tends to be more comfortable and comforting. But at home, you are more often in control. You have command of the language, agency in the tasks and events of your day and more autonomy.

When I travel, when I am in unfamiliar places, I am often completely reliant upon other people. The cab driver in Tokyo who helped me find my hotel despite a complete lack of common language. The amazing people in my agency’s Bucharest office who catered to my every need while helping to show me their country. My friend Hannah in London, who met me in the hotel lobby and walked me to where I needed to go so I wouldn’t get lost.

At home, I know where to go. I know what I’m doing. When I travel, I often don’t. I am an alien in a strange land – both abroad and here in the States – forced to rely on others to help me find my way. It’s humbling, but also refreshing. I enjoy being a guest. It makes me a better host and more present as a person.

I’m not prone to quote religious scripture, but there’s a line in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:21) where he instructs the early Christians to be “subject to one another.” I’ve always liked that idea. Paul was a traveler, a wealthy Roman merchant who was knocked off his horse by the voice of God. He spent the rest of his life uniting early pockets of the church, literally going from community to community, country to country to find common purpose among them. And his best piece of advice was “be subject to one another.”

It means to be a good host and a better guest. It means to trust one another, rely on one another, count on the fact that we have each others’ backs. I have experienced that. I experience it every time I’m in an unfamiliar place. And I try to bring that home with me, to be someone the people I know and love, the people I see every day can count on.

There are so many things that tear people apart. So many things that create distance. We tend to clump people into neat little packages and write them all off with the same broad pen. We do it politically, geographically. As marketers, we do it demographically. It becomes easy to think of people as ‘other,’ as numbers to be counted or dismissed, as targets to be sold.

But spend some time in a place where you don’t speak the language. Go to a place where you can’t tell north from south, east from west, and rely on the kindness and generosity of strangers, even for a day, and you might not be so quick to write people off. Being subject to one another doesn’t mean being subject to one over the other. It means having each others’ back, helping a stranger who is lost, trusting a stranger to help you find your way.

It’s good for a person to be reminded of that feeling of reliance. It’s good to feel lost and to let someone help you find your way. It is, after all, one of the things that makes us humans and one of the things that prevents us from being numbers in someone else’s book.

When have you found yourself relying on others? I’d love to know. Leave a comment or mention me on Facebook or @cheimbuch on twitter.

I’ve been traveling a lot for work over the last 18 months – enough that I now select my preferred seats on nearly every aircraft in the Delta Airlines fleet when I book my flights; enough that I can speak the secret language of gate agents; enough that I have a standard format for my packing list; enough that when I go more than a couple of weeks without going somewhere, I feel a little lost.

And, at first, it was all very exciting. Coming from a background of covering local news for newspapers and magazines – where a ‘big’ trip would still have me home for dinner – the idea of getting paid to get on a plane and go someplace else was thrilling. (more…)

If you had told me ten years ago, when I was working for a local newspaper covering local news and never really going anywhere, that one day I would be traveling all over the country (and the world) to attend and speak at conferences, I would not have believed you. Or, if I had, I would have dreaded my future.

They seem so boring. A bunch of people getting together at an event center or hotel convention center, droning from room to room, standing at booths and wearing name tags. I mean, no thanks, right? (more…)

For a bibliophile, this kind of view is like that first hit of crack in the morning.
For a bibliophile, this kind of view is like that first hit of crack in the morning.

I never wanted to be one of those guys. Those preening, particular men who have a preference for everything and tastes so specific that they are completely unadaptable. I don’t have favorite things or, I do, but I’m not so attached to them that I won’t try new things. And I certainly have never had a favorite hotel. My God, just thought of saying something like that sends shivers to my nether regions, like a cheese grater on the under side of my skin.

I hadn’t been to New York in 10 years until a year ago. And before that it had been six or seven years. I was a teenager, staying in the kind of places you stay at when you’re a teenager on a high school choir trip.

Last year brought six more trips to the City and I’ve already been back this year. And it was this last trip when I had my revelation. (more…)