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December 21, 2020


Jason Sebastian Russo


Honk if in the winter of ‘96 you were released from 28-day rehab to live in your parents’ laundry room. Honk if the only job you could find in the small town you grew up in was turtle cleaner. Literally a turtle cleaner. As in, a local vet collected exotic turtles and he needed someone to syphon the turtle-shit-infused water with a pool pump attached to a garden hose. There were over 3,000 turtles in approximately 500 tanks. The smallest turtle was the size of a quarter, the largest was a snapper the size of a dining room table. The latter was kept in a pool covered in chicken wire. You and the goth kid, Dale, the only other employee, would toss full-sized trout into the gap in the wire. It was also your duty to carry the corpses of dead dogs to the giant refrigerator behind the garage. Sometimes you had to prop the door open with a frozen lap dog, a poodle or chihuahua.

Honk if the vet had needles lying around in the basements he kept the turtles in. Basements that had more than a passing resemblance to the final scene in The Silence of the Lambs. Eventually those used needles worked their way into your veins, despite the high probability that they contained strange turtle diseases, and your time at the turtle place came to an end. Honk if the whole thing felt like the beginning or the end of something important, but in the end it was neither.



Honk if your body is a time machine:

“Poughkeepsie, 1995. I moved in with a guy that was friends with an actual band. I had been homeless, my parents kicked me out due to a violation of a contract they’d drawn up. The contract stipulated that I would go to weekly mass, A.A. and agree to be celibate. After violating these rules and nearly coming to blows with my father, I was asked to leave. The guy I eventually moved in with was in his late thirties, in a regionally successful band, and roughly twenty years older than me. Our third roommate was a waiter that sang opera. Together they introduced me to a professional band that was on a record label. They did things like put out albums, go on tour, and speak casually about how snarky British press could be. They had been convinced to move up to Poughkeepsie, because you could live cheaply there and still be within striking distance of New York City. I was keenly interested in this band. Because they were, and I can’t stress this enough, an actual band.

“I came home one day to my little apartment, which was more or less a shooting gallery, to a note. There was a fair amount of crack cocaine use going on but one couldn't truly call it a crack house because most of us were junkies that used crack. Not the other way around. I came home to a post-it note on my door that said so and so from such and such band wanted to talk, and to call them and there was a phone number. And I was like, “Well here it is, this is it, this is how these things happen.

“I was probably coming home from my job at Sausage and Stuff Deli. I imagined myself joining this band, going on tour, and leaving the deli life behind me. For decades afterwards my mind would return to this little square of paper, eye level on that cracked green enamel door. Zooming out from it, in reverse, back to the future. I called so and so from such and such band and they picked up right away and said, without fanfare, “We heard you can score drugs.” So it turned out they didn't want me to play with them at all. They had just heard, rightly, that I could procure drugs. I didn't abandon my mission, however, I did just that. I became their mule. I went back and forth to the city and picked this or that up and sometimes got arrested twice in the same day. I supplied them with drugs. It took about a year of loyal service, but I did end up playing bass for them, which apparently ​is​ how those things work.

“From then on I lived a duplicitous life. In my heart I was a normal hopeless Poughkeepsie resident that worked at Sausage and Stuff Deli, but I would also go out on long wild rock and roll tours. I went to Europe for the first time, I was on MTV, I bought a $25 suitcase from Kmart. I did all the things that you see in the movies that bands do. I sent my parents postcards from Barcelona. I collected hotel soap. I’d come back and work at Sausages and Stuff and folks would come in for a meatball sub and say: ‘I thought you said you were famous?’ and I would say, ‘It’s complicated.’

“It went back and forth like that for a bunch of years and I guess my real story, the one I’m trying to tell here, is about the Canadian border. A border tale. Bands have to cross borders and we often did so, en route to Montreal, in our shitty van, the inside of which we had spray painted silver with the wrong kind of paint. The paint didn’t or couldn’t fully dry so all of our gear and clothes had random silver smudges on them. The band had sunk its advance money into a special needs van, bought on auction, from the city. We had to keep it running for days at a time because the starter was broken. In this condition we headed north. If you have ever been in a band that plays in Canada, you know, it's a grueling process. It’s degrading. Things happen.

“I was the youngest and had a reputation as a wild card. Not in a cool way, in a liability way. I knew that my currency in that band was contingent on my being cavalier about what happened to me. I was about ten years younger than everybody so it was important for me to be perceived as cooler. I remember vividly, sitting in that misfiring and frozen van, in a bean bag that faced backwards. As in I was facing the other passengers. I didn’t know how close the border was, I saw everything only in hindsight. I lived primarily, by day, on that orange bean bag on the front right hand passenger side, where the passenger seat would be if it hadn't been yanked out. It was also where the band threw their trash. They liked to chuck McDonald’s garbage into the little well between the door and the van, the foot step thingy. Presumably because the trash would fall out when the door was opened. The singer blew his nose on magazines and got rid of them the same way. I lived under a blanket on this bean bag that was also a garbage pile. I tried but failed to figure out Oscar The Grouch jokes. Probably because even Oscar has more dignity, or at least an air of authority.

“I remember huddling under my coat doing drugs that I couldn't let them know that I had. Only because they would take them for themselves. I’d snort whatever while seven band members and crew watched the road out of the windshield about a foot above my head. In this manner, and much to my surprise, we pulled up to the border. We were pretty much immediately surrounded by Mounties, who turned out to just look like cops, not on horses or with the hats or anything. Things quickly became very tense. The tension mounted, so to speak. Ours was the kind of band that, if you did something wrong you were voted off the island, you had to permanently go back to Sausage and Stuff. ​This was literally a fate worse than death, as far as I was concerned. I did not want to go back to meatball subs or eggs on hard rolls with salt, pepper and ketchup.

"Our tour manager was taken aside first, an eager dog materialized and sniffed his crotch, causing everyone to become very silent. Our luggage was removed and we were ordered to sit there, in the cold. The next thing I remember is a huge mountie jerking the door open, saying 'MR. RIZZO. JACK RIZZO.' Which is me and my body filled with ice water. 'Mr Rizzo, have you been drinking any short sodas lately?' A full minute passed while we all stared at the guy, extremely confused.​ He said it again, seeming pleased with a joke: 'I said, are you drinking any little sodas lately?’ ‘Short sodas.' I​ just said ‘No,' and he motioned to the door of the station.

"They brought me into a little metal room in the back of the Mountie station, with pictures of the queen on the wall and weird police apparatus. I was sweating and freezing at the same time, trying to look cool, and they told me to take my sunglasses off. I was fully one third the size of every person in that room. No less than five big beefy guys plus me filled it with breath.

“Head mountie said, 'Mister Rizzo we found these short straws in the little pocket of your jeans. Short straws that are encrusted with powder. We're going to test this powder. And we're gonna offer you a deal. You can either pay us five hundred dollars and say you're guilty for what is obviously drugs, or you can plead not guilty, and it will go to court, in which case we'll prove that this residue is cocaine and you'll have to pay a much larger fine and probably go to prison. What do you choose?' I blinked once, and said, 'I don't do drugs, officer.' He said, 'Well what is this powder in these cut up soda straws?' And I said ‘Well, these are, you know, they sell ephedrine over the counter to keep truckers awake and we have to drive long hours so I crush the pills and snort them. It's legal.’ The big mountie said ‘Mister Rizzo,' and looked hard at me, ‘we're going to test these … for drugs.”

During this conversation, one of the mounties was opening metal lockers and eventually pulled out a can that said on it, in large clear letters: Cocaine Tester. They all looked at me, proudly, as if they’d just unveiled a secret weapon, as if to say, ‘This is it. Five hundred or five thousand bucks,’ which, I obviously didn't have. And also, if the band was denied entry because of little ol’ me, it was safe to assume my career in the rock and roll business was over. Back to Poughkeepsie, back to Italian subs, back to tuna on a hard roll. So I said, ‘Officer, I don’t do drugs.’ And then, in a way that surprised all of us, things got way more tense. A thick layer of tension descended upon us. My eyebrows couldn't hold the sweat and one dripped. There was a lot of silence and breath.

“He said, ‘If you're found guilty, it's going to be bad. You're never gonna be allowed in Canada again, your bandmates are all gonna have to go home and you can't play your little shows. Things are not going to be good.' This last bit was practically hissed. 'Not going to be good.’ I looked up at him, as blank faced as I could, and said, 'Officer, I don't do drugs.’ So they sprayed my little straws. And the powder foamed and turned pink. The test was negative. I walked out of the room, out of the metal door, got into my beanbag and we drove off. We played our show at Lee’s Palace in Montreal that night. ​Because the straws were caked with heroin not cocaine.”