Readers familiar with my blog know that one of the hats I wear is as a feis musician. A feis, for the un-initiated, is an Irish dancing competition. They range in size from 200 competitors to some that have over 2,000. Regardless of size, each feis must have live musicians to provide the music for the competitors. This is where my life as a rock-star accordion player took root and began to flourish.
As I've written many times, I love Irish dancing and I regard it as an honor and privilege to play for Irish dancers. I look at it as part of my ministry that, with every kid who walks out on the stage, I utter a quick prayer for that dancer that he or she may do his or her best at that moment. With hundreds of competitors and loads of competitions, a typical feis day seems like unremitting prayer. Indeed, I often feel as though it is during a feis that I respond best to Paul's injunction that we "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17). I pray and I play, and I love every minute of it.
But a feis weekend involves much more than the feis. Very often one must travel great distances - travel across the country is quite normal - and this weekend I flew from Cleveland to Houston to play at the Houston New Year's Feis (note to those scandalized by the idea of a Jesuit flying to Houston: it is paid for by the feis committee). I'm grateful that I had wholly uneventful flights this weekend. Indeed, on the way home yesterday I sat next to a man who is currently training to be a pilot for Continental and he was very interesting to talk to about turbulence and flight delays.
Anyway, I digress.
When I arrived on Friday, my friend Anne Hall (it is her mom, Maureen McTeggart Hall, whose school is responsible for the feis) told me to take a cab to the hotel. So I stood in the queue and got into the back of the first available cab.
To begin with, I knew something was wrong by the smell of it. There was a thick, almost nauseating, odor of cheap vanilla-scented air fresheners...owing, perhaps, to the fact that the driver had nearly seven of them hanging about the car. Had I not worn a strong cologne that day, the odor of sandalwood and citrus would have been replaced on my body with the scent of tackiness.
As we pulled out of the parking lot, I knew I was in for a treat. Swooning from the olfactory assault, I was unprepared for the barrage of words my driver let loose. He began by telling me about how angry he was at the state of the economy because business had been slow of late. This, of course, I understood. But he continued in his tirade against the government, saying that it was the fault of the government that he had no teeth. I looked up and caught a glimpse of the man's mouth and, truth be told, he actually had not teeth. This concerned me and, figuring that he must have trouble with insurance, I asked him to elaborate.
Well, the gist of the story is this. Having lost his teeth several years ago, he realized that he could have dentures made in Mexico for a fraction of the cost one would pay here in the States. So he had gotten into the habit of going over the border and paying $200-$300 for teeth, as opposed to the $1000+ it costs up here. But then one day he tried to come over the border and his teeth were confiscated. Why they were confiscated he did not elaborate, but since then his passport has expired and he has to wait to get a new passport before he can return to Mexico to buy new teeth. But he can't get a passport until he pays back his debt, which is considerable. Hence his driving the cab.
Now up until this point, I'm totally sympathetic. I don't carry a lot of money with me, but judging from the meter I reckoned that I'd be able to give him a pretty good tip, if only to help the guy out. I realize that people fall on tough luck very often and I figured that I was in a position to help him out in some way.
With the hotel in sight, he tells me that I've been a good listener and that he appreciates me listening to him. "Thank you for sharing," I said, "and I hope your luck changes soon."
"Yeah," he said. "I do too. It's been really tough driving a cab on a suspended license."
"A suspended license?" I inquired. "As in, you're not supposed to be driving right now?"
"Yeah, something like that. It's no big deal - as long as I don't get arrested, it's all good."
At this divulgence, my head began to spin. Was this guy serious? A cabbie with a suspended license? Isn't there some way of policing this within the cab companies? I scanned about the cab to see if I could find his name, and I saw his ID sitting on the front seat. I don't want to make public his name, but in the present context I shall call him LOTHAR even though his real name is far more exotic and interesting. He was just launching into the narrative of the suspended license when he pulled up to the main doors of the hotel.
With great joy, I alighted from the car and payed my fare..giving him, nevertheless, a good tip. The sickly-sweet smell of vanilla car freshener wafting behind him, Lothar drove away, leaving me feeling as though I'd just played a role in a Flannery O'Connor story. With the odor dissipating into the warm Houston air, I hoisted my accordion onto my back and walked through the sliding glass doors into the hotel. "While not the strangest thing I've ever experience," I muttered under my breath, "this does rank in the upper echelons of weird." Drifting off to sleep that night, I stirred but one time when I began to laugh in bed, imagining a border official somewhere in Texas walking around wearing Lothar's teeth. Entertained by this thought, I rolled over and closed my eyes, drifting off to the sleep thinking of the countless tunes I would play the next day at yet another feis.