Oh, god, I’m writing about Costco. I may be officially out of ideas.

Here it goes, anyway:

Our neighborhood Costco.

Costco doesn’t appear to be designed for DINKs like my wife and me. You go into the joint and it is filled with bulk merchandise — the kind that two people will never use up before it goes stale or dries out or just takes up space until your house starts to resemble a “Hoarders” episode. It basically screams “big families and small businesses.”

But I recently bought us a $60 Costco membership and it took very little time to pay for itself. My initial decision was simple — there’s a Costco only two miles from us and the gasoline there (which is Top Tier certified) costs 80 cents to a dollar a gallon less than other stations near us. With my wife having to use her personal vehicle for work soon, the gas savings for her vehicle alone could be $50 a month or more, and I’m likely to save $20 a month or so on my less-driven car. That’s more than a membership fee every month.

But Costco offers more than just bulk stuff and cheap gas. For example, I just knocked $80 off a car rental by using Costco’s service. Had I not found an incredible buy elsewhere recently, I would have bought a new set of deeply discounted tires through Costo a couple of months ago. Their travel site is legendary. The store often has great wine bargains. We haven’t bought pre-made meals there yet, but they look great and are highly price competitive. They sell prime cuts of beef at great prices when we want to splurge, although those typically are in big packs (but hey, we have a freezer). And they offer savings on all sorts of big-ticket items, from appliances to mattresses to electronics (although those aren’t always the best prices).

So there may be reasons for even a single person to get a Costco membership. Frankly, we’ve used ours far more than I thought we would. And if you’re thinking it’s just the place to get giant bulk things, you’re missing out.

In praise of the sideman

I’m a sideman. I’ve always been a sideman. When you’re a sideman, if you’re any good, your role isn’t just to play the parts of a song for your instrument. It’s to make the whole band sound better.

I’ve never been a lead guitarist or the B-2 player or anything like that. Sure, I play harmonica, and in some bands that means you get to play some hot-shit solos, but mostly you stand with your hands in front of your face and findplaces to make everything sound better.

I’ve been thinking about this because this week, an amazing sideman died: Sam Lay. You’ve probably never heard of him. You should have.

Sam Lay played drums with all of the blues cats of the 1950s and 1960s: Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Sam, Little Walter, Paul Butterfield and on and on. They always sounded better with him, but if you listen to these guys, you always think of them, not the drummer. Yet they never sounded the same — or as good — without him. That’s what a sideman does.

I’ve played in a lot of bands. Occasionally, my ego tells me that I should front one, but honestly, I don’t want to do the work that fronting a band requires, and I have a day job that makes this even less appealing. As a result, I’ve concentrated on a sideman’s role.

One of the things that makes me laugh about it is that some band members, for some inexplicable reason, notice the band doesn’t sound as good/thick/cool/something when I’m absent. The more cash-driven among those band members want to cut me out anyway, because what am I adding, really? And yet they get paid more with me than without me, and the connection isn’t always made.

But I know. I patch the bare spots. I give the lead players something to bounce back against. I blow the occasional solo and sing the occasional song to give everyone else a break. I harmonize. All of this matters.

You should salute the sideman. The lead folks make you want to see a band, but the sideman makes you want to hear it, even if you don’t realize that at first. And for someone like me, who never tried to make a living from music but has played in bands for 37 years anyway, that means a lot.

Pandemics end

I thought last May that my personal pandemic had pretty much ended. That was a few weeks after I had gotten my second dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, meaning it had hit maximum effectiveness and I was considered fully vaccinated by the CDC. Meanwhile, the government was starting to peel back its recommendations on masking, and there was a definite feeling that happy days were here again.

We all know how that went, and we’re back in the ditch again, although I feel considerably more optimistic than I did in 2020. But I can’t help noticing that the fuel keeping this pandemic going is largely provided by the unvaccinated. And a lot of them have dug in Because America.

Of all the many levels of stupid surrounding our current political crisis, this sure looks like the stupidest, and quite possibly the most evil. Hundreds of thousands of people have died unnecessarily and many more have suffered deeply because they’ve somehow equated their denial of a free, safe, effective medical treatment with their personal freedom. The loss would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, and now it feels like it’s being met with a shrug. And a group of politicians (almost all vaccinated, by the way) have built a business model around this avoidable carnage — a deeply, deeply twisted development.

But the consequences go beyond the unvaccinated and those who are using them for gain and profit. Thanks to the nature of COVID, these folks populate the factory that builds new variants. How long before we get one that dodges vaccines and starts to really kill us all again? Why do the immune-suppressed and others for whom vaccines aren’t effective or an option have to suffer for this perversion of ‘freedom’?

It’s at times like this that I have to remind myself that all pandemics end. Of course, it would certainly speed things along if everyone would do their part.

Blues with a feeling

I once played only the blues. That was in the early and mid-1990s, when there was a blues revival going on, and I played in a jump blues band with the occasionally side gig with serious gutbucket blues guys. I knew most of the local big players, I was active in the local blues society, I’d earned my creds in the South and I was in the group of harp players who weren’t considered “Hohner owners.” That’s the derisive term slapped on the poor bastards who purchased a bunch of harmonicas but couldn’t really play them. They caught the blues bug, looked for the easiest way to get into a band and decided playing the harmonica would fit that bill. It often worked out about as well as you might suspect.

There were harp players everywhere when I moved to town in 1990. I’d go to an open mic and sometimes there’d be a dozen of them. And honestly, at the time, there were probably 20 or so in the area who were pretty good — a number not so impressive when stacked up against the dozens of hot-shit guitarists you could find around, but way more than I ran across when I lived in Little Rock or Memphis.

Now: Not so much. The blues has faded and the harp has faded even more. There are maybe half a dozen folks I know about in the area whose harp playing I respect now. Most of them don’t know me because I moved away from the blues and more into the roots rock/Americana arena, and in a lot of cases, my vocals became more useful than my harp to bands.

I write about all of this now because I recently caught a couple of fill-in gigs with Bad Influence, a band that’s been at the top of the local blues scene for almost as long as I’ve been around here. And it’s reminded me of how much I miss the blues and miss playing in places where the audience is connected to blues music. The blues has faded and bloomed and faded and bloomed, but this particular fade has been going on for a while now, and I’m not particularly confident we’ll ever see the bloom return around here. So when I get chances like these, especially with a band that carries the chops these guys do, I treasure the opportunity. And I’m reminded about why I still love this music in the first place.

Adding to the fleet

The family fleet, with the new addition

In the next couple of months, my wife’s employer is pulling the cars it allowed a handful of staffers drive home at night. That’s a perk she’s had for many years, and eliminating it blew a $10,000 annual hole in our budget, and it also meant we had to get her a commuter vehicle.

But not just any commuter vehicle, of course. It needed to be a commuter vehicle that would get her to work in terrible weather, and could be used as a work vehicle on occasion. And we needed to get that in the absolute worst environment I can ever recall for buying a new car.

The weather requirement meant AWD, and AWD meant a SUV; I wasn’t going for the gas-sucking cartoons that pass as pickup trucks now as commuter vehicles, and they’re not ideal snow/ice vehicles anyway because of the lack of weight over the rear tires.

But my wife loves her a pickup truck. We’ve had Old Blue (which is black), a 2001 Ford Ranger, for over 12 years. We bought it as a way for her to get around if I wasn’t home — she could drive the company vehicle to and from work, but nowhere else — and as a utilitarian complement to the small cars we generally owned. She made it her own, slapping on bumper stickers and a fuzzy steering wheel cover. I have fond memories of her driving up to the house in Old Blue, with Dexter sticking his head out of the driver’s side window, barking at me. But Blue needs a chunk of work now, and it’s about time we gave her to someone who will do that work and enjoy her a lot.

Anyway, if you’ve been following the headlines, you know the deal: New cars are in short supply, thanks to chip shortages and transportation issues and general nonsense. That’s the market we had to launch into, and since it looks like it’ll get worse before it gets better, I wanted to shop now instead of waiting for winter desperation to lock in.

I tried to push her toward a small SUV, even though she really wanted a pickup. She wanted POWER for all of those times she has to race at 10 mph on her crawling commute, but she wants what she wants, so I tried to accommodate her on that front. But I also found that a couple of manufacturers had launched mini-trucks — think modern El Caminos — and thought those creations might sit in the middle of the Venn diagram for the kind of cars we wanted.

In the end, we looked at four vehicles: A Mazda CX-30 turbo, a Subaru Crosstrek, and the mini-trucks: A Hyundai Santa Cruz and a Ford Maverick.

The first shock was this: Sticker prices are a freaking comedy. For example, we enjoyed the CX-30, but it was marked at $4,000 over list even though it was the end of the model year, meaning the immediate depreciation if we bought it was going to be enormous. And ordering was pretty much out of the question; the salesman said he wasn’t sure when he was going to get new stock of any kind, much less any car that was ordered from the factory in Japan.

The Crosstrek went out the window as soon as we got in it: It felt cheap but it wasn’t. And even with the larger optional engine, it was the lowest-powered of the potential picks and my wife wants POWER, if you weren’t paying attention.

We both liked the looks of the Santa Cruz, but it’s the hottest vehicle in America right now and the only model with POWER that we could ever find ran over $40,000 at LIST — before the F.U. markups many dealers were tacking on. And I was worried that today’s cool look would be tomorrow’s leisure-suit styling.

That left the Maverick. The truckette is crazy cheap at the base level (under $20K) and can be ordered with a hybrid engine, which was appealing enough to my wife that she considered waiving the POWER requirements. However, it can’t be obtained in all-wheel drive in that configuration, so that was out. There are about 100,000 people waiting for their Maverick-with-a-hybrid orders, but the occasional 4-cylinder-turbo AWD model is making its way to showrooms, so we started looking that way.

I found a well-appointed one on AutoTrader that was coming in to an Alexandria dealership, reached out to them, made an appointment and my wife and I headed in…to be told it had just been sold. It had only arrived two days earlier on the lot, and rightly or wrongly, this felt like a routine to drag us into the dealer anyway. We are the wrong people for that approach, so we left…

…and we got called back even before we got home again. The Maverick sale fell through because the buyer couldn’t qualify for financing, the dealership said (we will never know if that is true; you can understand my skepticism). I had to work, but my wife was off and went to test drive it, liked it and gave me a yell. I didn’t need any convincing; it wasn’t too truck-y for me, gas mileage was OK, the crazy-low inventories on dealer lots made me a motivated buyer and I thought it was safer on the down-the-road resale front than the Santa Cruz was likely to be (again: Today’s funky style is tomorrow’s leisure suit).

Next came the negotiation, which wasn’t all that bad except for the initial offer. I was told that I could have the truck for a mere $3K over its MSRP. I expressed my feelings about that in a direct manner. However, I did offer them list price.

Now, I’d typically never do that — I’d look up comp sales in the area and aim for that price — but this was a brand new, hot model that probably could have gotten list even in a normal market. I also strongly felt the car sales situation was going to get even worse soon. This also was a 2022 model, not a 2021, so I wouldn’t have to eat a year of depreciation by buying an end-of-year new car. We added in a couple of aftermarket accessories that put a little more meat on the bone for the dealer, they offered us great financing and we came to a deal.

And now it’s in the driveway. The spray-on bed liner was added yesterday, and we’re waiting for a locking bed cover and an aftermarket audible backup warning that my wife wanted (she’ll have to park in some not-fun situations). But we also dealt with near-empty dealership stocks and eye-popping pricing. It was a bad time to buy a new car, but we got a vehicle we wanted at a price we were willing to pay, and that’s about all you can ask right now.