Streets of the East, Ballads

Table of Contents:
August 1st – M4M 3M2
August 3rd – M4K 3H8
August 6th – M4K 1M8
August 8th – M5A 1C3
August 10th – M4K 3H8
August 13th – M4B 1A4
August 18th – M4J 4Z6
August 20th – M4M 1Z2
August 24th – M4C 1A9
August 27th – M4L 3W6
August 28th – M4K 1P6
August 31st – M4E 1J3

Charpoy – Streets of the East, Ballads

Map of Concert Locations

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What is the “Streets of the East, Ballads”?

“Streets of the East, Ballads” is a project I organized in August of 2020. My friend, colleague, and fellow tenor saxophonist Patrick Smith and I set out with a setlist of 7 songs to play 12 concerts on the streets of Toronto’s east-end. With approximate locations determined in advance and advertised using only postal codes, we searched for and performed in some of the east-end’s most interesting and diverse nooks and crannies.

“Streets of the East, Ballads” shared many inspirations and goals with a project I organized last spring, my “Toronto Streets Tour” [LINK]. At the core of this “streets tour” theme is a desire for frequent performances (harkening back to the “good old days” of jazz musicians playing nightly in clubs); the challenge of playing with consistency, ease, and focus in a variety of environments; and the hope to connect with people through music, especially those who don’t frequent Toronto’s jazz venues.

Unlike last year’s project, I wanted this year to be focused on improvisation rather than on the execution of predetermined compositions. Patrick and I learned seven songs, and we expected to play them together for the first time as a duo at our first performance on August 1st. In my opinion, navigating uncommon situations can facilitate improvisation, and playing ballads as a duet of two saxophones leans slightly on the side of uncommon for us both. The instrumentation also brought challenges, namely:

  • navigating the concepts of melody/accompaniment, lead/follow, especially as two instruments often used as melodic and/or lead voices
  • looking for orchestrational variation, exploring the orchestrations of solo/duet, high/low register, and musical characteristics of loud/soft, dense/spacious (and combinations thereof)
  • listening closely for tempo changes, expressions of time-feel, and form variations, especially as instruments not commonly expected to outline these elements in jazz music

The locations for our performances were contained within the rough boundaries of the Don Valley, Main St, Taylor Creek, and Lake Ontario. After both looking at the map, and deferring to east-end old-timers, we decided on twelve locations that offered a mix of city and park features, alternating between busy and quiet, people-wise. Each location had either visual, sonic, or social/cultural appeal.

Our set length averaged around 65 minutes. Patrick chose three songs, and I chose the other four. We mixed songs that we knew with songs that we each had to learn. Besides playing and understanding these pieces, my hope was that a few of these wonderful new songs would stick with me past the end of August. I am often frustrated that ballads are particularly slippery for me to hold onto, memory-wise. At each concert we played:

  1. A Flower is a Lovesome Thing – Billy Strayhorn
  2. I’m Getting Sentimental Over You – George Bassman & Ned Washington
  3. It’s Easy to Remember – Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart
  4. Goodbye – Gordon Jenkins
  5. I Cover the Waterfront – Johnny Green & Edward Heyman
  6. Moon River – Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer
  7. Charpoy/Lana Turner – Billy Strayhorn

My checklist everyday was much shorter than last year’s “Toronto Streets Tour”, swapping layers of warm clothing for a bottle of sanitizer and a surgical-style mask. And of course, I made sure to pack my saxophone, trusty Nalgene™ (please sponsor me) water bottle, zoom recorder, umbrella, posters (adhered to cardboard this year, a marked upgrade), and rocks (to weigh the posters down). On location, we did not set up a receptacle to collect money. I wanted to create clarity that we were not seeking money, but rather for ears attached to human beings with genuine interest.

And with that, we set out towards M4M 3M2! But before that:

*a quick note about “humidex”, which is included in each day’s weather summary:

From Wikipedia, “The humidex (short for humidity index) is an index number used by Canadian meteorologists to describe how hot the weather feels to the average person, by combining the effect of heat and humidity”.

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Saturday August 1, 3:00 PM, M4M 3M2 (Leslie Spit, east shore)
Weather: 26 C, Humidex 33, sunny with occasional clouds, very windy

Saturday afternoon in August is a popular time to be outside, especially on a beautiful day. Tommy Thompson Park was brimming with people today. To get into the park, and through the choke point at the gate, I was surprised to find a short line. Once inside, I was propelled a few kilometers into the park by a mix of nervousness and shyness regarding this first performance.

Patrick had texted me in the morning with bad news: I was on my own for day one. Having faced the effects of food poisoning all night, with a fish from FreshCo as prime suspect, he wasn’t going to make the show. Although not entirely unfamiliar, playing a set of solo saxophone music is really challenging and I was seeking a bit of comforting privacy to aid me in my effort.

After walking a couple of kilometers, I settled on a beach on the east shore of the spit. This beach was made up of concrete debris, bent rebar, brick fragments, and uneven footing. I decided on a spot that was visible from the main path through a person-sized window in the trees. The path was about 30 meters away, just inside earshot.

Listening to the waves as I played, I was humbled by each of the seven songs. After learning them from a variety of old recordings, the mastery of the recording’s authors became particularly clear throughout my attempted imitation. After stumbling through the set, grasping at fleeting moments of clarity, I felt inspired to practice each of the songs more deeply. On my walk back, my mind was running through new ways to practice, pinpointing specific moments where I had faltered, isolating them for future improvement.

A few people stopped to listen briefly today, but most continued on their ways quickly, with little dilly dally-ing. For a jammed day on the spit, an overall quiet set of music.

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Monday August 3, 12:00 PM – M4K 3H8 (Underneath the Beechwood Dr Bridge)
Weather: 22.9 C, Humidex 29, sunny with occasional clouds

Today, Patrick and I met under the DVP on Beechwood Dr. This is a surprising street, narrow as it ducks away from O’Connor Dr with gusto, bending, swerving, dipping… It eventually levels out to pass under the DVP, after which the Toronto Police Dog Services building comes into view (obviously). The area is full of large, foliage rich trees offsetting the raging highway above.

Patrick and I staked out a spot under the bridge, briefly exploring its tantalizingly sloped concrete banks (which must be about 45 degrees, right on the edge of shoes finding grip and sliding). We set up in the middle of the bridge, roadside, with a large structural support between us. I was surprised by the sound characteristics under this bridge. It wasn’t as reverberant as expected, but thankfully not completely dominated by vehicle noise from overhead.

This was the first time Patrick and I played together for this project. Amidst some funny errors and occasional miscommunications, we made it through in one piece. I was pleasantly reminded of the challenges of constant listening, both instrumental and mindful endurance, and repertoire-related familiarity, especially after the past few months of sparse in-person music making. Our set was full of exploration. Patrick and I jostled on the subjects of form, time, orchestration, etc.

Although there was a surprising amount of foot traffic, especially for a Monday afternoon, very few individuals stopped to listen.

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Thursday August 6, 6:00 PM – M4K 1M8 (City of Toronto Adult Learning Center, parkade)
Weather: 22.6 C, Humidex 25, sunny with blue skies

Today Patrick and I met on the East side of the bridge spanning the DVP between Bloor and Danforth. Hoping to play underneath it, I was disappointed to find solid concrete. We walked onto the Toronto Adult Learning Center’s grounds and immediately gravitated to an empty parkade. Fluorescent central lighting with large open sides created an interesting atmosphere, which, when coupled with the low concrete ceiling, created an enticing spot with reverberant acoustics.

Thankful for the shade of the parkade, we set up in the north-west corner near an entrance. Today’s set bore a sense of comfort. Having played the songs together and gotten the jitters out of our fingers and heads on the 3rd, we had the capacity to listen and respond with more purpose. For example, while playing “It’s Easy to Remember” Patrick and I spontaneously landed on the bridge with complimentary note-dense ideas, one ascending in the high register and the other descending in the low register, which continues to morph throughout the rest of the song.

Few people walked by today, although I did note two warm-hearted individuals who passed. The first was an employee at the center who briefly came to their car on two occasions, clapping for us mildly both times. The second was a long-white-bearded individual in overalls, who commented, “This music makes me feel like I’m in an old movie” as they passed.

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Saturday August 8, 3:00PM – M5A 1C3 (Don Trail Underpass, at the Don River)
Weather: 25.7 C, Humidex 30, sunny with blue skies

Another beautiful day. I feel lucky as I think back to last year’s “Toronto Streets Tour” and the bitter cold of April. Today Patrick and I met under the DVP’s southern start point, under a bunch of spaghetti noodle overpasses. We settled into a sheltered spot between the murky Don River and a graffiti covered concrete support. We were equidistant, about 20 meters, from both the busy bike path and a surprisingly large flock of assorted birds relaxing on the water. We were thankful it didn’t smell as foul as it looked.

This was a loud location. Ambient noise from vehicles passing overhead filled the area. Mid-set, a car drove by with a flat tire, shocking us with its volume, “whap whap whap whap whap” etc. When we both reactively looked up, we noticed the word “FORTE” graffitied on a green girder above. Fitting!

The music today felt comfortable, but in many ways similar to our last performance. Our natural tendencies prevailed and we often revisited musical elements we had played in past sets. I internally set a goal to break away at our next performance. Nobody stopped to listen today, although I heard a constant stream of “Saxophone?”, “Is that a… saxophone?”, “Hear that? That’s a saxophone!” etc. from passing cyclists.

I rushed to pack up and leave after the set, heading towards two apartment viewings. I think searching for an apartment has the potential to be exciting and fun, but in the past I’ve only experienced anxiety and worry. What could be an exploration I treat like a race. Fun fact: one of the apartments I saw this afternoon is where I am now living!

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Monday August 10 12:00 PM- M4K 3H8 (under the Gardiner Expressway’s eastern on-ramp)
Weather: 27 C, Humidex 37, sunny with fluffy clouds

It was stiflingly hot. Even in the shade with a constant breeze, it was sticky and sweaty. Patrick and I met under the Gardiner Expressway’s eastern on-ramp, walking carefully over the medium sized stones which covered the ground ( devilishly well designed for rolling one’s ankle). We settled under a large concrete archway.

This area was turbulently loud. The Gardiner above was barely audible, thank goodness, but the constant stream of large vehicles passing on Lakeshore Blvd, with one lane 20 meters on either side of us, resounded. The engines of Kenworths, Peterbilts, Volvos, and Internationals roaring into gear causes a big ruckus.

Today’s set was loose, free, and spacious compared to our last. I attribute it primarily to the heat and the noise. Due to the temperature, we were quickly physically exhausted. To compensate, we both took frequent rests mid-song, which created more opportunity for deviation. And with so much ambient noise, at times it was challenging to hear each other. I often stopped playing just to listen, trying to hear what Patrick was playing. Our set ended up running much longer than usual, with utter relief as we finally finished.

Nobody stopped by to listen today. People passing on the lakeshore bike trail (50 meters away) would look our way but keep moving. Most notably, big trucks would honk and wave on their way by! It was endearing, if slightly startling, to hear such loud horns. And we think our horns were loud… Jeez!

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Thursday August 13 – 6:00 PM – M4B 1A4 (Under Dawes Road, beside Taylor Creek)
Weather: 27.9 C, Humidex 33, sunny with blue skies

Another hot day. I am glad to report that while riding to this location, my back became a puddle of sweat so quickly (from carrying my saxophone), my underarms started getting jealous.

I met Patrick on the Taylor Creek path, as it dips under Dawes Rd. We both felt stunned by the quiet of this location. After our last show (under the Gardiner), the faintest trickle of the creek, leaves blowing gently in the wind, and footsteps on asphalt were a welcome change. And to add even more good, acoustically the bridge offered a wonderful balance of reverberation and space. What a spot!

As we dove into the set, we both felt and played with a sense of relaxation. There was no struggle to hear or be heard, so we played with a much wider dynamic range today. Using the sonic qualities of this environment, we lingered on longer ideas, leaning into intervals and listening to them ring. “Moon River” had a standout performance here.

Although there was constant foot traffic, an older couple were the only people who stopped to listen. Everyone seemed particularly focused on getting where they were going.

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Tuesday August 18 – 12:00 PM – M4J 4Z6 (Monarch Park tunnel, north entrance)
Weather: 24.9 C, Humidex 27, sunny with looming stormy clouds

Today’s temperature was distinctly variable. It fluctuated frequently between hot, in the sun, and cool under occasional clouds. The threat of a thunderstorm loomed in the forecast, and although we were struck with the occasional drop of rain, thankfully we stayed dry.

We met at the north entrance of the Monarch Park tunnel, which runs under the railroad tracks. This set was marked by a variety of fun audience-related moments:

From the beginning of the set, an older individual was hovering, camera in hand, watching and listening. It was heartwarming to see them enjoy the performance from a 20 meter (or more) distance.

Later, right as we ended our second song, a group of three children burst around the corner. They seemed excited to see what was making so much noise. My partner, who was watching the show, started clapping. The children, caught off-guard by the song’s ending, slowly, dumbfoundedly started clapping along. “Clap, come on, you gotta clap” one of the kids urgently whispered to their group. Patrick and I thanked them, appreciative of the situation’s comedy.

And after the set, there were two particularly nice moments. First, someone shared the experience of hearing our music faraway in the neighborhood beyond the tunnel. They had enjoyed searching for its source. Second, an older man walking into the tunnel said, “What of Pascal’s waylaid sister?” in a booming baritone. He was probably on the phone, but it was so unanticipated that everyone in our vicinity stopped and shared a moment of bewilderment.

Musically our set was full of both satisfying moments and strange errors. For example, in “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” we became totally lost, ending abruptly in confusion. And on “Charpoy” we transitioned to double time while improvising, but failed to transition back for the final statement of the melody. This faster speed felt somewhat ridiculous, especially after playing the melody lethargically all month. We both had a laugh at our unexpected, and unrepaired errors.

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Thursday August 20 – 6:00 PM – M4M 1Z2 (Beside the north ramp of the pedestrian bridge at Pape/Gerrard)
Weather: 24.9 C, Humidex 31, sunny with blue skies

Today, after meeting at the bridge, Patrick and I decided to play on the grassy patch to it’s north. Our original plan to play under the bridge was waylaid primarily by a pervasive urine odour. The grass was a strong alternative.

We faced a parking lot and the backs of a few businesses, unlabeled except for a carpet store. There was a constant stream of foot traffic, and because of the bridge’s winding ramp they all spent longer-than-normal within earshot. After the third song, I was surprised to notice six people clapping. Most of them stayed for the remainder and chatted afterwards. The common themes were missing live music and appreciating our performance.

The audience created a sense of urgency and focus in our music, today. This set was one of our strongest. It seemed to fly by as we wove our way through each song. I noticed a sense of both familiarity and comfort with the songs, but also a sense of stability playing with Patrick.

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Monday August 24 – 12:00 PM – M4C 1A9 (west edge of the Merrill Bridge Road Park, facing the staircase)
Weather: 31.6 C, Humidex 38, sunny with blue skies

It was another hot day with a capital H. After the 20 minute walk I was practically super-heated. I can’t even begin to imagine what Patrick’s 40 minute ride did to him! Thankfully a few flights of stairs down into the ravine offered some respite from the heat.

I arrived 20 minutes early with a plan to stake out a favorable location. I walked the length of the short ravine a few times, surprised by the lack of natural theatre-like areas (which would also meet needs for physical distancing). I am starting to suspect that staging “Streets Tours” may not be a part of nature’s needs in forested areas. Anyways, the small path was surrounded on one side by a steep upward slope, and on the other by a wide swampy area. I made a few forays into the mush, but found few patches of dry footing. I eventually decided on a mildly sloped spot on the west end of the ravine which faced a set of stairs.

When Patrick arrived we quickly set about playing (Patrick needed to teach at 2:00). This spot was pleasant sounding, with highlights in birds singing, leaves rustling, and squirrels running through nut trees dislodging their rigid projectile-like fruit, sending them whizzing dangerously towards the ground. This was the first day I was distracted by bugs landing on my arms and legs. Thankfully, it was a mild distraction, causing only a few startled halts.

The music in this set sported another series of unexpected errors. During “Moon River”, for example, a large bug landed on my arm and caused me to stop playing momentarily as I swatted. Patrick was distracted by this and unconsciously changed keys. After waffling for a minute, we ended the song unsatisfied. Although it left a mildly bad taste in my mouth, it was a funny moment.

With nobody in sight and very little foot traffic on the path, we were both shocked to hear applause by 5-10 people after finishing our first piece. We assumed it was coming from houses/yards above. After a few songs, somebody came down to sit on the staircase. Their home office was in a shed lining the ravine, and they were enjoying listening while working.

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Thursday August 27 – 6:00 PM – M4L 3W6 (on the south shore of Ashbridges Bay Park, bordering a smaller path, perched on a few large rocks)
Weather: 28.7 C, Humidex 37, sunny with frequent clouds

This beautiful day at the west end of Woodbine Beach was accompanied by two boats moored 20 meters off the shore, loudly playing music. I didn’t enjoy either their choice of tunes, or their placement. I felt frustrated.

Patrick and I decided on a spot at the southern edge of the park, along a small foot path. We climbed onto some boulders marked by an opening in foliage, creating (what I hope was) a stage-like look. If our performance was captured in a painting, it may have been titled: “Two saxophones swallowed by two persons. Lake Ontario looks on with detachment.”

The ambient sound in our spot was often quiet and peaceful with those music blasting boats hidden around the corner. The tender waves lapping at the boulders below were drowned by the periodic  grating whine of Sea-Doos. Sea-Doos are manufactured by Bombardier, by the way. And since the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) awarded Bombardier a $1-billion contract in 2009 for new streetcars, Bombardier effectively played hooky, blaming everything under the sun for constant delays. Their best excuse is that the new streetcars, which they designed, have an intricate design. At the risk of sounding un-Canadian, there’s another reason to dislike Sea-Doos.  But they deserve it.  And I digress.

The sets have been feeling shorter and shorter as the tour progresses. A combination of nice weather and comfort with the repertoire has caused performances to fly by. Today, however, there were a couple of sand flies intent on slowing my perception of time wayyyyyyyyyyy down. Their tactic: biting my legs, occasionally leaving beads of blood in their wake. It was an unusual game, trying to focus on playing while my mind and body wanted to think “flies”.

Many people passed by today, but few stopped to listen. Though, one couple left us with a perplexing remark:

“No P.J. Perry?”, they asked. 
“No, I think he’s in Edmonton”, I answered, honestly.
“Okay, well keep it up”, I heard over their shoulder as they kept walking.
I felt confused after this exchange.

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Friday August 28 – 6:00 PM ? – M4K 1P6 (across the street from Alexander the Great Parkette, beside TD Bank and an Oasis Clothing Bank donation box)
Weather: 22.6 C, Humidex 26, sunny with complete cloud cover and occasional rain drops

Today we were in a busy area, right on the Danforth. There was worry about rain, and discussion of a contingency plan, but thankfully we stayed dry. As we met and contemplated our location, we were disappointed to hear music playing from what we assumed was a patio speaker. After chatting for a few minutes and sizing up our options, we were relieved that the music drove off, taking with it an electric scooter (and an electric scooter operator).

During our first song, a small group of people amassed in front of us. One child, maybe 5 years old, was fascinated by our performance. They kept stepping closer and closer to us, spurring their parent into negotiations. “Okay, you need to take three steps back. One, two, three. Actually, can you take one more little step? Thank you.”

Another passerby, a musician, lamented the “hard times we musicians are in”. I am very lucky not to resonate with this comment. I am grateful this hasn’t been a particularly “hard time” in my life, in fact it has offered me many opportunities. But I get where they were coming from..

And throughout the set, people insisted on stopping our music to hand Patrick money (he was on the outer edge), providing us a consistent comedic element today. It was particularly focused on “Moon River”, during which three people stopped us. Each time, Patrick instigated a rapid restart with a look full of humour, frustration, and impatience. Something about “Moon River” must really get the people going!

Today the music felt relaxed, even after some initial anxiety playing in such a busy area. In a public space like this one, I was most worried about causing an unnecessary disturbance, especially to anyone trying to peacefully use the area. It was validating to receive appreciation throughout the set.

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Monday August 31 – 12:00 PM – M4E 1J3 (under the west side of the pedestrian bridge at Glen Stewart Park)
Weather: 22.4 C, Humidex 27, sunny day with occasional clouds

The last day of the tour! Patrick and I both lamented how quickly August had flown by, and with it this “Streets of the East” project. Meeting under the DVP on Beechwood Dr on August 3rd seemed all too recent.

We picked a charming spot, positioned under the planks of the footbridge in Glen Stewart Park. As people walked over our heads, we could hear an ominous “thunk, thunk, thuNK, THUNK, THunk…” either approaching or receding. Bicycles were even more fun: “chugga chugga chugga chugga chuGGA CHUGGA CHUgga chugga chugga…”

Patrick and I were both feeling tired today, and our set reflected it. Slow, relaxed, and lethargic would describe the music perfectly.

Many people passed both above and below us, with a few of them stopping to take in the music. We were hidden from view, under the bridge, and a few people commented that they had searched to finally find us.

After our set, as we were packing up, a person walked by and voiced their disappointment that they had missed the music. Having heard it from elsewhere in the neighborhood, they had found us only to see us packing our things. As we chatted about the project and explained the “Streets Tour” concept, he said “No paying gigs, eh?” before continuing on his way, seemingly irritated or annoyed.

I thought it was an ironic and disconnected statement. The irony: Patrick, in fact, had two “paying gigs” later that same day! And the disconnection after carefully explaining the “Streets Tour” project and our goals associated. Their perception seemed to be “this tour must be happening because they can’t find a performance opportunity that will pay them”.

Perhaps they and others mean to show their sympathy or understanding of what artists are presently going through. Or perhaps it was just cynicism: “They explored the diversity of the city and connected with some of its people during a pandemic-induced cultural drought, but only to pass the time until high-paying wedding receptions start back up….”

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And there it is: “Streets of the East, Ballads”

Although this project was heavily inspired by last year’s streets tour, it was such a contrast. To describe 2019’s “Toronto Streets Tour” I would use words like bitter cold, solitude, honesty, growth. This year, for “Streets of the East, Ballads” I would use the words relaxed, exploratory, responsive, sweltering, humbling, and fun.

Each of the songs we decided to play, while simple at their core, are chock full of subtlety and beauty. To play them well is challenging, especially when drawing comparisons to the many masterful recordings of each. With the comfort and ease Patrick and I started to develop after only twelve performances, it’s clear how performing these songs consistently across decades would result in a deep sense of comfort.

Similar to last year, one of the most fulfilling parts of the tour was the unexpected connection with passersby. There is something particularly beautiful and satisfying about reaching out with music, played from the heart without expectation of remuneration or applause, and connecting with another human being.

To end off, here are a few lines from the set which stuck with me:

“Your sweet expression, the smile you gave me, the way you looked when we met,
It’s easy to remember, but so hard to forget.”

“A flower is the heart of spring
That makes the rolling hillsides sing
The gentle winds that blow
Blow gently for they know
A flower is a lovesome thing”

The opening two lines from “Goodbye”, which are played slowly and sullenly:

“I’ll never forget you.
I’ll never forget you.”

And a line that sticks with me, but that I otherwise strongly dislike, from “Moon River”:

“My huckleberry friend”

Sure, sure… Johnny Mercer connects to his boyishness through the memories of picking huckleberries, and there is also a connection drawn to Mark Twain’s famous character “Huckleberry Finn”, who might be just around the next bend in the proverbial Mississippi River of life… doesn’t mean I have to enjoy the line!

Finally, I’d like to issue an enormous thank-you to Patrick for joining me in this project. It was a joy to see, hang out, and perform with him frequently.

And another big thank-you goes out to my father for editing. His suggestions’ accuracy and clarity often brought a smile to my face.

Well, that’s it. Until next time!

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Published on August 28th, 2020