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Across the Universe

Hanif Abdurraqib left Connecticut in the spring of 2017, after a painful breakup. Now he was back in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. A wounded writer. Perfect. Anger and bitterness have filled many, many library shelves.

Except, it was too easy to be bitter, he says. “I don’t really write well when I’m bitter. And so I needed to figure out something for myself that served my writing.”

It is such a simple morning ritual. 

Daniel Armbruster gets out of bed. His own bed, after years of so many unfamiliar ones. He pours himself a bowl of granola, sets out the butter and bread for toast. 

There’s some sugar and vitamin C in the cupboard. What’s this, a bottle of C24H28ClN5O3? A chemical formula, better known as Dramamine. The date on the bottle says it’s expired, and it's no longer needed since the high-speed rock-and-roll life has slowed to a more manageable pace. Throw it out. 

And then, on to what “After Coffee" is really about.

Danny Deutsch is watching the charts. Not the Billboard magazine charts. But The New York Times charts, tracking the new COVID-19 cases. And the COVID-19 deaths.

“It’s not something to trifle with,” he says.

Deutsch is the owner of Abilene Bar & Lounge, the tiny downtown Rochester club that’s offered a stage to local musicians -- and small but intriguing national acts -- for more than a dozen years now. But Abilene has been open and closed and open again throughout this coronavirus pandemic year. And closed again since November.

Jenni Werner moved to Rochester 10 years ago. She certainly knew the stories of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. Everyone who has sat through a junior history class has encountered those two.

Yet there is so much more to be found here, in widely diverse ways that often depart from standard definitions of history making. 

“The stories are incredible,” Werner says. “Some of the most progressive movements in the country have come from this part of New York state. Both historically, and now.”

“Hundreds and hundreds of plays can be written about this area.”

The images are black and white, the movements of the actors are herky-jerky, which is what we’re used to seeing in silent films. The acting is hammy: Edgar Barrier twists the ends of his handlebar mustache! And the antics are slapstick: Joseph Cotton deftly scampers across an endless landscape of New York City rooftops, wrestling with uncooperative ladders.

The name of one of the great abolitionists now finds itself in rare air: Our rather pedestrian-monikered airport has been renamed the Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport.

“For Rochester to do that once again reinforces the social justice history, the social justice recognition, that has always been here,” says Carvin Eison.

Since departing Rochester in November, in search of warmer weather and an outdoors environment where COVID-19 might pose less of a threat, Amy Collins and Tim Clark have drawn a circuitous route through the South. Now these high-tech nomads have parked their RV trailer for a week or so in Southern California.

Right now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with no end in sight, Alan Murphy imagines the plight of songwriters as a familiar philosophical question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

“I imagine, especially now, everybody wonders, ‘What am I doing?’” Murphy says. “Not, ‘What’s the value of it?’”

The falling tree, and the songwriters, are making vibrations in the air. It’s your ear that converts those vibrations into sound. And if there’s no one on the receiving end, did the sound even exist…?

In one graceful moment, Kelly Izzo Shapiro drifts away from Joni Mitchell's "Little Green" and, using the same guitar tuning, seamlessly slides into the opening notes of her own song, "Don't Be Afraid."

“Joni was saying goodbye to her daughter, who she put up for adoption,” Shapiro says. “And it’s this sort of, like, hopeful but sad message. So I have a song about saying goodbye to my daughter. And it’s a sort of hopeful but sad song as well.”

Brian Lindsay has known for a long time how to write a song that goes straight to the heart.

There was “East Side of the River,” from his 2004 album “The Crossing.” A lament of unrequited love -- her family thinks he’s not good enough for her -- wrapped in Springsteen-like wailing harmonica, drama-drenched guitar and the two banks of the Genesee River as metaphor: “You and I worlds apart, with a river in between.”

And “King of the Mountain,” from his 2009 album “Esperanza,” a coming-of-age yowl with echoes of Steve Earle.

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