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Backstory: Best Little Story in My Back Pocket


  • Michael Tonn

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2021.

I didn't want to leave the food table at the outdoor, all-you-can-eat seafood fest at 18 Elm in Waterbury, onto which chef Eric Warnstedt was dumping steaming pots of shrimp, mussels, clams, corn on the cob, sausage and potatoes. But I needed a quote from someone in the crowd, so I scanned the attendees. My goal was to grab a quick quote about steamers and get back to my preferred activity: eating.

It's hard to describe what makes a person eligible for ambush, the one you'll interrupt mid-bite to ask, "Hey, whaddya think?" Justice Potter Stewart nailed its essence referring to pornography: "I know it when I see it."

I knew it when I saw it that rainy night in June 2019. He held a cardboard container of food in one hand, rain-soaked sauce in the other. His eyes were shiny, his jacket slick. Like the rest of us, he was wet.

"Hi, I'm Sally Pollak," I said, elbowing my way in and launching into a spiel. "I'm a reporter at Seven Days writing a story about—"

Before I could finish the sentence, this guy was giving me a grade-A assessment of the food, with poetic rhythm. He achieved this level of oratory talking about boiled potatoes and clams. Slow down, I implored, trying to scribble notes in my soggy notebook.

It turned out I was talking to Ryan Miller, the lead singer of the rock band Guster. Though I spotted him as an enthusiastic eater and colorful talker, I failed to notice he'd been playing music under the cover of a barn for most of the evening. (I heard the songs and liked 'em, but my gaze was on the food, and my mouth was unavailable for sing-alongs.)

Pretty soon, our conversation shifted from the meal in Waterbury to the one that Bob Dylan ate backstage in Martin Scorsese's Rolling Thunder Revue. We also discussed what was served at Psychedelicatessen, an erstwhile café in Burlington's Old North End.

After a while, Miller and I hatched a plan: He'd come with me on occasional food stories; we'd explore Vermont meal by meal, Bayley Hazen Blue by Pete's Greens. I drove home psyched by the prospect of eating with an adventure seeker and quote machine rolled into one.

A few months later, the perfect story assignment came along, and I emailed Miller. Could he meet me at the Boardroom, a new board-game café in Burlington, to roll the dice and eat peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches? He was intrigued but booked at Hen of the Wood.

Then the pandemic hit, and no one went anywhere.

Over the summer, when Seven Days was planning its Cartoon Issue, an editor suggested that artist Michael Tonn and I tag along with Miller on one of his weird and wonderful adventures. We'd make a comic based on the trip: Tonn's art, my words.

Of course, Miller would have to be willing, my editor cautioned.

"I'm pretty sure he'll be up for it," I said.