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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Playing in Portland

June 2009

Woke up late again today. Around noon, man, I feel like a bit of a bumb when it’s that late. I ought to be up early doing something productive, right, anyway, rummaged around the house, doing what exactly, I'm not sure, but finally I got in the truck and drove down to the park downtown off of Burnside. I've been hanging in the park quite a bit of late. For some reason the folks from the halfway houses and city run facilities provide much more entertainment than the rest of the Portland people I’ve come across; let’s just say they’re definitely more up front about things. Some times what they're saying might not make much sense and there may be the foul odor of death in the air from too many days away from the shower, but, I suppose that’s part of the deal….

So I sat down on one of the benches with my guitar, figuring if nothing I could at least get a good glimpse at the women walking by. In the center of the park was a woman lying down. Dressed in sweatpants and a tanktop, she looked like she walked straight out of bed and over to the park, which I imagine, is what probably happened. There were alot of bags surrounding her, like a barricade of sorts. All of these folks get booted out of the missions and houses during the day so they hang out in the park and then file back indoors at night. Anyway, some crippled guy with a bad limp, who appeared to be drugged out, joined her a few minutes later and they laid down together Soon a cop came by, nudged them, and told them they couldn’t do that, and “No sleeping in the park.”

Sometime later an old, petite man with a Vietnam vet hat and cowboy boots sat down next to me. He smelled like piss but seemed nice.

“What kind of guitar is that?”

“A Martin.”

“Wow, is that a good one?”

“Yeah, it treats me good.”

He seemed curious enough and not like some of the junked up kids over in Pioneer Square that ask to play your guitar and then bang on the thing not even playing chords and look at you and say, “You know that one, that’s ACDC.”

So I took it out and handed it to him. He seemed to like the dark mahogany wood, holding it in his hands and staring at it.

"You mind if I play?”

I said sure. He tried to strum a chord, but he didn’t know how to play. I then noticed his nails. They were rather disgusting, pukish yellow and with black dots, long like they hadn’t been cut in over a year. All I could hear was nail on strings. I wanted to grab it back but I didn’t and he realized he really didn’t know how to play so he gave it back to me. I played him some songs and he tapped his boot along.

“So what do you like?” I asked.

“Oh, old country, some rock.”

I played him a Hank Williams song and The Carter Family, songs I’ve been practicing of late. It’s quite amazing how just a simple instrument like a guitar can become a magnet for people and conversation; without it I imagine I would sit in the park all day and not say a word to anyone. Shortly after a large man named Jon sat very close to me on the bench staring at my fingers as I played. He had a mustache and a derby cap and looked like a fisherman and it turned out he was from Alaska so I guess that look comes born out of the water up there. He asked me if I new any John Prine and I smiled and said of course I did. A new gained respect is garnered when someone mentions someone like that. Think I played Souveneirs.

"Yeah, he’s got that song “some humans ain’t humans.” Hell of a song. Great fingerpicker, good sense of humor.”

He asked if he could play the guitar and I passed it over to him. He actually wasn’t bad and knew far more of the blues chords then I do. He new some music theory, said he had studied it in college.

Well, we’re just sitting there when all of the sudden three cops show up. They’re standing in front of the old country man, all of them wearing latex gloves and I got worried for a minute thinking, shit, maybe this guys got some disease and he just spread it all over my nice guitar. A very attractive 30 something woman cop asked him if his name was Jon. He looked at her with one of those looks you know when a little kid has done something wrong, trying to lie but just unable to do it.


“Well, what is it?”

“It’s JJJJaack,” he said, hanging his head.

“You sure it’s not Jon? I don’t think you’re telling me the truth. When were you born?"

He gave some date, think it was June 1951. Then they asked him again. This time it was July.

“You wait here,” the woman said to the other two cops.

They were silent, a pair of mutes, just staring off into space as the old man held his cap low over his eyes. Jon looked at me and said, “You know the difference between outlaws and inlaws? Outlaws are wanted. Ha ha ha", he laughed, spitting and hacking a few coughs from his clogged lungs.

The cops handcuffed the old man and took him away. One of the cops came up to me a few minutes later and said he had escaped from some facility and was dangerous. Exactly what that entailed I wasn't sure. Maybe he was suicidal. Who knows. I told her he seemed pretty harmless and he went away peacefully. He just seemed real tired to me. Looked like he just wanted to sit on the bench in the park and forget about things. I suppose there’s a whole other story to it though.

A few minutes later I played a Spanish sounding fingerpicking song and the woman that had been lying down in the middle of the park came towards me. She looked like she could barely open her eyes, face all red. She got real close to me as I played, all contorting, looking at the guitar as if it was this foreign creature.

“Oh yeah, that’s a nice sound there, nice sound.”

I continued playing, and hid behind the sunglasses smiling as her face was about six inches from mine.

Jon told me a few more cheesy jokes I can’t remember and then left. Twenty minutes later he was back with a guitar and a small box. He opened the box and there was about six different harmonicas in there and strings and pieces of torn paper with sloppy handwriting of Gratefull Dead and Rolling Stones songs, along with what looked like some lyrics. All I could see was the words in child-like writing, “Rock n’ Roll”. Instantly he was playing classics like “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” and “Summertime.” I played along with him and anytime I asked him what chords he was hitting he’d say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter anyway.” He sang loud and off key, kind of mumbly, but it worked and the local folks in the park seemed to be enjoying it. We played a few Stones songs. An older black fella was now sitting where the country guy had been. He seemed fairly well dressed, was digging the music and kept talking to me as I was playing.

“Now, did you see that? No one in their right mind gives their money to a junky. She just told that man she’ll back in ten minutes and there she is taking evey bag she has with her. If she going to be right back why she wanna go and carry all that stuff? Makes no sense. And she’s telling him she loves him and then gives him a kiss on the forehead. That just ain't right, ya heard me? I mean all these folks doing their shit right out in plain sight, I do my thing too, but I do it behind doors, under my roof, ya know. Maybe that girl do come back, but she won’t have all of it. He won’t be getting what he paid for I tell ya.” He definitely had a keen eye for observation and could probably tell a story for all of the people slumping on the benches in the park.

Jon says to me, “You know I jammed with this other guy out here one day, some young kid, but he thought he was some kind of Johnny cash; that’s all he could play, you know, boom chick boom chick, but he didn’t have no rhythm. He had stupid songs like 'Alcohol is the poison in my blood." What kind of stupid shit is that? And then he invites me to this gig and when I get there he pretends like he doesn’t even know me, like he never seen me before. Fuck that.“

“Say, you want to hear a song I wrote? I got my heart broke up in Anchorage so I had to write this song. Everyone says I ripped off the Doobie Brothers, you know, the rhythm, but I don’t care. I got my heart broke. I had to write something.”

I don’t remember the words to the song. but I didn’t play along for this one. Just stared out at the other folks and sat back and listened to Jon scream out about lost love.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Paradox Road

I was sitting on the couch, naked and reading Turganev, beads of sweat dripping from my chin down onto the yellow pages. It seemed that with each passing minute the heat became more and unbearable. Louisiana summers weren’t no joke. I tried to do my best in ignoring this fact, and undertook the illusion that if I could somehow escape into the dinner table conversations of Russian intellects, my life might suddenly make a change for the better.

Carol lay stomach down on the sheet-less bed with a magazine in front of her. She wore a blue slip hiked up to the bottom of her ass, and a badly stretched white tank top, loosely displacing each of her breasts out of the shirt.

Held by two screws, and dangling like the root of a loose tooth, the ceiling fan blew gusts of hot air across my face. Armies of flies lay dead; belly up; buzz-less; melting into the dust-caked carpet. Empty cigarette cartons were strewn across the room. A half pint of whiskey stood at the edge of the couch. I took a sip. It was room temperature. I could feel blue flames dancing on the back of my tongue. I spit the whiskey out on the floor. Steam shot up to the ceiling like an exploding gieser. Just a hallucination. Caused by dehydration. Yes, that was the logical explanation for it.

Here we were in a dirty rooming house in New Orleans, Thursday night, and the weekly rent due the following morning with five dollars to our names. Hastily, I found myself raising an imaginary fist into the air; cursing the South, money, unemployment, God, humanity, and anything else I could foolishly label as the cause for our unrighteous suffering. I conveniently blocked out the fact that we had partied in nearly every bar in the French Quarter for the past three weeks, oblivious to any thoughts of work or income.

Catching myself in between thought, I came to the realization that it was too late to be thinking like this. I was only wasting my time. I opened the book and continued reading about nihilists rambling page after page.

A couple of minutes later I noticed what had been a regular occurrence since we first arrived in New Orleans; a roach the size of my palm was casually making his way from one side of the room to the other.

Grotesque as these insects were, I was willing to let them be. After a week I’d learned that no matter how many you killed, there would always be a second regiment marching full steam ahead, pulling up the ranks. True soldiers. Hell, they even roamed around the homes of the rich. Carol, on the other hand, was determined to have every last roach in New Orleans brutally murdered. She considered them to be vile, ghastly. She wanted them all dead. In a desperate hope that the roach might go unnoticed, I pretended to read.

“Ahh! Oh my God! Look at that thing! Get him! Kill him! Get him! No, he’s getting away!”

Carol stood straight up on the bed screaming. The cooking magazine flailed around in her left hand while her right index finger hysterically pointed in the direction of the roach. She looked like an army scout that had just spotted a spy crossing into foreign territory.

“Oh, come on, let the poor guy go,” I said calmly.

“Let him go? Let him go? What are you crazy! Get that bastard! Get him!”

If I didn’t kill the roach I was only setting myself up for an unnecessary futile argument. Plus I was mostly to blame for this mess we were win. It was my idea to come down here in the first place. I put the book to the side and grabbed one of my tennis shoes. I proceeded to get down on the carpet on all fours like a bloodthirsty predator. I thought about taking the shoe to myself and calling it good.

Creeping up behind the roach, I raised my arm back behind my head – with an uncanny similarity to those twisted evangelists one sometimes comes across alone in late-night hours of TV channel changing – and with what little strength I had, brought down upon him my non-existent vengeance. I lifted the shoe. Unscathed, the roach darted towards the bed.

“It’s sill alive!” screamed Carol.

“I know!” I yelled back.

Like a hyperactive child yet to learn the world on two legs, I chased after the roach and slammed the shoe down again. Despite missing half of its body parts, the roach made a desperate attempt for the dresser. With the last hit I took all the life out of him. You had to admire one’s tenacity for survival.

Carol, now sitting on the bed with her legs crossed Indian style, hardly resembled the hysterical woman I’d just had to deal with. Her eyes had that glassy look of tranquility, and a partial smile was emanating from her thin lips.

“Baby, you got him. I’m sorry you had to do that. You know much I hate those things,” she said.

“Sure, no problem,” I said, nearly out of breath, stretched out on the floor.

For what seemed like an hour, but was probably only a few minutes, we sat alongside one another on the bed. We said nothing and stared straight ahead in a sad state of lost-eyed wonderment. Restless thoughts bounced back and forth in my brain. I found myself questioning how, in a matter of three weeks, after moving from Baltimore with the excited hopes of starting over, we’d managed to blow all of our money and couldn’t find any work. We were down to saltine crackers and a jar of peanut butter for lunch and dinner.

Carol placed her hand in mine. All the life was now gone from her eyes. The bright green that surrounded her pupils was fading away. It hurt me just to look her in the face.

Breaking the uncomfortable silence, Carol asked me, “What are we going to do?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“No, seriously, we don’t have anything. How the hell are we going to eat?”

“Maybe one of us will find a job tomorrow.”

“We haven’t found a job in three weeks. We’re not going to find one tomorrow. I don’t even want a job now. I hate it here. I hate it”

“Yeah, but where are we going to go? We’ve got nothing.”

As if she was about to burst into some unwanted form of hysteria, Carol said, “Oh God, I don’t want to be homeless. We’ll be stuck here.”

“Maybe you can call your mom, have her wire out some money.”

“What about your parents.”

“I can’t.”

“Well, I can’t either.”

“I know, I know.”

The conversation made an abrupt halt, and suddenly I found myself ready to run out the door. I couldn’t cope with the reality of the situation. I’d been wandering aimless around for quite some time, town to town, job to job. I’d come to the realization that I’d probably never settle down. But then I met Carol. We’d been together for three months now. I’d somehow convinced her to move down to New Orleans with me. I told her this was the city where wild things happened. I told her about the magic of the Big Easy, despite the fact that I’d never even been there. All I had to go on was the books I’d read. But now, finally sober, I felt a need to be responsible, to find ourselves a way out of this mess. Instead, I grabbed a hold of her hand, dragged her outside, and walked towards the Mississippi River. I convinced her that what was needed now was some fresh air and a place where we could think clearly.

As we walked down Esplanade Ave. and past the million dollar mansions on the border of the French Quarter I looked into the immaculate living rooms with a sense of disdain. The only word I could think of was opulence. I wondered if those people that lived there had actually worked to buy those homes or if they had been passed down by their parents. Were they just the offspring of all the old plantation owners that ruled so much of the south? What difference did it make? Here we were, struggling to find some kind of sense in life, and ten feet away, comfortably at the dinner table and living room couch, sat the representation of what I thought to be, distorted success. These people didn’t have a clue as to how us on the other side of the street lived, nor did they care to. I found myself filled with a somewhat violent and jealous anger.

Finding a bench along the river, I wearily put my head on Carol’s lap. What would Twain do? I let my eyes drown in the sight of the small ripples in the water and the reflection of a half moon.

Resting her fingers on the top of my head, Carol asked me, “Do you think we’ll ever be happy?”

I stared out at the water and watched the ferry cross the river over to Algiers. I also thought this is not a good sign when the girl you’ve been with for three months is asking this kind of question. I don’t know if it was the moon or the Turganev, but I started to talk nonsense.

“I don’t think you’re ever just completely happy. I mean overall demeanor. It’s just more of something that comes and goes. You don’t really have any control of when it’s going to hit you or how long it’s going to last.”

“I mean I love you, but it seems like I always feel sad. I didn’t like Baltimore. I don’t like it here. I’m starting to think wherever I go I still won’t be happy. I feel like the more I’m around people I can’t stand them. Why do they have to be so stupid?”

“I don’t’ know baby. Maybe we should find a cabin in the mountains. I’ll hunt rabbits, go fishing naked, and read Thoreau and Whitman. You can cook deer meet over a blazing fire. We’ll brew our own beer, sit on the roof every night, get blind drunk, and scream at the unforgiving moon.”

We sat silent for a couple seconds and then joined in an uncontrollable fit of laughter. It was a strange sounding laughter. The kind of laughter that seems to have stayed idle for countless years, nestling in the gut of one’s stomach in solidarity. Bottled, pressurized, waiting for one good, hard, unleashing twist of the hand. All of my bodily functions went numb and I fell to the ground. I wiggled feverishly. Lying on the cement with my legs and arms in the air, I looked like an old dog scratching its flea-infested back.

Finally the laughter died and that all too familiar silence took a hold of us. The depressing thoughts of just seconds before came back to me. At that moment I was overrun with the desire to somehow – with a magic wand I suppose – reverse the earth, planets and cosmos into a chaotic orbit; back to the time of my birth, or just prior to. All of these actions would cause the path of my life to be altered. After a few seconds of closed eyes and puerile meditation, nothing had changed.

I took Carol’s hand and walked back to the room. We stopped at a convenience store and bought a couple of sodas and a pig tongue bringing us down to two dollars and change.

When we got back to the room Carol headed over to the bed, undressed herself down to her slip, and put her head on the pillow. I sat in my regular spot on the couch with my hands in my hair, and stared at the carpet.

Seconds later, Carol walked back and forth across the room. Her nose was raised and a curious expression painted her face. She smelled something burning. I was unable to smell anything besides the distinct malodor of our room. I dismissed it as someone who might have burned some food in the kitchen on the second floor. Either that or someone was hitting the crack pipe hard.

Nearly everyone in our building was using crack. There were the regular users and then the recreational, weekend types. It didn’t bother me. I just didn’t want any part in it. Most places I’d stayed in before had their share of drug users, but everyone in the Treme seemed to be hooked on crack.

Now it was a little after midnight. Soon the landlord would be banging on the door for money we didn’t have. I asked Carol if she wanted to go for another walk, but she declined.

I was just about to put on my shoes and a tee shirt when Carol leaped violently out of bed. She said something about seeing a flame from above shoot down on to the street. We ran out the front door and around the house. We looked up at the room above ours, and there it was.

On the balcony a man was wrestling with a mattress half engulfed in flames. The room lit up like yellow madness behind him. Carol and I stood there, stoically caught in a brief moment of shock. The whites of Carol’s eyes filled with flames. The man yelled into the night, “Somebody help me! Help me dammit!”

Carol rushed over to a payphone and dialed 911. I didn’t have any words of wisdom to the man on the balcony so I ran back into the house and pounded on the doors of the other two rooms on the first floor. I shouted, “Fire! Fire!” I stood at the bottom of the staircase and yelled as loud as I could to the people upstairs. My neighbors leisurely walked down the stairs. Most of their eyes were half-open and bloodshot. As each one came down, they said, thinking this was some kind of surprise party, “Eww, it’s a fire drill, a fire drill!”

“No!” I screamed back. “This place is burning down!”

I ran outside with the other roommates and looked up at the second floor. The man with the mattress was gone, the room all flames. I felt the powerful heat of the fire on my cheeks. Windows shattered. Pieces of wood flew out into the street. A luminous torrent of red and yellow flames shot up in the air. The thick black smoke devoured the night. All of us stood there like horrified spectators.

I thought everyone had made it out of the house safely, but suddenly, my attention was drawn by the blood-curdling scream of the woman next to me; “Oh shit!”

Trapped in the last room on the second floor was a quiet older man I’d often seen sitting on the front porch. I’d say he was close to eighty and senile. Every time I walked by him I thought how horrible it must have been to be that old and to have to live in this kind of dump. Faintly, I could see him looking out the window at the flames. The fire blocked the staircase. The only way to escape would be to make the twenty-foot leap.

The old man opened his door to find ten-foot flames no more than a few feet away from his room. He looked confused, still half asleep. Everyone yelled for him to jump off the balcony. He stood there looking down for a couple seconds.

“Jesus Christ! Jump man! Jump!” the frantic crowd yelled.

He didn’t move. His face told you all there was to know. He realized this was the end of the road. All over. Not much you gonna’ do. He walked back into his room and closed the door. In my belief, he lay gently down on his bed, inhaled a big gulp of smoke, and closed his eyes. Maybe death was easy for him.

Woman screamed. Two men next to me pelted the old man’s door with rocks. Carol turned her back to the fire and covered her eyes. I watched it all like it was a surreal movie playing before me in slow motion; the flames shooting into the air, the stupefacted look in everyone’s eyes, the mouth’s wide open like dead fish on ice at a Saturday market, the people running in circles like headless turkeys. It was chaos at midnight and as I stood there expressionless, I consigned my emotions by violently pulling on my hair. The room went up in flames. We stood there like frozen statues. The stars went dim. The moon turned Halloween orange. The cosmos fell off the merry-go-round. Behind the curtain the sun let out a reverberating laugh. Purple flames. The whole spectrum. Just darkness. It was all fucked up.

You could hear the sirens in the darkness. When the fire trucks arrived three rooms were destroyed. The fire took on a schizophrenic life of its own, switching back to the other side of the house. The whole neighborhood was out in the street. Soon complaints began to arise about ruined stereo equipment and furniture being destroyed. These same people just moments earlier were crying, “That poor old man. Stuck up there. All alone.”

Struggling to find some kind explanation for all of this, I slumped against a wall and cried. I just couldn’t control it.

There was a group of us standing out in the street, helpless and not knowing really what to do. I noticed a woman that looked completely out of place for this neighborhood talking to various people. Countless layers of makeup caked her face, giving it an appearance of plasticity. I realized that she was a reporter from one of the local stations. She would place her hand on someone’s shoulder and say, “Yes, I’m sorry this happened. I know how you feel. Yes I understand you don’t feel like talking about it, but did you know the man? But I was just wondering if I could have a little word with you on camera.” I knew she was just doing her job, but I had a great feeling of disdain for her right then. A few of the crack heads liked the attention and obliged. The others stared at her coldly and kept quiet. The reporter made her way over to me. She wanted me to tell her what I knew. I said nothing.

At this time the cameraman set his camera up off to the side. He was determined to focus in on the group in an attempt to capture the morbid and sorrowful look on each of our faces; that if he angled the camera just right, he might find his award winning work at the beginning of the morning news. For whatever reason, I was set on doing all I could from allowing this to happen. I unbuttoned my shirt, placed my hands on my hips, and fully exposed my pale-skinned beer belly. I proudly displayed the cigarette burns that marked my stomach from previous nights of drunken boredom. The cameraman gave me a dirty look, covered the lens, and turned the camera off.

Hours later the sun made its way into the strange and humid morning sky. The smell of smoke and ash was everywhere.

Late that morning Carol and I were allowed to go back into what was left of the house. As we walked through the downstairs hallway a light layer of smoke visibly floated beneath the ceiling. We opened the door to our room. Inside it resembled a southern swamp. Black, murky water a couple inches deep flooded the floor. Ash, wood, and drywall were scattered across the room. The few things we owned were somewhere beneath the rubbish. I attempted to lift a large slab of drywall covering my clothes, but painfully watched it dissolve into a milky substance and fall back to the floor. It was hard to believe this was the same room that just hours before had harbored our ruminations of failure and disgust.

All I wanted were my books. I’d given up on the idea of the typewriter still functioning. Carol wanted her jewelry that had been given to her by her grandmother. We found both of our wallets under a piece of wood. I was determined to cover one book in particular. Saroyan’s Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. Scraps of wood and wall flew every which way. “Come on Willie, where the hell are you. Ah, not Willie!” I could feel the smoke melting into the pores of my skin. The stinging in my eyes became unbearable. I don’t know how firemen do it. I gave into the fact that finding Saroyan was not only hopeless, but quite idiotic. I’d tortured Carol enough. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

We gathered what we could into a trash bag. At the time of the fire all Carol had on was the tank top and a slip. I had no shirt and a pair of shorts that had a rip going all the way up to the waist. A couple kind souls from across the street donated some of their clothes to us. Carol was given a red and yellow flowered muumuu dress fit for a 250 lb woman. I was given a flannel, knee-high stockings, and a pair of battered, paint-stained penny-loafers. We looked like two deranged clowns that had escaped from the local mental ward.

We were given a voucher for two nights by Red Cross in a slum motel across town in the 9th ward. Shortly after boarding the bus an older woman stared at us, completely baffled at our appearance. I couldn’t help but say something. I thought if I didn’t, this poor woman’s going to live a life of quandary, all of it tracing back to that one Friday bus ride. I told her the place we were staying at had just burned down. These were the only clothes we had. Suddenly her perplexed face transformed – all in the drop of the eyebrows – to that of sympathy. The woman said, with a bobbing up and down of the head that made me think of a jack-in-the-box, “Oh, I saw that on the news this morning.”

Our voucher was for two nights, but we had no plans of staying more than one night. Carol made a phone call to her mother in California and I left a very distraught message on my father’s answering machine. We had enough money wired out to cover two Greyhound tickets to Northern California.

So, with our trash bags in hand, we embarked on a sixty-hour bus ride west. Through this may sound like a case of extreme paranoia, we thought if we stayed in New Orleans any longer, a hurricane would strike, pick us up off the ground, and with its tumultuous tongue, spit us in the trajectory of the Gulf of Mexico. Years later I would watch this unfold on television as I sat in my house in Los Angeles, a different woman at my side, old memories and tears in my eyes.

Shortly after we boarded the bus Carol was fast asleep. She looked peaceful and exhausted. I half-consciously stared out at the window as the bus crossed through western Louisiana and into the mundane vastness of Texas that seemed to stretch incessantly beyond the horizon.

I tried to put some order to my thoughts, some kind of logic. Sobering up was a bitch. It killed the illusion that you like to believe is your life and forced you to really look at things. I’d seen most of my friends go on into career jobs, they were all financially stable, most of them married, and here I was still living life on a whim. I thought it was romantic, and truth be told, it really could be, but like anything, there could be dire consequences. It was one thing to do the crazy writer thing, but I felt like I sort of had to get my shit together; or something close to whatever that meant. If I didn’t Carol was going to leave me.

By the time we got to San Francisco Carol and I were completely out of our minds. Sleep-deprived, traumatized, broke, we wrapped towels on each of our heads in the fashion of Hindus and yelled to imaginary people we saw running alongside the road out the window. Our laughter filled the entire bus. We kissed. We hugged. We felt each other up underneath the blanket we placed on our laps and passed out on each other.

I didn’t really know what the hell to expect. Maybe we’d make it. Maybe we wouldn’t. What was done was done. Onward and upward, as they say.

As the cab pulled up to the ranch home outside of Petaluma Carol said, “Ah, we’re home.”

“Yeah, home,” I said.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Barber Shop

I’ve always been a sucker for the old style barbershops. I don’t know quite how to put it; there’s just something about the places that I love. It really doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of haircut either. When I walk into an old musty place I get the feeling I’ve suddenly stepped back in time, back to an era long before the fast-paced technological short-speak corporate strip mall world we now live in, back to a time when just sitting around and telling stories meant something, when the second hand on the clock wasn’t even a passing thought. I don’t really ask much of this life; just give me an old barbershop on a hot Saturday afternoon and I’m pretty happy.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not necessarily preaching the glory glory hallelujah of all the old barbershops, because believe me, I’ve been to a few that I probably wished I’d never set foot in. Take for instance the time I saw a boy of five be given a mullet cut and a duck tale, on his free will mind you, as his camouflag-toting father watched the news and said, “Hey guys do you know why there’s no A-Rabs in Star Wars?” Blank stares all around. “It’s because they’re not in the fuuu-ture!”

Yeah, let’s give it up for modern man. I mean, you never know what you’re going to get, but personally, I’d rather take my chances with the old guys than pay fifteen bucks to have me hair cut in a teeny-bop mall by some depressing middle-aged woman who goes by the name Bumpy.

Anyway, the other day I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, it’s time man; you’re starting to look like one of those terrorists on the infamous most-wanted Iraqi deck of cards. Since I had recently moved to New Orleans I had no idea where to go. After about an hour of driving in what seemed like an endless maze of winding streets (If you’ve ever spent any amount of time trying to navigate the city outside the French Quarter, you know what I’m talking about), I lucked out on a place over just off of Oak and Carrolton. I saw the blue-white-red spinning rod and a sign that read “The Family Barber Shop.”

Inside there were three other men waiting in chairs in a small room. There was one chair and one hunched over bald barber cutting another old-timer’s hair. A few flags were stapled to the walls, but besides that the place was pretty plain.

“Say, Bud, I came by here Wednesday and you weren’t around,” said the guy getting his haircut.

“Oh yuh’, closed on Wednesdays now. Gradually workin’ ma’ way towards closing the shop. Next it’ll be just Fridays and Saturdays. Yuh’ know.

Bud had one of those deep Southern drawls, the kind you’re more likely to come across in the small towns of Mississippi and Alabama. His eyes were big and round and the wrinkled skin sagged down onto his cheeks. Each time he talked you could see his leathery skin flab around. Slowly he trimmed the man’s hair, occasionally glancing up at the television that was showing the latest turmoil in the world.

“That girl not around no more?”

“Nah,” said Bud. “She jus’ up and left. Don’t understand it. Not a word. Jus’ startin’ to work out too. Was givin’ her forty percent of what the shop was takin’ in. Hell, on them real slow days I jus’ gave it all to her. Her momma’s been callin’ up, askin’ if I seen her. She says the girl don’t want nothin’ to do with her now. I’d understand if she had some problem, if she’da let me know, but to jus’ up and leave. Now I can’t understand that. Dunno if it’s drugs or drinking or what.”

“Yeah, that’s a shame Bud, she seemed like she was going to work out all right.”

“Ya’ jus’ never know. Hell, I’m gettin’ too ol’ for this.”

About an hour and a half later Bud called me up to the chair. I’d been sitting off to the side going through the old Times magazines and watching the lazy flies move about. Maybe a lot of folks wouldn’t stick around that long for a haircut, but down here, life moves along a little slower than it does in other parts. It’s not to say anything bad about the people, it’s just the way it is. I figure, we’re all going to die either way, so what’s the rush?

“How ya’ wahnit?” Bud asked me.

“Just short, but not too short, not a crew cut or nothing,” I said.

Bud started to work away at my hair with a buzzer and through the mirror noticed me staring up at a framed Army certificate hanging on the wall.

“That’s from when I was in the Pacific. I was twenty. Remember every single name of the eight other guys in my unit: Jimmy, Frank, Leonard, Ray, Joe, Bobby, Dave, Vinnie. Yah’ know, lotta’ of them didn’t make it out alive. Lotta’ times I didn’t think I would either. Leonard was only eighteen. Jus’ a kid. Not a day goes by I don’t think about those guys.”

Bud trimmed the hair hanging over my ears, every now and then stopping and staring off into blank space, as if the thought was too much for him.

“Got back when I was twenty-two. Four years latah’ I bought this shop. Eighty now. Hell of a long time.”

I pondered all the heads of hair he’d come across during that time.

“I wish I could tell some of those fella’s, hey, at least you didn’t have to see yourself go bald.” Bud let out a quiet laugh and tapped the top of his pale-skinned head.

“My wife was always convinced she was gonna’ die young.” Her mother died at fifty-two, heart attack got her and my wife didn’t think she’d make it past sixty. And now you oughtta’ see her. Seventy-Eight. Jus’ went ta’ the doc for her check-up and he said she’s as clean as a whistle. Well, the way I figure, it ain’t really up to us. The guy up there,” said Bud, pointing his scissors towards the ceiling, “decides how long we stay or go.”

I don’t put a whole lot of faith in religion, but the way Bud put it made sense.

Sitting in the chair in front of me was an old, frail man. He looked to be Bud’s senior by a good fifteen years. He was all bones and his shirt and pants were three sizes too large. Poor guy looked like he was going to drown in those clothes. His eyes were squinted as he tried to read a magazine. For some reason I couldn’t stop staring at his foot. He had these sandals on and wasn’t wearing any socks. Purple, varicose veins were shooting every which way and running up under his pants. As Bud cleaned the back of my hair, I sat there thinking about the mystery of age, how the body wilts away.

Eventually, Bud pulled away the apron and said, “How’s that?”

I glanced at myself through the mirror. To be honest, the cut was a little lopsided and I looked like I now had an unwanted pompadour. But I didn’t say anything. I said it was good, got up from my chair, and paid Bud eight bucks and left him a couple for a tip.


The old man attempted to get up without his cane, but he fell back into the wall. Bud and I each took an arm and walked him over to the chair and boosted him up.

“Hey, what you say Larry?”

“Hey Bud.”

“How goes it?”

“It goes. You hear about Frank Jippers?”


“Had a stroke last week. Got out of the hospital yesterday. All paralyzed from the left part of his body. In a wheelchair now.”

“Ah, too bad. So you wahn’ it the same Larry?”

As I was walking out the door and into the hot New Orleans afternoon I heard the old man say, “Yeah, Bud, same as always,” as he brushed his hand through what little hair he had left.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Baltimore: A Memory

It’s the middle of March on a Friday afternoon in Baltimore. I’m standing on the corner of Howard and Lexington in that loose, fragmented realm of solitary mind; watching the forty-hour work-week crowds stumble by, listening to the rhythmic beats of hip-hop echo against the old store fronts, staring at the sewer smoke as it floats above the streets rusted potholes. The light rail slowly plods along and all the while I’m thinking, damn, I’m really back in this crazy old town. It’s been three years since I set foot here and to be honest, I never thought I’m make it back, but life is funny like that, and so here I am, figuring what have I got to lose, nothing like one more go around.

I’m holding up a brick wall across from one of the dollar stores that line Lexington St. when I see a homeless looking man – thick red beard, dark drunk eyes – stumbling towards me. He’s got one pant leg rolled up above the left knee and a big, purple-yellow scar that takes up half of his leg. It looks all infected. It’s gradually eating away at the bone and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some form of maggot nestled somewhere in the fine cracks. It’s disgusting to look at, and yet, for some unknown reason, I just can’t keep myself from looking. I know it probably sounds strange, but I think there’s a strange beauty, a sort of comic sadness in the most grotesque of things. The French artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec once wrote, “Everywhere and always, ugliness has its beautiful aspects; it is thrilling to discover them where no one has noticed them.”

And there we are: this bum and me. Two roaming souls, meeting eye to eye for a brief split second. Then in a husky voice he says, “Damn! It’s hot today!” That’s it. Nothing more. No startling truth. A simple observation. My only acknowledgement is a silent nod and there he goes, limping upstream and disappearing behind the faded eyes of the crowd.

I walk towards Lexington Market and wait for the light to change. An older man is sitting behind a table of various colored vials selling skin oils. A tall man dressed in a black suit with a checkered bow tie and top hat with a purple feather in the brim passes out Muslim newspapers. Across from him there’s a ‘fella that’s about as animated as a crack head at 2 a.m. Three men stand guard in front of him dressed in purple and black robes. They look like Arabian knights. The man yells into the blow-horn about Isiah and how the “righteous shall prosper.” Now he’s waving his hands in the air holding a book, a bible I presume. He’s going into gesticulations, screaming about the White Man and true origins of the Black Jesus. A small crowd looks on, nodding their heads in approval.

To go along with all that religion you’ve got shady characters with crooked teeth and nervous eyes lining up and down the street. They’re trying to hawk their stolen goods; everything from socks to batteries to headphones to bootleg videotapes to nose trimmers. Yeah, how the nose trimmer guy gets any sales is beyond me. People wait for the busses, cigarettes dangling from their tongues, cursing the damn schedule. Somehow I find the whole scene a bit comical and so my laughter drifts along with the unexplainable, strange rhythm of it all.

Lexington Market is one of the few places you can enter and feel like your really seeing Baltimore for what it is. It’s been standing here since 1782. Here you’ll find all kinds of different people from different parts of Baltimore that otherwise wouldn’t normally be seen together. It’s sort of like the city’s temporary melting pot. On a Friday afternoon you’ve got construction and factory workers covered in dirt standing along side of businessmen with tacky ties and brown collars. There’s wandering bums with their food stamps and fat mothers trying to keep track of their children. Everyone is talking, laughing; a brief worry-free interlude with their cashed paycheck in one hand and a cheap beer in the other.

There’s food vendors from every place imaginable: Greece, Italy, China, Japan; fruit stands, meat butchers selling everything from rabbit heads and ribs to maroon slabs of liver and pag maws, and to be honest, I haven’t a clue what a pag maw is, but it looks pretty tasty. There’s various dead fish on ice and oysters and fresh crabs sitting in wooden buckets; greasy fried chicken and gizzards and chitterlings, bakeries with their carefully assorted displays of cakes and cookies and pies.

I stumble around passing the food stands, listening to the various catcalls, unable to decide exactly what is I want: a two-dollar corned beef on rye or a crab cake? Maybe a greasy dog at Polack Johnny’s (How can you go wrong at a place that has the slogan: Polack Johnny’s is our name, Hot Dogs are our game.”) But in the end I always head over to that same Soul Food stand, order my plate of bbq chicken, two heaping sides of Mac ‘n’ cheese and yams, grab a cup of beer and a newspaper, find a table of my own, stuff myself, all the while constantly looking around at this curious constant bustle of life that surrounds.

And then I’m back on the streets, filled with a sense of renewed strength and spirit. I continue north up Howard St., past the closed-down shops and vacant buildings that were once department stores – that decaying part of Baltimore the city always talks about renovating but never does. I’ve seen the pictures of what this area used to look like back in the early part of the twentieth century. Old Fords lining the streets, men dressed in suits and top hats, the women all done up in sleek dresses and high heels. At one time this was the center of shopping and entertainment, but unfortunately those days seemed to be a distant memory.

There’s the Mayfair: that abandoned theater with the gothic building façade and the faded billboard painting of Billie Holliday and some Benny Goodman-looking group. How many times I used to walk by that building with the urge to take a crowbar and pry open the front doors, my imagination dreaming up what jazz ghosts I might be able to summon up from the past. Thinking about it now, the place has probably been infested with hoards of roaches and rats and ever other vermin imaginable for years, and whether or not any big names ever played there I don’t know, but still, it’s the thought…

Mt Vernon Park: I use to idle away countless hours in this park, smoking the tongue dry, staring at the stupid pigeons, watching the couples walk by, hand in hand, all in love. My friend Katalin would often sit with me and we’d watch the sun go down behind the old mansions that line Monument St. We’d go on for hours talking about every damn thing we could think of: art and religion and love and the places we wanted to see, all the places we wanted to go, how crazy and fucked up and confusing and amazing and unexplainable this world is. And now Katalin, there you are, off in India and here I am, three years later, sitting on the same bench, puffing on a lost dream, and yeah, I guess you could say some things never change.

Go down Madison, take a right on St. Paul, pass the nice red brick building on the corner, and you see that apartment with the ugly gray bricks, the one with the lopsided cracked steps leading to the front door and the “NO LOITERING” sign. 712. Home to six months maddening, lonely and drunk as hell, fist cursing nights. You got to take the three flights of stairs up to 301. Watch out for the deaf lady that’s always sleeping on the stairs. Usually all doped up and passed out in lala land. One small 10 by 10 room with a puke colored carpet. Five dollar chandelier dangling like a loose tooth. Two lights burned out. One window looking down on the back alley and fire escape ladder. A fridge with dead roaches belly-up in the butter section. By no means was it high class living.

The couple next door would argue every night; 2 a.m. screaming matches going lost into the night. There were the crack-heads upstairs and the heavy-set guy downstairs that wore neon parachute pants and blasted Madonna every Sunday afternoon. And then there was the mysterious schizophrenic who was constantly cursing at his television. You heard multiple people in the apartment, but after a month I realized it was just him.

And there was Wendy and her five-year-old son Joe Ross who lived next door in 300. Wendy always had a strange group of people visiting her and through the walls I’d often hear Joe Ross singing to himself in the bathtub and I remember that one afternoon when I sat on the front steps with the two of them. Wendy shared her cup of vodka and orange juice with me and she told me how she suffered from bipolar disorder. She was being treated over at Johns Hopkins. Joe Ross, little angel of a kid who has these wild, magnetic eyes, all full of jazz and light, and I’m sitting there, looking at him, dreaming about the wonder of youth and how strange time is, and there’s Joe Ross, all two and half feet of him, taking a hold of my finger with his little, innocent delicate hands, saying in a high-pitched squeak, “Look, there goes the tour bus, the tour bus…” and I’m looking down the street and I don’t see any tour bus, but there he is excitedly grabbing on to my hand and I smile and say, “Yeah, Joe, I see the tour bus.”

St. Paul and Madison, watching the cabs and cars and busses and people go by with these thoughts, staring up at this ugly façade of what once was a home, struggling to put where it is I’m heading into some form of coherent thought. But it’s all jumbled images, lost days and nights, somewhere a conversation, and hell, now I can’t even tell if these are things that actually really happened or if it’s just my crazy mind writing out its own historical fiction.

Corner of North and Charles: dirty liquor stores, alley ways full of trash and the CVS is all boarded up; but you’ve still got the fried chicken take-out place and the gospel church across the street. A couple blocks up there’s a bar over on 20th. No sign on the outside. Just a building with the paint peeling off. Besides the non-functioning Budweiser neon sign, you wouldn’t even notice it. This is a dive. Not in the cool, modern sense of the word “dive”, you know, those bars where the drinks are cheap and all the kids that are convinced they’re artists or outcasts but really haven’t gone through shit go to hang out. No, this is the kind of dive you mention to someone and their eyes light up, their eyebrows raise, the lines on their forehead shoot out, and they say, shockingly, “You mean you’ve actually gone into that place?”

You got to get buzzed in by the bartender just to open the door to the bar, and it’s not the cleanest place, but it’s really not that bad. Predominantly a black joint. Threre’s a pinball machine, an old shuffleboard, a jukebox with modern r &b and hip-hop and small selection of dirt-cheap alcohol. It’s a good crowd here though. I order a twenty-two-ounce bottle of beer and find the empty corner. I’m not really here for camaraderie or to get drunk. I’m here purely for the sake of nostalgia, hoping to maybe wrestle up a few comic demons on the way.

4:30 a.m….lying in bed…naked….drunk….listening to Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont on repeat…room floating around me in some hovering form of cluttered haze. Phone rings. Beautiful wild and amazing girl who somehow, through my wave of loneliness and insanity, I’ve stumbled upon, is on the other end. Her and her friend are drunk and they’ve got a bottle of Jack. Want to know if they can come over. And so the night, or day, begins. The lights are back on and there we are, parading around the room…tripping over kitchen table and chairs…spilling boos left and right. I’m digging through a stack of papers and reading aloud a poem about a duel between a spider and a cowboy. There’s music and laughter, and sure, we’re all poor as hell….scrounging up the pennies and nickels up off of my floor…digging underneath through the old receipts and crusted toe-nail clippings…tossing away the dirty clothes and bread crumbs and the whiskey’s all gone and we’re thinking what’s open at this time. So we head up to North Ave., not the safest part of town, but it’s the only bar we know that opens at six a.m. We’ve got our Big Gulp filled with change and we’re standing outside the Magnet Bar, ten till, screaming for them to open the door, surrounded by this menagerie of carnival bums and druggies and drunk insomniacs. I’m off to the side with a guy that has rotten gums and foul-smelling breath, asking him if he knows Sam Cooke’s Bring it on Home and what the hell do you know, he does. He starts singing, and he’s good, I mean damn good! Not only he does have the soul, but he’s got the range to go along with it. Everyone is thinking, what the hell are these crazy kids doing on North Ave. at this time, but drink enough and logical explanations lose their worth, so finally they open the door and we bum rush in, empty our cup of change on the bar and say to the bartender who looks like he’s still half-asleep, “What can we get for this?” And next thing we know we’ve got three beers and three shots of Beam. Down the hatch…my girl runs for the bathroom…I gag and roll my eyes until all I see is white…the friend is over at the juke box putting in “Dancing Queen,” for the third time in row. And it’s all insane, the three of us free and drunk and my girl and I dancing and whispering stumbled thoughts of love into one another’s ear and I give her a good hard twirl and underneath our feet spins the black and white checkered floor and the bartender can’t help but shake his head and laugh and somewhere the sun sits under the horizon, somewhere lies the rest of the city, resting under a blanket of dreams.

Three years later, staring at my own reflection and whatever happened to that girl and those crazy times I can’t really say. All I’ve got to show right now is a dead cigarette and a thick layer of sunlit smoke that hovers above and I’m wondering why the hell I even came into this place. Yes, I’m getting sentimental.

An old guy with a derby cap is struggling to bring a can of Coors up to his lips and a few seats over is a lady the bartender calls Miss Lou. She looks to be around fifty, dressed in a janitor outfit. She’s got a lazy left eye and she’s mumbling to herself and drawing on the newspaper headlines. I take a glance over. She’s got George bush neatly marked up with a Rollie Fingers style mustache and devil horns. She takes a big sip of King Cobra and yells out, “That capitalistic mother fucker! No one else around the bar seems to pay any attention. I suppose it’s an every day occurrence.

Anyway, so there we are, starting at the television all comatose-like as Judge Judy tears into some kid who’s being accused of stealing his girlfriend’s stereo system. And Miss Lou’s yelling out, “Defamation of character! Defamation of character! She then stares directly at this couple across the bar who are arguing. I get the feeling Miss Lou knows what it’s about. The guy’s denying everything, says there is no other woman. Miss Lou laughs hysterically, mumbling something I can’t quite understand.

Miss Barbara, the bartender, frail-looking old woman with a midwestern accent, says to me, “Don’t worry, she’s totally harmless”

“Oh, I know,” I say. “I just wish I knew what the hell she was laughing at.”

Miss Lou scoots on over to the jukebox and puts a couple of bucks in. Suddenly the bar’s blessed with slow r and b. Whitney. Mariah. Other modern classics like “Get Your Freak On,” and “Shake That Ass.” She puts the beer down and sings and dances along to the music. She knows all the words. Her smile is big and bright and radiant. She seems like she’s truly content; almost as if she’s some free-floating soul, oblivious to the world around her, as if she belongs in some different time, in some different place.

Suddenly, I find myself laughing out loud, unable to take my eyes off Miss Lou. She does a circle around the barstool, and now she’s really getting down, every part of her body’s feeling the music and the other people sitting at the bar can’t help but look. She’s even got the guy in the derby cap’s attention and now we’re all a bit drunk and laughing and I’m even starting to tap my foot to this ridiculous beat.

Miss Barbara flashes an old cracked and wrinkled smile and asks, “Do you want another?”

I know I should really be going, but I take out a couple of crumpled ones from my pocket and put them down on the bar. “Sure, why not.”

Eventually the music stops. Miss Lou goes back to drawing on George W. The arguing couple has made up and is now over at the shuffleboard. The same stale smoke from an hour ago still sits under the ceiling. I put the beer down. Maybe it isn’t exactly the most poetic portrait of life, but hell, it’s something.

Straight Street Music

I can still vividly remember those early New Orleans morning rides to work as if it was yesterday. Even now, it’s almost as if it constantly hangs in my memory, like some free-floating, suspended dream. Leaving my house still half-asleep, and often in a hangover haze, I’d hop on to my beat-up bike and ride down Burgundy St. in the direction of the French Quarter. Cruising over those bumpy, pot-holed roads with open-eyed sun rising, with that slight breeze blowing in from the Mississippi River (where I’d spent many a sunsets tongue-drunk-silent sitting on termite-infested sinking docks, watching the barge ships file out towards the Gulf or out to Baton Rouge), surrounded by hundred-year-old Creole and Victorian houses, I would have the feeling that I was amidst a painting full of wild and beautiful movement.

From the Palmettos shading front-yards and the Oak trees that hung over the streets to the rusted railroad tracks that held the wheels of the Norfolk Southern every day and night; to those empty lots and old steel warehouses barely standing, with the faded traces of the days of dockworkers and longshoremen; well it all seemed a bit surreal.

Down through the Marigny and past Esplanade, the store owners unlocking their front doors and the city workers spraying down the sidewalks as the ferns from third story balconies dripped down on to their heads. The homeless would be passed out and lying in drunk stupor on steps and as I’d pull up to the back alley of the restaurant I’d greet the five stray cats that lived under the building and when I opened the back door the dream, well at least the romantic part of it, would start to fade.

For ten hours a day I’d stand in this kitchen the size of a hallway, huddled over a sink, hands in dirty dish water, watching the roaches poke their heads out from the exposed brick. I’d go out into the dining room and clean off the tables for your run of the mill tourists, overhearing rather drab conversations, often times wondering how it was that I always managed to end up at these bottom of the barrel jobs.

Anyway I’d be out on the patio bussing the tables, watching the crowds go by and I’d hear the saxophone coming from down the street. Sometimes it’d be a cheesy tune; something like the theme song from The Godfather or Sesame Street; maybe something by Elton John or Billy Joel. I figured he just threw those in for the musically uneducated tourists, because the other half of the time he’d play an old R&B hit, maybe Marvin Gaye or Otis Redding. Other times he’d really jazz it up with some Sonny Rollins or Parker or Coltrane. Even though I was a good block away I could tell this guy really knew how to play.

Every now and then I’d walk by him on my lunch break. He was a little ball of a fella’ in a wheelchair, maybe three and a half feet at the most if he was able to stand. He’d sit on the corner with a bucket in front of him and sometimes I’d see an older, raccoon-eyed guy with an ice-cream cart sitting close by. The first couple of months I never said anything to either one of them. I’d just kind of nod; every once in a while I’d throw some change into the jazzman’s bucket.

One day I decided to go on over to the corner and sit down with the two guys. As I was eating my sandwich the jazzman looked over at me and said, “This ain’t no free entertainment. What, you think you can just sit here and eat?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” I said, smiling.

“Oh, I’m just playin’ with ya’”

The jazzman held the tenor sax in his lap and watched the people file down the street for a few minutes. He shook his head and said, “Lazy, lazy day. Man. Just don’t feel like sitting out here today. Wish I was out fishing.”

“Yeah, fishing would be pretty nice right now,” I said.

A few feet to the right of the jazzman was the guy with the ice-cream cart. He sat in a beach-chair with his eyes closed and his chin slumped against his chest.

“Hey Bob!” screamed the jazzman. “You’re sleeping on the job! You got business!”

“Huh, what’s that?”

Bob opened his eyes and stood up, still half-conscious. An older woman was standing in front of the vending cart.

“Oh jeez, so sorry mam’. It’s that sun, ya’ know. Just takes the life right out of you. So what can I get you?”

“I’ll take one of those ice-cream sandwiches.”

“Well, all right, you got it, one sandwich. One dollar.”

“Thank you mam, and you have a wonderful day now.”

Bob sat back down in the chair. “See Melv, you stop playing and I’m a goner.”

“What, cuz you’re bored you think I just gonna’ jump up and play a song.”

“Well, I know you’re sure as hell not jumping,” Bob laughed aloud, slapping his knee.

Melvin quickly wheeled over close to Bob, pointed his index finger at his face, and said, “Watch yourself Bob. Don’t get smart. I might just take one of those Popsicle sticks and shove it up your ass! Ya’ heard me?”

“Yeah, yeah, Melvin, I hear ya.”

A couple days later I was back in my lunch spot. I made a couple of sandwiches for the guys, figuring it was an equal trade-off for letting me sit alongside and hang out.

It was Friday and the streets were packed. From what I could tell Melvin was doing pretty well. He told me he was up to eighty bucks. There must have been something go on that weekend, maybe it was just the magic of The Big Easy, but the beautiful women were everywhere and Melvin was having a tough time sticking to the music. One girl in particular was wearing a short red skirt, her big boobs popping right out of a thin black blouse. She had one of those wild-curved bodies that just screams out at you and turns the brain and muscles into a ball of mush. Melvin played two quick notes that sounded like someone whistling. The girl turned around, smiled, and then walked on.

Melvin’s eyes lit up. “Oooeeee! Give me that smile. Say, baby, ever been with a man in a wheelchair? Once you do, you’ll never go back to regulars.”

Bob and I broke out in laughter.

Seconds later, another woman, a little older, but still with that all-class, all-style look passed by. Bob stood up and yelled out. “Hey lady! Ever been with a fifty year-old ice cream man?”

This woman wasn’t so friendly. She turned around and gave Bob a deathly stare and suddenly it became obvious to me how unattractive, spiritually speaking, she was.

“Damn Melv, guess you can’t win em all,” said Bob.

“Yeah, some of these woman now, they ain’t got no sense of humor.”

“Wait! Hurry Melv, play that one song, you know the Egyptian…”

“The snake-charming one?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Melvin put the sax to his lips and played the tune note for note.

“You ever been married?” Melvin asked me.

“Nah, I got a hard enough time keeping a girlfriend around. Not much love for the starving dishwasher artist.”

“Don’t do it. Believe me. It’s just a pain in the ass. You know what; the problem with women today is that hey just don’t know their place.”

Bob and I kind of gave Melvin a strange look, not particularly sure where he was heading with the conversation.

“Now, wait a minute Melvin…”

“No, listen, and I ain’t talking about no barefoot, pregnant in the kitchen kind of shit. What I’m talking about is inspiration. You see, it’s like this. The world is a pretty brutal place. It’s rough. It’s cruel. And every day a brother goes out into that world. He’s got all kinds of messed up shit he has to deal with. It drives him crazy. And when he comes home he wants to be around a nurturing, loving woman, a woman he can confide in, you know, share his love with. Not some woman that’s always yapping, always complaining about what he doesn’t do right. What the woman don’t realize is that’s what drives the brother back out on the street. Who the hell wants to come home to that? Like take my old lady. We been married over twenty years and she still won’t let me practice the sax in my own house. She says it makes too much noise. Too much noise! Ya’ see, what she don’t understand is that if I can practice I can get better. If I’m better I’ll make more money. That’ll make her happier. Ya’ heard me?”

Melvin was really starting to get juiced up. He was wheeling back and forth between Bob and I. He had the look of a preacher on the pulpit except he was sitting down.

“For instance, take Helen of Troy. You see. Helen was the wife of Menelaus who was King of Sparta. But she left him and went off to be with Paris, son of the King of Troy. So this Menelaus guy launched a war against the Trojans who refused to return Helen. Now they fought a battle for ten years. Over a woman! Over a woman! Now that’s inspiration. Y’all know the Taj Mahal?”

“Uh, the place in India?” I said, recognizing the name, but rather clueless as to how it all tied into the inspiration diatribe.

“Yeah, that’s the one. Have you ever seen the pictures of that building? Ornate architecture, painted ceilings, gold everywhere. It’s beautiful. And you know what. It took twenty-two years to build it. 20,000 workers. And it was all paid for by one man; Shah Jahan. His wife died and in memory of her he built one of the finest buildings in the world. Just for one woman. Love. Friendship. Ya see, what I’m talking about is inspiration. Ya heard me?”

Everyday I’d look forward to those lunch breaks out on the corner. It helped me get through the monotony of dish after dish that stacked up alongside of me. I don’t really know how to put it, but there was just something about hanging out with the guys and sharing stories as the rest of the city paraded by, well it make some kind of sense.

So Bob was sitting behind the cart, looking bored as hell, an umbrella giving him a little shade from the blistering summer heat. Melvin had taken the day off to go fishing down in the Grand Isle and Bob was excited just to have someone to talk to. He was a pretty easy-going type. He’d always flash that black front tooth of his and give you a good ol’ smile. He was polite as hell with the customers, in a Southern gentlemen kind of way.

I was kind of curious how it all worked out with the cart so we got to talking.

“Oh, I get the cart for free. Company stocks it all up and then I get 40 percent of whatever I sell. Right not it’s slow, but when it’s busy, sometimes I’ll walk with two or three hundred bucks. It ain’t bad. Sometimes it’s a little boring, but hey, I’m pretty much my own boss. Work my own hours. Get to sit out here. Listen to Melvin. I use to work the Lucky Dogs stands. They’re the same people that own this one.”

Lucky Dogs were made famous in john Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces, but anyone that’s spent a highly intoxicated night on Bourbon Street has probably seen one of the many carts that take up every corner. It’s likely they’ve also forked out the four dollars for the disgusting dog and then found themselves hours later, either vomiting or shitting their brains out.

“Man, no offense, but those hot dogs are gross. I met a guy in Jackson that said he was down here with a friend partying all night. Got a Lucky Dog sometime in the morning before they headed back home. About twenty minutes later his friend’s face was looking like a blueberry. Had to take him to the hospital for food poisoning.”

“Oh, jeez, you don’t got to tell me. You should see some of the guys. They don’t even replace the dogs from each night. They’ll just leave the leftovers in the water and then serve them up again the next day. It’s all about the bar crowd. After 3 a.m. they don’t know what the hell they’re eating anyway.”

Bob said years ago he’d bartended out in California and then for a while in Palm Beach, Florida. They were pretty good jobs, but at some point his wife divorced him, he got into some trouble (I didn’t really pry him on exactly what he did) and then, like a lot of people that lived in New Orleans, he just somehow ended up here.

Off to the side of us Big Mama Sunshine was sitting with her little Casio keyboard in front of her. Big Mama was a huge haunch of insane love-radiating woman. One could find her on a different street of the French Quarter a couple times a week, playing honky-tonk and fast blues, growling out words you sometimes could understand and sometimes couldn’t. She’d wear all kinds of wild dresses, always with the same panama hat that a huge red feather sticking out of the brim. Her big jowly face would wobble around as her chubby fingers bounced across the keys.

So Bob and I were sitting out there and I was kind of dreading going back to the kitchen and staring at those plates and dishes for the rest of the day, when I noticed two Spanish women walking down the street. One I guessed was probably in her middle forties. She was very exotic looking. She had this creamy olive-skin and long black-hair and there was this smooth and hypnotizing rhythm to her movements, like she was walking on water. The woman holding her arm, who I guessed was her mother, was very frail and you could tell it was a little hard for her to keep up. But there was a wonderful energy exuding from her face, this brightness in her eyes, a warm, youthful smile. You could tell she was digging it all: the music and the art and the old buildings and it was like she was a little girl all over again, as if she had that same sense of innocence and excitement. I could tell she was enamored once she caught site of Big Mama Sunshine.

The two women stood in front of Big Mama and watched her play.

“Hey there ladies! Owww! Where you from?”

The younger woman said something in Spanish to her mother.

The old lady smiled and said, “Venezuela.”

“Oh yeah, Venezuela. I know just the song!”

Big Mama pulled out a little book that I guessed had program settings for the keyboard. She flipped through the pages, put in some numbers, and then screamed when it wasn’t working right. A few minutes went by until she finally got the one she wanted. La Cucaracha.

“Bum, bum bum bum bah bum.”

“Ay,” shouted the old woman.

“Wait, hold on,” said Big Mama.

She fished through a dirty bag and came out with a tambourine and a pair of cha-chas. The woman had it all. Suddenly, the two Venezuelan women were dancing on the sidewalk, shaking their instruments, moving to their own beautiful rhythm as Big Mama banged on the keys and growled. They were stomping and swaying and dancing, all full of religion and sex and love. It was like the old woman had just been injected with some wonderful youth potion and had the energy of a ten year old. Bob I sat there, shaking our heads and laughing.

“You hear about the black drawers?” Old Creole asked me. Old Creole was occasionally Melvin’s runner. He’d get him food and drinks throughout the day. He was just a stick of an old man with tiny, bloodshot Asiatic-looking eyes. He’d always sit on an empty milk crate and he didn’t say a whole lot. When he did it was usually something perverted. We were all chewing on sandwiches I’d just made when Big Mama came into the conversation. Melvin was teasing Old Creole about how she had a thing for him.

“Nah, you talking about her underwear?”

“Yeah,” said Melvin. “He was teasing Big Mama the other day, saying how she was crazy and couldn’t play. So yesterday I got this big crowd all around me. They were really into it too, at least ten people standing there. So all of the sudden I see Big Mama Sunshine walking towards me. She was looking even crazier than usual. Wearin’ a purple dress with yellow stockings. So what does she do? Bends over right in front of me and him and lifts her dress up and screams, ‘Check out these black drawers!’ It was disusting. Man, everyone left right then. All my tips: gone. That crazy lady ran them all away.”

Old Creole slapped me on my knee, nodded, and said, “Dat woman crazy.”

“Shit, you never know man,” I said jokingly to him.

“Hell no. I tell ya’ this. I went to the nurse back in ’85. Had me some of that clap you know. So the nurse took one look at it and told me I better keep that sucker in my pocket. Haven’t let it out since. Not for no woman. Dat’s the truth. And I don’t understand. What’s with all this Viagra? Man, just last week my neighbor, he be knocking on my door in the middle of the night. I say, what the hell you want, and you know what, he asking me if I got any pills. And what kind of pills? He asking for Viagra. Viagra! I say what da hell you need with Viagra? Man, this place just ain’t the same. I remember it used to be speed. Heroin. No. Now it’s viagra.”

“Wait, hold on guys, did you hear that?” said Bob.

“What,” said Old Creole looking down the street.

“Shit, is that Big Mama? I think I hear her footsteps.”

Old Creole darted up like he was going to run around the corner. After a few seconds though he saw us laughing and realized we were all just fucking with him. He sat down on his crate, slapped my knee again, and said, “Laugh all you want, but dat woman is crazy.”

A few minutes later a woman walked up to Melvin and said, “Hey Jazzman, play me something good.”

Without a word Mevlin nodded, (as if it was rite of passage, as if this is what he was put on this earth to do) lifted the sax towards the sky, and belted out a high sweet-piercing E. I didn’t know the song, but the lady obviously did because instantly she was shouting out. “Yeah! Yeah!” She started to sway and snap her fingers giving the tune a steady beat. And now Melvin was really getting into it, the notes all electric and floating every which way. His cheeks were so puffed out that he looked like a jellyfish. The wheelchair even started to roll all around the sidewalk, as if it had a spiritual life of its own.

“Oh yeah, play it hunny, hmmmmmmm, hmmmmmm,” said the woman. She was shaking her hips like only woman with soul know how to do.

I glanced down at my watch and noticed I was five minutes late. Fuck it, I thought, those dishes weren’t going to miss me anyway. I mean there’s certain moments in life where amidst all the insanity things make sense, where you feel like you’re part of something special. This was one of them. I put my arms behind by head, leaned back against the fence, and as the sun lit the back of my eyes, I let Melvin and the dancing music of the street slowly carry us all away.

Old Stories Intro

From 2002-2005 I wrote a column for Razorcake magazine; about ten stories in all. I also did a story for a magazine called Verbicide and had a story published in an anthology called Punch and Pie put out by Gorsky Press. Then I got lost somewhere along the line and stopped writing for nearly four years. I'd like to say why this happened, but there's no real good explanation. I found myself living in Los Angeles, somehow stumbled into becoming a union electrician, got involved in a relationship that was sometimes wonderful, but more often than not, tumultuous and far too crazy for me to take part in (a good friend of mine says I was Arturo and she was my Camilla. Any of you John Fante fans will know what that means), and well, let's just say, I forgot about music and lost touch with words. Eventually those two parts of my life resurfaced.

For me, a lot of the stories are old and yet, my memory isn't so great so sometimes their new. Often I wonder if they're made up from the figments of my imagination, was I really there? did that happen? I've done quite a bit of moving around and gone about things a little ass-backwards, but the truth is, nearly everything I've written has been taken from places and people I've known somewhere along the line. Words, no matter how well written, rarely live up to the real story, the actuality of "being there" but even a small glimpse into those other worlds, well, I figure it's my little contribution to this crazy lot called life. Enjoy.

Along with these stories I've decided to throw in the pictures of Eddie Morgan. I've been a fan of his photography for some time and like any good artist, he roams the land and toils in penniless obscurity, but I thought I'd do what little I can to spread the all mighty word. For more of his work you can go to:

Day 20

It’s been a while since I’ve been to the tunnel. I got myself a job bussing tables at a restaurant in Manhattan,; yes, money, the necessary evil we all have to adhere to, along with very cold weather, has forced me out into the streets of Manhattan begging for a “real” job. Luckily, I was able to find something. After a few days of work I had Sunday off so I decided to go to the park. It felt good to be there, setting the stool up, the guitar in my hands and the folks milling about.

Once again, it was good times with the New York characters roaming around. Out of the four hours I was there, I probably played about two; the other time spent distracted.

The day started off with a guy from Wales. Shaved head, stocky, he looked like those Hooligans that go to the soccer matches, but maybe that’s just an off-based stereotype. He told me he thought the music sounded great. He put a couple of dollars in the bag and then asked if he could video me playing a song and then saying hi to the kids back in England. I obliged, looked into the camera, fingerpicked a tune, and sent my greetings.

“Can I tell you a story? Got to tell soomone. So I jus’ got to New York yesterday. I was supposed to go to London with me best mate. The misses needs a new car and me and my best mate were going together to get this car. Just so happens one of the best motorcyle riders in the world is going to be there, eh. So we’re gonna’ stop at the airport, take some photos of him y’know. But see I’ve got this other business that week, trying to set it up before the trip. But soomtin’ seems sketchy, dun’ know wut’, but soomtin’ not right, eh, a feelin’. I don’t tell the misses because I want to surprise her with the new car. But the night before I’m gonna’ leave she cooms up to me wit’ this strange look on her face, soomtin’ not right, you know that look.

“So I say, ‘Woot’s the matta’ hun?’ She looks at me with that strange face y’know and says, ‘I have to tell ya’ soomtin’.’

“All right hun, woot’s on your mind, eh?”

‘I don’t know how to say this love, but I’ve been very naughty.’

“So now, I’m thinkin’, woot’s going on here. This is serious you know.”

“Woot ya’ me mean naughty I say?”

‘I haven’t been truthful with ya’ love. I’ve been a bit of a naughty girl.’

“Jesus Christ loov, woot ya mean by all this?”

‘Well, dun’ know how to say this loov, but me and your best mate have doon soomtin’ naughty behind your back.’

“At this point my hearts pumpin’, sweating ya know, I mean, me and the misses have our fun with others, you know, a little fun here and there ay, but not with me best mate. So I say to her, “Well, spit it out loov. Woot’ve you done with me mate?”

‘Well, loov, I bought you a ticket to New York. You leave from London tomorrow morning.’

“What? New York? Ay, I thought you were going to tell me you were fuckin’ me best mate.”

“I almost had a heartattack right there, I felt it pumpin’ good. So here I am, that’s my story. But tell me soomptin’, where can I find the real New York?”

I’m caught a little off guard buy this question. I can’t think of one particular part of the city you could label as the “real” New York.

“I’m talking where real New Yorkers are. Not all the fancy lights and the big buildings and the expensive restaurants and the foreigners.”

I tell him I’m relatively new to the city, but from what I’ve seen New York is an amalgamation of many different neighborhoods and nationalities. I mean hasn’t this guy ever heard of Ellis Island? The city was built by immigrants. I tell him of Chinatown and Harlem, the East Village and the West, Chelsea, Hells Kitchen, the many different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the Italians and Polish, the Muslims and the Jewish and Carribeans. He tells me he’s bothered by all the immigrants in the city. Says in the town where he lives back home only two percent of the kids that go to the schools are English. It’s a shame. Everything’s changed. I showed him a few areas on the map he gave to me, but whether or not he found the New York he was looking for, I don’t know.

An hour later a crazy Italian, kind of a bastardized, slobbering version of Robert Deniro showed up in the tunnel. It was then that I wished the English guy was around. This was probably the New York he desired to see on his vacation. His name was Charlie. I was playing a Fahey tune when he walked by. The song I was playing is called Sunflower Splendor, a variation of Vestapol, an old instrumental a lot of old-time musicians did. Charlie was very animated.

“Hey, you know The Hobo’s Lullaby?”

I told him I did.

I started to play the old Guthrie tune and Chalrie stuck his hands on his waist, chest pointed out, facing outside of the tunnel, and sang out in a deep baritone voice, “Go to sleep you weary hobo, let the town drift slowly by…”

Then all of the sudden, with the people passing by, Charlie goes into a full operatic rendition of Woody. Then he throws in some of his own lines, “Yeah, yeah, tell me about it.” He was definitely the showman. I couldn’t help but laugh. After the song Charlie told me he was in the process of writing his childhood memoirs. Other people that had read parts of it told him his writing reminded him of Raymond Carver and David Sedaris, but he couldn’t stand those guys.

“Fuck Sedaris, that clown was selling flowers, gets on the radio, and boom, he’s famous. Shit, I’ll be like Hemmingway, go to Paris with my ailing gay lover (Fitzgerald). I tell you what. You know the secret to writing? I’m gonna’ tell you right now. Think back to your youngest memories, kindergarten, grade school, a teacher, the beach. Now write five words, anything, any words, and then leave a blank space, then five more words and another blank space. Sit at the kitchen table and have another person fill in the blanks. I’m tellin’ ya’, it works.”

“Hey, I wrote a song. You mind?”

I hand him the guitar. He stands proudly, although without a strap it’s hard for him to hold the guitar. “From the shores of Carolina to the Blue Ridge mountains…” His guitar skills aren’t great, but it’s a great traveling country song, all about coming back to his true love in New York. Charlie even gets a couple of dollars from the passing tourists. “Come on, tell me about it, one more time now!” he shouts out and then sings the chorus again.

We sang Freight Train together in wavering harmony. He seemed like one of those old types from the neighborhood, maybe a little too goofy to run with the tough guys, but all said the loveable Italian jokester from the “corner.” As he walked away he said, “You got it kid, you got it.” He then raised his arm in front of him, like something out of a Greek play, and did his best impersonation of Pavarotti.

The day goes along, hours pass by, songs go unheard, change is thrown, some dollars here and there…when up walks Barry.

“Oh Lord, all the crazies are out today,” I say jokingly.

Barry points at me, then brings his fingers between his eyes, says something so deep and prolific that I can’t remember. I say, “That sounds like some Confuscious shit.”

Barry says I ought to do Springsteen songs. I’ll double my tips. I tell him folks don’t want to hear dark songs about murderers roaming the Midwestern landscape with young girls when they’re strolling out in the park. He says maybe I have a point. He asks me if I’ve learned any Fred Neil songs and I tell him I haven’t gotten around to it. He tells me about a painting over at the Met by a Dutch painter, Vermier I think. It’s of an old woman pouring a pitcher of milk into a glass, but the painting is so true and real, he says it brought tears to his eyes. He stares off and I wonder if maybe he might shed a tear right there in the tunnel. But he doesn’t. The conversation’s short today, a large crowd of families approaches, and Barry walks away not wanting to distract me, “Hurry, play something,” he says and then he’s gone.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Other Folks in the Park

Boris plays sax around the corner from the tunnel every day from ten in the morning until two in the afternoon. After two Valentine takes his spot. Boris is ok as far as music goes, plays the typical pop tunes we’ve all heard a million times: Killing Me Softly, Elton John, that sort of thing. The problem with Boris though is that he always seems to be in a horrible mood. Every time he walks by me he has his head down, brooding, a frown on his face, the look of the desperate clown.

For about five days straight he walked by me after his shift, always looking in my case to see how much money I had; then into the darkness he goes with his beat-up sax case and up the stairs and into the streets of Manhattan. I stopped him one day.

“You play sax?”

“Yah,” he said, in a tone that said, what the hell do you think I play? “Why you play here? No good. No money,” says Boris, angrily.

I have about five dollars in the case, but another twenty in my pocket from earlier in the day.

“Ah, you know, just having fun, I like the acoustics.”

“No good. You shouldn’t play here. I play thirteen years here. I play ‘dis tunnel in ‘vinter. Cold. Dark. But here, no good. ‘Dis recession. No good. No money.”

Boris walks away shaking his head. Since then he avoids the tunnel. One day he peaked from around the corner to see if I was there, then walked in a different direction. I ask Valentine what the deal with Boris is and he says he’s crazy. He does a really mean looking face and walks around in circles grunting. He says Boris is always angry.

Valentine’s brother plays by the bathrooms and playground around the corner from Wollman Rink. Sometimes he goes into the tunnel over there. He doesn’t say much and speaks very little English and I doubt he really makes much, but like Valentine, he seems to enjoy himself.

Not far from the Chess gazebo is an old Chinese man that sometimes plays something that looks like a one-string violin, but instead of resting on his shoulders, it’s held straight up from the ground. He also plays an instrument that resembles a lap-steel, except it has a bar that points up about a foot which gives the instrument a bending noise. He has an amp playing ambient music. I like the sound the instrument makes, reminds me of Kung-Fu movies, but it does grow very repetitive after a while. There’s another guy who plays something similar down in the Grand St. subway station in Chinatown.

On Saturday’s there’s a guy that stands still on top of a box. He doesn’t move and he has balls in his hands. A sign with an open bag sits in front of him that reads, “Feed me and I juggle.” Personally, I think it’s a lame gimmick. I figure do your thing and if the people like it, they’ll throw in some money. Most people walk by not paying him much attention.

Walking up towards the mall which leads to the Bethesda fountain. It’s one of the more picturesque and popular spots in Central Park. In a little courtyard is a violin player that plays standard classical pieces: Bach, Chopin, etc. She places the sheet music in front of her case. There is background music to go along with it. She’s very good as far as violin players, but rigid and serious, always bowing when she finishes. She often draws a decent sized crowd on the benches, folks enjoying the relaxed confines of the park.

Not too far from her is the green pixie, good ol’ Tinker Bell. Another mannequin that stands on a box, wearing a bright green sparkling dress with green wings, toothpick-thin young girl with white-caked make-up and big blue eyes staring rigidly straight ahead. Her green gloves are folded eloquently to the side. To be honest, I’m not a fan of mannequins or mimes. As a kid I think I liked them. There’s an old picture of me as a child in San Francisco, on a stage with a mime; I look happy. Somewhere along the line something went wrong. Years later I was with a girlfriend of mine, on a wild bender down in New Orleans. We’d spent the past few days staying in a really shabby hotel, The Hummingbird in the skid row area off of St. Charles, roach-infested, prison cell feel. We were looking at 100 dollar a week adds for rooming houses out of the Times-Picayune and went to check out a place, it was in the Treme, a two bedroom house that looked like it hadn’t been quite finished, the lack of a floor and dirt in the kitchen being the sign. Anyway, we’ve got this sketchy guy showing us around in the place, but we notice all kinds of mannequins in wheel barrels around the place. There’s another room next to where ours will be.

The conversation ensues.

“Uh, who lives in the other room?”

“Oh, he’s cool, real quiet, never around.”

“What does he do?”

“He’s a mime.”

I look at my girlfriend and no words need to be said.

“Well, thanks, but we can’t live here.”

“What’s the problem?”

“We can’t live with a mime.”

“But he’s all right, he doesn’t even say anything.”

“That’s the problem. He don’t talk.”

A week later we got another place from this guy off of Esplanade: an old mansion rooming house filled with crack heads. A few days later the place burned down, but that’s another story for another time. Apologies. I ramble.

So, back to Tinker Bell. Despite my distaste for mimes, I was in a good mood so I put a couple of quarters in the pixie’s leather bag and then walked away, but I heard something that sounded like a chirp and looked back. She had twisted around, robot-like, and her hand had moved. She had something to give me. I stuck my hand out was given sparkly green confetti. Interesting. I thanked her and let it fall on the ground around the corner.

Walking down further along the mall, the benches on each sides, the trees perfectly landscaped, branches drooping across on each side to form a roof of sorts, folks milling about in a good spirits, it has the feel of Paris, or maybe England although I’ve never been to either. The paintings of Monet, Pisarro; that’s what it makes me think of.

Then there’s the little kid performer. He’s maybe eight or nine years old. He juggles while riding a unicycle around the crowd, an intense look of concentration painted on his face. He rarely ever fucks up. He also has some kind of spinning thing that goes on a string. He throws it up in the air, twirls around, and then catches it. Most people are quite impressed with the act, but what I enjoy most is seeing other kids around his age watching him; they seem quite awestruck and fascinated that another kid can do what he’s doing. One day I heard one big Italian guy wearing a Yankee cap say in what sounded like a Long Island accent. “Fuck. That fuckin’ kid’s fuckin’ good!” Often I see the little performer counting his money inside the bucket and from what I’ve witnessed he’s probably making the most out of anyone in the park.

Continuing on, to the area where the little Greek amphitheatre is. Sometimes there’s a sax player, shades, derby cap on backwards. He’s a lot better that the other Russian sax players I know. He plays a lot of hard bop, 60’s jazz style.

Next to him are the skate-boarders all dressed in New York skate fashion: baggy pants, red and blue baseball caps, doing their ollie’s and kick-flips alongside the roller-bladers/Ice skaters who do circles in their make-shift rink, pirouettes with their headphones on, grooving to the music.

Sunday’s you’ll find Africans in their drum circles with their strange-sounding horns, shakers, repeating the same beat over and over, bongos, bass drums, people dancing in front of them, sometimes chaotically, sometimes in an easy rhythmic fashion.

I suppose my favorite on the summer weekends are the roller dancers that lie west about fifty yards away. I remember roller-skating as a kid, school events in elementary school. I wasn’t much good, never could quite master the backwards deal, always looking around from the corner as every girl I had a crush on was already taken in the couples skate. That said, I had no idea that roller-skating still existed with adults, especially in this fashion, but hey, it’s New York, one can never be surprised.

I would describe this as a straight-up roller-skating, carnival dance party with quite an array of characters, spanning from little kids to folks in their eighties. DJ’s spin 80’s New York hip-hop and r&b, plain ol’ get down fun music with a good beat. Round and round the skaters go, groovin’, spinnin’, laughin’, for hours and hours on end. Some folks don’t even have skates. They just get in the middle and shake it.

There’s an old woman in tight black spandex with her Oakley sunglasses, white hair in a high bun, hamming it up with large crowd of on-lookers, tourists and New York natives side by side, her arms spread out like she’s some sort of Sparrow, or more like an Ostrich off of Broadway. She’s tireless and probably the fittest senior citizen I’ve ever come across.

There’s the buff, chiseled, enormous black guy, shirtless, with parachute looking pants made out of towels. He looks like someone out of Arabian times. He balances water bottles on his head with an extreme sense of determination as he skates, sometimes as many as six at a time. He also does a slow-motion act in which he skates slower and slower until he finally stops.

Next to him, prancing around is an old pirate drag queen wearing a white Southern dress with flowers. A colorful neon wig covers his bald head, bright yellow socks, a screaming blue purple parrot on top of his hat, he pulls the dress up and a little and sways it around. Sometimes he changes hats and wigs. He loves the crowd and posing for pictures, a pure natural and as I watch him, laughing aloud, memories of the beautiful menagerie of New Orleans come back to me. He has a baby stroller in which his pink and blue died poodle rests in. After much parading he leaves the rink and heads over towards the drum circles.

There’s a cute Puerto Rican girl flying around the rink, people doing tricks on the side, flamers alongside of tough guys; Asians, blacks, Hispanics; a beautiful bouillabaisse of New York City. A man dressed in full Batman attire roams around the rink. He has a bike done up like the Batmobile. Anytime the Arabian buff guy drops a water bottle Batman runs over to “save the day.” When he leaves the rink he walks some kind of makeshift red carpet and stops to let everyone take pictures of him.

Down the steps into the arcade that leads to Angel of the Waters fountain. A Mad Max/Renaissance violin player/opera singer/dancer combo, something out of a Fellini movie. Thoth is done up all Egyptian style, dreads, purple dress open at the chest, wearing all kinds of gold jewelry, shakers on his feet. The other violin player is round-faced, pale complexioned girl, a homemade dress, her bikini so loose you can see her nipples. She sings some sort of unintelligible opera and together they do a theatrical dance. Medallions and candles and stars lie around their instrument cases. It’s got that freak element to it, but the music drives me absolutely nuts, but of course, they do well with the tips and the foreigners seem to be into it.

The other day I sat by the fountain and watched a very tall, lanky man on a bicycle with headphones ride around the fountain for a good thirty minutes. He waved his arms like he was conducting Beethoven's 9th, round and round he went in his own world. He was tireless.

Lastly, I can’t leave out Leroy Hoops, probably my favorite of anyone I’ve come across in Central Park. This guy has the most fun of any of the performers I’ve seen. He is a bongo player, hula-hoop instructor, and drum teacher for kids; a singer and comedian, a regular vaudevillian joyous jester of the park. Sometimes you’ll see him set up on the Bethesda Terrace overlooking the fountain. Other days you’ll find him in a random part of the park next to a tree, little kids and their parents all around him. With his big eyes and smile he sings his own originals: “I’m that baby’s daddy, I’m that baby’s mama,” putting on a blond wig every time he says mama. Kids approach the miniature drum set he has next to him with an air of curiosity. Most times they just bang on it. Leroy stops what he’s doing and goes into instructor mode. The parents try to pry their kids away and apologize, but Leroy says, “No, no, it’s all right. But kid, you got to play soft and with the beat. A, B, C, D, E, F, G. See like that. Soft. Now you try.” The kid takes the drumsticks and continues banging on the drums.

He’s also got a various assortment of hula-hoops all around, small ones for the kids, big ones for the adults. He’ll even jump up from the bongos and show you how to do it if you’re struggling.

“Legs bent, like this, one in front of the other, smack that hoop right on the side, come on guys, front, back, front, back, you know what I’m talking about. And ladies, if you’re man don’t know front and back it’s time for a new man.”

Suddenly there’s a full crowd of hula-hoopers.

I’ve seen few people give Hoops some money, but he doesn’t have any basket out. I think he’s truly doing it for the love and joy of seeing other people have a good time. It’s quite a beautiful thing when you really think about it.