One of the more disconcerting things about old photo albums is the tiny x’s above some of the people pictured. It means that the person had died. Well, all of them are dead in these old family albums by now, I think, so I could put the little x’s above each and every person in each and every photo, but I won’t. It’s not done anymore. I suspect the x was actually a stylized cross—x’s usually were, if not used as the actual letter—and the slightly morbid tradition probably goes back centuries. You still see it in lists of names of military men, meaning they killed in action. And you see it on old photos. The young man pictured here, a lanky teen named Carl, was my dad’s eldest brother, a terribly gifted piano player, who began with the German romantics but was caught up in ragtime and jazz. He learned those chops in speakeasies in Flint MI while still in high school, then headed for the jazz bars and swinging dancehalls in Detroit, playing for money and drink. Soon he played a lot more for drink than money. His father, Carl senior, loathed jazz and blamed it for his namesake’s downfall, and ordered him out of the house over and over. His mother always let him back in. He’d get picked up stinking drunk and pitched into the drunk tank. Mom—my grandmother—would plead to bail him out. The old man would give in and the cycle repeated. Finally dad—my grandfather—put his foot down and said next time his son could rot in jail. Which he did, soon enough. There’s a recording he made, supposedly while in jail, as if the Flint jail had a piano. Obviously it was recorded sometime between his spells in jail, perhaps as proof to a judge that he wasn’t just another lush, but who knows. It’s a Duke Ellington number, Sophisticated Lady, I think—it’s been years since I’ve heard it—and it’s a baroque swing, lush with ornamentation, a display of desperate virtuosity, sad and melancholy and unrealized. He died not much later, of DTs and pneumonia in a frigid jail cell in the depths of a Michigan winter. It was 1949, nearly a decade before I was born, and he was thirty two. The old man followed two years later, of dropsy, heartbreak, failure and his own terrible shattered dreams. The two Carls lie side by side in a forgotten cemetery outside Flint, and someone penciled a tiny x over their heads in this old photo album.
[Just discovered that I posted an earlier draft of this on BricksHistory.com. Oh well….]
A friend just posted a note about her ten years with the company she’s been with, and even though I’m comfortably retired now, I felt a pang of envy. I loved working day gigs, day gigs in big giant buildings in big giant companies. I kept at it until epilepsy made working impossible and I finally gave in. I have to admit my life now is neurologically much more healthy. The less I do, the less the epilepsy gets stirred up. Besides, I was a lifelong failure as a bohemian, the idea of being a full time writer didn’t appeal to me at all, and I always felt out of my element in big gatherings of bohemians and their patrons. Aside from a very select few, I never even hung out with other writers. I was always more of the underground kind of guy, creative weird shit by night, excruciatingly normal environment by day. That’s what I did most of my working life, and though I was certainly one of the odder employees, I took to it like a weird fish to water. I liked the sick leave and vacation and salary, I like a lot of the scads of people I’d meet, some of whom I knew on a daily basis for years. Of course, my life out of the office had absolutely nothing in common with the forty hours I put in a week at the day gig. I never socialized with my fellow employees, never even did lunch. I suppose that’s why I quickly lost contact with almost every single person I ever worked with. Of the hundreds, if not thousands, of fellow employees I was on a first name basis with over the years, from CEOs to maintenance people, you can count the ones I still talk to on some of the fingers on one hand. Those almost forty years of 9 to 5 are like a dream now. I don’t have a single photo of me at any of the jobs I ever had. There’s not even a photo of any of my desks. No mementos at all. Hard to believe I was ever even there.
I’m too old to look like a cop anymore, though that used to come in handy. You don’t get fucked with when you look like a cop, not even by cops. Hell, not by anybody, I had gang bangers apologize for what I don’t know, and the crackheads in Hollywood never came near our Chevy Celebrity. It never got broken into even in the skankiest neighborhoods. But the high point had to be the time I sent a few Motown execs into a coked out panic when they thought I’d caught them doing lines in the men’s room at the Soundcheck. Old timers will remember the place, on Sunset Blvd just this side of Vine, a couple doors down from the Motown offices. Texacala Jones waited the tables slowly and silently. Anyway, one crowded night I pushed open the door to the men’s room and startled three suits in the middle of a conference. They freaked, three cats dressed to the nines in gold and expensive suits frantically wiping the evidence off their noses. I assume they tossed the rest of the blow into the waste basket. I just came into piss, I said, I’m not a cop, which only meant I was a cop, and it took another minute before I could convince them that I probably wasn’t a cop and as I stood there at the urinal they kept spluttering apologies to me and one shook my free hand. Oh, Hollywood….
We ordered delivery last night. I had a veggie omelette but snuck a couple bites of Fyl’s pastrami sand and a chocolate shake. Loved it. I’d planned that shake for a couple weeks, but the pastrami, oh my god, it went down like mortal sin. Cheating on my diet. Had had nothing but fruit all that day, which is the usual, fruits and veggie and whole grains, and doing penance again today, every bite of fruit an Act of Contrition, the green onions a couple Hail Marys. Committing adultery on your diet is a serious transgression. The devil made me do it.
Actually I love fruit and veggies, we always have lots, and breakfast is a cornucopia of three or four different things, say berries and a stone fruit, some apple or pear slices, a couple dates, with a couple spoonfuls of plain yogurt. Plus my three daily Brazil nuts (Fyl’s orders, though I can’t remember why), maybe a slice of whole wheat bread if I’m splurging and a cup of coffee. Something equally healthy (but less of it) for lunch. Fyl serves up dinner, usually a small cut of meat or fish and a couple vegetables. Dessert is a bowl of some whole grain cereal. Seem to be losing a steady five pounds a month that way, and unexpectedly the arthritis pain has been dramatically reduced.
So forgive me my cheating. I always say it won’t happen again, but it does, maybe once a month. The flesh is weak, though there’s a little less of it every month.
Just remembered I used to tool around Milwaukee on warm summer nights in Pete Fountain’s MG. How I got all 6’5” of me in there I don’t know, but Fyl and I had a ball. Her brother in law had bought it off Pete one weekend in New Orleans after a night of gumbo and that crazy blowing clarinet and driven it the length of the Mississippi Valley back to Milwaukee. Even after being stuck in the garage through long winters and a near fatal collision with a deer it still oozed hot jazz cool, that car. Zero to sixty in double time, oh yeah, a joyous ride. We’d head into the city and hop the clubs on Brady Street or wander through Summerfest all day and then take all the side streets and woody lanes to her sister’s place north of the city. On the way back we’d stop by the lake at a gorgeous little park in Whitefish Bay and sit on the grass and smoke a joint and watch the lightning bugs flash around us. I remember bolts of distant heat lightning playing on the lake, and huge June bugs appearing out of nowhere. What was that, a quarter century ago? I’d forgotten it till someone posted the cover of an old Pete Fountain LP tonight and it all came back, the muggy night air, the breeze off the lake, the music blasting from the radio, the fire flies and that car. It had a powerful engine that surged as you pressed lightly on the accelerator and could turn on a dime and I played the clutch like I’d been driving stick my whole life. Sigh….
In the long run it was utterly insignificant, of course, driving Pete Fountain’s little car, but it was such a strangely cool thing to do. It was a different world then, an analog world, experiences were real and tactile and I’d write memories like this with a pen on paper. I think I wrote this down once, which is probably why I remember it so vividly, why I can feel that Midwestern nighttime summer air and see the fireflies like they’re right here around me right now. It’s like if you live right, or even live wrong, life is full of such moments, meaningless and special, and sometimes you remember them half a lifetime later, and they seem like perfection.
When I first got my cell phone with the 420 prefix a really stoned guy called and thought I was a pot delivery service. I apologized and said I was not. Dude, he said. I thought it was a prank call but the depth of his confusion and despair was profound and convincing. Dude, he said again. Having reached the limits of his vocabulary, I said goodbye and hung up.
I don’t know if they called kids in horn rim glasses poindexters when you were kids, and these aren’t exactly poindexter worthy glasses, but I finally gave in and got some glasses that don’t bust after being squeezed onto my skull. Large frame glasses, they’re nice enough to call them. Apparently the hugely skulled are sensitive to being called big headed. Anyway, I figure with 64 just days away, my very last year of this weird sixty something state of being way beyond middle aged but not officially a senior citizen either, I can cool it with the wire frames that were the height of coolness in the hippie days when girls did make passes at guys who wore glasses. Wire frame glasses anyway. Though as I refused to wear any glasses until I was fifty and couldn’t read anything at all, you can skip all that, not that you haven’t since that opening sentence. I know I have been.
Anyway, I don’t feel like doing the selfie thing so you can just imagine me with pandemic hair like the cover of some ancient Pink Floyd album and poindexter glasses. Groovy nerdness. Such is the fate of old punk rockers in plague times.
I remember the time I walked into a room full of stoned people silently watching Jeopardy. They were so stoned I wondered how they could possibly answer any of the questions. All of a sudden the category was the Civil War and I answered all the questions without hesitation, just one of those lucky Jeopardy streaks. I’ve never watched more than a handful of Jeopardys, but these questions were easy enough if you knew your history—two Civil War battles were known by the name of one creek. What is Bull Run, Alex—but it was the most impossible feat the stoners had ever witnessed. Certainly the most impossible feat they’d witnessed since smoking those last couple bowls. They gazed upon me like I was a Jeopardy god, their half closed eyes almost awake with amazement. A veritable torrent of monosyllables gushed forth. Fuck one said. Fuck said another. The rest of the room agreed, fuck. Then they fired up another bowl and forgot it had ever happened.
Retired guy in a pandemic still up at 4 am because he threw a load in the dryer without looking at the time first. You could leave them in there and go to bed, you say, and you’d be right. But you know how stubborn retired guys can be.
So I was having coffee, a couple mandarin oranges, blueberries and two Brazil nuts when the postman brought a two and a half pound tub of Hadley deglet noor dates that just about melt in your mouth they’re so fresh and I began to feel like an out of shape arthritic Eden Ahbez or would’ve if I hadn’t just shaved. The hair is about right, though, and I can almost see the Hollywood Sign from the sundeck, but I haven’t worn anything like a hippie guru robe since my last colonoscopy.