for trying to sleep during the day, which rarely worked out, Midnights
was the best shift of all. Some places they called it The Graveyard
Shift. At the Inland Steel works, East Chicago, Indiana, we weren't
so well spoken--we just called it Midnights or Twelve to Eight.
I loved walking the few blocks down Columbus Ave. to, or from, the
gate. There were whorehouses, especially one above the Pay Day Tap,
which I did not visit but which did make me feel welcome. Especially
at night the girls would call out their windows, "Woo-hoo, Gringo,"
and wiggle their tongues or some other body part at me. I liked to
wave to them, walking down Columbus with work clothes rolled under
my arm and a lunch bucket. "Don't go there, Pret-ty Boy,"
they'd call and I'd shrug and wave.
This was my last night on the shift,
and in two weeks I'd be leaving the mill altogether, to go to
college. I wanted to go on to college, with classes during the daylight
on a campus with trees and its own buildings. My college credits so
far had been earned at night, in high school classrooms rented out
to Indiana U.
But I wanted to go to the furnaces
too. They were at least as exciting as the girls in their windows
were, which is saying a lot. Especially coming in to the furnaces
from midnight-on-the -street. Three of them, four storeys tall. Dynamited
open every time the melt was done, to spill the hot steel out the
back - sparks, fire, smoke, warning sirens, in a building so
big railroad trains came in and out to haul the red hot steel ingots.
This was the mid 1950s and steelmill work was mostly done by hand
and muscle - dangerous, exciting, sweaty, dirty, even deadly.
Periodically the brick that lined an open hearth furnace had to be
torn out and replaced, or the roof had to be taken off while steel
cooked down below. Teams of common laborers did the job. We pulled
out--by hand--bricks that were still glowing from the furnace
I didn't expect college to be
as exciting as the mill. I can testify now, it wasn't. I'm
not sure I ever fit in either though. One night the job was so hot
I sweat completely through my leather work boots. "Look at my
boots! What a gasser," I said to the guy next to me. "What
are you, some kind of boogie woogie?" he asked suspiciously.
My last night ever on Midnights I was
the sub-basement of Furnace Number Two with a jack hammer, busting
out the rotted concrete floor. The noise and dust and breakage of
the job got to me, like Rapture of the Deep, a Jackhammer Rapture
of the Sub-basement, until I heard this voice above screaming down
into the hole. Fucker;college;you;I said;.
I stopped the hammer and he went on screaming. You think
you're hot shit you little fucker you fuckin little college
boy cocksucker and some fuckin day you just walk outa here you cocksucker
to go do cornholing home-work or some fuckin pansy ass thing and leave
the rest of us here you fuckin fairy college ass muff diver and I'll
be some dry ball broken backed ass wipe killin myself for my piss
That's actually the short version.
He yelled down the hole, I looked up at him with my hand on the jack
hammer and my dust clouding up into his eyes. If he came down the
ladder he probably would have killed me. I thought at the time how
right he was in all he said and it would be too bad though if he tried
to kill me because I would try to kill him too. A stupid way to fuck
up two lives, one of which meant a lot to me. But he just stopped
talking, spit into the hole, missed me and disappeared. He didn't
work in our area and I never saw him again. My straw boss looked down
into the hole. "Well that boy had a hornet lodged in his asshole,
I'd say." I didn't say anything, just grinned. Amazing
how I kept my big mouth shut that night. The straw boss scratched
his arm pit and then his neck and said, real easy, "Well;I
guess we can just let this one ride? Get back to work? What you say?"
I hit the jackhammer again, thinking This hammer is my art and
that knucklehead is a critic, no critic comes between me and my art.
I worked hard then, smiling at how damn clever I was. If the shouter
came back and looked down into that hole he would have read my mind
in an instant and I'd be done for.
In the morning, after I punched out,
I strolled back up Columbus Ave. in the direction of the Michigan
St. bus stop with my week's dirty work clothes rolled up under
my arm, and I turned into the Pay Day Bar. It was a hot morning, 85
degrees already, but not so hot that I didn't feel relief after
being in the furnace sub basement. There were no girls yelling out
the upstairs windows at 8:30 am, but there were sure to be some working,
what with the midnight shift just getting out. That was reassuring,
especially since my notion of what those girls were up to came from
reading From Here to Eternity. The bartender was obese and
rough looking, but he talked and moved in an exaggerated, feminine
manner. He sounded a lot like Talulah Bankhead. He knew I didn't
drink alcohol and put up a 7 Up with extra ice in an extra tall glass.
He asked me what I was reading and I told him Saul Bellow's
The Adventures of Augie March. "I love that book to
death," he said and I wasn't surprised to hear that. There
were a lot of serious readers in that part of town. A shady druggist
up the street, who'd sell you a handful of benzedrine for next
to nothing, was reading T.S. Eliot: "Daddy, this cat knows
- we are the hollow men. Well, I am. I don't
know about you. Maybe your hollow-ness is yet to come."
One night I found a hillbilly hiding
in a boxcar at the mill, reading. I warned him the Super was heading
his way and he'd better find another hideout. As he began to
scuttle off to safety I asked him what he was reading. It was The
Great Gatsby. "My sixth time with this fucker - I
cain't get enough of it." I told him how I'd read
the book the first time in high school, on my own, and read it at
least once a year every year since. He smiled and nodded like a man
of the world, a man of the world I wanted to live in. "The poor
sum-bitch is right, ain't it? The poor sum-bitch. Take care,
I told the bartender about the girls
yelling out the windows last night. "Well they'd better
cool it, there's an election coming up. There's a new
kid upstairs, from New Orleans. You'd like her." I shrugged,
"It's not - I 'm not;." "That's
cool," he said. Not that I wasn't interested in the girls,
and like everybody else I wondered how they got into that line of
work. It was as great a mystery as any I could mull over at that time
of my life. It was no mystery to the bartender. "It's
the rule of thirds," he said. "One third are upstairs
because they're junkies. One third because someone in their
life, usually parents, told them they were no fucking good, so they're
here to take their punishment. The junkies I can take - they've
got their habit and God bless em. The others, well Jesus, I mean they
drive you nuts, always starting trouble, especially with the other
girls. They come on like it's some big ass sin or something
and we should all feel as shitty as they do. Lots of them just knock
themselves off eventually and, well, good riddance. I wish that whole
crowd would hurry up and get the job done." I reminded him that
he'd covered only two thirds of the population. "And the
last third, like the kid from New Orleans, just like the job. The
hours, the money, et cetera et cetera. I mean, they bring up the tone
of the place if you know what I mean. If a girl's going down
on you, you want to feel she's enjoying her line of work. Right?"
I was heartened to hear that there were girls who liked that line
of work. My Aunt Arlene would declare late in the night at the weekend
parties that she was attracted to that line of work herself, to get
paid money for doing the Deed was almost too good to be true. This
opinion was not for tender young ears, but my young ears were upstairs
listening for every clue they could pick up, or deduce, from what
was being said downstairs, especially during those all night Saturday
night parties during the World War II years. The grownups in that
family were young and desperate, abandoned and slaphappy: the sounds
of the downstairs made being a grownup up sound scary and desirable
as an exotic foreign land - hot music, loud voices, breaking
glass, laughter that was almost tears, and tears, contempt for authority,
spectacular swearing, and sex sex sex. God I loved that family and
hoped I would one day be as abandoned in such a whiskey fragrant and
noisy turmoil of people I loved and who loved me.
Speaking of strong feelings, I told
the bartender about the incident in the sub basement. I thought the
ranter probably qualified as a member of the second third, the ones
who hated themselves and everyone else. The bartender agreed. "Did
you hit the bitch?" I told him I didn't and that I kept
my mouth shut. The bartender put money in the juke box and played
Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan, "Makin' Whoopee"
and "Cherry," and The Four Freshmen, "It's
a Blue World." I congratulated him on his taste. He congratulated
me on keeping my mouth shut in the sub basement. "You know,
that poor cocksucker told you the truth, Jimmy Boy. That poor cock-sucker
is stuck forever, praying God his body holds up till retirement. You
are free as a bird compared to him. Those poor poor mother-fuckers.
I wish the girls upstairs could give 'em the works for free."
"Do you mean that?" The bartender grinned, dancing a little
to Chet Baker, "Not a bit of it, sweets. It's just a manner
of speak-ing." He put up another 7 Up that was so clean
looking, so cold and fine on the taste I was beginning to feel like
the luckiest son of a bitch in the world. The bartender went on with
his little half dance, knocked out by the music. And how could you
not be? "That little junkie Chet Baker, there's the truth,
boy. In the arm and out the horn." "Sad but true,"
I said. "Don't be so sure, sweets. Don't knock it
till you try it." He had a band aid in the crook of his elbow.
"Thanks for the 7 Up, nice talkin' to you," I said
and left the change on the bar just like my mother taught me. "You
keep that little bundle of fun from New Orleans in mind, Mr. Open
Hearth." I guaranteed him I would, and that was the truth. I
didn't expect I'd ever meet her, but I would surely keep
her in mind. I'd read From Here to Eternity and dreamed
that Pruitt dream.
At the door I was half-blinded by sunlight,
and a thick-necked, loud silhouette blocked my way. It was laughing
a show-offy haw haw haw, absolutely without mirth. I'd heard
one version or another of that laugh, from men only, all my life -
down in the kitchen on nights when my family had company, coming out
of saloons as I walked past, down in the furnace room at school where
the janitor and the coaches would smoke. I had promised myself I would
never be that kind of man: a raw and hard-hearted laugher, full of
"Haw Haw Haw - Hap and
Lois's little boy stopping off for a two-buck piece of ass on
the way home--" His voice was like those oogah-oogah horns
on the old jalopies. I recognized it before I could make out his face.
It was Staples, one of those guys who made all the noise in my parents'
kitchen on party nights. Like most of those guys, he was married to
a bright and good looking woman. Don't ask me how or why. Maybe
she came to the conclusion, with men this is a good as it gets and
went for him. Her name was Marian. Staples was bricklayer, a work
and drinking friend of my uncles. I idolized my uncles but thought
their taste in friends stunk. And if that was the best you could do,
for friends, it was one hell of an argument for not spending your
whole life in the mill.
"Staples! You off today?"
"Union business. Nice place you
picked to stop off at;"
"I like the jukebox."
"Yeah. Right. Your uncles knew
you were here, they'd pin your ears back. You'd break
your father's heart." Staples idolized my father. His
own father was a drunk, wife-beater, suicide. "He thinks you're
hot shit - don't ask me why."
Staples waited. I didn't say
anything. Finally he asked me, sneering. "What they have you
doing on midnights? Cleaning offices?" That would be
women's work in Staples' book - just right for me.
"I was on the big hammer all
night, tearing out the sub-basement in number two furnace. We're
taking it down and putting it back up."
"I heard they were. You say you
were on the big hammer?" He sneered.
"All alone. Eight hours."
He shook his head, pretending I was
I smiled, pretending he wasn't
We didn't have a lot to say to
each other and the bartender was wary. He didn't want the situation
to get any more tense than it was. Neither did I.
I smiled a Staples and waved to the
bartender and left. Staples had no kids of his own, although he was
a Catholic, and I was his best example of why a guy should be happy
if "he's shooting blanks" (his words). I was a traitor
to my class and my hardworking father: a bookworm, classical music
snob, pseudo-intellectual, nigger lover, probable atheist, and likely
fairy. It was the usual tough-guy contempt package, which he concealed
when he was around my father but made clear the few times we were
alone. I didn't say a word back to him when he was on that kick,
which he took for what it was. Insolence.
He wanted to hit me, but loyalty to
my father and uncles stopped him. It felt to me like he wished he
could any time he saw me - Christmas parties, the Fourth, the
Bricklayer's Union dance. I knew that if we fought he would
really damage me because he was deeply strong from working a hard
job with a hangover or any other malaise, plus he would be the one
carrying a load of hate. I'd never be able to match his hate.
Just the thing that made him hate me so much made me not hate him
enough. My gut, my groin, my heart were all elsewhere and finally
didn't give a shit about Staples. On the job, with the air hammer,
I got good advice, the first time I was breaking concrete. Billie,
a young guy from Alabama who'd done a whole lot more work than
I had (including six months on a chain gang), told me: "College,
you gonna get real tired just liftin that hammer with your arms and
thinkin about whatever it is you're thinkin about - pussy,
or whatever. You got to get into this deal emotionally. Got it? E-motion-ally.
Hate that cocksucker hammer and that motherfucker floor you're
bustin out and you gonna love this job." He was right. I could
get that hate up with the hammer, that was acting. But not enough
with Staples. That was real life. He would beat the bejesus out of
me, and I wouldn't give a shit. I knew that for a fact.
'I'll tell my uncles I
saw you, Stape," I smiled and nodded back at the bartender.
He said to Staples, "They're waiting for you in the back."
There was a room in the back where legendary poker games were played
and where certain confidential union business was conducted. "You're
lucky your uncles are who they are." Staples was trying to sneer
and look threatening at the same time, not doing either very well.
The bartender was wagging his forefinger at me, signaling no no
no, and flicking his eyes in Staples' direction. I acted
cocky but wondered what I was getting myself into, being old enough
now to move alone in Staples' world.
I was avoiding catching my bus home--I
had to admit it finally. I could feel myself losing connections. For
instance, my uncles. I was nuts about all four of them. They were
bricklayers, noisemakers, huggers, cussers, arm punchers, always interested
in whatever it was I was doing or reading. But there was point where
their path went one way (towards Staples) and mine went another. They
enjoyed Staples' company, they actually craved his company.
Imagine, enjoying that moron's company.
In a couple of years Staples would
be turning State's Evidence to stay out of the lockup, telling
an investigator what that confidential union business was. My uncles
always insisted that Staples was framed.
Well another bus would be along. There's
always another bus. I strolled a couple of blocks along the main drag
then cut into the rundown neighborhood, part Mexican, part black,
mostly still old steel mill white folks who had lived there for decades.
There was a small music store with a creaky wooden floor and a front
window that did its best to let light in through a thick layer of
rusty steel mill soot, more cases of used jazz records than the owner
had bothered to count, and a wall of musical instruments. Most were
dented and tarnished. A beat up valve trombone caught my eye every
The place was run by two brothers.
Well, not exactly. It was run by one brother who kept his brother
on the premises. The proprietor brother was a hipster and a reader
and a Communist, the brother confined to the premises was a heroin
addict and not much else. The brother in charge had blue seersucker
trousers, black alligator belt, dark blue knit shit, black loafers
with tassels and no socks. "Very nice," I said.
"My Stan Getz look, don't
"I do think," I said. "No
reason why a comrade has to look like a farmer."
He brother came into the store from
a backroom. He wore a Hawaiian shirt, sandals, and shorts with big
patch pockets, like an English soldier's. "Wow,"
he said when he half laid eyes on me, as if I were some special event.
Then his eyes slid off me and wandered the shop, very slowly. It seemed
he liked what he saw. His name was Eugene.
"Look," said the brother
in the Stan Getz garb, "I got to close up now. This is a drag
but like I got to get Eugene out of town. Some people have their eye
on him and I think he'll be better elsewhere, you dig. But here;"
He made me a package with half a dozen back issues of Downbeat from
the late forties and a couple of 78s by Brew Moore, a fine tenor saxophonist
of the time. "Presents," he said. "Share the wealth."
Two weeks later, when I'd completed
by Four to Twelve shift and my Day shift, I was done at the mill forever,
and I stopped by the store. It was empty. An old timer who lived next
door was watering his window box full of petunias. "They bugged
out, the commie and his hop-head brother;for Frisco I think.
Things got hot for them. Gone with the wind." He winked without
humor, saying "get it?" with the closing and opening of
his right eye. I raised my eyebrows, humorlessly, answering "got
it." I never saw them again. We knew each other on a very superficial,
but satisfying level. A very vulnerable, a very iffy sort of connection.
Well that was how I was connecting to everything in those days, vulnerable,
iffy, wondering what would come or go the next time the wind changes.
I missed another bus and wandered to
a Coney Island Red Hots joint where you got this skinny hot dog on
a bread soft bun covered with, buried in, chili con carne, onions,
and cheese. I ordered three, fries, and a bottle of orange pop. Breakfast
on the Midnight shift. "Too hot shit for a old friend, now you
work in the Open Hearth?"
Tiny Rubasch was sitting at the far
end of counter. I slid my lunch down to join him. "You playin'
at my joint tonight?" Tiny said. I was supposed to sit in on
trumpet at a jam session later that night. Strictly speaking the joint
wasn't Tiny's, although he had some interest in it and
some serious responsibilities to the guys who really owned it. Very
serious: years later when I was a school teacher in Connecticut my
mother put a P.S. on a letter saying, "Light a candle for your
old pal Tiny, they found him in his car this morning with many bullets
in him." My mother had a great fondness for Tiny. They went
to high school together and her biting him in French Club on two consecutive
days became local lore. "Mr. Tiny could get a little too big
for his britches," was all she'd ever say about the event.
This day, Tiny had a plate in front
of him piled with five or six Coney Islands. Naturally, he was called
Tiny because of his large size. He wore short sleeved shirts that
looked ready to explode. Tiny pointed me out to the cook: "This
kid use to work for me now he's going by Northwestern University
wit' all the Four Hunderds."
"You working for Tine?"
the cook asked.
"Used to." Actually I didn't
even know I was working for him at first. I thought I was hired on
as a mail boy and mimeo machine operator in the Standard Oil research
labs. But my first day on the mail route I got the word that I had
two mail routes, one for the company and one for Tiny. For Tiny, I
carried betting slips and money, weekly football cards. No bets on
horses or prize fights, just team sports played with a ball.
I met Tiny in what looked like a janitor's
supply room with a small desk. Tiny barely fit behind it, but the
desk was deeply, seriously important to him. It made him a man behind
a desk and everyone else was a guy on the other side of his desk.
"You pick up the envelopes for
me, got it?"
"You give the whole pack to Ronnie
in the mail room. You don't fuck wit' nothing that's
"I mind my own business."
"That's a beautiful thought.
You could become a very important man wit' such a philosophy."
"Thank you. Do I get paid for
"The Standard Oil Company of
Indiana pays you to carry mail. This is in the
I shrugged and smiled at the thought
of Rockefeller's empire picking up the tab
for Tiny's private enterprise.
Sometimes when I reminisce about my working for Tiny a solid citizen
reminds me what I was doing was, is, against the law. I know that.
I knew that at the time. But it wasn't much of an issue then,
or now. Illegal ain't always immoral, Tiny loved to say. "Remember
this about me, I am an honest man. I never stiffed a customer in my
life. Can you say that about the Central State Bank or your insurance
company or this company we are employed by?"
I had the sense to forgo an smart-ass
exit line and just gave Tiny a smart salute, a permission to come
aboard sir salute like WWII navy movies. "Mister Roberts"
with Henry Fonda.
"I think we'll get along
just perfect," said my new boss. Which we did.
Tiny picked up the tab for my Coneys,
gave me some bennies when he heard how long I'd been awake because
he was worried I wouldn't show up at his joint that night, after
a played a dance at the local ballroom. He asked me who I wanted in
the big fight next week. Asking me that, Tiny was just confirming
I was his boy. He didn't care who I picked. Asking was like
putting an arm on your shoulder, to let you know you were his boy
and to let the cook (who was also his boy) know that you were his
boy. I wanted Bobo Olson in the the fight next week.
"You gonna play that 'Perdido'
tonight? I like that one."
"You got it, Tines. And thanks
for lunch and the goodies."
He waved away the thanks as if they
didn't matter, but they did. "Nuttin'. So tonight,
you play pretty for the people." He was showing off for the
cook, giving advice to a trumpet player.
"That's what you pay me
"I love this kid! College boy,
but real people," he told the cook, who was getting pretty sick
of hearing about me. "I know 'bout college. I been."
He nodded, like he was listening to himself and agreeing. "Illinois.
Urbana. Business. T'ree semesters. I quit. College: it takes
you one way--round here takes you another. Right, trumpet man?"
"I wish it wasn't that
"Don't wish like that.
You;you are a good kid. You know how to like it here, you don't
turn your back on it. But you'll go wit' Nort'western
all the way."
"I feel like I'm coming
loose from myself, Tiny."
"Yer supposta. Your future lies
ahead of you, not behind like a lot of these fuckin no-hopes."
"That's what this guy in
the Open hearth told me last night." I told Tiny about the screamer
in the subbasement. He laughed. "The dumb fuck was right. The
poor son of a bitch is trapped. He hates you for it--but what do
you do? He's getting fucked by circumstance because he bent
over. Like in the shower. Life stuck him between the buns because
he bent over. Me, you, we figured it better. We ain't bendin'
over. I feel for him, but that stupid cocksucker tries anyt'ing
on you, hit him in the nose with a shovel and go to college."
I didn't sleep before the dance.
I some parts of Ralph Ellison's book I liked to reread, I knew
he was a trumpet player as well as a writer.
At the dance a very tough boy a few
years younger than me decided he was my friend because he loved the
way I played slow tunes like "Star Dust," "Tenderly,"
or "Young Man With a Horn." He said I had it,
and he could dance to it. He danced with girls who were sex
legends, they were drawn to him because he was truly dangerous I guess.
I got to him, he said.
Because I made so much music for him
he wanted to confide in me. I suppose the way a rich man confides
in his butler. "X and I go up to Chicago, Saturday nights usually,
the Sout' Side. We steal a car, you know how it is." I
did know how it was--from the movies. "We go to Nigger Town
on one of these slummy dark streets, no stores or nothin'. I
slow down, X jumps out when he sees a nigger walking alone. He used
to just hit 'em, break their nose or jaw, for laughs. Jump back
in the car. You know. Now he kills 'em and I have to drive like
hell to get out of there. We dump the car, steal another, dump that
one and we're home free."
"Kill?" I asked. "Dead?"
I hoped he was using a figure of speech. He wasn't.
He nodded. I asked him how many. "Only
three or four - two, three--something like that. With this
commando knife he got at War Surplus and once with a gun."
"Jesus Christ," I said.
"Don't tell me this, man!"
"You play sweet trumpet, so I'm
telling you. It's that simple. But you don't tell nobody
else." He raised his eyebrows like a crook in the movies -
eloquent, menacing, friendly. He wasn't a crook in the movies.
He was a crook in fact.
"Jesus Christ," I said
"Don't worry. They're
This will sound like I'm faking
it when I tell you this, but I truly did think of Richard Wright,
who was just a nigger on Chicago's South Side. "You
guys are going to get killed if you keep that shit up" was all
I could think to say. I didn't even want to say that much.
"So?" he said, half smiling.
"Maybe that's why we do it. You can understand that, Trumpet
"Nick Romano - Live fast,
die young, have a beautiful corpse." I was a reader.
"You're pretty smart for
a fairy," he said.
He figured me like that because I played
music in public and talked in public about what I read.
The break was over and I had to go
back on the bandstand for the last set. The killer had a request and
I played it. A slow, slow tune, all lovey and melancholy. I played
that god damn tune like I never played any tune before. I wasn't
playing it for him. I played so damn pretty dancers stopped, let go
of each other, and listened, each one feeling lonely and full all
at once. Everything was so still when the tune ended it disgusted
the drummer. "Fuck this shit," the drummer said. "Let's
go, let's change the tempo."
So we changed the tempo, played some
raucous feverish swing band stuff till we'd soaked through our
white shirts. When it was done, we were wet and happy. You couldn't
see out the frosted windows of the high school gym, but a girl who'd
snuck out for a smoke came in and said it was raining out there. She
could hear the music outside, she said, and the world looked changed,
with the rain making it so clean before the soot got to it again.
She'd wanted the moment to last forever, she said, but it didn't--she finished her cig, and now she wished we would play a rain song,
just for her.
I took the requests, so she was telling
this all to me. She was wearing a sweater that for aesthetic reasons
was a size or two too small. She was one of two or three authentic
sex experts at George Rogers Clark school. "Is it as lonely
as it sounds--" she asked me, "playing the trumpet?"
She was a little drunk, so she could talk this way to a trumpet player
who read poetry, at least for the duration of a high school dance.
Before I could answer she did: "Everything is lonely, even stuff
you do with other people, if you get my drift." She wasn't
waiting for my response. She leaned down to me and the light from
the music stand caught her lipstick. She was making me a little drunk.
"You look like Edna St. Vincent Millay," I told her. The
drummer was giving me a dirty, envious look. "Let's go,
man. Let's go," he stage whispered. "That's
because I burn my candle at both ends," she said against my
ear. "I'll bet you thought you were the only one who read
that shit." "I used to think that," I told her,
"but I know different now." Her lips touched my ear, something
between a kiss and an accident. I played the rest of the dance and
later sat in at Tiny's after hours joint in Cal City with lipstick
on my ear. A combination bar, bowling alley, and bookie joint painted
with very "modrun" Paul Klee-ish designs on the wall behind
the bandstand. I listened more than I played - the music was
too fast that night for how I felt. Calumet City, Illinois, was one
of those state line places that the newspapers called Sin City. It
wanted a lot of music to accompany its vices. "Hey, man,"
one hipster and another grinned and asked, "where'd you
get the lip-stick on your ear?" "Edna St. Vincent Millay,"
I said, one or two of the cats thought they might have met the chick,
but mostly they didn't recognize the name.
About three Tiny showed up. The joint
had been half empty most of the night, but by the time Tiny arrived
it was packed and noisey. "You just sittin around huggin your
horn?" I'd been thinking maybe I was through playing the
horn. Don't ask me why, don't ask me how I came to be
thinking that. I just thought maybe it was goodbye to that too. More
and more I felt my previous connections, to everything, were coming
undone. Or maybe no sleep was catching up with me.
"You gonna play 'Perdido'?"
"Need you ask? I'm going
to play 'Perdido'so fucking hard, Tines, I hope I shred
this horn in the process."
"Jesus. You ain't smokin
any Boo or anything like that? Your mother would bite my fucking arm
off if that was goin on."
"Seven Up. That's all I've
had, Tine. Well, your bennies, and Lucky Strikes, and no sleep. I'm
going to play that riff like you never heard it."
"I heard Roy Eldridge."
"Well I'm going to be Buck
Clayton;plus. Tonight is suddenly it, Tiny. If I was Billy Pierce
I'd pitch a no hitter. Tonight is my night." I wondered
if I was bragging just to make a fool of myself. I felt like some
dopey puppet in the hands of the puppet master Fatigue.
"What are you, trumpet man? Some
kinda goddam Existensialist?"
"I'll play. You tell me
what I am." I was talking like some cinema noir guy with a horn
playing for a minor crook and a houseful of hipsters, B girls, drifters,
and terminal boozers - all of us somehow pledged not to leave
the premises until the sun comes up. Which wasn't that far from
the truth. "You know, Tines, if you never slept for the rest
of your life you would be higher than Chet Baker and Bix Beiderbecke
He knew I was talking from no sleep,
excitable and full of shit. "If you take care of your self,
trumpet man, you will live to be a very old man and get cancer and
they will give you morphine at the end and you can be as high as is
I told him that sounded like a good
offer and went onto the stand. The tenor sax man on the stand, a guy
about forty who worked in the parimutuel window at Arlington Racetrack
during the day said, "I suppose it's 'Perdido.'"
"Right," I said. "Solid," he said, with just
a taste of irony. He didn't like requests, but he took them
from the man.
I did not shred the horn, although
I played half a dozen choruses, at times snapping notes like the horn
was a bullwhip - that was how they sounded bouncing back off
the far wall. The metal rim of the mouthpiece fit perfectly into that
groove on my lip, feeling more like it was part of my body than my
teeth. My sound got fatter and nastier with each chorus and I played
with my eyes open watching the crowd. The first couple of choruses
I was excited at what I was hearing from myself. The people at the
bar and tables were excited, I could see that, but the more I played
the less excited I got. It was like I was playing my own disappearance
but everyone else was feeling more and more there.
An fortyish woman in an off-the-shoulders
gypsy blouse, cigarette stuck in the corner of her mouth and dropping
ashes into her blouse, was standing right front and center and yelling
over and over "Play it, you little cocksucker" until two
big guys in Panama hats dragged her back to a table. I was glad they
stopped her, her rhythm was terrible.
I always dreamed of doing this,
I thought while I was playing, and now it's finished. Or
maybe it isn't. What the fuck do I care?
When we finished the tenor man bowed
his head slightly and said, "That was very danger-ous, my man.
I would not let you drive my car or anywhere near my chick."
I bowed a little bebopper bow, jazz
puppet, hipster Pinocchio, and went back to the table. I realized
then that I was about as wet from sweat as I'd been in the Open
Hearth, sometime in the recent but remote past. I did not notice that
another midnight had come and gone. "You look like a fucking
dead man," Tiny said. "I never heard 'Perdido'
better and I heard Roy Eldridge but shit, young man, you don't
hit the bottle or the needle but you look like a dead man. Go home
and get some sleep. At least you'll stop smoking for a few hours."
"I'm not going to sleep
after that one, Tines. That was too good, and too weird."
"Your ma home?" I was living
with my parents then, working and putting away money for college.
Tiny said it showed good taste that I would live with them as long
as I could. He worried that I hadn't been home in a while. That
was no way to treat such classy people - he remarked often how
he had seen them at the Blue Note in Chicago, catching Duke Ellington
and that was after "they seen a stage play first - Jesus
that's class, man."
I told Tiny, "She and my dad
went to Michigan for the week. They won't be home till Sunday."
"This is Sunday, jazz
man. Christ. Here. For sleep. Very fine." He put two yellow
capsules in my hand. They looked clean and pretty as only pharmaceuticals
can. "Look healthy for your mother. Or she will definitely bite
"Splendid. Will the pretty pills
give me weird dreams?"
"If they do, you won't
know it. Take two"
"Who was that cheerleader in
the gypsy blouse? Very strange."
"You don't want to know.
But I'll tell you this. She owes people some serious dough,
a lot of it not hers, and she shouldn't be calling so much attention
I'd wanted to talk to him about
the guy at the dance who talked about killing black people in Chicago.
I couldn't imagine telling anyone besides Tiny, but his warning
about the cheerleader told me how he'd react. Killing is too
serious for that kind of shit, he'd say. Someone will kill that
dumb fucker some day, the way he killed people, for no good reason.
I knew he'd say something like that because I'd heard
him talk about killing before. There were times I felt Tines had done
some of that himself, but I knew he wasn't going to talk about
it. There were things like that you just kept to yourself. If you
knew what was good for you.
The sun was already up when we left
the club. Tiny was driving me home, although I would have taken a
cab and liked it. Cab drivers, especially in those years so close
to two wars, WWII and Korea, tended to been veterans who had traveled
widely and espoused desperate philosophies gained from experience.
"I'm going fishing after I let you off - you wanta
fish? No, forget it. I don't want your blood on my hands. Get
some sleep before you croak. It's bad for your ticker to go
so long without even a nap."
"Fishing sounds good,"
I said. "Fishing sounds good." I think I said that twice,
or maybe it was just echoing in there with everything else.