For February 16th
“Shooting an Elephant” — George Orwell
“Superman and Me” — Sherman Alexie
My living quarters are small. In one corner of the room is the bed where I sleep; in another corner my friend is making a home for himself, smoke by smoke. These are the things scattered around him: Boston-Baked-Beans, crumpled newspaper clippings, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, an old shoe, a book about Napoleon’s flight from Elba, a phone-charger pieced together with red electrical-tape, junk-food wrappers, a piece of bread, two dollar bills, several dollars worth of change, a coffee-stained cup with butts in it and other items that fill spaces like inconsequential brushstrokes on a still life. I’m not sure why I allow him to sleep there, against the wall—alongside the filth.
He’s six-foot-six, wearing a flimsy Detroit Tigers hat, a pair of dirty Levi’s, a pair of rotten 1990 Air Jordans, a white T-shirt and a blue windbreaker. Most everyday he is unshaven, but it never becomes a beard. He attended our local college in the early 90’s, then bailed out and went to San Francisco for a few years, and wound up here in late 2000.
These wooden walls are redder than ever. If I light another cigarette, the chances are higher that he will light one too. A week ago, we drove here from Lower Michigan with less than two-hundred dollars. Five months before that, we came from the Pacific Ocean with less than four-hundred. Last August, we came from the deep South with two-hundred. He ends up in those places, and I get him out. I live here, and he somehow does too. Sometimes I end up in places, and he gets me out. Somehow, we always end up in Marquette; this time he is staying in the corner of my dusty wooden apartment on Arch Street.
I can not remember how long it has been since I last noticed the smoke lingering in this dry space. Most of the smoke comes from his cigarettes, Marlboros. He’s been staying on the floor, in my underground apartment, for a week. His staying here isn’t an issue with me, but I wake thinking: there must be a better place to be than on a floor surrounded by your own daily litter and scrapings.
I decide that it’s not worth worrying about, and begin my Thursday before-the-gig routine of bookmarking songs in the Real Book of piano jazz and sorting out the ones I have no chance of performing, from the ones I would like to play but cannot. There are also songs I recognize, but cannot play.
He is looking into his Mac laptop which rests on a red milk crate. From the dull white glow he looks up and says, “What time are you supposed to play?” He knows the answer to this question; he is only speaking to push the smoke away from his face.
“Same time I always play on Thursdays.” My response is impatient – close to irritated, which is the tone I often have when he asks questions with tacit answers. Asking this type of question is something my age-group does not do. He was born in the early seventies in a rich northern-suburb of Detroit; I was born 9 years later in the economic traps of Saginaw – two hours north. I met him here a few years ago, at our old coffee-shop; he was wearing a bomber-hat, filthy blue-jeans, and a blue t-shirt.
I get to the end of my song-book and still, I’ve only listed a handful of songs to play. I drop my cigarette into a plastic coffee-cup with an inch of brown liquid in it; it makes a quick, extinguishing hiss. He puts his cigarette out on a ball of crumpled tin-foil, an item that follows him around.
“I don’t know if I can go there tonight, I can help you put that Rhodes in there but I can’t risk getting sucked into one of them demons.” He is referring to his former lovers of this city, who still afflict him.
“Why do you even let ‘em affect you, if you know it’s just gonna be shit?” I say this with my face buried in the jazz-book.
“That’s the problem” he says while he types something into his Mac. He gets up from the floor and hands me a half-burnt joint, “I want them to affect me.” I take the joint and puff on it before I respond.
“Then let ‘em… let ‘em destroy you over and over,” I say, but I know my words are smacking the side of his head, hard. We have these conversations quite often – ones dealing with twists of luck and passion, or whatever it is when men entangle themselves with women. The dialogue never gets anywhere, and we usually end up agreeing to disagree. He begins typing something into his laptop, and I am still fingering through the Real Book.
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Three years ago, I lived on Arch Street, east of Jim’s Party Store in a single bedroom apartment, which was also wooden and dry. I was almost a year into a creative musical drought, which began with the break up of my band a year earlier. He was living in Marquette then, but we’d never met. I knew him as the guy at the coffee shop with a bomber-hat. I’m not outspoken, and he seemed the type of person who stirred up shit, so we never spoke. After a few months of running into each other around town, he joined the cast of bums, students, professors, travelers and know-it-alls who hung out at my apartment. He often brought up my music, and the fact that I wasn’t making it anymore. He questioned my decision to quit. One evening when red sunlight filled the front room, there was a knock on the door, I opened it and he was standing there with something in his hand. He held out the 8-track recorder and said, “Here, you can borrow this… if you feel like recording anything” The look about his face was like a 3 year old trying to coax his mother into buying him candy. The recording device idled on my desk for a few days. On the next day I was compelled to use the device; I felt as if I had to honor his charity. I began recording songs for the first time in a year. The weather was warm, and the sun was full and yellow, but I stayed inside with the recorder. For a whole humid week, no one came to my door, not even him. I found this peculiar since randoms usually knock once or twice a day. Later the next week, the air dried up, the sun cooled off and he showed up in the afternoon. He sat across from me on my dusty green recliner, and after a while he said, “You try messing around with that thing?”
“The recording thing,” he said, again with that look of a conniving child.
“Yeah.” I said, feeling sucker-punched, like I was being interrogated. A few minutes passed and I realized what he had done. He pushed me back into my craft. He had enough motivation for three great artists; some of it spilled onto me. I looked at him for a few minutes, trying to figure out how he had duped me into a new period of songwriting. Sunlight spilled in through the tall windows of my dusty apartment. Pieces of dust, illuminated by the sun, seemed to pause in mid air. I was watching the leaves on a tree out the front window. The leaves were swelling like lungs, it seemed. I blankly explained to him that I recorded some material. He turned from the mischievous child to the relieved parent.
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I’m at the end of the Real Book, and I’ve so far listed twelve song charts. Twelve songs are not long enough to fill three hours of music. I shimmy a bit in my lazy boy – he gets up again and hands me the sizzling roach. One puff singes my fingertip and I throw it at the carpet.
“So…you need some help getting that piano in there? Cause I can lift that thing by myself.” His enthusiasm for helping lazy people has always disturbed me. He can dissuade anyone from fulfilling commitments, simply by doing the task for them. He has done this for me, for years, just as now he enables me to smoke and drink in the corner of this apartment.
He walks to the store to get people cigarettes, for a chance to smell fresh air. He’ll take someone’s car and get their groceries, just to see sunlight shining against unfamiliar objects. He doesn’t sit still. I can sit still all day if given the opportunity.
I tell him I can get someone else to help me with my 70 lb Fender Rhodes. After scooping all his items into his black duffel-bag and folding the blanket I gave him, he gets up again, lights a cigarette, puts his bag over his shoulder, places his hand on the doorknob, and says
“Well, I’m gonna head down the street.”
These are the kinds of cloudy phrases he mutters when he plans to leave a place. I know those words; they are familiar to me, like river-smells in the town I grew up in. From his words, I gather he is leaving again. His week in Marquette was a blink, a chance to remove himself from the fast-moving cars and dirty streets of Suburban Detroit.
“Alright man.” Is all I can say, but for the first time this week, I want to invite him to stay longer. I know that wherever he goes, people will take him in like I do. He shuts the door – a wake of smoke washes out behind him. I flip through the song book again, but this time, with less urgency. I look at the door, a pearly string of smoke from his cigarette hangs onto the door like a cobweb.