not to be your own worst enemy
green vase with the chipped rim exploded against my door like a
concussion grenade at the end of my windup. I reared up from the
bed and screamed: Turn that shit the fuck down!
Twelve-fifteen a.m. My job, my girlfriend, and the ten shots of
whiskey were all gone, flushed out of my system and leaving only
an aching hole. My girlfriend would be back from the party at her
dad's house pretty soon, just in time for me to drop the dime. The
job would probably never return. And the tab for the whiskey had
been settled out with the last 30 bucks from the hush money I'd
been given to grease the layoff.
Along with just about everyone my age in the state of Oregon, I
was staring the welfare line in the face because a bunch of shithouse
rats had decided to fly planes into the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon. The whole country had lost its mind. No one could ever
take this day back or make it right.
The layoff had laid me low. I was staring hundreds of dollars
in bills in the face, and my student loan forbearance was about
to run out. I had no idea what to do, and my stupid ancestral baggage
was telling me that this was all my fault; that if I did not figure
out something, then there was no one else to blame ... and that
the something had to happen this week.
I had not yet seen my friends with their broken marriages and
relationships over the economic hell
that followed Sept. 11, or endured the months of telephonic silence
from the temp agencies, the three referrals a day from the Employment
Department of Misnomers leading to a lot of "sorry, sir"
treatment day in, day out.
I'd not yet heard my girlfriend tell me that I was not the one
that flew those planes. That night, I certainly felt like I had
And now Sam Cooke's "Listen Mr. DJ" was roaring out of
the walls from the apartment across the hall, through what sounded
like a set of bass cannons and Crate half-stack amplifiers. All
I wanted was to work this out of my system, to cry myself to sleep
in cheated disgust. But it seemed that tonight, even that booby
prize was out of my reach.
So, pulling myself up and stumbling through pools of amber incandescent
light that made the shadows run like black cats, I made my headachy
way across the room towards the door, minding the broken glass,
threw it open (not caring if it shut, or how) and stepped into the
hall to face the music.
The door to #11 looked just like my door and every other door
in the building: Light blue, tall, an old brass knob. I glanced
incuriously at the cataracted white eye of the peephole and banged
loudly on the door like a cop.
I realized that I must have looked like death in a bundt pan.
My hair had come out of its ponytail, and the flesh around my eyes
felt puffy. Stubble had begun poking out of my cheeks, and I was
unsteady on my feet from before.
The door creaked open, and here came the windup: "What time
is it where ... you ... live ..." The words dried up and blew
First thing I noticed was that his eyes were kind. The second was
the flesh-colored hearing aid in his ear.
guy looked old enough to have been in the same homeroom with George
Burns and Milton Berle. His hawk-like face was sunburnt right to
his scholarly forehead, and his white hair was cut short and neatly
combed back. He wore a light blue dress shirt, a pair of gray slacks
and cool wingtips I would have worn in a heartbeat. On his right
cheekbone was a painful-looking wen that was probably skin cancer.
He didn't seem to mind it.
"I am so sorry." I managed in a breathy little rush.
He shrugged, and stuck out one hand. I shook it.
"My name's Ed," we both said at the same time. He smiled
a strange, enigmatic smile and motioned for me to come in.
"Would you like a cup of tea?" His voice was a soft
mumble. I looked at him for a second and burst into tears.
He had seen worse, and managed to hide the fact that he was momentarily
taken aback by placing one callused hand on my elbow, leading me
gently inside and pulling out a chair for me at the small table
in the front room of his apartment. My eyes immediately overloaded
with a feeling like the first bite of a summer orange so
much sensation at once that the pure rush suffuses you.
The bookshelves were overflowing, the corners were filled with
crates and boxes were piled three deep in the little slice of back
room I could see through the door. Everywhere was an endless profusion
of vinyl records. There were a few things hanging on the walls:
a Grand Army of the Republic flag from the Civil War, framed bills
and coins from a multiplicity of years and distant lands, an old
sabre still gleaming with a hair-splitting edge.
But my eyes kept returning to a framed photograph on the wall
very near the door.
Ed had gone into the back room and, after a moment, Sam Cooke
went away with the smooth hiss of the needle leaving the groove.
A weird "boop!" sound seemed to vibrate the building,
and I heard Ed call: "You just don't get the same sound with
cassettes or compact discs. Analog is so much more human. Things
like that, y'know ... they just get phased out, and I'm just wonderin'
where was I when they called for a vote to do that?"
I chuckled. "This is the most vinyl I've ever seen in one
That strange "boop!" came again ... and again, I knew
the tune. But it was not as loud this time. I had no idea about
high-end and low-end frequencies when it came to the partially deaf,
but maybe he was just being polite. I am very soft-spoken, and have
always hated parties and bars where the music is up so loud that
you have to shout to make yourself understood. I had the feeling
Ed did, too.
He padded back into the room, looking around with that odd lizard
"Dave Brubeck," I said when he looked at me, "'Take
Five.' This is the live version, the one they did in Amsterdam or
someplace. It's on one of the newer Best Of releases, and
Now Ed was beaming. "I didn't know you kids liked this stuff."
bristled at the word "kid," but let it go. "We dig
it all." I responded. "You should see my girlfriend's
record collection. She has a phonograph from the '20s, and ..."
He looked away rapidly, then held up one finger as if to explain
the sudden silence.
"We dig it all," he repeated. "Jack Kerouac said
that. That reminds me, son, hang on ..."
Back into the other room he went, caught in the grip of his own
personal genius. I remembered that in the Roman myth-cycle, "genius"
and "genie" meant almost the same thing. And "muse,"
too. That made me glance back at the picture on the wall.
Ed came back into the room, looking shyly at the floor and tapping
A golden swirl of heroin saxophone cranked through the walls,
the floor, like a trance symphony of
traffic sounds. If it wasn't John Coltrane, it had to have been
his twin brother. Layered in gorgeous overlay were drunken crowd
sounds, the clink of bottles and plates. I could smell the cigarette
smoke, probably a few sticks of tea passing around in the back.
I could hear a worshipful waitress' jazz-baby voice murmur in soft
contralto that sounded like Laurie Anderson (though Laurie Anderson
had yet to pick up a violin when this cut was laid down): "Hurry
up, please. It's time."
And then a hush fell over the crowd. I saw no speakers anywhere
in Ed's apartment, but his much-touted analog sound was coming through
so crystalline and so sweet that when someone coughed in the crowd,
not really killing the moment, I actually jumped and looked around.
Footsteps trod the boards of the stage. The trumpet player gave
out with a mock mediaeval flourish at soft kazoo volume, and I'll
be damned if that horn didn't sound like Dizzy Gillespie.
The voice was a rich New England paintbrush, gorgeous and slurry
and full of trainhopper wisdom, the darkness behind it one that
ripped your heart out no matter how much it sometimes fell short.
It was a literary voice full of stories better heard than read,
the voice of an historian who saw too far.
"Hello, Dave," Kerouac called across the ages, and the
crowd went absolutely bonkers. Brubeck began to tickle the ivories,
and soft bop brushes over cymbals began the crescendo as the golden
voice of the band fed off the crowd and Kerouac launched into 'The
Railroad Earth' with no rustle of paper behind the words.
I was speechless. Ed went into the small kitchen and I heard the
sounds of pouring tea.
"D-d-do you have any more like this?" I managed.
After a few small beats of silence, he returned with two black
earthenware mugs. I had mugs like that, from the "free"
bins of the St. Francis Hotel, where I had lived for a few months
before they tore it down to put in lofts. I smiled and thanked him.
The tea was licorice spice. That made me look up at the picture
again, the question still hanging behind my eyes.
"Do I have any more like this." His grin was small and
sharp and knowing as he sat down facing me. "I was in radio.
Didn't start out that way."
"No one knows where they're gonna end up," I nodded.
"What'd you start out doing?"
"Oh, I had a few books published, " Ed shrugged. "I
moved here after my wife died." He jerked one horny thumb at
the picture I had been admiring.
The woman was in her 40s and built like Marilyn Monroe, with narrow
waist, strong legs and a body that would not quit even during a
general strike. Her hair was light brown, sunbleached ash-blond
in places, and her eyes were deep and dark. The shape of her face
No. Too coincidental. There was no way this guy could have been
related by marriage to my Katie. Still, it would have explained
a lot. They were both very good listeners, and suddenly I missed
her with a stab of emotion so deep that it pierced me right down
to my shoes.
The old man clutched his chest, and we both looked at each other.
He shook his head.
"Oh." I hunted around. "Do they give you those
things that you crack under your nose, and ..."
He shook his head dismissively. "Not yet."
went ahead and dropped the dime.
"You said you moved here after she died. You mean Oregon?"
He shook his head. "Just ... here. Anyway, yeah, I did a
lot of odd jobs, whatever I could get. You know the drill."
I sighed. "I'm tired of taking whatever I can get. It's like
... everybody seems to blame me for not
succeeding. My girlfriend always says 'You're trying, that's all
you can do,' but that gets pretty hard to remember when the bills
come due, or when I want to get past all the mistakes I've made,
branch out ... Hell, even just take a drive up the coast, goddam
"You've got all the time in the world," Ed said softly.
"Believe me. You ain't gonna die any time soon. Don't let it
get to you. " He looked around. "My problem was always
not lettin' people push me around. There's a big difference between
bein' relaxed an' laid back ... and bein' someone else's doormat.
You just have to find the balance, an' not be afraid to say what's
on your mind."
He was talking right to me. I sipped my tea and let him.
"The answers are all right in front of you," he said
softly. "First question you gotta ask is: What do you really
want? You learn that ... reach up and grab it. Oh, how did that
go ..." He cleared his throat and studiously intoned, "Gather
ye rosebuds while ye may ..."
All I could do was sit there and nod. I must have looked like
a windup toy.
But Ed seemed to understand that companionable silence. It came
with age, I supposed. I was still
nervous around silence. The scars of my recent past were still so
fresh that silence to me was like an old war vet returning to a
battlefield, still expecting that monogrammed mortar fragment to
punch through his skull at any time.
Not so now. Now it was all just bop and tea and the sound of Ed's
voice. Nothing seemed to wash away, no grand revelation ... but
I thought perhaps I could finally begin.
Ed saw that in my eyes, and it looked like he had decided something.
"If you've got stuff to do ..." I thought I knew what
he was thinking. He shook his head dismissively.
"My work here is done." He rose, and clapped me on the
back. "Just try not to be your own worst enemy. That's all."
Ed snapped his fingers ... and the record in the other room died
"Finish your tea," he said. "I'll be seeing you."
"B-b-but ..." I could not explain the sinking in my
guts ... or why, even if he was leaving town or
something, I should be so profoundly affected if I'd just met him.
He shook his head. "Better this way."
And for a wonder, he went into the back room and not out the front
I couldn't help myself. I had to kneel at the door when it slammed
shut. I had to look through the
There was no bed in the back room. The whole apartment seemed
like stage dressing.
I could not explain the tall, shimmering column of metal that
pulsed with old rainbow jukebox light,
standing in the corner of the murky room that glowed like the inside
of an airport control-tower. I could not credit when his palsied
old man's fingers slapped the silver platter down on the turntable
jutting out of the front of it and put the needle into the groove.
I could not explain to Katie, or my landlord, why I was found curled
up in a ball on the board floor of #11. That apartment had been
empty for three months. Katie said something to my landlord about
emotional distress, and the lock was not broken. I was so embarrassed
I wouldn't go near him for weeks.
These days, though, at work, in between spinning late-night jazz
for joke paychecks that barely pay half my bills (and counting myself
damn lucky to have a job at all) ...
metasearches, phone calls to every hole-in-the-wall record store
I know from here to Pennsylvania, and poring with a highlighter
through every record catalogue from BMG to Burning Airlines, has
revealed no collaborative album featuring Brubeck and Kerouac. Cross-checking
with Coltrane and Gillespie rang the lemons as well.
But I've looked for that record ever since.