Standing On The Corner, Suitcase In My Hand

"You ever hear of a band called Decay?" Smokey asks me. Standing on the corner next to Jerry's Pizza, he loosely grips the handle of a rolling suitcase.

"No, I haven't."

"They just pick a bright, talented kid and bring him down. The lead singer and guitarist was this shrimp of a kid. Dark hair and eyes, skinny. Boy, could he scream," he chuckles softly. "Anyways, I don't know what happened, but he goes to his mother's house one day and..." Smokey makes a gun with his fingers and presses them against his chest.

"Smokey" poses at Wall St. Alley

"That's J--. We were childhood friends. Our grandparents were neighbors, but I hadn't seen him since middle school. His grandmother called me a couple of weeks after I moved back to Bakersfield to tell me about the funeral."

"Oh, Sissy. I'm sorry. This town just swallows people up. I feel like I'm always the next one on the list. Talk about running!" Somehow I found it incredibly comforting--this strange old man calling me "sissy" with the ease of a grandfather. I couldn't believe that he knew J--, or maybe just that he'd brought J-- up and I'd known who he was talking about.

"How did you know J--? Through the band?"

"Yeah. You know I play around, write some songs here and there, get to know the musicians. Did you know that I wrote the Alice in Chains song 'Man In the Box'?"

I ask Smokey if he could tell me what he remembered about J--. I'd never known him as a teenager or adult. In my mind he's still a lanky boy who liked to shoot rattlesnakes and save stray dogs. Smokey tells me the basics (most of which I alread knew): J had a wife and a baby and a job (and a truck that Smokey adds to the list as if it's something that's supposed to be real important).

As we talk, at least five people stop to greet him. He mentions how people generally treat him well (except for the other homeless), but that once a group of men showed up at a loading dock he was sleeping on and poured liquid latex all over him.

"What's it like living downtown?"

"You ever hear that song 'Living in L.A.'? It's a lot like that. Hold on. Let me go look for my beer." Smokey hobbles around for awhile, peeking into the large planters between the Wall St. Alley bars, but he doesn't manage to find his tallboy.

When he returns, I ask him where he grew up.

"Delano. I came to Bakersfield when I was thirty five, been here twenty years now."

"What was it like growing up where you lived? What did you like to do?"

"Well, Sissy, I always liked wandering around. When I was a kid, I used to go down to the Salvation Army for books. I'd read anything I could get my hands on, but I liked the ones about the occult and physics best." He launches into a monologue about how people are sharing thoughts through electrical transference and how he doesn't like it one bit.
Smokey raises his palms, puts them behind his head, and spreads his fingers.

"I call it 'Moosehead'." 

Without skipping a beat, he returns to the conversation about his childhood.

"Boy, I miss my mother. Her name was Dorothy," he trails. I wonder when the last time he talked about his mother was. Does he even know anyone that remembers his mother?

"I'd sure like to talk to you in the morning sometime--when I'm sober."

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard a man use that line...

We exchange goodbyes and Smokey graciously lets me take his picture.  As he leaves, Smokey hollers, "I hope to see you around sometime!" He walks down the street and out of sight, the wheels of his suitcase grinding against the alley's coarse cement.

On my way home, I turn a corner and see a man holding out a beat-up guitar in front of Downtown Deli & Market. He's yelling, "Busking for beer! Support the arts!"

"What would you do if I bought you a beer?" I ask him.

"You'd be my muse. I'd write you sonnets."

"Deal. What kind of beer do you want?" He looks suprised that I've given him a choice, perhaps that I've offered him a beer at all, and he hesitates at the question.

"I don't know. Whatever. Suprise me."

"I like my beer dark--like brunettes," he adds and runs a hand through his curly hair.

I buy him a porter and he pops the cap with the bottome of a lighter. He rolls a cigarette and we bullshit for a while about fucking up. After he's done with the cigarette, he wipes his hands on the side of his dirty cargo pants.

"Sorry. I have terrible manners. What's your name?" He holds out his hand.


"No shit. You know how many songs there are with your name in it? Hey--you ever hear of Lou Reed?"

(Full disclosure: I love Lou Reed so much that I did a presentation about The Velvet Underground for a college course. Maybe I don't hang out with the right crowd, but most people I know haven't even heard of The Velvet Underground let alone like the band's music. On High Fidelity, The Velvet Underground is #4 on John Cusack's character's list of Top 5 Side Ones, Track Ones... Anyway--let's just say I was excited.)

Bakersfield's "Lou Reed"

The busker picks up his guitar, walks out to the corner across from the Padre Hotel, and begins to play the intro to "Sweet Jane" by The Velvet Underground.

(You can hear the song here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkumhBVPGdg).

"Standin' on the corner, suitcase in my hand..." he sings breathily.

I recalled the suitcase Smokey had been carrying with him when we talked earlier in the afternoon and wondered about the power of coincidence in our lives.
I've been working on a short memoir about J--'s suicide and the coincidences that have occured since his death. It's difficult to pin down that feeling of an "accidental plan"--which seems to me to be a somewhat accurate description of the writing process. Sometimes I wonder if coincidence isn't really coincidence at all--if it's somehow God's way of staying anonymous or just an odd little cosmic joke.

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE the Velvet Underground. For some reason (probably because I was tired), I didn't realize the title of this post was from "Sweet Jane" (which has to be one of my favorite songs). I listened to it this morning on the way back from dropping my daughter off at school.

    Anyway, I like Smokey's "moosehead" theory and how it ties into the whole coincidence thing. I'm reading _C_ by Tom McCarthy, and one of the characters has a similar theory; events repeat themselves after exhaustion. In regards to writing, I also think the "accidental plan" description is perfect.

    I'm not so sure about coincidences: I know that when I recognize them I catch a glimpse of the path my life has taken in one sudden funny thought. I think that if most things that happen, if not all, are coincidence. Things happening due to all the possibilities extending off of every action ever taken or not taken, or these things that just sort of fizzle out and return.

    Long comment! A suggestion, though: A sort of Google map plot of your course in the post and maybe some sort of overall map of the locations you're writing about. I'm not sure if there's a site or a way to do it in Google, but I think it'll give a stronger sense of where you're writing about for those not sure of the downtown area. That or maybe more pictures?