First Night in Billy’s Band

Another autobiographical story from the files. This one is fairly lengthy–the ODT document was four pages long, tightly packed. It ends abruptly but perhaps that was Patrick’s intention. The last edit date was 17 April 2012.

When Fred heard the bad news about the Zambak, he wrote from Rome: “Well, if we can’t trace the route of  Ulysses, then you’ll just have to come to Rome and see the Baths of Caracalla. The Appian Way, the Coliseum.  The Spanish Steps.  We have to stand in the room where Keats used to sit.  Listen, I’ll meet you half way, in Athens.  Robbie wants to visit Greece, anyway.  The Parthenon.  Delphi.  Cape Sounian.  Did you know Byron’s initials are still on a marble column.  Where the sailors’ wives caught their first glimpse of the fleet returning from Troy.  Agamemnon’s Tomb.  Come on, Pat. Let’s  do it.”

Fred was always given to hyperbole, and as you see, he was a bit heavy on the classical history.  After the Marines, and years of following the harvest, escaping from his wife, unfaithful while he fought in Korea, he finished at Columbia  with a degree in English.  For the next quarter of a century, he taught junior  high school English in Levittown, Long Island.  Every year he took the ninth graders through Homer and Shakespeare and Hemingway as though he was each of them reincarnated before their  very eyes.  Especially the girls were hypnotized by this muscular male with a baby face and baby teeth.  He was handsome in a southern rakish way, and he knew it.  His melodious North Carolina accent was used to every advantage.  The girls saw him as a rugged hero, and the boys, some of them, envied him his cool.  He seemed somehow ethereal and earthy.  Intellectual and a good ole boy, simultaneously, though he spoke only liberal thoughts.  Ass was his true vocation, however, and he cut a swath at Robert E. Lee Jr. High from the kitchen right through the assistant principal’s office.

We became acquainted in the faculty dining room, where Fred  held sway talking about poetry with the women, and his stint with Brooklyn Dodgers at their winter training camp, and he knew the scores of all the big football games.  He raised my sights considerably when ranted about the great writers.  The idealism attendant to an education in the Humanities had slowly faded away for me, spending my days cooped up indoors with tribes of  savage children, and Literature suddenly regained its glamour.  I began reading again, and took up the flute.  Fred played a little piano, and was a fan of Horowitz, so we had three things in common: love of books, devotion to music, and unlimited libido.

My second semester was to be my last.  Asked to design a curriculum for my ninth grade advanced students, I decided to introduce them to the literature of Utopia and it’s opposite.  The unfortunate cover of 1984 outraged some parents.  You might recall the picture of a shapely woman wearing a slogan button which read Anti-sex League.

Mr Haskins had me in his office less than two weeks after the course began in January.  Behind his desk hung a certificate from the NRA.  He was retired Navy, and still wore a GI haircut.  I’m told Orwell was a communist, he said, turning the paperback face down on the desk.  I’m told 1984 is not much more than cleverly disguised Marxism.

I couldn’t believe my ears.  The book had always seemed to me a treatise against totalitarianism.  Nevertheless, I could see where a right wing school principal who lived in fear of offending the school board, I could see how it was possible to turn it around.  After the Grapes of Wrath, conservative folk looked for propaganda in every work of art.  That was the trouble with teaching everybody to read, but not reading yourself.  You got to be suspicious of books that fired people up or made them think.  Better Hawthorne’s adulteress than a possible political statement.  The upshot was I was fired as of summer vacation, if not before, according to my comportment in the meantime. 

Fred sympathized with me, and maybe envied me my independence.  His praises of Europe and the ancient cultures, plus my own reverence for the expatriates in Paris in the twenties and thirties set me to wondering why not.  Why not elect adventure and  romance.  As an English  teacher you are especially likely to dream of the life of an exile.  You look all day at these empty faces who don’t give a crap about anything that happened before yesterday, while outside the window trees are bending in the wind, the clouds are racing off to a storm somewhere, and seagulls circle the parking lot, raucous and ironic.  I never saw one eat, but they rode the currents up from the river, shit on our Chevrolets, and sauntered off, wings arched like eyebrows lifted, hoboes happy with their lot.  If you’re teaching The Sun Also Rises , you come to love San Sebastian and Pamplona, you want friends who drink and eat and love, not in the privacy of their humdrum homes,`but in the civilized streets of another country, another way of life.  Saint Germain and Luxembourg Gardens become more real than the Mall.  You long to write witty letters to your friends back home about your landlady in a cheap pension in Wiesbaden, to feel the thrill of stepping from the train in Istanbul with an American quarter in your pocket and a hope that the bandleader who sent you a telegram would be there, dodging the knees of camels, to guide you and your lady through these bedlam streets to a bus…

But I get ahead of myself.

Fred listened to me fluff my way through a Bach sonata on the rented flute.  The pianist, the bandleader of the junior high, ducked out, mumbling “classtime.”

Fred grinned.  “It’s a good thing you don’t have to earn a living playing the flute.”

Little did he know.

Six months later Mari and I married and departed for Europe on Icelandic Airlines.  Gander, Reykjavik, over the Orkneys, landing in Luxembourg.  A plane with four props, 18 hours in the air, stopping for midnight coffee in Gander and a cheerful breakfast in Reykjavik, a yellow clapboard building with waxed wood floors and cozy curtains at the windows.

From Luxembourg we took a train to Gare St. Lazare in Paris.  A couple of French tourists we had met in New York had suggested we use their family flat while they went, with the rest of the native population  to the country or seashore.  They were probably sorry when we took them up on it, but there we were in a genuine working-class civil servants neighborhood, complete with dour concierge.

Mari’s field was art, with a big A, and  we visited the Impressionist collection, the Louvre, various galleries and checked out the architecture, mostly churches.  My interests took us to the Left Bank, where Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson used to hang out.  Sylvia Beach’s book shop was by now little more than a tourist attraction for English teachers from America, but we just had to sit in the room where Henry Miller and his buddies used to sponge meals.

And so we spent a month, and three quarters of our cash stash.  Mornings in the museums, and afternoons drinking vodka and tonic in the Metropole , or strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens.

Our next stop was Wiesbaden, where there was an American Air Force base , with dependent  wives, and their children, all of whom attended an American school.  We hoped to get a teaching job.  Impossible, not even subbing.  All hiring had to be done from the States.  From the music teacher I got the name of the International Fellowship for Vagabond Artists and Musicians.  From there we learned of the Pension Reiss, a cheap place only a few blocks away, frequented by itinerant musicians from England and elsewhere.

I faked a little piano and string bass, and pretended to play the flute.  I subbed a little with a band whose bass player was having girl friend/wife problems.  The drummer in the band had just returned from Turkey, and told me the resident band at the noncoms club needed a bass player.  A couple of telegrams later, I spent the last of the dollars on a string bass and railway tickets.

I practiced on the journey in the baggage car, but kept the instrument  with us in the compartment.  Several times the conductor removed the bass and dragged it back to the baggage room, and I duly brought it back.

Crossing into Bulgaria from Yugoslavia, we all had to get out and present our passport plus buy a 24-hour visa to get through the country.  As the train pulled away I glimpsed the bass, in its cloth case, leaning against the interior glass of a phone booth.  When I yanked the emergency cord, the train screeched on the rails and I leapt to the ground.  The booth was fifty yards back.  I then embarked at the nearest car, enduring the furious jabber of the conductor.

The arrival platform in Istanbul was a madhouse.  We got down with more suitcases than two could carry and the double bass.  I had one American quarter in my pocket, plus a phone number for Billy Bielmeyer, a thousand miles south, if he wasn’t here to meet us.  Mari was breaking out in a rash, probably from the grapes we bartered for with cigarettes in the middle of Yugoslavia, handed through the window of the stalled train by hustling boys in their early teens.

Billy met us, sure enough, a short, rather stocky Bavarian with a gold tooth and a slight German lisp when he spoke English, which he did very well, except for the lisp, which was after all charming, like our pitiful German picked up in restaurants.  Mari’s zwei eirer im glas never failed to raise a smile in even the most grim frau.

We have twenty minutes to get on the bus, he said, unhappy about the luggage.  We tied the suitcases on top of a taxi, the bass took up the front passenger’s seat, while the three of us sat in the back.  There seemed to be no roadway beneath the throngs of people, but as they parted to the klaxon of our driver, the asphalt and brick streets  were revealed.  All around us was pandemonium.  A man delivered a piano, running down the alleys with it strapped by a giant sling from his forehead and shoulders.  He wore no shoes, his feet thin as the bones therein.  The bus station was a great open field of dust, buses arranged in apparent random.  Outside each bus, a man shouted the names of towns, exchanging snippets of paper for coins.  The bus to Izmir sat with motor running, our three the only vacant seats.  After a long, very animated discussion, my bass was tied to the roofrack on top of crates of live chickens.  Near the back door stood a donkey wedged between  the seats.  It pissed me off a bit that they let a donkey on, but refused to let me block the aisle with the bass.  Of course they could put the bass on top, but not the donkey, so eventually I stopped steaming.  Every stop along the way I checked, but in spite of the potholes and dry creek beds rattling the bus, the instrument seemed secure.

Mosques, the Golden Horn, Troy, Bursa, the Turkish coast.  Lukewarm gazeuse from bottles rolling in the pool of melted ice covering the bottom of a galvanized tub.  The dark smell of cheap cigarettes.  Camels as common as horses in the States, loping near the highway.  Once we stopped where a crowd completely blocked the road with their vehicles and animals.  In a circle roped off in a meadow, four men sat as judges of the tussle between two wrestling camels, both of them blowing bubbles the size of a man’s head.  A blind man stroked a bass drum, one side with a mallet, the other side with a stick.  The drum lurched with every step as he bumped it up with his knee, following the other player, blowing a woodwind  instrument with a double reed.

At a little before dawn Billy shook me awake.  We were winding down a mountainside toward a huge necklace of lights.  The blackness in the center became deep blue with sunrise, the Bay of Izmir.  The first rays of light struck a hundred white minarets.  The bus stopped while most of the passengers faced east.  In the distance the muezzins’ calls were the saddest songs I had ever heard, the cry of desperation in a harsh universe, a lifting up of man’s misery, but meant as  songs of praise for the toughest god around.

We checked into the Hotel Atlas while we looked around for an apartment.  Our room looked over a market street, and at five in the morning the tobacco workers, mostly women dressed in black, hustled up toward the factories.  Then came the bread men, baskets on their heads, and more workmen often to the construction sites.  By dawn I had not slept, making it about three days of wakefulness.  Mari woke up with welts all over her face and belly, and crippled by nausea.

Billy brought a doctor whose diagnosis was poison in the dye of the wine colored sweater she had bought somewhere in Austria, or maybe the grapes we ate in the train.  He also gave her sleeping pills the size of an after dinner mint.  I practiced the bass in my underwear.  I was due to start the next day and I didn’t yet have a callous on my finger.

About three o’clock I dropped a couple of the sleeping pills: within an hour I was vomiting and weaving about the hotel room like a drunk.  Mari was gone to the world, and just as well.  She felt helpless enough as it was.

You reached the NCO club by climbing a flight of stairs over the PX.  Dim lights, a long bar against one wall, a bandstand under spots.

Billy introduced me to Nevzat the drummer, a guitarist named Wolf, and a blond kid with glasses at the piano, Hermann something, from Frankfurt.

At the bar there were two or three guys in levis and fatigues hunched over their beers.

Not too much happening on a Wednesday, Billy said.  He lifted his tenor sax from the stand and hung it from the neck strap.  -But we still play.  Satin Doll.

The drummer gave a little roll, the pianist gave an intro, and we went into d minor.  Billy had a mellow sound, and he knew all the riffs.  The pianist left plenty of room for the chords of the guitar, filling in with runs and an occasional bass accent.  Five minutes later, everybody had played a solo, including me, and we segued straight into Body and Soul, and Smoke gets in your Eyes.  I guess Billy want to check out my harmony, those being two of the trickier tunes.  By the first break, I felt pretty comfortable, and the pianist gave me a wink.  He could let go of the fundamentals if he wanted to, and build ninths and thirteenths to his hearts content.

Dinner is about over in the dining room.  Pretty soon however De Koster’s going to be here tonight.  You’re doing fine, by the way.  Billy downed two quick Pabst beers straight from the can, and then we went back and did some uptime jamming.

A few couples came in and made a turn or two around the dime-sized dance floor before heading off to a dark corner with their mixed drinks.  Everyone seemed to know and like Billy, waving to him from the floor.  If he wasn’t blowing his sax, he gave them his gold-tooth grin.