Down Payment BluesbyCactus Jack 01©
This simple little story is dedicated to Tim Bisley, Voodoo Joe, Carnage, TRL, and the man, the myth, Sir Alan Jones. You all offered encouragement in one way or another. Most of all this is for Kate, who still lets me act and write like an idiot from time to time yet for some bizarre reason continues to love me. Thank you honey.
"Everybody seems to wonder,
What it's like down here,
I gotta get away from this running around,
Everybody knows this is nowhere..." - Neil Young
The wind crept through the streets, howled like a wolf in pain and penetrated through to my very soul as it hit me. I felt my exposed fingers tremble around the neck and struggled to hold the shape I was making, felt my voice waver and crack as my teeth tried to clench themselves together. My coat was too thin and provided about as much protection against the chill as a light covering of sunscreen at the surface of the sun. I lowered my head and looked at my scuffed boots while I sang the last couple of lines into my chest, and as soon as I'd knocked out the final chord I slid the copper slide from my index finger and dropped it into the case at my feet before clamping my aching hands together and blowing air into them. That made little difference, and if I didn't get inside soon I'd be facing frostbite.
I pulled my collar up around my neck even tighter and looked up, watched for a moment as two guys came out of the corner deli both holding sandwiches that steamed with heat and grease. My stomach growled, as much for the warmth as the nourishment, but my pockets barely had enough change for the L, let alone a meal, and the contents of the case near my feet didn't fare much better. I squatted down and flicked my fingers through the nickels and dimes that were spread thinly over the protective cloth. A dirty and worn dollar bill also lay there, almost apologetic amid the change. I took a quick inventory, but even with the lone buck I was nowhere near what I wanted. When I'd left the house that morning I'd promised Mom that I'd put at least ten dollars in the tin that evening. Yet another promise that it appeared I was going to break.
I straightened up with a sigh as New York City continued to breathe around me. I'd come down to one of my favorite spots, near the corner of 49th and Sixth, and a place where I could usually make some good money, but the Apple wasn't blessing me with fortune on this freezing Tuesday afternoon in November. I guess I could understand why. If I'd have been passing a lone busker trying to make his voice and guitar heard over the heartbeat of the City I probably wouldn't have noticed either, and if I had it would have been to cold to even fish coins from my pocket, let alone stop and take in the blues he was singing.
Looking east towards Saint Patrick's Cathedral I saw the late afternoon congregation leave the house of God, and let my eyes travel upwards towards the illuminated cross that shone brightly against a sky bruised with angry gray cloud and the promise of snow. Folklore stated the blues were steeped in misery and despair, two emotions that I could definitely relate to as I heard the clock tower strike a quarter-to-five. I wanted to pack up for the day, pocket my pick and slide and strike this one from the calendar, but I told myself to give it until five or until I collapsed with exposure, which ever came first.
An overweight man wearing a shiny suit passed me, his breath a fog before his red face as I retuned the E-string on my old Fender. The once-laquered maple had been exposed to all forms of weather in the two years since I'd bought her secondhand from Manny's down on 42nd Street, and the wood now showed the signs of old age. That was all right though; it fit with the image that I often strived to portray but regularly failed, but even though she was beat-up the sound that came from within was bright and clear. Somedays she could even be heard over the rushhour traffic.
I ignored the biting cold steel on my fingertips and began to play, hitting the strings hard in my heavy style, feeling the vibration through my body and running my slide up the neck into the first stinging chord of Death Letter, a standard originally from the twenties which everyone had covered from time-to-time. It was a favorite of mine from the old blues, a song that bought back memories of my Father playing the original 45 by the great Mississippi singer Leadbelly while I sat on the floor near his feet and listened in awe to that powerful black voice rumbling from the stereo. We'd often listen late into the night, drinking hot chocolate while the music played and Dad told me stories of blues legend, of Mojo and Hellhounds and deals made at crossroads. Those nights had been the good times, before my Father had lost himself to whiskey and gambling, and before life had become complicated.
The city became my accompaniment as I closed my eyes and lost myself in the tune; cabs honked for attention, an ambulance panned past me in stereo from right to left, constant footsteps drummed out a rhythm, and the ever present wind continued to cut like a fresh razor. But just for a moment I'd transported myself far from Manhattan, way back in time and miles to the humid atmosphere of the South, to the Delta where the music I now played had been born among the slaves and chaingangs of the early century. As I sang of a woman who'd broken my heart I could almost feel the sun on neck, and as I raised my voice for the bridge I could virtually smell the cottonfields and the muddy waters of the Levee river. It felt good to escape. I reached the last verse and really started to work on the strings, the copper slide causing the guitar to wail a lament to lost love and make each note cry. I'd played Death Letter hundreds of times and knew it like the back of my hand, and on that cold afternoon I knew I was playing it well. As I struck the final minor chord and let the vibrato rattle and fade, it was a good way to end an otherwise miserable day.
After a moment I opened my eyes and let reality return, saw the cracks in the sidewalk and the guitar case still laying near my feet. Except now something had changed. Among the shrapnel of coins and the disintegrating note lay a fresh ten-dollar bill, the face of Washington in a frozen stare, and I felt my eyebrows raise with surprise. It was then that I noticed the small black boots a few feet infront of me, and I looked up to see who had been watching me play.
That afternoon had comprised of shades of gray; lighter in the sky and darker at street level. The cold had let in very little brightness. Maybe that's why just for the briefest second my mind told me that an angel was standing before me, and it was only when I saw hair as black as a ravens wing that I actually focused away from the dazzling white that the truly beautiful young woman before me was wearing. A long coat trimmed with fur wrapped itself around her, the wind stirring the hem that was only a few inches above the boots. A white scarf curled around the neck of the coat and competed for attention with that mass of hair which framed a small, delicate face. Her pale skin was dotted with two patches of colour that rose on her cheeks and her lips were the shade of fresh blood. Large, dark eyes, deep and soulful, the kind of eyes that could easily hypnotize a man, blinked back at me. As I stared she brushed the hair from her face with tiny, gloved wrapped fingers and gave me a wry smile that revealed teeth as ice-clean as the rest of her.
'Nice version,' she said in a soft voice barely audible above the sounds of the street.
The wind chose that moment to hit hard, assaulting my eyes. I blinked a couple of times and fully expected the beauty before me to be gone when my vision cleared. But she still stood looking at me, pulling the scarf tightly around herself. My hand gripped the neck of the Fender tightly, the slide still sheathed on my little finger.
'Thankyou,' I finally replied, and nodded down to the ten-spot in the case. 'From you?'
She shook her head, eyes not leaving mine. 'You look like you could use it. And like I said, that was a nice version. I've played that tune a few times myself.'
'Yeah, I know. I saw you do it last year,' I replied. A sharp blast of horn rang out, loud enough to break windows, but neither of us looked round. Neither did many of the New Yorkers passing us and rushing towards their destinations. Noise was just another aspect of the Apple you accepted, even ignored. 'Great show,' I said quickly, and then felt foolish for sounding like a complete fanboy.
She smiled again, and looked almost shy. 'Oh. You know who I am then?'
Despite the cold I felt heat rising in my cheeks, and I concentrated on pulling the slide from my finger when I spoke. 'Sure. You guys have taken the music I love and made it fashionable all over again,' I said, and when I looked up she was still smiling. 'Thanks to you, I sometimes make a few more bucks.'
'We just play.'
I already sounded like a fan, which of course I was. Why not confirm the fact? 'You don't just play. Both you and Jack have got lightning running through you.'
Now it was her turn to look away, and I was surprised that I'd seemingly embarrassed her. She must have had thousands of compliments paid to her in the last three or so years. 'My Brother maybe,' she answered. 'I just keep time.'
Now we both looked directly at each other, and our expressions spoke. Her deeply dark and beautiful eyes gave away the fact that I understood enough to know how things were in her family, and the recognition in my own bloodshot whites said that I also knew that deceit and folklore were cornerstones of Blues myths. It was one of the reasons that the music had endured for the last eighty years, and one of the reasons why Jack and Meg White were as successful as they were. Aside from great music, The White Stripes were built on legend.
'What are you doing in the city?' I said, unbuttoning the strap from the body of the guitar and pulling the instrument away from me. Thanks to Meg, I'd made the cash I needed, and the cold had now overtaken any further desire to play.
'We've got a show tonight,' she replied, her voice as soft as before. 'Do you know the Bowery Ballroom?'
I nodded. 'I know it well. Down on Delancy Street.' It was a place I'd been to maybe a dozen times in the last couple of years. A roughly thousand capacity venue that used to be a grand-style art-deco palace in the thirties but was now a stopping point for every decent rock band that breezed into town. 'The first time I went there was to see Jeff Buckley. And I saw The Kills just a couple of weeks ago,' I said, crouching down and scooping the money from the case before laying the Fender carefully across the worn fur.
'You seem to know music,' said Meg, and I looked up as I snapped the buckles home on the case. She was almost in silhouette against the angry sky, and her wind-tossed hair wrapped darkness over her. For a second I wondered if I was really having this conversation. Was I really standing in the middle of Manhattan having a conversation with a beautiful woman who just happened to be one half of roughly the most influential band on the planet right now? It was a miracle these days for me to be talking to a girl, let alone one who was a combination of beauty and fame.
'Take a look around,' I said. 'You see me joining the rest of these suits hailing cabs for the Upper East Side or wearing casual Armani and stepping into any of these chrome and neon bars? I'm lucky if I've got change for the subway.' I paused, stopping myself before I gave her my down-on-his-luck story. 'You could say music is pretty much all I've got.'
Meg returned my smile, but I saw a touch of sadness, maybe even recognition, creep into her face. 'Living the old blues dream?'
'Just living. Some days it's harder than others. But this afternoon just got that little better, thanks to you.' The traffic roared as we stood looking at each other a moment longer, and it seemed as if the remaining daylight was now slipping even faster, transforming the colours of the city into black and white monochrome. The cathedral started it's five o'clock chime.
Meg spoke quickly. 'Look, why don't you use that money and come down to the Bowery tonight? Have a drink and see the show.' She stopped and let me see that almost apologetic expression again. 'Well, you know, that's if you want to. I can put your name on the guest list.'
At that moment if a camera team had jumped out of the bushes to gauge my reaction and then tell me I'd been set up on one of those dumb reality shows I wouldn't have been surprised. I almost looked over my shoulder to see if it was actually going to happen. The best offer I usually got in the day was the chance of my Mom's home cooking, and these days even that happened less and less.
'Are you serious?' I said
'Yes, very. We play at nine.' She paused and slid the sleeve of her coat back to reveal a pale, delicate wrist topped with a thin silver watch. 'Look, I have to get going. Are you interested or not?'
I thought for the merest moment, and it wasn't a difficult decision to make. Up until five minutes ago the prospects that I had for the rest of the day was a difficult journey home followed by my regular evening with books or tinkering around with half-written songs that I maybe hoped would be my ticket out of the rut my life was in. After that I had my usual date with a beer and Letterman. I didn't need to contemplate for long.
I nodded. 'Yes, I'd love to come. Thankyou.'
She smiled again, those deep eyes almost glowing in the early evening light, and I felt a rush of heat to my body inspite of the cutting cold. We stood facing each other for a second before I broke our silence and told Meg who I was and thanked her once more, and she promised to add my name to the doorlist and told me where I should go when I arrived. Then she turned from me, and the wind caught her coat and whipped it around her like a shroud, her hair across her face like a veil. She stretched her arm forward for a cab, and it was then that I moved forward, stood next to her and whistled shrilly through two fingers. Moments later one of the old-styled checker cabs, now a rarity downtown, emerged from the sea of traffic and slid into the curb. I took hold of the cold handle and held the door open for Meg.
'Thankyou Jimmy,' she almost whispered, nearly inaudible over the street noise. 'I'll see you later.'
Before I could reply she was on the backseat and the door had closed, and I stood there with guitar case in hand and watched, almost mesmerized, as the checker eased onto 49th and headed for the black heart of Manhattan. Darkness was approaching fast and the traffic was now using lights, and I watched the deep red rears of the taxi glow like hot coals before they were finally swallowed, then grinned for the first time that day, pulled my coat into my neck and started to walk.
The L was as crowded as always, and I received the usual harsh looks and heard the mutters as I pushed the guitar case through the doors and tried to find a space to stand. Forget sitting. If you can find a more densely populated place on the face of the Earth than a New York Elevated railway in the rush-hour then I'd like to see it. I wedged myself against the doors and watched as Manhattan moved into the distance as we rattled across the engineering expanse of the Brooklyn Bridge, and I looked with envy when we reached the farside of the East River and the wealthy brownstones of The Heights, with it's mix of professionals and self-made businessmen. Someday, maybe if I dreamed long enough and offered my prayers above then this neighborhood would be my stop. But for now, and the for the foreseeable future, the L dragged me away from it all.
My stop was in Red Hook, an area steeped in the history of the docking industry in which my Father had worked until his early death. The borough homed a collection of Italians and Latinos and Blacks, plus Whites such as myself, and the housing projects and desolation meant that it was an area not common with casual sightseeing. Guiliani had worked hard on improving the Outer Boroughs during his years in office, and progress was being made, but The Hook was still a place where you watched over your shoulder after dark, even as a resident.
As I left the station I stopped at a corner florist and bought a couple of dollars worth of blooms, and hid the waxed paper wrapping inside my jacket as I hurried home. The stairs upto my third floor apartment were dim as two of the sodium lights had failed and were as yet unreplaced, and the wood creaked on every step as I approached by door. The apartment was mostly in shadow when I entered, and I could hear the low sounds from the TV and smell floor polish and the odour of freshly baked bread cooling in the kitchen. I called softly to my Mother but there was no reply, so I laid my guitar down in the hallway and moved into the kitchen, found a brace of small loaves on a wire rack and carved myself a couple of thick slices. In the living room my Mom was asleep in the chair, a position I often found her in these days, and I kissed her lightly on the forehead before roughly arranging the flowers in a vase on the dresser which I hoped she would see when she awoke.
My room had been closed up all day and was stuffy, and I cracked a window and let the fresh November chill in, then lit a couple of candles in addition to the lamp. The room took on a gentle ambiance that softly lit the walls and illuminated the many music posters and framed prints that I had. Immediately my eyes went to an image that I had advertising a White Stripes show. The show was from a couple of years ago in their hometown of Detroit, and as I took my boots off I thought about my meeting with Meg that afternoon, about how sensuous she'd looked in the harsh winter light, and how I still couldn't really believe that I was going to their gig that evening. I loaded a tape in the deck of my stereo, a self-made compilation of Stevie Ray's greatest, and kept the volume low as I lay on my bed and let some warmth return to my chilled body. I listened to the entirety of the one side and then stripped, took a shower and shaved, and dressed in black jeans, a white T-shirt and a half-decent jacket that I'd picked up last month for a few bucks from a thrift store. I'd heard that retro was the new chic on the streets of Manhattan, but for me it was more a case of all I could afford, not keeping up with the fashions. Still, if my dressed down style was the current trend, who was I to argue. For a few months perhaps I'd actually fit in for once.
In the living room my Mother was still asleep, her posture unchanged. I looked at her for a moment with both love and a deep fear, and then fished through the money in my pocket and dropped the ten dollars that Meg had given me into the copper tin on the table. I took Moms hand briefly and gave it a gentle squeeze, listened to her shallow breathing, a noise as soft and gentle as the wings of a hummingbird, and then left quickly before my conscience forced me to stop in that dark room with the shadow of an old lady who was rapidly approaching the finale of her life.
I rode the subway back over the river and got off in the Lower East Side at Lafyette Street, then made the short walk to a bar that I played in on Sunday nights, mostly to a small crowd of lost tourists and elderly drunks who watched their reflections all night in the depths of a shot glass. My buddy Joe was tending bar, and I negotiated with him for a sandwich and a beer which he agreed to deduct from my meagre weekend fee. New Yorkers, all heart. We shared small talk but in truth my mind was on the forthcoming gig, and when I checked my watch and saw it was nearing eight I touched knuckles with Joe and left him for the streets once more.