by Paul Abruzzo
In the early 90s I rented a ludicrously small room in an apartment on Amsterdam Avenue near Columbia. I was drinking constantly, working as a waiter in a glorified diner in midtown, ensnared in self pity, remorse, and depression. I wrote bad, dark poems, and as I went to sleep I prayed into my pillow for the mercy of death to take me in the night. I was supposed to be writing a master’s thesis on the Antifederalists—people opposed to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution—but I hadn’t even started. Volumes of their political tracts lay on my desk like an accusation.
Mostly, I went to a bar a few blocks down from the apartment called Starry Night. A print of the Van Gogh painting hung over the register, a forever-crooked brass light illuminating it from above. A jukebox sat directly across from the bar, its base lit up with the bright colors of Italian ices. The music on it ranged from “This Is Where I Belong” by The Kinks to “Rock Box” by Run D.M.C. I loved that jukebox.
A fat man who called himself San Juan sat at the end of the bar, resting his pudgy arms on the banister-like lip, insinuating himself into every overheard conversation. He sweat prodigiously, particularly late in the night, when he hustled out into the streets on cocaine runs for regulars in exchange for skimming a few bumps. About once a night he’d play Prince's “Sexy M.F.” on the juke, standing to holler a self-referential version of the chorus, “You sexy FAT motha-fucker!” while hula hooping his rotund midsection, the flabby underside of his chin bringing to mind bags of goldfish I got as a kid from the street fair.
I played the jukebox every night, starting with Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul,” from Unplugged. The first line always put me at ease, “Well hello Mr. Soul I dropped by to pick up a reason.” There’s something particularly charismatic in Neil’s voice in this rendition, like the way he annunciates the word “better.” No one in recorded history ever sang a better better. The riff is a graceful rephrasing of “Satisfaction” by the Stones, proving that in music, as in all art, there's infinite space between simple parameters.
One night I fell for an adorable blond. She had green eyes and a white t-shirt and I bought her a beer in a green bottle. She asked me what I was up to. “I’m working on my thesis,” I lied, “and waiting tables.”
“What do you make a shift?” she asked, touching my forearm, sending a warm feeling up to my head, and then down into my heart.
“I don’t know. About 60 for lunch, maybe 120 for dinner.”
“Shit!” she implored. She shook her little pale fist, “that’s what I was making when I did it years ago. It’s so unfair. Why does it never change—ever?”
“Oh, please,” I said, “everywhere you turn there’s a new injustice to make your head explode.”
We discovered we lived across the street from each other, she over the bodega where I went for my cigarettes. I dug my fingernail into the soggy label on my bottle. The air-conditioner over the door droned and rattled. She had the smallest hands and tough, black boots, which intensified my crush. I felt the rush of hope. I felt like my whole life was about to change.
It was quiet. “I’m gonna play music,” she said, and went to the juke. I ordered and drank a shot of scotch. She came back. A song started. I didn’t know it.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Lucinda Williams,” she said, raising her eyebrows and smiling.
“Never heard it,” I said.
“What?” she slapped her palm to the forehead. “She’s a genius.”
The song playing was “Six Blocks Away.” She said, “I broke up with a guy and he lived exactly six blocks away and I listened to this song over and over.”
“I like it,” I said. Then Lucinda’s “Pineola” came on, a dark tale of a suicide. It gripped me right away. I learned later that the character “Sonny” in the song is based on Frank Sanford, a poet Lucinda knew who took his own life by shooting himself three times in the heart.
The fiddle remains quiet while the narrator sings, but then cries a lament at the end of each verse. There’s something very brave about this song in its attempt to put into words emotional states which can’t be put into words.
When Daddy told me what happened
I couldn't believe what he just said
Sonny shot himself with a .44
And they found him lyin’ on his bed
I could not speak a single word
no tears streamed down my face
I just sat there on the living room couch
staring off into space
The drums are silent until after the line, “Sonny shot himself with a .44,” when the snare cracks as if a bullet shot. The chorus is only sung once, which adds to the drama of the narrative. The last two lines are a repetition of “I think I must have picked up a handful of dust and I let it fall over his grave.” The “I think” in that line is a clever comment on how shock and fear hamper memory. The “handful of dust” is ultimately from the Bible, but more specifically from a famous line in the first section of T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” called “The Burial of The Dead.”
I will show you fear in a handful of dust
The song ends with a rather long musical interlude, led by a fiddle dirge, emphasizing the reduction of the narrator to speechlessness, and the sadness of walking away from someone you have just put into the earth.
“What an amazing song,” I said.
“Yes,” she said, slapping the bar, “amazing.”
Then, after a tad, I got real drunk. Too drunk. I’d been drinking fast, and the scotch pushed me over. Also, my blood rushed from nerves, and my head was whirling from the dark beauty of “Pineola.” I began slurring. She abruptly said she had to go, to meet her boyfriend. “Boyfriend!” I thought, “how did that happen?” I was destroyed. I nearly puked on her. She said goodbye, turned and was gone. Her empty green bottle sat there on the bar, patches of foam slowly creeping downward.
In the week or so that followed, I would stand at the living room window in my apartment and try to catch sight of her in one of the windows over the bodega, but never did. I couldn’t get her out of my head for a while, how I’d fucked up an opportunity. I went nuts for Lucinda Williams after that. I ran out and got her records, and whenever I played “Pineola,” or “Six Blocks Away,” that whole night came back to me, that little pale hand and those green eyes.
I met girls in the Starry Night all the time—mostly unkempt lunatics. One was a stripper in a place near Port Authority, a stunning girl with beautiful black skin, enormous round eyes, and hands that never stopped moving. I spotted her standing near San Juan, parrying his sweaty coked-up advances with half-hearted politeness. She wore a ridiculous hat. I walked right over. “I love your hat,” I lied. She called herself Kellie, but that wasn't her name. She asked after my ethnicity. I told her my father's from the Sicilians, and my mother from the Jews, and she lit up.
“I only go out with Jewish guys,” she said, adding bluntly, “my father hates them.” I took her home.
She also loved the jukebox. Her favorite tune on it was The Beastie Boys’s “So What’cha Want.” I introduced her to Tom Waits. I played “Frank’s Wild Years,” from Swordfishtrombones.
“Listen to this,” I said, “listen to the lyrics.” She laughed to the ceiling, gave me a soggy, crumpled dollar.
“Play it again!” she hollered.
After a few nights with her I realized she was basically homeless, carrying all her possessions in a red duffle bag out of which she pulled all kinds of sex toys, contraceptives, and tawdry underwear. One morning I got up and found her at the kitchen table eating a Butterfinger for breakfast, peeling back the paper bite-by-bite with her nervous fingers while mouthing lyrics to a song in her head. My two Latin American roommates—both studious squares—stood in their neatly-tied flower aprons making brunch, quieted and terrified by Kellie, looking to me for help as soon as I came in.
I broke up with Kellie later that night in the bar, when she came in after her shift. She cried briefly, scrounged around in her bag for lip gloss, went to make a phone call, ordered a sweet red drink, shot a game of pool, and had a new boyfriend way before last call. They left together and I was relieved and jealous at the same time. Next time I saw her I nodded over toward him as he chose songs on the juke, “I see you're with that guy now.”
“Yeah,” she said, “it's good. Jordan. He's Jewish.”
I was thinking, "Look at that face: how could I have let her go?” Then Jordan played Lightnin' Hopkins's “Come Back Baby,” one of my favorites. I’d brought a girl along, Beth. I’d met her in a bagel shop on Broadway a couple of hours before. She was a cute, plumpish Jewish girl studying journalism at Columbia.
“You’re with her?” Kellie asked, gesturing with her head over at Beth, who was chatting with the bartender, flopping her hands around.
“Yeah,” I said. She looked Beth up and down.
“I don’t like her,” she said, and walked away. I never saw Kellie again.
I moved. I sobered up. I finished my thesis. I got a real job. I got a lovely, relatively sane girlfriend. I quit the job, then the girlfriend. I drank again. I sobered up.
Then, a remarkable thing happened one night years later. I met a guy and he wanted to fix me up with an old friend of his, Jennifer. I agreed. It was cold, winter. We were all bundled. She looked vaguely familiar as we met on the street and shook hands. We three got in a cab, me in the middle. We went uptown and came to a stoplight on Amsterdam. I realized where we were and pointed over at the white iron grillwork cage laid over the door of my old building.
“I used to live there,” I said.
“Where?” Jennifer asked, shocked.
“Right there,” I said, pointing.
“I live right there,” she said, turning and pointing to the other side of the street, over the bodega. I froze. I looked at her face again to make sure.
I waited until we got out of the cab and walked a few steps. “Jennifer,” I said, “I know you. We've met.”
She looked at me quickly, her eyes narrowing. “When?”
“Oh,” I said, “about…six years ago, in the Starry Night.”
“Really?” she said.
“Yeah, you played Lucinda Williams’s ‘Six Blocks Away,’ and said you broke up with a guy who lived—”
“—Oh my God,” she said, putting her pale little hand up to her open mouth.
A few weeks later, one night, Jennifer and I went over to the Starry Night. The jukebox was gone, and it broke my heart. Some young guy I didn't recognize was working the bar. He had an iPod hooked up to the sound system. The music playing was stuff you’d expect to hear in a mall in Michigan. The place was empty but for two girls in their 20s who shot pool. No San Juan. No Kellie. These were clearly different times, and I felt sad, nostalgic. I had the unreal demand that the Starry Night be exactly as I'd left it.
“Hey listen,” I said to the bartender, “you have any Lucinda Williams on that iPod?”
“No, sorry,” he said, “What is that—country music?”
Jennifer put her hand on my forearm. She smiled.
“Let's go,” she said. I nodded. We walked out into the night, this time together.
"This is Where I Belong" mp3
by The Kinks, 1967.
available on The Kink Kronikles
"Rock Box" mp3
by Run D.M.C., 1984.
available on Run-D.M.C.
"Sexy M.F." mp3
by Prince, 1992.
available on The Hits 2
"Mr. Soul" mp3
by Neil Young, 1993.
available on Unplugged
"Six Blocks Away" mp3
by Lucinda Williams, 1992.
available on Sweet Old World
by Lucinda Williams, 1992.
available on Sweet Old World
"So What'Cha Want" mp3
by The Beastie Boys, 1992.
available on Check Your Head
"Frank's Wild Years" mp3
by Tom Waits, 1983.
available on Swordfishtrombones
"Come Back Baby" mp3
by Lightnin' Hopkins, 1946.
available on The Complete Aladdin Recordings
Photograph: © Christian Patterson
Memphis, February 2005 (Lamplighter Jukebox)
Sound Affects by Christian Patterson available at Photo-Eye