Amarillo by Morning

It’s hot in Amarillo in August. Barb and I are heading to Salt Lake City the way we do everything in 1985, the hard way. It may be a little hotter because I seem to be driving the car in a series of circles in interconnecting parking lots as I struggle to reach one of those breakfast drive-throughs that will give us some fuel to start the trip to Salt Lake. I am cussing the traffic, the city, the world, and Barb, who has seen it all many times, is sitting quietly. The better part of a quart of gin the night before has drained me of vitality and left nothing but nerves, which I seem, even under normal conditions, to have more of than most. Finally, I make a dangerous cut in front of another car to land in line. And we sit in a silent anger we have cultivated over the last few years as I have slid down the inevitable pattern of drinking far too much far too often. The only calm voice in the car is George Straight singing “Amarillo by Morning,” the theme of a local radio show. It isn’t God speaking through the clouds, but it feels like a hand on my shoulder. I gather myself, take Barb’s hand (the best apology I have in a world where my words have grown futile), she gives an understanding look, we collect our coffee and head out into another day we are hoping without much evidence won’t be like the one before.

A Short Stack Full of Grace

May had been a bad month. My winter depression had lingered well into spring. Depression is a night crawler and comes when I have fewer resources to fight it. It leaves me with little more than half-sleep and even that is halved early in the morning, when I climb a cliff of names of people I have wronged in ways large and small.  I rise to the day already exhausted by the night and do my best to contain the agitation that accompanies exhaustion. I have enough names on my cliff already. Grace came the other day in the most unexpected way.  My morning hangout, the pancake house, moved recently.  For years, I have gone there three or four mornings a week to hang out with a group of old guys at the back counter. The new pancake house has no counter and is out of range for some of the guys, but a few of us are carrying on.

This day, I sit alone for a long time at the big table which has replaced the counter. I know most of the staff well, so even alone, I am still in a friendly world. The managers, waitresses and the guys who clear the tables all stop by to say hello.  One of the waitresses, Jasmine, who is a student at Northeastern Illinois and works part-time, stops for a little longer than usual and makes my day.

A couple of years back, Jasmine had a table with $75 tab that left her $5. I heard about it from one of the other waitresses, put $5 in an envelope, and wrote something like “on behalf of the rest of humanity” and left it for her unsigned.  Neither of us had ever mentioned it. This day, though, she decides to show me something she always keeps with her when she works.  It is my note and the $5 bill.  I surprise both of us when tears fill my eyes.  I am sure she has no idea how much I need this memory this day.

(This is a new category on Longing for a Song. From time to time, I will write short pieces from everyday life in Chicago. These pieces will be indexed in a separate category.)

Werewolves of Utah

I was still drinking in 1983 when I moved to Salt Lake City.  It took a little time, but I found a watering hole for exiles at Junior’s, a dark joint down on Fifth Avenue South next to a bail bondsman. Junior’s was a Midwestern tavern transported to the West. Nothing fancy. Just a line of bar stools, a couple of booths, a jar of pickled eggs, and a pool table in the back. The music was 50s jazz, and on Sunday night, the owners covered the pool table and had a little combo play. The clientele was literate, jaded, and mostly from somewhere else. Because Utah was the land of eternal smiles where the facade of happiness ruled at all costs, we all thought we were a little darker than we were. But every group, even exiles, needs a little fantasy to carry it along, and at Junior’s, a couple of days a week, we restored our fantasy.

We celebrated our alienation from the official culture with sarcasm and droll humor. We even had a theme song of sorts. At the end of happy hour, John Ause, one of the owners, marked the passing of the cheap beer by crossing the jazz line and playing Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” He handed out tambourines, sticks for drumming, and pots and pans. And the whole bar played rhythm and sang along. Aa-ooh. Werewolves of London. We howled and laughed and howled some more. Aa-ooh. It was the best moment in the day. Werewolves of London.  And so, all the cheap beer gone and the final song sung, we stumbled out to once again look for our places in our unhappy lives.

 (This is the unedited version of an anecdote I wrote for “That Same Lonesome Blood,” an essay I did for the Oxford American music issue in 2001. The essay was far too long and about a quarter of it never saw print.  I thought editor Marc Smirnoff was a judicious editor and he did well by my essay, promoting it for Decapo Best Music Writing of 2002 edited by Jonathan Lethem and Paul Bresnick. Still it was hard to leave so many words behind. We cleaned this little story up a little more than I wanted, so I am taking this opportunity to present it mostly as I wrote it back then.)

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