The Hot Dog Palace Never Closes

March 22nd, 2012

I wound up in San Francisco with just enough money for one week at the Golden Eagle Hotel on Broadway, above Bennie the Bum’s bar and across the street from the Jazz Workshop. Seven dollars a week for a small room with a sink in the corner I could piss into. All week long the lady in the next room screamed at her husband who, evidently, was a no good bum who ruined her life. She liked to rattle off the names of all the guys she could have married, most of whom owned banks or breweries by now. He had no job, I guess, because he was always there to get yelled at but he must have been a saint for he never said a word. I pictured him at the table in his pee-stained underwear patiently reading the paper and loving his wife in spite of everything. Meanwhile the thumping stripper music from the bar downstairs rattled the windows. One night, on my way out, I passed their open door and saw their room was as small as mine and the old dame was in there yelling as usual and she was in that room alone. “Oh, well,” I thought. Better to blame a ghost than no one.

Mornings I’d have my coffee and pie breakfast at the cafe across the street. Once Carol Doda sat beside me at the counter. I recognized her breasts, if nothing else, but of course I’d seen her on TV and also knew her from the posters on Broadway. If you don’t know, Carol Doda was the topless go-go dancer, world famous for her for gargantuan silicone filled tits.

“They really are something,” I clucked. This was the conversation I imagined. She smiled good-naturedly and said nothing. Ordered coffee from the counterman.

“I wouldn’t mind having a look, sometime.”

“Come to my show.”

There was an immense neon image of her hanging outside the Condor, where she performed nightly, just down the street.

“I think I’m too young to get in. Besides I’m broke.”

“Where you from?” She began a friendly conversation over our coffees and the whole time I’m hoping she’ll invite me somewhere to look at her tits. She could tell I had no motive but scientific curiosity. I’d seen the Golden Gate Bridge. Why not Carol Doda’s tits? I imagined they were quite uncomfortable but people have done worse things to their bodies to make a living and, also, I could see she was kind of proud of them. I found them not the least bit sexual. And I thought to myself, I came here to find Jack Kerouac and found Carol Doda. When she’d downed her coffee she ordered two more to go and got up to leave. She smiled at me on her way out and I knew she’d overheard our imaginary conversation and had enjoyed it as much as I had.

Evenings I’d cross Broadway to stand in front of the Jazz Workshop and listen to the great music pouring through the open doors. There was always a gang of us too cheap or too broke to go inside but the sound out on the pavement was good enough to infuse our bloodstreams with glorious jazz. When John Coltrane played there I had to see him with my own eyes. The doorman knew me as one of the regular sidewalk aficionados but this night I walked past him saying, “I’m meeting some friends inside.” He knew I was not good for the door charge but let me pass. Inside I approached the bandstand as Trane’s tenor sound filled me and filled the room and filled the entire ecstatic universe. There they were. McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and up front, at the edge of the stage, as though he were about to leap forth and fly heavenward, with closed eyes, sweat soaked face, and his golden tenor raised to New Jerusalem, wailing, John Coltrane. I swear to god I rose a foot off the floor. I stood there no more than five or ten minutes before the doorman’s hand touched my shoulder, finally. “You gonna have to go back outside.” He said it gentle, knowing why I was there, and slowly I backed out of the joint.

But the movies. I was talking about the movies. When my week at the Golden Eagle was up I’d go sleep days in the Market Street movie houses. I always got there early, having been up all night at the Hot Dog Palace, mostly, and then I’d walk down Columbus to Market Street. I found the Hot Dog Palace one night when I met two college guys with backpacks roaming Broadway. We got into a conversation and decided to go for coffee. The Hot Dog Palace at the triangle of Columbus, Grant, and Broadway was convenient and seemed harmless enough, and cheap. After a while they wandered back out into the night in search of accommodation while I nursed another coffee. For a fast food joint the place seemed unusually agreeable. The jukebox played two tunes again and again, endlessly. For All We Know by Aretha Franklin, who was still a pop singer at that time, and Ramsey Lewis’s Wade in the Water. There was a raised counter on one side behind which a tall black man, whose name turned out to be Edgar Jones, doled out coffee, sandwiches and, of course, the occasional hot dog. In the corner by the Grant Street entrance stood a pinball machine and on the opposite side was the Columbus entrance. Plate glass ran around the remaining walls through which you could see the North Beach night and all its characters, beats, hipsters, tourists, showgirls, and the regular working stiffs who actually lived in the neighbourhood’s hotels and rooming houses.

As the night rolled on the action picked up in The Hot Dog Palace. I was perfectly happy to sit and watch the comings and goings of the various characters. “What time does this place close?” I asked Mr Jones while picking up another refill. “We never close.” Perfect! Though I’d have been content, for the time, to remain an innocent bystander, the easy sociability of the place soon included me. There were just so many tables so anyone sat anywhere and soon I was startled to find myself witness to an exchange of dope for money at my table. No one seemed concerned that I might be a narc or worse. After the seller split I got into a conversation with the buyer, a guy in his twenties with shaggy hair and nervous demeanour. We became friends, in a way, because I was to see him many times there and he made no bones about warning me to avoid the junk he was addicted to. I took his advice.

I spent many all-nighters at The Hot Dog Palace, drinking coffee, playing pinball to which I became addicted, and getting to know some of the regulars. Aretha’s For All We Know and Ramsey’s Wade in the Water played non-stop on the juke box, a kind of soundtrack that was to make it all seem like I was living in a movie. One night a man came in, an older man, maybe in his fifties, that carried himself like some kind of hipster sage. The thing that drew me to him more than anything was his walking stick. I have a thing about walking sticks. All my life I’ve had an eye for a good walking stick. I’d spot them on beaches, in the woods, trash heaps, etc., and never passed a good one by. I’d pick it up and use it for a few days, lose it, and then find another one. Crazy. Sometimes I even faked a limp so I wouldn’t just look like some damn fool kid with a stick. This cat’s stick was unlike any I’d ever seen. Solid, heavy, and stained the rich colour of ancient mysteries. I was very impressed. I sat at the man’s table and listened to him speak in a gnarled, junky voice, keeping my eye on his staff the whole time, willing him to give it to me. Whether his words were really deep or merely inane I have no way of now judging but at the time I might have been ready to become a devotee. He said, “Everything is nothing and nothing is everything and everything is everything and nothing is nothing but pain is pain.” This floored me, obviously, because I never forgot it. He was either a mystic or his feet hurt, I don’t know. Then he held out his walking stick to me and said, “Here, hold this for me.” I couldn’t believe it. An hour later he got up to go and I prayed he’d forget the stick. It was crazy. Why would he? He must have needed it. He would surely have felt its absence as he walked out. He walked out and I had the stick in my hands. At dawn I went to Washington Square to sleep in the sun. Later I got a few more hours sleep in a Market Street movie house. Then I walked all over the city with that stick. It’s impossible to describe the sense it gave me. I felt I could walk forever and see things more deeply than ever before. I could go anywhere and do anything. I was buoyed by a confidence and strength entirely new to me. I was ready to walk over the whole world. I don’t believe now, nor did I believe then that there was anything magical about that piece of wood but for some reason it had this effect on me. I suppose it was because I believed that it did.

Later in the day I realized I had to return the thing and that became a quest for the man who’s name I didn’t even know. Back in North Beach I started asking around by describing the guy and showing people the stick till, finally, someone recognized who I looking for. I followed various clues till I wound up at a rooming house on Columbus where I was told a girlfriend of his, Suzanne, lived. I knocked on the door and she yelled to come in. I walked into a medium-sized room where a guy was cooking up some beans on a hotplate in the corner and Suzanne was walking towards the door in perfectly naked beauty. She might have been about twenty or so, long-haired , slim, perfect in every way that I could tell. I must admit that my nineteen-year-old virgin brain was set on fire. I told my story as best I could, sitting the only place to sit, on the bed,. I tried not to wear out her body with my eyes while at the same time memorizing every single one of its features, as I spoke. Yeah, she knew the guy and would get his stick back to him. Did I want something to eat? I didn’t know what to do. Of course, I always want something to eat and I wanted, even more than food, to stay in that room and study Suzanne. The guy at the frypan silently stirred at something. I knew, though, that I’d be hard-put to bite, chew, and swallow in the correct order while pretending not to be boring holes through her skin with my horny eyes. The cook in the corner said, “Hey, why don’t I take off for a while while you fuck Suzanne,” but only in my wistful imagination. When I couldn’t stand it any more I left the stick leaning against Suzanne’s bed and thanked them. Down the spiral stairway that seemed to never end, down and down and down – out the main door and back down Columbus to the Hot Dog Palace.

My mind aflame with the sights and sounds of my San Francisco walking-stick day, I could not yet know that sexual melodrama, futile longing, and the crazy play of desire and disappointment were not over yet. Edgar, the counterman, tall, black, and beautiful, is ending his shift and invites me back to his place, just a couple of blocks away. We’d had some conversations during long night hours and I saw nothing more than friendship in his offer. How the hell was I supposed to know the man was queer? Back at his place he made us coffee while I wandered around admiring his collection of artworks. It was the most beautiful apartment I’d ever seen. He put on a Jimmy Smith album and asked me a million questions. He seemed to be so sincerely interested in my saga yet he grew increasingly agitated as he talked to me from his kitchen while I snooped around. I thought I sounded so hip, so sincere, so smart, and yet the feeling that my answers to his questions were somehow out of whack puzzled me. I had my coffee and left. I was halfway down the street before the pathetic realization dawned that the man was probably hoping for sex .

Meanwhile, I was getting my sleep in Market Street movie joints. Back then the door charge changed through the day, cheapest in the morning. I’d get there when admissions were lowest and for a quarter I’d get a seat up front in the near-empty theatre where triple, and even quadruple features were order of the day. I’d watch a bit then fall asleep. I’d wake up and see a bit of something else then sleep some more. I’d be in there most of the day and more or less see all the movies but in broken up, haphazard pieces, in random order, mixed in with bits of dreams, fantasies, memories. This kind of crazy sleeping affected my waking hours, too. Through all that time, maybe a month, my mind was a confusion of various realities, movie scenes, strange nights and days peopled with the odd characters at the Hot Dog Palace, Kirk Douglas, Maureen O’Hara, Suzanne, me…. There were strange moments when I woke up in the dark theatre, the giant screen alive with people and light, not knowing who or where, or what, I was. Seconds of desperate groping for comprehension. I think I came to understand the amnesiac’s view of things. I’ve wondered more than once how all this affected my consciousness in the long run. Whatever, I still find my clearest thoughts in the dark theatre. Though, lately, this hasn’t worked so well. I’m probably going to the wrong theatres. No perverts. Now it’s just a place people go to when they’ve got things to talk over with their friends. And eat food that comes in crinkly wrappers. I get too distracted not only from the world depicted onscreen but my own thoughts. It’s just no good.

 


 

I first arrived in San Francisco summer 1963. Got off the bus, bought a map at the bus depot newsstand, found Columbus Avenue, and walked all the way to the City Lights Bookstore. The electrifying feel and smell of San Francisco hit me immediately and were sensations that endured through all that time and all future times that I was there. Cities have their unique aromas, for good or bad. This was the bouquet of a garden of beatific spirits. The air itself seemed charged with poetry and light. I looked up and saw a California sky like blue glass. And some kind of reflection of myself therein. City Lights was my San Francisco centre. Other homeless poets got their mail there I saw, shoved in a slot on the bulletin board. So it became my S.F. address, too. I went there every day. Checked for mail and talked to Robert Scheer who worked the cash in those days. Or I went down to the cellar and read books seated at one of the tables. All those books, poems and stories by names I’d learned to love – the beat daddies. Scheer had not only been to Cuba, as had I the year before, he wrote a book about it and gave me a copy, paperback, Grove Press, publisher of so many of the authors I persued in those days. One day I was hanging out talking to Bob when a truck pulled up out front filled with cartons of Ginsberg’s Reality Sandwiches, hot off the press from England, where it had been printed. I gave Bob a hand with the cartons, opened one of the boxes, and removed a copy. I asked him if he’d autograph and inscribe it as the first copy sold but not only did he refuse to do it, he refused to let me buy it and gave it to me. (Later that year Ferlinghetti himself donated a copy of Kerouac’s Book of Dreams to my personal library of beat masterworks.)

 

Poet Tom Jackrell got busted in Sacramento. His hope of raising bail was his friend, S, who lived in Nob Hill, San Francisco, but had no phone. Tom called City Lights to see if someone there could get a message to S. I’d been standing there talking to Scheer when he took the call and so I volunteered to make the trip to Nob Hill. I found S living in an abandoned mansion. He took off for Sacramento, leaving me to stay at his place, a marvellous home empty but for a couple of mattresses, some kitchen stuff for cooking up brown rice and seaweed, and several marijuana plants in the sun room out behind the kitchen. Before heading off, S introduced me to the pleasures of the divine herb. Later that day or the next I ran into Dale somewhere in North Beach. Probably at City Lights. My life in those years was a seemingly unending series of incredibly lucky episodes. I was always in the right place at the right time. I was always finding places to stay. Meeting the right people. I believe it was simply a matter of always being on the go, out there where people and events were happening. A lesson I too easily kept forgetting in the years that came later. Anyway, there I was running into Dale, once again, with a place to stay. I took him back to Nob Hill and got him high. He’d been a dope virgin, too, it turned out, and he was nervous and immediately threw up. Other than that neither of us felt very different, in fact. By then I’d smoked three or four times and didn’t think much was happening but kept at it, if for nothing else, for the idea of it. Later on I figured out that unlike the genuinely dangerous drugs, like alcohol, which get crudely to the point straightaway, Maria Juanita’s a gentle mentor with whom you leisurely learn the ins and outs of highness. Well something happened because later Dale and I bebopped through most of nighttime San Francisco winding up gorging ourselves on Chinese food in North Beach. A lone cablecar sped past us, the black conductor clanging out a boppish rhythm. I looked at Dale. “See, man? Blacks have got more soul.” “Yes, I can see now you are right.” Dale, son of Black bourgeois Chicago and stepson now of famous Ellington sideman, had argued this point with me on an all day walk between Banff, Alberta and Hope, BC. (We got a ride part of the way after about fifteen hours of non-stop walking.) Now he knew better. Still, when we both ran out of money after a couple of days he wanted to go home to Teaneck, New Jersey. He hit the Traveller’s Aid up for bus fare and as the Greyhound pulled out of the station I yelled after him that I’d be at his place in a few months. “Great, man, great. C’mon, we’ll have a ball.” For weeks he’d been telling me about his parent’s place. He’d been painting a gorgeous picture of hanging out there, where neighbours like J.J.Johnson and other jazz legends came by and partied and played. I couldn’t wait to get there. (When I did finally arrive in New York and called Dale from the bus station, suddenly he was too busy or his parents were too uptight or some bullshit. He said he’d meet me in the Village and I waited there for hours but he never showed up. It was years before I ran into him again and it seemed as though he either had turned into an asshole or had been one all along.)

Meanwhile I was trying to get information on the poetry convention up in Vancouver that Al Neil had told me about. I wasn’t going to miss that. The day after my trip to Nob Hill I was once again loitering in City Lights, shooting the breeze with Bob.

“Y’ever smoke marijuana?” I asked.

His eyes about bugged out but he said nothing.

“That guy, S., gave me some grass.”

“Jesus, keep it down. That shit’s illegal, you know. People go to jail.”

I felt like a kid scolded for crayoning on the Magna Carta. The only other person within earshot was holding a copy of New American Poetry in his hand. Changing the the subject, I said,

“Ahh, er… say, that’s a great book. Really great.” (My own tattered copy had been a kind of bible to me in my pursuit of poetness.)

“I know. I edited it.”

Donald Allen! Well I’ll be ding-donged! As it turned out Allen knew all about the Vancouver Poetry conference, starting in August,  about a month away. I decided on the spot to catch the Vancouver bus, register for the conference, and return to stay in San Francisco till it began. I remember nothing specific about the bus trip. I’d spent so many days and nights riding various buses that, with few exceptions, all those trips are a blur of endless sleeping, smoking, and meal stops. Though near the end of bus trips I’d be desperately looking for highway signs counting down the last desperate miles to my destination, for the most part I enjoy the bus. Lean back with my head against the window, watch the country roll by. Sleep. Once in a rare while a fellow traveler to talk to. Smoke. But those days are over. For one thing now you can’t smoke on the bus. For another the thought of a solid day, twenty-four hours, on the bus is beyond even imagining in these, my years of impatience and sore assbones. Somehow the driver failed to take my ticket. I tried to stay invisible all the way to Vancouver and must have succeeded for I got there with a ticket still valid for my next trip up. This was good because even at only twenty dollars a pop all these bus trips were eating into my poverty. I got off the bus and walked to the Espresso Coffee House for a meal in exchange for some dish-washing. I hitchhiked out to UBC, registered for the conference, hitchhiked back out, found a place to stay and party for the night, and bussed back to San Francisco the next morning.

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payday

May 28th, 2010

Rusty normally gave me my pay envelope but this particular Friday he said Bernstein had it. The Boss. He wanted to see me for some reason. So there I was on the carpet when I should have been halfway home on the bus by now.

“Brian, what’s with the hair?”

Seven or eight months earlier, on the Monday morning of my new job, getting myself ready, something to eat and put on my shoes, washing up, I decided no more shaves, no more haircuts, and took the bus to Pointe St Charles. The first few days were hell. The work was hard, and the days were hot. I sweated like a pig and drank coke after coke, which only made it worse. I hated the work at first, but I eventually got used to it and even liked it eventually. I was in a scrap metal yard, moving and sorting tons of steel and iron from one place to another, loading or unloading trucks, sorting and piling aluminum, brass, copper, lead. Trucks pulled into the yard and I’d hop into the passenger seat and we’d drive to the scales a few blocks away. We’d weigh the truck, drive back to the yard, unload it by hand, then go back and weigh it again and the difference was what the driver got paid for. I drank cokes and learned to smoke on that job. Those first days I worked with Roy, a black guy from the States who talked nonstop about sex and told me I had to smoke because if you took a break the boss would say whaddya standing around for?, but if you stopped for a cigarette he’d see you were just having a smoke — a guy had to smoke. He rolled his own (takes even longer, he explained) and started rolling for me, too. The next day I bought my own makings.

It wasn’t a bad job. I sweated, got dirty, wore a hard hat. Traded jokes with the guys, mostly poor French Canadians and a couple of immigrant labourers, like the Italian Bruno who barely spoke English or French and was strong as an ox. Within a few months I worked my way up the ladder of scrapyard success. The Boss and his manager, Rusty, figured I had brains and when things were slow had me help out in the office or organizing the yard. Lucien was the foreman and lived in a poor slum shack next to the yard but pretty soon I was taking on more of his duties as he really wasn’t all that bright, though a good worker.

They had a used machinery side to the business, too. A warehouse filled with motors, air compressors, etc. It was all a mess so they asked me to figure out what was where and to keep it all in a book. I devised a system so that when someone came in looking, for example, a 5-horsepower generator I could find it in a minute and tell them what they paid for it so they could add their markup and make money.

Meanwhile my beard grew and my hair reached my shoulders. I took a hell of a lot of ribbing from everyone but didn’t mind. After all it was my own choice. I got called Jesus a lot. This is 1962, remember. I did my job, got along with everyone, laughed off the jokes, so I was just this weird guy with long hair and that was all there was to it. Till Bernstein gets me in his office.

“Brian, what’s with the hair?”

“What about it?”

“You can’t have hair like that. The beard we don’t mind. Just trim it. But the hair’s not acceptable.”

“Why not?”

“We get comments from our customers. Doesn’t look good.”

“I know your customers. We get along fine.  They kid me but no one really cares. It’s a junkyard.”

“Listen, Brian. You got more on the ball than anyone else here. You’re smart and do a good job. We’d like to promote you. Make you the foreman.”

“I don’t want to be foreman. Lucien’s the foreman and needs it more than me. He’s got a family to feed.”

“Eventually we’ll make you a salesman — send you out on the road.”

“Thanks, Mr. Bernstein, but I like it fine where I am. I like the job, like the guys I work with. I don’t want a promotion and definitely don’t want to be a traveling salesman.”

This floored Bernstein. He was speechless for a moment. Not want a promotion? On the road with car, expense account, whores, drunken parties and conventions? Success, progress, money? I sensed his brain struggling to comprehend, then give up.

He handed me the pay envelope.

“Listen, get your hair cut or don’t bother coming in Monday.”

Which I didn’t.

Six months later I was broke and had been for some time. I met this guy, Petur. A friend of Karen’s. He needed a place so I let him stay at mine a while. He knew I had unemployment money coming but I had to get the book from my ex boss. In those days every week you worked your boss put a stamp in the book. You paid half, the boss paid half. Probably two bucks a week back then.When you were out of work you took your book to the unemployment office and they gave you a weekly cheque for every stamp in it. It was just laziness that kept me from going to get the book all these months. Even broke I was having too much fun, partying most nights and sleeping too late to make it to the scrap yard before closing. Petur got work and paid part of my rent ($40 a month total) and thought I was crazy to be broke when I had this money coming, so he got me up one day and dragged me to the bus stop and took me out to Point St Charles. Rusty got me my book and told me, with a hint of resentment in his voice, that no one could figure out my stock system or keep shit organized as I had. Bernstein came out of his office, surprised to see me.

“How are you, Brian?”

“Doing great, thanks.”

“Have you found another job?”

“Nope.”

“Listen . . . we’d like you to come back to work here.”

My hair was even longer than when I left.

“Thanks, Irving, but no thanks.”

Never saw that place again.

Stack of oil drums photographed in Vancouver scrap yard around 1995.

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miss the train i’m on

May 23rd, 2010

Folk music has been good to me.

Although best known as a jazz devotee, and possibly not as well known as the aficionado that I am of classical Indian music, classical European music, African, Latin, and 300 or so other genres, it’s folk music that has opened doors when I needed doors opened. When on the road, for example, with no money, food, or place to stay.

Jazz clubs tend to be cliquish. Concert halls are not much use when you’re broke and probably not great places to hang out and meet chicks, anyway. As for other forms of music, unless you run into a band of gypsies (which does happen) you’re not likely to fall in with a group of sympathetic and generous strangers who’ll buy you drinks, feed you, sleep with you, etc.

Out the window of the Portland bus I spotted a little club with “Folk Music” painted on the window in extra-large white letters. I memorized the rest of the trip ending up at the bus depot so I could find my way back there. It was about 11 PM — the place pretty much deserted when I arrived. Three or four people at a table as a guy on stage strummed his guitar and sang

If you miss the train I’m on, then you’ll know that I am gone,
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles.
Lord I’m one, Lord I’m two, Lord I’m three, Lord I’m four
Lord I’m 500 miles from my home.

Five hundred miles nothing, I thought. I’m five thousand miles from home. The set ends, it’s closing time, and pretty soon everyone’s at my table saying hello. It was my rucksack on the chair beside me. When I explained I was bumming my way around and heading back to Canada, and that I started out in Montreal, they acted like I was the greatest adventurer and free spirit they’d ever met. I really was five hundred, or thousand, miles from home. I don’t think they even knew my name yet when it was decided a party in my honour was in order. We piled into someone’s car and headed to someone’s house, phone calls were made, and by the time I passed out, with sunlight creeping through the windows, there’d been another great night of beer, guitars, pot, girls, cars pulling up with yet more of these items. All because I had the brains to walk into a folk club late one night in a city I’d never been to before where I didn’t know a soul.

Noon the next day the guy who’s place it was cooked me up some coffee and eggs and drove me out to the highway where once again I put my pack down on the gravel beside me, stuck out my thumb, and continued my life.

Even better is the time I stood in front of the bus depot in Seattle very early one morning. I had been turned back at the US border the night before for hitching rides. They made me go back to Vancouver and buy a round-trip bus ticket, just to make sure I had a way to get out of their goddam country, so here I was again getting off a bus. I was standing there without a thought as to where to go or what to do, which was not unusual. Things always just happen. Like that orange Karmann Ghia that pulled up in front of me. A good looking guy gets out on the passenger side and pulls a guitar case out of the back of the car, and an even better looking girl . . . blonde, blue eyes, beautiful . . . gets out the driver side, gives the guy a little hug, and he heads off into the bus station. I’m still standing there.

“Is that guy a folksinger?”

“Uh . . . yes, he is.” She’s taken a little aback, but not too much.

“I saw the guitar case so just wondered.”

She looks at me a minute. I couldn’t have looked too good, just getting off the bus and all . . . scruffy, unshaven, etc. But I guess I didn’t look too bad either because next thing she’s asking me if I could use some breakfast and I’m in that beautiful car and were driving off. (To this day I can’t see a Karmann Ghia without remembering that day. It’s my favourite car, though I’ve never owned one.)

“Is he your husband?”

“My brother.”

Back in her kitchen we’re having coffee, she’s at the stove cooking us bacon and eggs. I don’t remember much of our conversation but it was easy and never flags. She’s sympathetic and curious and wants to know everything. She asks me if I’ve read James Baldwin. Maybe we were talking about writers, or maybe I said I was or wanted to be a writer. I said I’d read Another Country and added, stupidly, that Baldwin’s a homosexual. Was I trying to prove how smart I was? She ignores that and tells me she met him at a writer’s workshop or a reading somewhere; that she went up to speak to him afterwards and that they went for coffee; and how nice he was.

A baby wakes up crying in another room. I thought we were alone. She has a baby about a year old, a girl named Eve. Her own name is Jane. Jane fetches the baby, sits at the table, unbuttons her blouse, and feeds Eve. I’m an 18 or 19-year old horny guy who’s never seen this before, but it’s all so beautiful I’m cool as can be, though my mind is all over the place. I think I will marry this Jane. Together we’ll raise young Eve, live in Paris where I’ll write books and we’ll hobnob with James Baldwin.

“My husband’s asleep in the next room.”

Oh.

I should have been relieved to find she hadn’t left her baby alone when driving her brother to the bus station but that wasn’t my first thought. Jane explained the marriage was falling apart. Her husband wouldn’t care who he found in the kitchen when he finally got up, which he soon did, grabbing a coffee on his way out the door with hardly a word to anyone, least of all me.

Maybe it took some courage to set out in an almost random direction, without money, not knowing anyone, taking any ride and winding up anywhere. I sure couldn’t do that now. But at the time I never thought about it as courage or anything else. But I know this . . . when it came to women I hardly knew I was faint of heart. I was imagining all the possibilities there with beautiful Jane whom I knew less than an hour or two. There was no doubt in my mind we’d wind up in her bed but I regret I must disappoint you if that’s what you’re expecting. There was certainly no sign that she was thinking anything like what I was thinking. When I was done eating and Eve was playing on the kitchen floor Jane suggested we go for a drive. We spent the next few hours hanging out in the university district, walking around, poking around bookstores, stopping for coffee, and just talking talking talking about everything and she obviously loved me and was so sure of my life and my future and also her own and Eve’s life and future despite everything and the sadness of her marriage. Maybe it was me that gave her hope. I know that it was her that gave me hope, and a day I’ll never forget, thanks to folk music.

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The Producer

May 20th, 2010

After a few years producing jazz concerts I started thinking about getting into producing records, too. It was such a great feeling to make great musical events happen on the bandstand and concert stage, so why not do the same for posterity? I wanted to do things no one ever thought of. Not being a musician this was my way creating beautiful, inspiring music for the ages. I never did pursue it. Not for some time, anyway. And when I did it was almost an accident.

Chances AreThis is the one and only record I’ve produced . . . so far. I’m very proud of it, too. Very proud. It’s a beautiful album and one of the things that pleases me so much about it, aside from the music itself, is that Jane is one of my oldest and dearest friends and with the exceptions of the manufacturers, everyone involved is a great friend. The backer, the owner of the club where it was recorded live, all the musicians who play on it, the recording engineer, the designer, and especially the artist who did the painting of Jane which graces the cover, the love of my life, Barbara Etches.

These are the liner notes I wrote which explains much of this, how this all came about, and the story begins with another friend:

My friend Leonard Maler dropped by one afternoon. This was in Montreal, in the fall of 1966. “Have you got any Sun Ra albums?” he asked. “Yes . . . why?” Leonard was a musical adventurer so it wasn’t a surprising question. But his answer did surprise me. “A girl I know at school is a jazz musician . . . plays the saxophone . . . she wanted to hear some Sun Ra and I said my friend would probably have something”

A jazz saxophone playing girl? Wants to hear Sun Ra?

“I have to meet her immediately,” I said.

He brought Jane Fair by the next day and forty-one years later we are still friends.

She was a freshman at McGill, majoring in French Literature. Calling her a jazz musician back then might have been a bit of a stretch but she did play the sax, flute, piano, and lord knows what else and she had performed in dance bands in her home town of Barrie, Ontario at the tender age of sixteen. That was jazz musician enough for me. She didn’t play much in those days, devoting herself to her studies. But she was an avid listener and we spent many hours exploring my record collection and going to jazz clubs. I was an habitue of Charles Burke’s famous after-hours “Black Bottom”. I asked him if he could use another waitress and so Jane went to work there, briefly. I went by there around closing time one morning about five to find the place had been raided. Everyone including Jane had been thrown in the clink. Who knows what they were looking for. Everyone was out within twenty-four hours. And so this sweet Ontario girl of eighteen was thrust into the jazz and night life of Montreal.

About a year later I was living in Vancouver while Jane continued her studies. By 1971 she started playing around Montreal with, among others, Andrew Homzy, Peter Leitch, Guy Nadon, and the legendary drummer, Claude Ranger. By 1976 she’d settled in Toronto. We stayed in touch as best we could. Occasionally a tape would arrive in the mail. In 1975 there was a CBC album, “The Jane Fair Jazz Quintet” featuring three of Jane’s original compositions. I heard about her marriage to pianist Frank Falco and the birth in 1982 of their son Jonah. When Toronto players passed through town, like Jane Bunnett (a student of Jane’s at one time), Kirk MacDonald, or Campbell Ryga who’d spent a few years in Toronto, I sought news about Jane. “Jane is great, a terrific player and a wonderful person,” unanimously confirming what I already knew.

Fast forward to 2003. Jane was invited to Vancouver to perform her composition, Guidone, as part of Mother of Pearl’s production of “SheBOP! – A Century of Jazz Compositions by Canadian Women”. I looked forward to the show but wondered if there was going to be much of an opportunity to hear Jane shine. She’s coming all this way, let’s get her her own gig, I thought. I called Cory Weeds, owner of The Cellar, one of the best jazz clubs anywhere, and arranged a Sunday night for her. I asked guitarist Bill Coon to put together a rhythm section and was thrilled when he hired Jodi Proznick and Dave Robbins. And almost as an afterthought I asked Brad Turner to record the evening.

And what an evening. Well, listen for yourself. Everything clicked. It’s a risky business, bringing an out-of-town horn player together with a local rhythm section. Jane and Bill met the day before to go over some tunes and plan a couple of sets of music. The rest of the band met at the club only an hour or so before show time for a brief rehearsal. And then Cory introduced the band and what followed was an evening of sublime, swinging jazz.


Jane Fair’s place in jazz history is assured. In his landmark book, “Boogie, Pete & the Senator”, Canada’s pre-eminent jazz critic and historian, Mark Miller, wrote, “There weren’t many women playing jazz in Canada before Jane Fair” and in his landmark “Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada” he praises Fair’s “idiomatic versatility and her melodic strength as a soloist”. So where has she been all these years? And why is the this the first recording out under her own name (other than that CBC date, a rare disc which received limited distribution.) I asked her why she didn’t pursue a more active role in performing and recording in an interview with her a couple of years ago.

“My career has been twisted. It began with lots of playing and practicing and doing little cafe gigs. After being in Toronto a couple of years I met people, got to play with good guys. There was a stretch from, say, 78 to 81 where I did a lot of jazz gigs with my own quartet, got invited to the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival, played with Jane Ira Bloom in NY. Did music for a film. When I got married, I had Jonah in ’82, I did keep playing, but it was harder to maintain that kind of focus or that kind of late night life, of course. But I had private students, and kept going. Teaching little kids started in around ’90 through Jonah’s school. That dimension grew. It was very challenging for my musicianship, which had big gaps, but it opened other channels. Working in an educational community was a big contrast to the lonely jazz life, so I took on more, and then decided in ’97 to try for a master’s degree. That in turn was very challenging, so I let that be the focus. In a way, I am now still trying to regain some lost musical–jazz ground. So, the answer is that teaching can be very gratifying. You reach a lot of people/kids and can see their progress and enjoyment. Also there is some financial stability.”

Consider how many great musicians appeared on the scene, followed a low-profile path in mid-career, and re-emerged to acclaim as mature artists. Frank Morgan, Von Freeman, Buck Hill, and others were virtually unknown throughout most of their lives until their “discovery” as seasoned players. I’m confident that “Chances Are” heralds the re-emergence of Jane Fair as one of Canada’s great jazz artists.

I’ve never tried to sell you anything but I’m doing so now, without guilt or shame. I’m telling you, you’ll like this record and you might even love it. So why not buy it? Easiest thing is, order online from Cellar Live. It’s only ten bucks. Then, when you’ve heard it a few times send me a note and tell me what you think. About anything.


These are my friends, the ones who made this happen, I love them all. Aside from those I’ve already mentioned, they are Cory Weeds (owner of The Cellar jazz club), Raymon Torchinsky (put up the money), Brad Turner (recorded that wonderful, magic night), Christina Peressini designed the cover and booklet, Liz Reid was in the club’s kitchen that night, Spygirl kept the food and drinks coming . . . even Mark Miller and the musicians whose words of praise adorn the cover are friends. “Friendship” was so much a part of what I was thinking about, and feeling, throughout this whole endeavour that for a moment I was tempted to play on Jane’s name and title the album something like Fair Weather Friends, but that would have been a bad title.

Here’s that link again: Cellar Live Records

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happy birthday again, mr. gravy

May 15th, 2010

The Wavy Gravy MovieExactly 4 years ago I wrote a little story about wavy gravy on the occasion of his 70th birthday. today i was going to go all out on a wavy story because it’s his birthday again (74th), he’s in town, i went to see the brand new documentary about him, saint misbehavin‘, and i planned to have some pictures, maybe some video, and possibly a few words from the man himself. didn’t work out that way (explanation follows). the movie is superb and if you get the chance to see it, do so without hesitation. wavy gravy’s performance as poet and improvisational monologist, raconteur, and tour guide of the subliminal inspired me in 1962 when he was still hugh romney and i was more than thrilled to find that in the 48 years since he’s gone on to become something of a miraculous and wonderful human being, one of the good ones, the rare ones, who’s passage through the world leaves it a little bit better than how they found it, through good works and a some great jokes.

saint misbehavin‘ was the closing film of the doxa film festival, the only one i saw, and, in fact, the only movie i’ve seen in a theatre in about a decade. i only went because the director, michelle esrick, and wavy himself would be there. otherwise i’d have waited for a dvd. it’s always fun and enlightening to watch a movie with the director or an actor (seeing king solomon’s mines with stewart granger, for example — that was great). had i known there’d be an agonizing hour of film fest speeches before the movie i could have showed up later and i could have had something to eat. so when the movie and about half an hour of q&a was over i couldn’t stick around and had to get out and find food immediately, thereby missing what i figured out later was the closing night bash and birthday party for wavy. there’s really no need for me to meet wavy gravy. what have i got to offer him? but i might have had something to write home about.

Visit rippleeffectfilms.com

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banana (actual conversation)

May 12th, 2010

I was with a group of friends who decided they wanted ice cream. I rarely eat ice cream but went along. We went to Peter’s, an ice cream parlour popular in Vancouver years before fancy ice cream places took over with their gelati and whatnot. We sat at the counter. My friends ordered and feeling like I ought to have something I saw a stack of bananas on a shelf and decided I wouldn’t mind just having one of those. The waitress, an older woman with her hair piled up and with pencil and pad in hand took all the orders then got to me.

“I’ll just have a banana.”

“We don’t sell bananas.”

“What do you call those yellow things up there?”

“Those are for banana splits.”

“Well, just sell me one.”

“I can’t sell a banana. I wouldn’t know what to charge.”

“I’ll pay you a quarter. Banana’s probably worth a nickel or less.”

“No, can’t do it.” She’s starting to get peeved.

“How about I pay the price of a banana split . . . just give me the banana.”

“Listen, son. We don’t sell bananas. Now is there something else you would like?”

“Tell you what. Make me a banana split, okay?”

“Fine.”

“Then shove everything off the banana and serve it to me.”

By now Flo or Doris or whatever she’s called is about ready to phone the police. Except she would never call the cops because she is in full possession of the extraordinary strength of her beliefs. Unlike my own universe, hers has order, certainty, and an unshakable confidence. I respect her for this. I even love her for it. She needs no help from the authorities.

“I can make you a banana split. But if I do you’re gonna eat it. Otherwise you can sit there till your friends leave.”

“Can you make me an egg cream?”

“Yes.”

That was a good egg cream.


Note:

This actual conversation took place around 1966, four years before Five Easy Pieces with its famous chicken salad scene was made.

Tomorrow I’ll describe my encounter with the Unemployment Insurance Commission which inspired the famous Employment Office scene in Requiem for a Heavyweight.

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workin’ for the man

May 5th, 2010

One of the crazier ideas I had, I was about twenty-two and decided I ought to get a job and live a more conventional life. Do you think it’s fun living like a damn bohemian? Shunned by society, an outsider, alienated, ridiculed. Well, yes it is but, regardless, I put on my best clothes (most recently washed jeans) and headed down to the government employment office, then called Canada Manpower.

I filled out the form I was handed and then sat there amongst a group of dejected immigrants waiting for my new life to unfold. Eventually this guy not much older than me shows up, calls my name, and ushers me into his cubicle. He looks at the form I filled out, tapping his pencil against the large government ashtray on his desk. (An ashtray! Man, those were the days!) He confirms a couple of my answers . . . name, planet of birth, etc. . . .

“Hmmmm . . .  your last job was over a year ago, Hartford Insurance Company in San Francisco?”   [see Me & Wally.]

“Yeah, that’s right.” Was he gonna say something about Wallace Stevens? I doubted it.

“So… you lived in San Francisco?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“Hmmmm . . . interesting. I saw a show on TV about hippies. Lot of hippies in San Francisco.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

“They use marijuana, don’t they? The hippies? I heard they use marijuana.”

“Well, yeah, I think they might. I read that somewhere.”

“You smoke marijuana? I mean you ever try it? Must be plenty of marijuana in San Francisco.”

“Well, uh . . . yeah, I tried it once.”

“Really, eh? Hmmmm. So . . . uh . . . er . . . (taps pencil) can you get me some?”

Pot wasn’t hard to find in Montreal. So every week I kept my appointment with Canada Manpower. I’d bring this guy a pay-envelope filled with marijuana for which he’d hand me ten bucks and a stack of index cards with various jobs described on them, none of which seemed to bear a relationship to any reality I knew of. There was nothing for me.

“Do you ever actually find anyone a job?” I asked.

“Not usually.”

This lasted a couple of months. I went to Canada Manpower to find work and make a responsible citizen out of myself and the only work I found was alienated bohemian dope dealing.

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get me the hell out of here

May 2nd, 2010

I have no desire to go to the Shanghai World’s Fair, Expo 2010, which opened yesterday. I didn’t even go to Vancouver’s Expo 1986, even though I lived a ten minute walk from the site and crossed the Cambie Bridge, which spanned the site, every day to and from the post office where I still had a job. In fact, my boycott of that event was so complete that when a year later CBC TV broadcast their documentary of the fair’s World Drum Festival I taped it and called Paul Plimley leaving a message on his machine saying, “Paul, I’m taping the drum festival and would like to give you the tape to watch for me because as you know I’m boycotting Expo.” His friend, Barbara, was visiting and heard me leave that message. She was so impressed that twenty-two years later Barbara and I are still together.

But Montreal’s Expo ’67 is something else. That was the last great World’s Fair. It was a hell of a fair and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Noel showed me his press pass.

“You have to get one of these,” he said. “Get in free, but the best part is no lineups. Just go to the head of the line, flash your pass, and walk right in any pavilion. And bring whoever you want.”

The more popular pavilions you could wait in line two hours or more.

“How do you get this?”

“The press office. But you have to be an accredited member of the media which, of course, you’re not.”

Oh yeah? I had just met a couple of guys from Ottawa who were planning to put out an underground weekly there. This was the era of underground papers. The East Village Other, Berkeley Barb, Boston’s Avatar, etc. Vancouver’s Georgia Straight was in the works. These Ottawa press barons had come up with the brilliantly boring title Canadian Free Press.

“Can I be your photographer?”

“Sure.”

They had nothing. No office, no papers, no nothing. (They did eventually put out an issue or two, I think.) I had a partly used-up sheet of Letraset kicking around and some typing paper. I stuck “Canadian Free Press”, letter by letter, at the top of the typing paper. I didn’t even have enough Letraset for addresses, phone numbers, or anything. Then underneath I typed something along the lines of “To whom it may concern this guy works for us . . . etc.” I combed my hair and set out for the Media Office.

The assistant press officer pulls out a fat hardbound book and leafs through it. It’s the compendium of of all newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV, in the world.

“I don’t see any Canadian Free Press.”

“It’s brand new. Not in the book, yet.”

He consults with the main press officer and comes back, “Sorry, we can’t issue a pass for this.” Did they notice some Letraset peeling off the letter I handed them?

I fight my case in a back and forth lasting fifteen, twenty minutes. I’m an obvious fraud but don’t budge. “Freedom of the Press!” I insist. Utter bullshit. “Discrimination, anti-semitism, civil rights”, and on and on. They’re trying to ignore me and get on with their work but I stand there.

Finally, the main press guy says, “Give him the pass and get him the hell out of here!”

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the sky above, the mud below

February 23rd, 2009

One dark night I found myself in the Selkirk Mountains standing on the highway trying to catch a ride. I looked up and just about fell over. I’d never seen anything like it before. So many stars, billions of them, and so close I could almost grab a handful. I was literally awestruck. Stars the size of grapefruits, brilliant white in a black sky.

Al old Pontiac pulled up into the gravel and I climbed in. A guy not much older than myself, maybe twenty or so, was drunk and pissed off. He’d been thrown out of a bar and was heading east about twenty miles to the next town with a bar. Ten minutes later there were two women standing in the gravel, thumbs out. Get in the back he tells me. One for me and one for you. So I got out and he tells the thin one to climb in beside him and the fat one gets in with me in the back.

I was interested in neither of them, but what could I do? So I sat there in the back with mine and we both stared out our windows while he starts going at it up front. Driving and grabbing at her. Pretty soon he pulls over and and they’re going full blast and I ask mine her name, where they’re going, etc. She doesn’t seem to care either way about any of it. Pretty soon they’re done up front and the guy falls asleep. The three of us get out, they go off somewhere and I continue east, gaping at the glorious sky, listening for cars.

There may be a point to this story.

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the next president

February 19th, 2009

Among the many lunatics I’ve come to know and love (or hate) in my life, there was this guy I knew briefly around 1968 who was known only as “Mac”, which was short for “mechanic” since he fixed things. He never spoke, he just stayed in the background and when something needed to be fixed, like a gas generator, he’d take it apart and fix it. He never even said his name was Mac – it’s just what we called him because there was nothing else to go by.

One night a bunch of us were sitting around shooting the breeze and suddenly Mac opened up. He told us that he had been followed around for years, in California, by phone company vans; that they had got hold of him and implanted electronic devices in his brain; that they had planned to make him president of the United States; that he would be known as President Andrew McAllister.

The name seemed perfectly presidential and so I felt that although the man was utterly nuts, it might be a good idea, just in case, to keep an eye on future U.S. presidential events.

One day, sometime later, he came by the house where I’d been staying. This was within a day or two of the July 20, 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. Mac paced wildly around the house talking non-stop in an incomprehensible (to me) language. He was extremely agitated. Then he left and we never saw him again.

If, by 2012, there is no President Andrew McAllister, I will assume he lied.

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