Monday, March 7, 2016

"Pop 'at rag like ya mean it"

Well what the heck is in this barrel today? The barrel being my head, where I keep extra thoughts for parts. I'm always surprised at what I find laying around in odd disheveled piles up in the locked dusty chambers of the "Dark Tower".

Memories, bent and twisted into shapes unrecognizable  - old lies and truths- buried in weeds -parted-out and rusted, abandoned like a stack of old long outgrown bicycles behind the barn. Philosophical  and eloquent diatribes of great import, and ass-whuppins for everybody stupid or mean, all exist up there.

All my dogs, past & present, are there, and they're all in perfect health - and they can talk. Apparently they think I'm a God.

There's a closet with a lock on it where I keep my most grievous heartaches and smoldering angers - securely bound and gagged - drugged if necessary, - it's a small closet. I'm blessed.

My kids are there too.  They're still little.  Their laughter is like sweetened-oxygen, like water and sunshine combined. They still like me, and although they don't entirely trust me,  they'll still pull my finger.

I ran into Shoeshine Bill up there this morning.  Hadn't seen him in years. A small wiry man of color, with a ready smile and a nature as gentle and soothing as a calm lake.  The most polite man I ever knew. He still smelled like shoe polish, Old Spice,  and scotch.   He was stacked proper as always, in a starched white shirt and knife-crease slacks with a comb and a flask in the back pocket. Contrarily neat to a pin  behind a wrinkled  knee length blue denim work vest  with large pockets  at his waist, stuff you see tradesmen wear in old black & white movies.  Smeared in vague dark streaks with the black and brown waxes and liquids comprising the majority of shoeshine color palette.  The denim was patched and frayed, but always laundered.

He took pride in his work.  He had a small store front in Sidney. A solid brick facade worn and old with apartments on the floor above it. My Mom and I lived in an apartment for awhile there, just down the hall from Bill. There were railroaders and old bachelors that came and went to the other apartments in the building with some frequency.  We all shared the same bathroom centrally located halfway down the long plastered hall.Sometimes during the days when Mom would be working or trying to sleep off a late shift, Bill would let me hang out with him in his shop.

Bills shop downstairs was small with big picture windows facing Illinois Street, and brown slatted wood floors worn from 40 years  of dirt farmers and railroaders shuffling their clodhoppers and $100 dollar cowboy boots across it's skin. He opened 6 days a week at 7:00 a.m. like clockwork. Coffee made by 7:05 and floors swept and mopped by 8.

On those "never-long-enough-for-me" days with Bill, I'm sure I must have driven him batshit nuts -  with a million "8 year old kid" questions about goofy shit adults can't even begin to surmise the worth of pondering. Perhaps in self-defense; Certainly out of the kindness of a wise and good soul, He taught me how to shine shoes.

 "Pop 'at rag boy" "Like ya mean it". He gave me a dime for every pair of shoes he let me buff up with the rags.  After a while I knew enough to gather up the rags a few times a day and put them in a box by the door.  I figured out where the broom and dustpan was, and I kept that floor CLEAN. It felt awful good to have someone tell me I did a good job.

The central fixture in the joint was a  large oak 3-seater shoeshine bench , about 10-12 feet long and around 6-8 feet deep.  Chest high to a grown up,  with 3 big steps leading up to red leather seat cushions on top. It had 6 ornate brass pedestals rising off the 2nd step terminating perpendicularly in the hard shape of a shoe ,shiny flat brass  and worn on top - for the customers ensconced on the upper bench seats to rest their feet upon. There were a myriad of doors and storage compartments located all over the structure, and whatever Bill needed at any given moment to perform his duties was always a flip and reach away as this little door or that would open and close in quick rhythmic support of the maestro mid-performance.

He was always appropriate and graceful, with appropriately placed head nods and hm-mms while he swung his brushes , one in each hand,
with the ferocity and finesse of Bruce Lee sand-painting in the middle of a fight scene. Flawless.

What drew  my attention was the way the man could pop the rag.  The soft cotton rags, 6" wide and a couple feet long.  He could make it talk.  Pop-pop-pop-pop.  Sometimes he'd just fall into the rhythm of the song on the radio and he'd have to laughingly caution his client to please refrain from toe-tapping while in process.  They couldn't help it.  Neither could I.

When I'm writing these things sometimes, I feel as if I'm always the last to know regarding our destination.  Here it is.  I can see it on the horizon.

I told you some about her yesterday. My Grandma knew her stuff.  The woman grew up hard in extremely hard times. The Dust Bowl 30s and the Great Depression were more than crushing to dirt-farmers in western Kansas. It's the world she was born into.  Oldest of 5 - to a blind and mentally ill Father - A bitter and often cruel mother. They didn't have a pot to piss in and the window blew clean away in a dust storm.  They lived in tents and barns and sheds in town from Kansas to Colorado back to the panhandle of Nebraska.

 She never knew an easy moment in her life. She knew what it felt like to have people look down their nose at you.  She'd felt the embarrassment of abject poverty.  She knew about the weight of undeserved and unexplained humiliation, and had seen more than her fair share of hunger, abject fear , and loss. She knew, more than she ever should have had to know, about dignity in the face of adversity.  Dignity as a response to stupidity, cruelty.

She took me to Bills shop  to get my shoes shined once after she'd bought me a new black suit over at J.C. Penneys,  to wear to Great-Uncle Alex's funeral.   As it turned out , the day I told her about my new "job" at Bills , was probably a pretty good day for her.  They were friends.

She always saw past color.  Made sure I did too. She understood and fully appreciated, the strength it must have taken for so many years, and on so many occasions, for Bill to unfairly bear not only the weight of his own mahogany-toned flesh, but the weight of all the well-intentioned stupidity and xenophobic bias one little Nebraska town  in that dark era could produce over the course of one good mans lifetime.

The day I told her about my new career She smiled a little, and her eyes smiled a little more - as she nodded her head at me through a haze of Lucky Strike smoke.  Grandma had known Bill for what I imagined at least a hundred and thirty years. "You pay attention to that man"  "mind your manners"

She knew, and she felt it important that I know, that 25 cents bought you more than a shoeshine with a man like Bill.   It bought you a tutorial in noble dignity.  A smile, an ear, a friend, and a wise counsel. A good many folks were just too redneck dumb or adamantly racist back then to see it for what it was.  Bill listened to each and every one of their commiserations , the tasteless jokes, the rude digs and slurs and the patronizing attempts at justification of poorly veiled racism in a small Nebraska farm town in the fifties and sixties. Never said a word about it.  Looked like a boss doing it.

Come to think of it, Bill was the first person to ever propose the concept of RHYTHM to me.  The radio on his shelf and the shoeshine rag snap in sympathetic syncopation made a connection in my little brain that I had no idea of the importance of at the time.  (Too bad for him that he didn't get to stick around long enough to hear me practice my drums at 130 db along with Led Zeppelin records in Jr. High, eh?)

I stumble and stutter, and stagger through this life a lot now  - like most of us. Through the grace of God, and the sheer kindness of strangers -  I make my living playing music now .  I take pride in my work, although the wardrobe could probably use some "spiffin', I've made a habit of giving it my best.   Bill would be proud I think.  I am, on occasion (when I'm not busy chasing my own tail and doing' other  stupid stuff :-)

As a professional (musician) and smart-aleck par excellence - of good standing and unidentifiable mastery, I will today pass this tidbit of wisdom forth to you all  from the Senseii hisself - my old friend Bill;    "Pop 'at rag boy" "Like ya mean it"

"Peace Out"
"Don't take any wooden nickels"
See ya manana:-)

1 comment:

  1. Good advice, and it made me smile.


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