Tough Tenor: On the Waterfront

by Christopher Bacas

ImageThe last place I saw Mike was a joint facing the water in Fell's Point. Taking up first floor of a Civil War-era structure, you enter to a rectangular bar opposite a raised stage with chest-high sides. Tall stools scatter from front windows and along the wooden bar to the back room. Tagged, splintery walls surround everything.

In the 70's, a minor, flush with inheritance, bought the building. Unable to manage it legally, he asked a former teacher to act as surrogate.The two tough guys ran a drinking establishment on a stagnant waterfront in blue-collar Baltimore. It attracted men who didn't fear a closing time stagger to their vehicle through dim streets.

The younger guy, once he could actively manage his establishment, encouraged members of a local motorcycle club to hangout. They policed the space and kept order, until a back-room stomping brought the enterprise to the brink. The new liquor license expressly forbade the club's colors. Not chastened, the junior partner grew into his responsibilities and made alliances with the IRA. Their agents used the building as safe house. His barkeeps kept secrets under the kegs.

H, a New Orleans Jew, Navy medic in Vietnam. Possibly the most fearless man I have ever seen. A bit over five feet and pudgy, he stood up to drunken, belligerent giants. Waiting for their swing, then dropping them with a single upward jolt of his thick hand. We'd help him drag the bums outside afterwards.

T, a scrawny jabberwocky, nose powdered to oblivion, blithely ignored new customers while he gabbed inanely at regulars. In deep to dealers and bookies, he took cash advances from the register until the boss banished him, keeping cops out of it while expecting timely repayments.

J, an erudite lush, who, when he heard patrons discuss philosophy, profanely offered free drinks as long as they agreed to eschew weighty topics. After hours, he held mobile Bacchanals; his battle cry: “Vodka tonic, no fruit!” After an early demise, neighbors inaugurated a festival in his name and wore shirts with VTNF printed on the back.

The younger owner, fuse soaked in liquor and lit by drugs, immolated quickly. A photo of him, on a wall of lost comrades,still squints across the stage. The teacher assumed full management. He gave jazz, blues and traditional Irish music dedicated nights on his stage. On Sundays they packed in “asshole to belly button” for a blues band led by a NASA astrophysicist. Our night, arranged by a brilliant drummer, paid twenty percent of the closing total on the register. I hustled tips with a pitcher and my horn hanging on my neck.

Mike came to visit us. As the initial saxophonist in the band, he had history with everyone, some fraught, but not so much we couldn't laugh.

He produced a sheaf of copier pages and laid them out; posters for a gig with his band. They'd made a record and had upcoming gigs. I looked over a sheet while he read aloud, promoting the skills of his sidemen with pride. The hand-lettered particulars appeared on multiple planes, piling up and curving Escher-like into a third and even fourth dimension. I pointed out he'd misspelled saxophone.

” s-a-x-a-p-h-o-n-e. How is that wrong?”

“o-p-h-o-n-e, Mike, that's the way…”

“Well, fuck it. I ain't changing it.”

He walked away, tempo presto.

I was safe most of my life. Looking for the easy way or just not looking. Burrowing into my four-corner room, emerging to get my ass kicked regularly by incandescent prodigies or fatherly encyclopedias of music. Knowing the correct letters of saxophone spelled the limits of my smart-ass isolation. Mike ignored me the rest of the night. Later, he sat in, playing “Be my Love”, with its' opening octave leap and Italian tenor pedigree, a favorite of his. Like his mentor, Mickey Fields, melody, harmony, lyrics and context all on display. He left before I could say goodbye, a package waiting somewhere.

Drugs didn't appear to destroy him. Hunting for and consuming so many chemicals checked and replaced his emotional steering and braking systems; adding cheap fluids and bolting in faulty parts. I didn't work with him anymore, but heard he and buddy met some tough women in a bar. The ladies let them know they'd need a smorgasbord to party. The guys outdid themselves. In the motel where they convened, the ladies fulfilled their promise. While paired off and horizontal, police burst in, guns drawn. The women had run this hustle a few times before, robbing and sometimes killing their horny marks. Those cops drilled that lesson in before they sent the guys off.

He lived with a woman addict, wading a swamp of crack vials, venal dealers and human degradation. After a bust, Mike took the fall and ended up inside. A lawyer-drummer, with a judgeship on his resume, got him a plea; doing incalculable work pro bono. The delicious irony of a brilliant black man saving Mike's hunky ass in Jim-Crow Baltimore fully seasoned and served when said lawyer entered the national spotlight representing the family of a young man brutally killed in police custody.

Back on the streets and lean, I saw him in the joint once more. He listened to a set. After downing tools, I walked behind bar to greet him. In yellow light, face dull, he took me through it, splicing film for the eleven o'clock news. Whatever he cut out, lay unclaimed in evidence or was flushed down a toilet in lockup. He cleared his throat.

“I'm a cock-strong motherfucker, always have been. But there's days I think my time is up, ye know. Tried to help some body who couldn't catch a break. 'Cept I got fucked for it. Wasn't for a guy that was connected, I'd still be in that shit. He fuckin' did me a solid, ye know. Fuckin' cops didn't give a fuck. Just needed to take somebody down, ye know. I ain't never snitched on nobody and I ain't gonna fuckin' start now.”

Mike's eyes darkened to stones. Tears slicked his face. Unshaven, with papyrus skin, he stared off; finally, an old man. Made porous by a million tiny punctures. Each, pushed all the way through, taking a spiraled core of ferocity and wit.

There's a YouTube of him playing and singing “Old Folks”. A single photo, eyes closed, blowing fiercely, accompanies the audio to the end. The tune is sentiment with a side of bacon: Its' harmony turns around and around until the bridge makes good on its' debt to the blues. Singers work the sweet lyrics while an easy melody invites tangents. Mike, horn a brass organ stop, makes his notes fat and tender, pulling chromatic threads and letting them dangle. He sings only the final A section:

“Someday there's gonna be no more old folks
What a lonesome old town this will be
Children's voices at play
Will be still for a day
The day they take old folks away”

After it ends, voices in the club approve. Above the chatter, Mike adds:

” 'at was for my mom”

The founders of this music, black, beige, men and women, walked lifelong under a full moon of relentless hate and spasmodic violence. Their art flourished, civilizing all it touched. When we take our instruments and revisit the tones and forms they created, every molecule vibrates the world their spirits share. That lunar glow absent, they ride waves of tales told a thousand times now echoing a thousand-fold. I figure Mike is home. His voice rough under surging foam, eyes swallowing sunlight. He earned a full measure of peace with his songs.