SCOTCH AND SODA
It was late in the day before I came to, and we pulled ourselves together enough to go. We left SF, Eric at the wheel, driving south on Highway 101, with no idea if, how, or when we’d be
back. For funding, we had my earnings from the street corner the night before, about 20 bucks, as well as Eric’s Bank Americard. He had decided that since he couldn’t meet his credit card
bill, he was gonna burn it out, and this trip was to be the last big flame. Then he was gonna ship out with the merchant marines. He had an uncle in the SF Maritime Union who could get him his card, he said, and a place on a ship. He figured he was bound for Hong Kong.
We’d stayed at his McAllister Street apartment, up by Arguello Gate, near the Golden Gate Park. That pad had become a regular crash for me and Danny, whenever Derek was on the scene. It sure beat the junkyard. At Derek’s there was a refrigerator, a record player, mattresses spread out on the floors, and other amenities, like a gas heater that never shut off. He had an interesting
record collection that I was checking out, too, not the stuff I was into usually. The main musical focus of the summer so far were the cassettes I’d shoplifted: the Stone’s Exile On Main Street,
Right Place Wrong Time by Dr. John and What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye. We’d seen The Harder They Come and were king- size impressed, so that soundtrack was added to the collection. We played those albums endlessly, back to back, day and night, and I was playing songs from them in my sets on the street. I told Eric that I’d decided to be a reggae singer.
Eric was slipping from the upright world he’d maintained ever since getting out of that jam with the law in Morocco. Driving for Yellow Cab had been fairly lucrative for a while, when the tips were good, but insanely demanding: long days, lots of competition, and too many insane customers had worn him down, and set his nerves on edge, to the point where he just didn’t seem to care what happened anymore.
On top of that, Danny and I sometimes felt we hadn’t been the greatest influence on him. We’d come over and wreck his place, getting drunk, leaving his records spread out on the floor, out of their sleeves. We’d pull the bed apart, dragging the box springs into the living room, making another crash site. We’d jam all night or sit learning songs off his records. Sometimes we’d bring girls we’d met on the street, drinking buddies, or anybody else we felt like hanging with, over to his pad, where we’d carry on, hardly saying goodbye to him as he left to do his shift in the taxi. Every so often he’d put the foot down, yell at us, or we’d just get restless and head off to the other side of town for a spell, but it had been a fairly continuous saga all summer, Eric and his digs, a major stopping off place on our route. He’d had pretty much encouraged it, and after all, he was my manager.
The joke was, “Hey man, if you’re the manager, why don’t you see if you can manage to get us a bottle of whiskey around here?” or “Do you think you could manage to spring for some Chinese food?” That was just a joke though. Eric was no chump and always had his own angles working. He was nobody’s fool, if not his own.
Danny didn’t really get on with Eric, but I liked him a lot. He was from Brooklyn, East Coast in a way that I understood, with a lot of experience of life, sex, drugs, trouble, and survival on the street. He was funny in a very outlaw sort of way, and not everyone could dig it, but I got him 100 percent. At the movies once, I’d seen a short film clip of Phil Spector, and something about Eric reminded me of that. He was funny, a wise guy, and had a sly, rebellious, satirical sense to him. Most importantly to me, he didn’t seem to give a shit about the consequences of his actions. He was a gambler, a quality I most respected and feared.
He told me he was bi-sexual, that when he first stopped and picked me up in the cab, he had wanted to get something going. I told him I wasn’t interested, had no gay leanings that I was aware of and wasn’t about to start getting any. I didn’t mind what he did, though. It didn’t bug me. He accepted all this, but he seemed kind of confused, wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, with men or women. He liked ‘em all, but was striking out with everybody.
I wasn’t thinking about any of this as we drove down Highway 101 and stopped in Santa Cruz, checking out the Catalyst, the renowned rock club. Nothing was happening, so we just pushed on, driving through the night, blasting the cassettes on a little player he’d brought. It felt great to be driving south, like a huge weight lifting off my back. I rolled down the window and just dug the wind in my face. Life was a mess, but I didn’t care; I felt free, glad to be alive and on an adventure. All I brought was the clothes I had on and my guitar. That was plenty. I didn’t feel like I needed anything that wasn’t available for cheap. The picture of Mexico in my imagination was vague but exciting. Eric kept talking about meeting two women he knew in SF, that he’d been trying to introduce to me. They were down in Mexico somewhere on a vacation, he said, maybe we’d find them. That sounded like bull to me, but I humored him when he talked about it, and I sort of entertained the pipedream. I was ridiculously lonely, but there didn’t seem to be much in my power to do about it right then. On the long drives I’d remember girls I’d
known in Buffalo, back before my life fell apart. I dreamt about love in the past and future. Through the nights longing, I played my Yamaki, sitting there shotgun in the Corolla, dreaming of another world, hours on hours, miles upon miles and miles.
Our first real stop was in Santa Barbara, the next morning, a Monday. There was a balminess in the air, a hint of tropical atmosphere. This was Southern California. Somewhere in the night we’d crossed the line. We cruised town and quickly ended up at the pier. The first thing I did was set up on the sidewalk by the beach, right off the pier, and begin busking. Tourists were out in numbers already, and portrait painters and sunset specialists lined the walks, ready to serve. The ancient wrinkled skin of the sea spread out behind me, the breeze was having a calming effect, time seemed to stop, as I strummed and sang, songs like “Scotch and Soda,” “Satin Doll,” “Michelle.”
People chucked change, the odd bill landed in the cardboard case, and this attracted the attention of the Three Winos. We made friends, I took a break, and the five of us went and bought a nice big jug of Burgundy wine across the street, then we crossed back and headed off under the pier for a drink.
Red was the main man, a beat-up and weathered middle-aged white guy in a torn suit jacket and ragged pants. He was on the lam for some reason, had seen it all and knew everything. The other two of his team were Frenchy, a younger guy with a terrible sunburn, who, like us, had just come to town, he apparently riding on a freight, and the Skipper, who wore a peaked ship’s
officer’s cap, and who, it was clear, by their silent communication, had been a partner of Red for a good while.
Red opened up the bottle, which had a screw cap, then solemnly poured a tiny drop of wine onto the sand. “For the boys upstate,” he said softly, then he took a sip himself. He looked at me.
“Well, Music Man, you’re pretty good with that box. What are you gonna do with it?”
“He’s a reggae singer,” said Eric. “He’s gonna be a star.”
“Well if you want to make it in music,” said Red, sitting there under the pier, making sure we were all paying attention, then taking another pull off the wine and looking straight at me.
“Listen to me now, and I’ll tell you the truth: you gotta have the music, you gotta have the looks, and you gotta have a gimmick. Like Elvis Presley, he could rock like a sonofabitch, the girls loved him, and he had a gimmick!”
“What was his gimmick?”
“What was his gimmick?! Jesus Christ, man! Pay attention!” said Red sharply, shaking his head at me. He took another chug and passed the bottle. Fun!
We drank the wine, rolled and smoked Bugler cigarettes, then Eric pulled out a little white stick, lit it, and after that we killed the afternoon discussing rock and roll with Red and his pals. Red had it all figured out; he was very impressive, but I already had a manager. I played some guitar, walked up every now and then to the sidewalk where I’d play a request for the promenaders who’d listen, then returned to my group in the cool shade of the pier.
The sun was goin’ down on the sea. After all that wine it was time for something to eat. The Skipper suggested we try the Rescue Mission, and all agreed. We picked up and staggered off, just like that.
The Rescue Mission was across the street and around the corner. It was an old California style building, with an entrance off a courtyard with flowering Magnolia trees, and what seemed like adobe walls with no windows. It looked cool and dark inside, and we went in. There were no candles burning, but it felt as if there should have been. A group of about 12 or so men were seated in the otherwise empty pews, scattered in small groups throughout the church.
I was drunk when I got there, but the sudden change of atmosphere had a dry, sobering effect. I wondered what was going to happen. “I thought you said there was food here,” I put to Red.
“Oh there’s food alright, plenty of that, but first you gonna eat a little food for the spirit,” he mumbled.
A man came out and started the sermon, and I immediately began to swoon with boredom. Now I felt dizzy, and I could hardly keep my eyes open. I wanted to run, get outside into the night air, move away from this god-awful harangue. The wine, the hours out in the sun, the grass we’d smoked, and the night without sleep had begun to combine with the dull talk, having a strange and powerful effect on me. I felt my situation to be very perilous. What in hell’s name was I doing? Where was I going? Who were these men I’d fallen in with?
What the fuck! I began to panic, sweating, squirming in my seat. I was completely shutting out the word coming from the dais. The preacher’s message seemed totally irrelevant. I was going crazy. I was going to die like a dog!
Something had to happen. The message of hope droned on and on. It was exhausting. There was no end to it. The preacher was giving an altar call, asking one of us to heed the promptings of the spirit, and to come up front and be saved. No one budged, and the sermon raved on.
I was losing it, about to bail out the back of the church, when Eric dug me in the ribs. Up a few aisles the Wonderful Three were engaged in heated deliberations, and an argument seemed to be going back and forth.. Finally, the Skipper rose up, worked his way down the pew, and walked up to the front of the church. He got on his knees and accepted the Lord right then, and as soon as they were done, the ordeal was over, the preachers were happy and everyone went down into the basement for a fine meal of soup and salad and bread and some kind of meat, with coffee and everything.
Praise The Lord!