Unfamiliar Night

You took me by the hand to a part of the city I never knew existed, farther than the last gasp of public transportation, with twisted little streets whose names were applied as afterthoughts, after all the really good names had been taken, where block after block produced nothing of note or exception. And I remarked that it was fun to travel to places I'd never been before and you smiled too, pointing to pieces of real estate, asking if they looked familiar, a school which was just a red box with a chimney, a majestic stone-faced public administration building with the profiles of lions, to which I said no, these were not familiar.
And we came upon an intersection crowded with storefronts where those on the street greeted me and claimed to know me, asking why I had forgotten them. And older people approached, claiming to be friends of an aunt, friends of an uncle, although they were not aunts and not uncles I had ever known. And they kidded me on how I had washed my hands of them like a big shot, too busy with my important life to remember where I came from. This kidding was done in the most gentle and understanding way, with absolutely no malice, only the love that comes with wisdom. And they all eventually asked how things were going with my band, The Twenty % Tippers, rolling their eyes and smiling at one another with each reference.
And finally they became tired of a pantomime I was not party to, and a group of us wandered into a nearby tinker's paradise or junk shop and the proprietor called me by name with complete familiarity, and asked if I remembered rummaging around as a kid and listening to the old phonograph records, changing the speeds from 16 to 78 back to 16 again. And from an old cardboard box full of antique records he pulled one out and handed it to me, an old Decca mono-recording featuring a photo of a long cool woman, her mouth loaded with lipstick, dancing in front of a xylophone. And the record was called The Twenty % Tippers Play Your Party or Function, and although there was very little information on the back cover, no musicians credited for example, several of the songs listed were the same titles as songs in our repertoire. I asked myself how this could be, scanning the few paragraphs of brief liner notes by some moron named Lew Parker, but they revealed nothing, saying only what a wonderful bunch the band members were and how this was the new hip sound, encouraging the listener to enjoy. Everyone watched me intently as I handled this record, and the proprietor said that although he no longer kept a phonograph player around, that I could take the recording with me, and I said I would like to.
And we went back out to the street and now it was getting late and people were slapping me on the back and punching me in the shoulder with their fists, good solid shots with their second and third knuckles. And old anecdotes were constantly being recalled about my childhood on the streets, running and laughing out in the open air with such a large group of youths the same age, getting into all types of mischief inside a world and a culture grounded with rituals and traditions. And I wanted to tell them they were mistaken, that mine was a typically American childhood, spent mostly on alcohol and pills in front of a television set, shuttling among a string of public schools where everyone was involuntarily separated not only by race but even by body weight and physical beauty, and then on to an adult working world filled with extreme self-importance where everyone continued to be separated along these same lines, shuttling among a string of companies where nothing was produced that was not useless and ephemeral. But now with this recording in my hand I became confused and could confirm or deny nothing that had happened to me then. And it was then that someone pointed to an upstairs window and spoke of the woman whose family and my family had arranged from very early on that we two should be wed, and someone else remarked how she now seldom went out, but instead stayed in, simply crying and crying. And I looked up briefly to catch the back of a woman's head with the darkest most beautiful hair I'd ever seen.
And these apparent strangers continued to reminisce, pushing me through streets they swore I knew, pointing out various sights, excusing themselves one by one, saying they had to get back to their families, back to their dinners, until I was alone and the day had disappeared into night. And starting on my long trip back I must have gotten lost and walked in the wrong direction because I ended up at the edge of a river or stream, with abandoned lots and a chain link fence and a highway off in the distance loaded with moving headlights. And with this recording in my hands that I could not listen to, issued before my appearance on this earth, I now knew I was a fraud, that I had never had an original thought in my life, that although it was so important for me to believe I was special and different from others, I now knew I was not special, and not much different from anyone.
And I chose a direction at random in which to head back, afraid in this unfamiliar night that I might never find my way again, but instead might have to take a room and a job in the most arbitrary of places, starting again from scratch, receiving these simple things as a gift.

-- sent out as announcement for 11/17/95 show at the Rainy Days Cafe

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