Sunday, May 18, 2008

Goodbye, Bullshit Stars of the City

Last night, I was going through some old files on my computer from the mid-90s, mainly coming across some old love letters that made me realize one thing: I wouldn't have fucked myself back then! Lord knows, I was a handsome specimen at 25, but my head was completely up my ass. Life does get better in some senses!

But I also came across this short story that was rejected at the time by the NYPress, where I was just starting to get stuff routinely published. The date on the original MS Word file is 12/1/95. I can tell that this story masks a lot of my feelings towards the Bronx at the time, but probably also captures my undiluted feelings towards the place, too, which weren't always pleasant. That was a strange way of life for a white guy from a small town -- but it worked for nigh on a decade. In any event, enjoy the story -- I did some minor editing, but most of it appears as it did in 1995. (Hopefully, the text comes out all right; it's giving me hell in HTML, but hopefully will appear halfway legible on your screen.)


Charlie’s dad was a big country fan. Maybe that’s why he had found it so easy to go away. He had named Charlie after his idol, Charlie Pride, the only black country superstar, ever.

Charlie had vague memories of his father explaining this to him, years ago, when he was five, and his mother was young and beautiful, and his two big brothers weren’t so big. The Charlie Pride’s Greatest Hits eight-track was plugged into the beat-up stereo, and his father nodded along as the whine of fiddles floated out the window and down the fragile Sunday morning streets of the South Bronx. "Is Anybody Going to San Antone?" was the song; the answer in the Bronx was “fuck no."

"Damn, that nigger can sing," his father said. He wasn’t drunk, and Charlie liked him this way, so gentle and wise.

“And it ain’t just the singing,” his father lectured, "it’s the man himself. A black man singing country music. Imagine that. He’s playing the white man’s game better than most white men. People must have thought he was crazy in the beginning, but this is a greatest hits album. I tell you now, son, so you’ll never forget. I put Charlie Pride on the same shelf as Jackie Robinson and George Washington Carver. People don’t know. That’s why I named you after him."

But for every quiet Sunday morning listening to music, there were hundreds of fallen Saturday nights: drunkenness, carousing, bitter arguments. At first, it was all behind closed doors. Then the doors opened. And the foul words would fly in front of the children. Near the end, Charlie’s father sometimes hit his mother. She would hit back. All Charlie and his brothers could do was cry. Soon, he went away. They didn’t know if he was a drunk, or a crackhead, or homeless, or in jail. Charlie hoped he was dead, for life seemed to be nothing but pain for the man. One of the kids in the neighborhood had caught a raccoon eating garbage from a trash can one day and put him in a cage. The animal died a few miserable weeks later, and the whole time, Charlie thought about his father’s situation. He had been a night watch man at the Hunts Point Market. For two years he had taken night classes at the community college to become an accountant, but he failed most of the classes, and that was when the drinking started.

But it wasn’t unusual to have no father. Most of the kids in the neighborhood grew up this way, for one reason or another. Some fathers were dead, or in prison. Most just left, coming back every now and then to see how much their children had grown and pick fights with their mothers, then leave again. Fifteen years of Charlie’s life had gone by since that morning with his father. They had been hard years for his mother. She watched her first son, Joseph, ease into the drug trade. It seemed as reasonable a choice as any. People knew it was wrong, but there were a lot of things wrong in their part of town, and one of their own may as well have grabbed a little for himself if that was the case. Everything was wrong, so there wasn’t much shame in breaking laws in a world that didn’t care.

Joseph had started as a roof-top look-out. Many days on the way to school, Charlie would pass by an abandoned building a flew blocks from his tenement. He’d look up and see his brother silhouetted against the morning sky, waving to Charlie as he ended his night shift. Charlie thought he looked like a pirate waving from the top of a ship’s sail. This would be the only time they saw each other, as his mother had kicked Joseph out the first time he came home with a pair of Air Jordans and an attitude.

Around this time, Charlie had taken it upon himself to fall in love with country music. It offered some kind of escape from the neighborhood. The life there could be seen on the pavement and in the gutter. Garbage all over the place. Dogshit left sitting for weeks. The tiny blue stoppers for crack vials. Obscure forms. Sometimes they were bundles of rags and newspapers, other times they were people.

Seeing his brother on the roof wasn’t so romantic to Charlie. He knew Joseph would be dead in a few years, or if he was lucky, in jail. The romance was behind Joseph. The open sky. Charlie couldn’t separate the sky from country music. He would go down to Tower Records in Manhattan with money he had saved form delivering groceries after Catholic school and look through the country section. All the old-time country was cheap on cassette, far cheaper than the new rap and soul stuff, which he shunned. His mother had a huge reggae and 60’s soul record collection, and all the new soul only bored him. Charlie loved pure country. He had them all. Hank Williams, Senior, not Junior. Patsy Cline. Jimmie Rodgers. Bill Monroe. Johnny Cash. George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Charlie could tolerate the strange glances and blatant snickers from the Tower employees. Most of them seemed like half-assed white kids pretending to be rock-and-roll stars anyway. He would buy one tape a week, and after a few years, Charlie knew as much about country as anyone from Nashville.

It was his habit to get his boombox at night and go up on the roof of his project. He played the music low and watched the stars come out and move away. The bullshit stars of the city, Charlie thought. Once, his CYO group had gone on a white-water rafting trip to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and Charlie had seen the stars in the country. They were so much brighter. He thought of his father’s words. And the music was sad and wise, like he had been. City stars had too much competition with the neon and skyscrapers down south in Manhattan. After awhile, Charlie would sing along and found that he had a strong voice. He realized that by hiccupping and moaning, he could do a pretty good country voice. Sometimes neighbors would come up while he was there, and they thought he was odd, this quiet little boy making funny sounds to that whitey music no one listened to. But “odd” didn’t mean much to him when people were turning up dead and crazy all over the neighborhood.

Joseph was killed two years after entering the drug trade. His body was found in a few garbage bags under the Throggs Neck Bridge. Only his mother cried for him. He had only fallen prey to an occupational hazard, like a janitor slipping on a freshly mopped floor. Unfortunately, Charlie’s next brother, Jerome, thought this was heroic and fell in with the crew Joseph had run with. This time, Charlie’s mother didn’t even wait for the telltale signs of flashy new clothes and surliness. She went out of her way to make sure Charlie wouldn’t catch the disease his brothers had. It wasn’t easy. Putting him in a strict Catholic school on the Upper East Side was one thing. But Jerome driving around the neighborhood in a BMW with a mouthful of gold teeth, a cellphone, and a beautiful girl close by his side was another. By this time, Charlie’s mother was drained from her battles. Her face, which had once been smooth and well-angled, was now wrinkled and sullen. Although she was forty-two, she looked to be at least sixty. She was still tough and fought for Charlie with love and reason, but many nights found her slouching in her recliner after coming home from her receptionist job downtown at an advertising agency, sometimes too whipped to turn the television off. It would drone on all night, the cop show sirens teaming with the real ones on the street.

It didn’t matter to Charlie, because he thought Jerome was bullshit anyway. Jerome had no personality of his own -- anything Joseph did, he would do, too. He was mean and stupid, and worst of all, he loved rap music. His BMW had an enormous bank of bass speakers in place of the torn-out back seat, and the throb of his beat could be heard for blocks in the ghost-town night of the Bronx. Charlie couldn’t understand why a criminal in training wanted to draw so much attention to himself. He told Charlie that if he wasn’t making the money, then someone else would, and that someone else just might be a white man if no one else in the neighborhood were to step up and take the chance. Charlie couldn’t care if the dealer was white or black, or where the money went. It was all an excuse. The only nice thing Jerome had done for him was buy him an acoustic guitar for his sixteenth birthday. It was a beat-up old Gretsch with bluebirds painted on the face. After Jerome gave it to him, he disappeared from the neighborhood, and no one knew anything, especially the kids in his crew. If he was dead, his body was well hidden, and if he was alive, he was lost somewhere in the drug world, selling or buying. Charlie didn’t care.

He almost threw the guitar away. But he saw it was the key to something else. He especially liked the bluebirds perched on the f-holes. The guitar would have looked good in Hank Williams’ bony hands. Charlie got a cheap “Learn How to Play” song book with a singing cowboy on the front and started to teach himself a few chords.

At first, his fingers bled, and he realized that music, even simple country music, wasn’t as easy as it sounded. It took him months to learn how to string chords together, and even longer to play without looking at his fingers. When he graduated from Catholic school, his mother bought him a few months worth of lessons at the Learning Annex. By day, he would work in the mail room at his mother’s advertising agency, and a few nights every week, Charlie would sit in on a class with three other people. They were all white. They started with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and worked their way up to "Moon River."

The white people were trying too hard to be friendly to him, but he let it go. He came to realize he was living in two worlds -- the neighborhood, and the white world. When he first went into the white world, through the Catholic school, it scared him. He’d sit in his seat looking straight ahead with his legs together. The wound-up spring look, trying to fit in by not standing out. He saw the look all the time when white people came up to Yankees games on the four train. Now that he worked, so much of his time was spent around white people that he no longer felt afraid. It was rare that white people felt comfortable around him, either alone or in a crowd of other black people. They either kissed his ass or treated him like he was invisible. Whenever the office manager reported something stolen or missing at work, there was always an uncomfortable silence when she mentioned it in front of the mailroom workers. No one had to say what everyone was thinking. Charlie couldn’t stand that silence. At least the students in his class shared something in common -- the guitar. He kept to that and became the best student in the class.

He drove his mother crazy with his constant practicing.

"Why you listen to country music all the time? You want to be white?"

Charlie would stop strumming for a moment.

"No, mom, I like being black. Why do white kids listen to rap music?"

"Because they want to be black."

Charlie laughed to himself and started strumming again.

"I just want to be myself."

"You crazy."

It was an opinion shared by everyone in the neighborhood. He wasn’t like Prince, a genius who walked around in ladies’ underwear and sang about sex and God, sometimes in the same song. This seemed more acceptable than a black country singer. Charlie lived for connections. He would take his mother’s old records and make up country-style arrangements for the songs. He did a knock-down version of “No Woman, No Cry,” a little slower, imagining the empty spaces in his arrangement where a good steel guitar solo would fit right in. His song list of country soul was endless. “What’s Going On.” “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” “Where Did Our Love Go?” It struck him as a tragedy that Hank Williams and Ray Charles never had a chance to know each other. It was an even greater tragedy that singers like Same Cooke and Otis Redding never played the Grand Ole Opry. Even if they had been booed off the stage, the gesture alone would have been enough. The only singer who resisted his arranging powers was James Brown. He once tried half-heartedly to do a quick, two-step version of “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” but it came out sounding like The Village People doing a polka. The godfather of soul was too black and proud to be anything else. For this, Charlie bore him a minor grudge.

He slept with his guitar. The teacher in his class told him musicians sometimes did this because they loved their instrument so much, and it took the place of a woman. The guitar was even shaped like a woman, a fine one with a long neck and an hour-glass figure, the teacher said. Charlie asked if she had any legs, and everyone laughed. He was a virgin, and it made him feel good to be sleeping with something he loved, as if he were a kid again with his favorite stuffed dog. But the woman talk was nonsense.

Everyone in the neighborhood called him “Cowboy Charlie.” He wasn’t treated like a village idiot; he was too smart for that. But his gentle ways and white-boy musical tastes made people treat him like a strange, old eccentric. Even the drug dealers knew of Cowboy Charlie and his guitar, and they fell silent when he passed. Some people lived beyond boundaries, and Charlie felt like he was living outside the outsiders.

“That nigger be crazy,” was his whispered shadow.


It was a good shadow to have. Anything for safety. Charlie was at a strange place in his life. His grades in Catholic school had been excellent, and it was expected he would be one of the few to make his way into the white world. But Charlie had seen his father try that. The only thing his father had ever wanted for him was a college education. For what, Charlie asked himself. So he could start at some low-level corporate job and take years to work his way up? It made no sense to Charlie. He didn’t want to live outside the law. And the law meant nothing to him. All he had was his music. He’d look at Charlie Pride’s picture on those old albums. It was embarrassing in a way. Charlie had one of those dated 70’s bubblehead afros. And it wasn’t funky, like The Sylvers had. It was clipped short, and he had big side burns, like Elvis. He was wearing bell bottoms and a denim jacket with rhinestone doves on the lapels. He almost looked like a white guy in black face.

Sometimes Charlie thought he was crazy for wanting what he wanted. It didn’t seem like much, to sing country songs. He had it, but he also knew that he hadn’t lived enough to pull it off. He was young, and the lesson of country was to get yourself tainted. Even in the Bronx, Charlie was untainted. It seemed like an all-or-nothing place. You ruined your life all the way, or you went straight. Country singers were fallen angels. Halfway between heaven and hell. Charlie looked around and saw the desolation. But it was only a back drop. It wasn’t inside him. In so many ways, he was only a child. There were real stars out there, and Charlie wasn’t seeing them. The prairie existed only on a TV set, his burned-out mother too tired to turn Bonanza off.

"That Hoss be one fat boy. Child, I’d hate to be that horse."

All the real things seemed to be on television, and the world around him was too much of a nightmare. The worst part was he felt safe in the Bronx. It was all too easy to go down to the music stores on 48th Street and look at the steel guitars in the window, knowing he could play one, if only he had the money. But they looked good on the other side of the window down in Manhattan, and he though of Nashville, and Memphis, and Austin, and all the other places his heart knew and his eyes had never seen.

Charlie wanted his life to be a country song.


Things slowed down in deep summer. The days could get crazy with their stifling heat and gushing fire hydrants, and the early hours of the night were filled with people on the street, sitting out in lawn chairs and drinking on the corner. Sometimes the salsa and rap music got so loud Charlie’s mother couldn’t even hear the TV on top volume. But late at night, Charlie found that things got nice and quiet. He came home from work around five most days and immediately fell asleep regardless of the noise, just so he could get up around one and feel that time. It was always on the roof, with his guitar, closing his eyes as he played and sang quietly, so that when he got on a stage, he wouldn’t have to look at his hands.

Most people never knew the night sky, he told himself. It was like they were in prison and couldn’t see it, even if they wanted to. The roof was about the only place he could have this time, and at least rise a little above the noisy street. It amazed him that hardly anyone else ever came up. Maybe they were afraid that the danger of the street reached up there, and no place was safe but their cramped apartments. The only thing that gave Charlie trouble was the tar on the roof stayed hot in the summer, even at one in the morning, and he had to lay a ratty old blanket down so he wouldn’t stick to the floor.

On one of those hot July nights with the wind blowing hard, Charlie laid down flat on the roof and started playing “Long Gone Lonesome Blues.” That was his favorite song. You had to do two things to sing that song right, Charlie thought, yodel and hurt. Or at least pretend you hurt. He was tired of pretending. After awhile, he stopped playing and listened to the wind. He thought of leaving the Bronx, and then he thought of his mother. She was getting old. Men were forever leaving her. She could sing a beautiful song, if only she had the urge to do anything but watch television. If it weren’t for her love, Charlie could be fooling himself in the drug world. Or stuck in a pine box, wearing a cheap suit and mortician’s lipstick. So long as she had the TV set, life would be all right.

The feeling swept over him like the night breeze. He knew he had to leave. Anything could happen. Maybe he’d get rich. Maybe he’d fall in love. Maybe he’d shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die. He wanted to die a lonesome death on a rainy country road, forsaken after selling his soul to the devil. Charlie felt himself tingling inside. One thing would be certain. He’d sleep under real stars. He’d make a deal at an empty crossroads in the middle of the night. He’d leave a woman behind, then write a song about it. The lost highway.

Charlie came downstairs. His mother had fallen asleep with the television on, a late-night Cheers rerun, so he turned it off. The set was getting old, and it took a few minutes to fade to black. When he was famous, he’d buy her one of those huge ones that took up an entire wall. He went into his room and packed his clothes in his mother’s old suit case. It surprised him how little he had -- a few pairs of pants, some t-shirts, one dress shirt, socks and underwear. His only real possessions were his tapes and his small boom box, and he couldn’t take those. After he packed, he sat down to write his mother a note. The words didn’t come easy. A note didn’t seem like enough, but if he waked her to talk, she’d only cry and try to talk him out of it. And she might have succeeded. Charlie felt like he had blood on his hands. He had to slip away.

The note said he was leaving to find his dream, which was to be a country music singer, and that if he couldn’t make it on his own, he’d be back. Whatever it took, he wrote, he’d find a way to send back money to help with his part of the rent, and he’d call her once he got set up. He decided the best place to shoot for was Nashville, where he could find any kind of job to get by then use his spare time to knock on doors and sing. In the letter it all sounded so easy, but he knew he was walking off the edge of the earth. But that was how he saw the Bronx, a square planet where people walked over the edge sometimes.

Charlie left the note on the arm of her recliner and touched her hand. He looked at her for a long time in the dark. Tears fell from his eyes, he wouldn’t call it crying, and his hands shook. Charlie didn’t think it would be this hard. His mother snored. A siren passed on the streets below. For once, he paid attention as it came down his street and sped away, as if it were calling for him to follow. He thought of his father, and Joseph and Jerome. His mother had told him that they had all fallen, and he was the only good one left. Charlie decided to forgive them. He made sure to close the door quietly as he left.

As he walked through the streets to the subway, his guitar on a rope around his back and shabby suit case in hand, Charlie felt himself crying hard. It was as if he was still on the roof and watching a shadow of himself walk the streets. He hated the Bronx, but it was home. Charlie always felt that beneath all the garbage, it was a beautiful place. A long time ago, when people first moved there, it must have looked like heaven. Farmland and rolling hills. In a way, the neighborhood had been his prairie. He felt alone at home, always on the outside, and now he wanted to be on the inside of something. He didn’t know how. It scared him. The street lights’ tired glow pulled at his heart. Charlie’s feet felt heavy on the ground. He realized that he could walk on broken glass, like an Indian could walk through dry leaves in the woods, and be as quiet as the wind.

No comments: