32. Welcome to the Machine

It was a long, dull winter in Boston. Bart and Michelle moved into a nice one bedroom in Allston, right on the T line, while I got myself a cheap studio sublet in the Fenway from a Berklee student who was abroad until September. Michelle worked at Tower and got me a job there as a clerk by telling them I knew something about jazz. As it turned out, I did know more than most of the other clerks. Bart spent much of the winter doing some studio backing musician type gigs while I worked six days a week. Most days I punched in at 1pm and worked until 9pm, others I worked 4pm to store closing at midnight. It took me exactly eleven minutes to walk from my apartment to the store, unless my clock at home was wrong, which was always a possibility. A bus ran from the corner of Queensberry right to Newbury Street, but because of the weird fucked up way that Boston’s streets run, it sometimes took longer to ride the bus than to walk. Besides, I could never get a bus that got me there exactly at 1pm, which meant I walked in the snow and winter rain and other weather-type crap, but this was not a big deal compared to the amount of walking I did in Providence. My walk took me right past Jack’s Drum Shop, where despite the name they also sell guitars and other instruments, and the Berklee Performance Center.

Technically I worked in the jazz department, on the third floor separated from the classical music section by glass partitions which are meant to be soundproof but really aren’t. Thing is, there wasn’t always that much to do in jazz, other than stand at the cash register. The questions people tended to ask me fell into one of two categories, those that showed how very little the customer knew about jazz (like “Do you have a trumpet section? I’m looking for a really famous trumpet player.” Me: “Do you remember the name?” Them: “Oh, let me see, it was… wait, I got it. Benny Goodman.”) and those that showed how very little I knew about jazz. (I’ll never again send someone to the hip hop section looking for Herbie Hancock. Promise.) Lucky for me, all the time I spent in school ignoring what was being said had made tons of room for the memorization of the smallest trivial details about pretty much every recording artist I cared to read the liner notes on. Management let me play what I wanted out of the new releases, and with all the classic rereleases coming out on CD, I got a pretty good jazz education pretty fast.

But when things were especially slow in jazz, which was about every other day, they pulled me or the other guy who sometimes worked with me (an art school student named Jay) down to the second floor for various dumb retail duties. The dumbest of these was rack combing. People have this tendency to browse and pick up things, and carry them around the store. Then when they find something better/cheaper, they abandon the first thing at whatever bin or shelf the second thing is found in. By the end of a week of rabid browsing, the racks would be full of misplaced crapola, hence the task of rack combing. For some reason, the jazz department didn’t get as shuffled as the pop and rock sections, and this annoyed me, and the fact that it annoyed me also annoyed me.

I generally started an afternoon’s combing with the bargain bins. People left a lot of junk there, which always caused aggravation for the cashiers, because people would find stuff there that wasn’t on sale, but then try to get it for a sale price because it was in the bin. (We’d never give it to them.)

Here was a stack of like twenty or so copies of a record by what looked from their album photo to be a kind of cross between Duran Duran and Psychedelic Furs. Their name was Platinum Blonde and there were three of them, sneering in parachute pants, on the cover. A Sade album was visible in the middle of the stack, obvious by the dark blue edge of the album cover. I pulled the Sade out–it wasn’t even her new one–and fingerflipped through the bin a bit more. My god, there was another Platinum Blonde album, four copies. I had to guess that their distributor or record company or someone just decided to sell off their overstock. I got a sad feeling in my stomach thinking about it.

Bart thought he was sneaking up on me but I actually saw him out of the corner of my eye when he was on the elevator. For politeness’ (?) sake I pretended to be engrossed in the W-Z bin until he said “Boo.”

“Boo yourself.”

“Chipper this morning, aren’t you.”

“Bart, it’s like three.”

“Did you eat yet today?”

“Course not. I get a dinner break at four, though.” Though I was thinking I only had the cash in my pocket for a bagel. And bagels in Boston are really not worth the money you pay for them at any price.

“Cool. Let me buy.”

“Either you read my mind or you’re not telling me something.” I started combing the A-D bin. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were next to a recent really-not-that-great album from Heart, which was kind of a funny coincidence. The Petty would go back to the regular racks–the Heart stayed in Bargain but I moved it to the E-H slot.

“I’m on a buying spree, too.” Bart had some CDs in his hand.

“You must be if you’re spending fourteen bucks a piece on those things.” He had a Jean-Michel Jarre in there and I wasn’t sure what else. “The Jarre on vinyl’s only eight-ninety-nine. So, did you win the lottery?”

“No, but I got forgiven.”

“What do you mean?”

“Remember the wicked witch of the west?”

“You mean your step mom?”

“Yeah. Well, she turns out to have a fairy godmother side, too.”

Bob Marley was in with overstock of a Ziggy Marley 12 inch single. “Do tell.”

“She convinced Dad that just because I was throwing my life away and wasting every cent they ever spent on my education was no reason to let me starve.”

“You weren’t starving.”

“They don’t know that. They think all musicians are starving. Which isn’t that far from the truth in some orchestras, let me tell you. Anyway, I’m flush once again.”

“Flushed is more like it.” He was blushing. I guess everyone has something fundamental to be embarrassed about. “Okay, buy me dinner. I only get a half hour though.”

“No problemo.” He nodded to Jay who was coming down the aisle toward us.

“I’m going on break,” Jay announced. “Can you cover the register?”

I gave him a little salute and he sauntered away, the laminated tags around his neck rattling. At Tower they made us wear these neck lanyards with laminates on them, like backstage passes or something, in some kind of weird attempt to seem insider-ish to the music industry, I guess. They’re kind of stupid, but better than a Formica engraved name tag that says “Hello My Name is…”

I carried my stray albums up to jazz and laid them behind the counter. A small line of three people stood at the register, waiting for me. I don’t know if people just don’t realize they can go to any register in the store, or if they’re just stubborn and want to torture me. None of them had questions or made small talk, they each handed me their purchases with a kind of resentful stare. I handed them back their bagged stuff and change with the same look in my eye.

Bart was still hanging around, waiting for it to be my turn for a break. “Daron,” he said, his elbows on the counter, “are you as bored and antsy and tired as me?”

“What the hell kind of question is that?”

“I mean, come on, how long are we going to fart around?”

“You’re not going to bring up the want ads again, are you.”

“No, you won that argument. But man, let’s get us some kind of gig, even if it’s not the one…”

“Hang on, wait a minute. When we were playing with someone we didn’t like, you said we were wasting our time. Now you want to find something else that isn’t ‘it’ either?”

He pursed his lips. I put a John Zorn CD into the section’s player and let it rip. The few customers in the section betrayed no reaction to the sax screeches and cut and paste tempo changes, but I noticed that within a few minutes the floor was empty. Man, I liked Zorn. “Bart, I think what you’re trying to say is that you are bored and antsy. I assure you I’d much rather be doing something else.”

“You seem okay.”

“Ha. It’s just my implacable exterior.” I blew stray hair out of my eyes. “Maybe we should go to more shows. Try to steal someone.”

“Maybe.”

The door between jazz and classical opened and Michelle swing her head in, her laminate swinging. “I thought that was you.”

“Hey.” Bart went and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “We’re having a bitch session.”

“I actually came to make sure you,” she said, meaning me, “were up here. Jay’s out back.”

“Yeah, he got me.” Jay was probably out back smoking a joint–in fact I wasn’t really sure Jay was his name and not a nickname he’d picked up for his habit of choice. “So what do you think we should do?”

Michelle gave me a look. “What, on the singer problem?”

I touched my finger to my nose.

“Good luck,” she said, and swung back out.

I looked at Bart. “Does Michelle sing?”

He snorted. “Not even in the shower. Don’t even think it.”

“Why not? I mean, what if she could sing?”

“No way. I don’t want to be in a relationship with someone in the band. Bad karma, man. Bad idea. Plus, I don’t see us as working well with a … oh man, this is going to sound sexist, but… with a chick singer.”

He was right, it did sound sexist, even if I agreed. “I won’t bring up Carynne, then.”

“I think she’s a little too shy. About her singing, I mean.” Bart squinted at me a second and searched the inside of his cheek with his tongue. “You’re always looking for someone you know already, aren’t you…”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you won’t go to the personals because they’re too impersonal, as it were. You want someone we know already. Like Roger, you were already rooming with him. And when we used to play with Mitch, when I was rooming with him. Even that girl with the flute we used to do the Copa with, you asked her in when I was sleeping with her.”

“I waited until after you quit sleeping with her.”

“I never really quit.” He was not blushing now, I noticed. “But you see what I mean.”

“I guess so.”

“So maybe you’re going to have to either accept the fact that maybe, as professionals or career musicians or whatever, that we’re going to have to maybe work with some people we just plain don’t know and get to know them as we go along. Or, maybe, that we’re going to have to expand our circle of friends. Isn’t there anyone here who sings?”

I shrugged. “Everyone who works here’s a wannabe of some kind. Except Michelle.”

An exceedingly tall, thin guy, bald, with a goatee and biker jacket came in and started bopping his head in time with the arhythmic Zorn.

“Well?”

“Well what?” I watched the guy make his way to the back of the section. It seemed unlikely to me that he’d shoplift so I looked back at Bart. “Am I supposed to explain something?”

“Yeah. Explain this it’s-got-to-be-someone-we-know thing.”

“I don’t know, that’s just the way the world works. The Police didn’t find Andy Summers with a general audition. That’s just the way it is. Someone knows someone who knows someone, and things either fit together or they don’t.”

“That sounds pretty fatalistic, man.”

“We’ll find someone.”

“I guess.”

I yawned. “Quit bitching. At least you have a gig for now. Me, I go home and play with myself.” Ouch, now I was the one blushing.

Bart laughed. “Yeah, if you can call jingles a gig.”

“You sure they don’t need any guitar?”

“You’ll be the first person they bring in if Jeff breaks a finger or dies in his sleep or something.” Bart was still laughing while talking and it made him sound sort of out of breath. “I swear to God.”

The customer came up to us with a Zorn album–a different one from the one I was playing–and laid it on the counter. I rang him up, bagged him, and handed him his change. He gave a little thumbs up and a tall-person hunching nod as he went out the door.

“Did I tell you I’m twenty now?”

“Fuck no you did not,” Bart said, his face set with a frown that made me think he might have been genuinely affronted that I hadn’t told him.

“Last week.” I pulled out the misfile pile and started alphabetizing it. “I’m not getting younger either, Bart. I want to get on with it as much as you do.”

I could see Jay coming through the glass doors. He was blinking his eyes like he’d used too much Visine, which maybe he had. “Hey.”

“Hey.” He took a step up onto the riser behind the counter and I stepped down. “You want to ring Bart up? I’ll meet you outside after I get my coat and punch out.”

There wasn’t anything else to say after that and I went through the doors from the land of screeching atonal saxophone into yet another rendition of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. I took the elevator to the basement where my coat was in a locker, and punched my time card through the clock. The sturdy gray metal box of a clock ticked rapidly like some kind of bomb. I’ll avoid any references now about biding our time, running out of time, or time being of the essence. I was two decades old now and had to believe I still had plenty of time to do what I needed to do in my life. It was that or give up, and there’s no way I was going to do that.

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