Stop and Listen

March 17, 2011
It had been a long day at the store; not many people had come in. The rest of my working friends had hung up their brown aprons and headed home (I always locked up the place). I stayed for about fifteen minutes later than usual, hoping to make two or three late-day dollars to take home to my family. After a while, I decided to close for the night and head home. I walked around the store, as I always did, turning off lights and straightening items on the shelves. I walked out, closed the door behind me, twisted the key, and went on my way.
My walks home usually allow me to think about certain things; a little quiet time in a bustling world, I suppose. Had it really only been ten years? It felt like it had been an eternity. Everyone had lost everything. Along with the money their lives had disappeared and America had come to a screeching halt. 1929 changed the whole scene, retelling and rewriting the America “success” story. Things were looking up, however. Businesses were finally reopening (mine opened four months ago) and life seemed to be turning back in the right direction.
It was almost 8 o’clock in the evening, and everyone had begun to pour into some of the nearby restaurants. It was a clear night, and had it not been for the street lamps throughout the city, I might’ve seen hundreds of stars. It was maybe a two-mile stroll to my apartment.
These Chicago streets never failed to provide some sort of entertainment, whether it be intended or not. A juggler here, a pick-pocket there–these little episodes would pop up every now and then. Everything grabbed my attention, from the savory smells drifting from restaurants that I couldn’t afford to the rather attractive women occasionally asking if I was in any sort of rush (to which I always quickly replied, ‘yes’). It is a beautiful scene, this city. Lights brighten up entire streets now, even some of the smaller ones, and almost all of the stores and shops have lighted signs to attract people. Cars fill the streets; I don’t have one, but I love watching them dart in and out of traffic–I swear I’ve witnessed over twenty accidents. And then there is the music. Oh, the music. The dozens of jazz clubs around the city filled the air with warm, soft tones, putting everyone in an easy, lighthearted mood after a long day’s work. It’s not uncommon to see a group of oh, maybe forty people swing-dancing in the middle of the street (I’ve caught myself doing this a few times actually). Some of the more well-known clubs had the typical “big band” setup that included fifteen and twenty instruments. These tend to cost a little more though, sometimes even nine or ten dollars; I usually find myself in the smaller joints with maybe four or five members playing. At most it’s a quarter or two to get in, but most are completely free, which I find quite appealing.
I was walking toward my favorite jazz club, The Lazy Beat, hoping to catch some of the show before continuing on home. I was almost to the entrance when I saw a man sitting in one of the shadows to the side of the building. A black man, he seemed maybe fifty years old, or at least somewhere around there. He had a light gray beard that covered his face in no apparent pattern. He wore a dark brown leather jacket to stay out of the cold. He just sat there, humming to a song that only he seemed to be hearing, tapping his left foot and snapping his fingers to its beat. It was an odd sight, since he didn’t have any sort of basket or bucket to collect money. I looked around to see if anyone else noticed, and it seemed I was the only one. I walked up to him, knowing that he probably wouldn’t notice, given how distant he was from his surroundings. I put my hand on his shoulder, and he jolted at my regretfully poor method of greeting. After his jolt, he had no further reaction. I again tried to get his attention, only to be ignored, without even a jolt this time. Mystified, I made one last chance to talk to the man.
“Sir, can I help you?” I loudly and rather rudely asked. The man stopped humming, tapping, and any other quirky movement that he had been doing. He stared into my eyes, and I peered into his, as tired-looking and deep-set as they were. It was bizarre; I was neither afraid nor sure of myself. His unrelenting glare caused me to move backward and implicitly apologize for my odd actions. I gave a quick “I’m terribly sorry, sir” and began to walk away. A few seconds passed and I heard one of the loudest, raspiest laughs I have ever experienced. The man was beside himself, and kept pointing at me as if I were a fool, all in great embarrassment to me. Bashfully, I returned the favor, laughing back at the man, pretending it all was a joke, which it turned out to be. I walked back over, a little bit more but still not quite sure of myself, or him for that matter.
“What’s y’name, son?” he asked in a friendly manner, his smile slowly getting smaller, retreating from its grand time of laugher.
“Paul Weatherford, sir. And you?”.
“Joseph Simmons,” the man said, “But you can call me Joe”.
The man was happy again, his gap-tooth smile stretching ear to ear. I asked Joe what exactly he was doing, to which he explained that he was practicing for his upcoming show in The Lazy Beat, which was starting in about thirty minutes.
“Me and my friends got a few songs ‘at we like to play, so we come ‘ere every Friday night”, he said. “They’ll be ‘ere in a few”.
We got to talking about how the last ten years had affected the both of us, and I shortly learned that I had it easy compared to him. You see, I had a fair amount of money before the crash, and even went it hit, I managed things well and didn’t let it get too bad. Joe had nothing before the crash. To his name he held a trumpet and his dignity, not much else. His life was filled with the music he created, driven by every note that crossed his mind.
“-at’s what kept me goin’, my music”, he told me. “It ain’t like I got nothin’ else”, he said, chuckling softly.
I was so confused at how such a person could be so happy with having so little. I figured it was only a rare occurrence, and I suppose that was a pretty fair assumption, for I certainly wasn’t that way. I needed my family, my job, and my good reputation to feel like I meant something to the world. Yet here was someone who needed next to nothing to do the same.
“I suppose I’ll see you around”, I said as I got up to leave.
“Aight, man, take it easy” said Joe. “Ay, man, why don’tcha stay for my show?” he called back. “You’ll like it plenty good, I swear”.
Torn between my family and the show, I hesitantly decided to stay for a while and go by what Joe had promised. It was maybe half past eight and the show started at eight forty-five. I dropped my quarter in the jar and walked into an unexpectedly crowded room. It wasn’t anything fancy, no big lights or people to serve you wine and food, but over the years it had served its purpose well. The air was a bit humid and a little smoky, but it didn’t seem to affect the previous performers, who had been rather enjoyable in their own right.
An announcer introduced the oncoming act, which I learned would be Joe’s band. Joe and three others walked onto the hardly elevated stage. Joe began by introducing the band: Jesse Robins played alto saxophone, Jim Roberts, who they called “Bubba”, played string bass, Frank Kenning was on the piano, and lastly Joe introduced himself. The group told a little about themselves, and then began to play.
“A-one, a-two, a-one, two, three, four”, said Joe.
The band struck an immediately powerful tone, one that I frankly didn’t expect to come from only four members. They sounded as if they were a ‘big band’ themselves. Each instrument was played with such clarity and class; you could distinguish each individual part one moment and get lost in the harmonies the next. Each man had his own little solo, and one after one, the gentlemen continued to impress the audience, even those who regularly attended. Every sound tingled the senses, from the savory riff of the saxophone to the feathery trickle of the piano. Even the subtle “thum-thum-thum” of the string bass captivated their ears while the sweet, muted whine of Joe’s trumpet danced from note to note. I had never seen a more genuine excitement on any man’s face than the four men playing in the front of the crowded room.
I looked behind me to see row after row of people listening, watching, taking in every note created by the four men. They were all just like me, workers on their Friday evening stroll on the way home, captivated by something entirely unexpected.
The show ended and there was much applause, as was anticipated. I walked out of the crowded room and onto the street where a group of forty or so youngsters had just finished their last swing dance to Joe’s music. The city looked so different, every person was so vibrant and true, happy and well. The street was lit by the sweet reds, cool blues, and snazzy yellows of jazz. I looked for Joe and his band around the building for some time, but they never turned up. They weren’t seeking attention, fanfare–none of that. They did what they did because they loved to do it. Their music brought them a kind of joy that neither money nor houses nor cars could ever bring. I looked around yet again and just listened. It was like the city now spoke through music, even if it didn’t make any noise at all. I stayed quiet among the shuffling atmosphere around me. The noisy distractions began to fade, and all that was left was music, pure and complete. I suppose Joseph Simmons wasn’t so distant from his surroundings after all.

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