Downward-Facing Dog

The first time I saw him, he stood silhouetted against the glass in the door of the bookstore/bar. Tall and lean, he had pale skin with ginger hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. He perched on a barstool and ordered a beer, then another, and a vegetable empanada after veryifying that there was no meat in it. Oh – one of those, I thought, then remembered how I’ve become more and more one of those myself – picky people who won’t eat this and won’t eat that, for health reasons, for philosophical reasons. Still, there was something imperious about him, like he was putting me through my paces. Fine, I thought. I’m here to serve.

After several hours of eating and drinking at the bar, he paid his tab and stood waiting for his change of fifty cents. There was something extra purposeful about the way he held his hand out that told me he wasn’t planning to leave a tip.

No tip! No tip? Had I done something wrong? I’d been pleasant but not obsequious (he’d been the only bar customer on a Tuesday early afternoon). I tried to remember if there’d been any hint of a foreign accent – Europeans sometimes don’t know that it’s customary to tip a dollar for a drink. He’d had three beers and a snack. Was he Canadian? Irish?

He stood at the end of the bar, draining the last drops from his pint glass. Ah, I thought, rushing to give him the benefit of the doubt – he’s really poor and spent exactly as much money as he has on something to eat and drink. That last fifty cents, that’s it for the week for him.

Then he ordered one more beer.

Again, no tip. It bothered me so much, I wanted to ask if there was something wrong. That’s crazy, I thought – a confrontation, over a few dollars? Let it go. But I felt bummed out for the rest of the day. That he hadn’t tipped me. That I cared that he hadn’t tipped me.

And then the next day – there he was again. Hi! he said, so cheerily I realized I was now his friend. I decided to take the high road – yes, I would continue to provide him with excellent service, service with a smile – no tip required! Still, his stinginess, determined or innocent I wasn’t sure, rankled. How could a person reach the age of forty or even fifty or more – he looked like someone who took care of himself and I knew he didn’t eat meat – hell, why was I spending even a second thinking about this guy – he wasn’t paying me enough to obsess over his eating habits! Let it go, let it go.

He came in another day needing change for the parking meter. I’ll be back for a beer, he promised. Okay, I nodded cheerily – looking forward to that.

It’s been a month, and he’s a regular now. I’ve verified with a co-worker that it isn’t anything personal – he stiffs everybody. With a pained smile I greet him once or twice a week and dutifully place a gleaming pint in front of him. Be zen, I tell myself – the feel of the glass, the grain of the wood I slide the beer across, a smile on his sandy face. Who cares about money?

I was looking up the schedule at our local yoga studio the other day. I’ve been going once a week for a little while and even though I’ve always had a problem with the aesthetics of yoga – something about the length of the pants, or the way the yoga people look so enlightened after class as they stand in the coffee shop with their mats over their shoulders that they don’t notice anyone else in the world and bump those blasted mats all over the place – I really like it. I’m scrolling down the yoga studio page and there’s a stark portrait of a man in an impossible twisted pose – torso bare, arms where his legs should be, legs horizontal, feet splayed and – it, it can’t be. My hands claw the laptop screen, maximizing to get a better look at the face. It’s him! Ponytail man, No Tip! The guy’s a fucking yoga master.

What do they say, when the student is ready the teacher will appear? Maybe he’s been sent to teach me.

Or maybe I’ll burn my yoga mat.

Or how about this – at the end of his time here, his master teaching session – he walks into the bar and drops a hundred dollar bill or two in the tip jar, like a guy who’s been staying at a luxury resort tips the staff at the end of his stay.

“You guys have been great,” he’ll say, shaking hands with all of us behind the bar. His hand is warm and dry. Then he’ll pose one last time, silhouetted in the glass of the front door, his shoulders broad. Then he’ll bow.

“Namaste.”

Summer Idyll

backyardA beautiful July morning in upstate New York. The wide backyard glows green, maple trees standing fifty feet tall crown a cloudless blue sky. I walk out onto the back patio in a cotton nightgown and sweatshirt, clutching a red mug of hot coffee, my face beatific at the perfection of the day.

Another woman walks a smallish dog along the street that borders the far end of our yard. She and her dog waddle, lumber, limp a little along the edge of the fresh bright grass. I watch them but try not to judge.

Dog woman and her charge pause. They look over and move a few steps further down the street. Walk back to a spot between our trees. Waddle. Pause. They’re both getting up in years.

Then I hear her voice chirping across the yard. “C’mon – poop! Poop for mommy!” The dog hesitates. “That’s it – poop right here!”

The bitch is telling her dog to take a crap on our grass. A hard voice I don’t recognize rises out of my throat as I shout: “Don’t let that animal crap in our yard!” I rasp like Marge Simpson’s third sister. “That’s right, you heard me!”

Dog lady turns as I move towards her across the grass. “I was going to pick it up,” she says, brandishing a Kleenex.

“You didn’t yesterday! We watched you – your dog took a crap right there and you left it. We walk there! We cut the grass there! Don’t tell your dog to shit in our yard! If it happens again, I’m bringing it to your house and putting it on your front step!”

“Okay, okay – I get it,” she says, making a lame show of scooping something into her inadequate piece of tissue.

I remember the neighborly feeling I had giving her a ride to the supermarket in subzero weather, that time I saw her waiting for a bus on the icy street corner.

That was a Good Samaritan costume I put on. This harridan in a nightgown, the property police – that’s the real me.

The Ring

I left out the worst thing about my bad day two weeks ago – I lost my wedding ring.

Somewhere in between closing up the bar and listening to the Archers with Eric late that night, the ring came off and disappeared. It’s not one of those kind of wedding rings you wear all the time. It’s big and clunky and partly made of porcelain.

You could say we’d chosen comedy rings when we got married in the French countryside. They were porcelain because we lived near Limoges and that’s the thing they make there. The first time I wore it out, to a crowded concert, the porcelain part fell off. I managed to reach down onto the floor and pick it up before someone crushed it with their boot. So much for French craftsmanship – I found a German jeweler in Limoges who glued it all back together. Eric’s fit wrong and had to be re-sized.

The rings were too big to play guitar in. Eric kept his in a pocket of his Dennis Hopper jacket on tour, and when the van got broken into near Melkweg in Amsterdam, Dennis Hopper jacket and Eric’s ring were stolen. They’d already stopped making the rings (hmm, wonder why) so we replaced Eric’s with a simpler silver one.

Several years later my ring was really coming into its own with chips in the lunar surface of the porcelain. I’d put it on to go to work at the bookstore/bar – not, as a friend suggested, to warn customers “back off, I’m taken” but because it looked so good pulling the tap handles.

I looked everywhere. Down drains, in drawers. Behind and under the couch, in the car. For two weeks I’ve been in mourning. Wondering if I could call Marie Ange at the porcelain shop in Limoges – does she still work there? Could I still string a sentence together to talk to her about rings and things in general? It feels like our past life keeps slipping further away – Eric’s out on the road by himself now, driving all the way to Memphis – things change and progress and it’s all for the good but…I’m really sad that my ring is gone.

Yesterday I’m back at work – it’s Wednesday again, when the cardboard has to go out for recycling. Between books, wine and art supplies, the store generates dozens and dozens of boxes every week. I hate breaking up cardboard in the dank, dingy garage behind the store. But I can’t stand to let Eve my nice co-worker do it yet again. I’m really getting into it now – clawing, slashing and flattening boxes – I will get to the bottom of this blasted pile – what’s this? Hiding in the very bottom box, under a layer of plastic?

Man that garage has a wonderful reverb! “I FOUND MY F*$#ING WEDDING RING!”

ring

1 2 X U

“Don’t stress out, Amy.”

“Ooh! Can we get some peanuts?”

“So, if this track from our record blows up, then – you know, we’ll be out on tour and everything…”

“I’m turning 26 next week and I’m like, terrified – I mean, I’m definitely like a mid-twenties person and so I’ll be moving away from that? It’s really scary!”

“Do you guys have a restroom?”

“Hi, I’m looking for a book – I can’t remember the title or the author but I wondered if you might have it?”

“What’s wrong with the beer – it looks foamy?”

“That beer’s really foamy.”

“That’s not beer, that’s foam.”

“May I use your restroom?”

“Wow, peanuts – can I have some?”

“Do you have any beers that I’d like?”

“I probably shouldn’t tell you this but – I used to work in the music biz and I never bothered to listen to Mod Housewife when it was popular but I heard it on YouTube and it’s really good!”

“Excuse me, I’m so sorry but – there’s a bug or something squashed in the back of this book? I just thought you should know.”

“Are dogs allowed in here?”

“Do you have any snacks besides peanuts?”

(whispered) “Amy’s having a bad day.”

Lady With A Folder

Packing List for UK trip

Guitar, pedals, cables, microphone, passport

Clothes for 10 days, including $7 H&M dress to be painted by Eric as stage outfit

One white folder from a dentist’s office containing:

  • Song charts
  • Train ticket
  • Return plane ticket printed out for UK immigration, to prove I plan on leaving
  • Pay stub for UK immigration, to prove I have a job so I plan on leaving
  • Receipt for property taxes to prove that even though I’m married to a Brit in case they ask (and they will) we live in the US and plan on returning there
  • Photo of Eric’s birthday present because it’s too large to bring on the plane

I look around for a sticker to cover up the dentist’s office logo but The Stooges Raw Power or Fender Guitars are too rock, would invite suspicion, so I tape a bit of cardboard from a Pukka tea box over dentist logo instead, thinking it has a nice William Morris look to it; hoping to pass myself off as a kind of Anne Bancroft in 84 Charing Cross Road type middle aged lady on her pilgrimage to London (who just happens to travel with a guitar slung over her shoulder)

On the train to New York City, a guy in the seat behind me talks to his mother on the phone.

“Yeah, I got a job interview in the city. (pause) “Yep, I’m wearing a suit.” (another pause) “Nah, I just borrowed one from a friend.” I never get a chance to see the guy, but I wish I had his confidence. We’ll be playing a whole set of Eric’s songs to celebrate his 60th birthday in London, and I’m anxious. I want to do a good job! I find it easier to remember chord progressions on guitar than keyboard – why? Lots of keyboard songs on this trip. I check for the folder.

On the plane to London, I’m worrying a little about immigration. I have a lot of work permits in my passport; I’ve been given a hard time for coming through with a guitar without one. I’m not really working this time, these aren’t my shows, but should I have gotten a work permit? What “occupation” should I write on the landing card? I’m used to writing “Songwriter”, more benign than “Musician” which implies smashed hotel rooms and drug use. But when was the last time I actually wrote a song? My hand freezes over the card: Barmaid? Art supplies manager? Artist? Writer? Something/slash/something sounds too non-committal, they’ll see through me and send me back home to vacillate. I look deep in my soul – WHAT AM I? I go with the default “Songwriter”. Even if I never write another song, I’ve done my time – hmm, “retired songwriter” (think Anne Bancroft, in the hat, in 84 Charing Cross Road). No – simply “Songwriter”.

Where’s that folder? Ah, smooth whiteness with the taped-on touch of class.

Arrive and get through Immigration okay, Eric picks me up in a hideous rental Renault Captur he’s christened “Cat Turd” and we head to Norfolk to stay with our friends Karen and Peter and my goddaughter Daisy. Eric and I go over songs crouched in front of Daisy’s Casio with the light up keys. I write more notes and stick them in the folder, making sure to keep the photo of Eric’s birthday present hidden from him.

We drive to London and rehearse at Fire Records. The rest of the band is there: Andre and Barry and Ian, guys I’ve all met before. It’s fun! We’re all making such a racket, I worry less about screwing up. But just in case – I’ve got the folder.

After two days rehearsal we head to Brighton to play a gig. It’s at Prince Albert, it’s full, things are going well, and then damn – there goes the folder, spilling off the edge of my keyboard and all over my part of the stage. Property tax bills, pay stubs, the photo of Eric’s present, my notes! Ian who’s playing a cardboard box next to me helps shovel it all together, never missing a beat.

The folder sleeps near me at Eric’s mother’s house near Brighton, then on to Manchester for a radio show and back to London for another radio show on the day of the London gig. The car, er Cat Turd, is now full of painted cardboard signs Eric’s been making as a backdrop, and painted clothes for all of us to wear on stage. And so much equipment – we leave the car at Fire Records and take a taxi to the radio station. Then I get on the tube to visit my old friends Gina and Mike in North London. I’m exiting the tube when I realize I don’t have the folder any more.

Maybe it’s with Eric, heading back to Fire Records to paint more signs?

It’s not. I can see it, glowing on the desk at the radio station.

I need that folder! After a couple run-throughs you’d think I’d know all the songs but…I can’t risk it. Plus there’s the picture of Eric’s birthday present in there. And the Pukka tea pattern. I am Anne Bancroft in 84 Charing Cross Road! No iPad; no tablet. I’m a book lady, who needs her folder.

Visit for a little while with Gina and Mike and their daughters, then Mike kindly offers to drive me back down to the south London radio station to retrieve my precious folder. I practically do a paratrooper roll into the radio station, scoop up the folder, then clutch it to me as we head back to North London to the club. I keep tabs on the folder through soundcheck and up til showtime where -

In our painted clothes in front of the signs we back Eric and he’s magnificent. The crowd is magnificent. The show is a triumph!

 

The folder spends the night in the dressing room of the club, under a mound of equipment and merchandise, next to a bottle of what looks like someone’s piss.

I wake up in the hotel next morning thinking “I need that folder”. It has the photo of Eric’s birthday present in it.

We load the equipment out of the club and try to drive through the middle of the Arsenal parade to a barbq at Fire Records where Eric plays a few songs. I play guitar (off-folder, like I said guitar is easy, it’s the lateralness of keyboard that stumps me) and we say goodbye to all the fine Fire people and bands and eventually I get to give Eric the photo of his present.

And the folder gets a well-earned rest on the floor of a Premier Inn. I still keep checking for it. Plane ticket/train ticket home.

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