Laundromat Diaries Part Three

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Ten saga-long years later, a mere decade passed like water down a mining slews-box. I had had to put my dog Chops down due to his getting brain cancer from lawn treatment chemicals. I moved many times in those years. I eventually slowed to a pause in a western, shoe-box sized suburb of Chicago, hold up in a two bedroom ranch apartment sans a laundry facility. This suburb was adjacent to an older, slightly more affluent one, but there wasn’t any discernible difference from the curb. My apartment was sixty feet from a raised commuter train track and I was going through an on-again, off-again relationship, which at the time was definitely off. At this juncture in my life, I had decided on being a musician for my career. Glamorous and carefree as that may sound, I found I still had to chauffeur my laundry in my old duffle, now accompanied by a plastic basket to a laundromat.

The nearest traffic-abused laundromat was embedded in a small strip mall, sandwiched between a Chinese restaurant and a Korean dry cleaners. I sometimes pondered if there was any irony in this arrangement. I had long since stopped taking my shirts to be dry cleaned due to budgetary sanctions and only commissioned the dry cleaners to do my tuxedo and tux shirts. The dry cleaners was a family run business, sons, daughters, nieces and nephews etc. I was usually greeted and helped by the same comely -past prime marrying age- Korean woman at the customer counter up front. I think she was interested in me by how expediently she would retrieve my dry cleaning and blush a modest smile when I’d talk to her- but neither of us knew how to broach the subject of going on a date. I wasn’t sure she spoke much English and I sure as heck couldn’t handle my own language, let alone Korean.

On the other side of the laundromat was the Chinese restaurant. A little ten table establishment fit snug into a stunted L shape corner of the strip mall. The owner, a hot and spicy single Chinese woman just touching forty, was very out going and industrious. She openly complained about her cooks and would regularly bring out free samples for me and my occasional dates to try out. I designated Tuesdays as official Chinese food day, whether I dined in or took out. I liked the little restaurant and I think the owner liked me, although I doubted I could ever be industrious enough for her. Just smiling seemed to be communication enough.

Old habits never die they say and I continued my habit of tackling crossword puzzles when doing my laundry. In addition, I now took along a thick novel to try and slog through amid the rotary din of rattling old washers and dryers. Focused reading was a challenge in that environment. At this point, I was in my mid thirties. I already noticed a fading of my mental acuity. The flushed decade of singles bars, trysts and one night stands accompanied by generous amounts of alcohol had in theory deteriorate my physical and mental capacities. Doing laundry was no longer a test of my patience, but had evolved into a welcomed period of respite.

On this particular laundromat visit, I had a huge load, my duffle and basket were full of dirty garments. I packed them into the hatchback of my “poor man’s” sports car, and drove around to the front of my apartment complex- an alley drive. The last rows of ranch apartments lay perpendicular to the railroad crossing. This meant that every time a commuter train passed not only would those renters be treated to the sound and fury of the passing train, but also the prelude and finale of the crossing gate bell and lights. I always assumed the feckless landlords rented those apartments to the deaf. I then turned left and headed four blocks south and took advantage of a seldom green light, to pull straight into the strip mall parking lot.

Thursday was a slow day in the laundromat. Only two other people were there, an old woman washing workman’s clothes and a late thirty-something woman with below shoulder length streaked hair. I went to the back of the laundromat and dug up a couple of available washers. After dumping my clothes into the machines and shoving my quarters into the money breach, I settled down to work a crossword using a ballpoint pen. I occasionally looked up to watch the two vastly different women do their laundry.
The older woman seemed to be doing her husbands clothes, rough overalls and coarse blue cotton shirts. She had four machines going as she vigorously, rammed as many overalls as she could into each machine. When the cycles were over, she unceremoniously clumped each washer load into rolling carts and pushed her mans laundry over to the bulk driers where she again gruffly handled the work denim, as if her husband might still be in them. Her time spent here couldn’t be mistaken for anything else but a chore.

By contrast the younger woman was only doing her own laundry. Her machine loads mostly consisted of slim pants, designer jeans and some skimpy knit tops along with some sweat pants and Heavy Metal T-shirts. She also attended a separate load of undies and lingerie. She appeared unhurried and examined each article of clothing before depositing them into the machines. While waiting, she finger combed her long streaked hair from her face and looked out the front windows bored. I got tired of scribbling the wrong letters for answers in my crossword and took up my book instead. I tried to read, picking up where I left off again and again, but the urge to watch these two women had me frequently peeking over the top of my book.

The old woman sat slouched while waiting, her head held wearily in her wrinkled hand, her puffy eyes closed, praying for sleep. The younger woman chose to stand, one leg cocked on toe behind the other, her elbows resting on a high table for folding clothes. The whole placed smelled of singed cotton and fabric softener. When their loads were finished drying, the old woman quickly folded, almost rolled her husbands laundry up into crumpled wads and stacked them in her huge basket, then lugged them out to a rusting Ford Ltd. The younger woman took her time folding each and every piece of her laundry, especially holding up her bras to the window light as she cupped them together. It seemed she might have been doing that for my benefit. At any rate, I had to wait for her to finish her drying because half the driers were not in service.

I loaded my laundry into the last dryer she had just vacated and again sat back down to read my book. But I kept looking up at the young woman, trying to figure out why she was taking so long to fold her laundry. We never made eye contact, but I was almost sure she wanted me to make a move. It was my policy, prudent or not, never to start up small talk with women at the laundromat. She soon finished and left the laundromat, loading her laundry into the trunk of her ‘86 Camaro. I watched her leave, her car burning oil as it left the parking lot. I was alone to finish my own laundry. Presently, the dryer buzzer sounded and I left my seat like a aging boxer leaves his corner.

As I removed my last dryer full of laundry and separated it into my basket and duffle, I found something unexpected. A silk, maroon colored pantie with black lace trim. Here was something I hadn’t expected nor ever experienced. Did the young woman leave it in the dryer on purpose for me to find mixed in with my own clothes? Was it a ‘come-on’ signal? The overhead florescent lighting flickered and blinked. I absently twirled the panties between my two index fingers as I pondered the meaning of my find. These weren’t a generic pair of undies one would casually leave and forget, they were in a word, sexy. I felt a little titillated with the possibilities. I took my time folding some of my laundry, expecting the woman to return and ask about her missing undies. She never returned. Did she leave the trophy behind to tease me or taunt me for not having hit on her with at least one pick-up line? I’d never know.

As I left the premises and loaded my laundry into my hatchback, I gave her panties one last stretch and twirl with my fingers and then hung them on the radio antenna of the car parked next to mine, kind of a capture the flag gesture. For as long as I lived at that address and frequented that laundromat, I never ran into anything like that again. And I chalked-up the maroon and black lace panty escapade to the ‘draw’ column.

The Sky Is Melting

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“The sky is melting, the sky is melting…” As told by a little chicken once upon a time. He was only looking for closure to his Gestalt Happy Meal. Just a little fryer looking for the real world, trying to be a mind in his own legend. Maybe that wee fowl discovered the bandwagon wasn’t singing “Happy Days are Here Again” anymore. Maybe he finally realized lemmings are just stupid, furry little rodents that eat their own feces.

“The sky is melting, the sky is melting…“ Would you like a nice Biscotti to go along with that hobo-shoe coffee while you’re waiting? Sorry, the trendy local coffee house is closed. No more wireless cloud network, so sad, too bad. Maybe you can find a wire-frame, fur covered surrogate mommy hen to kiss it and make it all better.

“The sky is melting, the sky is melting…” Chicken Little’s agitated barnyard cries and frantic running around would make more sense if his head was lopped off. The beat poets’ had it right, life’s all groove and
no vinyl, it’s all skin and no bones, it’s living jazz that doesn’t let you resolve back into the same life ruts and routines that chained and suffocated you in the first place.

“The sky is melting, the sky is melting…” Yeah, in trickles of back-stories, scribbled and dribbled on huge Pollock canvases, then scrutinized for DNA viruses. The clip-on-tie lie all for grandma’s apple pie. A deadened sight on a memory. How do you go about compartmentalizing a Kraken? China Syndrome hunks, puddling in humanity’s radioactive abyss. Everything comes to rest, collects in the crevices and gutters like so much ticker-tape confetti.

“The sky is melting, the sky is melting…“ You know what? Any  hold-outs were minimized to such an extent that they just gave up trying to communicate their last shreds of sanity. Up became down and these misfits couldn’t re-orient themselves anthropologically upright. They were too tired, too depressed, too medicated, and trans-humanly degraded. Must’a been somthin’ in the water, but who cares, whatever. Yeah, wtf, right?

If I were you, I’d Just go on vacation
Consume umbrella-drink libation
an’ dream ‘bout spiritual revelation.

Come on, gimme some skin
by the hair of your chinny-chin-chin
Just don’t lose your dopamine grin

Time to circle the wagons
drain and stack mead flagons
you’ve slain the very last dragon.

There’s a new Renaissance a comin’ called the Apocalypse… be there or be square little chicken.

Jazz Gauntlet

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My first official big band gig was performed with a local rehearsal band at the Green Mill bar in a north-side ward of Chicago called Uptown. I was nineteen at the time and didn’t fully appreciate the wealth of historical ambience that establishment had accumulated. The Green Mill was one of Chicago’s historical treasures, an authentic piano bar from the early 1900’s, an infamous hang-out for the notorious Al Capone; it still displayed a couple of holes in the wall paneling made by bullets that once upon a time, had Al’s name on them.

The band I played trumpet with that night was real “Squaresville,” that’s jazz lingo for less than interesting. The band members all had to wear matching, blue, green and red plaid blazers and bow ties. The music we played was traditional swing music from the forties attributed to dance bands like Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Sammy Kaye. The music style was real “mickey” as in Mickey Mouse: jumpy two beat rhythms with wide vibrato. The band swung like a shovel in rocks but that was mostly due to the lack of talent. This band played music the way the plaid blazers looked. At nineteen I was totally clueless and a trumpet player in serious need of experience.

Flash forward about seven years in total blinding darkness. Tack on a year’s stint with a traveling twelve-piece show band, another year with a road-rat ghost band, throw in three years of playing Puerto Rican salsa until three in the morning and a year and a half of baptism in west coast cool administered in Hermosa Beach California and I found myself back at the Green Mill again, playing with a different band called the Deja Vu Big Band. As polar opposite from the first band seven years ago as I was light years transformed from my previously green, younger self.

But I’m getting way ahead of the story. After returning from southern California and cool ocean breezes, I spent a hard scrabble six months scratching around the ‘city with big shoulders’ trying to find gigs. It was a lean six months. Lots of cold cement and closed doors.  I stumbled upon an opportunity to join a local jazz band that was in it’s nascent stages of forming. I was invited by a long time friend, Nivram Sivad to split lead with him in this group called the Deja Vu Big Band.

The band got it’s name from a bar that masqueraded as a regular Chicago neighborhood bar; it was anything but. It rested on an outside corner of lincoln avenue, in between Lincoln Park and Uptown. The bar spawned a jazz big band that took it’s name. I ended up splitting lead trumpet in this band. I grew up in this bar. I cut my teeth on life playing jazz.

The Deja Vu bar itself was a tight rectangular building with floor to ceiling glass front windows, a dug-out basement and two floors of apartments on top. The windows provided a theater stage view so those outside could jealously look in and wish they had come earlier, wished they could have been the lucky ones absorbed and abused by the musical vortex inside.

As you walked through the doors, the bar was on the left, littered with chrome and black leather stools. On either side of the entrance were deep window bays holding built-in booths where neighborhood regulars sat and drank and listened to jazz and gave no sympathy to those lost outside in late night limbo. On the right side of the tavern, directly opposite the bar, was a tight space barely large enough to fit eighteen musicians and their instruments. There existed no stage, no formal separation from the crowd. A kind of experience ground zero. The rest of the patrons squeezed in around the band, where and how they could. Pressing the flesh would be an understatement. Mephistophelean Orgy would better describe it.

A rehearsal band like this is formed by word of mouth. Players know players, word gets around, you got a shot at a position with the group and either fit in, or were unceremoniously chewed up and spit out. I got chewed a little, comes with the territory when cutting your own teeth, but I hung on and bit back.

The Deja Vu Big Band played on Tuesday nights.  Weeknight gigs are commonly called “rehearsal band” gigs. You got to hone your ax and get exposure for little or no compensation. Sometimes too much exposure kills. Young musicians took their chances each week, testing the limits of their invulnerability.

The crowd would trickle in before nine p.m. and pack around the band set, where throughout the night they’d form unholy allegiances with the different band sections, augmenting the music by injecting their own funk and fury into each chart and musician. Before, during and after playing sets, the band drank and smoked and snorted heavily, it was the mid-eighties and the band wore a “fuck-off” attitude the audience grooved on; they loved it.

The band had a signature song, a bastard offspring, drunkenly composed by the bandleader and the bari sax player and was frequently requested. It was titled, “Oh yeah, Eat That Chicken”  The hardcore regulars of the bar knew the only way to get the band to play this tune was to offer up a tray of tequila shots as sacrifice. No matter how high the band already was, the glistening and sticky tray of pyramid-stacked shots always got the song played. The tune had a sixteen bar melody head, then a chorus bridge sung by the band members and audience: “Oh yeah, eat that chicken…” During which each musician would throw back a shot and then take an extended improvised solo. Every player took at least one chorus of changes, the song would usually go on to end the set.  Sometimes the song was played three times in a night. Those were the good nights, the hard drinkin’ nights.

The Deja Vu band gained a loyal and delusional following, mostly through reputation alone. Every musician became a star in his own right. Talent abounded, ego’s got mangled, fights broke out both on the band set and in the audience. The music played on ‘til past midnight. That’s Chicago jazz.

Big Bands are like families, illegitimate, bastard, incestuous tribal clans. Faults are forgiven or grudges held, either way, something always gives. It’s not just the music that draws in the crowds. The musicians only made twenty dollars, they didn’t come and perform their souls out for money. They came to play, they came to feel, thrive, tell the audience all the lies and truths and let life sort itself out between set breaks. In short, they came to live.

When the band took a break between sets, the musicians would all meander outside at their own pace, along their own paths of personal distraction. The beer and liquor drinkers would stay inside or directly out front, scoping out libidinous distractions. The stoners would be on the side of the building, tokin’ and tuning up. The coke heads would be behind the building, in the alley, scoring a little extra something for later in the men’s room. If the music wasn’t playing, if the breaks went too long, the owner would badger the bandleader who would signal the cats back inside with a smirk.

The moon rose high, the band played loud, more shots, more reefer, more blow; the floor got soaked with liquids. The bartenders at the Vu were overworked and the waitresses always broke and horny. Voyeurs of both sexes and all persuasions lurked against the back wall, hiding behind tall drinks. The musicians’ lack of inhibitions didn’t miss a trick inside the Vu’s four walls, they could always spot the freaks.

Chick singers would occasionally show up, all tits-to-the-wall and audition for the band, then seductively leave their numbers behind. During rests in the music, sax players would lean over and work their mojo by teasing and fondling groupies. The trumpet players were restrained in the back row of the band, isolated from pressing the flesh during a set, but commanded the most attention. Like thoroughbreds rearing in the starting slots before a race. Manically charged sound reflected in their mad eyes. I was one of those pent-up trumpeters.

That was on tuesday nights. The real fun with the Deja Vu Big Band though, was on Thursday nights at the infamous Green Mill Lounge in Uptown. Al Capone’s place.

In the late-eighties, Uptown was an eclectic neighborhood, comprised of everything from millionaires to heroin addicts all crawling the streets at the midnight hour.  The homeless would panhandle the musicians on set breaks as slum lords rolled up to the Green Mill in Rolls Royces to slum. The Mill’s patrons were multifarious as well; urban-suburban refugee’s, drunks, tweekers, coke heads, sluts, gigolos, gays and transvestites, music lovers and bed-fellow politicians. The windy city’s underbelly in it’s natural repose. A perfect blend to brew Chicago jazz with.

Politicians and drug dealers alike hung out at the Mill. Foreign dignitaries were frequently ushered uptown to the Mill by the city council’s Department of Foreign Relations to experience a bit of authentic Americana…the Deja Vu band gave them their passport’s worth of Chicago urban eye candy.

In the summer, if you arrived in the middle of a set, while the band was roaring, and tried to walk through the door, a blasting wall of hot sound forced you to drop your head and put your shoulder into the effort. The Deja Vu was a hard swinging band. Jazz was never more in your face, down and dirty -taking no prisoners- than when the band performed at the Mill. You didn’t go to the Green Mill on thursday nights and stay til three am just to drink, you came there to abuse your senses and infuse life back into your nine-to-five shriveled veins.

Having once entered the Mill, you passed down a long dark uterus- on one side, an endless bar, cluttered with glasses and bottles of booze that collided in boisterous barstool play.  On the opposite side, a stable of Augean booths, enveloped in sinister shadow, where nameless entities huddled plotting debauchery. The uterine gauntlet opened out onto a wider breech of floor tables in the back, as the bar wrapped around itself and pushed the drunk dancers vicariously against the band’s front stands, testing the sax section’s lecherous tendencies to their psychiatrical limits.

On any given thursday night, the crowd was littered with all ages, from underaged Houdini’s to sixty-year-old perverts. The motors were always running on the women and the men surrendered their libido’s to the ambiance. Once on a break, while I stood at the bar savoring a smooth vodka rocks, a young man shouted at me over the Roman Coliseum-like din, “I’ve never heard a big band before. It’s the most powerful thing I’ve ever experienced.“
“Yeah man, it surprises a lot of people.” I shouted back. He was young, he’d get older by the end of the night.

As the night of music was about to start, the Deja Vu musicians just mystically coalesced out of time and into their seats, snatched from the ethers and returning to land from the bottom-fed depths of the river Styx. What they appeared to be on the outside was an illustion. Their horns told the real truth, revealed the musical demons-  set loose maniacs and dreamers. The drugs might have helped, the booze certainly did. But the jazz never lies.

The Deja Vu musicians had all grown too hip for the room. The crowd dug on that. Everyone in attendance lived the life through the Mill, through the music, through Al’s bullet holes. They lived it large. I tagged along, licking up the cream.

Every musician had an outside, “day-gig” story. The sax players led the kinkiest lives. Freaks, lumber chewers, coke heads- legacies of misguided genius. They held court in the front row, the frontline trenches between the audience and the rest of the choir. They milked the spotlight for all it was worth. But those cats could really play some horn.

The trombonists, were all something mundane and respectable in their day gig lives: insurance salesmen, computer geeks, store managers- but on the bandstand, thursday nights at the Mill, they were transformed into celebrity and infamy- fiery crashes waiting to happen, frat party fugitives drunk on big jazz and shady women.

The trumpet players’ kinks were second only to the sax players. All hard charging, savage bridled animals. Their instruments screamed behind the band like Tyrannosaurus Rex. I learned trumpet was the instrument of the gods. Playing trumpet is a constant erection, especially for the lead player-  the high note hero, the stratospheric olympian commanding the raging, angry, burgeoning band like Ben Hur on his chariot. The trumpet, a harsh mistress, is all sweet promise lies and a constant choice of either orgasmic climax or agonizing humiliation. It’s a dominant/submissive relationship. I had to drink heavily to temper my brass beast.

Jazz music is pure. Big Band Jazz either converts the listener or decimates them. The band’s rhythm section, all ghouls, all “beat and comp” zombies, ate the decimated ones on breaks. The Japanese bassist just walked cool blue changes over the carnage. On legit gigs instead of tuxes, the rhythm section wore straight jackets.

When the gig money was short, the gay bandleader paid in weed or coke. The ones that bartered their talents for those trinkets, played dangerous musical changes. The other musicians reinvested their pay at the bar, ordering booze and flirting with the waitresses in hopes of after hour trysts.

The Mill’s waitresses were all young and vulnerable with soft tender hearts incased in hardened tungsten-  the bar owner dug them that way. He owned both the Deja Vu and the Green Mill. All his coke-sweet, shot-Valkyries were born to be wild, lived wild, loved insane. The female band groupie’s came a close second to the waitresses. The musicians snorted them both like blow.

Every week it was the same and each week it was different. The smoke was always thick, the booze flowed like Niagara, the bodies pawed and crushed; the music owned it all. That was the hook. That was the monkey. That’s Jazz, the succubus and incubus defiling virgins and addicting whores, music that captures and ravishes the audience. Delivering punishing punches in the face and a strangulation grip on the soul. You give it all up for the jazz. That’s why they all come, every last one of them.

Jazz is the language of lust and promise. It’s a fix, the musicians know it, they’re all addicts, all improvisational slaves, tuned in, tuned up- belligerently challenging the devil to a duel- an instrumental cutting-session born of madness. Jazz, it’s infectious-  the lunatic musicians wield it’s immortal power with delusions of grandeur. The stage lights blind, the music roars off the back of the room, the language is lust and power and seduction and it transforms everyone.

I was transformed over those six years, spanning into my thirties. I played my ax hard, I drank hard and I pursued the intellectual and sexual benefits. Jazz, Trumpet, Vodka, Women. Bacchus and Zeus grew jealous. I was no longer that guileless young man in a plaid blazer and clip-on bow tie.

The Green Mill, the original den of iniquity, the melting pot of fractured lives and hell bent souls. The Deja Vu Big Band, killing fields for musicians and their jazz fed prey. And all of it watched over by the ghost of a syphilitic gangster.