Tuesday, August 4, 2015
On Bartholomew Street
Unlike past mornings, today the sky is overcast, with thunderclouds to the southeast. The dog and I have already been around the block, and are turning the corner at Bartholomew Street and Royal to head home when I see this person striding down the sidewalk waving her arms.
I stop, thinking she’s talking to me. “What’s he giving away on the corner? Is that scaffolding?” she says.
“Yes, there’s a note on it; I think he’s got more, too.”
“Oh, that must be Tom’s,” she says, dismissing it. She walks back, and sits down on the bench in front of her house, a shabby single shotgun with peeling paint. A humpbacked black cat with white socks stares balefully at Jack the dog, who prances stupidly, inviting it to play. I have to take a picture of the cat.
Impossibly skinny, skeletal, in fact; wearing a black tank top and shorts, bare feet, her hair is a tumble of short dark curls, and even at eight in the morning she’s wearing dark glasses. She scrapes at a piece of paint-smeared glass. Her house is covered with rosettes crafted of cut tin, signs that say “Where yat?” Christmas ornaments dangle behind the window glass, and the bench she sits upon is a mock-up of a vintage bathtub.
She admires Jack, and so we get to talking. She takes in cats and stray dogs if she can, but, “I’m on food stamps, you know,” so she says she can’t feed them all.
I admire her house and the artwork, and she invites me to stop in anytime and see the inside of the house. “What’s your name?” I ask, and she says it’s Mo. I tell her my name, and Jack’s, and then I tell her I’ve just moved into the neighborhood, and that I’m going to school.
“You teaching or learning?”
“I’m a student,” I say. “World’s oldest grad student. I meant to do this when I was twenty, but I got distracted.”
She says, “Sure. Life just got in the way.”
We talk about school, and art. She says something mocking the way art critics talk, and then she tells me a story how Duke Ellington once talked to her ex-husband. As she tells it, the Duke says to her ex, “Mike,” he says, “read this,” thrusting a magazine article at him. It’s a review and analysis of one of the Duke’s pieces.
She doesn't tell me what piece of music it is - she can't remember. But she says,when Mike finishes reading, the Duke says, “These people saying all this about the meaning of the music. You know how I really wrote that piece? I was feeling sad one day, and I sat down at the piano with a bottle of whiskey and started drinking. Then later I woke up, and the bottle was empty, and there on the stand was the music. These people trying to say what I was thinking when I wrote it, and I don’t even know what I was thinking when I wrote it!”
“All I know is it was 150 proof,” I say, and the two of us share laugh there on Bartholomew Street at eight in the morning.