Tuesday, June 19, 2007

"I'm not immune to getting blown apart..."

I am over the moon that The Old 97's are coming to Southgate House next month.

I am sooooooooooooooooo there.

Love. Those. Guys.

Friday, June 08, 2007

"And if drinkin' don't kill me, her memory will..."

The Record Store had its share of wonderfully odd and colorful customers, and we had our share of assholes and shoplifters. We had deadbeats who special ordered hard-to-find imports and ephemera and then failed to pick up said items when they arrived, and we were blessed with some truly awesome music-lovers. Nevertheless, the majority of our customers were average folks who liked a certain song or artist and just randomly stopped in to our store hoping that we had it in stock after they'd already struck out The Mall. There were a few, however, we couldn't even classify as "customers."

Such was Mr. Dougherty.

In all the years he shuffled in, I can't ever remember him buying anything from us. He'd ask to look at cassettes, usually old school country artists like Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, but he never bought them. He'd hold the cassettes in his quaking hands and scan the track listings, musing out loud about this song or that. Sometimes he'd sing a few lines in a hoarse rasp, asking if we knew what it was, and other times he'd remember a title and ask us to look it up, because he could no longer remember who sang it. He seemed to always inquire about the same songs and artists, forgetting from month to month that he'd already been given the answers to those questions.

I say month-to-month because we only ever saw him at the first of the month. After he'd taken receipt of his disability check, Mr. Dougherty would turn up in a taxi with a wad of green bulging from the pocket of his polyester trousers. Sometimes he arrived so early that The Beer & Wine Emporium next door wasn't even open yet, and so he'd kill time with us, leaning heavily on the glass showcase at the front counter, his long, grizzled fingers flexing to keep the tremors at bay. Every five minutes he'd ask what time it was, and then ask what time they opened next door.

All the while the meter was running.

Mr. Dougherty was a drunk, plain and simple. Even if the stale reek of day old booze permeating through his pores hadn't given him away, the watery eyes, bulbous red nose and quaking hands certainly did. And while most of the staff tried to steer clear of him when they saw the taxi pull up outside, I usually stuck around and helped him, even though I knew he was just wasting time until he could get his fix next door. Perhaps it was because he reminded me of my own drunken uncles, rather than altruism on my part, but I always tried to see him in the way that he wanted to be seen, rather than the way he actually was. And so I saw a young man full of promise and potential, instead of the pathetic, weaving wreck in the wrinkled western shirt.

There was a time, long ago, when Mr. Dougherty had been somebody, and he loved to bend my ear about his days amongst the Nashville elite. He had played poker with Hank Snow, hauled luggage for Patsy Cline, and chauffeured George Jones in his tricked out Cadillac. For Mr. Dougherty had been The Mechanic to The Stars.

Returning home after the Korean War, he found that small town life no longer appealed, and set off for the bright lights of Nashville to put to use the mechanic skills he'd perfected during the war. To hear him tell it, he was a real wiz-kid, and before too long found himself working for a company that provided exclusive automotive services to the cream of the Nashville crop. Mr. Dougherty might not have been able to remember conversations from one month to the next--possibly even one DAY to the next-- but 40 years later could still recall what the inside of George Jones's stretch Caddie looked like. He could remember, and describe in loving detail, the smell of Tammy Wynette's perfume mingling with the AquaNet she sprayed on her well coiffed hair, as Mr. Dougherty drove her around town. He never tired of retelling the story of eating fried chicken with Chet Adkins and his band at some little dive in the deep south, when he drove their tour bus. He claimed it was the best fried chicken he'd ever eaten, and wished he could taste it just once more.

He'd regale these stories in succession, his watery eyes momentarily coming alive. "I had it all," he'd claim with a wry smile that split his face into a million little creases, "I certainly did." He told of meeting and marrying "the most beautiful girl in the world," and how she took to the road like she'd been born to do so, and how they made a great team. She was his right hand man, so to speak, reading maps and making sure their privileged passengers were well taken care of. He drove the busses, fixed breakdowns, and hauled luggage, while she cooked meals for the bands, did their laundry, and made sure they always looked their best. In his eyes, she was a goddess among goddesses. Throughout the golden age of country music, the duo rubbed elbows with nearly all the big names: Loretta Lynn ("a beautiful lady and a saint, she put up with a lot"), Johnny Cash ("a godly man, but filled with the devil"), Dolly Parton ("sweetest little thing you ever did see") and his favorite, George Jones ("they called him No-Show, but he always got there when I was a'drivin'.")

Somewhere along the way the bottle got to Mr. Dougherty. His stories seemed to end in the mid-70's, so that must have been about the time his goddess took off with another man. Maybe she couldn't take the drinking any longer, or maybe she was the reason he took to drinking, but the two incidents are forever entwined, and with his long thin face in his quivering hands, Mr. Dougherty would openly sob at our front counter, telling me that his life just wasn't worth living without her. I'd seen the vicious circle all too often in my own family: a spiraling descent between the bottle and lost love.

Embarrassed by his open display of raw, drunken grief, I'd try to comfort with a pat on his bony arm and empty words, saying "it'll be all right, it'll be ok," when I knew that it wouldn't. Mr. Dougherty knew it too, and with sad, sunken eyes pleading, he'd ask me to play his special song, the one he'd ordered once upon a time but just couldn't bring himself to buy. I kept the single filed away where no one could buy it, and played it whenever his cloak of heartbreak became too heavy to bear.

"He said I'll love you 'til I die
She told him you'll forget in time
As the years went slowly by
She still preyed upon his mind

He kept her picture on his wall
Went half crazy now and then
He still loved her through it all
Hoping she'd come back again

Kept some letters by his bed
Dated 1962
He had underlined in red
Every single I love you

I went to see him just today
Oh but I didn't see no tears
All dressed up to go away
First time I'd seen him smile in years

He stopped loving her today
They placed a wreath upon his door
And soon they'll carry him away
He stopped loving her today…"
As the song neared the end he'd bury himself in an old handkerchief and again ask for the time, misery in his gravely voice. And at the appointed hour, he'd hobble slowly toward the door-- his sad, empty eyes moist with the anticipation of obliterating the present, and erasing the past.

Monday, June 04, 2007

"Just looking back before they take it all away..."

Henry was our golden oldies customer. He wanted nothing less than to go back to “the good ole days” of his youth, and to his credit, he had a long memory for the songs that were played at his high school sock hops, 50’s AM radio and each week on TV courtesy of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

He wore his high school class ring – Class of 1959 – and while short and stocky always looked neat and tidy in a pressed shirt and trousers. His fair hair, although thinning on top, sported an expensive cut. Only his crumpled and stained baggy blue London Fog coat belied his impeccable appearance.

Every Sunday morning, not long after the store would open for the day, Henry would wander in the door, greet each of us politely and turn his attention to our singles racks.

In the beginning we would give him our usual spiel of asking if he would like some help, but he’d shake his head and continue flipping through the racks. It soon became apparent that he was painfully shy: he rarely made eye contact or uttered anything more than “hello” to us for the first few months.

The Sav, who opened the store on Sunday mornings, took it upon himself to draw Henry from his protective cocoon. He'd stand at the front counter, within Henry's earshot, and talk to himself, hoping that Henry would eventually take the bait and respond.

He didn’t.

When Henry would finally make his selection of 45’s – he always bought three at a time because the store offered a discount, and Henry liked saving money – The Sav would glance at the titles as he punched the cash register and try to elicit small talk about the songs or artists. Henry wouldn’t bite. In fact, for the first few months none of us even knew Henry’s name. We all referred to him as “Shorty’s Dad,” because he reminded us of an older version of another of our beloved regulars.

It took The Sav several months to figure out a way through Henry’s armor of silence: he offered Henry the chance to look through our new oldies catalog for possible special orders. This was big. The Sav NEVER let customers look through our wholesale catalogs, lest they get ideas about circumventing The Record Store by placing an order directly with the wholesaler. Never mind that most wholesalers required a minimum order of several hundred dollars. The Sav was convinced that any person who saw a wholesale catalog would immediately decide to open up their own record shop and put him out of business. I guess it was just a bit of leftover paranoia from his cocaine-fueled 70’s heyday.

The rest of us paid no mind to this obsessive distrust of our customers and pulled out the catalogs for folks all the time—as long as The Sav was unlikely to get wind of it. Of course this only worked with customers we saw on a regular basis- those who hung out in the store enough to know the way things worked and who could therefore be trusted to keep it on the down-low. So for The Sav to pull out the Collectibles Catalog and tell Henry he was welcome to thumb through it, well, that was considered a very big deal amongst the staff.

Once Henry had access to the Collectibles catalog he warmed considerably to us and began to drop little nuggets of information about himself. We learned that he had never owned a driving license and preferred to shop at establishments along the bus routes. It was fortunate that there was a dedicated Metro stop right outside The Record Shop. We also learned that he didn’t own a telephone. For awhile he simply informed us that telephones were more trouble than they were worth, but over the years he got comfortable enough with us to admit that the real reason he didn’t have a telephone was because no one ever rang him when he had one, so he didn’t see the point in wasting the money.

We also learned that he lived by himself in a small efficiency apartment over a salon, which explained his expensive haircuts and well manicured appearance. He got them free in exchange for sweeping up hair from the salon floor during the work week. Henry had no other job. He had spent the majority of his adult life caring for his aging parents, and after they died he was frugal with his small inheritance. His idea of extravagance was in allowing himself one new pair of shoes each year, a nice meal in a restaurant once a month, and three 7” singles each week. He spoke disparagingly about his older brother, a lawyer out in California, who had forced the sale of the family home out from under Henry after his elderly parents had died. According to Henry, his parents had only enough money to send one son to college, so they sent the eldest son, and told Henry that since they couldn't give him a higher education they'd give him the house instead, and he agreed and stayed there, never marrying, to take care of them. After their death, however, Henry bitterly recalled how his brother figured out a loophole and, in Henry's words, "sold my house right out from under me."

Sundays at The Record Store were fairly cake. It was just busy enough to stay entertained, but not so busy that we were headless-chickening between the three cash registers while trying to keep an eye out for shoplifters, as was the case most weekend nights. I enjoyed working Sundays because I could fill up most of my day inventorying the Billboard Hot 200, singles charts and back stock. I could also count on having a nice long chat with Henry about the "good old days." Sometimes, when there was a lull in the action and The Sav had left for the day, Henry would pull out a pile of singles and I'd play them over the vintage Marantz sound system. As the music transported Henry back to a happier time and place, he'd lose himself in the memories, and take me with him through a stream-of-conscience rap about "how it was back then." I learned the names and locations of many a long-gone restaurant and store, could see the ball players in their crew-cuts and the girls in their poodle skirts and pony tails, such were Henry's vivid descriptions. It was a little like hearing someone describe the movie American Graffiti, but with a local flavor. Occasionally Henry would let slip about a girl he had dated, a girl he still pined for some thirty years later. His heart would break anew each time he visited the lonely town of CouldHaveBeen.

I loved hearing Henry's stories and always tried to make time for him each Sunday. I think we all did. He and The Sav were a little closer in age, and The Sav remembered a lot of the same places Henry did, so they'd bounce memories back and forth like verbal table tennis until The Sav was ready to leave for the afternoon. So it went for nearly seven years.

The Sunday that Henry didn't turn up was cause for concern amongst the staff. We worried that he had fallen ill, or that something bad had happened to him. We were unsure as to what to do, since we couldn't call him and had no idea where his apartment was located, and so we did nothing and waited to see if he turned up the following week. When he didn't, we took it upon ourselves to start calling around to all the beauty salons in town, hoping one of them would know him.

There are a lot of beauty salons in a city phonebook, and we called them all. Reynolds took A-K at the front register phone, and I took L-Z at the back phone. An afternoon's worth of phone calls later, no one we rang knew Henry. Puzzled, we abandoned our search and hoped for the best. When a third Sunday passed without Henry making an appearance, Phil went out to the bus stop and spoke to the driver, who, when given a description of Henry, knew where he usually embarked each week. The driver said he hadn't seen him in a few weeks and had wondered about the little man in the blue London Fog coat, but had shrugged it off. Once we learned where Henry got on the bus, we could narrow our search. Since we’d already tried all the salons in the Yellow Pages to no avail, we started calling everything in the Business White Pages that was in the vicinity of Henry's bus stop and sounded vaguely like it might be a beauty parlor. I can't help but look back on this seemingly hopeless venture and think about how much quicker it would have been to pinpoint the salon with the help of the internet, but we didn't have that luxury yet. And so we called dozens of businesses, hoping against hope that one of those numbers would come up trumps.

And it did, but it was too late. In her broad, flat upper Michigan accent, shop owner Shirley recounted that Henry had collapsed and died at home from a brain aneurism just a few days after his last visit to our shop. She told us through tears that his brother, Henry's only known relative, hadn't even bothered to come back to claim the body. He made arrangements over the phone and had Henry laid to rest next to his parents, without fanfare, and had a cleaning company go in to Henry's apartment a few days later to clear it out. Everything had been thrown away: clothing, photo albums, yearbooks, scrapbooks, and of course, his beloved record player and 7" singles.

Much has changed since Henry passed away, and The Record Store no longer exists. But the power of a song can elicit long dormant memories. And sometimes when I am transported back to those halcyon days, I think of Henry.

And I understand.