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.

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