Leo’s Story: Downwardly Mobile

The grizzled, wiry guy on the bicycle waited for the light to change.  He was decked out like any long-distance road cyclist: helmet with rear-view mirror, gloves, cycling togs, panniers, plastic kid’s beach pail…the light changed, and I was off, leaving him to pedal wherever his wheels carried him.

I loaded up the big machines in the laundromat in the little town on the Oregon coast.  Laundry time happens every two weeks for me.  I’d rather do a bunch at once and get it over with.

And here comes my bicyclist!  Looks like he’s doing laundry too.  He needs change, but the change machine doesn’t like his crumpled dollar bills.  He’s off to McDonald’s to buy lunch and get some change.  Would I watch his stuff?  Sure.  I’ll be here for another hour.

He returns indignant: McDonald’s is so expensive!  He likes to go to Burger King because they have these pancakes for $1.89, and if he buys two that will carry him through the whole day…wait, says my brain.  This is not adding up.

I take a closer look.

His clothes are the clothes of a long-distance cyclist…but they’re old and frayed, and he’s wearing multiple layers that look kind of….permanent.  The shoes had been expensive, in their day.  The gear–his tent, sleeping bag, panniers–had seen a lot of time and weather.  What’s his story?

But look at him, he’s pale and shaking from hunger!

“Hey man, you want a quesadilla?” I volunteer.  His eyes popped.

“Yes, I’d love one!”

“Fine, why don’t you get your laundry started, and I’ll yell when it’s ready.”

I made two, loaded with cheese and avocado.  I love to feed people!

I handed Leo, for that is his name, a paper plate of food.  He inhaled it.  Color entered his face.

Time for me to put my things in the dryer and find out what was up with Leo.  One of the fun parts about living on the road is that I meet so many people with interesting stories!

From the get-go, it was clear that there was more to Leo than met the eye.  ADHD for starters!  A brilliant mind, but no solidity.  Mercurial, is the word that presented itself.  He was all over the place.

But I knew he had a story to tell.  I wanted to sit down with him and listen, if he wanted to tell it.  And he wanted to tell it, very much!  

His present strategy for survival, which got him through the terrible winter of 2016-17, is to use $5 a night of his $575/month Social Security check to camp in one of several State Parks along his route on the Coastal Highway of Oregon.  That way he can put up his tent, use the restrooms, and even get a shower if he has enough quarters (25¢ a minute for a shower).  The Visitors’ Centers have free hot coffee, and sometimes a fire in the fireplace.

I arranged to camp in my van at his destination park for the night.  We would meet for coffee in the morning, and he would tell me his story.

He found my campsite that evening.  Immediately he picked up on the guitar case that occupies my passenger seat.  I explained that it’s actually a giant ukulele, but since my left wrist is trashed, I can’t play it.

“When I was four years old,” he began eagerly, “I guess I drove my dad nuts bouncing around, so he handed me a ukulele, and that…just…did it for me.  I never did anything else in my life but play that ukulele, and later on the guitar.  I was playing in stage jazz bands before I was twelve.”

Somehow I didn’t think he was bullshitting.  I handed him the four-string guitar.  He sat down, looking again like a starving man, made some apology for his fingers being soft, and wrapped his hand around the guitar’s neck…

Jazz came out.  Really truly hot jazz, like that guitar was meant to play!

“Leo!  Man, you’re great!  What happened?  How come you’re not playing?”

He was riding his bike in downtown Portland, in the rain, and a near-miss with a car door catapulted him off his bike.  He made a one-point landing on his left hand….no fractures, but he damaged soft tissue, ligaments and such, and his hand has never worked the same since.

Weird, I thought.  My left hand has been through all kinds of soft tissue hell, too.  I can relate.

The day was drawing to a misty Oregon Coast close.  We strolled down to the creek that made its last tumbling rush to the ocean passing under a viaduct that held up Highway 101.  A soggy wind blew clouds of salty damp off the Pacific and into our hair and lungs.  We found shelter behind a bridge piling.

There Leo told me about his life.  He had married late, after a long run of playing professionally.  He had a daughter whom he adored.  He had stayed home, kept house, taken care of his daughter.

“I was the primary caretaker,” he said, and his eyes flipped through changes like mood rings.  I waited to hear the story.

His wife had gone into a professional field.  They bought a home in Upstate New York.  Life was good…except….his wife began to develop some disturbing behaviors toward his daughter.  I’m not going to reveal those, for the sake of preserving confidentiality; but I will say that although it would be difficult to hang the term “abusive” on them, they certainly push those boundaries.

These and other behaviors led to a constant state of tension.  He wanted them to go to couples counseling; she refused, so he went by himself.

One day she demanded a divorce.  He didn’t want to leave his daughter, but in order to save her from an ongoing ugly scene, he moved out.

Leo’s learning disorder kept him from going to college.  But he was playing in jazz orchestras again most nights, and made enough to keep himself.

After a few years his mother got sick, and Leo moved in with her.  He cared for her until her death just a couple of years ago.  She left him $30,000, half of which he gave to his daughter, who is now grown.  With the other half, he moved to the West Coast, hoping to start over.  He was playing in a jazz combo in Portland when he injured his hand.  He’d banked his inheritance, which he hoped not to touch.

Leo decided to move to Eugene, as he knew some people there.  He couch surfed for months, searching for work, until his comfort level with couch surfing wore out and he began to hunt for an apartment.  That was when he ran into the catch-22.

The apartment managers refused to rent to someone without a job, even though he had his grub stake of $15,000 that he’d carefully preserved.

Employers, on the other hand, demanded a permanent address.  

Leo went around and around like that, trying to find an apartment that would take him without a job, and a job that would take him without an apartment.  

He used up most of his money paying for cheap motel rooms.  Then he bought a tent and moved outside.

He spent all of last winter, with its record rainfall, pedaling from one Oregon Coast State Park to another.  There’s a 3 night stay limit, instituted by the State Parks so that they don’t become fixed homeless encampments: every three days he must pack up and move to one of the other State Parks along a 20 mile stretch of the Coastal Highway.  He doesn’t want to be associated with the homeless that live outside just anywhere.  

Darkness and silence descended, broken on occasion by groups of rowdy teens galloping back and forth under the bridge.

“If you could give someone advice, someone who was in the position you were in, when you were still kind of housed but knew you were headed toward homelessness, what would you tell them?”  I don’t know exactly why that question came into my head; it popped out, and I waited as he collected his thoughts.

“I’d tell them, don’t wait till your money is all gone before you move outside.”

A Cautionary Tail

Donald started sitting in with our band.  At first I was pissed because everything about him was sloppy, including his guitar playing.  He banged away with abandon, juking his head around like a rocker.  We played Irish music, not rock. 

I knew J.J. wouldn’t let just anybody into the band, so I didn’t say anything.  Saying something might lead to several days of stony silence from J.J., which I both resented and feared.

After a few practice sessions it dawned on me: Donald’s wild thrashing was nevertheless in tune and on time.  He provided the solid backbeat the gave our other guitarist, Dave, the room to solo. 

Dave was a respectable flat-picker. 
He also brewed killer ale.  Brewing back then was not the snobbish high tech fad that it is today.

In the ’70’s beer was made the regular way, with a largish ceramic crock, some water, canned hopped malt, regular beer yeast, and a layer of cheesecloth tied over the top to prevent wild yeast, bacteria, mice, and small children from getting in.

Once the beer began to “work,” making a disgusting cap of brownish foam on the top, caring for it became a collective labor among the residents of the house.  Whoever happened to walk by the crock, if there happened to be scum on top, he skimmed it.

But this is not a mere diversion.  The beer was what brought Donald in the first place.  It was at one of the delirious parties at Jacob’s.  Through a thick haze of Morgan’s Ale, his guitar playing seemed outrageous and just the thing.

Once J.J. brought him home to practice, it seemed like a done deal.

Only thing was, he was always doing disgusting things, like eating his boogers.  Jeezis, I cannot stand that type of thing.  If I were the vomiting type, there would have been even more of a mess.

How relieved I was when Donald announced he was going to Ireland to learn to play the concertina!  Thanks to all that is divine!

The night before he was to fly to Ireland, I am sorry to say, he came over to light farts with J.J. 

The Morgan’s Ale was flowing, and the two of them were in hysterics, making torches out of their asses.  I went upstairs to hide.

Suddenly violent screams burst out downstairs.  I ran down to see what the emergency was, and cheeses k. reist if Donald didn’t try to one-up J.J. by taking off his underwear! 

Now Donald had–HAD–a very hairy ass, which went up like a torch when ignited by his gas jet.  He received bad burns to his delicate parts. We transported him to the small town hospital in the back of the car, face-down, butt-naked on top of the sofa cushions.

He couldn’t change his plane ticket, so after his convalescence he booked a flight to Newfoundland.  I secretly snickered at that.  I lived in Maine for a few years.  One of the great Maine forms of entertainment was to trade Newfie jokes, like this one:

“If there are two kids playing in a sandbox, and one of em’s a Newfie, how do you know which one?”

“I don’t know, how?”

“It’s the one the cat’s trying to cover up…”

Both: “HAHAHAHAHAHA!”

Well.

The moral is, if you’re going to light farts, keep your underwear on.

You’re probably wondering what ever did happen to Donald.

He enjoyed New Foundland so tremendously that he went for a hike in the interior, failing to bring with him any water, map, compass, or any other of the Ten Essentials.  Of course he got lost, was not found for several days. After an extensive search, he was discovered, dehydrated, hungry, and hypothermic.  It gets cold at night above the Arctic Circle.

We received letters from Donald (letters!) every few weeks.  Then the letters stopped.  In a very brief and scratchy transatlantic telephone conversation, Donald related how, by the time he recovered from his case of exposure, the sea ice had locked Newfoundland in.  No ships could get out or in.   Airplanes weren’t flying; it was too cold.  He would be back in the Spring.

Spring came, and no Donald.  Married a Newfie girl, gonna have a little Newfie of their own!

All’s well that ends well.

Just remember what I told you…

Oh The Wind And The Rain

Two little girls in a boat one day

Oh the wind and the rain

Two little girls in a boat one day

Crying oh, the stormy wind and the rain

There are tens, if not hundreds, of versions of the song cycle “The Cruel Sister.”  This is the first verse of one version that I heard from Debby Saperstone, I think.  We were a duo back in “the day,” in and around 1976.  We sang and played in coffeehouses all over the Boston area.  She had an angelic voice, and knew all sorts of interesting variations on traditional British Isles songs.

The basic story of “The Cruel Sister” is that one of the sisters is being courted by a handsome suitor, and the other is jealous.  She lures her sister to the North Sea Shore and pushes her in.  In the above version, the unfortunate sister begs for help, promising the cruel one all of her possessions, and the cruel one pretends to extend an oar to help her, but instead pushes her farther in.

Then the poor drowning sister floats by a miller’s dam (how she got from the North Sea into the river is not explained) and the miller pulls her out, ravages her, take her gold ring, and throws her back in.  Poor girl!

The next scene is two musicians walking on the strand, who see the maiden float to land.  They make fiddle pegs of her little finger bones, oh the wind and the rain.  They make fiddle strings of her long yellow hair, crying oh, the stormy wind and the rain.  And the only song that it ever would play is Oh, the wind and the rain; the only song that it ever would play: crying oh, the stormy wind and the rain….

The power just came back on, after a few attempts that ended in darkness again.  That’s OK.  I have plenty of candles and a warm fuzzy dog cuddled up on my right side, where she always comes to rest.

Outside it is all stormy wind and rain.  Tree limbs are down everywhere, and the river is a-rahrin’ as they would say around here.  Hit’s a-wutherin’ ahtsahd.

Whar Ah’m a-livin’, ever-body yused’ta tawk lahk thees.  Sum on ’em steel dew.  Ah ruther lahk hit m’seln, but hit’s hard own hem Yankee fowks ta ken it, tahms.

It’s my mother’s birthday.  My dad and I took her to the Japanese-Chinese-Fakese restaurant on Upper Street.  There are two main streets in Spruce Pine:  Upper Street and Lower Street.  So we’re in this restaurant, and at the next table was a family with two adorable little girls, chattering away in a language that they knew to be English, but I wouldn’t have called it that.  Hit was about lahk whut I writ uh-buv.

The reason for this interesting regional accent is that until the 1940’s more or less, the region was completely isolated from the rest of the country.  It had been settled by Elizabethan English, along with a few Scots and Irish, and when the Civil War came along in the mid-1800s they wanted no part of it and fled deep into the hollers (hollows).  The language took its own course and developed into a distinctive dialect.  With the ingress of roads and transportation other than mules, and the invasion of television and now the Internet, the dialect is being fairly rapidly washed out.  But as I heard tonight, it’s still alive and pretty much unintelligible in some parts.

When I first started coming to these mountains in the ’70’s there were many singers and storytellers among the old folks.  Not one of them had any teeth.  There was one champion storyteller, whose name I can’t remember right now, who kept a pair of false teeth in his shirt pocket in case he wanted to play the harmonica.  I guess the harmonica is hard to play without teeth.  After he was done with the harmonica, why, he took his teeth back out and put them back in his shirt pocket.

My dear old friend, mentor, and teacher Tommy J. Jarrell, kept his teeth in his mouth except when he wanted to eat, and then he took them out.  I’ll tell you more about him in another post.  He deserves his own–with music.

Well, the wind and rain have settled down, and it’s time for me to settle down too.  I’ve got a nasty cough, probably got into some dust and riled up my asthma.  It’s time to have a visit with my next-to-last bottle of Arak–the universal Middle Eastern fire-water–will somebody pleeeeeeze send me some more–hit’s good medicine, hit is.