After our thrilling week at Cliff Bell’s, I hung around suburban Detroit for a couple more days of solo workshops in Shelby Township and Bloomfield Hills. Then caught up on business, did a little laundry, ran a few errands, and rewarded myself with a few favorite gastronomic guilty pleasures: White Castle, Timmy Ho's, and Great Lakes Pasties. Always remember The Anschell Principle, kids: road calories don’t count!
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After coaching the Bloomfield Hills jazzers, I met up with my band for a 4-night run at one of our favorite venues: the historic Cliff Bell’s in Detroit! We made lots of new friends, and our pianist even got to play Stevie Wonder’s Rhodes! Among the extramusical highlights: walking in Palmer Park, visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts, and enjoying Mama Lisa’s home cooking. Excelsior!
Made it to the mitten to find the fall colors in full effect! First order of business: a Steak & Shake burger!
Summer showers again last night as I slumbered, cozy and warm, under the covers. #vanlife
Woke up to the welcome aroma of freshly brewed coffee, then explored the forested hills around my campsite.
Nature walks really aren’t the same without the company of my canine companion (Scout stayed home this time), but at least I have the voice of Daddy Bill in my mind’s ear, narrating, identifying all the birds and plants!
Played some long tones over the water at sunset. It’s good to get away and recharge.
The writing plan, however, has been a bust so far — more “posing” than “composing,” sadly.
Nothing but false starts, insincere, derivative melodies, and ostensibly original ideas that lead nowhere.
Oh, well. Not giving up. Fail better tomorrow!
Today’s meal: mango salad with prawns and peanuts and a sensational rainbow roll.
Tonight’s entertainment: a download of Blade Runner, an enduring favorite.
Even fired up the propane heater for a little extra warmth and atmosphere.
I do love a rainy night.
Traveled 300 miles today from Arden-Arcade to Ashland.
California, I miss you already, but I’ll be back again in the spring. Try not to burn up or fall into the ocean before then, m’kay?
Paused for the cause in the resilient town of Weed. Happy to report that both the Mill and Mountain wildfires have been contained, power is restored, and our friends at the Hi-Lo are back in business, serving up the very best pie a la road!
Crossing into Oregon I swear I could feel the seasons change from summer to fall!
Found a sweet parking spot (#MattFoleyForever) and spent some time with Darrell Grant’s tunes in preparation for tomorrow’s show in Ashland.
Nice work if you can get it.
Said goodbye to Sunset Beach this morning and headed down to Monterey.
Listening to NPR on the drive, I heard the news that Ramsey Lewis has died.
It seems like we lose another hero every few days, but this one hits hard.
30 years ago in May of ’84, Ramsey Lewis came to Interlochen Arts Academy for a performance with our studio orchestra. I was a senior in high school and he was the first “big name” jazz musician I’d ever met.
He made a huge impression. I was blown away by his infectiously joyful performance and his extreme generosity toward me and the other student soloists.
It couldn’t have been very rewarding for him, sharing the stage with a bunch of teenage amateurs, but I can still see his thousand-watt smile, still hear his howls of approval, as we launched into “The ’In’ Crowd” and “Hang On Sloopy” — big Ramsey Lewis hits from the year we were all born!
After the concert Mr. Lewis took the time to speak with each of us individually, encouraging us to pursue our dreams. Yes, he did. And we did.
After that I began checking out his discography in the listening library, beginning with Upendo Ni Pamoja, the album recommended by my classmate Frayne Lewis, Ramsey’s son.
Later I discovered Mr. Lewis' collaborations with Maurice White and members of Earth, Wind & Fire, one of my all time favorite bands, and I was hooked.
I suppose it’s no coincidence that tonight it will be my privilege to work with Leon Joyce, Jr., a longtime member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
Or that this weekend in Ashland, Oregon, Darrell Grant and I will play Mr. Lewis’ theme song, the spiritual “Wade In The Water” — a staple of our repertoire for 25 years.
Ramsey Lewis was far more than a Grammy-winning, chart-topping jazz and pop star. He was a true Gentleman of Jazz, the kind of Great Man that Kipling wrote about, who walked with kings but never lost the common touch.
Mr. Lewis proved you can be both a serious artist and a crowd-pleasing entertainer. His worldwide reach and influence as a performer, educator, broadcaster, and recording artist, is profound, deep and lasting.
He was called, he served, he counted.
His legacy is secure.
Logged 147 miles this weekend traveling back and forth from my base camp, a bucolic farm in Fairfield, to the bustling cities of San Francisco and Oakland.
Friday's venue was Bird & Beckett, a cozy Glen Park (SF) indie bookstore that hosts live jazz every weekend. Eric, the owner, is so hip that he named his shop for Samuel Beckett and Charlie Parker!
Saturday was the Sound Room Oakland, my favorite music venue in Northern California (and I've played them all). Proprietors Karen and Robert just do everything right, and the sound engineer Carey is top notch.
Although the band had no opportunity to rehearse, everyone did their homework, listened to the album, prepared their individual parts, and showed up ready to play. We had a ball! Both performances went spectacularly, quite gratifying when performing for the hometown crowd.
Our drummer Deszon played especially well, later commenting that perhaps it's so easy for us to connect because we’ve known each other half our lives, playing together in different configurations for over 30 years!
Between gigs I had a little free time in San Francisco, so I took a stroll down memory lane (aka Clement Street) and visited a few of my old haunts from back in the nineties.
Surprisingly little has changed!
It’s comforting to know you can still pair a steamed pork bun from Wing Lee with a latte from Blue Danube, grab a slice from Georgio’s, or lose yourself in the stacks at Green Apple books.
And it’s reassuring that the battalion of dusty Ultraman action figures still stands sentry, presiding over the Toy Boat gelato counter, silently awaiting your next visit.
It’s thrilling to return to road life, dodging fires, floods, and viruses to share our music with the people.
Seriously, some of these AP photos along I-5 look like something straight out of a Mad Max movie, so we’re mapping a couple of alternate routes south just in case.
Today I'm grateful for the wise Minnie Pearl, who said it best:
“Take the back roads instead of the highways.”
Scout and I spent yesterday at The Klub in Glen Ellen, the exclusive wine country getaway expertly owned and managed by our dear friends Rocket, Peaches, Jasper, and Wilson. It was our first grand reunion since the beginning of the damndemic. So good.
Today I coached the San Mateo High School jazz band while Scout visited the groomer. The jazz kids were engaged, focused, and inspiring, a credit to Maestro Til, the head coach. The pup emerged from the beauty parlor looking (and smelling!) more fabulous than ever.
Tonight it’s long tones in the mobile practice room (big show tomorrow), and if we aren’t too tired, a movie before bed, preferably one that isn’t too stressful, without dogs barking in the audio track of every establishing shot.
Funny how ubiquitous those movie dogs have become. There’s one particularly distressing bark they use over and over, like the Wilhelm Scream. Let me tell you, Scout is not a fan! So we’ll do our level best to find something hopeful and barkless to send us off to dreamland.
“Beware the Court of Owls, that watches all the time,
Ruling from a shadow perch, behind granite and lime.”
When Mr. Higgins told me how the Owl Club boasts many prominent artists and musicians among its members, I was skeptical.
I figured there are probably a small number of movie actors and rock stars sprinkled among their highfalutin order. I imagined that any artist members would have to be the type of mainstream celebrities that impress rich people and share their classist, politically conservative views. Even the pedigree of someone like Gordon Fleecing (British, famous) fit with my assumptions about this not-so-secret society.
But learning that Sweets — one of my personal heroes! — was a member? This blew my mind.
Because Sweets is not some rich white guy, mind you, but an African-American gentleman of modest means. Not a business mogul but a retired school teacher. Not a celebrity so much as a master craftsman, highly respected among our peers in the community of musicians. Hard-working. Dignified. Sincere. Real.
For all my trepidation about this club and groups in general, I must admit that his involvement intrigued me.
It’s springtime in San Francisco, and another typical workday in my three-ring circus of a life. Morning at the festival office dealing with demanding sponsors. Afternoon at the record company dealing with complacent distributors. Evening on the bandstand dealing with this unforgiving horn.
The plates never stop spinning and I always feel as if I’m neglecting something or someone somewhere. But tonight brings a welcome pause in the routine. After our show an audience member approaches the stage and offers to buy me a drink.
His name is Gregory. He’s a guitarist. We barely know one another, yet he speaks to me with the warm familiarity of an old friend. He asks how I’ve been, inquires about my wife and family, and shares some intimate personal details of his own.
Delighted to have made a new friend, I sip my single malt as we sit together, chatting amiably until the lights come up and the club empties out. In the parking lot Gregory hands me a small envelope.
“We're having a party in the city tomorrow,” he says. “You should come.”
As he drives away I open the envelope. Inside is a thick card embossed with raised lettering: Cocktails In The Cartoon Room.
I’ve never heard of the place, and there’s no address on the invitation, but in the lower righthand corner is the now familiar telltale symbol: the Owl of Athena.
Well I’ll be damned.
The Cartoon Room, it turns out, is no place for introverts like me.
I’ve been here before. This massive barroom, with its chaotic jumble of paintings and posters, was overwhelming on my first visit, but tonight the place is packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, with glad-handing, back-slapping, martini-swilling men, all laughing and shouting over the sounds of big band jazz.
I scan the room for Gregory (no luck) then jostle my way through the crowd and up to the long redwood bar. Before I can utter a word the bartender casually greets me by name.
“Mr. Matheny. So glad you could make it.” He pushes a tumbler of amber liquid across the counter. “Lagavulin, neat, yes?” A stranger who knows my name and my drink. What sorcery is this?
I'm about three fingers in when the far wall slides open to reveal a 25-piece swing orchestra in mid-shout chorus, capped off by a tasty trumpet solo from none other than Sweets Allen. The room erupts into boisterous applause.
How wonderful! I assumed the music was piped-in, but it’s live, and excellent. I recognize several of the musicians. Are they all members, I wonder, or hired help?
I want to pay my respects to Sweets and the other musicians, but I’m unable to get to them through the throng. The place is a madhouse. The guy who invited me isn’t here. The whole situation feels peculiar, like I’m supposed to do something, but I don’t for the life of me know what it is. So I stay about an hour, making awkward small talk with strangers, until the claustrophobia kicks in and the crowd becomes too much to bear.
As I cross the Bay Bridge home I ponder my perplexing experience in the parliament of owls.
“I felt like Alice going through the looking-glass,” I confess to my wife over dinner.
“They were clearly expecting me but nobody said anything.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Maybe it was some kind of test.”
“If so,” I reply, “Then I most definitely failed.”
We'll be back again in April with
THE OWL CLUB PART 6:
INTO THE WOODS!
“I hide in plain sight.
Same as you.”
I’m not a superstitious person by nature, but I was raised in the south where even educated folks recognize the power of signs and omens. Charlie’s gift of a tiny silver owl felt like such a signifier to me: a talisman of unknown provenance and portent.
I began to carry the mysterious little figurine in my pocket, where it would gently jingle against my mouthpiece and pocket change as I walked. I carried it everywhere, like a good luck charm, and it seemed to be working. Within a few short years I’d established myself in San Francisco as a working musician, and had sold enough sponsorships to increase our jazz festival budget ten fold.
In hindsight, this was during the tech boom of the early 1990s. Gigs were plentiful then because there were so many gainfully employed young people looking for a night out, and donations were up, too. The dot com bubble was expanding, the stock market was booming, and corporate support for the arts was ascendant. Bay Area businesses needed somewhere to park all that extra cash. Why not a nonprofit that offers exciting social events and a tax write off? It was an easy sell.
I didn’t have that perspective at the time, however. Naively I thought I’d cracked the code! I felt powerful, like a double agent: professional jazz musician by night, hot shot sponsorship salesman by day. Oblivious to the unseen economic forces that conspired to pave my way, I credited my own skill and hustle, with perhaps just a little bit of secret “owl luck” thrown in for good measure.
Over time my magical thinking grew deeper, abetted by echoes. Not only was I carrying the owl totem in my pocket, but I also began to notice similar statuettes in the executive offices of prospective sponsors.
I would be in mid-pitch, sitting across from some corporate mucky-muck, when I would look over at the shelf behind them, and there it would be: another owl statue. I never said anything, but on more than one occasion I sensed a subtle nod or look of acknowledgment when I spied the owl.
Like, I saw it. They saw me see it. Now what?
It’s Tuesday night in San Francisco, and I don’t have a gig of my own, so I’m headed over to Sonny’s Place in North Beach to hear the incomparable flugelhornist Sweets Allen.
For true fans of lyrical swing, it gets no better than Sweets and his honey-toned horn. He’s the real deal, a veteran soloist from the bands of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Tony Bennett. Now in his 70s, Sweets is one of San Francisco’s most beloved musicians and one of the last great gentleman of jazz.
For me, Tuesdays at Sonny’s are like graduate school. I rarely miss the chance to attend one of these weekly masterclasses.
Tonight Sweets is really living up to his name. His improvised lines are powerfully simple, pure, soulful, logical, and undeniably joyful. The warmth of his sound and the smile on his face combine to lift the spirits of everyone in the club.
On the break I motion for him to join me at my table. Like my father, Sweets is a former school teacher, a wise elder who doesn’t mind sharing his accumulated knowledge. He patiently answers all my questions about music and life.
“The main thing is to tell a story,” he advises, tapping his finger on the table for emphasis. “But it’s not like reciting a poem or singing a song. It’s got to be your story.”
“Just be real,” he adds, “and never let the naysayers get you down. They’re everywhere, so keep your head on a swivel.”
“Like an owl,” I say quietly.
“Precisely,” he smiles, standing.
“Which reminds me,” he adds before returning to the bandstand.
“A little birdie told me you may be joining us.”
“Open your minds, my friends.
We all fear what we do not understand.”
Charlie Higgins leads me by the arm into a space entirely unlike the rest of this mysterious fortress.
The dining room is sunny, warm, and elbow-to-elbow with convivial groups of men in business attire, eating, drinking, talking and laughing.
“This is us,” Charlie says as we approach a corner table where a couple of seated gentlemen rise to greet us. “Let me introduce you to two of the original hep cats, Walt Connor and Will Cooley. Gentlemen, this is Dmitri Matheny.” We all shake hands and sit down together.
At each place setting a single card embossed with the now familiar OC logo offers a simple selection of steak, seafood, sandwiches, and salads. I’m delighted. Since moving to San Francisco from Boston a few years ago I’ve enjoyed a steady diet of international and vegetarian fare. I’ve even learned to appreciate California cuisine with its requisite avocado, pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes. But I was raised on American comfort food from cafeterias and diners. This is my kind of menu.
Nevertheless, I decide to order something I’ve never tried before, a Crab Louie Salad. Based on the name, I’m fairly certain that I will enjoy at least two thirds of it.
Over lunch, Charlie cheerfully embodies his role as table host, guiding the conversation so as to include everyone. In spite of our difference in age (I’m in my late 20s and they’re all in their 60s) we all get along swimmingly.
Curiously, no one discusses business. Charlie, the candy magnate, talks about his experience as a paratrooper in World War II. Will, a Southern California real estate developer, holds forth about Stan Getz and his involvement in the committee for jazz at Stanford University. Walt, an author and photographer (who may or may not also be heir to a large national department store fortune) speaks with authority about the forgotten history of jazz on the Barbary Coast. I mostly listen, fascinated by these wise old owls.
As coffee is served, Charlie casually turns the conversation to the unique history and ethos of the Owl Club. Unlike other quote-unquote secret societies and fraternal organizations, Charlie explains, we aren't centered around a particular industry, sport, or school, but a common interest in nature and the arts.
“Our membership roster includes not only prominent businessmen and CEOs,” Charlie says proudly, “but writers, journalists, military heroes, politicians, global leaders, and many well-known artists and musicians.”
I'm intrigued. “But no women?”
Charlie smiles. “You know, a hundred twenty years ago when this club was founded, men tended to stay in their unhappy marriages. They needed clubs like this as an escape. Of course these days, if you aren’t happily married, you get a divorce. That’s why so many of our happily married members are now requesting more events to which they can bring their spouses.”
Taking this as my cue, I pull the glossy jazz festival sponsorship brochure from my breast pocket and lay it on the table. I’m just about to begin my pitch when Charlie interrupts me, raising his hand and saying, “no-no-no, not here.” A red-vested waiter immediately approaches to ask that I “kindly put away the literature.”
“I’m sorry, I thought …” I stammer, befuddled.
“We can discuss all that later,” Charlie replies magnanimously.
At precisely this moment, as if responding to a silent alarm, everyone stands to say their goodbyes. I stand too, shaking hands with Will and Walt, who leave together.
Charlie places his arm around my shoulder and ushers me back through the grand foyer, past the empty bar with its mad jumble of framed art, to the dark alcove where I first entered the building. It looks somehow different to me now. Less off-putting. More cozy.
“What a pleasure,” I say. “Thanks for lunch.”
“Ah! I almost forgot!” Charlie replies, reaching into his pocket. He retrieves a small box, about 4 inches in diameter, wrapped in white paper. “This is for you.”
On my way back to the jazz office, I stop by the piano bar at Kuleto’s, my favorite Union Square watering hole. I find a seat by the fireplace and order a bourbon, neat, feeling not unlike a noir detective at the beginning of a perplexing new case.
I unwrap the mysterious gift box, genuinely curious what I will find inside.
Perhaps some chocolate truffles from Charlie's candy company? But no.
I place the heavy totem onto the table in front of me and study it.
No card, no explanation.
Just a tiny silver owl.
“Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg'd spinners, hence!
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail, do no offence.”
The Owl Club’s downtown headquarters, a stately ivy-covered red brick building off Union Square, turns out to be just a short walk from our jazz festival offices south of Market.
I’m curious, of course, why Charlie Higgins invited me here, but truth be told I have my own agenda. Based on the Fleecing concert, many of our city’s business leaders and arts patrons are apparently members of this club. In fundraising parlance, this place could be what’s known as a “happy hunting ground.”
I stand before the club entrance and study the large bronze plaque beside the door. It’s a Great Horned Owl in bas relief, its wings outstretched. In welcome or warning? I wonder.
I open the heavy wooden door and enter the dark chamber. It's drafty and deserted, with no signs of life other than the warm glow of a single unattended fireplace along one wall. Am I early? Guess I’ll have a look around.
From the grand foyer with its high vaulted ceilings, I take in the antique lighting fixtures, wood paneled walls, tall shelves of leather bound books, and low mahogany tables surrounded by clusters of empty armchairs. Down a quiet hallway I find sitting rooms and salons, meeting rooms, galleries, a music library, even a small theater, but no dining room and no people. Not a living soul.
Across the hall is a beautiful redwood cocktail bar, also unoccupied, yet entirely overpopulated with visual art in what can only be described as a surreal assault on the senses. The walls of this room are literally covered, floor to ceiling, with a chaotic jumble of ancient oils, sylvan landscapes, faded portraits, sepia photographs, and dozens of hand-painted event posters, all of them adorned with whimsical cartoons and carnival words. Carefree! Frolic! Hi-jinks! It’s dizzying.
I pick up a bar napkin to wipe my brow and notice the logo: it’s the Owl of Athena in profile flanked by the initials O and C. This is definitely the place, so where the hell is everybody? I feel like that guy in The Twilight Zone, only instead of wandering solo through Mayberry I’ve somehow stumbled into a haunted saloon or abandoned hotel.
But am I really alone? Because I feel like I’m being watched.
That’s when it hits me. I realize with a shudder that all around me, looking at me from every corner, are the eyes of owls. Owls staring from every shelf, peering out from the paintings and posters, glaring down from a stained glass window. Owl faces printed on the wallpaper, carved into the wainscoting, even woven into the very carpet beneath my feet.
Most unsettling of all is the large bronze owl shape directly in front of me. It has no face at all, just a blunt featureless void, giving the impression of both a very modern abstract sculpture and an ancient idol of the pagan underworld.
“Beautiful creatures,” intones the familiar voice of my host, suddenly standing right next to me.
“Fierce hunters, too,” he goes on. “They can swallow their prey whole, bones and all. I’ve seen it!”
“You sound hungry, Chuck” I say.
“Let’s eat,” he replies.
Well my friends, it may take several years before we can return to pre-pandemic levels of activity. But little-by-little we’re getting back to business, ever grateful for the clients, customers, friends and fans who sustain us. This year we:
staged 81 concerts and events
welcomed 75 generous album backers
published 50 memoir blog posts
gave 23 private lessons
conducted 19 workshops
collected 12 vintage treasures
recorded 10 songs
headlined 9 festivals
bottled 8 jars of homemade hot sauce
completed 7 new compositions
played 5 live stream shows
traversed 4 western states
received 3 doses of DollyVax
hosted 2 brilliant visiting artists
rescued 1 precious puppy
and consumed 2197 hours of television (sigh).
Here’s to a happier, healthier, and more productive 2022.
Onward and upward!
“The more we share, the more we have.”
Early autumn, 1972. Rural Alabama. Late afternoon.
Daddy Bill and I are winding our way home in our muddy station wagon. We’re in high spirits, both of us having just spent several gratifying hours, each in our respective happy place.
Since dawn Dad has been wading through the saltwater marshes of Eufaula Wildlife Refuge, beating back cattails, stepping over gators, peering through his binoculars at shorebirds and raptors. Meanwhile I’ve been hunkering down in the backseat, oblivious to flora and fauna, blissfully engrossed in a new fistful of Green Lanterns, fresh off the spinner.
I know, I know. Daddy Bill isn’t likely to be voted Parent of the Year anytime soon. He thinks it’s a good idea to leave his seven-year-old kid alone for hours, in a parked car, in the middle of nowhere. But what can I say? This is how we live.
We relish our solitary pursuits then share our stories over catfish and okra at Bram's Diner. Dad holds forth on kingfishers, kestrels, sandpipers and snipes. I recount the latest exploits of hard traveling heroes Ollie and Hal. And so it goes.
After supper I’m riding shotgun and fiddling with the radio dial as Daddy Bill pilots our wagon homeward. Just before the Georgia line, as Paul Harvey is about to tell us “the rest of the story” -- BAM! A sudden jolt. A flash of white. The sound of crunching metal. Dad slams on the brakes as we skid along the red clay shoulder of the road. We lurch forward then slam backward again as a waterfall of broken glass cascades around us.
As soon as we tumble out of the car, we see him. There in the road, illuminated by our headlights, is the broken body of a very beautiful, very dead, white-tailed deer. The poor creature must have leapt right into us.
“You okay?” Daddy Bill asks.
“I think so.” I reply. “You?”
“Welp, I guess we’re both better off than he,” Dad says, nodding to the unfortunate young buck.
“Give me hand, will you?”
Pulling a tarp from the back of the wagon, we hoist the heavy carcass onto the roof and secure it with rope. Daddy Bill then turns on the emergency flashers and drives -- even more slowly than usual -- to the Columbus home of Coach Rutland. “Jim’s a hunter,” Dad explains. “He’ll know what to do.”
A few days later at Brookstone School, Mrs. Simmons calls to me in her sweet southern drawl.
“Deh-MAY-tray! What are you chewin’ back there?”
“Venison jerky, ma’am,” I confess.
“Bless your heart,” she smiles, “but it’s not polite to eat venison jerky in class unless you’ve brought enough to share with everybody.”
Fortunately I have plenty! More than enough to feed the multitude.
Roadkill. Sharing is caring.
“Truth is not only
stranger than fiction,
it is more interesting.”
—William Randolph Hearst
After the Tennessee trip I called my father.
“Did you know that Lela was serious about music when she was in high school? She performed in musical theater, was a soloist in the choir, and sang standards in talent shows around Chattanooga. You never thought to mention any of this to your son, the professional musician?”
Daddy Bill shrugged.
As fate would have it, Larissa and I divorced before ever having children, and I eventually lost interest in the mental and medical histories of my extended family. If crazy is in my genes, so be it.
But I remained curious about the length and depth of Lela’s relationship with music. When and how did she get her start? Did she continue to sing after high school? Is music still important to her? And does she know my work?
...now here's where the story really gets weird...
It’s 2008 on a rainy winter evening in San Francisco and I have insomnia. My South of Market loft is dark except for the glow of a single lamp and the faint flicker of a black and white movie on the tube. It’s Bogie and Bacall in a film I’ve seen many times. The volume is off but the images keep me company as I sip my scotch and surf the web.
As usual during these liminal moments between work and sleep, I start out with benign intentions (checking the weather forecast, perhaps, or looking up a recipe) but eventually my online meanderings devolve into mindless consumption of celebrity gossip.
I’m half in the bag when I notice that Marlowe is just about to enter the casino where Vivian Rutledge is singing. This is one of my favorite scenes, second only to Dorothy Malone in the bookshop, so I turn up the volume and listen.
And her tears flowed like wine,
Yes her tears flowed like wine.
She’s a real sad tomato,
She’s a busted valentine.
I dig Bacall’s relaxed, cool delivery and the meaningful looks she exchanges with Bogie. Something in her casual manner reminds me of Lela sitting atop that piano singing “The Man That Got Away.”
It’s been a while since I last searched for Lela online so I decide to give it another go. I plug every iteration of her name into the ancestry sites and search engines: Lela Ault (maiden name), Lela Matheny (married name), even Lela Conte (the name of her late husband), but no luck. I don’t know her precise age, social security number, where she lives, which last name she now uses, or even if she is still alive. My cyber-sleuthing has once again hit a dead end.
I’m about to give up entirely when I remember America McGee, the outlandish (and most likely imaginary) ancestor character from Lela’s shaggy dog stories back in ’79. On a lark I type that name into the search bar.
No joy, however, Google takes me to the Wikipedia page for American McGee, a video game designer. From there I bounce through various tech and gaming sites until I randomly arrive at Mr. Bill’s Adventureland, a multiplayer adventure game review site. By this point I've stopped looking for Lela; now I’m just aimlessly web surfing.
I’ve never been very interested in games of any kind, but for some reason I feel compelled to continue down this particular rabbit hole. I linger on the site for about an hour, reading all Mr. Bill’s reviews ... clicking, reading, then clicking again ... until I happen to land on the curious phrase “my wife Lela” — and I freeze.
I know that there are thousands of women named Lela all over the world. I’m well aware of this. But somehow, at this moment, I can just feel it in my bones: this is she.This one is my mother.
Without hesitating I click the contact button and write the following message: “Hi Mr. Bill, great website! I believe your wife Lela and I may know one another. Please give her my greetings. Sincerely, Dmitri Matheny.”
I hit send and immediately fall into a deep and dreamless sleep.
When I awaken a few hours later, I see this response from Mrs. Lela Horton in rural Michigan:
Dmitri, I can't believe it!
How on earth did you find me!!?
“It’s good to know where you come from.
It makes you what you are today.
It’s DNA. It’s in your blood.”
In 1984 I was at boarding school in Michigan when my father called from Arizona to tell me about a long-distance phone call he had received from my mother.
Her husband Tom had died after a prolonged bout with cancer. Now a widow in her forties, Lela was back in college studying to become a registered nurse. The reason (or pretense?) for her call was to ask for my social security number. Apparently she was updating her will and wanted to list me as beneficiary.
“But you know how Lela is,” Dad said. “According to her you stand to inherit a mountain top of all things! I promised I’d let you know … even though it’s probably horseshit.”
“Wait, where is she?” I asked my dad.
“Did you get an address? What’s her phone number?”
I already knew what he would say.
“Naw, I didn’t ask. Why do you care? She’s crazy!”
Same old stubborn Daddy Bill.
I didn’t press him. Ever since Lela’s Irish goodbye in '79, I’d grown increasingly ambivalent about her. I had many questions, but it was clear to me that they would never be answered by her or by my father.
A few years later just before my college graduation, Dad came to visit me in Boston. He’d recently divorced wife number four and he wanted to take me on a road trip.
We spent two weeks exploring New England, including one of his favorite birding spots, Mt. Desert Island off the coast of Maine. I would sit on the rocks for hours, playing my horn over the Atlantic, while Dad studied the flora and fauna of Acadia National Park.
Dmitri Matheny - Mt. Desert Island, Maine | Summer 1988
In the evenings we’d enjoy delicious seafood dinners in Bar Harbor before retiring to our hotel, where we’d crack open a Sam Adams and reminisce. Perhaps because I’d been away for several years at Interlochen and Berklee, Dad was uncharacteristically talkative, so I took the opportunity to steer our conversation to wife number two, hoping to learn a little more about their brief time together and my own origin story.
I noticed that if I asked Dad a direct question (“How did you and Lela meet?”) he would abruptly change the subject, but if I introduced the topic in a more oblique way (“Where did you live before I was born?”) he would begin to wax nostalgic and eventually would find his own way to Lela-land.
I’ve forgotten much of what Dad told me during these late night chin wags, but I do recall him saying that Lela was raised in Chattanooga, not by her parents but by “two old maid aunts in a big house with white columns.” Apparently Lela and several members of her family (the Aults) had experienced “nervous breakdowns” and were “taken to the nut house.” Dad also mentioned a schizophrenic and homeless uncle who was known to wander the streets naked. “Every year they’d find him, clean him up, get him dressed, and bring him to Thanksgiving Dinner,” Dad said, shaking his head, adding “that whole family was crazy.”
I didn’t give these accounts much credence, chalking them up to a combination of heartbreak, hearsay, and hyperbole, but a few years later, when I repeated these stories to my fiancée in California, she expressed concern. “It’s important for us to know the medical history on both sides of your family,” Larissa explained, “especially since we want kids of our own.”
I agreed, so Lara and I traveled to Tennessee on a Lela fact-finding mission. We didn’t learn much about the family but we did find out a few revelatory things about my mother's adolescence.
In the microfiche archives of the Chattanooga Public Library we found the obituary for Lela’s paternal grandmother and namesake, Lela Elizabeth Ault (born Bryson) 1878-1953.
Lela Bryson Ault
July 26, 1878
Dec 12, 1953
Since the article included an address for the Ault family home, we drove over to take a look and, sure enough, it was a big house with white columns, looking like something straight out of Gone With The Wind. We knocked on the door but no-one answered.
Returning to the library we discovered my mother’s Chattanooga High School yearbooks. What a find! In official school portraits between 1957 and 1960, we see Lela Ault transform from a cute, mischievous girl into a mature, sophisticated young woman right before our eyes.
Lela Ault - Chattanooga High School, Tennessee
(L-R) 1957-58, 1958-59, 1959-60
Her senior photo, in particular, is striking. There’s something deadly serious and almost defiant in her expression. At eighteen she already appears to be someone of substance, and the arts-centric bio blurb beneath the image supports this impression.
It turns out that Lela Ault was not only a visual artist in high school, but a prolific singer and performer as well. Who knew?! She sang in the choir and cantata, was a featured soloist in several student talent shows, and appeared in musical theater productions of Porgy & Bess, The Pajama Game and A Star Is Born. Moreover, as a member of the art service and specialty clubs, she was invited to perform off campus for various civic organizations around town.
Prior to this moment I had no idea that Lela was a music person. In media interviews, whenever I was asked if I came from a musical family, I always answered “not especially” and credited my father’s excellent record collection as the catalyst for my career in jazz. I was raised to believe that nurture, not nature, had set me on this path.
But here, in the pages of a midcentury high school yearbook, was new evidence that I could not ignore: photos of my biological mother on stage, five years before my birth, singing jazz standards by George Gershwin and Harold Arlen.
Lela Ault - Chattanooga High School, Tennessee | 1959-60
Singing "Summertime" and "The Man That Got Away"
A few days later we visited Daddy Bill's side of the family in Cookeville, Tullahoma, and Nashville.
“Did you know that Lela was a singer?” I asked my Aunt Maxine.
“Oh, she had a lovely voice,” she replied. “We all thought so.”
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
a long, long way from home.”
When I was a kid in Tennessee and Georgia I knew very little about my mother.
I knew her name. “Lela Matheny” was written in ballpoint pen on the inside cover of all our books. I knew she was a talented artist, too. We had several of her framed oil paintings hanging on our walls. And I knew she was movie-star beautiful. Although Dad was reluctant to speak of Lela, he did give me a single photo of her which I treasured and kept hidden away in a drawer.
“Lela Matheny” was written in ballpoint pen on the inside cover of all our books.
The only other thing I knew about Lela was that she broke my father’s heart.
“Shortly after you were born,” Dad explained, “Lela ran off with her lover in the middle of the night. They took my car and went to Mexico. Lela got herself a Mexican divorce and a Mexican marriage to the other guy. As far as I know, they’re still together.” He would repeat this story many times over the years, always emphasizing the words “Mexican divorce” and “Mexican marriage” as if that particular detail somehow signified illegitimacy or proved how unjustly he’d been treated.
If I felt any sadness over losing Lela I certainly wasn’t aware of it. I didn’t remember her, so how could I miss her? I was a happy kid with a loving father and a revolving door of kind female caregivers. But I was understandably curious about the woman who gave birth to me. I wondered where she was, why she left, what her life was like now.
Whenever I asked my Dad these things, he would repeat his “Lela ran off” refrain, and would shut down any follow-up questions with “Aw, you don’t want to know about her! She’s crazy!”
I was understandably curious about the woman who gave birth to me.
As far as I knew our only contact with Lela was the birthday card I received each year at Christmas. There were never any messages inside, just “Love, Lela” in the same familiar handwriting. There were never any return addresses on the envelopes, either, but I always noticed the postmarks. Each year the card would arrive from a different place: Key West, Seattle, New York, Santa Fe, Ann Arbor.
“Looks like Lela’s in Bozeman, Montana,” I said to Daddy Bill after my thirteenth birthday. “Why do you suppose she moves around so much?”
I expected his customary evasiveness, but this time the old man surprised me. “Son, you’re old enough to know that your mother’s husband is a federal criminal,” Dad said soberly. “They have to keep moving because they’re on the lam. Tom is wanted by the feds.”
“No kidding?” I asked. “What did he do?”
“Mail order fraud,” Dad replied. “He sells fake chinchilla furs or somesuch.”
I had no clue what a chinchilla was, but the notion that half my DNA might come from a mysterious, beautiful, crazy, vagabond artist/criminal? The idea intrigued me. I needed to meet this person.
"He sells fake chinchilla furs or somesuch."
It’s the summer of 1979 in Tucson, Arizona, and I’m living it up in our new Catalina Foothills apartment. Dad is teaching summer school so I have my run of the place. I get to sleep late and have friends over. We do whatever we want, when we want, free from adult supervision.
Our activities are fairly harmless: we crank up the air conditioner, make giant Dagwood sandwiches, drink gallons of sun tea, and watch creature features on the tube. We listen to records in the Den of Iniquity. Sometimes we ride our bikes down to the Circle K for Mad magazines and microwave burritos, or head over to the Coronado clubhouse to play air hockey and gawk at the high school girls sunning themselves by the pool.
Any self-esteem I lost at Marana has been fully replenished. I now have friends, freedom and, thanks to my paperboy job, plenty of spending money. As if I needed any additional ego boost, they’ve been saying my name on the radio lately (“trumpet solo by Dmitri Matheny”) because I’m playing the mariachi classic “La Paloma” in the Fiesta de los Niños at El Con Mall. I feel special again for the first time since we left Brookstone.
I’m playing the mariachi classic “La Paloma” in the Fiesta de los Niños at El Con Mall.
It’s mid-morning when the phone rings in our dark apartment. I shuffle into the kitchen and wipe the sleep from my eyes as I lift the receiver. What have I won this time?
“Dmitri?” says an unfamiliar female voice. “This is Lela.”
“Lela like my mother Lela?” I ask.
“That’s me,” she says. “How are you?”
“Surprised,” I reply.
“Listen, I’m in Tucson,” she says. “I live here. What are you up to today?”
“Nothin’ much,” I reply, bewildered.
“Would you like to go with me to the art museum?”
Half an hour later I answer the door and there she is, the pretty lady from the photo, looking not unlike Suzanne Pleshette in her high-collared lime green pantsuit, white silk scarf, and oversized sunglasses. I lock up the apartment, follow to her car, and slide into the passenger seat next to her. I can’t believe she’s really here.
Unlike my taciturn father, Lela turns out to be an absolute chatterbox. She talks nonstop as we walk through the museum galleries, jumping randomly from one non sequitur to the next, dramatically whispering then laughing loudly, dropping names I don’t know, passionately offering her opinion on every exhibit. The words tumble out of her but I barely comprehend their meaning. I’m too preoccupied with studying her every move and mannerism. Do I take after Lela? She strikes me as stylish and sophisticated, yet insecure and more than a little phony.
After the museum we walk across the street to a frozen yogurt shop called the Frosty Frog. Lela orders a mint chip froyo to match the vivid green of her outfit, then lights a long slender cigarette, all the while babbling like the giddy guest on a late night talk show. Something in her affect makes me feel diminished, as if I’m merely a spectator in the movie of her life. It’s only at this moment, looking across the table at her, that I’m finally able to accept the reality of this surreal afternoon.
So this is my mother.
Lela orders a mint chip froyo to match the vivid green of her outfit.
When Daddy Bill gets home from work he finds me sitting silently in the living room.
“How was your day, Bub?” he asks.
“Well Dad,” I reply, “I think you ought to sit down for this.”
In my memory the revelation that I’d spent the day with my bio-mom was a complete surprise to Daddy Bill. He didn’t mind that we'd met, but he seemed genuinely shocked to learn that Lela was in Tucson, and mystified by how she got our phone number. In hindsight I suspect he knew more than he let on. When it came to Lela, Dad played his cards very close to the vest.
I rode my bike over to Lela and Tom’s place several times that summer. Their condo was modest, even smaller than our apartment, but it was brand new, adjacent to a magnificent golf course, and furnished with midcentury modern Scandinavian decor that looked like something you’d see in the pages of a high-end design catalog.
Lela's husband Tom was an overly tan charmer with “trust me” eyes and a full head of gray-blond Banacek hair. He wore polo shirts and khakis, told silly jokes, brandished a fat bankroll, and flashed blindingly white teeth whenever he smiled, which was often. He spent most of his time either on the phone or on the links.
“What exactly does Tom do for a living?” I asked Lela, thinking of the chinchillas and whatnot.
“Oh, this and that,” Lela said with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Tom’s what’s known as an entrepreneur.”
It was the first time I’d ever heard the word. To this day when anyone uses it I think of Tom and his Cheshire Cat grin.
I expected Dad’s reunion with his ex-wife, and the man she left him for, to be awkward, but the three of them got along just fine. They reclined in their chaise lounges, swilling gin cocktails and playing “remember when” like old friends. Later when we all went to dinner together at La Fuente, the mood was entirely convivial, or so it seemed to me.
On one occasion Dad invited Tom over to play tennis while Lela stayed behind to give me a painting lesson. I still remember how she taught me to use complementary colors for the shadows, and the way she demonstrated the proper technique for washing a paint brush by making small soapy circles in the palm of my hand.
Dad invited Tom over to play tennis while Lela stayed behind to give me a painting lesson.
I tried to engage Lela in meaningful conversation but quickly learned that she had no interest in being real with me. Having grown up in the south I'm no stranger to tall tales, but Lela was a full-on fabulist. She seemed incapable of giving a straight answer.
A simple query like “do I have any brothers or sisters” prompted a hyperbolic description of her own brother, a strikingly handsome, independently wealthy, eccentric genius, more clairvoyant than Edgar Cayce, who lives in a mansion and invents rockets for a secret government agency. Ahem.
When asked about her childhood, Lela launched into a series of Bunyanesque tales about a magical, mythical Cherokee ancestor named “America” who married a Scotsman named “McGee” to become “America McGee.” Each story was more outlandish than the previous, but none shed any light on Lela’s actual life.
Lela delivered these far-fetched family fables with earnest enthusiasm, oblivious to how ridiculous they sounded. Eventually I stopped asking questions altogether and just surrendered myself to her whimsy.
We saw each other several times that summer but she never gave up any credible intel. Nor did she seem interested in learning anything about my life or thoughts or feelings. I learned what I could about Lela through observation alone.
In late summer Daddy Bill and I were sharing a bag of Fritos and watching 60 Minutes when he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m glad you’ve enjoyed getting to know Lela and Tom, but you’d better prepare yourself, son. At some point they’ll disappear again, probably without warning. I don’t want you to get your feelings hurt.”
Dad was right. A few days later Tom’s name appeared in an Arizona Daily Star article about interstate commerce irregularities. I called the condo and, sure enough, the number was disconnected. I rode over on my bike and, no surprise, the place was empty.
It would be another 23 years before I would meet Lela again.
Lela in 1965 (L) when I was born, and in 2002 (R) when I met her the second time.
“War, what is it good for?
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was at home in Berkeley, drinking my first cup of coffee and viewing the Today show when the news broke. I watched in horror and disbelief as the second plane hit the World Trade Center, in real time, on national television.
It took awhile to get over the initial shock and accept the reality of what was happening, but the awful footage continued to be broadcast on every channel throughout the afternoon and evening. This was not fake. It was no movie. No superhero was coming to save the day. The tragedy of 9/11 and its painful consequences were very real indeed.
One by one we heard from New York friends who survived the senseless attacks. None were injured, thank goodness, but all were traumatized. As we learned the names of those who died, however, our shock and sadness turned to anger.
I’m no conspiracy nut, but I must confess to harboring some rational skepticism about what really happened that day. The official 9/11 Commission report was neither comprehensive nor persuasive. Too many questions remain.
Why was Al-Qaeda able to outwit the worldwide intelligence community? Doesn’t the USA have the most expensive and sophisticated military in the world? Is it really so easy for a plane to fly into the Pentagon, without alerting the Pentagon? And what about the laws of physics? Is the impact from two civilian airplanes truly all it takes to cause the total collapse of three New York City skyscrapers, directly into their own footprint, as if by controlled demolition? And if these atrocities were not perpetrated by a foreign government, but by an unsanctioned group of religious zealots from Saudi, UAE, Lebanon and Egypt, how exactly did these crimes justify prolonged American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
I raise these questions not to suggest the possibility of a false flag operation, but to highlight the cognitive dissonance of the day’s events. We may never know whether our government was complicit, or merely asleep at the wheel, but neither is excusable. When something so unthinkable occurs, and none of the official explanations make sense, you begin to doubt everything.
Like many Americans, I experienced lingering feelings of vulnerability and disillusionment after 9/11. It was no longer possible to believe the fairytale that “it can’t happen here.” Even on the west coast, the attacks felt personal, regardless of whether you knew any of the victims personally.
I remember sitting in my driveway the following spring, still mourning, listening to Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me, and wondering if our collective national sadness might be partly responsible for her album’s runaway success. We were wounded, and Norah’s soulful, melancholy music was just the medicine we needed. Grief brought us together.
Unlike many, however, I did not feel patriotic after 9/11. Jingoism struck me as an entirely inappropriate reaction to such a catastrophic national blunder. I felt let down by our leaders, outraged that they had let this happen, and troubled by their simplistic, sloganistic responses. Instead of providing the answers and accountability we deserved, they gave us only facile exhortations to “go shopping” and “support the troops.” They curtailed our civil liberties and declared war on terror, an objective that is absurd on its face, not to mention unwinnable.
I was also deeply disappointed by friends and neighbors. I’ve never heard so much anti-foreigner and anti-immigrant hate speech. It was heartbreaking. The concurrent sudden appearance of our flag everywhere, on front porches, car antennas and lapel pins, only underscored my sense of disconnection.
Can a liberal pacifist xenophile be a proud American? It's complicated. As an avowed Citizen of the World, I respect our institutions, but patriotism doesn’t come naturally. Like religious piety, bigotry, and football mania, patriotic pride is something that I’ve never really understood even though it has surrounded me all my life.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware of my good fortune at having been born white, male and North American in the 20th century, and am grateful for the rights and privileges that I enjoy in this country. I love that I can own property and speak my mind. But I’m also cognizant of the fact that I didn’t earn these blessings. They were stolen by my ancestors and built on the backs of subjugated people. And I know that even today, not all Americans are able to enjoy the same rights and privileges equally.
I would have to say that I like the idea of America more than the reality. I’ve never bought into the myth of American Exceptionalism. I’ve done enough traveling to learn that the USA is not “the envy of the world,” as I was taught to believe in school, but is actually inferior to many other industrialized nations in education, infrastructure, health care and support for the arts.
I also emphatically reject the notion that our democratic freedom is predicated on maintaining American hegemony and global military dominance. Freedom may not be free, but most wars are unnecessary. Sorry, Colonel Jessup, but we can handle the truth. We don’t all want you on that wall. Some of us don’t want walls at all.
20 years after the events of 9/11, the United States Armed Forces are finally withdrawing from Afghanistan. This has been the longest military action in our nation's history. 978 billion dollars were spent. Over 241,000 people were killed, including 71,000 civilians.
Was it worth it?
“That’s the great thing about being a teenager.
You think you’re a genius.”
Thirteen wasn’t quite the turning point I’d imagined last summer when I sold off all my comic books and action figures. I didn’t suddenly become cool. I wasn’t immediately transported to a magical land of heavy petting and house parties.
I was still the same skinny little kid, honking my horn. And I still had to make it through the rest of the school year at Marana. In my memory those last few months of seventh grade are a surreal blur.
I remember our teacher jumping up on top of her desk in a desperate attempt to win us over, howling “I’m WEIRD! I like WIZARDS!” And I remember how Jack quietly cleared his throat in response, a more subtle version of the snarky tween eye-roll.
I remember a big panic over an outbreak of Valley Fever which later turned out to be “merely” a respiratory irritation caused by low-flying crop dusters. Delightful.
Mostly I remember the awkward interactions with girls. There was prodigious Paula, who flashed her impressive tetas at me, then called me a “perv” for looking. And there was darling Debbie, who passed me a cryptic note on which she had scrawled, in big block letters, YOUR PENIS RUNNING OUT.
What the --? I blushed, checked my fly, then spent the entire rest of that period trying to figure out what she could possibly mean. Is this flirting? Should I write back? What should I say? After class I breathed a sigh of relief when she handed me a pen and said sweetly, “I noticed yours was running out of ink.”
Another year, another U-Haul.
It’s the summer of 1979 and Daddy Bill and I are loading our last few boxes into the back of the moving van at 22nd & Craycroft. “You about ready to go jump in that pool?” Daddy Bill asks. “You know it!” I answer enthusiastically.
I’m finally a teenager and everything’s new. New bike (got a ten-speed Schwinn for my birthday), new school (adios, Marana) and soon, a whole new me. The old man has even found us some great new digs over on the northwest side of town. I haven’t seen the place yet, but Daddy Bill promises we’ll have an even better view, a real air conditioner (adios, swamp cooler) and a swimming pool.
Dad chose a terrific location for us. Next year, his last at Marana, he'll enjoy a shorter weekday commute and easy weekend getaways to Mount Lemmon and Sabino Canyon. Most importantly for me, our new zip code means I can now go to Cross Junior High for eighth grade and Canyon Del Oro for high school. “It’s a better school district with more resources,” Daddy Bill says, “and I hear they have a pretty decent music program, too.”
We'll see next fall. In the meantime, summer vacation has only just begun and I’m excited to see our new place.
Moving from one modest two-bedroom apartment to another less than twenty miles away might sound like no big deal, but I feel like we’ve hit the lottery.
Coronado Apartments at Mona Lisa and Ina is a major upgrade. The complex feels almost like a luxury resort, with its grand Spanish Colonial architecture, tall palm trees, shady courtyards and manicured lawns.
The swimming pool is as advertised. There are also tennis courts, a fitness trail, and even a kid-friendly clubhouse with air hockey and billiards tables. Plenty of kids my age live at Coronado and in the middle-class suburb surrounding us, where ranch style family homes nestle safely in the shadows of the Catalina Foothills.
I love the new neighborhood and can’t wait to explore. I ride my ten-speed through miles of unspoiled desert scrub and citrus trees. Up at Ina and Oracle I discover a retail oasis called Casas Adobes Plaza where I grab a BLT at the drug store lunch counter before exploring a treasure trove of curiosities on the shelves of Bullard’s Hardware.
Life is good.
Jack comes over often and Dad enjoys his visits as much as I do. The three of us stand together on our balcony, listening to Ray Charles and admiring the colorful Santa Catalina mountains. Daddy Bill puffs his pipe and bends Jack’s ear about music and sports and whatnot. At sunset he throws three burger patties on the grill.
“Y’all like ’em charred, don’t you?” he asks with a wink.
After dinner I pull a box down from the closet shelf to show Jack my secret collection of stolen hood ornaments. The expression on his face is a curious mix of puzzlement and disapproval.
“What’s the point?” he asks.
“The point is to not get caught,” I say.
Meeting people is easy at Coronado, especially after I land a new job as paperboy, delivering the Tucson Citizen each evening and the Arizona Daily Star on Sunday mornings. Soon I know all the neighborhood kids and their parents by name. There are over 100 units in this apartment complex and almost everybody gets the paper.
Early on a summer Sunday before dawn, I sit cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of our building. I’m stuffing circular ads, Parade magazine, the coming week's TV listings and what Daddy Bill calls “the funny pages” into every fat copy of the Sunday Star. It’s a big job but I’ve learned the secret to getting it done quickly. You line up the stacks in a row, like an assembly line, then you get the rhythm and power through.
Twenty minutes later my hands are stained black with newsprint. I’m nearly ready to load up my big canvas delivery bag when I notice one of the inserts, a flyer for the March of Dimes Superwalk. I know better than to get distracted, but something special has caught my eye: the walkathon’s third prize, a Panasonic stereo with built-in tape deck and automatic record changer. The machine calls to me like the crystal in Clark Kent’s barn.
That week instead of the tips I usually collect on my rounds, I ask all my customers to sponsor me in the charity walk. “It’s for a good cause,” I explain, “and every page of sponsors I sign-up will put my name into the drawing again.” I’m determined to win that stereo.
I don’t remember how many miles I walked or how much money we raised for the fight against birth defects. What I do remember is filling seven entire pages with pledges. Lucky number seven. Seven chances to win.
The following Friday I wake to the sound of our telephone ringing. I stumble out of my bedroom into the kitchen, thinking Daddy Bill is probably calling to tell me when he’ll be back from birding. But when I lift the receiver, it’s not Dad on the line, but a hyper, exuberant Top 40 Radio DJ.
“Good morning! This is KTKT, the Old Pueblo’s number one station. Mr. Matheny, you are this year’s grand prize winner in the March of Dimes Superwalk, and will soon be the proud owner of a brand new Chevy Chevette. Congratulations! How do you feel?”
“I’m only thirteen,” I said. “I wanted to win the stereo.”
A few days later Daddy Bill takes me over to Matthews Chevrolet to claim my prize. Dad and I don’t quite know what to do about this car, since he already has a new Toyota wagon and I’m too young to drive. Fortunately, the dealership’s general manager comes up with a solution.
“Tell you what young man,” Tommy Stubbs says magnanimously, “How about I just cut you a check for the sticker price? That’s three thousand, four hundred and fifty-five dollars.”
“That’ll work,” I say.
Dad drives me to the bank where I keep my yard sale winnings. I deposit three grand into the account and pocket the rest.
In a single afternoon I bring home the exact stereo I’ve been obsessing over, three new LPs (Don’t Look Back by Boston, I Am by Earth Wind & Fire, and Out of the Blue by ELO), and a ridiculous amount of swag from Spencer Gifts.
I get busy transforming my room into my own personal nightclub. First I hang a beaded curtain in the doorway and mask my windows with aluminum foil to block the sunlight. Then I install two 17” black lights, a strobe, and a miniature mirrored disco ball. I cover my shelves with luminous bric-à-brac and all the walls with posters: Farrah Fawcett, Lynda Carter, Lindsay Wagner, a florescent cobra. Once everything is perfect I wire the whole shebang so I can turn it all on at once, lights and music, with one flip of the switch.
The result is spectacular.
“What do you think?” I ask Daddy Bill.
He grimaces. “I think it looks like a Den of Iniquity.”
“Your vibe attracts your tribe.”
“We go back like car seats.”
It can’t be an easy thing to raise a son.
It’s a balancing act. To help him find his way in life while also allowing him the freedom to fail. To provide advantages and opportunities without coddling or spoiling him. To encourage excellence without setting unrealistic standards. To teach him both self-confidence and humility. To know when to protect him, when to counsel him, and when to let him face adversity alone. To balance his needs with your own.
My father did his best. In 1978 when he decided to relocate us to Arizona, he had his reasons. He was heartbroken, depressed, and needed a change. The move proved troublesome for me, but I don’t begrudge Dad needing to prioritize his own mental and emotional health. It was never his intention to sabotage my education or put me in harm’s way. Kids are resilient. He knew I would adapt.
It didn’t take Daddy Bill long, however, to realize that Marana was no place for either of us. He loved to teach but was spending most of his time enforcing classroom rules and trying to maintain order. I loved to learn but none of my classes were interesting, and I was always on guard, looking over my shoulder for the next attack.
Dad resolved to seek employment elsewhere as soon as his contract was up, and promised he would find a better school for me in Tucson the following year. In the meantime it was my job to survive seventh grade at Marana Junior High.
Fortunately, life got easier for me at Marana. There was still plenty of student-on-student violence but somehow I was no longer a target. Is it because I carried myself differently after I’d learned a few moves? Possibly, but the more likely explanation is that I was spared because I finally made the right friends.
I met Jack in Reading class (no joke, the class was called “reading”), and we hit it off immediately. Jack was different from the other kids. Like me, he was a displaced southerner (his family came from Virginia) with an artistic bent and diverse interests. He was smart, articulate, creative, and funny as hell. He was also an excellent writer. In fact, the only time I ever got in trouble at Marana, it wasn’t for fighting, but for laughing at one of Jack’s hilarious short stories.
Jack was smart, articulate, creative, and funny as hell.
“Settle down, Dmitri,” said Mrs. Woods.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied.
“Don’t back-talk me! You go to the principal’s office right now!” she demanded.
I told Principal Dewey that Mrs. Woods had misinterpreted my sincere polite response as sarcasm. “It’s how I was raised,” I explained. “At my old school in Georgia, you’d get in trouble if you didn’t say yes ma’am.”
“Well, you’re here now. Lose that habit,” he said. “And I still have to give you detention for disrupting class.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, true to my roots.
A few days later my new friend Jack introduced me to his pal Bennie, a charismatic football player with a winning smile and a terrific sense of humor. Bennie had cracked the code on how to flirt, too, and all the girls giggled whenever he was around. Ben’s upbeat attitude was infectious. I liked him right away and the three of us soon became fast friends. It didn’t surprise me at all when I later found out my new companions also happened to be Dad’s favorite English Lit students.
Bennie’s upbeat attitude was infectious.
No fights found me after I started hanging out with Bennie and Jack. In a school where sports participation is one of the only real forms of social currency, the two of them were well-liked student athletes. They seemed to get along with everybody, even the so-called bad kids. I must have benefitted by association. Plus, Jack was taller than almost everyone else in our class. Nobody messed with him.
We were the original three amigos. We hung out everyday at school and sometimes on the weekends. I liked to draw comic books for fun back then and remember creating Jack Fox and Blazin’ Ben as their superhero alter egos.
For all its faults, Marana did one thing 100% right: almuerzo, or as we called it, lonche. Twenty-five cents would get you a man-sized portion of delicious Sonoran food, served up fresh daily in the school cafeteria. The ladies in the kitchen took great pride in their work and prepared a different main course for us each day: carnitas, tamales, machaca, fajitas, chile rellenos, enchiladas verdes, and more, always with a generous helping of frijoles refritos con arroz. Damn, I loved those Marana lunches.
Damn, I loved those Marana lunches.
The other thing that made lunchtime so great was the game we always played. Bennie, Jack and I, and occasionally our friend Kevin, would take turns trying to make each other laugh with ridiculous jokes, silly voices and wordplay. Sometimes we would mimic absurd Steve Martin comedy routines or reenact entire skits by the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. Invariably we’d all end up doubled over in fits of laughter. The game never ended until the bell rang or Bennie spit milk out of his nose. Big fun.
I loved those guys then and I love them still.
I had no way of knowing, at the time, that Bennie would grow up to become one of the west coast's most popular radio personalities, or that he and his wife would generously let me stay with them while I found my first apartment in San Francisco. I couldn’t have known that Ben would one day introduce me to the O’Jays (with whom I would have the honor of working some years later), or how supportive he would be over the course of my future music career. I didn’t know that Ben and I would remain friends for life.
And I certainly had no way of knowing, at the time, that Jack and I were destined to attend the same high school in Tucson, become college roommates in Boston, and remain close as adults as we both pursued careers in the performing arts. I couldn’t have known how much time we would spend playing in bands with each other, or discovering music together over many late nights at the turntable, poring over liner notes as we listened to his excellent collection of classic jazz on vinyl. I didn’t know we would one day stand up as “best man” at each other’s weddings, or that we would continue to confide in one another, sharing our troubles and triumphs well into late middle age. I didn’t know that Jack would be my best friend forever.
All I knew was that I had finally found my tribe. I'm not sure whether I ever told them how our alliance had saved me. Jack and Ben made an otherwise miserable year not only bearable, but memorable in the best possible way.
On December 25, my father and I celebrated the holiday on our balcony, grilling steaks and listening to our favorite seasonal album, Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas. After dinner we watched as heavy, dark clouds rolled over the valley, showering the desert with a wondrous cleansing rain.
We watched as heavy, dark clouds rolled over the valley,
showering the desert with a wondrous cleansing rain.
The winter cloudburst felt auspicious, like a baptism or benediction.
“Merry Christmas, Daddy Bill,” I said.
“Happy Birthday, Bub,” he said. “You’re a teenager now.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, true to my roots.
“The beginning of things is necessarily vague,
tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing.
How few of us ever emerge from such beginning!”
By summer’s end I’ve discovered much to love about living in Arizona.
The regional art, music and food are outstanding. The laidback lifestyle suits my temperament. The arid landscape is as vast and peaceful as the ocean. I like the way hawks wheel and keen overhead as the majestic saguaro watch silently like sentries. And most of all, I love the glorious sunsets.
Some part of me knows my future lies elsewhere. If books and movies have taught me anything, it’s that one day the call to adventure will require me to leave this desert. In the meantime, this seems like a good place to begin the next chapter of life’s journey.
If books and movies have taught me anything, it’s that one day
the call to adventure will require me to leave this desert.
Today is the first day of school. Daddy Bill and I are up early for our commute to the town of Marana, just northwest of Tucson. The drive is pleasant. The sky is overcast so it’s a little cooler than usual. The university jazz station is spinning some classic Miles, always a good omen, and our little Toyota still has its new car smell.
My spirits are high. I’m excited to begin seventh grade, although I’m not entirely sure what to expect. None of the kids in our 22nd & Craycroft neighborhood go to school out there. I only know what Dad has told me, that it’s a public school in a rural area which takes its name from the Spanish word “maraña,” meaning tangle. And last week I overheard Dad on the phone saying something about “teaching basic English to the children of migrant farmworkers.”
This morning as we travel the long frontage road past dusty acres of alfalfa and cotton, I begin to understand. “Things are going to be a little different here than they were at Brookstone, son,” Daddy Bill says. “Just be patient and keep an open mind.” It sounds rehearsed, like a prepared speech. I have the feeling he’s talking to himself as much as to me.
As we travel the long frontage road past dusty acres
of alfalfa and cotton, I begin to understand.
Dad was an important man at Brookstone School, and because of his position, I pretty much had my run of the place. I literally grew up there, kindergarten through sixth grade. I knew everybody, even the high school kids, and always felt safe and supported. Saying goodbye to Brookstone was the most difficult part of leaving Georgia.
My favorite class at Brookstone was a sixth grade social studies elective called MACOS: Man A Course of Study, in which we compared innate and learned behavior in humans with that of other primates, then presented our findings to a panel of university graduate students. Our instructor James Stockdale, son of the homonymous war hero, was my favorite teacher. He taught us to be curious, question all assumptions, and believe in ourselves.
Brookstone School cast a long shadow over my life. I thrived there, but since it was the only school I’d ever known, I took its brilliant faculty and innovative curriculum for granted. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to attend such an elite private school. I wasn’t aware that we were poor, that my classmates were rich, or that my tuition had been waived as part of Dad’s teaching salary. And I certainly couldn’t have known, at the time, the degree to which being part of that nurturing scholastic community had shaped my nascent love of learning, positive self-image and sense of entitlement.
Brookstone School cast a long shadow over my life.
I only knew that I enjoyed school. Or so I thought.
For Dad to describe Marana as “a little different” would prove to be the understatement of the century. Far from the stately red brick lecture halls and leafy woodlands of Brookstone, the Marana campus is little more than a few cement buildings and mobile classroom trailers surrounded by dirt, asphalt and gravel.
Based on the school’s exterior, I’m prepared to be underwhelmed by whatever awaits inside. But nothing could prepare me for the physical and emotional trauma I’m about to endure at Marana Junior High School.
I show up guileless and confident, ready to hit the books and eager to make friends. But for the first time in my young life, I simply don’t fit in. Back home I was a popular kid who excelled in music, art and academics, but my study skills and work ethic are meaningless here. The only things that seem to matter at Marana are football and fighting.
There are fist fights every single day at Marana. Clashes erupt spontaneously, for no reason and without warning.
For the first week I’m able to keep my distance. I watch with detached curiosity as the other students beat each other’s brains in. I wonder what Mr. Stockdale would think of all this violence. Is it innate or learned? And why don’t any of the teachers try to put a stop to it?
There are fist fights every single day at Marana.
Later I would learn that Dad had actually tried to separate two kids who were fighting, only to receive a dressing down from his boss. “Never, ever lay your hand on a student for any reason,” Principal Dewey cautioned, “or we could be sued.” Dad was flummoxed. “Even if they’re about to kill one another?”
I’m mystified by all the aggression, but naively not afraid for my own safety. I’m new here. I’ve made no enemies. Plus my dad is on the faculty. No one would dare. But the main reason I feel secure is because I’m a good boy. I don’t get into fights. I get along with everybody … right?
Wrong. A skinny little southern boy with no friends who doesn’t play football? A teacher's kid, who struts around with his nose in the air, talking funny, using big words, acting all cocky and superior? At Marana Junior High this is a kid who needs a beatdown.
At Marana Junior High this is a kid who needs a beatdown.
I’m walking to my locker after gym when out of nowhere someone shoves me against the wall. “What the hell?” I react, more startled than afraid. But before I can even get a look at my assailant he's knocked me to the ground.
The jackals encircle us, laughing and cheering. By the time I realize we're fighting it’s too late. The kid's knees are already pressed against my upper arms, pinning me to the concrete floor. I can't move. I'm practically immobile as he punches me repeatedly in the face.
Nobody stops the fight. Neither of us are punished. I’m literally saved by the bell as everyone goes to class, leaving me alone and vanquished. I never even learn the kid’s name or what motivated him to attack me in the first place.
After my nose stops bleeding I wash up and change my shirt. No cuts, just a few bruises. My head hurts and my ears are ringing, but I don’t look so bad.
On the drive home Dad doesn’t even notice that I’m hurt. This is a tremendous relief. I don’t want to get in trouble for fighting, and besides, I’m ashamed. My father was a champion boxer. If he finds out I can't defend myself I’ll be humiliated.
But I have bigger problems. Word gets around: the new kid doesn't know how to fight. It’s open season on Georgia Boy. I now have a target on my back.
Every few days somebody jumps me. It’s not like I’m being bullied, not like on TV. It’s never the same person and there’s rarely any preamble. Nobody threatens me or tries to take my lunch money. They just start shit. I never know when the next sucker punch is coming, or from which direction. And it’s this, the sheer senseless randomness of it, that terrifies me so and makes Marana my personal living hell. Never safe. Nowhere to hide.
I hate this school. I’m learning nothing here except how vulnerable I am. Some of these big, mean-looking boys with facial hair are obviously older kids who’ve been held back. One of them is so strong that he comes up behind me, picks me up, and throws me against the lockers.
But it isn’t only the big kids who pick fights. One day after school I’m walking to Dad’s janky classroom/trailer to practice my trumpet. I notice a group of athletes in my peripheral vision, but they’re all walking in the opposite direction so I pay them no mind. Suddenly a short freckle-faced kid with red hair breaks from the pack and runs straight at me. I flinch but stand my ground. I’m bigger than this one. He doesn’t scare me.
“I’m gonna kick your ass,” he says.
“I don’t even know you,” I say. “What’s your problem?”
“I think you’re a wet bag and a pussy” he snarls.
So I’m standing there looking at this little ginger lunatic, wondering what in the hell a wet bag could be, when he knocks the horn case out of my hand and tackles me. By now I know the drill. There’s no reasoning with these idiots. I land a few solid punches, but the impact does more damage to my fists than his face. The kid is small but he’s fast and knows how to grapple. He gets the better of me again and again. I can’t believe it: I’m losing this fight, too.
That evening the drive home is tense. Daddy Bill is silent and agitated. I look over from the passenger seat and notice he’s gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles are white. He's pissed. Did he see the fight? Am I in trouble?
Suddenly Dad pulls over, gets out of the car, and says “come here, dammit.” And right there, in the twilight, on the shoulder of the highway, my Golden Gloves-gone-pacifist father gives me the first of several lessons in self-defense. He shows me the boxer’s stance, some footwork, how to block and parry, how to throw a jab.
Right there, in the twilight on the shoulder of the highway,
my Golden Gloves-gone-pacifist father gives me
the first of several lessons in self-defense.
“Don’t hit ’em in the head,” Dad says. “The head is hard. Hit ’em in the kidneys!”
The old man is full of surprises. I should have gone to him from the beginning.
Maybe I will survive this place after all.
Now all I need is a few friends.
SNAPSHOTS | PART 4 — CHUBASCO
“What makes the desert so beautiful
is that somewhere it hides a well.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Four days later we arrive, hot and tired, in the Old Pueblo.
Daddy Bill pilots our dusty U-Haul into an open parking space and squints upward through the windshield.
“I think that’s it, right up there,” he says, pointing to the third story. “Let’s check it out.” We’re both curious about this new apartment. Dad arranged the rental sight-unseen through an agency in Georgia. He mailed a check; they mailed the keys. Now we’re here.
I open the passenger side door and am nearly knocked over by the oven blast. “At least its a dry heat,” Daddy Bill says with a wink. “We’re definitely gonna need this,” he says, removing our portable ice chest from the front seat.
It’s late afternoon. The air is stifling. Cicadas buzz in the palo verde trees. We climb the exterior stairs, our footsteps echoing in the hollow cement stairwell.
The building itself is unremarkable, a typical example of the stark desert brutalist style of southwest architecture. Poured concrete blocks are stacked atop one another, textured with adobe and stained in shades of beige. There are rows of identical square windows, but nothing decorative, no arches, gables, or distinguishing features of any kind. This drab utilitarian structure could be anything: a factory, a hospital, a prison, you name it.
When we enter our apartment, however, I know we are home. On the opposite wall, sliding glass doors open to a balcony with a spectacular westward view. Brilliant hues of orange and violet paint the sky.
“Damn,” says Daddy Bill admiringly.
“What do you say we wait until dark to unload the truck?”
He reaches into the ice chest and hands me a cold one.
Watching the sunset from our balcony became a regular thing for us that summer, just as walking in the rain had been our routine down south.
Most mornings Daddy Bill would get up at the crack of dawn to go birding. “Gotta beat the heat,” he explained. Dad was smart that way, adapting to the climate, timing his excursions in synch with nature.
I, on the other hand, would blissfully sleep until noon, alone in the cool, dark apartment, lights off, blinds closed, swamp cooler cranked to the max. By the time Dad returned I would be on my second bowl of Raisin Bran and just about ready to start my day.
Like a fool I spent my afternoons outdoors under the relentless Sonoran sun, riding my bike, exploring. Whenever the heat became too much to bear, I would stop at the corner convenience store for a cold drink and a rejuvenating jolt of refrigeration. It was during one of these air conditioned interludes, standing in line at the Circle K, that I made first contact.
“You want a saleedo?” asked the girl.
She was blonde, tan, slender, freckle-faced, a little taller than I, and pretty, in a tomboyish Tatum O’Neal Bad News Bears sort of way. “I’m Cheryl,” she announced boldly, handing me a small, shriveled nugget of mysterious origin.
“Is it food?” I asked, dumbfounded. I studied the curious morsel she had placed in my hand. It was brown, misshapen, about the size of a buckeye, and dry as a bone. It looked like a piece of petrified animal scat.
“Just suck on it,” she giggled, popping one into her own mouth to demonstrate. I smiled. She smiled back.
Saladitos, for the uninitiated, are a Mexican snack of dried salted plums coated in chili and lime. Today you might find a sample in the international section of your favorite specialty food market. But back then, in the Summer of ’78, saladitos were a staple at every mini mart in Tucson, usually stored in a large glass jar right next to the cash register.
Cheryl consumed them like candy. “The best way to eat a saleedo is with a lemon or orange,” she stated matter-of-factly. “You cut the fruit in half, stick the saleedo in the middle, and suck out the juice. Soooo yummy.”
After that, the two of us were inseparable, riding our bikes every day on the street, along the sidewalk, and down the dry river beds, called “washes” by the locals. Cheryl was unlike any of the girls I knew back home. She was a wild child, free-spirited and fearless, always taking the lead, often getting into mischief, never waiting for permission to have fun. I was smitten.
One sweltering afternoon, Cheryl suggested that we go for a swim. “Do you know anyone with a pool?” I asked. “I know a place,” she answered cryptically.
To say we “snuck” into the Doubletree Hotel would not be accurate. Apparently a cute girl in a bikini can pretty much go wherever she pleases. Cheryl and I simply walked right in the front door and straight through the lobby, no questions asked. I was wearing running shorts, not swim trunks, but nobody cared. We parked ourselves poolside like hotel guests, ostensibly the entitled children of errant parents.
We had a blast splashing around in the Doubletree pool, teasing and taunting one another. I poked fun at Cheryl for being a juvenile delinquent, and she playfully mimicked my southern drawl, calling me “Jimmy Carter” and “Georgia Boy.” Eventually I remembered my dad and our sunset ritual, saying I should get home for dinner.
“Why don’t you come to my place?” Cheryl asked casually. “Just you, not your dad.”
The invitation took me by surprise. In all the time we’d spent together, Cheryl had never mentioned her home, and was weirdly evasive whenever I asked about her family. To me she was Feral Cheryl, untamed desert denizen. For all I knew she could have been a runaway.
We got on our bikes and I followed Cheryl home to a charming hacienda-style bungalow surrounded by colorful desert flowers, cacti in terracotta pots, and a welcoming ristra of chiles hanging over the front porch.
We walked around back and left our bikes by a large mesquite tree before entering the cottage through a side door. “Hellooo,” Cheryl called, kicking off her flip flops. There was no answer, but I wasn’t surprised. Something in the girl’s breezy, uninhibited manner told me what she already knew: we were alone.
“You hungry?” she asked. “I could eat,” I replied, trying to sound grown up. “I’m not ready for dinner just yet, but let me fix you something,” she said.
I then watched in amazement as my friend, still in her swimsuit, expertly prepared a cheeseburger just for me. I marveled at her casual, effortless skill as she sliced the ripe tomato, lightly toasted the bun, and browned the juicy burger in a cast iron skillet, all the while chattering away, hand on her hip, no big deal.
They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I get that. Over the years I’ve shared many a special meal prepared by, or for, a beloved companion. But this was a first. I was just a twelve-year-old kid. No girl had ever cooked for me. The burger was delicious. If Jay could see me now, I thought.
Cheryl then pulled a styrofoam container labeled “Eegee’s” from the freezer, then led me by the hand to the living room sofa. “This is my favorite thing on a hot day,” she said, feeding me a spoonful of the frozen tropical treat. “Mm, hmm,” I responded approvingly.
“It’s even better with rum!” she giggles, producing a bottle from nowhere like a sleight-of-hand magician. “Now all we need is a little music.” I see a radio on the side table and turn it on. The wail of a saxophone fills the room with sound: “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty. I feel like I'm in a movie.
Cheryl rests her head against my chest.
She looks up. “Hey, how old are you, anyway?”
“Fourteen,” I lie.
“So ... you ever gonna kiss me?” she asks.
Childhood memories are like polaroid photos in an old dusty box.
They don’t provide a cohesive autobiographical narrative, only brief flashes of insight into the murky past. You sort through the random images, shuffling them like playing cards, until one of them finally whispers to you, and a shard of memory is revealed, darkly, like a half-forgotten scent or song fragment.
It is from these small, disparate clues that you must fashion your origin story. But each time you take the box down from the shelf, there seem to be fewer snapshots inside.
It’s the summer of 1978 in Columbus, Georgia. A U-Haul is parked in front of our little apartment at Warm Springs Court. Daddy Bill and I are loading our last few boxes into the back of the truck.
Daddy Bill Matheny | Summer 1978
Warm Springs Court, Columbus GA
“You about ready to hit the road, Bub Man?” Daddy Bill asks. He’s been calling me “Bub Man” lately instead of Little Bub, and it feels right. I’m 12-and-a-half now, not a little kid anymore, and we’re about to begin a whole new life, far away from this place.
The past year was an emotional roller coaster. Up and down, love and loss. Dad finished his seventh year at Brookstone School on a high note, winning a prestigious teacher’s award from the city and having the yearbook dedicated in his honor. Then he abruptly resigned. Devastated by divorce, he slept for days at a time, rarely coming out of his room. “The doctor has me on tranquilizers,” he explained. When finally he emerged from the darkness of depression, other women came around, comforting him, playing mother to me, and we were happy for a time. But eventually they left, too.
When Dad’s last great love, Judy Mehaffey, moved to Nashville to pursue a songwriting career, her teenage son Jay came to live with us. Welcoming Jay into our home made sense. Our families were already intertwined. Jay’s mom and my dad, who still loved one another, were now prolific penpals. Jay’s older sister Kim, away at college, had been my babysitter and Dad’s star student at Brookstone. Kim and Jay’s father Lem (divorced from Judy, estranged from Jay) was the landlord of our little apartment complex.
Confused? Welcome to my world. The important thing is this: for one glorious summer I had a brother.
I was an only child who never especially wanted siblings. I cherished my solitude and was never bored. Daddy Bill and I were pals, and if I needed more companions there were always plenty of kids in the neighborhood. But Jay’s arrival in the summer of ’78 was right on time.
We lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment. Jay slept on our couch and made the living room his domain. As a tween on the precipice of puberty, I was utterly fascinated by this confident, lanky 17-year-old now living in our midst. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world, the way he immediately made himself at home, blasting Frampton Comes Alive on the stereo, watching Midnight Special on the tube, drinking Sprite, talking on the phone, holding court. I didn’t even try to play it cool. I thought Jay hung the moon, and he knew it.
Jay Mehaffey | Summer 1978
Warm Springs Court, Columbus GA
Dad knew it, too. Inviting Jay to move in may have sprung from a desire to help Judy, but it turned out to be the very best thing for all of us. Jay had a stabilizing influence in our home. His arrival prompted Dad to come out of his cave. Order was restored. We kept the pantry stocked, shared household chores, enjoyed regular meal times, and took road trips together.
Jay showed me how to assert my independence. Prior to Jay, I was Daddy Bill’s little sidekick, not so much a separate entity as an extension of his adult persona. I perceived Dad’s needs as my own; his moods became my moods. After Jay, I was my own man. There were three of us now, each with his own desires and responsibilities. We were a family.
But Jay was more to me than an ersatz older brother. He was like a cosmic life coach, sent by the universe to guide me through the emotional, hormonally turbulent life transition from boyhood to early adolescence. Our alliance felt all the more momentous because we knew it to be temporary. Summer’s end would mean our separation. Jay would stay in Columbus to finish high school, and I would move out west with Daddy Bill. Dad had accepted a new teaching position in Tucson, so that was where I would turn 13, begin junior high, and meet my destiny.
If Jay felt it was a drag to have a shadow that summer before his senior year, he certainly never showed it. He introduced me to his friends and let me tag along on their outings. He helped me find a job mowing lawns, taught me how to pop a wheelie on my bike, and hipped me to all kinds of music. At night I would make a pallet on the floor between the couch and coffee table, so we could continue talking into the wee hours. I’d stretch out flat, parallel to Jay on the couch above, and imagine that we were real brothers, sharing a room with bunk beds.
Our late night heart-to-hearts offered a crash course in what I should expect from life over the next few years. We talked about all the things I didn’t feel comfortable discussing with my father: cliques, crushes, flirting, fighting, parties, popularity, petty rivalry, peer pressure, the prom. I asked Jay all about the rituals of dating and how to talk to girls. He answered solemnly in great detail, stressing the importance of things like having plenty of money (chicks are expensive), when to give a girl your letterman jacket (only if you’re serious), and how to unhook a bra clasp (always use both hands). He spoke earnestly, as if he’d been tasked with a sacred mission of passing along his accumulated teen wisdom. I was riveted and hung on his every word.
Jay and I haven’t really stayed in touch since then, except to exchange Christmas cards once or twice, the way men do. But I sure hope he knows how important he was to me that summer, and how grateful I remain.
When the moving van showed up I was ready. Packing up was a breeze. After all, I’m the minimalist son of an anti-capitalist. We didn’t have that many possessions to begin with. Plus, we’d already moved several times before, so I knew the routine: put your stuff in boxes; say goodbye to all your friends.
Moving days are always bittersweet, but this one felt different. Inspired by everything I learned from Jay, I was committed to reinventing myself. I divided my belongings into two piles. One pile comprised only the essential things I’d need in my new life out west: clothes, books, trumpet, bike. We loaded them onto the truck. The other pile was all the “kid stuff” I would leave behind forever: comic books, action figures, toys.
Word got around quickly and the neighborhood kids descended like vultures. I sold everything I could and gave away the rest, pocketing a little over five hundred dollars.
“You about ready to hit the road, Bub Man?” Daddy Bill asked. “You bet,” I replied, climbing into the cab.
I didn't look back as we headed west. To the future.