Once I was a great singer. Caruso Junior they called me, and Little der Bingle. Crooners like Bing Crosby and Sinatra were still big in those days. My repertoire included “Clang, Clang, Clang Went the Trolley,” the song behind my ambition to become a streetcar conductor. I knew the nameless tune my mother sang when we waited for the El: “Down by the station early in the morning, see the little puffer-billies all in a row”; and my uncle Lefty had taught me a version of “Popeye the Sailor Man” that went, “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man, I live in a garbage can, I eat all the junk and smell like a skunk, I’m Popeye the Sailor Man, I am.”
But none of those was the song for which I was famous, the song requested over and over. They’d hoist me onto the bar, where I’d carefully plant my feet among the beer bottles, steins, and shot glasses, and, taking a breath of whiskey air, belt out “Old Man River.” I’d learned the song by listening to my father’s mournful baritone while he shaved for work. It wasn’t a popular song of the time, not one you’d find on the mob-owned jukeboxes in those taverns where “That’s Amore” or the “Too Fat Polka” were as likely to be thumping from the speakers as “Hound Dog.” But the men drinking there had all toted that barge and lifted that bale and got a little drunk and landed in jail, too, and had the scars to prove it. The noisy bar would quiet, small talk deferring to lyrics.
“He’s sure got a deep voice for his age,” someone would invariably comment.
When I finished the song, holding the last note as if I dove down to the dark river bottom for it, they cheered and showered me with loose change and sometimes a few dollar bills.
“What’s the little man drinking?” they asked Uncle Lefty.
“What’ll it be, champ?” Lefty would relay to me.
“Root beer,” I’d shout, and root beer it was.
I’d sit with my feet dangling over the bar, slugging from a heavy stein. Singing gave one a thirst. Then Uncle Lefty, who’d also had a few on the house, would comb his nicotine-stained fingers through my hair, straighten my buttons as if tuning me up, and lift me from the bar, gently, like a musical instrument he was packing away, an instrument that he carried with him—one that sometimes rode his shoulders—as he made the rounds from tavern to tavern.
We’d go from Deuces Wild on Twenty-second to the Pulaski Club across from St. Kasmir, and from there we’d hit the Zip Inn, where Zip, who’d lost his right arm in the Big War, tended bar. Zip always kept the empty sleeve of his white shirt neatly folded and clamped with a plastic clothespin—red, blue, yellow, green—he changed the colors the way some guys changed their ties. The walls of his bar were hung with framed photographs of the softball teams he’d sponsored, and there was also a photo of a young Uncle Lefty with his boxing gloves cocked, taken when he fought in the Golden Gloves tournament.
“Ah, my fellow Left-wingers,” Zip would greet us.
“Quit trying to pass yourself off as a genuine southpaw,” Lefty would tell him. “You ain’t fooling nobody.”
“I admit it. I’m a convert, but hey, converts are the true believers. Fact is, my right arm is killing me today. Means rain.”
“Zip, it’s pouring already,” Lefty said, peeling a hard-boiled egg he’d helped himself to from the bowl on the bar. “Think we’d stop in a dive like this if we weren’t getting soaked?”
Both Zip and I glanced out the door propped open with the doorstop of a brass spittoon. Sunbeams fuming with blue tobacco smoke streamed into the dim tavern. Zip looked at me and shrugged.
Uncle Lefty snatched the checked bar rag from Zip’s left shoulder and toweled off my hair as if I was dripping wet. “Phantom pain brings phantom rain,” he said by way of explanation.
“Perry,” Zip said, “your uncle is a very strange man.”
“Zip,” Lefty asked, “did I ever mention this kid can sing?”
And later, my pockets jangling with tips, we’d open invisible umbrellas and step from Zip’s into the phantom rain, on our way to Red’s on Damen, or to the frigid, mint blue bar at Cermak Bowl, where, I believed, air-conditioning was invented, or to Juanita’s, a bar that also served tacos, or to the VFW, which had slot machines. There were more taverns in the neighborhood than we could visit in a single afternoon. At every stop it was the same: “Old Man River,” applause, bar change, and root beer, until Uncle Lefty, who was downing two boilermakers to every drink of mine, would caution, “You’re gonna have a head of foam when you pee. Don’t tell your mother how many you’ve had or we’ll both be in Dutch with her.”
My mother was Lefty’s older sister. It was from her that I’d heard how Lefty had wanted to be a musician ever since he was a kid. As a child, Lefty had chronic bronchitis, and my mother remembered him spending his sick days home from school devising instruments from vacuum-cleaner attachments. He’d give the family a concert at night, humming through his homemade horns while moving his fingers as if tootling up and down the scale. My mother said that Lefty could perfectly imitate the sound of any wind instrument so long as he had a vacuum-cleaner nozzle or a cardboard tube that he could pretend to blow.
When he was thirteen, Lefty saved enough money from his paper route to buy a trumpet, but a week after buying it, he had a front tooth broken in a school-yard fight, which ruined his embouchure. So he traded in the trumpet for a tenor saxophone, and took the precaution of signing up for boxing lessons at St. Vitus, where Father Herm, a priest who was an ex-heavyweight, trained boys to fight in Catholic Youth Organization bouts. For months, Lefty monopolized the full-length mirror on my mother’s bedroom door, shadowboxing himself into a sweat. The opponent in the mirror was Bobby Vachata, the kid who’d broken Lefty’s tooth, though no one suspected Lefty’s boxing obsession was fueled by revenge until he gave Vachata a beating and brought a furious Father Herm to the house. Lefty was expelled from the St. Vitus CYO, and for the next year the proceeds from his paper route went to pay Vachata’s dental bills.
When he wasn’t shadowboxing, Lefty was in the basement “practicing his sax.” That’s what he called it, my mother said, though he wasn’t actually playing the horn any more than he’d played the vacuum-cleaner attachments. The family could hear the sound rising through the heating ducts as he slurred and honked and wailed—a mimicry so convincing that, if you didn’t know, you’d think there was a virtuoso down there, who could play any song at will. But my mother knew his fingers were still moving along imaginary scales, and his pretend playing no longer seemed cute to her as it had back when Lefty would give them concerts after dinner. Something about all that music at once unexpressed and yet erupting from her younger brother, all that sound swirling nonstop in his head, made her afraid for him. Then, one evening, she heard Lefty suddenly stop improvising on “How High the Moon.” There was silence followed by a metallic squawk and then another squawk and another, notes croaked haltingly, the way lyrics might be sounded out by a deaf person learning to sing: “some … where there’s mu … sic how high the moon?” She realized that Lefty had finally fit a reed into the mouthpiece and was teaching himself to play.
By high school Lefty had grown into a welterweight and was training for the Golden Gloves at Gonzo’s Gym on Kedzie, where the mostly lighter-division Mexican fighters boxed. He’d taught himself to play the sax almost as proficiently as he’d once faked playing it. With a few buddies from Farragut High, he started the Bluebirds, which Lefty described as a bebop polka band. They played taverns for parties and weddings with Lefty on sax and vocals. It was difficult to imagine him singing because of the raspy whisper he spoke in, but my mother said when he was young, Lefty could croon like Mel Tormé, a singer known as the Velvet Fog. Lefty had returned from a Korean POW camp and a subsequent yearlong detour at a VFW mental hospital in California with a chronically hoarse, worn-away voice. It was a voice a rock singer might have envied, but rock and roll wasn’t the music Lefty grew up playing. When he shipped out for Korea, the music from World War II had still hung in the air. His war didn’t have its own music, and years later, when he stepped back into America, the country’s allegiance had shifted to another beat. The raspy voice was the only voice of his I heard live, but I once listened to a scratchy 45 rpm record he’d sent to my mother from San Diego while on leave before his troopship sailed for Japan. Lefty crooned an a cappella “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and even on that disk of flimsy acetate, when he hit the words “I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you,” I could hear the velvet foggy vibrato of his voice and turned to say so to my mother, but she’d left the room. It was the last I ever saw of that record.
My mother had made me promise never to ask Uncle Lefty about the war—a promise I kept—not that I wasn’t curious, but I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize our outings together. Now that he’d finally returned home from Korea, everyone expected he’d resume playing in a band, but the only thing Lefty seemed interested in playing anymore were the ponies. My parents would never have allowed him to take me to the track, so sometimes on Saturday afternoons Uncle Lefty would tell them we were going across town to a Cubs game. Instead, we’d head for Cicero, where the sulkies were running at Sportsman’s Park. And after Sportsman’s we’d celebrate our winnings, whether there were any or not, by taking our singing routine to the taverns of Cicero.
Later, we’d empty our pockets on the drumskin-tight army blanket of the neatly made bed in Lefty’s bare, rented room with its marbled blue linoleum floor. We’d count our take, and Lefty would say, “We’re in the peanuts and caramel now, champ,” the same phrase he used when he’d hit a long shot.
Even my mother had never been to his one-room, third-floor flat on Blue Island Avenue—a street that failed to live up to its name. I’d imagined the lake visible at the end of the block, gulls mewing, and water lapping the wooden back porches as if they were docks. It was a vision Lefty had prompted when he told me the street was named for a ghostly island that sometimes still rose on the horizon of the lake, an island once inhabited by the Blue Island Indians that sank from sight when the last warrior died. Maybe my lifelong longing for islands came from the promise of that street name.
Pigeons, not gulls, paced the window ledges. One of Lefty’s Mexican neighbors kept a pigeon coop on the roof, and the birds’ constant cooing seemed like a cool windless breeze wafting through Lefty’s room. A few times, Lefty took me up through the trapdoor to see the pigeons. “Welcome to Dreamsville,” he’d say and pull me up onto the hot, pebbled tar roof that looked over Blue Island and beyond to a city of holy spires. I recalled overhearing my mother talking in a worried way to my father about Lefty drunkenly staggering up to the roof at night to play his sax. The cops had been called to get him down.
“You can’t feel guilty about not taking care of your nutcase brother,” my father said. “He’s living his own life and won’t listen to nobody anyway.”
I didn’t understand what was so crazy; it made perfect sense to me that he’d go up to Dreamsville to play a duet with the pigeons.
Except for an audience of pigeons and neighbors whom he woke from a sound sleep at three in the morning, Lefty no longer played in public. His old combo, the Bluebirds, had broken up when he’d left for Korea. Lefty’s best buddy from the Bluebirds, a guy we called the Bruiser, still drummed in a local band that played for weddings. You could hear the Bruiser from a block away, his bass beat a sonic boom, his rimshots carrying like gunfire. We’d follow the beat to the open side door of a tavern hall and stand watching the dancers whoop around the dance floor while the Bruiser thundered behind a wheezy, sad-sack polka band.
“See that drummer,” Lefty told me, “his god was Gene Krupa.”
There was an amazing recording of the Benny Goodman band’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” on the jukebox at the Zip Inn, with Krupa exploding on tom-toms. Lefty played it whenever the Bruiser joined us there for a drink. They always set a shot of Jim Beam on the bar for Deke, the Bluebirds’ guitar player who’d been killed in Korea. I wondered who drank it after we left.
It was one of those Saturdays in summer when we’d gone to Sportsman’s—I’d hit a winner with a horse named You Bet Your Dupa—and we were in Lefty’s room on Blue Island, listening to the Cubs lose to the Giants so I could report on the game, when he told me he was thinking of moving back to California. I’m glad we weren’t at a tavern, because before I could stop myself, I began to cry.
“Hey, come on, champ, don’t feel that way. I’ll be back. Look, I got something special I been meaning to show you. Check it out.” He slid a beat-up case from under the bed and let me pop the latches. It opened with a whiff of brass and another scent, one that later in life I’d recognize as a mingling of cork grease, bamboo, and dried saliva. There was a note of perfume from a black slip stuffed in the bell of the horn. The bell was engraved with cursive I couldn’t read, the keys were capped in mother-of-pearl. The saxophone gleamed from the plush emerald lining like pirate treasure in an encrusted chest. Like a piano on an empty stage, it seemed to emit silence. I pressed the keys, and the felt pads resonated against the holes. Just thumping the keys made a kind of music.
“Try it on.” Lefty fit the neck strap over my head and attached the sax to the little hook. The weight of the horn pulled me forward.
“Too big for you,” he said. “Here’s one more your size.” He reached beneath the bed and came up with a compact little case and snapped it open to reveal a disassembled clarinet cushioned in ruby velvet. “Learn to play this and the sax will come easy. You like that Benny Goodman’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ don’t you?”
I shook my head yes, afraid I’d blubber if I tried to talk.
“Know why this has your name on it?”
“Why?” I wasn’t sure if he was really giving me the clarinet.
“Because you can hear it, right?” He held up a finger like a conductor raising a baton.
I listened. All I heard were pigeons. “What?” I asked.
“The phantom music, you know, like Zip’s right arm. It’s there even if no one else hears it.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I nodded yes. I wanted that clarinet.
“I can hear you feel it when you sing. Who taught you to whistle so good?”
“I taught myself,’ I told him, which was true. I’d learned to whistle by practicing under an echoey railroad viaduct at the end of our street.
“That’s what I’m talking about. It’s there all the time. It kept me company when I was in.” He didn’t say in the army or in the war or in Korea or in the POW camp or in the VA hospital. Just in, and that was the only time he even mentioned so much as that.
When I brought the clarinet home, it caught my mother by surprise. She’d suspected Lefty had pawned his horns in order to pay his bar tabs and gambling debts. I didn’t tell her he was leaving for California. I asked if I could keep it, and she said maybe. Maybe Uncle Lefty would give me a lesson sometime, she said, but it was better not to ask him because he didn’t need that kind of pressure right now. Maybe I should think of it as simply taking care of his clarinet for him until someday maybe he’d want to play it again himself.
I promised her that if he ever did, I’d give it back. I meant it, too, because I couldn’t understand why somebody who was once in the Bluebirds and could play for people on an instrument like that golden saxophone would ever stop playing. I thought that if I could play a horn like that, I’d never give it up no matter what happened. I knew I’d never stop singing.
Yet all it took to end my career was Sister Relenete, who during my first choir practice stopped the choir in the middle of “Silent Night,” looked directly at me, and asked, “Who is singing like a tortured frog?”
It was a shock: the shock of humiliation. After my command performances of “Old Man River” just a few years earlier, I’d joined the Christmas Choir in third grade expecting to be a star. Those rounds with Uncle Lefty had left me feeling special. I was a standout all right, but for the wrong reason. It was an awakening of a kind I hadn’t had before, but I grasped it immediately, not doubting for a moment that the nun’s appraisal was right. I wasn’t prone to blushing, but I felt the hot, dizzying rush of blood to my face. Sister Relenete directed us to begin again, and this time I moved my lips, only pretending to sing. After a few bars Sister Relenete signaled a pause and said, “Much better!”
I never returned to choir practice. I didn’t fall silent though. Stifled song can assume so many shapes. Instead of being a singer, I became a laugher. Not that it occurred to me then that clowns are, perhaps, failed singers. All it would take to set me off was some odd little thing: Denny “the Fish” Mihala’s answer in fourth grade to Sister Philomena’s question “If birds come in flocks, and fish in schools, what other kinds of groupings can you name?”
Mihala’s hand shot up and he said, “A dozen donuts!”
It wasn’t the first time one of Mihala’s answers broke up the class. Once, during a spelling exercise, he was asked to use the word thirsty in a sentence. It was a fateful question, one that would earn him his nickname, a question he seemed utterly stumped by. He looked frantically around the classroom for help, then pointed at the goldfish bowl and said in his thick Chicago accent, “Da fish are tirsty.”
When Fish answered “A dozen donuts,” even Sister Phil smiled momentarily, then she shushed the class and said, “Thank you, Denny, very original thinking, but the question was more about groups of animals. What about cows or wolves?”
Fish stared mutely at her.
Camille Estrada raised her hand and said, “A pack of wolves, a herd of wild horses, a pride of lions, a swarm of locusts, a pod of dolphins …”
The lesson moved on, but I couldn’t let go of such moments. They kept replaying the way an insult or a slight lodges in the mind of someone with a temper—probably the way that Uncle Lefty replayed the fight in which Bobby Vachata broke his tooth, depriving Lefty, in a single blow, of his natural inclination to play trumpet. Instead of rage, it was hilarity rising in me. The more I tried to gain control over myself, the more I thought of what had triggered the laughter. Fish’s answer, “A dozen donuts,” wasn’t that funny in and of itself, but there seemed to me something infinitely comic about the way he’d thrust his hand up in order to share his inspiration with the class, and in Sister’s response, “Thank you, Denny, very original thinking.” I’d disappear under my desk as if tying a shoe or looking for a dropped pencil, but the laughter would find me. I’d rest my head on my arms pretending to nap at my desk while my sides heaved with barely smothered laughter—laughter that, despite my better interests, was proving more irrepressible than song.
The nun had seen this act before. “Perry, are you a loon or what? Go think about your behavior in the cloakroom until you grow up enough to join us.”
Banished to the cloakroom, where I’d been spending increasing amounts of time, I’d stand in the meditative company of my classmates’ hanging coats, free to surrender to spasms of laughter.
The worst, most achingly ecstatic laughing fits came on during obligatory weekday morning mass. Usually the mass was either the feast day of a martyr or a requiem, the priests’ vestments red or black. I’d follow the liturgy for a while in my St. Joseph missal, then slip into the stupor of another medieval morning that reeked of incense. But sometimes there’d be a diversion, like the time in fifth grade when my buddy the Falcon—Angel Falcone—who was sitting beside me, managed to toe up the padded kneeler during the Gospel without anyone noticing. At the Offertory, when the kids in our pew went to kneel, the whole row of knees hit the marble floor. The Falcon had the gift of remaining deadpan. I laughed for both of us even as I knelt, trying to choke the laughter back, pretending to be coughing or blowing my nose while my eyes teared. Then, from rows behind us, I heard the wooden beads of the nun’s floor-length cinch of rosary rapping rapid-fire against the pew as she furiously rose and rushed from her seat and down the aisle to where I knelt, pushing kids aside to get to me, yanking me up and dragging me down the center aisle into the vestibule.
“Laughing like a fool in God’s presence. He’s hanging on the cross for your sins and you’re laughing at His suffering like the Romans and Jews! You don’t deserve to be a Christian. Stop it! Stop it this instant or I’ll slap that smile off your face.”
“Make like you’re smiling,” Sid Sovereign told me. “Not like that! Did I say make like a shit-eating grin? What are you, retarded? Pay attention. This is a smile.”
I watched him demonstrate the proper smile. Eyes fierce, he smiled without showing his teeth. That was a relief, because he had small, rotten-looking teeth—tobacco-stained like his bristly gray mustache, which was yellowed where the smoke blew from his nostrils. He balanced his Lucky Strike on a cigarette-tarred music stand and into his tight-lipped smile fit the mouthpiece of his clarinet and exhaled an open-fingered G. I almost expected to see cigarette smoke puff from the bell of the horn.
“You see my cheeks bulging? I’m not blowing up a goddamn balloon, I’m playing the clarinet. You try. Sit up straight, how do you expect to breathe with posture like that? Now, smile. No, dammit! This is a smile.” He jabbed his fingers into the corners of my mouth, remolding my face. I could feel my face not cooperating with either of us, and I tried to concentrate and disregard my hurt feelings. My first clarinet lesson was not going the way I’d anticipated.
My father had decided that since Uncle Lefty had given me the clarinet, the time had come for me to take lessons.
“Someone who can play can always make a buck on the side,” he reasoned, and for my father a buck on the side was reason enough. He hated to see things wasted, and that included a clarinet sitting idly in a case. But maybe there was more to it than he was willing to admit. In his way, my father loved music. On Saturday nights he’d record The Lawrence Welk Show on his new reel-to-reel tape deck, an expense he justified because he’d never have to buy another record, not that he ever bought records. He sang most every morning as he got ready for work with a gravity that woke the house. “The voice of the Volga Boat Man is heard in the land,” my mother would say. He sang with facial expressions that caused him to cut himself shaving. He shaved with a straight razor rather than wasting money on blades, and he bled as he sang, the foam on the razor stained pink and his face stuck up with bloody clots of toilet paper. I was afraid that, reaching for a note, he’d cut his throat. The songs he sang were from a lamentable past I could barely imagine—“Old Man River,” “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” “That Lucky Old Sun”:
Up in the mornin’, out on the job,
work like the devil for my pay,
but that lucky ole sun, got nothin’ to do
but roll around heaven all day …
When I was little I used to think I was the son he was singing about.
Uncle Lefty had said he’d teach me to play, but, as my father pointed out, that had been several years ago, and Uncle Lefty had yet to return from California-in fact, we weren’t sure where he was. Besides, the word was out from Johnny Sovereign that his older brother, Sid, had been released from jail and needed the money. Whether it was a cheap haircut or cut-rate music lessons, my father couldn’t pass up a deal.
Sid Sovereign had done time in Florida for passing bad checks. Now he was back in Chicago, trying to go straight. Sid’s brother Johnny lived with his wife and their kids, Judy and Johnny Jr., in a two-flat around the corner from us. Their alley fence was camouflaged in morning glories, and behind it was a screened-in sandbox protected from cats where Johnny Jr. and my younger brother, Mick, played together. Johnny Sovereign ran the numbers in our neighborhood, Little Village. That makes him sound like a big shot, but everyone knew he was just a small-time hood, which in Little Village didn’t attract much more notice than if he was a mailman. Johnny was well connected enough, however, to get Sid the patronage job of band director for the Marshall Square Boys’ Club. There, in a room smelling of liniment, where basketballs and boxing gear were stored in a padlocked cage along with drums and tubas, Sid gave private lessons.
Sid hated giving lessons. He hated kids. He kept cotton balls in the cellophane sleeve around his pack of Luckies. He opened his Luckies with meticulous care and utilized the cellophane sleeve to hold matches, loose change, business cards, phone numbers on shreds of paper, and cotton balls. During a lesson, after the first few shrieks on the horn, he’d yell, “Fuckaduck, kid! Are you trying to ruin my hearing?” and reach for the cotton balls. A few more shrieks and he’d bounce up as if to smack you, then instead open a locker stuffed with boxing gloves and take a swig from a half-pint bottle. When I first saw him do it, I thought he was drinking liniment. He sat back down smelling of booze. Though I’d yet to master smiling, we were on to breathing.
“In little sips,” he said, “and don’t let the goddamn horn waggle in your mouth. The mouthpiece just rests on your bottom lip and the upper teeth bite down.” He tested my embouchure by grabbing the horn and giving it a shake that made me feel as if my bottom teeth cut through my lip. “It should be firm so I can’t jiggle it around like this. Little sips and then exhale just touching the reed with your tongue, like saying thoo.” He demonstrated without his horn, and boozy spit sprayed in my face. “Little sips! You’re trying to eat the horn. You’re not playing a hot dog. Did you think you were at a hot-dog lesson?” He rammed the mouthpiece down my throat so that the reed scraped the roof of my mouth. “Can you play like that? Well? It’s a question. Are you deaf? Maybe that’s the problem here.”
I tried to answer with the horn in my mouth. It was like trying to talk at the dentist’s. I shook my head no. I was sweating. My face threatened to betray me, but no way was I going to further humiliate myself before this man. And no way was I giving up on music a second time.
“All right, try again: thoo.”
I p-thooed a squawk that pretty much expressed my feelings, and Sid Sovereign flinched, then shouted, “Little sips, little sips!” and grabbed my nose, pinching it shut, forcing me to breathe little sips through my mouth, but the effect was that of throwing a switch, one that opened the valves of my shameful tears.
Despite this inauspicious start, I was marching—my maroon cape flaring behind me—down Cermak Road to the joyful cacophony of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
True, at third clarinet I was bringing up the rear; true, Sid Sovereign had told me, “You’d be tenth clarinet if we had a part for it”; and true, I was mostly lost and faking the notes. I had a hard enough time keeping up with the band when we practiced sitting down. Every so often I’d blow a middle C that would fit in. Sometimes, having lost my place on the sheet music, middle C was all I played, as if adding a drone. Sid Sovereign, directing the band, didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he suggested I might want to fake it till my tone improved. He gave the same advice to Miguel Porter, another third clarinet marching beside me.
By now we were supposed to have memorized the music for the upcoming band competition at Riverview, a legendary amusement park on the North Side, but since this was a dress rehearsal, we were allowed to have our parts on miniature music stands clipped to our instruments. The maroon capes and matching maroon and gold-brimmed caps, and the white spats that I buttoned over my PF flyers had been provided by Sid Sovereign. It was summer, and the capes and caps were wool, and despite their mothball smell, moth-eaten. They looked to be from another era, the Great Depression, maybe. We suspected Sovereign had ransacked some long-forgotten storeroom in the Boys’ Club system. I admired the ornate satiny uniforms that the softball teams sponsored by neighborhood taverns wore, but I had mixed feelings about parading around in this kind of getup. I wanted to be in the band on our way to Riverview—the most magical place in the city—but not dressed as a dork.
It seemed out of character for Sovereign to be putting so much energy into the Riverview competition. He’d made the brass players polish their horns, and he’d added today’s late afternoon rehearsal to our regular Saturday band practice. Maybe the change in him had something to do with Julio Candido’s mother, Gloria, who’d begun attending our rehearsals, an audience of one who filled the band room with a tropical perfume that couldn’t all be coming from the white flower in her black hair. Julio’s father, wanted for murder, had fled back to Mexico years ago. Mrs. Candido drove Julio to band practice, to school, and everywhere in her white Buick convertible, not a car that a woman employed as a singing cocktail waitress at Fabio’s, a mob hangout in the Italian neighborhood just across Western Avenue, could normally afford.
The band room was actually the half-court basketball gym. Usually it smelled of fermented sweat. Mrs. Candido sat beneath the basket on a folding chair, dressed in a sleeveless white summer sheath, her bronze legs crossed, the toe of a white high heel tapping the air to whatever beat Sid Sovereign conducted. He’d begun conducting instead of hiding sunk in depression behind his office door, smoking and drinking while we blared direction-less in the gym, as had been his routine before Mrs. Candido started showing up. The cotton was gone from his ears. He’d even written music for us to play while we marched before the judges at the Riverview competition—piece to get their attention, something contemporary to go with the classic “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
“A little something original,” he bragged to Mrs. Candido before he struck up the band, “something you can bet nobody else will be playing.”
Sovereign had transcribed and arranged Bill Haley and the Comets’ hit, “Rock Around the Clock,” for marching band.
His arrangement began with the glockenspiels tapping out “One o‘clock, two o’clock, three o’clock,” and then the whole band shouting out “Rock!” The tubas picked it up: “Four o‘clock, five o’clock, six o’clock,” and we shouted “Rock!” Then the other instruments—flutes, cornets, trombones—counted out the remaining hours on the clock, winding up to our final “Rock!”— a shout punctuated by the drums, which launched the entire band into a swinging march beat we emphasized by swinging our horns as we played.
Mrs. Candido drove slowly along Cermak, part of the parade. It was hot and sunny, but the top was up on the Buick as it always was, no matter how bright the day. It made me wonder why she wanted a convertible.
Sid Sovereign, wearing a kid-size maroon cape that looked on him like an askew napkin, led us with the kind of baton that twirlers throw. A cigarette bobbed from the corner of his lip, and his gait wouldn’t have passed the walk-a-straight-line test at a DUI stop. He was definitely marching under the influence and probably couldn’t have managed to be out here sober. He signaled for us to turn down California Avenue. Mrs. Candido got caught at a red light, and Sovereign held us up, marching in place until the Buick turned down California, too. He had told us that we were only going to march once around the block, but we’d already gone farther than that and were on our fourth chorus of “When the Saints.” As soon as her white convertible caught up with us again, we marched the few blocks to the elevated station for the Douglas Park “B.” In the blaze of sunlight, the shadows of the El tracks and girders latticed the pavement. It felt cooler stepping into them, and our playing was graced with the resonance that shadow imparts to sound. I could see the people waiting on the platform for the “B” grinning down at us. A two-car El train clattered over, the screech of its braking steel wheels about as in tune as we were. Sid Sovereign signaled with the baton for us to stop playing but to continue marching in place.
I figured the El was the point he’d been heading for and now we’d turn back to the Boys’ Club. The El station was the kind of boundary that doesn’t show up on street maps. East of the tracks was Little Village, with its Ambros and Two-Twos and Disciples graffiti; west was a narrow stretch of No-Man’s-Land and then the African American neighborhood of Douglas Park, embossed with the graffiti of the Insane Unknowns.
The “B” train overhead clapped its doors shut and rattled off downtown to its own rhythm.
“Oh, yeah!” Sovereign hollered, waving the baton as if directing the train’s departure. The baton had become his scepter, and he saluted Mrs. Candido, who had all the windows open and waved back. She was wearing sunglasses and a picture hat that looked too big for the interior of the Buick—one more reason to drop the top. Sovereign regally sceptered at the commuters descending from the station. They looked surprised to see a band awaiting their arrival.
“Oh, yeah!” Sovereign yelled to no one in particular. “I feel we could march all the way to Riverview!”
I pictured the Blue Streak, Shoot the Chutes, Aladdin’s Palace, and the Rotor, a ride whose centrifugal force pinned you to a wall, defying gravity when the floor dropped out.
“I think he’s on speedballs,” Miguel Porter said.
“Okay, my little hepcats, my little mariachis,” Sovereign yelled. “Okay, now let me hear it! A one, two, and glockenspiels, yeah!”
The glocks started pinging “One o‘clock, two o’clock, three o’clock.” We all shouted “Rock!” and Sovereign gave a little hop and landed yelling “ka-POW!” This was the one part of the song I could keep up with, and I was into it, too. The bystanders from the El train cheered. Sid Sovereign yelled, “Oh yeah, baby, tubas! Tubas give it to me, baby, oh yeah, let me have it!” We gave it to him: an oompahed “four o’clock, five o’clock, six.” Sovereign pointed the baton straight ahead, and to the roar of “Rock!” and of a “B” train screeching in, we marched under the tracks and out the other side into No-Man’s-Land.
The pavement thumped beneath our synchronized, rock-steady, maroon columns, and for the first time I managed to keep my place in the music and dared to play louder, suddenly recalling a dream in which Uncle Lefty’s clarinet could play itself. Playing felt automatic, as if the band glided on a conveyor belt of the music we blew before us. People, more and more of them black, stepped from doorways and threw their upper-story windows open to gape. Pumping the baton like a drum major, Sid Sovereign led us through stop signs without stopping as if we had the immunity of a funeral. When the green of Douglas Park appeared, Mrs. Candido began honking her horn, and Sid Sovereign, pretending to toot the baton as if it were a clarinet, and yelling, “Oh yeah, baby, pow, pow, pow! bass drum!” bowed in her direction. He must have thought she was musically tooting her automobile horn, adding a touch of Spike Jones, though what she actually signaled was, Where the hell are you taking my little Julio?
Sovereign hadn’t noticed that our parade had grown longer. We’d attracted a group of black kids who’d been hitting a softball in the park. Other kids from Douglas Park had joined them. They were marching in the gutter beside our column, and still more were running in our direction. Maybe Sovereign thought that music afforded us some dispensation and that everyone simply wanted to join in the fun as if we were Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
It almost looked that way at first. The new paraders from Douglas Park seemed to be enjoying themselves—laughing at our uniforms, marching backward, colliding into our ranks, and yelling, “Pow! Pow! Pow! motherfucker.” A lanky guy in a shower cap codirected us with a softball bat, mimicking Sovereign’s baton technique. We marched with our eyes fixed straight ahead, as if oblivious to the growing chaos at our flanks and the shouts of “You disturbing the peace!” But it was impossible to ignore the guy in the shower cap suddenly whacking the bass drum with the bat, radically changing the beat. We were heading along a sidewalk across the street from the park when out of an upper-story window someone emptied a pot of water into the tubas. A bottle crashed down. Voices yelled, “Hey! Shut that honky shit up down there!” The bass drum player was in a tug-of-war with a kid who wanted the trophy of a fuzzy mallet, while the shower-capped guy with the bat kept banging the drum.
We were double-timing, triple-timing, nearly jogging and still playing—I was back to droning middle C—and a confetti of garbage fell from windows and roofs. Sovereign was hit in the head—for an instant it appeared his skull had exploded, but it was just a tomato. He staggered and, looking stunned, directed us to turn down a side street. Mrs. Candido, blaring her horn nonstop, screamed, “Julio! Julio!” Julio broke ranks and ran for the car as a half-eaten pizza Frisbeed down, splatting the convertible top and windshield. It looked comical to see Mrs. Candido’s wipers working as she gunned away. I wished I was in the Buick with Julio—they wouldn’t hear a peep from me about the top being up—and when the car disappeared I felt abandoned.
A band member’s trombone was now in the possession of a guy whose biceps were not tattooed but branded with gang insignia, and who was busy working the slide to produce brassy lipfarts. A kid about my age, smiling cheerfully beneath the brim of a White Sox hat nesting on an Afro, grabbed for my clarinet. I wrenched it away, filled with sudden panic over having to tell Uncle Lefty, if he ever returned from California, that I’d lost his horn. The band broke into a disorganized jog, and then we were running, abandoning horns and glockenspiels, the drummers trapped in their harnesses, every man for himself in full retreat. I cut from the pack, down another side street and another.
The itchy cape flared behind me, tugging at my throat, perfect for someone to grab and pull me down. Voices shouted, but I didn’t turn to see who was chasing. My ill-fitting hat flew off, then my sheet music, and next the clip-on music stand, but I kept a grip on the clarinet. I was fast, the fastest kid in my school. I might be tenth clarinet, but I was first in every footrace, and the spats buttoned above my PF flyers seemed to make me faster still, as if I’d added winged heels. I thought I was fleeing in the direction of No-Man’s-Land but wasn’t sure. The streets were a blur and I had a stitch in my side, but I kept running. On an impulse I turned down a side street I hoped would lead back onto California. My gym shoes splashed through water, not puddles but a current that swirled the rubbish out of the gutters. The street was flooded: every hydrant opened, boards jammed in their geysering mouths, fanning pressurized water into the prismatic mist of phantom rainbows. I was in a strange neighborhood that expressed its anarchy in water, a village on the shore of pouring hydrants. Its inhabitants wore wet clothes plastered to their bodies and cavorted through the torrents. A young Spanish girl in shorts stood beside the fountain of a red fire pump, her arms spread as if she were balancing on ripples. She was humming aloud to herself—a tune without a language, maybe her secret fire-pump song.
“Hey, Clarinet Boy,” she singsonged, and I stopped and stood, catching my breath. “Play something,” she said and gestured for me to come through a curtain of spray. And, as if I belonged there, I stepped to the shelter of where she waited beneath a cascading canopy of water.
“What you want to hear?” I asked, as if I could play anything.