December 03, 2008

American Half-Breed

By Dave Peterson © 2008

Ghosts of Christmas past.

Here's something I never told you before. It's 21 December 1991, I'm walking through a flat, gray day. It is bitter cold and everywhere around me is ice and dirty snow. At my side is one of my prized possessions, an American Standard Fender Precision Bass Guitar. I don't want to do what I'm about to do, but I've run out of options.

I open the pawn shop door and feel a blast of heat and the smell of tobacco smoke and desperation. There is a line of people this close to Christmas-- junkies, boozers, and people like me. Or maybe I'm like them. Sometimes the lines are blurred. A man with bad teeth asks me what I've got. The case is tattered but it's what's inside that counts. He barely hides his surprise when he flips the lid but in typical pawn broker fashion he tells me, "This is junk man, we can't use it."

It's a lie. It's a lie he tells all the time to thieves who have no idea what they possess. I know better though and he soon realizes this. He sees that I'm cold and I'm broke and scared at the thought of turning up for the family holiday empty-handed.

"Fifty bucks kid, highest I can go."

"FIFTY? this is an American Standard Fretless, when was the last time you saw one of these?"

"O.K., look it's Christmas, I'll go to a hundred."

$100 for a $1,500 classic instrument. A month to return with the original hundred plus interest or they keep it. Great. Fuck. I wonder if he was trying to do me a favor?

My engineer boots have steel toes and steel shanks in the sole. They magnify the cold on my feet. My leather jacket gets stiff with cold. I think about hopping on a bus but I'm too pissed off and I don't want to waste dough on a two mile ride. Instead, I go into a liquor store and buy a pack of smokes. I walk and I smoke alternating hands in pockets. It seems like everything is uphill, slippery, and barren.

The band has a gig on New Year's Eve which will be the next time I see any money. Perhaps the most interesting problem is I've just hocked the instrument I play on stage most of the time. I have an old upright bass, but as of yet I haven't really learned to play it. I've got problems. I need gifts for my family. I need some food and I'm beginning to worry about frostbite. The gifts were similar in nature. To my youngest brother, a pint of Jim Beam Rye whiskey and ten bucks. Merry Xmas bro! The others received things they liked. I did the best I could.

I spent the next few days in a frenzy, trying to learn to play the upright bass, wondering why the holidays always made me feel so alone. I mooched smokes, booze, and meals wherever and whenever I could. The musicians in Denver took care of each other in times like these. Marilyn, the hippie who owned the Mercury Cafe, was a total sucker for musicians. Anytime you were broke and torn up she'd be there with a hot bowl of soup and some homemade bread. Pete Nalty was always good for cheap gin and conversation.

On December 23rd, I was going slowly insane in my tiny apartment. It was on the ground floor and had radiator heat which meant it was always around ninety degrees inside. Opening a window at night or when I wasn't home was asking for trouble so I didn't dare. I had to get out. I had to do something.

It was a rare night when all of my friends were otherwise committed or out of touch. I made the five block walk to the Cricket. The band played there. I knew the bartender; my band paid this guys rent and we always took care of him. I knew he'd take care of me.

"Jeff, I've got ten bucks can you get me loaded for ten bucks?" It was a lie, I had fifteen, but I wanted a slice of pizza on the way home.

"For you? Yeah, man."

I forked over my ten dollar bill and Jeff put the money in the tip jar. He filled a glass with ice and whiskey. It burned on the way down. First thing I'd actually felt in days. The regulars were there. Might have been the only time I ever really talked to Denver Joe Vasquez. He was always friendly towards me but mainly by association to my brother. Joe loved my brother for reasons I didn't understand until much later in life.

Joe and I talked for a bit. Made fun of the college kids in the place and agreed that the band that night couldn't finish soon enough for either of us.

I had no idea how many drinks I had, but time passed and I went from feeling warm and mellow to wondering if I might pass out in the street on my walk home. I stumbled to the bathroom and puked violently. I came back to the bar and Jeff had switched my whiskey out for a beer. He nodded knowingly.

Just then as fate would have it, the booking agent for the Cricket walked in the door. His name was Rick and booking bands was really a second job for him. He also dealt blow and God knows what else.

"Rick, I got a fiver and I'm too fucked up to walk home, straighten me out will ya?"

"What? Dude, I got no idea what you're talking about."

"Come on Rick, I know."

As a rule, I didn't do drugs and the Denver music community knew this. Rick looked really surprised. Or maybe I was yelling.

A few minutes passed. I nursed my beer and swayed on my barstool struggling to stay awake.

"Hey Dave," Rick called. "Let's go back to the office and see when we can get you guys here in January and February."

I followed him to the back room and we actually made some dates for the band. With business concluded Rick says, "You got that fiver?" I pulled the crumpled bill from my pocket.

"I don't want you making a habit of this."

Fuckin' dealer preachin' at me. This was low.

I nodded as Rick tapped out two short lines on the desk. I felt disgusted with myself...for a minute anyway. This was just enough blow to put me back on my feet. I thanked my dealer and walked out of the office. I was fine, better than fine. I felt great.

With closing time came despair. I was wide awake and had nowhere to go but home. I paced in my apartment until well after sun up, when I finally threw caution to the wind and opened a window and went to sleep.

There is no hangover in the world like a coke hangover. I woke up as the sun was setting on Christmas Eve. Someone would be coming for me on Christmas morning to take me to my grandparents' house. The holiday would come and go. There would be commiseration and food and laughter. Somehow, no matter how dysfunctional my family was, Christmas always managed to be pretty good.

I never got the loot to get my bass out of hock. Gigs and money came and went. Shitty little jobs I picked up with good intentions never panned out.

That bass is out there somewhere. My blood, my sweat still on the instrument. I hope someone is playing it. Loving it more than I did.

David Peterson is an ex-soldier, musician, geek, degenerate, and a complete jackass hoping to one day get what's coming to him.

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