JD sure changed. Pretty fast, too. When I met him he was in his early twenties, fresh out of the Army and Vietnam, where he earned a bunch of medals in combat. He was also a musician, a hell of a player with a knack for arranging. His bands were always well rehearsed, tight and on the beat. Rhythm was JD’s specialty. He played rhythm guitar, played it like nobody else.
For small gigs when he could not afford to hire a full band, his rhythm work propelled the music and filled the room. When the stage was filled with a full complement of players, JD’s guitar worked with the drummer and bassist like meshing gears of a slick machine. The sound of his bands was always funky, fun and straight to the point. Slick without being over complicated.
Bands being what they were though, and the music scene being what it always was, it was tough to make a dollar. Players would come and go, club owners would nickel and dime you. Then JD met Kerry Lyons, a lounge singer between bands who had lots of connections for steady work in the wise guy circuit, the wise guy circuit being the saloons all over New York City patronized by gangsters. The money was good and the work plentiful.
So together JD and Kerry formed The My Ways, and soon were gigging steadily all over town entertaining the made men and wannabes of the mob along with their gum-popping girlfriends. JD enlisted a core membership of Jimmy Handsome on bass and Charlie Conga on percussion, a small ensemble suitable for any size venue. In larger clubs, this quartet was augmented by a drummer and sometimes a keyboard man or perhaps a lead guitarist. That’s where I came in from time to time.
JD loved the way I play guitar, so very different from his own style. I loved playing with him for the same reason. Playing with JD made my job a lot easier. His rhythm guitar did all the heavy lifting, so to speak, and I was free to shine. I didn’t much care for all the music we had to play for the wise guys, but the money was good and it was pleasure to play in such a tight band.
So, for about a three-year period, I was a featured player from time to time in The My Ways, going under the stage name Benny Fingers thanks to Kerry, who also gave Jimmy Handsome and Charlie Conga their nicknames. I even made a name for myself in some of the mob joints and it was sometimes insisted upon that I join the band in certain nightclubs. The fact that none of us was Italian except for Jimmy Handsome struck me as odd. Kerry was a Jew, Charlie was Cuban and I’m a mixed bag of Spanish, French and Irish. The drummer Wayne who worked like myself occasionally with the band was of English-Scots ancestry and JD described himself as “pure Shanty Irish in the worst sense.”
But we played the doo-wop, the R&B, the disco, some rock & roll and the sappy Italian standards with a healthy helping of Sinatra songs thrown in for good measure. Truth be told, Kerry Lyons wasn’t much of a singer, but he had a certain professional quality about him and was able to deliver a song capably within the limits of his vocal talent. The band of course was superb, with or without myself and Wayne or a piano player, so the mob guys kept The My Ways working steady, which is more than could be said of some of my own bands.
It was a surreal existence for JD. He always dressed well, but slowly his wardrobe began to reflect the wise guy sensibilities; silk shirts with wide open collars, pastel dress slacks and alligator shoes, set off by a few oversized gold chains. He was on a first name basis with some of the scariest gangsters in New York, welcome in any of their hangouts.
We were drinking buddies back then and on off nights we’d go to Cookie’s Steak Pub where we’d never eat steaks but instead drink in their huge lounge and make time with the many beautiful cocktail waitresses there. JD took charge of what music was played in the jukebox and before long it was offering an eclectic sample of American and British popular music, from The Beatles to Kool and the Gang, James Brown, James Taylor, Dusty Springfield, The Spinners, The Temptations, Buffalo Springfield, Dylan and just about anybody who had a record that caught JD’s ear. His taste was always excellent and the great jukebox soon became a drawing card for the place.
So we drank and talked music and made love to waitresses. The man could drink like a tuna and seemingly be none the worse for wear. Sometimes we’d trade stories about our lives. It seems JD grew up near the docks in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park where his father sometimes worked when he wasn’t drinking, which was not very often. When he was about age nine, his Mom died of cancer at their home, charging JD’s father on her deathbed with taking good care of JD. His sister, his only sibling, was already married by then, a teenage bride about to give birth to the first of her two sons.
JD’s father took the boy under his wing and taught him to be a street hustler, scamming money in saloons and stealing luggage in bus terminals and airports. His life changed at age thirteen when among their hauls at the airport was an electric guitar and JD insisted they not sell it. He learned to play it and before long was playing in bands, making his own money his own way and having fun. This turn of events seemingly turned his father against him, having lost his baby-faced accomplice in his scams. JD was forced to part company with the old man after some drunken violent incidents and lived thereafter alternately with his sister, her husband and nephews or with other young musicians sharing small apartments.
He never did go to high school, instead receiving what might be politely called an alternative education, and his street smarts and savvy served him well during his tumultuous teenage years. He’d sort of fallen through the cracks of recorded and recognized society. No truant officer ever looked for him, no social workers ever visited the homes he shared with his Dad or with his fellow vagabonds. The only government agency that took any notice at all of him was the Draft Board.
He ignored the first few summonses from them, having no wish to join the army and even less desire to go to Vietnam. The war over there was then at one of its pinnacles, with the North Vietnamese mounting large ferocious campaigns that our government was certain they were incapable of doing. Tell that to the mothers in every neighborhood whose boys came home in body bags. At any rate, the Draft Board was persistent and JD knew it was either jail or the service so he took leave of his bands, his buddies and his girlfriend and became a soldier. He figured maybe he’d luck out and get sent to Germany or Guam or someplace where there was no unpopular war going on.
To his great surprise he excelled in boot camp. He was very good at shooting guns and was already in pretty good physical shape, as are most nineteen-year olds. The regimented life, so opposite that of his chaotic upbringing and his years on his own, agreed with him. He thrived. There were people to tell him what to do, people who knew what they were doing. Right and wrong were sharply defined. The make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach had no place in the Army, and he liked it, the structure, the rules and the clearly defined goals that were the essence of his training. He loved being a GI.
At the end of his training he didn’t even mind that he was heading to the Vietnam war. His trust in the Army was complete, and the training he had received would surely prepare him for the hazards he would face there. Of course he was apprehensive on the long flight across the Pacific, but he was determined to do his best to repay the Army for the good life they had given him.
“First day I got there,” he told me, “it was hot as hell, like no kind of heat ever in this country. We were soaked to the skin in sweat right off the bat and we sort of stayed that way for the next year. Anyway, all these GI’s looking tough and ragged and needing a shave were all over the place, poking fun at us and calling us new meat and things like that. Our sergeant calls us over, about thirty of us, and starts to try and fill us in about what to expect and whatnot. I was eager to hear it, too, since I really didn’t have all that much of an idea about what this was all about. I mean, hell , I wanted to go home again, that was the extent of my plans. Before we got on the plane in San Diego we saw the body bags being unloaded, lots of them…
“…anyway, he’s not even finished roll call when a mortar round lands in the middle of the bunch of us. Boom! I felt like a brick wall pushed me across a room, but I felt around all over and I’m not bleeding from anyplace so I’m kind of relieved. The smoke and dust clears, though, and I see what I got hit with. It was this kid’s leg who was across from me in the circle. ‘So that’s what this is all about’ I tell myself.”
He spent the next year as a point man in the jungles of Vietnam. A point man is the guy who goes first in jungle patrols, checking for enemy activity and booby traps. It was a job for which he volunteered, not wishing to trust the job to others he deemed less vigilant than himself.
“I had great eyes. I could see through trees, they said, and I picked up lots of traps and lots of VC in our path. Pretty wild for a kid who had never seen any more trees than were in Prospect Park. And that country had some real jungle, let me tell you. I freaked out when we ran across wild elephants a couple of times and once I even saw a huge tiger eating a monkey. Freaky stuff, let me tell you.
“They’d fly us out in helicopters to a clearing in the middle of nowhere with a map that led us to the north of nowhere and told us to kill any enemy we found along the way. Sometimes you’d see nobody and that was a good trip. When that happened the officers were pissed off but screw them, it wasn’t our fault. We always went where we were supposed to go. Then they’d send us right back out again to some other middle of nowhere and we’d do it again.
“When I spotted VC out there I’d signal the guys and we’d line up and shred the woods in front of us with an awesome amount of firepower. A squad of GI’s can really lay it down, I’ll tell you. My own weapon of choice was a big automatic rifle that doubled as a shotgun and tripled as a grenade launcher. Sometimes we’d find a bunch of bodies, sometimes not, maybe some blood, and sometimes there’d just be a dead monkey or wild pig or something.
“Lots of times we’d find all kinds of booby traps, like packs of Marlboros wired up to explode, phony batches of official looking papers, which we knew was bullshit ‘cause these guys didn’t write much down. There’d also be poison spike holes, trip wires, all kinds of traps. You had to be super alert. All the guys had to follow exactly where I walked for safety.
“We had this one guy, some kinda hippy from California or someplace like that, liked to catch butterflies. I was always telling him cut that shit out and stay in formation but he didn’t listen ‘cause I didn’t outrank him. Got his ass blown to shreds when he triggered a booby trap chasing another butterfly and the explosion signaled the VC where we were and the next thing you know we’re getting shelled by their artillery which was zeroed in on the trap. The first shell landed right where the butterfly boy’s body was. We never even got his dog tags, never mind his body. We booked outta there in a flash. After that, the guys followed in my footsteps like they’re supposed to.
“When we’d bed down at night I’d set traps of my own around our perimeter to discourage the VC from sneaking in and stabbing us in our sleep. I used the high E strings from a guitar as a trip wire, real thin gauge you could barely see, wired to guitar picks that slid out of the contact switches without a sound. In a year my traps killed two monkeys, a wild pig and one VC and wounded a couple more. It was rare that these guys would show themselves in any strength, which was okay by me ‘cause when they did you’d have a real firefight on your hands. Those cats were some good damned soldiers, both the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese regular army, ‘been doing it for years and years, most of ‘em. Knew the terrain, picked the time and place for fighting, then melted back into the jungle when the jets showed up. Nothing like a John Wayne movie, that war.
“I always thought that wars were like, you know, we’re over here they’re over there, one of us attacks, land changes hands and you hold onto what some of you died for. You win, you lose, whatever, but you know what you’re doing, or at least trying to do. There’s supposed to be an idea, a plan of some kind. There sure was in training. In ‘Nam, though, it was just… nothing, no plan at all or a bunch of people arguing over the best plan and we’re just the grunts, you know? The guys who have to actually do the work, and we’re waiting for the plan, looking up to these guys, these officers who are supposed to know. Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it, you know? But it seems like they don’t know, that there ain’t no plan.
“But I’ll tell you what, the other guys sure had a plan, and lots of energy to carry it out. Don’t know how they did it in that friggin’ heat. They’d carry artillery and heavy equipment in small pieces by hand through tiny jungle trails, over mountains and into all kinds of tunnels. Somebody had to dig those tunnels, too, so they must have been at it for a real long time. It’s not like they had bulldozers or anything like that. Miles and miles of ‘em, all dug by hand and lots of them had a bunch of guys living in them. Women, too. Some of the VC were women. Even their field hospitals were underground.
“So after you’re there a few weeks it kind of dawns on you that the brass got their heads up their asses … guys are dying needlessly…land that was fought and died for is just given right back to the enemy for free … and now you’re wondering what happened to your army, the army you got to know during training, the army that had all the answers… what bullshit…
“And now you’re stuck there for a year and the reason you fight changes. You fight to survive, you fight for your buddies because you get real close to these guys and it sucks when one of them dies. New officers come and go and sometimes give you speeches and pep-talks about America and all this shit but it ain’t like that, ain’t like that at all. Some of them go out there with you all gung-ho and shit and you can’t stand that kind of asshole. They just put your guys in danger. For what?
“They don’t realize we’re just trying to get home. Hell, the VC realized that right away and our own officers didn’t. Some of ‘em wised up after a few trips out in the field. Saw some shit out there that made ‘em realize the score. Those were the guys you wanted leading you, guys who tried to avoid firefights like we did. Shit, you got in enough of them without purposely looking for one. Why push it? The law of averages sucks. I don’t care how good you are out there, and we were damned good soldiers, the odds were against you. A mortar, a trap, a bullet, an artillery round, that’s just the luck of the draw. We weren’t winning this war anyway. Everybody knew that, the way we were fighting it.”
JD survived his year in combat and came home to Brooklyn after a two year absence. No parades or praise awaited him here. A chest full of medals and an honorable discharge didn’t open any doors for him job-wise. He still didn’t have a high school diploma and the only training he received from the United States Army was that of a combat infantryman, a killer of men that has no parallel position in civilian society. This was well before the “Be all that you can be” and the “Army of One” ad campaigns that paint the armed services as sort of technical colleges where the students also get to carry cool weapons.
So JD moved in with his sister and her family and took one menial job after the next and put up with people ridiculing Vietnam Vets. The war was getting increasingly less and less tolerated by the American public the longer it dragged on. JD remarked that the only Americans who liked it less than the critics of the war were those that had to fight it. When public outcry finally led to a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1974, JD’s only comment was “Where were all these people when I was getting drafted?”
A year after coming home JD rented an apartment with our mutual friend Wayne Edmonds, an excellent drummer I had known and played with on and off for years. This is when I met JD and we first played music together. We were involved in different bands then and so didn’t get around to forming one together until years later, after the breakup of The My Ways. We formed a strong friendship, however, and tried to play together whenever we could. He was delighted when the success of The My Ways enabled him to hire what he considered top talent like myself and Wayne and another friend of ours, a talented keyboard man named Jack St. James.
After a three-plus year run doing the mob joints, The My Ways went the way of all bands and broke up. Kerry the singer contracted a disease that would eventually blind him and the band was growing tired of the sleazy, sometimes dangerous atmosphere in the mob joints. So that was that, and I was also between bands at this point so JD and I joined forces to form a band to play music I had been writing. We played the rock clubs in Manhattan, made some recordings and had a few bites from record companies and had a hell of a lot of fun. At the same time we both joined a blues outfit called The Roadrunners that would eventually become my current band of long standing, The Saints.
Those days it was music, music, music. It was also drinking, drinking, drinking. Our bands were not as drug oriented as lots of others were back then (not exactly drug free either, but not overboard), but hard drinking seemed to go hand in hand with hard playing, or so we assumed. I don’t think any of us gave it much thought, it was what went on. We were young and aggressive and out for fun and we sure had some. Lots of wonderful women, too.
But things changed. JD changed fastest of all. He became erratic almost overnight and the booze affected him a lot where as before he could take it in stride. His playing never suffered and he’d be all business at gigs. Then he started missing rehearsals, becoming belligerent and unreasonable with other players. Some good guys left the bands rather than deal with him.
He started keeping erratic hours, shedding the last vestiges of his Army training. His body chemistry also seemed to change radically at this time. When most people are out drinking, at a certain point they decide they’ve had enough and go home or get very tired and pass out. Not JD. He all of sudden got a freakish energy from booze, never wanting to go home and finding all sorts of after-hours places to drink at all night long. Nobody he knew had any idea where he was and what sort of trouble he was getting into next when he started one of these marathons.
Calls from police precincts at any hour of the day or night ceased to be a surprise after a year or so. He’d show up at my door sometimes drunk and disheveled and proceed to drink every drop of alcohol in my home before passing out for two days. Once he even drank two bottles of anisette I had lying around since he had polished off everything else the binge before this one.
“JD, enough already!” I’d yell at him from time to time, knowing I was wasting my breath. “Look at you, man! I used to look up to you and now you’re half a friggin’ bum. What happened to the GQ wardrobe? Whatever happened to having a damned girlfriend?”
People that met him in those sad days assumed he was always a crazy man who cared little for himself. I tried to tell people that this wasn’t the real JD, this was not the guy I knew for years as a steady pro on stage and a fun companion off it. After a while, though, I realized like everybody else that this new, unbalanced JD was who he now was and my old buddy wasn’t coming back. The years went on and he was in and out of the bands, depending on his state, and even when he was on his best behavior it was an adventure working with him.
One time we were booked for three nights in a place and he had to wear giant sunglasses onstage the whole time to hide the two black eyes he couldn’t recall getting. Another time, one of our band mates, Beau Dax, had an uncle who just died. JD and I helped Beau clean out his late uncle’s apartment. As it turned out Beau’s uncle and JD wore the exact same size clothing and suddenly JD had a new wardrobe, that of a seventy-eight year old man. Most of it was of course discarded, but things like overcoats and business suits and sweaters and stuff were just fine, and then there was, Lord help us, the canary yellow leisure suit. JD’s eyes lit up.
“Oh, no!” said Beau. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Oh, no!” I echoed, knowing exactly what he meant.
JD was back in the Roadrunners on a trial basis and we had a real good gig lined up starting that night and going for five nights. We had warned JD that if he screwed this up we were through. That night he showed up in the yellow suit with a Panama hat and a Hawaiian shirt and actually didn’t look too bad, natty in a bizarre sort of way. When you’re a blues band people sort of expect you to be eccentric so JD was looking the part in canary yellow. The first night went off smoothly. After the gig JD promptly disappeared, explaining that he wanted to show off his new suit back in Brooklyn. Beau and I exchanged wary glances and crossed our fingers.
The second night JD showed up right on time and sober but dressed exactly the same. I knew he hadn’t been home but he looked fine and neat and clean so I had nothing to say. After the show, he again pulled a vanishing act and the next night showed up again in the yellow suit, only this time he looked decidedly rumpled and he was in bad need of a shave. Beau and I figured that he at least caught some sleep somewhere, who knows where, and slept in his clothes. After that night’s show, we took him aside and asked him what the hell is going on.
“Just havin’ some fun, boys. Why don’t you guys come out with me tonight?”
“We’re already out,” answered Beau, “and we like it just fine here. Why don’t you stick around for awhile and go home with Ben and get cleaned up for tomorrow?”
“What’s wrong with my suit?”
“Other than wearing it for three straight days and sleeping in it, not much. Do all of us a favor and stay close by tonight, JD.”
“No thanks, Beau. I don’t need a friggin’ babysitter. I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” said Beau softly to JD’s rapidly retreating back.
Well, the next night our fears were realized. He shows up in the yellow suit again, but now he’s got no shirt on underneath it, one lapel is hanging off the jacket and one knee is torn on the trousers and stained with blood. He’s got stains and smudges all over the place and is also sporting a big black eye.
“Nice hair shirt,” was all Beau said as he walked in.
“You’re coming home with me tonight, JD! Don’t give me any shit or I’ll pop you in your other eye! Now let’s get to work.”
The drummer lent him a shirt, I lent him a sports coat and we bought him a pair of pants in a discount store around the corner from the club and the show went off pretty well. Somehow his binge drinking didn’t hurt his playing. Afterwards we made sure he came home with me after we stopped at his place and picked up another of Beau’s dead uncle’s suits, this one a classic pinstriped affair, charcoal gray with black stripes. We selected a sharp black dress shirt with a white tie to go for the faux-gangster look for the stage the next night.
I brought him home and refused to even let him sit down on anything until he’d taken a long hot shower. I confiscated the yellow suit, his socks and underwear of four days standing and threw them in the garbage. While he showered and shaved I polished his shoes and ironed his clothes. He might be messed up, I’m thinking, but for our final night he’s going to look like the old JD.
So he gets out of the shower looking good aside from his shiner and tells me not to worry, he’s going to lay low tonight and not go out looking for trouble. He must have read my face because that was exactly what I was afraid of, that he’d see the sharp looking duds all laid out for him and disappear into the Brooklyn night to show himself off and get punched in the eye again. We turned in, got some good rest and went to a diner for a hearty breakfast just before noon the following day. We went back to my place, pulled out a couple of acoustic guitars and went to work on arranging a song I had just written.
JD was brilliant that afternoon, giving the song a whole new feel with a dynamic, innovative arrangement. I was as always astounded at his ability to grasp the essence of a piece of material and build an arrangement unique to the song, one that complements the material perfectly. “The song tells me what it needs,” is how he explained it. This was the JD I had known for so long. This was the JD I wanted others to know, a man in command of himself and his craft. I hoped he could sustain it and come back to himself. If not, then I was glad we had that afternoon together. I still use his arrangement on the tune, years and years later. A perfect arrangement never sounds dated.
Anyway, we went to that last night’s gig, all of us dressed to the nines for what was to be a special show. The place was jammed and the band was hot. We rocked the place up one side and down the other, JD in his mirror shades, Panama hat and gangster suit anchoring the whole thing with strong, sinuous rhythm. The show was so good the manager booked us for two other dates in the near future. The word of mouth on the shows had increased the attendance every night that week.
This show would surely generate heavy buzz for our other upcoming dates in other Manhattan joints. It was a good feeling, but it was mixed with apprehension over having to rely on JD. We would be very busy in the next few months and none of us thought that JD was up to being reliable for such a sustained period, but he was such a good player and a big part of our sound we were reluctant to toss him out after such a good show.
“I’ll speak to him,” I told Beau as we headed home to Brooklyn that night.
“Do you even know where he is?”
“Nope. He lit out right after the show, no doubt weighed down by a week’s pay.”
“He’ll be broke soon enough. He’ll turn up then. Geez, Ben, what the hell happened to JD?”
“Don’t really know. He started losing it a few years ago. Who knows, maybe it’s Vietnam, his life, some woman… who the hell knows? You ask him and he acts like he doesn’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah, right. Then he drinks for four days straight, breaking everybody’s balls in the process.”
“We’re not ones to talk, really,” I replied.
“Guess not, Ben, guess not. Too bad…”
Beau and I were no saints and we both knew it and didn’t pretend otherwise. We worked hard, played hard, drank hard and gave the women in our lives a hard time. Chased waitresses, smoked reefer, took drugs sometimes and stayed out all night a lot. Needless to say, our relationships with women were generally fleeting. Luckily we were guitar players so there were always more ladies around and no shortage of gorgeous waitresses in the nightclubs. So it was kind of hard for either of us to have a heart to heart with JD about his destructive lifestyle.
But JD was screwing up our band and we both knew it. One thing about me and Beau, we didn’t screw around with the music. We also had other responsibilities. I had two small sons with whom I conducted a good relationship and other jobs besides the music. Beau had… Beau had…let me see… Beau had the music, I guess. Anyway, we spoke no further that night about what to do about JD. Turns out JD solved it for us.
He went out that night and all day and the next and the next and the next, no doubt still wearing his pinstripe suit ensemble right into the ground and getting rank and grungy looking as the days wore on. He called me a couple of times, once in the middle of the night and once about ten in the morning, both times from bars with jukeboxes blaring in the background.
“Ben, come on out and meet me! I got some people here wanna meet you.”
“No thanks, JD,” I said both times and hung up the phone, leaving it off the hook for a while to discourage him. My days of drinking with JD were over. His mind was too disjointed to hold a lucid conversation and his manic booze-driven energy was annoying after about twenty minutes. I never wondered why he got those black eyes. He wasn’t a guy you could possibly dislike, but he sure had become a guy you could dislike hanging out with.
During this binge he blew off a few important rehearsals for am upcoming recording session, so Beau and I cancelled the recording and replaced JD with our good buddy Alby, a very talented slide guitarist. We also changed the name of the band to The Saints and revamped our sound so as not to have to rely on JD’s strong rhythm work. To this day The Saints owe a great deal musically to JD, but JD was gone from the band that week so many years ago.
This particular binge lasted about eight or nine days, an unprecedented length of time even for JD. I figure he slept maybe an hour or two here and there the whole binge and changed his clothes not at all. Towards the end of it, as I got the story in disjointed tidbits, he found himself in a park somewhere in Midwood about five in the morning, drinking a quart of beer from a brown paper bag.
A dog was running around the park with no owner in sight and JD began playing with the dog. They were having a good old time together when dawn broke and the dog answered nature’s call. As it happened, a Sanitation cop (There are such creatures in New York City, garbage men with guns and badges and the same powers of law enforcement and arrest as any regular cop.) happened along at that early hour, doing whatever it is that Sanitation Police do. He spots the dog doing his business and tells JD he’s got to clean it up, as per NYC law.
Nine days drunk and sleepless didn’t do much for JD’s communication skills and he refuses to clean up the dog crap, then takes a long pull from his beer. Another violation, the cop tells him, and proceeds to write him two tickets, one for the dog crap and one for the beer. JD gets unreasonable and the next thing he knows the Sanitation cop calls for backup. The regular police arrive and JD gets even more rambunctious and before he knows it he’s under arrest and in some police precinct house handcuffed to a radiator.
To their credit, the police saw that this was a huge fiasco and didn’t really want to run this pathetic guy in the torn-up suit through the criminal justice system just for drinking a beer in public since they believed that the dog didn’t really belong to JD. Technically even that violation didn’t exactly occur in public since the park was uninhabited except for JD and the stray dog. If JD wasn’t so loud and incoherent he probably wouldn’t have wound up in the police station and even now the cops who had just come on duty for the day shift were looking for a reason to get this smelly crazy man out of the place without invoking the need to fill out the extensive paperwork that a regular arrest or even worse, a commitment to the mental ward at Kings County Hospital would entail.
A sharp desk sergeant took stock of the situation and made a decision. He forced JD to drink three cups of black coffee and to wash up as best he could. He then gave him a telephone and instructed him to call someone, anyone who could justify the sergeant releasing him on his own recognizance. He saw what most would see, a troubled soul torturing himself. A long-time street cop, the sergeant realized locking this guy up would only make things worse for all concerned. The sergeant’s skin was thick enough to ignore JD’s ranting insults and his heart was compassionate enough to try to solve the problem unofficially. He handed JD the phone and the very first number he dialed did the trick. The only thing was that it was my father he called.
My Dad had worked for many years for the New York City Police Department, not as a police office, but a civilian employee, the department’s chief engineer, a manager for their buildings, and they had a ton of them. JD remembered this through the alcoholic fog. Since his army days he had an exaggerated reverence for civil authority and officialdom of any sort and included my father in this category, even though my Dad wasn’t a cop of any kind, but an engineer. He dialed my father’s number at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning. This is a recap of the conversation as related to me by my father when I visited him and my mother for lunch with my sons the next afternoon.
“Mister B, Mister B!”
“Who is this?
“Rats! Cheese eaters!”
“Yeah, Mr. B, it’s me. They got me locked up! You believe that?”
“Yes, I do.”
“No good cheese eaters! Rats, every one! The Garbage Police! It wasn’t even my dog!”
“JD, what the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m gettin’ the 45 today! The 45!”
“JD, calm down! Where the hell are you?”
“Locked up, Mr. B! Locked up by some rat Garbage cop, some no good cheese eater! And I’m gettin’ the 45! You gotta help me get outta here!”
“JD, shut the hell up a second and calm down. You hear me? Good, now tell me, are you in a police precinct? JD, do you understand me?”
“Yeah, I’m sorry, but these cheese eaters are drivin’ me nuts. I told ‘em I’m going right to the top, right to the top! That’s why I called you, Mister B.”
“JD, you know I’m not a cop. But do us both a favor, shut up for a second, calm yourself down and then tell me what the hell happened. I’ll help you if I can.”
“It wasn’t my dog! Not my damn dog. My beer but not my dog! This Garbage police cheese eater comes by and locks me up and I’m gettin’ the 45!”
“Alright, JD, now just shut up! Just shut your mouth. You hear me? Give the phone to the desk sergeant right now!”
“But I’m gettin’ the 45 today!”
“JD, shut the hell up and give me the sergeant or I hang up this phone right now and let you stay where you are!”
“Rats! Cheese eaters!”
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Last chance, JD. And shut the hell up about that damned .45!”
“Okay, okay, Mr. B. Talk to this guy, he’s okay.”
JD handed the phone to the desk sergeant.
“Sergeant McCall here. Who am I speaking to, please? You on the job?”
“I’m the Chief Engineer for the Department, Sergeant. My name is William Blanco, I work at 1 Police Plaza.”
“Headquarters, huh? I guess that’s good enough. You know this wacko?”
“Yes, unfortunately. He’s my son’s friend, plays in his band.”
“I think your son needs some new friends, no disrespect intended.”
“None taken, sergeant. Listen, this guy wasn’t always this way, let me tell you. He’s a good guy, a combat vet. He’s been a little nutty lately, that’s all.”
“A little? My lieutenant was here he’d be in G Ward right now down at Kings County.”
“Well listen, I appreciate your discretion here. The guy’s harmless, and really is a decent guy. Don’t know what’s gotten into him lately.”
“Yeah, well, I think he’s been drinking steady a coupla days by the look of him and he created a big stink out of nothing, really. I was in Vietnam, too, Mr. Blanco. Lot of vets are a little messed up nowadays.”
“Just what exactly did he do, anyway? Fighting in a bar or something?”
“Nothing so dramatic. Got picked up by a sanitation cop for an unleashed dog that crapped in some park and drinking beer in public. Turns out it wasn’t even his dog. And the beer thing is usually just a summons and a fine, no big deal, but the guy went a little ballistic and hadda be cuffed. I honestly don’t know what the hell to do with him and if he’d just have shut up he’d have been out of here hours ago.”
“He’s drunk as a skunk, sergeant. Believe me, he’s a different guy when he’s sober, a real sweetheart. I can tell you definitely he’s harmless, except maybe to his own liver.”
“They’re all like that. What about all this crap about a .45?”
“As far as I know he doesn’t even own a gun. I think it’s just the booze talking.”
“Well, it seems he’s winding down a little bit, Mister Blanco. Looks like his binge is catching up to him. Tell you what, if he stays quiet another fifteen minutes I’ll let him go. Understand, he’s gotta walk out of here calm. I can’t let a raving lunatic loose, then it’s my ass.”
“Understood. Listen, Sergeant McCall, is there anything your precinct needs? Building repairs, a paint job, better heat, that sort of thing. I can make that happen Monday morning.”
“Really. You name it.”
“Now that you mention it we froze our asses off here last winter.”
“Not this winter. I’ll have a man out there Monday. You on duty then? Good, he’ll ask for you by name. You’ll earn some points with your bosses, sergeant, I promise you. Your name will be on the work order. Here’s my number at work.”
“Thanks, Mr. Blanco. I’d have let him go anyway, but we really do need the heating fixed here.”
“Hey, you’re doing a good thing here, sergeant. I’m a combat vet myself.”
“No, thank God. I was in the one where God was on our side. I don’t envy you guys. We at least came home heroes, whether or not we actually were.”
“I think just not running away and hiding makes you a hero.”
“We had nowhere to run. I was in the navy. It was a long swim back.”
“Pacific war? My dad was there, too. You guys saw some hell out there.”
“You had a picnic, sergeant? What did you do?”
“Combat infantry, Army.”
“Just like JD. He earned a lot of chest salad, too, one of them a Silver Star. They don’t give those out for just showing up. How’s he doing, now?”
“Well, he’s quiet. Looks like he’s wound down. I guess I’ll kick him out before one of my bosses asks what he’s doing here. Just tell him… I don’t know what to tell guys like this, tell you the truth. Get some help, maybe. There’s Veteran’s outreach groups out there, but he’s gotta be ready for help. He doesn’t seem ready.”
“I don’t think so either. Listen, thanks a lot for giving him a break, he’s not a bad guy, really.”
“Actually, he’s kinda funny, in a sad way. And he’s not exactly a Dillinger, you know? Dog crap and beer drinking.”
“Only JD could get himself locked up for that.”
“Yeah, sad. But thanks again, and don’t forget, I owe you a heating system. My man’s name is Alfie Renna, and he’ll be there Monday around nine. So long now.”
So JD was released from police custody, his manic energy finally spent after more than a week of drinking and carousing, little of which he remembered. He got to his apartment deflated and depressed at nine Saturday morning and immediately flopped into his bed where he slept for the next twenty-four hours straight.
He rose Sunday morning bathed in a stinking sweat and peeled off his once snazzy outfit he had worn all week. He then spent the next hour in the shower scrubbing off the stench of a troubled soul. He shaved, dressed and then went to breakfast and to the laundromat. JD was reading the Sunday papers, catching up on what had been news during his lost week and waiting for the dryer to finish when he suddenly remembered he had an appointment soon. He had to go pick up the 45.
My boys were playing in the yard while I sat drinking coffee with my parents on their patio on a beautiful September Sunday afternoon. We were discussing JD. My Mom was very sad for him, she liked him a lot. JD in turn loved my mother and was always extravagantly respectful towards her. He and my Dad also got along well. My mother had been the first of them to notice the sudden changes in JD.
For one thing, he’d shown up at her house drunk from time to time, something the old JD would never do. For another, his impeccable wardrobe had gotten more and more seedy as he had very obviously ceased shopping for new clothes and was nursing along the old ones as best he could, like a man in a threadbare tuxedo. He was also often pasty looking and unshaven and lately had begun to look decidedly unhealthy.
“What on earth are you boys doing, Ben? I couldn’t bear to see these things happening to you. It’s bad enough seeing that dear boy go so bad.”
“I don’t go out with him anymore, Mom. The last couple of years or so I kind of gave up trying to baby sit him. He still comes by my place from time to time, you know, we’re still good friends, old friends, but…”
“Doesn’t he still work with your band?”
“Well, up until a week ago he did, but he skipped out on some very important sessions and we had to replace him. He really gave us no choice.”
“Oh, dear God,” said my mother, “is it as bad as all that?”
“He’s been drinking for ten days straight now, Mom. For all I know he went straight to a bar when Dad got him released. I’ve talked to him ‘til I’m blue in the face, but he won’t, or can’t help himself.”
“And what the heck is up with that gun?” demanded my father. “The more I think of it, the less sure I am that I did the right thing by helping him out.”
“Well, as far as I know he doesn’t keep a gun around. Says he’d had enough of them in the war. I know him about as well as anybody can, I suppose, and I’ve never seen him with a gun or even mention wanting one.”
“Well I should hope not!” said my Mom.
“Then why was he screaming about the .45 over and over, Ben?” demanded my father.
“Beats me, Dad. Must have been the alcohol talking. And Dad, I really appreciate you helping him out. Thank you.”
“Well he certainly can use help right now,” said my Mom. “My mother always said that people are most in need of love when they seem to deserve it the least.”
“Grandma was so cool, Mom. I still miss her.”
“She knew people, Ben. Cared about them, too.”
“That’s where you get it from.”
“I should hope so. I just wish she were still around sometimes. She’d know how to help JD.”
“I don’t think even Grandma could get through to him right now, Mom. Something inside him snapped a few years ago. Something deep inside.”
“It hurts to watch it.”
“It hurts me too, Mom. He’s a good, good friend and now I barely know him. Even the boys are leery of him and they used to love being around him”
“Kids and dogs,” my father interjected, “they’re never wrong about people.”
“Oh, don’t be so simplistic, Bill. This is a very dear boy we’re talking about.”
“I know, I know, Lil. I like him too. I just don’t like all that talk about a .45. And he’s a grown man, past thirty, I should think.”
“I just hope he doesn’t hurt himself,” said my mother.
“Worse than he has already?” added Dad. “I don’t think he should be around your boys anymore, Ben, at least not until you get the gun story cleared up.”
“Oh, I don’t think it’s as dire as all that, Dad. JD would never hurt anybody.”
“Well, when he got those black eyes a little while ago didn’t you notice that his
own knuckles were scraped up too?”
“That’s different.” I said. “That’s defending yourself.”
“Do you know that? Were you there?”
“No, and no. But I’ve been with him before in those situations. He’s very annoying when he’s been drinking awhile and every so often someone takes a swing at him, so naturally he swings back.”
“But it’s been quite a while since you went out drinking with him. For all you know he’s gotten worse, and maybe he’s the aggressor now.”
“Bill, that’s not JD,” said my mother, “no matter how low he sinks, he’ll always be who he is at heart, and I see a sweet man in there. Troubled, yes, but dangerous? I don’t think so. You are such a pessimist, Bill, I swear!”
“And you see the good in everybody, Lillian, whether it’s there or not!”
“You’re getting to be such a grump in your old age!”
As my parents continued their lifelong argument about the virtues of pessimism versus optimism, I noticed someone coming down the driveway. It was JD, looking better than he had in quite a while, dressed sharply in a white shirt, razor-creased slacks and a sports jacket, clean shaven and jaunty of step. Good, that means he’s had a decent amount of sleep, probably the better part of an entire day, I guessed.
“Mr. B,” he called loudly, “Mister B, I got the 45!”
My father looked up wide-eyed at the figure advancing across his yard.
“Hey, Mrs. Blanco! I got one for you, too.”
At which point my father moved in front of my mother as if to shield her.
“Benny, check out the 45!” he called to me as he reached inside his jacket.”
“Ben, get the kids out of here, fast!” cried my father, steeling himself for the bullet he was certain would come any second now.
JD revealed the 45 to all of us. Actually it was a whole stack of them, 45RPM records. Singles, they were called.
“You were talking about a…record?” my father asked JD incredulously.
“Sure, what did you think I was…Oh! A .45 caliber? You thought I was talking about a gun yesterday? No, never! I came over to thank you, Mr. B., and I figured I’d give you a copy of this 45. Your son Ben is on it too.”
“Me?” I asked. I didn’t remember making any records. 45’s were obsolete anyway by then, having long since been replaced by tape cassettes and shortly thereafter by CD’s. I had recorded lots of times but never thought to press a vinyl single.
“Yeah, Ben, remember that session we did for my buddy Nash Flynn a few months ago? You know, that tune Once You Try It?
“Yeah, now I remember. Nice guy. Not a bad song either. He made a record of it? For what?”
“Just to have. The guy loves vinyl. He’s got no band or anything, he just did the session for the experience, and now he pressed a bunch of 45’s. He loves our guitar work on it. It’s a vanity production but what the heck, we’re on a 45.”
My mother was laughing uproariously and my father kept alternately glaring hard at her and then at JD. Optimism had won the day. Dad looked like he still wasn’t so sure, like he wouldn’t ever give in to feeling good about anything.
“Mr. B, I really do want to thank you. I must have been really hard to understand. I’m sorry you had to hear me make an idiot of myself.”
“Sit down and have a cup of tea, JD,” said my mother. “How about a sandwich?”
“Thank you but no, Mrs. Blanco. “I have some packing to do.”
“Going on a trip, are you?” asked my mother.
“Sort of. I’m moving away. Sorry Ben, sorry about the band and the way I’ve been acting for a long time now, too long. I woke up today and decided to move up to the country, get myself away from here.”
“JD,” said my mother. “I know it’s none of my business, but have you considered the VA hospital? They have wonderful programs for veterans with special problems.”
“Thank you for referring to my being a drunk as a special problem, Mrs. B. You were always sweeter to me than I deserved.”
“Nonsense!” she replied. “You’re very special to me, JD, and you deserve any amount of fuss I’ve made over you.”
“Thanks, and to answer your question, there is a Veteran’s Hospital near where I’m moving. I intend to ask them to help me. And as far as it being none of your business, well, I guess I made it your business when I called here drunk. My troubles have been no secret. Your son won’t even go out with me anymore, not that I blame him much…”
“JD. I’m proud of you!”
“That means a lot to me, Mrs. B.”
“You’re doing the right, thing, JD,” said my father. “You were a hell of a soldier once. The VA owes you. It took a lot of courage to earn those medals you won and it takes courage to do what you’re doing now. Don’t let yourself down.”
“I’m going to give myself a shot. I’m thinking maybe I’m worth it.”
“No maybes about it, pal,” I said. “You better believe you’re worth it and then some. You don’t know how good this makes me feel. I’m gonna miss you, though.”
“Calling you up at night drunk or screwing up your band?”
“No, you. I’m really going to miss you.”
“Which me? The old one or this one?”
“Just you, JD. I saw the same guy all the time. You didn’t.”
We stood around the patio table silently a few moments, JD looking us over, me and my parents and my two little boys playing on the grass, seemingly oblivious to the adult drama taking place. I knew well that JD loved being around my family, not because we were perfect or anything but simply because we were a family, one that sat down to dinner together and celebrated the holidays together and so often had included him in our plans. This was something we took for granted but JD revered, having had so little of it in his lifetime. I was certain he’d miss us all. He was moved to speak but faltered a couple of times so we waited. There was no rush.
“Well, so long, Mr. and Ms. B. Thanks for everything over all the years. If you don’t mind, I’d like a word with Ben alone, please?”
My mom hugged him, my dad shook his hand and I called my sons over to wish Uncle JD a nice trip. He and I then took a slow stroll around the block on which I had grown up.
“I heard you guys replaced me. Don’t blame you. I’d have done the same to you way back when if you were hurting the music.”
“I know you would have. Nobody ran a tighter ship than you, JD.”
“I can’t believe I pulled so much crap these past few years. Don’t know what I was thinking.”
“I think you’d better try to figure it out. What made you decide to do this so suddenly? Was it this past week?”
“Nah, it’s been building up for a long while, a thought in the back of my head I tried to blot out, trying to tell myself I’m just a more relaxed guy nowadays, more laid back, instead of what I am, a friggin’ drunk. These past few weeks were the final straw, that’s all.”
“Well, I’m glad. Glad you’re going to turn things around.”
We walked in silence in through the neighborhood so familiar to me. Most of the neighbors I had known from childhood still lived there. Thankfully none of them were out and about to engage me in what normally would have been a welcome chat, a how’s-life-treating-you catch up conversation.
“I’m not sure I’m gonna make it. I’m pretty far gone….”
“What? Of course you’re gonna make it. You’re still the guy I looked up to for a lot of years, pal. Still look up to. Don’t let me hear that kind of talk!”
“I’m not kiddin’ myself here is all I’m sayin’, Ben. I don’t know if I can ever make it back. At this point I’d be happy to not lose any more pride and self respect. These past bunch of years, people who have met me don’t know me from back in the day, not like you know me, when I was in my prime.”
“Bull. Those people who make jokes about you only do it to feel better about themselves, figure they’re doin’ alright because they ain’t as bad off as old JD.”
“That’s a pretty easy standard to measure against, the way I’ve been goin’…”
“Exactly. That’s why you don’t need to worry about those idiots. Just worry about yourself. Don’t think about me, or Beau, or the band or anything. Just take care of yourself, J. You know you’re better than you’ve been acting. Hell, I know it!”
“There’s just so much to think about….”
“One thing at a time, pal. You don’t straighten your act up, nothing else matters. Dry out, get some help, then worry about that other bullshit. If you’re not right inside, you won’t be able to fix anything at all.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of, Ben. Today might just be my one lucid moment for the next year, and tomorrow I might just start pouring the booze down my throat again and never stop.”
“JD, cut it out! You’ve faced worse crap than this. You were on your own real young, you fought in a war, you played that crazy mob circuit for years. This is just one more battle…”
“I’m not so sure I’m gonna win this one. Maybe I used up my nine lives already, you know?”
“JD, look at yourself. You look better than you have in ages. You’re dressed sharp, you’re alert and you’re thinking clearly for the first time in I don’t know how long. You owe it to yourself to give it a good shot.”
“These clothes? Yeah, I’ve been saving them for a while. Even on my worst drunks, I wouldn’t wear them, knew I’d ruin them if I did, so I put some of my good stuff aside…”
“See, you were preparing for this day! Somewhere in your head you knew who you were and you saved a piece of it and the clothes represent that.”
“I always did like to dress sharp…”
“And you did. But more than that, you were sharp. Your mind, your personality, your talent and your ability to organize bands and arrange material. A person is a whole package, not just the clothes. Hell, you were dressed pretty sharp when you started this binge…”
“Yeah, in Beau’s dead uncle’s suits. Big joke…”
“That’s just the point! But these are your clothes you’re wearing now, not somebody else’s castoffs. I remember when you bought this stuff.”
“You’ve got a good memory, Ben. I haven’t spent my dough on anything but drinking for a long time, now. Too long. I saved some other stuff, too, I’ve got a few decent outfits and some shoes and stuff, overcoats and a couple of other sports jackets. I hear the winters are pretty cold upstate.”
“Wait’ll those hicks get a load of you, slick! They’ll think there’s a new pimp in town.”
“Yeah, my sister and the kids live up there now. I’ve seen what they wear in the country, plaid shirts and blue jeans and work boots, mostly. No, thanks. Maybe when I get some dough up I’ll have to come down to the city for clothes from time to time.”
“This town hasn’t seen the last of JD.”
“Well, Ben, it has until I can straighten out. I know too many places to get in trouble here.”
“Don’t forget that there’s plenty of trouble upstate, too.”
“Not like here, Ben, and besides, I won’t know anybody up there, just my sister and her husband and my nephews. I’ll keep to myself. Maybe get some kind of job.”
“You won’t be starting a band right away, I hope.”
“Nah, I know I’m gonna have to give that a rest for awhile. Only place to play is in saloons and that’s where I always get in trouble. No, that’d be too much for me. I’ll lay off of that for now.”
“Good for you, J. I know you’ll miss it bad, but you’ve got other priorities right now, like yourself.”
“Yeah, little old me. There’s something sad and lonely about just concentrating on yourself, you know?”
“I’d say you were pretty sad and lonely when you let go of yourself. No?”
“Got that right. I guess the trick is striking the right balance.”
“You’re not going to be any good for anyone else until you’re good for yourself.”
“I could always go back to being good for nothing. I excelled at that.”
“You never were one for half measures, my friend.”
“So long, Ben. We had a good ride, you and me.”
“Good times, JD. Real good times…”
“Take good care of those pee-wees.”
“Will do, bro. You take care of yourself. Send my love to your sister and your nephews, too. Her grouchy-ass husband too while you’re at it.”
“Yeah, he’s alright, I guess. A good, strict Dad for the boys, good provider for Sis…”
“You’ll do just fine up there…”
“Fish out of water, I suppose, but it’s better than bein’ the fish drinkin’ up all the damned water… tell your Mom and Dad…”
“I think you told ‘em yourself just fine… one other thing, J, … maybe you might want to stop in a church every so often, maybe talk to a priest… sometimes those guys can help, you never know…”
“Maybe. Can’t hurt, I suppose…Well, you take care, Ben.”
We didn’t go back to the house, instead parted ways a block away. JD called a cab from the candy store and disappeared to his new life. I said a silent prayer for him as the cab pulled away.
I walked back to my parents’ yard and tackled my kids on the lawn and wrestled with them a while. We rolled around and laughed and giggled and tickled each other and pooped each other out under the sort of sideways sunbeams of a warm September afternoon. Then we flopped on our backs in the grass figuring out what the few wispy clouds in the sky were shaped like, alternately identifying elephants, bathtubs, rabbits and dinosaurs. It’s all in the perspective, I suppose. My son Christian, the older of the two by a year and a day, decided that the latest cloud resembled an ice cream cone and his brother George instantly agreed.
I declared that an interesting observation, so I gave that cloud a good long squinty look, taking my time for the sake of accuracy. I gave it a good stare, then turned to look at them for just a second or two, then back at the cloud for another good long look with my best serious face. I could actually feel the both of them staring at me all wide-eyed, anticipating, watching me glance at them and then back to staring at the cloud, then another quick glance, then back to the cloud. They were of course getting antsy, but I told them to hush up as this was serious work, not to be rushed. A break in my concentration just wouldn’t do. Finally, I reached a decision.
“Well, men,” I said gravely, “I believe that’s just got to be the most ice cream coniest-shaped cloud to appear all summer, maybe ever! Must be an omen.”
“What’s an omen?” they asked simultaneously.
“A sign. Looks like we have no choice now, guys. Who’s up for some ice cream?”
“I am! I am!” (Well, no kidding.)
“Let’s go ask Gramps and Grandma if they want some.”
“Can we go to Carvel, Dad? Can we? Can we?”
“Sure George. That’s my favorite, too.”
So we hopped in the car and took a short drive for ice cream, a perfect cap for a beautiful afternoon, maybe the last hot weather of the year. The cool evenings lately were already hinting of the brisk autumn weather to come. We sat and enjoyed our ice cream. After a few minutes Christian gave me his look. Question time. I tried to ignore him since I had a lot on my mind but when a five-year old gives you “the look” you can hold out just so long.
“Was Uncle JD going on a date?”
“Sort of. Why do you ask?”
“He smelled real good. Like he used to.”
“Guess he saved some of his good cologne, too.”
“Nothing, Chris. Uncle JD is moving up to the country for a while.”
“Oh,” answered Christian, suddenly absorbed again in his vanilla cone. George’s turn now.
“Dad, you’re not gonna move to another country, are you?”
“Never, George. Guess you guys are stuck with me.”
“Good,” he said simply, and went back to work on his chocolate. Christian’s turn again.
“Dad, what’s a 45?”
“It’s a small record, son, you know, a single they call it, the kind with one song on each side.”
“The kind with the big hole in the middle?”
“Yep, that’s the kind.”
“Mommy has lots of them in the cabinet,” volunteered George.
“Yeah, they were popular when your Mom and I were younger.”
“Did you and Mommy dance to them, Daddy?”
“We sure did, George, we sure did.”
JD sure changed. Pretty fast, too. When I met him he was in his early twenties, fresh out of the Army and Vietnam, where he earned a bunch of medals in combat. He was also a musician, a hell of a player with a knack for arranging. His bands were always well rehearsed, tight and on the beat. Rhythm was JD’s specialty. He played rhythm guitar, played it like nobody else.