This afternoon I just had to get out of the house. Myrlene, the mother here, and her younger daughter Ronnie were suffering from some obscure summer respiratory ailment and their coughing was getting on my nerves, as were the constant rumbling dialogs and phony laughter emanating from the TV in the next room. I ate a spare lunch, did a load of laundry and one of dishes, and took a bath. Such mundane tasks completed, I thought I’d walk down to Central Park, which is just a few blocks down the street. I’ve been enjoying living closer to the riverfront. You never know who you might meet!
There were few people in the park on such a hot afternoon, but I spotted someone sitting on the steps of the bandstand. I angled obliquely in that direction, ready to blithely sheer off if the person wasn’t of interest to me (or vice-versa). As I approached I recognized the guy. He’s been hanging around Hannibal for the past couple of weeks, often playing a guitar and singing a song with his backpack by his side. I’ve seen him on the bench in front of the Java Jive coffee-house.
I said to him “Hey, you’ve got a guitar, and is that a mandolin behind your pack there? I’m a musician too!”
We exchange names — his is Jake. Jake is a remarkably cheerful thirty-year-old guy from Texas who hitch-hiked to Hannibal. He has short hair and is wearing an old-fashioned-looking shirt; his trousers are held up by suspenders. Jake apparently wishes he was living in the 19th century. Ah, a Primitivist! The educator and historian Jacques Barzun uses the term to refer to a recurring trend in American thought characterized by a tendency to think modern innovations, both technological and cultural, are deplorable, and that a return to the habits of a simpler previous era is to be desired. Curmudgeons often are inspired by Primitivist ideas, and such ideas, I freely admit, have influenced me.
Jake romanticizes the ’70s, back when hitch-hiking was so easy. Many of his musical idols, such as Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, were in their prime then. And then there were the ’50s, and the ’60s…
He also deplores modern youths with their sedentary habits, constant cell phone usage, and the salacious way young girls dress these days. Yup, a curmudgeon in training, alright!
I sat down on the step next to Jake and we exchanged stories for a time. I asked him “Isn’t it hard to get rides these days?”
“Well, sometimes it takes a while, but it helps if you have a guitar with you and smile a lot. It also helps to have something to do by the side of the road, like reading or playing music.”
I asked Jake “So where are you staying these days?”
He was evasive, as many transients are when asked that question.
“I have no trouble finding places to sleep outside. I’ve spent one night in a house since I found this downtown area. Man, when I hitched into Hannibal on I-61 I was let out by Hardy’s and I set off walking towards the river. I kept thinking ‘Where’s the Hannibal I’ve read about!’ It’s quite a long walk from the interstate to the river!”
“Yeah, I’ve walked it several times. For a small town Hannibal is kinda all spread out!”
I noticed a tuna-fish can next to Jake’s backpack containing a handful of cat kibble. I thought “Surely the guy isn’t subsisting on cat food!” I thought that it would be prudent not to ask.
Of course I had many more questions to ask Jake, but I’d just met him — I had a feeling that I’d be seeing him again around town. Questions such as “What’s a 30-year-old Texas guy doing pursuing a career as a modern American troubadour?” and “What happened in your life which compelled you to take off wandering the country with a guitar?”
Then I noticed a man approaching the bandstand from the fountain in the center of the park. A skinny guy who capered and danced as he walked while playing blues riffs on a harmonica. His hair was not quite shoulder length. He was wearing a black cowboy hat which was either glazed black or very dirty.
Jake said “Hey, here comes Shane! He’s a real modern-day hobo. He rides the rails all over and he and I have been writing songs together. He’s cool.”
I got such a kick out of Shane. He may be an ex-con and an occasional drunk, but he has stories to tell and songs to sing accompanied by a very dramatically humorous manner. He reminds me of those theatrical grifters or ne’r-do-wells in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the Duke and the Dauphin. Shane has a gypsy-like penetrating glance. I’d love to photograph the man but I have to be circumspect and get to know him better first; otherwise I’m sure he would resist my entreaties.
Shane’s behavior wasn’t a consciously-contrived act, I surmised. He would punctuate his stories with interjections from his harmonica and talking blues rhymed riffs which reminded me of Pete Seeger, all the while assuming dramatic postures and executing brief dance moves. He may have been a bit crazed, but I enjoy the company (up to a point) of people uninhibited by conventional social conventions. If I want the norm I can go to McDonalds or suchlike places.
The three of us talked of favorite musicians of the storied past. Both Jake and Shane idolize Hank Williams and before long they began singing such songs as “Honky-Tonkin’” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”. They couldn’t remember all of the words, making up for that lack with sheer cheery brio.
Sitting off to one side of us on the bandstand steps was a thirtyish man with a small leashed dog. He was just hanging out and listening to the conversation and music. At one point he said to Jake “Hey, where’s your kitty?”
“Oh, he’s found a little cubby-hole in my pack — I think he’s afraid of your dog.”
So this guy was hitch-hiking with a kitten! This explained the kibble in the tuna can. I was relieved.
I told Jake about my experience hitch-hiking with a kitten from San Francisco to Quincy way back in 1972.
“Man, that is just so cool! I’ve met people hitchin’ with a dog many a time but you hardly ever meet anyone hitchin’ with a cat. Where’d your kitten ride?”
“He just perched on the top of my backpack and looked over my shoulder.”
As we talked more people began bringing their dogs to the park. A woman with three unleashed dachshunds lost control of her dogs when they saw the man’s dog on the bandstand steps. Barking tumult ensued.
I went home for a while, then returned to the park with my tenor banjo, its neck resting on my shoulder and the round body cantilevered behind. Jake was fascinated as I showed him how to play the instrument and then introduced him to the concept of arpeggios as building blocks of tunes. We tried various duo combinations — banjo with mandolin, mandolin with guitar, etc. Jake sang a medley of John Denver songs such as Rocky Mountain High and Country Boy, songs which predated him.
By this time the man with the small dog had left and I was curious: I wanted to meet the traveling kitten. I walked to the other side of the backpack and peered into the cubby-hole. A small kitten, which looked to be eight weeks old, ventured forth and began lapping up water from a tuna-fish can. The kitten was the spitting image of two cats I’ve owned, both named Quercus: black with white feet, breast, and tail-tip.
I asked Jake “When did you get this kitten?”
“Just a few days ago. The girl who gave her to me lives right across the street in one of those apartments. I’m kinda worried about how she will do on the road.”
“Oh, you’ll get along fine, once the two of you have bonded. I got mine at a commune in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. I was headed out of town, waiting for a ride, and the kitten was freaked out by the traffic noises and several times tried to escape. My hands got all scratched up. I finally got a ride with a Japanese wig salesman and my kitten vomited on his back seat.
The Japanese man was nice about the mishap and gave me some tissues with which I cleaned up the mess. He said “Have you been to Chinatown yet?”
“No, I never got over there.”
“What?! You can’t leave San Francisco without visiting Chinatown!”
Before leaving town the wig-salesman and I took a stroll through Chinatown and he pointed out the sights.”
By this time Shane had returned. He said to Jake:
“Remember, be here 6:30 Monday morning! We’re gonna go out on the river with my friend Helen and get us some catfish! And then when we get back Helen’ll show you how to clean ‘em.”
I asked Shane “Who’s Helen?”
“Oh, she’s one cool lady. She pays me to go out fishin’ with her! I tell her she don’t need to do that, I’d do it for free, but she insists. Last time we went fishin’ I caught one of them suckers, the ones with the big ol’ lips — looks just like Mick Jagger!”
Shane proceeded to mimic how he had manipulated the sucker’s lips and made it appear to be singing a Rolling Stones song. A very funny scene, but by this time I’d had my fill of socializing and music. I walked away, saying “See you guys around!”