Friday, November 04, 2005

Hello Goodbye

My wife had been working an assortment of soul-crushing odd jobs when we got the news that the government position had come through. It wasn’t anyone’s idea of a dream job (if she’d had any idea of what was to come, I doubt she would have accepted it), but it beat the telephone soliciting and the other horrible assignments that eat through a human being from the inside out.

Whatever she expected from the new job, it wasn’t this:

“Hey! I know you!”

The speaker was a large, roundish man with a pudding face and receding hairline.

“You’re a friend of Steve’s, right?”

Indeed, she was. Who was this mysterious gentleman and why didn’t she recognize him?

Steve M. had grown up during the 1960’s and fallen in love with the music of the original British Invasion, an enthusiasm only matched by his love of the Blues. He’d had a subscription to Melody Maker for 20 years before he met my wife and on his first trip to England he brought an empty suitcase with him. He brought it back stuffed with British vinyl.

The job was merely there to provide the money to do two things: buy records and CD’s and attend gigs. Everything else found its place eventually. His ample record collection was spread over several locations, including his parents' house as well as his girlfriend’s. Like many vinyl junkies, the prospect of ever moving anywhere filled him with dread. There would simply be too much to move.

My friend Bob who, as I’ve said before, I often discuss these kinds of issues with, used to see Steve M. a lot at “house concerts,” shows put on by fans featuring cult artists who enjoyed the more relaxed format. Where Steve couldn’t see changing his job or his lifestyle, Bob was the only one of us who actually found the inner strength to sell off some of the vinyl and move to California.

Steve M. would never manage it. The ritual never changed, according to the wife. He’d come in with all the New York papers and music magazines and go through them arranging his social calendar. Steve thought nothing of attending a concert every night and usually being the first one there. He was so well known at venues up and down the East Coast that the doormen all knew him by name and would save him a good table.

All the while, he worked at a job that was slowly killing him.

The government had figured out that, considering his lack of options and refusal to move further up the ladder, they had him over a barrel and would push him to the lengths of his endurance. Which wasn’t good for someone whose life seemed to be a constant comedy of errors in the first place: some of the funniest stories I've ever heard were about the mishaps that happened to Steve going to shows, at shows, and leaving shows. Whenever we’d end up at a concert sitting next to some group that was particularly obnoxious, we’d look at each other and say, “You know whose seats these were supposed to be.”

The best stories by far concerned Steve’s battles on the phone with the witless employees employed by ticket sales outfits. Where you and I could make such a call without any difficulty, the fates would conspire to deliver Steve into the phoneline of someone so brainless and devoid of common sense that the transaction would inevitably take half an hour, as Steve’s requests were treated with the same understanding that would have greeted ancient Sanskrit. It was his Sisyphean punishment for loving the music more than anyone else did.

Inevitably these stories would end with him slapping his forehead and, eyes rolling back in his head, declaiming to the heavens, “Mother of God!”

Once Steve M. realized that my wife knew Steve G., she became something very special indeed: the only real link between the two Steves. In fact, she engineered a minor bit of local history when she arranged for Steve G. to meet her at the office and, for a brief moment, the two Steves were reunited.

For a moment, time stopped and strange music was heard.

There were not to see each other again.

Steve M.’s health had started to erode. He’d peed blood. He gained weight, which made it harder and harder for him to get around to shows. He was transferred to another office and my wife and I heard from him less and less. This was particularly sad for my wife as she and Steve had been each other's lifelines at the office, the only two who understood music the same way and who could cheer each other up when being there seemed to be a kind of endless torture.

One night, after not hearing from him for a long time, the phone rang. To receive a call from him was an event in itself, as Steve was loathe to receive calls made to or make calls from his own home. He drew a very clear line between his life and his work. He spoke briefly to my wife and, after explaining why he was going into the hospital the next day, told her, "You know I wouldn't be calling unless I was scared."

The next night, he was gone.

Conclusion: Five O’ Clock World


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