Brother Can You Spare A Dime—or—Don’t Meth With Me Man—or—Help The Poor (Pour Another Drink)
Greetings Lightnin’ Bugs!
My apologies for missing my April 1st deadline. I have many valid excuses for my tardiness, as I have been busier than a pair of jumper cables at a West Virginia wedding, but I won’t bore you with them now. Suffice it to say that I am sorry, and to apologize, I have written an extra-large, and extra-funny Lowdown for you all. So without any further ado, let’s roll this thing! Our Lightnin’ Lowdown, for April/May is entitled:
Brother Can You Spare A Dime
Don’t Meth With Me Man
Help The Poor (Pour Another Drink)
After thirty years of making my living as a musician, I recently added the coveted title “author” to my already illustrious resumé, making myself even less employable in the real world. And after having success as an author beyond my wildest imaginings, the second edition of my autobiography was released in 2015, to rave reviews, and a worldwide reception, landing in over 18,000 bookstores globally.
Our saga starts when I was booked to do my first book signing at a hometown library, and I was looking forward to it in the spirit of a jubilant homecoming of a “local boy made good”. The site of the signing was a beautiful, newly-renovated, taxpayer-funded public library in Bristol, Virginia, and I just couldn’t wait to start signing books for my legions of faithful fans and followers. But for anyone who has read my autobiography Off The Record – The Trials and Tribulations of a Travelin’ Troubadour, none of what follows should come as a surprise. Why it came as a surprise to me is a surprise to me. Oh! Y’all excuse me for just a moment, please… Duty calls.
For those who haven’t read my book, for goodness sake, where in the wide world of sports have you been???!!! Click here and receive free shipping! (https://www.amazon.com/Lightnin-Charlie-Tribulations-Travelin-Troubadour/dp/1582753202)
Off The Record is also now available for only $8.99 as an e-book for your kindle or any device. Click here to have 565 pages of gut-laughs delivered instantly to your device!
Okay I’m back. Please excuse the unabashed self-promotion there, but laughter is good medicine, and what the world needs now is more laughter (yours for only $8.99)! Sorry… Let’s get on with what you came here for…FREE LAUGHTER!
Bon appétit, my dear Lightnin’ Bugs! This homecoming story does not include palm leaves and hosannas, like Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem did, but my homecoming book signing, at a homeless shelter masquerading as a public library, was paddywhacked by philistines of the same tribe and tongue as those who despised my Lord.
What follows is the story of how swarms of society’s sadly psychotic sidewinders heckled, mocked, and simultaneously panhandled me into a state of despair and bankruptcy (for the day, anyway). Hope you all enjoy this delicious diatribe of how these drunken and deranged drifters deftly destroyed my hope-filled homecoming as a celebrated and sideburned author, while annihilating the opportunity for respectable fans to add a little laughter into their lives (565 pages!). This type of tomfoolery has helped to turn me into the bitter, beaten old man you know and love as Lightnin’ Charlie. Well, not really. But I know how you all delight in hearing such tales of personal woe and toe-stubbing (when it’s my toes), and I hear all the time from fans how funny they are (since it’s happening to someone else), and these stories, salty as they may be, serve to demonstrate just how glamorous it is to be me.
Let’s begin, shall we?
My First Rodeo
Honey, I am all too familiar with malcontented hecklers and pub-crawlers, having been a professional, touring musician for four decades, and having made my living for the first twenty years in roadhouses, nightclubs and honkytonks. Readers of my book will attest to the fact that I am, without question, the greatest nut-magnet in the whole world. There are many hilarious and indisputable evidences of this lifelong affliction of mine in Off The Record (get free shipping at amazon!). So being singled out for abuse in a musical setting is nothing new to me. Drunken derision was the norm for me for twenty years, and was just another night at the office.
But as an author, as a dispenser of the fine art of literature, I was rhapsodic (authors can use words like this!) to be making my first public appearance at home after the worldwide publication of the second edition of my book. And I simply was not prepared to see the high esteem with which our local Hemingways are held by the high-brows of Appalachian literary society. (‘High’ being the keyword here…)
Why Me, Lord?
When we last left our hero, he was making his triumphal entry, his book having conquered the world, and was looking forward to his Welcome Home Party at the swanky local library, seeing old friends, making new ones, and generally basking in the sweet smell of success of Off The Record.
It was a bright, sunny Spring morning when I entered the library, optimistically carrying several, stacked boxes of books in my arms to sell and sign. I was full of good cheer and eager to meet ‘n’ greet my multitude of adoring fans. By my side was my esteemed colleague and dear friend, the western novelist Delmer Green, who was appearing with me, hawking and signing his book, Saddle Tramps (which is wonderful, by the way).
But my visions of grandeur were dashed faster than a toupee in a hurricane, because before the doors even had time to close behind us, I was greeted at the front desk by a Hobo Maitre d’, a bombed, bearded, and bedraggled Bedouin from Bristol, half-leaning, and half-lying on and across the main check-out desk. Behind the desk, at a safe distance, were several young, female librarians, looking like a scene from “Ladies and the Tramp”.
As I approached the desk to introduce myself and inquire where we were to set up, Robo-Hobo turned and leered at the tall, dark, handsome and happy stranger in the three-piece suit, Stetson hat, and alligator shoes (me), and then, amid all the signs requesting “Quiet Please”, and before I could smile and whisper, “Good morning!”, this dilapidated, drunken derelict delivered the first of many insightful invectives which I was to suffer that day. This high, plain, drifter shouted, loudly and slurringly,
“YORE NOT ROY ACUFF!!!”
To my shock, the librarians, the salaried representatives of the aforementioned Appalachian literary society, made no effort to scold nor shush him. Very much to the contrary, they all approvingly giggled with glee. I stood there, frozen and transfixed, mouth agape, the boxes of my second editions now sagging in my arms. It was over. The fight had been lost at the weigh-in. The conquering hero had returned home. All hail the conquering hero.
The rest of the day went downhill from there. Delmer and I made our way upstairs to our table, where a small crowd of fans, of the sober variety, had already gathered. One frail, snaggle-toothed inebriate, who had followed me all the way up the stairs at an extremely uncomfortable proximity, close enough for me to smell the kind of soap he used, which was none, roared at me,
“WHAT’S YORE NAME?”
“Lightnin’ Charlie”, I answered, leaning back.
“WELL…”, he bellowed in return, laughing,
“YOU NEED TO CHANGE YORE NAME!”
Change my name? Well thanks for the market report, Señor Stinky, I thought to myself, while walking under yet another ‘Quiet!’ sign. I began praying silently for the grace to be slow to speak and slow to anger. But my prayer for grace was being interrupted by delicious, cynical thoughts like this:
“Lightnin’ Charlie has been my stage name for thirty years,
which ironically Señor Stinky, seems to be the same length of time
since you last changed your underwear!”
Of course, my silent prayer for patience was blotted out by these sinful, prideful thoughts of how much better I was than Stinky. Puffed up with superiority, due to him being covered with a dark brown glaze or crust, not unlike a very skinny fried chicken, and me, the conquering hero in my shiny suit, Stetson hat, and alligator shoes. But I kept telling myself, there but for the grace of God go I, while dodging his slobber. It says in 1 John that if I claim to love God, but hate my brother, that I am a liar. And I reasoned, in my spirit, wanting to be Christ-like, that there were probably lots of gifts that this snaggle-toothed brother has that I lack. Like being able to lick his lips and grit his teeth at the same time! Whoops! Failed again! The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
As you can see, I was losing the inward spiritual battle as well as the outward one, and I continued to naively think that things would improve, any second now, when these ruffians were removed. I was still under the impression that this was a library, and that I was here for an advertised book signing. But things didn’t improve, and as you shall soon see, they quickly went from bad to worse, until, like Crosby, I too had lost hope.
As Delmer and I finally arrived at our table to set up, I was trying to control myself, my tongue, and my fists, and keep down the grief and anger rising up in me, and praying for the strength to continue to turn the other cheek until the staff rightly removed the hillbilly hooligans.
Several fans, waiting in what I could describe as the non-smoking section, attempted to come forward and say hello to me, but were instantly cut off by my new friends from the smoking section (crack). Another aged alcoholic, presumably having been filled in by Señor Stinky, called out,
“SO YORE LIGHTNIN’ CHARLIE, HUH?
WELL, HAVE YOU GOT ANY LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE???!!!”
All of this, which I have transcribed in all caps, was bellowed at a very loud volume, was followed by lots of guffawing and hand clapping and hee-hawing, and had to be heard all over the library, reaching even the ears of the giggling girls behind the desk, down the large, open, Beverly Hillbillies mansion-styled stairway from us. So I’m here to tell you that those “Quiet” signs are purely decorative, and definitely not enforced, nor were even suggested, at least not to those whose blood-alcohol level was a number larger than my hat size.
The crowd of drunks in front of my table had now grown to six or seven, more than enough to deter anyone else wanting to approach the table. Anyone with a sense of smell, that is. Like Custer at Little Big Horn, I stubbornly and stupidly thought that at any moment, the library staff would come and remove them from the premises, but alas, like Custer, that didn’t happen, and so I pressed on, with similar results.
Following their well-established modus operandi, the bearded crew of cookers then proceeded to start asking me for money. Rather, they demanded it. Money for a sandwich, money for a soda, etc. Yeah. Uh-huh. I told them that if they would wait until I was finished here (and wait over there), that I would gladly buy them something to eat. Of course, this Christian offer caused them to quickly change the subject, from me financially supporting their active drug and alcohol habit, to them financially ruining my book signing.
As Christians, we are continually commanded by the Scriptures and by Jesus Himself, to help the poor, and to feed the hungry. In the book of James (which my wife and I memorized about a year ago), we are asked what good it does to send someone away who is ragged and hungry with platitudes of “shalom”, “go in peace”, or “be filled”, without giving them the things needed for the body. Or how about the old standard “I’ll be praying for you!” Listen, prayer is essential and can move mountains, but sometimes God would rather you act than pray, especially when it comes to someone in need. I believe we should help the poor, visit the sick, and feed the hungry. But nowhere in Scripture do I find that we are to buy drinks for drunks to get drunker, or to give cash to drug addicts to give drug dealers to get more drugs. That’s not charity, that’s stupidity. That’s enabling their addiction, and their sin, and ultimately their death, and is certainly not alms for the poor.
Sunday Morning Coming Down
I’d like to use one of my wife Beth’s favorite stories as an apt illustration here, because it certainly applies, and it’s very funny.
About ten years ago, my band and I were booked to play an unusual after-wedding party in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, and we had to load into the venue at 6am on a Sunday morning. It was to be a sort of going-away party for the many out-of-town guests who had flown in for the Saturday wedding, and were flying out Sunday afternoon.
The shindig was to be held at a big, downtown restaurant, with a fancy breakfast, dancing, mimosas, and a very bleary-eyed blues band (that’s redundant!). Our showtimes were from 9am till noon, but they needed us to be completely set up and sound-checked prior to their guests arriving at 8am. So we had to load in at 6am. That’s six o’clock in the morning, for any musicians reading this!
In my career, I’ve probably played over five thousand gigs, and I’ve never done anything like this before or since. I’ve had to show up very early in the morning to do a television or a radio appearance, but this is the only time I’ve ever had to load in the full band and PA equipment into a venue at six o’clock in the morning.
To make matters worse, there was traveling involved. I was driving in from my home in Johnson City, Tennessee (about an hour’s drive from Asheville), which was bad enough, but my poor bandmates lived in North Carolina, and on Saturday (the night before), they were playing a late-night gig in Greensboro until about 2AM.
So the plan was to meet my intrepid, underpaid rhythm section, which consisted of bassist Chris Carroll, and drummer Joe Dean, at the restaurant in Asheville at 6am for load-in. This meant that Chris and Joe would have to drive straight from their gig in Greensboro, and be pretty quick about it. They finished their show at 2am, and then had to break down equipment, load it out, and if they could get rolling by 3, they’d be doing good. It’s about a three-hour drive from Greensboro to Asheville, which, if they didn’t have any trouble, would put them at our Sunday morning load-in by six. Barely.
Asheville, North Carolina is a very progressive, liberal, college town in the mountains, that has a bustling downtown scene. On weekends especially, there is a ton of foot traffic from all the cafes, clubs, shops, and bars within walking distance from nearby Appalachian State University, student housing, etc. And where there are scores of pedestrians carrying cash, there are scores of people panhandling for that cash. And that is certainly the case in downtown Asheville on any Saturday night.
I went to bed well after midnight Saturday night, without a prayer of going to sleep, and without even bothering to set an alarm. I got up around two, showered, got dressed, and selecting a slick white three-piece suit to wear, under my usual Stetson, left for Asheville at about 4:30 Sunday morning.
I arrived at the venue to load in about 5:30, a little early (no pun intended), and parked right in front, but found the restaurant dark, empty, and locked. I got back into my car and waited for a few minutes, and then decided I’d walk around the block to see if there was a back entrance, maybe to the kitchen, that was open.
Surprisingly, the streets of Asheville were not completely deserted at that unholy hour. Because what was early Sunday morning to me, was late Saturday night to others, and it was just a matter of perspective. The last remains from Saturday night’s shenanigans were still out, staggering about, or maybe it was first shift for bums, I don’t know. But they were out, en force, and they were a motley crew.
The scene was surreal, and belonged in a cheap zombie movie. Me in my shiny white suit and cowboy hat and dozens of staggering, slow-moving, street people lumbering after me, as the sun came up. And you can bet that dem bums were taking to me like bugs to a porch light. They smelled blood in the water. I needed a plan, and I had to think fast, because even zombies, although slow, can be dangerous when they outnumber their prey, and are focused on a target. Everyone knows that.
So armed with a strategy, I hopped out of my black Lincoln limousine, and off I go, into the wild blue yonder, which must’ve sounded some silent alarm that only zombies can hear, because at least ten of the undead immediately turned (if they were upright), or stood up (if they weren’t), and started plodding towards me, from at least four or five different directions. One large male, perhaps their leader, or perhaps the fastest walker, took the point, and crossing over to my side of the street, with both bloodshot eyeballs fixed and dilated on his prey, approached me head-on. This alpha and I were walking toward each other on the sidewalk, about fifteen or twenty feet apart, like two gunfighters at the climax of a weird Western movie, when we finally reached the moment of truth.
Having decided to fight fire with fire, and knowing that my best bet was to appear more brain-sick than they were, so that they would fear me and leave me alone, I fixed my face into the expression commonly known as “Crazy-Eyed Killer”. This simple tool only requires opening one’s eyes as wide as possible, and then do not blink. This non-blinking is key to appearing crazy, and is a technique used by actors all the time in the movies. Try it. It’s quite convincing! Say the most ordinary, innocuous thing to your husband, or wife, or the person sitting next to you right now. But say it, looking them straight in the eyes, and, most importantly, without blinking.
“I’m reading the most delightful blog!”, or “Do you think it’s gonna rain?”, said bug-eyed, without blinking, and a simple hello suddenly becomes a death threat! And it was no great stretch for me to appear crazy that morning either, because there I was, walking the streets of downtown Asheville, North Carolina, at six o’clock on a Sunday morning, looking like I had mugged a wayward televangelist, and stolen his clothes!
And so it was that I locked eyes with the large male, now barely ten feet ahead, and gave him my best crazy-eyed killer stare, wide-eyed and not blinking, and man, he didn’t know what hit him.
It had the same effect that a cross has on a vampire. He stopped dead in his tracks, put his hands up and hissed, and then very quickly (for a zombie) turned and crossed the street to keep from passing me! Each time he looked over at me, from across the street, I kept my eyes on him, and that finished the fight once and for all, and I had no further trouble from him, nor any of his minions.
These same ones remained out and about on that block, panhandling the rest of the morning, but never once did any of them even dare to make eye contact with me. Game, set, and match, Lightnin’ Charlie!
Chris and Joe finished their gig in Greensboro a little after 2am, and were busy loading all their gear into the back seat and trunk of Joe’s white Cadillac Sedan. They had a good amount of gear too. They had Chris’ bass rig and bass, along with all of Joe’s drums, cymbals, and hardware. Drummers have the most difficult load-ins/load-outs due to the number of items they have to break down, put into cases, haul, and set up (and if you’re ever wondering who works the hardest at a load in, just ask the drummer, and he’ll tell you!).
Chris had eaten dinner at the club, but Joe, not having time to eat while setting up all those drums, was forced to get his dinner to go—a nice, big, juicy prime rib, cooked medium rare, with loaded baked potato, dinner rolls and butter, and a salad with ranch dressing. Joe planned on eating it cold while riding in the car, because they weren’t going to have time to stop at a Waffle House or anywhere on the road to get anything hot, and make it to Asheville by six.
It’s important for me to note that Chris and Joe are really good guys, normally very outgoing and friendly people, but Joe, in particular, was probably a bit irritable that morning about 2:30am. Sweaty, tired and questioning his career choice, having loaded in and out of one low-paying gig, and contemplating driving through the wee hours to load in and out of another low-paying gig, without hot food or sleep, were probably the kinds of things on Joe’s mind that morning. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. And it made Joe a very edgy boy that morning.
As Joe and Chris were putting the last few things into the Caddy, they were approached by a homeless guy, who quickly launched into his pitch. It was the old standby, that he was down-on-his-luck and homeless, and that he hadn’t had anything to eat in three days, and if they could just spare him a few dollars to get something to eat, oh how thankful he would be, and oh how God would bless them, etc.
So Joe Dean, my sweet, hungry, tired, overworked, and underpaid drummer, told the homeless guy that he could have his dinner. Joe handed him the large bag with the three to-go plates inside, and told him that it was untouched, that there were plastic utensils in the bag, and told him the best news of all—that it was a big, beautiful, juicy prime rib, cooked medium rare, with loaded baked potato, dinner rolls and butter, and a salad with ranch dressing—which must’ve sounded like hitting the lottery to this poor, unfortunate, half-starved fellow. Joe told me later that in spite of how hungry he was, and how badly he needed the food, knowing he wouldn’t have an opportunity to eat anything else until the following afternoon, that upon telling the homeless man to take it, and enjoy it, that Joe felt really good about what he had done, helping a brother-in-need. Because there, but for the grace of God…go I.
The beneficiary of Joe’s lovingkindness, this homeless chap, must’ve been too choked up at this beautiful act of Christian charity to say anything. Unable to utter even a word of thanks, he silently and humbly took the bag from Joe’s outstretched hands and turned, quietly walking up the street.
After all, what can one say in response to such mercy, shown to a poor wayfaring stranger? Joe and Chris were putting the last items into the car when Joe looked up to see the homeless man, turning the corner ahead, and without pause, reaching out his arm holding the bag of dinner, unceremoniously dropping it into the trash can on the corner, and walking on, in stride, not missing a beat. There might have been three poor, tired old guys, standing around Joe Dean’s Cadillac at the load-out in Greensboro that night, but only one of those chaps was hungry, and that was Joe Dean!
Joe Dean was not a happy camper. Joe just watched a lying, predatory, drug addict (very redundant) throw his dinner (and breakfast) into a downtown dumpster. Since fishing it out of the trashcan was not an appealing option for Joe, and since the hungry hobo in high-tops (hungry for meth, that is) had at least a block’s head start on the malnourished musician in dress shoes, there was nothing left to do, but get in the Caddy and ride. But suffice it to say that Joe Dean, formerly generous and lighthearted, cheerful and charitable, was now madder than a mosquito in a mannequin factory.
After a couple hours, too delirious to drive any further, Joe Dean pulled into an interstate rest area to try and catch a few minutes of sleep in the parking lot. But this wasn’t a refreshing power nap by any means. Since the back seat was so laden with gear, the front seats wouldn’t recline, allowing the boys to at least lie back, so Chris, riding shotgun, twisted and laid his upper torso on the center console, and Joe Dean leaned forward in the driver’s seat and rested his forehead on the steering wheel, and both fell instantly asleep. But about fifteen minutes later, they were awakened by a lot lizard, yet another bum tapping on Joe’s window, and motioning for him to roll it down. This time though, Joe Dean’s only response, having already given at the office, was to start the car, put her in gear, and complete the red-eye to Asheville, arriving at the load-in a few minutes after six.
I had walked around the block two or three times, looking like a backsliding Pentecostal preacher trolling for… well, whatever it is that backsliding Pentecostal preachers troll downtown streets in the middle of the night for (piano tuners? hair spray?), and having no issues with anyone, thank you very much, got into the restaurant at six o’clock when some of the kitchen crew arrived to set up.
But once inside, my hopes for an ordinary load-in and set up were quickly dashed. The layout required us to load our gear in from the street, through the front door, then weaving through the large restaurant (and all its tables and chairs), into the outdoor courtyard. There was no stage or bandstand out there, and very few tables. And that was due to the floor.
The floor of the courtyard, that we were supposed to set up on, was very old cobblestone, extremely uneven and broken, making it tricky to walk on, and difficult to impossible to set up on (that’s why there were only a few small tables out there—a four-legged table would rock like a see-saw). Since I don’t travel with gigantic sheets of plywood to use as a bandstand floor, I was forced to try and find portions of the cobblestone floor that were level enough to safely put the PA speakers, amps, and mic stands, without them toppling over. It would be very uncomfortable for Chris and I to stand on this floor and try to perform, but what could we do? We’d just make the best of it.
But what about Joe? There’s no way he was going to be able to set up his drums on a floor this uneven. His cymbal stands, drum legs, and hardware just would not work on a foundation that bore more of a resemblance to the surface of the moon than a bandstand.
I had already made several trips into the restaurant with gear, and seeing the problem, I asked a kitchen worker to try and find me a piece of plywood large enough for my drummer to set up on (or several smaller pieces). Luckily, having been raised in Miami, I knew that plywood in Spanish is “madera”, so I had just imparted this request to mi amigo en la cocina, when I saw Joe Dean’s white Caddy pull up in front.
I hated to break this news to Joe, knowing that they might already be a little edgy due to lack of sleep, but since I knew nothing of the events at their load-out a few hours earlier, and the demise of Joe Dean’s dinner, I didn’t realize just how much on edge.
Thinking I would break the ice with a little levity, I walked out onto the sidewalk, planning to tell Joe and Chris in a stern voice, that they were each being fined $25 for being ten minutes late to load-in (at 6:10am!). But when I saw Joe’s face, I thought better of it, and swallowed my joke.
Chris and Joe both looked rough, having slept in their suits on a gear shift and a steering wheel, respectively, but Joe looked terrible, and he was angrily tossing his gear out of the car and onto the sidewalk, rather violently. I had never seen Joe do this before, as he was normally so easy-going, and his kit, which was in drum cases, was a very high-dollar, irreplaceable, vintage set of drums. So this was just not like him. I said hi, and asked them, with more than a hint of trepidation, if their trip in was ok. Joe didn’t answer, and just kept slinging drum cases out of the back seat and trunk, as Chris looked at me, and said hello, while shaking his head “no” from side to side, indicating that any more questions about their well-being would probably be best kept to myself. But there was no point delaying telling them about the “stage”, because we had to do something about the floor before assembling the drums. So, taking the bull by the horns, I grabbed the big bass drum case and said, “C’mon, let me show you where we’re supposed to set up”, and led them inside to show them the digs.
Seeing where we were expected to set up, they were shocked, but before they got fully charged and upset, I said that the guys in the kitchen were making some calls (at 6:15 in the morning!), trying to locate some plywood. This didn’t placate Joe, because seeing the futility in this, and the waste of time, he stormed off to his car to grab that which is a staple of touring musicians everywhere, and is an obligatory, “old faithful” item, particularly to drummers, that is, Ye Olde Drum Rug. These rugs are always funky, smelly, and are more common among musicians than union cards. Joe pulled his rolled up, five by nine, heavy-duty, department store rug out of the very back of his trunk, and went to try to find a level enough space to spread the rug and set up on it, and if successful, we’d set up around him.
We found one little section in a corner of the courtyard that, with the rug spread out, made for a base something like the soft sand on a beach at low tide. We could barely get the drums to stand upright without falling over, and we knew that as soon as Joe started playing them, there would be falling cymbals, hi-hats, etc. (which there was), and it was a total nightmare. It was like setting up drums on a trampoline.
Needless to say, none of this served to lighten Joe Dean’s mood any, and this was his condition at about 8:30, when, finally getting his drums set up (as good as we could), he walked out to his car, which was parked in front, to sit down, be alone, and collect his thoughts for a few minutes before showtime.
Permit me to interject a quick physical description of Chris and Joe, for the sake of the story. Chris is African-American, of average height and build, with a terrific smile, and was the greatest singer I ever had in my band. He was so good, that I only let him sing one or two songs per set. I told him, “Man, if I let you sing any more, I’m gonna have to fire you!” Chris sounds like soul singer Dobie Gray, only better, and is also a sensational bassist and great guy. While Chris Carroll’s physical description and vocal prowess doesn’t have any bearing on our story, Joe Dean’s does. Because knowing Joe’s appearance will make the punch line even funnier.
Joe is a white guy, tall and thin. Very tall, and very thin. Joe Dean is probably six foot six, and tips the scales at around one-eighty. I’m six feet, two inches tall, and Joe towers over me. As skinny as I am, Joe is even skinnier. He’s so skinny, he has to run around in the shower just to get wet! And in case you’re wondering why I like to refer to Joe Dean by using his first and last names, it’s because it sounds cooler that way. So for the benefit of your mental image, at this point in our story, Joe Dean, in his black dress slacks, pleated white tuxedo shirt, and patent leather shoes, looks like an angry, anorexic Lurch, the Addams Family’s manservant! Joe is also a marvelous blues drummer and normally the nicest guy in the world, but he had reached his limit, particularly as it pertains to charitable donations (to drug addicts).
You remember the large alpha male zombie that I stared-scared across the street earlier that morning? Well he and his crew of junior beggars were still trolling around, but they had all been wisely avoiding me like the plague ever since the evil eye was unleashed on their leader. But as Joe Dean, beat to his socks, walked out the front door of the restaurant to his car, his path was blocked by this lead beggar, who was relaxing on the curb beside Joe’s Cadillac. When the bum got up to hit up Joe, he had no idea who he was fooling with.
The bum, having had a rough night, lounging on curbs, and spending other people’s money, dispensed with all the usual preliminaries, and got right to the point. He stood up and told Joe Dean, loudly and in no uncertain terms, to:
“GIVE ME A DOLLAR!”
Joe Dean, half-starved blues drummer, exhausted and rankled beyond all control, got right in the beggar’s face (he had to bend way down!) and screamed at the sot,
“HOW ABOUT YOU GIVE ME A DOLLAR???”
Boy! Brother crumb-bum was not expecting that! By the look on his face, he had never heard that one before! The tables had suddenly turned, the hunter had now become the hunted, and it must’ve gotten real good to Joe Dean, who hadn’t eaten or slept in twenty-four hours, because of rummies like this guy, and this guy, having been the unfortunate one to pile the proverbial last straw onto Joe Dean’s humped back, received the full force of all of Joe’s wrath.
“YEAH!”, Joe repeated,
“HOW ABOUT YOU GIVE ME A DOLLAR???!!!”
Joe had the wino on his heels, and the beggar was backpedaling now, looking like any of Iron Mike Tyson’s first twenty professional opponents…dazed, confused, and terrified! And Joe Dean didn’t relent either. He just kept coming, screaming at the beggar, who had turned from this righteous rage and fury to flee, with Joe Dean in close pursuit, his face now twisted into a maniacal grin, and hollering triumphantly,
“YEAH!!! YOU GIVE ME A DOLLAR!!!”
Well, that was that for that cat, and he skedaddled. And he was not to be seen anywhere around us, for the duration. I don’t know who had a worse day at work…Joe Dean, our starved and sleep-deprived drummer, or the bum, who had faced a white-suited, crazy-eyed killer in a cowboy hat, and a righteously outraged and attacking, Lurch-monster in a tuxedo!
This story, being a particular favorite of my wife’s, has even led to the birth of a new, and oft-used catch phrase between her and I. This catch phrase is used whenever we feel that we are being misused, with evil intent, by another. When referring to times when we’re victimized, or recalling instances of someone trying unsuccessfully to con or hoodoo us, we’ll say succinctly, “How about you give me a dollar!!!”
Robbing Peter To Pay Pete
Allow me just one more digression, and we’ll get back to my torture chamber at the local library. My best friend Todd, who lives in Chicago, told me about a homeless guy named Pete, who daily stationed himself at one particular on-ramp on the very busy Eisenhower Expressway, going in and out of the city. Pete was out there, rain or shine, five days a week, “servicing” the gridlocked, bumper-to-bumper cars, in the morning and afternoon rush hours. Todd said that each on and off ramp on the Eisenhower had its own homeless attendant, who would wipe your windshield, exchange pleasantries, and expect a cash tip for doing so. How one obtained and maintained this lucrative turf, wresting and keeping it from all other vagrants trying to encroach upon your ramp, would make for an interesting movie, but one which would have to carry at least an R-rating for violence.
One morning, at Christmastime, Todd’s brother Peter was visiting him from upstate New York, and it was a typical Chicago day in December: snowing, blowing, and horribly cold outside. Todd and Peter were getting onto the Eisenhower, at Pete’s on-ramp, and sitting still in the long line of traffic. Todd’s brother Peter was watching poor, pitiable Pete, who was going quickly from car to car in the freezing cold, wiping snow and ice from the windshields of cars in front of them, and collecting his cash donations.
Politically, Peter sat firmly in the liberal camp, and he was active in Democratic Party politics in upstate New York. Peter prided himself in belonging to a party that he felt championed the causes of the “common man”, particularly minorities, and he remarked to his brother Todd, with all the guilt that is obligatory among white, affluent, northern Democrats, “That poor guy doesn’t even have decent gloves to wear, and there’s a foot of snow on the ground!” Apparently, Poor Pete had on a pair of ratty old gloves that the fingers were torn out from, leaving Pete’s fingers exposed to the elements.
Peter’s heartfelt response to seeing this poor black man and his raggedy mittens, battling the cold, trying to eke out a meager living for himself, was kind, sympathetic, and sincere, and I would hope that anyone, of any political persuasion, seeing a poorly dressed person out in a Chicago snowstorm, that their hearts too would be moved with compassion. But if you’ll remember, “kind”, “sympathetic”, and “sincere” are terms that would apply equally to my drummer Joe Dean, when giving his three-course dinner to the homeless guy in North Carolina in our previous digestion…er uh, I mean digression!
As Pete finished with the car in front of them, and approached Todd’s car, Todd rolled his window down halfway, while his brother Peter reached into the back seat and procured a shopping bag. From inside the bag, he removed a pair of beautiful leather Isotoner gloves, brand new and in the box. Peter had purchased these expensive, fur-lined, leather gloves at Macy’s Downtown as a Christmas gift earlier that day.
Todd said his usual happy hellos to Pete through his half-opened window. And Pete, calling Todd by name chatted casually with Todd for a moment, asking “How you doing?”, “How’s business?”, “Are you ready for Christmas?”, etc. Having worked this ramp for years (and it being a tip job), Pete, being nobody’s fool, had smartly learned all his regular tippers’ names, along with their wives’ names, their kids’ names and ages, if they liked to play golf or tennis, etc. And remember, Todd and Pete saw and spoke to each other twice a day, five days a week, which is more than some parents see their kids! So after kibbitzing for a minute, Todd handed Pete his usual gratuity for six seconds work, a five dollar bill, along with a few menthol cigarettes, paying Pete in advance of getting his windshield wiped.
But before Todd could roll up the window, letting Poor Pete get on with his work, Brother Peter leaned across the driver’s seat and with his heart full of lovingkindness (see Joe Dean story), said to Pete, “Sir, I couldn’t help but notice that you don’t have on decent gloves. And it’s a shame that you’re out here in this kind of weather. So please, take these brand new, hundred-dollar Isotoners from Macy’s, as my Christmas present to you!” To which Poor Pete’s faced scrunched up and recoiled a little, making the universal “what?” face at Peter, and said incredulously, “Man, I’ve got a dozen pairs of Isotoner gloves just like that at home! What do you think I’d be doing out here working, and wearing hundred dollar gloves on my hands? Is you crazy???!!!” And giving one quick wipe to Todd’s windshield, stuck a Kool in his lips, and strutted off in the snow to the next captive customer, leaving a shell-shocked Peter in his wake.
Peter seemed stunned to learn the truth. That “Poor Pete” was probably earning six figures a year, all in cash, probably driving a new Benz to work each day, while receiving state and federal assistance for food, housing, utilities, etc. Like any great actor, playing a role, Poor Pete knew his audience, understood his role, and was busy killing it.
Todd told me his brother Peter remained contemplative and didn’t speak for the rest of their hour-long ride home, perhaps pondering the many congested interstate on-ramps in and around his home in upstate New York and considering a career change!
I don’t know if the encounter with Poor Pete changed Peter’s politics any, but I do know that he now has a newfound respect for millionaire entrepreneurs in raggedy gloves!
Not Your Father’s Library
Meanwhile, back at my book signing, I felt like a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest. Here are some more pearls of wisdom from the gang of deranged and drunken derelicts, who, at this point, had my end of the table surrounded:
“Since the last time I saw you, my last three girlfriends have died! This is my new fiance, Monique……. Can you let me have two dollars?”
Besides being loaded (no pun intended) with sex appeal to spare, this guy was saving a bundle in alimony. Here’s another:
“I should’ve joined your band twenty years ago!”
Well EUREKA! I’ve finally found what I’ve been looking for, and just the thing my band needs…a broken down, alcoholic octogenarian, who doesn’t even play a musical instrument! Thanks so much for your kind offer hombre, but you must think I fell out of the Stupid Tree, and hit my head on every branch on the way down. Gee, if I could only go back twenty years, and right this wrong…
I also had lots of complaints from my undead entourage about the price of my books and CDs, in spite of the fact that they were only window shopping. The following seemed to be the consensus, from a crew that never wasted money on CDs, books, or toothpaste:
“Fifteen dollars for a CD? [expletive deleted] You’ve got to be [bleeping] kidding!”
This from folks who pay twenty dollars to smoke a rock of rat poison, which apparently is ineffective on rats exceeding one-hundred pounds.
All of this ill will was directed squarely and loudly at me personally, while none was leveled against my colleague Delmer, who, despite being seated right beside me, and acting in the very same capacity as I (book-selling author), somehow managed to avoid, entirely, the lunacy and vitriol of this beleaguered, buzzing and bloodshot, lost tribe of Appalachia. I have no idea how Delmer accomplished this, because they were swarming on my side of the table. Maybe he uses Raid as an after-shave.
Other authors might just have the natural gift of remaining invisible through the haze of meth and crack smoke in public libraries at their book signings. Or possibly there’s a local literary union that rewards writers with this kind of welcome anonymity (if so, I’m joining!). But for whatever reason, Lightnin’ Charlie, Man of Soul, was the sole recipient of all this ballistic bumming and bravado.
Why I was assaulted for the entire morning and afternoon, while my bunk-mate Delmer Green was left alone, is a question that I am sure I don’t know the answer to. But the shock of it, occurring inside a library at 2pm, and not inside a nightclub at 2am, prevented me from using any one of my many effective tools of the trade (the crazy-eyed killer technique, for example).
But excuse me, Delmer was not left entirely alone. Delmer did enjoy several polite and sober visitors to the table, who bravely pushed through the pack of panhandlers surrounding me, to purchase Delmer’s book. They asked him intelligent questions about the writing process, got their book signed, and snapped a picture with the author, etc., and at no point was Delmer’s masculinity loudly questioned, his responsibility to financially support drug addiction was never demanded, and he was allowed to somewhat ply his trade, albeit to a limited number of brave souls who waded through the throng of spittle-soaked beards to his end of the table.
They Were Expendable
Of course, the number of patrons, and potential customers, who made it to our book table at all was severely diminished by the Bum Insurgency, and the many visitors who were accompanied by small children or teenagers, along with other various types, whose only common trait being their decency, all made for the door with shock and expediency.
Remember, this is not a soup kitchen, or a downtown diner at 3am, or an ER trauma center devoted to detoxing hallucinating addicts, or a lock-down unit for the criminally insane. This is (supposedly) a Public Library, ironically funded by the tax dollars of the aforementioned working folks—and I—all of whom apparently are considered expendable. Because, in case you are wondering, at no time was there any effort or action on the part of the library staff, to quell this uproar, and bounce the riff-raff. Au contraire, mon frere, they were demonstratively supportive of it. Many of the things said to me, quoted above, was met with (believe it or not) laughter by the librarians, whose job description used to be simply putting their right index finger perpendicular to their lips and saying “Shhhhh!”. Their abject approval of these drooling dregs of Dixie was disgraceful, and only served to encourage even more drunken displays of derision. In the words of John Wayne, “If you take crap off people, they’ll give you some more crap!”
Gypsies Tramps & Thieves
But in today’s society, unlike the world the Duke lived in, litigation looms for anyone trying to preserve their business, by allowing law-abiding patrons, and their families, to enter and use their establishment freely and safely, minus the predatory pests. This I assume to be the reason that the intoxicants were allowed to disrupt and destroy my big day, along with denying my fans the opportunity to take 565 pages of laughter home with them. Why they were encouraged by staff to dismantle and disturb the peace to such an extent, for hours, I just don’t know.
These tweakers are allowed to make full use of the Public Library all day, every day, and make it their own, to the exclusion of everyone else. They use the washrooms, the computers, the internet, and make good use of the stocked pond of people to bum handouts from. After collecting enough cash, the winos can use the library washrooms or an unoccupied aisle to trade their coffers of currency for drugs and/or alcohol, and then dispense the drugs and alcohol into their lungs, noses, bellies, and bloodstreams in and around the library (their place of business). And this they repeat, ad infinitum, until they are forced to stop (jail and death being two of the leading forces for change). But the library staff was surely not going to be a force for change by enforcing any boundaries at all to their behavior.
So the added treat of a celebrity book signing, in the middle of an otherwise humdrum day, must’ve seemed like a day at Disneyland to them, and they did not shy away from laying waste to that also, gleefully, and with much verve and vigor. Seeing me waltz into the library with an optimistic, hopeful heart made them happier than a tornado in a trailer park. And they were left alone to pursue any and all victims.
Unfortunately, to anyone who owns and operates a business anywhere even remotely urban must deal with this problem daily, and unfortunately much of what I’m lamenting here is probably “preaching to the choir”. More sad irony is that the same working-class, tax-paying people, myself included, who cannot use the library, are the very ones who paid for it.
Mosquitoes and Sweet Meat
Why these pickled nomads flocked to me like moths to a flame is a mystery to me, but one which I, and my readers, are in no means unacquainted with.
I am, as I mentioned before, a veritable nut-magnet. I attract psychos like a clock attracts the time. Like something shiny to a shark, I am a lighthouse for loonies. Pests from any phylum can pick me out of a lineup, and I am seemingly singled out constantly for their abuse.
For example, I can be outside with my wife, minding my own business, sitting on our deck, or gardening in our backyard, or lying on a beach, and I am sure to be eaten alive by mosquitoes, and deluged upon by various malicious, malevolent, mean-spirited, malformed, fanged vermin (I’m talking about literal insects here—not my entourage at the library—but dear reader, it’s an honest mistake!). I’m besieged by bugs. And what, you ask, is my wife’s state of being, amid all the flesh-eating, blood-sucking pestilence Nature is providing me? Invariably, amid my insect-apocalypse, while I am busy slapping myself into a self-inflicted concussion, my lovely wife, and her bare, white skin, is right beside me, resting peacefully or working happily, oftentimes softly singing (grrrrrrr!!!), being completely ignored by the hordes from hell. She won’t even be lighted upon by these foul and thirsty beasts. I am married to the sweetest woman in the world, and there isn’t a bug on Earth that knows it!
According to the Bible, my wife and I are “one flesh”. Well tell that to the bugs! They realize that “one flesh” is a completely figurative term, and, rightly dividing the Word—and us—leave her alone, and consume me.
So in the midst of this pestilence, while I’m getting eaten alive, beside me in the library sits my friend Delmer, softly signing, and beside me in the garden is my wife Beth, softly singing. (Read that again…man, that’s good!)
Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee
You Can’t Hit What You Can’t See
To truly be considered a “pest”, there has to be a means for the pest to get to you. It needs to have the mobility and motive to get to where you are, and to want to do you harm, to be called a pest. There are many creatures, dangerous to man, that can’t be classified as pests, due to the simple fact that they mind their own business. They are burrowed into the ground and only sting or otherwise attack when stepped upon, for example. Pests and pestilences, by definition, come to you. They bring the mountain to Muhammad. And as Ali’s well-known mantra states, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”, the very next line of that popular poem, although less-known, contains the most important part—the part which posed such a challenge to his opponents—“You can’t hit what you can’t see!” If a pest cannot reach you, it’s no pest at all. A termite is not a pest until it gets to your house.
Take for example, the bullet ant. The bullet ant is native to the rain forests of South America. The sting from a bullet ant is the most painful insect sting ever known to humans. That’s right. The venom-filled sting from one bullet ant feels like being shot, hence the name. And to state the obvious (and to draw further symbolism with the library rats), they never act alone, and the stings from a battalion of bullet ants can easily cause death to humans.
But to encounter this deadly dude, one must go deep into the wild rainforests of Bolivia. Bullet ants don’t spoil picnics. Bullet ants didn’t ruin my book signing. Bullet ants didn’t have the mobility to get there, nor the motive to go out of their way to wreck my day. Drunks did. And tragically, predatory drunks are indigenous to everywhere. There’s literally very few places on Earth where they cannot get to you. Or rather, get to me. And as some winged pests, such as the mosquito, have the definite motive of wanting to suck your blood (sorry…my blood!), my pals at the library shared this same motivation also, although in a metaphoric sense. Being aided and abetted by the librarians, along with being encouraged by my own pacifistic non-combative response to the problem, made for a banner day at the library for the drunk and disorderlies. My big day became just a big bust, and was a tumultuous victory for the insurgents.
Be alert, be on watch! Your enemy, the Devil, prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. – 1 Pet. 5:8
C.S. Lewis says, “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is.” And Jesus says, in John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” That’s the good news!
The Long and Winding Road
I left the library through the same doors I had entered, carrying out the same number of books I brought in, passing the same staff of snickering millinnials, still standing safely and impotently behind their desk, but I was wearing a very different countenance than the one I came in with two or three hours before.
Entering, I was hopeful, happy, and emitting good cheer. Leaving, I was bruised, beaten and reeking of secondhand smoke. As I walked out, at the end of a very disappointing day, I heard one last stray comment from a vagabond behind me, which wasn’t directed at me, but one which passed between this gruff good-old-boy and his grizzly companion, as they climbed the library’s grand staircase, hopefully to bigger and better things.
I didn’t recognize this guy as one of the mob of beggars hurling insults, but his outward appearance was the same. This one little remark, which seemed to show a begrudged, though belated, quasi-respect for me, was the one positive I took from the whole fiasco, and reminded me not to judge a book by its cover. Judge a tree by the fruit it bears. Prophetically, his remark is much more relevant today, and shows a political savvy on the part of the bearded drifter, one which has been lacking in our many fine-looking lemmings and smooth-talking scoundrels, who are elected to protect and sworn to serve.
I don’t know if this vote of confidence was given me because I had stood my ground with the many who were only there to kill and destroy, or because I had weathered their storm with a smile and a semblance of grace, or because (on the outside at least), I never lost my cool with any of them, but it proves the truth of what Paul Simon sung, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls”.
This final thought, said as an aside to his companion beside him, came from an old guy who, walking away, looked like a southern-fried Foster Brooks. It was my lone compliment of the day, making this fellow my favorite, and I am forever his fan. If I ever see him out and about in Bristol, I’m buying him lunch! He said:
“We oughta send that there Lightnin’ Man over to North Korea, and he would ZAP that crazy little Kim sucker!”
If charity begins at home, I wouldn’t have needed to travel to Korea to dispense justice. If Lightnin’ Man had a Concealed Carry Permit for zappers (Bug, Bum, and Beyond), I would’ve been a happy zapper, right here at home. I would’ve been pest-free, probably sold a bunch of books, and liberated lots of law-abiding folks wanting to use the library, temporarily at least.
But I would undoubtedly be writing this epistle from jail, ala the Apostle Paul. Although I’ve never been incarcerated in Philippi or Caesarea like Paul, I have seen the inside of the Graybar Inn of Bristol, and it’s not a place I wish to visit ever again, and especially not wearing a shiny suit and alligator shoes!
Hope you have enjoyed traveling down this highway to hail the conquering hero with me. I haven’t had this much fun since the day I burned my library card and joined Amazon Prime! For it is written, “Only in his home town and in his own house is a prophet without honor”. Thus sayeth the LORD in Matthew 13:57…and in Mark 6:4…and in Luke 4:24…which leads me to believe He meant it!
Until we meet again, happy trails, and may God bless and keep you in His care.
Thanks for droppin’ in to the Lightnin’ Lowdown…see you next time!
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
– Hebrews 13:2
For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.
– 1 Samuel 16:7
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?
– James 2:1-5