The Clip-board

You’re going to think I’m making this up but it’s the Gods-honest truth. You’d think working on an assembly line in a bottling plant, nothing much would ever happen, and sometimes it seemed that way too. Other days it seemed like life’s dramas were amplified and twisted around in ways you could hardly imagine. I don’t know how many times I walked over to the bar after work, shaking my head, thinking you just can’t make this shit up.

The first thing you should know is everybody loved Louis Prima. I don’t mean Louis Prima the singer – it goes without saying that everybody loved that Louis Prima. What I’m talking about is Louis Prima the old soop at the Bottle and Can. Louis retired maybe 6 months after I started at the plant, and we all chipped in for a big party at Ruby’s Public House, the unofficial company bar. Everybody had some kind of personal story about Louis and I think in their own ways, everybody had some kind of special respect for him.

Louis, he’d been there longer than anyone could remember. He was a sight for sore eyes if you know what I mean, with this signature combination of handlebar moustache and frumpy cardigan. The guy had his own style, that’s for sure, and did he ever love to swear. Git ta fuck ta work already Mister Lazy Allen and git ta fuck out-a my hair while you’re at it. Louis knew everybody. He kept track of birthdays and anniversaries and names of kids and Lord only knows what else. I don’t think he wrote anybody up in 34 years at the plant and he didn’t need to either. When Louis Prima was in, the job always got done.

Most soops had trouble enough running their own section, but I seen Louis run 3 at once. He could do it because of the relationships he built up with the guys. If somebody called in sick, Louis would start singing, off-key, IIIIIIIII ain’t got noooooo-boooooo-deeee, and we would scramble around to cover the line until he managed to borrow somebody from another soop. That’s just the way it was. Of course upstairs they were oblivious to his singing skills.

Louis’ replacement was a guy named Byron Smith. He signed his letters T. Byron Smith, though, so to us, he immediately became known as Tee-Byron. Tee-Byron was uniquely ill-equipped to supervise anybody and the symbol of his inadequacy became the clip-board he carried with him at all times.

Tee-Byron never learned anyone’s name. I think he barely knew his own. Louis, on the other hand, knew the names of everybody’s spouse and kids too if they had any. Hell, he even knew the names of some people’s dogs and cats. But when Tee-Byron started, he’d gather us around the punch-clock at the start of every shift and he’d go down the list on his clip-board, taking attendance. Stealing Tee-Byron’s clip-board became the Prime Directive among the guys.

The very best thing about stealing Tee-Byron’s silly clip-board was his reaction. He was a clean-cut starch-collar kind of guy. When he’d reach down to pick up his clip-board and realize we’d stolen it again, his face would go crimson red, and his ears would go two shades deeper. Then he’d start on a tirade. OK, who took it? Who took it? When I find out, I’ll have your goddamned job, you hear me?

At some point every shift, Tee-Byron would put down his clip-board, and like boy scouts, we were prepared. Somebody would create a little distraction and voila, somebody else would snatch the target. We weren’t mean about it, exactly. It’s not like we made him buy new ones every day. At the end of shift it would be waiting for him on his office desk.

Tee-Byron got so furious with our little clip-board stunt he started a paper war. He was going to fix us. He started writing us up for every little infraction. There were no more gray areas, just the rules, black and white. No problem. Mr. Smith, sir, I’d like to see my union rep please. I need to file a grievance. Of course in Tee-Byron’s mind, grievances were a measure of a job well-done. He was an angry man, but completely pleased with himself at the same time.

We kept Tee-Byron plenty busy performing disciplinary interviews, writing up letters and otherwise wasting his time. As long as we took turns messing with him, nobody was going to get fired. It was all good clean fun, or so we thought.

See, we never thought of Tee-Byron as a person, if you know what I mean, with genuine feelings and anxieties and hopes and dreams. We simply thought of him as The Man and messing with The Man was fair game. We were wrong – I can say that now. He was an asshole, no doubt, but maybe we pushed him too far.

If T. Byron Smith had taken the trouble to get to know his employees, even a little bit, he would have known that Baxter Spingal was a deeply troubled guy. Baxter came in and he did his job and all that, but he didn’t talk to anybody. For a while we weren’t sure he even could talk, but I learned along the way, he could talk just fine, he just chose not to.

Of course there were stories but I don’t know if any of them were true. Sometimes I think we make up stories to help us understand this messed up world. Some people said Baxter was a brilliant scholar at the university or that he was a professor’s son, and that he killed off most of his brain cells dropping 400 or 4,000 hits of LSD. Another story was that he was in the army and suffered a brain injury in some kind of bizarre training accident. Or that he was in Viet Nam and was a prisoner in a bamboo cage, tortured by snakes, silenced by PTSD. I don’t know, maybe he was just really shy.

One day Tee-Byron somehow got it in his head that Baxter Spingal stole his clip-board. He was pretty much fed-up because we had stolen the goddamned thing on him every single day for a month. The thing of it is that since he didn’t talk to anybody, I doubt Baxter even knew anything about the clip-board caper.

Where is it? I know you took it.

Silence.

Come-on already. Game’s over. What did you do with it?

Silence. Tee-Byron knew nothing of Baxter’s self-imposed silence. He expected an answer. He raised his voice.

I know you did it. I’m gonna have your job, you hear me? I’m gonna have your job.

Silence. Cold stare.

Don’t you just stare at me, I’m talkin to you. What did you do with my goddamned clip-board?

Tee-Byron gestured, pointed with his finger, stuck it right into Baxter’s face. Baxter never said a word. He just grabbed Tee-Byron’s hand, neatly broke his finger, twisted Tee-Byron’s arm behind his back and dislocated his elbow. Tee-Byron started screaming in pain and Baxter he just walked away, walked out of the building and kept on going. I guess the police caught up with him later. I don’t know what happened to him after that, I just know we never saw him again.

We never saw Tee-Byron again either. Of course there were stories, stories that he got fired, completely opposite stories he got promoted. Maybe he was off on disability. Maybe he transferred to another plant. Nobody was talking and nobody knew for sure. They brought in a guy to replace him from down east, a guy named Drago.  As far as I know Drago’s still there today.

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The Last Days of the Black Rock Rhythm Aces

I was tired, the kind of tired that makes you feel good right through. The muscles in my shoulders and arms ached and I could feel the sweat down my neck and on my brow. I guess we’d been playing three maybe four hours. Staashu was a demanding son-of-a-bitch of a bandleader I can tell you that.

He kept saying one more time, one more time, I’m not feelin’ it yet, one more time.

Finally I just said fuck it I need a break. Don’t forget I’m an old man. I grabbed a can of 50 from the cooler and sat back on the old sofa Boomboom had hauled into our practice space. Maggie rolled up a couple joints and sparked one up.

Hey Lazy, you’ve played like 10 million gigs, what’s the worst gig you ever played?

Geez Maggie, the worst gig I ever played? The worst gig I ever played was in Buffalo New York, back maybe 15 years or more. I guess it was the mid-60s. I was subbing on accordion, just a short term thing with this polka band, the Black Rock Rhythm Aces. The regular accordion player was out with a broken arm and I was between bands so I took the work. The job was ok you know, the usual repertoire of polkas, waltzes and obereks, and the players were all pretty hot so it was a lot of fun playing with them. We were gigging regularly, church dances, weddings and like that, and we had a weekly Saturday night thing in this beautiful old dance hall. There was me, a concertina, electric bass, sax, clarinet, and a drummer. Man, we could make a lot of noise.

Well on this particular night we were playing a dance in this big old hall in a church basement. They put out this really nice spread first. They had those big round tables set up and they had all that good old Polish food you know, and this was Buffalo but they liked their Canadian whiskey and each table had a twenty-sixer of Canada Club. The dinner, well it was fantastic, and everybody was getting pretty lubricated, including the band, and after a while they cleared the tables away to make room for dancing and we were on. It was a big-ass hall like I said but it was in the basement and so the ceilings were pretty low and the ventilation was shitty and the room was filling up with cigarette smoke. Everyone was having a great time if you know what I mean.

So we did a set and everybody was dancing and it was getting a bit crowded in there but you know it was alright and we had just started into the second set when the trouble started. Some guy was flirting with some other guy’s gal and a bit of pushing and shoving started and that instigated some more pushing and shoving, you know how it goes. Somebody threw a punch and man that kind of thing is contageous. I looked around that basement and as near as I could tell there was only one way out and it seemed mighty far away.

Well our bandleader was named Killer, I mean that wasn’t his real name but that’s what everybody called him, but Killer was this little guy see, skinny as a rake, and very quiet, hardly said nothing, but once you got him on stage he came alive. Anyways Killer he looks at us and he shouts let’s get the fuck out of here, and we scrambled to grab some of our instruments and headed for the stairs.

At this point everything had gone to hell. I mean everyone was liquored up and it seemed like all these people who were just having a dance, having a good time, had morphed into god-damned zombies.

We didn’t have no beef with no-one, we just wanted out of there. I was carrying my big accordion and I was hunched over some like a football player just trying to push through the crowd, and then this big guy with a brush cut grabbed my accordion, but it was strapped on, you know, and he pulled and pulled and he swung me right around and I crashed into some guy who was busy pounding out some other guy and then my accordion strap broke and Brush Cut Boy, he just about pulled my arm off see, and I went flying and took down three or four people like bowling pins.

Next thing you know, my accordion was flying through the air. That thing weighed like 35 pounds and I don’t even know where it landed. I found myself on the ground and there were people on top of me and it smelled like beer and ashtrays and blood and puke and I could hear some guy, I guess it was a cop, shouting through a bullhorn.

I stopped to light a cigarette, and took long drink of beer.

Go on Lazy, what happened next?

Ah Geez you know, it’s amazing nobody got killed. I mean nobody even got seriously hurt. The cops locked everybody up. I think they understood we were the band, just the hired help, and they gave us our own cell and they didn’t charge us with nothng. Next morning they let us go, and we were almost out the door when this cop called out, hey you. He handed me a big black garbage bag and says I think this is yours. Inside was the remains of my accordion in several chunks. Heart-breaking, that’s what it was. Even back then that accordion was worth a couple thousand bucks, and it was my baby. The body was in pieces and the bellows were all ripped up. Some of the keys were still OK and at least the reed blocks were intact. I used the reeds from that accordion for repairs for years.

So what happened with the polka band after the fight?

It was all over. Killer was about ready to retire anyway and he just packed it in. The other guys went on to play in different bands around Buffalo.

There’s a sad epilogue to the whole business, though. A couple years after the fight, Killer and his wife moved to Florida to enjoy their retirement without all that shitty Western New York weather. Well there was a bunch of muggings down there, and Killer he marched out and bought himself a Smith & Wesson for protection.

Don’t you know it, he only had that gun a couple weeks and hadn’t even fired the damned thing and some guy comes up to him and says, you know, stick ‘em up, gimme all your money. And Killer he just snapped. You want it you got it buster, and he pulled this gun out of his coat and he fired 6 shots into the guy. They said it was self-defense, that he was just protecting himself, but the thing is Killer snapped. When this guy said stick ‘em up, Killer just lost it. He couldn’t even function hardly after that, kept landing up in one hospital after another and finally he was committed to some mental facility down there until he just couldn’t live with himself anymore.

Jesus, Lazy that’s terrible.

Depressing is what it is. Anyone want another beer?

Come on you guys, let’s get back to work.

Boomboom and Ndidi

We were nursing beers, me and Staashu, in a dank basement punker bar with some kind of Vietnamese name, over in Kensington Market. He’d been dragging me to dive bars around the city looking for musicians for this crazy polka band he was putting together. I was sure this time he’d lost his mind.

I was the oldest guy in the bar by a longshot and I felt plenty out of place with my slicked back hair and flannel shirt. By that point Staash had taken to wearing suspenders, and he had this pencil moustache happening and the two of us were gathering snickers from the Mohawk crowd.

The Strip was already on stage when we got there, hammering their way through a cover of Too Drunk to Fuck. Somebody in the back hurled a beer bottle across the club. The drummer ducked his head out of the way without missing a beat. The bottle smashed against the wall, and the band carried on like this happened all the time.

These the guys?

That’s them. The singer there calls himself The Razor. He’s out on bail. They got him cold for sticking up a Beckers store. He’ll be out of the picture pretty soon. Bass player is Ndidi Nigeria and the drummer is her boyfriend, goes by Johnny Boomboom.

What’s with the names?

I figure the punk scene is a lot like pro wrestling. You got to have a nickname.

What makes you think these people want to be in a polka band, Staashu? They’re punkers for God’s sake.

It don’t hurt to ask, Lazy.

Ndidi Nigeria and Johnny Boomboom laid down the rhythm like the evening train while Mr. Razor did his anti-dance bad-ass rebel routine across the stage, spitting out the lyrics with as much venom as he could muster up. Hardcore, they called it. Straight ahead, 4/4, loud and aggressive. Not my thing but they were good.

You must be the polka boys.

In person.

Boomboom was staring at Staashu.

I seen you somewhere before.

I been around.

Yeah, I remember now. Didn’t you used to play B3 in West King’s outfit?

I’ll be damned, that was a while back now, but yeah I did.

I used to listen to you guys at the Palace. Old school R&B, I loved that stuff.

Oh yeah?

I was pretty young, you know. I had this bad fake ID but it got me in.

We had a helluva band back then.

What happened? You guys played that gig for a long time.

West finally retired and him and his wife packed up and moved down to Miami to be close to their daughter.

What you been doing since?

Haven’t been playing much. Working for a living for a while. Hey this is Lazy Allen.

Hey man.

Good to meet you.

Lazy used to play in some of the best polka bands around. He’s been out of it for a while too.

So, polka’s dead man. What are you trying to do?

I don’t know. We want to take the music somewhere different I guess.

Crazy.

I thought you two might be bored. Heard your singer there is going away. Thought maybe we could do something interesting.

This ain’t our only gig. We got some studio work going on.

That’s cool with me. Listen, we got some rehearsal space at the old Polish Hall out in Long Branch. We’re going to do a late rehearsal Thursday night. Come on out, play some music with us, then let’s talk.

We got a gig Thursday. One set at 11.

That’s no problem, me and Lazy are working until 11, then heading over to Ruby’s pub for a few. Meet us there after.

Ndidi finally spoke, to Boomboom.

You want to, B?

What the Hell. Why not?

We got to get back on stage. We’ll see you guys then.

Halfway through the next set, a cop walked into the club, in full blues. He walked straight up to the front and shook hands with the Vietnamese dude who owned the joint, who looked about as out of place as us. They talked for a minute and I could see the guy was pointing over at us.

Sure enough, the cop paid us a visit.

You boys here to cause trouble? I don’t want to see no trouble here.

No trouble boss. We’re just here to take in some tunes from the band over there.

You think I’m a fucking idiot? I don’t know what you’re doing here but I can smell trouble cooking. Time you two moved along.

We’re not causing no trouble.

I’m going to tell you one more time. Move along. The Silver Dollar’s more your speed. Why don’t you head over there. Go now and you’ll be in time for last call.

He had that tough-guy cop look about him that said he meant business. I looked over at Staashu. I really didn’t feel like getting beat up.

We were just leaving sir. We don’t want no trouble.

Ndidi and Boomboom watched from the stage as we were escorted out.