Jazz on the 9
We got on the inbound #9 bus at 11th and Mission. Colonel Vargas sat next to me, and Benabu and Madison Mike took the seat across the aisle.
“Don’t start texting,” I said to Colonel Vargas, who was already texting.
“I’m not texting,” she said. “I’m checking my email.”
“Fine,” I said. “I didn’t want to talk to you anyway. Just pretend I’m not here.”
Benabu and Madison Mike were hungover and looked it. As we turned onto Market Street, Benabu, unshaven and still wearing yesterday’s overalls, stared introspectively out the window at passing trucks and streetcars and scooters. Madison Mike did not stare at anything. His gaze was fixed somewhere in the middle distance and his eyes had no life in them.
“Madison Mike’s gone catatonic,” I said to Colonel Vargas. “Poke him with your umbrella.”
“I can’t hear you,” said Colonel Vargas, tapping at her phone. “You’re not here. Besides, I don’t have an umbrella.”
“You should,” I said. “It’s going to rain.”
The four of us had come up from L.A. to spend spring break in San Francisco. For the last few days we’d been staying at a hostel called El Capitan in the Mission District, though maybe hostel isn’t quite the right word. In a hostel, one expects to encounter young people with backpacks, heavily stamped passports, and Thai tattoos. The residents of El Capitan were neither young, nor well-traveled, though a few of them did sport crude, possibly prison-acquired, tats. Our favorite boarder was a short hairy man who liked to wander around the lobby in a backless hospital gown. We called him Martini, after Danny DeVito’s character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The bus stopped at 9th and Market, and Colonel Vargas put her phone away.
I said, “Colonel Vargas, I think that booking site lied to us when it said El Crapitan was a hostel.”
“Of course they lied,” said Colonel Vargas. “El Crapitan is obviously a flophouse.”
“I didn’t know they still had flophouses.”
“They do. And we’re staying at one.”
The bus pulled away from the curb and Madison Mike slumped over in his seat.
“Is he expired?” I asked Benabu.
“No,” said Benabu. “Just unconscious.”
We’d been out at a jazz club the night before. It was a class joint with barkeeps in bowties and cocktail waitresses old enough to have dated Dizzy Gillespie. We sat at a table up front by the big band and got blotto on period drinks.
“Sidecar!” I yelled over the music.
“Make mine a gimlet!” shouted Benabu.
We were not the most inebriated people in the room, either. One guy with a Maynard G. Krebs beard climbed up on the bandstand and waved a biography of Miles Davis in the air. “Miles is the man!” he howled. “Miles is the man, man.”
I only have a vague remembrance of what transpired after that. Something about Madison Mike stepping in bum pee outside the BART station and Benabu repeatedly saying “Le Schwank,” which was his new favorite word. Nobody knew exactly what “Le Schwank” meant. Madison Mike thought it was Benabu’s way of saying “swank” or “deluxe.” I thought it had something to do with masturbation.
The bus parked at 7th and Market, disgorging a number of hurried passengers. Madison Mike sat up and groaned.
“I never want to see another Singapore Sling in my life,” he said.
We rolled on past the skyscrapers and department stores. Suddenly, Benabu pointed out the window and said, “Hey, isn’t that the jazz club we were at last night?”
“I’ll be damned,” I said. “I think it is.”
“It doesn’t look like a jazz club,” said Colonel Vargas.
Madison Mike studied the neighborhood with a puzzled expression. “I don’t know where we were,” he said. “But the band was great.”
“You won’t hear anything but Lawrence Welk jazz around here,” said a tall, Nordic, absurdly dreadlocked blonde in the seat behind us.
She went on: “If you want to hear the good jazz—the black jazz—you have to go over there.”
She waved vaguely to the west and mentioned some obscure club. “What you heard was not good jazz,” she said. “It was lame.”
Colonel Vargas looked at me, thinking I might say something, but I didn’t. Arguing with a hipster on a San Francisco bus was not how I wanted to spend my spring break. We rumbled toward Beale Street and I thought about the jazz band in question. It was a swinging outfit and had contained a number of African-American musicians. Not that that mattered. Bix Beiderbecke was white, after all. And so was Gerry Mulligan. Those cats could blow.
As we were getting off the bus, the girl said, “Remember that club I told you about, and don’t go back to that honky bar.”
We stood there on the sidewalk feeling unfairly abused.
“Did she say ‘honky’?” said Colonel Vargas.
“Who does she think she is?” said Madison Mike. “Malcolm X?”
“Clearly, we’re not black enough for her,” I said. “Maybe we should just go home and watch Lawrence Welk.”
“Lawrence Welk is the man, man,” said Benabu. “Total Le Schwank.”