“What do you think of Latin Jazz?”
I throw him that question as a rope because he’s off balance and about to fall into his delusion, telling me again how he was driven down a dark road and someone in the back seat put the barrel of a gun against his head. “I swear I heard that hammer cocked.” He has said this three times, and I ask him again, "Who would do that to you?” “Greyhound Bus drivers,” he tells me.
This was one day after his ex-wife had called from Illinois, saying he had borrowed money from one of his ‘bar friends’ and was on his way to California to see me. I’m his friend since the fourth grade, through high school and college and first marriages. He had decided to visit me instead of our usual two letters and one call a year, and he had been ejected from a Greyhound Bus in one of the tossed off towns at the southeastern end of the L.A. sprawl.
“The driver said I was drunk and was disturbing the passengers,” he told me when he called, “but the driver lied.” He had to put the phone down and ask for the name of the town and the motel. I called the motel office for directions. In an hour I was knocking at his door, and he was opening it and stepping back. He’s my age and we have the same name. Jerry. We were sixty-two then, but he looked seventy that day. More. He was smoking and shaking. He told me his Greyhound story. I took him out for something to eat.
Jerry was a bassist in jazz groups that played in clubs around Chicago, played for weddings and parties. He was also a bartender and a skilled repairer of reed instruments, and he was a loyal lover of alcohol, like his mother, who had died of it, and his sister, who had also died of it, and his father, who had almost died, but sobered and survived.
After eating, Jerry is calmer, and we go back to his motel room so he can pack his things and come home with me to Santa Monica. He’ll stay with me for a few days, dry out, make a plan. I’ll buy him a plane ticket, give him some cash and wish him luck. Why not? For years he was the only one who knew me, all of me, from fourth grade through one year of college, through all those years of shyness that made us nearly mute, when we were observing the world like scouts, studying and reporting back to each other what we had seen and heard and felt, and wondering if we could ever understand that world and belong to it.
In the motel room he admits that some of his Greyhound story is blurring in his memory, and I suggest that he might have had a panic attack. He says maybe, but I see that he’s holding on to that ride through the night and the cocking of the gun and is about to tell it all over again, so I say, picking up on a conversation we had in the restaurant, “What do you think of Latin jazz,” and I don’t do this just to deflect him. I’m offering him a place to stand and a venue for expressing what he knows, what he owns.
He goes through a moment of cigarette management, lighting it and inhaling and fingering it out of his mouth and blowing the smoke as he squints, and this gives him back some of his style and his cool, and he shakes his head and says, “I don’t like it. Too much percussion.” And for a minute, he’s another Jerry, more solid and well.
He went back to Chicago and didn’t follow his plan. He never wrote or called me. He gave me no phone number where he could be reached. He was my old friend, and I helped him, but how much? I was afraid. I admit that. I was afraid of the drink. I was afraid of the con. Later, I heard from his ex-wife that he had lost his instrument repair job, and he had lost his apartment, too. She thought he might be living in his car, and then there was nothing more.
He could still be out there, though, somewhere, surviving. I think of him that way. I picture him somehow reading this. Jer, are you reading this? Are you out there? If you are, listen to me, and please tell me something, will you? Tell me this. What do you think of Dave Brubeck as compared to Oscar Peterson?