Sort of Lost Sad Empty Useless Old Man El Paso Blues
I love this photograph and have wanted an excuse to put it on this blog. My excuse is I re-discovered this piece of mine that I am pasting below--“Sort of Lost Sad Empty Useless Old Man EP Blues” that originally appeared five years ago at newspapertree.com. The photograph and the cutouts in the window are by my friend Cesar Ivan. The display window decorated the now-dead Bridge Center of Contemporary Arts on San Antonio Avenue in downtown El Paso. My essay, with all its dreamy imaginary wanderings, is a eulogy for the Bridge. May it rest in Peace. It was a vibrant although very fragile organization, like so many non-profit arts organizations, and it died a slow and tortured death. Cesar Ivan must have taken the photograph in 2001, perhaps just before 9/11/01. His cutouts are meant to give form to the El Paso arts scene back then. David Romo, who was at that time the director of the Bridge, hired Cesar to do the work and probably collaborated with him in the design. For me, because I was involved with the Bridge Center for much of its history (and honored to be included in the window), it’s an eerie and sad photograph, creating a surreal kind of sadness that you get when you look at an Edward Hopper painting for too long. Things are lost in the constant flux—institutions, people, ideas—but the ghosts hang around and make you remember.
Gloria Osuna Perez is the beautiful woman in the window on the right, her hair gone from radiation treatments in her battle against ovarian cancer. Long an important artist in El Paso and the Southwest, she died in 1999. Gloria was known especially for her soulful portraits of Chicanas and Mexicanas who were important to her personal history. She concocted a special palate of colors to create the signature cinnamon skin tones that radiate warmth and sensuality and beauty. Cinco Puntos had contracted with her to illustrate Joe Hayes’s book Little Gold Star / Estrellita de Oro, and she had completed five of the paintings when her cancer recurred. As she lay dying, she collaborated with her daughter Lucia Angela Perez to complete the work. Because she died in 1999, a few years before the internet became omnipresent in our consciousness, very little of her work is available on the internet. Hopefully, in the next few months we can collect some images and post them on our Cinco Puntos blogspot. In the meantime, I’m posting this lovely photograph of Gloria and Lucia.
The two chess players are, of course, Teresa Urrea, aka la Santa de Caborca, squared off against Pancho Villa. Both wandered the streets of downtown El Paso in the very early 1900s when El Paso was the political and intellectual center of the Mexican Revolution. If you want to know more about Teresita and Pancho Villa in El Paso, read David Romo’s The Ringside Seat to the Revolution. For a great biographical novel about la Teresita read Hummingbird’s Daughter by our good friend Luis Urrea (a blood descendent of the Caborca Urreas). The novel follows her magical life from her birth until her entry into El Paso. Luis is working on the sequel that will complete her life story. I guess Pancho Villa is still playing la Teresita chess somewhere in our communal psyche. I’m hoping she wins.
The sax player is the legendary Art Lewis, long a fixture in the El Paso culture scene. A truly wonderful musician and a very wise man. My notebooks are filled with things he’s said to me or friends. He stars in the piece below. And of course the dude reading book of poems is me. My friend Steve Yellen bought the cutout in an fund-raising auction a few years back and it now haunts the Yellen home where the food and wine are very good.
By the way, I wrote this essay while I was working on my book of poems White Panties, Dead Friends & Other Bits and Pieces of Love, so many of the ideas and themes here you will find in the poems and vice versa. I’ve edited it just a little bit. Re-reading the piece after these five years, I'm so glad George Bush is no longer president. His was a most dangerous presidency. Maggie Herrera, by the way, has disappeared into the dream which is Los Angeles. She's fine, I hear. So is Art Lewis. He comes back to El Paso for his famous birthday parties where the musicians all line up to jam with him. He blows his heart out and leaves us in peace.
Sort of Lost Sad Empty Useless Old Man EP Blues
It’s been a very sad and sorrowful year, and I got the blues bad. Very bad. Sort of lost sad empty useless old man El Paso blues. A friend, the godfather of my children, is up in Albuquerque dying a slow death inside a coma. Like Ishmael in Moby Dick, the ship has sunk, Ahab that bastard is dead and Ishmael is riding his handmade coffin on the wide green sea. But, unlike Ishmael, my friend cannot tell his story; nor can he let go and simply sink deep into the ocean. He lies in the hospital bed, breathing and sweating and gasping for breath, and his wife and the rest of us rub his body and wonder if he’s inside.
Then George Bush’s war came along and sucked buckets of hope out of my heart. Like a martinet with a tin badge, George strutted out naked onto the stage everyday thinking he was wearing a brand new wardrobe. He had to do his strutting. So every evening I get down on my knees like Marlon Brando in the Godfather and I whisper into my grandchildren’s ears that the President is really wearing nothing. He is wearing no clothes at all. I tell them to ignore the flag he has draped around his nakedness, I tell them to be careful of the heavy Bible that the President carries like a loaded gun, and I tell them that one day they will come to understand that he is not wearing any clothes. He is naked. He is a fool. But he is extremely well-armed and should be considered very dangerous.
This is the stuff that lies at the heart of my lost sad empty useless old man El Paso blues.
Used to be when I got to feeling depressed like this I could go hang out at the Café at the Bridge Center for Contemporary Arts and watch the people walking back and forth outside the door. The Mexicans and the abuelitos and the penguins and the high-heeled ladies and the Mennonites and the niños. Inside I’d always find weird and interesting people from all over the world. I could read books and look at the art on the walls.
And the best part was that red-headed Maggie Herrera would console me. She’d smile her wonderful freckle-face smile and say, Hi, Mr. Byrd, the silver post punched into her lower lip bobbing up and down like a cork. She never called me Bobby. She’d fix me a double café breve. She’d give me a big glass of water with ice.
Maggie always wore her jeans so lowdown that I could watch her bellybutton riding the magic of her thin and beautiful body. Her bellybutton was a cave that opened up into the beginning and into the end. When I was in college, the allegory of Plato’s cave bored and confused me with its shadows and darkness and absence of meaning, but the cave of Maggie’s belly button has real meaning about the sacred world in which we live. A few minutes of drinking my coffee and contemplating the metaphysical implications of Maggie’s bellybutton always refreshed me. I would be ready to return to the world. But the Bridge Café is closed. So I got no place to drain myself of these old man El Paso blues.
Art Lewis said a white man can’t know the blues like a black man knows the blues. I don’t know if Art is right or wrong, but I wish I could talk to Art and tell him about these goddamn blues I got right now. Art is a wise man and he would know how to give me some relief. But Art took his sax and went back to Houston. He’s sick. He got diabetes and a double-hernia, the hernia from blowing on that horn without a mike all these years. Besides, Art’s momma is fragile and old. Rumor says she has Alzheimer’s. So Art needs to be taking care of his mother, but I bet he wishes he could blow his horn because he’s got some real bad troubling blues.
Once over a year ago, a few months after 9/11 and I was feeling just like I am right now, I walked over to the Bridge Café to drink coffee and to talk to Maggie. But Maggie was busy with paperwork and she was sad because her boyfriend had left her. Every one of us had some kind of lousy blues back then after 9/11. Remember? Maggie quickly concocted me my double-shot café breve, gave me a glass of water with no ice and told me straight out that she didn’t have time to talk. She told me to go downstairs in the basement. Art Lewis was preaching to an assembly about the gospel of music. I went downstairs. Art was sermonizing and playing at the same time. He tooted his horn and said, “Bobby, sit down. Take a load off.” He had poured his lanky black body into a black suit and a black shirt and shiny black shoes and a very nice black porkpie hat. The man was black. Always black. Maybe he was 60, maybe 70. I didn’t care.
Every day Art Lewis stepped into the river of his life and prayed into his saxophone. He prayed jazz. Improvisation was his devout way of life. His sacred horn was always blowing away the stifling air of fundamentalism. As far as Art was concerned, right and wrong, innocence and guilt--they were all notes in the same piece of music. Playing the sax was Art Lewis’ religious practice, and he had become a wise teacherman by following the path the saxophone had shown him.
“Music,” he announced, “holds many of the answers to the riddles about life and death.”
“Why doesn’t it hold all the answers?” I asked.
Art got that big wide smile on his face and said, “Because we don’t know all the questions.” He played a riff and added. “Besides, there aint no answers in the boogie-woogie. No answers anywhere in the be-bop. The jingle-jangle is so empty of answers you’d go hungry if you got lost inside. The only answer we got is just us doing what we are doing. Like the dogs and the fishes. Like the homeless blowing down San Antonio Street like afternoon trash. That’s why I play my horn. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Art was wearing a long necklace of wide golden links. A cheap necklace really, not real gold, but it was handsome hanging around Art’s black neck.
“Art,” I asked, “where did you get that handsome necklace?”
“Oh,” he said, “a wino in the alley outside the Cincinnati Street Bar gave it to me. He wanted me to play him some blues. So I played him some wino alley blues. He liked those wino alley blues. Said those blue made him feel sad and happy at the same time. Said he didn’t have any money, so he gave me this golden necklace. It’s fake gold, you understand. But it sure makes me feel good.”
Art smiled again. He didn’t have many teeth.
That night I had this strange dream.
National Public Radio announced that Osama Bin Laden’s soul, tainted and crippled by fundamentalism, had escaped her master’s body. The soul of Osama Bin Laden had witnessed airplanes disappearing into glass buildings. And dead souls floating off toward the moon. In despair she had fled the body of Osama Bin Laden. Art Lewis was in the alley next to the Cincinnati Club playing saxophone to the wino, and the soul of Osama Bin Laden appeared like a moth attracted to a candle’s flame. She hid behind garbage cans and listened to Art play his horn. She realized that she had never known such generosity and compassion. She began to weep while Art played the many riffs from his golden horn.
And she fell asleep.
In her sleep, the soul of Osama Bin Laden dreamed. Like I was dreaming the soul of Bin Laden. A dream within a dream. And in her dream the soul of Bin Laden was giving birth to a child. When she opened her legs, she found a dead baby boy. Art Lewis sighed and with his horn he collected up the grief and blood and afterbirth like a priest who is preparing to give the holy sacrament. While Art Lewis blew this sorrow into his horn, the soul of Osama Bin Laden and the wino buried the dead baby in a dumpster behind Geo Geske’s. The lid clanged shut. The alleyway smelled like urine.
Art Lewis was weeping, the big tears dripping down his black face. He continued to blow on his horn about the sorrows in his heart. He said his piece was called “The Soul of Osama Bin Laden and her Dead Baby’s Blues,” a song so sad it made the wino weep too. The wino’s name was John, and John wandered away looking for some sort of God. He left behind the golden necklace as a gift for Art.
The necklace was stolen merchandise. Art didn’t care. He put it around his neck and played to the dark alleyway.
And the soul of Osama Bin Laden disappeared forever.
That was the end of my dream, and for what it’s worth, the Bridge Center and Art Lewis made that dream possible. Now the Bridge has locked up its doors, I haven’t seen Maggie Herrera in a couple of months, and I feel this deep emptiness in my imagination. George Bush, meanwhile, continues to strut around on the stage in his imaginary suit of clothes--the American flag draped around his nakedness, the Bible dangling from his manly hand like a smoking AK-47. My lost sad empty useless old man El Paso blues just won’t go away.
But this I have learned--Art Lewis has put his saxophone next to his bed in Houston where it generates a warm glow inside his room. His mother is with him. She is ancient. She has found memory to be of no further use. A hopeless tool. She does not know Art’s name but she knows that he resided in her belly. And that was a long time ago. Now she is waiting to unlock the door that opens into the void. She wants to step outside. Art watches her from his bed, learning some more about the questions that have no answers, and he meditates upon the meaning of music without any sound. “It’s a perfect music, exquisitely improvised,” he mumbles to anyone who will listen. “It’s a high pitched sound that resides inside the holiness of our brains. We all first heard that music inside our mother’s belly. Down in that magnificent slime where I first saw my father’s face. This is a strange secret.”