City Paper is not for tourists
1. Bobby Boxster plays trumpet, a 1951 Olds Special, nickel-plated to reflect the stage lights. He scored it at a pawn shop on 14th Street the day after he got paid for his first real gig—no more horns borrowed from the university music room. He paid a skinny $125 for it. That was in the fall of ’79, junior year at Howard. Six or seven lifetimes ago.
Bobby listens to Freddie Hubbard’s solos on Coltrane and Hancock sides as he polishes the trumpet. It’s his night off. He works five nights a week stocking shelves at the supermarket up the street. One night he maintains his instrument. The other night, he rests. During the days, he plays. The cycle feels like a record on repeat: play, work, sleep. Play, work, sleep. Some days, he’d like to flip the record over.
He hefts the trumpet, fingers the valves. All smooth. He doesn’t know what he’d do without his instrument. If his place burned, he’d brave flames to save it. He thinks of times he’d have rushed through fire to save his stash instead. What was it Rick James said? That cocaine was a hell of a drug?
2. Bobby’s been clean for 16 years. Before now, his life is almost equal measures: 19 years without any drugs, and 18 smoking, snorting, or shooting what he could lay hands on.
Chewy and Bobby formed the Chewy Martin Quintet at Howard, kept it going when they graduated. They took every date offered. They wanted to climb that ladder, reach the rarefied air where Bird, Monk, and Trane resided.
Bobby got Bird’s habit down just fine. His drug use was mild the first couple years, just a joint or two, now and then. Bobby played better when he felt loose. It worked out: first year, money was tight, but weed was cheap. Second year, the group, gigs, and pay all improved. The weed stayed about the same.
By year three, word of mouth about the quintet was a rising tide. Small shows were replaced by packed-house gigs at the One Step Down. Playing became a full-time job. They opened for Tower of Power at Constitution Hall. They toured the East Coast. Jazz people knew Bobby’s name. Drug people learned Bobby’s habit. He graduated to coke and liked it.
Chewy tolerated the drugs until the night at Birdland in ’83. Label guys were in the crowd. Bobby was blowing clams on stage. Afterward, Chewy lowered the boom: Get clean, or get out. Bobby answered with a right-cross that split Chewy’s lip. “Good thing you play piano,” was Bobby’s resignation speech. He took the ex-member express home from New York that night.
Chewy hired a new trumpet player. Inked with Columbia. Recorded a debut. Bobby watched the quintet’s star rise in the pages of the Post and started needle-popping. It dulled the anger. It turned his horn into a paperweight.
3. Now clean, Bobby knows what blow cost him. Fame with Chewy is just the tip. The iceberg beneath holds women who wouldn’t compete with his habit; agents who represented him until he turned up too stoned to play; other artists, local promoters, venue owners. He’s made peace with many of them. Others have slipped down the memory hole. Those are the scary ones. They emerge from a crowd, make tentative introductions. Even after he apologizes—the apology step of rehab is perpetual—Bobby sees it in their eyes: the memory of what he was. He worries that one day, someone will step up with a grudge and desire to settle it.
The idea keeps him awake at night, even sixteen years clean.
4. Bobby’s spot is near the entrance to the Federal Triangle Metro station. He sets his case on the sidewalk. Opens it. There’s a color photo in the lid, Bobby with Chuck Brown, backstage at a club gig. Bobby sat in a couple times with Chuck in 2000, recovering his chops. Chuck was gracious, but it never became a regular job.
Bobby looks at his face in the finish when he picks up the horn. A funhouse Bobby stares back. More gray. Deeper lines. Tired eyes. He remembers the first time he saw funhouse Bobby, a kid with a tight afro and baby face. Bobby wonders where the kid went.
At 10 a.m. sharp, he starts to play.
Bobby has learned the kung fu of street music. Every person is a 10-second audition for a tip. Bobby has learned to read clues and build a bridge with his horn.
He sees a Marine in service uniform and lid enter the crosswalk. Bobby purses his lips and blows, delivers the Marines’ Hymn. The Marine smiles. Parts with a folded dollar.
Three Atlanta Braves hats are in the next group. Bobby lays down “Georgia On My Mind” and coins drop into the trumpet case. Regional songs are a wet well. So are generational favorites like the Sesame Street theme. Fight songs? Surest way to separate spare change from college kids. Church groups? Traditional hymns. When the chariot swings low, it loosens the purse strings.
People, Bobby understands, will give you what you want. You just need to surprise them first with what they like.
He sounds the ding-dong death of the wicked witch for a bunch of 40-somethings. Nostalgia earns him $9.75. Coffee. Lunch covered. Metro fare home if Bobby wants to splurge.
5. “Is that the Bobby Boxster?”
Bobby plays on. Last time he acknowledged his name, a pimple-faced kid served him with papers. He glances while he plays.
Chewy Martin crosses 30 years with a broad smile.
Bobby finishes with a flourish. Gives Chewy the once-over. Freckles on his cheeks. Salt and pepper hair. Jagged pink scar where Chewy’s lip got split at Birdland. Suited like a businessman.
“Well, ain’t this injustice,” Bobby says. “I got no fatted calf to kill.”
“You’d only burn the damn thing.” Chewy offers a hand. Bobby shakes it. The gravity of years collapses handshake into hug.
“You look good.” Chewy says. “How are you doing?”
“Won’t know until I tally up.” Bobby lays the trumpet in its case. “Been a while.”
“Yeah.” Chewy sighs. “Long time.”
“What brings you here?”
“Gig tonight at the Warner. You coming?”
Bobby glances at the approaching group. Some Billy Joel would charm their Mets hats off. He feels the sting of lost opportunity. “Money’s a little tight for concerts.”
“Do you want to come?”
Bobby frowns. “I don’t need a charity ticket.”
“Nah, man,” Chewy says. “Not like that. Come sit in.”
Bobby studies Chewy, curious. “How’d you find me?”
“Asked around. Teddy Devroe saw you here.”
“And you came all the way down here to invite me to play? Just like that?”
Chewy frowns. “Depends. You still have troubles?”
“You mean am I still using? No. I’m clean. Sixteen years and counting, thank you very much.”
“So come out tonight. Jam in the encores. Three of my crew are kids you never heard of, but Elvin’s still on bass. He’d love to see you.”
“I think I owe him 20 bucks.”
Chewy grins. “Then for sure he’d love to see you.”
“Why now? You dying or something?”
“Maybe I feel bad for how we parted,” Chewy says. “Maybe I want to play with my friend again.”
Bobby’s split in two. His heart’s a jar of moths trying to get at the sun, but there’s a siren blaring in his head. “I don’t know. Been a while since I been on stage.”
“I came home to you, Bobby” Chewy says. “Maybe it’s time you came home, too.” He pulls out a business card. He flips it, writes a number. “My cell is on the front, under my home number. Warner stage line is on the back. I’ll set it all up. You have any questions, call me. We go on at 8:15.” He tucks the card in Bobby’s pocket without invitation. Shakes Bobby’s hand. “Be there. No excuses.”
Chewy doesn’t wait for acknowledgement. He walks toward the Metro station.
Bobby pulls out the card, looks it over, puts it away again. He picks up his horn to make up lost time.
He thinks about the stage at the Warner.
6. The clock hands reach for 6 p.m. Bobby listens to the traffic outside his apartment. He turns Chewy’s card in his slim fingers.
Chewy’s offer terrifies Bobby. He’s recovered technique dulled by drugs and time, but he’s not the tiger he was. On the street, if he blows a bad run, people keep walking. At the Warner? He’s loath to crash and burn in front of a captive audience. He’s also rattled by Chewy’s sudden appearance, a genie with the wish he thinks Bobby wants.
In a way, Bobby does want it. Being listened to is its own narcotic. He’s under no illusion this is anything but a one-night stand. Would it be fun? Bobby supposes so. Could he embarrass himself?
Could he do any worse than he did when he was playing stoned?
Bobby skims the card, dials Chewy. He wants to ask what he should wear. A woman answers. “Hello?”
“Bobby Boxster, calling for Chewy Martin.”
“Chewy’s not here. He’s on the road.”
Bobby realizes he’s dialed Chewy’s home by mistake. “Sorry. I meant to call his cell.”
“Wait,” the woman says. “Did you say Bobby Boxster?”
Bobby’s mouth is dry. “Yes?”
The woman sighs. “There’s something you need to know.”
7. Bobby expects stage door security to dismiss him. He looks wrong, suit out of style, case beat to hell. But when Bobby gives his name, it might as well be “open sesame.”
A house manager leads Bobby to the green room. Three scruffy young men sit, playing cards. Elvin Hardee reclines on a sofa, nose in a mystery paperback. Chewy chugs a squat green bottle of Perrier by the catering table.
Bobby lets Chewy set the bottle before he crosses the room. He punches Chewy in the smile. Chewy recoils. Dabs his lip, old wounds reopened.
“What the hell!”
“Time I came home, too?” Bobby shakes his head. “Smooth talk.”
“Are you crazy?”
“I dialed your house by accident. Your wife told me what’s really going on.”
“You called my house?”
Bobby glances at Elvin. “The label wants to boost Chewy’s image. Chewy came up with a PR stunt: invite his old friend, a junkie playing on the streets of D.C., to sit in like old times. Except Chewy’s wife thinks it’s a shitty thing to do.”
Elvin looks from Bobby to Chewy. “That true?”
“It’s not like that.” Chewy’s swollen lip mangles it.
“No? I called the Post. Talked to the reporter you’re working with. You told him I’m still using. The truth embarrassed him. He won’t be here tonight.”
The youngsters watch, frozen. Elvin scowls. “That’s bush-league, Chewy.”
Chewy’s eyes are daggers.
Elvin shakes Bobby’s hand. “You look good, Bobby. Long time.” He introduces Bobby to the youngsters. Bobby won’t remember them, but he’s gracious. Then Elvin slips Bobby his number, invites him to gig if he’s ever in New York.
Chewy is mute throughout. Bobby doesn’t linger. He knows there’s no apology coming from behind the swollen lip.
8. Ten a.m. Bobby plays. He feels different. The notes are full and round and alive. The music makes it rain.
Bobby doesn’t spare a thought for Chewy. The past is a drug, too. Getting closure is getting clean.
Between songs, he steals a glance at himself in the horn’s finish. Funhouse Bobby, aging and rough from the road he’s traveled, stares back. Bobby sees past him, catches a glimpse of the kid, tight afro and baby face. That’s how Bobby feels today.
He has no idea who the old cat is.
Douglas J. Lane spent 18 years in the greater D.C. area, including two obtaining a masters degree in journalism from Georgetown University. He currently resides in Houston with his wife, for whom he abandoned Beltway traffic in 2010.