by Elizabeth Sims
©Elizabeth Sims 2004
I wouldn't have thought "Happy Birthday" could lend itself to the blues, but Blind Lonnie could pull the blues out of anything. He sat on his box like an old soft statue and moaned it. His fingers, the only moving parts of him, slowly plucked and squeezed his guitar, making the song unrecognizable unless you stopped and stood and listened, unrecognizable unless you knew the thing Lonnie liked to do best was make blues out of cheerful songs. I'd heard him blues up "Oh, Susanna," "Getting to Know You," "Camelot," "Jingle Bells," assorted circus marches, and the national anthem of Canada.
Blind Lonnie and I got to know each other about a year ago when I brought my mandolin down to Greektown and took up busking for money. Greektown was a decent place for buskers. I walked up and down Monroe Street, the main drag, looking for a spot to set up and gathering my nerve. I'd seen Lonnie there before—everybody knew Blind Lonnie; he'd grown old playing the blues on that street. He wore iridescent polyester shirts, wraparound dark glasses, and kept his silver hair in a conservative natural.
Musicians have the reputation of being a friendly lot, but when it comes to freelance commerce, established musicians don't always look kindly on newcomers. That is, they're happy to help novices except when they represent competition. Once a musician has established a habit of playing in a certain location, he considers that territory his. No matter that it's a free country, the sidewalks are public property, and that everybody else has to put potatoes on their table too.
I decided Blind Lonnie and I should make acquaintance. I stood nearby and clapped after his Brubeck-style tag on "Take the A Train."
"Thank you," he said.
He played another—"Button Up Your Overcoat." I stood and listened as the last note died away.
"Didn't you like that one?" he asked.
"How come you didn't clap, then?" I'd expected his speaking voice to be profoundly dark, like his sing-moaning, but it was a buttery baritone.
"I was just about to," I said. "How'd you know I was still here?" Sounds overlapped on the street—cars growling, people yakking, shoe leather clopping up and down.
"Blind Lonnie didn't hear you leave."
"But I'm wearing sneakers."
"Makes no difference. Blind Lonnie knows all."
I laughed. "You ever play anything but the blues?"
Lonnie's mouth cracked wide and a laugh rolled out from his considerable gut. "Chinese stuff, hey? Lessee—" He tipped up his chin Stevie Wonder style. His left hand flew from its resting place on his thigh and settled on the fretboard of his jumbo Guild cutaway. With his right hand he stroked five smart notes. Pure Beijing, they rang out from the instrument's honey-lacquered wood.
He said, "My rice bowl, please."
I put in a fistful of change.
"Loud money's OK, quiet money's better," he said.
"It sure is. Hey listen, Lonnie, my name is Lillian Byrd. I play a little too, and—"
"What you play?"
"Mandolin. Irish, bluegrass, old-time. I'm not much into blues or jazz."
"Bluegrass ain't nothing but jazz in a major key."
I hadn't thought about it that way. "I guess it is," I said. "Anyway, I'm looking to do some playing down here. I don't want to get in your way. I intend to set up on weeknights when you're not usually here. I need to make a little money, see. And I just wanted to... I was just hoping... Like, do you have any problem with that?"
He shook his broad head. "Naw, I don't have any problem with that. What'll you do if I start to come around on weeknights?"
"I'll move on."
"That's right. Can you see good?"
"Yeah, I can see."
"Can you play good?"
"That's not for me to say."
"Open up your case and let me hear you."
"I'll tell you if you got a future in it."
With trembling fingers I did as told and minutes later found myself playing the streets of Greektown with Lonnie's blessing. More important, he invited me to play behind him sometimes.
As I began to grasp the rudiments of improvisation, I played backup for Lonnie, essentially using my mandolin as percussion, backing his lead with chop chords or sometimes just single-note rhythm.
My progress was slow. Lonnie gave me no praise. One night, after I'd played what I thought was a nearly hotsy-totsy walking line beneath his "Stay as Sweet as You Are," I prompted, "Not bad for a girl, huh?"
He corrected, "Not bad for a white girl."
"What makes you think I'm white?"
"Oh, please. Please, Lily."
I wailed, "Is no one in this world color-blind?"
"Sing!" he commanded. He blasted out an A-minor chord. I fastened my voice to it and made up tragic lyrics.
Oh, they call me Lily white girl,
My skin's so pale and drab,
I'm hot milk without the cocoa,
I'm the whale without Ahab.
A few people stopped to listen. Blind Lonnie was laughing hard, but I gave it everything I had. It felt good to let my voice out. I'm no singer, actually, but here's a little-known secret: Anybody can sing mediocre blues. Great blues, no. Only a few can do that. But if you can hold a pitch and you've got decent backup, most people can't tell the difference. I sang on:
They call me Lily white girl,
I don't know why they do.
I get so sad and lonesome.
Do you feel that way too?
Lonnie stopped and said, "Why didn't you end on 'blue'? Like, 'I feel so down and blue' or something?"
"That'd be too cheap. In the blues you're not supposed to say you're blue. People are supposed to judge for themselves."
"Well, that's enough now anyway. Billie Holiday you ain't."
"Yeah, well, I'm twice the woman you'll ever be."
"Quiet now while I'm playing. Let's do 'String of Pearls.' "
Generations of Greek families strolled by, scrunch-faced grampas and gorgeous young teenagers with smooth black hair and that terrific Greek nose-mouth combination where if you took the nose and mouth separately, they'd look too big, but in combination their proportions are perfect, especially beneath those strong eyes and brows.
Greektown: A few crammed blocks was all it was, an old Hellenic neighborhood. An Orthodox church, home-style bakeries featuring honey-drenched baklava, a mob of restaurants serving lamb grilled, roasted, stewed, and braised, with or without every vegetable in the market. Greek seafarers settled here during Detroit's early boom as an inland port. The neighborhood somehow remained cohesive and was now a civilized island in the midst of ghetto blight. A Reno-sized casino had gotten in and resurrected a block gone to seed, and now more people came through Greektown, for better or worse. It was the kind of place you went on dates, once or twice per relationship. It's interesting as far as it goes, and it would be a nice addition to a city like New York or London, which are pastiches of neighborhoods. In such a city, Greektown would be a beautiful gemlike patch in the quilt, but it can't carry Detroit alone: One patch cannot a quilt make.
Because of all that, I admired the spirit of the neighborhood. Those old restaurateurs had seen everything.
In addition to establishing a relationship with Blind Lonnie, I got to know the other people on the street. Panhandlers hung out in Greektown, also around Hart Plaza on the waterfront. They picked odd places too: the median on Eight Mile east of the Southfield expressway, certain right-turn curbsides on Woodward uptown. They were typical panhandlers: drunks, crazies, druggies. Most of them got government checks, most disappeared at night to their rooms in the welfare hotels scattered through the ghettos. They tended toward self-medication—cigarettes, alcohol, pot.
I knew the downtown ones by sight. There was Highland Appliance Guy, who towed a child's red wagon everywhere he went by means of a harness made of salvaged seat belts. He piled the wagon with ruined electronics: a stack of VCRs, about a dozen cordless phones; two or three boom boxes; thousands of knobs, wires, and circuit boards. He fastened the harness around his waist and pulled that wagon all over downtown. Why? Nobody knew. His pitch was, "A penny. Just a penny. Everybody can afford a penny."
There was Brown Blanket Lady, who hunched on the sidewalk wrapped in a filthy afghan, rocking. She held out her scrawny trembling hand in silence. I never saw her make eye contact with anyone, and I never heard her say anything. When someone dropped a coin or bill into her hand, she retracted it into her blanket like a spring-loaded bank.
There were Young Brenda and Drooly Rick, a couple who spoke, when coherent, of getting married and having kids in Montana.
At first I tried to befriend these people. You know, get to know them, because hey, the least of them speaks the truth, right? I'd learned long ago from my college professors that the poor are better people than the rich or the middle class, that prophets are commonly cast out of polite society, that the least prepossessing individuals are usually the wisest and worthiest.
These lessons were reinforced by literature. Quasimodo was insecure. Caliban was misunderstood. Boo Radley only wanted to make friends. Huck Finn had dirty feet but a heart of gold.
So I shared small amounts of my busking earnings with them, listened to their philosophies of life. I bought candy bars in bulk and gave them away.
But when I really got to know and interact with these people, I found way less life wisdom in them than in the guy who fixed my car or the lass working the pizza counter or my landlord. I don't know whether that's an insult, but I guess it isn't a glowing testament either. One day I was playing, getting into it, my eyes closed. I played a long series of variations on an Appalachian tune called "Forked Deer," and when I opened my eyes I saw that the money I'd accumulated in my case was gone and Drooly Rick was running away down the street dropping coins. I kept my eyes open after that.
I realized that the mandolin gave me a leg up on the other buskers in terms of authenticity—perceived authenticity, anyway. If I used tremolo, I could play almost any basic folk tune and people perceived it as Greek music. Most people's dim impression of Greek music is that it's played on an unfamiliar, plaintive stringed instrument. The Greek instrument is the bouzouki, similar to the mandolin but not the same. It's bigger, with a different fret pattern and overall sound. But the bouzouki is also a short-sustain instrument, meaning that when you want a note to linger, you must use tremolo. So most visitors to Greektown light up when they hear a tremolo folk tune, even if the tune is an American Civil War ballad played on a mandolin.
I backed up Blind Lonnie on "Happy Birthday," listening carefully as I played. It was nobody's birthday that I knew of. Then we launched into some variations on a Mexican melody he'd learned off the radio. Earningswise, we were doing better than we had for a couple of weeks.
It was a Friday night, we were at his traditional spot at the corner of Monroe and Beaubien, and I was working through some chord progressions he'd assigned me for the song, just forming the chords with my left hand and then letting my right wander around the strings. I was enjoying the night. People were hustling by on their way to dinner or the casino. The air was heavy with the smells of food: lamb, spices, lemon, and the bitter air-taste of thick Greek coffee. Cars chugged along looking for parking places. A reggae band on a distant corner clanged out a song. The shadows of the buildings had been creeping across the street, and now the streetlights were coming on. This June Detroit night was turning cool. A woman wearing an open-midriff top and tiny come-fuck-me shoes shivered into the arm of her proud date as they hurried along. People stopped to drop money into Blind Lonnie's case.
Probably because I was concentrating so hard on my chords, it took me awhile to notice a man watching me from across the street. He walked past once, then he walked the other way, slowly. I glanced over. He stood at the curb not directly opposite us but off to the side. He leaned against a fat post and watched, then got behind the post and hugged it, his head poking out to one side, watching. From the angle of his gaze it was clear he was watching me as I stood behind Lonnie, who was seated as usual on his battered wooden box.
A really fierce Detroit lady cop had once told me all I needed to do to avoid getting jumped was to look around all the time and make bold eye contact with anybody who didn't look right. She demonstrated: "You give him a look that says I see you." Her inflection deepened and her eyes slashed across my face. "And I'm not scared of you."
I'd employed that direct look many times since, and, in spite of having been alone in some fairly dicey places, and in spite of minding business not entirely my own, I'd been all right. I gave this guy that look, but he kept right on watching me. So I watched him back.
He looked out of place in Greektown, out of place in Detroit as a whole, frankly. He could have been a European fashion model: the unmuscular, haunted type, only weirder. He wore a dark suit cut from what appeared to be raw silk, a glowing white shirt and a deep pink ascot. Perched at an angle over his floppy hair was a beret, for God's sake, and he was smoking a cigarette.
I tried to read his expression. His eyes, half hidden by the hair, were aggressive, but his lips were parted as if in a question.
He watched me and I watched him, and recognition dawned.
I knew this man.
He swung his arm off the pole and threw away his cigarette.
FIRST CHAPTERS AND EXCERPTS:
The Rita Farmer Mysteries
The Lillian Byrd Crime Series