Saturday, October 24, 2015



Television was in Willie Gilmore's opinion, mankind's crowning achievement.  The actual programs were secondary in importance.  It was the fluttering images and cadence of sounds which attracted and soothed him. 

Because of this, he tended not to view any particular rhythmic pattern for long.  No matter what he was watching, he was usually more interested in what else might be on.  He simultaneously devoured sitcoms filled with canned laughter that erupted every 30 seconds; hour long dramas featuring impossibly attractive doctors, lawyers and police officers; movies showcasing the disease of the week; star studded self-congratulatory extravaganzas; game shows that allowed ordinary Americans to become temporary celebrities provided that they were sufficiently enthusiastic about winning money; contrived scenario reality shows featuring actors pretending not to be script following actors; and edited feature films modified just right for his screen.  Much like an obese man at an all-you-can-eat buffet, he would sample one dish, discover that he was still ravenous, so quickly move on to the next selection.  Thanks to the blessed advent of cable his choices were bountiful, if not always appetizing.  As long as something was showing somewhere, and something else somewhere else, Willie was a happy camper.

This is why he held such reverence for the device that perfected the world's most perfect creation.  The remote control.  This marvelous result of modern technology enabled him to scoot across the numerous broadcast systems like a barefoot man on a bed of hot coals.  With his remote in hand, Willie had no need for grandiose dreams.  Hopes and aspirations were not even trivial concerns, for he was master of a twenty inch universe.  Willie Gilmore was God, with a real short attention span.

Willie's footsteps quickened once his pleasure dome came into view.  The listlessness characterizing his movements during the nine to five portion of the day magically evaporated as he leapt up the stairs with grace that would have made Tanya Harding go for his kneecaps.  He was just in time to catch the beginning of Full House, Family Matters, and The Golden Girls, as well as the second half of the cinematic masterpiece, Spies Like Us.

Upon entering his home one particular evening, it took no longer than immediately for Willie to discern that something was awry.  The first thing he routinely did upon arrival was pick up his remote and turn on the TV.  But on this day there was no need, for it was already on.

"How strange," Willie thought aloud.  He always switched the television off just before walking out the door.  It was quite odd that he would have forgotten to do so this morning, equivalent to not belching after eating a chili dog.  But he supposed that stranger things had been known to happen, so he didn't dwell on the matter for long.  Instead he changed out of his work clothes, microwaved himself dinner, and zoomed through sixty-two channels with the speed of an amorous jackrabbit until it was time to go to bed.

Each interval of Willie Gilmore's life mirrored the one prior and foretold of those to come.  This was more than fine by him.  Variety and change were not his cups of tea, coffee, or any other beverage.  Personal growth through gained experiences was as foreign a concept as putting on a pair of pants by pulling them over his head.  Physically possible?  Perhaps.  But for what purpose would he bother trying to find out?  He knew precisely what pleased him and had no intention of adding to or subtracting from the list.  To describe him as a couch potato would be a severe understatement.  After all, a potato was easily moved. Once home and in position, Willie was a couch barnacle.

At 7:40 a.m., his alarm clock signaled the start of a new day. As always, he hit the snooze button to grant himself nine more minutes of slumber.  When the time was up, he cursed the morning for ending the night.  Then he headed towards the bathroom, switching on his television on the way.  Not actually listening to the morning talk show, but nonetheless comforted by the sound of it, he went about the business of preparing to trudge through another day.  He began by relieving himself of last night's Kool Aid, followed by brushing his teeth, shaving, and taking a shower. On the way back to his bedroom, Willie picked up the remote and zipped around a few channels.  The only difference between this morning and any other occurred in his head.  He reminded himself to do what he had previously done instinctively - to turn off the television.

"What's the deal?" asked Willie, when he was welcomed for the second day in a row by a TV set that had anticipated his desire.  He definitely recalled turning it off that morning.  So certain was he of this fact that he would have been willing to bet his three month supply of Pringles on it.  What could be the cause of this unsettling turn of events?  One solution he came up with was preposterous, but less so than the only alternative which came to mind.  After all, televisions could not turn themselves on at will. They had no will.  Not yet, anyway.  So this could only mean that someone had come into his apartment while he was at work.  Yet nothing had been taken, nothing was out of place.  His home was in the same condition as when he left, except for the baffling enigma encased in plastic and glass.

Such thoughts caused Willie to pay even less attention to the sounds and images on the screen than usual, and when he went to sleep he dreamed of dancing televisions.

At 7:49 a.m. the next day, Willie picked up the remote and took aim.  But just as he was about to push his thumb down, he recalled the bizarre happenings of the past two days.  Willie was not what you would call a morning person.  Not that he was an afternoon or a night person either.  He was particularly inattentive and unfocused upon awakening, however, so perhaps his mind had tricked him into thinking that he had done what in actuality he had not.  It was the only explanation which conformed to logic. 

Groggy or not, it was clear that his television was now at rest.  If let alone, it would be in the same state when he got home.  Sound reasoning if ever there was any.

Much to his annoyance, Willie's thoughts involuntarily ventured back to his television throughout his day of professionally processing data.  He had solved his mini-mystery quite sufficiently, and made sure that the peculiar occurrence would not repeat itself.  What was there to think about?  The case was closed.

It re-opened when Willie entered his apartment that evening.  "What in the world is going on?" he asked of himself, half expecting the television to speak up and account for its bizarre behavior.

Willie paced around the living room in search of an answer.  The same one kept presenting itself.  Someone was breaking into his apartment for the sole purpose of turning on his television.  As for why, he would pose that very question to the culprit upon capture.

Instead of going to work the next morning, Willie called in sick.  He made a big breakfast, then settled comfortably on his sofa and stared ahead at the television screen.  His beloved remote was achingly within reach.  But he let it lie on the coffee table. Willie wasn't about to do anything to alert his mystery intruder to the trap he was setting.  He would silently await the appearance of his nemesis, then end this madness once and for all. 

Willie faithfully kept his promise.  Until about 3:00 that is, when unable to keep his eyes open any longer, he dozed off.  About an hour later he awoke to the precocious banter of Arnold and his older brother.  "What you talkin' bout, Willis?"

How was this happening?  Who would have the audacity to sneak into his apartment while he was still in it, just to turn on his television?  What motivation could this lunatic have for perpetrating such a dastardly crime? 

Willie made a most solemn vow.  Tomorrow, no matter what it took, he would be ready and waiting for the psychopath who was making his life a living hell.  He would not allow this to continue any longer.

The next morning he rose over an hour before his alarm clock would have awakened him.  Every nerve in his body was tensed.  He didn't even glance at the remote as he passed through the living room.  Willie didn't bother to shave, and the shower he took was almost ice cold.  He went into the kitchen to prepare the first of several pots of coffee he would consume.  Instead of lounging on his sofa, he sat on a hard back chair.  Death itself was not going to close his eyes today.

Time ticked by ever so slowly.  Willie was aware of every second, of every minute, of every hour that silently passed.  He counted the beats of his heart while staring ahead with startling intensity.  The only movement he made was to bring the coffee cup to his lips, and then back down to the table.  He didn't eat anything, because hunger made him more alert.  He kept an empty apple juice bottle by his side as substitute for trips to the bathroom, because such trips would put him out of eye shot of the TV.  Willie had a simple, clear cut mission to accomplish.  He must protect his television until 6:00, which was the time he usually came home from work.  He was confident that if he did this, the bizarre streak of the last few days would be broken and life could go back to the familiar pattern he had grown accustomed to.  To keep his television off he had to watch it.  And so he watched, and watched, and watched.

It was 5:59 forever and a day.  The digital clock on his cable box had stuck on that time after plodding ahead surely all day long.  Willie held tight to the bottom of the chair to keep himself down. And then suddenly, as if by magic, six o'clock arrived.  Victory was his.  Nothing else achieved in his monotone life had been as sweet.  This was Willie Gilmore's moment in the sun.

His apple juice bottle had been full to the rim for the past hour and a half, so Willie opted to hold the urge in rather than abandoning his post.  Now that his mission was accomplished, there was no reason to refrain from relieving himself.  Several cups of coffee he had imbibed were anxious to be released.  The pleasure he felt as he set the golden stream free was immeasurable.  He closed his eyes, and for a split second thought he saw God.  Once this task was performed, Willie started to shave off his stubble.  He was about halfway through when his concentration was broken, causing him to nick his chin. 

"Sunday, Monday, Happy Days.  Tuesday, Wednesday, Happy Days."  Willie rushed into the living room to confirm his worst nightmare.  The television set was on.

Perhaps it was an unearthly sign, a message that he needed to adjust his priorities.  He was after all, stuck in an intolerable dead end job.  A few casual acquaintances with whom he spent a scare amount of time constituted his social scene.  As for a romantic life, it was non-existent, unless one counted the crushes he had on various TV actresses.  It seemed evident that he was being told to reclaim his soul from the grips of this monastic lifestyle creating, intellect sapping, boxed form of entertainment.

The matter thus settled, Willie stuck his hand into the closet and withdrew the Louisville slugger he hadn't swung since childhood.  But he swung it today all right.  The sweet spot of the bat connected dead center with the TV screen, causing the latter to explode on impact.  Shards of glass took off in every direction.

The bat hung limp from Willie's hands once the heat of the moment had passed.  He stood motionless for a few seconds, uncertain of how to feel about the destruction of his most prized possession.  Then a smile crept across his face.  The demon was dead. 

Realizing that it was no longer necessary to battle the fatigue raging war against his eyelids, Willie dropped the bat in the middle of the mess he had created and headed for the safe confines of his bed.  His slumber lasted about three hours.  Upon awakening, his heart was filled with contentment.  A gentle breeze came through the window, caressing his half shaven face.  Willie sat up, rejuvenated, feeling like he could conquer the world.  It was to be a short lived emotion.

The sound he heard was faint, but grew more coherent once its source was recognized.  He would know their voices anywhere.  Jo, Blair, Natalie and his personal favorite, Tootie.  After eavesdropping on their conversation for a few seconds, he was able to recall the episode taking place. 

Then he remembered what he had done a few hours earlier.  Willie leaped from his bed and ran into the living room.  The sight of his television seemingly destroyed beyond usefulness was disturbing.  More so was the fact that the sound still worked.  Then he looked down at the floor, at the scattered jagged pieces of glass, and witnessed the most unsettling phenomenon of them all.  Within each piece of what had been the screen, a section of The Facts of Life was somehow playing.

Willie considered jumping out of a window, for it was clear that he had gone insane and this did not seem an agreeable way to spend the remainder of his days.  But the notion was quickly passed on, for such a drastic measure seemed disproportionate to the symptoms of his dementia.  After all, it was not as if neighborhood dogs were talking him into dismembering random strangers.  Beyond the hit his electricity bill might take, this peculiar haunting should disturb him very little once he grew accustomed to it.

On the verge of hysteria just moments ago, his mood had taken a dramatic turn for the better.  He had tried to deny his nature, and was therefore destined to fail.  His chances had been no greater than those of a cat attempting to bark.  Such a cat would be a silly one indeed, for cats were meant to meow just as surely as Willie's role was to watch television. 

It was now perfectly clear.  The key to sanity was acceptance of what life gave you, like it or not.  Mental institutions and psychiatrist offices were filled with lost souls who questioned too vigilantly why things were as they were.  Those smart enough to know better roamed the earth free of care, if not quite happy, at least a close enough facsimile.  One of these people, a man named Willie Gilmore, dropped to his knees to assemble a most bizarre jigsaw puzzle, each piece put back into place bringing his life that much closer to order.

And now for some book reviews.

Loving DayLoving Day by Mat Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mat Johnson has a very funny (as in comical) way of looking at the world, perhaps because he grew up with a fair number of people looking at him funny (as in odd). Is he black, is he white? The box you decide to put a person into upon introduction, the label you instantly apply to their existence, shapes the dynamics of the relationship you will have with them. If you're not sure of which box to go with, which label to use, then what is there to guide your first impression? If you're not sure what someone else is, how do you go about being yourself around them? We live in an identity obsessed culture. What are you? Who am I? We are comforted when we can tell at a glance whether someone is a star bellied sneetch or a starless sneetch. But when the truth about someone cannot be discerned by a glance at them, then either they need to forcefully declare what they identity as being, or else we'll do it for them. Loving Day is filled with indelible characters; a line-up of humorous situations; an entertaining blend of reality and unreality; a considerable amount of wry, insightful prose; great compassion; and a handful of ghosts. It is about figuring out that regardless of how clearly our stars can be recognized (thanks for helping me out with this review, Dr. Seuss), it doesn't change the fact that we're all just people put here to find other people to love. Preferably people who will love us in return for whatever the hell we are.

View all my reviews

The Star Side of Bird HillThe Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Home is more than where you live. It is where you are loved. It is the place you feel safe, where your fondest memories are created and stored. Home plays a major role in the creation of your identity. If another place was home, you would be a different version of yourself. The Star Side of Bird Hill is about two sisters, one a preteen and the other a little closer to the verge of womanhood, who are sent from Brooklyn to Barbados to spend a summer with their grandmother. This temporary arrangement is given permanence when their severely depressed mother kills herself. With their father out of the picture, having no parents in their lives means that home is suddenly redefined. But Bird Hill is not what they know nor what they have chosen. It is an idyllic prison cell. The children of Bird Hill are not their true friends. Their grandmother is an unbending woman with strange ways, not the adored woman who raised them. This is not to say that Brooklyn was paradise, for that was where their mother had been vanishing before their eyes by withdrawing into herself as depression took hold. Brooklyn is where their father abandoned them. Barbados is where he makes a surprise reappearance that is difficult to trust. Who they can have faith in is their stalwart grandmother, and she is rooted in an island they knew little of up until now. So Bird Hill is where they will finish becoming the women they are meant to be. Memories happy and sad, at least for the time being, must stay behind in Brooklyn. The new shape of home, including loved ones they have gained and those who have been lost, must be accepted no matter how reluctantly. Passage of time will construct that acceptance. This is a fine debut novel by Naomi Jackson, an author to keep an eye on.

View all my reviews

DramaDrama by Raina Telgemeier

This title (which my daughter adores and I haven’t actually read yet) made the 2015 Banned Books list. Why? It doesn't ignore the fact that homosexuality and homosexuals exist. They can even make appearances in graphic novels geared to young readers. Deal with it.

View all my reviews

Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx/La juez que crecio en el BronxSonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx/La juez que crecio en el Bronx by Jonah Winter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Inspirational story of a girl who grew up in the Bronx, like myself. We even went to the same high school (Cardinal Spellman in the house!). My daughter, who read this book aloud to me, loved the illustrations of a young Sonia Sotomayor by Edel Rodriguez. Reminded her a bit of herself, although Sonia has "only" made it as far as the Supreme Court while my daughter plans to be President one day. So what's not to love about this book?

View all my reviews

Just One LookJust One Look by Harlan Coben
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3-1/2 stars. This book was headed towards a 4-star review due to its infectious page turner style of prose that will be mistaken by no one for literary flair. Strictly meat and potatoes. This writing style effectively accomplishes the goal of all mystery books which is to make readers extremely curious about who dunnit and why they dunnit. As I have found to be the case with quite a few mysteries, the grande finale portion where all/most gets solved and the culprits are revealed was a bit underwhelming. Hence I settled on 3-1/2 stars, but GoodReads/Amazon won't give us a half star option for some incomprehensible reason, so 3 stars it is. The explanation section at the end of Just One Look is so choppy and convoluted and hole punched that I stopped caring halfway through it. In other words, I raced to the end only to find myself somewhat dissatisfied by the destination. Nevertheless, I will be sure to give another Harlan Coben book a shot because he is excellent at leaving a trail of crumbs for readers to eagerly devour, and that's what we read mystery novels for - the thrill of the blind chase.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

When Sports and Social Issues Collide

Lately there has been a flurry of press about The Undefeated, a web site under the jurisdiction of ESPN that was supposed to provide an African American perspective on issues in the world of sports. It has been described as the "Black Grantland" and was to be headed by Jason Whitlock, but he did not prove to be up to the task. Lack of managerial skill on Jason's part is supposedly to blame, though I expect he begs to differ and will eventually do so publicly. In some way, shape or form The Undefeated will eventually become a thing that sports fans know and care about. Or else it won't.  Time will tell. This Deadspin article gives a thorough summary of the situation.

Depending exclusively on The Undefeated to maybe one day be the definitive "black word on sports" seems unnecessary. After all, I have been providing my own particular African American perspective for years. I used to do so when I had a monthly column entitled Sports Issues at the now defunct I've contributed writings to a variety of other publications as well (e.g. - this John Amaechi profile), and plenty of my thoughts on sports/societal ills have been presented here at A Line a Day.

I invite you to browse. In so doing you'll find pieces such as:

A Black Quarterback By Any Other Name 

Serena Williams - Daddy's Girl 

All He Does Is Lin 

Racial Penalty Flag 

Rivalry Revisited 

I'm Not Mr. PC 

My Reprimand of Don Imus 

Crime and Punishment or Lack Thereof  

Super Repercussions of Rooney Rule

What I'm saying is  - If you are interested in the intersection where sports and race and inequality talk meet up and you don't feel like waiting for ESPN and The Undefeated to get its act together, I'm here for you.  

Below you will find links to six older articles that addressed social issues such as racism and sexism in notable sports events.  I hope you take the time to walk down memory lane by reading them.  If you do, you'll find that what's old is often enough new again. Just recently for example, as Serena Williams drew close to a calendar year Grand Slam, there was much talk about the fact that Maria Sharapova has considerably more endorsements than her even though Serena has enjoyed a great deal more success on the court.  Years earlier I saw this coming when I wrote From Anna to Maria.   

As always, happy reading!


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Playing Fantasy Movie Producer

After years of resisting the temptation, this NFL season I am playing fantasy football for the first time. In the past I've chosen not to participate because I wanted to keep my football rooting interests pure. That meant primarily rooting for the NYJets, against the Patriots/Dolphins/Bills, and when watching a game involving none of these teams and in which the result did not affect playoff seeding, rooting exclusively for an entertaining game.  I pulled for acrobatic catches of deeply thrown spiral passes; long serpentine plays on the ground leaving would be tacklers grasping at thin air; bone crunching tackles; blind side sacks; gravity defying exhibitions of physical theatrics to dazzle my scarcely believing eyes.  This seemed like enough, more than enough. I was not interested in cheering for individual players on teams spread throughout the league to pile up fantasy friendly statistics. I did not want to face the dilemma of pulling for one team to win while also wanting a player on the opposing team to have a great game. These interests would be in opposition to each other. I had no desire to complicate what previously was a simple thing, love of a game, passion for my hometown team.  Victory or misery with no points given for style...or fantasy.

But this year against my instincts I went in, and since my league’s draft night I've sunk deeper and deeper.  Scarcely an hour goes by before I feel the urge to review and inevitably tinker with my line-up in anticipation of the upcoming slate of match-ups.  I have taken to the task of being an armchair general manager of a theoretical football team like a fish to water. A fish who enjoys the hell out of swimming.

The other evening thoughts of hopefully improving the record of my team (the Underdogs) to 3-1 were replaced by thoughts about my novel, Matters of Convenience.  I found myself imagining a movie adaptation and gave myself the role of producer. As a fantasy movie producer, with every Hollywood actor to choose from, who would I cast in the pivotal roles?

I dove into the project with gusto. Rather than relying on statistical analysis I mostly went with my gut. Certain roles were quickly filled with an actor who immediately emerged as the perfect fit. Considerably more contemplation and google searching was done regarding other roles where a clear lead candidate did not jump to mind. I found myself rejecting actors for being too old, or too young, or not quite fitting the look I had in my head.  A mental flip of a coin was needed in a couple instances to conclude casting. 

Below are the stars of the hypothetical movie adaptation of Matters of Convenience, directed and produced in fantasy by Roy L. Pickering Jr. – screenplay by Roy L. Pickering Jr. based on the novel by Roy L. Pickering Jr. I hope you read the book someday.  I hope you see the movie someday. I doubt I’ll be the one to produce and direct it (which is for the best since I only have movie making experience in fantasy), but fingers are crossed that my dream cast eventually ends up as the reality cast.

Unfortunately I don’t have a trailer to present for the film I have dreamed up (so here's one for the new Star Wars movie to tide you over).  Technically my chosen actors are not on board with this project - yet. So to get the flavor of the story I suggest checking out these snippets from Matters of Convenience that I put up on Pinterest, listening to the reading I recorded for it at A Line a Day, and reading the brief excerpt posted on my blog.  Do you think I did a good job of casting the film? Hopefully you do because I have already started the first draft of my Academy Award acceptance speech.

Without further delay I invite you to grab a box of popcorn and check out the virtual cast of my dream scenario film adaptation of Matters of Convenience.

Playing the role of Audrey (narrowly edging out Sanna Lathan), the lovely Kerry Washington:

Playing the role of James (since he isn't busy being James Bond) - Idris Elba:

It was a toss up between him and David Oyelowo. To play the role of Marshall I went with Chiwetel Ejiofor:

For the role of Gwen I initially had Regina King in mind but ultimately went with Anika Noni Rose:

And lastly, to play the role of Sarah I mulled several candidates before settling on Essence Atkins:

Friday, August 14, 2015


                             The Saxophone Man

                                           Short Story by Roy L. Pickering Jr.

What am I going to say to Ellen?  How will she react when I tell her I’ve been fired?  I suppose there’s no point in asking myself rhetorical questions.  I know exactly what she’s going to say.

 “Howard, how could you let this happen?  How are we going to pay our bills?  I’m extremely disappointed in you.  You’ve always been such an underachiever.  You always settle for second best from yourself.  I bet you’ve been daydreaming, or hallucinating, or whatever you want to call it, instead of focusing on your work.  Didn’t any of what Dr. Seagram had to say sink in?  I suppose not.  To think of what I gave up for you.  I could be married to Barry Frugesi, living in a mansion with servants catering to my every need.  But no, like a fool I let emotion override common sense and chose you.  Now here I am closing in on middle age, and instead of being secure, we have to start all over again.”

None of this will be fair of her to say.  First of all, I’ve worked my tail off for McDermott and Lynch Realty.  It’s not my fault that I’m in a slump.  Not entirely, anyway.  I can only perform as well as the economy dictates.  For a considerable number of years I was their top salesman.  At one point I accounted for nearly sixty percent of their sales.  There wasn’t a house on the market that I couldn’t sell, even if it was little more than a cardboard box held together by duct tape and loose wiring.  Now that I’m not doing so well, do they show me loyalty?  I suppose it was pure folly to expect any.  Loyalty has gone the way of chivalry and penny arcades.

Backstabbing from employers is one thing, but the reaction from Ellen that I fully anticipate is shameless.  How dare she complain about our bills being paid?  We’ve never paid a bill the entire time we’ve been married.  I’ve paid the bills.  I’ve single handedly supported my family from day one, never mind that gratitude has been expressed at a faster dwindling rate than marital affection over the past decade or so.  My output at work has declined by no less a degree than Ellen’s output in the bedroom, not that bringing this up will strengthen my case any.  Ellen is living a comfortable existence courtesy of my earning and investing efforts, but all she cares to highlight are my supposed inadequacies.   Her complaints are based on the paranoia instilled in her youth by a penny-pinching father.  The truth of our situation is that we’d need the Hubble telescope to find the poorhouse she’s routinely prophesying is one bad break away from becoming our residence.  As for the legend of Barry Frugesi, if she throws him in my face one more time I’ll have no choice but to sternly express that - “He was a pompous, self-centered ass, not to mention that it was he who dumped you, Ellen.  And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, darling, but you left middle age behind in your rear view mirror a few years ago.  Embrace the downhill slope.”

What am I doing?  I’m walking down the street talking to myself, that’s what I’m doing.  I need to get a grip.  It’s a good thing this is Greenwich Village or else I would be attracting a lot of stares.  As it is, I’m just one more raving lunatic in the crowd.  This area of the only city I’ve ever lived in, the greatest city in the world, bares little resemblance to the way it was when I was a child.  That was before NYU moved in and took over, gentrifying the neighborhood building by building.  Times in general have changed a great deal from when I was young and on top of the world.  I suppose everyone’s on top of the world when they’re young, and by its very definition, times have little choice but to change.  Still doesn’t stop me from fondly reminiscing and profoundly missing days gone by, one of my biggest faults according to Ellen, though certainly not the only one she recites.

As I turn onto Broadway, a beautiful and eerily familiar melody flutters in the air.  I spy a black man across the street standing in front of a 24-hour deli playing a tenor saxophone.  The scene is typical, but the virtuoso performance he’s giving is anything but.  Before my mind can recall where I have heard this song before, he stops and starts to play another one.  This composition I instantly recognize as a Dexter Gordon masterpiece that the street musician is interpreting flawlessly.  Being a huge jazz fan and having nothing better to do than procrastinating further before heading home to inform Ellen of my unemployment, I cross the street to listen closer.

The sax player looks about fifty-five years old, which would make him five years older than me.  He has a salt and pepper afro and possesses a complexion like hot chocolate, his radiantly white teeth putting me in mind of marshmallows floating on top.  The feeling of warmth exuded from his eyes puts one instantly at ease in his presence, even as they dance in rhythm with the music he brings forth.  His fingers glide across the keys with a fluidity I can’t help but marvel at.  Here is a man who was born to play the saxophone, but not on a street corner with an open case lying on the ground next to him containing about three dollars in change.  This guy belongs in Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall.  He should be performing for kings and queens, not pedestrians with too much on their minds and too little spare time to recognize the genius they’re racing past.

The music transports me back to a better time, a wondrous one during which I handled a saxophone pretty well myself.  I must have played close to a hundred nightclubs.  That sax of mine helped pay my way through college.  It got me more dates than I could have ever hoped for.  Ellen fell in love with me, despite having superior offers on the table, largely because of the passion and sensuality that I exuded on stage.  Was it really so long ago when I last went out on the fire escape to set loose a melody after making love to Ellen on that creaky old bed in our tiny apartment in SOHO, back when we were delirious newlyweds?

The Dexter Gordon tune is brought down to a graceful landing.  I respectfully applaud and toss a dollar into the musician’s case. 

“Much obliged, mister,” he says in a throaty pack-a-day voice, flashing a broad smile with his practically glow-in-the-dark molars.                     

“You’re incredible,” I tell him.  “Much too talented to be out here playing on the street.”

“Ain’t nothing wrong with the streets.  You’re always guaranteed a sell out audience, rain or shine.  Even if most people don’t stop to listen, they still hear me as they walk by.  All in all I’ve played for thousands of folks.  And every so often one of my songs touches someone’s heart and makes their day just a little brighter.  Guys and dolls on Wall Street might make a lot more money than me, but how many opportunities do they get on the job to make someone smile?”

“I suppose you have a point there,” I say.  “I used to play the sax years ago.  Nothing quite like standing before a crowd and knowing I had them in the palm of my hand, that I could take them on a journey of my own making simply by breathing my dreams and aspirations into that brass tunnel.  The feeling was worth a lot more to me than the paychecks.”

“Of course it was.  That feeling is called happiness.  A shrink or a thesaurus could give you some alternate words for it, but I think the one I chose works just fine.  I might not have a lot of money, but it doesn’t take much effort to put a grin on this old mug of mine.  The same can’t be said for you, sorry to report.”

A quizzical expression must fall upon my face, because before I can ask the old musician what he means by this, he proceeds to answer my unspoken question.

“I can see it in your eyes.  Your whole life has revolved around providing for the well being of others at the expense of your own contentment.  You’ve worked for years in a job you hate so your wife could wear fashionable dresses while dining at exclusive restaurants.  You made sure that your son was able to go to the best schools, even though you knew that he’d goof off and flunk out.  You arranged for your daughter to have her dream wedding, never mind that you couldn’t stand the guy and accurately predicted it wouldn’t last a year.  Their needs were taken care of, but what have you done for yourself?  The truth is you haven’t really been happy since the last time you played your saxophone.  When you put it up in the attic you tucked away a large piece of your soul.”

I can do nothing but stare with astonishment as this complete stranger recounts my life story.  I am both frightened and fascinated.

“Where are you getting this nonsense from?” I manage to stammer, afraid to confess to the accuracy of his words, or perhaps ashamed to admit it to myself.

“Like I said, I can see it in your eyes.  It’s a gift.  Some people create paintings, some write novels, others sing or dance or solve complicated mathematical equations.  There are even a few extraordinary individuals who can juggle while riding a unicycle.  As for me, I play the saxophone and read people’s eyes.  Some of them tell the saddest stories ever told.  The truly tragic ones I put to music and play their tears.  It isn’t too late for you to change your song, you know.  Sometimes what looks like a setback is actually an opportunity.  Don’t let this one pass you by.  Life is too short, and there’s a whole mess of beauty to take in if you have the right frame of mind to see it.  Most folks waste time examining their sorrow, trying to make sense of it, trying to bend it to their will.  I say just toss it aside to make room for a prettier picture, for a song with a groove that you can dance to.”

I’m not sure how to regard this fortune cookie advice.  Since he knows so much about me, superficial details as well as knowledge that seems to require inside information, perhaps he actually is qualified to counsel me.  He may merely be some down on his luck guy playing saxophone on a street corner for castaway coins, but his advice rings truer than that given to me by those in much loftier societal positions, including Dr. Seagram who charged armed robbery by the hour to listen to my woes and then regurgitate the irrelevant opinions of Sigmund Freud.  Listening to the musician, mesmerized by the creases in his face that remind me of rivers on a map of Africa, I feel as people do upon reading their horoscope in the newspaper for amusement and finding that it neatly coincides with whatever they happen to be going through. 

After college, I wanted to pursue a full time career in music.  But Ellen, who was pregnant with the child who hastened our sprint to the altar, insisted that I enter a more secure line of work.  On the recommendation of her father, some would have called it extreme prodding but I knew better than to offend the daughter who doted on him, I chose the real estate game.  I turned out to be pretty good at it, needing simply to transfer my stage presence to one-on-one charm, especially in the beginning when it was new enough to capture my interest.  But it was only a matter of time before dissatisfaction settled in.  My vocation was lucrative, my home spacious, my finances secure, my loved ones were protected from their complacency, but still …               

One morning about seven years into our marriage, an impulse led me up to the attic in search of my abandoned saxophone.  I found that I had forgotten all the songs once played from memory with such ease.  I had traded my soul to the devil in exchange for domestic tranquility, and my soul, in the shape of a tenor saxophone, had become dust covered and foreign to my touch.  As I headed to work shortly afterwards, I realized it wasn’t so much playing the sax that I missed as it was the sense of freedom I associated it with.  When I was a young man, the whole world lay before my eyes for the taking.  Now as a not so young man, I could scarcely believe how little I had elected to grab hold of. 

The process of manufacturing a lifetime is a tiring one, or at least that has been my experience to date.  The quotas I was professionally obligated to reach pulled increasingly further away over the years.  The degree to which I allowed myself to care about this waned in direct proportion.  One year ago I had what experts termed a nervous breakdown.  Therapy and time were supposed to rejuvenate me and increase my sales figures in the process.  I tried to care.  I failed.  Eventually I was fired.  No hard feelings.

This street musician is right.  Today doesn’t have to be an end for me.  It can be a new beginning.  Maybe I’ll start my own business, open up a music store.  And I could take up playing the saxophone again, not to earn a living, but to make the process of living a little sweeter.  What nobler cause to undertake a venture can there be?  But before doing any of this I’ll go on a world cruise with Ellen, check out all the places we once talked about longing to see before getting caught up with keeping up with the Jones’, whoever they happen to be.  What’s stopping us?  We have enough money saved to tide us over for a good while.  Our kids are grown now and more or less independent; Rachel having married and then divorced herself into country club money; Herbert lucking into business partnership with a former college classmate and now earning a small fortune not through intelligence, skill or diligence, but solely due to being in the right place at the right time - the American way. 

My thoughts are interrupted.  The musician is once again playing the song I first heard him performing, the one that lured me to him like a child to the Pied Piper.  I allow its sweet melody to caress my senses and find myself humming along.  Suddenly I realize why the tune is so familiar to me.  I composed it twenty-six years ago.  It is the song I wrote for Ellen when I was courting her.  This cannot be, and yet it most definitely is.  I clear my throat to ask how he could possibly know this particular arrangement of musical notes, but then decide against it.  Some things are best left unknown.  I continue to listen until the saxophone man finishes my song, after which he grins so brightly that I nearly need to shield my eyes. 

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he says.  “Now it’s time for you to go home and play it for yourself.”

“I think you’re right.”

I remove a twenty from my wallet and place it in his instrument’s case.  Then I head across the street towards the nearest subway entrance.  I can’t wait to get home and discuss with Ellen my wonderful plans for the adventurous future I’ve envisioned for us.  She’ll no doubt resist at first, wanting me to be practical, to get back onto the safe road.  But I’ve played it cautious long enough.  I’m confident that if I stick to these relocated convictions and probe deeply enough into my wife’s heart, I will eventually find the free spirit lurking beneath, long dormant but not yet expired. 

The chain of mellifluous chords snakes between the oxygen and nitrogen that comprise the surrounding air.  With each step I take the music grows louder and sharper, the acoustics of this street corner defying conventional wisdom.  The saxophone man is accompanied by a most unique set of band mates generating sounds only to be found on a New York City street, the ultimate jazz improvisation.  Then an unpleasant chord is struck, a high pitched screech that spoils the toe tapping groove.  I turn my head just in time to see the alarmed face of a truck driver slamming his foot on a break pedal.  But the vehicle has gained too much momentum, and the distance between us is too small.  The tires stop spinning, but the grill of the truck moves towards me at a catastrophic rate of speed.  An instant later all fades to back. 

When I awaken, it is in a state of profound confusion.  I do not know how long I have been asleep.  Perhaps I’ve been in a coma.  I am relieved to find that my limbs are fully operational.  A quick pat down of my torso fails to reveal anything missing, or even hurting.  My health appears to be fine.  I must have recovered from whatever injuries I suffered while lying unconscious in this hospital room.

“Looks like you were having quite the dream.”

I turn towards the voice that has startled while informing me that I am not alone.  Seated to my right is Dr. Seagram.  I wonder why my former psychiatrist has come to pay me a visit.  It isn’t as if we became good friends while I was under his care.  In fact, during my sessions I made little effort to mask my disdain of him.  My wife and kids should be here by my side, not this Freud obsessed fool.    

An image from hospital bed scenes in various movies springs to mind.  Fearing to discover that while my body is fine, my face is encased like a mummy, I run my fingers from ear to ear and hairline to chin.  No bandages or scars are to be found.  It seems that I am completely uninjured.  Perhaps the truck merely tapped me and I was knocked out when my head hit the ground.  Or maybe I passed out in fright, a reasonable reaction to the circumstances.  It has become clear that I was certainly not plowed into.

“How did I get here?”

Dr. Seagram smiles in that way of his that I have frequently longed to smack from his face, for it toes the line beyond which is a smirk, without quite crossing it. 

“You blacked out in your office after…  After you were fired, Howard.  Do you remember being fired?”  

“Of course I do.”  Oh, how I loathe Dr. Seagram’s condescending tone of voice.  My guess is that rather than coaxing patients back to mental health by lending an ear and dispelling sound advice, his technique is to drive them off his couch and back into the chaotic world that loosened their marbles through the overpowering force of his obnoxiousness.  

“And I remember leaving the office, having a great conversation with this black guy playing the saxophone on a street corner, and then I think I was hit by a truck while crossing the street.”

Dr. Seagram pulls on his beard, one of his many very annoying habits.  I can almost literally see the wheels spinning in his head as he tries to psychoanalyze me.

“What you’re describing is what you must have just dreamt, Howard.  The truth is, you collapsed in the office of your employer after you were let go.  An ambulance brought you here.  Therefore you could not have had a conversation with a musician, black, white, purple, or green.  And there was no truck accident.”

The words spoken by Dr. Seagam shake me.  As much as I dislike him, I also know him to be a straight shooter.  Playing con games is not his style.  So I’ve little choice but to accept that his version of events is the true one.

“But it seemed so real.  He seemed so real.  He inspired me to make major changes in my life.  I was looking forward to taking his advice.  No offense, Dr. Seagram, but ten minutes spent talking to him was far more motivating and clarifying than all of my sessions with you combined.”

“No offense taken, Howard.  After all, it’s pretty hard to compete against a figment of one’s imagination.  Under the circumstances, I think you should give serious consideration to resuming our sessions.  I recommend two per week to start.  Going back on medication is probably a good idea as well.  You have much work to do when it comes to dealing with stress.  It’s no wonder a day like this one pushed you over the edge.  Not that it’s anything to be embarrassed about.  There’s no easy way to cope with being fired from a job you’ve had for decades and being left by your wife on the same day.  You have a tendency to hide out in a fantasy whenever reality gets too difficult for you to handle.”

“Left by my wife?  What are you talking about, Dr. Seagram?”

“Oh my.  Apparently you’ve blocked some of what happened this morning from your memory and replaced it with what you merely imagined.  I hate to be the bearer of such bad news, but Ellen moved out of your home.  She’s taken up with another man.  I’m rather embarrassed to admit that the man she left you for is my colleague, Dr. Robertson.”

Talk about information overload.  If only this conversation was my nightmare instead of the awful state of affairs I’ve awakened to.  I close my eyes in order to picture the psychiatrist that Dr. Seagram shares a practice with.  Our paths only crossed a handful of times.  He’s African American, about half an inch taller than me, mid fifties, a short salt and pepper afro with a complexion like hot chocolate and prominently white teeth.  My eyes open wide, as does my mouth to utter three syllables.

“Oh my God.”  Remembrance is crashing down upon me.  The real events of today are assaulting my awareness with perfect clarity, in technicolor.  Ellen curtly informed me that she was leaving for good.  Unlike prior occasions, it was not merely a bluff for attention.  She actually walked out the door this time, out of our marriage, without taking the briefest glance of regret back.  Pathetically, I could think of nothing better to do in response than go to work, where as bad luck would have it, I was fired.  I did not leave the office on my own terms, or even on my own feet.  There was no encounter afterwards with a wise black man who plays the saxophone like an angel.  But I didn’t dream the guy up entirely, not his physical appearance anyway, for he does exist, he is in fact the man that Ellen left me for – Dr. Robertson. 

I close my eyes again, this time in sweet surrender.  My senses shut out all stimuli, so if Dr. Seagram is offering words of wisdom or apologizing for his colleague’s behavior or trying to fit future sessions with me into his calendar, I am blissfully unaware.  My state of concentration pays off and I am able to bring back what I long for.  The music of the saxophone man is washing over me.  It will get me through this.  The uncaring world that I desperately need protection from has disappeared. Only this glorious music is left behind like a Chesire smile.

                                                         THE END