Throwback Thursdays! We’re bringing back some of our favorite pieces from the last 30 years of Scribendi.
Kansas City Blues
Siandra Hoepfner-Pima Community College-1990
Autumn in Kansas City is a time when the air is newly crisp and clear and filled with the pungent, sweet smell of damp earth and decaying foliage. It is a time when nature drops a gilded veil over the city, even in the slums. On this specific autumn day, the weather brought back memories of better times-times when as a child I had lived in a big house north of the river, when survival had not meant struggle and safety was something I took for granted.
The intense feeling of nostalgia drove me outside, with my youngest child, to exercise my memories. I bundled my daughter into a tattered sweater and matching hat, loaded her into the second-hand stroller, and set off down the street going nowhere in particular, just anywhere away from our bleak cluster of rented rooms on the third floor of a crumbling tenement house. Along the way, we passed by the hulking grade school my two older children attended. I maneuvered the stroller around the debris in the street, past down-and-outs who did whatever it took to get by: a drug dealer plying his trade over the hood of a broken-down car, a wino passed out in a deserted doorway, a prostitute arguing with her pimp about money.
I did not see him standing there at first. I heard him, or rather I heard his instrument wailing from the doorway of a decaying old building. I first believed it to be the music of a record blaring from an open window. But it was too clear, and I noticed there was no background music to it, no drum beat, no accompanying orchestration. Then I saw him, a wizened old black man with a face like polished, twisted oak, glowing honey brown and golden in the sunlight. His lips were pressed up against a golden horn that glittered as he moved his nimble fingers over the keys, pressing them down one after another as the music moved him. He saw me, and although his lips and hands did not leave his instrument, he acknowledged my presence by pointing the horn in my direction and letting out a series of plaintive wails that deliberately called attention to his tremendous talent. I was awestruck, and my daughter clapped her hands with glee. We crept closer, mesmerized.
When he was done impressing the two of us, he dropped the horn from his lips and smiled brightly, his yellowed and gold-capped teeth glistening in the sun.
“That was wonderful.” I breathed the words more than I spoke them, my voice barely above a whisper, afraid to break the magic spell of his music.
He did not acknowledge his own talent. Instead he gave the credit to his instrument, raising it to me as if in a toast, then gently rubbing his hand along its gleaming metal in a loving gesture, as a man might stroke the thigh of a sensuous woman.
“Mighty fine looking girl you got there,” he spoke at last. “Pretty as a picture, just like her mama.” He bent down and brushed a gnarled finger across my daughter’s pink cheek. She grinned up at him shyly, then scooted down in the stroller.
“Thanks,” I mumbled.
My daughter was reaching for his shiny horn, and he lowered its rim to let her touch it. She ran one tiny finger around the edge, then drew back cautiously, but smiling.
“Obviously a music lover,” he laughed. “Do you like the blues?” His question was addressed to me.
I had to confess that I really didn’t know anything about blues music. Raised in a white bread neighborhood, I had not been exposed to such things. My tastes ran more to rock and roll.
“Well,” he assured me, “you don’t have to be black to sing the blues. A pretty young gal like you must have seen your share of sad times to be living in a place like this.” He gestured with his horn toward the shabby buildings that lined the street. “You got as much right to sing the blues as anybody, I guess. The blues isn’t just music, missy. The blues is a state of mind.”
I thought for a moment about that one, trying to put his words into proper perspective. “You mean sad songs, like the ones I hear coming from my neighbor’s apartment downstairs? She never comes out of her rooms, or hardly ever. She just sits at home, playing sad songs on an old record player.”
“Yep. Sounds like she’s singing them ol’ Kansas City blues all right.”
“And the people next door to her-the husband beats his wife something fierce all the time. But when the police try to haul him off, she begs and pleads for them not to take her man away.”
“Yeah-h-h.” He drew out the word in a long, low breath. “They’re singing them Kansas City blues for damned sure. Hey, you’re pretty quick for a white gal.”
I took it as a compliment. “Are you going to play some more?” I asked him hopefully.
He sighed, squinting up at the sun overhead. “Naw. My wind ain’t what it used to be. There was a time, though, when I could blow this baby all night and day if I wanted to. Man, those were the days.” He had a faraway look in his old, rheumy eyes.
“Oh, you played professionally?” I was not in
the least surprised. Only pros got as good as I believed this man to be.
“Sheee-it, woman, I played with the best. The best!” He rattled off a long list of wonderful sounding names, names like Blind Lemon, Chip pie Hill, Memphis Minnie, and Sweet Mama Stringbean. He told me tales of the blues clubs in Kansas City and Chicago and New Orleans, clubs like the Dreamland, where women swayed on the dance floor, white satin gowns clinging to their bodies in the sultry heat. He introduced me to song titles like “What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?,” ‘Tm Going Back to My Used to Be,” “Mean Tight Mama,” and one Bessie Smith used to sing called “Poor Man Blues,” about the sad irony of poverty in a land of riches. He went on at great length about individual personalities, those he had gotten drunk with, those he had fallen in love with, those he had played horn with as they climbed up the ladder of success or climbed down into a bottle.
I left that day feeling that I had met a truly great man.
“Aw, he’s just a crazy old fool,” my friend on the first floor told me. “I wouldn’t waste my time on that old blues man if I was you. He’s just talking you a load of jive.”
But her words did not alter my enthusiasm. I began taking walks with my daughter regularly, always passing by that same battered doorway, and every time he would be out there blowing on his golden horn.
As he explained the blues to me, I found myself understanding the slums on a deeper level, and it made my life there more bearable. “Blues mu sic,” he said, “is about suffering and hardship and that feeling of defeat people have when they’ve lost control of their lives, whether that means money, or women, or booze, or anything else that makes people hurt. But beneath the blues-and you remember this, ’cause it’s the most important part of all-runs a river of hope, shining like a golden ribbon in the sun. Someday that sun gonna shine on me, yeah-h-h,” he would say with a grin. “And you too, missy. And when it does, you tell everyone the old blues man knew it all along.”
I had a right to feel blue, and so did everyone else in my neighborhood, but I could see an undercurrent of hope there now, the old blues man’s golden river flowing somewhere beneath the sur face of the pain.
I no longer questioned the solitude of the woman downstairs, that classy beauty, quiet and self contained, who never smiled and seldom left her rooms. An accidental glimpse into her apartment from the stairs once showed me a magical place of carved wooden antiques and etched glass. She had slammed the door abruptly on my inquisitiveness, hiding her treasures as though my eyes would somehow taint them. At night I would hear blues music drifting up slow and quiet from her apartment, and I’d know she was just doing her best to survive in her diminished circumstances
It was those ol’ Kansas City blues, just like the blues man said.
The man next door to her continued to beat his wife at regular intervals. She would squeal like a pig poked with a stick, screaming out the windows for help. But when the police came, she would always sing the same old song through her swollen and bloodied lips. “Don’t take my man, officer, please don’t take my man.” Ten minutes after the police were gone, her husband would be at it again. Kansas City blues, I’d think, just those same ol’ Kansas City blues.
Then the weather turned cold, as winter crawled into the city. Our golden autumn had gone, fading like a dream on the icy wind. With the coming of snow, the old blues man disappeared like a phantom in the mist. He no longer played his horn in the diminished golden sun.
But still I kept looking for him. I was on my way out the door one frosty morning when my friend on the first floor stopped me.
“Girl, where you off to in such a hurry in this cold? And in that threadbare coat of yours, too. Silly white woman. Didn’t your mama teach you no better than that?”
“I’m looking for the old blues man,” I told her.
“Save your time, girl. That old man died a couple of weeks ago. My auntie saw them haul the body off herself. Cold weather can be death on old bones, you know,” she added offhandedly. ‘Tm sorry, girl. I thought you knew, you being his friend and all.”
I ran back upstairs to my apartment, slammed the door, and went straight to the window, looking out over the frozen waste of my world. The old blues man never made it out, I thought, and neither will I. Never. The panic that overwhelmed me stuck in my throat like a sliver of black glass. I was trapped in the slums with three little kids, no money, and nowhere to go.
I pressed both hands hard against the frosted glass of the windows, grinding my fingers in torment against the bitter bite of the cold. I want out. I mouthed the words silently so my children would not be alarmed. I want out. The words screamed in my head, imprisoned there, fighting for escape, but there was nowhere for them to go, nowhere for them and nowhere for me. I want out, I want out, I want out!
Then faintly I heard the sound of soft music drifting up from the apartment below me. Low strains of sad, mellow blues acknowledged my pain and fear, and I heard in that music a golden horn wailing in an undercurrent of hope. Kansas City blues, I thought. Just those same ol’ Kansas City blues. And some day, that sun gonna shine on me. Yeah-h-h.