Let the Past Remind Us
Written By: Jeff Kaliss
About the Author: Jeff Kaliss has been studying creative writing and music at City College following the completion of an MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University. At City, he’s appeared in Forum in various genres, read at Lit Night, and hosted the Poetry for the People Podcast.
A creative historian digging into my past, after I’ve been dug under, may claim that jukeboxes had been my places of worship.
But they’d probably have to dig up a real jukebox, too. The kind which had rocked my world. Those marvels actually looked like illuminated cathedrals, with their foundations grounded on the floor, resonating the rumbles of the earth from far below, their tops rounded like the shoulders of the everlasting arms. They’re mostly not around anymore, replaced by computerized boxes attached to the stucco, demanding too much money to assail you with the latest thumping auto-tuned artifice.
Back in the Fifties, in Maine, when and where I was a roly-poly toddler, my teenage babysitter, Sookie Coffin (she was the daughter of the family doctor, Silas Coffin), would take me to Harris’s Soda Fountain and seat me on top of the jukebox, and have me sing along with the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll, to amuse her high school friends. Later, when the family would stop at the Brookside Restaurant in Ellsworth, the county seat, I’d borrow a dime from Mom and reach up to put it in the jukebox there to play the Weavers’ recording of “Goodnight Irene”. The Weavers were being investigated by the House Unamerican Activites Committee, so they counted as politically correct to Mom and Dad.
Near Boston University, in Kenmore Square, I could take my girlfriend for grilled cheese sandwiches and punch up the Beatles’ latest jukebox hit, which was probably “Paperback Writer”, which I should have realized I wanted to be one of. Instead, I studied to be a scientist, like Dad, and followed that girl out to Southern California, where it seemed that all girls wore tight tee-shirts and cutoffs and hung out at diners in malls, sharing trips to the jukebox and
breathy adulations of Jim Morrison and Van Morrison (no relation).
That girl’s parents and my parents wanted us married, and we got married, but as part of the deal I relocated us to San Francisco, where it was really happening, man. We got divorced a few years later. It took me a while to get back into dating and jukeboxes, but I did. It took me a longer while to find a woman I wanted to think, on my own, about spending the rest of my life with, and she sure had to be someone who liked the songs I picked. I found her, we found places to live near nice bars with nice jukeboxes, and we had a couple of kids, who learned to like out songs too. (And yeah, a few of their own.)
And now that those kids are off to college on that other side of the country, I’m spending more time at my local bar, which, appropriately for me, is called Memories. Everybody, from the local college kids to the retirees, and, of course, particularly the latter, knows how the bar got its name, and kept it. It’s sort of where the past can sit beside the present and not worry about the future outside the swinging door. That’s why I’ve become a regular.
Particularly when the antique jukebox is working. It hadn’t been or a while, until they ordered replacement parts from Germany and found some old geezer artisan who was able to get it going again.
Don, the bartender/owner, had been talking up the resurrection of the Wurlitzer for a number of weeks, and planned it as a big Friday Happy Hour event. Don was pouring rounds while we listened to one of the mix cd’s he’d put together to fill in for the ailing jukebox.
There was Little Feat’s “Willin’”, from about 1970, when most of us were still on our first marriage. Old Mike and Mildred were slapping down a loud game of dominoes. I think he was losing, she was winning and singing along: “‘Give me weed, whites, and wine —‘. You know who did the best version of this is?,” she asked her husband, and then answered herself: “Linda Ronstadt!”
“Of what?”, said Mike. You couldn’t tell whether he’d already had too many Anchor Steams or whether he was just avoiding conversation.
“Of this song! But I just cried when I found out that Linda has that disease.”
“Yeah,” said, Mike, “we all get old and sick.”
The mood needed to change, and fortunately there was a song on the cd to do it. Phyllis, hanging out with her bosom drinking buddy Betsy, started singing along with it: “‘Don’t bogart that joint, my friend.’”
“You old pothead!”, Betty laughed, and slapped her on the back. That’s alright, be an old pothead!” As if on cue, a batch of State College kids wandered in on their way to the back patio, probably to smoke whatever they were calling it these days.
Another round of drinks began to blur the line between old and new, almost distracting the crowd from the still-dark old jukebox, waiting patiently against the wall. Mildred and Mike totaled their domino points. She was still winning. But Don the bartender was losing his patience. He cleared his bass-baritone throat audibly, grabbed the tv controls and shut off the ball game and the hockey game, stepped out from behind the bar, with all eyes following him, and plugged in the jukebox, which lit up like the neon cathedral I’d known it to be. On second thought, Don left everybody waiting while he slipped out the back to retrieve the cannabis kids. He wanted everybody inside, at attention, present and accounted for.
There was a hush. Don slid a buck from the bar till into the jukebox, and punched up Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”. Whatever color the oldsters’ eyes were, they got misty, as soon as they heard that acoustic guitar intro. The stoned kids just stood there mesmerized. And that’s when it started to happen.
You could almost watch it: the music oozing out of the jukebox and into the nervous systems of everyone within earshot. And the lyrics, written in 1969, were coming out as conversation, nigh on fifty years later. And it seemed like no matter who you were or where you were, you could hear, and feel, what everyone else was saying.
Mike, rugged and gray-bearded, turned to Mildred, whose blue eyes were still bright behind her grammy spectacles. “It’s getting to the point where I’m no fun anymore,” he confessed, sounding like he was speaking but singing. He continued, “I am sorry. Sometimes, sweetie, it hurts so badly I must cry out loud. I am lonely.” We knew Mike was a quiet, inner sort of guy, but this sounded pretty profound.
Mildred leaned over and hugged Mike, which is just what we wanted to happen, watching them. “I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are,” she murmured musically. But she added, “You make it hard.”
John the plumber was the next to pick it up, at the other end of the bar, next to his Irish wife Colleen. They were taking their daily break from their brood, all red-headed kids, like their mom. “Remember what we’ve said and done and felt about each other,” John rattled off. “Babe have mercy.”
“Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now,” Colleen responded. “I am not dreaming.” Though by that point, as another acoustic guitar riff streamed through the amber of the whiskey bottles, we were all sharing some kind of dream, somehow made of everything sweet and sad we’d ever tasted and felt.
One of the State College kids, who might have been a glimmer in his grandma’s eye when that song came out, wiped his eyes with one skinny hand, and placed the other gently on the shoulder of a lovely young woman he must have come in with. “Tearing yourself away from me now, you are free. And I am crying,” he told her, in a young man’s breathy teary tenor. “This does not mean I don’t love you — I do. That’s forever, yes, and for always.”
The drinking buddies, Phyllis and Betsy, swiveled on their stools to share a loyal hug and lead the rest of us, Don included, in the refrain: “I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are; you make it hard.”
“Something inside is telling me that I’ve got your secret.” That was Don speaking, directly to me. “Are you still listening?” (Sure, Don, I thought to myself. When Don talks, we all listen.) “Fear is the lock, and laughter the key to your heart. And I love you.” You expect wisdom from bartenders. You hope for affection, but you don’t usually hear it. You don’t expect to be brought an exotic cocktail, without ordering one. But that’s what I got. I didn’t know what it was, but I gulped it down.
And found myself sitting at a kitchen table I thought I’d forgotten, with Don’s words (or were they Stephen Stills’?) now coming out of an old transistor radio, in the original three-part harmony of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. There was Jo, as she had been, that California girl who’d become my first wife, and we were in our little rented apartment, in 1969. “I was yours, you were mine,” she was saying, the lyrics in the wrong tense. “You will always be what you are,” she went on. “You’ve made it hard.”
And I knew, because I had known, that she’d be leaving me. And that my words would be locked up by fear. I’d been scared not to marry her, though we’d been much, much too young. And then I’d been scared that I didn’t really love her. I didn’t know how to love her. Most of all, I was scared that love was something I’d only hear about in songs, but would never know how to do.
Jo walked out of the kitchen, and everything in the kitchen walked out with her, except the chair I was sitting on. The light was cold, and there was a cold chorus, which somehow sounded like every woman I’d ever tried to love, and ever would.
“Friday evening,” they intoned. “Sunday in the afternoon. What’ve you got to lose?” I don’t know. I just don’t know.
“Tuesday morning,” they began again. “Please be gone, I’m tired of you. What’ve you got to lose?” I wish I were gone, ladies. I’m tired of myself.
I felt possessed by a grieving devil, and I wondered what that would sound like, and where it might take me. “Can I tell it like it is?”, I begged of nobody, and heard nothing. “Help me, I’m suffering! Listen to me, baby!” Was I the baby? “It’s my heart that’s suffering, it’s dying,” and I so wanted to be born again, to be rid of wrong ways. “And that’s what I’ve got to lose.”
That seemed to sound some kind of rightness. I felt myself rising above all the rented residences, all the yearning years, to a time and place where I could see and sing forever: “I’ve got an answer,” I told myself, “I’m going to fly away! What have I got to lose?”
I could even see my mother, the first woman in my life, whenever and wherever she was now. “Will you come see me,” I invited her, “Thursdays and Saturdays? What have you got to lose?”
Flying with me was the sweet strumming of a guitar, taking on the wings of a harp. The instrument and I swooped and found ourselves back in the Memories bar, where my daughter Melanie, as was her wont, was dancing for the denizens, who encouraged her with, “Chestnut brown canary, ruby-throated sparrow, sing a song, don’t be long, thrill me to the marrow.”
Don seemed pleased, but not surprised, to see me back. I wondered what I could tell him and the others about my journey. “Voices of the angels,” I started, “ring around the moonlight, asking me said, she so free, how can you catch the sparrow?” And I laughed. And Don knew I’d found my heart. And that was when my Lily came to join the chorus, and to share the delight in our daughter.
“Lacy lilting lyric, losing love lamenting,” I addressed her, reveling in the alliteration with Lily. “Change my life,” I told her, “make it right; be my lady!”
Some guys from Melanie’s favorite taco truck had followed her into the bar, and they began a perky Mexican chant, which, since it involved no actual Spanish, was taken up quickly by everyone else. “Doo doo doo doo doo, doo doo, de-doo doo doo,” they vocalized, “doo doo doo doo doo, doo doo, de-doo.” Then one of them, I think his name was Gabriel, began a perky rap over the chant. Melanie, who’d been fulfilling her college language requirement, seemed to pick up on it: “Que linda la traiga Cuba, la reina de la Mar Caribe, cielo sol no tiene sangreahi, y que triste que no puedo vaya, o va, o va”.
And so it went. And after the last doo doo doo, everyone — Mildred and Mike, John and Colleen, and the college couple included — seemed in love with love, and ready to toast it with another round. “You know what?”, Don boomed rhetorically. “Stephan Stills, who wrote that damn song, and Judy Collins, the ex-girlfriend he wrote it for, are getting back together and going out on tour! Not bad, after fifty years apart!”
I tried to get Don’s attention, to order more margaritas for Lily and Melanie and me, but he was on his way to the jukebox again. I wondered where we’d end up this time.
Visual Art “Night to Remember” By: Jhon Terrado