Ginger toasts the young Turkish couple at the table in front of him. Unbeknown to them. He even raises his glass in the dark and it shines in the spotlight as the spotlight sweeps the stage. To a few heady months of compulsive sex and amazing self-righteousness, he smirks. The warmth of the dregs of his drink in his throat reminds him of a wino’s proximate sigh in an airport shuttle in winter. Benny is doing the twist and Ginger chuckles. Couple years ago Benny fell off a stage dancing like this, landing on a fat girl at a front-row table. Now she the band airbag, jokes Benny. Which wouldn’t be half as funny in the form of a grammatically correct sentence.
Benny sings Doo Wop with a backing group of old soldiers called The Midnighters and Ginger loves to listen, and he catches them when he can, if the gig isn’t at an inconvenient location. Usually, he hangs around until well after the last song, leaning on a sticky bar and buying Benny his syrupy drinks. Benny’s veiny black skull, muses Ginger, is a vault full of junk, mostly, but some precious heirlooms are underfoot of the headless blind mice in there, too. Propped on one elbow, his cheek in a palm, his dented hat crooked on his skull, Benny leans on the bar after singing for very little money for very few people all night and he remembers, smacking his lips on the syrupy drinks.
At a club called The End of The World Club in the far corner of the neighborhood called Neukölln, along a littered street that had once run up along the Berlin Wall, Benny became almost intimidatingly lucid one night, and announced, “Love songs are sad, man. You know that? They’re sad.” And Ginger agreed and bought him a syrupy drink.
Tonight he came to Benny’s gig early and got himself the perfect table to watch from, something center-left of the stage, not too far from the exit, half-hidden by a dusty rubber tree plant that may or may not be real rubber. This is the kind of club where the service is insulted if you speak to them in German so when the waitress came he asked for his drink like a man in a homburg in the kind of tavern his father used to disappear into all day, claiming to need the vitamin of the warm red light, starting with “Let me have a…” and ending with “Thanks, Baby.” The waitress is new and pretty, but he cannot for the life of him conjure her image after she leaves the table.
Ginger once had a conversation with a career soldier…funny little guy with bulging eyes and a Georgia accent… talked just like former President of the United States Jimmy Carter…referred to the military as the mil-turruh… in which this career soldier, Junie Haliburton, complained bitterly that the modern army wasn’t doing its job properly. At least as regards the combat soldier in a live theater of conflict (this was shortly after the time of the first Gulf War).
Junie Haliburton said: “A good soldier is already dead, see? That’s what the real army does, see, it pre-kills you so that nothing the enemy might could do to you don’t matter.” Madd-uh. “But this old pussy army nowadays,” puss-uh-ahmuh na-daze, “be so fine and recreational you sore afraid to die!” He went on to say “We seen a nigguh got tore up in Khafji looked like Emmet Till’s twin after them towelheads got done with him and so none of us was in the mood to fight. I mean, I’ll tell you the truth, brother, I started crying when I seen that boy cuz he was messed up…what kinda soldier gonna stand up there and cry? Wasn’t even my buddy. See, I blame the army for those bitter tears. Army ain’t doin’ its job.”
Ginger thought: Junie Haliburton is my Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Ginger thought: I remember catching my father waltzing out of one of those padded-red-door taverns before lunch with his arm around the waist of a slender black lady in a beltless bone-colored London Fog earning my father my eleven-year-old grudging admiration forever.
The name of the dive Ginger is in is HAPPY OURS, continuing in the amusing Berlin tradition of naming businesses after English-language quasi-puns that don’t add up. There’s a coffee place near Alexanderplatz called Drin Kup; an optometrist’s in Moabit called Clothe Your Eyes. Three or four salons around town called of course Director’s Cut. Happy Ours is on a corner deep in a neighborhood called Kreuzberg, opposite a very ugly vacant lot, on a street parallel to the green-watered canal that flows heavily through Berlin like absinthe (at noon) or motor oil (midnight). Berlin is very much a huge, creaking machine made of stone. A black-faced robot of unfathomable self-disgust and sadness. Which often smells of wet dog.
Ginger has been coming to Happy Ours off and on for many years because it is an excellent room for live music, unintentionally magnificent, acoustically; something to do with the weird voodoo of the shape of the walls and the height of the ceiling and the very old PA. It’s a warm sounding tummy-rubbing venue, sonically, and the waitresses don’t pester the clientele to keep drinking… the clientele is allowed to nurse a beer among themselves all night if need be. Fifty years ago HAPPY OURS was a thriving cabaret with a proper German name and evidence of that can be found in the PA and the lighting system, which were both fairly state of the art in 1957, but the original name (along with the original owners and clientele) are buried in the catacombs of the city’s collective memory.
He likes to sit and watch unknowns belt their souls out. Knowing that they are being paid in little more than drink tickets adds to the pathos of the material they usually choose to perform. Almost all of these unknowns who mount the stage to go a few rounds with old time popular music are American; it is that kind of club; and most of them are left over from the largely evacuated presence of the American Army that dominated Berlin from just after the Second World War until just after the obsolescence of the Wall. Cooks, drivers, doormen, hookers, masseurs, cha-cha teachers… what most of them have in common is that they are black and they can sing and that not many more than a handful of people in Berlin seem to give a damn when they take the stage and belt a few out at Happy Ours.
Earlier, Benny swept in on a cold breeze that made Ginger pull the collar of his coat up. It was an hour before show time and he shuffled straight for the bar to start with the stainglass-colored meds, tossing his hat on stage before settling on his corner stool in the three piece suit that Ginger is quite sure Benny sleeps in. Benny’s old derby (with a playing card in the hat band) slid to a halt a few feet in front of the drum kit and remained obediently in position while the guy at the light board experimented with the spots and some gels. Ginger liked the derby in devil red. Spectral blue was also good.
“Mr. Benny,” said Ginger, pointing as he approached him.
“Doctor,” Benny said, smiling through the bottom of a grasshopper-green drink.
“Tell me now, Sir, why is it you call me Doctor,” said Ginger, taking Benny’s drink-free hand, which was cold as Death, and giving it a squeeze, “if you’re the one who does all the operating?”
Benny got a good laugh out of that one. They were riffing on some vintage down-home repartee, but it was lost on the bartender, a German kid who only jerked beers for the sake of one day running his own piercing parlor with the same mephitic rue. Had more chrome in his face than the grill of an antique Caddy. Benny and Ginger are supposed to be having this witty exchange in a bar on the Southside of Chicago in 1973, but due to forces beyond their control, a rupture in the space-time continuum has stranded them in 21st century Berlin.
“Doc,” coughed Benny. “Do you believe in God?”
“That depends on who I’m talking to.”
“I been having trouble sleeping, lately. And since I can’t get any shut eye anyway, I use the time to think. I figure I’m doing about 40% more thinking these days than I ever done before,” he said, staring into his empty glass. Ginger, with the polite imperiousness of an American, signaled the bartender to provide another. “And I have come to some remarkable conclusions.”
“Sounds interesting. And do you believe in God, Benny?”
“Man, I’ll tell you something. I only believe in God when I’m in love. And I ain’t been in love in a long long time…”
The door opened again and another cold breeze blew in and circled the room, followed by the young Turkish couple who just stood there blinking in the dark for quite a while after the door closed behind them. Ginger knew the feeling: too cold and wet to want to go back outside, but, on the other hand, here inside is not exactly Caesar’s Palace. It’s hard to feign enthusiasm when no one’s watching. The interior of The Happy Ours is slightly more alluring than that of a hand-me-down orthopedic shoe.
“Tell me some of these remarkable conclusions you’ve come to, Benny,” said Ginger, turning away from the indecisive young couple to face Benny again. Benny smiled at his own reflection in the surface of the bar. The reflection was somehow the sharper of the two.
“You ever wonder how we know pain hurt, Doc?”
He let that sink in for a bit, then closed his eyes tightly and continued, “And how we know that feeling good…feel good? I been thinkin’ ‘bout that. If there ain’t no point to everything, if the whole world just an accident and nothing don’t mean nothing, how come we know that pain hurt? How come everything alive is always trying so hard? Runnin’, flyin’, hidin’, fightin’… lookin’ for love, buildin’ a nest, defendin’ its offspring… you wanna say that we all just been tricked into givin’ a damn? Is this here a planet of fools? How can that many livin’ things be wrong, man? How can a mosquito be wrong, man? It ain’t got enough of a brain to be wrong. But it be buzzin’ around all night, busy as hell, workin’ the kinda hours a Dominican would complain about! Why? Why a mosquito give a damn? Why don’t it just lay there and say to hell with it? You wanna know the meaning of life, Doc?”
Ginger answered with utter sincerity. “I’d love to.”
Benny slipped off his barstool and headed for the stage. “Ask a mosquito,” he winked.
In the middle of his disquisition, Benny’s band had arrived, filing in in their long dark column of air. Benny has a basic rhythm section… bass, guitar, drums… and his three back-up singers, The Midnighters… a six-piece, in total. Ginger fell into conversation with one of them one night; the guitar player; and asked how they could possibly be making enough money to support a six piece band. Were the drink tickets enough to keep them on the road? He giggled… a surprisingly girlish giggle out of a round black white-haired man… and said, “We do it for the pussy, man.”
He said it’s in their verbal contract with Benny that everyone gets two solos per set. “No solo, no pussy,” he giggled again. He continued, “I’d be lying if I said it’s like being on tour with Marvin Gaye. We’re not getting the type of girl that would make a fella like you envious…” Ginger laughed to acknowledge the compliment, “But choosing between pussy and no pussy, I’ll vote for pussy every time. And these German girls… they’re real sweet. Even the Oldies got Goodies! Dig?”
“Dig. Thanks for elucidating, brother. One more question. Why no sax?”
He winked. “Sax too popular.”
Benny is clearing his throat in the microphone and frowning into the spotlight, gesturing at his left ear for the sake of the sound man’s edification. Benny and his band count four and lumber into Why Do Fools Fall in Love? Frankie Lymon had a hit with it the first time around in 1957; Diana Ross did something big and silly with it again in the ‘80s. Compositionally, it’s a brilliant construction; the magic is mostly in the balance between short and long phrases in the melody. The pattern is too complex to have been a calculated effect… it must have been a gift from the composer’s subconscious. Ginger hasn’t heard the tune in many years; hearing it is just like being a teenager again. Singing an octave below Lymon’s version, Benny soars, nevertheless… clowning a bit like Satchmo through the bridge; clutching his chest and feigning a staggering heart attack through the start-and-stop drum break leading out of the bridge and back into the chorus.
It turns out that sitting at a table directly in front of Ginger’s new spot are the young Turkish lovers. They are very straight-backed and formal looking. They could be West-Side-Story-era Puerto Ricans in Brooklyn. He with his short black patent-leather hair, in his secondhand burgundy blazer and she with her black silk scarf of hair down the back of a sequined blue dress, hair tied high on her head with a single white ribbon. They sit at a formal distance from each other, but Ginger can see, on closer inspection, that they are holding hands under the table. Sitting as still and straight and proper as opera-goers above the table, below it they are conducting a passionate romance. Their hands are desperate and clumsy. Ravenous birds. Ravens.
They’re from a culture he can’t begin to parse. American teens haven’t been this sexually repressed and socially circumspect in sixty years. Their postures are mannequin-like: their cheeks are glazed and their hair molded. He wonders if they’ve even done more than kiss yet; has anyone discussed with these round-cheeked, glossy, hormone-bedeviled teens what Americans half a century ago referred to as the birds and bees? Being a Turkish virgin, does she have any idea what a blow job is? Does she have any idea of the importance of the blow job… of its physio-philosophical function and its place as a lever attached to the vast clockwork of the male animal’s outlook on life? It goes without saying that her boyfriend eschews the Hercules trial of eating pussy. Ginger toasts them, lifting his blood-red wineglass into the sacred beam of the spotlight like an Arthurian chalice of bitter dregs.
Benny’s bassist is doing what’s normally the sax solo in the song, thwacking his E string with that big black paw, humping the instrument around the stage as with a fat drunk amorous wife. It isn’t even a half-full house by now, but there are two or three obviously single ladies in the audience and the whole six-piece is working hard to get their special attention. The spot light follows the bass until its return to its original position, at the end of the solo, behind Benny, to his left, snug with the drummer, and then Benny, wiping the sweat off his brow in another shameless steal from Satchmo, talks his way through a rough soliloquy on Love.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Laze an’ jennimin, “Why do fools fall in love?”
Ginger cups his hands around his mouth and shouts “You tell us, Benny!” Everyone in the audience turns to get a look when he does that but he doesn’t care… being German they don’t understand that he is merely doing his duty as a member of Benny’s audience. The band stretches like an old cat into a lazy breakdown: just a throb of drums and the mumbling bass. Benny, with a bewildered look on his face, shouts, “Why do birds sing so gay?” He then addresses the bassist, “Bubba, you know any gay birds, man?”
Bubba (because he has no mic of his own) does a comedic shrug.
“What about you, Sticks?” pleads Benny, shifting his attention to the drummer, who at this point is keeping the beat alive with the kick drum alone like a bus driver working the gas pedal in bumper-to-bumper traffic at rush hour. “You ever seen a gay pigeon on Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem, brother?”
Benny gestures at a fifty-something orange-skinned woman with a shy chin and upswept bleached-blonde hair, in a low-cut blouse and tight jeans, seated near a monitor, who has been calling attention to herself by clapping in time to the one and three of the beat in a way Ginger once saw teenagers do in a Frankie Avalon movie on his grandmother’s Magnavox console television one evening that had his aunts and uncles, gathered around the set, hooting and catcalling with high mockery.
With much coaxing, the orange blonde stands from her table and comes forward, waving her hands with giddy shame. Benny helps her onstage and in doing so has formally declared his bed for the evening. Picture it: Benny’s shiny black booty just pumping away; the blonde, like a self-hating vanilla pudding, bouncing under his semi-oblivious weight. Benny will invest as much passion in the act as a bear scratching his ass on the bark of an old tree.
The unspeakable secret that Ginger holds dear to his heart is that blacks are different. They are something else entirely, the lost tribe of a bejeweled galaxy, possibly, and if that isn’t obvious in how they performed plantation physics on 17th century Calvinist Psalmody and came up with Thelonius Sphere Monk, it’s evident in how you can never just casually look at a purely black person. Skin so black it’s like ten thousand books printed in one novel.
Thursday night at the Happy Ours is not Benny’s night. No sign of any member of his back-up band The Midnighters either. Tonight on stage there’s just an older-looking woman singing her self-pitying cabaret-style blues, accompanied by a German pianist who sports the irritating affectation of a porkpie hat and with whom she has little apparent rapport. After Ginger’s temperate applause, at the finish of every number, the singer can be heard, off-microphone, to inquire, politely, “Can we do____?” and the pianist either nodding or shaking his head. The singer’s name, it says on a cheap little handout on every empty table in the deserted club, is Ms. Madrid.
Perfect, thinks Ginger.
Ms. Madrid, the b&w handout (in design reminiscent of a program for a Baptist funeral) goes on to say, has performed in the classiest venues of Europe-from The Midnight Son in Stockholm to Harry Chin’s in London’s SoHo and all points East and West in Germany. She has toiled in the business of show against the backdrop of many of the most momentous occasions of the latter half of the 20th century, from the Vietnam War and Watergate to Chernobyl and the fall of The Berlin Wall. Been through it all and still Ms. Madrid is here, the ambassadress for music’s uplifting message of let the rhythm take you and keep on keepin’ on! By any means necessary!
Ginger is of the opinion that Ms. Madrid resembles the late great Congresswoman and would-be nominee for the 1968 Democratic presidential candidacy Shirley Chisolm. She is wearing big round pink-tinted sunglasses and a white scarf over a black wig and dressed in a belted house dress featuring a green and yellow floral pattern. She’s shuffling around the stage in silver-buckled kelly-green flats, vintage 1973. She is tall and svelte and dull black as cold tar.
Ms. Madrid is old and perplexingly dressed but there is something seasoned about her performance. The way she shuffles rhythmically from one side of the stage to the other, singing down into the mic with her eyes closed, her glossy, tousled Supremes-like wig just ever so slightly out of alignment. It’s rather hypnotic. Her singing is very close to talking but not tart or acerbic or bitterly drunk in the manner of Nina Simone’s. It’s in the awkwardly intimate register of a widow talking to herself whilst conscious of being overheard. When a song ends she looks up, blinking, as though the hypnotist has snapped his fingers and she takes a bow to Ginger’s temperate applause. Even he can’t tell if he’s mocking her or paying his respects or making like a man in a seal suit at a bootleg circus.
Ms. Madrid is what Ginger thinks of as one of The Old Ones… blacks who are the great-grandchildren of former slaves. In other words they knew former slaves; former slaves were members of the family; former slaves featured in the boredom of daily life. What is a history book compared to that? Hear it all from the horse’s mouth: what burning tar hitting fear-cold flesh smells like; the special, rarely-heard character of a genuine dying scream. The reek, dimensions and appearance of the plantation shit ditch and so on. Ms. Madrid is singing:
I been so down
That sweet little hole in the ground
Sound like my mountain top.
I said I been so down
That sweet little hole in the ground
Sound just like my mountain top
When they finally lay me in it
I know I got my big jackpot
The waitress appears at Ginger’s side with another drinks menu, laying a bold little hand on his shoulder. Her coin-blonde hair is in pigtails. Ginger gestures for her to lower her edible-looking ear to his lips.
“The names of all the really expensive drinks are too pornographic for my virgin lips to utter.”
“Agreed. Why don’t you just order a beer, which you can sip until my shift is over, and then you take me home?”
“When is your shift over?”
“When you finish the beer.” She squeezes his shoulder and goes for the beer.
There is a sudden hush in the darkly glittered room (the mirror ball is piebald with the lacunae of great age) and Ginger realizes that Ms. Madrid is taking her bows for the first set. He claps. Ms. Madrid shields her eyes against the spotlight and addresses the audience. “Thank you, thank you lady and gentleman. We’ll be taking a little intermission now, restrooms are in the back to the left and please don’t forget to tip your waitresses.” She climbs down off the stage and shuffles towards Ginger’s table.
She removes her sunglasses. “I thought I’d come over and say hello to my audience. May I?”
Ginger gestures that she may and she sits. He says, “You’ve got a good instrument.”
She replies, biting the stem of her sunglasses, “Have I? I always thought of myself as more like a tour guide through the song, see what I’m saying? Like, ladies and gentlemen, if you look out your windows to the right you’ll see the chorus.”
Ginger finds the way she talks while chewing the stem inexplicably sexy, despite the fact that she must be about his mother’s age. “But,” she adds, “I’d be the last one in this room to deflect a compliment, Sugar. Much appreciated. Are you in the industry?”
“How could you tell?”
“You’re looking at me like you’re trying to figure out what you’d change.”
“I wouldn’t change a thing, to tell you the truth.”
“You wouldn’t? Not even my age, Sugar?”
“Your age is a part of the package.”
“Spoken like a true professional.”
“No, this is the gifted amateur you’re talking to now. I’m off-duty. And anything I say off-duty has a more… personal… meaning to it.”
“I hear that.”
Ginger leans forward. “You know what?”
“I know I don’t know you from Adam but…I feel I can talk to you.”
“That’s probably because you don’t know me. And I don’t know anybody you know. So confessing to me wouldn’t…”
Ginger chuckles. “Confessing.”
“Whatever it is you’d like to get off your chest, Sugar. Ms. Madrid is all ears, and her lips are sealed.” She mimes locking her lips with a little key and dropping the key down the cleavage-free front of her dress.
“You don’t want to hear my troubles, Ms. Madrid.”
“Let me be the judge of that. Start with the easiest.”
“You’ll think I’m nuts.”
Ms. Madrid folds her hands in her lap and leans back. “How old do you think I am?” She assumes a stern expression. “Be honest now.”
“Add ten to that. Ten and a half, technically.”
“Wow is right. 75 years on this planet. Never dreamed I’d make it past 50. Born in Biloxi Mississippi, moved to Chicago with my family when I was still a child. Migrated, I mean. Six brothers and four sisters. I was not the youngest but I’m the only one left.” She raps the table. “And in that span of time I have seen a thing or two. And I’ve known some real nuts. Some were even world famous nuts.”
“Ever hear of an eccentric fellow name of Dali?”
“The melting clocks? The mustache?”
“When I knew Sal, his favorite pastime was sniffing the pinkie finger on his left hand. Refused to wash it. If Sal wasn’t twirling the tips of his mustache, he was sniffing that dirty little finger. You’d try to shake his hand or hug him and he’d stick this finger out at you.”
They both laugh and Ms. Madrid continues, “Lived in Paris when I was just a skinny young thing, even skinnier than I am now, and I knew them all… poets, writers, painters, aristocrats, spoiled expats, local madmen, pimps,whores and even regular old working class people. Because a tight little colored behind is always welcome, pardon my French. This was long before my flirtation with showbiz. Back then I dreamed dreams of an entirely different color, Sugar. Back then I had dreams of becoming a writer. Silly me.”
“Gave up on the dream?”
“May it rest in peace.”
“What’s a nigger gonna write about being a nigger that previous niggers haven’t already writ?”
She says, with amazement, “There’s only the one damn nigger book in the world and they keep writing the tired old thing over and over again. Starts with abject poverty and ends with self-awareness. You know the drill.”
“I know the drill.”
“But I ain’t bitter.”
Ginger winks. “Why should you be?”
Ms. Madrid smiles teasingly with her chin resting on one big flat palm. Ginger hasn’t seen a nose this broad in thirty years. Nor teeth so large and white. He feels as though he’s made some kind of discovery. As a young man he would have considered this face as plain as a dusty boot in a junk shop, but it strikes him now that her face is something of strange and magnetic and militantly exotic beauty. She could be from another planet. With her long, attenuating fingers and elbow straw legs. She could be a Venusian. Her age merely adds to this impression. He imagines her in a foil suit, an ancient giantess climbing out of the charred husk of trowel-shaped pod in the side of a steaming iceberg. In a wig.
The waitress is making the trip back to the table with his symbolic beer on a symbolic tray and Ms. Madrid, aware of Ginger’s fascination with her face, nods towards the approaching waitress and says (quickly, softly), “Girlfriend?”
Ginger shakes his head. “Just… a girl.”
Ms. Madrid says, “Are you sure about that?” and smiles enigmatically as the waitress sets the bottle on the table. Ginger says to the waitress, “Ms. Madrid was just telling me about Paris after the war.”
“I want to hear it. But what can I get you to drink first?”
“A glass of white wine would be much appreciated.”
“I have to say that I am loving your voice. You sing and I want to be a baby in her cradle.”
They all laugh. Ginger puts a finger lightly to the waitress’s arm. “Hear that, Ms. Madrid? The young lady is highly attuned. And that makes two of us.”
Ms. Madrid slips her sunglasses on. “Why not make it three?”
The big surprise, when it finally comes, will make Ginger laugh and Benny, too, when he hears about it. The blond will be lots less amused.