Wednesday, October 14, 2009

By way of introduction

Why, first of all, should anyone give a toss about me or my thoughts? It’s high time I justify my presence to the reader—the modern internet surfer is not a patient type, and one must get right to brass tacks.
The reason—laugh all you want—is that life is all about sharing. Oh, it sounds like an old kindergarten chestnut, but consider it. We all share space, like it or not. We share resources. We share beliefs, and ideas. Human life itself emerges from a sharing of sexual juices. We might not go about it cheerfully, but sharing is our mode of existence. So, I am here to share. You’re very welcome.
My name is Liam. I’m a young and slightly troubled man, 29 years old. I live on the near South Side of Chicago. Having never embarked on a terribly serious or profitable path, I spend much time drifting in confusion. Sell it, Liam, sell it! I’m an unemployed drug user, a musician of middling talent, a pretty good cook and striving wordsmith—the type of writer who actually writes only when he tires of napping and getting wasted. I’ve made sincere attempts at being a journalist, but lack the careerist hunger to really make a go of it. I’m also battling serious depression and nagging health problems.
There, if you find my resume up to snuff, then I’ll proceed while I still have your attention. As stunted as I may in many ways be, I’m managed to hold on to a spirit of adventure. Let this online mudpatch then serve as not only a bastion of sharing but also the opening set for an indulgent adventure. Crawl up through my ear and into my skull and have a look around; admission is free, and one never knows what sort of sentimental or grotesque scenes may unfold. We’ll pretend it isn’t a blog at all, disguising it as a primeval forest, or a Chinese opium den.
Luckily, I’m not going to just purge my soul ad nauseum. I’ll tell you about my friend CJ. CJ—say the name out loud, it rolls right off your tongue. Sounds like an exotic bird—Sea-Jay. Her full name is Caroline Jaffe. She’s 67 years old, and she’s dying of cancer at the Methodist Hospital in Merriville, Indiana. The nurses there have no idea what a legendary woman they’re attending to; they smile politely when I tell them CJ is a rock star, but they clearly don’t believe a word of it.
She’s not quite a rock star, yet. She may achieve some degree of posthumous cult stardom, though her music is too unabashedly human to ever crack any pop charts. I’ve known CJ for only 3 months. I’d seen her playing on Sunday night open mics at the Gallery Cabaret since the summer of 2008, but was terrified to approach her, a clearly superior being. Her music reminded me of the folksinger Malvina Reynolds, who I remembered from my pseudo-hippie upbringing, if Malvina Reynolds played the piano and was an acid-fried horse goddess from outer space. She held court from her usual table in a dark corner of the bar, passing out pro-marijuana and horse-welfare leaflets to the robust Sunday-night crowd. I wanted, if only as a pretext for friendship, to interview her and write an article on her. I was utterly enchanted.
My friend Yony made the first move. He got her phone number, and after celebrating my birthday in Michigan this July, we decided to visit her at her home in Hammond, on our way back to Chicago. I had no idea what to expect from our visit. I half-expected her to live in a magic kingdom, accessible only by teleportation, and was taken aback when we knocked on her door and entered a crowded, slovenly basement apartment, strewn with obese cats—five of them. CJ was watching horse races on TV. We brought out some wine and a pipeful of pot, and with my tape recorder rolling, CJ was anything but shy in sharing her life story.
She was raised upper-middle-class Jewish, on the west side of Chicago, an only child. She started fooling around on the piano at the age of three—her indulging parents hauled her of to a music academy. She was a ridiculously bright child, skipping grades pell-mell and starting high school at the age of eleven. There’s an old painting of her hanging at the Gallery Cabaret—she’s 15 years old, wearing a jaunty red bow around her neck and with a swarthy, provocative look in her eye, as if she’s about to run off with a gypsy boy from the traveling spectacle. But, in fact, she enrolled at Northwestern University Law School, and at the age of 21 was one of the youngest people to ever pass the bar exam.
I’ll not detail CJ’s entire history here—I’ve done so elsewhere. In the late 70s, while tripping on psychedelic mushrooms, she fell off a horse and nearly died. She decided, at that fateful moment, that if she lived she’d devote her life to music. And so she did—“dropped out”, as the 60s lexicon would have it. She started playing around Chicago in the early 80s, and has been playing more-or-less the same circuit ever since—beer-and-a-shot corner pubs where hipsters dare tread only with great trepidation. To her consternation, and mine, she has never enjoyed a “big break.” At the time I met her, she’d resigned herself—quite gladly, actually—to achieving success only as some sort of “novelty act.”
Which might be a good point of entry; she has a range of topical songs, covering everything from pot legalization to her love of science fiction. But her music is so very much more than that! She doesn’t merely touch on the mystical and sublime; she cavorts ecstatically in it, like a horse out of bondage. I tried to get my friend Robert to release an album for CJ on his newly minted record label, Moniker Records. He ultimately declined. Where’s the market for this?, he pondered. To which I answer, belatedly: they are a select type of customer, few but proud—passionate connoisseurs of the mystical and sublime. I find myself greatly invested in CJ’s success, because on it rests my faith in humanity. If Emily Dickinson can have her sentimental poetry rescued from a dusty drawer and hailed as Great Art, then I demand love and recognition for my deeply poetic CJ. It’s only fair.
Around the beginning of September, my new roommate James rescued an eerie talisman from a neighborhood alleyway—a two-foot model skeleton, mummified. A stray Halloween decoration, perhaps, but an especially vivid and well-crafted one. He installed it on a shelf overlooking my bedroom door. When my grandfather fell sick and died later that month, I began cracking morbid jokes about the figure’s dark powers—like the proverbial bad-luck charm from a campfire ghost-story, it would continue spreading illness and death, and any attempt to get rid of the accursed object would surely fail. The next day, the evil wraith was right back on the shelf. In my case, it’s not such a far-fetched scenario. I might dump it in the trash, but the next day would probably see it in my upstairs neighbors’ living room. Check out what we found in the alleyway, they’d gloat.
It’s tempting to indulge in this supernatural fantasy, to blame CJ’s illness and impending death on some shitty, sinister toy which a roommate unthinkingly brought home. Tempting to deny the far sadder and simpler truth that people simply get sick and die. CJ is an atheist; she has no bedside Torah to take comfort in, no illusions about a life after death. What she does have, and it’s no small feat, is a stunning catalog of music, songs which deserve a prominent place in the Human Songbook. She talks to me, with pleading urgency in her voice, about keeping the music alive. Assurance that her time here meant something, and will reverberate as time passes. I touch her head and tell her I’ll do the best I can.


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