Part two of Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae…

Jenny grew up in western Ohio, the daughter of a semi-successful real estate agent who would go through cycles of making a small fortune and then losing it for a variety of reasons.  She lived in primarily in two small towns with three traffic lights between them.  Neither one had curbs nor anyone with a skin tone darker than a paper plate.  Her mother was homecoming queen who married her father just out of high school; her dad was a self described “hood” in high school who barely graduated.  When I met her I had just moved to Catawba because my mother had married a newly ordained Methodist minister and this was his first church. Catawba was tiny, just a burp of a town and much different from Athens, Ohio were I spent the majority of my childhood. Consisting mostly of lower-middle class farmers, and blue collar worker, the overall mood that the inhabitants of Catawba was one mixed with suspicion and a wariness of outsiders.  Needless to say my name and my brother’s name (Zoltan) did not especially endear us to the locals. I had a much tougher time assimilating to Catawba as I have been one who has had an ingrained mood of suspicion and wariness towards insiders, than my brother who could befriend a pitbull because of his type A personality.

On my first day of school Jenny Mae told her boyfriend that she thought the new kid in school had the coolest jello-green eyes she had ever seen.  He was a senior, son of the principal and from that point on he hated me.  I didn’t even know him.  Jenny spent most of her younger years in Catawba living next to her “Mammaw” and “Pappaw” with her siblings.  She had a straight arrow older sister, two younger sisters and a brother who was twelve years younger than her.  Three of her siblings would later suffer from mental illness.

The scene is the Middle East nightclub in Boston, twelve years after meeting Jenny.  The club is sold out, it is packed.  We get there mid afternoon.  The night before Jenny played in New York with Neko Case and Amy Rigby in a small club that was overstuffed from front to back.  Jenny was featured in Time-Out New York and The Paper- both carrying color photos of her and highlighting the show..  While we sipped our drinks in the front bar at the Middle East waiting for her sound-check she told me that “Neko Case is fabulous kisser.  Man, she is hot” she said, staring straight ahead as she nursed her Dewar’s.  Tonight was a big gig.  She was playing with hometown hero Cat Power.  This was Cat Power’s first show back in Boston in nearly three years.  There are only the two bands that night; the Boston Phoenix has a preview of the show and writes extensively of Jenny’s new album while the review of the record is the first mediocre review I have read of the album, but it doesn’t dampen the mood.  Jenny and her band are pumped.

I am away from my wife and get pretty hammered at the front bar before the show even starts.  A black haired waitress states that my five glasses of wine and two Maker’s Mark are a bit much for a meal and cuts me off before the main doors even open.  I am incredulous, which doesn’t seem to help my cause.  I go inside where there is another bar and I don’t appear to be as wasted to this bartender and grab another drink with every intention of pacing myself.  A short man approaches me and introduces himself, his name is Joe and he is writer for The Boston Phoenix.  I know him from my mailing list although he doesn’t look like I pictured him when I sat in my house packing padded brown envelopes with CD’s and press releases.  He has a mustache.  “Who has mustache?” I think to myself. “Especially in indie-rock” I continue to think while Joe is telling me about himself.  I don’t hear him.  “Let’s see the drummer from Husker Due, lots of bands have goatees. Um, maybe one of the guys from Railroad Jerk.” I can’t think of anyone with a regular mustache.  “Well there is Tom, the indie-rock customer at Used Kids” I think.  Joe keeps talking but I am too baffled by his mustache to hear him.  Finally I get his having a mustache out of my mind; I just assume he is gay.  He tells me how much he loves Jenny’s first record and how her new one is different and how important he thinks her music is.  I spy her in the background stumbling over her keyboard as she tries to set it up. I think “she is a lit as I am.” I ask Joe what he does for a living and he says he just writes.  I think he has to do more than write for a weekly arts paper.  I ask again and he smiles “oh, you know I’m kinda self-employed also.” I don’t get it.  I ask again asking “self employed, you mean like a carpenter?” I must appear to be a total idiot.  “No, you know um self-employed. I sell things.” The heaven’s open.  “Oh, you sell things.  Right.” I smile at my intelligence.  Joe and I drink some more booze together.

Jenny plays a very good set, which is almost suprising because usually she is either really good or she is a train wreck.  Cat Power is the train wreck that night. Chan is nervous and she is playing mostly solo.  She forgets the words to her songs.  A friend joins her and tries to help her sing her own songs.  It appears that she cries for a moment and then laughs. Jenny approaches me mid-set and says “oh, fuck, man I feel bad for her. I know what that shit feels like.” Mark from a band called Kudgel appears after the show.  He is with his girlfriend and they congratulate Jenny.  Jenny offers to buy him a drink but he says he doesn’t drink.  This floors Jenny.  “Wow, that’s kinda cool” she says.  We start our drive back to Columbus and I eat a large pizza in the back seat of the van.  Jenny never plays Boston again.

A few years ago, roughly about four years after Jerry died I woke up on a cold and wet morning.  The rain felt like it had been frozen and had just begun to thaw as it fell to the earth.  It was as miserable as any mood I had ever had.  I put my jacket on, made a feeble attempt to find my wife’s umbrella and went out to my car.  I was pretty much soaked on my eight steps into our Volkswagen Gulf.  It was pretty early in the morning about seven thirty or so, an hour that seems to divide the day workers with the night crawlers. I pulled out, flicked the wipers on and drove the quarter mile to the Tim Horton’s just up the street from my house.  I bought a dozen doughnuts and four large coffees’s (two with cream and two black) through the drive-in window and pulled the car into the Goodwill parking lot.  I scanned under the awning and spied a group of people lying in a huddle with a brilliant assortment of multi-colored blankets that one would think that Dolly Parton’s mother had stitched them together.  I pulled up and rolled down the passenger-side window.  An unshaven man who was somehow still wearing a battered Red Sox hat peered out from the global village bedding and asked “who’s that?.” He was a familiar one, a homeless man who wandered the streets with his twin brother.  “Is that you Kevin or is it Paul?” I ask.  “It’s me” he replied, not answering the question.  I rolled my eyes to myself.  “Which one, Kevin or Paul?” “Oh, Kevin.  Pauls at the other end.” With that a man who looked just like Kevin peered out from the other end of the nine-foot patchwork of blankets and asked “Who’s there?” Kevin, had wiped some of the groggy out of his eyes and spoke “Oh, hey Bela.  She ain’t here.  She slept in the camp.”  He did a half nod, motioning towards the rear of the Goodwill Store.

I said I had some doughnuts for them if they wanted.  Kevin replied “no, thanks.  We already got some.  They dropped some off about an hour ago.” With that he pulled a box of a dozen doughnuts out from under his blankets.  I rolled up the window and pulled the car up to the back of the Goodwill store.

The store is housed in a small strip mall that has been a variety of stores since I arrived in town nearly twenty years ago a: Drug World, CVS, abandoned, Dollar Store and now a Goodwill.  The back of the store leads into a scenic ravine that has no trails but if you follow the creek eastward it will lead you through an slightly upscale University housing district that holds the type of intellectual liberals that anyone finds in a large college town, then the ravine opens up into a small park complete with cliff and two picnic tables.  A perfect setting for young co-eds to steal off into the night and fuck under a covering of stars and trees in a large city.  The back of the store is at the top of the ravine and it is nearly a half mile until one reaches the park and expensive wood and stone houses.  The store side of the ravine is blanketed with woods and in the summer these woods are covered in weeds, brambles and vines.  If one inspects the brambles one will find empty liquor bottles, fast food bags, tin cans, tiny plastic bags that used to hold crack cocaine and if one is careful enough they may find a person sleeping in these bushes.   There is a hill with a sewer tunnel that separates the Goodwill side of the ravine with the park side.  Wrong side of town indeed.  When the air started to chill the roughly twenty or so people that lived in the bushes and trees along the ravine ambled out of the woods and constructed a camp just to the rear of the Goodwill store, separated only by tall chain link fence and weeds.

The camp resembled something one would find out of a Hollywood movie albeit that this one bore the reality of desperation, poverty and insanity.  There were several burning torched trashcans in the middle of the camp, and someone had fashioned a sort of wood burning stove at one end of the camp.  There were about five different “tents” made, forming a half-moon around the two fires.  These were made of wooden pallets obtained from the grocery store across the street, no doubt stolen in the darkest part of the night and hurried across the street with all the energy a broken drunk man can muster.  No doubt the carrying of the pallets was made even more difficult in the darkness of night by the poor shape of the shoes that no doubt carried them. The people who lived in the camp all had terrible shoes, shoes that were duck-taped together, with soles flapping like a duck-bill these were not shoes to keep warm with. The top and sides of most of the tents were covered in blue plastic tarp and cardboard boxes.  There was a several piles of 40 oz beer bottles, one pile was nearly five feet in height near the entrance of the camp.  I walked to the edge and noticed a few men middling around one of the trash cans stoking the fire.  One of them turned and said “Oh, hey there Bela.  Good morning.  Hold on, I’ll get her.” He walked over to the largest tent and brushed the blue tarp.  “Hey Jenny! Jenny, Bela’s here.”  He looked at me, rain bouncing off his grimy face “she’ll be up in a second.” I breathed in; the smell of burning wood took me back to camping at Lake Hope when I was a boy with my father.  I smelled the heap of empty 40 ounce bottles, and the stale beer brought me back to happy hour the campus bar where I worked when I was eighteen and poured buckets of beer for young partiers just down the street from this encampment.  When the smell of disifinfectant and spilled Pabst Blue Ribbon was a welcoming as a turkey dinner.  I brushed some of the cigarette butts from my boots.  “It’s raining pretty hard” I thought to myself as the rain either ricocheted off my coat or penetrated it like water in bread.

The tent rustled.  Out came a familiar face. It was Jenny.  She smiled and said “Hold on.  I’ll be out in a minute.” Out popped an umbrella, one side with three of its metal arms poking skyward, bent like tree branches the other side in perfect working condition.  She walked out, stooped but dry.  “Hey, I was wondering if you were coming out.  It’s kinda early huh?” I told her it was around 7:30.  “Yeah, you get up early now don’t you? Probably already had your coffee huh.” “Yup, I got you guys some plus some doughnuts.” Jenny looked down and said “I can’t drink coffee with my stomach but maybe I’ll try to eat a doughnut.  I’m sure William with have some coffee.” Just then from the bowels of her tent I heard “Hey, Bela. Thanks.” This was William.

William is Jenny’s boyfriend.  He appears to be forty-five or so with boyish features that are uncommon for a man who has been homeless for the last five years of his life.  William is a light skinned African-American who suffers from bi-polar disorder and most likely has a major depressive disorder, he also owns a set of eyes that are of different shades of blue, the left one is almost translucent. He has been in and out of prison and mental institutions for most of his life. He is gentle when he isn’t smoking crack and since he has been with Jenny he has only smoked crack once.  She won’t tolerate it.  William told her that he killed a man once when he was a teenager because the man molested him but Jenny doubts it, the killing not the molestation.  She met William about five months prior after it was discovered that she had been living in The Ohio State School of Music building where she passed most of her days shuttling between, the carry-out, Bernie’s Bagels and Used Kids.  All her needs were met within a two block area.  She would get her booze at the carryout and Bernies and get her social needs at Used Kids.  Then she would play the piano for hours in the practice rooms at the school of music. After being tossed out she took to the streets sleeping with a few different men to find comfort and care until finding William and the small group of homeless men and women he kept with.  They provided safety and affinity to try to stay off the cocaine and only use the alcohol that provided the bond that kept them together.  William has the innocence of an adolescence boy and he seems amazed by such simple things in life as the smile of my young daughter as she does his.

“Hey, William. Good morning.  Do you want some coffee?” I ask to the blue tarp.  “Oh yeah, that sounds good” speaks the tarp.  I am reminded of the singing bush from the Steve Martin movie “The Three Amigos.” The tarp shakes and leans, almost toppling over; William is a tall man, about six-two.  I should ask him if he played ball in high school but am reminded that he may not have graduated and it may embarrass him.  William steps out and says “Oh, boy it’s raining out” to no one in particular.  Jenny, seemingly reading my thoughts says “Oh, you wouldn’t believe how warm it is inside these tents.  These fellows know what their doing.” I go back to the car and get the coffee and doughnuts.  It has let up for a moment.  I hand them to Jenny and say “I need to get back to the house and take Saskia to day-care and drive Merijn to work. Maybe I’ll stop by after work or school.” Jenny thanks me and says “We won’t be here this afternoon; we have to meet some of the church people.  They dropped off a bunch of food last night so we feel obligated to go listen to them preach.  I hate that.  Preaching.  They should just drop it off and not try to make us feel guilty.  It is so boring, all the Jesus stuff and holy this and holy that.  They mean well though. Don’t make it out that we don’t appreciate it but that church and singing they do is so boring.  Before that we need to get to Bev’s because she’ll feed most of us after her lunch rush.” Bev is a woman who owns a diner up the street.  I look into Jenny’s eyes, they are awake but dark around the edges, and I can see the hangover lining her features.  Cheap beer and vodka.  Her pores reek of booze.  I climb back in my car and drive the quarter mile to home where I have another cup of coffee with my wife and watch her feed our baby girl.


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2 Responses to “Part two of Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae…”

  1. Amanda Says:

    Oh Bela, I had no idea! These dispatches are very well-written! Your wit and spirit shines through. They must be hard to write, though.

  2. Tim J. Hogan Says:

    Bela: a beautiful flow to your writing. look forward to reading more.

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