Monday, January 23, 2006

The Whipping Boy

by Vince R. Ditrich

Part One

$2.85 an hour. That was the going wage when I was a 14 year-old working at the music store. Not just any music store, mind, but the best established and most reputable Mom & Pop shop in the whole region, the only one my Dad would ever give his patronage, the only one that, in his words, didn’t just sell “goddamn amplifiers for amateurs to make noise with their Rotten-Roll Hippie crap and smoke goddamn manure-a-hoona.” My Dad, you see, was a purist. If you couldn’t read it, you shouldn’t be allowed to play it. If you were a young guitarist, for example, and you couldn’t find B flat, or play a diminished chord, or finger A flat 7 add 9, (which you wouldn’t if you only knew 5 songs, all of them by Buck Owens) you were instantly exiled to his personal Siberia, labeled ‘an AMATEUR’ – the worst possible verdict that he could pass. No term in his lexicon was more pejorative. “Well yes, he’s an ax murderer, but at least he’s not an AMATEUR…” By the age of four I knew that if someone had been pronounced an ‘Amateur’ his days were done, at least as far approval from my Dad was concerned; his judgment was irrevocable. He was a man of unambiguous opinions. Oh, the hell he raised when the march of time and his pre-teen aged son (me) required he add ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon’ and ‘Knock Three Times’ to the set list. I recall he even did “My Sweet Lord”, but his face was always screwed up into a rictus of revulsion as he miserably honked through it on the Tenor sax. In retrospect I suppose he did try, at one point gamely plodding through a Tijuana Brass phase, even though he thought Herb Alpert was an abomination to man and beast alike. “Jaysus Kee-rist…He sucks on that goddamn horn like a schoolgirl…” As the time passed, he got more and more crotchety and his gun-shy sidemen fled to gigs where they could play current songs, sometimes even in the key of E, and not live in terror all night long. Work dried up and eventually Dad just hung it up for good.

I, his drummer, was left unemployed and with few prospects. Granted I was only 14, but when you’re a musician the child labour laws don’t apply. So I worked up the gumption to drop into a local music store to suggest that they keep me in mind should they ever need some help. To my surprise they called one Saturday morning.

I jumped on the city bus, fairly bursting with excitement, rode it downtown and presented myself for duty. Clearly my extensive musical background convinced them to call me. Wise of them! They’d be damn glad they’d hired me, I mused. Oh yes, I’d have the place running like a top in days! When I arrived the Boss looked me up and down over his reading glasses, said nothing intelligible but clucked and tutted with what I hoped was some form of approval and spun quickly on his heel, leaving me to be tasked by his wife. She bade me downstairs, to the deepest, darkest depths of the ‘stock room’. No ordinary storage area, this ancient, dank warren seemed to have been scraped out of the prairie hardpan as a refuge in case there were marauding Visigoths reported in the area.

It was McGee’s Closet, filled with hundreds, thousands – perhaps even millions of copies of sheet music. Books and pads and scribblers and texts and tablature and manuscript; it was piled as far as they eye could see in that dim light, looking as if it had been cargo abandoned by smugglers dumping and running, appearing for all the world like a heap of forbidden books ready for a Nazi bonfire.

“Organize this.” The Boss’s wife said, waving her hand vaguely at the squalor before me. “It’s really quite a mess.” She added, overstating obvious with pathos. Leaving me alone with my thoughts she climbed the steep, squeaky steps and went back to join the lucky above-ground elite. For a few moments I just stood there like a dunce as the realization sunk in that I was not to be the new manager of the drum department, nor a mighty sales representative. I would take out the trash, sweep floors, and categorize rubbish as either a) junk or, b) crap. I was a ‘gofer’. A ‘stock-boy’. And at $2.85 an hour I almost qualified to be a slave.

It was near the end of my very first day of work that my legend began to form. While vacuuming, I ineffectually pushed a peanut of packing foam around the rack of Al Martino records; I didn’t know I was being watched. My new co-workers were amusing themselves by wagering how long it’d be before I’d actually bend over and pick up the offending piece I appeared to be playing deck shuffleboard with. Finally the Boss’s daughter suggested that I really get aggressive with that cheap Hoover, throw it around a bit, persuade it to do its job. Throw it around I did, dutifully adhering to her injunction -- but of course I couldn’t know that this vacuum, utterly worn out and cheap in the first place, had been jury rigged countless times since its manufacture during the early part of the Protestant Reformation. The last repair had been done with scissors and scotch tape. The Hoover balked at my rough treatment and sent a few jolly shocking volts down the pipe directly into my arm. I danced a right pretty jig, sang a few Mexicano sounding ‘Aiaiaiaiaiai’ lyrics and then dropped it like a boiling spud. The high mirth exhibited at my expense by co-workers was galling, but being fourteen I mostly just got embarrassed and mumbled.

Luckily it was a family oriented kind of place where parents rented trumpets for school band or bought metronomes for their arrhythmic piano student children and not the kind of place the long-hairs frequented to buy a guitar just like Eric Clapton’s. A lady I knew worked at one of THOSE places, across town, mostly serving John Lennon hairstyle stunt-doubles back in the day when that kind of coiffure was a shocking thing to see. Her feet were firmly planted on the near side of the Generation Gap; she was well out of her depth. At one point while minding the shop alone a young man sidled up to the counter and said to her casually, “Hey lady…Can I take a peek at your fuzz box?” Her eyes widened in horror and she nearly fainted. Oh the depravity! What was the world coming to? Damn these Hippies and their loose morals! After a few moments she realized that the young man was pointing not at her unmentionables but at an electronic gadget inside the glass display case.

I was a very attentive young man, responsible, respectful, efficient, quick to learn and eager to please. Unfortunately I was also perilously ungainly, with Andre the Giant’s feet, a child’s body, and a teenager’s loins. The puberty that was underway cursed me with uncontrolled vocal yodeling, an uneven spackling of acne and a totally preposterous attempt at a moustache. I dropped things, I tripped over things, I broke things. I was St. Vitus at Dance Party USA. The Boss would just shake his head as I’d stumble by, wincing as I dumped coffee on someone’s brand new copy of Toccata and Fugue. I was an object, not of ridicule, but of fascination, a crash-to-be, erratically circling the airfield.

The store was long, narrow and high. The ceilings must have been 25 feet, leaving all sorts of room for displays on the office roofs. The Boss, in addition to bookkeeping, musical instrument repair, ordering, banking, sales, and schmoozing had also taken on the job of fitting and repairing hearing aids. He had a special office set up specifically to test the hearing of his customers, presumably the now deaf, washed-up electric guitarists that my Dad had sent packing. It was a room within a room, built in such a way that the roof was only timber cross-pieces. They always featured a drumkit up there, setting it gingerly on scrap pieces of wood that lay over the supports. It was eye-catching but out of the way.

I took it upon myself to clean up that display, the shiny drums having collected a thick coating of dust from sitting forlornly for several years. Ever so carefully I climbed up the ladder and tiptoed to the kit, moving it painstakingly from place to place, cautiously adjusting the wood ‘floor’ that I and the drums rested on. Like a cat I balanced on the beams, moving the cymbal here, the floor tom there. Confident now, not to mention out of space I brazenly balanced a cymbal stand on two of the joists. I turned back to my task but caught from the corner of my eye that it was tipping over. This cymbal on its stand, a twenty pound contraption with a razor sharp bronze edge, was headed to the floor twenty feet below, toward the head of a customer. Urgently I lunged for the falling object lest it decapitate the lady browsing the Beverly Sills LPs. And decapitate her it would have, in a split second. In the nick of time I nabbed it, preventing a messy tragedy, but my desperate lunge threw me off balance and I lost my footing.

I and the cymbal plunged through the ceiling below, my crotch bearing the full weight of the fall onto the 2 x 10 rafter. My legs dangled down into the hearing aid office and the floor below was littered with shattered acoustic tile. I was in agony, still clinging piteously to the cymbal, and balanced excruciatingly on what I was sure was an exploded scrotum. I peered down into the disaster I had caused and saw the BOSS. His bald head was sprinkled with dust. He gazed upward quizzically at the odd vision suddenly visited upon him, reading glasses as usual at the end of his nose. His eyebrows shot up for a second but all he said was, “Oh, Hi Vince.”

Banished to the basement again, I was assigned the horrible task of sorting through box after box of used screws, nuts and bolts and separating them by size. The Boss wanted it done; it’d been on his to do list for years, apparently. I was positive he just wanted to gain a measure of control over the halo of destruction surrounding me. It was said that completion of the task would be highly regarded, but the drudgery was unspeakable. I was sick with boredom. Presently I felt nature’s urge and excused myself for a few moments. I attended to my task, did up my trousers and flushed the bog. Abject horror washed over me as the toilet and its contents --formerly MY contents, backed up onto the floor and flooded everywhere. I mean everywhere. This was no garden variety malfunction of the john; it was a torrent, a cataract, a high pressure inundation. It sloshed out the door and spread inexorably. I came rushing out of the loo, waving my arms in the air in a terrible panic, frightening the customers, yelping incoherently, white as a ghost. I gesticulated wildly like a terror-stricken caveman. The ruinous stream forked in two directions, one rivulet languidly draining toward the sheet music, briefly pooling near the Puccini, and then flowing onward, perhaps drawn to Blood, Sweat & Tears by a sense of comradeship, eventually trickling all the way to the front door. The other cascaded down the stairs and through the floorboards, raining urine and huge gobs of turd on a stack of fancy, expensive clarinets. It dribbled down the wall and soaked a pegboard wall display which held thousands of spare parts in plastic bags, all of which were now filling with toilet contents: Bassoon springs, violin bow frogs, trumpet mouthpieces, flute keys, sax pads, microphones, ligatures, bass violin bridges, you name it. All were ruined. The shite came flowing down the stairs with menacing drama, in gratuitously graphic Peckinpah slo-mo, and oozed calamitously to the floor below. There was even a clump of excrement plopped malevolently on the Boss’s soldering iron. It was a fucking disaster.

Somebody awoke to the emergency and took us to panic stations; by some miracle we managed to mop it up – but the loathsome job of picking up the errant solid bits was left to me, the perpetrator, and a pair of pink rubber gloves. The clarinets at the top of the stack took the brunt of it and I cringe to this day at the thought of some poor bastard buying one and obliviously gumming on it for all these years; what a black irony that their brand name was “Buffet”…Ugh. But there was nothing we could do about the lazy, clinging pong of ancient musty broadloom mixed with wretched, nasty sewage save leave all the doors open and freeze our arses. They were all hoping that MY arse would actually freeze right off and fall into the gutter at that point. But when the Boss got back from lunch and got the awful, damning report he blinked once or twice, clucked a bit and then began to laugh and laugh and laugh. I could hear him laughing alone in his little office all day long. He laughed when he went for coffee. He laughed when he came back. He was laughing hours later when he locked up for the night. He may still be laughing today, wherever he may be, years after his passing.
It was hard to overcome that one. The plumber got me off the hook to some degree, discreetly explaining that the source of the blockage in the toilet was caused by an object that ‘couldn’t have been flushed by a man’ (it took me a bit to decipher that statement), but it didn’t really matter. I was the one whose crap had soiled the broadloom and imperiled the woodwinds. It was epic stuff.

End of Part One



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