Chapter 4 - Soul Man
It may seem easy to pick a dumpster to spend the night in. The fact is, it's an acquired skill. You've got to know the neighborhood when you choose an overnight dumpster.
You don't want one from a restaurant...too much rotted food, which attracts rats; rats that can chew your face off if you're too drunk or exhausted to notice it. Rats have brought ancient Europe plagues to crowded modern American cities.
If you choose a liquor store dumpster, you have to be careful. They throw out food sometimes. It may be edible, but it's probably not or they would have tried to sell it to some unlucky bastard. They also have a hell of a lot of bottles, cans and broken glass in them. For added annoyance value, the recyclers will wake you up any old time, day or night, just to score the deposit on a beer can or a dead soldier.
Chuck had a good dumpster staked out. It belonged to a print shop. The stuff they threw out didn't usually smell bad. It wasn't dangerous unless you smoked. A guy could even bundle up the paper for blankets and a pillow.
The printers didn't bother Chuck when they found him in the dumpster. In fact, they seemed to prefer Chuck over many of his counterparts who greedily eyed the choice real estate. He and Rubby shared it sometimes, especially if the night was really cold. Two bodies provided enough heat to stave off hypothermia.
But they stayed out of there on Tuesdays. Tuesday is trash day. God help anybody passed out in a dumpster on trash day. Nobody in the neighborhood knew anyone it had actually happened to, but they'd all heard stories about someone who was eaten alive by a trash masher truck, then carted off as landfill. Nobody would know; nobody would care.
One night was particularly bad. The chilly ocean wind blew off the fog and dragged an icy midnight rain into the LA basin. It was one of Rubby's weeks with no hotel room, so he'd found Chuck.
"She looks like a nasty one comin' in tonight. I was hopin' you'd need a second person to help you keep a dumpster warm."
"No problem, Rub. Mi dumpster es su dumpster. I'm gonna need all the spare body heat I can get tonight."
They slipped into the alleyway and surveyed their overnight shelter. It was about half full of paper, with no signs of other occupants. It took a while to beat back the chill, even after they pulled the lid closed over them.
Apparently, the cool weather made the older man nostalgic, and talkative. Chuck was the only guy Rubby remembered opening up to in all his time on the street. The fact that he had also told his detailed life story to a radio reporter a decade or two back had apparently escaped from his remaining brain cells.
"You know, I shouldn't tell you this," Rubby opened, "But back when LBJ was President, I was a big singer."
Chuck had only heard bits and pieces of Rubby's music career, so he connected his brain to his ears and listened to the old man's story in the coolish dumpster.
"I started out singin' professional back in Georgia in the early '50s. I was just a dumb kid then, fresh in off the farm. My mama and daddy were sharecroppers. They got old early from all the hard work in the fields every day. I wanted a lot more than that from my life. Anything that didn't look like breakin' my back looked good to me. I could sing, and that was my ticket out.
I hitched a ride into the city, an' I started gettin' some jobs at the 'colored only' bars. Can't say I lived like a king, but the ladies loved me. Who needed money back then?" The gray old man stared blankly through his thick glasses for a second. He casually picked a crumb of fried chicken batter from his beard, then went on with his story.
"This man came and heard me one night. He was easy to spot; not too many white faces in the crowds back then, especially with a suit and tie. It was a cheap suit, but a suit no matter.
After the show, he made a lot of pretty promises and filled me up with his talk about gettin' famous and travelin'. I gotta tell you it was a dream come true for a country boy like me. Just like that, I had me a manager. Beauregard was his name, and he loaded me in his big Oldsmobile and we headed off for the big time; least that's what I thought.
The problem was, he wanted me to sing these moanin' songs some tired old New York Jew boys wrote. I'm not talkin' 'bout doo-wop or jazz; Tin Pan Alley was their name for it. But whatever they called it, it was white man's music. Now me, I'd always sang the good stuff the club bands knew.
Bo gave me a choice; sing his stuff or go back to Georgia. It was a powerful long walk, so I gave it my best. Heck, I was good enough at it, but I never felt the music on my insides. Singin' those songs was like drinkin' soda pop when good whiskey was there for the askin'. Those songs wasn't about me or anybody I ever knew in my life. They was about sad little white boys in expensive sweaters who wouldn't know real hurtin' if it gnawed their left nut off."
Chuck couldn't help but wonder if maybe 01' Rub had spent too many nights with bad old movies on TV. But he nodded politely in all the right places and played along with the older man's autobiographical tale.
Rubby noticed Chuck's loss of attention, but carried on. "I got record contracts and bookins' across the country. I was doin' just fine, thank you very much. Makin' more money than some of those fancy executives for awhile.
I was so famous that some of the hotels even let me use the front lobby and stay in their rooms and everything. I mean the white hotels, son. Fancy that, Robby Johnson, sharecropper's son, sleepin' in a bed that a white man was gonna have the next night.
It turned out to be a real bad idea thougn. Some of the crackers said they didn't take kindly to havin' a nigger sleepin' in a hotel none of them could afford to stay at. Oh, there was Hell to pay, and I paid it.
The newspapers said I was makin' trouble for my people and told God fearin' folks to stop buyin' my records. Some of 'em even burned the records they already owned. It was bad, troubled times for me and black people in the whole country. I kept low just to keep my neck from gettin' stretched.
I pretty much stopped my singin' after that. My manager Beauregard said I was poison in the business. He was nice about it though and didn't charge me the rest of the money he said it cost him when he cancelled the tour.
I took a few jobs fixin' stuff and kept goin' the best I could. I knew I could never go back to the farm. I tasted the big city and I liked the flavor just fine."
Chuck interrupted, "So that's when you came here to LA then?"
"Hell no son," the older man shot back, "Quiet down unless you're plannin' on tellin' the rest of this story..."
...A young version of Rubby sat in a bad Chicago hotel room. He was exhausted, body and soul, from a day of broken plumbing and cracked plaster. That's about all he did anymore, fix plumbing and repair the worst cracks in dying plaster. Too bad nobody wanted to pay him to fix the ragged plaster or the choked toilet in his own room.
A wiseguy knock sounded at the partially smashed door...shave and a haircut, two bits.
"Yeah, whatcha' want?" the young man growled.
"Robby? Is Robby Johnson in there?"
"Whoever you are, I don't owe you no money and I ain't busted the law lately."
"Hey buddy, take it easy. It's Beauregard, your manager, and I'm here to make you the offer of a lifetime ol' buddy."
"I thought you already made me the offer of a lifetime back in Georgia a few years ago. What the Hell makes you think another deal like that won't get your ass kicked straight back to Crackerland?"
"Come on, you know it wasn't my fault. Now let me in to tell you what's cookin'. If you don't like it, you can throw me back out here...but if you do, it's your loss. This is the big one Robert."
"Well shit, you might as well come on in. The damn door don't lock anyway." Robby got off the saggy bed and pulled up a battered kitchen chair for his guest.
"Good to see you again. You're looking good," Bo oozed as he turned the chair around and sat leaning forward on the remains of the chair's spine. "I bet you're wonderin how I found you, right?" The plump reptilian agent inflated with delight as his secret.
"You probably wrote to my money grubbin' parents and told 'em you'd make 'em rich, then they sent you my address," Robby snarled.
Beauregard went flat faster than a zeppelin in a lightning storm. "Shit, that's right. I gotta hand it to you, you're one smart... uhh, I mean you're pretty smart; but the fact is, I wouldn't have gone to the trouble if I didn't have a sure thing."
"I shouldn't a' bothered to write my good for nothin' family. I wouldn't 'cept for my little sister Rosie. If her big brother don't tell her there's somethin' better in life than what she sees on that farm, the little girl's never gonna find out. Well, as long as you went to all that trouble on my account, I might as well listen for awhile. I'd offer you a drink, but I ain't got nothin'. But you go ahead and talk anyway."
Bo shifted his grip on the chair back and started his sales pitch. "If you've been followin' the hit parade lately, you know that nobody wants to hear the stuff you were doin' when you were big."
Robby started to take exception, but Bo continued. "Now I'm not sayin' you're one bit less talented today than you were back then. It's just that the fans are fickle. They keep changin' their tastes. That's where guys like me come in; I know what their tastes are goin to be. If I'm ready when they're ready, I create a giant monster money machine." Bo started to fidget. "Fact is, they're just about ready, and so am I."
"That's real excitin'. Send me a postcard when you're a star." Robby started to get up.
"No, no, no son, sit down. It's not me...it's you. I want to build a singing group around your special talent. Just you and a group of nigras and we'll be rich. Those boys in Detroit have started to make noise in the trade papers and I can do 'em one better."
Robby grabbed the room's sole remaining chair and parked face to face with Beauregard. As he leaned forward into the rickety back of his love-starved chair, he continued the interrogation. "So what makes you so much smarter than the men that run those new record labels in Detroit? It couldn't be because you're whiter than they are, could it?"
"Hell son, I was cuttin' deals when those boys were babies. Now I didn't come up here to have you chew on my ass. I want to offer you a second chance, son. Now what do you say you come down to the studio tomorrow afternoon and meet your new band. We can all talk it over and make a deal then. You're gonna be back on top, bigger than ever, and that's a fact."
"I don't know. I've got a lot of toilets to fix, and besides, I'm not as young as I used to be. I'm starin' at the big three-oh in a couple months, and I'm not so sure I wanna ride buses all over God's green earth every day, month after month."
"Hmm, I suppose you're right," Bo lied, "I guess I'll be on my way then. You probably don't need that cash advance for signing anyway."
Robby hesitated before he answered. "Well, now that you mention it, it would be nice to send a birthday present to little Rosie. Tell you what, let's talk it over when I see my new band. You are buyin' lunch, right?"
"You be there at noon and you'll get fed. Now is it a deal?" Beauregard started to offer his half of a handshake.
"Aw, Hell, what can I lose if we only talk," Robby cajoled as he reciprocated with the rest of the handclasp. "An' I don't want no hamburgers either. Make it worth my time, an' maybe I'll make it worth yours."
"You just be there and the details will take care of themselves. Now I've gotta go. There's a certain young lady who's expecting Beauregard to give her little heart a thrill. I'll see you tomorrow." He shoved a business card at Robby as he got up. "Be there, son. You've got a big future." Beauregard slithered into the smelly hallway through the battered door.
The younger man got up to get himself a beer and muttered an incredulous, "Son of a bitch," as he whistled a single unbelieving note...
...Rubby bit into a chicken leg he'd just fished out of his jacket pocket and continued his autobiography. "Son, we had a hell of a time gettin' it started up. Bo kept tryin' to get us to sing more of that old moanin' crap, but nobody wanted to hear it.
I didn't help things at first either, and I gotta admit it. I was used to workin' solo and I didn't like havin' these other guys on stage with me. It turned out my voice just sounded best singin' the lead, so I got to be up front anyway, an' that was just fine with me. Nobody would come to the clubs to see us though, and the record companies kept throwin' Bo outa' their fancy offices."
A big stage smile broke out and wiped the lines from Rubby's ancient face as he continued. "Things finally got so bad, Beauregard asked us for ideas. I think he was surprised we had any, but it just so happened the drummer and the bass man wrote some killer stuff. We did it at rehearsals when we wanted to play real music. We played it for ol' Beauregard and he'd like to have shit his pants. 'That's the sound I've been after, you boys been holdin' out on me,' he's yellin'.
I don't understand these good ol' boys. Why didn't he just ask us to play sweet if he wanted us to play sweet. To this day, I don't think the man could have found his own catfish if he was holdin' it in both hands. Not that he woulda' needed both hands." Rubby's tired old eyes glistened evilly as he smiled slyly.
"The kids loved it, and not just the black kids either. Hell, we knew they'd like good music. But the white kids liked it too, and that's where the money was. I never dreamed how much money was out there waitin' for us to just take it. Even split between all of us, it was plenty."
Rubby paused for a moment to rearrange the papers under his shoulders.
"Anyway, Ol' Bo always handled our finances. That's why he was our manager. He gave us each foldin' money every week, paid our bills and told us how he was investin most of it for our future. It sounded just fine to me. We had a good time; Beauregard saw to that.
The ladies liked me more than ever, and I was livin' high. This one sweet thing figured I was havin' too much fun, so she married me. It just seemed natural at the time. And could she spend my money!" Rubby shook his head and rolled his eyes at the thought of all that cash.
"We was at the top for a few years, but when the sixties was over, people kinda lost interest in us for some reason. We didn't change, but I guess the fans did. Myself, I blame Nixon; but nobody really knows what it was.
Most of the DJs stopped playin' our stuff and takin' Bo's money, and the kids stopped buyin' our records. The TV shows and magazines wouldn't talk to us. Heck, we couldn't even fill the little chickenshit clubs no more.
Anyhow, Beauregard called us all in one day and told us we were broke. The record label said we owed 'em thousands of dollars for our last two albums and all the gold singles. Now, how can they sell millions of records and lose money? To this day, I don't think any of 'em knew a lick about business."
Chuck tried to jump in with a point of order, but the older man refused to yield the floor. "It also turned out those investments Bo made for our future was in his brother's buildin' business. Somehow his brother and my band went bust at the same time.
Now Beauregard, he was lucky. Somehow, his retirement money wasn't invested in his brother's company, so he came out just fine. In fact, he seemed to be doin' better than ever. But me? I was broke again.
I tried singin' on the oldies circuit, but I couldn't make a livin' at it. Just too hit and miss. And the rest of the guys didn't want to go on the road with me. I think their wives wouldn't let 'em. My wife didn't like the idea of her man fixin' toilets, so she ran off with Beauregard. It's for the best. He deserved her more than I did anyway.
I ended up just hangin' around back in Atlanta, and I don't even like Atlanta. So I took one more oldies road trip. It got me here and I never left.
So that's how the famous Robby Johnson finally made it to Hollywood. There, I told ya', so stop pesterin' me about it."
Chuck didn't remember even asking about Rubby's past, but he had to admit that the pieces fit. The story was as good as any, and better than most, so he never brought it up again unless Rubby opened the subject himself.
Chuck slipped a paper bag from his jacket pocket and pulled out a prize. "Here, have some of this hamburger bun Mr. Johnson," said Chuck, a bit of awe in his voice. "It's a little burned on the edges, that's why they gave it to me. Maybe it's not what stars get when they tour, but I'm glad to share it with you."
"You're a good friend to an old bum like me, Chuck. I sure wish I'd had you along when I was singin'. Maybe things would have been different. Maybe you coulda' helped ol' Bo keep things straight and not lose all that money." Rubby took a breath and coughed deeply.
"Maybe I could have gotten the crooked bastard into a nice dark prison where he'd have spent a shortened version of his evil life too," Chuck muttered.
"Nothin' important Mr. Johnson. I think all your talking warmed it up enough in here. Let's try to get some sleep."
He knew it was rude to tamper with Rubby's innocent memories. Rubby wasn't the first guy he'd met on the streets who'd been sucked dry by the entertainment business and tossed aside like an empty orange juice carton. He probably wouldn't be the last one he met either, unless Chuck hit it lucky and got his white leather hide off the streets first.
They both scrunched a few loose papers together and got comfortable. Tomorrow was yet another day in an endless stream of days that looked alike. Neither man looked forward to it, but they knew they needed sleep to help them deal with their boredom.
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