Southern Legitimacy Statement: A quarter-century ago, I rode my motorcycle south and bought a pickup truck. It and I are now covered in rust.
I wandered Manhattan’s East Side that night with my nerdy left-back classmate Aaron Rabitcheff, wishing I had female companionship instead — someone who would squint and grin and laugh beneath the swell of a soundtrack, pull me hand-in-hand through a montage of city scenes, or just stand and lean against me in a quiet, downtown gallery.
Aaron, a head taller than me even without his five-inch Afro, wanted to discuss Drunken Monkey Form kung fu, or Wolverine’s adamantium claws, or why the Japanese call monster movies Daikaiju, but I didn’t share his enthusiasms, so for most of our meandering we just talked about the girls we weren’t with. As we strolled down an empty 5th Avenue wet from recent rain, we heard the echo of a saxophone in the distance. Aaron grabbed my forearm, said, “We have to find that!” and dragged me after him.
Through the billowing mist of a steam grate, we saw him standing alone in an office building courtyard, a bearded black man dressed like Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca: wide-brimmed fedora and an open trench coat. His sax case, unfolded for donations, rested in a puddle of streetlight. Languid jazz echoed off the glass canyons of midtown. I surveyed our surroundings, unwilling to believe the scene in the absence of camera and crew. With eyelids lowered in the shadow of his fedora, the jazzman continued to play without acknowledging his audience.
Aaron swayed, a soft smile under sleepy eyes, and I thought, God damn you, Aaron Rabitcheff.
Because after thirteen years of grime and violence, of poverty and rejection, this hideous city finally offered up a prime-time perfect scene and setting, and here I was with my dorky friend instead of a girl. Because I knew that God was stingy and only ever gave us maybe two such moments before we die, and this one squandered itself on the wrong mood on the wrong night with the wrong person at my side. Because TV had taught me that this moment with the saxophone score just after the rain, this was when the ingénue would close her eyes and sway the way Aaron was doing, then tilt her chin up to me for our first kiss.
Damn you, Aaron, for being here, for not being her, and for not noticing how marred we make this moment for each other. For being able to let go of everything wrong with your life and to sway and drink in the mood and the music while I remain captive to this howling in my head. I tried to see only the man in the hat, hear only the wail of his sax, smell the rain on pavement, but Aaron’s elation intruded.
Thirty-seven years and hundreds of miles from Manhattan, I still return to that night. On cool evenings, when the streets shine from departed rain, I inhale and listen for absent music. I’d thought of Aaron as someone who should have been miserable. Didn’t he lack the same things I longed for? But so much made him happy, even tattered comic books and Godzilla movies. And on a lonely Friday night, with me as his only companion, he had what I lacked: the capacity to embrace the occasion of splendor.
When the solo ended, Aaron said he had no money. I gave the sax player what little cash I had. We strode back up to 59th Street, the next tune echoing at our backs. Aaron wanted to talk about what had just happened, how amazing it had been, but I couldn’t listen. I still lamented his presence.
We wandered west into a more familiar soundscape: the rumble and hiss of taxis on wet asphalt, truck brakes reverberating from 57th, the murmur and cheer of revelers returning to their hotels. I considered turning back. I strained to hear the receding saxophone, but well before we reached Broadway, the clangor and roar of midtown had drowned out its last refrains.