Track One: Them That's Not
Goodwin DeFoe’s first guitar teacher was a poor man, so poor in fact that on days he gave lessons he had to ride a bicycle from his rented bungalow in the black part of Coconut Grove all the way down to the music store in the Dadeland Mall, a distance of some six miles. Chuck Buffington was white himself and lived where he lived because it was the only place he could find a house with affordable rent. The house he found was a small house, a very small house indeed, made of stuccoed cinder blocks painted the color of Dijon mustard. Safe to say that if a man stood in the front doorway of Buffington’s house and fired a shotgun at the open back door, all the pellets would make it through without hitting anything because the shot pattern wouldn’t have time to spread. Out by the front steps of the bungalow, a stubby coconut palm arched its trunk, and in a corner of the fenced-in back yard a mess of banana trees produced tiny hard green fruit no one had ever been tempted to pick.
There were days when Buffington, pedaling to the mall in the heat of the early afternoon, would stop at every convenience store on the way to buy himself a can of beer. He’d pull at the beer while riding down the banyan-shaded avenues of the Grove and South Miami and deposit the crushed can in the basket at the front of the next store he reached. The quickest route to Dadeland took him by two 7-Elevens and a Farm Store, but if he felt in a desperate enough mood, he’d make the necessary detours and have downed five or six beers by the time he reached the mall.
Once there, he’d walk his bike into the central square, where a larger-than-life-sized dinosaur squatted on its haunches in the middle of an immense fountain. Water dropped from the dinosaur’s nostrils in two twirling streams to the pool below, and the chlorine in the water was so strong, shoppers could smell it in the farthest reaches of the mall. Buffington would park his bike against the side of the tiled fountain and plunge his head into the cold penny-studded pool, keeping it there for as long as he could hold his breath. When he withdrew with a gasp, he was sober again, or so at least he told himself. Often a Cuban girl would pad out from behind the juice bar on the square and hand him a piece of terrycloth to dry his head with and a thimbalized paper cup of café cubano. Her standard uniform was a pair of tight fruit-colored slacks (banana, avocado or the deep pink of ripe papaya) and a nylon shirt that buttoned down the front but never quite met the top of her slacks, allowing a swath of bronze belly to show through for Buffington’s appreciative eyes. Her white teeth flashed through her lips when she smiled. Her sandals smacked the soles of her feet when she walked over, and they smacked them again when she walked away.
About his drinking, Buffington never fooled Leo Spec, the owner of the store where he worked. Spec knew his guitar instructor arrived for work drunk as often as not, but he was reluctant to fire Buffington because all the man’s students (and a few of their mothers) were wild about him. Receipts were up since Buffington started, and not just for lessons but for all the subsidiary things that went with them—instruments, sheet music, composition books, pitch pipes, strings, picks—you name it, Buffington kept the merchandise moving and the appointment book full.
Goodwin DeFoe bought his first guitar with a twenty-dollar bill he received in exchange for a slalom water ski he’d made in a shop class he was forced to take in the summer of his fifteenth year. They wouldn’t let him graduate from junior high without the credit, and he’d been avoiding the course because he’d never so much as driven a nail into a plank of wood. In spite of his best intentions, the ski turned out to be a poorly constructed piece of equipment, mainly because he’d planed the strip of ash down on either edge until it was too narrow to provide a secure mount for the ski boot. The first time Goodwin’s friend tried to use the ski, screws popped out, boot blew off, and friend took a header into Biscayne Bay.
“Tough shit for him,” thought Goodwin, who for someone so young had a very foul mouth. By then he had already bought his guitar and had no intention of refunding the other boy’s money. So it was fitting, in the sense of universal or karmic justice (if karmic justice can be instantaneous rather than taking a lifetime to unfold), that Goodwin’s guitar should turn out to be just as wretched an instrument as the ski he had sold to buy it. When the strings were tuned, they held so high off the fret board that pressing them down to make a chord or to pick out the notes of a melody was a much more demanding and even painful operation than it should have been. The first thing Buffington did when Goodwin showed him his guitar was to strip off the steel strings and replace them with nylon. Then he excused himself for a moment and returned with a white cardboard box in the palm of his hand.
“Just feel how heavy that is,” he said, “before I put it on.”
Goodwin hefted the box and found it heavy indeed for such a small package. He gave it back to Buffington, who took from it a steel contraption, a kind of clamp, that he affixed to the neck of Goodwin’s guitar. It had the effect of pressing the strings down closer to the fret board.
“That’s a big-ass capo,” said Buffington. “But nothing else will do for your guitar.”
He retuned it, then riffed through a few chords and picked out a biting little blues solo. Instead of using a flat pick or finger picks, he plucked the strings with his fingernails, which were the longest Goodwin had ever seen on a man.
“That’s a little tiny bit better,” Buffington said and gave the guitar back to Goodwin. “The strings are free ‘cause I can use the old ones, but you owe Mr. Spec five bucks for the capo.”
“Well, I don’t have five bucks,” said Goodwin. “I spent all my money on the damn guitar.”
At that moment Buffington made what was for him a characteristic gesture, one Goodwin would get to know well over the next little while. He dipped his head and cut his eyes away from the boy’s face, like a bull preparing to charge, then set his chin in place.
“You bring it next week or I’m taking back the capo.”
Goodwin had an odd feeling about Buffington, a feeling he was unable to summarize with any sort of precision. He’d arrived early for his first lesson and sat on a bench in a hallway at the back of the store. The week before he’d bought a book of lesson tickets from Mr. Spec at the cash register in the showroom out front. On the floor of the showroom were pianos and organs, and on two walls hung guitars: acoustics on one, electrics on the other. Goodwin paid sixteen dollars for four tickets; each time he had a lesson, he was supposed to rip one off and give it to his teacher.
There were four rehearsal rooms or studios at the back of the store. Two of these were reserved for portable instruments like guitars, while one of the other rooms contained a piano and one a Wurlitzer organ. It was the wall of this last room Goodwin leaned his back against while he waited that first evening, and he could both hear and feel through his back the music that was being played inside on the organ. He could even make out the clicking of the pedals as tle person playing sifted through “Don’t Fence Me In” at a light skipping pace that brought to Goodwin’s mind the music of “The Lawrence Welk Show.”
The door in front of him opened and a girl a year or two younger than Goodwin appeared carrying a guitar in a cloth case. He liked her face, which was shadowed on either side by thick brown hair and animated by an emotion she attempted to suppress by biting her lower lip. This was a mannerism that always took Goodwin by storm. When Buffington said a word in farewell, the girl tossed her head to look at him, and then it was obvious to anyone with eyes in his head what the emotion was that suffused every pore of her skin. Buffington nodded and took his time watching her walk away, then turned to Goodwin and said, “Come on in, son.”
Immediately the boy felt the small hairs at the back of his neck raise up and his heart seemed to lighten in his breast. Although he could not remember ever having seen Buffington before, there was such an air of familiarity about the man that Goodwin felt as if he were reacquainting himself with an old friend. This had the effect of making him happy—a word so weak and overworked as to verge on the trite, but the truth is simply this: no better word exists to express the ease and simplicity of what Goodwin was feeling. In his stubborn way, the boy fought against his happiness because he mistrusted it, as he mistrusted any gift and its bearer automatically. But in spite of all his striving, the feeling persisted for the length of that first lesson and then for a while beyond.
When he reflected on this experience later, Goodwin was convinced it was something more than a simple case of déjà vu. The closest analogy he could think of was to the first time he had masturbated, when at the moment of climax he felt overwhelmed not just by the pleasure involved but by a sense of utter familiarity, as if he’d had the experience before but so long before it was coming to him fresh, free of associations, and by its intensity creating its own act of memory.
Buffington spent much of that first lesson asking Goodwin questions. Had he played an instrument before? Could he read music? What sort of music did he like?
Goodwin said he had no musical background at all but was most interested in jazz and blues. This made Buffington puff out his cheeks in surprise.
“Damn,” he said. “I had you pegged for a rock and roller.”
He chewed his lip for a moment and swayed in his chair, hunched over the body of his guitar. It was a rocking chair with the arms cut away to make room. The guitar in fact functioned as the arms of the chair, providing Buffington with a sense of balance and stability. Without a guitar, he might have felt exposed sitting in that chair, but with one on his lap and in his arms, the top edge pressed against his chest, he felt at ease and centered.
An odor—the thinnest thread in the still air of the room—of stale beer reached Goodwin’s fastidious nose. He was familiar enough with that smell at home that he didn’t have any trouble recognizing it here. Buffington stared at the floor and then turned his head and peered at Goodwin from beneath his brow.
“You know, about ninety-five percent of my students want to play rock, and another four percent are into folk. The girl here before you? A stone folkie, man. Only one, maybe two people a year want to play jazz, and they’re not usually raw beginners like you. You are going to make my life difficult, you know that? And your own life too.”
He looked at the floor again, rocking back and forth.
“The chords are harder and the time signatures more sophisticated, especially when you get into modern jazz. You’re sure this is what you want?”
“Then I can show you a thing or two,” he said. “We’ll take it real slow at the beginning while you find the horizon. I’ll teach you everything I can, but the rest is up to you. First thing I’ll do is write you out some four-finger chords and the scale in C. I’ll give you a song to work on, a simple song. You learn the chords to it, and then you learn the notes to the melody. ‘Two Sleepy People,’ you heard that song before?”
“No, I haven’t,” said Goodwin.
“Well, it’s a standard by a very famous composer. I can see I’m going to have to educate you in more ways than one. Teach you some history.”
Buffington took a clean composition book from the top of his desk and wrote out five chords he wanted Goodwin to learn and the scale in the key of C. Then very rapidly and from memory he wrote out the notes, chords and lyrics for “Two Sleepy People.”
While Buffington worked, Goodwin let his gaze wander about the room, which was divided in half by mess and neatness. The mess was confined to the right side of the room, where there was a desk and in the corner a metal filing cabinet. On top of the filing cabinet sat a cheap record player designed to play nothing but forty-fives, with a two-inch stack of records filling the turntable. On the desk were piles of books, some of them songbooks, but many of them paperbacks from a variety of genres. He could see the spines of Stranger in a Strange Land, Tales of Daring and Adventure, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, a book by Alan Watts on Eastern mysticism, and, opened face-down on top of one pile, a spine-cracked copy of The Medium Is the Massage. Its cover was an arrangement in black and white, the grinning mask aslant. Along with the books, the desk was cluttered with magazines, guitar strings, fìnger picks, sheet music and paper record sleeves for the forty-fives. The rest of the room was neat as a pin.
On the wall opposite the door, which made it the first thing you saw when the door opened, Buffington had thumbtacked a poster for the movie Bonnie and Clyde. It showed a bullet-riddled windshield with Faye Dunaway to one side, her lovely hair spread across her face and eyes and a smile parting her lovely lips. Warren Beatty had pulled his fedora down low over his brow, so that his eyes too were obscured, and he wore a smile identical to his partner’s. The two of them seemed to be having a wonderful time. They’re young, proclaimed the poster. They’re in love. And they kill people.
“Sure as hell, I’m not doing that every week,” said Buffington when he was finished. “You have to get yourself a songbook we can work from. When you come back next week, pick one off the rack out front and pay for it when you give Mr. Spec the money for the capo.”
“This is more money I’ll be spending?” said Goodwin.
“Get used to it. Plus you owe me fifty cents for the composition book.”
He looked at his Timex.
“We got long enough for one song. I’ll play, and you don’t have to do a damn thing but listen and watch what I’m doing with my hands. Won’t be too much longer before you’re doing the same thing yourself.”
Buffington fiddle-tuned his guitar for a minute while he hummed to himself, then he began to play and sing “God Bless the Child.” He had a piercing tenor that he used to good effect on the wistfully bitter song, and he accompanied himself easily on the guitar. Goodwin watched the left hand fretting the chords and notes. In contrast to the right, the nails on the fretting hand were trimmed so close that the flesh was globed at each fingertip. The strings creaked at every chord change. After singing the first two verses, Buffington closed his eyes as he raised his voice and slid into the bridge: “Money”—his voice turned breathless—“you got lots of friends.” A line that demanded an ironic intonation he sang straight and naive, as if addressing a lover he hadn’t yet learned to hate. Goodwin felt a prickling of goosebumps make its way up the back of his neck. On his side, Buffington knew he had a rapt audience of one, and at the moment that was quite enough for him.
“That arrangement there?” he said when he was finished. “By a guitar player named Kenny Burrell. You ever see an album he did with this singer Sylvia Syms, grab it and listen to it for all you’re worth.”
Goodwin stood up and pulled the packet of tickets from his pocket. He detached the first one and handed it to Buffington. He wondered how much of the four-dollar ticket went to the teacher and how much to Mr. Spec. Buffington thanked him, then stared at him for so long without saying anything that Goodwin began to feel uncomfortable.
“Yeah,” Buffington said finally.
“Yeah I can tell we’ll get to be good friends. Don’t ask me how I know, I just know. And there is one more thing I want you to do for me this week.”
“And what might that be?”
Buffington laughed, amused by the boy’s phrasing.
“Well, it might be this. And it might sound a little weird at first, but don’t worry about that. When you’re not working on your scales and chords and so on, I want you to open your ears to the everyday sounds around you. Really listen to them. Turn yourself into one big ear. When you come back next week, first thing I’m going to ask is—Where’d you hear the music? Can you do that for me? Just listen real hard and have an answer for me when you come back.”
Goodwin shrugged, on guard immediately. The idea did sound weird, and he couldn’t see what practical purpose it served. But he didn’t want to start a fight either, not with this guy whom he liked as much as he liked anyone he’d ever met.
“I’ll see,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
His mother had promised to pick him up after the lesson. She worked at the other end of the mall and got off at six, and she had a car now so she could drive him home. He never knew which of her promises she was going to keep, but when he opened the door, there she was, sitting on the bench in the hallway in the same spot he had occupied before his lesson. Her long legs crossed, back slouched against the wall absorbing the organ music from the room within. Relaxing after work, her hands folded in her lap. The song on the organ had changed to “It Happened in Monterey.” His mother knew that song. She was listening with eyes closed, humming along. She opened her eyes and looked at Goodwin, then looked behind him and her eyes opened wider. Where she had looked as if she were falling asleep, now she seemed wide awake. Goodwin felt Buffington’s hand resting on his shoulder, light at first, then tightening, then relaxing again.
The scent of perfume filled the hall, a mixture of the cheap, the expensive and the moderately priced. His mother had carried this grab bag of smells with her from the other end of the mall, where she worked behind the accessories counter at Burdines.
“How was your lesson, dear?” she asked.
He walked to the glass door at the end of the hall and placed his hand on the metal bar. It was cold from the air conditioning. He turned to look at his mother, who hadn’t moved an inch.
“Are you coming?”
She held her hand out to Buffington, who accepted it and pulled her to her feet. Goodwin was struck by the contrast between the two figures as they stood at something less than arm’s length, sizing each other up. His teacher, not too tall, deeply tanned and simply clothed: Birkenstocks and wool socks, flared jeans and a horizontally striped T-shirt. He had the chest and arms of a weight-lifter, biceps swelling just where shirt sleeves ended. His mouth was wide and generous, his eyes set beneath a brow so prominent it verged on the Neanderthal. Hair black and curly, frizzed out like a black man’s afro. Then there was his mother: heavily made-up and decked out in a yellow dress cut four inches above the knee. Sheer white stockings and white spiked heels. She was slim but shapely, with good legs and a finely molded face set off by thick chestnut hair bobbed just below the jaw line. At first glance she always gave the impression of being collected, self-contained, but in truth she was built like a china teacup, beautiful to behold but hardly chip- or shatter-proof.
She thanked Buffington and smiled, not enough to show her teeth, but sufficient to make her eyes shimmer. He dipped his head and cut his eyes to where Goodwin was standing, still waiting with his hand on the door.
“I’ll see you next week,” the man said. Although his eyes rested on Goodwin for a moment, he didn’t say “son.”
When Goodwin pushed the door open, the heat of the August evening embraced him, pressing its fragrant fingers into his nose and mouth. Car sounds from the mall’s parking lot and the raised expressway beyond filled his ears, the groaning motors and shrieking horns. He heard the perpetual call and response. Holding the door for his mother, he could feel the draft sucking the cool out of the store.
The day was August 17, 1967. John Coltrane had died the month before at the age of forty. Exactly one year later, a good part of Miami would go up to the sky in flame and smoke.