I first wrote this story around 2000, rewrote it in 2002-03 to reflect events happening at that time, and just rewrote it again. I was first inspired to write this by my friend, Mark Slane (former Santa Cruz street poet), who once told me that the only Hemingway story he liked was A Clean, Well-lighted Place, so I decided to write a similar story that would have two characters with two different world views and a sense of somber reflection. The story still takes place in late 2002 or early 2003 before the Iraq invasion. The story has changed quite a bit from when I first wrote it and it still feels like a work in progress, but I think it's okay enough to share with all of you. I may continue to modify it after this posting.
a short story
Cal left the restaurant where he worked at about 10 minutes to 12:00. He tried to work out a tune in his head as he walked down Pacific Avenue amongst the Santa Cruz nightlife noisy with pub crawlers, students, sightseers, transients, street musicians, restless youth, panhandlers, and others. Cars tried to drive up the street and were slowed by crisscrossing pedestrians. Cal passed by the spots on the sidewalk where he played his guitar for donations from passers by. My territory, he thought to himself.
The talking, laughing, singing, shouting, revving motors, constant movement and other various street noises coalesced into a disjointed rhythm inside Cal’s mind as he quickly made his way home. He turned off the main street away from the downtown noise and into quieter, tree lined streets until he came to his house. When he opened the front door and walked inside, the house was dark except for a glow in the living room where his roommates and others were watching television.
“Hey, guys,” Cal said.
“Hi, Cal,” a couple of them said. The car chase and gunfire noises from the television signaled to Cal that they were watching an action adventure movie. He went to the kitchen, got a beer from the refrigerator, and went to his room. He turned on the light, closed the door and took a sip of his beer before he set it down. He sat down on his bed, took his guitar from its stand, found a pick, and began to play. He strummed a few chords then broke into a riff from the melody that had been in his head. The stress of pent up energy released and spilled out through his fingers onto the taut strings of his guitar and note after note filled the room in sound as he lost himself into the music. The acoustic reverberations weaved an audible tapestry that bridged to the last time he played earlier in the day and connected into one continuous jam.
Abruptly, Cal's cell phone rang. It cut through the music and yanked him back into reality. He answered his phone on the next ring. “Yeah?”
“Calvin, how are you,” a friendly voice said from the phone. The voice sounded familiar and his irritation turned to curiosity. He then matched a name to the voice.
“Of course, Scott, who else. You move to Santa Cruz and forget about all your friends.”
“I’ve been busy,” Cal said. “So how are you doing?”
“Doing good, doing good. You got a new band together?”
“No, not yet. I’ve been playing solo, but it’s been all right, I’m really improving.”
“All right,” Scott said. “Hey, remember the time you guys played at Lance Gorman’s graduation party? That was insane.”
“Oh, yeah, how could I forget.” Cal thought back to the night of the party. He and his band played in a back yard and blasted out crude, noisy punk rock tunes to a crowd of
screaming, moshing cheap beer drenched partiers. “Boy, were we all wasted.”
“That was some night,” Scott said while laughing. “You guys were awesome.”
“We weren’t bad for a garage band.”
“So whatever happened to your band anyways?”
“Oh, you know,” Cal set his guitar onto its stand, grabbed his beer and took a drink, “everyone moved on, careers, relationships, tired of the scene.”
“Yeah, not a lot of money in music when you’re not famous, is there.”
“It’s a labor of love,” Cal said. “So are you still working for Cisco? I heard they had layoffs.”
“No, Cisco was two jobs ago. They had plans to build out in the Coyote Valley, but that fell through, so then I got involved with this start up, really interesting people, and that's taken me to where I am now. Terri and I are doing all right,”
“That's good,” Cal said. “It seems all I read and hear about up there is how the economy is in trouble.”
“Don't believe everything you hear,” Scott said. “Yeah, there has been a bit of a downturn, especially after the dot com bust and nine eleven, but these things have a way of working themselves out. We were all flying high during the 90's, and now we're coming back down to earth, people are adjusting.”
“I'll bet sales are more competitive than ever.”
“Sales?” Scott said. “These days, it's called marketing.”
“Same difference,” Cal said.
“No, it's not the same. Salesman go door to door and try to con housewives into
buying vacuum cleaners, we're a lot more sophisticated these days.”
“As long as you're happy with what you're doing,” Cal said.
“Can't complain,” Scott said. “So what are you doing these days, still working at that warehouse?”
“No, they laid me off. These days I'm waiting tables. With tips, the money is better and I don't have to work full time.”
“I'll bet it's still a challenge,” Scott said. “I know it’s just as pricey down there as it is up here, and all the good jobs are here.”
“I'm happy enough,” Cal said, “if I get tired of it, I’ll try something else. I also make some money from my music, gigs here and there, playing at parties. Sometimes, when I’m playing on the sidewalk, people drop bills into my guitar case.”
“Well it sounds like you’re doing what you want to do, and that's important,” Scott said, “but aren’t you going to have to move to L.A. or New York if you want to make it big. Santa Cruz is an fine place and all, but it’s a small market. How much exposure can you get there? It’s bad enough you have to share your sidewalk space with a bunch of homeless beggars.”
“Some of them are my friends.”
“No offense,” Scott said, “I'm just saying that whenever I'm down there it feels kind of seedy. I usually just end up on the beach anyhow.”
“That's where most of the tourists go, but it's funny you should say something about that because the city council down here is trying to pass an ordinance restricting where we can play and for how long. If I’m going anywhere it’s going to be a place where I
have more freedom.”
“Sounds like they’re just trying to get a handle on the situation,” Scott said, “that should help you, right?”
“No, that's not going to help,” Cal said sharply, “as a street musician it affects me directly. As long I'm not bothering anyone, why should it matter how long I'm in one place. And it's not just this situation, all our rights are being taken away one by one, don’t you follow the news?”
“Sure, I follow things,” Scott said, “but if you get too much into it, it'll get you down, and who needs that.”
“You're not supposed to feel down,” Cal said, “you're supposed to get angry. That's how things change.”
“Hey, I'm with you,” Scott said, “you want to march in the street and protest, I support your right to do that, that's what America is about. All I'm saying is that times have changed, and I'm sure that all they’re trying to do down there is bring some order to all the chaos that’s happening.”
“That’s bulls___,” Cal said. “It’s the corporatocracy and their government lackeys trying to screw us all and turn this country into their own fascist empire.”
Scott laughed. “Cal, it's not as bad as all that.”
“It ain't that good, either.”
“You know what you need, a change of scenery. You're getting too much into that radical Santa Cruz mindset, reading their left wing newspaper...”
“It's owned by Dow Jones, and Clearchannel and Hearst own the T.V. Stations.”
“Okay,” Scott said, “but you could still benefit from a change of location. Life's too short to get bent out of shape about everything.”
“Santa Cruz may not be perfect, but it's where I belong,” Cal said. “You know, I like being a musician and I'm proud of it. We provide a valuable service to people, and when we're out playing on the street we're supplying music free of charge. We add to the character of the city, and you only have to pay us if you want to. That’s quite a bargain when you consider how much concert tickets cost these days.”
“You do have a point there.”
“No Ticketmaster markup, no overpriced concessions, and no rent-a-cop security guards giving you a hard time.”
“Hey, I’m with you, but you got to admit, you would have a better chance of making it big somewhere else, or even this side of the hill. Even with things being what they are right now you would still find a better paying job over here, or up in the City, and we have more clubs and other live music venues over here, more of everything.”
“Then I'll take the bus or catch a ride up there when I have gigs up that way. I’ll bring the music to the people, but this is my home,” Cal said, “and we have a pretty active music scene of our own, musicians from all over play down here all the time.”
“Well, it sounds like you got everything figured out,” Scott said, “and that's good. All I'm saying is that there may be something out there, some opportunity, you might be missing out on.
“Look, I know you’re just trying to talk some sense into me, and I appreciate it,” Cal said, “but I am committed to this.”
“Yeah, I know,” Scott said. “Still, you can’t be too safe these days, you need something solid and reliable, especially when you think of cost of living and the price of a house.”
“Not to mention sky high rents,” Cal said, “and the bastards at Enron and Worldcom who f___ up the economy for everyone else.”
“Exactly, used to be you could work for a big company for thirty or forty years, they'd give you a pension, and they’d take care of you. Now, it's all about free agency.”
“The American dream,” Cal said.
“What it comes down to is, your not going to take out the guys at the top, but what you can do is get into the system just long enough to stake your claim.”
“I knew it, you're going to pitch me something.”
“Cal, you got me all wrong,” Scott said, “we go back, when did I ever try to talk you into a raw deal?”
“Well, there was that investment company,” Cal said.
“That was my first job out of college. Now those guys were sharks, biggest pricks I ever met, I had to get out of there quick. What I'm talking about is something completely different.”
“Aha, so I was right.”
“Okay, you got me,” Scott said, “but just hear me out.”
“It's not selling bibles, is it.”
“Hell no, this is a lot better than that. Check this out, there's a new distribution company that's coming to the Bay Area, and they need people who know the territory, there is some traveling involved, some meeting with people, which is by appointment only, but it'll be worth it.”
“Is this one of those pyramid type things,” Cal said.
“No, this totally legit, I wouldn't steer you wrong.”
“I assume this job is on your side of the hill?”
“All the good paying jobs are on this side of the hill,” Scott said, “but you can commute, it'll be worth it.”
“A lot of people are looking for work right now.”
“And I'm offering it to you first.”
“I don't know,” Cal said, “I don't need much, I'm getting by with what I'm doing now, I'll stick with it.”
“All right, I understand,” Scott said, “but think of all the good you could do with some extra cash.”
“Still not interested.”
“Okay, I won't bug you anymore about it,” Scott said relentingly, “but can I at least be your agent?”
“I have this great idea for a gig, but it's a little unusual.”
“What is it,” Cal said.
“Playing music for people while they’re working.”
“Oh, yeah” Scott said. “I heard somewhere that music makes people work more
efficiently, and what would be better than live music.”
Cal became aggravated. “That is an authoritarian abuse of music. I’m not doing this just so I can make The Man richer than he already is.”
“Aw, c’mon, Cal,” Scott said. “Sure, you’re good, but so are a lot of other people who never make it. You need something to fall back on, a plan B when plan A doesn’t work, unless, of course, you got a rich relative who’s about to die and leave you a house.”
“Not in my family,” Cal said.
“So you have to be realistic.”
“I have a dream,” Cal said emphatically, “didn't you ever have a dream?”
“Even a dream needs a basis in reality,” Scott said. “There are so many other things you could be doing that wouldn't compromise you. Don’t you get tired of scraping by and having to share a house with a bunch of strangers?”
“They’re my friends,” Cal said.
“We were your friends first,” Scott said.
“Ah, don't be jealous. You know, there’s more to life than shiny things and the holy rat race. You'd think Americans would demand more.”
“But what are you going to do,” Scott said, “we're a capitalist nation, always have been, it's what makes us tick.”
“But we have to break out of that mindset, stop being at each other's throat, and connect with each other. That's what I'm trying to do with my music.”
“So I guess working at a regular job is out of the question?”
Cal grabbed onto his guitar with his free hand. “I didn’t choose this lifestyle, it
chose me. If I had to work at a regular nine to five job, I’d lose my mind.”
“You always were a tough sell,” Scott said.
“Scott, you don't have to buy me, I'm free,” Cal said. He loosened the grip on his guitar and let it rest on his lap.
“So you remember how Eric was in the Marine Reserves?” Scott said.
“He got called to active duty.”
“Oh, no,” Cal said. “Is he going over to the Mideast?”
“He doesn’t know yet, but he probably is.”
“Damn,” Cal said. “Didn't he join for the college money?”
“Yeah,” Scott said, “but who knew nine eleven was going to happen.”
“And guys like Eric are the ones who pay the price,” Cal said.
“Yeah,” Scott said. They were quiet for a moment. “Terri talks about starting a family, but who wants to bring kids into this world. It’s dangerous out there.”
“The world needs more good people,” Cal said. “You and Terri would make excellent parents.”
“Not so fast,” Scott said, “ we haven’t hit our second anniversary yet.”
“I didn’t mean this very second,” Cal said, “just, whenever.”
“Yeah, when we get more established.” Scott said. There was another pause.
“I think Eric will be all right,” Cal said. “The Iraq invasion hasn’t happened yet. We can still avert it, a lot of people against it.”
“I don't know,” Scott said, “too much momentum. You know, maybe the whole
thing will happen quickly and be over with before we know it. We definitely have the best military in the world, and it's not like Saddam is a good guy.”
“Saddam used to be on our side for years,” Cal said, “and any military occupation will drag us down for a very long time. Don’t believe everything you see on television, the mainstream media is just trying to get everyone whipped into a frenzy.”
“I'm not that gullible, but the president seems dead set on doing this.”
“And we the people have to be dead set against it,” Cal said. “Iraq can’t do anything to us, it’s just a war for oil.”
“But they have all the power,” Scott said, “I don't think they can be stopped.”
“You have to fight and resist it until the last second,” Cal said, “it's the only way to avert disaster.” Cal heard silence over the phone.
“Your a hopeful person, Cal, we need more like you,” Scott finally said. “Well, it's getting late.”
“Good talking to you, Scott. We have to stay in touch.”
“For sure,” Scott said. “You're one of the few I know that I can call at this hour.”
“That's what I'm here for,” Cal said. “I’ll let you know next time I play on your side of the hill.”
“All right, Cal, take care.”
“Say hi to Terri for me, bye.”
Cal closed up his phone and sat for a while with his guitar. He thought about
Scott, Eric, all his other friends in the Silicon Valley, and what their future's held as he
sipped his beer.
After a while, he placed his guitar in front of him and began to play. He picked at the strings then gradually quickened the tempo as he played around with the melody that he was putting together. He picked up where he left off and played well into the night.