Friday, May 29, 2020

Long Hair Matters

Long Hair Matters

by Arlo Hennings

 (excerpt from the book Guitarlo)

Once I’d regained my strength, I returned to the road. But before making it to the end of the parking lot, I started sweating. My underwear felt heavy and damp again, sticking to my legs like soggy swimsuit trunks. With the hot summer winds swirling around my body, each step was heavy and laborious, like walking through chest-deep water in a river current that pulled and pushed me at the same time. I heaved my suitcase up over my right shoulder onto my back, gripped the guitar in my left hand, and kept trudging on toward my goal... New York.

I climbed a long, long hill into another kind of country. The fences had old boots on the posts. No bushes or trees, just a vast blue-green ocean of grass and corn, maybe seven feet tall. After an hour of walking, I reached a bullet-holed sign with worn dented letters on it forming the words, Buffalo Grass. I just could not drag my suitcase another inch and decided to take a breather, while doubling my suitcase for a chair. I’m sure glad I ordered ice water to go from the diner I passed, I thought, as I sipped the cool liquid through the straw poking out the top of plastic covered waxed paper cup.

The two streets of the town were broad, much broader than they needed to be, I pondered, watching tumbleweeds roll through empty lots between the buildings. I heard a continuous squeaking sound, which I followed with my eyes to its source where I found a sheet-metal grocery store billboard and the single-pump gas station sign, rusted and weather-torn each blowing gently back and forth in unison joined in song upon the evening breeze.

A derelict tractor sat in front of me. The wheels were missing, the motor picked clean by metal-eating buzzards. Between its broken headlights was a symbol of a golden bull with man-like legs. I sat on the tractor’s skeleton and fumbled with a series of levers. A humid, static-charged wind toyed with my hair. A thick pallor of dust hung in the air, wrapping the remains of daylight in smoky amber hues that moved through the street like curtains of silk. My vision blurred, while twilight was upon me, and the distant sunset over the hills on the horizon beyond the empty country road.

I did not hear any people moving about — just the sound of some random bird tweets, and the constant squeak, squeak, squeak of the rusted signs moving on the breeze, which also made rustling sounds come from a few trees that surrounded the buildings. I looked to my right past dark mounds of farming refuse, piled up in the backfield of what looked like the remnants of an old grain elevator, long since retired. The last hour of daylight coming to a close was starting to be swallowed up by thickening clouds that were suddenly looming overhead. When a lightning bolt struck the ground, the air-popped like a broken bulb. A horse whinnied, and then bolted across a field toward a barn. Birds, the last to act, jumped from telephone wires and disappeared in the tall corn.

The clouds boiled in black smoke.

“Just a little rain,” I prayed.

I saw a car coming. The shipwreck trick — hurry. I made a barricade out of the suitcase. When the car got close enough I jumped up and down behind the suitcase. A pink colored car with whitewall tires slowed until its o-shaped headlights stopped at my suitcase. I approached the passenger’s side and waved at the black glass. The window came down, and the smell of beer came out.

“Hi, where are you going?” said a young, pretty, blonde girl all flirty-like. Then the girl quickly rolled up the window and returned to the car’s dark interior. I stood there expecting a door to open. A wiper flipped intermittently, taking a moth with its swipe. The engine idled. Nothing happened.

I grabbed my suitcase, knocked at the car window. “Can I get in the back?” I inquired while pushing on the door handle.

The back window came down again. “Do you believe in God?” a voice heavily soaked with liquor asked.

I tried to peer inside.

“I asked you a question, boy,” the voice came at me again, as the dome light ignited, and a middle-aged man wearing a brown cowboy hat stuck his large square chin out.

“Do you believe in God?” he repeated, with a big fat dirty grin.

In the back seat, two other men could barely keep their cowboy hats from falling off. It was extremely funny.

“Yes, sir, I believe in God,” I answered, thinking yes was the correct answer.

One of the other men from the back seat leaned forward, straightening the large silver cabochon clip on his necktie while rubbing his face covered in stubble. “Look at that long hair... oh my, aren’t we pretty,” he said, and looking over to the man who spoke first, he added, “I think what we have here, a faggot.” The man called Roy displayed a row of snuff-stained teeth and sprayed a brown stream of spit across my sneakers. “Is that right?” he asked, looking at me, “You like to suck cock, boy?”

The question made the girl giggle.

“I’m a hitchhiker, just passing through guys,” I told them, “on my way to upstate New York.”

“So you’re some kind of little hippie wannabe or something,” stubble-face chortled, “a sex drugs and rock n’ roll addict... eh?”

“What’s wrong with that?” I retorted innocently.

“I’ll bet you five bucks,” said a dirty whisker-faced man, as he switched places at the window with the man they called Roy. He made extra fine use of his left eye- sort of pirate-like, while he slammed his eyelid open and shut as if I was a dumb animal under his hypnosis.

“Five bucks and raise you ten,” said one of the other men, as he sized me up. “Looky here,” the man at the rear window hollered at me, removing his cowboy hat to display a bald head, “This is what a white man should look like.” All the men suddenly put their heads together in a huddle. Roy’s eyes widened with all the enthusiasm of a good lynching. The other men stopped laughing. “I have a friend I’d like you to meet,” Roy roared, “His name is knuckles,” and the car erupted into more laughter.

“The trail runs dead,” he said returning to the window, “If you’re still here when we turn around, we’re going take the sheep shears across your head.” A beer can flew out of the car window and hit me in the chest. Then he hung his bare ass out the window and mooned me. “Bye,” giggled the blonde, waving like a parade queen. The old car shook like a sputtering chainsaw, as they took off, heading east- yes, in the direction I was traveling.

I watched as their taillights disappeared over the horizon. “They’re not coming back... right?” I asked the field of corn, “Cut my hair?” I continued, trying to reassure myself, “They’re just trying to frighten me.” Touching my hair, I imagined myself with a head like a bowling ball. I decided to throw my suitcase and guitar in the ditch and hide somewhere in the cornfield. The muscles in my jaw pulled at something hard.

I stopped at three sets of wires above the ground. I touched them first- sure enough, they were hot- there was no holding it in, “E-e-e-i-i-i!” I yelped and fell back on my ass — an electric fence. The only way into the field was by climbing under the hot wires. I got on my back, inhaled, and wiggled slowly as if I was crawling under a limbo pole, and the lowest wire only gave me maybe about eighteen inches clearance. As a place marker, I dug my right foot into the dirt. It all looked the same. I yanked a fist full of grass out of the ground. It would mark the spot to find my belongings. The corn was at least eight feet high not seven as I had estimated from the road. Stumbling through the grass along the ditch bordering the crops on one side and the road on the other, I followed the field side of the fence line.

Visuals of the dark road opened up, in-between bursts of lightning, and I saw the four men fan out across the field like hunters do when flushing pheasant from the brush. The sight drove my face into the ground. I began to pray fervently, with thoughts so loud I feared they’d hear me, “They can’t get across. They’re too big to crawl under. I have a chance — I have a chance.”

My prayer ended abruptly when scattergun lightning illuminated the field. Each lightning bolt was like a searchlight. I crawled deeper into the field to hide. I imagined my voice reached out in out-of-breath gasps to the other side of the field. It was faint but recognizable, and it was me.

“Give yourself up, coward,” shouted the men, “On the count of three.”

They’d caught me, and suddenly, a pair of boots was kicking at the corn near my head. I almost kissed the leather. The man kicked angrily at the corn all around me, and I made love to the sweet dirt again and again and again- while he kept kicking at the corn. Reality jerked in stop-go lightning-made strobe action.

I remembered a story from a friend of mine who was assaulted by a group of drunken cowboys in a cornfield outside a small town in rural Nebraska. The cowboys marched him around a cattle auctioning ring with a pitchfork to his back. The game was the highest bidder won the prize to shave his hair with sheep shears. He was dumped the next day at a gas station with a bald and bleeding head.

The yelling intensified, and I imagined the worst. Moments later, four-car doors slammed. A car engine started. And then they were gone.

The storm ended and the last remaining sliver of daylight lit the puddles on the road. There was no Universal Man to look into a pothole filled with oil-colored water and sunlight. The answer lay somewhere in the sea of corn. The corn just bowed against the wind in reverence to the storm. I found my suitcase and guitar where I left them and resumed the journey.

The ordeal left me thoroughly drenched and caked in mud. The angry clouds eventually moved on, and the endless night sky became so brightly lit with stars that the road faintly glowed before me. Thoughts of my dry bed back in my parent’s basement with Darcy wrapped around me helped to comfort, but it also made me question if I was doing the right thing? I kept walking mile after mile, my shoes squishing out more water with each step. It was a damp but not a cold evening. There was no place to stop. No place to lie down. The stars, the breeze off the corn, my unknown status followed me, pushing with energy, driving onward into the depth of the night’s cricket song. Keep moving was the only logical thing I could think of. Besides, after all the adrenalin I just worked up during the last crazy leg of my journey, there’s no way I could’ve slept that night. I looked up into the night sky unobstructed by artificial lights, just in time to get a glimpse of a shooting star that landed somewhere over the horizon in the direction of Woodstock. I felt I was headed in the right direction.

The sunrise finally arrived and woke up in the countryside. As brave Helios rode across the land pouring the magic of light of dawn into all living things, a happy feeling came over me. It occurred to me that I was lucky to be alive. I survived.

“Goodbye, Mr. Moon — see you soon.”

I skipped a rock down the road. Imaginary flutes and violins played in tempo with the dripping morning dew. I pulled off a ripe ear of corn and ate it raw.

Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.

Guitarlo - available where ever books are sold

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, web site ISP, search engines, committee, or other group or individual.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

School for Musical Geniuses

Jon Bream's School for Musical Geniuses

By Arlo Hennings

(originally published in the book Guitarlo)

On the editing floor of my existential documentary were piles of disconnected stories that I had no hope or the energy to reconstruct in some comprehensible way that made sense. To the best of my ability my 18-year old life was as follows:

By 1973, my life in conjunction with age grew to be increasingly messy and complicated. The days of simply hanging a thumb out and moving with the muse were over. The wide-open, timeless moments of 1969-1972 were now compressed into outrunning reality. The reality was, it seemed, that time was running out on me.

I was sick of the hardscrabble means existence that consisted of a few dollars earned at daily labor, someone’s couch, Big Mac Happy Meals, and my skinny little body absorbing the frowns, throw-away, uselessness that is generally associated with a perennial loser.

Communication with my parents had remained sketchy over those last three years, and I didn’t know how to make amends with them.

The way I reconnected with my dad was by happenstance. We met at a crossroads — we were both trying to find a way to earn a living.

While the rest of my family left Minneapolis and relocated to California, my dad stayed behind to start a new job. After his training was completed, he would also transfer to California. Dad got a job through a government assistance program called DVR (Division of Vocational Rehabilitation). They hired him to be one of their vocational counselors, which seemed ironic to me. My dad was going to be a counselor?

After his mysterious roadside accident, that laid him up for years, I knew it hadn’t been easy for my dad to land this job. In order to meet the qualifications, he had to return to night school and complete a Master’s program in vocational not “therapy” counseling.

I sat at my dad’s desk with wide eyes. It had been a long time since I’d seen him last, and I’d never seen him behind a desk. He looked smart in his blue blazer and open-collar shirt, the phone with many buttons, a fax machine, and a secretary.

Although the scene reminded me so much of my own experience with Mr. Vape at Emergency Hennepin County Services for the poor, I was happy to see him and equally glad to see he was over the accident. He was more a mystery than ever, however. I grew up with an “absent dad” syndrome.

I had resigned myself to the philosophy that our estranged relationship was a fact of life and that I’d better make the best of it. He had me booked for an hour and there were other clients following me, so we got on with the meeting.

“There’s a new trade school called Humbolt Institute near downtown Minneapolis,” Dad explained. “I know the admissions coordinator. He can arrange your enrollment.”

“That’s great, Dad, but what does the school teach?” I asked him.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, brushing off the question.

“Who will pay for it?” I inquired further.

“Don’t worry about the money, either.” Dad told me, “I have a relative in the business, and he will give you a job.”

I was a bit stunned by this sudden fair weather life-changing moment and did not ask any further questions.

My dad would not give me money to live on or allow me to stay in his apartment, but he did manage to get DVR to sponsor me as a rehabilitation case. What I was being rehabilitated from, and to what was never explained. This was the third time in my life the word rehabilitation was used pertaining to me. The first time was in elementary school. The second was Mr. Booty, my probation officer. Now, I was hearing it from my father.

My dad had a bona fide accident and a war injury, which left him partially disabled, but how that applied to me was another question. The only sense I could make of the ongoing rehabilitation conversation was basically that a round peg in a world of squares holes needed to be reformatted so it would fit in. When would I wake up from this lost compass nightmare?

My self-esteem was battered enough without the distinction of another negative label. Since no one cared to look at what talent lurked beneath my broken shell, and since no one would back my idea to go to music school, I had little choice other than to go along with dad’s plan and hope for the best. He was my dad after all and if I couldn’t trust him, who could I trust?

Humbolt Institute had created an unfounded, niche market, with a trade program called Dental Technician. In only one year they tried to compress the skills and knowledge of what normally took many years on the job to learn. The art of building prosthetic teeth out of metal and wax was a specialist trade, previously a time-honored tradition, filled by an apprentice. The art could be compared to highly skilled craft-like jewelry making.

Teeth were important, I convinced myself. What would my life be like without them? Furthermore, I reasoned, it looked sexy to be dressed as a dentist in the brochure. The white pressed jacket had an air of privilege, cleanliness, and class. Finally, they called it a “vocational school” where grades were not as important as what my hands could do.

The so-called admissions coordinator was Guy Evers. Unknown to me at the time, Guy had worked for DVR, was my dad’s former colleague, and had been fired.

“How would you like to make $30,000 per year in your first year?” Guy asked, exuding the enthusiasm and sincerity of a stereotypical used-car salesman. However, his round glasses, bow tie, and clipped mustache gave him a sense of innocence.

“I can really make $30,000?” I asked, dreaming about the guitars I could buy with that kind of money

“That is the current starting wage for a crown and bridge technician,” he replied with confidence. It didn’t take much prodding to get a starving 18-year-old to sign a contract promising the deed to a music dream.

“What happens next?” I asked.

“The program begins next month,” Guy said, pushing several documents before me. “Just sign here and there.”

Little did I know that I had just signed for state funding and a student loan. In other words, he was double billing the tuition. What my dad knew I never found out.

The technology of the trade was fascinating with its hand drills, metal casting, and a vast array of high tech dental tools. I would wear a white lab coat and believed each day I went to the school that it was one last day spent in poverty. My musical aspirations would have to be put on hold.

Hy, who owned and taught at the tooth fairy school, happily showed me around the classroom. He was from New York, and he was Jewish, which wasn’t relevant to me at the time. He wore a 48-hour unshaven face, metal-rimmed glasses, and his kinky black hair covered his ears. The teacher also had a great sense of humor, played pranks, and was liked by all the other students.

Being that this was the first class Hy taught, I doubt he knew what the school was up to. I had a hard time bonding with him, which I blamed on myself. I came to the class wearing rock ‘n’ roll on my sleeve — a fixed resident of the slums, inner-city Minneapolis.

Besides my brief stint at a community college and limited professional interaction, I had never closely associated with people from the mainstream before and I felt out of place next to my middle-class classmates. I might as well have been an immigrant from a third world country trying to overcome a feeling of inferiority.

I often found myself talking to a plastic model of a mouth. As I added teeth trying to create a set of dentures, the mouth of the sacred tooth fairy said, “Forget this nonsense. It’s not you!”

“Hush, I am being rehabilitated. Fixing your bite is going to make me rich,” I said to the mouth. I pushed a back molar into the hot wax of the denture and the conversation ended.

The program hours were 8-5, 5 days per week. The first class had 30 students, a lot older than me. Unlike my classmates, I had no money to live on. The school sucked up my grants and loans to leave me nothing for rent, food, and clothes. The best I could do was work part-time in the evening.

Two months into the program my dad moved to California. I was the last in my family to remain in Minneapolis. A new feeling of abandonment found a hole in my skin and burrowed its way into the nervous apple of my heart. “You make your own bed and lie in it,” my mother’s slogan echoed across the vast distance that separated us. This was not the life I imagined when I walked away from my home at 15 years old to rebel for civil rights, the Vietnam War, and to pursue guitar.

I worked four hours per night at the Sears and Roebuck warehouse tower, on Lake Street. It took two bus transfers to get there and back.

“Just because you’re in dental school doesn’t mean you’re above the rest of the world,” the warehouse manager ridiculed. Apparently, the assistant manager had complained about my attitude. Why I wasn’t sure. I did what I was told. The misunderstanding of what the school did and what it meant was a problem.

“It’s not a dental school,” I said. “It’s a trade school. I wish I could be a dentist.”

“Go stock floor six,” he commanded.

Nicknamed the Sears Tower, it was half the size of Willis Tower in Chicago, with its 110 floors. The Lake Street tower was still big enough to get lost in. Each floor was dark and dirty, filled with American consumerism from washing machines on the main level to watches on the top level. I was alone up there every night stocking.

I often wandered the floors going on make-believe shopping trips. I tried on new shoes, marveled at a stereo player, loved the tents in sporting goods, a golden new Rolodex watch on my left arm said something. Sears didn’t sell music instruments, but they did sell a home church organ and I played it at the end of my shift.

One night, I was stocking clothes my size, remembering a recent conversation with my parents.

“Dad, I don’t have any clothes to wear,” I’d complained over the phone, “Mom, can you send me $50? I don’t have any food. Mom and Dad, how do you expect me to go to this school when I am already two months behind in my rent?”

When the help didn’t come, I listened to the devil on my shoulder, “Wear new clothes like underwear. No one will notice. Sears has millions of dollars. You have nothing. Go on.” and reluctantly, and out of desperation mind you, the hungry rat stole a piece of cheese.

Unbeknownst to my classmates, I was forced to return to my circus days of survival tactics. I kept my life as a petty thief, panhandler, and the junkie roommate a secret.

A year later, I graduated from the Tooth Fairy school with straight A’s.

I was a new man with that diploma. The words Dental Technician was inscribed in Gothic letters on parchment and an important sounding slogan in Latin below my name. The world was my oyster now. Doors would fly open like magic with a simple wave of my toothbrush. There would be “Mr.” before my first name.

What could I do with a big salary? Show Vape my first check? What type of guitar would I buy? Buy my first car? Should I spend my first vacation in Cancun?

Since I lived in the inner city on the bus line, and the majority of the employers were located in the suburbs, getting there was a problem.

“How are you going to get here on time?” The 20-year-old owner’s son asked me in the interview.

“Millions of people ride the bus,” I said, proudly showing him my new diploma. “Why should that matter?”

The truth is it didn’t matter. It was an excuse, I later figured out.

“Nice diploma,” the owner said. “There are no open positions, however.”

I looked at the newspaper I held open to the job want ads. Boos Dental Laboratory was an easy bus ride downtown, so I gave them a shot.

The position, crown, and bridge trainee were circled. I showed the manager the ad.

“Oh, that job,” he said. “We filled that position an hour ago.”

My heart sank.

“The owner of your school is Jewish, right?” the manager asked.

It dawned on me that the name Boos was German.

“I wouldn’t know about that Mr. Boos,” I said, and left.

Even though I did not finish high school, I wasn’t so stupid not to recognize where the program went wrong, and subsequently, there wouldn’t be a job for any amount of pay. The diploma was worthless.

Tooth Fairy school had made two big mistakes. First, instead of creating qualified technicians, they graduated with over-qualified apprentices. The fact that I knew more about the field as a whole made the other workers in the business uncomfortable. And second, the school was closed for fraud. They were caught double-dipping the government.

“What now?” I said sadly to the devastated dentist in the mirror.

The stupid idea entered my mind that I could go after those responsible and hold them accountable. Holding a piece of paper that wasn’t worth the ink printed on it, I was emboldened to make a few phone calls.

In an effort to receive some type of settlement for my financial loss and the personal wrong I felt, I filed a formal complaint against the DVR. I was assigned an ombudsman representative. Despite her physical handicap, which left her bound to a wheelchair, she was eager to prove herself. She took careful notes on my case and arranged a meeting with the director of DVR, Bright Sheldon.

“The school was closed for fraud,” I complained. “I reported the problem and no one listened.”

Mr. Sheldon sat behind his big desk, in his big office, and listened. The Minnesota state flag was displayed proudly behind his chair. There was a photo of the new Governor, Wendell Anderson on the wall.

“Why was I made to take out a student loan that I have no means to repay when your funding should have covered everything?” I challenged.

“DVR was not picking up 100 percent of the bill in your case,” Mr. Sheldon smiled and displayed a set of denture perfect white teeth, “we were only paying for a part of the tuition.”

“That was not explained to me. Furthermore, what was I doing receiving money from DVR in the first place?” I questioned.

In front of my ombudsman, Mr. Sheldon was on the record. He looked angry. “That was the plan made for you,” he answered.

“I never applied to be on your program. DVR, don’t get me wrong is a great service. But, as you can see, I am not disabled.” I pointed out, with direct certainty, “what is supposed to be wrong with me? Can I see my case file?”

I jumped up and grabbed a file off Mr. Shelton’s desk with my name on it. In big bold letters was typed Rock Star.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I shouted and threw the file back on his desk. I had seen my name on too many case files.

“Since you must know,” Shelton paused, “the exact diagnoses haven’t been determined.”

“What else did my Dad write?” I demanded.

The mention of my dad set off a bomb.

“You didn’t tell me your counselor was your dad.” My ombudsman retorted loudly, smashing the metal of the wheelchair with her fist.

“Why should that matter? He works for DVR,” I pushed back.

“This is outrageous,” she shouted at Mr. Sheldon.

Sheldon waved his hand at her to calm down. “What is it you’re looking for, Mr. Hennings?” he asked.

I was suspicious that my dad had cooked up a story about me in an attempt to make himself look good. Was it a trick to get off the hook for our problems? If anyone needed a counselor it was my dad — not me. The little big man in me stood up.

“I never asked for the student loan. The choice of school came through DVR. I want you to reimburse me. All I wanted was to go to a music school like any other talented musician. Why did no one listen to find out if I had talent? Why not help me with a scholarship? Why try to derail my dream with the promise of money?” I protested.

“I am not going to reimburse you,” he hollered, holding up my file and slamming it back down on his desk, reminding me of Vape.

“Then I am going to sue you,” I swore.

He laughed, “Take your best shot.”

My ombudsman’s jaw was swollen shut at this point.

I walked out of the office with the first of many inherited debts I couldn’t pay. The upside was that I had learned a lot of dental vocabulary, and to a dentist’s delight, I could describe in great detail the anatomy of my teeth.

“I think there’s a cavity right here in the interproximal space, mandibular, left #2 bicuspid,” I told the dentist during my next appointment.

“Where did you learn that?” he asked.

“I went to dental technician school,” I clarified, handing him my medical assistance welfare card. “Please check the occlusal surface of my upper first molar, distal cusp, too.”

Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.

Guitarlo - available where ever books are sold

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, web site ISP, search engines, committee or other group or individual.