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George Gershwin Part 1: Laundromat

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011: Characters, Stories.

“You a musician?”

I looked up. I’d been drumming on the table, in time with the churning washing machines, as I read yesterday’s paper. Across from me I saw an older man, slim and rugged in a denim shirt and faded jeans.

“Yeah, I guess. Among other things.”

“Look at these hands.” The man spoke quickly in a gruff urban accent. His eyes were large and bright, his features chiseled. I saw that his hands were huge. “An octave and a half. I play piano. Live right up the hill. What about you?”

“I write mostly, play whatever. Sing. I guess guitar’s my main thing.”

“Play by ear, huh? We’re the lucky ones. First thing I teach is to listen. That’s what Duchamp taught me. Marcel? My name’s Gershwin. George.”

I shook his hand, took him in. Big nose, big ears. Looked early-to-mid fifties.

“No way. Gershwin’s dead.”

George smiled. “Fact is, he came to me in a dream. Ten years ago. Said I should take up the name. A vocation. Before that I was CIA. Strictly underground. You wouldn’t believe it, but to this day I pass them on the street all the time, here in the city. KGB, British Intelligence, hand signals, winks, just like gradeschool.”

I felt stumped. My dryerload had stopped and I began to fold.

“How old do you think I am?”

“Fifty,” I said.

“Sixty-eight. My wife’s twenty-four. Met her at a march in LA. You should meet her some time. Sings those old labor songs.”

Gershwin heard his own dryer stop and went to empty it into a patched canvas bag. The other denizens of the laundromat, Latino women and their daughters, looked up shyly from the benches along the window. George passed me on his way to the door. “Here’s my card. Call me.” And he was gone.

I stood puzzling over a neat, elegantly embossed business card bearing the name John Christy, Piano: Concerts & Lessons.

From Loft of Dreams: True Stories by Max Carmichael


George Gershwin Part 2: Dog Food

Thursday, December 29th, 2011: Characters, Stories.

The whole band was there around the kitchen table, dressed in our thriftshop suits. Bottles of decent wine waiting to be poured.

The buzzer shrieked just as the clock hit the hour. My eyebrows arched in surprise. “I’ll get it,” said Fenton.

We all turned to face the top of the stairs. Mrs. Gershwin’s head rose first above the railing. She was a giant. But then George himself was quite a man. “Swell place,” he enthused, looking enviously around at the stereo and recording equipment.

I pulled a huge stuffed catfish out of the oven. Mrs. Gershwin was a vegetarian. George didn’t drink. The Bike Messenger sat up, his hands clenched on the table in front of him. His eyes practically bugged out. “So, how did you two meet, Mrs. Gershwin.”

“Oh, George and I met on a march,” she replied, in a thick, sweet drawl. George himself threw his hands out over the table.

“It was a labor march, for civil servants. They were advancing on City Hall, and Tessie was belting out these old labor songs, old Wobbly songs, you know? I just happened to be there, waiting for a bus.”

Tessie was staring at George in rapture. “So I went up to her afterwards, and asked her to sing with me. We’re going to do a concert at the Bank of America next Wednesday, aren’t we, Tessie.” She nodded mightily. “My friend Bob is the program director for the local classical station, he sets these things up. I’d like you all to come.”

“What kind of stuff do you play?” said the Singer.

“Something for everyone,” George whispered, tucking his chin and grinning mischievously.

“Rhapsody in Blue?” I asked.

“Naturally.” George turned to Tessie and fell to smiling at her. After a while he turned back and looked straight at me.

“I had no place to live, but I had a toy piano. Tessie let me move in with her and her mother. A suffering soul. Have you ever eaten dog food?”

In the silence they could hear Fenton chewing food he’d grabbed off somebody else’s plate.

“It’s not bad, you know.” George smiled comfortably. “Got everything you need.”

From Loft of Dreams: True Stories by Max Carmichael

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George Gershwin Part 3: Rhapsody in Blue

Friday, December 30th, 2011: Characters, Stories.

The auditorium in the heart of downtown San Francisco is packed at noon on Wednesday. A noisy crowd. Without any introduction, George strides across the stage wearing a tuxedo, at just the appointed time, dropping his butt on the bench before the grand piano and aggressively attacking it, his feet dancing and his butt scooting around on the bench. He beats out a ragtime, looking up at the audience and nodding with that Popeye grin. It’s loud and technically bewildering, it’s over quickly, and he jumps up and grabs the microphone.

“Some of you may know the name Marcel Duchamp,” he suggests hoarsely. “An artist of some renown. He devised this next piece to settle a bet.”

Mrs. Gershwin advances onstage, carefully pushing a cart stacked with what appear to be crystal wine glasses, brandy snifters, filled to different depths. George is theatrically rolling up his sleeves, revealing his muscular arms. He wets the tips of his fingers in a glass of water, and begins to play a tune by caressing the rims of the glasses. It’s “Chopsticks.” The crowd explodes with laughter and applause.

When he’s done Tessie looms at the microphone and George launches into her accompaniment, this time fixing his hunched concentration on the piano. She sings stridently off-key. Old labor songs.

“And now, I will do something no one has ever attempted,” says George as the hour approaches one. Tessie’s returning onstage with a little red toy piano.

“I will play Rhapsody In Blue on two pianos, the grand and the toy, at the same time.”

And he does, brilliantly.

From Loft of Dreams: True Stories by Max Carmichael

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Quitting Jobs, Part 1

Friday, March 16th, 2012: Jobs, Stories.

(Carmichael's Grocery, my first jobsite)

They say unemployment is falling. Of course, a good economy is usually bad for the environment. And any time I hear about the job market, I think of how hard I’ve tried to stay out of it.

I wasn’t like that at the beginning. I started working for wages at the age of 8, as a stock boy in my grandpa’s neighborhood grocery store. A couple years later, I started working as an after-school mail courier for the local eye doctor. I kept that job through high school. And in the summers, I mowed lawns and painted houses. That’s how I was able to buy my own musical equipment.

In college, I was trying hard to be an adult. I believed that I needed to support myself. I believed that my parents expected that, and personally, I needed to become independent of my parents. I didn’t think it was an option to continue living off their hard-earned dollars until I finished my degree and presumably used that to get a real job. A friend found me part-time work compiling data for a geography professor, microfiche records of slaves who were freed after the Civil War, at minimum wage. I still remember my head hunched for hours in the dark world of the machine, and the golden parchment scrolling by, with thousands of lines of elegant old fountain-pen script evoking people and families long dead, their Biblical names repeated over and over again.

That project ended, and in the summertime, I moved into an apartment and needed more income. My grandpa had taught me a lot of construction skills, so a friend and I started going to construction sites in the dark before dawn, hoping to get hired. We did that daily for weeks, with no success. The economy was in a deep recession. But I did experience a miracle one day. A foreman at ground level of a new skyscraper told me to ride the crew elevator to the top to find the hiring boss. And I rode the open cage 30 stories into the sky, and walked across loose plywood laid over temporary scaffolding, with no guard rails, nothing but empty air around me, 30 stories above Chicago.

My girlfriend and I were living on junk food purchased in bulk on sale at supermarkets: a dozen macaroni and cheese dinners for $2 would last us a week. I had been planning to transfer to art school, but that was clearly impossible. My science and math skills would qualify me for an engineering career, and engineers could always get jobs. So I transferred to engineering school instead, and from then on, high-paying jobs were miraculously handed to me on a plate. Part-time jobs during school, designing an amino acid analyzer with little buckets that moved around on a miniature conveyor, processing and testing samples. Full-time jobs during the summer, running a block-long, multi-million-dollar machine that took raw metal and turned it into Coke cans, experimenting with liquid nitrogen wearing insulated gloves. We moved into a nicer apartment and I opened a savings account.

But during my lunch hour at work, I was writing short stories, which I kept submitting to magazines and contests until finally I won a literary prize. At night and on the weekends, I was painting and writing songs. And in my last year of engineering school, I interviewed for a bunch of prestigious jobs at places like NASA’s Ames research center, and couldn’t imagine taking any of them. So I changed course for a while. I worked in a music shop as a craftsman, then quit that job to join a friend’s band and hang out at his art school. That experience was a turning point in my creative life, the point when I became a mature artist – if not a mature adult!

I moved to San Francisco and took an engineering job, strictly on the basis that the job was a way of paying my bills while I reserved the best of my energy for the arts. The work was incredibly boring, so I cheated by writing poems and songs at my desk. After six months, I had saved up a few thousand dollars and quit to work on music and art full-time.

I lasted another six months, then went broke, but it was worth it. I got so much work done during that break. I went back to my former boss, a sympathetic, fatherly type, and he gave me my job back, and the pattern was set.

Travis McGee, the hero of a pulp fiction series by John D. MacDonald, always told people that he “took his retirement in installments,” rather than waiting until he was too old to enjoy it. Over and over again, he worked hard for a few weeks to save up a nest egg so he could play for months until the money ran out. I would do something similar, except that instead of playing during those breaks, I would work hard on something I loved. The idea of retirement was meaningless to me, because my goal was to spend my entire life doing creative work. Maybe someday I could just do that, and stop taking jobs!

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Quitting Jobs, Part 2

Saturday, March 17th, 2012: Jobs, Stories.

(Deep in the bowels of the oldest commercial nuclear plant in the U.S.)

Four months after returning to my first engineering job, I ran into a guy on the subway who offered me a better job, so I quit the first one yet again. The new job involved earthquake safety studies at nuclear power plants, and that’s a whole ‘nother story! My first assignment was to explore the basement of the oldest commercial nuke plant in the U.S., and after discovering some kind of vapor leak and triggering alarms, I refused to go back in the plant. My boss relented and I worked for him for two more years, saving up enough money to buy equipment for a home recording studio and take a full year off. So I quit again and temporarily moved to Los Angeles to live with my new girlfriend and write a bunch of new songs. That was another big leap forward in my creative work.

Again, when I went broke, my former boss – who viewed his company as a family – received me as a prodigal son, and even allowed me to take on a new, non-engineering clerical role with less responsibility and scaled-back hours, so I had more time for band rehearsals and recording sessions, and I could arrive at work late the morning after a gig the night before. What a life! My engineering colleagues were envious and fantasized about me onstage biting the heads off chickens, like Alice Cooper. Their lives were so conventional in comparison, most of them didn’t have a clue about what I was doing.

Although a job normally saps your creative energy, this sweet deal supported one of the most productive periods in my life as an artist. Plus, I had the use of office computers and copy machines for self-publishing and postering. This time, I stayed on for six years, during which time I made hundreds of new works of art, played hundreds of gigs, recorded an album, produced multimedia shows and conferences, and published a book. However, I was burning the candle at both ends and it was not the healthiest lifestyle.

I also evolved, outgrowing the band and falling in love with the desert. Finally, I quit the job again to move to the wilderness. The company held a big going-away party for me, and they all brought appropriate desert-inspired gifts. For a serial quitter, I sure have been blessed!

After a year in the desert, I was broke again. My former job was no longer available; the company was in decline and my old career was basically obsolete. This time, I struggled for six months, working part-time as a carpenter with a musician friend. Then I miraculously landed a full-time job with a multimedia startup. I discovered that there was a whole new industry that required new skills that were not being taught anywhere. To get a job in the new industry, you only needed to show that your background somehow prepared you to do these new things.

It wasn’t easy. The first multimedia job was a false start and gave me my first lesson in getting fired. The startup was a hothouse environment, with rapid changes in management, people getting hired and fired on a monthly basis, an excess of ambition, insecurity, and backstabbing. After six months, a new boss fired me so she could install her friend in my position.

I had saved up another six months’ worth and started a new band, but I didn’t really have a footing in the new industry, so when I ran out of money, I was really in trouble. A few days of carpentry per month wouldn’t keep me alive. I managed to get on unemployment, which carried me through the rest of the year as I evolved creatively with my new band. Then I outgrew that band, ran out of money and started living off my credit card. A friend might have multimedia work for me in Los Angeles, so I moved there. That work didn’t materialize, but I joined an elite new media salon, taught myself digital animation and made some interactive art, and through other friends, got a contract to design a CD-ROM for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which significantly reduced my credit card debt. The new media salon, run by Art Center’s Peter Lunenfeld, got me back in touch with the art world: Bob Flanagan’s supermasochistic performance art; Chris Kraus’s wacky and wonderful Chance Conference at a Nevada casino, with legendary academic Jean Beaudrillard rapping in front of a live band, DJ Spooky from London, and a Paiute visionary leading a sunrise hike into the desert.

Suddenly the Web was the hot new thing, and it was happening in San Francisco, so I returned there. I had no experience, but neither did anyone else, and there were new companies opening every day, hiring people with no experience. I was still deep in debt and really discouraged, but a friend talked me into cold-calling the new companies and bullshitting my way in. To my surprise, it worked! The top internet design agencies in the world actually took me seriously. A creative director at Studio Archetype asked me if she could copy my white paper on new media to show her boss, Clement Mok, the guru of new media design. My “career” was starting to feel like an epic graphic novel…

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