This excerpt is from Chapter 5 from
'Melody: a Memoir by Amadeo de' Medici'
Chapter 5: Diamonds and Rust - Lost in the Village dressed like Bobby and Joan
"Now I see you standing
With brown leaves falling around
And snow in your hair
Now you're smiling out the window
Of that crummy hotel
Over Washington Square
Our breath comes out white clouds
Mingles and hangs in the air
Speaking strictly for me
We both could have died then and there…"
It was the 21st of April and outside of these streets there was a war a’ragin. The kind fought with guns and faceless rounds of ammunition. The papers in the rack of the Newsstand on the corner of McDougal and Bleaker spoke of democracy, occupation, immigration laws, and something about the FDA and the medical benefits of Marijuana.
I stole me a candy bar as we walked by. Snatched it faster then the eye can see…and that’s mighty fast, even for New York standards.
“Hey June, you still got that Ganj?” She smiled at me and looked at the candy bar as I unwrapped it.
I smiled back, “You wanna piece?” and handed her half before she answered.
“Yeah I still got about a nick left…” she said while munching away on our stolen goods.
As we walked down the block some groovy looking girl stepped out of a brightly lit doorway, smiling at us as she walked by, Richie Havens’ voice poured out onto the street as the door shut behind her. I caught a glimmer, he was saying something about freedom and whatnot…I wished it was me in there.
There’s one thing most folks’ll never get without having been here a while. These walls were closed. Whatever happened out there, outside of these streets, stayed out there… We’d come from far and wide, from the country, from the city, from valley’s half-way ‘cross the world, we’d all had our share of living one way or another, most of us anyway, but whatever had happened out there, it stayed out there…we just sang about it ‘round here. Masked and dressed in the sweetest of lies we had each of us dealt with our own wars, but out here, this place was home, the way I imagine home is supposed to be.
“We could probably hit that Ganj at Washington Square, I know a good spot down there…”
“Yeah alright, sure…”
On the way to Washington Square Park we were met with a million sights that, taken out of context, could have spoken for many a generations. The humble stranger, the lonesome hobo, the marble carved beauty strolled straight out of Michelangelo’s studio. There were a million stories and a thousand souls…and I suppose I was the eccentric. The court jester and haruspex in one, folk troubadour, mysterious wanderer, poet. A stranger in a town entangled and intertwined in the vines of a ruthless joust with the trials of time. The trials of generations to come, and to wane.
The streets were lined with thrift stores, cafés, liquor joints, candle lit restaurants, shady old second hand bookstores, dust, and a long forgotten romance. We stumbled across the window of an old hat store, the kind you’d expect a raggedy old cowboy from the Midwest to drag on out of, limping, with a new hat already suited and worn to adapt to his aura, topped of with a pair of shiny old cufflinks. A gift from a long lost lover.
Shaking the nostalgic fog from behind my eyes I took my Melody by the hand and we headed in stride towards the door. It chimed on the way in, a warm yellow haze met us (a suitable substitute for candle light) and after a minute or two a sparkling smile - draped in beads and a long flowing skirt - appeared from around back.
“Hi, can help you guy’s find anything specific?”
“Hey, umm…not just yet thanks...”
They carried hats for every possible occasion, from Russian-roulette, horse-and-carriage rides, rigged blackjack games, all the way down to snake hunting in the outback. They had it all. Each one wrapped in an abundance of character; enough to make the Queen of England look like a middle aged poker-dealer or transform Indiana Jones into a down right proper old 17th century Englishman. It was like picking out a name though, if it didn’t fit to your souls measure perfectly it would just wear off after a little while.
Just then my eye caught hold of an off-white fedora with a jet black hat band. I walked over, took it off the shelf, and headed on over to a tall mirror beside an oak cabinet. It was a perfect fit, the mirror said. I imagined myself walking out that doorway and into a grimy street, saloon doors swinging down the block, a lone stranger making love to his harmonica by the water hole outside…
“You look incredible in that one” Melody said, peeking over my shoulder and into the mirror. I wondered if she saw the same thing I did. A road bound time torn stranger, alone – out on a dusty road in the hot sun, scuffling down the street to a heart wrenching wail of a rusted steel harmonica. I reckon she didn’t, though she would’ve fit right in if she’d only give way. The hat fit like a glove though. The price tag didn’t. Ah, but hell, I thought to myself… leaving behind a hat like that is like leaving behind your favorite guitar.
Four hours earlier before going down to meet Melody, I’d just gotten fired. I was working as a professional activist, selling excuses to people in business suits selling lies, pretentious middle aged women, and overly eager college students looking to buy themselves a purpose in life on their two dime budget and maybe get laid.
So I’d cashed in my four-hundred dollar paycheck and bought my teary eyed
x-supervisor a drink down the block at some local restaurant bar. We settled on the terrace outside and she’d said she had no idea I was gonna get fired, and that it was all some top cat’s doing. I smiled and took a sip of my hot whiskey. She seemed oblivious to my pretentious air of indifference.
I’d gotten up that cold Monday morning greeted by the dew and wet leaves overhead. Melody, at my side, looked up wearily at the clouds traveling over Strawberry Fields that day, I kissed her passionately and said I had to go to work; I’d be back at five thirty I told her and wished I could stay. Normally I would’ve but alas I had someone to look after just then and I wasn’t planning on going back to the ol’ stolen sandwich diet. After a coupl’a weeks living off-of Wonder Bread© and American-cheese even the smoggy New York air began to taste like rubber, steeped in hunger with every breath. So I’d trotted off to work, unkempt and dreamy-eyed, out to sell someone’s delusions of an answer to all of life’s troubles. Greenhouse effects, and taking environmental action and things like that. I’d found out soon enough I make a horrible salesman but at least it wasn’t toasters.
I stood on the corner of 72nd and Central Park West waiting for the lights to turn green, across the street from where John Lennon had been shot only 25 somewhat years ago. I was hung-over on love and a bit of everything on the side. I wondered to myself if I would’ve taken the bullet for him if I’d been around back then. Maybe. Dragging those thoughts around and an aching to be home, home on the wet grass in the early morning breeze, home beside my darling dreamy eyed and overcome with only love and a pulsing jiving sensation that could only be attributed to freedom, and away from the consumer driven whirlpool – the devil’s playground – where eventually even the freest of souls are iron bound and time torn. I headed over towards to subway stop underneath the Dakota ‘soon as the chipper green fella’ on the streetlight said it was cool.
The New York City subway system is like an endless burrow, zigzagging and intertwining all across the city, I’d always loved jumping the rail road, regular ones too. Riding the rails late at night when the rest of the world’s got their lights a’ twinkling behind barred windows and brick walls. Looking out that scratched up stained train window late at night, going a hundred miles an hour, that was almost like the comfort of a warm fireplace and a tiny cabin to call home…but even so, the NYC subways had something special. Besides the stench and layers of black tar, decomposed filth, leftover sandwiches, bubble gum that somebody’d chewed intently for a loving 5 minutes – pink eye lashes a’ fluttering – then spit out before heading back up into the cold. A friend of mine that had called this endless labyrinth home for a coupl’a years had claimed to have seen all sorts of the greatest artwork graffitied up on the walls further down in the darkness, all over – underneath the city. There was even a replica of the Mona Lisa down here somewhere he’d said. We’d made plans to go underground for a coupl’a days with a camera to document it all, but alas we hadn’t gotten around to that yet – but as soon as he’d get out of jail we would, we’d agreed.
The tell tale lights rushing out from the depths like a night cat on the prowl brought the C train a’ rushing my way and I got on before it took off again, fierce and relentless like a rodeo bull or a buffalo tearing away from a stray bullet.
Morning filled the empty subway cart, devoid of all of last nights drowning shades of hopeless strife, troubles, and passion fueled loss. I was the only remaining relic. Out here night and day are oceans apart but parted only by the hours and the twinkling of dawn and dusk. If you zone out for a moment or two around the time of the changing of the guard, you’ll be left between both worlds, neither here nor there.
Two stops down an old black woman with a white child stepped in. She wore the lines of the old south. I bet she had some stories to tell, but caught up in servitude to the mighty dollar that didn’t count for much round here unfortunately. She was one of those people that communicates through their charges – “Say hi to the nice young man Mattie…” she ordered in a raggedy worn voice. The kid gave me one of those half smiles and mouthed a soundless “hi” then buried his face in his caretaker’s long skirt. I imagined what I might’ve looked like to the kid. Dark brown corduroy jeans, cowboy boots, eagle buckled belt, rippled tan jacket over an old light-brown army shirt, unshaven and sporting a hairdo that would’ve rivaled Dylan’s legendary wild perm. I nodded a sly grinned hello and the old lady smiled back and settled in across and a coupl’a seats down. Truth is, nothing’s really changed, most folks just like to pretend it has. The human heart is dishonest and relentlessly deceitful above all things.
I often wonder why country folk move out to a big city like New York. Were they all once as uncompromising and idealistic as I? Willing to settle for the concrete above the woodland? The smog over the country sun? For what? Freedom? Or was it money? Dissatisfaction with tradition and the ways of old… fed by a steady diet of commercialization and industry? Just like the Jones’ and all that? Don’t get me wrong, I knew why I was here… New York City to a Yankee is like Dixie to a southerner. “You can take a boy out of ol’ Dixieland lord, but you’ll never take ol’ Dixie from a boy…” 2
As the train drew closer to my destination the comfort of morning solitude wore off. Pretty soon I’d be steeped to my neck in the tides of consumer driven egos and capitalist nightmares. Where the end of the world was losing 2 cents on a stock exchange, and that meant waiting a week to buy that new futon from Ikea©. Every next stop took me further down hill and away from my Melody, away from my world. I had no place out here and I knew it. But this was the game we played, at least until fate provided the opportunity to move on, though few ever get that chance.
Eventually while lost in a million thoughts about everything and nothing I got to where I was supposed to be. Right on time too. On the way in the receptionist gave me a pleasant smile and a gracious good morning. She was a pretty little thing, young but wearing the newest Prada’s on the block. A week or two ago she’d asked me to go dancing with her, I’d told her; “I’d love to darlin’, but you’ve got the wrong guy.” She disagreed and said she didn’t think so, and I’d left it at that.
On the way up I made a hopeless attempt to fix my unruly reflection in the elevator mirror and wondered if it wasn’t a two-way with a dandy little camera behind it. I pictured some old guy drabbed out to be a security guard laughing in jumbles watching the monitors down in the basement. Waiting for the elevator doors to open, I thought of Melody, she seemed so very far away...
I thought of the life I’d left behind to play my part in the game. Seceding to someone’s burlesque version of morality. When I’d first seen the add in the Village Voice I’d thought it’d be cool to be able to answer when somebody asked me “what do you do for a living?” – “Oh I’m a poet folk musician and a part-time political activist…” I’d marveled at the idea of earning a decent bi-weekly pay for a cause which I avidly supported. I found out soon enough though that it takes a lot more then an honest yet obese dose of idealism to run the show. It takes a conflicting money hungry scavengers tongue. Truth is though, I needed cash, without the usual risk of doing time, so I tried my hand at sales, and figured – if I’m doing it anyway – might as well do it for a good cause.
Lessons learned, however, included the realization that nobody’s got any damned answers. Every line was scripted, every thought directed, and every free thinking idea saved for the playground. I wasn’t out to follow a capitalist organization fighting capitalism, and sure as hell wasn’t about to lend my body for the cause. Not this one anyway. Hell, I was out doing that every godforsaken day out there. I was doing that just by loving this girl, by playing the troubadour, singing my songs, passing the flame along to lone strangers and rebel wanna-be-beatniks. I was doing that just by being myself, and by chasing freedom in its only real incarnation. I didn’t need nobody in a black suit and a blue collar behind an oversized calculator and a bank account full of bread telling me what’s wrong with our system…
But idealism, unfortunately, doesn’t buy you no burritos. Fuck, it’d be so much easier just robbing the damn place, I thought as I stepped out of the elevator looking at the million-and-a-half diamonds dangling from the chandelier in the lobby. I’d gotten this idea stuck in my head though that I was gonna shoot a hand at being righteous for a change… but what the hell does that mean anyway? - I thought to myself. Is this righteousness? The relentless race and corporate scheming under the pretension that we’re bettering the world? For what? I was beginning to doubt if it was worth the burritos let alone the gold.
Hands in my pockets, I swore to myself to keep it all in check for now though, it was six o’clock in the damn morning, and I’d hardly slept ‘cause it was so god damn cold out there at night, no hypocrisy intended, a warm bed at night can be a mighty good thing, at least in-between winter and summer. I had my mind set to get some monthly-contributors signed that day – commission’s a bitch – Save up a little, hit road again in a month or two when the weather would be on our side again. That was incentive enough. That and putting a smile on my Melody’s face.
So I turned the corner to the office and with a skip in my stride and a grin that would’ve made the president proud I stepped in for the morning briefing and canvassing assignments.
“Alright, group 1 – you’ll be at 92nd and Lex today… group 2, down at 22nd and Broadway….group 3, oh-Amadeo, you’re here, boss wants you in the office…”
Yeah so I’d gotten fired. I guess I was asking too many question. Whenever I’d brought up a counter point, or disagreed with one of the marketing tactics they’d throw me a scowl and a fierce shrug before turning away pretending they were in charge and knew what they were doing. It was probably for the best, and I bet I wouldn’t have been able to put up with the accountants much longer anyway. These are the folks in charge of fighting the system. These are your modern hippies. Protesters and political activists. Ask too many questions and you’re out. Make a dollar less below the quota and you lose. They spend so much time working the system from the inside and planning their next move to make a coupl’a bucks extra that they’ve got no idea what’s out there or even what was worth fighting for. Could people really be so blind? Revolutions are fought by revolutionaries. Revolutions are lead by leaders, by visionaries, by dreamers. Revolutions aren’t won by accountants.
Four hours later though, everything was just as it should be. We were lost, we were hungry for life, and we were free. With nothing but the earth beneath our souls and the starless New York City sky above our heads. Armed with love and a coupl’a hundred bucks.
From the first day I’d met her, my Melody, she’d reminded me of Joan Baez. She was olive skinned, her hair was the warmest shade of black and she wore it long and naturally wavy. She was part Irish and part Colombian; Joan Baez was Scottish and Mexican. She didn’t think so, but I thought she was beautiful. For a while everything fell into place to the extent of near perfection. There aren’t many folks that can put up with dreamers and their eschewed lives, I’d learned that the hard way. But at that single fracture in time, I can honestly say that I was perfectly content, and completely alive. Where we’d come from, where we’d been, the lives we’d led…it didn’t matter nothing if we didn’t want it to. It’s almost like starting over, stepping into a new life like putting on a new coat. Mine’s was one past along down the line, from Billy the Kid to Arthur Rimbaud all the way down to Dean Moriarty, Bobby Dylan even tried it on for a while. Melody borrowed it from me when she got cold, and otherwise wore her pretty smile like a naked mask golden and proud. Though each of us down the line would always carry with us a part of that soul, a part our past when we wore Jack Kerouac’s old coat, the sad part was that you couldn’t take it outside, into the real world, it had no substance there. These were the streets of legend, and round here everyone knew what was what. Eventually we’d all travel on, play our parts in the grand scheme. For now though, it fit me like it was tailor made.
Back in the hat store the beaded lady was about to ring up the newest additions to our trademark wardrobes. I’d of course gone with the black banded white fedora, and Melody settled on a perfect wide rimmed type of flapper hat, old school and screaming femininity. It seemed she’d held up her part exquisitely after all…
Melody protested at first, saying it cost far too much, but I insisted, explaining how you simply couldn’t leave behind something that fit so perfectly, how it was like leaving behind a guitar whose strings you’d plucked and loved intently for such a precious time, or a flower you’d dried out in-between a stack of books to keep it from aging. She sparkled and agreed, feigning reluctance, but when we took to the streets in that first instance after leaving the store, oh the sight of her!
The world around us was transformed the very second we stepped out of that doorway. It was just like I’d envisioned it. The world was ours for the taking, the poet reigned here, and the white dove of freedom took flight.
Crossing down Laguardia Plaza on the way to the park, just for a little while, we were lost in the Village, dressed like Bobby and Joan, and it was the 21st of April, at the dawn of the 21st century, but time had no place here, whatever happened out there, it stayed out there.
We settled down in the middle of Washington Square Park, and I sat cross legged with my guitar at hand and my Melody by my side. I played us a tune that had echoed through these streets before, a long long time ago. It was a song about a love gone wrong, a song about Diamonds and Rust, a song about dealing the cards out straight.
Melody joined in on the last verse as a crowd began to gather around us, passerby’s drawn in by an old familiar sound…
“Yes I loved you dearly
And if you’re offering me diamonds and rust
I’ve already paid…” 3