Chapter 1 – Abe and Bert
“Miss! Miss! Hi! You look like a patron of the arts. Could I trouble you for a small contribution for my friend Abe over there?” Bert matched a young woman stride for stride as she strode briskly across the subway concourse. He pointed toward Abe, who was standing along the white tiled wall, next to the Fresh Cut Flowers stand, singing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” The woman forged ahead.
“Fully tax deductible!” Bert continued cheerfully, and with that, the woman turned to look at Bert with a skeptical glance. “Okay, okay. It’s not really tax deductible,” Bert said with a laugh.
The woman returned a brief smile, seemingly somewhat amused by Bert’s approach. She unzipped her handbag and pulled out a crumpled dollar bill. She gave Bert the bill along with a distinct look of finality.
“Thank you, miss. God bless,” said Bert with a tip of his hat, ending a routine that had been rehearsed over many years of strolling through the subway corridors beneath San Francisco. He carefully unfolded the bill and wrapped it around the other six dollar bills he had collected.
The 7:30 A.M. rush hour crowd swarmed through the Montgomery Street station of San Francisco’s BART, or Bay Area Rapid Transit, system. Bert headed back toward the spot where Abe stood, as he had for the last three years, every Monday through Friday except holidays, in the main corridor that led from the subway turnstiles to the stairs that led to street level.
A hulking, legally blind African-American, Abe Jackson towered over most of the subway crowd. He stood at 6’3” and weighed close to 250 pounds. His habitual costume -- black shoes, black dress pants, a blue crew neck, long-sleeved shirt, and black wraparound sunglasses – perfectly complemented the classic 1960s Motown tunes he sang. In his left hand he held a plastic, gallon-sized milk jug, filled about a quarter of the way with coins and bills.
Bert Ingram had stepped into Abe’s life about a month earlier, pitching Abe on the idea of working the crowd in order to increase the donations. Abe had not been particularly interested, being satisfied with his routine and his low-pressure approach. Plus, he showed an obvious distrust of the stranger. So Bert simply appeared every few days at first to give the crowd his sales pitch.
More recently, Bert had started showing up every day. Today, he wore chocolate-brown polyester pants, a cream-colored shirt, brown paisley tie, and a brown and tan checked sport jacket. His ubiquitous gray fedora rested on his head, pushed slightly back so the brim tilted upward. Bert always wore his signature hat whether it matched his outfit or like today, did not.
As Bert crossed in front of him, Abe spoke in a booming voice that resonated through the subway concourse corridors. “I told you, Bert, I don’t need your help. You ain’t my manager, I don’t need an agent, and you’re just stealin’ my money.”
“Are you crazy, Abe? I’m a money machine!” Bert countered. “I’ve collected seven dollars in just the few minutes I’ve been here this morning. We’re a great team. You just keep singing, and I’ll handle the sales and marketing side of things. You should feel lucky to have a manager like me. Bands used to clamor to have me as their manager.”
“Do we have to play this out every morning, man? I told you this is my territory and I’m quite fine, just singing and taking in what I take in.”
“Don’t be foolish,” replied Bert, ignoring Abe’s frown. “Don’t you get how much we’re pulling in together? How much did you bring home every day before I showed up?”
Abe’s frown deepened. “I don’t know. Thirty dollars, maybe forty on a good day.”
“See, and just yesterday you took home sixty-two dollars, and that was after giving me my share.”
“Yeah, well, I couldn’t help but notice that it’s not me ‘giving’ you your share, but you collecting the proceeds, taking your piece of the action off the top, and giving me what’s left.”
“Fine. Split hairs if you like, but I’ve raised your income over fifty percent, so what’s the difference?”
“We’ll settle this after the crowd goes. We’re losing precious time here,” Abe muttered, and with that, he broke into Sam Cooke’s “Cupid,” hitting each note, the high and the low, with expert precision.
By 9:30 the crowd heading into San Francisco had dwindled, and Abe wrapped up his last song. Bert was seated on a bench a few feet away, tallying the bills and coins he had collected on Abe’s behalf. He got up and walked over to Abe. “Here you are, buddy, seventeen dollars and thirty-eight cents. Add that to what you’ve collected on your own in that jug which looks to be around, oh, I’d say, ten to twelve dollars and you’ve had a pretty good morning. And we’ve still got the afternoon shift.”
Of late, Bert had also started to show up for the outbound commuter rush in the late afternoons.
“I do have to admit, Bert, you’ve got a certain talent,” Abe responded with a grudging grin. “But you’re still a leech.”
“Glad you recognize my skills. I’m just a born talent scout,” replied Bert. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to run a proposition by you. Can I buy you a cup of coffee and we’ll talk?”
Abe shrugged. “It’s your money, man.”
The two walked toward the north stairs, Abe using his red-tipped white cane for guidance. Bert took Abe’s arm as they reached the stairs that led up to the street level.
Abe jerked his arm away. “I’ve been coming up and down these stairs for years without you. I don’t need your help.”
“My apologies, my friend,” responded Bert quickly, trying to recover from the unexpected scolding.
“Yeah, well, I don’t like being touched, and I’m not one for help or attention. I just do my own thing, my own way. That’s all.”
Bert followed Abe silently up the stairs and into the sunlight. The early morning haze that enshrouded San Francisco had lifted, and it had become a typical clear, comfortable, seventy-five-degree late summer day. The two men followed Market Street in the direction of the bay, stopping at a Donut World. Bert bought them each a large cup of coffee, which he paid for by dumping a pile of coins on the counter, sorting out the correct change, then gathering the remaining change off the counter.
The two men continued on until they reached the plaza at Battery Street, where they headed for the unoccupied benches near the Mechanics Monument, the large bronze sculpture that served as the plaza’s centerpiece. Bert chose one where an overhanging tree threw some shade. People walked quickly through the red and gray brick plaza, and a couple of teenagers were kicking up their skateboards and trying to catch them, but otherwise the plaza was empty. The two men sat down, Abe placing the milk jug between himself and Bert, keeping a hold on the handle. He leaned the cane against the bench.
“Glorious day, eh, Abe?” started Bert.
“You gonna proposition me or what,” countered Abe.
“Okay, okay. All business. I get it.” Bert paused for dramatic effect. “Here’s the idea. I’m putting together a band. I’m the manager, and I’d like you to be the lead singer.”
“Are you bullshitting me?” Abe snorted.
“Of course not. I told you I used to manage bands.”
“You haven’t really managed bands. What would you be doing hanging out in the subway?”
That cue was all Bert needed to launch into the story. “Things change, my friend,” he started with a sigh. “Many years ago, in my previous life, I was in the recording industry, working as an A&R rep for Sapphire Records. I used to tour the country, going to bars and clubs, scouting for new bands. My job was to spot who had the talent, the energy, the drive -- that intangible quality that meant the difference between a bunch of guys having fun playing in a bar and getting their drinks for free, and being the next big thing.”
Bert took a long, slow sip of his coffee, then continued. “The guys at Sapphire loved me. On some of the high-potential bands, they put me in as the manager.”
“Uh huh,” said Abe. “Let me guess. You’re Berry Gordy’s long lost son?”
“Of course not,” answered Bert. “But I had some successes. You’ve heard of the Crooning Wombats, right?”
“Well, anyway. They were going to be the next big thing. They had kind of a funky blues sound. I discovered them at One-Eyed Jack’s in Olympia. That was long ago, of course.”
Bert paused to assess Abe’s reaction, but Abe just waited. “The band put out a few albums,” Bert went on, “and we had a few good years. But the band broke up before putting together any kind of breakthrough album. Too many egos. The band couldn’t agree on anything.”
“Keep talking,” said Abe, starting to display faint traces of a smile.
“Silent Scream did all right too,” continued Bert. “And of course there were lots of other bands. Those were the days. I had a place on Nob Hill and life was one big party.”
Abe stirred. “Okay. I’ll bite. Then what happened.”
“Then I lost the house in a messy divorce. And things change fast in the music biz. One day you’re a star, the next you’re odd man out.” Bert quickly added, “But that’s okay. I still have a few bucks left. I work when I want to, doing this and that.” He looked toward Abe. “I don’t let them get me down.”
“And what makes you think Bert’s going to get back to the top?” asked Abe. “Begging for dollars in the subway with some blind guy ain’t exactly the first rung on the ladder of success.”
“It’s been awhile but I’ve still got contacts. Listen to me, Abe. I can pull this off.” Bert’s voice grew in both excitement and volume. “Get this concept! I’m building the band from talented performers such as yourself, who got dealt a bad hand in life. It’ll be a bunch of --” He paused to think of the right words. “Gritty, street-hardened folks with the hunger and the passion to rise up and get one more chance at the world!”
Then Bert took on a quiet, passionate tone. “Abe, you’ve got the fire inside you, and you’ve got the sweetest voice I’ve ever heard. The band needs you.” He took a deep breath. “What do you say?”
Abe’s face broke into a wide smile and he started laughing heartily, his big body convulsing with each guffaw. “What do I say? What do I say?” He gave another chuckle. “I say you’re full of shit, brother. Great story, though.” He slapped Bert’s arm gently with the back of his hand. “But I’ll tell you what. I’ll call your bluff. If you can pull together the musicians, I’m in. But here’s the rest of the deal. Until then, you need to stay away from my turf.”
“Fair enough,” answered Bert cheerfully, and the two men sat on the bench in the plaza silently for several minutes. Then Bert spoke. “Hey, Abe. What’s your deal? How’d you end up singing in the subways for a living?”
“Look. Don’t get all chummy with me, all right?” Abe answered irritably. “You laid out a deal and I agreed to it. That’s all you need to know. I don’t need you getting inside my head.”
Bert looked at Abe, wondering whether to respond and decided to let it go. In any case, he had his singer. He stood and tossed his empty cup into a trash can. “All right. I’ll keep in touch.”
“You know where to find me,” said Abe.
Bert sensed that Abe figured that come later this afternoon, they’d be right back where they had been – Abe singing in the Montgomery Street Station, and Bert hustling for his money. He’d figure out soon enough that Bert was serious.
As Bert walked along the plaza and turned to head up Battery Street, he heard Abe bellow. “Hey, Bert! Your band need a sax player?” Bert froze in his steps and turned back to face Abe, who was still on the bench. “Sure,” he yelled back, unsure whether Abe was just setting him up.
“Go find Charlie at the Sixteenth Street Mission Station.”
“How will I recognize him?”
“You know how to play three card monte?”
“Good luck then.” Abe laughed, drank down the last bit of his coffee, crumbled the cup in his hand, and reclined on the bench, arms outstretched to take in all the sun that now shone on the bench.
Bert shrugged and walked on, leaving Abe in the plaza. He made his way along Battery Street and then the Embarcadero, following its curving path in the direction of the wharf. It was now late morning and the business crowds were beginning to emerge from the buildings in twos and threes, stepping out onto the sidewalks to get some fresh air and a bite to eat.
Bert stopped frequently along the way to people-watch, conscious of the contrast between his own rumpled clothing and the clothes of the working crowd. As dapper as he tried to look, he knew he looked more like a used car salesman who kept his clothes in his briefcase. He longed for the day when he could again walk through the fashionable men’s clothing stores in Union Square, buy what he wanted, and look presentable, maybe even sharp.
Bert continued to the wharf and stopped at Ted’s Crab Trap.
“Hi, Bert. Good to see you,” came the greeting from Ted, dressed in his usual red polo shirt with the restaurant logo, white painter’s pants, and white apron. Ted flashed a broad smile under his gray, handlebar mustache. His face, marked by its olive complexion and weathered from the years outdoors, lit up when he spoke.
Quite a contrast from Abe’s surliness, Bert thought.
“How’s tricks?” Ted continued.
“Picking up,” answered Bert brightly. And this time it was true. He was starting to feel a warm internal glow for the first time in years. He realized how much he’d missed having some direction in his life. It was no matter that his plan was still in its infancy. He had places to go, people to see.
“Bowl of chowder?” asked Ted.
Bert had been stopping by Ted’s stand once or twice a week for upwards of two years now, and very rarely had he ordered anything other than a bowl of clam chowder to go, served in the traditional Styrofoam bowl with plastic lid.
Bert nodded. “How’s business your way, Ted? Have all the tourists discovered who makes the best clam chowder in the city yet?”
Ted lifted the ladle out of the large black kettle and poured the steaming contents delicately into the bowl. “Always a flatterer! It sure seems that way. We’re busy as anything, especially on glorious days like today. Here you go.”
Bert paid and moved on, heading down to the benches on the wooden pier a few blocks back. He gazed out on the bay, watching the ripples of white-capped water move in, splash softly against the wharf walls, and move back out. A refreshing breeze blew in off the bay. As he hungrily ate spoonful after spoonful of the steaming soup, he thought about his dream to get back on top.
He didn’t have any real leads on where the band mates would be found, and was more than happy to have a referral to a sax man, assuming Abe wasn’t just having some fun with him. Truth be told, Bert’s contacts in the recording industry had disappeared long ago. He had been an up-and-comer at Sapphire Records some fifteen years before. He’d had a gift for identifying talent, almost a sixth sense. And he was a pro at networking. He could develop a human chain of resources to call upon to make almost anything happen, and happen quickly. Those skills, along with his track record in discovering new bands, had propelled him quickly up the ranks at Sapphire.
Bert became the A&R manager responsible for signing new acts throughout the Northwest region of the country, and he’d enjoyed the travel, the glamour, and all the wining and dining that came with the territory. Unfortunately, this last part was a bit too enjoyable, and Bert quickly became known throughout the industry as a guy who played every bit as hard as he worked. His career had escalated too quickly and he’d struggled to make the transition from field scout to deal maker. Deals started to fall through and Bert’s reputation started to take hits.The spiral downward accelerated when his wife, Michelle, tired of his continuous travel and excessive late-night partying, walked out.
As the fall from grace continued, Bert missed engagements and delivered victories less and less frequently. He became unpredictable in his interpersonal dealings. The executives at Sapphire began to exclude Bert from key meetings for fear of what he might say or how he might behave. Eventually, with a six-month severance package, Bert was let go.
Screw ’em, Bert thought. Their loss. It’s time to rise up from the ashes.
He spent the rest of the day wandering around the wharf, his mind filled with the many tasks in front of him. He needed to find musicians and pitch them on the concept. Would they trust him? Could he rely on them? How was he going to find them all? Then there were the record companies. Could any of his contacts from so long ago still be out there? Would they be happy to hear from him, or would he continue to be shunned?
* * *
Abe hung around the plaza for awhile, thinking about what it might mean if Bert was really serious and telling the truth. Abe dispatched the thoughts.
He had a particularly low tolerance for anything even remotely resembling assistance. Abe had been blind since his childhood, and shuttered himself over the difficult years which followed, becoming a loner, not able or willing to trust in anyone other than himself.
By noon, hunger set in, so Abe made the short walk back to his low income apartment in the Mission District to get some lunch.
Abe made his way up the concrete steps and into the old brick building through the heavy stairwell door, then up the stairs that served as both the building’s main stairs and the fire route. On the third floor, he opened the gray, metal door and made his way to his studio apartment.
An efficiency kitchen occupied the left end of the apartment, and a small, brown faux-wood table with two folding chairs served as the dining table. Abe rarely had visitors, but he always kept both chairs at the table anyway.
Abe’s bed occupied the far right end of the apartment, with all the sheets and blankets left strewn. An old wooden desk sat next to the bed, which held a portable compact disc player/stereo system with built-in speakers. The desk was cluttered with CD’s, ranging from the Motown sounds he drew on for his subway singing, to blues and jazz.
Abe made himself a ham sandwich, which he ate and washed down with a store brand can of cola. He then transferred the contents of his milk jug to the shoebox in the closet in which he kept his spending money. He also received a monthly check from the state and maintained an account at a bank down the street.
Abe put on a John Lee Hooker CD, propped up a couple of pillows on the bed, and stretched out. He spent the remainder of the early afternoon lying there, listening to music as he did on many days, drifting between sleep and consciousness.
Back at the Montgomery Street Station at 4:30 P.M., Abe fully expected to hear Bert’s cheery voice hustling the commuters on their return home. When 4:30 turned into 5:00, and then 5:30, Abe realized that Bert wasn’t going to appear.
After years of living hand to mouth, collecting contributions from charitable strangers for a living, Abe was able to estimate the amount of money he received simply from the number and frequency of the interactions with the strangers and the feel of the milk jug. So when 6:30 rolled around, Abe had to admit that his collection for the afternoon was significantly less than it had been when Bert was there. He felt himself in conflict, part of him glad to be rid of Bert for awhile, but another part missing the success Bert brought about. He wondered if he’d see him in the morning.
* * *
That same evening, Bert made his way back to an area south of Market Street, one of San Francisco’s poorest sections, composed mostly of row homes in disrepair, industrial warehouses, gutted buildings, and highway overpasses. In a dim alley, he rummaged through an alcove that was piled waist-high with plastic trash bags filled with what looked like the contents of a thrift store. From one of the bags, Bert pulled out a white, yellow, and blue flowered quilt that was grayed with dirt and tattered in several spots, the stuffing showing through.
He walked back to the corner, sat on a steam vent in the sidewalk, pulled a 375ml bottle of Old Granddad from his pants pocket, and took a big swig. Then he wiped his mouth with a broad swipe of his sleeve. He replaced the bottle in his pocket, laid down on the vent, tipped his hat over his eyes, pulled the quilt over himself, and went to sleep.
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