Your Favorite Band: Tom Waits

By Nick Hilden

For this installment of Your Favorite Band, Nick Hilden from Objects in Space lives the wild and dirty life with Tom Waits.

The hotel manager was jabbering on in some kind of poorly stirred cocktail of French and English about keeping my things in lieu of the rent which had not been paid in two weeks. She kept insisting that it had been three weeks, but I did not believe her as I knew that she enjoyed wine and exaggeration just as much as I. Who knew how long I’d really been there? It could have been months. Yes, yes, I kept saying. Oui, Oui. Keep the things. They weren’t worth a damn anyways. Just a couple of greasy shirts and a duffle bag that had definitely seen better days and maybe a razor and toothbrush. I still had my knife and a few nights earlier I had drunkenly forgotten the guitar at Sonia’s apartment down the street. Technically this was a tactical mistake, forgetting the guitar, but in this case it worked out in my favor—as long as one of her other darlings had not already made off with it.

So with some vague attempt at a hangdog façade, I allowed the manager of the hotel to push and prod me through the front door and out into the urinous air of Rue la Fayette. It felt good to be on the street again. Paris is always bustling around noon as everyone flocks to their favorite corner spot or alley-hole for a sip of something to help them make it through the day. For me, cafes and bars were out of the question, but I knew that Sonia would have something for me, at least a bottle of satisfactory red or a few Amstel lagers. So I made my way through the stream of people coming to and from the Juarez metro stop and started over the bridge that spanned the canal, all the while keeping my eyes skinned for any of the special somebodies who always seemed to be willing to provide some sort of sustenance for my body.

As I crested the bridge a voice came to ear. No, not a voice; rather a great clattering of gravel and train cars. A smoke-infused growl of bourbon and misspent years. I looked down at the canal and saw that this rumbling melody originated from a man dressed in an oversized trench coat with a battered and depressed pork pie hat capping his head. He walked with his back to me, heading in the direction of Bastille, hands in his pockets. Every so often he would take a little hop to the beat of the tune. Hell of a voice, I thought before continuing toward Sonia’s. I wondered if she would have any food. Probably she wouldn’t.

A few minutes later I was knocking at her door. It opened and there stood Sonia, beautiful with her short, blonde hair, naked except for a knit blanket she had thrown over her shoulders.

“You’ve come for the guitar?” She spoke softly. Her voice was all moonlit snowfields and fur-lined parkas. I gave a wink and a nod and tried to enter, but she placed a restraining hand against my chest and told me to wait. As she went back into the depths of her dark abode I could hear the voice of a man saying something in French. Then I heard her say something in a reassuring tone before reappearing at the door with my Takamine, safe in its solid oak case.

“Come back tomorrow.” She stood on her tip toes and pecked my mouth with her sumptuous Russian lips. “Go now.”

So…no roof for the night unless luck threw something my way. Luck generally did, so I descended the stairs without concern.

The hours until sunset were a blur of crowds and delicious smelling foods that I could not afford to even dream of eating. For a while I considered going to one of the busy attractions to try and busque up a few Euros, but the idea of rubbing elbows with tourists all afternoon held no appeal. Instead I sat in the park by the Stalingrad station and plucked at the guitar a bit. I stood outside a café and watched a Roman and a Barcelonan argue about the football. I watched a gang of youths steal bicycles from the front of the same hotel from which I’d been stricken. I walked through Pere Lachaise and once again meditated over the elaborately sculpted graves that were inscribed with great names. 

Eventually night came, as it so often does. My belly leaned against me and begged me for food or rest, so, as rest is free, I made my way back to the canal where I knew there was a bench unwatched by the police. I located it beneath the same bridge where I had earlier stood and watched the man with the voice of gravel. There I sat and opened the guitar case and took out a pair of handcuffs, attaching one binder to my wrist and the other to the case handle, then buried the key in my pocket. Finally I latched the case shut and locked it with the little golden key that hung on a chain against my chest and laid back to listen to the dwindling traffic. The night was warm and comfortable, and I eventually slipped off to coalesce with my dreams.

Immeasurable time passed and suddenly I was awake, jerked from my bench-slumber by some opportunistic nobody who thought my guitar would make a quick pawn piece. I felt the sharp edge of the handcuff dig into my wrist as the shadow gave the case another pull, then my knife was out and I pressed the switch and upon the familiar sound of the blade snapping into its position the shade gave up on the case and retreated into the darkness of the bridge. It was not the first time my sleep had been interrupted in such a manner, but my heart was still moving at a gallop. I sat up on the bench and thought to myself how nice it was to have such dependable friends as the guitar and the knife.

Then, coming from not far down the canal, a voice startled me. The voice spoke like an unfiltered Pall Mall smokes. “That’s a pretty neat trick with those handcuffs.”

I sat in silence for a moment and tried to locate the source of the voice. Suddenly a match popped about twenty feet down the cobbles briefly illuminating the face of the speaker as he lit a cigarette. It was the man with the voice. His face was run through with the telling lines of a life lived recklessly. His eyes watched the flame as it accomplished its task, then darted up toward mine. He smiled and threw the match into the green water of the canal, where it died with a hiss.

“What d’ya keeping so safe in there?” The man inhaled deeply from the cigarette. “Your dirty laundry?”

“Let’s call it my livelihood.”

“You’re an American.”

“More or less.”

“That’s good, that’s real good.” Another drag, another pause. “Come over to live the life I suppose?”

“The life?”

“You know which life I mean.”

I pondered this. “Yeah. Yeah I guess I do.”

“Join me for a drink? I was just about to open a bottle.”

Although awoken under admittedly leery circumstances, I could find nothing particularly threatening about the man’s voice or repose, so I stood and walked over to take a seat next to him where he was perched on one of the broad cleats used to tie the boats when they made their way up the polluted canal. The man produced a bottle of wine from within his coat and handed me the cigarette, then placed the bottle on the ground holding it firmly in place between his feet. With his thumb he pressed the cork about an inch deeper into the bottle. Then he inserted his pointer finger into the neck, and, holding the finger straight with his left hand, proceeded to force the cork into the bottle’s body. He lifted the bottle and tilted the mouth toward the ground. A splash of red spurted out as the cork dislodged itself completely and floated clear of the opening. The man took a drink then handed the bottle to me and reclaimed his cigarette.

“Did you know that they dredge this canal once each year, and each time they find roughly two dozen bodies? Most of ‘em aren’t even murders. They fall in drunk and are either too soused or too stupid to make their way to one of the ladders, so they just disappear.” The man took another drink then reached into his pocket and hunted up a pack of cigarettes. He offered me one, which I accepted. “Name’s Tom,” he said.

My hand was still bound to the guitar, so he lit a match and held it to my smoke. Tom tossed the match into the canal and nodded at my wrist. “Looks like it bit you, there.”

I looked down at my wrist and saw that a thin trail of blood was working down the back of my hand. “Didn’t even notice.” I dug the handcuff key from my pocket and freed myself. The metal’s edge had made a shallow cut into the back of my wrist. “Il n’est pa important.”

“Ah! Good boy! You speak the language.”

“Enough to curse at taxi drivers.”

“That’s good, that’s good.” Tom nods at the guitar case. “What about that? Do you know how to make it speak?”

“I guess that’s a matter of opinion.”

We lapsed into silence and smoked and passed the bottle back and forth. After a while Tom nodded up toward the bridge. A young couple had stopped and were looking out over the water. The boy leaned over and pecked the girl’s cheek, who laughed and pushed him back. They continued on. “Ah, gay Pari. Where you can’t piss without hitting romance,” Tom said.

“What are you doing in Paris, Tom?”

“Oh, whatever strikes my fancy. Same as everybody else, I suppose. Today I rode the train up to Pigalle and chatted up a few girls I know who work out front of the Sex-o-drome. Then I went to this little piano joint on Oberkampf where this old Turk fellow who only had two fingers on each hand was playing Debussy tunes. After that I mostly just wandered around. That’s really the best thing to do in a town like this.”

Tom took the bottle and held it to the light. It was down to the last corner. “Nothing good ever lasts.” He finished the last swig then, standing, tossed the bottle into the water. “Come on. I know some good people down the way who can help kill off our thirst once and for all.”

What else was I to do? I stood and we made our way down the deserted canal. Paris is a city of ten million souls, but late at night it always seems to be your own. As we walked Tom told me about the history of each bridge, about the lives of the people who resided behind each window. His knowledge was encyclopedic. One would think that he was born with the ‘P’ volume of Britannica in his hands. He told me stories from the Occupation, from the Revolution, from the Napoleonic campaigns. Each story could have been a fiction, but that didn’t matter. Tom’s stories were all true, regardless of their validity.  

It wasn’t long before I perceived a collection of voices off in the distance. As their volume grew I could make out a colony of the government-issued red tents, maybe a dozen or so, erected in a group next to the water.

“Gypsies?” I asked.

“Where else are we going to find libation at such a late hour? The all-night cafes in this area don’t know their Pernod from their dishwater.” The camp had grown quiet as our footsteps neared. Tom raised a hand. “Bernardo! Sed camaradas donde puede encontrar bebida?”

A man stood from a collection of people huddled in a circle at the edge of the canal. “Mr. Waits! You know that I always have wine for my troubadour friend.”

We made our way into the gathering. They were mostly men, but there were two or three women and also a few children who were playing amongst the shopping carts that had been turned into flower gardens. Tom exchanged kisses with everyone and they joked very rough with him. The men all shook my hand but they did not ask my name and did not offer their own. But their greetings were amiable. They seemed to be delivered in every language imaginable: French, Spanish, Rumanian, Russian, Italian, Wolof, Uzbek. Wine appeared. As the new face, I was the first to drink, followed by Tom. But then the one called Bernardo grabbed the bottle and proclaimed, “We are but poor people, and we must only give up what we have on trade. We demand a song, Mr. Waits.”

“I am happy to oblige.” Tom bowed. “And we have luck. As you can see, this youngster has brought the guitar.”

He turned to me and held out his hand. I placed the case on the ground and undid the latches and opened the top. Then I handed the guitar to Tom, who let out a soft whistle and said, “A quality instrument we have here. This will do just fine.”

One of the men stood from a battered chaise lounge and gestured for Tom to sit, which he did. As he strummed the strings and made a few adjustments to the tuning pegs, the children who had been scattered about let loose a squeal of delight and raced to the circle where they knelt and watched Tom with eyes all aglow. Then Tom began to play a simple three chord structure and the voice I had heard earlier in the day, that voice that was almost nebulous in its devastation, filled the air.

“I have come five hundred miles just to see your halo,

Come from Saint Petersburg, Scarlet and me,

Well I opened my eyes, I was blind as can be,

When you give a man luck he must fall in the sea,

And she wants you to steal and get caught,

For she loves you for all that you are not,

When you’re falling down, falling down…”

The song filled the meager gypsy camp and I looked around at the faces—faces that were hued in every shade from the palest white of mother Russia to the darkest black of West Africa—and at the grocery cart flower gardens and the canal and the cobblestones and the stars that had driven so many men to madness, and I listened to his voice and his words and thought to myself that, yes, this life is worth living.

The night flowed on. Eventually, after a multitude of verbose proclamations and reaffirmations of life and living, daylight began to haunt the city’s horizon. The empty wine bottles were floating in the canal and those still showing a couple of fingers of liquid were few and treasured. Most of our camaraderie had retired to their government-issued tents, and those who were still awake were red-eyed and becoming steadily serious in their conversation. Finally, I could stand no more. “I think it’s about time that I go and find out if my lady-friend’s bed has a vacancy,” I said.

“Awww, that’s too bad,” Tom said. “Things were just getting started.” He turned to Bernardo, who had begun to look as lively as one of the annual canal corpse catches, and clapped him on the shoulder. “What do you say, Nardo? Whiskeys up in Rambuteau. I’m buying.”

“I regret to decline your offer, my friend. It is time to retire to my palace.” Bernardo made a vague gesture toward one of the tents. “I fear already that the Devil will be playing with his bone-saws in my head when I awake this evening.”

Tom laughed and clapped him on the shoulder once again. “Fear not, old friend. You know there ain’t no Devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk. Well then I’m off to hunt up some grub. Which way are you headed, kid? Back up the canal? No good, no good. I’m going down. There’s a café in the Quarter with a coffee, cognac, and Dutch waitress that is calling to me as we speak. Keep that guitar safe and don’t shy away from the red tents. That’s where you’ll find me.”

Bernardo had already fallen asleep where he sat. Tom lifted his hat in salutations and ambled on his way. As I turned and started back north toward Sonia’s place I could hear his voice echoing off the buildings that corralled the waterway.

“Crest fallen sidekick in an old café,

Never slept with a dream before he had to go away,

There’s a bell in the tower, Uncle Ray bought a round,

Don’t worry about the army,

In the cold, cold ground…”

Previously: Your Favorite Band - Bryan Ferry 

Comments