Haiku Lou and Omba
Tom Spader - August 2015
The worn twenty dollar bill burned in Lou's dirty hand. It had been a long time since he held this much money at one time. In his palm face up, he ran his thumb over the dead president's face. It was soft, almost cloth-like with a few small tears. The bills he held almost never had zeros on them. He preferred them worn as if his situation allowed him to have a preference.
"The things those bills could say," he thought. With a slight smile Lou held the bill to his ear, "What?" he said out loud, eyes wide, "What's that you say? You're new here? Oh, oh my dear Andy, the things we will see ..." The people that passed gave him a little more room on the sidewalk.
Holding the bill out in front of him by the corners he recited to it.
Andrew my new friend
We know not what lies ahead
Care not, flowers bloom
Lou folded the bill in half lengthwise then again cross-wise as he did with all the paper money he came across. He tucked it deep into the inside chest pocket of his three quarter overcoat. The worn pockets in his pants had betrayed him before.
He wandered down 5th Avenue towards the park. "What to do," he wondered, "what to do?" His steps were a bit lighter as he swung his ukulele from his back and began to play as he walked.
Living on the street, playing the ukulele and reciting his spontaneous haikus he was able to get by fairly well depending on perspective. He had no real wants in his life. He was usually able to eat once or twice a day and slept in any number of places. He had simplified his life down to maintaining his most basic needs. This $20 offered opportunity to take care of a few things, settle up and start anew if even for just one day.
Ignoring the rumbling in his stomach Lou's first thoughts of payback turned to Cliff, or Omba as he was known on the street. Cliff had a small one room, one sunless window apartment above a dry cleaners near the river. He let Lou stash his huge, stuffed full duffle bag behind his small couch. From time to time Lou would stop by and change clothes, catch some sleep, grab a shower and just get off the street for a few hours. If Cliff was home, they'd sit and laugh over a few swallows of wine. He never over stayed his welcome, arriving late and leaving early and never more than once or twice a month...in the dead of winter, maybe a bit more.
Cliff didn't really like the nickname Omba, but accepted it as he had accepted everything tossed at him his whole life. He stood just above four foot, but he was strikingly handsome and had a good singing voice. He hated words like midget, dwarf, small person. He said he was just not that tall.
On warm weekend days, Lou and Cliff would team up and go down to the square and make music together. They were known as Omba and Uke-a-Lou to the few that actually knew them. They were a pretty good draw and stayed far away from the established jazz players that were loud, aggressive and savvy working the crowds with CD sales and in-your-face tactics for money. Omba and Uke played, absorbed in themselves with Lou's upturned hat nearby. They needed the money, but they made their music for themselves first and if others liked it all the better.
Lou crossed the cobblestone street and slipped down the narrow alley between the dry cleaners and a long closed deli. Kicking through the pile of empty boxes and odd bits of trash he reached for the ladder to the fire escape. The landlord who lived on the first floor didn't like Lou. He avoided the street entrance. It was along story.
Reaching for the rusted bottom rung he accidently swung his uke against the side of a forgotten, rusted commercial trash bin. It hit just right and rung out an open chord that echoed in the alley. "OHmmmm..." Lou tuned his voice to the pitch. "I ride my bike, I roller skate, don't drive no car ... don't go too fast, but I go pretty faaarr." Lou slid the ladder down to the cement with a loud CLANK. "For somebody who don't drriiiive, I've been all around the world..."
"Lou? Is that you?" Cliff called from the window above poking his head out.
In unison they sang, "Some people say I've done alright for a girl,"... their voices coming from above and below and meeting laughing, in the middle. Lou looked up into Cliff's smiling face.
"Hey, Cliff, Cliff how are you? I've got something for you." Lou called out slowly climbing up. "Wait till you see," he said reaching the landing. He swung his uke around and hit the four notes that led into the next chord in the song and holding their heads together sang, "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, Oh yeah, yeaaahhh."
Lou climbed into the window and reached into his coat pocket pulling out the twenty. Cliff's eyes widened a bit. "Ha, where'd you get that, Lou? Did you tune your voice to the bank alarm too?" he said chuckling.
"Ha, no, no it was the change from buying a popsicle." Lou said still gently fingering his uke with his left hand.
"Change? What change? How do you get a twenty back as change?"
"Nah, not that kind of change. Change, real change. Take it my friend. I owe you a lot more than this."
"You sure? I'd love to say No, but rent is due and I'm short."
"Ha! You short?" Lou said laughing, "You're bigger than anyone I know."
The two caught up with laughter and wine poured into water cooler-style pointed bottomed paper cups. The wine brought a glow to their faces and since the cups could not be set down, they had to be drained with each refill. They laughed and drank. Cliff stuffed the bill into an envelope, scribbled something on it and slid it under his landlord's door. They made their way towards the park.
Crossing 4th Street, they entered the park and slowed near the children's play area. The kids were loud and happy. Lou and Cliff stopped and watched, the afternoon sun on their backs.
"Bumba ba bumba... Take a long holiday ...Let your children play." Cliff sang.
"Hey, yeah, let's do that first ... man, it's been a long time. You remember it?"
"Yeah ... what I don't, yeah ..., yeah, I'll wing it," Cliff said as he began going over the lyrics, his lips silently mouthing each verse. "Yeah, yeah ... let's. Lou, I know you know it. That brain is like a huge Frigidaire with deep long shelves. You just keep adding stuff in the front and pushing what's there into the back, but you man you need gherkins, you got gherkins..."
"Just check the expiration date my friend," Lou smiled.
The two wandered into the park and passed the jazz guys. They were taking a break and were huddled together. The Asian trumpet player in white framed sunglasses was shuffling a stack of CD's while they all talked in low voices. As Lou and Cliff passed, nods of familiarity were exchanged. As musicians they were in different worlds. The jazz guys were serious, recorded and had an occasional pay gig. Omba and Uke-a-Lou were in it for the song.
Further along the diagonal walk Larry the Birdman was working the pigeons. "Come on. Come on," he yelled into trees. Soon he was swarmed by the blue gray birds landing at his feet and on the bench near him. He extended one arm and two perched on it. He called individual names at them. "Hi Lucky. What's up Mommy ..." The crowd loved it, took pictures and handed him a dollar now and then after reading his sign about needing money to feed the birds.
Larry was a wild looking guy, tattoos and hair that went in all directions. In winter he wore a beard. He kept seed in his bulging pockets and tossed it on the sidewalk nearby to keep the birds close. With his arms extended and palms up, full of seed, the birds would eat out of his hand. While working the crowd he would engage a pretty girl or child with trusting parent and he would fill their palms with seed and show them how to get one of the pigeons to land on their arm and eat out of their hands. The parents loved it, took pictures of their kids and more often than not, tossed a buck or two Larry's way.
A college age girl and her friend walked by and Larry filled her hand and soon a bird was perched and feasting. They giggled and took phone pictures until the bird did what birds often do all over her forearm. With a shriek from the girl the moment was broken and the small crowd moved on. Larry wiped the girl's arm with his hand and then wiped his hand on his jeans.
The beauty of these encounters was that the audience is always moving. If you're a musician you can play a song and twenty minutes later play it again or in Larry's case ... all was soon forgotten.
Lou and Cliff reached the fountain and scanned the benches. There were mostly tourists near the arch so they turned right and found a bench in the shade. As Lou tuned his uke he nodded to Cliff to look out into the park. "Ha..." is all he said with a questioning smile.
Near the fountain there was a shirtless guy squaring off with one of the antique, now electric light poles. His head was shaved and he was very fit. He wore headphones and danced and threw punches and kicks at the old iron fixture. People made their way around him, almost ignoring him which seemed counter to his exhibitionist display. He was solid, tan and well trained, throwing long roundhouse kicks head high in perfect form .... yet, no one paid him any mind.
Light pole seems no match
Prize fighter without the prize
Pay your bill on time
"Nice one, Lou," Cliff smiled. "You're getting quicker too. Come on tune up before I forget the words."
Lou tuned up and immediately broke in the opening riff. The song was a hit in the late 1960's and had been remade a few times. The riff was catchy an memorable and with Lou's expertise on his instrument combined with the beautiful day they soon had a small group of people slowing near them.
After a long intro, Cliff began to sing. He was good, very good ... and all but the most bored or totally disinterested looked on or at least slowed their pace to watch and listen.
After a couple of verses, Lou broke into a long solo jam and used his thumb against the wooden deck of his uke to add percussion. Cliff took Lou's hat off his head and used it to fan Lou talented hands. He began to set it down on the sidewalk, but a couple of arms reached out and while it was out of character for them, as they never approached the crowd for money, Cliff walked toward the out stretched arms. Single dollar bills and loose change fell into the hat.
A father, with a son of about eight, abruptly made their way to the front. As Cliff was bending to put the hat down on the sidewalk, the man waved a green bill in Cliff's direction. The crowd was moving to the music. Some of the older crowd knew the song well and their heads bobbed to the beat. Cliff stood back up and moved toward the man. He was well dressed as was his son. The sun glinted off his gold watch as he reached out to drop the bill into the hat. Before letting loose the bill he held it high to the crowd, scanned their faces then released the bill into the sweat stained hat.
Cliff turned to join Lou and looked down into the hat. On the top of a small pile of singles was a brand new twenty dollar bill. Cliff, with a wide grin, lifted the bill between his index and middle fingers scissor-like and showed it to Lou who smiled back at Cliff and then into the face of the man. The man's dark sunglasses prevented the connection. Lou played on.
Cliff joined Lou and awaited his entry back into the song. Lou was way out there keeping beat with his thumb and working long blues style scales and chords into an extended jam. Cliff stood nearby moving to the beat.
The crowd hooted and whistled every time Lou did a fast run up the neck or did a quick start-stop or turn around. He had them and they called out for more. The well dressed man reached into his pocket and pulled out an expensive looking phone. He leaned and talked into the young boys ear. The boy shook his head the smile vanishing from his young face. The man inched the boy closer to Lou and Cliff.
The man lifted his phone to take a photo of his son as he moved in alongside Cliff. Cliff slowed his anchored foot dancing to pose with the boy. They stood side by side and the man nodded to the boy. Cliff smiled a wide handsome grin.
With the phone in the air, Cliff smiling side by side with the boy, the dad nodded again. The boy shook his head and the father glared. The boy's arm rose from behind Cliff and his hand flattened level with the top of his own head and hovered two inches above the top of Cliff's. The flash went off on his phone. He checked the image and a huge smile spread across his face. Cliff fired him a thumbs up and went back to the rhythm of the song.
Lou, even absorbed in his musical flight, witnessed the scene playing out before him and not missing a beat went into a long series of hammer-ons and pull-offs with his left hand along the neck of his uke (a technique when done well frees the right hand). Lou bent to the hat and retrieved the twenty and approached the man just as he was raising his hand in an unanswered high five. The man and son were looking at the screen of his phone as they heard the music coming toward them. They both turned towards Lou.
The eyes of the crowd followed Lou and most saw the photo being taken. As the boy moved aside Lou stood before the man. Lou's left hand kept the music going. The man stiffened as Lou closed the space between them. He held the bill high to the crowd and scanned their faces. He reached out and stuffed the twenty into the man's shirt pocket and turned away. The crowd went wild.
Cliff looked on puzzled. Lou approached him, left hand still working the song and threw his right hand around Cliff's neck and pulled him close. "Easy come, Easy go."
A few short full chord strokes on his uke signaled Cliff's return to the song in mid verse, "Take a long holiday ... Let your children play."
Observations at the supermarket
A kid's modern history lesson
As seen by me at 8 years old
Labor Day 1973
(Part III of the adventures of Haiku Lou)
Observations/true story while bar tending in Baltimore 1984
The night Nixon quit through my eyes at 15
Chance meeting in a snow covered city park
Observation at the all night mini mart
Adventures of a street poet
Lou and Omba in Washington Square
God's ant-like face shines
Changing roles in a city library
Coming soon ...