In Tahoe, winter was on the way, its deep-down heavy breath droning over the Sierras on the evening wind. Down below in Berkeley some summer still hung on, but in September Tahoe, a mile high, the air is thin and breathes of pine and ice. Take care, Pilgrim, and cut some wood.
We didn’t have a fireplace in Tahoe, which cost us; but then Frank would probably have burned the place down. The bills from our electric heat gagged us. Frank, Paul, Linda, and I crammed into a two-bedroom with one bath, a tiny kitchen, and drafty windows. We hung blankets over the windows to cut the draft, but it wasn’t long before snow fell and the temperature dropped and the stuff which had sunk into my lungs in LA – though maybe it started with that damned Bob Wills cigar — came spewing up. I had pneumonia, or bronchitis at least. Frank and Linda were paralyzed – we had no money and I was ineligible for any benefits, and they warned me that California hospitals wouldn’t even talk to you without seeing a Blue Cross card.
“Just take me to the hospital,” I groaned. This was my first glimpse of Frank’s lamentable tendency, bravado aside, to punk out when the chips were down and there was no personal gain for him. I have that side myself, I recognized it, and I just winced. Right now I just needed drugs.
Frank drove me to the hospital parking lot in their little red station wagon, dropped me at the front of the hospital and drove around the side, where he parked in the Visitors lot. Linda looked pale out her window in consternation. What was the matter with them? Why didn’t they take me in for help?
I sniffled as I approached the lady in white sitting behind her desk.
“I think I have bronchitis and I can’t shake it. I need some antibiotics and some expectorant.”
“Fine. Just fill out these forms and have a seat. But first I need to see your insurance card.”
“I don’t have one. We just moved up here from Big Sur and I’ve been turned down for unemployment and MediCal because my boss lied.”
“I’m sorry sir. We can’t see you without a insurance card.”
“C’mon lady, I just need somebody to write me a prescription.”
“I am sorry sir. You will have to apply for medical insurance and then bring the card back after you do.”
“Okay, but let me talk to the head resident if you will. This place is not busy. I just need a second.”
“If you will sit down, I will have him speak to you when he gets a chance.”
“No, there he is.”
In fact, I’d been arguing with the woman in a moderate tone, but there wasn’t anything happening in this small hospital, and a couple of the young residents had stuck their heads out to see what was happening. I grabbed one of them and walked around the corner from the nurses’ desk.
“Look,” I explained,” I have bronchitis and I need some antibiotics and some expectorant with Codeine or I’ll be sick all winter, might even die. I have to get back to work because I don’t have any money. You can write me the scrip that will cure this problem. I’m sure you didn’t study medicine here in this crappy little hospital, and you interned in big city hospitals. Well, I worked in San Francisco General, and I am pretty sure you have been in a big city emergency room full of bikers and cranks who hang out and bitch and sometimes tear the place up and the police come and finally they just give them their drugs. We don’t want that. I just want you to write me two scrips and I’ll leave quietly instead of tearing up your nice waiting room and having the cops come. They’d doctor me in jail, but I’m sick and I’m serious and I’m lucid and friendly, for now. OK?”
I got back in the car and we drove to the pharmacy where I borrowed money from Paul to get my drugs. Frank asked what I’d done to get the magic paper and I just told him to blow it out his ass and for once he was not so arrogant.
About a week later I was feeling pretty good, when Frank’s dog Sadie had a bunch of puppies. Just in time! Our tiny house, already crowded, now had six puling pups and their poop to make things still more cosy.
We decided to celebrate my return to health and the pups’ birth. Our place was right next to a small shopping plaza and we went for dinner to El Sombrero and drank tequila and cerveza and ate big plates of beans and rice and tortillas and burritos, the fat lazy kind you get in California, with sour cream smeared on a giant tortilla and that slow-cooked meat pulled into shreds, the whole thing weighing about a pound. After a couple beers and some stories Frank says
“Ask the guy if we can play here.”
“Here? I mean, a Mexican place?”
“Yeah, go ask him,” Paul said.
So I went to the window where orders were served out and I spoke to the owner in Spanish. Paul and Frank were LA guys and used to Mexicans. They grew up with them and went to school with them. I was an Easterner, and though I’d been to Mexico and had Mexican friends from grad school when I’d had no money and the campesinos building the new dorm at Western Illinois would buy me beers to help them shop for jeans, to me Mexicans were still exotic, and playing in a Mexican place seemed ridiculous.
These were Chicanos, though. Californios. Salvador Reyna, the owner, shuffled out of the kitchen and listened seriously, his head bowed slightly in thought, when I suggested a house band.
“Chure. Good idea,” he said Stunned me. We lived within walking distance of the place, we were in Tahoe just a bit ahead of the ski season, and Salvador thought a house band would be a way to draw in some business. He offered to feed us and pay us $50 a night for the trio. Four nights a week.
Salvador means “savior” of course. Salvador Reyna, our savior. We played in El Sombrero four nights a week, and any time we came in Salvador would feed us until we couldn’t eat more. A slow-moving quiet entrepreneur , he ran tabs and loaned money to those of his compadres who didn’t own their own restaurants. I never figured Salvador out—immigrants have their own resources and ways—but I’m not sure what else was going on in his life. He later offered to put us up at his house, and in fact he had a teenage waitress living there on his couch, a sometime poke, maybe, but she dated Paul for awhile so I guess it wasn’t something Salvador worried about. Anyway, like many Mexicans he had a wife and kids back in Mexico and he was abstemious in his own needs but generous with his friends.
One night as we played, Frank as usual kept playing faster and faster. He drank a lot of coffee and smoked Marlboros, plus he was naturally hyper, and like a lot of guitarists he was proud of his speed, and his speed often overtook the sweetness of the notes and what came out was a blur of electric energy without much of the funky poignancy that he should have learned from masters like BB King or Chuck berry. To put it simply if you tried to dance to our band you’d get whiplashed.
This upset one of the Mexican philosophers and he began to heckle.
“Hey, jew guys slow down a bit. You sound like some fucking Tijuana brass band for chit sake!’
“Thank you very much” I replied. He was right, but …
I don’t remember if I made any other reply, though I certainly must have glowered and grumbled a bit. In any case, we had other problems; the lights didn’t work right. One of the switches was loose, and the switches were in a box at the back of the dance floor. When I left the stage to fix them, the heckler took this as a challenge, and slid off his stool, stumbling toward me all bubbling with macho and cursing under his breath.
Gypsy guitars strummed furiously in the minds of all the borrachos at the bar, as these two idiots drew closer together, snorting and pawing the ground. Then—ay yi yi! In between the two stepped Salvador. Now, Salvador was not only OUR savior, but he also ran tabs and sometimes loaned money to his buddies at the bar. On top of that, he had had a collection of semi-precious jewelry at the end of the bar near the cash register – turquoise bracelets and rings and such. Not really expensive, but nice stuff; and the week before, some ingrate had broken the back door lock and stolen his jewels. It had to have been one of these very barflies, who knew when to break in and where the jewels were.
Tijuana trumpets—slightly out of tune—blared now as Salvador came between me and the other raging bull, who was bristling up like some rabid Chihuahua, and as Salvador stepped between us, my assailant hauled back and threw a right cross. He was aiming at me, but in his drunken, wobbly state, he totally missed the mark and grazed Salvador, brushing him back and causing him to trip and fall back into my arms.
Freeze frame: El gringo has saved our Salvador! Just for a second we froze there on the dance floor, me cuddling Salvador, the rabid Chichuahua standing shoulders slumped and knees knocking, a look on his face of “Oh chit,” …
Then the bar stools emptied and those barflies descended on the ingrate who would dare to harm a slicked-back hair on Salvador’s shiny pompadour. They grabbed him bodily by his skinny shoulders and tossed him right out the door, followed by his baseball hat and bilingual threats, with colorful descriptions of what would happen to him and his chingada mama and pendejo cousins if he dared ever come back—the miserable hijo de puta. To think, just to think!
When everything settled back down, I got the light fixed, and Frank slowed down a bit as we played Jackson Browne's “Fountain of Sorrow” for our first time in front of people. Paul hit the vocal harmony just right and we were off on our tiny musical career as “Rock Macho and the Country Felons”.
Next day the guy was back of course, with a black eye and no memory except a blurred resolution to encourage these young guys who, OK, played a bit too fast at times.
copyright Crabmeat” Thompson, 2019