It was a recent Friday night in Normal Heights and University Heights, each to either side of my address on Adams; I'm not sure in which I reside. My son was visiting for the weekend. When he is down from his place in San Marcos, he likes the coffee shops and laptop computers; the acoustic guitar acts at Lestat's and Twiggs. He likes to people-watch and to surround himself with those his approximate age and the atmosphere of Bohemia, such as it is in these neighborhoods. On this particular Friday night, Steve Poltz was playing at Lestat's West; and since Geoffrey's smile is these days so rare and, to me, priceless, I thought certainly Poltz could evoke one or more from him. If anyone, that local troubadour and stand-up raconteur could breach my son's schiz-affect barricades. But Poltz would not go on until late. Geoff and I drank coffee (me, a small one with an espresso shot, and for him, an imposing vat of white vanilla mocha something or other); studied an artist at work, a Mr. Brown, busy rendering much life from a black-and-white photo of a beautiful woman onto a white sheet with a charcoal pencil; and Geoffrey took a few photos of myself and local performer Gregory Page. Page and I had both played with the same band at different times.
We walked an estimated four miles that night, all before nine o'clock. Adams was alternately boisterous in front of the bars (and Lestat's at times) and swallowed in silent, secret shadows populated (as we had done when Geoff was very young) with impossible creatures of fantasy, both friendly and horrid. Those walks in his childhood were through alleys in Hillcrest we called either Danger Alley or Adventure Alley and happened to be directly on his way to Florence Elementary. One alley was a seething obstacle course of acid lakes disguised as mud puddles, where dinosaurs lurked; the other was an earthquake planet just lousy with malevolent Go-bots.
On that Friday night, Christmas lights were in evidence everywhere, especially along Park Boulevard, beneath the watchful eye of totem ostriches like gargoyles atop the neon-lit trolley car and arch that reads UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS. I told him that his great-great grandfather was kicked to death by an ostrich as he attempted to offload the bird from a zoo's boxcar in a Chicago railyard. His reaction was, "Mmm..." It was a true story, as far as I know, but I was pretty sure Poltz had better material.
Electric snowflakes, detonations of multicolored points of light like eruptions of cartoon ghosts from the neon shadows, as if they had just been bonked on the head by a sledgehammer, an anvil, or a safe that has fallen on them from above. Among all this, my son stops in his tracks, his head to the stars, and I mumble about city lights and, "...not like up where you are. There's Polaris. You see the handle on the dipper? The archer's bow..."
And Poltz did have better material. Playing to a packed house, he got laughs aplenty, and his guitar seemed alive. At one point in the show, he stopped, donned a pair of old-guy reading glasses (Poltz is maybe 40, I don't know, but boyish, you know, boyish), and read a piece of the late Buddy "Blue" Seigel's from April of last year in the U-T, in which Siegel had written "Fight Club: Matches Made in Rock and Roll Heaven" and gave a blow-by-blow re imaginary bouts between Gene Vincent and Elvis, Pat Boone and Little Richard, and the Beatles and the Stones. The house, already packed, then "packed up" as they say in South Africa when describing fits of laughter. Geoff may have smiled. When Poltz asked the audience if we were feeling good, Geoffrey was the first to applaud but with the expression of a bank loan officer reading my credit report.
I sat with a face like setting cement through a song about a Marine in Iraq, called "Street Fighter's Face." My son's face was a mirror. The sentiment-laden "A Brief History of My Life" had me sappily grinning like a constipated geezer at the moment of relief. I knew all the sportscasters he sang about, and I thought about how Poltz and I are so much alike. Steve delivered newspapers -- or maybe it was trick-or-treating he was talking about -- to Liberace in Las Vegas. I delivered papers and trick-or-treated at Tony (the gangster) Acardo's house in Chicago. Steve played at Java Joe's in Ocean Beach with Jewel, and I played there with Jose Sinatra.
Returning home along Adams Avenue, me huddling in a scarf against unusual cold after a day of record-setting heat and Geoff in calf-length denims and a T-shirt, we talked about the nature of perception, consensual reality, and things along those lines. After midnight, we watched Keanu Reeves in Little Buddha; Geoffrey impassive, me, looking at Geoffrey too much -- the kind of thing I hate when it is done to me.
The next day, Saturday, my son seemed again impassive and wished to return to San Marcos. When asked if he had enjoyed himself, he said yes and sat on the porch staring into an evergreen pear tree in the courtyard. When his mother arrived, he turned to me and, unsolicited, said, "I liked that buddha movie." I am certain I saw a trace of the Mona Lisa kind of expression Keanu Reeves had mastered in that movie as he sat beneath the bodhi tree and all of Chaos raged around him.
"Well, good, Grasshopper. Or should I call you Siddhartha?" And, yes, now I was extra certain it was there.