February 27, 2007
That first afternoon, when I came downstairs from my third floor classroom and put my hand in my mailbox, I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
The check I expected and badly needed wasn’t there.
When I turned around and asked the school secretary what happened, she informed me that the teachers weren’t paid until the end of the month. This was a problem. I had four dollars in my wallet, and the end of the month was a whole month away.
My prior teaching experience had been in small town schools in Southwest Missouri, where the teachers were always given the first month’s check the first day of school. Now, here in the big St. Louis Public School System, I found things worked differently.
What to do? I had come into St. Louis two weeks before as required for all new teachers to go over the course of study and had spent my little reserve. Now the four dollars I had left wouldn’t even pay for my cheap motel room that night, much less buy dinner and gasoline.
I had my trumpet in the car, as I played trumpet as well as a little piano, and my first thought was to find a “gig” that night, but it was too late in the afternoon, and I didn’t know the city well enough to go looking. So I did something most musicians have done at one time or another. I decided to hock my horn.
I drove downtown to an unpleasant area where the hock shops, cheap bars and winos were. I hocked my trumpet for fifteen dollars, and now I had enough money to get through the night and the next day of school, but then what?
There was a little bar next to the pawn shop. I walked in, sat at the bar and ordered a thirty five cent beer. I was the only customer, except for an old wino with a gray beard who had passed out at a back table. I sat there sipping my beer and trying to think my way out of this problem.
“You look like you lost your last friend, Sonny,” said the bartender. “What’s the matter?”
His name was Charlie, and he was a pleasant man about 60, which seemed quite old to me at the time. I think I was about 24. I told him what had happened, and about hocking my horn. Then I went back to staring at the old piano I had seen as I came in the door.
Charlie was watching me. “Play piano, too, do you?” he asked.
“Just a little,” I replied. “I’m not very good.”
A few moments went by. Pretty soon Charlie said, “Do you know “Stardust” by Hoagy Carmichael?”
That did happen to be one of the few songs I could play, and I told him so.
“Sorta wish you would play it for me,” said Charlie, “That’s my favorite song.”
I shrugged my shoulders, went over to the piano, pulled out the bench and played “Stardust” as well as I could. It wasn’t good, but Charlie loved it and laughed and clapped his hands.
“You’re right,” he said, “You’re not very good, but that’s a fine song.” His brow furrowed. “You’re not so bad you’d run anybody off,” he said. “Tell you what, if you’ll come in here every night and play, I’ll rustle you up enough tips to keep you going till you get your check from school. You got a suit?”
I didn’t have one, so Charlie took me to the Salvation Army store on the other side of the pawn shop and bought me an old brown suit, shiny from wear, and with very wide lapels like they wore in the forties. It was probably that old, but it fit. Charlie paid five dollars for it, the clerk threw in a tie, and since I was already wearing a white shirt — I was set.
The customers started coming in about six, and they were a sad lot, indeed. They were all much older than I, with tattered clothes, some with shoe soles flapping, the women over made-up with too bright lipstick smeared from palsied hands. They filled the tables and the bar, and they listened to the old songs I played so badly and many got tears in their eyes.
“Whooie!” one old fellow would say, pounding his fist on the bar, “We got us a piano player! We’re uptown, now, ain’t we, Charlie? Whooie!”
I played the old songs I knew they loved, “Margie”, “Cruising down the River”, “Tea for Two”, “It Had to be You” and always “Stardust.”
Charlie liked to call me Hoagy, because Hoagy had written “Stardust”, and all the customers loved it as well as Charlie did. Several times a night, Charlie would yell out, “Play Stardust, Hoagy,” and then he would pass the tip jar and cajole the customers. “We need to help this kid out,” I would hear him say, and I could sometimes hear him tell them how I didn’t get my check and had to hock my horn.
About halfway through the evening, the cheap burlesque house across the street would let out, and Charley would open the door, stand in the opening, and yell out, “Play ‘Stardust,’ Hoagy! Play it loud!”
About the third evening when I took a short break and was standing at the bar next to an older lady wearing an old ill-fitting red dress, she spoke to me. “Honey,” she said, “We haven’t got the money to tip you much, but I can help some. My apartment is upstairs, and I don’t come in at night. You can sleep there if you want, and you won’t have to pay for a hotel room. You ain’t the type to be stayin’ in these old flophouses, anyway.” The next night she brought me a key.
So I would teach at Central High every day, and play at Charlie’s every night, and I came to know and love those unfortunate people, as they did me. When, after a month, I finally got paid, I went back to play for them one more time. This time I told Charlie not to pass the tip jar around, that I had been paid.
So that night, he just left it on the bar, but the customers put their nickels, dimes and quarters in it anyway. When I emptied it, there was a twenty dollar bill in there, too. That was probably from Charley, but I’ll never know for sure.
I left a little early that night after saying goodbye to everyone and thanking them. There were tears in all their eyes – and mine. By golly, we made it… together.
I don’t know what it is that makes poor folks, the down and outers, want so much to help their fellow man, and yet they’re the least able to do so. As I became a good pianist in later years and played the “ritzy” clubs, I can remember playing one where all the customers were multimillionaires, but not a one of them would have given me the scraps off his plate if I were starving.
Maybe God just knows who his people are.
Author - Joe Edwards