There is a hypnotic quality about some staircases that is hardly every noticed. The routine of going up and down the same set of stairs becomes automatic and sometimes the room you are entering and the street you just came from are two entirely different worlds. This staircase has been decorated in a similar green color to the other side of the second floor doorway I am approaching. An array of psychedelic imagery and children's drawings line the wall. I already know what music is playing from the steady bass and Brazilian beat reverberating out into the staircase.
Bosa Nova has become a trend in the city, usually just part of a formula to sell relaxation and luxury in the form of coffee and cake. Huge collections of pop song have been reprocessed and spit back out as a boss nova covers to be sold in compilation albums or downloadable playlists meant for casual listeners and any coffee shop where the manager can't be bothered to think of what music to play. Relaxation. A gimmick. This is the real deal though, a classic that too few people, save classical guitar players, older Brazillians, and music geeks have been exposed to. I am extra confident that I know what song is playing before I open the door since I was the one who gave them this album as a gift a few days earlier.
The people here are not exactly what they are supposed to be in the city. They are this song. Sure they carry all the callousness of a giant metropolis. They will never ask you how you are out of politeness. They don't exchange pleasantries to kill time or avoid awkward situations or keep a customer. They simply let conversation develop naturally when all parties are willing. If by chance they like you and feel a connection, it won't be long before they invite you to their home. They might even ask you to watch over their kids for an hour or two. If you say no it's not a big deal either. It isn't just the three story buildings in a city of skyscrapers, but these human connections that compel us to call this area a village rather than a district. Whether you've been here most of your life or you're just visiting the city, once you connect with the village it becomes home.
There is something different about today, just a feeling, a different flavor in the air. As I walk up the first flight of stairs it just strikes me as a slight sensation but as I near the door the words form. "A friend is waiting for you". I open the door and say hi to the boss and I see the back of a head facing the bar, my new friend. He doesn't move except to take another sip of whatever he is drinking. I sit down two seats from him, and he turns his head towards me ever so slightly, shooting me a simple nod of acknowledgement.
The boss, a woman nearing middle age with subtle expressions and a big heart, is someone I greatly admire. I feel a deep attraction to her, not an attraction that yearns for physical contact or an open expression of affection but the kind of attraction that shows no preference between being lovers and being close friends. It simply lets the universe decide what form it will take.
Love is the same energy regardless of the shape it decides to take. In many situations, discovering what shape it will take is easier said than done but as she is happily married and at a different stage in her life, she has become something of an older sister to me and this has worked well for both of us.
I ask about her three year old son, and then we chat for a while about the redevelopment that is going on just down the street. She always provides me with updates as to what shops will have to close or relocate, what buildings will be torn down and any wrenches we've managed to throw into the cogs of the machine that seems hell bent on plowing down our little piece of heaven. It's usually bad news, but not always. Apparently the newly elected representative from our district is on our side but I try not to get my hopes up because the players involved in the conjuring of shopping malls and strategically placed high rises have ways to make sure that his new position is just an empty title with limited influence.
The man next to me seems intrigued by my deep concern with the troubles facing our town. I can tell that he's of the village, or if not, from the sister village on the other side of the city, the only other place in metropolis that anyone feels anything at all.
"You've been here a while? I haven't seen you around."
The village is big enough with plenty of social circles, each with their own hangouts, that not everyone knows everyone. It's never as many as six degrees of separation though, usually only two. It seems we have many friends in common which doesn't surprise either of us and on its own won't be enough to forge a relationship but any friend of the boss is worth my time and there is something in his eyes that makes me feel I know him. Maybe we knew each other in a past life. Maybe there is some part of us that's the same. I wonder if he can feel it too. I have a feeling he can.
"I've been here about three years, found these guys about a year ago though, it's one of my main spots now."
"I guess we were bound to run into each other eventually. This is my daytime spot. It's quiet but not too quiet, you know? They are are good friends too. And the food...oh man, why go anywhere else?"
Our mutual friend behind the counter blushes, melting a hole in her hard exterior. I didn't order any food but she is already preparing my lunch. She's doesn't have a set menu but she knows I'll eat whatever she cooks for me and pay whatever she asks. She is well traveled and enjoys re-imagining the traditional dishes of various countries, her favorite being the Philippines where she spent a good chunk of her life. Sometimes she knows what I want without asking. After I eat I'll offer to pay for my meal and there's about a seventy percent chance she'll accept the money and a thirty percent chance she'll come up with some random excuse to treat me and keep insisting until I put my wallet away.
She faces away from us and puts all of her focus and energy into the food. The cloths she is wearing hint at long held traditions, of which she is most certainly deeply connected to though they are not necessarily from her country of origin or any country she has lived in. Actually it's nearly impossible for me to tell what part of the world they are from. Her age would also be a mystery to me if she hadn't shared it with me. At times she seems young enough to be in her twenties but aside from all her stories which couldn't possibly fit into a mere two decades and change, she has the wisdom and distant warmth of a woman much older. There is also something inexplicably ancient about her. She belongs to a different era.
My new friend sitting next to me is silent for a few minutes. He seems to be enjoying his five senses as those who visit this space often do. It's interesting how being present and in the moment is slightly contagious and the frequencies responsible for such a state of being seem to leave residual effects on the spaces in which they occur, making it easy for us to return to the same channels. I find myself slipping into the same channel, almost unwitting, but not unwilling. It isn't just the sights and sounds and smells. The same atmosphere would have a very different effect had our mutual friend put something other than her passions and her dreams into this space.
He speaks again. "Play guitar?"
"How did you know?" I ask, a bit surprised.
"I always checks the fingertips for callouses, saves time. I'm not a big fan of small talk."
I nod in agreement.
"So what do you play? How long have you played?" he asks.
"I'm just starting. Still finding my sound."
"What took you so long?"
"I never really believed my parents when they said I'd end up dead in a hole if I pursued music, but I guess the thought scared me enough to slow me down."
"Hah, parents! They care, gotta give em' that. Some of them anyways. Pain in the ass though. People get stupid when they have kids."
"Am I stupid yet?", asks our friend behind the counter, still liquid rather than ice.
"Not yet, you've got grown children like us to keep you on track, keep you from driving your little one insane." He turns to me and continues. "Don't worry man, I got held up a lot longer than you. I worked some crap job for 18 years, Some comfy IT job. Made a lot of money, wasted a lot of money, saved a bit, I guess. Those were 18 years I should have been playing guitar."
There is a kind of grogginess about him, as if he is constantly waking up from a deep sleep as he speaks. I can see he's tired, a kind of tired that no amount of sleep could mend, a heaviness that would take time and love to lift. I can only notice it because it has been growing in me too. He doesn't seem to notice how it might be perceived by others as arrogant, intoxicated or even seductive. Something like a stereotype begins to crop up, almost automatically but I brush it to the side. It's easy enough. I like the guy.
"18 years? Wait, how old are you?" I had been thinking he couldn't possibly be any older than 25 until just now.
"Wow. Damn." is all I can say, letting out just enough surprise to compliment him but not enough to make him uncomfortable.
"Dreams keep you young. I buried mine for years but they were always there and I knew one day they'd either take control of me or eat me up from the inside. It seems I've managed to let them take control. It was my back. Almost twenty years at a computer screen...my back couldn't handle it anymore. When I realized I was sacrificing my health for this job that I hated, that was it for me. My friends are freaking out, think I've lost my mind. Maybe I have. So what? What's wrong with that? I think it's crazy that I put up with that IT shit for so long, it was just a job to me."
"I just wanna play, you know? I wanna get comfortable enough with my guitar to make love with her on stage? You ever see that kind of thing before? Everything melts away, the music is all there is. It's holy matrimony and then some.....forget it, talking about this shit is useless, there are no words. You get it or you don't."
"I get it." I laughed.
"What about you, what drove you to start playing after keeping it in all these years?"
I see myself in his eyes, a little older and more battered, but on the same path, from the same planet, or at least the same star system. The same things drive us, I'm sure. It makes it easier to answer questions that I've never thought about before, like I am suddenly sure not only of who I am but of how to express it in words. I can see myself from the outside, and it gives me a new perspective on both the bad and the good.
"I've had songs popping up in my head since I was a little kid. It was fun when it started but as time went on they started piling up, getting real heavy. They wanted to be born and there they were, waiting for me to give them life. I ignored them for a long time, just scared of failure, scared that I would need to go way off the safe path to make it happen. Eventually the guilt and shame was just too much, it felt wrong to deny them their existence."
"That's awesome, man. I'm glad you figured it out earlier an I did. Play any shows yet?" He asks.
"I played one, it was kind of a mess. I think I need more practice."
"That's ok man, everybody messes up, almost everyone does the first time. Keep at it. How many songs you got?"
"Just 5 or 6. I might want to scrap half of them."
"Play any covers?"
"Nah, I was never really interested in learning to play this or that, I started writing songs as soon as I knew a few chords."
"I feel ya. You go into a bar and everyone plays the same crap. It's never half as good as the original. I play a few covers but only when I feel some kind of inspiration to rewrite them and make them something new."
"That's great. I might try that one day. I'd like to hear your stuff. What are you into?"
"Whatever man! I know you know how it is. I could say everything but that's a lie. I like the classics, mostly soulful stuff. Some of its blues or folk but if it's soulful and real, and all fits just right, it's my thing. I try to put that same kind of soul into my music and through that I just tell my story."
"Yeah, it's kind of cheesy to go on too much about this stuff. I mean, labels have their purpose but the good stuff doesn't aspire to be this or that, it just IS and then people call it something or other."
"Exactly. Everyone's caught in labels and trends, but everything has been said before. We are just hear looking for a way to say it in our own way and in a way that reaches who we want to reach."
"Pretty much. I just want to do for someone what some of my favorite musicians have done for me. They showed me that I'm not alone in the world. They inspired me to be myself instead of sucking it up and trying to be what others were telling me I should be. It's easier to feel what's hiding deep inside you when you hear someone else saying the same thing, or singing it, or being it. I hope I can give that to others."
"Yeah, that's right. Music might be the easiest way to do it, but I'm sure you can do that by just being you. Everything is kind of like music, you know what I mean?"
I smiled, "I'm starting to."
I imagined that broken phone in a graveyard somewhere.
"You vibrate and people kind of feel you just by the way you hold yourself. You are doing good for yourself already. I feel a lot of good in you. I'm sure you've done lots of good without even noticing."
I think about it for a while. It's not something I often give myself credit for, but I guess it's true. You affect every single person that enters your life, in whatever small way, and if I look carefully, I can find a bunch of ways that I've done well for others. I don't want to get sucked into that feeling of accomplishment, but I keep it just within reach, hoping it will help paint my week with more passion and positivity.
"I'm glad we were finally able to meet."
He stares at me for a moment after the words come out of his mouth. I'm not sure if he's thinking or what he's thinking. He seems to be taking it in our interaction, taking his time with what I've said as to actually listen, rather than just hear. The pause is long enough that I can imagine someone feeling uncomfortable but I don't. I just bring my focus back to the scent of spices and the boss nova beat and the beat behind the beat. It changes depending on what song you play and what words you say, but it's always there when you look deep enough for it. That rhythm.
"Let's jam some time." he says.
"Definitely. Are you gonna wanna make love on stage or something?"
"Nah man, shut the hell up..."
Our friend behind the counter turns around and let's out a hearty laugh. We can't help but join her.
"I don't know, we'll see." He winks.
My food arrives and our mutual friend sits down next to us to rest. They are silent for a few moments. The song is a live recording with a male vocalist, and a few older women singing harmonies. Their voices pierce through me, causing me to forget myself. And the food....oh man!
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