Walking Into Clouds

by Rick Beck

Chapter 15

Music, Music, Music

As we sat listening to Jerome Bing expressing his philosophy of life, he sounded like a wise man who had learned his lessons well.

Then he asked, "What can you play. I can follow along. If I give Cody a suitable back beat, he'll pick up whatever you're playing. Banjo by its nature doesn't play well with pianos and trumpets, but anything you play can be adapted to what we do, Mr. C #2."

"You want me to pick the music?" I asked, which is what he asked me to do.

I felt out of kilter. Jerome Bing was a profession session man. I didn't feel qualified to play in his presence. I expected to follow whatever Mr. Bing selected. I'd play softly and hope he didn't notice the sound I made.

My mind raced. What did I do now? I didn't want to embarrass myself.

"Which brings us back to music. Pick a song we can play. Doesn't matter what it is. Pick something you enjoy playing. We'll follow you," Mr. Bing guaranteed.

"The two pieces I enjoyed playing most are both from movies," I said.

"Dueling Banjos and which other one?" Mr. Bing asked.

"I can play Dueling Banjos but not the uptempo parts. Billy Redden, a 16 year old played the role of the gifted but retarded kid in the movie, but he really didn't play the music. It was played by a professional musician. I also liked Foggy Mountain Breakdown from Bonnie & Clyde. That's Earl Scruggs picking Foggy Mountain Breakdown," I said. "I give that a good lick but Dueling Banjos takes off into the stratosphere. No one could keep up with that. Maybe Scruggs could but I can't. I only played a few years in high school, so I'm not that good but I love banjo music."

"Mr. C #2, this is music. We're just jamming. There's no grade. No one's going to expect you to play like Earl," Mr. Bing said.

"Good thing," I said, hoping I didn't make a fool out of myself.

"Earl perfected the banjo as it's played in bluegrass. He could pick a banjo. I never recorded with Earl, but I was in the studio while Flat and him recorded one time. I begged my way into the control room to listen and watch. He was amazing," Mr. Bing said. "He's one hell of a banjo player."

"We can give Foggy Mountain Breakdown a try. I can play without overpowering your banjo. Let me show Cody a little something that will let him play along with us,"

It was time for me to start shaking. I knew I was going to let the cat our of the bag. I wasn't a very good banjo player. Luckily, like all banjo players, I knew the two pieces we talked about fairly well. The music wasn't much like the soundtrack that accompanied the movie Bonnie & Clyde, but it was familiar as my picking picked up once I I managed to forget that I was playing with Jerome Bing.

After making a couple of false starts, I managed to focus on the music and get through the entire piece. Cody and Mr. Bing had their own thing going and it didn't sound bad. I imagine some orchestration might make it even better, but how do you improve on Earl Scruggs?"

I was picking up a storm by the time I ran out of steam. Mr. Bing and Cody played us out of Foggy Mountain Breakdown with some neat flourishes from both the trumpet and the piano. They were making it up as they went along. I admired that.

"That three finger pick you use was developed by Earl. He took the banjo to an art form that was perfect for country and blue grass."

"I have an Earl Scruggs songbook."

"I imagine most of the banjo players have that songbook. I don't know what he had to do with it besides furnishing the banjo music," Mr. Bing said, after putting down his trumpet.

"I like adding our touch to old favorites. Music is universal and completely adaptable. You never know what you might discover by adding some licks to already well known music. I suppose that's what makes it so much fun. Toying with great music to add a little of this and a little of that. It's how rock & roll depended on the classics from two hundred years before," Bing said.

"How do you mean?" I asked, unable to connect the two.

"A lot of rock & roll cane straight out of the classics. They took the classical music, added a touch of this and a little of that, wrote lyrics, and they created one hit after another. If you listen closely to rock & roll, you'll hear the classics. While listening to classical music, you can hear the roots of rock & roll, you'll hear familiar melodies. Great music is great music and it can easily be adapted to the music of the day and no one complained. The theme from 2001: A Spacy Odyssey is Sprach Zarathustra, by Richard Strauss. I can't count the number of places where I've heard it used in more current songs and in movie scores. I don't know how popular it was in its day, but it is one of the most recognizable piece of music ever created and I doubt few people know it's Strauss," he said.

"You might want to give me a quick lesson on your banjo. I think I can remember what I was shown."

"I don't mind," I said. "Maybe I can get you to sign it," I said.

"You want this old man's signature on your ax, son?"

"I do," I said. "My father is a big fan. I'll give it to him. He'll be blown away by your signature being on my banjo," I said.

"You aren't trying to get me to sign away my house, are you? Oh, you couldn't do that. I don't have a house, but I do own a motel," Mr. Bing said.

That got a laugh from all of us and when I handed Mr. Bing my banjo, he didn't need a lesson. He plucked it for a few minutes, moving his hands around as he listened to each sound it made. In a couple of minutes he was picking out Foggy Mountain Breakdown with little effort as he watched his fingers examine the strings.

"That's amazing, Mr. Bing. I can't play it that well," I said.

"You just did, Mr. C. The trick is not to let your brain get in the way of your fingers. Once you learn a certain piece of music, your brain remembers what your fingers need to do. If you let your fingers pick without trying to run it through your brain to be sure, without thinking about it your fingers will instinctively do what they know how to do. Over thinking can slow you down if your aren't careful," Mr. Bing said.

"Trust your fingers. Let them go. You'll be surprised how smart your fingers are. It's the same with most instruments. Some people think too much and never let go of what keeps their playing ordinary. Let go and just play," Mr. Bing said. "Music requires you to get out of the way and let her 'er rip. When you see Deliverance, and the first time I saw it I went to hear the 'incredible' banjo playing. I never got that movie, but hearing Dueling Banjos with worth the two dollars. Whoever it was playing had left his body and was on a spiritual journey. It's that magnificent. Too bad it was in that movie."

"How do I get my brain out of the way of my fingers?" I asked.

"By not asking how you do it. Your brain is in the way. Let your fingers do what they know how to do. You did it for a few licks while you were playing. You forgot about me and Cody and this bar, and you became part of your banjo. It was quite good and what I like."

Mr. Bing leaned the banjo against the table where he kept his horn. He walked into the hallway and he opened a door about half way to the side entrance.

He returned with an indelible felt tip pen. He picked up my banjo and turned it over. He wrote his name with a flourish, handing me the banjo. I admired the blue writing on the back of my white banjo.

"Tell your father that Jerome Bing said to drop by. He can see us play. I ain't much to look at but I'm told I blow a mean trumpet. If he tells me he's your father, I'll tell him what a fine son he has. That's if Mr. C #1 allows me to talk about his man," Mr. Bing said with a smile.

Cody turned crimson.

I smiled.

"Oops," Mr. Bing said. "The way you two look at each other, it can't be a secret, Cody," Mr. Bing said. "As I was saying, we play a couple of nights a week. We get quite a few white folks in here these days. We've come a long way from where we were when I started. Most folks realize we're all just people enjoying music."

Cody looked down at the keys and he didn't look at me.

"Let's hear a little Scott Joplin. You feel like playing The Entertainer for us?" Mr. Bing asked.

Cody's fingers came alive and The Entertainer sounded good on that piano. Cody played it in a way that made it recognizable. He'd learned it well and I liked that he did. As time went on and I spent more time with him, I liked him more.

It was my first serious like and I had no idea where like stopped and love started. I felt like we were heading in the right direction.

We started earlier and ended up earlier this Tuesday. A new band was playing and they wanted an hour to warm up. We were leaving shortly after seven thirty. Having the Silverado across the street meant no long walk back to Gene's.

I wanted to stay to hear professional musicians warming up, but by law we shouldn't have been allowed in the place at all. I was elated about playing along with Jerome Bing. It was difficult to believe that he gave so much time to two kids. Mr. Bing seemed to enjoy it.

I felt good about knowing him. Little impressed me before I broke out of my routine and I went downtown. Little that didn't take place on an athletic field.

"You hungry?" I asked.

"It's the first time I've played a threesome," Cody said.

"Trio," I said.

"Your trio is my threesome," he said. "I've got a date. You can come along if you like," he said. "You'll get fed. It's a dinner date."

"That sounds like a threesome. I'm not ready for that," I said.

"It's not what you think. You'll have to go along to see what I mean. You'll get to meet another friend of mine. He hasn't been feeling well and I told him I'd come over to fix soup and some fresh corn bread," he said.

"You know how to cook?" I asked.

"Vanilla is from Macon, Georgia. She's taught me a few things I can cook. I'm not just another piece of meat, Clete."

"I never said you were. You keep surprising me though," I said.

"Maybe because you don't expect much from me. I have friends. I haven't spent my years on the street simply having dates," he said.

"I understand that but I still don't know anything about you," I said.

"You know what my life is like now. It's different from how it began. I've learned how to survive and who I want to be friends with. I know what you think about this place, but we are a community. The good people know each other and we don't hang around the creeps."

"All you hear about are the creeps, when you hear anything," I said. "You've showed me there are more to people than a label."

"And that's why we live the lives we lead. We're invisible to everyone, but we can see each other just fine," Cody said. "I can't imagine not having friends like the people I've met down here. They truly care about me. Do you know how many people cared about me before I ended up on the street? No one really cared what was going on behind the closed doors of my house."

"I understand it had to be tough. I can't imagine it, but I've lived a life of privilege. I had no obstacles beyond my own brain."

"I've known Floyd since the first year I was out here," he said.

"Does he know Vanilla?" I asked.

"Sure! We're all friends. We take turns taking care of Floyd, when he's not feeling well. He's getting old and he needs more help these days. I try to go over to cook for him at least once a week. Sometimes he feels like going out, but mostly I cook for him."

"He's got it?" I asked, after there was no specific illness.

Cody took a long look at me. I didn't know what the look meant.

"You can say the word, Clete. It's not a death sentence anymore. Although Floyd has had it forever. He says he was never sick before. He is taking the drugs and he's what they call HIV+ these days. His viral load is undetectable, so these days there is no risk he can transmit it, which means he can't infect anyone else, not that he does anything that would infect anyone," Cody said.

"Because of his status, because all his friends died, he never wanted another lover. The pain of what he went through, the death of every one around him, was as painful as anything as we can imagine. That''s what he tells me, and now you know, so you won't need to ask him if he's got it, OK?" he said.

"OK," I said, not sure. "It's another thing I know nothing about. I've never confronted it before. I'm fine with meeting your friends and I won't embarrass you."

It was an apartment in a fairly classy looking building. Floyd was an architect. He designed the building on Colonial Drive for the owner at no charge. Floyd took the top floor as payment for his work.

"The owner long ago died, but when the building changes hands, I go with the deal along with the top floor," Floyd said. "I've got security and one day they'll want to tear this place down, and I'm going to tell them, 'Tear me down with it. I'm not leaving. My attorney's tell me that they'll play hell trying to get me out of here."

He smiled at me from his chair in the corner of a regal royal blue and white living room. I wasn't much on decorating but it was stunning and the balcony overlooked downtown.

"Child," Floyd said, "You don't need to sit in here with me. Go see if you can help Cody. Lord knows you're all he talks about these days. Clete is it?"

"Yes. I'm Clete. I'll go see what he's up to. Nice meeting you."

"Cream of mushroom soup and cornbread, I think," Floyd said.

"What are you fixing?' I asked, looking over Cody's shoulder.

"I put the cream of mushroom soup on to simmer and now I'm fixing cornbread. Do you like cornbread?"

"Sure. Corn meal? Mom uses a box saying cornbread mix."

"Where'd I tell you I learned to fix cornbread?" Cody asked.

"I think you said Vanilla taught you," I said.

"She is a daughter of the South, Clete. No self respecting southerner is going to make cornbread from a cornbread mix."

"They aren't. It only takes a minute for my mother to have it in the oven. I've been here a minute and you haven't got the milk, egg, or butter close to that corn meal."

"No and I expect to be mixing it for a few minutes after I do. Once you have my cornbread, Clete, then tell me about your mom's."

I kept asking if I could help but the answer was always no. Each time Cody passed anywhere near me in the kitchen, he found a way to rub against me. He usually had his hands full and that prevented me from doing what I wanted to do.

I'd known Cody many times longer than I knew Jeff, Teddy, or Grange, and we hadn't so much as kissed, but while he was cooking in the kitchen, the heat in my oven began to rise. There was nothing I didn't like about Cody.

Well, almost nothing.

It was an hour later when we each sat with a tray on our lap and a rich bowl of mushroom soup and a thick slice of cornbread slathered in butter. The only mushroom soup I'd had came out of a can. This definitely was better than that with real cream and fresh mushrooms.

"What's in those boxes my mother gets?" I asked Cody.

"When you want food, remember, processed food is not food," Cody said. "That comes straight from Vanilla's mouth."

"What's in those boxes besides corn meal?" I asked.

"Probably a half dozen chemicals. Way too much salt and even more sugar. If you use real ingredients you get real food. You should try it sometime. It's a much better way to go. That's if you like this."

"That's for sure," Floyd said. "This is delicious. I was tempted to get a donut at about five, but I was good and I was anticipating your mushroom soup. I'm glad I waited, Cody. This is just fine."

"Thank you. How are you feeling today?" Cody asked.

"I have no energy. I can't go to the bathroom and then I can't stop going to the bathroom. I'm afraid to go out. I can't stand the idea of embarrassing myself in front of the locals. I thought I'd stopped making a mess in my pants when I was two. I never imagined it happens all over again once you're sixty-two."

"You told me it was the meds," Cody said.

"Yes, diarrhea does go with the territory. I've been taking drugs for so long that my symptoms have symptoms. It's not like this all the time but these spells are coming more often. I think it's about over."

"It's not," Cody said. "You'll feel better again. You can't give up."

"No, I suppose not, but I could be talked into it."

"When were you infected?" I asked, not knowing if i was treading on sacred ground.

This was not what I came for. Floyd seemed nice but listening to him go through his history with AIDS wasn't my idea of a good time.

"I'm sure it was 83 but it may have been in 84. My lover died in 84. Anton had a single Kaposi's lesions on his forehead one morning and before I knew it he was gone. Anton never knew what hit him, but we all knew what that lesion was by then. Our friends were all dying around us and then Anton was gone and I felt so alone. I didn't know what to do. I never thought that I might have it. I never thought I didn't. I kept living and I kept not getting sick when no one close to me was still alive. In six months we went from being a happy carefree group of silly gay men to one man left standing. I was that man and I wish I'd died with my friends," Floyd said. "Could I have more soup? It's the best thing I've had in a week, Cody. Thank you. I always look forward to the nights you come up."

"I'm sorry," Floyd said. "I didn't mean to drone on. I know it's foreign to you kids. It's that no one cared. Anyone who did care was dead and no one gave damn if a bunch of gay men were dying. In those days they were hoping we'd all die. Well, I didn't die. I did it to spite those bastards, but it's OK for them to hate. They have God on their side and we were trash to them, and I'm telling you because if you don't know your history, you're doomed to repeat it," Floyd said. "That's what they say about history."

"I don't know anything about it. I'm just coming out and I've never looked at anything to do with gay history. I saw Milk," I said, sounding pathetic. "I appreciate that you want to talk about it. I don't want to hear it but I need to hear it."

"Then you need to know and I guess this is why I'm still alive," he said. "I'm the Paul Revere of the LGBTQ Nation. I go from place to place to sound the warning. Lord knows if kids depend on the schools to educate them about human sexuality, they're doomed."

I laughed. He laughed. Cody set down a steaming bowl of soup in front of Floyd, who immediately took a spoonful and began to blow.

"This is wonderful, Cody."

"I'm glad it turned out so well," Cody said.

"I'm giving him the AIDS talk. He has no education on AIDS."

"I decided I wouldn't come out in high school, because I was an athlete," I said. "AIDS isn't mentioned in high school. The only sex education we get is the coach telling us, 'Don't.' Half the kids are doing it by eleventh grade, half the kids aren't. I wasn't."

"Rugby I believe," Floyd said.

"Yes, that's what I play now. I played soccer and lacrosse in high school. We had good teams and good coaches. We were part of the elite in high school. Gay guys don't do well on teams. There's so much bullshit floating around. Most athletes think a gay guy is going to go for their junk. Believe me, I had no trouble keeping my hands off my teammates' dicks," I said.

Floyd spit out some of his soup.

"You do say what you think," Floyd said. "That's refreshing."

"I'm embarrassed I know so little about my people. Anyway, I wanted to stay in sports. So I stayed in the closet."

"You don't need to explain it. It may be easier to be gay today, but the same assholes are going to bully and push around gay kids."

"There were gay guys at school and I knew of a transgendered guy. He caught a lot of hell from athletes. Not me. I tried to pretend it had nothing to do with me when I knew it had everything to do with me. I didn't want to mess up an easy ride. Pretty lame, huh?"

"Not at all," Floyd said. "We do the best we can. It's all anyone can do. You can't be someone you aren't. The trick is to do better once you know better. Once you know why things are like they are."

Cody listened. He'd been quite quiet this time.

"We do the best we can. It's best to work for a better future."

"You said your friends died but you didn't. Why was that?"

"When it's your time it's your time," Floyd said. "It wasn't my time. I went on alone. It wasn't easy. It's not how I wanted it to be, but it's the way it was. I either had to fight or die and I was way too pissed off to die. I was one of the lucky ones and there weren't many. Some component peculiar to me wouldn't allow AIDS to get a foothold in my body. No one knows why but the fight against AIDS might go through those of us who were infected but didn't get sick. Once they figure out why, they'll develop a vaccine."

"Why has it taken so long?" I asked. "Why didn't they develop a treatment sooner. I heard it took ten years to have the first drugs to treat the disease."

"That's if you accept the theory that it was brought into the country by someone infected with the disease in the early 80s. There is evidence that AIDS originated in primates and it made the leap to humans in Africa. A movie tried to give it a direct route by having an infected monkey biting some unsuspecting human, and that's how it passed from monkey to man," Floyd said. "Typical Hollywood magic. It's an easy plot and you can't beat a monkey as the villain. Monkeys work a lot cheaper than humans."

"It's far more likely that hunters in Africa killed and consumed monkeys infected with the virus. That's how the disease made the leap from monkey to man. There are many more victims of AIDS in Africa, heterosexual victims, leaving more than a million AIDS orphans in Africa while it was just gaining a foothold in the U.S."

"In the early 80s gay men began to die of diseases that didn't kill anyone. It wasn't the diseases, it was a compromised immune system that was the real killer," Floyd said. "It could have arrived in the States in the 70s. Even after doctors knew AIDS was a killer, they were writing things like pneumonia, brain cancer, or anything but AIDS on death certificates. They didn't want to tell people's families that their loved ones died of the gay disease. This was true in the 80s and so we may never know who was the first to die of AIDS in this country. In Africa they called it slims disease. People progressively lost weight until they just died. Africa is way behind the white countries when it comes to the modern world. People may have been dying in villages of slims for decades. There is no way to know."

"It took a long time to come up with treatments for a disease that was killing tens of thousands. What took so long?" I asked, wanting to know his thinking on it.

"Killing millions if you count black deaths. Ignorance was the killer. AIDS was killing the right folks. No one cared how many gay men or IV drug users died. Not so much hemophiliacs, but ignorance isn't capable of using logic. Being a virus, it was incredibly contagious. In this case it was passed in body fluids. Semen. Blood."

"Why didn't LGBTQ people raise hell?" I asked.

"There was no LGBTQ at the time. We'd just stopped being criminals for being homosexual. We'd hardly been taken of the mentally ill list of diseases. After you've been a mentally diseased criminal, anything is better," Floyd said.

"We didn't know why we were dying. The CDC suspected but they couldn't prove that it was in body fluids. They were forbidden to spend CDC money on the study of AIDS. They had some limited discretionary funds. They used those to try to find the cause of the disease, but they were very careful. They were afraid to say anything because they'd been denied funds to study AIDS. The politicians refused to appropriate funds to study the disease. They were ordered not to study it."

"Since the people didn't seem to mind gay men and IV drug users dying, and the preachers loved it, politicians weren't going to raise a finger, and there wasn't enough noise made by families of hemophiliacs to draw attention to their sick children who were now dying," Floyd said. "So politicians decided they'd do what they did best. Nothing."

"To simply let people die because you don't like them seems criminal to me," I said. "No one should be able to do that."

"It sounds terrible but it was worse than that. People who had been hated and tormented all their lives were now being ravaged by a disease no one gave a damn about. Well, the CDC did but what they were doing had to be secret if they wanted to keep working on it."

"When did they develop treatment?" I asked.

"AZT became available in the early 90s. It was quite effective. Better late than never, I guess. That's when AIDS became a serious disease that wasn't killing everyone who had it. My friends were all dead. It was the bigger cities that were hit hardest," Floyd said.

"That's a little over 30 years ago. How did we arrive at gay marriage after AIDS?"

"AIDS changed the equation. Most gays remembered being outcast and we were the lowest of the low. Even God hated us. In the human spirit somewhere is a compassion gene. Once enough of us died, and with so many men being so sick, there were people who wanted to help. Especially families decided that instead of hating their gay kids, or simply turning their backs on them, they'd help them. I suppose blood is thicker than water. This is all my version of the events that took place as I went from being a young man to the old fart you see before you today. The mood changed. The anger with us subsided, or maybe people got tired of listening to the hatred," Floyd said. "Things changed and a few really savvy gay men began to demand, not ask for, not beg for, but they demanded equal rights. It was fought in the churches and it was fought by politicians, but gradually the people began to ask, 'Why not?' I wasn't one of those."

"Caught me by total surprise. I saw no sign of equal rights on the horizon anywhere. Gay marriage was a queer fantasy, and one day we woke up and it was made legal in a few states, and then it was legal in more states, and then it was the law of the land. It was stunning. After what we'd been through as a people, it was stunning. They hoped we'd all die of AIDS, but we wouldn't, and for now we have the right to marry."

"It was a terrible price to pay for gay marriage," I said.

"A few minutes ago you didn't know anything about AIDS," Floyd said. "Now you know why no one wants to talk about it."

"I sure didn't know AIDS was tied to gay marriage," I said.

"In the end everything is tied to everything else. In the 80s no one gave a thought to anyone accepting us as we were. I didn't. I didn't care. I was going to live my life and ignore the ignorance but not everyone was as resigned to our fate as I was. Good thing."

"And we all lived happily ever after," Cody said.

A disease is killing thousands of people. It's neither discussed or even studied. What kind of people let a disease run rampant without doing something to stop it?

How could people ignore a deadly disease?

What kind of people would do that?

I'd listen to Floyd describe it to me and it was worse than anything I could have imagined. I was glad I didn't know about AIDS. It was sad that so many people were so hateful.

How do people get like that?

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead