Jitterbug Boy: Sitting With An Old Man On A Bench
Written and sung by Tom Waits
Well, I’m a jitterbug boy
by the shoe-shine
resting on my Laurels
and my Hardys too
life of Riley on a swing shift
gears follow my drift
Once upon a time I was
in show-biz too
I seen the Brooklyn Dodgers
playin’ at Ebbets Field
seen the Kentucky Derby too
it’s fast women, slow horses, I’m reliable sources
and I’m holding up a lamp post
if you want to know
I seen the Wabash Cannonball,
buddy, I’ve done it all
because I slept with the lions
and Marilyn Monroe
had breakfast in the eye
of a hurricane
fought Rocky Marciano,
played Minnesota Fats
burned hundred-dollar bills,
I’ve eaten Mulligan stew
got drunk with Louis Armstrong
what’s that old song?
I taught Mickey Mantle
everything that he knows
and so you ask me
what I’m doing here
holding up a lamp post
flippin’ this quarter,
trying to make up my mind
and if it’s heads I’ll go to
Tennessee, and tails I’ll buy a drink
if it lands on the edge
I’ll keep talking to you
The rumpled, middle-aged, gray-haired, slightly drunk man limped out of the pub, using his cane to negotiate the three stairs down to the sidewalk. He stood there for a moment, seemingly as if not quite sure of where he was going. The sun was moving lower in the sky, and it cast a golden haze over the small riverside town of St. Sebastian. Due to the glare of the golden orb, he decided to walk east, toward the river. Weaving ever so slightly, but not enough for anyone to notice, he leaned on his cane for balance and to help ease the pain in his knees. Some would say he was a big man, others would call him an ex-athlete gone to seed; still others would call him fat. He thought of himself as overweight, not so much as fat but as built for comfort – not for speed, but losing the battle to true obesity. He no longer cared about it.
The cane creaked and groaned as he slowly limped down the sidewalk toward the river. His cane had seen better days – once he had taken the time to re-finish it in a glossy black, with flames painted on the bottom, to remind him of the walking speed he no longer had. It was now badly glued and sloppily taped together. He had once swung it at a cat and missed, but broke the cane in the process. Rather than pay the nine dollars for a new cane, he had decided to just repair the old one. It was good enough for him. In some strange way, the battered cane did reflect him – battered and bruised, held precariously together, but still going.
He had walked about two blocks and was beginning to tire. His knees were hurting him this week, and today they seemed particularly sensitive and painful, as if resentful of the fact that he was up and walking around on them. He could have used another Martini. As he neared the river, he noticed a bench not far ahead. Unfortunately for him, there was an old man sitting on the bench, and this presented one of those quandaries he was always finding himself in these days. Should he rest his painful body by sitting on the bench, even though there was another person already sitting there? The likelihood of having to talk with the old man on the bench made him shudder, but his knees really hurt. Passing the old man without acknowledging him, he decided to sit down, as far away on the other side of the bench as possible.
In his heyday, the middle-aged man traveled extensively for his job. He became an expert people-watcher during time spent waiting in airports and hotel lobbies, or while eating dinner alone in some cheap, depressing restaurant or bar and grill. Curiosity getting the better of him, he began to surreptitiously peer over at the old man on the other side of the bench. He was the kind of man you don’t see around much anymore. A dapper old man, dressed in a tailored, clean and pressed suit, complete with tie, vest and watch chain. On his aged head sat a white straw boater, the kind of hat with a straight, round brim that men don’t wear anymore. He sat erect, with both hands on his cane, and didn’t seem to move much as the traffic on Main Street began to build to rush hour proportions. He showed no inclination of wanting to have a conversation; in fact, he hadn’t even acknowledged the middle-aged man when he sat on the bench. Relieved, the middle-aged man continued his rest and just looked around.
After about thirty minutes, the six St. Pauli’s Girls and the five Martinis he had had at the pub started to make their appearance in his brain. Some days he could drink quite a lot and seemingly not be affected by it at all, today was not one of those days. He was thinking about the label on the St. Paulie Girls beer bottle. It will never be the same since they gave in to political correctness and changed their logo to be more “wholesome”. He didn’t like the breast reduction given to Ms. St. Pauli Girl, that the marketing people had obviously asked for. It took some of the fun out of drinking. Slowly, he began to feel like talking to someone, so he started to engage the old man in conversation, whether the old man wanted to talk to him or not.
“Kind of a nice day isn’t it?” he said to the old man. The old man just sat there and looked out at the traffic as it was building for rush hour. The middle-aged man just began to talk, mostly without stopping. “I really don’t know what I’m doing here sitting on this bench; I don’t believe I’ve ever sat on this bench before…and would never have believed that I would be sitting on a bench at this time of day at this period in my life. To let you know, at one time I had a successful career and was doing very well. All of a sudden everything seemed to collapse – I lost my job, I lost my house, I lost everything, my savings, my retirement. The only thing I didn’t lose was my family. It doesn’t really make any sense to me at this point, and I have to tell you that I cannot believe that this has happened to me…I have always worked hard in my life and thought I was always doing the right thing, and making sure my family had everything they needed. All of a sudden POOF! …You wouldn’t know it by looking at me but once I was a pretty good athlete, I was a pretty good student, and I was very good at my jobs. I can’t do anything anymore…I can barely walk. I shuffle around like an old dog with arthritis. And all I do all day is wait for the night, which I don’t like at all anyway. Neil Diamond once sang a song called “Thank The Lord for the Night Time”, but for me, nighttime means nightmare. I can’t sleep; I can’t read, I can’t settle down enough to fall asleep. My brain is in overdrive – it never stops to rest…it never gives me a chance to stop and rest. Even when I do sleep, I wake unrested and troubled. For me, midnight is another day.”
The old man just sat on the bench and had no reaction to what the middle-aged man was saying. In fact, he didn’t seem very interested in anything he had to say to him, but even if he did the middle-aged man continued to babble on, so the old man couldn’t get a word in edgewise. The middle-aged man didn’t even know if the old man could hear him, but he continued…
“You know I used to have a dog; I mean I actually do have a dog but he’s become so hard to handle that I don’t even like to walk him anymore… in fact, I don’t even know if I like him…I used to walk with him in the in the park all the time until I lost my car to old age…Sorry about that phrasing. It was my precious 1984 Mercedes that I used to call the Bismarck – after the famous Chancellor of Germany, not the doughnut…but you would know that wouldn’t you? I’ll bet most people don’t know who Bismarck was, except a battleship they made a movie about. Without a car, I can’t get to the park anymore because it is all downhill and it is very difficult for me to walk downhill with my knees and anyway the dog likes to pull me around. In other words you could say the dog likes to walk me. We tried walking around the neighborhood but that became a Bataan Death March due to the fact that the dog was so excited with all the smells that he would just about pull me over in his excitement and eagerness at being outside. He’s a very strong dog, both strong of will and strong physically. Without my cane I would have been face down on the pavement many a time. In fact, I have taken a number of headers while walking the dog.”
“I just came from the pub; it’s a nice place, better now since they have banned smoking, so I don’t have to smell like a chimney anymore even though I don’t smoke cigarettes. The only downside is that some of the more civilized habits a man could have, such as smoking a good cigar or having a quiet pipe in the corner of the bar are also now off-limits. I don’t know what’s happening to this world…There are too many people out there that have no idea what’s going on…all they care about is themselves…they don’t know that people are in need or that not everybody is as lucky as them they think they know everything and deserve everything and that no one deserves any help…and they will certainly tell you what they think. At one point in my life it would not have been very difficult for me to take these people down a peg or two and give them a lesson in real life… now the only recourse I have is to fruitlessly wave at them with my cane and look like an old fool for doing so. My aim is really bad…that’s another thing I need – new glasses.”
“You know I really do miss my Mercedes it was old 27 years old to be exact but there was just something about that car that made you feel good when you sat behind the wheel and drove it around town, with that big aluminum V-8 engine with 16 valves. Sitting on leather seats, looking out over the hood to see the Mercedes Star hood ornament and driving a car that really looks like an automobile that didn’t look like a copy of anything like the cars look today…I know I’ve had a little too much to drink; well actually I don’t think I had all that much to drink that’s about my normal but today it seems to have gone to my head a little bit and a I’m a little surprised my stamina must be getting weaker and weaker. I look over at the river – we’re only about 10 feet from the river and sometimes it’s very, very tempting to go walk over across that bridge, stand in the middle, look down and then throw myself into the water and slowly drift downstream until I get caught in the dam in Batavia…only trouble with that is I don’t want to drown and I’m afraid of heights so jumping would be quite difficult for me.” The middle-aged man thought he saw an imperceptible movement on the part of the old man, thinking “He sure could sit still…I suppose at your age you’ve heard it all and probably nothing surprises you anymore. I wonder how many people have sat on this bench next to you and started to tell you their story. You’ve probably seen more in your lifetime than anybody now could imagine.”
The middle-aged man thought to himself “he looks to be about 90 maybe older, so that means he would’ve seen all kinds of things people never saw before, and his life had to be one of constant amazement at new things and constant adjustment to the changes in society. Think about it – man on the moon, world wars, plagues, murders, starving people, television, unwanted children, the Great Depression, I-Pods, world wide pandemics; anyway he’s seen it all and here I am slurring my words and just telling him these trivial things about me when he probably doesn’t want to hear… So I guess that’s too bad because I’m going to continue talking to him because I don’t have anybody else to talk to right now. If he wants to get up, he is perfectly able to do so, unless he needs a nurse to help him. God, he’s old.” He began talking again – “You know, I did see Mickey Mantle play baseball at old Comisky Park. I was just a kid then, and he was getting toward the end of his career, but could he ever hit a baseball! You’d hear the crack of the bat, and the ball would rocket into the outfield – straight as an arrow and rising while it gained speed until it hit the bleachers. It looked like someone had driven a golf ball off a tee. The Mick was the epitome of a Major League ballplayer. There was another baseball player – a Chicago Cub of all things – who came to be a baseball hero for me. His name was Billy Williams, and they called him “Sweet Swingin” Billy Williams because he had the most beautiful left-handed swing in the game. He too was a great ballplayer, and ended up in the Hall of Fame just like The Mick.”
Without stopping he continued on – “the two good bartenders at the pub, Terry and Kerri, were both fired for pouring “heavy” drinks and giving away the occasional freebie to the regulars. Now they got some dim bulb in there that can barely make a decent Martini; he must be from Wisconsin or maybe South Dakota, but when you have to tell the bartender how to properly make the most famous drink in the world I think it signals the Apocalypse. I once met chef Paul Prudhomme in his restaurant in New Orleans…he was so fat that he had to sit in a chair all the time, even while cooking…but he autographed his cookbook for my wife…and the best thing was he personally showed me how he made his famous Cajun Martinis. It’s a sad world where you can’t go anywhere anymore and have people who actually know what they’re doing do it. I know that salespeople in retail stores don’t know anything anymore. Blame that on management, who want people to work for next to nothing, will not pay to have them trained properly or focus on customer service. It is a thing of the past…I guess corporations expect people to go into the stores and just buy…how does that create any loyalty if there is no relationship there…I don’t know, all the crooks on Wall Street know something – they’re sure getting rich. That’s something the great-unwashed middle class and lower middle class people haven’t managed to figure out how to do. There is no compassion anymore for anything or anybody…Speaking of Wall Street, I was in the Twin Towers once, and watched TV in horror as the events unfolded on September 11th. I also have seen people sleeping in cardboard boxes in the shadow of the United Nations Building. Sometimes you get to thinking that you’ve lived too long…and seen too much. I remember when John F. Kennedy was killed – and I remember being glued to the television set (black and white in those days) watching a true American Hero being given a hero’s funeral and being laid in a hero’s grave. The same goes for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. This would be a totally different country now if those three had lived. Instead we ended up with Nixon, Ford, Carter (who I think was a good man, but an ineffectual president), Saint Ronnie and the two Bushes, who were bookends to one of the smartest presidents we ever had – Bill Clinton. I also watched TV as our government pulled off the greatest technological hoax of all time…the moon landing. What a triumph of propaganda over the Russians!”
The middle-aged man babbled on, not giving the old man a chance to respond. “We are now witnessing the Death of Books in America. People don’t read anymore anyway. What they are mostly reading is junk…not exactly Dickens or Shakespeare or Hemingway…who blew his own head off by the way…I feel sorry for people who will never experience the joy of opening up a brand-new book and experiencing how it smells and feels…and how real books become friends…it’s a great loss for them. It makes you wonder about all this new technology…all of the positive advantages of technologies like the Internet, cell phones, electronic “readers” and tablets. No one ever talks about the negative side of these technologies – how all this e-mailing, texting, sexting, e-reading, video games, electronic banking and bill-paying will affect the human being. Already, many people have very little face-to-face discourse with other people – What’s the long term effect on civility and society as a whole? Will all of this reliance on technology blow up in everybody’s face someday?” Again, without stopping to give the old man a chance to respond, he continued – “I guess no one cares because there is big money to be made from these devices, and most people don’t think about what they’re doing…and how quickly and thoroughly they become addicted to them…Speaking of Technology, did you know I once saw a UFO? That’s right – an unidentified flying object flew right over me at midnight while I was sitting on Ormond Beach in Florida…it was an amazing sight. My wife saw it too. We were sitting on the beach in the dark watching the ocean and minding our own business, having a few cocktails, and it flew right over.”
Without losing a breath, the middle-aged man said, “I think I mentioned that I used to work. I was a so-called banker and then business consultant…can you imagine two more crooked professions than those two? But for a while I enjoyed it until I saw through it. Now I see it for what it really is… the devil’s work. All we ended up doing was helping to make the executives rich while putting regular people who just wanted a decent job in a nice atmosphere to support their families and send their kids to college… I can’t tell you that I didn’t enjoy the money I was making or the travel all across the U.S. that I did, but it became way too much and took me away from my family for way too much time but it was a job and I’m embarrassed and ashamed that I ever did it. I wish I had all of that time back… However, when I was working I was able to do and see a lot of things…I saw Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland sing at the Lyric Opera in Chicago…where I once was mistaken for the great Pavarotti in the men’s room…that nearly caused a riot at the Lyric. I saw Georg Solti direct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during the time they were the best orchestra in the world. I saw Yo-Yo-Ma, the great cellist…and you’ll laugh, but I saw Neil Diamond in his heyday. Much maligned today, Neil Diamond at the peak of his career was a great live performer…he had a cult-like following and they knew every word, every note, and every nuance of every song he sang, and during a concert they would stand the whole time and sing with him! It’s amazing how one charismatic personality can get over 10,000 people to stand and listen to him, hanging on his very word. Kind of like Adolph Hitler did in Germany, but he captivated an entire country…leading to a disaster of unparalleled proportions for the world. Speaking of disasters – when I worked in downtown Chicago, I witnessed no less than four deaths…one poor guy had a heart attack on the bridge crossing the Chicago River from the train station, and as he lay dying the commuters just walked right around him…turning away from the personal tragedy there unfolding. Another time, at lunch break, we used to walk around the Loop to get some air and to get out of the Bank. A man about 30 yards in front of us was walking, minding his own business, and a construction worker dropped a wrench from the roof of the building he was walking next to…the wrench hit him squarely in the head, and he was dead instantly! It was a gruesome thing to see, and after that I always walked closer to the street…the same thing happened right in front of Nordstrom’s on Michigan Avenue…except this time it was a chunk of ice that fell off the building. Merry Christmas to that guy and his family. You never know…when you’re going to go, do you? The last death I witnessed was awful…it occurred at Water Tower Place two days before Christmas…a young man threw himself over the railing surrounding the elevators and killed himself…ruining the poinsettia display on the ground floor…oh, and there was the time in Newark, New Jersey where I was standing in line in a hotel lobby waiting to check in, and a man rushed into the lobby, grabbed a guy about four people in front if me in the line, and slashed his throat…and then rushed out, leaving his victim to bleed out on the hotel floor. That was a shocking and sad death to witness. I suppose his surviving relatives had to pay for his return plane ticket home, as he never got the chance to use it.”
“Have you lived in this town for very long? Do you think it has changed too much? I’ve only been here six or seven years and I think it’s gotten worse…It seems like our illustrious mayor is more interested in issuing liquor licenses. Main Street used to be full of nice antique shops, boutiques and yes the odd pub or two but now that’s just about all there is now – bar after bar. In addition, St. Sebastian has the most incompetent snowplow drivers in the country…They couldn’t come within a foot of the curb even with laser curb feelers. On a different and happier note, one cold, snowy January day, when I used to ride the Howard Street El into the Loop from Evanston, a woman was lying on the platform – and again the commuters walked right around her. She was in labor and having a baby! I stopped to help until paramedics arrived…but for the first and only time in my life I saw a baby born.”
The middle-aged man looked over at the old man, and he was still staring off into the distance, his eyes being shaded by his boater hat. The middle-aged man thought it was really cool, but would never have the nerve to wear in public. “I like hats”; he said to the old man…”I have many of them. One of my favorite hats is a beret… everybody laughs at me when I wear it except for good old Dr. L. who is my shrink…who thinks that it shows some of my aura, that it gives me character and a look, and that it fits me to a “T” especially when I’m wearing my trench coat which he says makes me look dapper.”
“I can’t tell you sir, how upset I am about how my life has turned out…It’s certainly not what I had planned or what my wife had planned for retirement, with no money, no pension, with failing health and thousands and thousands of dollars of debt and an apartment we can’t afford. Certainly it wasn’t our idea of retirement; in fact we’re one more disaster from being homeless…there is no retirement and we’ll be dead before we can retire and I’m not helping the situation any, and I’ll will tell you why.”
“A couple of years ago I suffered a complete mental collapse, and I haven’t been the same since I’ve been unable to work since it happened. I even ended up in a mental hospital, for three days. How many people do you know who got thrown out a mental hospital after three days? I bet you don’t know many even though in your 90+ years you must’ve met some crazy people…I’m pretty crazy. It seems like there are parts of my brain that are missing, I know the whole first year I spent in bed with the very deep case of depression. Only through the help of my psychiatrist Dr. L, have I been able to even function to the point where I can function on a basic level, get out and walk around. If it wasn’t for him I’d be dead now…In fact even with him I’ll be dead soon enough.”
“Did you ever have any children sir?” The middle-aged man asked him. He didn’t wait for a response from the old gentleman. The middle-aged man thought to himself, “maybe he’s dead and I don’t notice I’m talking to a sitting corpse…I know I’m probably ruining his entire evening here this afternoon and evening or whatever it is…doesn’t much matter to me as my days and nights they all run together”. Without missing a beat, he began talking to the old man again – “Sometimes I sleep all day, which appalls me and sometimes I’m up all night; usually I’m up all day and all night…the only thing that seems to put help me to sleep is music. I take 1 million pills a day now, never took pills before…I went 50 some years without ever taking a pill…maybe when I was a kid I took cod liver oil pills that I remember and Castor oil with orange juice but after that it has pretty much a been aspirin here or there or maybe over-the-counter allergy medicine. Now it seems I’ve got a pill for everything…half the pills I take just to keep me functioning on a daily basis. Did you know it took me almost thirty years to drink orange juice after the castor oil experience? Sometimes when I drink orange juice I can taste that castor oil. I never even knew what it was for…or what it was…seems to me that the less I drink the more pills I take. Combining the two hasn’t proven to be any great shakes…in fact I try to be careful about combining the two, which means that I don’t drink much anymore although I do love my Martinis and it is very difficult to stay away from them but I never believed in mixing pills with alcohol unless I was going to kill myself. Once, I want you to know, I had a plan to take a gun and shoot myself…I think there’s some other ways that I could commit self murder, but I’m not ready for them yet. I can go either one of two ways…either I defeat this illness and live a happier life or I remain battling it and decide to put the Final Solution into motion…in no way am I going to live this unhappily and this unproductively for very many more years…and so I have to devise a plan to kill myself with elegance and style if it comes to that.”
“I don’t know about you sir, but I used to love to read. I read everything under the sun…I love the Great Books, love authors like Dickens, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Waugh, John Mortimer, Joyce Cary, John Le Carre, Conrad, Joseph Campbell you name it…I like to read it. Charles Dickens to me is the finest writer of all times, as Muhammad Ali would say about his boxing. I used to go through 30 books a year or more plus newspapers, magazines, Internet…any reading material I could get my hands on…now I cannot concentrate for five-minutes…they have become a lodestone around my neck…mocking me from my bookshelves…taunting me that I can’t read anymore…I guess I should get rid of them…the books and my friends too. I probably should get rid of myself also…I’m not feeling very swell now. Swell…did I just say that? When is the last time you heard anybody say, “I feel swell today?” I ought to stop going to se the shrink and stop taking the pills…and just go back to having my sessions with Dr. Gordon…Gordon’s Gin that is…he can be found almost anywhere and I could drink gallons for what I’m paying a shrink.”
The old man just continued to sit still on the bench, worn down by the continued talking and now virtually ignoring the ranting of the middle-aged man, who thought about a poem “After a Line By John Peale Bishop”, written by Donald Justice, that had been buried in his mind decades ago:
Why will they never speak,
The old ones, the grandfathers?
Always you find them sitting
On ruined porches, deep
In the back country, at dusk,
Hawking and spitting.
They might have sat there forever,
Tapping their sticks,
Peevish, discredited gods.
Ask of the traveler how
At road-end they will fix
You maybe with the cold
Eye of the snake or the bird
And answer not a word,
Only these dark, oracular
Head-shakes or head-nods.
Finally, the combination of the alcohol and the stress of keeping a one – sided conversation going made the middle-aged man a bit woozy…it was time to get up off the bench and go home. He stood up slowly, using his cane for leverage or he would have fallen back into his seat, and turned to bid the old man farewell. As he did so, he thought he saw a slight nod of the head and a small smile come over the old man’s face, as if to say “Thanks for noticing me and talking to me like a human being, and not treating me like a relic from the past.”
Turning around from the old man, the middle-aged, gray-haired man took three steps toward the curb, and then took one quick, gingerly step into the street, using his cane for balance. As he did so, he became the new logo for a bus speeding down Main Street in the rush hour traffic…quite accidentally, of course.
The old man sitting on the bench turned his head to look, and finally cracked a smile…