Foto by tgw, New York City, February 2011
Keeping Track of My Relatives
Why do women love studying apes? I watched a teevee show on apes last night--I watch all the monkey shows on teevee--checking on the relatives, you dig? The featured participants in the show were two babes, one a very tough-looking rather mannish sort of woman and the other a Hollywood-sparkle-plenty type (female celebrities like to make set-up African-jungle pseudo-documentaries--you know, they're concerned about the apes--and while they're there they may adopt a couple of African orphans as well). So these two babes were in Africa, though it could have been a set-up jungle down at Busch Gardens for all we viewers knew. They had a male guide--it looked legitimate because the guide and the babes on close ups had flies and gnats and bugs and unidentified flying objects congregating around their faces and hands--and suddenly this little trio of human monkeys came upon this big silver-back ape male--GASP...and these women suddenly went into a state of awe. They were so excited I could smell their boiling hormonal juices steaming out through the teevee screen. They reminded me of Diane Fossey, the babe who literally fell in love with male apes--and then I recalled Jane Goodall--babes in love with apes. Diane and Jane lived among the apes.
Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall
Me, I never liked my jungle relatives (Cheeta, yeah, but who could not like Cheeta?). The first time I visited a monkey house was at the zoo in my hometown. It was a fairly compact wooden structure behind the main zoo--the big jail cages where they kept the ferocious beasts, like the old King of the Beasts whose name was appropriately Leo whose plaintiff roar could be heard echoing across my end of town every sundown religiously on time--roaring out his beckoning for a mate to rescue his ass from this zoological incarceration--his roars belched out 4 or 5 in a row or to his satisfaction when they'd suddenly die off echoing backwards, way back, back to their ancient homelands where before those apes evolved into human beings the King of the Beasts were pretty much rulers of the plains of Africa--until human beings put them in their place--that place that leads to their extinction.
My hometown monkey house was filled with a gaggle of neurotic chimps and one old gorilla male who simply sat on his big fat ass and looked dejected--as if if you handed him a guitar, he'd immediately start playing and singing the blues. The neurotic chimps were vile--one was playing with his own shit; another, a young male, was masturbating like a Cynic on an ancient Greek street corner--and one, who was certainly a little paranoid, kept, I swear, shooting all us dumbass human's the bird.
"Too much monkey business," Chuck Berry, one of the inventors of true rock 'n roll (the swinging kind; not the punk/Brit kind), sang.
My mother's hometown was Beaumont, Texas. That's down in the southeast corner of Texas. It's a river port on the Sabine River; a deep-water river port, too. My mother's mother after her husband, my grandfather, died, pulled up stakes and followed the new head of the household, her son, out to wild West Texas on the Old Frontier, out toward the setting sun from Fort Worth, which billed itself in those days as "Where the West Begins." My hometown billed itself as "The Key City of West Texas." The family consist at that time was my grandmother, the poet/millinerian/florist/librarian; my Uncle Brother, the following-the-sun only son; my mother; and my mother's older sister, my Aunt Gee. My mother married a West Texas man when she was 16. So she was trapped in West Texas. My grandmother got a little successful in my hometown so she settled down there. But my Aunt Gee, she hated the place.
My Aunt Gee was a hot little minky of a babe. She was petite (trim, as they said in her day), extremely pretty, sassy, like she knew she was hot and attracted exciting men, men who wore sharp clothes, drove big nice cars, knew how to dance the latest dances, and who had their sights on the heights. After she graduated high school, she enrolled in the local Drake Business College and got a "degree" in secretarial science. She then found she was a shoo in for getting good secretarial jobs and the next thing the family knew, Aunt Gee was back in Beaumont, first marrying a sweetback man who was handsome as hell but was a roamer with a roving eye. She had a son with this man, but after that marriage failed and she got her divorce, she suddenly fell swoon under the spell of the man who became my favorite Uncle, my Uncle One-Eye.
Uncle One-Eye was a dashing man, half Cajun, with that dark black-haired-black-eyed handsome swamp look to him--a charming man who dressed to the nines--his favorite hats were Miller hats that he'd buy and then have blocked to his specifications--this is back when hatters blocked hats for their customers--custom fitted--his favorite shoes were French Shriners--handmade--their sizes marked in ink--sporting what were called Cuban heels--his suits were the best Hart, Shaffner, and Marx measured-to-fit suits--his shirts were the finest silk shirts from Sulkas in New York City--and, yes, he had one-eye. He'd lost his eye working in the big refineries south of Beaumont in the Port Arthur-Orange area when he was young--at the time Beaumont was famous in oil history as the home of Spindletop, the first big domed oilfield discovered by John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil geologists in Texas at the turn of the last century--it put Beaumont on the map and brought to birth the following oil companies: The Texas Company--it became Texaco; the Gulf Oil Company; the Magnolia Oil and Refining Company--it became Mobil; the Humble Oil and Refining Company--it became in later form Exxon. And this oil field cluttered all around the city of Beaumont--and Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange became oil boom towns--wild and woolly places where the work was hard but rewarding and the opportunity to get rich quick was everywhere. And my Uncle One-Eye married my Aunt Gee and together they invested in oil stocks--didn't get rich, but got secure enough that soon they were sportin' around the area in their sharp new Ford roadster--and next thing you know, my Aunt Gee was pregnant and soon giving birth to her second son, my cousin Jay-Jay.
I remember clearly the first time I visited Beaumont...and Beaumont attracted me. I mean the main street in downtown Beaumont was shadowed over by these huge ocean-going ships that were tied up at the Beaumont Port--mostly big tankers, but also a lot of freighters. Beaumont was also full of parks, a lot of green space, and all over the city were huge old oaks and elms all of 'em covered in mistletoe and Spanish moss and tall, tall pine trees all over and especially in my Aunt Gee and Uncle One Eye's yard at the house Uncle One Eye, a fine carpenter, had built with his own hands, a big two lot yard...so cool and inviting to me. The part of me that inherited my mother's dreams trying to lure me back to the maternal homeland.
However, before I ever visited Beaumont, I was already familiar with my Aunt Gee and my Uncle One-Eye as they visited West Texas several times a year, especially on holidays. My Uncle One-Eye by the time I knew him well had become a bit of a part-time gambler (he was a carpenter/handy man and junk collector by trade) whose specialty was craps--my Aunt Gee bragged how she'd never seen Uncle One Eye lose at the craps tables. Once a year, Uncle One Eye and Aunt Gee made a pilgrimage to Las Vegas--in particular my Uncle's favorite place, Harrod's on the Strip. That trek took them through my hometown and then back through as they were returning to Beaumont. On those return trips they would always show up with souvenirs and my Aunt Gee would have new clothes. Plus they were always around at Christmas--I mean, my Aunt's mother and sister and brother were there--so as a kid I knew my Uncle and Aunt intimately; like I said, my Uncle One-Eye became my favorite Uncle--and, too, I knew my cousin Jay-Jay.
Jay-Jay joined the Navy at the start of World War II, the righteous war. At the time he was only 17, but he lied about his age and the Navy took him. The first thing they did was pull all of Jay-Jay's teeth. He had bad teeth, you see, and the Navy couldn't risk throwing Jay-Jay into combat and have him come down with a toothache in the middle of battle, so they pulled all his teeth. He had a full set of phony choppers in his mouth at 17. Jay-Jay went on to see a lot of action in the South Seas and especially in the Philippines. After the war, he came to Dallas and stayed with us for a couple of weeks while he was getting his muster-out pay and his GI Bill eligibility in order--he was intending to go back to Beaumont and enter Lamar Technological College--or Lamar Tech--to work on an electrical engineering degree--since he had gotten involved in electronics and telecommunications in the Navy. That visit was very important in my life because one day while staying with us, Jay-Jay sat down at our old Mason and Hamlin piano and MAN-O-Manischewitz, Jay-Jay wailed out the "Honky-Tonk Train," the boogie-woogie classic made famous in those days by the boogie duo of Meade "Lux" Lewis and Albert Ammons--they had been a rave at Timme Rosenkrantz's From Gospel to Swing Concert in Town Hall here in New York City back in 1938. And my cousin Jay-Jay worked that old Train out just right--a velvety rockin' clickity-clack beauty that swept up my attention and I made Jay-Jay play boogie-woogie over and over and then he tried to teach me the boogie left hand--and I got it down--and, by golly, because of cousin Jay-Jay, the piano became my mistress, and as a result of gettin' the 8-to-the-bar beat down in my left hand and letting the virtuosity in my right hand burn, I became a little boogie boy at age 11, playing boogie at parties and at junior high assemblies; the two boogie masters in my hometown for a brief moment were me and a blind guy whose only boogie was his version of the Sabre Dance. From boogie I went on to be-bop--and soon I'd left boogie behind...and as I progressed on up through life, I lost track of cousin Jay-Jay. The last time I saw him, it was in Beaumont, and Jay-Jay had married a British airline stewardess, a beauty of a London redhead, and he had two kids with this woman, and a crazy affair that ended in a dirty divorce--and cousin Jay-Jay was an adult by then, handsome as a movie star, smoking a pipe to keep his nerves under control. After that I went on to college, then married, and moved to New York City. I lost track of cousin Jay-Jay after my Aunt Gee died at 89 in 1991. I had called her just before she died. She was living with cousin Jay-Jay and his new wife, a Beaumont girl he'd met and fallen madly in love with.
The next time I heard of Jay-Jay was through my brother in early 2000. Jay-Jay had shown up one day at my brother's digs in Central Texas and he told me Jay-Jay was now a high-up with Bell Telephone and Lucent--he'd started with Western Electric, the old manufacturing division of the original Ma Bell telephone monopoly--and living in the Hill Country of Texas.
One time while I was visiting Beaumont, I was still a kid and Jay-Jay was still hanging around his home then, he sat down at his mother's piano and sang a little song he'd written. I never forgot the song and recorded it with theryefarmerfromqueens in the 1980s. It was called, "She Made a Monkey Out of Me."
I came across the recording the other day--on one of the hundreds of cassette tapes that are in-boxed or sitting in naked stacks on my floor. I got to wondering about cousin Jay-Jay. I wondered was he still kicking and I thought, I should give the dude a call. After all, we are kinfolk and we do have the same emotions and desires and dreams running through our genes--so I looked him up on Google.
Ah, hell, I was stunned--the first response I got was cousin Jay-Jay's obituary. He had died back in December of 2010 after, the obit stated, a "valiantly fought battle with cancer." Damn. I just missed him--another one of my blood gone. And dammit, I got to bitching inside myself how cruel being a human being is. How cruel that we know death is inevitable; yet we try and convince ourselves we are invincible monkeys--monkeys not from evolution but from being created by some human-monkey-created supernatural father who lives off somewhere in our atmospheric clouds, our allegorical clouds.
My Cousin Jay-Jay was born in 1927...he left the coil on December 12, 2008, age 81...this wonderfully talented soul who beat the path I now journey before me, showed me the exquisite art of piano playing, and who will keep on keepin' on in my life's tale for as long as I keep keepin' on...keepin' on ridin' on that Honky-Tonk Train. "Beat me, Daddy, eight to the bar," and old Jay-Jay could sure beat you eight to the bar in every thing he did--he was a good golfer, too, I might add.
for The Saturday Morning Daily Growler