Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Or as this guy I used to work with would call it, “Martin Luther, the King Day.”
When I got out of college in 1989, Buffalo Tom was already on its way to international rock superstardom. But in the meantime, I needed some sort of job that would help pay the bills. I didn’t want a serious career-sort of job, as it needed to be a disposable in case they wouldn’t take me back after extensive touring. I told Arun, the owner of the printing/copying franchise the deal, that the reason I wanted to work at this copy shop in Cambridge after graduating with a B.A. and two minors was because I needed something fast and flexible. I never thought he would take me back after the first 6-week tour, but this went on for two or three years. It was like the mafia; I couldn’t get out of it. He was happy to have someone competent to run the place while he, the laziest business owner I have ever come across, could stay away from the place for days at a time. He wasn’t just lazy; he could get downright cantankerous with customers. He was from India. His wife was a physician. I think he came from a pretty high station in life there. He couldn’t deal with the petty concerns of people who wanted a discount because there was a mark on page 412 of all 120 copies of their document.
It was a place where the customer was rarely right. Arun would send me to the small claims court to collect on overdue accounts that had no intention of paying the few hundred dollars owed. I embraced this aspect of the gig. It was the most interesting way I, now promoted to Assistant Manager (with the business card to prove it), could spend the day. I would have gone into law from there if it weren’t for BT’s skyrocketing rock stardom. He had no head for business, no long-term strategy for keeping the customers that were keeping him afloat. He was just cheap. Even after a good inexpensive sub, salad, and pizza joint opened next door, he would stay on the Hot Pockets diet. And he paid us pennies.
There was one other employee aside from me. His name was Sally (Salvatore) from the North End, Boston’s Little Italy. Sally was the “skilled” worker of the two of us. He ran the offset printing press that was right there in the middle of the floor behind the counter. I don’t know if he was hard of hearing before he began operating the press, but he certainly had lost a lot during the years he worked on the thing. There was one tone of voice. Everything was yelled. But that was also suitable to his temperament. I have not met another who so closely approximated the character of Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar named Desire.” Though he never struck me, violence always hung as a possibility in the air. His breath was foul. He had no sense of humor at all. He had the same middle-parted, feathered hair and black mustache I’m sure he wore during his peak Saturday Night Fever years. And every year he got the same $.025/hour raise added on to his meager hourly wage that would predictably launch him into a tirade in Arun’s office, which had a huge picture window that looked out onto the rest of the shop. So if a customer was at the counter with me, they heard and saw this large menacing guy inches away from the older Indian gentleman in Sansabelt trousers who remained seated and tried to ignore him as Sally yelled his string of obscenities, spittle coming from his mouth along with his hot stinky breath. He would then go to his half-hour lunch break, come back on time, and take his frustrations out on the printing press, though doing so while he carried on with his work, muttering incomprehensible malevolence. After ceaseless complaining to me about Arun after the boss had left, I would get frustrated and ask him why Sally didn’t just leave. Surely he could make more money and be “happy” somewhere else. But for all the guy’s piss and vinegar, he was like a man frozen in place. Sally couldn’t change. It was a mistake for me to call his bluff, because he would sputter out in simmering sadness, with nothing to say and his yelling and complaining – his natural state of being – would sort of stop and he had no way to let it all out and would somehow become more threatening to me over the long-haul, as if applying the sort of logical thought that he seemed incapable of understanding made me more of a target for the day he finally just unloaded on his workplace, another disgruntled worker on the six o’clock news.
“Why don’t we get dis Martin Lootah, da King day off?” He asked me once.
“I don’t know. I think it is an optional retail holiday,” I would respond.
“Who is dis guy, Martin Lootah, da King, and why do we have dis stupid holiday anyways?”
“It’s not ‘the King,’ Sally,” I would say. “It’s Martin Luther King. That was his name.”
“Hmmph. Yeah, well I dunno why it’s a holiday, but if it is, we should get it off except for Arun is so fuckin’ cheap.”
Sally was filled with classic malapropisms. He could get really riled up over politics as they affected him on a daily basis. “So the uddah day I do to get my sub, the same sub I get every day, the SAME FUCKIN’ SUB, and da guy tells me it is $4.24! I’m like, woah, dis is the same ting I get every day, when did your price go up? So he tells me it isn’t da price, it’s da taxes. I’m like, come on, you gottabekiddin’ me! Another tax? He’s like, ‘it’s a ready-active tax.’” Sally asked me, “You know about dis?”
“Ready-active?” I asked, half paying attention.
“Yeah, yeah. Ready-active. That’s what the guy told me. Fuckin’ Dukakis, who YOU voted for, is makin’ dis tax ready-active!”
“Ohhh, you mean retroactive. The tax is a retroactive tax, meaning it also goes back to cover certain things.”
Pause. Stare. “So you know about dis?”
“Well, only what you’re telling me. And what I’ve heard on the news or whatever.”
“But you voted for him,” one of those stated questions that you’re not sure whether or not to answer.
We found some detente in our daily dealings though. We could talk about sports to some extent, though I was barely paying attention to any local teams during these years. He tried, though. And I would often find myself caring more and paying more attention to the sports pages just to make the car pool less awkward. Yeah, I would ride my bike during the OK weather months, but when I started taking the bus, he offered to start picking me up on Somerville Ave., as that was the way he came in every day anyway. I couldn’t say no, as much as I dreaded the trips -- more time alone with him, stinky breath, and the sort of road rage that you might predict. We had to deal with a rotary (roundabout) on the way home and we rarely entered and exited it without some harrowing near-death experience, often accompanied by racial epithets. He was one of the few people in life I knew who still threw out stuff like, “Oh, OK Mister Chinaman! What da fuck?!” to a perceived cut-off in traffic. His terms of bigotry sounded archaic, like something from a 19th century newspaper cartoon, some Kipling-sort of thing.
We also had a clock radio resting on the binding machine that he always had tuned to Kiss 108, the top 40 station that played only the same 20-40 songs repeatedly throughout the day. This was 1989/1990. Stuff like new jack swing, Bell Biv Devoe was one of the few things I could take. But it was music like “Black Velvet,” Rick Astley, Lisa Stansfield. None of this would drive me over the edge on first listen. But after a while, I couldn’t take it. So I gingerly asked if I could switch the radio for a little while after one lunch break. He reluctantly agreed. I put on some oldies or classic rock and we quickly fell into the pattern that he would start the day on Kiss 108 and after lunch I could switch it to something else. I tried not to get too provocative, figuring him as one who would enjoy some oldies. Plus the college stations just didn’t come in too well on that lame radio. But the oldies station, for having something like 30 years of music to choose from, somehow found it necessary to play the same goddamn Frankie Vallee song over and over.
One day we came in and Arun had apparently tuned the radio into the classical station. I could see this working on Sally as he went through his routine of oiling, cleaning, and tuning up the press, cranking up the rollers. It was burning him up. Something had upset the pattern. He simply did not know what to do. I could feel his eyes on me, head down, looking at me askance. This went on for hours. Finally, Arun left around lunch break. Sally sidled up to me.
“Hey. Didju put dat station on?”
“I guess so.”
“Well, it wasn’t me,” he said with a mirthless laugh in his voice.
“So, it must have been Arun,” I deduced for him.
“So, it wasn’t you?” he asked, again with that little catch in his voice, staring me down, looking, I guess, for some untruth hidden in my eyes.
“No! I told you it wasn’t me. I would tell you if it was me.”
30 seconds would pass in silence as he considered some more. “’Cause if it wasn’t you or me… it musta been Arun,” he concluded.
“Didju hear dat music? One of doze songs was like, 20 minutes long. Doze were some long songs.”
“Well, it’s classical music. They’re not songs so much as pieces. That’s what people refer to them as.”
Another minute or so and then, more to himself, with a little half laugh, shaking his head, “Doze were some long songs.”
So aside from the MLK day holiday, what does this charming vignette have to do with this week’s Cover of the Week? Nothing. This week I am doing a version of the Rogers and Hart song, “Little Girl Blue.” I’m embarrassed to say I only know a few versions of the song, despite being a huge fan of many of the artists known to have covered it, including Sarah Vaughan, Johnny Hartman. Sam Cooke, Anita O’Day and Chet Baker. And I was surprised to note that the Afghan Whigs covered it, though they have done some great covers. In fact, when I met Greg Dulli for the first time in the early or mid 1990s, I embarrassingly told him how much I liked “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road,” which he casually mentioned was a Percy Sledge cover that I was unaware of at the time (I actually still prefer the Whigs’ version to the one by Sledge, whom I love as a singer).
I have loved the Nina Simone versions of this song for a long time. Her’s is the arrangement I use as my template, though now that I am digging back to these other versions, I note that Baker takes a similar approach to Simone.
Little Girl Blue MP3