The Strategerist Blog

The Swing Band


A True (Ghost?) Story.

I’m not a big believer in the supernatural. I tend to think of the world (at least in practice) as totally physical and (mostly) deterministic.

It was just at a decade ago that my paternal grandmother (Grams) died. She had a short but arduous fight with ovarian cancer that eventually took her from us. When we were informed that she was on her death-bed, my dad immediately gathered the family and we headed to New Orleans (in the very same Blue Chevrolet Suburban I mentioned in a previous post, I might add). Unfortunately, she expired peacefully before we had completed the 6 hour trip. There, in her home, with her husband (my Pop-Hop) of almost 50 years near her side.

I had spent many summers in Louisiana with the grandparents. They actually lived in a suburb of NOLA called Metairie. They’re neighborhood was pure, twentieth-century, white-bread, down-home, American-South, suburbia with all of the bells and whistles. In other words, one of the best things one can have in their childhood memories.  

If you’ve ever been to south Louisiana, you know just how flat it is. And if you have ever been a kid who loves to ride his bike but lives in hilly North Alabama, then you might get a sense of the love I had for New Orleans summers.

On certain nights of the week a big band would play swing numbers at a huge pavilion in Lafreniere Park on the other side of their neighborhood. we would ride and they would slowly walk behind us. Down the street, with arching oaks covered in Spanish Moss into the sprawling park. I would stay within shouting distance of the pavilion and practice my wheelies while they listened to the band.

They were very much into swing music. Not just because they were members of The Greatest Generation, but also because Pop-Hop had been a musician himself. He had played the trombone (my father and I also played trombone) when he was in the U.S. Army during Korea and then (if I’m not mistaken) in a couple of local swing bands in and around the NO area afterwards.

A couple of years before Grams died, someone had given them a three-disk CD changer that they kept in the cabinet in their living room. It was always filled with with swing CDs and on occasion they would play it at a low volume when the whole family was in the house. Something else for Grams, the persistent Yat to lovingly screech over, as she addressed the members of her huge, tight-knit family.

The night we got to the house on Cummins Street, it was already past dark. We stayed up for a bit catching up on the latest news with everyone but soon bedded down for the night, emotionally drained, the adults looking forward to planning a funeral the next day.

As was the case with almost all of our family trips, no matter the setting, I was to share a bed with my only slightly younger brother Wayne. We were cast onto the deflated air-mattress laid out in the dining room and, after some obligatory bickering about the blankets, were asleep.

I awoke at around two in the morning to the CD changer in the living room clicking loudly and the sudden blast of loud, brilliant swing music filling the hardwood house in a echoing, shimmering wave.

For a moment, I panicked, waking up Wayne and asking if he too heard the din. “How come no one else is awake?” He sleepily confirmed that he did hear it and rolled over tugging the embattled blankets with him.

His comfort with the situation emboldened me, and I relaxed against my pillow and listened as the upbeat music of three, ninety-minute big band CDs ricocheted around the house at 100 decibels and no one noticed but me.

I don’t know who pressed play on that CD changer, but no one has copped to it thus far. Maybe it was Grams, making the point that her beautiful little house full of her family was way too quiet?

Or maybe it was set to alarm at 2am?

I don’t know.

True story.

The Bessemer Dollar Tree

It’s not often that we go to the Bessemer Dollar Tree.

I say this not out of some self-qualification or classification or justification, or maybe I do. Whatever the case, we were there on a Sunday evening browsing the half-empty shelves looking for a jar of olives to go into my girlfriend’s Bloody Marys that evening. The only reason we came here and not Big Lots was because Big Lots was closed and the only reason we were going to Big Lots was because Aldi was closed and the only reason we ever go to Aldi is because Walmart is too much of a pain-in-the-ass to walk through just for a jar of olives.

So because of a series of uncontrollable events and circumstances (mostly the fact that it was Sunday evening) we were bumped down the ladder to the Bessemer Dollar Tree. I’ve always have a hard time in these bottom-rung retail establishments. The fluorescent lighting is outdated and strangely colored, highlighting the ugliness of the cluttered items that fill the store. It’s a combination of lack of maintenance and indifference among customers, employees, and management. The state of the store as a whole can really be attributed to this unfortunate equilibrium. No one plans on working or shopping there, so what’s the point of making a fuss? I’m certainly not going to. The air is filled with a special, circular desperation reserved for places where the employees just barely make enough to shop at The Dollar Tree, and many of the customers would love to have that kind of employment opportunity.

We made the circuit around the store, stopping to look at the dusty Jesus knick-knacks, the broken children’s toys, and the scattered tool section. We eventually made it over to the back corner where the grocery items are stocked. Off-brand sports drinks and diced tomatoes, corned beef and cans of mustard flavored sardines, a stale looking bag of after-dinner mints and (aha!) a lone jar of olives. After looking over the selection of vitamins available in the Health and Beauty Section we headed to the row of checkout counters situated at the front of the store, their numbered green boxes all in a row only one of which had its light on. The line had nearly twenty people in it, all of them mulling about avoiding eye contact with one another.

My girlfriend and I got in line behind two graying, white women. Both of whom were fairly rotund and one of whom was missing her left hand. We all commenced our obligatory under-the-breath grumbling about the state of customer service these days and watched in exasperation as the old man at the front of the line miscounted his money and, after finding out that he had an extra dollar to his name, added the closest pack of gum to his purchase. The cashier was a pretty black girl with a look of frazzled apathy on her face. The routine “How are you today?” she greeted each consecutive customer with was obviously empty of meaning or content, sarcastic or otherwise. Like when you say the word “butter” over and over again for ten minutes.

After a few minutes, our awkward little line was joined by a weary mother with three young, blond and curly children all of which were sleepy and quiet, having resigned to the proper mood of the store and the length of the line. The moderate silence was broken, however, by the clearly inebriated mumblings of a woman in an adjacent isle. As she came around the corner and headed towards us I felt everyone in the line bristle slightly at her condition and shift to make way. She was likely in her mid to late fifties, skin wrinkled and brown, her hair only slightly kempt, tied back like an eighty’s music video and the color of straw. Her eyelids were dropping to some internal beat along with her head. She wore a loose-fitting red shirt and tight stonewashed jeans on top of her dirty Adidas, which were shuffling along in sporadic, labored steps.

As sad as this is, it is somewhat of a typical sight in this part of town. That is not to say that everyone on this side of town is poor, tousled, and a user of heavy prescription drugs. Only that this side of town is home to many lower class and blue collar workers who are statistically more likely to seek out, use, and misuse various intoxicants. This leads to a disproportionate amount of long-run dependencies as well as the occasional rough Sunday evening.

The general social rule in this kind of situation is to avoid contact, physical or otherwise with the person and hope to get out of the situation as quickly as possible. This is, of course, what everyone did including us. Despite the presence of the mousy-haired ten year old girl in an oversize Twilight shirt walking slowly next to her who was the object of her mumblings.

The girl was clutching the edge of her grandmother’s shirt for the sake of the stability, guidance, and reassurance they both needed, physical for one and emotional for the other. They moved toward the line and staked a claim on the place in line between us and the child-laden woman behind us who did not protest (see the social rule at the beginning of the paragraph). They continued their hushed sentences to one another, only now we could make out what they were saying, turning an ear in that direction while pretending to peruse for a pack of peanut butter M&Ms. The little girl was asking where her mother was and why her grandmother was so incredibly sleepy. Grandmother responded by telling her that it was that damn dog that kept her up all night the previous night. This was said in broken and arduous phrases that were hardly understandable. The girl seemed to accept this as a reasonable excuse and fell quiet. This was a regular occurrence in her life, much more-so than mine.

Both of us were kind of stupefied by this situation. Our conversation halted, we paid for our olives and walked out of the door. It wasn’t until we got a breath of fresh, Bessemer air that we stopped on the sidewalk in front of the store, both wondering how we could walk away from this situation. My girlfriend is infamous for picking up stray dogs and cats, even liberating abused and neglected animals in the neighborhood on occasion. We are the weird white people with all the animals that will call the cops if you chain your pit bull to the back of your pickup truck for days at a time with no water. Both of us had a deep impulse to do something. So we stopped.

Walking in passive circles outside of the doors for several minutes, we watched the little girl and her grandmother buy a handful of school items. Or rather, the little girl helping her grandmother to count her crumpled bills and eventually adding to the sum by extracting a couple of carefully folded bills from her tiny, used purse she was wearing with pride. The whole exchange took far longer than it should have and despite the woman’s obvious vacancy, no one changed their demeanor. Not the cashier or any of the people in line. If anything they amplified their detachment from the situation.

We steeled ourselves as they left the store, walking in our direction. We moved to the other side of a column to seem less obvious and kept watching as they shuffled their way into the parking lot. Both of them lost. They didn’t know where the car was. We counted this as a blessing as the main threat here was that woman driving around with the little girl in the car. We should go and stop them, we both know that. Everyone in the store should stop them, but no one does. We sit in the awful rift for a few minutes as they stumble around the parking lot, the little girl asking where her mother is, the woman mumbling and fishing for keys. Eventually we got in our car and drove home to make Bloody Marys.

This is why we never go to The Bessemer Dollar Tree.