The Big M

As far as I know E. A. Poe did not write a story about waking up in a coffin, having been buried, struggling for air, freedom and life. I suppose the subject is too commonplace to have interested the genius. My neighbor Ed Hood introduced me to a young couple who helped me solve my coffin-problem. “George and I tear down walls. Can we see yours?” Natalie asked.

I was a little dubious – after all, my apartment had been rented to me by R. M. Bradley Co. Maybe I should tell them that I was going to remove the wall between the coffin-sized bedroom and the narrow kitchen. “Sure,” I said. George and Natalie took one look. “Not a problem,” said George, in a pronounced Russian accent. “It be all done when you get home.” “Can I pay you?” I asked. “Nah,” said George, “no big deal.”

I did have to get to work. The Big M was in town for a couple of days and I had promised him that C. P. and I would help him move a queen-sized bed into a Back Bay apartment occupied by one of his girl friends. We got to WBCN, and M, generous as always with his time, sat down with C. P. and me to smoke a bone and chat before we set off to move the bed. I won’t try to reproduce M’s jive, rapid fire rap. In fact, his larger than life persona was a put-on, and when we sat down to talk quietly about Radio and the artists his label controlled (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Led Zeppelin; Roberta Flack; Aretha Franklin; The J. Geils Band; Jonathan Edwards (Atco), to name a few) M spoke an English at least as standard as mine. I was surprised at the answer he gave (“No”) when I asked him if he had ever considered becoming a DJ. To me it seemed obvious. M could out-talk anybody, and knew more about music and the music business than anybody. “Why not?” I asked. M was patient with me, but I could hear a little disdain in his response: “There isn’t enough money in it, man.”

My eyes were opened. It was a simple theorem in music business: M wouldn’t make enough money as a DJ. There was a lot of money in popular music. Radio was essential to making music popular. The money wasn’t in radio. Therefore most of the money was somewhere else, and radio was a tool, an instrument of the music business.

I watched, through the double-paned tilted, soundproof studio glass, Mario and T. Mitch shaking hands. Mitch held M’s hand as if he were holding a fish, using just the fingertips. I could see M’s lips moving rapidly. M’s afro, white suit and purple ruffled shirt compared very favorably with the elbow-patched tweed jacket and the hair of T. Mitch, thinly combed over the depressions left from brain surgery. I wondered if Mitch were going to have a seizure. After a few seconds, smiling frigidly, Mitch slid his hand away and retired into his office. I was reminded of what Kenny Greenblatt explained to me when I asked him why Mitch ever consented to WBCN going rock, when it was obvious that Mitch had no sympathy for either the music or the generation that loved it. Kenny poked my chest lightly with a finger, to emphasize each word: “Because for the first time he was selling some time, man.”

C. P. and I retired to my apartment to share our reward for our bed-moving labors: a small silk purse containing about 30 grams of a popular crystalline white powder. When we entered my apartment I was shocked to find the wall between my bedroom and the kitchen gone. All that was left was a mark on the floor where the wall used to be and an outlet box dangling from the ceiling from an electrical cable. All the debris was gone. There wasn’t a speck of dust.

We sat on my home-made plywood and foam rubber sofa in the living room. C. P. was more interested in the white South American powder than I, and he quickly consumed his fifteen grams. He became increasingly excited. All he could talk about was M. “He is a genius! I am just really, really impressed.” Soon C. P.’s delirium was quenched by beer and I let him collapse on the sofa. I was glad he had snorted up his entire share of the white powder, because he had to drive the next day back to the upstate New York commune where he and my sister lived, and his alcohol-saturated driving was bad enough without adding powerful stimulants to the mix.

In spite of our closeness, I never really succeeded in becoming C. P.’s friend. The obstacle to our friendship should have been obvious. I remember one early summer morning in the Triangle near Landenberg, a few years before, driving to work and coming upon C. P.’s 1959 Ford Fairlane stopped in the middle of the road. I got out, expecting to find the car empty and broken down, but C. P. was slumped behind the wheel, of course, passed out, still clutching a whiskey bottle. It is amazing how oblivious we were. My sister married C. P.

The next day I moved my bed into the living room. Then I put a small table in the kitchen, and for the first time I had enough room to begin to cook. There was only the problem of the electrical wire and outlet box hanging from a hole in the ceiling.

My share of the crystalline powder was still in its purse on a window ledge. I looked up at the hole next to the wire, and feeling paranoid as usual, climbed up on the kitchen table and pushed the fifteen grams of white powder in its purse up into the hole past the wire a couple of inches back concealed above the ceiling plaster.

A few days later I came home from working at WBCN, where Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Led Zeppelin, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, The J. Geils Band and Jonathan Edwards were on the air more than ever, and found the electrical cable and box gone and the hole neatly patched over. I never found out who performed the patch job – George and Natalie or R. M. Bradley Co. Things just happened in those days, for good or bad. I didn’t ask. I didn’t seem to have to plan or put things in motion. Probably the South American substance is still up in the ceiling at 122 Mount Auburn St., first floor center.

I am grateful to George and Natalie for tearing down my wall. I don’t know what happened to George’s project to compile a dictionary of Russian obscenities. This was an English language work containing the transliterated Russian forms of expressions equivalent to “Ёбанная в рот!” (“fucked in the mouth”) and so on, along with translations. I don’t know if it was ever published. It was a pioneering work of its kind, well before Drummond. I tried to help George edit his photocopied manuscripts. Ed doted on the handsome, athletically built George and, politely, on Natalie as well. Ed was able to find good-looking literati, but never enough of them who were willing to have sex, so there had to be a supplementary stream of cute teenage boys.

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