“Blessed are the anonymous and obscure,
for they shall be least interfered with.”
It was a weird time in my life, populated by weird people. Winter had come to Ithaca, and with it the world of my walking life had shrunk to tiny proportions. Mostly I worked from home, ate at home, played music at home, felt guilty about not writing at home. I had been sober now for a couple years, and nobody had told me that this move, while positive in most facets, also carried a cost. I’ve always had a hard time fitting in, making connections, joining the common current of human interaction, and sobriety had become just one more factor setting me apart. Bars and drugs and drinking had been one thing I’d always had in common with at least one segment of society. So it was winter, and I was alone. Except, of course, on Monday nights, when I walked down to a little venue by my house where the Galactic Escort Service played.
To call it a secret show would be over-stating it, but it was held in a tiny venue, and any time they pushed 50 people in there, they had to turn folks away, so it operated on a strictly word of mouth basis. The website was a byzantine mess, and I never really knew beforehand whether the Escort Service would be playing, but that winter was so bereft of external stimulus I had made it a habit to head down there every Monday night anyways.
There have been times when the place is full of people. Bright and beautiful, young, fashionable people, seeing and being seen. Though it’s a small space, it has incredible décor: lots of wood, dark red carpets, black couches against the walls, dozens of soft yellow light bulbs hanging on black wires from the ceiling. Behind the band a projector was often playing a movie on mute – Dark Crystal, Akira, The Good The Bad and the Ugly – and the band itself was a side project for a bunch of music conservatory kids who had graduated from Ithaca College and now played out around Ithaca. It was a total throw away show, and consisted largely of them getting stoned, kicking a drum and bass beat, then improvising something spacey.
The drum and bass beats alone were worth the five dollar cover. I was, and still remain, pretty hopelessly in love with the drummer Ashley (from a healthy distance; don’t tell her). The guitar player Ray never did it for me, and I actually sort of hated his contributions, though I would later meet him when he was working the door for another event and he turned out to be a perfectly decent, friendly person. He had this habit though, of playing lots of specific notes, all of which were out of key, like he was intentionally playing against the grain of the song. This brand of dissonance is actually pretty impressive, I mean it takes skill to deliberately never enter the key the rest of the band is jamming — an amateur would eventually land on it by accident. Instead of playing for the people there, or looking up and around and playing with his band-mates, he always struck me as playing for himself. It felt like masturbation. But that’s a really shitty judgment, and it makes me uncomfortable every time I say it out loud, so let’s just say he was probably playing over my head.
There would be other additions to the band in later days, but that winter there was only one other member, and he was sort of the reason the whole thing existed. This guy Josh, the only one I’ve actually spent any time with outside the show, was a classmate of theirs at IC, trained and graduated, with a degree in the marimba. He had been in a horrific car crash, which the doctors gave him only a fraction of a chance of surviving, and when he did beat the odds, he didn’t do so unscathed. His face hung loosely slack sometimes, like a stroke victim, he had very little bodily motor control, prone to shaking palsies, and had to walk stooped, shuffling, with the aid of a cane. It was hard to understand him when he spoke. But if you leaned in close, there was generally a joke and a twinkle in there, under his red Miller High Life hat, and they put together this band around improvised space sounds, for the lowest pressure Monday night crowds, where he could play a Moog-style synthesizer, using a clawed hand to play abbreviated notes and twist knobs, altering oscillation, playing with unusual sounds and sweeping frequencies. He was really the prime Galactic aspect of the Escort Service.
The music they were making on these Monday nights was a music nerd’s wet dream. It was so good. I went for the drum and bass lines, for Ashley’s wonderful syncopation, for that deep crunchy bass tone, and I spent the rest of the time watching Ray’s fret-board and wishing he would join the jam. They are wonderful musicians, and I never really went there to talk, just to groove and watch. Which was good, because I am and was a weirdo, and though that winter I was lonely, I wasn’t there alone.
Maybe a dozen people were showing up at that point, sometimes more, sometimes less, but never a huge crowd. Within that fluctuating group there were a solid handful of mainstays I interacted with periodically. Either smoking a cigarette while people got stoned, or standing at the bar waiting for a ginger beer. I did a lot of people watching. One of these weirdos was an old Austrian man named Rhinehold, with big ears, wispy white hair, and the tiny, sinewy body of a long distance runner. Though conversation with him was always uncomfortable, he was basically sane and coherent. What might make you think otherwise was the way he danced: Any time the mood struck, he would walk out into the empty red-carpeted space between the couches lining the walls and do this little hopping, limp-wristed twitch dance, his head flicking oddly side to side. It was utterly un-self-conscious and every kind of good weird I wish I could inhabit myself. I remain to this day desperately jealous of the freedom with which that man made a spectacle of himself.
Another of these weirdos was a Turkish man named Gabor. We spoke a few times while smoking cigarettes, and he told me the first time we met that his father was terminally ill; that he had moved back in with him, and was driving a cab to support him. This introduction always left me in a strange position when I saw him in later weeks. Do I ask about the father? It seemed like these Monday nights were his escape from an otherwise really difficult life, and bringing that up would be insensitive. You can’t really just say, hey guy, how’s your dying dad? Or, did your dying dad die? But asking also felt like the considerate thing to do, to let him know I was listening. In the end I opted for not asking. I still don’t know how I feel about that.
And then of course there was Thomas. Weird Thomas. Thomas was a big, hulking fellow, perpetually swathed in an open flannel shirt hanging loosely around his slumping frame. He was the kind of fellow who would attempt to engage a group of people already having a conversation, then slowly fade out and walk away once the attention of that first abrupt joining had passed. There was something very uncomfortable about him, something that felt like a squirming insecurity, especially when he took a hit off a proffered joint, as he periodically did. But maybe I’m just projecting. It’s totally possible he was completely fine with himself, had no anxiety about people, and was doing exactly what he wanted to be doing. I don’t think so, but who really knows.
So Thomas was always around, and watching him was like watching my own social anxiety given a voice and ambulatory capacities. He fascinated me, deeply, and I empathized completely with the person I had invented and laid across his features in my mind. Again, and this is important, I don’t know Thomas. I didn’t know him then, I don’t know him now; I had no idea what was really going on in there. All I had was what’s going on in here, in this weird head, and how Thomas appeared to me from the outside. And what he appeared to be doing, as the winter wore on, was slipping quietly into conversations “I have a gong.”
People didn’t really know what to say to that. What do you say to that? Cool man. Do you have it here? “Yes,” he would say, “In my car.” Cool, man. Cool. And he would fade out of the conversation and go back to shuffling around. This happened a handful of times, and then one night the band was taking a break between sets, as they always did, to go smoke a joint and get a fresh drink. And as he was leaving the stage, the bass player grabbed the microphone and said, “Now Thomas is going to play the gong.”
My head snapped up. The bass player gave a little shrug and raised his eyebrows; he seemed as mystified as anyone. He didn’t know, he hadn’t heard this gong. Nobody had heard this gong. I couldn’t really even remember hearing a gong – maybe a big crashing hammer sound in a movie? One painfully loud reverberating treble spike to the ears? The band was just going off for a break and Thomas had apparently told them he had a gong. So into the weed-hazed consciousness of this venue, beneath the now vacated spotlight, Thomas came walking up with his gong.
He was holding it by a little string at the top, and the whole venue stopped talking and turned as one to face the stage. The band as well had aborted their move outside and were just standing in silence with the rest of us, Ray with his arms crossed, Ashley still holding her sticks. I have never heard it so quiet in there, not before and not since. Thomas closed his eyes, looked down, and took a long, deep breath. My heart at this point was in my fucking throat. Whatever happened next was going to be incredible. It could be great. It could be bad. It could be really, really bad. And poor Thomas who had stepped up in front of people, poor weird Thomas who couldn’t make conversation, who didn’t understand how people worked, who was having a brave as hell moment, on a brave as hell night, after a brave as hell winter telling people he had a gong, could be about to make a fool of himself. And it sounds fucked up, but the prospect of that branching moment was exhilarating. It could be wonderful, it could be terrible, but either way, as weird Thomas looked up, opened his eyes, and raised his mallet, something glorious was about to happen. That moment of stillness made my whole winter.
I don’t go down there so much these days. I’ve got a full time job now, one which has me working long hours on Mondays, and though I always intend to walk down, I rarely have the energy. There’s a bigger crowd these days, and another three or four more musicians, with a guest or two often sitting in. The crowd is more normal people, the weird has been significantly and proportionally diluted, and the feel of the place is different. I’m different. That winter feels a long time ago now, and I’ve cultivated a small group of excellent friends who warm my heart with regularity. I don’t feel such an outcast anymore, writing sad songs and lonely poems in my mountain-top hut, and my hermit tendencies are offset by people who enjoy me and want to spend time with me. But this too, I know, comes and goes.
Whenever it’s raining I think I’ll need an umbrella forever. When I’m full I think I’ll never be hungry again. When I’m happy and confident I feel the world will be mine to conquer and re-conquer forever. But I know, deep down, this is not the way of things. And I suspect, in that deep down place, that if there is a stasis for me, a place where the fallacy of perpetual motion finally settles and comes to rest, it is probably alone, on a mountain-top, writing sad songs and lonely poems. There is so much sadness in the seriousness with which we take ourselves, our faces and forms, the silly things we say and worry about, and there is such beauty in that sadness. The world doesn’t care about our shames. The glaciers don’t care, the extinction events don’t care, the infinite space of the universe, the volcanic vents in ocean trenches, the sky-darkening flocks of migrating birds, the microscopic bacteria in their trillion trillions don’t care. Life just is, for a moment, and then it isn’t.
That night, in that stillness, weird Thomas got up on stage. Calmly, slowly, he looked up, opened his eyes, and raised his mallet. Life in that moment slowed so entirely I felt it must have stopped. The silence grew, sharp and full and flush with potential, and a shiver went racing up my spine like a squirrel up a telephone pole. Thomas took his mallet and began, very slowly, at the center of the gong, to tap against the metal. A quiet rumble began to build. He carried his tapping farther from the center, and the frequency rose, and he brought it back to the middle and the frequency fell, deeper and stronger, growing slightly louder with every tap, drawing more and more sound out of the metal in tiny increments, out toward the edges, then back towards the center, until finally he began to bang with speed and power, raising the big brass gong as he ran the mallet out to the farthest edges, and the entirety of the room filled with a roar of sound, rising as he raised it, the metal itself now vibrating visibly, wildly, growing until it was almost unbearable, and then — it stopped. His eyes closed, his hand pressed flat to the inert metal, silence had taken back the room.
And all at once we were clapping — the band, the bartender, the beautiful people, the weirdos and rejects, all of us, big unbidden grins on our faces as we looked around at each other. Someone yelled “Woo!” Rhinehold did a little dance, Gabor took off his hat and whistled. I just stood there, clapping, big, earnest, honest claps, as loud and as hard as I could. Thomas lowered his gong and smiled crookedly, like he was seeing us for the first time. His face shone in the spotlight. I clapped and clapped like a crazy person.
Joshua Clark Orkin