Lon’s a hat guy. It’s not because of the bald spot. Or, not only because of it. It’s his self-image. He sees himself as a doomed romantic hepcat. On open-mike nights at the Albatross he breaks out his harmonica and ukulele. “Innocent When You Dream” is his go-to. When he’s done singing he talks the nearest woman onto the dance floor and holds her too close as they turn to the music in the narrow space between the barstools and the stage. They don’t push him away but few stay for a second dance.
Lon once ran into Tom Waits. It was at Wise Fool’s Pub on the North Side. If he told me the year, I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. It’s become origin story and myth.
Lon was still drinking back then. It was late. Probably after Waits’ gig someplace in town. Lon sees him come in and battles with himself to keep cool. Doesn’t want to lose his shit in front of his hero. Asks the bartender to send Waits a shot. When it’s poured Waits looks Lon’s way, nods in appreciation, then waves him over. Waits says he’s off the hard stuff, sips a beer instead.
Lon gets a faraway look telling me this story. There’s no ending. But it’s as if he’s still there drinking with Waits as decades drag by.
Any guy in a fedora or porkpie hat and a vintage shirt is a Waits wannabe on first glance. He didn’t invent or patent the look but he’s the one I think of. Most women roll their eyes when they see one of them. It’s such a fallback affectation. It implies a longing for a white-bred yesterday. Not that every guy in throwback duds is a woman-hating racist, but that retro shit leaves a sour aftertaste.
In a neighborhood that used to be notorious for white hate, the Albatross is a beacon of welcome to all colors and creeds. But Lon can’t rid himself completely of the bigotry of his upbringing. His people battled for their place in the new land, sometimes stepping on others to do so. The fact they were treated badly when they got here doesn’t stop them from treating others the same way.
I love a lot of that old-timey shit too. Can’t help it. I just can’t commit to wearing period garb. Dressing like a noir extra is kind of funny. Lon doesn’t really pull it off. He doesn’t smoke and quit drinking years ago. It’s not period-correct if it doesn’t reek of Pall Malls and rye. So what does it mean to adopt some parts of the past and discard others?
I hear we’re past history now. The web makes everything from any time available at a keystroke. Is there a when anymore? If you can mix and match with no context do any of the parts retain any of their old meaning?
Waits always knew his look was a pose. He played with it, mutated and remixed it over the years. But like Jesus, his apostles spread his gospel to the letter. It became a lifestyle with its own strict rules. It doesn’t take much to start a religion. A new one’s hatched every other day. Lon’s saving grace is his inconsistency. He doesn’t have the discipline to be a true believer.
He just wants the dream to be real because his everyday is rarely enough.
Like most insomniacs he’s often half-asleep with his eyes wide open.