The Brotherhood of Fools and Other Stories
by Ron Hobbs, Jan 29, 2014
The Brotherhood of Fools
There was a time in my life, for about six months, when I lived in a Catholic monastic community. I had occasionally taken retreat among the Franciscan Order and sometimes with the Dominicans. I am not a Catholic and dare not even call myself Christian, in view of the Mosaic Tablets, which prohibit the taking of the Lord’s name in vain.
The occasions of retreat were satisfying experiences set in splendid environments. I came to some affection for the kind-heartedness of the Franciscans, and to some appreciation for thought among the Dominicans as we sometimes talked into the early morning hours over Aquinas, Augustine and Meister Eckhart—frequently with the assistance of Grappa or Strega.
But my path to them had nothing to do with religious zeal. I had run, ever so slightly, afoul of the law. True, a little bit beyond bench warrant status, but way shy of the most-wanted list. Unfortunately I was a bit too hot for my friends who were, indeed, “in the business.”
My last refuge was a trip to Harlem, to Tranny Town, to sleep on Veronika’s floor. By the time I got off the subway and walked the two blocks to her apartment, she had already set a table and had gathered a small group of transgendered mulatto, high yellow and Fillipino “Benny Boys.”
As we were talking over dinner, Danilo, whose whiskers sometimes broke through his makeup, suggested that I go on retreat up the Hudson where Father Xaviar and a group of Franciscan brothers be would holding forth for a five day run. She made a quick call to the rectory and within moments I was on the list.
That seemed to agree with everybody and I was in no position to argue. As Veronika and I washed dishes, the girls sorted through their boy clothes trying to find things that would fit me—socks, shorts, shirts, pants. Gerald (Geraldine) even came up with a pair of shoes that were a close fit. Voila! Instant penitent Catholic! We finished off the night with a couple of joints while listening to Van Morrison.
Veronika woke me at Seven, coffee in hand, and said, “Baby you’ve got to get going. Call me when you can.” I took one of her cigarettes off the coffee table and lit it and nursed the coffee. I was still trippy, still hearing Van Morrison, flashing back on what brought me to this place, catching glimpses of a bevy of transvestites trying to dress me for the occasion.
Then there was a hand on my shoulder and a gentle shake, “Baby, I said you have to leave! Here, you’ll need this.” She put around my neck a miraculous medal dated 1804, and into my backpack a copy of St. Theresa’s “Interior Castle.” Then into my hand, some bills: a ten, a five and three ones. “This is all we could come up with. Call me.”
I staggered out the door and headed toward the subway. A new life was about to begin.
Another Bird Story: Sidney Amber
"Young man! Young man, dammit! I said, young man!” And then there was the whacking of a cane upon the floor. I turned from my chores and at the door I saw an ancient man and an ancient woman.
"We want to buy a parakeet! I'm a hundred and one years old; we don't have much time! Please pay attention!"
His name was Sidney, Sidney Amber. “We live at the Broadmoor."
He won my attention, he won it all and everything I ever wished to do in this life at this moment was to attend him. Everything else evaporated. The situation was so unexpected and delightful that I all but melted into a puddle.
To choose from there was a green one with the white wings or the chesty blue one with the perfectly spotted necklace or the pink-eyed Albino.
The Ambers would show up in their De Soto cab a couple of times a month to buy birdseed or a two-dollar toy. I always opened a folding chair for them but neither one ever chose to sit in it. We would talk about anything. They were both talking machines and they had a contagious humor about them.
Once we were talking about thoroughbred horses, so I went off on one of my gambling stories. I did not know that Mr. Amber had gotten dangerously frisky with the ponies when he was younger. It had cost him a house and serious amounts of money.
Mrs. Amber squeezed and shook my wrist. “Listen Here, Ron. You'll find a lot more horse’s asses at a race track than you will find horses! Right Sidney?”
Mr. Amber passed away in 1995 at the age of a hundred and nine. One of the De Soto cabbies stopped in to tell me. The next day in the papers his obituaries seemed to be every place from Los Angeles to New York. There was a video cassette someone gave me of Mr. Amber on the Tonight Show.
The columnist, Herb Caen recounted his first visit with Sidney at the Broadmoor. A weary old man bent over a walking stick greeted him at the door, shuffled a few pitiful steps, then turned and threw his cane on the bed, "Ah! Fooled you, Didn’t I!"
The Boys in the Band
Miser was a Christian—an honest-to-goodness lay down on the floor and roll your sins away Christian. But I liked him anyway.
Yeager was a suds guzzling belcher and wasn't much count. But I liked him, too. The attraction to both men was that they were somehow equal to themselves; they lived their lives without fig leafs, and that is exceptionally rare. Not always so wise, but rare.
Miser was sort of a poet-lyricist who played piano and made up songs. There was a lot of sap to the lyrics but he was almost always metrically nuanced and surprisingly sophisticated. Yeager was a guitarist who knew his instrument upside down and backwards. And I was a passable vocalist before cigarettes ruint my voice.
We worked on some music together and actually got a gig at the Chimney Club. Miser was uneasy being in a beer joint, but after the first round of applause he settled in. Then we were invited to Third Baptist where Yeager had to go out to the parking lot and take a couple of hits off a joint to calm his palpitations over being in a church.
A little bit at a time we began to drift from one another. There was no acrimony, it was like electrons in the outer orbit drift; there was something lawful about the whole process. Of course I ached over it because I’m a sentimentalist. But quickly enough, I gave up the aching stuff; it just wasn't economical.
This morning I poured some Anisette into my thick black instant coffee, and raising my cup to no one said, "Here's to you, boys!"
To Stand At A Door
Usually I was hidden in the service bar out of public view, sometimes I was in the scullery doing pots or bearding mussels for the moules mariniere or pouring crepe batter into a series of pans.
The maitre d' hotel was something of an old British auntie who was not taken with my looks. He had the Portuguese lads, Louis the Puerto Rican negro with his devastating eyes and his long-lashed doe-eyed Italian boys to greet the dinner guests at the door.
But one afternoon when I was running the Bissell over the hallway carpet, he called me into B Room and opened for us a '61 Nuits-Saint-Georges and generously poured. "Ronnie, you will take the door tonight. Its Tuesday; we're never that busy." Something inside of me fluttered even though I recognized the left-handedness of the honor.
“Go up to Geraldo's on Fifth Avenue. I’ve selected some shirts for you to choose from, and some jackets; he'll alter the britches as you wait.” Again the flutter, but also a nervous flustering. I had never had an old fag buy clothes for me before.
I returned at about four and shyly dressed behind the wine cages. The elder gentleman set my collar and brushed with his hands the wide zebra-printed lapels. “Now you must quickly learn,” he said “how to stand and be attentive at a door.”
“NO!” he shouted. “You are here to welcome, not frighten! Try again!” Then he went outside, waited a moment, and then re-entered the room. And then he paled, “Oh my Gaawd! Your fingernails!” And he immediately pulled from his pocket an emery pad and set to fussing.
After a month of Tuesday nights he gave me a Friday to share with Gustavo. And another month passed and every Friday night was mine—and the five-dollar bills and sometimes tens fell into my palms with a wink to assure good tables.
Something stuck of what the old gentleman was really getting at. Many times in my life it has been my use to stand at a door, to keep a gate, to represent something to be valued.