November in Detroit is much colder than November in LA. I knew this when I boarded the red-eye special at LAX; I’d come prepared–long johns under my summer weight wool slacks, extra heavy socks, and leather boots. I wore my new herringbone short coat purchased especially for my trip east and I pulled a velvet fedora down over my ears. Dawn had not yet appeared when I arrived at the hack stand outside the airport in Detroit. With few people waiting at the queue, I quickly found a friendly cabby to take me to the hotel. On the way into the city, I noticed a slowup in front of us. The cabby said black ice had caused a major 22 car pileup and suggested we drive through town, rather than staying on the freeway. He assured me he’d charge the standard fee. I agreed.
Without further delay, we made our way to the St. Regis, a once fine hotel across the street from the General Motors building. Continual bursts of steam erupted onto the street from the underground heating systems servicing the neighboring buildings. I pulled off my gloves at the front desk and started rummaging around in my purse for my room confirmation. The hotel clerk couldn’t find my reservation. I was soon to find out a lack of reservations was no big deal; the hotel was almost empty.
After I’d stowed my belongings in my room and checked for messages, I headed downstairs to find a coffee shop. The hotel decor consisted of faded opulent tack–stained and discolored from years of neglect. The chart reuse velvet Louie XIV chairs provided a garish contrast to the massive late nineteenth century dark stained oak tables and credenzas. The restaurant, at the far end of the lobby, behind the cocktail bar, hadn’t opened for breakfast yet. A waiter brought me a pot of coffee and an ashtray. I planted myself in an overstuffed chair draped in a poorly fitting flowered slipcover and I dropped a copy of Alvin Toffler’s Powershift onto the small mahogany cocktail table. I pulled out a pen and legal notepad. I was ready to be brilliant, to discover some new truth, to synthesize some new theory, to invent the uninventable. As I stared at the yellow lined paper blankly, deciding to smoke a cigarette and think a little more, he interrupted my reverie with, “May I.” He proceeded to light my cigarette, saying something trite about the cold outside. “I’m a graduate student at Wayne State University. I’m from New York . . .Harlem. I’m a musician, a musicologist . . . I usually teach junior high kids but I’m here on sabbatical for a year to finish a Ph.D. Terrible black ice on the streets. Had an accident and blew a tire. I came in here to get out of the cold until the gas station opens.”
Daylight was having a difficult time rising through the heavy fog layer. I didn’t have any messages and Thomas wasn’t going to pick me up until 8 AM so I decided to visit with this self-proclaimed musicologist. “Want some coffee?” He nodded and I beckoned the waiter for another cup. He started talking about his music. He loved jazz and mumbled something to the waiter about playing the ebony Baldwin grand sitting next to us.
He played the Baldwin for a half an hour or so . . . constantly questioning me about my musical likes and dislikes. We both liked Mozart and Brubeck, Beethoven and Shearing. Yes, I thought, this guy really is working on a Ph.D. in music. He played Maleguena, slave spirituals, Bolero, skat, and improvised like Oscar Peterson–his favorite guru. This guy, I thought, could be a top-notch pro.
He joined me again at the table and finished another cup of coffee, assuring me he was finally feeling warm and comfortable. He told me that, since it was Saturday and the teachers’ credit union was closed, he couldn’t get any money out. He wondered if I would be willing to loan him $30.00 so he could get a new tire. He said he was “really embarrassed to ask” but he’d be back later in the day to repay me.
I had a couple of $100s and a $5 plus some change. I didn’t want him to know about the $100s so I told him I was out of cash–traveled on credit cards. However, I could loan him $5 if that would help. He asked me for another cigarette, pulled his navy stocking cap down over his ears, took the $5, and walked out the door, assuring me he’d be back with my money. I figured that was the last time I’d see that $5.
My friend Lisa came to get me a few minutes later, while our pals Thomas and Chris waited at the drive-up entrance. We jumped into the car and headed for the freeway. We were on our way to visit an exhibit Thomas curated for the University of Michigan’s art museum. On the drive to Ann Arbor, I started recounting my new-found musician friend’s antics at the hotel. Lisa and Chris chortled. Thomas went into convulsive laughter.
“I know I was stupid to give him money,” I said. “But he was so cold and forlorn and such a nice guy and he really did entertain me for thirty minutes . . .even if he did con me.”
Thomas only laughed louder. When Thomas finally gained his composure, he said, “I met the same guy a couple of weeks ago at the downtown library. I gave him $20.”
Copyright © 1997 Janice Kollitz