Michael Mann (The Wizard of MacDougal Street)
Everyone on the block knew him; or rather, they knew that he was there. The crazy one toothed old man in the grey polyester suit with the flower print button down shirt and white shoes. He was always disheveled, but never badly dressed. To this day, I don’t know why he took such care in dressing himself well while simultaneously letting it all go to hell. It was one of his many talents.
Everyone also had a story about him; who he was, where he came from, how he got to be that way. They were all different, but somehow seemed to encapsulate the same theme. At one point or another Michael was a gentleman who was well liked and respected here. Then something changed him. There were accounts of some woman breaking his heart. Others told of how he was once heir to a great fortune, some kind of trust fund kid who fell out of grace with his family and was left to wander the streets of Greenwich Village. Of course there were also the stories of drug abuse, how an unfortunate run with a tab of LSD caused his brain to snap. They all started with a nice polite gentleman and ended with the tragic wandering figure who spoke to the air and moved things around for no reason.
He had a name for everyone, and he kept them all neatly filed in his brain. I was Penine, Pin for short, and he never called me by anything else. My friend Jack was Garibaldi. The waiter at the cafe Reggio who spoke broken English and had just immigrated here from Albania, he was Serapes. All these characters, unwillingly personified by us, floating around and existing in some form of alternate reality that unfolded somewhere between Macdougal street and Michael’s psyche, continued on their own path, as if independent from us. The stories would pick up and end in pieces with fragmented dialog and misshapen scenes, but they were alive somehow as well. I never felt a lack of continuity with how he addressed me, whether he was trying to remind of the time I fell off the edge of the earth and landed on the dark side of the moon, or arguing with me over my lack of decorum when addressing the queen of England, who happened to be sitting with Garibaldi at the Cafe, both enjoying a cup of Earl Grey and listening to Strauss. The more I talked to this man, the crazier things got. Until the day I heard him play the guitar.
He walked by some street musician on the steps of 97 Macdougal. The man recognized Michael and quickly stopped playing in order to greet him. He gave Michael the guitar and for the next 15 minutes, nothing but pure genius came out of the man’s fingers. He knew the instrument and played it magnificently, moving from chords to melody and back with so much fluidity, so much ease. I crossed the street and sat on the stoop next to him, listening to every note, watching every subtle movement. I was hypnotized. His fingers reminded me of Michael Jackson, dancing in time with quick subtle movements that united him to the rhythm of the music. They moved rhythmically across the fretboard, as if they were lead by the same hysteria that controlled his mind, only this time, in this moment, it all made sense. It was the only place any of it could make sense.
He looked serene and calm throughout the entire process. When he stopped, he gently placed the guitar back in its case, stood up, looked at me and said, “Pin, make sure that the spiders make it home for dinner tonight.” I said, “sure thing Mike.”
It was as if the entire world changed in front of me that day. I no longer saw a madman anymore. All his gestures and ramblings revealed themselves to me in one magnificent opus. This was Michael playing the block, his favorite instrument, creating art by his mere presence, holding the balance of the universe together through erratic movements and nonsensical musings. Every time he picked up a falling leaf in order to carefully place it on top of a car windshield, it was another note in his symphony, his magnum opus. The tin can rolled down the sidewalk followed by a series of jumping jacks and a loud huzzah formed a perfect cadence with the universe. The way he looked me in the eye, talking through me, as if he knew something about me so deep so profound, that the mere whisper of it would break me like it did him. He kept his words hidden behind a veil of metaphors and lost characters. He needed to create without destroying. One casualty was enough for his lifetime.
Now when I talk to him, I ask him about the little white doves on Bob Dylan’s doorstep. He tells me he hasn’t seen the wind since breakfast. I smile and tell him he needs to sell the pork belly futures or he won’t survive the next market correction. He smiles back and tells me that I shouldn’t worry about the falling snow in August.
Sometimes these conversations are brief, other times they get quite involved. They always sound better than the crap I talk about with anyone else. Who the hell cares about the weather or politics or how the train delays fucked up someone’s comute to work this morning. I’d rather be making music with words. Wouldn’t you? Thanks Michael.