How I Almost Met Tom Waits Again

The first I ever heard of Tom waits was the summer before I started college. A friend and me were just killing time, in our hometown of El Cajon, California. We decided to go visit our friend Jan Coulsby, a radical history teacher, who was teaching a summer class in a half-empty mall. Jan took us aside, and with great seriousness said, “Go out to my van. There’s a tape in the tape deck. Listen to it!” So we did. We sat in the parking lot in his old Volkswagen, the windows rolled down and the doors wide-open, listening to Tom Waits’ “Heartattack and Vine” all the way through. It would’ve been better in the dark with a bottle of whiskey, but it was pretty amazing nonetheless. We didn’t understand half the things that he was singing about (“Boney’s high on China white, Shorty found a punk…”) but we knew he was singing about something important. Raw experience, on the broken edge of the American Dream. I had barely started shaving, but I knew I wanted to be invited to that party.

Fast forward to 1999. After a stint in New York City, I had returned to the California suburbs with my young family. That year, Waits broke with his longtime label Island Records, and released an extraordinary, raw album called “Mule Variations” on a tiny punk label. I was writing for San Francisco Magazine at the time, and I got it into my head that I was going to interview Mr. Waits. He was only going to do three interviews, so it was long odds. I wrote to him, and said that I didn’t want to talk record company gossip (which seemed to be all that the music writers were interested in). I just wanted to talk to him about his favorite books. Incredibly, I got the interview! It was going to be the cover story. But before we could meet, the magazine’s music critic took over (who know they even had a music critic?), and Waits and his people pulled out. My brilliant career in music journalism was crushed!

The next time I almost met Tom waits was several years later, probably around 2005. I was skiing with my family in Squaw Valley, and staying in the incredibly bougie Plumpjack Inn. Who should tramp in out of the blizzard that night but Waits and his family, looking like characters out of a Carolyn Chute novel — dazed and disheveled — wildly out of place in that chic, aprés-ski scene. It snowed over a foot that night. The next morning, I went to dig out my Land Cruiser. I was wearing a “powder suit” (If you’re not familiar with skiing attire, that’s a fancy, insulated jumpsuit. No snowboarder would be caught dead wearing one.). Following behind me through the knee-deep snow was a character in a tattered peacoat and fedora, wearing old railroad boots which were rapidly filling up with powder. His rig, invisible under a mountain of snow, was parked right next to mine. He put his hands on his hips and growled, “We don’t have this shit where I come from. We don’t even have rain!”

Now, I lived in New York long enough to know that you have to play it cool, and talk to celebrities just like they were regular folks, no better than you are. So I mustered up the courage to say “You got a shovel in there?” He opened up the back of his ancient Chevy Suburban with a dry creak. We looked inside. There was an old, broken floor lamp, a couple of logs, and a scattering of oak leaves. Nothing else. Fortunately, I had two snow shovels and and ice scraper, because, well, I had done this before. We got to work. After a certain point in the excavation, I noticed that his tires were pretty bald, and asked if he had chains (I had to explain what they were, and where to find them.). Then he uttered line so true, and so eternal, that I will never forget it: “If I can just make it down to the Sebun-Elebun (7-Eleven), everything will be all right.”

We exchanged first names, and went on our separate ways. I didn’t mention “Mule Variations.”

The next time I almost met Tom Waits was around 2010, in San Francisco. I was in my friend Gideon’s shop, Accident and Artifact. Gideon was sitting at his desk reading, as usual, when Waits wandered in off Valencia Street. At this point, he was looking very bohemian with his curly hair dyed orange, and teased upward, Eraser Head style. The shop was a perfect fit. He took his time exploring, asking what all of the mysterious found objects were. An African cache-sex? Of course. An old rusted tractor tread? I’ll take it. He loved everything, even our books. Usually Gideon had a small selection of Waits’ CDs for sale; fortunately he didn’t on that day — it would’ve been embarrassing! Gideon didn’t get out of his chair or speak the whole time Waits was in the shop. Later. I asked him why. It turns out that this man, who is friends with Gary Snyder, and who has met the Dalai Lama, was star-struck! But Waits eventually bought two antique French club chairs for his studio, and the connection was made.

Waits visited Accident & Artifact many times after that. I had taken over the shop, and I always tried to keep something on hand that I knew he would like. Such as, an album full of anonymous daguerrotypes (Me: “I wish I knew who they were.” He: “Oh, I know who they are.”). Or an old cello, with a crack down the middle (Me: “Too bad you can’t play it.” He: “Heh heh heh. I can play it.”). My partners took good care of him in my absence. When a crew of hipsters followed him into the shop from Four Barrel Coffee, Rachel shooed them out, and locked the door. Lovage, after a long, rambling conversation, asked him if he was the French actor Denis Lavant. He replied that he got that a lot.

The last time Tom came in, I was there. We had a good conversation about found objects, DADA, and the future of San Francisco. On his way out the door, he paused on the threshold, jabbed a finger at me, and growled: “Martin, I just want you to know. This is the best goddamn store on the whole goddamn planet.”

“Thank you,” I said, as he shuffled off towards 16th Street. Then I turned my assistant and said, “Let’s shut the whole thing down, right now. It’s never going to get any better than that.” And we did.

It’s a different shop now. There are no more daguerreotypes, no more rusty things. It’s a place where people make useful things, like hats and bags, candles and cards. It’s all very authentic and true, and I’m sure that when Tom Waits comes back (and I’m sure that he will) he will understand that. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll introduce myself as the young journalist who wanted to talk about books, and tramping. Or the yuppie, who helped him dig his car out of the snow. Or maybe even the teenager, who wondered, in that hot parking lot so long ago, why Montclaire de Havilan was doing the St. Vitus dance.