Preface from The Soloist by Steve Lopez

The Soloist by Steve Lopez

Preface

I’m on foot in downtown Los Angeles1, hustling back to the office with another deadline looming. That’s when I see him. He’s dressed in rags on a busy downtown street corner, playing Beethoven on a battered violin that looks like it’s been pulled from a Dumpster.

“That sounded pretty good,” I say when he finishes.

He jumps back three steps, eyeing me with suspicion. I see the name Stevie Wonder carved into the face of the violin, along with felt-pen doodles.

“Oh, thank you very much,” he says, obviously flattered2. “Are you serious?”

“I’m not a musician,” I answer. “But yes. It sounded good to me.”

He is black, just beyond fifty, with butterscotch eyes that warm to the compliment. He is standing next to a shopping cart heaped over with all his belongings, and yet despite grubby, soiled clothing, there’s a rumpled elegance about him.3He speaks with a slight regional accent I can’t place. Maybe he’s from the Midwest or up near the Great Lakes, and he seems to have been told to always stand up straight, enunciate, carry himself with pride and respect others.

“I’m trying to get back in shape,” he says. “But I’m going to get back in there, playing better. I just need to keep practicing.”

“So you like Stevie Wonder?” I ask.

“Oh, yes, certainly. ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life.’ ‘My Cherie Amour.’ I guess I shouldn’t have written his name on my violin, though.”

I write a column for the Los Angeles Times. The job is a little like fishing. You go out and drop a line, cast a net. I’m figuring this vagrant violinist is a column. Has to be.4

“I’m in a hurry at the moment,” I tell him, “but I’d like to come back and hear you play again.”

“Oh, all right,” he says, smiling appreciatively but with trepidation. He looks like a man who has learned to trust no one.

“Do you always play in this spot?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says pointing across the street with his bow to Pershing Square5, in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. “I like to be near the Beethoven statue for inspiration.”

This guy could turn out to be a rare find in a city of undiscovered gems, fiddling away in the company of Beethoven.6 I would drop everything if I could, and spend a few hours pulling the story out of him, but that will have to wait for another day. I’ve got another column lined up and not much time to shape it. The deadlines come at you without mercy, even in your dreams.

“I’ll be back,” I say.

He nods indifferently.

Back at the office I seat out another column, scan the mail and clear the answering machine. I make a note on the yellow legal pad where I keep a list of possibilities.

Violin Man.

It’s got potential. Who knows where it will go?

The Bear Came over the Mountain by Alice Munro

Fiona lived in her parents’ house, in the town where she and Grant went to university. 7 It was a big, bay-windowed house that seemed to Grant both luxurious and disorderly, 2 3 with rugs crooked on the floors and cup rings bitten into the table varnish. Her mother was Icelandic—a powerful woman with a froth of white hair and indignant far-left politics. 4 The father was an important cardiologist, revered around the hospital but happily subservient at home, 5 where he would listen to his wife’s strange tirades with an absentminded smile. Fiona had her own little car and a pile of cashmere sweaters, but she wasn’t in a sorority, and her mother’s political activity was probably the reason. Not that she cared. 6 Sororities were a joke to her, and so was politics—though she liked to play “The Four Insurgent Generals” on the phonograph, and sometimes also the “Internationale,” 7 very loud, if there was a guest she thought she could make nervous. A curly-haired gloomy-looking foreigner was courting her—she said he was a Visigoth 8and so were two or three quite respectable and uneasy young interns. She made fun of them all and of Grant as well. She would drolly repeat some of his small-town phrases. He thought maybe she was joking when she proposed to him, on a cold bright day on the beach at Port Stanley. Sand was stinging their faces and the waves delivered crashing loads of gravel at their feet.

“Do you think it would be fun—” Fiona shouted. “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?” 9

He took her up on it, he shouted yes. He wanted never to be away from her. She had the spark of life. 10

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Bossypants by Tina Fey

When I was thirteen I spent a weekend at the beach in Wildwood, New Jersey, with my teenage cousins Janet and Lori. 11 In the space of thirty-six hours, they taught me everything I know about womanhood. 2 They knew how to “lay out” 3 in the sun wearing tanning oil instead of sunscreen. They taught me that you could make a reverse tattoo in your tan 4 if you cut a shape out of a Band-Aid and stuck it on your leg. 5 They taught me you could listen to General Hospital on the radio 6 if you turned the FM dial way down to the bottom.
Wildwood is a huge wide beach—the distance from your towel to the water was often equal to the distance from your motel to your towel. 7 And “back in the day” the place was packed exclusively with very, very tan Italian Americans and very, very burned Irish Americans. 8 As a little kid, I almost always got separated from my parents and 9 would panic trying to find them among dozens and dozens of similar umbrellas. 10 One afternoon a girl walked by in a bikini and my cousin Janet scoffed, 11 “Look at the hips on her.” I panicked. What about the hips? Were they too big? Too small? What were my hips? I didn’t know hips could be a problem. I thought there was just fat or skinny.
This was how I found out that there are an infinite number of things that can be “incorrect” on a woman’s body. 12

Fey, Tina (2011-04-05). Bossypants (pp. 19-20). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

Checkouts by Cynthia Rylant

Then one day the bag boy dropped her jar of mayonnaise, and that is how she fell in love.

He was nervous—first day on the job—13 and along had come this fascinating girl, standing in the checkout line with the unfocused stare one often sees in young children, 2 her face turned enough away that 3 he might take several full looks at her as he packed sturdy bags full of food and the goods of modern life. She interested him because 4 her hair was red and thick, and in it she had placed a huge orange bow, nearly the size of a small hat. That was enough to distract him, and when finally it was her groceries he was packing, 5 she looked at him and smiled, and he could respond only by busting her jar of mayonnaise on the floor, shards of glass and oozing cream decorating the area around his feet. 6

She loved him at exactly that moment, and if he’d known this, 7 perhaps he wouldn’t have fallen into the brown depression he fell into, which lasted the rest of his shift. 8 He believed he must have looked a fool in her eyes, and he envied the sureness of everyone around him: the cocky cashier at the register, the grim and harried their breaks. 9 He wanted a second chance. 10 Another chance to be confident and say witty things to her as he threw tin cans into her bags, persuading her to allow him to help her to her car so he might learn just a little about her, check out the floor of the car for signs of hobbies or fetishes and the bumpers for clues as to beliefs and loyalties.

But he busted her jar of mayonnaise, and nothing else worked out for the rest of the day.

Strange, 11 how attractive clumsiness can be. She left the supermarket with stars in her eyes, for she had loved the way his long, nervous fingers moved from the conveyor belt to the bags, how deftly (until the mayonnaise) 12 they had picked up her items and placed them into her bags. She had loved the way the hair kept falling into his eyes as he leaned over to grab a box or a tin. And the tattered brown shoes he wore with no socks. And the left side of his collar turned in rather than out. 13

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There is No Such Thing as Too Much Barbecue by Jason Sheehan

I believe in barbecue 14 As soul food and comfort food and health food, as a cuisine of both solace and celebration. 2 When I’m feeling good, I want barbecue. And 3 when I’m feeling bad, I just want barbecue more. I believe in barbecue in all its regional derivations, in its ethnic translations, in forms that range from white-tablecloth presentations of cunningly sauced costillas, to Chinese take-out spareribs that stain your fingers red, to the most authentic product of the tar-paper rib shacks of the Deep South. 4 I believe that like sunshine [. . .] no day is bad that has barbecue in it.

I believe in the art of generations of pit-men working in relative obscurity to keep alive the craft of slow-smoking as it’s been practiced for as long as there’s been fire. 5 A barbecue cook must have an intimate understanding of his work, the physics of fire and convection, the hard science of meat and heat and smoke 6– and 7 then forget it all to achieve a sort of gut-level, Zen instinct for the process.

I believe that barbecue drives culture, not the other way around. Some of the first blows struck for equality and civil rights in the Deep South were made not in the courtrooms or schools or on buses, 8 but in the barbecue shacks. There were dining rooms, back yards and roadhouse juke joints in the South that were integrated long before any other public places.

I believe that good barbecue requires no décor, and that the best barbecue exists despite its trappings. Paper plates are okay in a barbecue joint. And paper napkins. And 9 plastic silverware. And I believe that any place with a menu longer than can fit on a single page – or better yet, just a chalkboard 10 The dashes are being used to add almost a side thought, or an interrupter which adds tone to the writing 11– is coming dangerously close to putting on airs.

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“Disarray (collection of drabbles) – Al: The One with the Crooked Jaw” By: 7Storm and Split Evan

The wind blew gently through the sparse trees, rustling the dry air and dusty landscape. 12

It carried stale scents of the watering hole, a desolate desert oasis, 2 with only a few skinny dry trees. The earth here was rock and arid.

Al opened one eye, glancing around the dusty land below, the empty watering hole. 3 He grumbled, raising his head to sniff. 4

He was a loner. Abandoned, 5 he would never reach adult size, but for now he was surviving well, however empty his stomach was, and with every day the ache in his shrunken belly hurt less.

The male stood letting out a gurgling grumble, stretching his legs, The watering hole was a lonely empty place, but he had gotten used to that feeling by now. 6

He lifted his beautifully teardrop-marked face to gaze around the land. His land. 7 His single shade tree up on the hill, the one under which he had spent his first night on his own when he was just a few weeks old. The day that changed – or more so ruined – his entire life. 8 A chill ran down his spine and his skin shivered, Al shook his head and rearranged his jaw. Horribly deformed, it had set him apart. The jaw was the one reminder he had, a promise for vengeance in the Tail-whip creature that had torn his life apart. 9 He ran a tongue across the scar tissue and malformed bones, narrowing his small eyes. But for now, vengeance could wait.

He trotted back along the lonely hot shore under the blistering sun, plopping down under the sheltering shade of his precious tree with a grunt, the coolness instantly making him close his eyes. His hungry gut quieted, and his mind slipped into the cool dark sea of dreams, away from the blistering lonely watering hole.

——–

He was a young hatchling again. 10 But not a comfortable child-hood memory of playing or snuggling with his fellow siblings like it should have been. 11 No, Al’s opportunity to that had been ripped away. Instead he lay there on the hard hot earth, pain making his vision blinding white. And the stench of fresh iron-smelling blood filled his nose, mouth, and pooled around his head in a dizzying amount. 12 Searing pain left his pupils just constricted dots. But soon his vision began to clear, the white light of pain faded only slightly. And who should be standing there but the towering shadow of his mother! His eyes brightened and for a second he forgot his pain, and cried out for her. The large female Allosaur looked down at her offspring, at how crooked and loose his bottom jaw, almost severed, hung. 13 She stood still, staring at what had become of her hatchling, the bloodied half dead mess he was. Her small eyes met his wide agony-filled ones that stared at her in anticipation of the comfort of her presence.

She turned away.

And left. 14

Maternal instinct only goes so far. 15

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In the Company of Truckers by Rachel Kushner

One summer in the late 1990s, I was driving across the country on Interstate 80, having just stopped to visit some friends in Des Moines.16 I was behind the wheel of a 1963 Chevrolet Impala I bought outside Asheville, N.C. The car ran well and was beautiful — champagne body with a cream top, no dents, no rust.2 It still even had these original plastic discs, like thin translucent washers, that fit between the window roller and the door panel to keep the upholstery from being indented or pinched. I was planning to sell it in Los Angeles, where a ’63 two-door Impala in such cherry condition was the ultimate low rider and worth a lot of money.

It was later than I had hoped, maybe 4 p.m., when I said goodbye to my friends. Everything felt fine despite the heavy sky, which seemed to turn almost black on the western horizon. I remembered what an Iowan, a guy named Johnny Coin who lived a bit like he was in the movie “Apocalypse Now,” said to me about the weather in that state: “It’s like Vietnam.” I was crossing into Nebraska when I hit a wall of rain. I slowed to 30 miles an hour as sheets of water poured over the car. Working heat and A.C., a functioning radio, weatherstripping, wipers — these things are luxury and civilization in an antique car.3 In a new car, in which everything is plastic and somewhat ugly and will break tomorrow, there’s no thrill to function.

But then there was no function: The car cut out. Cleanly. No sputter, just click.4 It was off, and slowing. By a stroke of luck, there was an exit just up ahead. I willed the car enough momentum to roll to the exit. It did.5 It rolled right into a truck stop.

I lifted the hood and stood there. It was getting dark. Several truckers came over to help.6 Theories were suggested, but no one seemed to know what the trouble was. A petite and wiry man walked up, grim-faced, carrying one of those Igloo coolers for six beers that was filled with a jumble of greasy tools. The others nodded in his direction and someone said, “There’s your man.”

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