ANDY'S ASHES *
We all used to hang out at Tiny's Tavern, a bar on West 51st Street and Broadway. If you stood in there any evening for a couple of hours, you would run into most of the musicians in town. The night club guys, the jazz players, and the guys in town with the road bands. Musicians from the radio studios hung out at another place farther east.
Tiny's dark pine walls were covered with hundreds of framed eight-by-ten glossy publicity photos of musicians of every sort. Loose snapshots of musicians were tucked around the bottom of the huge mirror behind the old oak bar that ran the length of the room. We went to Tiny’s to kill time before gigs, and went back again between sets when we were playing nearby. We also hung out there when work was slow, hoping to hear of a chance to play somewhere. At Tiny's, we could stay in touch with each other and with the music business, which could disappear on you fast if you didn't keep an eye on it.
One evening I stopped by Tiny’s and found Mojo sitting alone in one of the back booths. Mojo was a good saxophone player, but good saxophone players were a dime a dozen. Mojo hadn't been finding many paying gigs. He covered his rent and food by filling in as a substitute short order cook for a chain of Manhattan lunch counters. I sat down opposite him and slapped his upturned palm.
"Hey, Mo. I heard you at Andy's funeral Saturday. Sounded good!"
"That was nice, wasn't it?" said Mojo. "A few old friends blowing the last few tunes for him."
Mojo emptied his glass of beer and gave me a grin as he wiped his moustache.
"It was funny, hearing everybody saying so many good things about Andy," he said. "They were true things, but nobody mentioned that there had also been times with every one of us when we wanted to strangle Andy."
"Well, we all have our weaknesses."
I signaled to Tiny to draw us two more beers, and stepped over to the bar to get them. Back in the booth, Mojo and I lifted our glasses in a silent salute and sat for a while, sipping quietly.
"You playin' anywhere, Fess?"
"Just here and there, now and then," I said. "Putting the twos and fews together. Mostly piano singles."
"I haven't had a gig this month. It's hard to keep your chops up without some steady work."
"That's why they invented practicing."
Another few moments of quiet contemplation passed. We said hello to a group of friends wearing the powder blue uniform jackets of the ballroom band next door. Downstairs for a taste between sets, they moved along the booths greeting other musicians, and then found some drinking space at the bar.
I asked Mojo, "How's Andy's lady holding up?"
"Peg'll be okay. Being married to Andy, she figured out a long time ago how to keep things together when the bread was short. They had some lean times, but she always managed. She's got something going over at the Brill Building, working for a publisher. She'll be okay."
"You knew her before she met Andy, didn't you?"
"I introduced her to him. She had all his records, and when she found out he was my trumpet player, she came by the Peacock Club to have a look. They hit it off right away. He moved into her pad in the Bronx, and about six months later, they went down to City Hall to make it official. Took me along to be the witness. Peg was always his biggest fan."
"She had to be, to stick with him through those junky scenes he put her through."
"She was older than her years that way, I guess. Mature in a way he never got around to being. When he got into drugs, he didn't take care of any kind of business. But he could be a lovable cat, and she loved him."
I knew that Mojo had often looked out for Andy, finding him gigs and making sure he showed up for them. I said, "You kind of took him under your wing, didn't you?"
Mojo shrugged. "I loved the way he played. If you could get him to the gig, you couldn't find a better trumpet player. I always got the leader to give me his bread so I could get it home to Peg. That way their rent got paid, and they had something to eat. Toward the end, Andy never thought beyond the next chance to get high. Let his health go to hell, and then the pneumonia took him."
"Where'd she bury him?"
"Cremated. I don't guess he really has any final resting place."
"How do you mean?"
Mojo paused to pick up two more beers from the bar, motioning for Tiny to put them on his tab. He put one glass down in front of me, settled back into his seat, and took a long swallow.
"On one of Andy's last days in the hospital, when he knew he was going, he told Peg he wanted to have his ashes scattered on the Hudson River. I don't know why. He wasn't an outdoor guy, but maybe the river meant something to him. Maybe he once thought about jumping off the bridge, I don't know. Anyway, Peg asked me to take care of it for her.
"She got some bread from Andy's union insurance, just enough to cover the cost of the cremation. This guy in the Bronx had quoted her a price. But when I drove up there this morning to get the ashes, he hands me a bill for about half a yard more than she gave me, and I'm not holding any extra cash. I check out the bill, and I see he's tacked on the cost of an urn to put the ashes in.
"I tell him I don't want any urn, and the guy comes on real lofty with me. He says, `This is a first-class establishment! I can't just put the remains in a paper bag!'
"So I run across the street to this bodega and I buy a big can of Maxwell House, and then out on the street I key it open and dump the coffee in a trash basket. I go back into the crematorium and tell the cat, `Put the ashes in this can.' He isn't happy about it, but he does it, and I give him Peg's bread and carry the coffee can back out to my car.
"It's funny, riding along with what's left of Andy in this can on the seat beside me. I'm thinking of all the times he was sitting there in person, on the way to some gig or other. Half the time he'd be passed out, from too much booze, or drugs, or too little sleep. But the other half of the time, he was great company. He had a different take on the world than most people, and would size things up in a way that would really make you laugh. And there wasn't a mean bone in his body, you know. Once you accepted that he was completely unreliable in the usual sense, you could enjoy him a lot.
"Well, anyway, I drove down to the George Washington Bridge to do the thing with the ashes, but then I realized I couldn't park out in the middle while I dumped them. There was all this traffic, and no place to pull over. I suppose I could have parked back on 178th Street someplace and walked halfway across, but that's a pretty long hike. Anyway, I didn't think of it until it was too late.
"So I drove on across the bridge and went up the highway to where they have that little turnout on the edge of the palisades. It's a view place for sightseers, with parking. But when I carried Andy's ashes over to the guard rail, I saw that I wasn't right on the edge of the cliff. I had to go down past some big rocks before I could see the water.
"There was a sign there that said not to climb on the rocks, but nobody was around, so I slid over the rail and went down, looking for a good place to drop the ashes. It really wasn't a good spot. It's pretty high up there. But I kept going, scrambling around these big slabs of rock, holding this dumb coffee can. I gave it a shake and said, `Andy, you were a great trumpet player, but in a lot of ways you were a pain in the ass, and today you're still a pain in the ass!"
Mojo shook his head, lifted his glass, and drained it.
"I finally got to where I could see straight down to the river, and I figured, what the hell, this is it. I was sick of the whole idea, and I just wanted to get out of there.
" I pulled the lid off the coffee can and said goodbye to Andy. Then I grabbed onto a tree and held the can as far out over the cliff as I could reach, and dumped it upside down. And the goddam wind blew Andy's ashes right back in my face!
"I had this stuff all over me! I just stood there trying to brush myself off, and calling Andy all the names I could think of. My clothes were all covered with this funky gray powder. I climbed back up to my car, drove home and took a long shower. Then I took the clothes I'd been wearing over to the dry cleaner on Broadway. After that, I came straight down here for a taste. Been here all day."
Mojo signaled to Tiny for two more beers.
"So, in answer to your question, Fess, I guess Andy's final resting place is the dry cleaner's up near 86th Street. You think maybe they should put up a plaque?"
[This was published in the Summer 2001 issue of Brilliant Corners, a Journal of Jazz & Literature.]
*Footnote: Sometime around the year 1999, someone told me the bare bones of this story. When I started writing some short stories, I remembered this tale and asked around, trying to remember who had originally told it to me. I was sure it was someone at Local 802, but couldn’t recover the source. So I wrote the story, because I liked it so much, and it became the first item in my Fess series.
Now, on September 9, 2011, during a wonderful exchange on HBO between Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett (filmed in December 2010), Brooks tells this story. I know I never heard it from him... who could forget such a wonderful story-teller? But someone back in 1999 must have heard him tell it somewhere, and retold it to me. I still wonder who it was.