Specs Carpenter was a skinny little drummer with big horn-rimmed glasses. I got to know him hanging around Tiny's Tavem. I never got a chance to hear him play, but everyone said he was good. He was a friendly little guy but nervous, like a little bird, hopping around, ready to fly off at any second.
Specs was always wound up about something. Maybe he'd have an idea for a band he wanted to put together, or a way of making a snare drum sound better, or he'd be all excited about a new tenor player he'd just heard, or he'd have found a great place for jam sessions. He'd grab my arm and talk fast, all the time tapping his feet, waving his hands, and peering at me through these thick glasses he wore. He was always saying, "Listen, Fess." I'm a good listener, so I'd listen. Specs kept me entertained on a lot of slow evenings.
Musicians are like a big, loose family. You might see somebody every day for a year or two on a gig, and when the gig ends, you may not see him for quite a while. That's normal. If one of the regulars at Tiny's didn't show up for a month or so, everybody figured he was probably out on the road with a band. Nobody around Tiny's was ever away on vacation. Only a gig took you out of town, and when it ended, you came back to the Apple and scuffled some more. And when you were in town, you checked in at Tiny's, first thing. You had to let people know you were around and available.
When I didn't see Specs for a while, I assumed he was on the road. Then, as time passed, he just dropped out of my mind. But one afternoon a couple of years later I ran into him out on the sidewalk in front of Tiny's.
"Specs! Where've you been all this time?"
Specs shook my hand several times real fast, and started right in: "Listen, Fess..."While he talked, he kept walking back and forth in front of me, like he couldn't stand in one place for more than a second.
"I just got back from California," he said. "I've been living out there with some groovy people, about thirty of them, up on top of a mountain. They all have blond hair, and they wear blue robes. They worship the sun... and they have real respect for the drum, man! They treat it like it’s a sacred object!
"So I fell in with them, and me being a good drummer, they treated me like I was some sort of a holy person! It was wild! We'd get high, just from the drumming! Well, we did smoke a little pot, too, now and then. I've been living out there, wearing a blue robe and sandals and drumming with these people every day for over a year! They took real good care of me. They gave me a place to stay, fed me, and treated me real respectful all the time! And the drumming was really groovy! I thought I'd died and gone to heaven!
"Jesus, Specs," I asked him, "If it was that good, what are you doing back in the Apple?"
"Well, my mother hasn't been feeling too good lately. I thought I ought to be with her. See, before I went to California, I kind of let her down."
I didn't ask any questions, but Specs seemed eager to talk.
"I was messing around with junk that winter. Just snorting a little at first, but then I started mainlining, and it really screwed me up. I never thought I'd become a junky, but I got so strung out that I blew all the gigs I had, and I couldn't get my hands on enough bread to support my habit. You know me... too nervous to steal.
"My mother went to Florida for the cold months, and I was staying in her apartment on Washington Square with this friend of mine, the junky who got me started shooting up. We started selling stuff out of her place in order to cop more junk, and we kind of went overboard. I mean, in a couple of months that apartment was completely bare! Furniture, rugs, everything! Like, we even sold her fur-lined toilet seat!"
"Jesus, Specs. "
"I got so bugged about how bad my mother was gonna flip when she saw the place, it gave me the strength to kick my habit. I told my friend to find another place to stay, and I kicked, cold turkey, all by myself, there in my mother's bare apartment. I was pretty sick for a while, but I finally got through it. Of course, I didn't want to be anywhere around the Apple when she came back from Florida.
"I met a guy in the Village who had a gig delivering a Cadillac to somebody in California. Wanted me to help out with the driving. So I locked up the apartment and drove on out to the coast with him. The trip was groovy, and the guy picked up the tab for our food. But when I wound up in San Francisco, I didn't know anybody. I scuffled around there for a couple of weeks, hanging around the jazz clubs. I washed dishes in a hash house for a while, just for meals and a little walking around money.
Then I met a waitress who knew these blue-robe cats up on the mountain. After she took me up there, I started living this whole new life. You just can’t imagine what a different sort of person I’ve been. It's kind of weird to be back in the Apple."
"How did your mother take it, when she saw the way you left her apartment?"
"Oh, I guess she was in shock for a while, but it gave her something to do. She completely redecorated the place. Very modern. I'm staying over there right now. And if I can get my invention on the market, I'll be able to pay her back for everything."
"Oh, Fess, I've come up with my greatest idea! It came to me up on that mountain." He drew himself up like a teacher giving a lecture. "You know, down through the ages, the drum has always been basically a solid cylinder, with flexible skins stretched over one or both of the ends. My idea is to reverse that... the ends will be two wooden discs, and the cylinder will be a flexible drum head wrapped around them! The drum will be mounted on an axle, running through the center of the discs, and they can be pulled away from each other to stretch the head tight. "
Behind his horn-rimmed glasses, Specs' eyes were blazing with excitement, and his arms waved wildly as he drew diagrams for me in the air.
"I'll mount the axle so it can be turned by a little electric motor! The faster it spins, the farther the discs will pull away from each other, tightening the drumhead and making the pitch go higher! You'll be able to control the speed with a foot switch, raising and lowering the pitch! You could play it with sticks, or with a bass drum pedal. I can hear exactly how it will sound! I just need to find the bread to get my prototype built!"
I nodded, "You don't have any money."
"Yeah, that's my only problem. I'm trying to get up the nerve to hit my mother for a loan. She wants me to go to dentistry school, and she's willing to put up the bread for that, but she's never shown any enthusiasm for the drums. If I can explain it to her right, she'll see it's a good investment! There won't be any other sound like it! I know all the guys will want one!"
I didn't see Specs again for several years. Then he turned up one day in the audience at a summer concert I was playing out on Long Island. He came up afterward and said hello. He'd put on some weight, and had grown a little moustache. His glasses were rimless now, and he was wearing a nice gray suit and a tie. He seemed less agitated than he used to be. He stood in one spot all the time we talked, without hopping around any.
When I asked him what he'd been doing, he pulled out his wallet and fished out a business card for me. It read: Melvin A. Carpenter, DDS. Then he showed me the pictures in his wallet...a nice looking wife, holding a baby, standing by a swimming pool in front of a very nice house.
"Did you ever build that drum you invented?"
"What drum was that, Fess?"
"The one with the electric motor?"
Specs looked puzzled.
"I don't remember that one, Fess. But I'd like to show you the refrigerated drill I've been working on. Cools the tooth while you're drilling, so it doesn't heat up! Heat causes most of the pain, you know! Say, why don't you call up my nurse and make an appointment? I'll give you a free inspection and a cleaning! For old times sake!"