Ithaca Blog

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Happy Birthday, Naked Miles Davis

A few times I have played that ice-breaking game where you tell a group of people one true thing and two lies about yourself, and they have to guess which is which. I always include the statement that I was once alone naked in a room with Miles Davis. It usually wakes the crowd, especially in work environments, and has never been selected as true, but it is.

It was a locker room, but it still counts. We were alone, very early in the morning, and I did not feel entirely comfortable. This fellow was very talkative and a little odd, not good traits in a naked stranger. I did not know at first it was Miles Davis.

It was the locker room at the gym at the U.N. Plaza Hotel in New York. It was almost exactly 27 years ago, in the last week of May, 1986. I was just married, on my honeymoon.

My wife (now ex-wife) and I were from New York, and had courted there as high school kids, but had moved away, and decided to spend part of our honeymoon in the city we loved with some money in our pockets now. In the old days our dates consisted of walking in Central Park with perhaps an iced tea and a pretzel to split. Now we would stay at a fancy hotel and go to plays and restaurants.

The U.N. Plaza was a nice place at the time. We didn't want anything too fussy, and we liked the fact that it had a gym with a big pool on the top floor, with views of the city as you swam.

I was up at 7 one morning to swim. My wife stayed in bed and I told her I'd be back by 8 for breakfast. I was the only one at the gym at that hour, and it was great, the place all to myself.

I look up, though, as I'm doing laps, and there's a guy at the side of the pool. He is very skinny, doing stretching exercises. They are very slight movements, but he is making a lot of noise: kind of high-pitched squealing sounds.

It is a little distracting, and I try to ignore the guy, but it isn't easy. The movements are strange, and so are the sounds, and he is kind of striking, besides. He is built like linguine, with a boney head. He is dark-skinned, and his hair is in long braids off a receding hairline, with gold metal tips. He is maybe 60 years old, wearing a very small Speedo, and a watch and other jewelry such as swimmers don't usually sport.

I take the guy for maybe an African ambassador. We are at the U.N. Plaza, after all. I figure in the name of diplomacy I won't say anything, but after a while it becomes a bit much. The guy isn't getting in the pool or anything. After a while I figure I am done.

I get out of the pool and dry myself off and go into the locker room. The place is fancy and there's an attendant outside and there are no locks on the lockers. I sit down in front of mine to get dressed. I hear my man coming in from the the pool and think, watch, 100 lockers here and I bet he's right next to mine.

Sure enough: he walks over, opens the locker right next to mine, and sits down next to me.

And I mean next to me, like a foot away, maximum: a lot closer than necessary. I shift to my left a bit, tired of diplomacy.

I'm pulling on my pants and socks and the guy starts coughing. Deep, phlegmy coughs. "Man," he says, after the exertion. "Hey, man," he says to me. "When you go swimming, does your saliva get all sticky like this?," and he holds out his hand, full of gob.

"Come on, man," I say, scowling and squirming away. "I don't want to look at your saliva."

"Come on, man!," he responds. His voice is scratchy and his accent sounds American, not African. "Take a look! That's all I'm asking, does your saliva get all sticky like this?"

"I don't know," I say, still scowling. "It gets a little sticky, I guess. Were you even in the pool?"

"That's what I mean!," he says. He's shaking his hand back and forth. "And this is some sticky motherfucking shit!"

Now I have a pretty good idea he is not African, though what do I care. All I want him to be is a guy I'm no longer around.

But he continues to talk, and all of a sudden it is interesting to me, because his vernacular is so funny, and his voice strangely familiar. I still haven't really looked at him yet, until he starts talking about being "in Russia with my band."

It was a long story, but here is the end of it. He says, "I passed out on the stage. They took me out of there and put me in an ambulance. I woke up and said, 'Where you taking me, motherfucker?' And they said to the hospital. And I said, to a motherfucking Russian hospital? I ain't going to no motherfucking Russian hospital. Take me to a fucking American hospital. And they said America's 2000 miles away except for Alaska. And I said take me to fucking Alaska, then. And they did, they put my ass in a plane and flew me there. At least I think they did. They spoke English there, anyway. Motherfucker," he mused.

At this point I look over at him, because my heart is beating so hard I figure he can hear it, because I realize this is Miles Davis. He looks back at me.

"What's your name, man?" And he held out his hand to shake. The other hand.

"Steve," I said, my voice not shaking, with effort. We shook hands. "I'm Miles," he said. "Yeah," I said.

"I never seen you here before, man. You a member of the club? You live around here?"

"No," I say. "I'm here on my honeymoon. Staying at the hotel."

"Your honeymoon?," he says. "You motherfucker. You got married?"

"Yeah," I say. This is fun now. "I got married. You know. You get married and you go on a honeymoon."

"You motherfucker," he said. "Don't tell me about no honeymoon. I been married four - five times." We were both were trying not to laugh.

"You got a wife?," he continued. "Where you get a wife?" I explained about our history, our marriage, and lives. He listened as he dressed. I couldn't help noticing bills folded in a money clip, about an inch thick. Between that and his jewelry he was carrying thousands of dollars, who knows how many, with no entourage, no bodyguard, all alone, 150 pounds maybe.

He asked if I was interested in music, and I said yes, and did I play anything, and I said yes, and he asked all about that, and talked about his love, too, for country blues. It was as if I was the famous one.

By no means did I want to go - I'd had a chance to ask him a few questions, but not many - but, as I explained to him, my wife was expecting me. In fact, I was late.

"Fuck, well, yeah, late. You don't want to be late for shit on your honeymoon. Let's go, but what are you doing later? Why don't you and Amy come up to my house?"

I said thanks, but in fact we had the whole day planned. We were meeting my parents for lunch, and hers for dinner.

"Bring them, too," he said. "It's a big place." He gave me the address.

"It's a great offer, Miles, you're very generous, and I would love to do it," I said, "but you know how it is. We've had these plans a long time."

"Yeah," he said. "Well, anyway. If you change your mind, come by. Tell the guy at the door just to send you up or call me."

We walked out of the locker room together. I was maybe half an hour late: we had talked a long time. He asked me, "Think you in trouble?"

"Maybe," I said. "Here comes my wife." Amy was walking out of the elevator to come find me. I knew she wasn't mad, but I let him think I was worried.

"Uh-oh," he said. "Wow. Let me do the talking. Tell her it was all my fault."

"Don't curse," I said.

"Don't curse?," he said, That threw him a second. I laughed. "Motherfucker," he said laughing, under his breath.

My wife had a funny look as she realized I was not just walking beside this very well-dressed, older black man, but with him. What now, said the look. It intensified as he strode up to her, arms outstretched, calling her name. "Amy, Amy, Amy," he said, hugging her. "I'm so sorry, baby. Here you are on your honeymoon and I'm keeping your husband late from you. But I'm so happy to meet you. I'm so happy for you on your marriage and your lives together. I wish you so many blessings."

"Amy," I said, "this is Miles Davis."

We never made it to his place. I might have tried harder if he had mentioned, as we were celebrating our marriage, 24 May, he had just celebrated his birthday, 26 May. I'm writing this on the day in between. Happy anniversary and happy birthday, Miles Davis.

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