I watched him from a distance. Most people passed by him without a second glance – probably not even a first.
He sat in a beat-up folding chair on the corner of one of the busiest streets in downtown Memphis. His smile was crooked as were the teeth I could see from where I was standing if he spoke to someone.
A little plump at the waistline, and his dark skin was aged – wrinkles here and there, he wore a faded pinstripe – gray and pink – suit, with a pair of scuffed dress shoes.
On his head, he wore one of those funny golfer’s caps – you know the kind – my dad used to call them ‘cabbie caps’ - flat and rounded. This one was black, and from underneath you could see a mix of salt and pepper wisps of hair. He reached into his pocket- and pulled out a pair of reading glasses, and slipped them on.
You wouldn’t think much if you saw him – just an old black man sitting on the street corner watching the world go by.
I leaned against my car across the street. That is when I saw him reaching to his right, past the portable amp that was plugged to an outlet on the wall behind him, and slide his guitar case to the front. He opened it ever so gently, almost like it was a piece of precious glass or something.
And to be honest, it was a treasure – his guitar. I had to catch my breath as I watched him pull out a Gibson ES-5 with a flame top was just breathtaking. You could tell that guitar had been around a while the way that the man cradled it, and attached his strap to it, and plugged it into the amp. He reached into the case, and brought out his face mask, and put it on awkwardly, and started strumming.
Yes, the coronavirus was rampant in our cities, it couldn’t stop this man from providing some musical medicine to those who came near – even if they were masked up and six feet away.
I closed my eyes, and exhaled, listening as the sounds of vintage blues poured out of him through his guitar.
Street musicians around here have always been the norm – someone trying to get a break or maybe a retired “someone” hoping to catch hold of some of the memories of their glory days.
Everyone of them had a story, and this man, well, he had one too. This is why I was here – I am the senior features writer at the newspaper – a job I have held for a decade and half. My boss got the call about Cecil Greene – the man with the guitar’s name.
So, my boss sent me to see if Cecil Greene would tell me his story. I am Mia Wingate, by the way.
He didn’t have to ask me twice. I had seen Cecil Greene perform several times. As a fan of the blues – no, let me rephrase that – an obsessed fan of vintage blues music – I have known of Mr. Greene for a long time. My dad used to take me to hear him play when I was little.
Then, he kind of disappeared from the scene. No one knew where he was. But his riffs were widely heard, appreciated and played even without him. T-Bone Walker – bless him , B.B. King and others were probably much better than Cecil Greene – and Cecil played with these legends – as their back-up.
But Cecil Greene brought something to rhythm and blues that no one could. I can’t explain what “it” was … all I can say is – well, imagine this – put a little bit of Elvis, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Little Richard, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. in a bowl and mix them around, and you have got Cecil Greene – the total package.
I guess I could be bias.
My dad and I still get out some of Cecil’s old albums and play on my grandfather’s vintage record player. My mom will dance around the room, and Daddy will laugh.
I had a crick in my neck, so I was trying to pop it when Caleb Waits, our photographer, pulled up behind my Jeep in his SUV.
“Girl, you know you could have warned a brother that we were coming down here to talk to Cecil Greene. Does the boss know about you two … Oh, my gosh, is that him?” Caleb walked over, with his camera in one hand, and lenses in his vest pocket.
Caleb had done well as our photographer, and his work earned him some play in some major magazines. He was not your typical looking photographer either. He stands about six feet tall, broad shoulders, a mocha complexion, dimples in his cheeks and chin that make him look happy even when he is not, and those gorgeous brown eyes that you could just melt in.
He rubbed his bald head, and looked over at Cecil. He looked back at me, walking a little closer. “Wow.” Caleb leaned down and gave me a quick kiss.
Did I mention that Caleb was my fiancee? “Crazy isn’t it?”
“Did you call your dad?” Caleb started taking some pictures, as a few people had gathered to listen to Cecil play.
“Texted him this morning. He has a meeting down the street but said if I thought it was cool, he might come through. So one of us needs to text him.” I said, reaching into the pocket of my khaki pants. I pulled out my mask.
As I started slipping it around my ear, I looked at Caleb who was walking around snapping pictures. “Did you bring your mask?”
Caleb stopped, and turned around, pulled it out of his vest pocket, and put it on. “I am all for wearing this thing – but phew, it is hot out here.”
Once I got my mask on, I took the black scrunchie off of my wrist, and pulled my crazy mess of long, straight, thick auburn hair into a ponytail. It was hot. Caleb snapped my picture. “You know that maroon t-shirt looks familiar.” He mentioned the shirt I was wearing under the reporter vest we wore outside. It was his shirt. I smiled.
“And you know what else,” Caleb said looking at his camera, and looking at me, “I didn’t realize how tan you have gotten this summer. I thought I was dating a white girl, but now look at you – your are coming to my side of the world.” He showed me the picture.
I did look tan. “All this working from home and quarantining has not been so bad since someone got a swimming pool at the house.” We had put in an above ground pool right before the coronavirus took over.
Cecil’s music just seemed to fit the moment, and gave me a shot of energy. I shivered. “I can’t believe he is here.”
Caleb grinned. “So who are we waiting on?”
As of if by magic, I saw him. The man who had called my boss at the newspaper was the director of the local homeless shelter/soup kitchen.
He was someone we had worked with before – Sam Woodson. Sam whispered something to Cecil, who nodded, and Sam pointed our way.
Sam, with his mask on, walked close to us. “Well, he is game. Good morning.”
I nodded, and took my reporter’s notebook out of my pocket. I don’t know why. I knew every bit of Cecil’s story – except for the last 12 years.
“Caleb is going to just walk around and get some shots first. Is he good with that?” I asked. Caleb was standing on my right side.
“Yup. Go to it. The only thing I want to warn you about is sometimes, Cecil’s memory isn’t like it used to be. He tends to even forget where he is,” Sam said as we walked across the street. “Which is why we have found him a caregiver. That is Derek. He goes to Cecil’s apartment, and helps him get ready and get down here or do little things for him.”
I stopped. “Alzheimer’s?” Caleb turned around and looked at me.
Sam shrugged, “He won’t go to the doctor for a diagnosis … He said it is the dementia. Said his mom had it.” My heart sank deep into my chest.
As we got closer to Cecil, I noticed the guitar had some dents and scratches, but it was polished, and didn’t seem to mind – the tones coming out of it were utterly amazing.
“Cecil this is the reporter from the paper, Mia Wingate, and their photographer, Caleb White.” Sam said.
Cecil looked at me. His eyes seemed to be searching my soul – deep down in it. There was a twinkle in one – both eyes were a deep hazel. “Forgive me if I don’t shake your hands – you know, this coronavirus has all of us doing things a little bit differently.” His voice was raspy, but articulate.
I had interviewed all sorts of people in my career – from the famous to the infamous – and for some reason, Cecil had me in awe. When I gathered my composure, “Yes sir, it has. But it has not stopped you from playing.”
That is when Cecil looked at me, “Well, Shortbread, music is not something you just stop playing, it is a part of your life until you stop breathing.”
Sam said, “Why don’t you take a break for a minute and let’s come inside and talk to the reporter?” Same pointed to the doorway of the office building behind them – it was his office. The soup kitchen was four doors down.
Cecil looked down at his stuff. I said, “You know, Sam, if it is OK, I am going to sit right here, and talk to him while he plays? We will be OK.”
Derek stood in the doorway, and nodded to Sam, who shrugged, “OK, we will be inside.”
Cecil nodded, “We will be fine.”
I sat down on the sidewalk, a few feet away, on Cecil’s right side, and looked at him. Caleb leaned against a light pole a few feet to the left, and played around with his camera – but I know he was watching and listening.
When Sam and Derek went inside, Cecil looked at me, “You’ve grown, Shortbread.”
Cecil Greene’s real name is Cecil James Wingate – my dad’s dad, and my grandfather – or Big, as we kids call him.
“Well, it has been about what, 15 years, Big.” I looked back at him with my hazel eyes – people say I favor him except for the color of my skin.
Cecil strummed along. “Is this your fella?” He nodded toward Caleb. Caleb stood up, and said, “Yes sir, nice to meet you.”
“How did you know he was my fella?” I asked, putting my feet in front of me.
Cecil looked at me, “He kissed you on the mouth when he got out of the Jeep, Shortbread. I saw you pull up … knew it was you. You got your great-grandma Wingate’s build.”
“I have a zillion questions … personal ones,” I held out my notebook and pen first. “But, I have to do this story. You going to answer me?” My grandpa had been stubborn.
He started playing on his guitar, “I reckon … How is your daddy? And your uncle Beau?” My dad and his brother were Cecil’s only kids by my grandmother- Nana was white and from Louisiana - a Cajun. She died about 18 years ago.
“They are good. Daddy is in town at a meeting … He wanted to come by if I got here and it was you.” I said, deciding to sit criss-cross on the pavement.
Cecil started playing louder, “Well, we will see. Did you tell anyone who I was to you?”
“Caleb knows, but that is all.” I answered.
Cecil looked up at Caleb, and squinted, “Young man, what are your intentions? I mean, how do you feel about my Shortbread here?”
“I plan to marry her soon, sir, and do right by here until the Lord calls us both home,” Caleb said as he snapped a picture with me in the frame.
Cecil said, “You know why I call her ‘Shortbread?’”
I looked at the sidewalk. “No one knows you call me that except for family, Big.”
“But I would like to know,” Caleb said, moving around us, taking photos of Cecil from different angles as he played.
“Shortbread came early, and she came quick and hot, and that is how she lived her life as far as I know well, at least until she was 15 when I left. You turn 30 in a few weeks right, Shortbread?”
I was surprised he remembered. “Yes sir.”
Cecil stopped playing and looked at me, dead in my eyes, “Let’s get this story done. My memory is not so good … I think I got Mamie’s disease.” That was my great=grandmother.
“When did you first fall in love with the Blues?” I asked. From there, Cecil gave me enough to fill 12 pages in my notebook. He even mentioned his family, but then he looked at me, “If you want to name us and connect us, you can.”
Caleb looked at me with his eyebrows raised.
Cecil added, “But no one is to know until that story comes out … your uncle is the mayor.”
“Last question, where have you been the last decade? And why did you leave?” He knew that was coming. I waited, pen in hand.
Cecil took a deep breath. “My heart broke when your grandmother died. Nothing felt right anymore, nothing tasted good anymore and I had no music in me anymore. I didn’t know what to do, where to go and I didn’t want to be a burden to my family. I was 60. I just didn’t know what to do.”
I could feel the tears developing in my eyes. Caleb knelt behind me, and I could lean on him as he aimed his camera toward Cecil.
“So, I left. I went on a journey to find myself. I ended up back home in Georgia, and deep in the country where some of my cousins still live, I found myself again, so I made my way back here.” Cecil said.
I couldn’t resist. “What about your family?”
Cecil was playing, and nodded toward someone who threw some money in his bucket. “Well, I had a friend here – do you remember Lou?” My grandfather’s best friend was always at the house and family things. He gave me and my brother and sister gifts all the time.
I stopped. I reached into my pocket, and pulled out my keys, and there was a brass key ring in the shape of a guitar. “You told him to give this to me, didn’t you? When I graduated from college?”
Cecil nodded. He smiled. “Lou told me you played, and were pretty good.”
“She still plays,” Caleb said from his spot a few feet away, “and sings too …”
Cecil smiled. “So, Lou kept me in touch until I was ready to be a dad again, a grandfather again. I was ashamed of myself.”
I said, “Lou convinced them if something happened to you that they would know. In fact, I remember him telling Daddy you would come back when you were ready.”
Cecil stopped playing and said, “I am ready now.” The song was familiar. It was a blues’ lullaby that he used to play when we would spend the night.
I stood up, and sighed. “Do you want me to call Daddy?” I reached for my phone.
“Not yet. Young man, can you take a picture of me and my granddaughter? And maybe could I get a copy of it?” Cecil asked. He looked at me, “Can you come closer?”
I nodded, and crouched near his chair, looking at his guitar. He saw me. “You want to play old Mildred, don’t you?”
Laughing, I said, “You named the guitar after your old poodle?” Him and Nana had a white poodle they named Mildred. She was old, and died before I was born, but they still talked about her, and had pictures of her all over the house.
I could hear Caleb clicking away, as Cecil was looking at me, and I was looking at him. “Yeah, you know, old Mildred was a special dog.”
Sam and Derek walked out. “So, how was it?” Sam asked.
I nodded, “It was good.”
Cecil nodded, and looked in his bucket. It was full. “Well, you know, Shortbread, you may have to come back … you were my good luck charm today.” Cecil winked at me as he unplugged his amp, and Derek helped him put everything back in place.
“We are going to head back to my apartment so this young man can feed me and help me get my meds. Sam can tell you where to find me.” Cecil stood.
He continued. “I will be glad to introduce you to some of Mildred’s people, and we can continue?” Mildred’s people, I was sure, were his other guitars.
Sam handed me a piece of paper with Cecil’s address. Cecil turned around , “And Shortbread, I have a question for you.” He called.
I stepped forward, “Yes sir?” I called through my mask.
“When did you first fall in love with the Blues?” He grinned.
I thought for a second, “When I heard my grandpa play his guitar, and he riffed out a T-Bone Walker song.”
He asked me, “What was it?” I am not sure if he was trying to remember, or if he was testing me. Cecil was smiling. He knew.
“Papa Ain’t Salty.” I was like four at the time.
Cecil cackled as he turned around and walked behind Derek. I could hear him whistling. Sam said, “He is whistling that song, isn’t he?"
Old Cecil Greene could make music with anything.