I don't know, I said, a quick explanation of the holidays and family, when one of the great musicians sat down to eat before playing.
Did you have a Christmas tree?
Oh, yes. He nodded. I had his soda water for him. Asked, his daughter in Germany, with her boyfriend, Vietnamese. At Christmas, a preference for particular bourbon emerges. Makers Mark, sound, but I don't drink when I play. Bartender reacts. Daughter's boyfriend likes... Basil Hayden.
I say, Knob Creek, best we have. Famous American almost drowned in Knob Creek, Kentucky, at the age of nine. Makers Mark. Does what it should. But who is that?
(Actually, the Irish are smarter, distilling three times, not just once, as in bourbon, though you have to give them credit for being the Armangac of whiskey, not just twice, like the Scots, who know they are going to drink a lot of it... Makes a difference.)
A musician, a bass player, lets say, has an understanding of Abraham Lincoln.
I was watching a piece about the Naval Observatory... (Here in Washington, DC, not far away, through the woods, off of Massachusetts Avenue.) The big telescope had finally arrived. All set up. And, you know, it's pretty quiet, up on a nice hill, surrounded by woods, and yes, if you had to pick a place in old DC, that's it, makes sense.
But one night, not long after the big telescope is in place, somewhere in the night, maybe something like 2:30 AM, something like that, a knock at the door. Boom boom. Boom. Boom. Who the hell is it. Go and answer the door. And you're looking uphill if you are in front of the Naval Observatory. Open the door.
It's him. Abraham Lincoln.
Can I look through your telescope? I thought I might like to. You know, I have an interest in science and such things. My patent never got very far, but, without science, where would we be?
Smiles. Nods. The self-confidence of a big man, like a man who can play the bass. The keeper of the observatory, and he, look through the telescope, big for its day, up at the heavens.
Thank you very much. That really was nice. I much appreciate your letting me come and look, and think of all we saw.
And then, the keeper of the Observatory, well, sees him out. The man did what he wanted, looked up, saw the stars of the deep heavens... The door is opened to let him out, Lincoln...
And then, what does he see? Lincoln nods, probably, and then he turns away, his hat on, and he walks away. He steps down the hill, to the sloping little road that leads now down to Massachusetts Avenue which was basically the same route then as it is now... It's the middle of the night, and the man is all alone. No horse. No guard. No phalanx. Just a lone tall man, at the odd hour, who probably said, what we all would have said, if we ourselves had the opportunity to be him, such a man, 'thank you very much.' The words haven't changed that much since 1854, or 1855, or 1856.
Just a lone man, tall, shrouded in his dark suit, an overcoat, maybe, walking slowly and steadfastly out into the silent dark night.
The keeper of the Observatory watches the man walk away off into the night.
I look at my guest. famous in his own right.
What was he, fifty seven? (56, at death, some literature says.) His weight was down to 180, thin for a man 6' 4", but sinewy, all muscle. Out wrestled anyone he ever wrested with.
I've looked at his life masks, at the Portrait Gallery. The one from 1860, then the one from 1865. Something was getting him... The cracked negative is not a big picture, just more than postcard size, unbelievably. Or rather, appropriate. Something comes out of it. Him.
Something was getting him, yes.
Could hold an axe out, I add, holding my thin arm out straight. I've split wood before as a kid, in my life. But at shoulder height, he could do it.
A little Derringer pistol one shot thing, they weren't very reliable. Half the time they wouldn't go off, backfired, something like that.
And if it hadn't gone off, Lincoln would have turned around...
Yes, I said...
Lincoln would have turned around, picked the little bastard up, broke him in half and thrown him over the railing.
Which, unfortunately, for the world, did not happen.
The man finished his salmon, and I was his friend, and I watched him play the bass, while I tended to my duties there at the wine bar, with all its comings and goings.
But how can one not tear up, after hearing a story, and realizing that at night, all alone, Lincoln got up on his own two booted feat, and walked, alone, all the way from 16th Street Northwest (where The White House is), up the five or so blocks up to Massachusetts Avenue, and then all the way up west, a good fifty minutes, I might imagine, and then, satisfied, walked back, had to walk back, which some of us, as drinkers sometimes, know is not so perfectly pleasant, but sometimes weary, but then, sometimes allowing for a joy of the elements, the peaceful happy open night sky with all its little events of meaning and possibility and proposed geometry.
That is where the words came from, from such slow walks, as that old man, walking up, and then back down, old spooky Massachusetts Avenue not far away from where I sit, and many the time I have made the walk, the very same footsteps, in cold weather, and in fair, and in the same, one imagines, the same creative oblivion, honest, hurting, a practical thing to do as far as sanity. A thing that made him who he was, always doing things like that, that odd wayfarer sort of thing, as if he was interested more in petals of clover in the grass than all the great matters of state.
Pigs stuck in mud. Fallen birds. Somber rhymes. A man balanced, somehow, encompassing. And on top of that, all the legal talent you'd want, unlike some of us, who aren't so industrious and responsible.