The Immovable Object

Posted: April 19, 2013 in Life, Mom, Russ
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

No story about Russ would be complete without talking about Harlan. He started coming to Russ for lessons maybe a year or two after I did – I think he always had the time slot after us. This guy was huge – I mean huge. Like, 6′ tall, easily. And he was built like a dump truck. He was easily 400 pounds and it wasn’t fat. At least, not all of it. The thing about Harlan was that he was nuts – I mean legitimately off his rocker. He was coming to Russ for music therapy (which probably worked to some degree – he stuck with it for 20 years as far as I know). You never knew what this guy was going to do, and even though he was nice enough there was always this slight aura of danger about him. He was very well versed in CQC combat, Judo, and several other martial arts – built like he was, I have little doubt he could have killed someone with very little trouble. He constantly put cigarettes out on his hands or tongue. Once, for a $50 bet, he opened a beer bottle with his teeth. Broke nearly all his front teeth in the process. He had several psychiatrists quit on him – one story I heard was that he found out where his shrink lived, went there at night, and painted his entire fence bright red (it had been a white picket fence). His shrink was pissed. Despite being Jewish, he read Mein Kampf on a regular basis – I can’t tell you how many times I saw him in the waiting room with that tattered book. Not sure if that meant he was an ardent follower Hitler (one wouldn’t think so, but with Harlan it was a possibility) or if he was looking for something in there. I’d come out of the lesson room, and he’d be sitting in the waiting area at Russ’s desk (usually a spot reserved for Russ), smoking and reading Mein Kampf, or possibly a CQC book. Despite his incredibly intimidating visage, he was always very nice to me – always went out of his way to say hi. He’d rise from behind Russ’s desk like a bear waking up from hibernation, and rumble a greeting.

Harlan: DANNY!

I’d wave. Mom was scared to death of this guy – she was convinced he was nuts – and didn’t want any of us to get too close.

Harlan: Come over here! Got somethin’ for ya.

I’d amble over, and he’d present me with something – usually some knick-knack he found or made. I got dozens of presents from Harlan over the years – a bullet keychain, which he made himself (Mom was horrified, and made me throw it out), some art he painted (again, Mom threw this out – there wasn’t anything offensive in it that I could see, though. I just saw a lot of shades of blue), and – wait for it – an honest to God Star Wars Millennium Falcon from the 80s’. That’s still in my closet somewhere. I insisted on keeping it. As a kid, he just seemed like a strange guy that Mom didn’t like. She told me repeatedly that he was dangerous – but then she told me repeatedly that pretty much everything was dangerous. As I grew up, I started to see signs of his illness – part of this may have been my matured perception, and part may have been Harlan’s own illness wearing him down. I started to notice he would shuffle instead of walk, for instance. Sometimes he’d stare off into space – not too unlike Mom, actually – though at the time I thought that was fairly normal. Sometimes he’d be so doped up on anti-psychotics he’d sit there and drool. I could almost watch his brain cells vegetate. It was kind of sad.

Anyway, because Mom was convinced Harlan was a nut, and because Harlan was Russ’s last student for the night, it gave Mom an excuse to stick around long after our lesson was over. We’d wait around – literally in front of Russ’s studio – until Tim or I complained enough. Then we’d run down to Dairy Queen or Checker’s or something, swing back, and eat our food in the car. Now that I think of it, it was kind of like we were on a stakeout. We’d wait for Harlan to leave, then go in and say hi to Russ again. Under the guise of “making sure he was okay”, Mom would again pepper him with questions about the Mafia, or the Answer, or whatever. Maybe she’d give him a letter or card to give to “one of the Russes”. What I’m saying is, Russ basically started getting a double dose of Mom when Harlan started taking lessons.

Harlan would do art – not just paintings, but he’d do weldings of different objects. He gifted Russ part of a metal grate, a small-ish hubcap (at least, I think it was a hubcap) and some metal he twisted up so it looked like a flame. He attached it to a mobile and Russ hung it from one of his windows. Considering it was art, and considering it was in public, it was open to being viewed (and interpreted) by anyone in the waiting room. One lady was waiting for a lesson, and started interpreting Harlan’s work.

Lady: Oh, I get it.

Harlan looked up from Mein Kamp, and crushed his cigarette into an ashtray with his massive paw.

Lady: The ring is like, the goal. The thing you want.

Harlan stared.

Lady: The fire represents you, and the fence is life trying to keep you from your goal.

Harlan kept staring, but his stare was turning into a glower. The lady was clueless.

Lady: Right?

Harlan blew up – I’ve seen few other people go from 0-60 that fast.

Harlan: NO GODDAMIT THAT IS NOT WHAT IT IS! FUCK YOU, LADY. GODDAM!

He stood up, which wasn’t a good thing. The lady quickly apologized, and Russ rushed out to calm the situation. Somehow, he could always talk to Harlan. Maybe he had a gift for dealing with crazy people. Who knows.

Russ: Harlan, she didn’t mean anything, man. Just chill out and have another cigarette. We’ll get to your lesson in a minute, okay?

I heard the screen door slam – the lady was out the door and halfway down the street already.  I don’t blame her. I’d have had the everloving piss scared out of me if I had been her. Then again, I don’t blame Harlan either – as an artist, it pisses me off endlessly when people don’t get my “art”, and I’m expected to just be okay with it. I’m really not. It’s one hurdle I’ve faced when opening up my music to public consumption. I imagine a lot of artists share that feeling. Sometimes I wish I had the balls Harlan did and was able to say “No, goddamn it, that’s not what the song is about. Your interpretation is not correct.” I’m learning (slowly) that art can have more than one interpretation and that’s okay.

Russ closed the door to the lesson room and sat back down. He made an exaggerated motion of wiping sweat off his brow.

Russ: Close one. We got the immovable object out there.

Mom and I laughed.

Russ: And have you smelled him? Guy smells like a Jewish deli. 

I’ve been in a few Jewish delis in NY, and Russ was right. Harlan did smell a bit like pastrami.

One thing Harlan did teach me, though, is about persistence.  When he first started coming to Russ, he was terrible. And I mean terrible. He couldn’t hold a tune, his rhythm was awful, you name it. If there was something that could be wrong with someone’s singing, Harlan exemplified it. But by the end of my stretch at Russ’s – 20 some years or so – Harlan sounded good. Not just good, actually. Really good. If you’re bad at something – hell, even if you’re really freakin’ terrible – but you really want to do it…stick with it. You’ll get better. Maybe only incrementally, and it may take you 20 years, but you will improve.

I always wondered at how Mom was so sensitive to “crazy people” despite having so many problems herself. I have a friend who worked in a psych ward once tell me that the crazy patients will all congregate. You can tell a patient is getting better when they start to separate themselves and the others stop talking to them. Mom has – at least to some degree – been concerned about “crazy people” and had a fairly good eye for what constitutes a crazy belief. If a friend of hers believes in the Illuminati, she will immediately dismiss it as nuts. I’ve always wondered if she dismissed these things because she knew they were crazy or because she “knew the truth”, and her delusion trumped theirs.

 

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