For a good patch of the 1980s and into the early 1990s, I spent a lot of my recreational time watching the Seattle Mariners. Which, yes, like my allegiance to the Democratic Party, marks me as some kind of masochist. One year, the first year I took this whole baseball thing seriously, I saw 20 games and they won four of them.
It got to be a joke: Hey, let's go see the worst team in baseball. And so we went. Seats were, as they say, easy to come by, and the beer was, well, cold. (I grew into beer snobbery later.) For a time there was even a smoking porch on the third level of the Kingdome where the police didn't ask what was in your hand-rolled cigarette.
At some point it made sense to buy one of their 20-game packages, and so my dad and I had 20 dates each year when we sat and talked and enjoyed each other's company. He is a difficult man, but we get on. Get on, mostly, though it's harder long distance and it's much harder without a sporting event unfolding in front of us.
Welcoming us to the Kingdome each night was a burly, bearded fellow with a somewhat battered tuba. But he could play, and he could play anything.
Baseball and tuba. Hmm. Time to jump, eh?
My dad comes from the Depression, and he's funny about tipping and street performers and all those semi-optional exchanges of money. But he evolved a ritual. We'd stand and listen to the tuba man for a little while, trying to time things so we missed the "Star Spanagled Banner," and then, after the game, if the M's had won, dad would throw some change in his open case. And sometimes I'd add a little bit of folding money, slightly embarrassed that my dad thought 23 cents was sufficient gratitude.
Over those years the Mariners improved. Dad and I got to see one of the very few games when Ken Griffey Jr. played the outfield with his father, and I still remember Junior cutting his dad off and stealing a fly ball from him to make the third out, running to the dugout clutching the ball with this huge grin I never saw him offer up after he left Seattle, because the joy went I don't know where. And I remember sitting down along the third base line when a rookie name of Edgar Martinez came up and played his first or second game in the bigs, turning to dad and telling him the M's had finally found a third baseman. Martinez, before he tore up a leg playing an exhibition game in British Columbia, was as good a fielding third basement as I've seen in person, and not just the sparkling Designated Hitter (and don't get me started about the DH) he became. And we saw Randy Johnson pitch, and throw, and try to pitch, and learn to pitch.
Baseball is like that, about memory. And, of course, the Mariners clinched their first playoff berth two weeks after I moved to Los Angeles.
The tuba man played the streets everywhere, principally around sporting events, but only at baseball games did I feel it necessary to acknowledge him, to stop and listen, to toss change. And I learned his name and his story only upon his death.
His name, then, was Ed McMichael. He had played in proper symphonies and such, but grew weary of it, and since I now have an acquaintance who teaches tuba and euphonium at the university, I understand how little music is written so as to make that instrument less than tedious to play. So he took to the streets, and he made a tolerable living playing his horn.
Oh, and he wore funny hats. And he wasn't crazy, like one or two of Seattle's other prominent street musicians. Crazy is the wrong world. He wasn't somebody around whom you were uncomfortable. He was just a nice guy who didn't quite fit in and had found his own peculiar way. I like people like that. Hell, I probably am one of those people.
My brother and my dad both e-mailed me a couple weeks ago, just before the election, to tell me the tuba player had died. Had been killed.
Like this: He was kicked and beaten by a bunch of kids on the evening of October 25, and nine days later -- released from the hospital -- he died of those injuries. Kids hanging around, down Pioneer Square way, I believe, which may or may not mean they were runaways, playing rough in traffic. Nobody seems to know what happened, nor why. It just happened, and he died. He was 53, a few years older than me, and, his obituary in the Seattle Times said, we went to high school a few miles apart.
I guess I could spin some kind of progressive agenda out of his death, for certainly he deserved better medical care than he got, and the meanness in the streets might possibly have had something to do with the tenor of the political times nearing our recent and joyous election. And I could probably type on and on about the gentrification of my old home town, the demolition of the Twin Teepees, the leaving of the Sonics, all that.
But none of that, none of that really matters. Some people just add color to our days, to our memories, and when they're gone our world goes just another shade gray. In Seattle, we like gray, and I still think that golden orb in the Kentucky sky is trying to seek me out and strike me blind mid-summer. But I like the subtle shades of El Greco, and it seems to me that the Tuba Man deserved better. That we all do.
And it strikes me, again, that it is time to end the meanness in our streets, in our discourse, in our society. To talk to each other. To stop and listen, even if it's just the tuba playing TV themes.
No. There's no meaning in any of this, try as I might. But I had to say goodbye to a stranger somehow.