Center of the Universe (3)
Dave works graveyard at the burglar alarm company. When your house is being looted, rest assured that an 85-year-old hepcat is fast asleep at the other end of the hotline. Or used to be. Last year, Dave retired from the job he’d taken 20 years earlier, when gigs got sparse and Social Security wasn’t enough, even in affordable Fairfax. Even when you marry your landlord.
The life of a working musician.
Dave is a fixture in Fairfax jazz. With his partner Dori, a singer and keyboardist, Dave played the side deck at 19 Broadway, about three blocks from Sorella’s, for what I’m tempted to say was decades of Sunday afternoons. I’m not sure why it ended, half-a-decade back, but it may simply have been that Dori was 80-something, a little frail and a lot weary. I thought originally she had passed away. But then I saw her nestled in a banquette at 19 Broadway, drinking and, yes, frail, but far from deceased. Or maybe it was Peri’s, one of the other six bars in tiny Fairfax. I don’t remember. But Dori you don’t forget. The Blanche Dubois of West Marin. Or Joan Didion. Edith Piaf? A savor of rue about Dave’s petite, perennially frail partner, candle burned.
And now there’s new trouble.
Someone observed in one or another forum that Dori was slipping. Her daughter answered from Colorado, insisting otherwise, reproving those who enable her, even when it’s pity. But all of it — Dori’s frailness, the late-life controversy, the hanging out, small as a child, in a booth at 19 Broadway, her daughter’s therapeutic huff, makes me all the more regretful I never did more than pause by that side deck. But if it was Sunday afternoon in downtown Fairfax, that means I had the kids, and the kids were little, and the little kids would have wanted to continue to the park or ice cream store, vehemently.
But the kids are grown. And if Dori and Dave are no more, musically, Dave, musically, endures. And, in the back room at Sorella’s Caffe, I pause for hours.
I have a rich fantasy life, I’ll admit, especially when it comes to Dave Bergman. Sometimes I think I should do proper research. But whenever I start asking around, someone says, Well, it’s not quite like that. So, instead, I contentedly believe rumors, half-truths and hunches. I do know, from the man himself, that he spent the largest portion of his career in LA, era of Chet Baker and Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. West Coast Jazz, cool jazz, Central Avenue. The Fifties, after the big-band bubble burst, when the music settled into small combos smoky boites could afford, and jazz cats turned their backs on audiences — figuratively and, in Miles’s case, literally — before audiences turned their backs, once and for all, on them.
That’s Dave, to me. Birth of the cool. And here in the back room of Sorella’s, still smoking, still drinking, still with the goatee, white suit and gassed-backed hair, newly hitched to a younger chick, he is the last brass gunslinger. Death of the cool.
When he reads this, if he reads this (which I doubt, because he’s too cool to be prowling the internet), Dave will say:
What is this crap, Gary?
Because Dave can’t suss the angle. Also, because he thinks I’m a different husky, bald Sorella’s regular — the computer nerd with the webcam cockatiel — even after I’ve given him and the chick a lift home to the house where he used to be her tenant. But mostly Dave will say it because he’s too cool. Which I applaud, whether he cares or not.
Joan is Dave’s chick. And former landlord. Joan is nowhere near 85. Which confirms that Dave is one more cool thing: a devil. Joan used to live in North Beach, in the city. Not when the Kang sisters were there learning the red-sauce trade. Back when hepcats hunted mad noise and arty strippers and cheap eats — spaghetti with red sauce — and, at City Lights, paperbacks with the words fuck and asshole. Which is perfect. Joan likes my red button-down shirt with the black patch pocket. So I always save it for Saturdays. It’s easy to see why Dave married Joan — even beyond the free rent.
Pocket trumpet is Dave’s axe. It’s a shorter span of metal that requires less of the breath that Dave can’t always spare these days. But Dave’s melodies are pocket melodies anyway — staccato Kind of Blue-ish telegrams that will abruptly squirt across keys, jets of be-bop lava from the LA cool. And there’s something about those fugitive squibs, those contrasting blasts of pocket-trumpet burglar alarm, that betray a deeper poignance.
What’s more, Dave sings like the bastard spawn of Satchmo and Robert Goulet.
Sometimes Dave sings serious. Sad songs that may not have even started out sad in the sheet music. And when he sings them in harmony with Wendy, they will melt the mozzarella right off your chicken parmagiana.
But Dave can turn it on, too. Show biz. Shtick. Buck-and-wing for the squares.
His signature is a Fairfax version of “The Lady is a Tramp” — though in a further revision designed to reflect not only the geography, but the times, Dave sings “That’s why the lady is a champ.” As a guy who came up in the chicky-babe era, when Sinatra was swingin’ the Sands — not to mention the chicky-babes — he’s careful not to lapse. Not that he’s not a naturally nice, kitten-respecting cat, just that he’s from then and that.
Anyway, this is shtick. Which Dave brings with rare joy. And Wendy and the band abet with rare magnanimity.
“She eats at Sorella’s” is another of Dave’s site-specific rewrites. But his localized lyrics encompass the lady in question going to Dominican (the college a few miles down the road in San Rafael) and to Branson (the la-di-da prep school next door in San Anselmo), among other Marin sops. And if you’re local, it’s pretty damn clever. But even if you’re not. And while he stays seated for most of the set in the straight chair tucked against the side of Wendy’s piano, when the house is full and it’s “Lady is a Champ” time, no matter how many of the kinks of four-score-and-five may beset him, Dave rises with the song and sallies forth to work the tables, grinning, growling, crinkling eyes, pointing, gazing deep and show-biz delivering.
And it’s probably at this point that everyone in the back room who’s never seen Wendy and the Company She Keeps — featuring, on a consistent ad hoc basis, Dave Bergman — starts to look amazed, just before they look delighted.
What have we stumbled into?
But then, as a t-shirted traveler from the Russian capital would corroborate, this isn’t just any Saturday night. This, chicky-babe, is the back room at the center of the universe.