Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.



Why this hillbilly wears shoes.

I’ve got a few ideas I want to tell you about, but there’s something distracting me right now and I need to get it off my chest. (That’s a weird expression. Remind to look that up.) You may not be able to relate to this, but I live in West Virginia, and most of us don’t wear shoes, what with us being hillbillies and everything. But my office has a dress code. We’re required to wear shoes, except on casual Fridays when pert near anything goes. I just threw in that “pert near” as typical hillbilly lingo to add some local flavor to my story. Most of us don’t really talk like that.

I’ve had my shoes on all day. And my knee’s been hurting from running too much. Either that or just one of them getting old things, so I didn’t run today. So I really have had my shoes on from about 7:12 this morning until now, which, according to the clock Steve Jobs gave me, is 8:13. I’ve been home since about 5:24. I stayed a little late because after everyone left the office, I wanted to try out my new guitar amp. There was a guy who used to work for us, but he got tired of having to wear shoes all the time, so he got himself a job in Florida where all he has to wear are flip-flops, or as we used to say back in the olden hillbilly days, thongs.

Rob – that’s the name of the guy who went to Florida to wear thongs – I mean flip-flops (don’t want to plant any untoward images in your mind) – was a guitar player, too, and he had an electric guitar in the office that he’d play around with on his lunch hour. When he left, I told him he had to leave his guitar. Since I was his boss, he had no choice. So he left me the guitar and a pick. But no amplifier. I went up the street the other day to the Fret N Fiddle. That’s what we call music stores here in hillbilly West Virginia. I asked for the smallest amplifier they had. The young feller (more hillbilly lingo) showed me one for $40. Said it ran on batteries. Well, that wouldn’t work, so he showed me another one for $100. I’m way too cheap to spend that kind of money. Then I saw a little amp on the way out that had vacuum tubes. I should have known better. $500. I blame that on the millennials. Even in West Virginia, we have millennial hipsters.

I ended up getting an amp from an online store for $25. I know what you’re thinking. It couldn’t possibly be any good. But I forgot to get a chord. So today I went back up to Fret N Fiddle. They’re closed on Thursdays. Just some random day to be closed, I reckon (lingo). Up the road I went to Gorby’s Music. I had time since I wasn’t running because of the aforementioned sore knee. Gorby’s has been around forever. I got my high school trumpet there, I think. Or maybe it was Herbert’s Music.

I asked the guy at the counter, who looked like a Gorby, if he ever got any Harold Hayslett cellos in the store. Harold Hayslett is also a hillbilly from nearby (actually, he’s the furthest thing from a hillbilly, but I have a theme going here, so we ask that you bear with us) who makes world class cellos and violins out of gopher wood. Just kidding about the gopher wood. The rest is true. I know this because my sister has a cello that he made when he was starting out. The Gorby fellow says he hasn’t seen one in a while and tells me old Harold is still up on the hill. I told him I thought he died. There was a piece on the radio the other day about Hayslett and I thought they said he died but I was wrong. He’s 99 years old and still going strong. It was John Lambros who died. Lambros was another prominent figure from my sister’s cello days in the area and I guess I got them mixed up. Lambros was 98. There might be a connection between music and living a long life.

So I said my goodbye to Mr. Gorby and went back to the office (still wearing my shoes). My lunch hour was over but I plugged in the guitar to make sure my $25 amp worked. It did. At one point in the afternoon I was tempted to take off my shoes and stick my feet under my desk, but at the time, it just seemed like too much trouble. At 5:02, most everyone had left the office so I plugged in the guitar again. At 5:13, someone hollered from the other side of the building to see if I was still there. In West Virginia, we holler, even when we have telephones. I hollered back and said I was, then he left. I had the whole place to myself, so I cranked it up. Then pushed the little button on the amp that made the distortion sound. All of sudden I sounded like a rock star. It was so cool that I kept playing for another fifteen minutes. Then I went home.

I kept my shoes on even then, because once, a few years ago, I took my shoes off at home and was going around in my socks (it must have been winter). And believe it or not, I stubbed my toe on my shoe. One of those freakishly bad stubs. On my shoe. Ironic, yes? Kind of like throwing your back out when you pick up a pillow, which I’ve done. I thought I broke my toe. The big toe, of course. Ever since then, I always wear some kind of shoe until I go to bed.

Ok. I’ve been writing this little story now for 26 minutes. It’s 8:41. My socks are all bunched up in the toes of my shoes and it’s driving me crazy. I can’t wait for that moment, maybe an hour from now, when I get to set my toes free and they can breathe again and escape their leathery prison. I might write a poem about it. No, I won’t.

I sat down here to make some New Year resolutions and I couldn’t get my mind off my uncomfortable feet. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe not.

You didn’t remind me to look up “get it off my chest.”


Good night.

Boogie Nights

I want to tell you about the conversation I had once with Davy Jones.

Which Davy Jones, you might ask. Why, the lead singer for The Monkees, I would reply. You remember The Monkees, the group that was assembled back in the 60s by music executives as an answer to the original Fab Four, The Beatles. The Monkees were the Prefab Four. And despite their kitschy persona, they’re credited with some pretty good tunes. Last Train to Clarksville. I’m a Believer. Pleasant Valley Sunday. Their fame peaked in the late 60s, early 70s. I met Davy Jones many years later.

One of the advantages of being old is that I can claim a first-row seat to significant historical events. I saw JFK’s motorcade in Houston the day before he was assassinated in Dallas. I watched on live television as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon. And I was smack-dab in the middle of the original disco craze.

I was a student in Morgantown when a still skinny, still cool John Travolta danced his way through Saturday Night Fever. Then we would go to the local disco, Fat Daddy’s, and try to dance the Hustle to music by Yvonne Elliman and the Bee Gees.

Disco was like a spectacular shooting star and by the late 70s the fad was already on its way out. Then in 1980, a still skinny, still cool John Travolta danced his way through Urban Cowboy. So we all went to the faux-cowboy clubs and tried to dance the two-step to music by Mickey Gilley and, well, it was pretty much Mickey Gilley.

Which brings me to The Galaxy 2000.

In the late 70s, a Kroger store in Spring Hill (WV) had closed and sat vacant until someone decided to cash in on the disco craze and converted the building into a giant disco, The Galaxy 2000. It was actually well done, by disco standards. It had a big dance floor, lots of colored, flashing lights, and the requisite mirrored disco ball.  And then came the aforementioned fading of the flashing disco craze. No problem. The club was converted to West Virginia’s version of Mickey’s (as in Mickey Gilley’s club where Urban Cowboy was set).  But country line dancing died out faster than disco and The Galaxy scrambled to stay relevant.

Their answer?  Live music.

In 1980, The Police released Zenyatta Mondatta and began their climb to world-wide fame. And we’re talking Beatles level of fame. Some time before that, they played at The Galaxy 2000. Really. No, I didn’t see the show. I’d never heard of The Police.

But I had heard of The Monkees. By then, they had broken up and Davy Jones was touring as a solo act and one of his stops was The Galaxy. At that point he was more of a b-list act, maybe even c-list, if there is such a thing. Still, The Galaxy was packed. It was an intimate setting and the show was surprisingly good. Davy could really sing. Between sets, he actually mingled with the audience a little. Then he went into one of the side rooms to relax and shoot some pool. A bunch of fans followed and stood around and watched. I was one of them.

He walked around the table, looking for his best shot. Then he stopped in front of me and studied the balls on the table. He lined up the shot. It was a tricky kiss off the bumper to the corner pocket. The place went quiet. He pulled a couple of practice strokes and then softly struck the cue ball. It traveled slowly over the felt and hit the bumper and ball at the same time, nudging  it toward the pocket. And then it dropped.

“Nice shot,” I said.

He turned and looked at me with that famous Davy Jones smile and said, “Thanks.”

True story. All of it.

Yeah, that’s it. Not a deep conversation. Pretty much the typical brush with fame story people like to tell.  Really, it means nothing.

I once met Stephen Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics.  I had a similarly brief conversation. It meant nothing.

Real conversations and real connections take time.  They take people who are willing to put themselves out there and exchange thoughts and ideas. That’s what I love about talking to you guys who read what I write. We have real conversations. We make great connections.

Thank you for that.  It means more than you know.



Our house is a little backwards from most houses, where living rooms face the street and kitchens face the backyard. Ours is just the opposite. We have a pleasant view from the kitchen as neighbors go by on their daily walk. Some I know, some I don’t.

Larry, a writer, walks in the early evenings. He’s an athletic guy, so his gait is purposeful and steady. He walks, eyes ahead, and you get the feeling that he’s working something out in his mind. My guess would be that he’s nurturing an idea for a story, or finding the rhythm for a verse.

But I don’t really know.

Jim walks slowly, head hung down. Like his dog died. But I don’t think he has a dog. And I know it doesn’t die every day. That’s just how he walks. When he stops to talk, he’s very pleasant and friendly, as if life for him is good.

But I don’t really know.

My father is eighty-six. He walks like he’s fifty-six. His fast pace keeps him healthy. He’s suffered loss in the family, but doesn’t talk much about it. Like most men, he’s good at compartmentalization. He’s strong and self-sufficient and seems to be getting along well. He looks forward when he walks. I think that says a lot.

But I don’t really know.

A young man walks wearing a ball cap and an extra shirt over his shoulder. He’s walking to work. I don’t know where his walk begins or where it ends, but it has to be measured in miles. He seems so responsible.

But I don’t really know.

A neighbor walks in the evenings. He does laps up and down the sidewalk, obviously exercising. He’s very quiet and makes no attempt at conversation. I wonder why he is so reserved. I could speculate.

But I don’t really know.

A woman walks in the morning, long strides, arms swinging vigorously. A power walker. Other times I see her simply walking. I imagine that she lives her life like everyone else. Maybe she works. Takes care of flowers in the yard. Television in the evening. And then I see her with a special needs child. She holds his hand as he measures his steps carefully. There’s more to her world than I thought.

But I don’t really know.

It’s hard to know people. It’s hard to know beyond the fleeting picture we get as they pass by, or take our order at the restaurant, or sit in front of us in church. It’s hard to know what people are dealing with when they don’t return our phone calls, or snap at us at work, or say inexplicable things in line at the market.

When our own thoughts are muddled, when our hearts are sick with worry, when we wish we had someone to talk to about our problems, a little understanding goes a long way. We would do well to treat others with that same understanding.

Because we don’t really know.

copyright 2016, joseph e bird

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