By Moe Bowstern
5 a.m. on a spring morning I drove to the Jewel supermarket. I was headed east out of Chicago and I needed provisions for the 14-hour drive. There were only two other people in the huge store, a young cashier and another shopper. In and out, I thought, as I approached the kid at the register.
The other shoppers’ groceries lay on the conveyor belt. “Brother just went to get a couple things,” the cashier explained. “He’ll be right back.” I nodded, sleepy.
“You going to work?” he asked.
“Going on a trip.”
“Oh.” A pause. “Most folks this early, see, they regulars.”
“Hmm.” Dude sure was taking his time. I looked for something to read.
Then the kid says, “You like the jazz music?”
“Yeah.” I nodded.
“You know, like Coltrane, like Mingus?”
“Yeah, Hank Mobley, Jimmy McGriff, Lester Young—”
“—Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk, Dexter Gordon–”
We played the list game back and forth, trading the names to each other like solos of proof that we knew the secrets of the smooth and the sweet. I always wonder, when I play that game, what it means, what it measures. Could the kid see how I love the saxophone by the way is said Frank Morgan? Was this recitation what it took to win a friend?
“You like the jazz music!” The cashier was grinning now, ringing the groceries of the wandering shpper who had finally returned. The kid started on my groceries. “So how long you listen to the jazz music?”
“Well, uh, I do a radio show on WNUR…”
The kid stopped, electrified. “Whatsyouname?” he asked in a one-word rush. When I told him, he leaped to the Dutch door of the cashier cube and grabbed me in a full body hug, crying, “Baby, baby, you my sister, you my sister!”
“Hey!” I said, in between his shouts, “You’re that guy who calls every week asking for Betty Carter!”
“No!” he exclaimed, “That’s my cousin, Sammy. I’m Ozzie!”
I was too sleepy to rise to his level of enthusiasm. I stood in a smiley daze as Ozzie finished hugging me. He rang up my groceries while thanking me and beaming. “see, it’s so early that I gotta work, I listen to the jazz music, to your show…” He shook his head and cackled, “Just wait till I tell Sammy I met you.”
He packed all his gratitude in with the food I bought and I fed off it the long way across Indiana and Ohio, laughing and shaking my head as I searched the stations for the jazz music.
The next week I dedicated my show to Ozzie and his cousin. And I told the story on the air and played a bunch of Betty Carter.
Down at the station, in the cold basement with the broken equipment and dog-eared record albums, I thought about Betty’s voice traveling up and down the aisles at the Jewel, and Ozzie telling his regulars, “Yeah, that’s the jazz music. She’s playing that for me.”
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