When my father talks of dreamers -- when he says the word -- his face distorts with pain and repulsion. Dreamers are discontented people who spend their lives looking for rainbow ends, waiting for mystery ships, listening for non-existent knocks from opportunity. I have no problem with dreamers. I'm one myself.
I met another dreamer at the American Cafe, where I work two nights a week, waiting on tables and for my ship. Something about him caught my eye -- that intense preoccupation particular to those who, while they order carrot juice and fruit and yogurt, are nodding their heads in perfect time to a tune you only wish you could hear.
The cafe, all around him, twitched with 2 a.m. bar rush, but whatever he was listening to insulated him from Georgetown's post-closing miasma. He wore the sweetest smile. He told me his name was Clyde, Watergate Clyde.
One of the waiters told me he was a doorman at the Watergate. Somebody else said no, he was a musician.
I began to wait for Clyde's appearance. I knew that no matter how many 10-too-many revelers I'd have to put up with, there would be a foot tapping in that perfect time and a smile so dense it could purify the night. I knew that if I had time I could sit across from that smile, absorbing some of its bliss, while I listened to Watergate Clyde's stories . . . Bob Hope, Dustin Hoffman, Cicely Tyson, he'd served them all. I didn't know how much of what he told was true, but I knew I didn't care.
After a while, Clyde began telling me about the places he'd played and the people he'd played with, all the while tapping his foot and punctuating his sentenses with the nodding of his head. He'd played with David Ruffin, Vanilla Fudge, Kool and the Gang, Roy and Joe Eldridge. He'd traveled the country, getting blasted with the best, blowing his saxophone in the shadow of greatness, waiting for RCA and Capitol the way I wait for Random House.
When he talked about jazz -- jazz -- I heard the echo of his secret tune, the one he kept constant time to. His vocabulary changed. Its words became rounded, soft -- smooth sounds, rolling up and down in a cadence that no longer had to bear the careful articulation I'd become used to. He'd say, "Now you're smokin'," when I refilled his coffee cup, and "right on time!" if he liked my hair. Still dignified, his voice took on a richness, a deep-down fullness, wrapping around Lester Young, Charlie Parker and his main man, Stan Getz.
One day Clyde invited me to the Market Inn. He palyed, he said, some Tuesday nights, sitting in with the boys. He said I'd like the Market Inn.
He was right. My friend Mike liked it as much as I did. He had to. He's a writer too. We sat at the palm- and elbow-polished bar, pretending we were Hemingway and Firtzgerald, taking in the over-crowded tables, the buckets of coral-colored king-crab legs, the bottle of soave, the bass player getting into his bass.
At 11:30 we still liked it, even if Watergate Clyde hadn't shown up. Though no one in the place looked like a writer, it was a writer's place, and, Walter Mitty notwithstanding, Clyde had done us a favor. We'd come again next week, maybe as Somerset Maugham and Gertrude Stein. Maybe Watergate would show, maybe not. Maybe he was another would -have-been-great jazzman who told great stories about great people -- great guys, but as my father would say, "drifty."
The next Tuesday Clyde said he'd meet us for dinner. We suited up. I was Daisy, Mike was Gatsby. At 10:30, when Clyde hadn't shown, we ordered dinner and considered doing a series of Tuesday-Nightred dinner and considered doing a series of Tuesday-Night - at - the - Market - Inn-Waiting-for-Watergate-Clyde-the-Imaginary-Jazzman stories: "Mike ordered another Campari and soda. Still no Clyde. Nancy wasn't singing tonight and Melanie was late. He knew she'd been seeing that Brazilian again, but he knew she'd show." We listened to the piano man and his piano, and the bass man and his bass. And we drank some wine. Soave.
By the time Clyde arrived, we'd already had quite a night. Some dude had tried to buy Mike's hat. One of the waitresses, a middle-aged redhead, had stepped onto the small stage, belted out two sultry songs, complete with bumps and grinds, returned to her station to pour coffee, and i'd had all I could ask for.
But here was Clyde with his sax. A saxophone is an impressive peice of machinery, all shiny brass and sleek shape, its felt-footed keys lined up like some Aztec honor guard. Hey, I know nothing about jazz. It wasn't until I met Clyde, watched him tapping to that perfect time, that I had any interest at all. When he put that sax to his mouth, I didn't know what to expect.
I certainly didn't expect to think I was in heaven. Nobody told me about sounds as sweet as the sounds Clyde was seducing from that saxophone. All the words are trite. Plaintive. Silver. Sorrowful. Joyful. Hot. Cool. Someone asked for "Misty." The sax hung around Clyde's neck while he held the microphone, and Gatsby and I were knocked out of West Egg. He silenced the room.
And that was it. The set was over. Clyde could never be carrot juice and tall tales anymore. I was no longer on the Left Bank. I was a silly woman sitting with a silly man, awed by the glimpse of one man's dream, and I knew what I hadn't known, the measure of that perfect time.