A HOLIDAY WEEKEND and the new guy draws the Saturday shift. The editor has some lame idea for a story about nice old ladies who are cooking up a storm for shut-ins. I've been in town just a couple of weeks and I need something better than that, so I take to the streets.
Winter's first breath has turned the air raw. The streets are silent, vacant. I cruise around, the radio my only solace. I stop at the sound of Dinah Washington, her rich, tight voice bemoaning the chill with a blues of pain and stubbornness. For lack of anyplace else to go, I drive over to the radio station and visit the deejay who's warming this day.
That's how I met the 'Bama 13 years ago. Jerry Washington sat behind a microphone, shvitzing in his undershirt at WPFW's old overheated studios above a church on H Street NW. He sat in the dark, his old records at the ready, and he followed his mood. He told stories about his latest scrap with his lady friend. He talked about the wrongs that had been done him and the revenge he'd sought. He described how his body had failed him, and how his spirit could barely stay afloat.
Jerry Washington, who died five years ago, told the story of this city by spinning the tale of his own life as a poor kid with a thick drawl and a big mouth. And he did it off the cuff, like a friend unloading on a friend. He testified with words and with the music of his life, the worn LPs that had served him when trouble struck.
Washington's Saturday show, "The 'Bama Hour," was a chronicle of one life, a midday oasis of blues and jazz to suit a city's mood. You could not be busy when listening to the 'Bama. You could only stop and be refreshed.
Washington's genius was to plan nothing. He arrived at the station with milk crates and liquor boxes crammed with music, and he let the day and its rhythms govern his choices. His was an improvised life -- precisely what so many people run away from these days. There's a book out now -- Sabbath, by Wayne Muller -- that makes a simple argument for dormancy, for a regular rest. In a world of commuting and channel-surfing, child-shuttling and multi-tasking, it's easy to lampoon and dismiss such an ancient concept. And anyone who calls on folks to slow down and smell the flowers runs the risk of sounding prissy and pious, as this book sometimes does.
But Muller, like the 'Bama, is onto something: The improvised life is open to surprise. The planned life hardens. My wife and I have four calendars between us, and a truly pathetic number of our conversations, and our e-mails, and our phone calls, revolve around coordinating those calendars, plotting the movements of our offspring, and then shifting into Blue Alert Mode when something unexpected dares to upset our delicately balanced plans. We're penned in by plans. Change, surprise, the need to improvise become the enemies of daily coping when they should be its nourishment.
Sabbath will have little impact, of course, because those who should heed its call cannot imagine spending four hours reading about how they should take time "to enjoy and celebrate what is beautiful and good." And those who naturally lean toward such reading probably already spend too much time lazing around. They need more juice in their lives, not less.
We look for the kind of solace we know we'll like. Our chances of happening upon a different approach, a different rhythm to our hours, diminish with every passing year. Take the 'Bama, for example. There is no other like him, not on WPFW, which won't accept corporate cash, and certainly not on so-called public radio, which is snarfing up as much corporate largess as it can find. No one ever paid Jerry Washington a salary to teach us the lessons of his life; he came from a long line of teachers, preachers, poets and fanatics who used the radio to spring surprises on the unsuspecting. These days, even in public broadcasting, which exists specifically to provide an alternative to the mass pulp of commercial radio and TV, there is little tolerance for such serendipity.
Everything is planned, because everything has to contribute to the mission, which is appealing to the masses, because small is by definition bad. It's the same story we all know from the stores we shop in, the offices we work in, even the schools our children attend: To get better results, higher scores, more production, we have to sacrifice the extras, quash the oddballs, slice off the edges, serve the masses. Tamp down the noisiest extremes and fill the unsettling quiets.
Everything must be planned, must click along at optimal efficiency. We used to make fun of the Soviets for their five-year plans; hell, we told ourselves, Americans don't need central planning, we'll just improvise our way to something better. And now here we are -- planned out. Someone comes along and says, Wait, chill out, be still, and we laugh at the very notion while we punch up the cell phone and extend the babysitter another half an hour and squeeze in one more business call as we sit in traffic, hurrying off to the next -- the next what? It's on the calendar, isn't it?
Marc Fisher's e-mail address is email@example.com.