Mike Rainsberger is sharper and brighter. Ruth Ann is polished and perfect. Their return to public life was official on Thursday night at a tiny jazz club on U Street where the air conditioning is weak but the drinks are strong.
“I’m a little bit nervous,” Rainsberger told me on the morning of the show. “It’s been four years.”
He’s a 50-year-old jazz musician and a recovering addict who lost touch with Ruth Ann — an Italian, mahogany-faced three-quarter upright bass — while he was living on the streets with about 6,000 other homeless people in the nation’s capital.
I was worried about them when we first met a year ago, when Rainsberger finally got off the streets and moved into a shared room at Oxford House, a battered halfway house in the District. Rainsberger was skinny and unfocused. He’d been sober only a month. And even when he was trying his best to be businesslike, he was surly and nervous.
We were there the day last August when he was reunited with Ruth Ann, which the high-end luthier he’d known for years had seized and held when he heard Rainsberger was living on the streets with his beloved bass.
That bass is a curvaceous beauty and the final act of love by his dying mother, who withdrew all her savings and bought it for her mohawked son. Her name was Ruth Ann.
Rainsberger studied jazz bass at Shenandoah Conservatory, becoming a solid performer who played with some of the nation’s greats and toured the world on cruise ships, performing in 48 countries. Then, the struggles of a musician’s life caught up with him. And he lost it all. Until the folks at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless helped him find a place last year.
Too often, when we write about folks struggling through homelessness, we punctuate their stories with that first night in a home, when a caseworker says goodbye and a landlord hands them a key. The end. Happily ever after.
“But that was just the beginning,” Rainsberger said. “It’s been a long, hard year.”
Every day, he fights to stay sober. Every day, he makes a plan to live in harmony with his housemates, to pay his bills, to look for work, to keep a practice schedule.
In the past year, at least eight roommates have circulated in and out of the house, kicked out for fighting, for drugging, for bad behavior. It’s a struggle every day to stay clean, Rainsberger said. Halfway houses, remember, are rarely in the good neighborhoods.
“I want to move. I want to be in a better place,” he said. “But there isn’t affordable housing in this city. There is no place here for all the people who work here.”
The District is deeply flawed when it comes to housing for ordinary wage-earners. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) met this spring with workers to get input on her proposal to create a workforce housing fund so the teachers, plumbers, musicians and cooks who work in the city have a fighting chance of living in it.
Rainsberger can’t keep regular gigs with an upright bass if he moves far away and doesn’t have a car. Plus, he needs a place where he can practice.
When he moved into Oxford House, the roommates were older and were cool with two hours of thrum-thrum-thwacking of jazz bass practice.
“The new guys are younger. And they have a jail mentality and don’t have respect for nothing,” he said. “Especially not jazz.”
So he was a little nervous to put together a gig. His hands — which have to be both powerful and supple to play upright bass — are stronger. And two hours a day is good practice. Two retired musicians he used to work with in the old days got in touch. They began playing and rehearsing and formed a band — the MGB Power Trio. They scheduled their first live gig at Twins Jazz, where Rainsberger had been the house bassist years ago.
He shined on Thursday night, leaning into Ruth Ann passionately for a little Oscar Pettiford piece his trio opened with, when it was still light outside and U Street was just waking for the night.
By dusk, saxophonist Greg Meyer was going hard at Coltrane in the candlelit club and drummer Bruce Jacobs was playing on the walls. Rainsberger loosened up with each cheer from the audience, solo after thumping, thrumming solo.
This was a big one, the first one in four years. It was also just the beginning. One day at a time, every day is a struggle. But for the past year for Rainsberger, every day has been a victory, too.