For the years Mike and Ruth Ann were apart, he was among the 6,000 homeless people in the nation’s capital. Few of them are musicians — and few of them own an Italian, mahogany-faced, carved top, three-quarter upright bass named Ruth Ann.
There are no special programs for a pair like Mike and Ruth Ann.
Until he found a place that was clean and safe enough for her, a place where the humidity level wouldn’t tick above 70 percent on his portable meter, he wouldn’t leave the streets and shelter beds to get a place without her.
Mike, 49, plays jazz. And Ruth Ann was the last thing his dying mother did for him, withdrawing all her retirement savings in 1994 to buy her gifted son the sonorous, full-figured, curvaceous dark beauty he’d always wanted and now worth about $26,000.
Mike named the bass after his mom, Ruth Ann. And never, ever call his instrument “it.”
“She,” he corrected me, again and again each time we met. “Don’t disrespect her.”
Mike’s fluid moves and sleepy eyes, his smoky voice all sound like jazz. When you close your eyes and listen to him, you hear the music, feel the vibrations of his bass and in no way imagine he’s a white guy from Virginia who used to have a mohawk.
Where he and Ruth Ann have landed isn’t perfect.
The decaying Oxford House, with its crumbling porch and dark, sagging staircase, isn’t a luxury. It has the added sting of being just north of the old Bohemian Caverns, the heart of U Street and D.C.’s Black Broadway. So when he gets off the bus, Mike has to walk past the great, subterranean club that was the heart of D.C. jazz, where John Coltrane and Miles Davis, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington played. Where, in his prime, Mike Rainsberger played.
But at Oxford House, the place he heard about from the guys at the methadone clinic, the elderly man in a checkered lumberjack shirt and with papery skin who opens the door is cool with his music. And the bald, rough-handed man smoking on the porch is cool with Ruth Ann, too. When Mike and Ruth Ann go at it — thrum, thrum, thrappa, thrappa, thrappa, thrum — the recovering addicts of Oxford House don’t mind.
“To stay in here, we gotta stay clean. That’s all. Stay clean and pay the rent: $525,” Mike said.
In the tiny room upstairs, Mike watched the humidity meter on a sweltering, August afternoon. “Man, it’s up to 79 percent. Man, this is not good. See, she swells up and gets heavy when it’s this humid,” he says, hefting the bass back into a black case. The session’s over.
His story is a familiar one. Bad decisions, bad relationships and no family around to help. Once his mom died, he lost his haven. Years in clubs, on the road, on a cruise ship and always out late weren’t good for stability.
Mike started out as a local kid loving hardcore sound. He was a self-taught musician who played in thrasher bands and did some of the New York scene. He has a sleeve of tattoos that he hates from those days. The tattoo he likes to show off? A bass clef on the back of his neck.
Because his life changed when he heard — really heard — jazz. He made it to Shenandoah University and studied at its conservatory and played, played, played. Relentless, classical training, playing so hard his fingers bled at night. He got his degree.
He began hooking up with jazz bands, playing clubs and concerts. He said he knows about 400 jazz standards off the top of his head — band leaders love that about him.
Clubs, coffee houses and concert halls. He got pointers from bass legends Gary Peacock (backstage at the Kennedy Center) and Nap Turner (at Bohemian Caverns).
And Mike took off. He got a job on a cruise ship and played on the world’s oceans — 12 ships total. He played in South America, Russia, Eastern Europe and a bunch of places he can’t remember — 48 countries in all. He played all over America and found a home in New Orleans, where some bad decisions — a she who wasn’t Ruth Ann — sent him on a self-destructive path.
The high-end luthier in charge of Ruth Ann’s repair and maintenance was horrified three years ago when he heard Mike was living on the streets and trying to gig with Ruth Ann in tow. He stored Ruth Ann at his shop and told Mike to get straight and get housed before he’d give her back.
“If only I played horn. Would’ve been easier,” Mike drawled.
The gig offers kept coming.
Mike made excuses, turning them down. “I’m sick.” “Ruth Ann’s in the shop.”
And his hands got weaker without the daily regimen of playing. His ear got muddled.
When he’d try to get the kind of housing where Ruth Ann would be safe, and he could practice, the housing folks would tell him he wasn’t desperate enough. He gets a small check from Social Security. He’s not dying, in full-blown addiction or mentally ill, so when he’d go to housing folks for help, they’d turn him away.
“When I first met him, he was still being sheltered by Friendship Place,” said Anne Marie Staudenmaier, an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “I knew that he’s someone who could be successful if you could just get him into permanent supportive housing. He has a talent, a skill to make a living, a good living,” she said. “But their reaction? He’s not vulnerable enough to get to the top of the list.”
Yup, Mike was doing too well to get help. The middle class of homelessness. His story is about housing in a city with shrinking options.
“They can get in if they are very mentally ill, very frail, if they are people who just can’t survive on the outside,” Staudenmaier said. “This really speaks to our lack of affordable housing.”
It’s also a story about a city that is letting jazz die. It’s no secret that jazz musicians live rough. Where would the best songs be if life were easy? The Jazz Foundation of America helps struggling jazz musicians — providing housing in lofts and holding fundraisers in New York. It organizes relief efforts in New Orleans and Puerto Rico, throws a glittery event in Los Angeles and provides work in Chicago.
In D.C.? Not so much.
“D.C. doesn’t support the arts. The artists,” Mike said.
To get back to gigging, Mike has to wheel Ruth Ann on a special cart down D.C. sidewalks. It’s a lot of walking — the bus is too dangerous for her. And to get back to teaching — the bread and butter of his income — he’s got to be in a place where geriatric addicts, kind as they were and earnest in their recovery, aren’t opening the front door.
Right now, he and Ruth Ann are on the inside. But the real uphill climb for them has just begun.
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