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Nobody Knows You When You

By Jean Sheldon A musician finds her world changing and faces tough challenges and decisions. An unusual passenger on a late night bus ride has the music to sooth her soul. Jodie packed up her guitar and searched for the owner of the club. Guessing it would be her last gig she had better make sure Mario paid her. She spotted him talking to a scrawny blond in a dress that Jodie figured she applied with a roller rather than pulling it down over her head. A roller that ran short dry before it could cover her thong.

“Hey, Mario, I’m finished and you owe me $120 for tonight.”

“I don’t know if I should pay you for that last set. You were sh*tty.”

“Yeah, I get that way when I dodge beer bottles.”

“It was only one, and you could have ignored the remark. I bet that guy wouldn’t a thrown it if you didn’t flip him off.”

“Can you pay me?” While he went to the cash register, Jodie looked around at the crowd. Stiletto heels and sequence dresses replaced jeans and gym shoes in the few years she’d been playing there. The other change was the style of music the crowd wanted. Not just in Mario’s club, all around Chicago. Acoustic guitars, banjos, harmonicas, and stand up bass fiddles faced fierce competition from all electric bands and screaming groupies.

The rest of the band had already seen the future and decided they would make the switch to hard rock instead of the traditional folk and blues they played. Jodie could listen to rock, but she had no desire to play it. She told them no, and they went on without her. It might have been professional suicide, but she thought giving up the music she loved would be a suicide of the soul. Now, she wondered if she might have blown it. At forty, choices became fewer and it wasn’t likely that she would go back to school and start a new career. All she wanted was play music, but if bars and clubs no longer wanted acoustic music, that was not going to happen..

“Here.” Mario handed her six twenties. “I’ll call you when I need you again.”

“Right.” She slid the money in the back pocket of her jeans and left.

The temperature had dropped about fifteen degrees since arriving three hours earlier. As Jodie turned toward the bus stop, she saw that it had started to snow, covering everything in a thin white blanket. She looked back at the lone footprints she’d created, and laughed. “If I had a camera, I’d take a picture and call it ‘Portrait of an out of step musician’.” While turning back, her foot slipped on the icy covering and she hit the sidewalk.

“Ouch.” Jodie laid her hand on the back of her head and looked around. “At least no one saw the down and out musician fall on her ass.” She struggled to her knees, leaned on the guitar case, and pushed herself up to a standing position. After brushing off the snow, she looked up to see the arriving bus.

The big box Guild guitar and hard shell case weighed almost twenty pounds and it took a little effort to lift it and climb the stairs. She ran her pass through the fare box and watched the silent red light on the top turn green, urging her along. The days of dropping quarters in and hearing their satisfying ‘kchink’ had met the same fate as her music.

Jodie saw only one other passenger. A large African American woman sat on the first side seat. She filled three quarters of the bench and looked up as Jodie boarded. “Ah, a musician. You any good or you just carry that thing around for show?”

Jodie sat on the bench seat opposite her and slid her guitar underneath. The woman had knitting needles in her hand and a colorful piece of fabric in her lap. Jodie’s first thought was of Madame DeFarge from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. That makes sense. Blues and folk music will soon join Madame at the guillotine. “I think I’m good, although the rock band the owner hired for the second half of the night had a bigger following.”

“Oh, I hear you, honey. What kind of music do you play?”

“Blues and folk mostly. I play some contemporary stuff to get work.” Work I may not have anytime soon.

“My name’s Rosie and I sing the blues. I left the Delta and came to Chicago in 1945, right after the end of the Second World War. Back then, you could walk up and down the storefronts on Maxwell Street and sit in with musicians from all over the country, and ‘til all hours of the morning. Now tell me, girl, why are you so mournful?”

“Glad to meet you Rosie, I’m Jodie.” It surprised Jodie that the woman knew how rotten she felt. “I knew it would happen eventually, but most of the clubs I’ve played in are switching to rock bands and putting in dance floors. Acoustic music isn’t much in demand.”

“So you’re giving up?” She dropped her knitting in her lap and smiled. Jodie saw her eyes sparkle as if she meant the words as a challenge. “Why don’t you bring your axe out and we’ll see if you can do anything worth saving.”

She reached under the seat for her guitar case and glanced at the driver who watched in the mirror. He smiled and nodded, which Jodie decided was permission. With the guitar on her lap, she adjusted the strap and checked the tuning then looked across at the woman who had returned to her knitting. Rosie began humming a song Jodie recognized—a song written by Jim Cox in 1929—Nobody Knows you When You’re Down and Out. Without taking her eyes off the woman, her fingers squeezed the strings against the rosewood neck and followed along.

Her hum soon became words.
“Nobody knows you when you’re down and out
In your pocket, not one penny
And your friends, you haven't any
And as soon as you get on your feet again
Everybody is your long lost friend
It's mighty strange, without a doubt, but
Nobody wants you when you're down and out”

Jodie kept up with Rosie’s deep and powerful voice, and in fact, she could not remember playing better. She and the bus driver added harmonies, though Rosie needed little backup. Jodie even played a twelve-bar riff or two when the remarkable woman paused for a breath. She did not sing the notes. They burst from her lungs, delivered by a phenomenal range that stretched octaves like rubber bands. Jodie recognized her style, but had little time to study it. It took total concentration to follow along.

The woman sang a few more songs and Jodie became more confident. With each song, she mimicked her voice, but when Rosie stopped singing, she shook her head. “You’re pretty good, but use your own voice. You got a fine one and your music won’t be real unless you’re the one singing it. So, you plan on giving up? Feeling full of self-pity and getting into another kind of work, like nights in a convenience store. That ought to give you good reason for singing the blues.”

Before Jodie could answer, the driver yelled, “Hang on.” There was a loud noise and Jodie thought the bus slammed into something. She tried grabbing the bar but instead her head flew back into the window.

“Hey, are you all right?” Jodie heard a voice and found herself lying on the sidewalk in the snow. “Did you hear me?”

She looked at the man who knelt next to her. “What happened? Where’s the bus?”

“What bus?”

“The bus I was riding. I think it hit something and I slammed my head against the window.” She looked frantically at her guitar case. “Where’s my guitar?”

“I better call an ambulance.” He pulled out a cell phone. “I saw you fall when I was leaving Mario’s and when you didn’t get right up I came running. Did you hit your head on the sidewalk?”

“No, I thought I hit it on the window.” She put her hand on the tender spot on the back of her head. “How long was I laying here?”

“Only a few seconds. Your eyes were open when I got here. Do you want me to call?” He held the phone so she could see it.

“No, thanks.” She climbed to her knees and held on to the guitar case for support. Her rescuer stood and grabbed her elbow. “I think I might wave down a cab, though. I’m not sure I’m ready for another bus ride.”

When Jodie arrived at her apartment, she leaned her guitar against the wall and turned on the laptop. She had spent the entire cab ride examining what happened. Nothing made sense. It must have been a dream or some strange kind of altered consciousness from the bump on her head. How could so much have happened in the few seconds she lay on the sidewalk?

The woman said her name was Rosie and she had come to Chicago from the Delta. Jodie had leaned back on the couch, but shot forward, wide eyed. She entered “Delta Rose” in the search engine and followed the first link to a blues women’s site. Jodie swallowed as she looked at the face of the woman on the bus. Behind her, with his hands on her shoulders, was her son, the bus driver. She died in 1963 and her son died in 1987

There was a quote under Rosie’s picture—“I’m gonna spend the rest of my days and then some, keeping the blues alive.”

“Wow, Rosie, you weren’t kidding were you?” Jodie took her guitar from the case and started playing. “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.”
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