When I was zipping through a practice exam to use with my students, I slowed way down to read Ralph Ellison. I don’t really know anything about him. I’ve never read Invisible Man. Strange as it seemed, I was enjoying reading a passage on a test. I immediately went back and ordered it from Amazon, which is, strictly speaking, not permitted in my budget.
This morning there was a tow truck in my driveway. My neighbor had pulled his moving truck up on the lawn, and it was stuck. I wandered over, both to ask the driver to move the truck, and to see the spectacle, and to comfort my neighbor. He had offered to introduce me to his cousin, who was helping him move. His cousin is near my age, and apparently rich as King Midas. When I approached my neighbor, his cousin was standing a ways off, shirtless and angrily smoking a cigar in the spring sunlight. His chest hair was the same color as the cigar. “We’re a little frustrated at this point,” my neighbor said.
The Ellison book arrived. Along with the New Yorker and Smithsonian. They were all waiting in my black mailbox, despondent. I had forgotten about them. The first piece in the book is the one I had already read from. It’s about living with the noise of other artists. Ellison is trying to write, and a singer lives above him, and drunks sing around him in the alleys, and he’s trying to fucking think straight. He buys a record player and blasts arias and spirituals at top volume, in a war with his neighbor.
One of my uncles is an audiophile, collects turntables and exquisitely designed Japanese needles that will transmit sound with the delicate touch of one rabbit hair. He has often been stopped at a Japanese airport to have a needle inspected more closely. I would think it a weapon, myself. They come in odd-looking little clear plastic boxes. Once he sat me in the “sweet spot” in his listening room and played us a piece with a pizzacato bass. I closed my eyes, and I would have sworn I could taste the rosin that sticks to every stringed instrument after being in clouds of it rubbed lovingly on bows. I could feel the glossiness of the thin wood of a stringed instrument, and the lightness of its body, which is so scary, like holding an infant.
How do things touch each other? Physically, proximity, neighbors. Physically, as a copy of Living With Music by Ralph Ellison is plopped in my mailbox, from Spokane, Washington, inscribed with the black ink notes of a stranger: “One moment inspires many that’s great like Herb Hancock quote about conversation.” Sometimes remotely, like a bass far from me in time and space, living in my ears anyway, in the top floor of a house on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas. And sometimes across years and genders and races from Ellison to me: “Those who know their native culture and love it unchauvinistically are never lost when encountering the unfamiliar.”