The Homeless Ventriloquist by Jim Washburn
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Whatever the founders of West Athens had in mind—A Greek expatriate enclave? A modern-day seat of reason?—the town was looking more like West Leopoldville. Nearly every person on the sidewalks was black. The riots hadn’t hit as hard here as in Watts, where whole blocks were leveled, yet Lloyd passed scattered buildings and houses that had been reduced to charcoal, and no one seemed in any rush to replace them. The housing not affected by the riots didn’t look much better.

A red MG did not lend itself to anonymity, and several of the looks that came his way were unfriendly. He thought of the spite-filled, accusing face that had glared at him from a Watts window a year before, and of maybe the same look in Hibiscus Van Buren’s eyes. It reminded him of a Willie and Joe cartoon from WWII, where a French peasant woman is looking daggers at the passing dogfaces from her bombed-out farmhouse, as Willie sheepishly tells her, “Don’t look at me lady. I didn’t do it.”

Maybe age carries its blessings, but he couldn’t imagine Artie Kane finding an appreciative audience down here. What would he do, tell Dick Gregory jokes?

A couple of street signs were missing, and one, he decided after backtracking three times, had been turned 90 degrees. He also wasn’t clear how the apartment number Billy Down had given him was supposed to gibe with the neighborhood’s unnumbered carports. Though hard to read in the early evening light, he finally noticed a couple of cardboard signs reading Show Tonight, TV Star, with an arrow pointing down the curving block, then a third sign directing him down a lane between two rows of carports, ending in a cinder block wall with one word scrawled on it in charcoal: “Burn.”

On the left, two carports back from the wall, the stall’s entrance had been walled off with cut up appliance crates, with a gray blanket draped over a gap on the end nearest the street. From his car, he could hear laughter, cheering and a bottle rolling on concrete.

He drove three blocks out to Normandie and left the MG at an all-night Chevron station for an oil change, figuring that was the safest place for it, and walked back into the neighborhood, encountering no one except three high school girls who giggled after he’d passed. He overheard one say, “Nice ass, for a dead man,” and all three laughed. Given the sort of white trash that came looking for something down here, or at least had before the riots, Lloyd figured that in their shoes he’d enjoy rattling white people, too. He could understand that, but he was still rattled. He’d felt on-edge and exposed the whole time he’d been to South Central last, during the riots; this time he didn’t have a phalanx with him.

From the mouth of the carport lane, he could hear two voices now, doing a routine, with occasional assents from listeners. It sounded like church. He had an impossible image of Artie behind the corrugated curtain, wearing a preacher’s gown and making a Bible talk, saying a line Lloyd had learned smoking cigarettes in back of La Puente’s Lutheran church: “Joshua Judges Ruth? Then Leviticus my ass!”

When he was three carports away, he could hear the voices clearly. If it was Artie, he was good at Negro dialect, and had changed his mind about working blue. A higher-pitched voice—the dummy, he presumed—was asking, “So that pickup line didn’t work. What did you try next?”

A gruff voice responded, “I told her, ‘Baby, I’d sure like to get into your pants ... because I done shit in mine!’”

A small audience erupted in laugher, which Lloyd took as a cue to duck his head under the blanket, coming up on the other side beside a card table, with a shoebox on it and a woman seated behind it who couldn’t have been more surprised by Lloyd’s skin if he’d had alligator scales. She quickly composed herself and said, “That’ll be two dollars.” There was a sign beside the shoebox marked $1.

He ponied up the two bills and took a seat by himself in the last of six rows of unmatched folding metal chairs, lined up nine across. The first four rows were filled by men, with a handful or women adding their raucous laughter to the din. The fifth row held a few stragglers, while he had the sixth to himself. Aside from the ticket taker and a man at a makeshift bar to the right of the stage, no one had taken note of Lloyd.

The bar—another card table—was selling Brew 102 in cans and shots of something in Dixie cups, while several men in the audience were also drinking from bottles and flasks. The residual cop in Lloyd’s head started ticking off the numerous laws and codes being violated in this two-car space.

At the front of the crowd, a flesh and wood duo were on a stage of two stacked wooden pallets. Lloyd recognized the pair from the Steve Allen show, where their act was nothing like this. He couldn’t remember the ventriloquist’s name, but the dummy’s was Slappy Nightshade. Their schtick was that the ventriloquist was supposed to be blind—he wore dark shades—and had to rely on his seeing-eye dummy to tell him what was what.

The guy was blacker than Art Blakey, and Lloyd wondered how that little detail had been omitted from the tip the unknown cop had given Billy. Was there an error in communication—not unlikely with Billy involved—or was someone in the rank and file intentionally jerking Lloyd’s chain? Someone who didn’t like that he’d “stained the department,” or who, like a lot of officers, simply regarded washout cops who’d turned PI in the same light they did transvestites and bed-wetters.

So the trip wouldn’t be a total washout, Lloyd figured he’d wait until a break in the show and ask the ventriloquist if he’d heard any scuttlebutt about Artie. For all Lloyd knew, maybe there was a bar ventriloquists all hung out at.

The dummy was finishing up another bit, saying, “... well, you know what they say, chicken on Sunday, feathers on Monday, pussy on Tuesday.”

“It’s true then what people say about you becoming a pimp?” the “blind” man asked. “How’d you start in on that?”

“Well, there I was one day, crying because I had no shoes. Then I saw a man who had no pussy, and I sold him some. Now I got shoes.”

“It’s just about nighttime now. Why aren’t you out working your girls?”

“I’m stuck here. The gearshift went out on my transmission.”

“You’re one of those shiftless Negroes I’ve heard about!”

“I don’t see you workin’, just sittin’ on your blind ass.”

“How about you help me with that? I need a sign that’ll put some money in my tin cup. Think you can help me with that?”

“Sure, I’ll paint you a sign everyone’ll notice.”

With his left hand, the man made a show of putting a paintbrush handle in the dummy’s mouth, poking him first in both eyes. He rested a sheet of cardboard on both their knees. While the dummy’s head bent over it with the paintbrush, Stovepipe dictated in stentorian tones, “Pity me, for I am blind. Please let your sight see compassion for my plight.”

The dummy finished a few seconds after him, and said, “OK, it’s done, Boss.” Stovepipe held up the sign so the audience could read: I fucked your wife so hard I went blind. Gimmie $10, motherfucker.

When the initial laughter dimmed, the dummy said, “Yessir, I expect just about everybody’s gonna want a piece of your plight now.”

Lloyd remembered the ventriloquist’s name, Stovepipe Belvedere. Slappy and Stovepipe. The guy could time a laugh, but even to Lloyd’s inexpert eyes, it seemed Stovepipe’s lips moved too much and Slappy’s not enough. Belvedere’s nonchalance about his craft was contagious, though, and the laughs kept coming. Lloyd recalled now the sketch they’d done on the Allen show, where Slappy convinced Stovepipe that a garbage truck was LBJ’s motorcade.

He was snapped back into the moment by a flurry of motion in the room: heads turning, eyes looking about, and landing on him. On the stage, Stovepipe had his head upturned, sniffing the air through his profound nostrils, then said to Slappy, “I tole you, I smell white meat, but can’t tell if it’s chicken or pig. Since you got eyes, would you mind using them for a goddamned minute to tell me what it is I’m smelling?”

Slappy’s noggin jerked left and right spastically before halting to blink repeatedly and then look straight at Lloyd. “I don’t know, boss, looks to me like it’s a pig that’s chicken.”

“Now how can that be? That’d be like having a man that’s a woman.”

“Maybe that’s what you’re smelling, too. Seems like it. This guy makes the Beatles look like Cassius Clay.”

A fucking dummy was calling him out! All eyes were now on Lloyd, especially the ones he couldn’t see behind the dark glasses. Belvedere took up the attack, addressing Lloyd directly. “How about it, Mister Charlie, what you doing on our side of town? You looking for some H? You looking to get yourself some of our young Negro pussy?”

“I’ll sell him some!” the dummy interjected.

“You shut up. This cracker tries planting his flag around here, he’ll find he’s landed on fucking Negro Jima. Isn’t that right?”

There were shouts of agreement. For want of a better option, Lloyd sat motionless in his seat, turning red, waiting for the focus to shift elsewhere, but it didn’t. Now Slappy was leading the tag team.

“You a policeman? You looking for some infractions? We got a roomful, all wondering what your cracker ass wants here. You just looking for a good time? You know what they say, ‘If you was black on Central Avenue on Saturday night, you’d never want to be white again.’ But you know what else? If you was white on Central Avenue, you still wouldn’t want to be white again, because I’d be kicking your pasty ass all down the street, and everybody’d be standin’ on the sidewalk applaudin’.” Belvedere lifted the dummy on his arm and shook it until its little legs started kicking out.

An unopened can of 102 would have hit Lloyd square in the face if he hadn’t seen it coming and lurched to the left. Galvanized by that, a handful of men in the audience started moving towards him, and there were angry shouts. “Christ, not again,” he groaned, getting to his feet, wondering why everyone thought he was so much fun to punch lately.

For his quickest exit, he tried to kick the folding chair back behind him, but something blocked it, and just then a hand gripped his right shoulder from behind. Lloyd formed a fist and started swinging his left arm around, but a voice attached to the grip shouted, “Stop!” so commandingly that he and the rest of the room did.

The man was lanky, but had a regal bearing. He was wearing some manner of African shirt, and Lloyd knew his face, but couldn’t remember where from. He hoped it wasn’t someone he’d busted.

Whoever he was, he had the room’s attention, and said, “This man is a personal friend of mine, and it embarrasses me to see you treat him in this manner, ofay though he is. Would you please leave him be, and return to your frolics?”

His words hung there for a few seconds, and then the people in the room, several with a nod to the man, reclaimed their seats. From the stage, Slappy said, “Ahem,” and continued, “As I was saying, two Jews walk into a bar ...”

“Perhaps we should amscray, pianissimo-style,” the man said softly, indicating the blanketed entrance, and Lloyd placed him: He was the pianist and leader of a band he’d seen several times, the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. Somebody Tapscott. And Lloyd remembered also that the FBI had a file on him for subversive activities, for which the LAPD provided surveillance.

He followed Tapscott out into the night of the carport alley. The man had a long step and was making the most of it. Lloyd didn’t mind putting on some speed to keep pace with him.

Tapscott said, “You don’t look like a damned idiot, so you must have a reason for being here. I hope it isn’t one that’s going to make me regret helping you. People here have enough grief.”

“I’m only looking for somebody, an elderly ventriloquist who went loopy and has gone missing. I heard there was a ventriloquist down here and thought it might be him. This guy was several shades of not him, so I’ve got no further business here.”

“Glad to hear it. Would you look at this cruddy sky?”—it had the dead look of a grey TV screen—“It’s always like this. How’s a kid supposed to have a sense of wonder if she never sees a star in the sky?”

Lloyd had no answer for that, but had questions: “You don’t know me, Mr. Tapscott, but I’m a fan of your music.” Lloyd thought that would surprise him. “But I’ve also read you’re tight with the Black Power movement. Why did you help me back there?”

“Tight” was an understatement, according to the FBI, which still had the LAPD staking out Tapscott’s house and tapping his phone. His band had played in the streets during the Watts riots, and opinions varied whether they’d been trying to calm the rioting or provide a soundtrack to it.

“Well, I’m just a riddle wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a niggra,” Tapscott answered softly. “I’m for any movement that gives power to kids, that opens up the sky for them a little. And I do know you. You were at the Lighthouse twice to see us, and once somewhere outdoors. I know every person in my audience. How else would I have any business playing to their hearts?”

He’d let Lloyd lead at the corners, and they’d emerged on Normandie. As traffic whizzed passed, they shook hands. Lloyd handed him his card, saying it was in case he saw any stray ventriloquists. Tapscott pulled a crumpled piece of musical notation paper from his pocket, smoothed it on one hand, and wrote something on it with a Bic pen.

He folded the paper in half and handed it to Lloyd, telling him, “If anyone else gives you any trouble down here, just hand them this. Next time you’re in the audience, say hi.”

They parted, with Tapscott heading back into the neighborhood. As Lloyd walked to the Chevron station, he unfolded the note, reading, “Please don’t hurt this white man. He’s the only one I got. Signed, Horace Tapscott.”


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Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites and just about anybody else willing to trade a paycheck for a pulse.


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