Down And Out

                    “Nobody knows you
                    When you’re down and out.
                    In your pocket, not one penny,
                    And as for friends, you don’t have any.
                    When you finally get back up on your feet again,
                    Everybody wants to be your old long-lost friend.
                    It’s mighty strange, without a doubt,
                    Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.”
                   Jimmy Cox

Ever been down and out? I’ll bet you have. Life is simply not that easy… for any of us. Some of us have tried to “slip through the cracks” by consistently taking the easier route, but usually that blasted karma catches up with us at some point and slaps us back into reality. I hate when that happens.

And it has happened to me, believe me. I don’t know about you, but being down and out, for me, has always been an unforgettable experience. Each time I hoped to never be there again, to feel like that again… but life rarely (if ever) gives a damn about what we want, what we need.

I’m not talking about the loss of loved ones, or serious health problems… that’s a different kettle of fish. They can lead to the same feelings, but the “down and out” I’m talking about is the result of bad decisions or bad luck. The money has usually run out, and the future usually looks bleak, or non-existent. The lack of hope, of being able to see a way out, coupled with the usual feelings of loss, confidence and failure often sends one into an emotional tailspin that can be hard to pull out of.

One thing about being down and out, it certainly is motivating. There is no element of fun to it, especially if one can’t immediately see their way out of their situation. The feeling of helplessness is one of the most motivating feelings I’ve ever had. Fear, frustration and hopelessness all surface in spades, often with emotions (fear) we’re not used to feeling. Motivating? Oh yes!

In truth, I’d guess that nearly all of us get at least much of what we need, to one degree or another, but rarely how or when we need it most. Probably that’s one of the little games life seems to play with us from time to time. “Sure, you think you need this now, but you don’t, really”…” or “I’m going to finally let you have this, long after it ceases to be very important to you… hahaha!”

Yeah, that stuff happens to us. Do we get much of what we want, though?? Probably not, because we usually want too damn much. And if we’re lucky enough to actually get everything we want, then do we even know what to do with it? Oh sure, we think we do, but I know people who have almost drowned in having everything they thought they needed, and there was always a curious lack of happiness or satisfaction in all that. To which I have a theory… that “their wanting” becomes addictive, and therefor more important than “the getting, the having and the enjoying,” which, ironically, are the same folks who value the destination more than the journey.

A Short Story Here…

I lived with a young family out on the tip of Nova Scotia for several months back in ’71. My good friend Eric and his wife, Barbara, were raising chickens and goats, and two toddlers in a one-bedroom house out on a spit of land East of Cole Harbour, just a hop SW of Cape Breton and Newfoundland. No indoor plumbing, an outhouse and one wood stove in the middle of the living room. We had to chop wood every day, carry water from the pump into the house, give ourselves sponge baths on the chilly porch, and row the tiny rowboat out into the bay to sink the garbage bags, twice a week, regardless of the weather. In those two months we built a new chicken coop, delivered 4 new baby goats, got them de-horned so they couldn’t hurt the kids, and shored up the beams of the big barn. And… had a great time doing all of it. Life was so simple for a short while there, and we had a joy and a satisfaction in each day.

Whatever happened to Eric, Barbara and me?

Well, for starters, none of us continued to pursue the simple life we enjoyed there for a short time. Barbara and Eric eventually divorced. She moved clear across Canada to Victoria, B.C. and became a doctor. Eric, who was a piano tuner in Boston when I first met him, moved back to the states and became an educator at the C.F. Theodore Steinway Technical Academy in New York City. He now lives in Oslo, Norway, teaching piano technicians at Oberlin. I lived in Atlanta, GA for 33 years as a pianist/composer, finally moving back West and living on an island on the north coast. Ha! We three all ended up a far cry from the simple life we shared in Nova Scotia!

“Chop wood, carry water” is probably my underlying message here. Living a simple life is so smart, so intuitive and so against our American culture. Think about it… we gather so much stuff when we’re young, only to try to get rid of most of it when we’re older. Some of that is due to not being able to use or appreciate that stuff any more, but don’t you see a cycle here? A cycle of desiring stuff, sometimes using and enjoying it, sometimes not, but nearly always discarding it later? Could we not save ourselves all that and instead live a far more simple life? Probably, but it ain’t gonna happen, is it? Our cultural learning at an early age seems to stick with us all through our lives, and if that isn’t powerful enough, then being down and out, even once, is more than enough motivation to get money, get position and get stuff!

Yeah, I’m at cross purposes here, I know. First I say that being down and out is motivating (which it certainly is) and suggesting that it is a good and positive influence. Then I say being down and out fuels the already deep desire to attain stuff. Hmm. I should probably have quit two paragraphs back, but that’s not me now, is it? At least not until I share some of my “down and out” stories with you. You knew that was coming, didn’t you?

A Young Cowboy’s Lament

At the beginning of my second year, second quarter at the U. Of Montana, my theory teacher, Harold Herbig, caught me in the hall of the music building one day. He knew I was unhappy with school, and wasn’t doing well at all. “Mr. Hulse,” he frowned. “I know you’re here to learn about music, and about jazz. I have to tell you, we’re not going to give you the education you want. This school is set up to make a music teacher out of you. If that’s not your goal you’re probably in the wrong school.”

I dropped out of school two days later, and when they kicked me out of the dorm, I rented a tiny room in the Missoulian Hotel downtown for several nights, trying to figure out what to do next. The room was so depressing, a small sink next to the window, and a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room, the classic old cheap hotel room. I remember sitting on the bed, looking up at that stupid light bulb, thinking, “Man, this is bad. This is really bad!”

My temporary solution was to not go home, to not disappoint my parents, but rather to drive down to Reno, Nevada, and see if I couldn’t get a job playing piano in one of the lounges there. So to Reno I went, being totally oblivious to the reality of my situation. Within two days in Reno I found that all the lounge groups there were good, damn good, and that I couldn’t, at that point, even begin to play up to that level of quality. I slept in my car in a parking lot next to a gas station for two nights, and finally realized I had to go home and face my parents wrath. And so I did, only to be greeted with a draft notice the day I got back. Dark times.

Yes, And More Dark Times In Bean Town

The middle of my junior year at Berklee in Boston was a rough one. A friend, Keith Green, had allowed me to move in to his tiny, two-room apartment with him. His pad was “across the tracks,” and it was a good mile through some of the creepier streets of Boston’s Back Bay, to get to school. Many times I walked around sleeping bums on the sidewalk, and, when in a hurry, just stepped over them. School, and my classwork, was exciting and fun… the rest of my life was shit. I had no gigs, no contacts and no money. My semester was paid for, but daily living expenses were non-existent. My parents had happily cut me loose at the end of my freshman year, and I’d been on my own since. I’d been doing pretty well, but suddenly my piano jobs and  my money dried up, and there I was, sol. When you’re 3000 miles from home with no money and no food, life gets pretty scary, and desperate!

My social life after school was also now non-existent, as I needed to walk back to the apartment as soon as classes were over, because it was too scary and dangerous to make the long walk after dark. Besides, the guys I used to party with were all now very serious about school and about their music, or they had moved on.

And so it was, that one Tuesday afternoon in February, I had spent my last money on a coffee regular and a toasted English earlier that day, and now had twenty five cents left… which I spent on a bag of cheese popcorn on the way home. Why cheese popcorn?? God, who knows. I was 25 at the time, and years away from becoming any sort of logical human being.

Anyway, I got to the apartment, and realizing I’d have no money for breakfast tomorrow, or even dinner, decided not to eat the popcorn, but instead put it in the fridge for a later date. That later date came three days later, on Friday evening. Keith and I always watched Batman on his tiny TV on Friday evenings. I pulled out my cheese popcorn and devoured it for the occasion. It was, and still is to this day, the best popcorn I ever had in my life.

My other memorable “down and out” came five years later. I was still in the Boston area, though not in Boston anymore. Many wonderful and exciting things had already happened to me in that time, and I had been riding a high for awhile. But that curve was now on the downhill slide, and it hit me hard one week in September of ’71. The recording studio I’d been happily working in outside Boston for two years informed me that it was closing. It came out of nowhere and really left me hanging. The owners allowed me to finish up the few projects that were in progress at the time, and gave me the money from those projects. I had no clue as to what to do next, so I simply finished up the projects and sat for evenings in my little apartment, drinking and trying to come up with a plan.

On one of those evenings, I’d had too much to drink and was sitting at home, feeling totally down and out. Around midnight I remember thinking it might be a good time to take myself out, just end it all. I actually thought about it a bit, then realized I was too chicken to do it. But, as an experiment, I decided, in my inebriated state, to pretend I killed myself that night, then watch the rest of my life unfold, almost as an impartial observer, how it would have turned out if I’d have stayed alive.

Get Back On The Horse… Sometimes

It remains mind-boggling to me that I would have even thought about suicide back then, as my life had been going so beautifully. But when we’re young and stupid, we think and do young and stupid things. And there you have it.

What did I do? Bought an old mail truck converted into a camper, sold my car and drove the old mail truck up to Nova Scotia to spend the winter with friends Eric and Barbara, and think things over. As you saw earlier, it all turned out great.

There have been other down and out times, of course. Hell, life itself makes sure of that. But the other times pale to the ones I’ve mentioned. In those, I was truly lost… and afraid. Having lived my entire life as a mostly spontaneous being, I never had a plan B, especially back then. In those times of fear and not knowing, my sense of “what I might not ever become” was far more motivating that “what I might become.” I remember moving away from my failures as fast and as far as I could. Strangely, that turned out to be a good move. I recommend it highly. Yes, get back on the horse when that is what is called for. But don’t try to get back on a dead horse, or any horse headed in a bad direction.

My last, and hopefully my final down and out came when I was 62. My music career had crashed and burned. I was newly divorced and no reason to stay in Atlanta any longer. So I didn’t. Packed up a U-haul with my little red car on a trailer and headed back to only place left for me at the time… my cabin in Montana.

I remember that first day on the road. My life for 33 years was in the rear view mirror, and all my worldly belongings were in the truck. I was so lost… I knew that leaving Atlanta was now the right thing to do, but the future looked dark and scary. I was hating the idea of a new life without my music career, without my wife and son, without any of the security I had known for so many years. The drive across Alabama and Mississippi that day was hell. I think I felt about every emotion connected to futility that a person can feel. And then a magical thing happened – I crossed the Mississippi River and into Arkansas, and somehow my life, and my view of it, changed in a flash!

It was better than closing one chapter and opening another… it was opening a new book! I wrote about it in my book of free verse, about returning home. Here are two short excepts from 46. And 47.

“It’s a new day, a new life
I’ve just crossed the Mighty Mississippi
Heading West
My eyes are wet with tears
Must have been a rough crossing”

“Being west of the Mississippi
Means everything to me
My heart, beating so rapidly just minutes ago
Is now at rest. I can almost hear it…
I can definitely feel it.

It is being tugged on by the West,
By the Rockies
Still fifteen hundred miles away
Like a mouse that knows
It’s in the same room as the cheese
My heart smells the cheese
And my eyes get wet again.”

That was back in November of 2005. I’ve never been down and out, have never felt down and out again, since that day. But then I’ve always been a “Western guy” at heart.

Steve Hulse

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