by Dan Barrett
The Sunset Music Company had just finished another gig during its tour of Germany in 1978. The details for this engagement are hazy, as are so many details of the many gigs we played at that time. I often wish that I’d followed my mother’s sage advice, and kept a diary during those times. When you’re twenty-two years old, and in Europe for the second time in your life, traveling with guys who are all like older brothers, you think these times will go on forever, so why stop to write about it? Just live, and enjoy it, man, and swing out!
So there we were—Jim Goodwin and I—both fairly full of excellent German beer and probably more than a few shots of local schnapps. It could have been Düsseldorf, or Wurzburg, or Heidelberg, or even Nuremberg; we had gigs in all those places–and many others–at jazz clubs that featured traditional jazz. That is, back when there were clubs that featured that seminal form of the music, and back when there were bands that could do it justice. Wherever we were, it was pretty cold. Freezing, in fact.
We somehow made it back to our hotel (taxi? A ride from a jazz fan? Walking for several kilometers under a blue Teutonic moon? Who knows?), and I graciously rushed to open the front door for my hero, Jim Goodwin. He said, “Thanks, Daniel,” as I grasped the long vertical door handle. I pulled, and nearly yanked my arm out of its socket. Locked, and locked tight, man.
“Whoa!” Jim said, and laughed. As I said, we were both more than tipsy.
I tried again, with that faith that too much alcohol can give one. Still no dice.
“Oh, yeah,” Jim said, remembering something. His brows furrowed. “I seem to recall the innkeeper saying they lock the door at eleven p.m.” He looked at his watch, as though we’d just missed curfew. It was four-thirty.
“Oh, great!” I said. “I don’t suppose you have a key?”
Jim shook his head. “I meant to get one before I left, but while I was waiting at the front desk, a big green iguana crawled in and needed some help with his luggage…”
“I see.” I said. “He didn’t happen to be wearing my porkpie hat, did he?” I’d lost a beautiful old porkpie I’d found in your typical German second-hand porkpie shop on the tour, and managed to lose it during one of our gigs. I’d last seen it at one of the clubs we played earlier that week, bobbing off into the crowd on the blonde head of a very attractive young German girl. Sigh.
“No such luck,” Jim replied. “This particular iguana was a Homburg-type. Say!” Jim added brightly. “Maybe there’s a window open around the back!”
We skulked around the side of the hotel, looking suspicious, and watching for anyone who might think we looked suspicious.
“No windows on this side,” I said, just for something to say. I saw my breath in the cold night air. Jim led us around behind the small hotel.
“Hey, look, man!” he whispered. “That basement window is open a bit!”
I looked down, and just above the narrow cement walkway that ran around the hotel’s perimeter was a small rectangular window. It was open a crack.
“I don’t think I’d fit, man, but I bet you can,” Jim said excitedly. This in itself shows you just how long ago all this happened. Me skinnier than Goodwin. Sigh.
“Well…how do I do it?” I asked. Jim seemed much more experienced in these matters.
“Get on the ground on your stomach…yeah, that’s it. OK: I’ve got your ankles…”
With Jim operating me like a large Irish-Serbian divining rod, I wedged my head and shoulders into the window, waving my arms out in front of me. I couldn’t see a thing.
“Hello?” I said, very quietly. I didn’t want to interrupt some kind of German tryst, or encounter a shepherd. Chances were good it would be a German shepherd.
“Hellooo…?” I repeated, somewhat more boldly. “Anyone there? Ich bin eine Amerikaner…”
I heard a faint echo, but nothing else. I wondered what kind of room in a hotel would have an echo. I wondered how you said “breaking and entering” in German.
“I think we’re good, Jim…just hang on to my ankles, and lower me in.”
“All right…careful…easy…there you go…”
I gradually eased forward into pitch blackness as Jim, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, pushed me into the yawning black space.
“Don’t let go!” I said in a stage whisper. “I can’t feel anything! There’s nothing under me!”
I was now more than halfway into the window, and gravity was doing its predictable thing. I was now bent at the waist, with Jim’s hands still clamped around my ankles. I hoped to feel a dresser, or TV set, or anything—a bed would have been perfect—but all I felt were very cold, dry walls. I edged further down the wall; kind of like Spider-Man, trying to use my fingertips to give me some friction on those inexplicably slick, cool walls. I willed my eyes to see, but it was the blackest dark I’d ever encountered.
As my hands crept down the wall, my left hand was suddenly rewarded with a moist squish. Almost immediately, my right hand felt an identical squish. I soon detected a familiar smell., and instantly figured it out. My two hands had landed at the base of two urinals, and I’d just crushed the urinal cakes to a ripe pulp. They can be pretty ripe in older German hotels, too. Just trust me.
I uttered an oath.
“What ‘say?” Jim asked politely.
“It’s OK, James,” I said, in no small disgust. “I’m in the men’s room. You can let go now.”
“Ha, ha,” was Jim’s reply as he let loose of my ankles. To this day, I can imagine his fingers splayed wide, taking a child’s fiendish delight in letting me go. I toppled the rest of the way into the men’s room, and rolled as carefully as I could onto the cold tile floor. My new mission was to keep my hands as far away from anything civilized as possible!
“So, Dan,” Jim said. I turned and looked up to see his head at a right angle, silhouetted in the moonlight. His old tweed newsboy cap was slightly crooked. It had been a tough night, all right.
“Go around to the front door, and let me in” he said.
“OK…but give me a few minutes!”
The silhouette nodded and vanished. Wan moonlight shone into the room (where was it when I needed it?), and I could just make out two old white porcelain sinks across from me. I fled to the nearest one, and turned on the water. I waited forever for it to get hot, holding my diseased hands out in front of me like Dr. Kildare. When the water was finally hot, I intentionally scalded my hands up to my forearms, and scrubbed them with soap as though I was about to perform brain surgery on Louis Armstrong. Or Jim Goodwin.
Finally, when I thought I might be able to eat with those hands some day, I teetered off into the darkness, to find my way to the front door.
Jim was waiting. He was slapping his crossed arms around himself against the cold. I could see his breath as he said, “Man! What took you?”
He wasn’t upset; more concerned about my well-being. I told him about the urinal cakes and the rest. With Jim embellishing my story as I went along, we both began laughing like hyenas. We decided the hotel proprietor wouldn’t blame us if we helped ourselves to a restorative beverage or two after our ordeal. We found the bar through the dark, and Jim pulled us a couple of large drafts.
And yes, we paid for them the next day.
Costa Mesa, CA