Perk Noir Chapter 2

Out back I ran into Candy Korn, the latest in a long string of managers. Brett hired good people, mostly, but in the coffee biz, customers lasted longer than employees did. A loyal Perkhead since 2002, I’d outlasted twelve managers, forty-seven baristas, and two thousand four hundred and eighty four pieces of cobalt blue glassware.

Candy wore her hair in namesake yellow, orange, and white conical layers that made her head look smaller than it really is. She was transgender, very vocal in her opinions, and no, that wasn’t her real name, which is as much a secret as her real hair color. Candy believed that everyone in the Tea Party is an alien, that pot should be legal everywhere and that it’s a mortal sin to keep your natural born hair color. She cracked me up.

“Yo, Mason. Hold the door?  Hey, Snip.” Candy was carrying an empty trash can in each hand.  Tall and thickset, she wore low slung jeans on her hips with all the confidence in the world, a faded grey T-shirt and a spattered apron.  Her vintage glasses, purchased from a boutique in Chelsea, were black and pointed.

“Sure.”  Snippy barked hello. He liked Candy because of her handouts. Between my Milk Bones and her biscotti, it’s a miracle Snip didn’t tip the scales at over ten pounds, which for a Yorkie is almost as big as … me. I over-indulged the little Snipster. I knew better, but couldn’t resist when he begged. I did draw the line at ribbons. Not a single lick ever touched my beloved Yorkie’s head.

I’d been around dogs all my life. Growing up, lots of pups roamed the farm with silly names like She-Ra, my sister’s puffy, little Japanese Chin, who never wore ribbons either.  We just didn’t do that in farm country.  You’d never catch us dressing up our pets in little doggie sweaters or cute little hats.  My favorite dog, and my best friend growing up, was Red, a droopy-eared bloodhound with the disposition of a faerie except on the hunt, when he was relentless. The Onawa PD borrowed him several times. Once Red had a scent, he could track through a Roland Emmerich disaster film. He made the papers when he found little Clara Mortenson hiding in that barn before the twister tore it apart.

“Is Brett back from vacation?” I asked Candy.  My buddy, Brett Barlow, owned the Perk.

She shook her head. “He got held up.”

“Damn.”  He’d been due back a couple of days ago. I wondered what was keeping him.

“Thanks, Mason,” she said while scooting past me. “I’ll get your cup ‘o Perk. We have that Costa Rican you like.” Candy knew my tastes. No lattes, mochas, or caramel swirls for this farm boy. I took it straight. Black, no sugar, just the way Lightning liked it. Snippy followed her into the Perk even though he’d eaten his and Rhonda’s Milk Bones not five minutes earlier. My Snippy was a hobbit dog, always wanting second breakfast.

I held the door for an in & outer dashing past me to the parking lot. In & outers were people ordering to go. Us folks who stayed, we called ourselves cats (see Perk’s Rule #5, “names should be jazzy”). Cats hung out, digging the jazz, conversation, and steel. Cats might or might not be Perkheads (regulars, remember?).

This particular in & outer was a Perkhead, a Monday to Friday early morning regular who perpetually ran late. A man with an average size head, he worked at a big accounting firm and always dressed in a dark suits and shoes with tips curled up like an Elf’s. That morning he was late even by his standards. I’d held the door for him before.  He usually said thanks, but he was so far behind schedule that he just rushed by as if I wasn’t there, which wasn’t easy.  Me and my big head were pretty hard to ignore.

He clutched his latte to keep froth from splashing out the little hole in the lid while he ran. The other held something red, a scarf maybe, or a hat …

The Christmas Elf headed towards to the red Audi A8 with green and white striping. He donned his Santa cap and clicked his key fob, transforming the car into a 24th century sleigh powered by Roddenberry nacelles. Jolly old St. Nick’s bearded, holographic face appeared on the left side of the sleigh’s Google glass windshield. Numbers scrolled by on the right. The Christmas Elf pushed the ignition button. The sleigh glided up to the gigantic silver donut poking out from the morning clouds …

Bumping into the neatly trimmed hedges surrounding the Perk’s patio broke the spell of my daydream.  I could just make out the Audi’s taillights turning right onto the main drag.  The patio was a haven for smokers, which in a coffee shop, particularly one with jazz roots, were as common as fleas on a farm dog. Brett strictly abided Perk’s Rules, of which #6 was “jazz goes with smoke like coffee,” and therefore resisted any anti-smoking policy until the state made not doing so illegal, not simply unfashionable. I didn’t smoke, so the new law didn’t affect me, but it bothered me just the same. On principle, mine and Lightning’s.

Shame on me for not bringing up Lightning yet. Earl “Lightning” Perkins was a legendary African-American jazz pianist.  He established Perk Noir in 1979 and laid down the law in the form of Perk’s Rules. Lightning’s presence still graced Perk Noir. Some of us Perkheads worshipped him like a saint.  You can count me as one of them.

Every Perkhead knew the basics – Lightning lived, died, played the piano and gave us Perk Noir. A select few, including yours truly, Mason Ezekiel Barnes, found enlightenment in his life lessons.  We called the collective body of knowledge concerning his life and times “Perklore”. His rules, his lessons, his music, his friends, his coffee, his story, all were Perklore.  Those of us taking up the Lightning way had an insatiable thirst for more.

Most of my family humored me when it came to Lightning.  They called it my strange fascination, except Grandma Betty Lou, who liked hearing my Lightning stories. My brother, Ted Jr., called it an obsession and recommended I get psychiatric help, but then again, Junior thought everyone ought to see a shrink.  If I needed therapy, it wasn’t because of Lightning.

People often asked me why I admired him so much.  The easy answer is that I loved his music.  It taught me to appreciate jazz, no simple task for a farm bred country boy.  But, I’m a huge Clapton fun too and Clapton never inspired me as Lightning had.  I only knew what everyone else knew, that Eric hooked up with George Harrison’s ex and that he’d lost his son in a terrible tragedy.  No sir, music alone couldn’t explain Lightning’s influence on me.

Another easy answer was that my environment rubbed off.  If the Perk was my office, and it was, then I worked in a museum dedicated to Lightning.  Treasures from his life adorned every square inch of the place and Brett curated the trove.  Certainly, the Perk’s special ambience played into my Lightning attraction. I mean, if I worked at Yankee Stadium, I’d probably have a thing for the Babe too, but the Perk’s décor wasn’t why I considered Lightning a hero.  It went deeper than that.

I think what inspired me most was Lightning learning how to not get angry.  Each person follows a different path to grow up.  In his case, that meant learning to be at peace, with himself and the world, instead of burying his anger.  When he first came back from the World War I, he was angry and had a right to be.  He gave his youth and manhood to his country and all he got in return were accusatory stares, slammed doors, and even open hostility, much like I suffered whenever I poked my big head inside a publisher’s office.  Those arrogant pricks in their glass skyscrapers always assumed someone with my prodigious noggin incapable of producing coherent sentences.

If you listen to Lighting’s early work, you can hear the outrage in his strident chords, like Valkyries crowing over battle. As he got older though, he learned to look past injustice and see hope. He came face to face with his anger and defeated it.  His music changed.  He sang for peace as part of the Civil Rights movement.  As moving as I found the story of Lightning’s early years, my real hero was the older Lightning.  He sang with true courage.

I wanted to know everything there was to know about Earl “Lightning” Perkins.  We had a name for people achieving excellence in Perklore:  Perklore kensai. In ancient Japan, kensai, was a term of respect and prestige bestowed upon the greatest warriors. It meant literally “sword saint”. Sword masters attaining this exalted rank possessed a greater degree of perfection, in both physical excellence and loftier moral purpose. When it came to Perklore, Brett Barlow, was the resident expert on all things Lightning. If the Perk was a village, then Brett Barlow was its Perklore kensai.

Not every Perkhead studied Perklore intently. Perkheads were a forgiving cult. The only membership requirement was returning day after day, that’s it. Not every day necessarily, just day after day. Since every day follows some day, it was an exceptionally low hurdle. Perkheads could define regular by time of day, day of week or more arcane criteria. Seasonality affected some Perkheads’ regularity too, like for snowbirds or teachers or students or even just people with a dog to walk. Some Perkheads regularly changed their own particular regular. Once you were a Perkhead, you knew it. A subtle nod gave the barista your order, the regular one. People started knowing your name. Your favorite seat was magically open more often.

For those few fully embracing the Lightning way, attaining Perklore kensai was the greatest imaginable glory. Brett was only the second living person ever to achieve that exalted designation. Me? I was a wannabe Perklore kensai, bound and determined to join him in Lightning nirvana. I’d have to work at it though, Brett wouldn’t hand out such an accolade lightly and he was the only one who could elevate another kensai. My chief rival in this endeavor was none other than Conrad Bancroft. The gnome thought his academic achievements gave him an edge, but Brett said kensai weren’t born, they were made in moments of inspiration and Bancroft had yet to inspire. If I couldn’t beat the gnome at writing, then I’d win the kensai race. Maybe then Brett would let me into the Perk’s attic.

My secret hope, and I don’t share secrets easily, was that I could kill two birds with one stone.  My instinct told me that Lightning’s story was potentially Pulitzer-worthy, if I could only discover his secrets.  If I could do that, Brett would gladly name me kensai. I viewed it as poetic justice, seeing as Bancroft was my rival in both writing and my kensai quest.  Beating the gnome would be almost as satisfying as achieving my goals.

I had my work cut out for me.  The world didn’t yet believe Lightning’s story worthy of mention.  Mostly, when I told people what Lightning went through they said “Yeah, it’s sad.  All those black musicians got screwed back then, but I’ve seen Ray. What’s so special about this Lightning guy?”

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