by Douglas John Imbrogno | April 3, 2020 | TheStoryIsTheThing.com
I am about to blow two people’s minds. One is in Alaska, the other is in Ohio. One is a dear friend I met nearly a decade ago. The other is someone who has known me since I was in diapers. Whether any of the rest of you reading this will be blown away—probably not. But there should be several among you who’ll draw pleasure from the video below, especially if you like classic jazz and funky clubs in hazardous parts of town.
And especially if you need something nourishing and lovely to keep you—while in the throes of pandemic quarantine—from clobbering your shelter-in-place co-habitants. Or perhaps to keep you from running, screaming, out your back door to the Mexican restaurant you love down the street.
I’m sorry. It’s closed.
So, I present to you another sweet harmonic convergence in the TheStoryIsTheThing’s social-isolation series, “Songs of Comfort, Songs of Home.”
I used to be a feature writer for the Charleston Gazette in the Appalachian heartland of Charleston, WV. (Seriously—of the 13 states and 420 counties that make up the official designation of “Appalachia,” West Virginia is the only state entirely within that designation.)
One day, the newsroom got word that a bunch of crazy idealists called PickUpAmerica were headed our way. They’d begun picking up trash along the Atlantic shore in March 2010, starting at Assateague Island, Md. Their aim was to pick up trash in 13 states, cutting a jagged line across America for more than a year, ending up at San Francisco Bay in November 2011.
Their colorful trek sought to make a vivid point about what a mess we humans have made with our toss-away culture. They did education events, rallies, and media interviews along the way.
Feature story gold.
This was especially true for a guy who always had weekly feature sections to fill and was on a constant hunt for humans-of-interest.
The group’s three-month cleanup across West Virginia in Fall 2010 also came at a time when I was a John the Baptist of multimedia evangelism. I preached to all who would listen the good word of the newspaper industry’s golden future of ginormous online attention and profitability via video.
Like John, my head ended up on a platter, metaphorically speaking, career-wise. I spent a decade and thousands of Doug-hours thinking I was part of journalism’s vanguard, paving the Yellow Brick Road one upload at a time.
In the end, the Flying Monkeys nabbed me and swept me away from that Broken Boulevard of Dreams. And if I can think of a way to weave John the Baptist back into this metaphorical pile-up, e-mail me and I will let you know when it comes to me.
But I got some good videos out of it!
I got sort of obsessed with these lovely young human beings. I did a series of stories and videos, both for the paper and my blog, as I had a crush on them and their idealism. From July to September that year, they picked up about 22,000 pounds of trash from West Virginia’s roadsides (they kept a tally). A good chunk of that refuse they piled up in a big mound in front of the state Capitol in Charleston for their final make-a-point in the Mountain State. It made an un-pretty point on the grounds of the pretty-as-a-picture West Virginia State Capitol complex, designed by the great Cass Gilbert.
Feature. Story. Gold.
They could also sing. They did really good sing-a-long.
And drove a colorful blue bus powered by vegetable oil.
So, a whole bunch of us in West Virginia fell in love with them. Let’s name some of the pick-uppers for the record and because we West Virginians who adored them will like to see their names again: Jeff Chen, Davey Rogner, Kelly Klein and Kim Alexander.
We’re still friends with some of them, lo these many years later.
The crew even stayed at my house, pulling up in our Cabell County driveway in their vegetable-oil powered bus. Which, sadly, broke down soon afterward, stranding them for a bit. Perhaps they had the wrong kind of oil? Safflower? Sesame? Coconut?
I forget what the problem was.
Cut to the chase: they made it to San Fransisco. They eventually hauled in a total of, like, a gazillion bags of trash, picked up across the country.
I went out with them a couple times in the hot sun, in two different counties. I vividly recall how stinky, hard, and eye-opening it all was. One day outside Milton, WV, we found a homemade meth-works kit, made of a plastic jug and tubing, in the weeds beside the road.
We called a sheriff’s deputy. Trash pickups along state routes in West Virginia are not for the faint of heart.
Here’s a video of one of the pickups.
(Here’s another if you want to see them doing Greenbrier County. As I said, I’d appointed myself their Official West Virginia Chronicler.)
But that’s not the video that will blow away the two people I mention above. Those two would be:
- One of the picker-uppers, Jeff Chen, who co-conceived this sweat-equity tour-de-force and now calls Alaska home.
- My older sister, Pamela.
- And maybe vegetable-oil-bus mastermind Davey (but I’m not sure about that).
Here’s the deal
After West Virginia, the crew headed to Cincinnati. That happened to be where my sister, Pam, lived. And she happened to be a really fine weekend jazz singer at a funky little club called Schwartz’s Point, in a hazardous part of Cincinnati (at least at certain hours after the sun went down).
And Jeff just happened to be able to sing a killer version of “Till There Was You,” a show tune written by Meredith Willson for his 1957 musical play “The Music Man” (1957). The song appears in the 1962 movie version, sung by librarian Marian Paroo (played by Shirley Jones in the film) to “Professor” Harold Hill (portrayed in the film by Robert Preston), who woos Marian the Librarian.
That’s where it came to the attention of my young, perked up ears. Back in the day (pay attention, young ones), you got to see favorite movies if—and only if—someone noticed them listed in the newspaper’s TV page. Or if the TV Guide said a beloved movie was to air at, say, 8 p.m. Wednesday. And then, who knows when after that.
Years later, man.
I loved “The Music Man.” It was appointment television growing up in the 1960s, on par with “The Wizard of Oz” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” And let’s not even get started on that earworm tune “76 Trombones,” because we’ll be hearing that in our heads this time tomorrow.
Wait, where was I?
(“My name is Douglas and I am a Digresssion-aholic…”)
So, with their many bags of trash picked up for the day from along the Ohio River, some of the PickUpAmerica crew, along with my sister and I, converged later that night at Schwartz’s Point.
At some point in the evening, this happened:
But you should know two other things to complete the portrait of that night.
Schwartz’s Point—it’s closed now—was a seriously funky club in a seriously funky building. The building looks like a mini-me version of New York City’s Flatiron Building, sitting like a wedge of parmesan cheese at the intersection of several streets up several steep hills from downtown Cincinnati.
If you had a skateboard, you could have skated from the club into downtown—a ride of likely 15 minutes by skateboard, five by car—hardly stopping along the way unless you crashed, which you probably would (especially if you were this guy).
And the guy at the piano in the video? The one in the leather vest, black beret and pony tail? That is extremely rare, late-in-life live footage of Ed Moss, who lived in the second-floor wedge-shaped rooms above the club. He’s gone now. But in his day he was a gruff, cranky, difficult, but very gifted Cincinnati jazz persona.
‘Legend‘ is a word that’s over-used and probably not quite right.
‘Phenomenon‘ might be better. He was certainly a phenomenon. You could talk to my sister about it.
You probably can’t see it from the ancient cellphone video I shot that night, to which I added a filter. But Ed likely has a cigar burning in an ashtray on that grand. With a glass of cognac that’s probably been refilled at least once.
The thing is, I thought this video was lost to time. But then, a few days ago, in honor of John Prine, who’s battling for his life from Covid-19 as we speak, I posted a music video I did of my version of the Prine song “Paradise,” set to appropriate imagery. An hour after I posted it to Facebook, I saw a comment by PickUpAmerica alum Davey Rogner. It said, ‘Hey, look, Jeff Chen, Doug did “Paradise,” too!’
Turns out, on that same day, way up in Alaska—hearing of the Prine family’s plight—Jeff, too, had sung and recorded “Paradise” and posted it to Facebook.
Which got me thinking …
Whatever happened to that video I did of Jeff singing that night at Schwartz’s Point, back when we had more hair and pandemic reapers didn’t roam the planet?
I found it, in all places, on an Italian-language video site called “IT-state,” which for some strange reason, known only to the Internet Gods, has an up-to-the-minute catalog of most all of my online video work.
The world is stranger than it looks.
I am just happy to see Jeff singing, in all his sweet glory, “Till There was You,” with Ed Moss at the keys.
Love to you Jeff.
And Davey, Kelly and Kim.
May you be working those keys still in the great beyond.
MORE SONGS of COMFORT, SONGS of HOME:
~ “Bring Sunshine When You Come”
~ “Paradise”: “A John Prine Homage”
~ “Wild Mountain Thyme”
~ “A West Virginia Medley”
~ “Two Guitars, One Heart”
~ “Till There Was You”
~ “Minor Glory (draft ‘a cappela’ version)
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Doug, I just loved the story and the interwoven videos about Jeff Chan and the pick up America people. You were a big part of that when they were here in West Virginia. Thank you for your exquisite writing. Sandy
Thank you, Sandy! What a sweet visit that was, the several weeks we had those lovely people among us in West Virginia. I hope all goes well with you and yours. Tell that lovely husband of yours I said hello.
It was so sweet to see him, and Ed and you. Captured moments. I loved hearing you sing there. New York club funkiness in the Cincinnati hills.
I know. Now that feels like such a distant memory, even another era. That’s the thing about the Point – no matter when you were there, it always felt like another time and place.
So, so true. It could’ve been 1954. Or Greenwich Village, 1965.
I wonder if there is an online publication in Cincinnati that might be interested in the video or recollection?
That really brought back memories. I clearly remember that night with you, Jeff, and your friends. Jeff has a pure sweetness to his voice, along with a subtle edge that makes it appealing. The beauty of capturing these kinds of moments on video is that it brings to light lost details that have been dwelling in the sub-conscience for so many years. I loved singing there (most times). It was always a personal journey and musical adventure. Sometimes quite challenging, but I wouldn’t change that experience and friendship for a minute. Thank you for sharing it.