It was 1979 in late September when I returned to Milwaukee. I left the city in 1968 shortly after my eighteenth birthday when I was inducted into the United States Army. The old pawn shop still stood there beckoning people to part with their precious belongings in order to get a few quick bucks. There was also the other side of the coin whereas people often found discarded treasures for a price. I was raised by my mother and assorted boyfriends along with my older sister right above the pawn shop. I was, in my own opinion, considered a shy kid; a loner for the most part.
My mother moved in with my sister in 1975 about twenty blocks from our old neighborhood. I hadn’t been there yet as I wanted to tour the old neighborhood before I saw them. Ten years in the service for me was enough. I had completed two tours in Vietnam then spent time stationed out west, so this was my prodigal son’s return home after just better than ten years.
Not much had changed. Oh, there were a few new businesses in the same old structures that housed previous business endeavors. The grocery store had bars on the windows and door. It was run by some Middle Eastern man behind the counter. I bought a bottle of water from him and thought, there was a time when this came out of a drinking fountain for free.
Passing the fire hydrant just before where I had lived made me think of how many dogs had left their mark there since I had gone away.
I found myself standing in front of the pawn shop a few minutes later, remembering how my mother would shout down from the window above telling me to stay out of the street or to come up for bread money then send me off to the store down the block. I reminisced for a few minutes then started to walk back to my car which was parked in the next block. An older woman passed me along the sidewalk and I heard from behind, “Hey! Ain’t you Martha’s boy Henry?”
I turned then realized the face belonged to Mrs. Abacrombie, our old neighbor. I greeted her and acknowledged that she was right in her assumptions. I further explained that I had gone into the military service and decided it was time to visit home.
“You should not stay away so long,” she told me and then disappeared down the street pulling one of those wire two-wheeled grocery carts old ladies have.
As we parted ways, I heard a couple of boys cutting up at the end of the alley. Looking down just past the first building there was an old man sitting on a fold up type of chair. It was kind of like a canvas director’s chair but with no back on it; just the seat. He sat there with his arms extended in front of him, his fingers moving up and down. Not so much as playing a piano but rather it looked like what Oliver Hardy did with his tie when he was embarrassed. It struck me as someone with autism if I had not known better.
The two boys were in front of him mimicking his motions and laughing as they tried to pucker their faces in the same manner as this senior citizen. Not much had changed as my mind returned to a much more innocent time in my life.
I found myself mumble, “Mister Twig.”
A moment later as I approached the boys who were making fun of the old man I called out louder, “Mister Twig!”
The boys ran down the alley for fear I was going to reprimand them but I only approached the old man, who acted as if he hadn’t heard a word I said. He was dressed almost the same as I remembered except he donned a different hat. It reminded me of the kind my grandfather wore; it looked like a turn of the century golf hat similar to what Payne Stewart wore. His gaze was far away but I tried to get his attention again.
“Mister Twig, remember me? It’s Henry; Henry Zenatta.”
His hands drifted down to his knees and he looked directly at me. There was a moment of silence and then he said, “What would you like to hear Henry?”
“How are you Mister Twig?” I asked but he had returned to his world once again as his fingers played out the notes on his invisible instrument. His scar was visible on the side of his head where he had suffered the concussion. I felt the eyes of the boys upon me from a fire escape two buildings down the alley and one story above.
I shouted to them to come down and I’d tell them the story of Mister Twig if they like. I offered them a soda as a bribe and ensured them that I wasn’t going to give them any trouble.
“Meet me at the grocery store and I’ll tell you what I remember growing up here and all about Vitorrio Twig.”
Maybe it was because I knew the old man by his name or just curiosity of who this stranger to the neighborhood was but they showed up for the free soda a few minutes later. Mister Twig remained where we had found him.
“You’re not pulling nothin on us are you mister?” The dark haired kid asked while we were still in the store.
“No kid, I just thought you’d like to know why that old gentleman does that with his hands, is all.”
I went on to say, “See, I knew him back when I was younger than you two. He has been part of this community for years and there was a time when I needed a friend and he extended a hand to me.”
“Where have you been mister?” The dirty blond haired kid asked. “In the slammer?”
I laughed and said, “No, I was in Vietnam and then out west while I was in the Army.”
“Let me tell you about how I came to meet Mister Twig.” I said as we sat on a bench outside the grocery store.
“When I was around your age there was this man who sat down on the corner a few blocks from the pawn shop, planting his rear end on a fold up stool and charmed the passerby’s with his licorice stick to the tune of a small living.”
“Licorice stick?” They both harmonized back at me.
“A clarinet; an instrument.” I explained.
“I noticed over time as I got a few years older, that he would change locations still staying within a mile of the pawn shop or so it seemed to me. I likened him to the local pigeons that frequented several park benches in the area like a school of fish moving from one feeding area to another. I guessed by changing locations he would have a better chance at picking up a few bucks for his livelihood.
He was a short man of about five foot two inches, with a heavy moustache and a bit of a belly. His shoes were dress shoes but worn dull from the city streets. The jacket he wore did not match the slacks but there was an attempt to look decent, even though on closer examination one could see the frayed edges of the sleeves and cuffs. His hat topped off the whole picture. It was a dress hat in dark brown almost the same shade as his coat with a dark beige band and it sported a little worn out feather behind the band which accented it in a tired way. A plaid shirt underneath his coat and one of those Maverick ties completed him.
I first encountered this fella when I was around eight years old. I was on my way to the candy store which was the grocery store that had a candy counter in it near the register. Since groceries mattered little to me, I always thought of it as a candy store; an oasis for sugar in all shapes and sizes.
His music snaked its way into my head before I ever laid eyes on him, as he was just around the corner of the grocery store. We lived above the pawn shop on the next block over and a half of block west. It was a small hot place and you could smell the tannery on some days while other days, depending upon the wind, you could smell the hops and malt from one of the local breweries.
I peered around the corner watching him wave the far end of his instrument as his fingers danced up and down the neck of the black snake. Lips wrapped around the head of the snake, he blew out the most interesting melodies. Sometimes the songs were like for a wedding; joyous and happy, while other days the tunes were slow, mellow and could bring a tear to a person’s eye. I had witnessed this more than one time when a woman would wipe her eye with handkerchief and drop some money in the open case sitting near the man’s feet.
Other days I’d see someone break into a jig as they danced to his notes laughing and cutting up then on their way down the street but not before dropping a few coins in his case.
One day as I sucked on my root beer barrel with the remainder of my seven cents worth of treats gripped tight in the bag in my hand, I crossed the intersection so I could get a look at him from a different angle. Didn’t feel comfortable just walking up and standing in front of him like some gawker. This also gave me a vantage point watching those who tipped him or those who ignored him as if he was not there at all. I wondered of such people like that, all of my life. Blinders, I called them because they would channel out any and everything that might open their inner door to being human. It was mostly the well to do I found out as I aged and grasped society better in my mind.
In winter, the old guy would even bring a shovel with him to clear the sidewalk so he had a clean stage to perform on. I refer to him as “old guy” primarily because I was a kid and he must have been in his late fifties when I had discovered him. I remember the first winter in particular where he donned a single ornament near Christmas time and hung it from his hat. It was enough decoration for me to know he was alright. As the months passed to years, I eventually got closer to him, that on a certain spring day he looked up and said, “You gotta name young man?”
I replied, “Henry; Henry Zenatta.”
“Well, Henry Zenatta, my name Vitorrio Twig. Pleased to meet you,” he said and extended his short pudgy hand which I shook.
“You appear to be a loner like me. Us loners learn to stick together and then we not so lonesome it seems. Waddaya think about that?” He asked then he said, “What would you like to hear young Henry?” As I thought for a few moments.
“There was a sad song you played yesterday after suppertime. An old woman stood at the bus stop, turned her head toward you and was listening. I thought I saw her cry some,” I said explaining as best I could.
He looked quizzical for a moment or two then said, “Did it go like this?” And he played a haunting melody that found its way past the door of my soul.
Quietly I answered, “Yes, that’s it,” and leaned on the lamppost listening to the touching tune.
He went on to play for some five minutes. His eyes were closed as if he were in a trance and the notes floated out on the air between the cold brick structures of the city every so often catching the ear of someone passing by. Most people were tuned out of what went on around them, as it was the city dweller’s way, but sometimes the clarinet player’s magic penetrated their hard surface, moving them inside. You could see it in their eyes when their heads turned in his direction.
Mister Twig was a part of my formidative years growing up in the bricks and mortar of the downtown area of Milwaukee. I guess I had just turned sixteen when I found him one day at the end of an alley about three blocks from the pawn shop. He was face down on the cobblestones, his hat a few feet from his head and visible signs of blood seeping from his head. Someone had beaten the snot out of him, stole his clarinet, as well as any money he had on his person and left him for dead.
I yelled for help when finally a cop came to my aid. To this day it amazes me how many people turned a blind eye toward a hurt individual in the street. They just walked on by. I just cannot digest that. What the hell has become of the human race to leave a man lying in his own blood?
‘The boys just listened to me intently.’
Mister Twig ended up in the hospital for weeks with a broken jaw, two cracked ribs, numerous contusions and bruises but worse of all, a concussion. He later told the police that there were two of them, probably in their early twenties. I visited him several times in the hospital but on the last visit when I went to see him he had been discharged earlier that morning. I stood there looking at an empty bed. Mister Twig was never quite the same again. He wasn’t upset about the beating or the loss of money but he had had the clarinet for twenty-five years. It broke his heart to have had it stolen.
There was no sign of him around the neighborhood for several weeks and I became concerned. He eventually showed up on his favorite corner. Over the next two years as I remember, he would just sit and stare off into space, changing corners every so often. I approached him on several occasions trying to talk to him but it was as if he had left this world for another place. Many in the neighborhood felt bad for him and would toss a few bucks his way but most were poor. I think the old liquor store owner let him have a room in the back for free or at least I think that’s how it went.
I asked the beat cop on several occasions if they caught the thugs who did Mister Twig in but he said that there were no leads. Like I said, he was never the same after that mugging. I lost track of him as I was a troubled teenager and needed to find a direction. I finally did find my niche when I joined the Army out of high school. And now youngsters, I have returned to see my family but I wanted to see the old neighborhood where I grew up one more time. Nothing stays the same but nothing totally changes either.
“Dats a shame about Mister Twig,” the dark haired boy remarked. Then the dirty blond kid said, “Is a clarinet a long thin black horn kind of instrument?”
“Yes, that’s what it looks like,” I replied.
“You know, they got one of those at the pawn shop I think. It’s up on a shelf next to some cymbals and some other junk the dealer has back in the corner of the shop. But it’s in pieces in a small suitcase.” The dirty blond shared.
“Let’s go look kids,” I said and we walked down to the next block where I had lived. I entered the pawn shop and walked up to the counter where the new proprietor stood behind a fenced in area with an opening like if you were going to buy movie tickets in the old days. Unfortunately, the neighborhood had gone up in crime over the years so precautions needed to be taken.
“Can I help you?” The proprietor asked.
“Yes! Those two kids by the door said you might have a used clarinet in here.”
“Let me think…yeah, there’s one on the shelf over there on the right. I’ll be right out,” he said as he exited his cubbyhole and locked the door behind him. After rummaging around on the two upper shelves, he came up with a small black case. He placed the case on the counter and opened it. There inside set in burgundy velvet were three pieces that when put together constructed a black clarinet much like the one I remembered Mister Twig playing when I was just a small, wide eyed innocent running the streets of Milwaukee.
“How much you asking for it,” I questioned.
“Well…I’ll let you have it for a buck twenty,” he said.
“I’ll give you eighty bucks for it. It doesn’t look like there’s a long line waiting to buy it,” I countered.
“Ninety and it’s yours.”
“Done!” I said and dropped a hundred dollar bill on the counter. He went back into his hole and held the bill up to a light to see if it was good then gave me my ten bucks in singles.
I met the two boys outside of the pawn shop.
“Whatcha gonna do Mister? Give it to the old man, er, Mister Twig?” The dark haired boy asked.
“Yes…that’s exactly what I’m going to do,” I replied.
They followed behind like two dogs as I made my way back to Vitorrio Twig. He hadn’t moved from his spot and when we got close I noticed he was talking to himself. I squatted down next to him and said, “Mister Twig…it’s Henry, remember?”
He smiled at me but did not speak as I laid the case near his feet.
“We got his back Mister,” the dark haired kid said.
“Yeah, we’ll keep an eye so nothin happens again,” his friend said.
I stepped back and in a few minutes, he looked down and almost in an automatic fashion, opened the case, then assembled the three pieces. He wet the reed, then adjusted it, then mouthed the clarinet and began to play as if he had never been without it. It was a magical moment as I watched the two boys light up as they realized his odd behavior into a lost reality which came full circle.
He was one once again with his instrument. I bent down and put the ten singles in his case. It was time to see my mother and sister so I left him there in all his glory. As my feet carried me away I heard the music stop so I turned around.
Mister Twig was looking at the instrument then he looked up at me and said, “Thank you Henry Zenatta. You a good boy.”
I could hear that sad song I liked as I exited the alley to return to my current world and remembered what Mister Twig always said. “Never pass up an opportunity to do someone good or it becomes a lost opportunity.”