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The Urban Grill
Friday's With Aldo #1
© 2013 James LaFond
Last Friday I was scheduled to interview Aldo about his very interesting life: indie crime reporter; ambulance driver and stretcher bearer for Doctors without Borders; assassination survivor; stabbing victim; and FBI person of interest. Aldo of course, is not his real name. When I arrived at his humble abode, above an overgrown lot behind a ghetto church at the end of a row of brownstones, I found a note taped to his door. The note informed me in the third person that ‘Aldo was in the hospital’ and ‘read this book’. I opened the square package on which the note was penned in good form and discovered a crime thriller. After leaving my card and making my way home I placed the literary loan in my incoming pile and moved on to other things, wondering if Aldo was well.
Tonight, a few hours ago, as I wended my way through the back lot and alley over which Aldo’s ancient frame house loomed like a mansion from a bygone age, I wondered if I should stop and knock. It was after all Friday evening, and Aldo was a man of repose and tradition, not prone to waste a Friday night on sobriety and not flush enough to hit the bars. As I turned the corner I was serenaded by the sounds of seventies rock and hit with a sooty waft of hickory. Then came the greetings from Aldo, Melvin and Archie, ‘Jimmy’, ‘Mister Jim’, Mister Jimmy Jim!’
Under the overgrown trees on Aldo’s property line with the vacant lot—providing a foliage cave for their feast—were my former employees, Aldo and Melvin, and my former customer, Archie. Aldo raised a half gallon of vodka in a salute, called over another passerby to top off his soda cup, and motioned me over to have a seat. Aldo, a submerged humanitarian intellectual left over from the hippie movement of the late 1960s, was holding court from an old wooden sitting room chair.
Aldo could easily be cast as the mad scientist in a movie, with a bald crown and a bushy olive wreathe of graying hair combed out like thought streamers sweeping back behind a perpetual yet narrow smile. He is of average stature and walks with a low reaching gait, his every step seemingly an exploration of some wonderful alien planet. There is always either a look of wonder or penetrating inquisitiveness in his steely eyes.
Melvin, a hardworking man [truck driver, clerk, maintenance man] from East Texas who had shaken my hand when we parted ways a few years back, nearly broke that same hand with his eager handshake and announced that he was grilling, pointing to packages of beef and chicken strewn about on the lawn among half-drained vodka cups, bags of sliced bread and barbecue sauce bottles. The low sodium ‘pressure safe’ seasoning had pride of place between us on the high-backed wooden bench—Oh my, a church pew as it turns out—where we sat facing Aldo and the smoke-belching grill, our backs to the street.
Archie is a young handicapped man who recently lost his mother and resides with his cruel aunt across the street. Aldo has kind of adopted him, on the proviso that he earn his food and soft drinks [he is not served alcohol] by dancing to James Brown, Marvin Gay and Al Greene songs played on a boom box. Aldo has gotten permission to mentor Archie and read to him by cutting his evil aunt’s lawn for free, thus earning Archie a daily reprieve from her psychological torments and neglect.
Aldo was flying high on vodka [and whatever the hospital pharmacy had prescribed to make his slow-healing injury bearable] and asked me with piercing eyes if I ‘smoked weed’. Just then, as if by magic, Big Smoke Joe showed up with the genuine intoxicant in question. I avoided the alcohol and the weed with claims that I still had delusions of athleticism and was training in the morning. However, despite the fact that I had just consumed over 4,000 calories at McDonalds for just four dollars, I could not refuse their food, even as Melvin counted to four while he flipped the chicken thighs that had hit the grass up unto the bench in less than the acceptable five seconds.
The hickory smoke smelled good and Melvin was lording it over the grill as only a black man from East Texas can. I just let the next two hours ride with a nod to serendipity as Aldo called over any and all passersby to have their soft drink spiked with his vodka and have a chicken thigh. These tidbits were destined for the passing peasants, while the true delicacies, the burgers and wings, were being fed into the raised iron smoke-pit by Melvin as he waxed philosophical about how good he now had it working for ‘those nice Jews out in Pikesville’. He was also quite firm on how hatefully similar ‘white people in Texas and black people in Baltimore’ were. Melvin declared that a just planet would be populated by Southern blacks and Baltimore whites, ‘not a lazy so-in-so or ragin’ Nazi to spoil a workin’ man’s serenity’.
As an author, who bases fictional characters on real people, this evening was a rare godsend, a true miracle of serendipity. Aldo is the subject of a hopeful nonfiction project; Big Smoke Joe has been the witness for numerous Harm City stories; Archie is the inspiration for Archie Jones, the protagonist of the novelettes Soter’s Way and Janitor X; and Melvin provided me with the worldview of the Sunset Saga character Ike Coltrane. There I sat as a writer, surrounded by a rogue’s gallery of characters who peopled my fiction and nonfiction. We literary busy bodies are rarely so lucky.
Archie then danced on the lawn to a James Brown classic in the gathering darkness and bowed while we applauded, the bemused motorists slowing down to gawk. Too many hickory chips were then dumped by Aldo onto the coals as Melvin scolded him for ‘a non-grilling somebody’. But all was not lost. A man was following his wife and two children up the sidewalk from the shopping center, with a soda cup in hand. Aldo was soon dispensing good cheer on the sidewalk, reminding his new friend to lookout for his house in the future, while I said my goodbyes to his companions.
Aldo and I then scheduled an interview and he fixed my eyes with a piercing gaze that regarded me from across the gulf that separated our current reality from his peace and love generation, “It is time to smoke pot Jimmy. Are you staying?”
I smiled, “Nah man, I’ve got to go home and make you infamous.”
He was not insulted or deterred, and held up the hand of peace like some Native American patriarch, “Then go in peace brother—you’re the real LSD man; the real stuff.”
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