On The Beach, Hok-Si-La Park, Minnesota, August, 1994, originally uploaded by Maggie Osterberg.
“What’s that at the window? A warm breeze coming in from the south; carried by the sinewy, gossamer wings of a bold solo clarinet. A revolutionary bop; a subversive swing that insinuates its Latin soul into yours and mine. Myself being ‘Scenic’ Lake Hammond and this is the Image of Jazz on Minneapolis public radio.”
It’s one in the morning. The radio has been on for the last three hours. Nils, Kevin and Eric have been scrutinizing the rusted shell of a Vespa ‘150’ motor scooter, recently stripped of its 25 year old sheath of yellowing white paint. The swirls in the bare steel mimic the patterns in the dust on the barn floor, where the scooter sits on top of two tar buckets, 2×4’s across their tops. From the Zenith Trans-Oceanic atop the barn’s refrigerator a carefully modulated voice flows over the sounds of a hard-bop quintet just beginning to wind their way into a song.
“Come with me. We’re heading southeast now; away from the biting chill of this October night, over the Mississippi and beyond the Appalachians. Over Georgia we hand a hard right and steer straight south through Florida. As we pass Miami we can feel the sultry power and warmth building as the ocean beckons us out into the Caribbean night. It’s 1956, and as we leave the Florida keys behind we can hear the hard-bop Latin thunder of Batista’s Havana and the Copacabana Club therein. The newly radicalized Miles Davis organization is in session and a young firebrand clarinetist is sowing the seeds of a sound too hot to burn for long. Fidel Castro, revolutionary, soldier, musician is sitting in tonight”
Nils and Kevin have been working on the scooter since early this Saturday afternoon. A white patina covers both of them; a layer of paint dust and sweat. The two friends, “liberated”, to use Nils’ term for justified stealing, the scooter from an open garage in a quiet alley in south Minneapolis.
“Look at that poor thing,” Nils said on an August afternoon, “it sits there, robbed of any purpose or usefulness. A scooter needs to be ridden. This little baby needs you as much as you need it.”
Nils stared at Kevin, waiting for the proper response. Kevin nodded his head as he stepped over an apparently abandoned lawn mower.
“These Vespas weren’t just slapped together like some plastic scooter,” Nils went on, ” they were crafted. By craftsmen. Italian craftsmen. Look at how there isn’t a right angle in the frame. These curves are like a woman’s hips; every shape on this scooter is organic. Like a living thing. Scooters have souls you know.”
Nils first saw the scooter cutting through the alley on his own Vespa after a Fourth of July concert at the Lake Harriet band shell and had been staking out the garage. He knew, to a minute, when there would be no one home and when it would be safe to liberate the Vespa and the boxes of parts beside it. The scooter sat against the back wall of the garage surrounded by boxes of parts, rakes, snow shovels and a tool bench all of which were a uniform shade of brown, thanks to a thick, even coating of oily dust.
“It’s two-fifty; we’ve got thirty-nine minutes to sort through the parts. Let’s get to work, Kev,” said Nils. “We need to have everything into the truck,” Nils was referring to his cobbled together Volkswagon pickup, “by three twenty-five and be out of the alley before three twenty-nine, which is when the next-door neighbor gets home.”
“Sure Nils. Say, are these Vespa parts?” Kevin held up a box, filled with brown metal bits.
“Mummm…” Nils sorted through the contents.
Cradling each piece in his open palm, wiping away the greasy dirt on bits he found interesting. “This is interesting, ” Nils said, holding a piece of Plexiglas surrounded by chrome. “This is the speedometer cover to a 1965 Cushman scooter.”
Nils’ eyes were scanning the garage with a furious intensity. He looked both worried and delighted.
“Nils, we don’t have the time or the space for another scooter. Let’s find the parts for this one and get it loaded. OK?”
“Yeah…” Nils put the speedometer cover in the pocket of his tweed sport coat and with a bite of his lower lip, gave up his search for the extra scooter.
Kevin and Nils gently lifted the scooter into the back of the truck. Nils collected up four boxes of parts and laid them next to the Vespa.
“You realize that we’ve got almost a scooter and a half here?” Nils eyes were a bright twinkling blue as he hoisted an extra engine onto the seat of the pickup.
“Yeah. Come on, let’s go. It’s three twenty-seven and we still need to get down to your folks farm.” Kevin climbed into the VW truck, sat next to the greasy engine and urged Nils on with a nod of his head.
“The Latin fire of Fidel’s clarinet was too hot for even Miles to endure for long. The Caribbean passion of an unexpected dorian run would send Mr. Davis and company scurrying to keep up with this gypsy of the Mexican Gulf. Let us listen to Fidel’s bold repainting of ‘Take the A Train’ with the Miles Davis organization. Be sure to catch how Castro inserts quotes from traditional Cajun spirituals into the middle eight. Revolutionary, unexpected and completely Fidel Castro. On the Image of Jazz, here on a Sunday morning, one-fourteen a.m. on Minneapolis Public Radio.”>
Nils tugged at the sleeve of his tweed sport coat, sending a cloud of white dust floating to the floor. Kevin hunkered down directly behind the scooter and squinted.
“We’ll put some rust-mort on those patches back there,” Nils pointed to the area that Kevin was scrutinizing.
“Yeah, huh,” Kevin stared at the rusty tail of the Vespa.
“After a few hours it’ll be ready to sand and then we can put the primer on it.”
“Kev, God is in the details but I don’t think that you’re going to find Him staring at that rust spot.”
“Yeah… I suppose not Nils,” Kevin pursed his lips and looked up at Nils. “But I was just thinking, what happened that led the guy we liberated this scoot from to abandon it?”
“I’m willing to bet that the Piaggio worker that did the finish work on this scooter felt a twinge of pain on the day that that guy consigned this glorious piece of industrial human expression to exile in his garage,” Eric held a clenched, twitching fist to his chest.
“Alas, Fidel’s flame was too bright to burn for long. His tenure with the Miles Davis organization lasted only two weeks and they recorded only two sets of live material in Ha-ban-na.”
(Yep, it’s a Sunday, and that means I find something from my archives and take a day off from coming up with something new…)