But a few years back a man named Jerry Baxter bought the building and began cleaning it up. He spent some time working out who the crack and meth dealers were and evicted them. He installed proper security doors and started renovating, bringing the building up to code.
Baxter was a retired musician who worked as a promoter and club manager. When the renovations were complete he let the word spread that musicians would be welcome at his building. As a fixture of the city music scene, he figured giving struggling artists a safe, affordable place to live would be his way of giving back. He even sound-proofed an unused room in the basement to act as a free rehearsal space for the residents. And when the first wave moved in, they changed the building's nick-name from The Heroin Hotel to The Helter Skelter Hotel.
* * * *
Wet snow was falling and the streets were full of slush when Mark walked out of the bus station. It was fifteen blocks to the Skelter, but he would have to walk it. The trip back to the city had left him nearly broke. He picked up his guitar case, slung his backpack over his shoulders, and stepped out into the wind and sleet.
It was almost dark when he got back to the building. His running shoes were soaked through, and his socks felt slimy. There was a green plastic wreath hanging inside the safety glass on the Skelter's heavy front door. Merry freakin' Christmas, Mark grumbled as he stepped inside.
His apartment was dark. The gloom was greatened by the absence of his roommate Perry, who was the other guitarist in his band Infernicide. The apartment across the hall belonged to Infernicide's singer and drummer, but it was empty too. The other three members and a temporary bassist were still on the road, driving to the Ottawa gig.
Mark sighed. There is no loneliness like that of a musician left behind.
He showered, put on some dry clothes, and went upstairs to the third floor. He banged on the doors of a few friends, but couldn't find anyone home. The Skelter's hallways were silent. Usually, at any time of day or night, you could always hear someone playing a guitar, or at least a stereo. But today, December 23rd, the whole place seemed abandoned.
Not wanting to go back into that empty apartment, Mark went down to the ground floor. There were a few people he knew down there, although to be honest, they weren't people he usually sought out for company. But his band made up most of his social circle in the city, and with them on the road, he didn't have many options. And he didn't want to be alone this close to the holidays.
He banged on 104. There was no answer from Drayer, the guy that looked like Trent Reznor. Mark hadn't heard that he was on tour. He knew some of the other bands the building were on the road at the moment, but he had a hard time imagining that Drayer's electro-darkwave shit was in high demand.
Mark sighed and looked at 106. There was a horseshoe nailed to the door. Bloody hell, he said, and walked over and knocked.
There was a long wait, then a thump and some cursing. Finally the door opened, and Tommy stood there, shirtless, in blue jeans and cowboy hat. It was dark inside the apartment. Tommy blinked at Mark standing there in the bright hall. Damn, Mark, he said. What can I do for you?
Mark looked at his watch. It was seven-thirty in the evening. Sorry, dude, Mark said. I didn't know you were sleeping.
I keep strange hours, Tommy said. He was an older guy, between forty and fifty. He was pretty road-worn, so it was hard to guess an exact age. He had salt and pepper grey-brown hair, including in his moustache and goatee and on his bare chest. You need some help or something?
Mark suddenly felt really stupid standing there. No man, he said. Sorry. I was just seeing who's around. I'll let you go back to sleep.
Hell, I'm up now, Tommy said. He switched the lights in his place on and walked back into the apartment, leaving the door open for Mark to follow.
Figuring it would be ruder than hell to wake a guy up and then decline an invitation inside, Mark followed the older man.
The apartment was a cluttered mess, but in a homey, lived-in way. Lit by a shaded lamp, the room seemed to breathe Tommy's character: messy but welcoming, chaotic but comfortable. There were four guitars that Mark could see, three acoustics and an electric, all on stands but somehow still in random places, as though a musical tornado had dropped them here and there around the room.
There were magazines addressing a wide range of topics on the floor. A full ashtray and empty beer bottles stood on the coffee table. Yellowing paperback novels were piled in one corner, mostly Westerns or noir mysteries. And above the couch was a faded, slightly water-damaged print of cowboys on horseback leading cattle across a river in a rainstorm.
Nice place, Mark said. Real cowboy style with the painting and all, you know?
It's not easy being a cowboy in the city, Tommy said. The old musician picked up a white undershirt off a chair. In a swift, practiced movement, he removed his hat, pulled the shirt over his head, and smoothly replaced the hat. So, what are you doing here? he asked. I thought you and your boys were on tour.
Mark shifted some magazines onto the floor and sat down. Don't remind me, he said. They wouldn't let me through at the Canadian border.
Damn, Tommy said. Criminal record?
No! Mark said with exasperation. I don't have a record! I had an arrest when I was eighteen, but the charges were dismissed. It was total crap. And we had all of the paperwork ready. They were just total dicks.
Sounds rough. Tommy went over to the kitchenette and opened the fridge. You ever been held at the border before?
I've been to Canada for gigs twice before, Mark said. That's why this is such is piss-off. It's like it was completely arbitrary. I'm like... I don't know... heartbroken.
Yeah. Sorry, I wasn't expecting company, Tommy said. I haven't really got anything in the fridge to offer you, unless you want some cottage cheese. I might have some instant coffee somewhere.
I'm fine, Mark said.
Tommy came over and sat down in a battered armchair across from the couch. He picked up a cigarette pack from the table and lit one with a wooden match. Band go on without you? he asked with the cigarette in his mouth.
Yeah. Mark sighed. From here they go west across Canada, and then come down into Washington state for the west coast gigs. I can't afford to get over there to meet them, so basically I'm going to miss the rest of the tour.
Tommy took the smoke between two yellow-stained fingers. That sucks. So you're pretty much out, huh? A non-essential member?
I didn't think I was, but it looks that way now. Perry, the lead guitarist, is taking over double duty. And I get to stay home and suck on it.
Yeah. Tommy stroked his little silver and brown goatee. That's a damn shame. Never happened to me, but I can't imagine much worse. I've been through enough band-breakups, but I've never been ditched because of assholes at the border. Usually the only thing that could get you thrown off a tour is an overdose or an arrest. One band I was in had a real drunk on keyboards and he fell off stage and got a concussion. We sent his ass home on the Greyhound.
Mark didn't say anything.
Tommy smoked his cigarette and watched the despondent young musician across from him. He didn't know Mark very well. He knew the kid's band was supposed to be hot shit on the local scene and was getting some press, but he didn't know him personally. They ran in different circles, professionally speaking.
So Mark, he finally asked, you got family here or something? Where are you going for Christmas?
Mark shook his head. I was supposed to be on tour for Christmas. The band will be in Montreal on Christmas Day, and we were going to do the holiday together. Supposed to be like family, right?
Tommy nodded. Yeah. Too bad. What about your regular family?
Hmm. That's a long way.
Yeah. Mark looked around the apartment. What about you? You staying here?
Sure, Tommy said. I don't have much family. I've got an ex-wife, but she's got a new husband, so that's an equation that doesn't add up real well. My folks have both passed away, so it's just me. And that's okay. I'm not lonely.
They both sat there in silence. Tommy smoked his cigarette and Mark looked at the covers of the magazines that were strewn about.
Well, Mark said at last. Maybe I should get going.
Sure, Tommy said, leaning forward to grind out his cigarette in the tray. But if haven't got any plans for dinner, I was thinking about grabbing a burger. You like Big John's?
Mark shrugged. Yeah, okay. You want to go?
Might as well. Tommy got up and went to his bedroom. He came back with a plaid shirt and sheepskin jacket. He got dressed and pulled on a pair of worn old cowboy boots.
You really go for the whole cowboy look, don't you? Mark said.
You look silly doing anything halfway, Tommy said. I mean, look at you. Black leather jacket, ripped jeans, runners, spiked black hair. I bet you got some tattoos under there, don't you? You look like Dee Dee Ramone from 1986. But if you only did it halfway you would look like a poseur, right?
Mark grinned. Yeah, maybe. I was always more of a Black Flag fan though.
Tommy opened the door and they stepped out together. There was the sound of boots coming down the stairs from the front door, and the two men stepped back to let the new arrival through. It was Kara from 103.
Hey darling, Tommy said as she passed by. How you doing?
Shit, Tommy, she said in a breaking voice. Kara was a rock singer in her thirties who lived with Ron, her bass player boyfriend. Mark thought Kara was pretty hot in a rock and roll kind of way, although he knew better than to look too closely at a taken chick.
She didn't look so good tonight though. Her face looked pale and puffy, and there were streaks of black mascara on her cheeks, showing that she'd been crying.
Hold on, babe, Tommy said. What's up?
She stopped. With the back of her hand she wiped a tear from the corner of one eye. Ron's gone, she said. He's fucked off with this little bitch that's been following us to all our gigs. He'd been e-mailing her for a while, and now he's going away with her.
Holy shit, Tommy said. That's a shock. When did you find out?
Yesterday, she said. He moved his stuff out last night. I was just at his sister's trying to find out where he is, but she won't say. Kara put her hand over her forehead. Jesus, she said. Everything is just falling apart. We were going to have Christmas dinner at his sister's place, too. Where am I gonna go now?
You guys are in a band together, aren't you? Mark asked. What happens to your band?
She shook her head. I don't know. I haven't even had time to think about that. Shit, we were going to get married. Now it's all just...over.
Look, this might sound silly, Tommy said, but we were just about to go grab a bite. Do you want to come? Might do you some good not to be alone right now.
She smiled weakly. Thanks Tommy, she said. You're sweet. But I need to catch my breath. I really don't feel like eating right now.
We'll bring you something back, he said. We'll drop in later. Sound all right?
She nodded and disappeared into her apartment, closing the door softly behind her.
Shit, Mark said. I thought I had it rough.
Yeah, she's in a bad spot, Tommy said. Come on. I'm hungrier than hell.
They stepped out into the blowing snow and walked a few blocks down to Big John's, the nearby bar and restaurant where a lot of the bachelors from The Skelter went for burgers, beers, or late night cups of coffee. They took a booth next to the window and watched the snow coming down.
Now that, Tommy said, tipping his hat back, was a seriously dumb-ass move on Ron's part. Who in his right mind would break up the band to get with a groupie? The move defies logic.
Yeah, Mark said. You know, I don't know a thing about their band. Were they any good?
Good enough to have at least one groupie, Tommy said with a grin. Yeah, they were okay. They even signed record deals a few times. The first time, the label went broke before the album came out. The second time, they released the album but were dropped a few weeks later. Cost-cutting.
Yeah, it's a shitty business, isn't it?
Tommy smiled. You gotta rely on yourself, he said. In this business, you're always vulnerable, because you always need to count on other people. And like it or not, it's always possible that someone will let you down. He sat back. I bet there are some huge talents that didn't make it because some other jerk did the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Mark shook his head. I don't believe that, he said. If you're good enough and you've got the drive, you'll make it. You can't blame anyone else if you don't break through.
Oh, you can blame them, Tommy said, it just doesn't do any good. You might think that it's all up to you, but it's never about just one person. There are countless bands that didn't make it because of a weak link or a missed opportunity. Look at Kara. Her career now has a major setback because her boyfriend bass player wants to dip his wick in some other girl's wax. Or look at you. You get booted off of tour because some prick at the border was having a bad day. There are plenty of ways other people can screw you. Or just let you down.
The waitress came around and Tommy and Mark ordered bacon mushroom cheeseburgers with fries and cokes. Big John's was famous for its burgers.
What about you? Mark asked. Don't you have a band that you rely on?
Sure, Tommy said. Shit, I've gone through more bands than you could imagine. The longest one has stayed together was maybe three years. I've been around the block, my friend. A lot of those bands have made money, but there's always some joker willing to break up a band because they think they have a shot at better money elsewhere. Let's face it: we're in a collaborative business that's full of unreliable flakes. That's a sad fact of life. So you've got to be philosophical about these things.
That's a grim outlook, Mark said.
Not really. I've had a lot of bands fall apart, but I've learned something every time. I've had a hell of a lot of fun each time, too, even when things were going to shit. You pick up the pieces, pick up your guitar, and keep going. Besides, how could I be a country blues singer without heartbreak in my life?
Mark grinned despite himself.
The waitress brought the soft drinks around and Tommy had a sip through the straw. Yeah, things don't always work out, he said. And you can't always rely on folks. But it's always nice to have some friends around. Especially at this dreary time of year.
Mark looked out into the street. It was true--despite the holiday, the city was gloomy, and the streets were dirty with slush and snow. But the interior of Big John's was warm and brightened by tinsel and decorations, and Mark was glad he wasn't alone.
They ate their burgers, and Tommy ordered a club sandwich with fries to take out. The waitress brought the food in a Styrofoam container inside a white plastic bag, and Tommy produced a credit card for the meal. Mark offered to pay for his share, but the older man just shook his head.
On the way back to the Skelter they stopped at a corner store. Tommy bought a jug of red wine, and the two guitarists went home to knock on Kara's door.
Mark stood behind Tommy, wondering what he was doing, getting tied up with these two. He usually felt at home with the freaks, the tattooed and pierced-up skags and skanks from down town. But he knew that even if they were open, the metal and goth bars in Central would be as dead as their patrons pretended to be. He would find no companionship there.
His band was his family and his band-mates were his friends. With them gone, Mark was completely alone in this city. But here he was with Tommy, knocking on Kara's door. Who were these people to him? Who was he to them? Just musicians. They didn't even like the same kind of music. But he was a musician and so were they, and that was enough of a bond.
Kara opened the door. She was wearing a bathrobe and a towel was wrapped around her head. She had her cordless phone to her ear, and she was talking to her mother. She covered the mouthpiece and whispered to Tommy: I'll come to your place in a few minutes. Just let me throw something on.
They retreated to 106 and dropped their coats. Mark sat on the couch while Tommy poured out three glasses of wine. Then he sat down in the armchair and reached for the nearest acoustic guitar. He gave it a strum, tuned the E string, strummed again and smiled up at Mark.
Sweeeet, he said with a grin. He started plucking a gentle country rhythm. So, Tommy said, are your arms broken?
Mark grinned. What?
Well, Tommy said, I was under the impression that you were a guitar player. There are three unused guitars in the room right now and you're not reaching for any of them. So I figure you must have broken arms. Was it a tractor accident? Or was it gang related?
I don't have broken arms.
Tommy nodded toward a big-bodied acoustic on a stand in the corner. Prove it.
When Kara arrived, she found the two guys trying to bridge the gap between their respective music styles. Mark, who was used to playing ultra-fast, repetitive riffs, was trying to put a bit of slow bounce into his strumming, while Tommy fooled around with a melody.
Sorry I didn't let you in, fellows, Kara said. I didn't want to be in that place. She had on a T-shirt and jeans, and her blonde hair was still a bit wet. She didn't have any make-up on, but Mark thought she looked fresh and clean. He felt a bit stupid feeling attracted to her, knowing that she'd just had her heart broken. But there was no harm in thinking a woman looked good, even if she was in her thirties.
Understandable, Tommy said. There's a sandwich in there for you. He nodded toward the plastic bag on the coffee table.
Life saver, she said. She sat down next to Mark on the couch and began to eat. Mark and Tommy kept playing.
It's actually Ron's apartment, she said. Figure this: if he leaves me, then he leaves the band. If the band falls apart, then I lose my gigs and could lose the apartment. So not only have I just been dumped, but I'm also potentially unemployed and homeless.
Lost my man, he broke my heart, Tommy started to singing, with a slight country twang, now I'm living in a shopping cart.
Lost my apartment, sold my guitar, the older man continued, Saving up to buy a candy bar. Got those deep-down dumped by my bassist blues.
Kara started nodding along with the rhythm. She swallowed her bite of sandwich, washed it down with a sip of wine, and started to sing: Oh where, oh where can my bassist be? Some groupie stole him away from me. I'll trade my gui-tar for a motorbike, and swear off men and beco-o-ome a dyke.
When her sandwich was gone Kara grabbed the third acoustic and joined the jam. The three of them played until long after the wine was gone. Mark wasn't much of a singer, but he played and played while Kara and Tommy sang. All their loneliness and pain ran out through their voices and their fingertips, until they felt like they were sitting with the best friends they had ever had, and all of their troubles couldn't touch them as long as they were able to sit and play.
* * * *
Mark blinked his eyes open. He was lying on a couch, and there was someone else tucked in tight against him. It was Kara. They were spooning on Tommy's couch. His hand was on her breast, and her hand was on his hand, holding it in place there.
There was grey light coming through Tommy's cheap old curtains, and Mark's head hurt from the wine. How had the night ended? They'd played until they couldn't stay awake anymore. Kara had leaned sleepily against Mark, and Tommy had kept on softly playing until the two of them fell asleep. It was like a distant dream.
Mark lay very still, enjoying the warmth and peace of holding her. Her breast felt soft and full in his hand, and her freshly washed hair smelled like fruit and flowers. It was so comfortable. It felt like home.
But it would only last until she woke up, he knew. They really were strangers, no matter how close they'd gotten over wine and guitars the night before.
She finally stirred. Ummph, she groaned, and squeezed his hand. Is it Christmas?
Christmas Eve morning, he said.
Oh hell, she said. I just want this holiday over with.
I just want my band back, he replied.
She was silent for a moment, then in barely a whisper she said, I know how you feel.
They disentangled themselves. The faint sound of Tommy's snoring emanated from an open door, so they left the country singer's apartment on tip-toe.
In the hallway, Kara kissed Mark on the cheek. Thanks for the company, she said.
He smiled and looked down shyly. You know who you're going to spend Christmas with? he asked.
She shrugged. I'll call around, I guess.
Mark nodded. I think I might drop back in on Tommy again, he said. If you um, if you don't find anywhere to go...
Kara smiled. I'll know where to find you. She kissed him again and went inside her own apartment.
Mark went upstairs to his empty home. He switched on his computer and checked his in-box. Perry, his roommate had emailed. Hey Mark. Ottawa show went great. Band sounds good but we miss you. Take it easy, have a good xmas. Talk soon, Perry and the guys.
He sat for a while, looking at the screen. Then he looked at the guitar case next to the desk. Hell with it, he said. He picked up his guitar and left his apartment, heading back down to the first floor. He figured Kara wouldn't turn down a cup of coffee. And there was no way he was going to spend the holidays on his own.
By Nolan Whyte Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2009