fiction by don webb
It began as a joke.
Phillip Kaufman had played the trombone on Bleeker Street for years. In the Seventies and early eighties the place bloomed with a few clubs and restaurants. Now that the bloom has withered, it has returned to what it always has been—angry graffiti and swirling newspapers which had served as someone's blankets the night before. The smarter mobile beggars and all of the musicians save for Phillip moved ten blocks east to Ambrose Avenue. I don't know if Blake was right about the entire universe in a grain of sand, but you can have an entire world in ten blocks. Phillip stayed in front of the Green Dragon, the only bar with any clientele. He slid his trombone out every night for pennies and dimes. People reserved their quarters for the jukebox on the premises.
One night he shows up with a faded orange Arrow shirt and black corduroy pants and a black beret. And he puts the beret on the curb and a sign by the beret reading "Damnation Army Please Give." So folks ask him, "if you in the army, what rank are you?" "I'm a private but I aim high." "How many folks you damned?" "So far just one. Myself. I damned myself but if I can get a few more bucks I'll damn some more folk." It was a cold night and people felt sorry for a crazy man in a thin shirt and Phillip drew in sixty dollars.
He left with the closing time crowd. "I've got to give the Boss His cut." So he counted out six dollars and tossed the money into a storm drain. Bill the wino crawled out of the shadows and tried to get at the money, and Bill said there weren't no money no more. It had disappeared like.
But that don't mean nothing.
Phillip was there the next night. Some folks allowed as how his playing was better but he walked away with only fifty dollars—five dollars to the Boss. Phillip drew about the same every night which was bad news for the Green Dragon. He was drawing from the same crowd every night so it was always fifty-sixty dollars out of the till. After four nights, which is to say on Thursday, Susan, the Green Dragon's owner/barkeep, called the police.
The police came of Friday at 6:00 just as the Green Dragon's night was starting. Unfortunately a film crew from KHLY came also. One of the patrons must've called in the story; although, it's hard to imagine any of them being enfranchised enough to handle calling a news station. The cops asked Phillip to move. He said it was a public sidewalk. The cops told him to put away the sign. He said they were violating his First Amendment rights of religious expression. The cops asked if this was a legitimate religion, and if so, why hadn't they heard of it. He pulled a sheet of paper from his shirt pocket, unfolding the paper three times to typewriter-size. It bore two columns in a gothic type with its margins festooned with inverted pentacles, goat's heads and snakes. While the lead cop studied this (and KHLY filmed), Phillip said if the cops didn't know about his religion—well, he wasn't responsible for their ignorance—and he offered to damn them on the spot. This proved too much for one of the junior cops who shoved Phillip off the curb and onto the cold asphalt. All of this made the ten o'clock news and early Saturday morning an ACLU lawyer called on Phillip in jail. Phillip got sprung and declined to sue the police department because "some folks can't handle damnation when it first comes to call."
He was back in front of the Green Dragon Monday night. A guy pulled up in a cream-in-coffee colored Nissan pickup truck. He had a beat-up piano in the back. He walked up to Phillip and took out his own gothic-print paper. Phillip studied it for a moment, and then the two had a confab. Jazz piano and slide trombone are a shaky combination, but the pair had a great audience due to media coverage. They took in two hundred and forty dollars. Susan relented. All these new people came in for a drink (or just to get warm and bought a drink as space rental). She hired two barmaids from the crowd to go outside and take people's orders.
The next day Susan told Phillip the Damnation Army could play on the inside of the Green Dragon. Phillip said no but thanks kindly. There's plenty of damnation available in cheap bars, but some folks find salvation there too. It wouldn't do to send out mixed signals. The IRS showed up in the form of a little man in a gray suit. The IRS said it was tired of people making up these psuedo-religions to avoid paying taxes. Phillip pulled out his paper and handed it to the IRS and said theirs was a real religion. The IRS stared at the paper and turned it over and over in his hands. Frankly he couldn't make heads or tails of it. The IRS desperately needed new contact lenses. The IRS drove away in his Hyundai and a tambourine man bicycled up. The tambourine man also had a paper. So there was trio.
The Sentinel and the Chronicle sent reporters to cover the Damnation Army. They printed lots of junk to fill out their articles—satanic graffiti seen in downtown areas, white slavers in shopping malls, heavy metal music. The last reference was pure nonsense. The Damnation Army mainly played jazz standards including "That Old Black Magic," "Devil Moon," and "I'm Heading for the Last Round-up." Several ministers, two priests, and a rabbi came to the next night's performance looking for something to denounce. They didn't find anything they could clearly denounce; although one of the priests was disturbed by a jack-o-lantern on top of the piano. It was more than a month to Halloween, and the priest knew what jack-o-lanterns really signified. The absence of the denouncable didn't stop one Pentecostal minister from sermonizing. He began preaching between sets and Phillip said, "Your intentions may be well and good but I don't come play my 'bone in your church." And a couple of burly men picked the minister up ever so gently and deposited him several blocks away. The crowd wondered if these men had their marching orders from Satan.
The Damnation Army was condemned from many pulpits next Sunday. And strong-eyed youths, knights of Christianity all, hid in the Monday night shadows waiting for two o'clock. The Green Dragon closed at two and the Damnation Army (in its only seeming tie to commercialism) stopped playing then. The crowd walked or stumbled to their cars. The Army was counting the night's proceeds. The knights ran at them hurling bricks and stones and such other detritus as could be found in the vacant lots of Bleeker Street. Two lads had removed a plate glass from an abandoned store front and ran with it between them like brackets [ ]. They were going to smash it on these men who challenged their ideas, but they tripped on the uneven sidewalk. One was pretty cut up. The other was dead. The Damnation Army also suffered—bruises all, Phillip a cut on his right hand, the pickup lost all its glass (including headlights), the jack-o- lantern was smashed. This too made the papers and the extent of the destruction embarrassed some of the ministers who had caused it. Others remained steadfast.
There was no Tuesday night performance, but the Damnation Army was back on Wednesday. The crowd surrounded them protecting them from angry missiles that never came. A national news team got some pictures and everybody struggled to get into them. One sour note: a drunk, a Green Dragon regular who could never do without the crowds, told a reporter that he'd never known that a nigger (meaning Phillip) could get a black eye.
There was some talk in town that Mr. and Mrs. Chase, the parents of the dead boy, might sue the Damnation Army as contributing to the death of their son, but it was only talk.
An enterprising fellow rented a storefront a block from the Green Dragon. He put in bookshelves and filled the shelves with paperback occult and UFO books, skull candles, Tarot card decks, quartz crystals from Arkansas, and bottles of come-to-me oil. He put in fluorescent lights and an open 24 HRS sign. He put out an awning with the shop's name, Ye Damnation Book Shoppe. Phillip strolled in the next morning and told him to change the name of the shop. Phillip said, "All you're selling is junk. You got papers? You don't got no Authority. I'm selling the real Damnation and if you want Damnation you come to me, and if any of your clients want Damnation they can come to me, and if the want damn fine music they can come to me too." Phillip left and there was a smell of brimstone to the air. And the next day the sign read Blue Goat Bookstore New and Used, and it attracted the usual collection of neurotics and near-mystics such stores attract.
Susan had the Green Dragon's sign repainted and the tacky dark paneling torn out.
Phillip refused interviews with 60 Minutes and a chance to appear on Geraldo. "Shucks," he said, "I'm just a 'bone player." and he pulled out his by now somewhat worn paper by way of explanation. And the studio recruiters studied it hoping for an address so they could interview the brains of the operation.
There was no address.
Friday night, Bessie Mae, an overweight brunette from a closed-down go-go club, arrived. She had her own paper. When night fell she climbed on top of the piano and began a strip tease. This was widely condemned from the pulpits. Several ministers prevailed upon the police to put an end to this and likewise the illegal practice of serving drinks out of doors. The police arrived about eight, Sergeant Cabanis and Officer Bulhon. Bessie had finished her first act and was in the Green Dragon trying to warm up. It's hard to strip in forty-degree weather, but you've got to do what you've got to do. The police read a cease and desist order to Phillip Kaufman, and Phillip said (1) He wasn't the one doing the stripping, and (2) He'd advise Bessie Mae to cease and desist if they could show him a law against a woman taking her clothes off atop a piano, which rested in a glassless Nissan pickup truck in front of a Bleeker Street dive. And the cops said they'd be back later this evening to arrest Bessie Mae if Bessie Mae was still stripping.
The cops drove off, and it came to pass that they were involved in a high-speed auto chase, and they drove their car into a concrete bridge support.
But that don't mean nothing.
After another week they had their first convert. A wimpy- looking guy with a blond beard and thinning hair stepped up between sets. "I want damnation," he said. Phillip leaned over with his trombone in one hand—leaned real close so they could smell what each other had for dinner. Then Phillip said "Are you sure, brother? Are you ready to disbelieve? Are you ready to renounce God and all his works?" Everyone saw this guy was scared. Scared to say yes, scared to back down. So he said "Yes," all thin and high. And Phillip said "Well brother give me your address and I'll handle all the paperwork." The guy wrote something on a index card and everybody watched him all night. They was afraid that the worn-out asphalt of Bleeker Street would open up and swallow him.
There was a lot of talk in town the next day. The Chronicle ran a piece on a man who claimed to be finding satanic tithe in the city's drain system. Phillip challenged the man to show at a D.A. meeting, and of course the guy never did.
The first convert showed up downtown in front of the biggest bank in town. He put an old flaking teflon pot on the sidewalk. He'd written in Magic Marker on the side "Give to the Damnation Army." He wore a devil costume and rang a bell. Three types of people put money in his pot: people who were amused, people who were afraid not to give, and people who give to every street charity so they won't have to look the solicitor in the eye. Some folks commented on the bell—when they were well away. Massive verdigrissed brass cast in arcane sigils and forgotten, forbidden words.
There were more converts in the next few days. Soon almost every important street corner had its bell ringer. Phillip made a rare statement to the press, "The Damnation Army is growing. Soon it will be a big thing. Soon it will be in your town. When it is, I'm sure you'll know what to do."