Harm and the Harmonica Man: Part Three - By Howard Schneider

By this point in the story, the reader knows that Harm's only goal has been to make it through each day, stay safe at night, and be ready to start again the next morning. But with his decision to become a musician, he confronted a different kind of goal, one he knows nothing about, a long-term goal rather than just immediate survival. But he needed a plan—how someone like him—homeless, broke, no assets other than a bunch of stolen harmonicas—can achieve such a drastic change. Nonetheless, to him it's his best option, and he's determined to succeed. That's when he realized he needed a teacher. Someone to help him be good enough to make a living playing harmonica. 

Barney Sieglitz was one of the best blues harmonica players in the Oregon. He'd been playing clubs and bars up and down the West Coast for thirty years and adamantly maintained that as a Jewish musician he had a right to play the blues as much as anyone else. Especially since his people had experienced plenty of prejudice, just as others had, like the blacks who’d historically dominated harmonica blues. It's no surprise that his name was mentioned frequently when Harm asked around about possible harp instructors. So, when one night after his last set at North Portland’s Star Lite Lounge and the robust applause died down, Harm approached him where he stood near the edge of the low stage and said, "Mr. Sieglitz, sir, do you give harmonica lessons?" 

The question caught Sieglitz off guard and for a moment couldn’t think of a response. Then, when the blinding overhead spotlight was turned off, he saw the man who'd asked the question, a tall, slim guy, maybe in his late twenties, with what looked like desperation written on his beardless face. Sieglitz was about to dismiss the guy with a quick, “Sorry, I don’t do that,” but eomething about the man’s earnestness caused him to pause, then say, "I don’t do lessons. Don’t even live in Portland. But Maybe I can recommend someone. Meet me in the restaurant at that Best Western Motel up the street tomorrow morning around ten o’clock and we’ll talk about it." Then he stepped of the stage and headed toward one of the booths along the wall opposite the bar. 

“I’ll be there,” Harm said, as the man walked away. 

Sieglitz looked back and said, “Okay.” He stared at Harm for a moment longer, frowned, then turned and joined the couple in the booth. 

A week later, Harm knocked on the front door at the address in East Portland that Sieglitz had given him for Tercel Washington, the harmonica player who’d agreed to Sieglitz’s request on Harm’s behalf. “You must be the guy Barney called about. Come on in.” Tercel was a small, wiry man, probably in his sixties as judged by the grey of his hair and the lines on his dark face. He led Harm through a maze of cluttered rooms to a small cove off the kitchen, indicating a straight-back chair next to a window looking out onto an equally cluttered, grassless back yard. This is my niece's house—her, her two kids, a meaner-than-shit dog, and me. So who the hell are you.” 

Harm was taken back by Tercel’s abruptness, but it didn’t stop him from plunging ahead with his objective, to learn blues harp. “My name is Harmon Zorn. Mr. Sieglitz said you could teach me how to play blues on the harmonica. Will you?” 

Before I say one way or the other, I wanna hear you blow a few notes.” 

“Okay.” Harm opened the case, took out the “A” harp, and  drew the 3 hole, then blew the 5 and 6 holes.” 

“Bend 3 draw,” Tercel said. 

Harm, not exactly sure what that meant, drew in on 3, changing his mouth shape as he did. The sound lowered a half-note. 

Tercel nodded, then said, “Not bad. Least you can blow a single hole, and there's  hope for your note bending.” Then he stuck out his hand and said, “Let me see that harp.” 

Harm struck the harmonica against his jeans a couple of times to get rid of any moisture, then reluctantly handed it to Tercel. 

Tercel held the harp close to his eyes, turned it over a few times, then handed it back to Harm. “Where’d you get this? he asked, not aggressively, but not lightly either. 

Harm felt the panic of about to be caught in a lie. “From a pawn shop,” he said, louder than necessary. 

“Bull shit! Those guys don’t buy and sell used harmonicas. I’m sure you know that. Let me see the rest of the harps in that case you got there.” 

Harm was no dummy, He knew he’d been caught. “Why?” he said, trying desperately to think of a way he could salvage the situation. Then it hit him—tell the truth. He’d never resorted to that before, but maybe it would work. “Okay. I ripped off a guy a few months ago—stole his satchel from where he was sitting on a bus stop bench. I tried to sell them, but no dice. So, I kept them, then started playing them. Discovered I liked playing them and decided I wanted to get good at it. Maybe even make a living that way. I just want to make a better life. I’m a nobody, but I want to be a somebody. I need you to help to do that. Will you?” 

Tercel was quiet for a moment, then said, “It’ll cost you. You gotta pay the price?” 

“I don’t have any money. I'd have to pay you when I get some work. What would the price be?” 

“The price is up to Barney. It was his Suzukies you stole—his prized collection of harps that had been tuned to his own style and sound. He was on that bench waiting for a ride to a studio where he was gonna record a new album. Funny how karma circles back around, ain’t it. So first, you got to make good with him. If you do that, I’ll make you a harp player.

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