On Writing “Jimi Don’t Play Here No More”

January 25, 2009 § 3 Comments

From Tim Elhajj, on Writing “Jimi Don’t Play Here No More” in Brevity 29:

This story, Jesus.

villageThe end of this story takes place in 1988 when my oldest son was
three-years-old. I’ve been telling this story for ages now, but only
to other addicts and alcoholics, usually at some type of 12-step
meeting. I only recently started telling it to civilians, which is
difficult because people never know what to say when I get to the end.

For the longest time my family never knew this story. They just knew that I had gone to NYC and then a few years later I surfaced again on
long weekend trips into Pennsylvania. There were bridges that needed
building, and we all kept busy saying the things that needed to be
said, but everyone was careful about discussing the past.

This story just never came up.

First I told my oldest son, not long after he graduated high school.
He had never been to NYC, so I took him (and my new wife and kids) on a summer trip. One evening I took my oldest boy down to Saint Mark’s Place in the East Village. It was summertime and he was craning his head to see all the girls and I had him by the elbow and was dashing up and down the block, but the Electric Circus was long gone by then, so I just told him straight out. “For a little while,” I said, “I lived in a homeless shelter that used to stand just over there.” In those years, he had a teenage sensibility where he allowed nothing to faze him, but still this news raised his brows and he said something
like, You were in a homeless shelter?, before dropping back into that
hard teenage posture. I have always felt terrible that we lived in
different towns his entire life, and I wanted most of all for him to
understand the stakes. He took it like a trouper. I told him more of
my stories and he told me some of his. We really bonded on that trip
to NYC.

About two years ago, I told this story to my youngest brother who is
now a police officer with a grizzled heart and a few good stories of
his own. We were on his patio in the middle of the night, just the two
of us. He has heard it all before, but when I got to the end he just
said, “Jesus.”

Sometimes a story can seem one way to one person, but another person
can take it the wrong way. Not long ago I posted an excerpt from my
childhood memoir on my blog. It was a story about a small rebellion I
waged against my mother when I was about twelve. Later when she and I
spoke on the phone, she let me know she read the excerpt by saying,
“Jesus, Timmy. Can’t you write about anything nice?”

I think I may have annoyed her.

“Why don’t you write about that time you were up there in that
homeless shelter in NYC,” she said. “If you want to write about stuff,
write about that.”

I didn’t even know Mom knew the story about me being in the shelter,
but apparently she had heard. These kinds of stories have a way of
traveling. I think about that and I wonder if I want everyone at my
work to know this story. I have a house, a career, and two elementary
school kids. I live on the other side of the country. I have a whole
new life now.

I think like that and I remember a time right after the kids were
born, when I stopped going to meetings. When the kids turned about
five, I started back again. Most 12-step meetings place a premium on
complete abstinence and continuous sobriety. I hadn’t used, but I felt
guilty. I approached a guy who has been around for some time, but who
I didn’t know all that well. I felt like I needed to explain my
absence. He listened politely, sipped his coffee and nodded his head.
I wanted to make sure he understood that I hadn’t even felt an urge.
Eventually he held up his hand to interrupt me.

He said, “It’s not all about you, Tim.”

I laughed. He had a good point. Our stories are probably the most
powerful things we own. The challenge is finding the courage to tell
them honestly.

So I guess if there is a moral, it’s probably this: Always listen to
your mamma. She won’t steer you wrong.

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