Dennis Quaid and the Piano Man
By Rodger Jacobs
The air was thick and stifling with the stench of disinfectant and boiling potatoes. The walls of the rescue shelter had been painted a sickening mottled green and were bare of any adornment save for a large crucifix over the pulpit on the stage.
“You ever heard ‘Sunset Eyes’?” the piano man asked. “Teddy Edwards used to play that one. Used to know Teddy back home in Jackson. Think I played wit’ him in a church choir but ‘at was a long time ago an’ y’know how mem’ries can get fuzzy.”
He laughed loud and hard, revealing a mouthful of perfectly chiseled teeth like small yellow tombstones. Dennis, assembling the camcorder on the tripod, flashed his trademark grin and asked me to retrieve the rest of the sound equipment from the car.
It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday. The streets of L.A.’s infamous Skid Row – 50 blocks of downtown asphalt and sidewalk sprawled between 3rd to 7th Street and Main to Alameda – were strangely quiet and serene. It reminded me of an amusement park for the beaten and downtrodden that hadn’t opened for business yet.
Quaid’s two-door yellow Toyota was parked three doors down from the rescue shelter on 5th Street. I grabbed the heavy boom mike and assorted patch cords from the back seat, locked the car, and started back toward the shelter at a brisk pace.
Gray is the dominant color on Skid Row. Razor wire is everywhere, reinforcing the desperation of the district’s inhabitants. The gutters are strewn with used lengths of toilet paper, rotting fruit, styrofoam containers with ants and cockroaches battling for possession of the half-eaten sandwiches inside, half-pint bottles of Old Crow with broken necks. There’s a strong religious presence down here – faith-based soup kitchens and rescue shelters – but forcing religion on the unfortunate in exchange for a bowl of stew or a hard cot to sleep on seems cruel and pointless to me.
In those days - this was the summer of ’81 – I was only a few steps away from being homeless myself. I was barely able to pay the rent on my large one-bedroom apartment on Riverside Drive in North Hollywood, right around the corner from Randy Quaid’s ranch house off Whitsett. Dennis Quaid and his then-wife P.J. Soles lived in a small redwood cottage on a piece of property adjoining Randy’s.
My work as research coordinator on the Walter Hill western “The Longriders” led to my friendship with the brothers Quaid. For Randy I was crafting a screenplay from a book he had optioned from offbeat novelist William Hjortsberg. Dennis was between movie jobs and like every other actor I’ve ever known he was restless and bored to bitter tears when he didn’t have a character to hide behind, hence this vague notion he had about making a documentary about Skid Row and, more specifically, about the colorful jazz pianist who played hymns for the broken and hollow-eyed soup slurpers at one of the 5th Street shelters.
Near the front door of the shelter was a morbidly obese woman in a wheelchair who, the piano man told me earlier, lost her leg to diabetes. I pushed past her, my arms loaded down with equipment, and nodded politely. The piano man warned me to avoid eye contact with people down here “’less you’re wantin’ to hear long stories” that all have the same ending: Can you spare some change? You can’t hand out a fistful of dimes and nickels to one without feeling a pang of guilt for the others. And there are a lot of others.
Back in the main hall of the shelter the piano man was playing a lilting version of alto-saxophonist Teddy Edwards’ Latin-styled “Sunset Eyes” for Dennis. Quaid sat in a folding chair at one of the eight long supper tables and listened attentively, never losing his child-like grin, never letting his eyes stray from the leathery seams of the black pianist’s face.
The man’s skeletal fingers moved across the keyboard of the upright piano with an artist’s grace. He wore a Burgundy violet silk shirt, pressed black slacks, and a cowboy hat hid a short crop of gray hair on his weather-beaten scalp. He had been homeless for five years now, he said, and earned his bread and board at the shelter by recruiting new converts off the streets and providing piano accompaniment for the hymnal services.
It was difficult to discern the piano man’s age. If he was telling the truth about knowing Teddy Edwards back in Jackson, Mississippi, he had to be at least sixty. But people down here age differently, life’s battle scars obscuring the tell-tale signs of age that Beverly Hills matrons pay thousands of dollars to reverse.
I plugged the boom mike into the camcorder and slipped on a set of head phones. I lifted the heavy mike over my shoulders, pointed it in the direction of the stage and the piano man, and nodded to Dennis that I was ready to roll when he was.
“I can’t do the chord changes that Teddy could do on his sax,” the piano man apologized. “But I’ll play it for you anyways.”
He launched into a haunting piano rendition of “Up in Dodo’s Room” and Dennis hit the record button and rested an eye on the camera viewfinder.
Headed back home two hours later, we idled at a traffic light across the street from the dull blue neon glow of a cafeteria near Arco Plaza. I hinted to Dennis that I sure could use a sandwich, not having eaten since the night before.
“P.J. will make us a sandwich when we get back to the house,” Dennis mumbled, steering the Toyota toward the freeway on-ramp.
© 2004, Rodger Jacobs
All Rights Reserved