Staff Benda Bilili

The day dawns bright and fresh, ever so slightly autumnal. Bouncing my wheelchair the wrong way, facing the few oncoming cars on the wide expanse of Live Oak Avenue, I feel it. The sun at a different incline, things shifting. The subtle way of changing seasons in this part of California. Rain has made all the difference. A bluing of the skies, rinsing of the streets. The pavement has turned pleasantly black. A good thing, rain. Perhaps there will be more this year. Something to look forward to, definitely something.

Ahead, making his way up El Camino Real, the local thoroughfare, a man pushes an enormous cart. The latter is bundled like a World War II railcar full of refugees, all tarpaulins and ropes. The man is a refugee himself, of course. Homeless, as we say. Pushing his way up the street in one of the most wealthy towns of America. He is our shadow, and I have the sense that he is catching up with us. I am catching up with him, that is obvious. By the time we pass, he has paused in front of our local cinema, peering beneath his tarp at whatever cargo lies there. He does not make eye contact. He never does, and I see this man often about town. In fact, I saw him only last night as Jane made a left turn onto the main drag, minutes from my apartment. He was doing what he is doing now, paused in the center of a laundromat parking area, almost midnight, looking into his cart.

Jane and I were returning from a most uncharacteristic evening in San Francisco, at Slim’s, a music club in the city’s old warehouse district. Not so easy getting into the place, a platform wheelchair lift raising me into the dark interior. We were there early enough to have dinner before the show, sitting at a small round nightclub table, jockeying plates and cutlery and drinks. Which would hardly have been a challenge, except for the dark. I had forgotten this, the essence of nightclubs, their fondness for night itself. An almost ghoulish darkness prevailing. The place only sobering up in the morning, the very structure itself hung-over when the lights go on and the cleaners go to work. Not that we have to worry about that sort of thing now. It is dark, surprisingly dark, and the show is nowhere near starting. In fact, a huge projection screen obscures the stage, revealing tonight’s televised baseball game, the real thing in progress only a few streets away.

‘It is exciting when they run about.’ This from Jane. It takes me a second to realize that she is referring to the screen, the baseball game. I stare up at the knot of players standing idly by what has been the scene of some recent action. Now that action is replayed, revealing that someone has scored a run or a point…I am not clear on the lingo here. I do have a vague sense of the rules of baseball, but nothing more. I tell Jane that, yes, it is exciting when they run about.

I should not be surprised to see this game projected in a nightclub, for the San Francisco team is playing the World Series. I would describe this to friends and family in the UK as the World Cup, but without the world. The US and perhaps Canada constitute this ‘world,’ but I don’t believe it extends beyond that. Not that I know. What I do know is that this is a matter of acute local pride. Our team, our boys, our victory, our World Series.

‘Look at that,’ Jane says. The screen is doing an instant rerun of what has just transpired on the ground, a ballplayer sliding into a base…the other player getting the ball just slightly too late to render the former ‘out.’ I feel something like pride that I know this, can remember this essential fact of the game. And I would explain this to Jane, these basic rules, but lack sufficient confidence. She might ask a question, any question, which could prove embarrassing.

I must have been eight years old, maybe nine, when it occurred to me, this matter of baseball. The news had reached me at grade school. Baseball was what kids did. Absolutely what boys did. I asked my father to teach me. An uneasy silence ensued. I asked him again, days later. Finally, the two of us walked into the desert behind our home. I held a ball, probably a softball, which I threw at my father. I could see it in his face, the way the leather ball made him try to protect both of his own. He was afraid, certainly unaccustomed, to boys throwing round hard things at him. He braced himself, trying as best he could. But it was no use, and both of us knew it. We headed back across the desert scrub toward our back gate, silent and defeated. Thus, me and baseball.

‘It’s jolly, now isn’t it?’ Jane is commenting on the players who are throwing hats and gloves up in the air in celebration of a run or a point or whatever it is. I believe that a player has ‘stolen’ his way from one base to another. Again, there is much uncertainty in my mind. But the jolliness is indisputable. They are all very happy to be winning, at least at this juncture, the game. People in the club are happy too, although less happy than those cheering in the soundtrack. For all of us have come here, instead of the baseball game, for the purpose of music.

I told Jane that it has been…at first I say five years, but this can’t be right…close to 10 years since I have been inside a nightclub. It is actually quite exciting. Jane confesses that she has never been in a club. We are a fine couple, I decide, without an ounce of irony. Oddly limited in our experience, while oddly broad, and in any case open with each other about whatever we know and don’t know, have done and haven’t done.

What I had totally forgotten is the convention of club shows. How there is a warm-up act, then the main action. The former gets under way soon. A small African combo. I find their efforts repetitive and rather dull. Never mind, for we did not come here to see them. Whatever our purpose, though, there they are, on and on. The show’s putative start time, 8 PM, has come and gone, and it is pushing 9 PM by the time this act departs. There is a wait, something approaching half an hour, until Staff Benda Bilili.

Finally, there they are. Five post-polio guys from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their music is loud, insistent, unvarying in its beat…all of which would become fatiguing, but for them. If they are fatigued, certainly they are not defeated. The one man on crutches, a leg drastically shorter than the other, seems to float above his own orthopedic supports. Gesturing and in more than a matter of speaking, dancing, sticks and all. One man, legs tiny from polio in childhood, slips out of his wheelchair for a sort of hand dance on the nightclub stage. The able-bodied African musicians behind them are as good or better. One plays a homemade instrument concocted from a tube. How he, or anyone, gets several octaves out of this, well like the rest, it defies understanding.

Slim’s is now packed. Our small nightclub table is actually labeled ‘ADA’ and off to one side of a standing area. The groundlings have thronged, and some are dancing, all are mesmerized. Aware of the loudness and Jane’s experience with clubs and their hyper amplification I ask what must be asked. Does she want to leave? Absolutely not, she says.

With that, I push up from my wheelchair, leaning the back of my legs against the cushion. I swing and sway with the action. Dancing in a manner of speaking. Which is what is happening here, disabled free-form choreography. On stage, in the house, everywhere. And it has not escaped my notice that this is an ADA table, a piece of furniture named for the beneficent workings of Big Government, thank you very much. Which is to say, we are in San Francisco, thank you very much. And I’m doing something I have not done for years, years and years. Clubbing. Nightclubbing, and throwing myself about rhythmically, no let us call it dancing.

And I am holding Jane and she is dancing too. And the music is so loud that we feel it in our sternums as much as in our ears. Blasting and having a blast. And it goes on and on, me swaying, the woman adjacent occasionally hitting me with her arms or her boobs, who can tell? Because we are all dancing, African dancing, for if these guys on stage can do it, so can we. And it seems wrong that I am the only guy in the audience with a wheelchair. Wrong, but there you are, and here we are. Until I’m sitting down again, for it is remarkably exhausting, all this swaying and bopping and moving with the music.

Ah, to be young again, I say to Jane as we make our way along 11th St. to the car parked just around the corner. No, Jane says, forget young. Oddly, we have experienced the same thing, the surprising level of fatigue that goes with a bit of youthful physicality. And this is somehow the way it is, and the way it is supposed to be. That we are meant to feel youthful. And we are meant to feel the end of youth, not to mention a hint of the end of life…. Which tonight is quite splendid, the sense being closer to what it is in so many cultures. That existence does not end at some cliff. But as one great cycle, a circle, and no wonder the evening and its zest have me going round and round.

Comments are closed.