Under the Baseball Moon
Ahoy, you crazy dreamers!
Welcome to the water's edge of North America. Bienvenidos, amigos, to the sandy edge of San Diego, where many years ago, wagon wheels of the Spanish Fathers cut across a Kumeyaay Indian migration trail and changed this land forever.
Here, the midnight ocean waves roll in below a majestic pier and break upon the shore like a herd of wild white horses running wither to wither. And here, storytellers sit the warm day long casting their tales and singing their songs to surfers, bikers, sailors, artistas, skateboarders, shop owners, y turistas.
Welcome to the sands of Ocean Beach, in the land of the baseball moon. Come with me and walk the streets of this magical, organical beachtown filled with soul, filled with the spirit of longlost freedoms, and known simply as "OB."
So blow las trompetas from atop the pier and bang the drums like thunder. And let us begin the tale of a moonstruck trumpeter who crosses the path of a softball star, stirring up dreamers, players, jokers, and rogues, and forever changing the cosmos.
Ay, mis amigos. Vamos.
The Epitome of Cool
Everything that happened in those days after OB Juan finally cleaned out the little apartment above his seafood taco bar and grill was something no one saw coming.
My parents didn't see it. The guys in my band never saw it. And this mellow-down-easy California beachtown sure didn't see the over-the-moon, star-tossed disarrangements that one simple act of cleanliness would bring.
I think I was the first.
My name is Andy Ramos, and I grew up a little star-tossed and over the moon myself. In fact, I grew up thinking that backstage hustlers and cocktail waitresses were twenty-four-hour daycare providers. You see, my mom was a singer in a band and she spent most nights rocking under red stage lights with my dad by her side, flaming up the fretboard of an electric guitar. So I spent the first few years of my life in the dank, lowlit backrooms of smoky nightclubs with high-stepping women in low-cut trimmings tucking me in at night and singing me to sleep.
I also grew up with every kind of jazz, rock, be-bop, and hip-hop thumping my bones and flooding my brain 24/7 and more.
"Old School music," I called it. "Been around since sound."
"That Old School music, mijo," my grandpa would tell me, "is your musical roots. Cut off your roots, Andrés, and pretty soon you are nothing but a hollow tree." Then he'd point his golden trumpet at me. "And there is nothing worse than being a hollow tree. Because music, mijo, comes only from what's inside."
Well, some place inside of me, I agreed. It's just that I wanted to create a sound that went beyond roots. I'm talking about climbing here, riding tree limbs in the wind, scaling treetops up to the rooftops and beyond. And for the last five years, I'd been trying to do just that, ever since Grandpa Ramos gave me this old trumpet he'd won in a poker game.
Day after day, whenever he was in town, Grandpa would spend hours showing me how to play, how to breathe, how to reach my highs and lows. He'd hold up that dented Yamaha and teach me how to get my "chops out front." And I'd sit there under his spell watching his fingertips dance away, tripping the valves, while his tight lips pushed a hip, mellow "sweetness" out of that trumpet's gold brass bell.
In my eyes, Grandpa Ramos was the epitome of cool. He was confident and comfortable around anyone, anywhere. How I wished I could be like him, and learn from him "what a musician needs to know." That I could travel the musical world like him. And how I wished he had not died. That his liver had not stopped delivering the sugar to his blood. Because I'm sure he would have known what to do about the mess I was in now.
I guess the roots of my trouble all started back around the time I got that trumpet. That's when I began to be treated like the weirdo, joke-magnet of our fifth grade class. But it wasn't because of the trumpet or anything I ever did. It was all on account of a girl. Glory Martinez.
And it was pure guilt by association.
When I was little, my folks were good friends with Glory's mom, who worked as a dancer and cocktail waitress all over town. Some nights she danced at the neon glitz-clubs on Rosecrans and other nights she served drinks at a place where my parents played called "OB Juan Quixote's"--the coolest little, blue plaster, palm-treed, indoor-outdoor fish taco and beer bar you've ever seen. But she really wanted to be a singer. Her name was Marlina Martinez, and she had a killer voice that would fill the room and fall on you like a warm blanket.
Whenever my folks were playing at OB Juan's, my dad would ask Marlina to step on stage and sing a song or two. And even though I was only four or five, and even though she'd just tucked me in, I'd sneak out from the back to watch. And, man, she'd paint the room with her voice, low and soft or loud and brassy. When she finished, my dad would always say, "Let's hear it for Marlina Martinez!" Then after the applause, he'd add, "Shes sure got a nice pair of lungs." Then he'd always wink, and the audience would always laugh.
Later on, Glory and her mom moved into a little place just a couple doors down from us. I don't remember her mom ever getting really drunk, but I know that sometimes my dad would take her with him to AA meetings. On those nights Glory would show up at our place dressed in goofy, homemade costumes like a rainbow-colored butterfly or some intergalactic princess. That was bad enough, but she also liked to wear them to school. When we were little, it was no big deal, but by the fourth grade, it got to be really embarrassing, especially since our parents were good friends, and so everyone thought Glory and I were good friends, too.
We weren't. I barely tolerated that girl's existence, to put it mildly, and she was totally oblivious to the way I felt. That's because she was totally out there. I mean, in orbit. She talked to imaginary people and danced whenever she felt like it and got in trouble a lot.
By fifth grade, Glory slipped into a sort of gothy phase and started dressing in all black. Sometimes teachers would call me over and want me to go talk to her, like when she started freaking out or something. Once, during PE, some girl tripped her, so Glory got mad and picked up the basketball, screeching like a demon, and ran away with it.
"You'll all burn!" she screamed at us, then spun around and heaved the ball over the fence. "Be gone, diablos, be gone!" She had a really strong arm.
"Andrés," Mrs. Melbourne said, in front of everyone. "Will you please go talk to her? Just try to calm her down and get her to come back."
"Why me?" She had no idea how hard it was.
Then the guys would start in. "Because she's your girlfriend, Andy-Dandy. Come on." "Yeah, Andrés, you're her knight in shining armor. She needs you." They'd follow that with a round of loud, slobbery kissing noises.
But Mrs. Melbourne always won. She'd give me her pursed-lip, dipped-head, I-need-your-help look, and say, "Andrés, please."
My face would turn hot, and while someone ran off to get the ball, I walked off to find Glory. But the only way I could get her to turn her broom around and fly on back was to softly sing a little song she once taught me.
"The Flower Queen is coming.
Do not be afraid.
The Flower Queen is coming.
Atop a horse of jade."
I know. It was very weird.
By sixth grade, I was the school fool and my reputation was a joke. I had constant stomachaches because of her. I was always worried, knowing that the next call to save her or to explain her or to defend her could come at any time.
Then, that summer, the greatest thing happened. Glory's mom started drinking again, but this time she checked herself into an alcohol rehab clinic in Arizona and sent Glory to live with her grandparents in Tucson.
You don't know how glad I was to see her go. I was like, "Finally. Now, I can relax. I can really be myself."
But instead, I suffered for the next couple of years. I'd be walking down the hall at school, and out of nowhere somebody'd say, "Hey, Andy-Dandy, when's your girlfriend coming back?" Or, "Yeah, Little Boy Blue, you gonna blow your horn and get her to come home?"
It wasn't every day, but it was enough to prolong my weirdo rep.
And a rep is a lot like a tattoo. Easy to get, but a lot harder to get rid of.
So I did the only thing I could think of to lift my spirits. I played the trumpet. Every minute I could. Some nights I'd climb out my window and onto the roof of our old two-story house and blow like a chimneystack, straight up to the moon.
Sometimes I'd skateboard under the Sunset Cliffs Boulevard Bridge, near Robb Field, where the San Diego River empties into the bay. I'd sit up on the riprap rocks and play to the girders and water pipes above, letting the concrete echo rain down on me. Lines of cars would rumble by, just over my head, their tires drumming the metal bridge joints--tha-dump, tha-dump--giving me my beat, and I'd blow like a jazzman under a blue light, keeping it tight, keeping it raspy, maybe stir up a few tourists from Nebraska.
And what I loved most was pushing the edge--fusing together different sounds and styles, like Latin jazz, reggae, and rap.
"Cultural Fusion," I called it. Just like my neighborhood in OB, California.
I even learned to play one-handed while skateboarding at the same time, racing down the beach boardwalk or into town, blowing like some bugle boy on a calvary horse leading the charge. And I was--the Fusion Charge!
Before long, my old rep started to change. By the ninth grade, people really started to like what I was doing. And by the time OB Juan had cleaned up and rented out the little place above his bar and grill, I'd already started writing songs, started up a band, and was ready to follow in the footsteps of my Grandpa Ramos. And starting last week, the first week in June, I made a promise to me and to him. Every day I would devote myself to the mission of launching my musical career. This would be my "breakout summer."
So this morning, I cruised outside and decided to skate my way past the soccer greens and softball diamonds at Robb Field and climb up on a pile of jagged granite boulders near Sk8 Park. Working on a new melody, working the improv room of my brain the entire time, I settled on top of a flat rock to scope out the skateboarders inside, ant-trailing around the walls. Particularly the guys in my band, Lil Lobo and Tran.
As great a drummer as Lil Lobo was, he was even better at skateboarding. I watched him nosegrab his board, sprint about ten feet, drop it, and jump on, skating for the low metal rail. He ollied up, grinding the whole pipe, slid off, and rolled on, carving his way along the curvy plaster walls. That was music to my eyes. I put the trumpet to my lips.
He shot up the concrete wall. I shot a riff at him. He caught air and spun. I blew another. Sixteen beats. Four, four time. I followed his moves around the park.
Then Tran, my guitar player, flew by. In real life Tran Loc Tien was a shy, skinny kid whose family moved here from Vietnam before he was born. But at Sk8 Park, he was fearless. Down the empty swimming pool walls and up, he glided, spun 180, then dropped back down. Eight beats. Cool, sweet.
It was like I was painting them with music. Whatever they did, I played along. Some riffs, I was Old School, some riffs, I was New. I was Wynton Marsalis, but I could be Dizzy, too.
After a while, I needed a change, so I started rolling down the asphalt bike path that ran riverside. As usual, I stopped skating just past the tennis courts and walked across the grass toward my outdoor "echo chamber" which some people call the handball courts. I loved to play in there. The acoustics were great.
On such a warm June day, the sports complex was full of people, jogging, kicking soccer balls. A couple of girls raced by on blades, laughing and talking and nearly crashing into a little old man leaning on a cane. There was action everywhere.
At two of the softball diamonds, across the huge grassy field, it looked like a tournament was about to begin. Swarms of bare-legged girls buzzed all around, carrying sports bags and bats. Some wore pink and black jerseys. Others were dressed in glittery turquoise tank tops and silver shorts. I watched while one shimmering blue and gold team swept onto the field, hollering like party girls dancing around a fire ring at the beach, as they snapped the ball to each other.
I looked for something to play. One girl was pitching to her coach. On a nearby diamond, I noticed another girl taking batting practice all by herself. Dressed in a sleeveless workout top, she was standing in the batter's box hitting orange plastic balls that were being shot out of a small machine. That looked like fun. I walked to the handball court closest to the field she was in, slid my back down the side wall until I was sitting on the concrete, and I watched.
Every few seconds the batting machine sent out another ball.
The girl would stand in the batter's box and hit about a dozen balls or so, then walk out--not too far--and load them all up into a wire basket that she took back and hung just above the machine. After that, she did it all over again.
This was something new, so I painted her. I played her loopy swing, the bounce in her knees, her slo-mo practice cuts. Even the sway of her dark ponytail. Took me no time at all to get into the rhythm of this tall, sweet athlete. The machine kept popping, she stepped and swung. I played away.
It was all free form, improv, it was like dance jazz. I liked the way it sounded, so I played a little louder.
It took her a while to notice me. Not me really, but my riffles of sound. I saw her stop, then start again, to see if I was really doing what I was doing. And I stayed right with her.
She lowered her bat and looked over her shoulder.
"Hey!" she shouted. Her tone said it all. Playful, not serious. "What are you doing?"
I pushed myself up off the green concrete slab and stepped out into the sunlight. With one eye squinted shut, I shrugged. "I'm working on my improv. Won't do it, if it bothers you."
She laughed, waved her hand, as if saying, it doesn't bother me. I grinned at that.
She set up to hit again. I kept playing. With each swing, she smacked little bullet line-drives that went about fifty feet, then died before they reached the outfield grass.
I studied her long legs, the whirl and whisk of her hair as she swung, the curl of her body, then the fury of her cut. My music fit her dance perfectly. And soon I became aware that I was playing sounds I had never heard before. It must've been the echo. This almost ghostly sound began to emerge, traveling like the distant treetop warble of a mockingbird calling in the night. It was just as unpredictable, too. I was playing as if my fingers were separate from my brain. And I realized, she was the first girl I had ever painted.
After a while, a friend of hers--blonde hair, not as tall--showed up holding two bottles of a purple sports drink. Next thing I knew, Tran was calling to me. He and Lil Lobo must've followed the sound of my horn.
"Hey, man," said Tran. "Pizza time. Come on."
I stood up and saw Lil Lobo already skating off toward Casanova's. I said nothing about the girl, just flipped my board up and left. But as I hit the sidewalk, a certain ping of panic hit me. What if I never see her again? I took one more look back. And I stopped. I could not leave.
"Tran!" I called out. "I'll meet you guys there."
I stood a moment in the warm sunlight, wondering what impulse I was listening to.
Grandpa? ¿Abuelito? Is that you?
Okay, I told myself, it's no big deal. I'll just stroll up, say hi, introduce myself. Don't want to bug her. Just scope her out, be just like Grandpa, the epitome of cool, and then leave.
I took in a huge breath and strode forth. But as I got closer, the epitome of a jellyfish started swimming in the pit of me. I stepped through the gate and onto the ballfield grass. She waved. I could not believe it.
No matter how long she'd been gone, how much she'd grown, I could still tell. It was Glory Martinez.
Under the Baseball Moon is published by Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Group USA, New York.
© John H. Ritter, 2006 ISBN #0-399-23623-6.