For almost a month now I have been living here in San Antonio down on the south side. To occupy my mind from gnawing on itself with the fears of unemployment, compounded by an inherent aversion to job-hunting, I’ve taken to long afternoon bike rides along the light industrial side streets off Presa and Flores.
I was turning onto Probandt near a self-consciously funky brew pub when the rains hit. It was a wall that just came down; the noise was absolute, like a train screaming through a crossing. I angled across a gravel parking lot and coasted through a giant doorway into an enormous corrugated steel building, barrel-vaulted like a quonset hut. Against the back wall were several windows, but with the clouds and the rain I couldn’t make much out. There were no lights on, and the place was empty. I couldn’t be sure if I’d stumbled into an abandoned building or a factory during the lunch break. I leaned my bike against the sliding metal door and wiped water off my face. I would wait out the rain here, but I hunkered down near the doorway so that it would be clear I had no nefarious notions in mind.
I smelled paint. Oil paint. The wooden frame of the twenty-foot high sliding door had been recently slathered with silver paint. I reached out. It was still tacky and left a smear on my finger. The odor moved in closer, wrapped around me…transported me back through the years.
The first time I left college, I drove down to stay with some fellow drop outs who were living in Blanco. Milton was somewhat older than the others. He’d turned his back on an economics degree and moved to an old dilapidated building on the town square his family no longer had any interest in. The place used to be a paint and wallpaper store until it had gone out of business in the ’50s. When I arrived in the middle of the spring semester, Milton was living on he second floor with the North brothers, Lyle and Forrest. Back at the university the three had gigged around performing godawful amplafied racket. The ground floor of the building was one large, well-lit space which had not long been painted silver, after, I assume, Warhol’s Factory. The fresh paint had a metallic, chemical smell like a car radiator boiled over. Milton and the brothers practiced there in long, pointless sessions. They weren’t just making music, I gathered, but involved in some sort of social experiment embracing performance art, multi-media presentation, situationalist disinformation campaigns, and all that sort of crap. The place reeked of marijuana and was littered with Dairy Queen cups and take-out trash. My visit couldn’t have lasted more than a couple of days, but in my memory it was weeks. The air was thick with acrimony; the stoned, rambling vituperatives piled to the rafters. They were at each other like rats in a sock. I made my exit early one morning without being seen.
Recently I looked up Milton. He still lives on the second floor. The brothers had long ago abandoned him (one for Jesus, and the other is a diving instructor in, of all places, Norman, Oklahoma). The years have not been kind to Milton–they’ve left crags on his face, and sagging bulges everywhere else. He sponges off his folks and continues to make music. His studio is a cramped room over-looking the courthouse, chocked with computers, cables, speakers, and assorted devices. He showed me his back list of fifty-some-odd CDs he sells through the mail. He claims to have a following in the Netherlands, and I have no reason to doubt him.
We ate some soup his mother brought over and talked about the years gone by. Milton would sometimes drift off like a weak radio station heard while driving. He claimed to be a narcoleptic. But no. His brain was just wired bad. He was all fucked up. The last I saw of him he was wearing headphones and watching a computer monitor as he bobbed his head slowly to the drone of a looped recording of a train whistle mournfully stuttering ad infinitum.
On the way out, I stopped to peek through the window on the street level. The place still had the silver paint, but it was all tarnished with the years, and furred patches of dust clung around the window casements and up in the crown molding. It wasn’t until I was driving through Dripping Springs that I realized I’d forgotten Milton’s parting gift of his entire musical oeuvre. “Don’t think of it as music,” he’d cautioned me. “It’s collage. Sound collage.”
The rain slacked off. Soon it was just water dripping off the building. An old man in bib overalls and a grimy t-shirt ambled across the gravel. He lit a cigarette as he entered the building and passed by me.
“Looks like you got caught out in it,” he said to me with a grin. And he disappeared back there, somewhere, into the shadows.