Um Sonho Carioca.-
(A tribute to José Luis Alvite)
There is a Savoy in every city as long as you know where to look and what you’re looking for. It doesn’t matter if I’m here, in this building with views to Copacabana beach, at the Waldorf basement or elsewhere. Somehow I always end up here, following the same intuition, chasing the same ghosts, trying to capture the same images, longing for the same music...and thinking that maybe I’ll enjoy another lucky encounter with her eyes, her shoulders and her hands.
My flight landing was delayed until those late hours when every airport’s activity slows down to the point where they look sad. The lamp posts looked like lightning bolts as my cab flew by the coastal road on my way to the Colony Hotel, which a kind and tenured flight attendant had recommended to me. Nothing to do with my old and decrepit hideout in Manhattan, with that decadence and music hall feel. During the journey, I couldn’t help but notice a discrete purple neon sign on a wall, just a couple of blocks away from my destination. The place looked promising. Over time, a seasoned trumpet player like me has already developed some kind of sixth sense to spot a good jazz club, it doesn’t matter if you are in New Orleans, Rio or any other corner of the world. Small details often tell more than meets the eye, if you look with the right eyes.
I hated the Colony Hotel. All that modern, shiny crap for tourists.... But it was indeed a clean and comfortable place, which is more than I can say about the majority of shacks where I’ve stayed. Nevertheless, I had to get out of there, so I made my way towards the location of the neon sign I had seen. I felt no need to rush as I walked, having the feeling that I had all the time in the world. The seafront promenade’s paving stones passed under my feet at regular intervals, without a pause, as if they were leading me somewhere, painted in yellow. My thoughts went to that Disney film I used to love as a kid, The Three Caballeros. The film had no plot as such, but it was bursting with colour and music. I guess back in the day that was enough to keep me happily hooked to the screen for hours.
"Have you been to Bahia, Donald?"
"No? Well, let’s go! If you go to Bahia, my friend, you’ll never return."
Humming The Three Caballeros soundtrack as a I walked, I inadvertently reached my destination. Upon close inspection of the sign, I was finally able to learn the name of the place: Savoy. I instantly got a good feeling; I already knew a jazz-themed Savoy, in Manhattan, and not far from the Waldorf, for more details. Big names like Gillespie, Bird, Monk, Blakey or Count Basey saw huge success in that dancing hall between the 20s and 50s, when the place got shut down because it failed to find its own niche among the new musical trends of the time. I guess dancing halls grew old and died too.
The letter “O” in the sign twinkled furiously, followed by a strike from the neon’s starter. I found that quite amusing, as if it was trying to tell me ‘It’s here, can’t you see?’. Without the neon sign, that building could be a candidate for a demolition notice any day. Not a single window or balcony facing the seafront. No sound, no light. Confused as I was, trying to find the way in, I nearly fell down when I bumped into a blue Vespa next to the front door.
In the end, as I walked into the side street around the building I found a steep stairway, faintly illuminated by the yellow light from some sort of old fishing lamp. When I heard the muffled, distant bossa chords coming from upstairs I instantly knew I was right.
Hesitant and with restrained excitement, I barely made my way up the stairs. It felt like if I was going up a temple staircase. Somehow, that’s what it was.
Crossing the Savoy’s doorstep was an experience. It was so much like other clubs, yet so different at the same time...I didn’t get that dark, oppressive vibe you get in New York drunkards bars; the energy was more like what you’d expect from jazz clubs in Paris, New Orleans or Chicago. The diverse audience of regulars and the bossanova made a whole difference. Probably -I thought- behind every miserable story and every tragedy lies a layer of conformism and happiness that makes life bearable to this people. That idea seemed to cheer me up for some reason.
Something caught my attention as soon as I glanced at the tables and the place itself. There was a big bowl filled with all kind of chocolates on every table. Strange as it may seem, I thought “"That makes sense”". George Harrison came to my mind, since he wrote Savoy Truffle as a way of paying tribute to his friend Eric Clapton’'s addiction to chocolate. And there was I, in that Savoy in the middle of Rio, with chocolates everywhere. Whoever the manager was, he or she surely was a big Harrison or Clapton fan.
"I’'d like to dedicate this gorgeous song to our lovely host, who made it possible for us to play here on such a special day."
Then, the girl who had just spoken, a chestnut hair goddess in a night dress, started singing. Her voice was clean and beautiful, like a well carved diamond. I immediately recognised the song: it was an amazing cover of Here comes the sun, written by George Harrison for The Beatles when they were about to split up. Well, mystery solved; the manager wasn'’t a Clapton fan.
"The singer. That's her name. You're lucky, she rarely sings here. It must be your lucky day."
A big man, with a round face, light white beard and thin frame glasses was talking to me. With his elbow on the bar, he wasn't even looking at me. Instead, his devouring gaze was all over the stage, staring at Marcela with obvious interest. Somehow he had sensed my awe. At that particular moment, I wasn't willing to engage on small talk with a stranger, so I didn't fall for it and took a seat at the bar, away from that man. Soon enough, a barman wearing smart clothes appeared. I thought he looked like that barman in the dancing hall from The Shining, who holds such an ingenious conversation with Nicholson, although he was much younger. He stared at me for what felt like an uncomfortable long time without saying a word, just staring.
"Could I have a..."
"No" he cut of me off, firm but calmly.
Ignoring my surprised look, and without further ado, he started to work at warp speed with astonishing accuracy. He then slid a felt coaster and delicately placed a short stem champagne glass on it, using movements that he seemed to have practiced and repeated a thousand times, like a choreography. The bottom half of the glass was filled with a transparent liquid, and the top half, with a dark one, almost black.
"Here you are. A Black Velvet for the gentleman. It seemed to me that you were not in the mood for talking, and that you had a long journey."
I raised an eyebrow for a second, surprised at all those things that guy seemed to know about me, but as soon as I tasted the drink my face spoke volumes. It was delicious, and just what I needed. Light and refreshing, yet rich and flavourful. I was able to clearly notice the taste of the Guinness and the champagne bubbles. It was the first time I had such a wonderful drink.
"You have a good eye, for a waiter. I was going to order a simple gintonic."
"To be precise, sir" he answered back with a faint smile, "I'm not a waiter. I'm a barman; your barman, and a well prepared gintonic is anything but simple, if you know what I mean. Just raise your hand if you need anything, okay?"
After saying this, he moved to a different part of the bar. Shortly after that, he came back and left a bowl of peanuts, slightly away from me and my poker face.
I'm not sure if it was an automatic reaction, or perhaps I was just peckish, but I tried to reach for some peanuts, and I wasn't the only one with that idea. The man with glasses and beard who had revealed the singer's name to me moved his hand towards the bowl at the same time that I did, so our hands met. For a second we looked at each other with that silly look on our faces. Anyone looking at us would have thought we were about to fight over some peanuts.
"No need for that. You are already carrying a heavy enough burden."
"Well, it's obvious! You can tell a mile away that you're looking for something, something important, and you suffer because of it. Otherwise you wouldn't have ended up here today, I guarantee you that. They say you can always recognize your peers, and I'm particularly good at it. Have you already been dazzled by our barman?" he laughed. His laughter sounded like a ratchet; you could tell he was a heavy smoker.
"That's right," I had to admit. "I was gladly surprised. It's the first time that somebody else knows what I want to drink better than I do."
"I hate it when he does that. Damn nerd. So young and so wise...I wish I was his age" he laughed again. "I've never met anyone like him, and I've seen my fair share. I've met some great barmans, but none of them anywhere close to him. The guy just stands there, staring at you, quiet, looking like he's never had a proper shag, and then it's like he just read your mind, or your soul, which is the same, really, in my opinion. The thing is, I don't know how he does it. He has a gift, that's for sure. He's like a mixture between Sherlock Holmes and Coelho, fucking hell." He loudly laughed again, in such an infectious way that I laughed too at the silly literary comparison.
"Anyway, welcome to the Savoy. Do you never take that hat off?"
Suddenly, our conversation turned friendly and quite deep. I ended up telling that stranger about Maureen and my pilgrimage. He listened to my story without batting an eye, as if he had already heard the same story a thousand times.
"Let me tell you something, my friend...Eternal love is that one you always remember by its failure, and you have to learn to live with it, don't you think? Look, see that man over there? That's Larry, this place's resident pianist. He was unlucky enough to fall for a singer we had here for while, Rebecca Hall; a pure beauty. She used to sing by the piano, looking into Larry's eyes. Oh, that poor son of a bitch, he won't be able to forget her, that's his life sentence. He cried like a baby when the secret state police, the "CIA" from here" he gestured air quotes with his hands "took her.
It turned out she was a yankee spy. Larry's been playing really sad stuff since then. I think they are going to sack him soon; some nights this place feels like a funeral home. You come here to banish your demons and when Larry sits on the piano, there's no way you can forget about your shit. He's an awesome piano player, I'll give him that, but he's very inconsiderate since the whole Rebecca incident.
"Amazing..." I managed to mutter.
"Here you are, sir. The last drink Ill be serving you tonight; a Rusty Nail. It will help you put your feet back on the ground," said the barman, who had snuck up on me with the drink and the puzzling sentence.
"Look at that guy with the blazer and the notebook, writing frantically," said my drinking partner. "That's Chester Newman, reporter for the Clarion. He's a regular in the Savoy, no doubt about that, a veteran like no other around these tables. He's got lots of contacts with the police and the organized crime, he knows everybody. For instance, that man sitting next to him and clumsily spilling half a bottle of Macallan 1946 is detective Fuller. I'll tell you something;" he said, very serious all of a sudden "if your girl is or ever was in this neck of the woods, they will know about it. They'll probably be able to help you. Newman is fed up with empty stories and low scum. And Fuller, well, Fuller might be an ignorant asshole but he's a sleuth like no other. Once he's on a case, he'll never give up until he gets to the bottom of it. And what you've told me about your friend, well that's a juicy enough story."
"I really appreciate that...uhhh...what did you say your name was?"
"My name doesn't really matter. In fact, I'm nobody and I'm not even here, neither are you. Im just a stubborn man, still chasing that stupid dream of travelling by train to a city with no railway. It will be my last journey. But you must go back. Go back to the Savoy, go back, back, back..."
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Rio de Janeiro International Airport. Please remain seated and with your security belt fastened until the aircraft has come to a complete standstill and the fasten seatbelt sign is off. Your mobile phone should remain switched off until the aircraft'sdoors are open. Please check around your seat for any personal belongings you may have brought on board with you and please use caution when opening the overhead bins, as your luggage may have shifted around during the flight.We remind you to please wait until you are inside the terminal designated areas to smoke. If youd like any information, our personnel at the terminal will be happy to help you. Thank you very much and have a good day.
Abruptly awoken, I sat up and looked as the huge semi circular airport terminal got bigger and bigger. Inside my muddled head, I could still hear the echoes of the words from that weird and incredibly lucid dream I had just had: Fuller, Newman, Larry...but one word in particular: Savoy.
"Take me to the Colony Hotel, please."
"Where did you say, mister?"said the taxi driver, a fairly old man.
"Colony Hotel, in Copacabana."
"I'm sorry sir, but I've been driving this taxi for 40 years. I've taken, on that very seat where you're sitting, the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Roger Moore, George Harrison and many others. I've got a good memory for names, and trust me when I say there's no hotel with that name in this city."
I couldn't figure out why the flight attendant would lie to me like that, and then I realised I didn't actually talk to any flight attendant, at least not while I was awake. A strange feeling of emptiness took over me.
"Could you then take me to the Savoy?"
"I never heard of that place neither. Sir, are you okay? You seem a little bit disoriented. You didn't take the wrong plane, did you? Perhaps you wanted to go to Bahia and ended up here by mistake."
"I'm fine, don't worry. Please take me to Copacabana, any decent hotel by the seafront will do."
Somehow, I felt a great sorrow. I cursed myself for getting carried away, for cherishing such a foolish hope, for being fooled by that Cartesian evil genius in the shape of a dream. On my way to the hotel, I could see the city lights and the night life through the cab windows, and my frustration started to ease down a bit when I saw the first jazz clubs. One in particular caught my attention; the Esch Cafe. I should pay a visit later.
To my surprise, the Savoy building was there, exactly as I remembered from my dream, but there was no trace of the purple neon sign or the soft, yellow light from the fishing lamp in the stairway. A huge demolition notice sign had been stuck to the facade, impossible to miss; Shopping Center Opening Soon.
The Colony wasn't where it was supposed to be, as the taxi driver said. It was weird because the building was exactly like in my dream, but there was no sign of anything remotely close to a hotel.
In the end, after checking in my real hotel, a bland and touristy 4 stars lodge, I went upstairs to my room to leave my things. On the bedside table I found the usual: hotel information, a notepad and a pen, leaflets for tourists, and the Clarion from that morning. The Clarion! I roared with bitter laughter. How cruel can dreams be, I said to myself. On the front page of the newspaper, an article spoke in a dispassionate tone about violence in the city. 'Mystery murder of a man who was a nobody solved', said the headline.
The article was signed by Chester Newman. The mystery had been solved by lieutenant Fuller.