After getting laid off from a summer construction job during college in Kalamazoo, I ended up going back home to Metro Detroit for a surefire spot and wound up hearing Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen” more times than maybe any other song in my life.
Reprising an older summer gig as a groundskeeper for a local condo complex, I spent every week day for the next three months with a gentleman in his mid-sixties named Sam. Standing tall at five-foot-nothing and always throwing out shifty looks, Sam was and still is one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet in your life – once you get to know him.
He didn’t come around so quickly during our first summer stint. As a Detroit-born African-American gentleman who once shared a bottle of wine outside a party store with the Temptations, this pint-sized giant didn’t initially understand the idea of an underage white boy with long hair who claimed to like R&B. Yet, after sitting in an office with him for hours on end in between house calls and exchanging game, he could clearly tell I was hip and, by that second summer, we had become pretty close. It was then when I would get inundated by the sweet sounds of the second track from Gaucho, Steely Dan’s seventh album.
Although the 1980 LP is said to be a separation from the acclaimed band’s previously complex material, “Hey Nineteen” itself sounds just right as a simple, lackadaisical groove. My buddy Sam agreed. Big time.
See, the complex was basically a small neighborhood, so we would ride around in golf carts to get from unit to unit. I had my cart. Sam had his. However, on Sam’s cart, he had a portable, D-battery-powered CD/cassette player, with a tape that had “Hey Nineteen” on repeat. Literally. And he never changed the tape. Once. Before and after every single job or anytime I would bump into him while buzzing around, I would hear Walter Becker’s plucky guitars and organ stabs just circling around this natural born gentleman like Donald Fagen was singing was his theme music. Somehow, Sam soaked up this classic rock song as if brand new each and every time the TDK cassette flipped sides and restarted. It was incredible.
Despite the torture worthy spins of a song I still love, I really missed Sam’s company once the easy-going gig ended after that 2006 summer. When he was my age, he was someone who had big dreams to be a photographer, but settled on factory jobs to take care of his family and wound up as the beloved on-site maintenance man character at a condo complex. As a generally happy man, he was content with his decisions.
But, there were days when he would hear out my grandiose dreams of interviewing my heroes and one day prospering off my own music and he would get genuinely remorseful. This one-time dreamer was now a confined elder and hearing my wide-eyed spirit made him question things he probably hadn’t thought of in years – to the point where this extremely strong-willed soul once even teared up. At that point specifically, this calloused man and a heart of gold looked me dead in the eyes and made sure I understood I could achieve anything I set my mind on. But, only if I made the proper decisions and always stayed as committed as I was then.
Today, I’m more dedicated than ever, working three jobs and busting my ass to achieve above and beyond. And, although I regretfully haven’t seen my man Sam in years, I think about his advice often and have never taken his words for granted. However, there’s nothing that triggers a memory of him and big ol’ narrow-eyed grin like the first pulling guitar note of the cocktail hour favorite below.