SWIMPS

When we finally arrived safely at the park, five blocks away, ten years, ten months, ten weeks, and ten or
twelve excruciating minutes later, Amos sat down wearily. “We come a long way just now together,” he said
and shooed the dogs off. They disappeared like ships into a fog bank, except for a little wire-haired white
one which stayed around, laying at Amos’ feet with his head on his paws.

We sat there for a bit, quietly. Then Amos said, “Tell you a little story.” I waited while he shifted around on
the bench for a long time, and then cleared his throat a dozen times or more, and then put his face in his
hands for a bit. I waited, because I knew this was sometimes his way. He cleared his throat again.
“I was a jazz musician. For a long time I was a jazz musician; but you didn’t know that did you?” He smiled
revealing his own gold front teeth. I thought it strange that suddenly so many people in my life had gold front
teeth—those who meant me harm and those who arrived like angels out of the darkest alley to comfort me.
“You played jazz?”
“The disciplinarian’s blues is what they sometimes referred to it as.”
“Blues?”
“Yeah, it’s blues! You don’t know jazz is blues? It’s all blues.”

Though blues would play a big part in my life somewhere down the road, at that point in time I knew nothing
about blues. It spoke to me, but I didn’t know it was blues speaking. It called me, but I didn’t pick up the
phone.
“What instrument did you play?”
“I’d like to lie and say sax, but that ain’t true. Be more cool, but not a bit more true. I’ll save that for the
womens. Even guitar would be better many believe,” he sighed, “but no, I played the drums.”
“Nothin’ wrong with drums,” I said.
“No, nothin’ wrong with the drums, but you know what they say…”
I waited.

I waited until it began to look like I was never gonna hear what they say.
“What do they say?” I finally asked.
Amos seemed lost in thought. “Oh, well, you know, they say a good drummer is hard to find and a bad
drummer is hard to get rid of.”

I nodded as if I understood. I mean, I nodded as if I’d heard him.
“I must of been a pretty good one though, cause they seldom found me. Far as I can tell, I’m still lost.” He
laughed a dry little laugh, coughed a little, and then he drifted off in thought again. He sighed. “Still I made
my living that way. Some can’t say as much.”
“It sounds like a good way to make a living.”
“Yeah, it does-must look good from the outside. Hard work though, luggin’ them pots an’ pans around. Still, I
had my good times. I had my share. Yes, yes, livin’ THE life.”
“What did you do?”
“Spotin’ mostly.”
“Spo-tin?”
“Ballin’, you know, carryin’ on, jackass behavior…gettin’ with the womens.”

Later I understood he’d said sportin’; women and minor drugs with a little gamblin’ thrown in, occasional
fights.
“I believe I had me my share. Yes indeed I did. You know I did.” He started nodding his head to a beat that I
could not hear. “But anyway,” he sighed, “I wanted to tell you this little incident, when I was playin’ with Coon
Collins—you prolly never heard of him; real jazz musician; black jazz, hot jazz, real Southern jazz. Played with
him all over this never-mind. Coon Collins and his get-up-if-you-still-can quartet. Coon and me were old
buddies, old army buddies really, and that devil, Coon, he knew that I could not say…uh…you know,” he
paused, gulped, “swimps.”
“SWIMPS?”
He struggled to come up with the word. “Shimps. Swimps, you know them curly thangs.”
“Curly things. What are you..? Is it a musical term? I mean what is it?”
“A thang you eat. It’s a kind of fishy thang that crawls along the bottom I think. You know, like a crawdad, but
not one” He shook his head. “Now I hesitate to even try… SWIMPS. Surely you mus’ know…Please help me.”
“Shrimp?”
“Yeah, Coon, he knew that I could not, if the Devil himself was on my tail, say that word. So, ever time we
found ourselves in Nawlins, they call it; when we was in Orleans he always takin’ me to this place where all
they serve up is swimps. Even the ‘ssert was swimps; swimps custard, swimp soufflé, somethin’ horrible like
that.” He laughed. “don’t get me wrong I love t’eat ‘em, just can’t call ‘em by name.”

Amos was grinning, thinking about it. “‘What you gonna have, Billy?’ ‘Why I believe I’ll have me a big platter
of them fried swimps.’ ‘Bout you, Horn Player?’ ‘Ummmm, those barbecued swimps sure look good to me.’
‘And, you Amos..?’ So then there was that silence, you know. They all waitin’. They can’t wait to see my
acrobatics.” Amos slapped his thigh and bowed his head in laughter. He started coughing, and coughed for
a long time before continuing. “Ever body in the place seemed to be waitin’ for me to attempt the impossible.
Talk about perfect time for a drum roll.” Amos was laughing so hard he started coughing again. “They knew I
could not say that word. They all knew it. My boys knew it. Waitress, she knows it too. She seen me in there
enough times; she’s standin’ there waitin’, pencil at the ready. ‘I guess I’ll just have whatever Billy’s havin.’
And they would crack up.” Amos began laughing so hard that he started wheezing.
“You can’t say shrimps?”
“Still can’t, no.”

There were tears in Amos’ eyes when he looked at me and he was beaming with a schoolboy delight. “Had
me a friend, Bad Boy Big Billy Murdock—horn player from out of Memphis--tryin’ to secretly educate me,
give me instruction, whenever we met up. We tried breaking that word down into three parts and that didn’t
work. We tried enunciating exercises that involved every word in the book that looked, moved or smelled like
swimpses, but that did not work.” He looked at me, “Go ahead an’ laugh. Old black man can’t say swimps;
the very essence of humor.”
It was kind a funny and I did laugh.
“But, that’s the point, Charlie…if there is a point. What we went through tonight…down the road, that’ll make
a good story; time you went into the Jubi and come out with your skin still on. One piece. Uncut!”
“I’m still frightened,” I admitted.
“You’d be a fool if you wasn’t. Hell, man, I’m frightened too. Dogs was frightened. But, I know you, you’re
clever, and in time, it’ll make a good tale. You prolly end up beatin’ the black off Jerome or Rashid X or
whatever it is he calls himself these days…been nothin’ but trouble since he was a kid…in time you’ll be
puttin’ your foot right through his skinny black ass. In time it’ll evolve that way in the tellin’, you’ll see.” We sat
there on the bench laughing about it, but my eyes were on Harrison Street looking for that car.

“Don’t worry. They won’t come up in here,” he said and patted me on the thigh. “They won’t come up here.
How’d you get into that fix anyway?”
“A friend took me there.”
“Oh that’s right, you done already told me that.” He sat, pondered. “Some friend.”






A really peculiar little note (nonetheless true):
In 1988 (so that’s like 20 years after this event) I was in a little blues dive called Larry Blake’s in Berkeley
California, and Lonnie Brooks was playing there that night. In between sets the bass player takes the mic.
and he tell us this very same tale, almost note for note. Only difference was, he called 'em shimps. He can’t
pronounce shimps, the band knows he can’t pronounce shimps and, whenever they’re in ‘Nawlins’, they
make a point of taking him to a place where everything on the menu is shimps.  I almost fell off my chair. As
Amos once told me, It’s funny how life works itself out.
NEXT