Resident Bohemians: The Nighthawk, Tom Waits

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He was a restless person and this was the kind of rest restless people needed when they got restless.

Sometimes he’d sit in his room, watching movies in his underpants. Once, while he was sitting like this, a key turned in the door and then a couple walked in. “It’s OK, buddy, you can stay,” said the guy. “We’ll just sleep over here.” As the woman went to use the bathroom, the man sat down beside him and began to watch the movie too. He was alarmed but also a little pleased. He would enjoy telling this story. It was a good story. The movie he was watching was a Western called The Ox-Bow Incident and after he finally convinced the couple to leave, he went back to watching it.

During the day he wrote songs. At night he played at a bar in Greenwich Village. He would return to his room, the sound of delivery trucks bustling in the street, wake up the next morning and do it all again. It was a temporary time. Where he really lived was in a hotel in LA called the Tropicana, but the Chelsea was his hotel away from his hotel. He was drinking a lot, eating poorly. He’d find himself in some poor woman’s bathroom, searching the cabinet for mouthwash.

A few months into this time, around December, a journalist named McGee came to interview him for Rolling Stone. In the published interview, the journalist describes the room as “ill-lit” and “vomit-green” with porn magazines and cigarette butts strewn all around. In spite of this, or maybe because of this, the journalist and him became friends. The journalist and his wife would invite him over to their house for dinner every now and then. He would sit at their table feeling shy but happy.

Other times when they got together, they’d hang out at the Chelsea until late. They would drink whiskey and complain about their relationships and their jobs (there were many parallels, they found, between the working journalist and his subject) and then they’d wander out for pizza a few blocks away. One night at the pizza shop, they found the entrance blocked off with police tape. Inside, a dead teenager laid on the floor. Blood oozed from the teenager’s body and pooled at the foot of the gumball machine.

He wrote a song about it, “Small Change (Got Rained on with His Own .38).”

And then he moved out.

The place he found was on 26th Street and 8th Avenue, overlooking a large department store. For six hundred dollars a month, he finally had his own place. It was a time for changes, momentum. He started seeing a psychiatrist, signed up for a fitness class at the YMCA, dropped all that, went back out on tour, kept on drinking and recorded the albums Small Change and Blue Valentine. He played ballads on the piano with an adult magazine jammed into his pocket and people in the audience would be moved to laughter, or tears, or indifference, or jabber, it was all the same after a while, and he would find himself like he always found himself, alone with the sound of whatever city he was in.

He had moved back to LA, for good this time, but right then he was back at the Chelsea, doing an interview with a journalist named Goldstein for a publication called Modern Hi-Fi and Musics Sound Trax. He was tired. Two years had passed. Touring, recording. The room he was staying in was different, a different color, differently lit. He talked about how he had quit drinking, how he had been unable to quit smoking and how he had been recently arrested for a situation with plainclothes policemen in an LA bar. “All I want is a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of bourbon,” he said. He moved his hands around. “Nah, I’m not getting sentimental on you. I want more than that. I want a sandwich, but the restaurant here is closed.”


James Yeh is a founding editor of Gigantic, a magazine of short prose and art. His fiction appears or is forthcoming in PEN America, elimae, the film 60 Writers/60 Places and the anthology 30 Under 30. He lives and bikes in Brooklyn. More from this author →