Ladies and Gentlemen…The Redeemers tells the story of Bert Ingram, once a successful rep in the music industry, who has lost his way. Desperate for redemption, the perpetual dreamer decides to put together a band, recruiting musicians who have only one thing in common: the need to overcome a significant obstacle in their lives. The volatile mix of the musicians' personalities and backgrounds threatens to derail the band at every opportunity, but in time, the Redeemers begin to realize they have more to gain from one another than they ever could have imagined.
Chapter 1 - Abe and Bert
“Miss! Miss! Hi! You look like a patron of the arts. Could I trouble you for a small contribution for my friend Abe over there?” Bert matched a young woman stride for stride as she strode briskly across the subway concourse. He pointed toward Abe, who was standing along the white tiled wall, next to the Fresh Cut Flowers stand, singing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” The woman forged ahead.
“Fully tax deductible!” Bert continued cheerfully, and with that, the woman turned to look at Bert with a skeptical glance. “Okay, okay. It’s not really tax deductible,” Bert said with a laugh.
The woman returned a brief smile, seemingly somewhat amused by Bert’s approach. She unzipped her handbag and pulled out a crumpled dollar bill. She gave Bert the bill along with a distinct look of finality.
“Thank you, miss. God bless,” said Bert with a tip of his hat, ending a routine that had been rehearsed over many years of strolling through the subway corridors beneath San Francisco. He carefully unfolded the bill and wrapped it around the other six dollar bills he had collected.
The 7:30 A.M. rush hour crowd swarmed through the Montgomery Street station of San Francisco’s BART, or Bay Area Rapid Transit, system. Bert headed back toward the spot where Abe stood, as he had for the last three years, every Monday through Friday except holidays, in the main corridor that led from the subway turnstiles to the stairs that led to street level.
A hulking, legally blind African-American, Abe Jackson towered over most of the subway crowd. He stood at 6’3” and weighed close to 250 pounds. His habitual costume -- black shoes, black dress pants, a blue crew neck, long-sleeved shirt, and black wraparound sunglasses – perfectly complemented the classic 1960s Motown tunes he sang. In his left hand he held a plastic, gallon-sized milk jug, filled about a quarter of the way with coins and bills.
Bert Ingram had stepped into Abe’s life about a month earlier, pitching Abe on the idea of working the crowd in order to increase the donations. Abe had not been particularly interested, being satisfied with his routine and his low-pressure approach. Plus, he showed an obvious distrust of the stranger. So Bert simply appeared every few days at first to give the crowd his sales pitch.
More recently, Bert had started showing up every day. Today, he wore chocolate-brown polyester pants, a cream-colored shirt, brown paisley tie, and a brown and tan checked sport jacket. His ubiquitous gray fedora rested on his head, pushed slightly back so the brim tilted upward. Bert always wore his signature hat whether it matched his outfit or like today, did not.
As Bert crossed in front of him, Abe spoke in a booming voice that resonated through the subway concourse corridors. “I told you, Bert, I don’t need your help. You ain’t my manager, I don’t need an agent, and you’re just stealin’ my money.”
“Are you crazy, Abe? I’m a money machine!” Bert countered. “I’ve collected seven dollars in just the few minutes I’ve been here this morning. We’re a great team. You just keep singing, and I’ll handle the sales and marketing side of things. You should feel lucky to have a manager like me. Bands used to clamor to have me as their manager.”
“Do we have to play this out every morning, man? I told you this is my territory and I’m quite fine, just singing and taking in what I take in.”
“Don’t be foolish,” replied Bert, ignoring Abe’s frown. “Don’t you get how much we’re pulling in together? How much did you bring home every day before I showed up?”
Abe’s frown deepened. “I don’t know. Thirty dollars, maybe forty on a good day.”
“See, and just yesterday you took home sixty-two dollars, and that was after giving me my share.”
“Yeah, well, I couldn’t help but notice that it’s not me ‘giving’ you your share, but you collecting the proceeds, taking your piece of the action off the top, and giving me what’s left.”
“Fine. Split hairs if you like, but I’ve raised your income over fifty percent, so what’s the difference?”
“We’ll settle this after the crowd goes. We’re losing precious time here,” Abe muttered, and with that, he broke into Sam Cooke’s “Cupid,” hitting each note, the high and the low, with expert precision.
By 9:30 the crowd heading into San Francisco had dwindled, and Abe wrapped up his last song. Bert was seated on a bench a few feet away, tallying the bills and coins he had collected on Abe’s behalf. He got up and walked over to Abe. “Here you are, buddy, seventeen dollars and thirty-eight cents. Add that to what you’ve collected on your own in that jug which looks to be around, oh, I’d say, ten to twelve dollars and you’ve had a pretty good morning. And we’ve still got the afternoon shift.”
Of late, Bert had also started to show up for the outbound commuter rush in the late afternoons.
“I do have to admit, Bert, you’ve got a certain talent,” Abe responded with a grudging grin. “But you’re still a leech.”
“Glad you recognize my skills. I’m just a born talent scout,” replied Bert. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to run a proposition by you. Can I buy you a cup of coffee and we’ll talk?”
Abe shrugged. “It’s your money, man.”
The two walked toward the north stairs, Abe using his red-tipped white cane for guidance. Bert took Abe’s arm as they reached the stairs that led up to the street level.
Abe jerked his arm away. “I’ve been coming up and down these stairs for years without you. I don’t need your help.”
“My apologies, my friend,” responded Bert quickly, trying to recover from the unexpected scolding.
“Yeah, well, I don’t like being touched, and I’m not one for help or attention. I just do my own thing, my own way. That’s all.”
Bert followed Abe silently up the stairs and into the sunlight. The early morning haze that enshrouded San Francisco had lifted, and it had become a typical clear, comfortable, seventy-five-degree late summer day. The two men followed Market Street in the direction of the bay, stopping at a Donut World. Bert bought them each a large cup of coffee, which he paid for by dumping a pile of coins on the counter, sorting out the correct change, then gathering the remaining change off the counter.
The two men continued on until they reached the plaza at Battery Street, where they headed for the unoccupied benches near the Mechanics Monument, the large bronze sculpture that served as the plaza’s centerpiece. Bert chose one where an overhanging tree threw some shade. People walked quickly through the red and gray brick plaza, and a couple of teenagers were kicking up their skateboards and trying to catch them, but otherwise the plaza was empty. The two men sat down, Abe placing the milk jug between himself and Bert, keeping a hold on the handle. He leaned the cane against the bench.
“Glorious day, eh, Abe?” started Bert.
“You gonna proposition me or what,” countered Abe.
“Okay, okay. All business. I get it.” Bert paused for dramatic effect. “Here’s the idea. I’m putting together a band. I’m the manager, and I’d like you to be the lead singer.”
“Are you bullshitting me?” Abe snorted.
“Of course not. I told you I used to manage bands.”
“You haven’t really managed bands. What would you be doing hanging out in the subway?”
That cue was all Bert needed to launch into the story. “Things change, my friend,” he started with a sigh. “Many years ago, in my previous life, I was in the recording industry, working as an A&R rep for Sapphire Records. I used to tour the country, going to bars and clubs, scouting for new bands. My job was to spot who had the talent, the energy, the drive -- that intangible quality that meant the difference between a bunch of guys having fun playing in a bar and getting their drinks for free, and being the next big thing.”
Bert took a long, slow sip of his coffee, then continued. “The guys at Sapphire loved me. On some of the high-potential bands, they put me in as the manager.”
“Uh huh,” said Abe. “Let me guess. You’re Berry Gordy’s long lost son?”
“Of course not,” answered Bert. “But I had some successes. You’ve heard of the Crooning Wombats, right?”
“Well, anyway. They were going to be the next big thing. They had kind of a funky blues sound. I discovered them at One-Eyed Jack’s in Olympia. That was long ago, of course.”
Bert paused to assess Abe’s reaction, but Abe just waited. “The band put out a few albums,” Bert went on, “and we had a few good years. But the band broke up before putting together any kind of breakthrough album. Too many egos. The band couldn’t agree on anything.”
“Keep talking,” said Abe, starting to display faint traces of a smile.
“Silent Scream did all right too,” continued Bert. “And of course there were lots of other bands. Those were the days. I had a place on Nob Hill and life was one big party.”
Abe stirred. “Okay. I’ll bite. Then what happened.”
“Then I lost the house in a messy divorce. And things change fast in the music biz. One day you’re a star, the next you’re odd man out.” Bert quickly added, “But that’s okay. I still have a few bucks left. I work when I want to, doing this and that.” He looked toward Abe. “I don’t let them get me down.”
“And what makes you think Bert’s going to get back to the top?” asked Abe. “Begging for dollars in the subway with some blind guy ain’t exactly the first rung on the ladder of success.”
“It’s been awhile but I’ve still got contacts. Listen to me, Abe. I can pull this off.” Bert’s voice grew in both excitement and volume. “Get this concept! I’m building the band from talented performers such as yourself, who got dealt a bad hand in life. It’ll be a bunch of --” He paused to think of the right words. “Gritty, street-hardened folks with the hunger and the passion to rise up and get one more chance at the world!”
Then Bert took on a quiet, passionate tone. “Abe, you’ve got the fire inside you, and you’ve got the sweetest voice I’ve ever heard. The band needs you.” He took a deep breath. “What do you say?”
Abe’s face broke into a wide smile and he started laughing heartily, his big body convulsing with each guffaw. “What do I say? What do I say?” He gave another chuckle. “I say you’re full of shit, brother. Great story, though.” He slapped Bert’s arm gently with the back of his hand. “But I’ll tell you what. I’ll call your bluff. If you can pull together the musicians, I’m in. But here’s the rest of the deal. Until then, you need to stay away from my turf.”
“Fair enough,” answered Bert cheerfully, and the two men sat on the bench in the plaza silently for several minutes. Then Bert spoke. “Hey, Abe. What’s your deal? How’d you end up singing in the subways for a living?”
“Look. Don’t get all chummy with me, all right?” Abe answered irritably. “You laid out a deal and I agreed to it. That’s all you need to know. I don’t need you getting inside my head.”
Bert looked at Abe, wondering whether to respond and decided to let it go. In any case, he had his singer. He stood and tossed his empty cup into a trash can. “All right. I’ll keep in touch.”
“You know where to find me,” said Abe.
Bert sensed that Abe figured that come later this afternoon, they’d be right back where they had been – Abe singing in the Montgomery Street Station, and Bert hustling for his money. He’d figure out soon enough that Bert was serious.
As Bert walked along the plaza and turned to head up Battery Street, he heard Abe bellow. “Hey, Bert! Your band need a sax player?” Bert froze in his steps and turned back to face Abe, who was still on the bench. “Sure,” he yelled back, unsure whether Abe was just setting him up.
“Go find Charlie at the Sixteenth Street Mission Station.”
“How will I recognize him?”
“You know how to play three card monte?”
“Good luck then.” Abe laughed, drank down the last bit of his coffee, crumbled the cup in his hand, and reclined on the bench, arms outstretched to take in all the sun that now shone on the bench.
– Book excerpt from Ladies and Gentlemen...The Redeemers. Purchase your copy at Amazon.