#399: Tom Waits, "Rain Dogs" (1985)


This is the month we turn thirty. We’ve never met but our parents were pregnant at the same time so maybe the first sounds we ever heard were the same. Maybe our mothers weighed the same with us inside them.

The year we were born your dad was making a record in a vault in Lower Manhattan. How the city has stretched and grown inside itself in the thirty years since has been well documented by all kinds of great minds. I’m on the train uptown to see my father for the first time in nine years, which nobody else’s research has prepared me for but your dad is growling at me through the headphones. His yell is almost protective. The decade of our birth lays itself over this one like a long grey transparency.

Going up to Harlem with a pistol in his jeans.

Going up to 86th & Lex with an iPhone in my purse.

At least September feels right for a birthday, the trees in their back-to-school clothes. My nine-year estrangement is a fourth grader. Something about this being the truth makes it seem less like my own life, like a poster on the side of a bus. Is that what it’s like to have a famous father? I tell you all my secrets but I lie about my past. People like to bring that up to him, don’t they, that he sang that once.

When I bob my neck and slap my thighs along to “Big Black Mariah” on the train the lady next to me moves away. Thunder that the rain makes when the shadow tops the hill. I hear a hurricane hit the coast in 1985 and three days later I came.

Thirty—how’s it sitting with you?

You and I both know what 1985 was really like: impossible to remember. It disappeared behind big grownup hands. The leaves fell when we were born. Ships skated out of their moorings and a bass drum tumble stowed away on the back end of the beat. Tumble-stow, tumble-stow. The two people who experienced my birth most closely never worked with their hands. When the rain came they got indoors to wait it out. Your mom co-wrote one of the songs on the record, “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” and my mom had a tape of your dad’s in her car. One time she said it wasn’t appropriate for kids my age, which is our age. Maybe the rain came down hard that year too, like a tarp thrown over all this.

Our parents’ activities in January of 1985 made me this kind of a person and you that kind of a person and Lower Manhattan the home of a vault where your dad made a record. I grew in a regular way tucked behind the reference desk at a medical library in Connecticut into a person who imagines you grew underground at the rate of nineteen tracks per album per year. What about being young led you to hit stuff with other stuff for a living? How blue is music as a job? My parents were musicians once, they met that way, over music, which is exactly also how we met only we never have. I think the lady who wants not to be sitting next to me on the train must not know anything about music or being almost thirty or fearing recognizing yourself in a much older man on the steps of an austere museum or listening to your favorite record by someone’s dad who could have been yours. I like stomping my feet in public. Could I have been a drummer? Do you have any idea what your parents were thinking? It hums in the front inside compartment of a life like an engine.

And you spill out over the side to anyone who will listen.

What weird alchemy it must be to expand like that in an instant, making a kid, making a record. To go underground and emerge with something somebody else will eventually hopefully fall in love with, with something that will sneak into other people’s homes, ride the train without you, meet you for a drink 29 years later. These are things we need to consider at our age, Casey. Will the kids we might in time make ourselves be loveable? And yet the older I get the better I understand that it’s ridiculous to claim my age as a justification for anything I think I know.

None of us want to be remembered for our fathers no matter how great and some of us don’t remember much about them anyway but what I like most about this record is that it’s easier than the uptown errand I’m on. It’s like a laughing anger lumbering. I can take anything laughing but my father doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t get the joke which is that we’re related but you get it don’t you Casey? We were made at the same time as each other and as this record so we must be connected. It makes about as much sense as that we should be connected to the people who made us, their studios, the myth of their having existed in any other form before the leaves fell and we came into being. Anyway to be connected to anyone ever is to brave the assumption that you can understand them enough to say how you’re connected and you and I understand this much: that drummers and poets are magnificent failures at keeping it all together.

There’s a joke about this. It goes

Q: What’s the difference between a pizza and a drummer/poet?
A: A pizza can feed a family of four.

You and I are connected because about you I can say whatever I want. About my parents I can say almost nothing.

Where is the straightforward exposition of this errand I’m on? What’s a deft description of the circumstances? My father left me is a sentence I have no practice writing because I’m pinned like an insect to accuracy. That I left my father is no more direct a hole through the center of the apple, the brain’s guts get everywhere.

This is a joke too. It goes

Q: What do you call it when two people leave and stay exactly where they are?
A: All the doughnuts have names that sound like prostitutes.

But if you have the temperament and the means you’re soon up and over the border of your little life with great relish. The countries that took me in after were full of stories and I could pick whichever ones I wanted off the shelf. In this one we’re partners, Casey, we grew up together like cousins in different cities, we had the best jokes and the same dark curls and long summer visits that came around just often enough to learn what it feels like to have to miss a piece of your own family, which is how you learn there are some things inside of you that are also outside of you, which is how you learn you are a you and not something entirely different. Those were good summers, just before the leaves began to fall. I’d watch your parents back out of the driveway with you in the backseat banging with chopsticks on your father’s headrest like a drumset and try to remember what missing you felt like so it wouldn’t take me by surprise this time, so this time I wouldn’t cry.

—Laura Eve Engel