Smile Politely

Big Brother REO

September 1994 : Sordyl’s House of Music (Springfield, IL)

At age 16, I took my first electric bass guitar to Ralph Sordyl’s House of Music in Springfield for an electrical check-up. I explained my issue to the not-so-attentive employee. Despite my best efforts, he was disinterested, to say the least. I heard the jingle of the door chimes and naturally, I turned curiously to see who was coming in behind me.

Headed towards the counter and staring right at me was a man who was, putting it nicely, a total disaster.

He was donning circa 1984 high top sneakers with the tongues pulled all the way out, gray fast food restaurant worker-style khaki pants, a red and black flannel shirt buttoned all wrong so it hung super-low on one side while revealing plenty of chest hair and probably the best five o’clock shadow coupled with a dirty moustache to boot. Top that off with a shaggy bed head of hair, this man belonged on every episode of COPS that you have ever seen.

He arrived at the counter. An overwhelming smell of whiskey and cigarettes filled the store. I looked down. He had a Viceroy burning in his left hand.

“Sir, you can’t smoke in here,” the clerk stated.

“Sorry. Here,” the man said as he handed his lit cigarette over the counter to the bewildered clerk.

I stood and watched as the man seemed to stumble into my personal space.

“That’s there a nice bass, dude. You in line?” the man asked me as I stood there, bewildered.

Eager to get the man out of my bubble and on his way, I shrugged and said, “Sir, you go right ahead.”

“What can I do for you friend?” The clerk asked firmly, with a huff. After all, he has just finished extinguishing the cigarette that this freak had handed him.

The dirty man starts to get into it.

“I’m the drummer fer REO Speedwagon,” he says, deadpan look on his face. “I’m a’pose to sign fer a drum kit and my people are gonna come and pick it up later.” The words slurred from his lips.

Now, I didn’t know what the members from REO looked like and couldn’t say that he was or wasn’t the drummer, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t look totally sincere when he made his statement.

The clerk half chuckled nervously but nevertheless, pulled a clipboard from the wall behind him and asked, “What’s this all about again?”

The man then repeated his reason for business almost word for word, except this time, he ripped a foul belch that burned my nose.

Looking blankly at his clipboard the clerk eyed him well and said, “I don’t have any record of that. Sorry, man.”

Slightly bewildered, REO’s drummer stood next to me for what seemed like an eternity. He somehow was capable of staring down the employee and me simultaneously. I couldn’t quite tell if he was angry or just confused.

So I got to thinking. Did he honestly believe he was the drummer of the infamous REO Speedwagon? Was he just playing out a wild fantasy of his? Or was he once the drummer, hoping that he might still be recognized and reliving a dream?

After probably two minutes of silence, the man took the rejection from the clerk in stride and began to head for the door.

He took a few steps and then quickly turned around again, startling us both.

“Hey, I’ve got something for you,” the man said as he headed back. Her was looking directly into my eyes. As I watched his arm cock back, I could only imagine what he was going to pull out.

A knife to stab me with? A business card, all crumpled up with his name and REO printed in large typeface?

Perhaps, some drugs?

That was the hope.

“Here,” the man said as he raised his right hand out of his pocket and moved his closed fist towards my face. When he opened it, I could see a keychain dangling from his index finger with a silver dollar sized gold ring and a near transparent piece of plastic in the middle of it.

As my eyes focused I realized it was a hologram of a human eye staring back at me.

“They’re all watching us, man,” he said. “They’re all watching us.”

He placed it into my hand and started to walk away.

The clerk and I stood totally dazed. We stared at the gift that the strange, disheveled man had just left for me. Unsure what to do next, I retold the clerk my bass’ troubles – and he took it from me while he filled out paperwork.

A few weeks later I saw him again. I was across town in an alley that ran behind the restaurant that I was bussing tables at, having a smoke before the dinner rush. He was passing through the parking lot that serviced the restaurant. As he got closer I tried not to make eye contact, hoping he was just cutting through, but it was not the case.

He walked right up to me.

“You got a light, man?” he asked as he put a cigarette in his mouth and looked directly into my eyes. Saying nothing, I pulled a lighter out of my pocket and lit his cigarette.

“Thanks, man. I’ll see ya,” he said walking away.

He then stopped, looked over his shoulder with a wink and a finger up towards his eye, pointing at it and obviously, inferring what he had told me about in the store a few weeks back.

Needless to say – I still have the hologram eye key chain.

And given the current administration’s penchant for spying on us, I am starting to feel like that drummer of REO Speedwagon or whatever he was, happened to be more knowledgeable than I could have ever imagined.

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