It’s late January as I write this. January is the month that has the birthdays of my wife, daughter, and mother. January is the most interesting word of the twelve names of the months. It’s also the only month with more vowels than consonants. (Though perhaps May could be counted as well, if the y is functioning as a vowel in tandem the the a.) Combined with February they are the leaders in syllable totals. (And if February’s spelling agreed with the incorrect pronunciation that many people give it by abandoning the first r, then it too would have a winning vowel total.) There’s an elegance to the word, the way it looks and lands on my ears, and the way it feels to say January.
I further associate January with a man named Ken Eglin. I met him in 1979 when I worked at the Duplex Nursing Home in Boston where he was a resident until his death in 1984.
Ken was born in 1915. When I met him he was 63, the age I am now. Due to various medical issues he ended up in the nursing home and needed to use a walker. At heart he was defined by love of music. He’d been a tap dancer in the 1940s and hung out with Lester Young and Billie Holiday when their touring brought them to Boston. Though he got on with everyone very well, he identified not with the other residents, but with anyone still out and about in the world. He wanted to know what was going on now, “out there” as he’d say, pointing out the window. A music enthusiast and band member myself at the time, I began making Ken tapes of music that ran the gamut from ethnomusicologist’s field recordings to jump blues, from The Beach Boys to The Shaggs. His responses in conversation with me became a music review column titled “Ken’s Corner.” I published the column in my own publication, The Duplex Planet, and it ran in a few regional arts and music papers in New England, and as far away as Seattle.
About a half dozen years after Ken died I was asked to write some music reviews for an issue of Spin magazine that was being guest edited by the cast and staff of Saturday Night Live. I begged off at first, saying I didn’t know how to do that, but was told that, yes, I did know how to do it. I thought about it and realized I did know how to do it, because of Ken. His response to whatever unfamiliar recording he was hearing was through the emotional connections he always sought: Did it swing? Was it bluesy or soulful? Did he believe them? By example, filtered through his personal reckoning, Captain Beefheart was a winner (“That guy’s singing the blues”) and King Crimson was a loser (“That’s the academy – take it off!”).
Ken spent the last four or five months of his life at the V.A. hospital not far from the nursing home where he’d been living. He died in January and I made the arrangements for his funeral and burial. He had no family and somewhere along the line I was listed in his chart as a primary contact. The second contact was the teenage girlfriend of a guy who was a dishwasher at the home. She was fond of Ken and would sit and talk with him at the home. When he was transferred to the hospital she was concerned that they wouldn’t let her in to see him, so she told the front desk that she was Ken’s granddaughter, and that was duly entered into his chart as well.
I received a late night phone call when Ken died. The next day I contacted a funeral home near the hospital. Ken had meager funds left in whatever account he had as a former serviceman. The funeral director saw that there was a granddaughter listed so she was able to sign for and release those funds to be used for the funeral. The Boston Globe ran a big article about Ken and his love of music in their obituary section, complete with a photo. The wake at the funeral home was attended by local music scene hipsters along with nursing home employees and residents. Some of Ken’s favorite music played from a mixed tape I’d prepared, from Thelonious Monk to Jonathan Richman.
A couple days later, after a short church service, we followed a hearse to the veteran’s cemetery on Cape Cod. Two uniformed soldiers removed the flag that was draped over the coffin. They stepped towards each other with each successive fold they made until it was a triangle that they presented to me. In lieu of an actual bugle player, a recording of “Taps” was played, concluding the ceremony.
Artist David Greenberger lives in Greenwich, NY. www.davidgreenberger.com @davidbg. He is the lyricist for the song “January, co-written with Chandler Travis, which can be heard here: http://shop.chandlertravis.com/track/january