If you’re on Facebook (or maybe even if you’re not), you’ve probably seen the chart below, “What’s your blues name?” You just follow the instructions in bold and in three easy steps you’ve got yourself an authentic blues name. According to the chart, I should be known as Jailhouse Baby McGee. But the chart’s wrong. My blues name should be Fish Belly Gladbag. Let me tell you why.
It must be going on 20 years now that I lived up north, in a Boston neighborhood known as the South End. My wife and I—newly married—had a spacious, floor-through, one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of an old brownstone. The place was beautiful, if a little run down, and the rent was cheap.
I was a year out of law school, working long hours doing mostly landlord-tenant litigation (which I hated), being paid little more than an assistant manager at McDonald’s. The only thing that made the work day bearable was that my boss shared office space with some great people. The office location was a big plus, as well. We were on one of the upper floors of the South Market building of Faneuil Hall Marketplace. I fondly recall spending Friday afternoons in the office of a senior partner drinking The Glenlivet and looking out big picture windows over the marketplace as the weekend crowds started to roll in.
Although I’d often make the 45-minute walk home on nice days, which allowed me to clear my head, most of the time I’d commute to work on the T’s Green Line. The ride was four stops. Copley station was near home; Government Center was near work. During the evening commute, you could sometimes run into a real character. That’s what happened to me the night I got my blues name.
It was a pretty crowded train, but I managed to get a seat, almost right next to the door. There was the door, then one person, then me. At the first stop on the way home, the person sitting next to me got off and was replaced by a pretty pungent homeless fella and his two large, black trash bags full of cans. (I would later think of this guy every time I saw the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer’s rickshaw gets stolen by homeless guy, prompting Kramer to say, “We should have gotten some collateral from him. Like is bag of cans or his…other bag of cans.” See the quote at around 2:44 in the video below.)
My new neighbor turned out to be pretty chatty, as well. He started telling me about his cans and how he made good money off of them. According to him, it was a pretty competitive business. He said that he often had to use a knife to ward off other street dwellers who were after his loot. “Do you want to see it?” he asked.
“See what?” Why was I responding to this guy?
“My knife.” Before I could decide what the right answer to this question should be, he had pulled the knife out of his pocket. It was a medium-sized, fixed-blade hunting knife. Not Crocodile Dundee size by any means, but pretty shocking nonetheless. “Nice, isn’t it?”
I tried not to show my fear. “That’s some knife.” Maybe if I spoke in calm, measured tones, he wouldn’t hurt me.
“It’s sharp, too,” he said, “I could cut your belly open like a fish with it.”
I might have peed a little, but I said in as a matter-of-fact tone as I could, “I’ll bet you could.”
“Do you want to hold it?”
Did I want to hold his knife? A few scenarios flashed through my head. If the knife were in my hand, it wouldn’t be in his and he wouldn’t be able to kill me with it. But if I disarmed him in this way, would he suddenly get angry and try to fight me for the knife? If I didn’t take it, would he be insulted that I refused his offer and then decide to gut me? I also wondered whether touching anything he had touched would expose me to a horrible, disfiguring disease.
I decided that the best course of action was to politely decline the opportunity. He said okay and put the knife away. He started talking about something else, but I don’t remember what it was. All I could concentrate on was his hands and whether they’d move back toward the knife again. I didn’t have to do this for long. Within a minute or two, we arrived at Copley. I wished my executioner a good night and went on my way. Fish Belly Gladbag would live another day.