Conversation with John Smith
Is John Smith Elvis?
Conversation with John Smith
By Belkis Cuza Male
I have passed through all my life interviewing any kind of person, from very famous people to the guy next door whom nobody knows. I love the genre, I am interested in the life of people, to know why they act in this way or others. I love to trespass the threshold of houses and look inside their homes. I would like to know everything, that they open their hearts to me and tell me how they are, or how they imagine they are. Reconstruct their lives as if I was writing a novel, is a pleasant challenge.
In the case of John Smith, it was difficult, because although I can close my eyes and repeat by heart his answers, I needed to listen to them as though it was the first time. In order to interview John Smith I had to do three things first: I had to persuade him to answer my questionnaire, then meditate for days on the questions and promise myself I would not think about Elvis Presley while I was talking to John. None of this was easy, of course. If I hadn't had the courage and I had not insisted and had not taken advantage of the opportunities that appeared to me to reinitiate the conversation with him, where we left off the last time, you all would not be reading this interview now.
Most difficult of all, was erasing the idea from my mind that I was asking questions to Elvis. I wanted John Smith to speak as himself and not feel intimidated, or that he thought that I was setting traps for him. No, it wasn't nor will ever be my intention. These questions and answers are the result of several recent conversations, but also have been nourished with the knowledge, the affection and the friendship that is shared between John Smith and myself throughout the years. Good, the day which I began to interview him I did not need to ask the first question, because he, after the greeting, broke the ice and responded to with which we had already commented about before: "I have eaten squirrel". And sure I lay down a laugh....He was the humorous John of always, with a great sense of humor, and I knew that the atmosphere was perfect to chat with him. But I also remembered something that he had talked to me about a long time ago, a singer from the church which he attended as a child, and I insisted to hear it again which he told me: "The songs, the music, a lady, elder; a singer in the church, an old lady that was terrific."
And I also was there, in the middle of that Pentecostal church of the south and I saw him, a timid and precious boy, whispering hymns.
"A voice that would touch your soul.", he said.
"If you close your eyes you could listen to her singing?". "I can see her".
"Describe her, please", I requested to him.
"I can still picture her singing. Her voice was different than most, as if it stood out among the rest. She was overweight, but always dressed nice, and seemed sorta shy to me. When she sang was great."
"You sang in the church then?".
"When I sang in church it was under my breath."
"Were you shy?"
"Did you sing at home"
"I have always tried to sing, never thought I could. I aint a singer. I listened a lot of the singers in church. There was a quartet I loved to hear. I used to listen to the Louisiana Hay Ride."
"Did you start to play the guitar also then?"
"I am not too good at it. I bang on it."
"But, did you dream to have a guitar?"
"I still have a guitar".
Unexpectedly, he stops and requests me not to continue the questions.
"I really don't like to talk about my past. Those times were good memories."
I feel ashamed and I excuse myself with him, hoping he understands that it has not been my intention to touch algid points of the memory:
"No -- he says -- its just my memories of my childhood I don't like to talk about. Family is important to me. You have to understand... I miss my family too just like anybody else, you know. When uncles, aunts, etc. are all gone it hurts. Well, you become all alone. You look around: there is no one there. All the good times, the moments you cherish, you have memories. I don't want my early years exploited. There was nothing in the world that meant more to me than my momma. I think about the good times, is all I have...."
And suddenly, like frightening bad thoughts, I hear him saying to me: "And you know something? I like cheeseburgers too. It was a special thing to have them with potato Chips. You have to know how to fry them... ketchup on French fries. I do put it on hamburgers. I love bar B que. I am not an expert at anything but I do fix bar B que as good as the best. Ma'am I like ribs. I can bar B que those till they fall of the bones. Yes."
I take advantage to ask him about desserts:
"I like coconut cake. Is really good when somebody knows how to make it. Banana pudding... I like Reeses peanut butter cups."
"Ice Cream?", savoring the flavors already:"I have tried so many. I think now is between butter pecan and black walnut. You know what: have you heard of Neapolitan? I had that many years ago. Not sure you can get it now..."
We talk then about fruits:
"I have to say peaches or strawberries it is good in homemade ice cream."
"Do you like spiced meals, like Mexican?"
"Yes. it usually kills me but I like it."
And I do not know how we changed to the subject of music, but of the most prosaic way, if it is wanted, because I ask him if he sings in the shower, and why people usually do it."
"Is the sound in the bathroom that inspire people to sing."
"The water?", I ask to him.
"Gives a good sound, yes."
And I think to remember that he has said before that he occasionally sings in the shower.
Then I want to know if he is scared of airplanes (like I), if he enjoys to fly:
"Hell no. Scared of heights. I hate tall bridges."
We are already entering the matter, and I want to know on his sleeping habits.
"Lord, sometimes I can't sleep. I was up for 26 hours the other day".
We return to music. But when asking him of his favorites, he prefers not to mention names, but he says something that I know and I share:
"I like to listen to Bread, very good group. Easy listening. Percy Sledge had some good songs: "Take time to know her", "When a man loves a woman".
We are clearing the subject of the opera and I say to him that Elvis could sing any thing, even opera:
"I always wished I could. I can beller a few." But he lamented to forget the lyrics.. And he says something very funny but impossible to reproduce here.
"¿You don't like rap?"
"That is not even music."
"Do you like to dance? "
"I have always liked it but the Ritis Brothers don't, they don't like me dancing."
"You are a great dancer", I told him.
"But Ritis Brothers don't like for me too."
"Who are those Ritis Brothers? Excuse my ignorance, John."
"I need to check it, don't laugh at me, please, jajaja."
And then he sends a great outburst of laughter and says "arthuritis, arthritis. Get it? Chiste", he says in Spanish.
"Country music?", I want to know and I ask him:
"I would have to agree with Loretta, they all sound alike. If you don't see the video you never know who is singing."
"Garth Brooks?", I ask
"I seen him smash a guitar on stage, haven't liked him since."
"What about Celine Dion?
Then I want to know if he sings now other songs:
"You know, I sing other artist songs. But I don't know the lyrics to a lot of them..." In the middle of all this, suddenly, I commented to him that I had a dream where he said to me that in school they called him Tiger. I want to know if it is truth, or if they called him Crazy:
"I was called Crazy later... cause I'm crazy", he said.
And I take advantage of asking him the color of his hair:
"Well, has plenty of gray..."
"Gray, beautiful color:, I say. "Don't you dye it?".
I return to music:
"If you had to choose a song which would it be?"
"Too hard to say. Gospels are my favorites".
"Have you been in a church in the last few years?"
"Its been a while. I watch on TV two teachers of the word of God: Joel Osteen and Brother Murray (from Gravettt, Ark.), very intelligent men."
What about the book of Joel Osteen, Live Better Life Now.?"
On the following day, we return to talk. I want to know more about his horses. I told him that I have had a dream with one of them, where I saw as it ate a piece of bread that John had offered me in his home. I know that the horse is brown.
He says to me that he has a horse called Blackie, another Buddy and the other one Stormy. I ask him if Buddy likes to play.
Yes -- I told him-- he ate my bread, jajaja. I saw very clear he was laughing, jajaja.
I can hear his clear, fresh laugh, like that of a boy, as he has always had.
"Which one is older?"
"Oh, Lord, Buddy is about ten, I believe."
"Do they live 20 years?"
"Some longer, he says. I had one in his thirties."
"What about your dogs, do they bite?"
"Yes. Me too... Rott...."
"I am afraid of them", I say.
"I had one attacked me once, grabbed my leg. Had him put to sleep. Damn things can get mean. I would have shot the bastard if I had my gun on me. Grabbed my damn leg and tried to break it. I knocked the hell out of him."
"Do you have only one now?."
"No, more than one, also a big German Sheppard." And as the subject of the animals fascinates me, we continued commenting on other species that he has had at home.
I believe that it has been a day when I return to him. He is patient, and generous with my curiosity. He lets me ask him, and I try not to fall in the subject of Elvis. I am respectful of his silence, I am not going to transgress the drawn up norms. John Smith, for many enigmatic John Smith --for me already, the friend, the great singer who "hides" after his silence and his contagious laugh, so similar to the one of Elvis--, is without a doubt, an incredible human being.
It has been a gift of God to let me listen to John Smith singing live those gospels, but also, to know its relation with Our Lord, to feel that perhaps one of the missions of which is in favor in this earth it is to bring the divine inspiration of God to us through his voice. For that reason I ask how he prays:
"Through Jesus, the son", he says.
"Have you heard him sometimes talking to you?"
"I think we all have. That is a question that folks can rip u a part on."
"What do you think about spirituality?."
"With out the spirit we are no longer."
"Do you read now spiritual books? I mean any kind of book about spirituality and God, Jesus, etc.?"
"I still read a lot. Not going to call any titles. My eyes are not as good as they once were. U know, it hurts my eyes to read a lot."
"Do you read the Bible frequently?"
"Yes, I try too."
It was very late at night when he leaves me with his TCB and his Adios. Days back he had been in my PalTalk room (Presley Family and Friends 1) and sang several songs, among them some of those extraordinary gospels. Still his voice resonates in my soul, still I believe to feel just like when God announced through David: "Today you must listen to his voice. Don't harden your hearts against him ".
@ Belkis Cuza Malé, 2006
Translated with the assistance of Tonda Shaver