The Night Tripper

Mac Rebennack’s death last week brought a recollection of having had a chance meeting with him several years ago. I committed it to a few Facebook lines and sent a longer version to an old friend to whom I was writing.

My friend suggested that it’s a Rearview Mirror story. He’s right. I needed his prodding to see it.

I also came to understand in my own way and time what those pithy quotes and clichés mean –  life is a collection of moments. It’s not always the big, splashy vacations (though my first trip to Paris with a bestie remains unmatched) or huge events like childbirth and marriage (though definitely significant). In retrospect, the stories I have fun telling and others enjoy listening to and reading generally involve the ordinary, and some degree of happenstance.

And so it was the morning I met Mac…

In the “olden” days – which for me means pre-9/11 – there were flights from SFO to JFK leaving hourly on week day mornings. I always booked the 6AM which had me arrive dead tired at roughly 3PM eastern time. To make that flight the alarm sounded at 3:30ish, and I left the house at 4:30 to arrive at the airport by 5. I was so tuckered by the time I got to my hotel in midtown Manhattan that I could fall asleep on local time with minimal problem.

Boarding took place a little after 5, while still dark outside, and I would nestle in my seat for a little pre-take off shut eye then keep myself awake for the remainder of the trip. I took these flights frequently and flight crews often recognized me. They were kind enough to put aside my favorite breakfast. This mattered to me. I’m not a morning person. Correction – I am a morning person, just not a smiling, talking one.

This particular morning I noticed someone boarding a bit ahead of me in the jetway. A man. Tall. A hat with a feather and a long grayish ponytail down his back.

The 60s and early 70s are a time I don’t glorify. They were unique no doubt. The music unmatched. They changed the culture of our country in ways large and small from integration and abortion, to recreational drugs, even school dress codes for girls morphed to accommodate pants, and of course, the Vietnam war. The first time I’d seen a national issue turn father against son.

I like my 60s kept in the 60s. I’m not wistful about them nor do I pine for the summer of love. Therefore the sight of a man at least my age with a ponytail irked me. I wanted to say, “Excuse me, sir, do you know what year it is?” and jettison him out of hippie nostalgia.

That morning the not a smiling, talking morning person saw the offending man settle himself in the window seat next to mine on the aisle. He would be my seat mate. For six long hours.

In the days before iPhones and earbuds the best way to avoid all contact was to immediately cover up with a blanket and feign sleep which I did after stowing my belongings. Then the pilot announced a take-off delay of one and a half hours. I surely could not doze for seven and a half hours.

In the pre-dawn hours it was easy to fall asleep in spite of feeling annoyed by the presence of my seat mate and the delay, until I began to feel the rising sun’s rays on my face. It was then I heard a honeyed, raspy drawl say, “Let me pull the shade down for you.”

A voice at once familiar and not, unlike any other. A growl of sorts with a musical lilt, a hoarseness with a lazy twang.

I opened my eyes and turned my head toward the seat mate. He smiled. “Hi, I’m Mac Rebennack.” Stunned, I said nothing. He added after a pause, “Some people know me as Dr. John.”

Of all the seat mates this blues lover could ever have. Better than riding with Carly Fiorina and Senator Feinstein, Bill Russell, or even Tyler Florence (who, by the way is pretty danged good lookin’), I was seated next to the Night Tripper.

Mac talked. And talked. I didn’t mind. I listened. When it was clear he wanted or maybe even needed to talk, I asked questions. His body man was on the flight sitting a few rows behind us I learned when he approached and inquired if Mac would like to switch seats. I believe he thought I’d been bothering Mac. But no, Mac was planted; I was his audience. He was in full storytelling mode. No seat switch would happen.

We gabbed and laughed and when we got close to New York he suddenly became bashful and slightly embarrassed realizing he’d told of things both professional and intimate, “You’re not with the press or anything, are you?”  Nope. “And you won’t tell everyone, will you?” I won’t. “You’re easy to talk to and we share some interests. And I like your kicks.”

Kicks. The first time I’d ever heard that expression. Over 20 years ago. Mac liked my kicks.

As we landed he offered a ride to my hotel. His car would be picking him up. Famous or not, secrets shared and all, I did not know Mac Rebennack. I didn’t want to be rude and I didn’t want to accept a ride not knowing what it might indicate to him. I leveraged what I knew to make light of the situation. As one product of parochial school to another I believed he’d understand. “Thank you, Mac, but a good Catholic girl can’t accept a ride from a stranger.”

“You’re right. You can’t,” with his deep chortle. He took out the business card of his manager and on the back he wrote his home number. “If you ever need anything, you call me or my wife, Cat, and if we don’t answer, call this man. He always knows where to find me.”

He handed me the card.

I thanked him. It seemed only fair to confess that I tried to stay undercover, so I didn’t have to talk to someone I thought was lost in the 60s. “That’s okay, I thought you were bitchy.”

Perfect.  It was a draw.

I never used the card, didn’t call the number. I was always curious if I was one of many holding something similar, or someone special. But it didn’t really matter for the flight was special enough.

I kept his number in my wallet for years occasionally pulling it out, turning it over to find his handwriting, and recalling the story to myself. I’d wonder if I made the whole thing up. Then I’d remember the sound of his voice. “Let me pull the shade down for you.”

It was real alright and signaled the beginning of seven rapt hours.

Good night, Mac Rebennack. Thank you for the ride.

Mac Rebennack – Dr. John, The Night Tripper