Write It Down: My Time With L.T.
I don't own the clothes I'm wearing, and the road goes on forever, and I've got one more silver dollar.
His perfectly rectangle fingernails, worn from years of playing honky tonk songs on a guitar, are pressed firmly against the fret board as the first chord rings out from the busted up instrument. The pure sound is quickly countered by a course voice that travels from behind his gnarly, crush n’ run beard. The troubadour’s hair is long and fading at his temples, it is usually covered by his tattered Confederate flag ball cap.
The man’s name is Lionel Timothy Titus Bowen, or as his friends call him, L.T. the Midnight Rider. Like his name, his story is long and his memory is tainted by years of hard living. Some things he cannot recall, but at least tries to remember as much as he can. Similar to the spread of the sawed-off shotgun he was once arrested with, the holes in his memory are wide.
Thursday, Sept. 10
There is a bearded duo sitting on the bench a little ways down past the crosswalk. They both hold a guitar, plus a third that is on the ground. One man looks to be about 35. His glossy hair is pulled back into a ponytail. He holds a classical guitar.
L.T. is much rougher. The first thing you notice is his beard, it’s home to miscellaneous items secured by rubber bands. He wears two belts and a backwards hat. At first glance, he looks like a crazy man.
“Hell yea brother man, it ain’t got a high E string but you’re welcome to it!” L.T. says from behind his adorned beard, his words like gravel. We play a few songs. The younger beard and I switch off playing lead and rhythm. The older beard searches the neck and matches the chords. I’m sweating and my friends are back to grab me. Collin, the one with the mocca classical and I trade numbers. I doubt we will ever call one another. I shake the big mans hand. He tells me his name is ‘L.T. the Midnight Rider.’ He doesn’t look like he has held many silver dollars in his day. The brief trio returns to a country duo.
Friday, Sept. 18
It is 11:30pm as I leave Gringos for Buffingtons. There is a Southern rock group playing. The band, ‘Fall Line Rambler,’ is good and the attendance is poor. They’re covering ‘Can’t You See’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival. I order a beer and head to the restroom. Before I can make it to the hallway, L.T., the toothless, bearded old man stops me and gives me his phone.
I tell him I remember him and he hands me his pay-as-you-go phone as he says,
“Put your number in it. Put the word ‘music’ behind it so I know why you’re calling me.”
L.T. and me go outside, he needs a cigarette and wants someone to hold his guitar. The back door of Buffingtons opens, cutting the lingering smoke. There are more people in the alley than in the bar. A tall blonde girl asks if she can play a song, pointing to his guitar. L.T. bums a light, tugs at his beard and hands the girl his cherished guitar. He is eager to see her play.
For the next twenty minutes we both watch her through the openings on the railing. She covers Fetty Wap’s ‘Trap Queen’ —flawlessly.
Back inside, L.T. tells me that the guitar being played by the old man on stage is a magic guitar. He feels no need to explain. I shake L.T.’s hand, tell him I will call him and hand him a few cigarettes as a show of goodwill.
“I ain’t got nothing else to do but play guitar. I’ll call you tomorrow, I got your number,” he tells me as I walk to the door.
Tuesday, September 22th
I call L.T. at 4pm on a Tuesday to take him up on his offer. I tell him I am coming over to play guitar.
“Come on over man, I been waiting on you all day,” L.T. says. “Hey uh,” he pauses. “Bring me a pack of Pall Malls will ya?” he finishes. I tell him no problem and swing by the gas station.
A sorrow-eyed woman is blocking the steps to the apartment where L.T. lives. I say hello but she counters and tries to sell me $50 worth of food stamps for $25 cash.
L.T. lives in apartment number 6. He greets me at the door and welcomes me in. The apartment is very clean. There are two couches, a busted stereo, a stack of Kid Rock albums and a coffee table. There is a young black man sitting on a couch and a broken grandfather clock in the tope-colored corner. The coffee table is home to two open bibles and a plaster bowl used as an ashtray. The young man shakes L.T.’s hand and leaves.
“I’m a preacher you know? Well no not really. I am a priest,” L.T. says. “I’m a Levitican Priest. Means nobody ordained me. God ordained me when I was born.” He talks about his faith while be strum a few songs and listen to ‘Bawitaba’ by Kid Rock. He smokes a cigarette.
“I couldn’t even read till I got thrown in Jail. When I was in there they just gave me a Bible and I taught myself to read.” L.T. says.
“Who are those pictures of in the clock L.T.?” I ask him. “Those are all my kids,” he says standing up.
He walks over to the clock, opens it and removes a watch.
“Check this out, I made this for my son,” he says. The watch is cheap with no working parts. In place of a clock face there is a wallet cut picture of a child. “That is my daughter. She died not too long ago,” he says, matter-of-factly.
We play a few more songs; smoke a few more cigarettes then I head out. Why was this guy in jail? My mind races as I get in my car. I tell L.T. I’ll call him.
Wednesday, Sept. 30
“Hey man I’m down here in front of Blackbird with my guitar. You coming?” L.T. says over the phone. I tell him I am on my way. I bring two picks because I know L.T. won’t have one.
The air is sticky and downtown is in a lull. He waves to me from across the street, wearing shorts over jeans and a silk kimono covered by a Bobcat tennis sweater vest. A rebel flag hat with “Country Boy” stamped across the front is on his head.
“Swing man! You got a pick? Lot of people down here, we could make some money,” he says as he puts his arm around me.
He calls me ‘Swing Man’ because he thinks I am the sultan of swing. Don’t ask me why. But if I am the sultan, then L.T. is Guitar George who can only afford a cheap guitar. I hand him a pick.
We start to play until his strumming ceases and the words to “Simple Man” are abandoned mid-verse.
“I thought that might have been my daughter for a second,” L.T. said. “I guess she’d be about that age now.” His eyes look lonely above his beard, which is decorated with miscellaneous pieces of parking lot jewelry tied into it with rubber bands. He sounds weary.
It is so hot my guitar is sticking to my clothes. After a few songs its time for L.T.’s cigarette break and we go out the back of Blackbird. We leave the guitars unattended on the bench, his idea.
“Swing man, look down there,” he says pointing at a Black & Mild wrapper. “Go down there and grab that crayon. We can use that to write down all the songs we write,” he says.
I tell him it’s just a wrapper, but he insists I pick it up for proof.
Our next stop is Dodo’s, the antiquated pool hall that has a plywood façade where a sign would go for a normal business. The AC in Dodo’s is nearly as cold as their beer, which is a welcome change.
We sit toward the end of the bar near the door next to the hotdog rollers and started asking questions for my story.
“Lionel Timothy Titus Bowen,1-31-62. Write it down.” I order two beers.
“Jared Allen Wesley Bowen, write it down”
“Emily Elaine Anne Bowen, write it down”
“Carly Jean Anne Bowen, write it down”
This continues until I have the majority of his family tree. I stop him before he starts another branch or a sect of once removed cousins.
I learned, over time, he is from Clarkston, Georgia, the youngest of 10 children. His mother was a saint and an author. His father was an angry drunk.
“I coulda gone pro in pool when I was younger. But that was when fooseball came out. I was all about that hand-eye business,” L.T. says, eyeing the bartender. He continues to open up to me about his past.
“I was married in the eyes of the law, but never the eyes of God. We got a divorce. God says you’re married to that person forever. We ain’t together now so we were never really married,” he explains.
L.T. retired when he was diagnosed with manic depression and bi-polar disorder. His children live in Milledgeville. He had four children. One is dead. But he tells me that he has countless children.
“Every time a kid was in need, we would bring them in and give them a home. I called all of em son and daughter. I’ve raised hundreds of kids,” he tells me.
I continue with my prodding questions. He answers most with a gruff mumble. At the moment he is more interested in employing the ashtray.
“My mother always said she wanted to come back after death as a butterfly,” he says, ashing his cigarette. “The day she died our house was surrounded by a whole mess of ‘em, everywhere.” he says. I look at the bartender as she turns her back towards us. It’s covered by two rows of butterflies that float over her shoulder blades. She also wears a butterfly pendant.
“Hey, I sure do like your necklace! Love butterflies,” he says to the bartender, pointing to the pendant, suspended in her cleavage. “I know you do L.T.,” the twenty-something sarcastically reply’s through the rising smoke.
She hands him another Miller Lite tallboy and draws a heart on the cap.
L.T.’s eyes are gleaming. But then two more women walk through the door, one tall and blonde, the other short and tan with dark hair.
“Look behind you brother, a Swede and a Cherokee. Which one you want?” he chuckles “Which one you want Swingman?”
L.T. pulls out his knife and asks me for a guitar pick. “Watch this. Women love this,” he says, carefully carving a guitar pick into a heart, which he gives to the bartender. She smiles whole-heartedly and admires his creation before stuffing it in her Daisy Duke shorts
We move from the bar to a table back by the jukebox. L.T. knows I need to ask some more questions. He tells me his father and uncles played guitar and taught him when he was a boy. He makes it sound like his father was Johnny Cash. I know his love of music is real, even if his other stories leave me with doubt.
“When I was in prison in Jacksonville, I was put in charge of the music room. Before me no one got to use it at all. Too many fights!” he exclaims. “Until me that is, no one would fight in there because if they did, they’d have to fight me first,” L.T. says.
“How’d you get thrown in jail?” I ask, unsure if this will be answered.
He pushed dope and speed until he was 30. He only stopped because the cops kicked in the door, took away his sawed-off shotgun he swears was only used for shooting snakes and then took him to prison. Lionel did two years in Jacksonville with 13 years probation.
We head back to the bar and listen to L.T. as he talks to the baseball capped man on the other side of him. They start talking about guitars
“I teach it all man. Rhythm, chords, power chords, hammer on’s. You name it.” L.T. says to the man. I over hear L.T. tell him he has been playing guitar for couple years now.
Monday, Oct. 5
L.T. called me two days before, on a Saturday at 6:53. I told him I was in Athens. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I was trying to watch Bama beat the Dawgs, which meant I couldn’t spend my day on a Milledgeville bench playing lead over his four chords. I knew I’d get in touch with him on Monday.
I called him as I began walking downtown from campus with my guitar on my back; I knew he would be in Dodo’s. Before I get to the door Lionel opens the door and waves to me. He is still wearing Carhartt shorts over his jeans but this time atop his head sits a folded leather cap. Under it is a skull and crossbones doo-rag.
“Swing man!” he yells at me as he puts his arm on my shoulders. He calls me ‘Swing Man’ because he thinks I am the sultan of swing. Don’t ask me why. But if I am the sultan, then L.T. is Guitar George who knows all the chords and can only afford a cheap guitar. We are friends.
We grab two stools at the bar. He lifts up his doo-rag revealing a quarter-sized scab and laughs. Those hats we traded ate me up. Always wash a hat you trade.” The last time we hung out we traded hats with each other.
Dodo’s is slow. The Vietnam Veteran sits on his stool with his wheelchair below, the bartender restocks the Camels and L.T. feels at home, safe. These are his people, whether they like it or not.
“Swing man, I ain’t got but an hour. I told this boy who lives below me I’d teach him to play pool. This kid is brilliant. Knows music, history… you name it. He isn’t all there though.” L.T. tells me.
“That’s fine man, I got nothing but time. What’s the matter with him? His momma drink a lot when she was pregnant? ” I reply. He nods his head solemnly. “His momma didn’t have no self control when she was pregnant…” a look of distaste briefly falls over him as he answers. We smoke a cigarette.
“Hi, I’m Devon,” a kid says as he appears next to me with his hand stretched out. He is a young black 20-something with a vice-grip handshake. I know this is whom L.T. is supposed to teach how to play pool today. We talk about everything from L.T. to music. He likes Kenny Rogers.
He gets angry at me during the game when I tell him how it is supposed to be played, I stop the informing. Across the bar, my scrawled notes are on the table fluttering because of the fan nearby and I see L.T. flipping through them. If I had faith in his literacy and eye site I would have been worried.
De’von takes his shot. The ball ricochets off the bumper. “Pool is all about me bettering myself. People make the habits,” he pauses. “But a lot of time habits end up making the people.” I look over at L.T. and think about De’von’s words. I hit the eight ball around the table, avoiding the pockets. I know this isn’t a game I want to win. L.T. gives me a five and a one for the jukebox. “Put on some stuff you like, I wanna hear what you wanna hear,” he says as he takes my cue. I’m relieved I don’t have to play another round.
The next game ends and L.T. comes back to our pockmarked high top table beside the PBR sign. A young girl is sitting with us now, her name is Tori and she is wearing a tight blue dress with a crucifix pattern on it. The tattoos on her collarbone, left arm and ankle are slightly visible. She places a Newport in her mouth and doesn’t ask for a lighter. The Dixie Chicks and Elton John are on the jukebox now thanks to her. L.T. heads to the bar.
“I’m crazy you know, I’ve got papers from the state and everything. I could show you,” the words leave her mouth and find my ears through the smoke. “Everyone is. A little at least. Papers of no papers,” I reply. L.T. returns.
“Look at this here girl, know what this is? It’s Rosary beads. They’re for praying,” he tells Tori. The Rosary beads he’s showing her are actually a choker to be worn tightly around a woman’s neck. Not for prayer. L.T. says the cross fell off of it. Tori humors him. I let Lionel fall in love for a second while I get two more beers. I put my notebook on Lionel away.
Tori starts telling us about her tattoos. She’s got a whole bunch. L.T. has got quite a few himself expect his art could never adorn a woman’s body. On his right shoulder sits a lion, for his daughter who was a Leo. The opposite shoulder is home to an Indian chief.
“I don’t know his name. But he’s the Indian chief who prayed to god to help him.” he said explaining his ink. On his left calf is the outline of a joker. He tells me he used to own a tattoo parlor across from where the Velvet Elvis sits currently. It was called ‘The Jokers Palace’ and he is still proud of it despite the fact it is long gone.
Tori shows us a picture of her ribcage on her phone. It is a tattoo of a tree with Forest Gump resting on branch over a tombstone that belongs to Jenny, of course. Under the tree in script it reads, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough stones.”
“It means sometimes you just don’t have what you need to destroy what you need to. So you can move on ya know?,” she tells me. I look at L.T. and think about her words. What has L.T. been throwing rocks at his whole life. We smoke a cigarette.
L.T. goes to the bar to talk to the Vietnam Vet. Its dark now and the bar reflects the neon signs above it. The ‘war hero’ as L.T. calls him is rocking back and forth to the Hendrix I helped him pick out on the jukebox. He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t find ‘Jimmy’ Hendrix on the damn thing.
Me and Tori start talking about how she doesn’t look like her mother. I show her a picture of my father on my phone in return and she says I look just like him, mostly the eyes.
“That’s so funny, L.T. told me you were his son when you were in the restroom,” she says to me. “I’m not surprised, he probably tells people you are his daughter,” I reply.
Tori blasts another Newport and finishes her hotdog. Around her neck is a piece of parking lot jewelry L.T. gave her earlier. It has a faux pearl in the middle. He told her to never take it off.
By now dozens of people have come and left with either a buzz or smoke in their clothes since I originally arrived in Dodo’s. I tell Skyler, the butterfly bartender, to close my tab as she sweeps up the ashes that missed the ashtray. I look to see if my guitar is still between the chained fridges. Dodo is asleep in his chair with his white beard tucked into his chest. I start packing up my stuff.
“Swing man you heading out? I need to borrow some money. Say ten bucks?” he asks. I tell him the truth. I have no cash. He counters by saying, “How about another PBR and pack of Reds?”