In my late twenties I had my first band. I had been connected to a piano player, Fred Cassidy, if you’re here today, Hi Fred! We were asked to provide live music for a fundraiser for a theater company we were both working with.
The theme of the fundraiser was James Bond so we put together a set of covers from the 60s and 70s, Fred got a drummer and a bass player. I found a white dinner coat and an eye patch. Right before the gig I asked two of my girlfriends if they would be gogo dancers. The whole thing was thrown together but Fred and the band were electric, everyone there people danced for hours, the girls shook their money makers all night long and I found I had a front man inside of me, roaring to get out. Except for losing my balance from wearing an eye patch, and nearly falling off the stage, it was an excellent night.
Chris Wells and the Highballs, Featuring the International Kittens, was born.
We became the best party band of all time—our gigs were legendary. We got a monthly residency at The Atlas, a really swank nightclub inside the same deco building as the Wiltern Theater at Wilshire and Western, with the big gold sun on the wall behind the stage, and large gold sculptures of Atlas suspended from the ceiling.
From the James Bond look I moved onto wearing my dad’s pilot uniform, the dancers dressed like stewardesses. The gigs were more ecstatic rites than shows…one of things I’ve always wanted to bring people in my performances, ecstasy. A feeling of overwhelming happiness.
But while I was making these high octane performances my personal life was highly dysfunctional. I didn’t have my own place, I house sat for friends, a couple weeks here, a couple weeks there. Kept my clothes and possessions in the trunk of my car.
My friend Bridget connected me to some friends of hers in Santa Monica. They were going out of town for a week and needed someone to dogsit.
One sunny weekday afternoon I visited them in their airy apartment on a shady side-street, Sarah made tea, Matt was funny in a pointy-headed way. They were smart and kind but reserved, not like theater people, more like academics.
While we talked, their bulldog sat on the couch like a chunky old man, trying to catch his breath. I wish I could remember his name—Mr. Pickles or Chauncy or Bill. Anyway, we agreed I would stay there while they went to visit Sarah’s mom back east.
The week was sweet, I dragged the dog around the block once or twice a day and enjoyed the peace and quiet of Santa Monica, happy for a respite from the drama of living out of the back of my car.
They came back and we had a little meeting where I gave back their keys, as well as their dog, their plants, their kitchen—everything that had been mine for one week, returned to the people they really belonged to.
“Thank you so much,” Sarah said, handing me a tissue wrapped package. A gift, for being able to stay in their home. So gracious.
I took the softly crinkly package, heavier than it appeared but limp, its edges flopped over the sides of my hands.
“My mother runs a fabric import business,” Sarah said, “specializing in Chinese silk.”
I slipped my hand under the scotch-taped flap and inside the tissue. My fingers met the smoothest, softest secret. Had I ever touched anything so soft?
Inside were two pairs of silk pajamas. One pair was deep purple with a subtle pattern of dark red watercolor smudges. The other was cheetah print. Even now, after decades of incredible costumes and outfits, beautiful things custom made for me, sequined capes and kimonos, rompers, jand dresses, these pajamas remain among the finest things I’ve ever worn.
I couldn’t tell if Sarah realized the magical power of her gift. She gave it so easily, no build up or fanfare. If I were giving someone a life-changing gift, I imagine I’d draw some attention to it.
I drove away, to my next house sitting gig, or rehearsal or whatever day job I had at the time. But as soon as I could, I stripped and tried on the pajamas. In many myths, the hero becomes the recipient of a transformative garment, so were these pajamas. They became my pre-show outfit for our nightclub shows, and I would mingle with the crowd before the show began, wearing them, exuding an air of cool control and swagger. Feeling ownership over something I didn’t yet possess.
It is said that only someone who hasn’t had a home can truly know what a home can mean. Only those who’ve felt the hardness of life—not just in its difficulty but its surfaces: plastic, glass, cement, the earth, tough against your bodies—can know what softness means. May you have ease today, may you slide our way through the hours, may the edges you meet feel soft to the touch.