For the Feast of Tabernacles in 2005, I went to Wildwood, New Jersey. It was an odd experience for many reasons, from having gone to the site because my girlfriend at the time was going to be there, only to have us broken up by the time the Feast came around, to being caught in a Nor’easter at the end of the Feast, to being a designated driver at a double date at a bar, to being my first experience with GPS, which I used to find the location of the nearest Italian restaurants in town, many of which had odd schedules because we were at the Jersey shore off-season. Among those odd experiences, though, was the fact that during that Feast I took my only trip to-date to New York City proper (outside of the airports, that is), where before watching Beauty & The Beast on Broadway, our group stopped to eat dinner in Times Square once we got through the horrific traffic to get to Manhattan.
As it happened, BB King’s restaurant did not set aside enough seats for all of us, so while some fortunate souls got to eat at that restaurant, the rest of us (myself included) had to eat at the Applebee’s across the street. Now, I have nothing against Applebee’s, and enjoy eating there fairly frequently, as I am fond of their mozzarella sticks as happy hour snacks to wash down with iced tea, and their lunch deals, when I actually go out to eat for lunch, that is, but I can eat at Applebee’s any day, and that is not the case for BB King’s restaurant. I have not yet had the chance since then to eat at that particular restaurant, since I do not frequent the locations where it is located, like Times Square and Memphis. As odd as it may be, this experience is somewhat emblematic of my arms’ length familiarity with the career of BB King as a whole. I have always respected his talent, but most of my closer familiarity with him has been in those rare places where his life and my own set of close interests interacted, and this was not as often as one would expect.
For a variety of reasons, I tend to be most familiar with blues musicians and blues songs when those songs interact with other forms of popular culture . For the late BB King, I was familiar with his restaurant, because I like to go out to eat when finances allow. I was familiar with a few of his albums, like his collaboration with Eric Clapton, the critically acclaimed “Riding With The King.” I was familiar with his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, because I pay attention to who is inducted and who is not. Most of all, though, I am familiar with his collaborations with other artists on songs that I heard on the radio or that I own because of buying the albums of those artists he collaborated with. Among those songs is his duet with U2, “When Love Comes to Town,” and most bizarrely, the sample of his song “How Blue Can You Get” in the oddly titled Primitive Radio Gods hit song “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand,” where both the lead singer of that alternative band and BB King sing the same line over and over again as a refrain.
In an oddly appropriate way, that song’s title and my experience at BB King’s restaurant share with them a common thread, one I find somewhat melancholy in the larger sense. When one stands outside a broken phone booth with money in your hand, not that anyone has used a phone booth for years in the United States at least, one has the means to buy what one is looking for, but because the phone booth is broken, one cannot get what one has come for, through no fault of your own, except the fault of choosing the wrong phone booth to go to, if that may be considered a fault. Likewise, although I had purchased a meal at BB King’s restaurant, they were unable to serve me because they had not planned well enough for our large crowd, so I ended up having to eat somewhere else. It was an experience, poignantly, that BB King himself had to face as a child of the segregated South with his own dysfunctional family background to drive him to the blues in addition to the other burdens of life he faced.
Sometimes in life it is the brokenness of our context and our environment, be it our communication and transportation infrastructure, sometimes our society as a whole, or our local communities, sometimes our family, sometimes our congregations or employers or any other number of institutions and contexts, that leads our lives to be more stressful and full of woe than we have strictly earned. The question is, what do we do with the broken materials of our surroundings and our lives as we find them, and, with the help of God, live a better life than we ought to live. What do we do with the money in our hand after we leave the broken phone booth far behind, knowing we still have a call to make? Do we find another phone booth, humming the blues as we go? Perhaps we should, unless we had the skill to fix the broken phone booths we came across in our experience, that is.