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llustration by Mitch Handsone

AROUND 8:30 P.M., AFTER BILL AND DANA and I had
eaten dinner and settled back in to work, Hector Schechner called and insisted
I buy a cheap electric guitar, immediately. “To build up calluses,”
he said. Schechner and I had spoken over the weekend. Talked about politics
and the tendency of social policies to change in 30-year cycles, because it
takes that long for a generation to figure out how badly it had been fucked
over by the preceding generation, and then to draw up dreadfully faulty blueprints
to correct the errors. Talked about the necessity of certain kinds of blisters,
the ones that yield desirable calluses, such as those that afflict the fingertips
of players of guitar.

Schechner claimed never to have picked up a guitar, but reacted
with some heat when I glumly admitted that, for the first time since I was 15,
my fingertips were callusless. He’d hung up on me, in fact, and I hadn’t heard
from him since.

“Take a break,” Schechner now insisted. “You’re
five minutes from Guitar Center. Go there, right now, and buy a cheap electric
guitar. A hundred thirty bucks for a Squier with a decent neck. It’ll last all
winter.”

“I’m at work,” I reminded him. “And I don’t have
money.”

“Take a break. Tell your boss it’s important. Put it on a
credit card.”

As it happened, my boss, Bill, was a fine guitarist who kept his
own cheap electric guitar in the corner of his office, leaning against a small
orange couch. Throughout the workday, people came into Bill’s office to conduct
business or talk. One of every dozen or so visitors who sat on the couch would
foodle around with his guitar. (It wasn’t plugged into an amp or anything.)
Probably why some visited in the first place.

“Sounds good,” said Bill, when I proposed the short
road trip. “I could use a break.” We’d worked hard all day, and our
crew — an art department at a newspaper — was ahead of schedule, waiting for
stories and artwork to arrive. Bill was the art director, and I was lead designer.
I had one other boss, Dana, who was the editorial art director. Dana played
drums, so it seemed like a good idea for Dana to come, too. (We were all close
friends. Best job I ever had.)

It was raining hard. We took my car. The conversation with Schechner
over the weekend had instilled a bit of ’70s-whiteboy-guitar-hero nostalgia,
and I’d packed the VW’s CD player accordingly: We pulled out of the parking
lot accompanied by Eddie Van Halen.

Three grown men driving west down rain-slickened Sunset Boulevard,
backward through time, a five-minute drive to a cheap electric guitar, employed,
drooling.

WHEN I MOVED TO CALIFORNIA IN THE LATE 1970s, I bought a $20 electric
guitar — a Fender Jaguar impersonation — and a $15 amplifier at a High Desert
pawnshop. The late 1970s was a special time for a new kid in town and his cheap
electric guitar. New kid wasn’t very good, but good enough to keep himself company,
play along with rock and jazz records, eventually jamming with similarly untalented
friends in an afterschool “band” that never played in public. My fingertips
blistered terribly at first, but after a few persistent weeks the calluses began
to form, and from then on, until recently, I played often enough to maintain
serviceable pincushions on my leftern fingertips.

I belonged to the club, you see — the Callused Fingertip Club,
man. I was important, you dig? Because there were thousands of us, all over
the country, all over the world, with these same calluses that had begun life
as blisters. And alone in our rooms, after school, we’d overcome the pus and
the pain to form these mighty pillows of scar tissue that allowed us to make
music. (Specifically, to play “Stairway to Heaven” in our dorm rooms,
over and over, wistfully, trying to get laid.)

I HADN'T BEEN TO GUITAR CENTERin many years, since the
old Sunset Grill was a tin shack next door, where you’d wait out a Sunday afternoon
downpour with a burned hamburger and some secondhand smoke. We parked around
the corner and rushed inside. Place looked about the same. The sales staff seemed
to have changed only haircuts. Guitars of all creeds and pickups lined the walls
like the post cards depicting Hollywood Boulevard on sale along Hollywood Boulevard.
And the same signs and oversize price tags with, really, about the same prices.
And always, as in every guitar übershowroom from Tokyo to Tallahassee,
one guy — at least one guy — sitting on an amp in a corner, playing speed-metal
licks on a lacquered maple-top, mahogany-back something, with mother-of-pearl
inlays in its genuine Brazilian-rosewood neck.

What world was this? What year? And what was I doing in it? Who
was Schechner, really? Do I need a guitar, or do I just need the calluses? And
where are Bill and Dana?

“Dave?” Apparently I’d sat down in the middle of the
floor, disoriented. Bill and Dana were standing beside and above, offering assistance.

“Hey!” someone barked. “Dudes! C’mere!”

It was that guy — the metal speedsmith in the corner, sitting
on the amp, undazzling us all, blithely, with soulless calisthenics on an orange
Paul Reed Smith 513. Long dirty-blond hair, big black handlebar mustache, motorcycle
boots, jeans, tank top with skull insignia, rose-tinted glasses. But, strangely,
no tattoos. Waving us over.

Bill shrugged, and Dana shrugged, and I stood and shrugged, and
we walked toward the offending wave. As we got closer, it became clear that
this particular soloist did not have long dirty-blond hair and a big
black handlebar mustache, but rather was wearing a long blond wig and
a big black fake handlebar mustache, and that he was, beneath it all,
god help us, Hector Schechner.

Hector Schechner, septuagenarian standup comedian, who had specifically
told me that he did not play guitar, sitting on an amp, playing fatuous
speed-scales like a virtuoso 14-year-old suburbanite on meth.

“What the fuck, Schechner?” inquired I.

“Right on,” said Schechner uneasily, raising a fist
as he felt his new character would. Then he reached behind his amp-chair and
presented me with a pre-selected black Fender Squier, with a $129 price tag.
“Here,” said Schechner. “Buy this. It’s got a good neck. Get
your calluses back.”

I took the Squier, which lives with me to this day, and introduced
Schechner to Bill and Dana, who were a bit apprehensive. They’d heard me mention
Schechner before, but they’d always responded with expressions of misgiving,
as if Schechner were a fictional character, someone I’d made up for personal
reasons.

Schechner examined Bill’s hands, then Dana’s hands. “Guitar
and drums?”

Bill and Dana nodded.

Schechner’s new persona nodded back, and raised his fist again.
“Calluses, man!” he proclaimed for all to hear. “The bastards
can’t stop us as long as we have our calluses!”