Idiosyncrasies and Compulsions: September 11th and Paul Dickman

by Bruce Thines



Paul Dickman moved into the hotel during the spring of 2011.  He was unemployed, or as he states, between gigs.  You see, Paul plays tenor sax.

I got to know Paul as I am one of the security guards in the hotel.  Paul’s crazy, too, but mostly harmless.  He’s so superstitious he’d rather break his back than break a mirror.  He’s so much of an obsessive – compulsive that he needs to spend a few hours a week on a shrink’s couch with routines that would make you crazy if you thought too much a bout it.

For one, he has to wash his hands five times, not four, not six, just before he plays the sax.  And after his nimble fingers are clean enough to play he won’t touch anything with his bare hands except his saxophone because if he does, he’ll hve to wash them five times again.

Paul reads the newspaper every day but Tuesday.  He will not buy a Tuesday newspaper nor will he borrow one.  He won’t watch television news or listen to a radio on Tuesday.  He believes that if he dares to take in the news on any Tuesday, his heart will fail.

He won’t eat mushrooms, either raw or cooked, not in any sauce, even though he loved mushrooms as a kid.  Paul says it’s due to serious hallucinations he had from eating mushrooms years ago.  He won’t eat any round cookie that reminds him of a mushroom cap.  In a market, he avoids that end of the produce section where the mushrooms are offered for sale.  And if the market is new to him, he avoids the produce section altogether, out of fear that he’ll have a sudden fungal encounter.

Each morning he makes one extra slice of toast with breakfast, lays it on his kitchen table and in a contrived, casual way, he knocks it to the floor.  If it lands butter side up he eats it with pleasure, confident that the day will be good from start to finish.  If it lands butter side down he throws the toast away, wipes up the butter, and goes about his day with heightened awareness of potential danger.

On the first night of every full moon Paul makes his way to the nearest Catholic Church, puts seventeen dollars in the poor box and lights seventeen votive candles.  He claims to have been told to do this by a woman in a dream.  She told him that the seventeen candles are a way of keeping his pain at bay.  And if he allowed himself to understand his motivation the pain would go away.  For most of us the wounds that life inflicts are slowly healed and we’re left only with scars.  But maybe Paul is too sensitive to let the wounds fully close, maybe his obsessive-compulsive rituals are like bandages that keep his unhealed wounds clean and covered?

Although no one can explain all of Paul’s quirks, the answers lie deep in the recesses of his troubled mind.  His music is his salvation because every song he plays he plays for those whom he loved and lost.

During the winter months Paul went into a deep depression.  He smoked marijuana and did a little cocaine and would sit in his room and drink whiskey.  He read novels but only those full of violence, vengeance and despair.  He found himself rising out of a kind of stupor, bitterly cursing the day he was born and the life in which he found himself.

One night he woke past one o’clock in the morning, aware that he had been talking in his sleep, angry and cursing.  A moment later, he realized that he wasn’t alone.  Although faint, a foul odor filled the room with revulsion, and he heard the floor boards creak as something moved restlessly back and forth.

He had fallen asleep drunk and had left the bedside lamp set low.  When he rolled off his side and sat up he saw a shadowy form on the far side of the room.  It was a thing that to this day he will not more fully describe than to say that it had yellow eyes and teeth rotting in its mouth.  It surely wasn’t any child of nature and it was no hallucination.

Paul Dickman is superstitious, neurotic in a charming sort of way and undeniably eccentric.  He recounts this incident with such solemnity and such disquiet that I’ve never doubted the truth of it.  And I can’t hope to convey it as chillingly as he does.

Anyway, he knew that his visitor was demonic and that he ahd drawn it to him by the acidic quality of his anger and by his deep despair.  He realized that he was in grave danger, that death might be the least he had to fear.  He threw back the covers and got out of bed in his underwear and before he realized what he was doing he went to a nearby armchair and picked up his saxophone.  He said that his sister spoke to him though she was not there with him; she spoke in his mind.  She urged him to play songs that lifted the heart and to play them with all the passion he could summon, music that made the air sparkle.

With the unwanted visitor circling him Paul started to play the sax.  People were knocking on his door telling him to stop, after all, it was three in the morning but Paul didn’t hear them and kept on playing.  He looked only indirectly at the yellow eyed presence afraid that a direct look would encourage it.

This is when I enter the scene.  Zack Pickle, our late-late shift security guard woke me up around three thirty telling me of the disturbance on the third floor.  I put my pants on and followed Zack upstairs.  I could hear the saxophone from the stairwell even before we set foot on the third floor.  There was a group of people at Paul’s room knocking on his door.  I told the tenants to go back to their rooms, that I would take care of things.  I had to use my pass key to enter Paul’s room.  I asked him to please stop playing but he was in a trance and just ignored me.  I struggled to get the saxophone out of his grasp.  Zack grabbed hold of Paul pulling his arms down to his side while I took the saxophone from him.  Paul was dripping with perspiration and his nose was running nonstop and his vision was blurred by sweat and tears.

We finally got Paul calmed down.  I reassured him there was nothing in his room.  He kept telling me about this evil spirit and bad juju.  And he kept repeating, “It’s my fault, it’s my fault,” till he finally fell asleep.

In June the Jazz Festival came to the city.  Paul signed up to play but had to interview and audition first.  The following week he got a letter from the festival committee telling him to appear Tuesday for an interview and audition.  Paul played before the committee and they gave him a spot to play Saturday afternoon during the festival.  Paul was so elated that he went to church and lit seventeen candles and thanked God for his good fortune.

That Saturday afternoon Paul got up on stage before a few hundred people and played his heart out.  That sax not only played but sang with such emotions, it was magical.  The people that gathered around the stage were tapping their feet and swaying their bodies to the music.  When it came time for Paul to end his set the crowd cheered and applauded him.  They were chanting, “more, more”.  So Paul did another number from his blues repertoire and made the sax weep and cry, asking the crowd for piety.

Paul was thirsty after his set on stage.  He walked over to the neighborhood coffee shop for a tall ice tea with lime.  Paul sat down on one of the plush chairs and sipped at his iced tea.  While he was sitting there a guy approached him.  He had long gray hair tied back in a ponytail.  He was a tall man, about six-two, wearing tan slacks and a yellow shirt with parrots on it.  He had a very white complexion and was wearing sunglasses.  He introduced himself to Paul as Humphry Quilt.  He said he heard Paul play and was very impressed.  Humphry asked Paul if he would like a job.  Paul answered very enthusiastically, ‘I sure would.”

Humphry Quilt had been around music for years: pop, rock and jazz.  He used to play with the Johnny Winter Group in the sixties.  He presently had a four piece jazz group on tour and was in need of a tenor sax.  Humphry said he just landed a long contract with a ski resort in Vail, Colorado, which would start in October.

Paul moved out of the hotel the following week.  He would be finishing the summer tour with the group before heading to Vail.  The night he moved out I was on duty in the security office.  Paul turned in his keys and we said our goodbyes and I wished him the best of luck.





Bruce Thines is a 73-year-old retired person.  He is the author of the collection, Stories from the Elk Hotel.