A few days ago, someone I didn’t know emailed me:
Dear Mr. Steinman of JAZZ LIVES,
I am not a jazz connoisseur like yourself, but I have a personal connection to the music. My late father grew up in the same neighborhood as the clarinetist Buster Bailey — he was much younger and he looked up to the well-dressed polite man he called “Uncle Buster.” When “Uncle Buster” wasn’t on the road, he and my father would sometimes take a long walk and talk — sometimes ending up with ice-cream at the corner soda fountain. (Both of them loved strawberry.)
When my father passed away eight months ago, I had to clean out his place, and I found this letter — in a sealed envelope with my name on it. I opened the envelope and there was a note, “When I was just turning eighteen, I wrote “Uncle Buster” a letter asking his advice on being a true adult — because that’s what he was. I’ve never forgotten his kindness: you can see that the letter was long and he took his time to write it — and I wanted you to have it for yourself and maybe your kids and grandkids. It would even be OK if you got it published in a newspaper or maybe Reader’s Digest — people should learn from this wise man, as I did — just cut out the personal details. Love, Dad.”
Mr. Steinman, I’m not ashamed to tell you that I shed some real tears over these pages — for the father I had lost, who was a really good man, and the young man he was, and grateful tears over the kindness of Buster Bailey. I’d be honored if you wanted to share this with your readers. Maybe they’ll be as moved as I am. Thank you very much.
Reading this, I was very moved for all the reasons you can read above. And now you, too, can read Buster Bailey’s kind wise advice.
Thank you for your nice letter. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you, and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write back. Louis and the fellows have been working pretty hard, and this is our first day off on the road in a while, so while everyone’s sleeping late I came down to the hotel pool with a pen and pad to write back to you.
Your letter really made me smile. “Uncle Buster, I am getting ready to graduate high school and go out into the world. You have traveled, you’ve seen so much, you are so respected. Do you have any advice for me? I’d like to be a man like you are.”
That’s very kind of you, _____, and I can’t take all those nice words as really true, but if I took half of them I still would be very proud. You know, after my music, what I’m most proud of is my family, and you’re a great part of it. I don’t know if advice from me is really all that useful, but I thought of a few things in no particular order to say to you — sort of rules to follow that you might think about.
1. A lot of people are selfish, and they might get ahead in the world for a short time, but the people who think of others are the ones that really last.
2. Carry a big clean handkerchief. Carry two. Someone will always need one, and don’t ask for it back.
3. Sometimes, at a party, drink a big glass of ice water. Anyone asks, you can tell them it’s gin, but watch the people who are getting drunk. I’m not against drinking, but it will be a useful lesson. Save the reefers until you’re older. People still get put in jail for it in this country.
4. If the waitress says the pie is homemade, skip it. Whose home? Those pies always look better than they are. But leave a good tip.
5. When you go to the toilet, don’t stand there and stare at whatever you did as it goes away. Let it go away on its own.
6. If someone says she doesn’t want to date you, or make love with you, it’s a waste of energy to ask “Why”? Be polite and walk away. And never go where you’re not welcome.
7. Remember people’s birthdays. Write them down. Everyone loves this, even if you don’t give a big expensive gift.
8. Someday, on your job, your boss is going to be foolish or not nice. Before you tell him off, make sure you have a better job to go to. Otherwise keep it to yourself.
9. It’s only in the movies that people have a hundred friends. You might have four — the people who would visit you in the hospital when you’re in trouble — but take very good care of them. Treat them the way you’d like to be treated, and add ten percent.
10. The really great person is not the one who never makes a mistake. The really great person is the one who knows how to recover from his mistakes.
11. People who tell you “Don’t be afraid!” are often scared to death themselves. Be as afraid as you like, but keep your feet moving.
12. Even the most annoying person can do something nice, and vice versa. We’re all 98 percent surprise, and usually we surprise the heck out of ourselves.
13. When a woman has to clean up after you, all she sees is the socks and underwear on the floor, or the cereal bowl left on the table. Ask your mother how to run the washing machine, the vacuum, the best way to do dishes, and DO THEM.
14. If you do something wrong to another person, apologize while it’s all fresh. Be sincere. Don’t end with “But . . . ” or explain why you were really right or something that happened last June. Being humble at moments like this will go a long way.
15. Be early, but not too early — if you show up to the party 45 minutes early, people don’t know what to do with you. If you do end up too early, be helpful.
16. If someone asks to borrow money from you, only give it if you can afford to kiss it goodbye, and pretend to yourself that it’s a gift. Otherwise you look at the other person and think, “That’s Joe. Joe owes me $100” and you don’t see Joe anymore. It’s great to be generous, but it’s also OK to be smart and say, “I really can’t right now” if someone always wants more.
17. Carry Life Savers. Your breath is always worse than you think.
That’s all I can think of at the moment. I look forward to seeing you when Louis and the band are back home. Two scoops, my treat.
Love, Uncle Buster (it’s OK for men to say they love each other. It doesn’t make you peculiar.)
What a fine human being.
May your happiness increase!