Bennett Solomon is waiting for me on the Belmont el platform, crouching on a bench, bobbing up and down under the heat lamps. He's wearing earmuffs and has two tambourines slung across his back. He waves at me and jumps down. "I hear Paul McCartney's getting back together with the Beatles."
"That's true," I say.
"I'd like to write a dozen songs for him and send them to Paul," he says, blowing into his hands. "A friend of mine knows some people over there in London. It's really too cold to sing today. I've got songs about people that love animals, I've got songs about people that are afraid of certain things. I think it's that time in the world where we can undo some of the fears that we have. I've got songs about people who overeat that want to help themselves. I mean, to just write a song is fine, but to make 100 people say, "He's talking to me, that's really where I'm at.' Very profoundly. OK?"
"Uh-huh," I say. "Are you going to sing?"
"Well, if it was a little warmer, I'd get out there," he says, moving his hand up and down his throat. "It would help if I was in a club or something too. It's not always easy to do that, so you do the best you can under the circumstances."
"Maybe we could get on a train," I say.
We catch the next southbound one. As it pulls into the Fullerton station Solomon suddenly begins to sing, softly at first.
He's got you and me brother in his hands.
The conductor's voice comes over the loudspeaker, but Solomon goes on in a striking tenor.
He's got a-you and me sister in his hands.
He's got the whole world in his hands.
Solomon opens his arms wide and holds the final note for several seconds. He's got the whole world in his haaaaaaaaaaaaaaands.
Most of the passengers have ignored him, but a guy sitting behind us grins and applauds.
"Just a little something I felt like doing," Solomon says. He turns around. "Hope it made you feel good."
A woman across from us smiles and gives Solomon the thumbs-up.
"Thank you very much," he says. "We're singing for you too, OK? We want to cheer your day up." He begins to sing again, this time improvising:
Wanna make you happy
Wanna make you feel joy
You've got a long day ahead, and believe me, boy
It's a long road to a feeling that
Will make you feel gooooooooooooooood.
His voice tails off in a little squeal. "How about that? I don't need a script, I don't need nothing. I'd draw cartoons if there were kids here. That's the way I am. The mood hit me, man. Let's get off at Clark and Division and lay it on 'em. Are you warm enough?"
"Yeah," I say.
"I'll do a few today, just so you can see what it really does feel like. Because when I get famous--and I'm telling you I'm going to--you're coming with me. You'll be my press agent. I want you there all the way for me." He starts to sing again, as if he were in a musical.
Now it's here, now it's real,
Now it's me doin' songs
That I loooooooove to do-a.
With the Reader and with you and with me
We're headin' to the tooooooooop, it's true.
'Cause there's nothing that will stop me,
Nothing that will happen to me.
The voice is always, always aaaaaaaaaaaat
Clark and Division.
"I sing from the heart," Solomon told me earlier. "I don't need anything to feel this way, because God gave me this golden ability to sing and to write poetry--and I am always grateful to God. To be able to share that with people, on beaches or wherever I go, it's my way of feeling self-satisfaction. I've had to give people back money, because they've misconstrued why I was singing. I was really feeling good--it wasn't like I needed anything. People would flip out when I would flip back a ten-dollar bill. I mean literally.
"I do it for a couple hours a day, because people call me and say, "I beg you, would you come here to my store?' Or "Would you come here and just sing for me? Because just to hear you and know that you're alive gives me a great feeling.' So I do it, I do it. People will just come up to me on the train. I try to avoid it, because I'm not some kind of nut that runs around singing. It's just that if you have that feeling in your heart and you need to let it go, then, God knows, you've got to let it go. "I've got to ask you a favor,' people say. "So many people have seen you on the street. Are you a professional star, or are you in shows, are you casting--what are you doing?'
"I say, "I just feel good.' When I'm emotionally ready, I'll go out and do it. I mean, I've been asked by people from Los Angeles to send them stuff. I don't want to mention names, because at this time, you know, at this time it's not in the right perspective. But I have been asked, and people have asked me, "Please send me your voice.' And I don't know why I haven't done it. Probably just this need to find perfection--and I know that perfection can either hurt or help you. In my case it sort of suppressed a lot of emotional things I've gone through. But now I'm ready just to blow and energetically create. This is my time, this is my year, I feel. I would say that 1994 is my year."
It's cold on the Clark and Division platform, and there aren't many people around. Solomon blows into his hands, then starts singing "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" again. He beats a tambourine against his hip, improvising a little with the rhythm. His voice echoes through the dark station.
He's got the whole world in his hands
He's got the whole wide world-uh in his hands
He's got the whole--
"I'm an arranger too," he says.
World in hiiiiiiiiiiiis hands.
He turns to a young woman in a business suit, now the only other person on the platform. "Boy, I can sing. Did you enjoy that?"
"You have a great voice," she says, looking at her watch and turning away.
"You know, I don't even have an entertainer's license," he tells her. "I just do this because it makes me feel good." He points at me. "He's writing an article about me."
The woman turns to look at me. She raises her eyebrows and laughs nervously. "He has a very nice voice," she says.
A tall, gangly man is sitting on a stool in the middle of Solomon's living room. Solomon introduces him as Fred Strauss, "my best friend for 26 years."
"Ayup," says Strauss in a deep, twangy voice. "That's right--26 years."
The Edgewater studio is sparsely furnished. A Star Trek poster is taped to a closet door and a couple pieces of crocheted art hang from the otherwise bare walls. In the front room is a mattress facing a TV and a table that holds a small stereo and dozens of notebooks. A few chairs are scattered around a small kitchen table.
Solomon, who's wearing lizard-skin cowboy boots, pulls several notebooks off the table and spreads them out on the mattress. "Are you comfortable, buddy?" he asks me.
"I'm fine," I say. I start to tell him about the first time I saw him.
"You thought, "That man is an artist!"' he interrupts. "I am truly talented. My friend will vouch for me that I'm a poet." He looks over at Strauss. "Right, Fred? He's known me 26 years."
"Ayup," Strauss says, smiling. "Twenty-six years. Long time."
Solomon shifts restlessly, then sits up. "You see, God puts us on this earth for specific reasons. My reason is to relate my poetry to people and make people feel happy. There will be several books that I'm going to write. I have so many books right now that I could just literally have published. But I write rhyme because it flows good. Do you see what I'm saying? I do write verse, but I like rhyme."
He says he writes prose too. "Like, "Stars in the night, shooting our love through the energy of ourselves.' You know, stuff like that. There's no problem. It's just that I have to be motivated. So I have some really pleasant things that touch just about everybody. I have little greeting cards I sell and stuff like that. We'll be able to give you some when you leave tonight. Put them in the Reader if you like. Just put the copyright, you know. Bennett Solomon, 1993. I sell little bracelets and stuff like that. I have real beautiful, beautiful bracelets. Fred, you know that."
"Ayup," Strauss says, "Really nice."
"So I have some really pleasant things that touch just about everybody. Would you like to hear one of my poems?" He settles back down on the mattress and opens a folder. The first poem is "The Clown Who Can Turn Somersaults."
Glow, bright red nose upon my face
Children cheered loudly, a smile has found its place
I will act as a deaf-mute, laugh gaily as I play
For my charcoal eyes reveal all I must say
Follow with your mind as I leap to the sky
For I, like a sparrow, can rise up and fly.
A clown can turn somersaults, yes, it is true.
I have fallen off a painting and was brought here to you.
"Now isn't that nice?" he says. "I think that could go in the Reader. Now that could apply to deaf-mutes, or something like that. Each of my poems has a significant reason for being what they are. Fair enough? This next one is a romantic one called 'While the Eyes of Your True Love Are Turned Away.'
It was a long poem that ended:
All that matters are the moments you can capture
In outer space where you choose to play
Make believe you shall never leave this angel
While the eyes of your true love have turned away.
"That one was written in 1990," he says, pausing to take a sip of orange drink. "I've got 'em back to 1980--1970. I mean, I've just been writing all my life. Isn't that right, Fred?"
"It never ends, Fred knows that. I've got poetry. I'll probably write 20 of them before the month's out. I also write about the Holocaust. I write about everything that touches people, because I'm a writer and this is what my job should be. I could have done things. I've had people come to me and say, 'Listen, let me publish your stuff.'"
He tells me he wants to play Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. "This is my fantasy and my dream. I mean, it's so vivid--Jean Valjean is so vivid to me. And so I sing Les Miserables, and people come up to me and say, 'You've gotta do Les Miserables.' I've been asked to sing in plays before, but I just have not decided what I want to do. I know it's a downfall for an artist to have that much energy and not be able to make a decision like that. That's hard for me."
He stands up and walks over to the TV table, where he starts riffling through notebooks. "My favorite singer, though, is Neil Diamond. You know how they say that if you borrow a Neil Diamond album and you don't return it, someone will kill you. That's a true story. Isn't it, Fred?"
"Ayup," says Strauss, nodding.
"If I lent someone a Neil Diamond album, I'm the kind that would kill them if they didn't return it. Of course, I haven't really. You don't have to print that." I later find out that some of Solomon's poems about Diamond had been published in a fan-club newsletter.
Solomon's big passion is writing a musical play. He says he's working on "a little three-and-a-half-hour British rock opera" called Star Spinners. He says it's hard to finish because it has to incorporate everything he writes--and he's always writing. "I hope to present that to the world next year. It's going to be about a journey through the brain, onstage, in Britain in the year 2080, which is an original idea I thought up. And the music--I worked like ten years on the music alone. I'm going to be sending some stuff out to Hollywood."
He says he also wants to be a comedian. "I'd like to make a video on the train, a little comedy thing that I write. Because I do stunts too. Fred knows I'm very good at it. I do it all. I love doing it all. If we do a script video it would have to be planned. We'd have actors in it and everything. I've had people call me and say, 'Hey, let's do a video. We'll have some fun.' A friend of mine was in Les Miserables. She'd just love to be in a video if we did it. I would be singing, and people would be dangling from the police car, and cops would go--" He opens his eyes wide and throws out a blood-curdling shriek. "I mean, they would scream! A comedy video, because some people out in LA want to see what I can do. I have a comedy mind, let's just say. It would be called The Thing That Would Not Stop Singing."
Later I ask Solomon if he has phone numbers for friends or neighbors I can interview.
"Well," he says, pointing at Strauss, "there's Fred, of course."
"Is there anyone else?"
Solomon flips through an address book and gives me the number of Mike and Gay Henderson, former neighbors in Rogers Park who now live in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I ask if he has other numbers.
"Oh sure," he says, getting excited. "There's that one guy--now what was his name? He met me on the train and he loved me! Oh, you have to talk to him. He'll tell you all about me! You know who I mean, Fred?"
"Sure. Oh, yes," Strauss says.
I come away with only the Hendersons' number. Once a year, Mike Henderson, a building contractor, tells me, Solomon packs most of his belongings in a duffel bag and boards an Amtrak train for West Virginia. Every day during his visits he strolls the streets of Shepherdstown, singing and passing out handmade cards and jewelry. All year people ask Henderson when Solomon's coming back.
Solomon had told me he sings when he rides Amtrak. "Believe it or not, I could be riding the Amtrak and somebody would walk up to me in West Virginia and say, 'Hey, aren't you the guy from Chicago who writes poetry and sings?' And this happened in Montana too. 'Hey, there's Benny from Chicago.' Everybody knows me, no matter where I go. In Washington, D.C., some guy will put a briefcase down and walk up to me and say, 'Can't you remember me? Don't you remember me?' And it's just a great feeling. I'm relating already, and I'm not even famous yet. All of these people are walking up to me, and it just feels so good all the time. It's a genuine feeling. If we felt this way, we could get rid of anxiety. Really. I truly believe this."
Once, he said, his train stalled in White Sulfur Springs, Virginia, when it was ten below zero. "People were freezing. I got up and started singing, and people were clapping along. And before I knew it, five, six hours had passed--and, damn, the train started moving and everybody got to where their destination was. I cheered everyone up. That's all I wanted. I just like cheering people up."
The Hendersons have known Solomon for 22 years; they used to live next door to him in an apartment building in Rogers Park. "He did what I thought was beautiful poetry," says Henderson, who was a young aspiring songwriter and full-time gas- station attendant in the early 70s. Back then Solomon was known as Benny the Beach Bum because he hung around Rogers Park beaches doing impressions. He also sang on the el and the buses. "Rogers Park in those days always used to have a real wealth of characters, but Ben always stood out even among them."
Henderson went on, "He doesn't see the world the same as everyone else. He hardly looks at it at all. He's more alive than most people. When you've been around Ben for a while, you'll realize how unencumbered he is by the 20th century and all its problems. He doesn't worry about the things that most of us worry about. We try to straighten Ben out, try to bring him into the real world, but he doesn't listen to a doggone thing I tell him."
Henderson gives me the phone number of another longtime friend of Solomon's, Marty Faskowitz, an ordained rabbi. Faskowitz says he thinks Solomon shares qualities with the great Jewish mystics. "The prophets in the Bible said that the difference between the holy man and the evil man was that the evil man was one-sided and materialistic, whereas the holy man saw both sides of the story--that there was a material and a spiritual. Bennett brings in both sides of the issue. When a man sees both sides rather than one, that type of man is very compassionate."
Faskowitz says he once told someone at a party that Solomon was the best friend he'd ever had. The person he was talking to said the same thing, and so did several other people. "It was very strange, because we are adults and we don't usually talk this way. But I've never met such a remarkable friend. People usually admire a big shot, but Ben is more than a big shot. A lot of people admire him. What he teaches people, without being in a pulpit, is basically a message to love everyone else. He obviously is different than everyone else, but so is a prophet different. He doesn't consider himself spiritual at all, but he is."
The first time I met with Solomon I asked what kind of school he'd gone to.
"I had a private education because of a slight disability I had during my life, which was--a downfall. And that's why it's taken me so long to climb back. But I don't want to expound on that, because I don't think readers really want to hear about that. They want to hear about what you're doing now and are you being productive, don't you think?"
The second time we met, he said, "I'm getting ready to tell you about an emotional disorder I had. But I want this to be a story of a man who overcame the odds and used his disorder for something positive." He wouldn't tell me what he meant.
A couple weeks later we arrange to meet at the Golden Waffle, at Broadway and Ridge. I hear him yelling my name before I see him. He's jumping up and down in the doorway of the restaurant, waving his arms. By the time I get into the restaurant, he's already seated at a window table. He doesn't say hello when I come up, but starts to read, slowly and choppily, from a piece of notebook paper. His hands are shaking.
"OK. In my own words. After a nervous breakdown that almost killed me, I fought back against impossible odds to survive. This was so many years ago I can almost not remember. I wanted to fight to survive. To believe in something. My music and my poetry came natural. Suppressed emotion was building inside me like a torch for years. It needed to be lit and let go. Now I'm ready for this world, and I'm as good as any other creative person. I can climb any mountain in life. Positive mental attitude is what I have. No longer will anything deter me from my goals. I was born to make greeting cards, songs, cartoons. There is no existing force on earth that can stop a person with determination. For me the greatest dream is to write an epic musical. I'm well into the project; it's British, beautiful with complete orchestration. I'm the man for the job. Although my life is not a golden rainbow, now at 52, something is going to shine through. I just know it."
Solomon has Tourette syndrome, a complex neurological disorder, usually established in early childhood or adolescence, that's characterized by repeated involuntary vocal and motor reflexes or tics. The frequency and type of tics, described as irresistible, like the urge to sneeze or scratch an itch, change constantly. People with TS often suffer from obsessive-compulsiveness, hyperactivity, sleep disorders, and learning disabilities. Approximately 100,000 Americans have TS; their symptoms range widely, but most of these people aren't significantly disabled. There are several medications that can relieve symptoms, but there is no cure.
"I have it," Solomon says, "but I have it controlled through the process of making my art." He begins to look upset, and his face twitches slightly. "I had emotional--well, you'll rephrase it anyway--I had a disorder that caused me to perform tics. The phenomenal aspect of it is that I turned it into music and art. That's what you need to make this story go. It's uphill all the way, I know it is. I just need the chance to prove that I'm a good writer. To prove I can do poetry somewhere. I need to be exposed."
"So through therapy, you--"
"I did it!" he says, leaning forward. "They didn't have at the time--I did the whole thing. I did the art, I did the cartoons, I did the music. I did it all. It happened when I was a little baby. I was trying to find my identification. You know, I'm not just the clown on the street. I'm obviously a good, serious writer. I mean, if you would have seen me years ago, you would have known that I was releasing all these emotional things. But now, I have it so well controlled that, through my music and art, I am able to find a rapport with myself. What you should know is that I fought back against impossible odds and won.
"Here, write this: "Bennett Solomon can burst into a song within five to ten seconds.' What we want to say here is, I'm a survivor. We also want to say this: under Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, patients were evaluated as hopeless. Until the day of his demise I truly believed in my mind that there was nowhere for me to go."
"Wait a second. You were treated by--"
"Dr. Bruno Bettelheim."
"Early in the 60s or the late 50s." His parents, who live in Florida, later confirm that he was a patient of Bettelheim's.
"It shows you that--how do you define what's nuts or not nuts? How do you define what's insane or what is not insane? I mean, I was, along with other people who also talked about this, I was put in a situation where I was diagnosed by this one psychiatrist who proved to be totally wrong. We're talking about something very, very subliminal here. Anyone who walked into that office was tagged as an insane person, was tagged as someone who would never succeed. I was a child when it all happened, but the sad aspect of it is that it took half a century to fight back. But I won. I am in a situation where I am comfortable with my life now."
He looks out the window. "It's really hard, because what I went through is so desperately horrible, so black, so Dark Ages. I was intimidated by horrible things that came in the night at me. This is a tremendous story if you put it into perspective. Montel Williams will pick it up, probably. If people could talk about their life and not be ashamed--I no longer have nothing to hide. I have something that was a curse in my life, but it was not my fault. Why should I be punished for it? I'm a talented artist and I can deliver. I'm not lax in any respect."
I ask him to draw a cartoon in my notebook.
"You've got it!" he says, bouncing up out of his seat. "And in five seconds, just so you can see this thing happen." With sharp strokes he draws a skinny, big-nosed, droopy-eyed man who's waving and exclaiming "Yep!" The drawing is precise, as if he'd drawn it a thousand times.
"Not a lot of people can do this," he says. "Yep! In five seconds."
"That's very nice," I say.
"You bet!" He leans back and puts his hands behind his head. "'Yep' is my currency of everyday living. I just like 'Yep'--yeah, because it's a positive, it's a positive thing. OK? Too many people are negative about things. I'm a 'Yep, I can do it' kind of guy."
"How's the musical coming?" I ask.
"There's a lot of work on that," he says, laughing. "Because very few people are creating an epic. Very few people are in a situation where they need a lot of people to get involved in things. And although a friend of mine knows Sherry Lansing in Hollywood, I still have to have a product. So I'm compiling over a period of months. But in no way do I want to use Sherry Lansing to get my career moving. I can hold my own."
I order some food. Solomon says he's having stomach problems.
"What's your caption on the top of the story gonna be?" he asks. "How about, "I Fought Back Against Impossible Odds to Become a Creative Artist'? "
"That's a little long," I say. "And I don't have much say about the headline."
"All right, then. How about "I Fought Back Against Impossible Odds to Live'? Or maybe "He Turned a Nervous Condition Into Music."'
I ask if he wants to go sing. He says his stomach still hurts, but he'll try.
We get on the el at Bryn Mawr. He says he doesn't really feel like singing today. "And I don't have my tambourines."
"You need tambourines?"
"Can I sing without tambourines? Are you kidding? Am I Jewish?"
Earlier he'd told me a story about the police arresting someone on the train. "Before they took the person to the jail they brought the person over to me and said, 'You've gotta hear this guy do Les Miserables.' This is a true story. And they had like four convicts and ten narco cops--they were just literally clapping, listening to me sing. No music, nothing. I just took off. Sometimes when I get the mood I just take off and sing. And it's just something that I feel. There's nothing that makes me do it--it's just God tells me this is the time to do it. So maybe I'm meant to sing my poetry, because I'm ready, I'm ready.
"You see, I write songs about the brain. I write songs about the human brain. And these songs, it would take perhaps 25-piece orchestration to conduct and to make it work right. I can hear the music in my mind. I just can't write it. This has been my deterrent, my problem. I want everything decisive. I'm a perfectionist, and I have obsessive-compulsive neurosis, which means I have to do it over and over and over again. That should tell you something about me. I'm never satisfied with my work, even though I know my work is really, really good."
We get off the train at Belmont and climb the stairs of the overpass to head back north. He says his stomach hurts too much to sing. "I just had a lower GI."
"It's a test to determine what's in the lower part of the colon. It's the opposite of a higher GI." He laughs.
A train roars by, and Solomon suddenly begins to sing "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," clapping on the beat. A young guy in a black baseball cap and sunglasses starts singing along.
"Come on everybody," Solomon shouts to a few dozen passengers on the platform across the tracks. "Let's sing!"
He belts the song out, holding the last note for at least ten seconds. A few people applaud. "You like that?" he asks me. "You know how I do that? For the life of me I couldn't tell you." We both laugh.
"Do you have any more?" I ask.
"I sure do," he says, turning to face the tracks.
As he sings, people across the tracks begin to smile. Some begin to clap. He throws himself into the song, his voice rising beautiful and clear. His last note is almost a scream.
B'lev sam ayaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaach
He pounds his chest. The people across the tracks are laughing and applauding enthusiastically. He turns away from them, laughing. Then he whirls around, arms spread open. "Thank you, thank you," he shouts, gesturing behind him to nothing in particular. "How do you like the band? Aren't they great?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Lloyd DeGrane.