Listener by Chloe WoidaThe Listener

Piller the Thriller

By Chloe Woida

Embarcaderoeveral weeks back, I was waiting at a bus stop on the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Across the street diners were paying $33 a plate for filet mignon. Perhaps 100 feet away, a group of Pussy Riot supporters clustered together in an isolated zit on the broad face of the square. They had a megaphone, but they were really only talking to each other.

A man peered around the corner of the shelter, ducked away, changed his mind and came back in. He sat down and crossed his trouser-clad legs. I believe he said “Good afternoon” or something similarly benign, but his preamble was minimal.

“I was a musician,” he said.

I made a noncommittal isn’t-that-nice noise. I try to maintain a pleasant, detached decorum when strangers begin regaling me with their life stories anywhere near a bus, train, or subway.

“I played all around the country,” he said, launching into a litany of states and cities I cannot now recall. “New Mexico, Texas, L.A...”

By now he had my attention, and I wondered if I was perhaps sitting next to Someone Famous, or at least Someone Obscurely Relevant. I examined him more thoroughly.

He was a slight, older black man with a tweed flat cap and a pronounced underbite, dressed in shades of beige and brown. Next to him on the bus shelter bench he placed two medium-sized clear plastic cups with domed lids, of the sort used for blended iced coffees. His were full of glazed donut holes. As he continued his tale, he would pause intermittently to pop one after another delicately into his mouth.

“What did you play?” I asked.

“Guitar. I played guitar,” he said. “My name’s Albert* Piller.”

“Pillard?” I misheard.

“No, Piller,” he corrected, then smiled slyly, remembering. “Like: ‘Piller the Thriller.’”

“Piller the Thriller!” I said. “That’s what they called you?”

He nodded, with a satisfied look. There was a pause. “You don’t like Jimi Hendrix?” he said abruptly, breaking the lull, vaguely accusatory.

I demurred, “I do!”

“Well,” he sniffed, “Some people don’t.”

I shrugged and shook my head. “There’s no accounting for taste.”

“I don't understand it,” he said, fixing me with a searching stare. “He was such a lovely man.”

In my mind I pictured Hendrix on stage, kneeling to pour lighter fluid on a guitar. I smiled at the incongruity. There was a pause again, as I checked bus arrival times and he ate another donut hole.

“My wife was raped and murdered in 1979,” he announced.

“That’s terrible!” I said, inadequately.

He nodded. “Never been married since,” he said. “Never felt that way about anyone else.”

I nodded, and waited.

“My wife was fourteen years older than me,” he said. “We met and it was just—” holding two fingers together “—like that. She said, ‘I'm going to leave my husband for you.’ And I said, ‘You're not going to leave your husband for me.’ And she said, ‘Yes I am, I'm going to leave my husband for you.’ And she did. And we were together ever since, till 1979.”

He explained their astrological compatibility, the specifics of which completely failed to lodge in my memory. The matter-of-factness of his discussion of star signs evoked an era of disco and white suits and health food restaurants and grown-up love affairs.

“I tried to become a police officer,” he continued. “After my wife was killed. But they said...” He trailed off, shaking his head, resigned. “They said maybe try in a smaller city, you know, Stockton or somewhere like that. They said, ‘Keep making music.’”

“That’s true,” I said. “You should keep making music.”

He nodded. “I know. I try to keep my hand in the game, you know. I still know some people. But,” he looked at me intently, “you've got to be ‘underground’ these days.”

I cocked my head, confused.

He continued, “Up on stage, you know, you’re vulnerable. Anyone can get to you. Underground is...”

“Safer,” I ventured, thinking that his caution was not unrelated to what happened to his wife. He nodded. I nodded back and we sat there in silence for a while, until a number 6 bus to Parnassus rolled up and he got up without a word and boarded it. He waved from a rear seat, I think, as the bus pulled away.

I can’t seem to find any record of Piller the Thriller’s musical career. Creative web searches have turned up nothing, so far. But I believe that he played guitar in all those cities, and I believe in his great love affair, before everything came crashing down.

*Not his actual first name. I cannot remember what he said his first name was, as I was so thoroughly distracted by the charming transformation of his last name into his musical moniker.

Chloe Woida is a freelance writer living and working in the San Francisco Bay area.