Shaffer: Ambitious custodian moonlights as bluesman

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.comJanuary 13, 2013 

— From Monday to Friday, Linwood Green pulls the night custodian’s shift for the Postal Service, emptying trash, mopping floors and dusting whatever needs dusting.

But on Saturday mornings, he slips on a fedora and dark shades, tucks his necktie into his shirt, plugs in his Stratocaster and becomes Lenny Mojo Hand G – bluesman at the Durham Farmers Market.

You can hear him howling Willie Dixon songs on Hunt Street while the shoppers grab up organic chard and see him slap a tambourine on his hip while the food trucks dish out slow-roasted pork with caramelized onions and herb aioli.

What you’re seeing isn’t just Green’s inner showman let loose. You’re watching what happens when a 63-year-old man decides to pick up the guitar and carry it to work with him, practicing chords on his lunch break in a chair perched underneath the time clock, willing himself to grow.

“Just because I’m the custodian,” he said, “that don’t mean I’m limited to just cleaning.”

Most people would wrap up eight hours of cleaning by sinking into an overstuffed chair with a can of Icehouse and a bag of pretzels.

Green lingers in the cafeteria after his shift, studying R.L. Burnside videos on YouTube, reading the history of Chess Records. He calls himself a mockingbird bluesman, a voice that mimics other voices, but he’s learning to sing on his own.

“It helps me keep my blood pressure low,” he explained. “It helps me throw away a lot of the hearsay. This is what really matters. This is what I love to do.”

The Oasis days

Green landed at the Farmers’ Market at the invitation of an old friend who heard he’d been learning guitar. The crowd embraced him there. Vega Metals studio built an 8-foot metal sculpture of Green, and he air-brushed it into an exact self-portrait.

But Green’s road to the blues started a few miles away in East Durham, a neighborhood people now call rough.

When he was growing up there in the ’60s, every street corner had a singing group. Green and his brother Kinice mimicked Sam & Dave, learned to dance like the Temptations and formed their own little band: the Oasis.

This was all pre-blues guitar. In those days, Green couldn’t play a kazoo.

“I was more interested in the singing and the dancing,” he said. “You get the girls quicker. Didn’t have to carry no instrument.”

‘Don’t never quit your day job’

He did a stint in the Army, and by the time he got back to Durham, the world had gone disco. He worked the clubs as a DJ on Friday and Sunday nights. Studio D’s. Faces Lounge. He emceed shows for True Devotion and took a second stab at running his own group: Unity Band.

“That’s when I found out don’t never quit your day job,” he said.

Green held plenty of those. He worked for Burlington Industries and Golden Belt – both long gone. He worked for IBM and got laid off.

He counts the Postal Service as a savior, his employer for 14 years. He’s painting a mural at the front entrance – an air-brush collage that follows mail delivery from Pony Express days to mail trucks. The halls at work are filled with his framed pictures.

But Green’s guitar habit came late in life, only five years ago. He wanted piano lessons for his 14-year-old son, and he found out that instruction would be cheaper if he took up an instrument, too. So he bought a Fender Stratocaster, and they started a 2-for-1 deal.

Learning, loving the blues

Green recalled sitting down in the practice room with his instructor, explaining that he’d like to learn the blues. The teacher looked at him strangely and explained: “The blues are a feeling. You probably know more about them as anybody.”

He laughs at the memory.

“This is a white guy,” Green said, “and I’m African-American, and I’m asking him to teach me the blues.”

His first assignment: Bring in some songs you want to learn. So Green picked Muddy Waters and Son House, especially “Grinnin’ in Your Face.” It’s an important song for him.

In the Postal Service cafeteria, he sang me the first verse over the hum of the Pepsi machine.

“Don’t you mind people grinnin’ in your face

Don’t mind people grinnin’ in your face

You just bear this in mind, a true friend is hard to find

Don’t you mind people grinnin’ in your face.”

Green, the singing custodian, never minds grinning about his line of work. He knows he’s so much more.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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