On New Year’s Eve, I finished a glass of wine and requested another from a passing footman as His Highness Gaj Singh II, the Maharaja of Jodhpur, stepped to the rostrum overlooking the wedding party and lake below. The white fabric of his turban trailed down his six-foot frame and now he fanned it behind him like a train. As Sikh men are, by birth and tradition, warriors, he wore at his right hand a long curved kirpan in a jeweled scabbard. He adjusted his sword and then turned his attention to our mutual friends who were in the middle of a several-hours-long marriage ceremony, below him to his left. He smiled. Then he looked around to the two hundred guests and quieted their whispers with an almost imperceptible nod of his head.
He was dressed immaculately. Everything on him was white or silver. As he took a breath to consider his words, we all leaned a bit forward in our seats. He began by expressing his admiration for the bride. Their friendship had been forged over the previous decade. She was, and remains, the curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. He is one of the few truly great patrons of Rajasthani art in the world. He then turned to the groom and spoke of their more recent friendship while expressing his honor at being allowed to speak on such an important day in their lives.
Other than during those days in India, I’ve never been near royalty, nor do I seek to be, but it must be noted that the Maharaja was a perfect gentleman in every regard and he treated all in his world, regardless of station, with respect and dignity.
The couple nodded in thanks and returned to their ceremony. Bapji, or father, as the Maharaja is universally known, turned to the assembled and spoke, quietly at first, of both love and his family’s long attachment to this part of India, this part of the soil of the world. Seamlessly, while gaining strength, he interwove the concept of rootedness throughout his blessing. He spoke of how we are all rooted to one another, the roots of love that bring forward the fruits of family, the holy, rooted connection that we all have to the Earth itself. It was moving, powerful and thoughtful. It was, in a word, kingly.
Then, as he drew to a close, from the back of the crowd we all heard a man get up abruptly from his table. Forks clattered on plates, glasses clinked, a chair scraped on the stones below. A voice shouted at the Maharaja, “Hey, Bapji! Do Elvis!”
The Maharaja’s eyes scanned the tables. The impertinent guest was the only man standing and Bapji trapped him in a stare of cold command. Then his right hand grabbed the hilt of his curved kirpan, which he drew halfway from its scabbard. The crowed tensed. I expected his next words would be, “Off with his head!” Judging from the gasps of the guests, I was not alone in that moment of tense anxiety.
Then Bapji smiled. His lip began to twitch and in one move of his right hand he released his scimitar and grabbed the microphone. Like a dam bursting, he sang, “You ain’t nothin’ but a Hound Dog, CRY-hin all the time! You aaaaiiin’t nothin’ but a Hounnnnd Dogggg! CRY-hin’ all the time! You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine!”
The man who had interrupted him, along with his entire table of guests, did the open snare-drum riff and Bapji sailed into the next verse: “Well they said you was high classed, well that was just a lie! Well they said you was high classed, well that was just a lie! You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine!”
The impersonation was done, of course, with full-on hip gyrations and the wiggle-step made famous by another king, half a century before.
The crowd broke out into wild applause and the tone for the night was set. It was brilliant. Booze flowed. The dance floor filled. The stars made a jailbreak through the clear night air.
I recall this story as a reminder of how strange the world can be if we just let it all rock and roll, and how we all, at some points in our lives, end up in places we’d never in a million years expect to be. For me, that trip to India was filled with moments equally as unexpected (if not as downright bizarre), as the New-Year’s-Eve wedding when Bapji did Elvis. More was to come, even in the following thirty-six hours. A night a day and a night that would find me threatening the lives of a drug-addled chauffeur and two oddball teenagers, before curling up at dawn for warmth with a dozen homeless men who lived under a bridge.
It is, I believe, a story worth telling.
On New Year’s Day the group of friends I’d been traveling with said our goodbyes and parted. Most of my companions were heading back to their lives in Udaipur, Washington, D.C, Delhi or New York City. I was staying on in India for another few months of decidedly more downscale traveling, so rather than purchasing a plane ticket, I arranged a ride with a driver who had chauffeured a couple from the capital for the wedding, but had no return fare. The larger part of my decision was financial, but — though I’m not at all a motor-head — I really did want to travel in the particular type of car the man was driving: the pride of Hindustani Motors, a 1978 Ambassador.
Ambassadors have been manufactured in India since 1958 without receiving any substantive chassis or body alterations. Most of them are white, though this one was jet black, and they have lines similar to a Nash Rambler or an old Checker cab. The Ambassador is rounded and flowing. There is leg room enough for a basketball team. The seats are deep and soft, perfect for a long drive through a foreign land whose highways are filled with bullock carts, pack-camels, elephants, sacred cows, tuk-tuks, wandering Sadhus, towering Tata trucks, motorcycles carrying entire families and millions upon millions of other Ambassadors.
I have never had car lust. In fact, I haven’t owned a car in nearly twenty years and the last one I had, a Honda hatchback, I gave away to a former student just to be rid of the thing. I have no interest in Corvettes or giant Land Rovers, but the Ambassador is one very cool automobile. It is not particularly sporty, but it’s got class. These are cars with doors you hold open for dames in noir-films. Deals could be made in these cars. Romance could blossom and dreams could be dashed in one road trip in an Ambassador. In an Ambassador, you feel like you coulda been a contendah. For me, I suppose, they are dream cars.
Settling in the backseat at dawn, I introduced myself to the driver — whose name escaped me within minutes, and hasn’t come back. He was a fine gentleman, though he spoke very little English. In fact, over the course of our drive, I heard him say very little other than, “Yes, sir.” “Sorry, sir.” “We have problem, sir.” And “Oh, no, sir. No, no, no, sir.”
Still, he smiled a good bit, and I was fully content to lose myself in the passing landscape, grab some needed sleep, and live with my own thoughts for a while. In short, I was quite happy with the lack of conversation.
The first few hours of the trip were uneventful. I ate some sandwiches and offered one to the driver, which he declined — preferring, instead, to down packet after packet of truck-stop speed. This was mildly disconcerting, but I thought, “Hey, the man’s a professional.” My concern, however, increased over the trip, which was to go on for a very long time. The drive from Jodhpur to Delhi was supposed to take roughly ten hours. As events on the ground played out, it took almost thirty. In all that time the driver never slept, never seemed to get tired, and never stopped taking pills. As a result, he became increasingly insane.
About four hours into the trip, as we entered Jaipur, we came to one of the treacherous interfaces of urban and rural roads in India. Highways, such as they are on the subcontinent, are trafficked at a breakneck speed, but the cities are arterially sclerotic, with traffic jams often piling up on one another and becoming full-on citywide seizures. The change is abrupt and dangerous.
At the western edge of the city we had to pass through a series of police-erected concrete slaloms serving as a bulwark between the raging madness of the highway and the near-frozen gridlock of the city. At the last one, we were rear-ended by a car that had been tailgating us. It wasn’t a hard hit, but you could feel it.
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We pulled over and all got out to inspect the damage, of which none was visible. So, figuring this was just a minor mishap, we returned to our car and my driver tossed a few drug-induced insults at the other driver, who then shouted back some words that I knew were very bad. I’m certain I picked out an unkindly mention of someone’s mother. This led to more shouting and cursing and, I believe, speculations on the professions of both mothers in question. Temperatures soared, blasphemies were spoken, curses were offered, and then, very abruptly, we were again on our way.
Fifteen minutes later, my driver said, “Sir, we have problem, sir.”
He had noticed that one of the idiot lights was on. To address the problem, he swallowed a few more pills, pulled over on the side of the road and opened the hood. As was to become clear, that small tap and the curses that followed had managed to hip-check our Ambassador, and our lives, into Bizarro world.
Could the gods of internal combustion actually have been summoned against us? I suppose so. Dark forces do, at times, seem to align against you. More likely, it was just a faulty wire somewhere in the dark recesses of the Ambassador, a time-bomb placed by a disgruntled, incompetent or hungover worker at Hindustani Motor decades before. I doubt I will ever know.
The driver and I went through the standard proddings of this and that under the hood, kicked the tires, tested the horn, and in time it became clear that it was an issue of spark and not fuel. Each, in our inability to communicate anything meaningful to the other, had determined that the alternator was not recharging the battery.
I was optimistic and my driver was a man fueled by faith, truck-stop speed and his understanding of dharma (his duty in this life), which was, for the moment, to deliver me safely to New Delhi, even if it killed us both. Both of us, each for our own reasons, and each in our own ways, would have our faith and optimism tested by our Ambassador on that breezy Rajasthani day and the night that followed.
After an hour of dickering about and hoping that traffic would clear, we were back on the road. Then, another hour after that, the driver again said, “Sir, we have problem sir,” and we pulled over to the side of the road in the gathering darkness, this time several dozen miles east of Jaipur. Our battery was getting dangerously low of charge.
As would happen repeatedly that night, a group of men appeared from nowhere to assist my driver as he tinkered with the engine. Having little understanding of such things, I paced about for two hours and pointed my headlamp into the private places of the Ambassador’s engine when the men called me over. Nothing seemed to be working, so I decided to take a walk to a private place off the side of the fog-thickening highway. As I did, I looked down the embankment off to the left for a place to relieve myself. An urgency to do so had been developing for some hours, though I will spare you that story other than to note that squatting in the thickets by a highway in India provokes deep thought about the abyss. In that sense, it is much like driving on an Indian highway under any circumstance.
When you are first in a moving vehicle on a highway in India, when you are first part of the flow, you feel the cold hand of fate bearing down on you through the haze of heat and the chaos of this impossibility. As you, your car, and your drug-addled driver overtake camel, motorcycle, water buffalo, elephant or bus on blind corner after blind corner, you become certain that your end is at hand. Your illusions of centrality in the great morality play of human existence are shredded. The leading role you imagine for yourself is canceled. You are one of the untended masses; you are a single bacterium upon the sepsis of time. You will die. You will die horribly. You will die now. It is terrifying.
As a thousand horns sing your Doppler-shift elegy, your mind finds, by the dark workings of guilt, the remains of sins long past. And you want to die clean. You miss the oncoming Tata truck by two inches — the one with the hay bales piled twenty-five feet high and sticking out five feet on both sides of the bed — and you start to pray as fast as you could once say the Hail Mary. “Dennis Coleman, full of grace, I’m sorry I held you down while Cousin Danny rode over you again and again with the green-banana-seat Schwinn Spider with the four-foot high sissy bar and an ace of spades in the spokes. Father Mike, it was Mark McCormack and me who stole the bottles of wine from the sacristy. Brother Ed, forgive me the atomic wedgies when you were a child and God forgive me, now at the hour of my death. Amen.”
Before you even reach the juicier sins of adolescence and the truly awful ones of adulthood, you are certain you will meet your end because the next bend in the road is at hand and you will die having begged forgiveness for a thimbleful of your childhood sins. This is it; you see the lights through the fog coming around the corner. It is written. It is certain. You will die now. You cover your eyes. You wait for the end.
And then the end doesn’t come. You don’t die. Time and time again. Blind corner after blind corner you live and again begin to feel somehow blessed. Your egocentric universe reasserts itself; your lead role in the play has an extension. Regardless of the millions of tons of badly maintained metal tear-assing all about you, you will not go out this way. Your death is scheduled for many, many decades from now, after you have found true happiness. After you’ve found your way back to the garden, and then you will pass with the glow of a perfect sunset in your great-grandchildren’s eyes. Here, even on this road, even in this traffic, you are safe.
In short, you are again deluded.
But as you squat in the rushes off the side of the highway and you glance down into the gully to the left, you see an archeological lesson of super-positioned vehicles piled below you — literally wreck on top of wreck on top of wreck — and your illusions again are shattered. Driving in India is an utterly dangerous thing, and should be done as infrequently as possible if one wants to live a long, if not fruitful, life. And as you pull up your pants, you hope that a) your driver never fixes the damn engine, b) that you, just once, get to experience an operatic deus ex machina or Star-Trek-Transporter moment, and c) that you finalized your process properly, because an itchy fundament is about the only thing that could make these moments worse.
And then you return to the broken-down car on the side of the highway and wait another two hours.
Pants buckled and belt cinched, I returned to the Ambassador. Nothing had actually been done to fix the car, but still, my driver finally got back in behind the wheel, so I got in the back. I tapped him on the shoulder, smiled as widely as I could and said, “Is the car still fucked?”
To which he smiled and responded, “Yes, sir.”
We ran on fading battery power for another hour, until the lights had faded to a pale yellow hue. The driver then downed another small satchel of pills and said, quite predictably, “Sir, we have problem, sir.”
Again we pulled off the side of the road, near a stand of about ten shops that sold nothing, and we got out of the car. The battery was shot. We repeated the horn tooting (far fainter now) and kicked the tires again. As we did, another group of men huddled around us. The driver asked for tea, and several cups of chai appeared from nowhere. Silently sipping, I looked up to discover that my headlamp had again caused quite a stir. It was removed from my head and passed around by the dozen or so men and boys who had come to help, or just to look.
To an American only recently in country, Indians have a disconcerting tendency to stare blankly at you, two feet away, with their heads doing a bobble dance from side to side. At first you smile back, but they don’t move at all, other than to continue bobbling their heads. It isn’t aggression, or anything like, it’s just a smiley, bobbly stare. After a while, you try to start a conversation, but English is not widely spoken by poorer and more rural Indians, so they go on bobbling and staring. Then someone brings you more tea.
It was now our third time on the side of “Problems, Sir Road.” I put up with the staring and head bobbling for another two hours and then noticed that my driver and most of the observers had simply disappeared. Not knowing what else to do, I got into the car, rolled up the windows, and tried to read.
At one point a very addled young man (a paint huffer, by the looks of him) staggered up to the car and stared, menacingly, at me for about ten minutes. I smiled back for a bit, then, realizing he wasn’t going away, I got scared. Really scared. Not thinking of the consequences, I fumbled through my day bag and grabbed my knife. He still just kept staring at me, scowling at me, sneering a bit about the corner of his mouth, until I slammed the door open, and raised the knife and shouted, “You want something? You want a piece of me?!” At which point, he smiled, his head bobbled a bit more, and he shook my hand before staggering away to find a bag and fill it with more petrochemicals.
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It was about this time that my driver emerged from around a corner down the road and walked past the Ambassador without a word to me, but with a full bottle of whiskey in his hand. I called out to get his attention, smiled and said with only a touch of sarcasm, “So . . . just gonna get drunk tonight?” and he said, with a bigger smile, “Yes, sir,” and continued down the road.
I got back in the car, relocked the doors, checked all the windows, and surrendered to a night on the side of the road feeling utterly lost.
Another hour later, my driver returned without the whiskey bottle, but with a hunk of metal, and he was completely sober. He wasn’t getting drunk; he had found the bottle of whiskey at a store somewhere down the road and then found someone with an appropriate (he thought) hunk of metal to fix the alternator, traded the whiskey, and returned to another shop around the corner. I followed him, and found him working with another man on a lathe. Holy cow! These men were trying to rebuild the alternator! What a sense of duty! What dharma!
I stood and watched in fascination as my driver and the mechanic toiled away at the dead thing, trying to perform an earthly, metallic reincarnation. It took another hour, and then they were ready. We walked back to the car, my headlamp at the ready, for the surgery. After another hour of toil, they had rebuilt the engine, and with great hope, my driver turned the key and got the faintest of growls from the starter before the car died again. But wait! If the alternator was fixed, all we needed was a jump start, or a roll start, as this was a standard transmission. The mechanic whistled, and two teenage boys, his sons I assumed, materialized out of the air with a tea service, which they set down, and we pushed the car to about ten miles an hour. My driver put her in gear. Sadly, the Ambassador just shuddered and coughed. We did it again, and if the Ambassador was on an EKG, a few seconds of heartbeat would have lifted off the thin green line. Then she died again. The battery was completely shot and would require a full recharge.
Recharge, by the way, is a word in both English and Hindi, in case you ever need to know.
We pushed the Ambassador down the road and then down the alley to the shop, which was also the mechanic’s home. He hooked up wires to a Dr. Frankenstein apparatus, and was able to tell me that this would take about two hours. He invited me up to his room for tea, and a place to lie down, but I deferred, and instead stayed with the car reading my book.
His two teenage sons came to the car and did the staring, bobble-head thing. It’s tough to read with two people staring at you; it is impossible when you add the head bobbling. But, not knowing how to make them stop other than threatening them with a knife, I pulled out my iPod and let them play with that for a while. Two Rajasthani boys, rocking out to Social Distortion. That, I have to admit, was pretty cool.
But the kids wouldn’t leave and I really wanted to be alone. I plied them with chocolate, a bottle of Coke, and a few pens, each time hoping they would go away. But they didn’t; they just kept on standing there, bobbling. One earphone apiece they bobble-headed at me for the first hour of the recharging.
Eventually, I fell asleep. I’d been dreaming for maybe ten minutes when one of the boys became aggressive and slammed on the window, demanding money. It startled me awake, so I gave him the only thing I had, a five-hundred rupee note, which is only about eleven bucks, but is likely more than a week’s wages for their father, and as best I could, suggested that he share it with his brother.
I closed my eyes for a few moments, and the other boy slammed on the window. I started awake again, then closed my eyes and tried to ignore him, and he slammed again. “Get it from your brother. Leave me alone! I’m tired.” I was flat-lining. At this point we’d been on the road for more than twelve hours. I closed my eyes again.
Then, for the second time that night I totally lost control of myself and threw the door open, knife in hand. The kids ran, and I felt like a jerk.
I got back into the car and just as I was passing to sleep one more time, the mechanic and my driver reappeared from upstairs. They unhooked the battery from the Dr. Frankenstein thingy. The Ambassador was fully charged and she was running like a champ. Then the driver revved the engine, dropped the car into gear and we left the mechanic in a spray of gravel, chasing after us. I’m quite sure that my driver stiffed the man who had helped us, but I didn’t ask, knowing that the only answer would be a Benzedrine grin and the words, “Yes, sir. Oh, yes, yes, yes, sir!”
Bad karma now securely on board for us both, we were flying down the road again. Then, after another hour or so, my driver turned to me and opened his mouth to speak. I now said it with him.
“Sir, we have problem, sir.”
The battery was recharged, but the alternator was still not working. We were a good six hours away from Delhi, and it was about four in the morning. Again, it became clear: We were not going to make it.
But, a potent mix of dharma and truck-stop uppers is a powerful thing, so my driver engaged the warp engines, trying to cover as much ground on the road to Delhi (or to get as much room between himself and the mechanic) as possible. I was deadbeat exhausted, and my eyes just couldn’t stay open any longer. I kind of noticed that he turned the lights off, to conserve power. I kind of noticed that it was a moonless night. I vaguely recalled that our Ambassador was one of the rarest of all, a jet-black model. And I remember again having the NYC-taxi-driver moment, thinking, “He’s a professional. It’s all good.”
But it is never truly “all good.”
As I started to dream, I remembered the pile of cars I’d seen while squatting in the rushes, and shot bolt up in the back seat.
We were driving at seventy-five miles an hour, down a winding road on a moonless night in a black car with no lights. The traffic had thinned considerably by that time, but there were still plenty of trucks barreling both our way and on the other side of the median. In retrospect, I should have been thankful that this was a rare stretch of divided highway. I strongly urged my driver to pull over. He said, “Yes, sir,” and accelerated. I urged more aggressively for him to pull over, and he said, “Yes, sir. No, sir… No, no, no, sir. Yes, sir.”
Remember, my driver had not slept a wink, and he was riding on pure adrenaline and the magic contained in fists full of tiny white pills. Sweet Lord, the man must have had dragons flying through his head.
We rounded a corner, just making out the median through the fog which was illuminated by a truck whipping by in the other direction. He overcompensated coming out of the curve, and we went off the road to the left. The whole body of the Ambassador shook violently and he pulled us back onto the road and again accelerated. On the next turn we almost hit the median, and he jerked the car left again, shooting us off the road for a second time. Through the very dim light of the horizon we both, at the same time, saw the camel being driven lazily down the road about one hundred feet ahead. The driver blanched, jerked the wheel to the right just in time and sent us skittering across the road. We slammed into the median, which lifted the two right wheels of the car well off the tarmac. The driver jammed the wheel left and we came back down onto the macadam — and he accelerated again!
Now, as I look back on the night, a night where I had already pulled my knife on two people, maybe I am being overly generous when I think that I went to grab his shoulder to make a point. My left hand, maybe, maybe, touched his left shoulder, but it continued quickly around to his throat and my fingers began to squeeze.
We were still barreling down the highway — dark car, moonless night, no lights, camels, the whole shebang — and I’m choking my cranked-up driver within an inch of both our lives screaming in his ear, “PULL OFF THE FUCKING ROAD NOW YOU LUNATIC,” and “DON’T MAKE ME KILL YOU! DON’T MAKE ME KILL YOU, YOU STUPID BASTARD!”
To which he gasped a, “Yes, sir,” and pulled, remarkably gently, off the road.
Somehow we ended up, again, near a patch of ten houses and shops. And again, someone brought us tea.
Here, there was no attempt to rebuild the alternator, though another dozen men in thin blankets did come out from under a bridge to stare and bobble their heads. They looked at the car. A few spoke to my driver. They all sympathized with our plight. One older man came over and reached up to put his arm around my shoulder to let me know I was safe. Then they built a small fire and boiled another pot of tea. At which point my driver, having shaken off our altercation in no time, shared a few unexpected words in English, saying,“Sir, welcome to Indian picnic, sir.”
He smiled and invited me to join the men as they all sat or squatted around the fire, huddling together for warmth before the sun returned.
It was a preposterous, beautiful scene. One day before, I was dancing at very real palace and listening to Bapji do Elvis while grabbing drinks from passing footmen, and now I was sharing a cup of tea with a man I’d just tried to kill and some new friends who happened to live under a bridge. I have no idea if there is a meaning to be found in that particular rotation of the Earth, but in the years since, I’ve happily overlaid the memories with lessons of my own choosing. At that exact moment, though, I was too exhausted to feel anything more.
The rest of the trip was less eventful. At dawn we set off and made it another two hours before the battery passed its final watt. After one last futile, though heroic, attempt to rebuild the alternator, we hailed a Tata truck to give us a hand. The driver of the truck had a piece of nylon rope and towed us for ten miles. Then the rope broke. Then someone stole the rope. Then my driver bought more speed at a local store before wandering off to try and buy an alternator, unsuccessfully.
In the end, for our final four hours, we were towed back to Delhi by a wrecker, my driver behind the wheel and me in that deep back seat, both of us snoring.
But before that, one more thing happened that gave me a real story. As I sat in the brightening dawn at my Indian picnic with human beings I could not possibly have met under other circumstances, and who I would most assuredly never meet again, the magic came. Directly across the fire sat my driver, strangely calm. Maybe the speed just had him so tightly wound that he vibrated like a hummingbird that gives the illusion of stillness in momentary pulses of concentration. If he held a grudge for the bruises now visible on his throat, or had any memory of our Ambassador potentially having been buried deep in the ass of a lumbering camel, he gave no outward clue. Rather, he looked at me with baleful eyes, smiling.
And he began to sing.
It must have been a very old song. It sounded like it had been sung in these parts for thousands of years. He was joined softly by a few of the men who sat with us in the predawn chill around our small, hopeful fire. The men, the tea, the fire, the way we all leaned into the burning rushes and one another for warmth — in that proximity of humanity and death, the beauty of an ineffable fraternity expressed itself in human voice. All of it suddenly seemed determined, predestined and inevitable. We — or people very much like us — had to be there that morning if only to reach these few ticks of sublime and holy grace. We were there because of the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Himalaya Mountains; we were there because of the infrastructural development of post-colonial India and the class relationships between wealthy passengers, struggling drivers, and unemployed men who live on the side of the road; we were there because of curses and faulty wiring and by the illusions of our own limited choices. Each man pushed momentarily into the lives of the others by history and chance, and enchanted by a song.
I looked at the old man sitting to my right, the one who had offered me his protection when I first arrived at half a kilometer of highway somewhere between Jodhpur and New Delhi. He smiled and he joined the others who were singing. As he did, he moved his hand from my shoulder to my knee, gently tapping to the slow rhythm while nodding his head and singing a sweet and soft harmonic line. I’d picked out the tune, so humming along, I did likewise and tapped the time on his knee. He bobbled his head and smiled and I bobbled mine as we shared brotherhood and space as voices rose with the sun and faded with the stars.
As they finished the song and turned to speak to one another in hushed voices appropriate for morning, I decided to take a cultural, linguistic risk. I looked into the eyes of the old man sitting next to me and started to sing, softly at first, “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog, cryin’ all the time.”
As it turned out, they knew Elvis, too.