For a time during his teenage years, Mitchell Borden feared that he had begun to acquire the dangerously alluring characteristics of a cult leader.
“I wore sandals and robes in high school,” Borden tells me. He’s tucked into a corner of Ornithology Jazz Club, which he founded in October alongside his wife, Rie Yamaguchi-Borden. “I was worried that I was a little bit Charlie Manson, because I did have followers. I had my little devotees. And I was worried that they were, like, blindly following me.”
But the thing is, once you start listening to Borden’s careening detestations of popular culture and his determined advocacy for a life turned inward — for a life free from the violent demands of a society bent on reducing a human’s worth to that of a commodity — you’re at risk of wanting to tell Borden that if there is in fact a cult, you might like to sign up.
“I mean, the society – from the media – they tell you you’re short, stupid, fat, ugly, you got yellow teeth, your breath stinks, your feet stink and Jesus hates you. You know?” A pair of headphones curl around Borden’s neck. A white mane of hair reaches toward his shoulders. “You have to fight against that.”
My audio recorder dies. I take out my phone and open a voice memo. The yellow legal pad in my lap is mostly for show. Borden’s words are too fast and too many.
“You go, ‘you have to buy a car.’ The paranoia sets in. ‘I’m not gonna get laid if I don’t have this car, if I don’t have white teeth, if I don’t have big boobs, if I don’t have this big d**k.’” Borden leaps up from his seat and stares me in the eyes. “So what do people do?”
Before I can answer, Borden hunches his shoulders, droops his head toward the floor, and begins stomping loudly around the room.
“I see people walking around like this,” he yells. “Why? Because they think they’re not sexy. They think that they’ve lost — that this game, this popular culture game, they’ve lost! ‘I’m not gonna get laid. I’m not gonna get laid.’” Borden falls gently back into his chair. “Give me a break, you know?”
I nod, ready for more. But Borden folds his hands and looks into his lap. I check my phone to see if it’s still recording.
“You trust that more than you trust yourself.” Borden points at my phone.
I shrug. He’s right.
“What if I was doing an interview like this …” His face gets animated. He gives me an imitation of a reporter conducting an interview, incessantly checking their phone. “When I see that, I feel like giving those things a punt, a karate kick, you know, smashing it like a taffy bar.”
Borden grew up on a farm in Freehold, New Jersey. He never wore diapers, he shat in an outhouse, and he never much cared about comparing himself to others.
“The thing was, I was very small,” Borden says. “I couldn’t play sports. So I started right then and there. I said, ‘I’m not competing.’’’
Borden’s rejection of competition proved infectious. It’s what got him the devotees in high school. And it continues to be a guiding principle.
“I only want to go in, deeper in, deeper,” he says. “I don’t want the things that other people want — or they’re told that they want.”
One of the things that Borden has no want for is money.
“I’ve always been penniless,” Borden says. “But who else has been penniless? Bartok, Mozart … Beethoven was penniless in the end. What does it matter how much money you have?”
Another thing is retirement.
“‘Oh, you need 500k to retire.’” Borden smirks. “Retire and do what, you know? Sit around on a lawn chair in the sun?! If you do nothing because you’re so scared that you’re not gonna have money, it will just kill you. It will kill your soul.”
Borden falls silent again, looks into his lap. He’s gone inward, for a moment. An immeasurable moment.
Sometimes when I’m in here listening to the music, I tell Borden, I can’t find the one.
“It’s the drummer’s fault.” Borden lights up. He pulls sticks from the air and manically starts to smash an invisible drum set. “Drummers ruin every song if they’re not listening and they’re playing loud. Who wants to hear that, them getting their rocks off?”
Do you have a philosophy about jazz – what it is? I ask.
“I only have one philosophy,” Borden says with a focused intensity. “It’s that when the right person works with the wrong means, the wrong means works in the right way.”
I nod and try to sort through that sentence in my head.
“If you’re true to yourself, if you’re expressing something from your subconscious form –something that is soul rendering …” Borden reaches into the air and grabs onto something that I cannot see. He squeezes it and twists his arm. I imagine him extracting someone’s beating heart. “… Then you can take the wrong means and make them work in the right way.”
And what about luck, I ask. What role does that play in everything?
“Luck is everything!” Borden shouts. “I’m the guy in that Mark Twain short story where, you know, he falls down and it looks like a charge and they win the war. I am so very fallible … stupid … all kinds of mistakes. I’m always working with the wrong means. But when you stick with them, people recognize it. ‘Wow, this guy’s serious. He’s gonna try to make this work no matter what.’”
I look at Borden, searching for one last question.
Are you a misanthrope? I ask.
“I definitely don’t like society, you know, the way it is.” Borden pauses for another exhale, and then he brightens up. “Look, everybody wants to be immortal. Everyone wants to leave their mark on humankind. I’m desperately interested in that. I want everyone to start realizing we can evolve on a spiritual plane.”
Yes, I tell him, and where do we begin?
“It’s very simple,” Borden states. “Don’t be led astray by the bullies. Pick up a book by Emily Dickinson. And I hate to say throw away your phone, but that would be a start.”
A woman emerges from the staircase and picks up a chess set from a nearby table. Borden asks if anyone is downstairs and the woman shakes her head. I stop the voice memo and pocket my phone. Borden follows the woman to the ground floor.
Ornithology’s main room is empty. It’s still early, the musicians haven’t arrived. The woman is sitting on a stool now, playing chess with the bartender. Borden is leaning on the bar, head propped on his hands, watching the game unfold. I break the silence to say goodbye.
There’s a soft rain on the walk home. My mind turns to New Year’s. No plans. It’s sad, and it’s relieving. I take out my phone and place an order on Amazon for ‘The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson.’ Then I put the phone back in my pocket and tell myself I’m not going to look at it again until I’ve typed up my notes.
Mitchell Borden also opened the iconic Manhattan jazz club Smalls in 1994 and Fat Cat in 2000. Learn more about Borden and Ornithology Jazz Club here.
Featured Image: an illustration of Mitchell Borden drawn by Emily Rappaport.
For more news, sign up for Bushwick Daily’s newsletter.
Join the fight to save local journalism by becoming a paid subscriber.