“With a boulder off my shoulder, and feelin’ kinda older…”
The Manfred Mann song had blast out of Hollywood in 1975, when Dimitri was only eight. A decade later, he was shape-shifting the lyrics to suit his situation. Maybe I’ll be the teen-age diplomat. Maybe I’ll have diplomatic immunity. Wonder what the legal age is there, for some Silicone Sister action.
“Torresdale Station,” called the conductor.
Markus is probably still waiting for my call this week. I wonder if he got anything good in? I hear they have really good hash in Israel.
The Walkman in his brain started the quote from “Chopsticks.”
“Do you mind?” A fiftyish black guy from the bench across the bus from Dimitri scowled.
Bozhe fucking moy! I guess it’s true what they say about geniuses thinking out loud.
Dimitri was fingering with both hands now, verse in one hand, chorus in the other. The black guy unzipped a slightly weather-weary canvas bag. He peered into it, riffled through some paper, and extracted what he was looking for. He presented for Dimitri’s inspection a manila folder, clean but for a fresh crease that resembled the oversized strap of a handwoven diaper bag from Ecuador. Where the free shoulder would have been, the file label bore, in crisp jazz script, the title.
The One True Love, huh? OK. It’s gotta be better than Chopsticks.
Dimitri started fingering the left hand while humming the melody. Now neither the young pianist nor the older musician noticed or cared about the presence of other midday travelers on the R-7 to Trenton.
“You didn’t think about tenor sax?”
“No, man, alto maybe. Tenor’s too brassy. You can’t make sweet honey with a tenor. Think ( ). “
“Naw, ( ) played clarinet. You didn’t know that, didja? S’prised you recognized it wasn’t a hobo.”
“The melody only makes sense with this chart if it’s in Bb. Nice tune, though. Maybe you should have written it for a hobo with an oboe.”
“Naw, man, then it would have been the blues.”
“How’d you know, kid? You probably don’t know who Bill Monroe is.”
Dimitri tried to ignore the older man’s change in address from “man” to “kid.” Instead, he tried to think back to jazz club at Interlochen the past summer, but all he could think of was Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody. His eyes drifted from the upper-right focus of database searching to the centered point of memory.
Rob Morris, Trombone Instructor. Tyrone Maguire, the kid on drums who really played vibes. A vocalist who could do anything in any octave at the same time, Bobby McFerrin. A saxmaster, Howie Smith, in his late twenties already. Another sax guy, Quintin Moore, who made a living as a programmer on a DEC PDP-8. Interlochen – between the lakes. Upstate Michigan. Magic. Meredith McIntyre. Damn her, I came so close. The girl from the #9 green. What was her name? I can trace her navel but I can’t remember her name. A wash of major 7ths, half diminished 13ths, chords built on altered notes. Meredith changing backstage after playing tennis. A golden ray hits her rich hay-blonde hair, disappearing under her t-shirt. Was it olive? Her skin was a matching tan. She had no tan lines. I was about to check the piano. Tux already on. Shit.
“Bill Monroe ( ). Never mind, kid. Can you hear it?”
He must mean the music. I hope so. I learned about misdirected pronouns in 9th grade.
“Yeah. Pretty nice. You playing it?”
“I wrote it.”
“I’m mostly a classical player. But I can tell a well-crafted progression. And I like the melody.”
“You can hear it, if you’ve ever loved a woman.”
“You don’t think I’m a virgin, do you, old man?” There was a note of tension in Dimitri’s voice.
“I don’t think nothing about nobody. Not ‘til I played with them, at least.”
Ray Leopold. “Is this a stage name?”
“Yeah. I’m Raymont Leathers. I don’t figure any of your Curtis Prep teachers have a name like that. It’s strictly Clef Club, Raymont. Ray Leopold. You can’t even tell that this composer ain’t white. How ‘bout you, kid?”
“Dimitri who? Dimitri Rasputin? You do sound a little bit Sovi-Et to me. Born here, or there?”
“Here. Kats, actually. My parents came in 1964.”
“Oooooh. Bay of Pigs. How did they get out of there?”
“Khrushchev must of made a mistake.”
“Morning in America. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall ‘n stuff. Still, you read OK. Where you headed, Dimitri?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Dimitri reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his fellowship letter from Habimah Theater.
“Well, well, well, a veritable Irving Berlinski. Whatever else do you expect? I thought the way it works was the Russkies came through Israel to come here. Live ‘n learn. Lessee. Y’got round-trip tickets, travelers’ checks, some letters saying you’re goin’ to a kibbutz and a technical school all while you rehearse these kids for a musical, and Lord knows whatever else when the parent company gets back from Mother Russia, OK, OK! Not bad. In my day, the only way we got to see the world was by goin’ to Korea. Later, Vietnam.”
Dmmm, dm, dm, duduummm, dit, dit, dudummmmmmm, dummmmm, diduddleduddlediddydayyyy.
Take the A train. That’s the only lick I can remember from the whole damn summer, other than the one I didn’t get of Meredith. What do I say to this guy? This is like me talking to Pushkin because I wrote a short story once.
“I played in Israel once, at Habimah no less. I played the clarinet in a jazz beat, psychedelic-pop thing. Lots of players, not much structure. Free formin’. Their food sucks, man. Shawarma. Baba, hummus. Salads that come in tiny little cubes, thinner than the skin of the vegetable itself. Their liquor. I took one swig of that ouzo shit, kid, and my eyeballs damn near popped out of their sockets. Like anise and gasoline. Stick to beer.”
“How were the girls?”
“Young. Very young. They’re all married by age twenty.”
“How old were you when you went?”
“Thirty-six. I was twice the age of any of the kids that hung out with the bands.”
“Yep, I got some. We all did. A little ouzo, a little hash, these kids didn’t need an alibi the morning after. They wanted a Harlem experience, they got a Harlem experience.”
Dimitri’s eyes widened. He longed for a life outside the sticky, amoeba-like Russian-Jewish neighborhood of the Northeast. Everything he knew about Harlem came from the ‘60’s riots and Jelly Roll Morton as portrayed by a touring show called “Jelly’s Last Jam” that he had wangled an audition for, when the piano man got violently and passionately ill after the last show in Cleveland. The music was too easy, and the lyrics seemed like something a foreigner would write in elementary school. So he failed to focus on the improv and “mailed it in.” He was better than that. He didn’t get a call-back.
“We grew up with our instruments we got from the schools. All the schools had orchestra and band, and PS (151) had two bands. After school was swing band. We played Dizzy, we played the Duke, we even tried to work through Miles back before he was Miles. Our band leader made the arrangements. It was just the basics – the chart, the changes – but then we could just play. Everybody got a break. Sometimes one tune would last and last and last – and then it would be 5 pm and time to go home for dinner. Then the lucky ones, me and the other dudes who had parents working the night shift, we’d go to the Apollo and warm up with the band. I got to sit in a lot. Most of the guys were in the horn section. I didn’t go that way. I played clarinet.
“Go your own way, kid. By playing clarinet, not sax, I got special props. Be your own dude. I ain’t heard ya play, but doin’ what you doin’ now, I know you got chops.”
I’ve got to ask.
“Why are you here? Why aren’t you in a limo somewhere? No offense, but this country runs on the roadway.”
“Not too far off. I’d take the train in any case, but if I could afford it I’d take Amtrak. You too I bet. But some people can’t handle the life. Think of Cannonball, Bird. People go down on smack, booze, you name it, we did it. We busted on dudes with problems, lightweights and shit. Can’t handle your liquor. But it’s brought better players than me to sad ends, kid.
“You live here now?”
“Yeah, I take care a’ my mom, but she has the house, so I guess she takes care a’ me. I got sober about three years back, and the word got out. I got a call to audition for a show by a kid named Prince. Ever heard a’ him, kid?
“Who hasn’t?” He just cut an album called ‘Purple Rain.’ It’s going to change the world, I think.”
“I have some of the charts. I been practicing harmonies, but also making my own breaks. Trenton’s coming up in a minute. You wanna stop for a bit? I think I’ll play some tunes with my own solos.”
“OK, but just maybe for a half hour or so. You have to get in line for international flights early.”
“Then you gotta make it more ‘n two hours early. Terrorists, you know. Hey, you don’t have anything nasty in that duffel, do ya?”
Dimitri thought about that. No, he had sold the pot he had bought for graduation. He could get better stuff in Israel anyway, as soon as he knew the scene. And learned the lingo in Hebrew.
“No, I’m good. No bombs, either.”
“Cool. You got a little accent, though. Be careful. Don’t act funny. Anyway, your flight’s not ‘til 8, right?”
“How long is the train ride to Kennedy?”
“They didn’t tell you? You’d be lost, kid. Fuckin’ lost! “
“Huh?!” Dimitri had never considered the possibility that he might not get off at the airport. After all, in Philly you took the R-1 and you were there.
“You get off at New York Penn Station, and then follow the signs to the Long Island Railroad. LIRR, the locals call it; I f’get what the signs say. Kennedy is on the Queens line. I think there’s an express train there now. Otherwise, the line that go to Huntington stops at JFK. Plan an extra forty-five minutes, half an hour if you’re lucky. You bein’ a kid and all, you can bet on at least an hour. Don’t talk to any funky people with too much jewelry up there. They’re pimps, and they troll the places where kids get stuck looking for fresh meat.”
“I think I should skip the busking at Trenton.”
“Naw, kid, I’ll walk y’ over to the Long Island Line. I need the run-through.”
“Only if you start with The One True Love.”
“Trenton Station. Last stop. Make sure to check for all your belongings. Transfer to the New Jersey Transit train to New York – Penn Station on Platform 2. Purchase tickets in the station upstairs, or you may pay a three dollar surcharge on the train. Have a good day and thank you for riding SEPTA.”