07.10.12Read the first chapter of "The Disharmonic Misadventures of David Stein" by Jonathan L. Segal
(Near the end of the Twentieth Century)
David Stein stood behind the “No Admittance" door wolfing down a hastily bought turkey and lettuce sandwich. No mayo, no frills. This had to be eaten quickly and quietly and there was no time for the pleasure of chewing. In fact, the minimally chewed mouthfuls were going down so fast that David knew he’d be in gut-wrenching pain soon enough.
Feeling ridiculous, like some perverse Clark Kent in a phone booth costume change, he opened the door and looked about furtively. Seeing nobody, he darted across the hall into the men’s room. He brushed the crumbs off his tuxedo and studied his teeth in the mirror. Finding bits of lettuce tangled in his lower front teeth, he rinsed madly with cold water, swishing as violently as he could. After checking and finding no more crumbs he straightened his bow tie, combed what was left of his hair, and smiled his best headshot smile.
At forty-two, David Stein had the face of a much younger man. He had piercing blue eyes with sleepy lids. He liked it when women told him that he looked like Mikhail Baryshnikov, the great Russian dancer. True, he was thinner, but at five-foot-six and a half inches, about the right height. It was just too damn bad about his hair. All he could do was to keep it cut short.
Reaching into his pants pocket, he pulled out a cheap digital watch. The vinyl strap had broken long ago. Seeing that he had used up about seven minutes for food-stuffing and bathroom ablutions, he headed up the stairs. As he launched up this flight of stairs, two at a time, he began to scat sing. If you had been at the top of those stairs, you’d have thought that some sort of jazzed-out Freddy Kruger was coming. At the top of the flight of stairs, he entered the lobby. His all time favorite lobby. The Great Hall of New York’s Metropolitan Museum Of Art, at Fifth Avenue at Eighty-second Street. He realized that as usual, he had rushed to be ready on time and was now a few minutes early. In a half hour he’d be singing and playing piano at a party in the Medieval Armor room.
Feeling a twinge of claustrophobia, he decided to take one last look at the outside world. He walked quickly and purposefully through the crowd, crossing the cavernous room. He stepped outside into the bright Spring sunshine.
Standing at the top of the Museum’s legendary twenty-five step staircase, he gazed down and tried to study every face in the crowd. He had to make sure that he missed nothing. His friends thought that he knew more people than anyone they’d ever met, but in fact it was really because he studied every face in every crowd. He simply spotted people he knew when others might not have.
Tourists, yuppies and college students lounged on the great wide steps, basking in the sunlight and in their own successes. At the base of the steps, vendors sold pretzels and hot dogs. A cab pulled up, and a long haired young man with his face covered by white face makeup and wearing a black leotard and tights jumped out and strode quickly towards the steps. He stopped abruptly a few feet from the steps. He froze mid-stride in a walking position. A wave of recognition moved slowly through the crowd, starting with the people nearest the young man. As they realized that he was a mime, their reaction triggered the knowledge further back in the crowd that something was happening. New Yorkers have to get through that first moment when the worst is assumed; the moment when they think that violence is upon them. Only then could they go on happily to accept that entertainment had arrived instead.
David stopped to watch from the top of the steps. The mime was waiting for the right moment. That brief instant when all eyes were upon him, and boredom had not yet set in. David knew what the mime was thinking, and guessed correctly as to when the frozen stance would be abandoned. Get the audience’s attention, but don’t make them wait too long. Don’t lose them, or it’s all over.
Thawing from his stance, he started to imitate the first little toddler who approached him. His body became a two-year-old’s, stiff-legged and slightly off-balance. Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein with Robin Williams’ baby face. The crowd laughed in recognition of the truth of his art. Like a two-legged chameleon, he now proceeded to become anyone who walked by. He became in succession, an elderly black man with a cane, a Japanese business man who took pictures of the mime as the mime mimed taking pictures of him, the pretzel vendor, an impossibly obese woman, and a beautiful girl in sunglasses. The crowd, enjoying being in on the joke every time, oohed and ahhed, nodded their heads, clapped their hands, and fed the energy. David smiled.
Emboldened by the response, the young man stepped to the curb and stared uptown into the Fifth Avenue traffic. He stepped out into the street, even though the light was green for the oncoming downtown traffic. And now, to the gasps and excited whoops of the crowd, he became a traffic cop. In a wild mock semaphore, he used his arms to control the cabs and buses and cars that were whisked into his vortex. They were his hostages, and they were on stage now.
The first vehicle he stopped was a white stretch limousine. He extended his arms to stop the limo, and then, only when the limo driver had acquiesced, did he let him go on. The people on the museum steps whistled and cheered. Next, a city bus, half full of passengers just trying to get downtown, approached. The mime blocked its path, and the bus slowed down. He ran over to the front bumper of the bus. He jumped up on the bumper and stared eye to eye with the driver through the windshield. The crowd roared hysterically. Then he mimed tying a rope to the bumper and then proceeded to “pull" the bus with the great rope. He sweated and strained, and the bus driver played along. The bus moved slowly, looking to all as if the mime were actually towing it. The groaning of the bus seemed to David like a circus elephant trumpeting under the crack of the whip. The crowd on the stairs applauded for the young man.
A yellow taxi pulled up. The driver had been driving since 4:00 a.m. and it was now 4:00 p.m. He was exhausted but determined. He had just dropped a fare at Fifth Avenue and Eighty-sixth Street, and was hoping to head home to Queens. His intent was to take one last fare down Fifth, and then go east in the sixties and get on the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge to Queens and home. If he was lucky, he could still beat the heart of rush hour. He was not in the mood for a young man dressed like a demon to block his path in the middle of Fifth Avenue.
He hit his brakes and the cab screeched to a halt as the mime used his arms to signal him to do so. The driver leaned out his window and swore.
“You asshole! Get the fuck out of the way!"
The young man looked hurt. He rolled his shoulders into a slump and put his fists to his eyes in great big silent clown sobs. The people laughed and let out an “Awww!" to show their solidarity with the performer. The driver all but imploded and held his breath. His face turned red and beads of perspiration rolled down his stubbled cheek. The mime wagged his finger at the driver not to be a bad boy, and then he started to tow the car with his mime rope. The driver knew that he couldn’t get through unless he played along. He knew that if he started to inch forward, the crowd would cheer for both of them. He really just wanted to get home to sleep, but it looked like the only way home was to join the show. But he was so damned angry! He meant to depress the accelerator just a bit. He meant for it to all turn out all right. He meant to. But in his pent up anger, he floored it. The cab shot forward catching the young man’s foot.
To David, it reminded him of a toy he had had when he was a child. It was a small pair of rollers, like an old-fashioned clothes wringer. It was called a Magic Money Changer. You could put in a dollar bill and a preset ten dollar bill would come out the other side. This was what David saw when he saw the mime go under the wheel. But what was different was that the white-faced head of the mime flew off. And it flew quite far, landing on the curb, amid the crowd.
After time stopped and total silence, they screamed. They screamed madness and blood and horror. The day was shaken and the birds flew away. People fainted. Some threw up. David stood staring in disbelief. He stood there for some time. To be honest with himself, he really wanted to get closer to the head, but he didn’t dare. Not because of the horror of it, but because he didn’t want anyone to know that he wanted to see such a thing close at hand. Reluctantly, as chaos smothered the crowd, David Stein turned around and walked into the Metropolitan Museum Of Art, to sing Gershwin at a cocktail party in the Medieval Armor Room.
What kind of person leaves a scene of carnage and goes off to entertain the wealthy? How could David reconcile these two worlds in the space of minutes? It seems that growing up in New York City necessitates an emotional makeup like that of a revolving door. Quick access into one world and quick access back out. David’s psyche operated on many levels simultaneously. He could truly feel the pain of the mime’s death, and yet he could instantly compartmentalize the feeling. The place where he stored that feeling was separated from the place where he bathed in the glitter of his musical performing life. And because of this compartmentalization, something usually rang false in his piano playing. While his skills and quick musical wit were always available to him on a moment’s notice, truth was forever in a different part of his self than the part that was playing. He used that wit to mask the honesty that was lacking.
There were honest moments in his playing, but rarely was anyone around to hear them. The sound of chattering partygoers and clinking glasses had long ago overwhelmed his musical sense of integrity. If they weren’t really listening, why struggle to release the truth? And again, if they did listen, he wasn’t about to open up his feelings in front of these patrician snobs. Nobody understood who he was, if he understood it himself. At his best, he was a vehicle for the mysteries of the muse, but more often at his worst, he was a thoughtless regurgitator of musical patterns that he’d played thousands of times.
And what or who was this muse that we’ve heard so much about through the centuries? What world does the creative person enter while the crowd sees nothing? David’s childhood friends who had become doctors, lawyers and Wall Street wizards were usually in the dark as to what David could do. While he despairingly envied them their affluence, he knew that something besides money separated them from him. He could enter that graceful world where the waters sing. All he had to do was place his hands on the keys when nobody was around, and he was in that door. The door was real, and he’d gone through for many years. His friends could not pass in. There was a a curtain between them and that world. They could not translate themselves into creators. He, on the other hand, could not seem to join their world of comfort, though he wished for it.
The artist tries to take others through that door. He may entice them, or he may drag them kicking and screaming, but to complete the artistic act, the others must pass through.
On the edge of this door stands David Stein. He walks carelessly along the edge of it, and his foot sometimes slips and he falls in a bit, and then he recovers himself and extricates the foot. His world is largely internal, and his outer persona is a misrepresentation of his own making. From within this vantage point he is safe from the probing stares of the mob. They see him sitting at the piano, rarely smiling. He is scared to death to smile, and that is one truth that shows.
Arriving in the museum’s Medieval Room, he sees the knights on horseback that have been there his entire life. A blink of the mind ago he was a small child here, in the company of his Aunt Sonia. The knights towered above him, mid-joust. Now, in his black and white armor with bow tie, he has returned. Perhaps he is really the Court Jester. Maybe he is the King’s Magician. Or is he a Troubadour? David feels that he fulfills all of these roles here.
A wealthy blond matron in a gown disturbs his reverie.
“Would you bring me some white wine."
It is not a question. It is an assumption. The assumption of class. In his mind David barks at her like an angry dog. She then lifts her gown to run away screaming in terror, and she runs directly into a knight’s lance. Her face is skewered, neatly between the eyeballs. David thinks that this lance was waiting the many dusty centuries to do this one noble thing, here at the end of the twentieth century, on the East Side of New York City.
“I’m not the waiter, Madame. I am only the lowly pianist."
She covers her mouth with her diamond-studded hand, and with her other hand grabs his as if she had known him forever. He can smell her perfume and he can guess the price per ounce. She laughs good naturedly.
“I’m so sorry! Please forgive me."
“Of course, it’s perfectly natural. After all, I am in uniform."
How many times he had been mistaken in his tuxedo for waiters and Maitre’d’s, yet it still burned him.
“I believe that the bar is over there."
She presses his hand again, and apologizes once more. Though she follows his direction, rather than walk all the way to the bar, she stops a waiter and has him do it. She is only twenty feet from the bar, but she can’t bring herself to serve herself. David wonders if she knows how to tie her own shoes.
A Steinway grand piano sits seductively in the middle of the room. Seeing it, David falls immediately under its spell. He walks up to the keyboard and looks it over before trying it. This is the moment for pianists that is so like the moment a man undresses a woman to see what’s underneath. He lovingly caresses the keys without playing a note. They are smooth and they shine. He will not need to dust them off to prevent his fingers from turning black while playing. So many nice pianos in nice places and they haven’t been touched and they’re filthy. But not this one. She has become a virgin again through the magic of a piano tuner’s craft. Right here in this room, in front of the very wealthy, David will possess her for a couple of hours. On a conscious level, it’s a secret. But he knows that some people in the room will feel it. Music is mathematical, and also spiritual, but music is also very sexual. And when an adept jazz player performs a romantic ballad, he is really performing. When David plays a ballad, women in the room have a physiological reaction. They may be walking with their husbands, but they feel it. And David knows this. And not a word is said about it.
As people mill and mingle at this museum fundraiser, the effects of his playing vary. For some, it’s an ambience that says that they have arrived at the top, and that they are as important as their inflated egos would have them believe. For others it is the thrill of New York at its most glamorous. Something to tell their friends about. For some it is the remembrance by song, of precious memories from other times. The song links these people to the events that passed when they first heard the song. But there are some out there, with a drink in their hand and a sudden glow in their eyes, for whom it is passion. And when he starts to sing, that passion burns. There is no mistaking the tone in his voice. It is a longing. And that longing awakens a response in many of the women in that room.
The knights clamber off their steeds and gather round the piano. David plays “Rule Britannia" and the knights laugh heartily. They have mugs of ale in their armored hands. They pry open their helmet visors and pour the ale into the emptiness within. They have no faces, of course. David plays Beatle songs for them. Then the James Bond theme. They sing lustily along to the score from “Camelot". One slaps David on the back so hard, that David almost goes flying. And now, they raise their mugs and bellow a British soccer song, to the tune of “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean."
Oh pour me a big glass of cider
Oh pour me a big glass of stout
Oh pour me a big glass of ale
And then watch me puke it all out
Puke it, Puke it,
Puke it all over yer mum, yer mum
Puke it, Puke it,
Puke it all over yer mum
As the song finishes, a pompous, overweight museum staffer comes over to the piano and speaks to the knights.
“Would you please get back on your horses? This is a cocktail party, not a fraternity beer bash! There are some very important people here who don’t need to hear this crap!"
There is silence. The knights stand still like the statues they are. They don’t answer.
“Well?" barks the red-faced staffer.
He is answered by a “whoosh" and a “kathonk" as his chest is pierced by an arrow. He gurgles in shock. He looks at David for an answer, but David just shrugs his shoulders. The man falls to the ground. The knight with the crossbow shakes his fist triumphantly and they all give each other clanging high-fives. David plays “God Save The Queen" and “We Are The Champions". They sing with great gusto. After this merry carousing, the knights return to their horses. David plays a slow blues.