Saturday, April 10, 2010

Scenes from Silver Creek: The Night Chopin Came to Town

One night when I was about 12 or so, the family went to Johnnie’s restaurant for some occasion or other. I think it might have been my grandmother’s birthday. It was a typical night at Johnnie’s. Huge platters of antipasto and tons of garlic bread spread across the table, with Johnnie himself joining us for a glass of red.

There was an old upright piano in the corner of the main dining room, and when he was feeling expansive, or the place was quiet enough that he wasn’t table hopping, Johnnie would sit down and play one of the three songs he new. That’s Amore, Finucli Finucla, and Some Enchanted Evening. That was his entire repertoire. He once told me he practiced them over and over until he was perfect, and never learned anything else. Occasionally his eldest son, Dante, would take over and play one of his two songs, oddly enough Hound Dog or Alley Cat. Oh yeah, Johnnie could also sorta kinda play the Major General song from Pirates of Penzance but he could only play it so slow it was unrecognizable and vaguely depressing

There was a stranger at Johnnie’s that night. I don’t mean that in a Dodge City, unknown man walks into a saloon and everyone stops talking kind of way. Silver Creek wasn’t that small that you’d ordinarily notice someone new. But he was at the next table and Johnnie, being naturally gregarious, stopped to chat and we overheard the fact that he was just driving through town on his way to San Diego. Johnnie asked him what his business was and the man replied that he was a musician.

Like most Italians, Johnnie loved music. And being a professional musician was second only to being a priest in the hierarchy of Johnnie’s estimation. So he naturally exclaimed over the newcomer and started asking more questions. What instrument? What kind of music? Did he know Sinatra?

When the man had biographed himself to Johnnie’s satisfaction and proclaimed himself a pianist, Johnnie naturally invited the man to play should he feel so inclined. The man laughed, said something non-committal and modest, and turned his attention to the mushroom lasagna.

After the man had finished his complementary scoop of vanilla ice cream in a frosty sliver cup he quietly got up and crossed the room.

I distinctly recall that at the moment he began to play my brother Peter was telling an incredibly boring story about being an alter boy. I don’t know why I remember this as all of my brother’s stories were (and still are) duller than rust – but I have a clear recollection of him mercifully shutting up when the music started. I know now that it was Chopin’s Waltz in D Flat Major. On a road trip once where all we could get was a classical station, the waltz came on the air and I screamed "that's the song!" so loudly that my friend Sean almost hit a stop sign.

I’d never really heard classical music before, my parents taste running exclusively to 1940s big band tunes. But even I at the age with my untrained ear, and my amazingly dull brother Peter knew that something amazing was going on. That dented old upright had never sounded so much like Carnegie Hall. Johnnie, who had been in the kitchen, darted out as if the place was on fire. You could hear forks being dropped onto plates and conversations slowing dying until all you could hear was Mrs. Silas telling the story of how she broke her arm in Denver for the 20th time. (I mean I'd heard the story 20 times, not that she broke her arm in Denver 20 times.). Anyway, the man played as if playing for royalty instead of entertaining a houseful of white trash, garlic-scented people. And, oddly enough, the houseful of white trash, garlic-scented people appreciated it. We sat wrapped in a cloud of the most beautiful music ever heard in Silver Creek. It put Johnnie’s That’s Amore to shame.

As the last notes faded away the entire place burst into applause. The man ducked his head – half recognition, half shyness. Then without a word, he got up from the piano.

Johnnie rushed over and, in a show of Italian exuberance, pulled the man into a fierce hug. The musician hugged him back with a show of good grace and then walked to his table for the check. Of course Johnnie beat him there and tore it up. The two men exchanged a few words and then he was gone.

My father stopped Johnnie as he made his way back to the kitchen and asked him if he knew who the pianist was. Johnnie said he’d asked the stranger who replied that his name was Michael Crocker.

I have never heard that name since and always wondered who he was and why was it a musician of such talent wasn’t famous.

Every time I hear Chopin I think I smell garlic.


Duke said...

I've always been amazed that the best musicians I've ever heard were completely unknown while the most famous were always the least talented.

There's something bad wrong with an entertainment industry that works totally backwards.

Kittie Howard said...

I could hear the ivories and smell the garlic...You've got THE most interesting stories, so real, so vivid!