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.
Photo of the day: Thunderbird

Our next-door neighbor dotes on his classic muscle car. He is constantly tinkering with it and only occasionally starts it up. It wakes up with a huge roar that has been known to scare the cat. Men.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Reddest of the Red

This deceptively sweet face belongs to Camille (name has been changed to protect the innocent....although she's not). Camille is a red cat and she lives up to her name. Her problem is that she wasn't socialized much as a kitten and so she's very unhappy about being handled. The poor thing gets scared when you get close and she shows it by biting, swatting, and hissing. Working with her is an exercise in patience and caution and I definitely got a lesson today.

I was asked to work with her today because I've had some success in getting along with her. But today was not a good day. As soon as I opened her cage door she arched her back and gave out with a hiss you could have heard in Cleveland. I stood and talked to her quietly, telling her all about Easter dinner at my mom's and the plot of the book that I'm reading. Slowly I moved my hand closer and with each half inch she'd hiss again. I was wearing gloves, knowing from past experience that she has sharp claws and sharper teeth. Eventually I got within attack distance and she let me know that was close enough by taking a swipe at me.

After a few more minutes of talking, I laid my hand on her back and got a full-on Exorcist sound. If I didn't know better, I'd swear her head turned all the way around too. But she stayed there, ears flat, looking miserable, but not trying to eat me, which was a positive sign. She let me pet her back for a few minutes but obviously was hating it. I felt like stinky Aunt Maud trying to hug some reluctant kid. Camille was making a low, mid-throat growl and was so unhappy that I began to feel guilty. All I was doing was stroking her back, but her reaction made me feel like I was putting her on the rack.

Working with cats is a lesson in patience, something I've never really had. It's teaching me quite a lot, but it's not easy. Try standing on a hard floor for 20 minutes, petting an unhappy cat, talking quiet nonsense and hoping said cat doesn't decide to amputate your hand. It's harder than it sounds.

I wish I could say that Camille and I had a breakthrough, but we didn't. Eventually I ended the visit because a group of Brownies came in on a tour to get their looking at kitties badge and the noise and commotion freaked Camille out even more than she already was. I didn't want to stress her any more so I ended the visit.

I have decided that Camille is my new project. I am hoping to eventually get her to accept me. If I work with her a little every day perhaps I can even, one day, approach her without gloves. In the meantime, though, I'm just going to admire her photograph. She may be the reddest of the reds, but she's damned cute, isn't she?
Photo of the day: In a Corinthian Mood

Feeling all Classical.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Photo of the day: Older Than Dirt

I found this fossil in a nearby neighborhood, just lying in the dirt next to the sidewalk. I have no clue where it came from, but I have always loved it.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Photo of the day: Moon Rock

OK, it's not a moon rock. But it could be! Couldn't it?

Monday, April 05, 2010

Photo of the day: Hazardous to Your Health

I have a feeling that what was originally in this bottle would be illegal today. Some lovely patent medicine with opium is my hope.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Out of my Depth
I have a cousin who I particularly dislike. He's sexist, conservative, narrow-minded and very, very Christian. We meet as rarely as possible but I had agreed to Easter dinner with my family before I knew he was going to be there.

And I realized in my daily life I have very little to do with people who would start Easter dinner by raising his hands and saying "He is risen!."

And you know what, I like it better that way.
A Left-Handed Freemason from Dover
Have you read the Sherlock Holmes stories? I have. I've also seen all the wonderful Jeremy Brett versions on PBS. And I have come to the conclusion that I will never be observant enough to be a detective.

Sherlock Holmes could walk into a room, look at a man for 10-seconds, and declare quite definitively that he was in the presence of a retired doctor from Scotland whose wife had recently died and who had once served in India, probably on the North-West Frontier.

I can look at someone for 10-seconds and tell you whether that person was male or female. And that's about it.

How often do we look at the people around us? Not our friends, I mean we'll notice when they get a new haircut or new glasses. But when someone walks into the cafe where you're dining or you're standing in line at the grocery store, do you look around you and try to figure out who these people are?

I do. I suck at it, but it's fun. Perhaps it's the writer in me, but I love to create stories about the people I come across in my day. Unlike Sherlock I don't have the knack of correctly accessing who they are but I do have a lovely time inventing them in my head. I don't notice the small details that can give me the near-sighted musician who lives in a house without electricity. Partially because I don't want to stare and partially because I don't want to be right -- I want to amuse myself.

So I decide that the guy with the large parcel at the post office is a photographer sending proofs to his publisher in London, or the woman reading People as she waits for her yogurt and fruit to be rung up is, in fact, the mistress of a rich guy and she's heading home to her paid-for apartment to wait for Mr. Rich to stop by.

I tend to give people far more interesting lives than they probably live. I cast people as artists and political asylum-seekers. Ex-hippies and former CIA analysts. Former Russian ballerinas and aspiring French chefs. In reality they are students and harried moms, software designers and high school teachers. Auto mechanics and retail clerks. So maybe I'm doing them a favor by coloring their lives with mystery, romance, and excitement. And wouldn't they be amused to know that the woman with the glasses and the shopping cart full of cat food was looking at them and deciding they were former Navy fighter pilots?

So no, I'll never be good at telling the police they're looking for a woman with a limp and an Italian accent. But I can still make my time at the bank more interesting by trying to figure out which one is cheating on their spouse.
Photo of the day: The Little Blue Bunny Makes an Uphill Climb on Easter

The little blue bunny lives on one of our bookshelves, protecting Agatha Christie from invaders. But he came down long enough to pose for me. Happy Easter, everyone.