Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The trembling violinist

During my chat with Reality Man the other day, he reminded me of a story I'd once told him. Now, as I'm writing about it, I can't believe this happened over 10 years ago. Gaah.

Some background before I get to the story: I had just had a life upheaval - broken up with Mr. Ex, and briefly moved back to Tucson, Arizona - my hometown. I lived at my father's house; he and his second wife were divorcing, so both my father and I drifted around the house, in mourning for our relationships - except I never mentioned mine, of course.

My father was in that peculiar stage of grief where anger takes all sorts of forms. My stepmother had owned two large and not-very-lovable chow dogs; my father would occasionally burst out with cries like:

"I hated those damn dogs. And now she's taking them away from me! It's not fair."

What especially was not fair was the fact that he was having to sell his beautiful house, with its view of the Tucson valley and the Catalina mountains. They had refinanced the house during the marriage, so it had to be sold to split the assets. It was depressing, wandering around the house knowing that it wouldn't be in the family much longer.

My father offered to let me have the antique player piano that I had taught myself to play on; I wish I could have kept it, but the sheer size of it (not to mention the fact that the sounding board was made of cast iron) was daunting. There was no way that it could ever have traveled with me back to New York - and oh yes, I was determined to go back to New York. I just didn't know if I ever would.

Even more depressing was the fact that I was temping while in Tucson. I was working at a financial services company which offered loans to people who had been turned down by the bank that the company was a subsidiary of. My job was to call the people, ask if they were still interested in a loan, and then get their permission to run their credit history.

Around the time that I was on a phone with a soldier's wife, who told me how they were drowning in debt - while I looked at their credit report which listed the boat, the house, the cars - I decided I needed to get out of that job, fast. It was killing me.

Magically, my writing partner from graduate school called up with an idea for a show; he sent me some lyrics and I began feverishly writing music on the player piano, before it was sold. I whipped together the score for the show in about three weeks, and then made my plans to go back to New York. The piano got sold; the guys who showed up to haul it away dropped it flat on its back before they got it to the truck. The huge dissonant gong of the cast-iron sounding board was like the closing of a chapter.

When I got back to New York, I stayed in an extra room in my writing partner's apartment; it was him, his boyfriend, me, and the two enormous cats. These cats would try to leap up onto the kitchen table, but were too fat to make it. They would then struggle up onto a chair, and then heave themselves onto the table, where they would settle their bulk and refuse to move.

Finally after a few weeks, during which we finished writing our show, I got a two-month sublet on the Upper West Side. The apartment belonged to a friend of a friend, who was a musical director and pianist. This was my first taste of the Upper West Side, which I loved. I had previously lived on the Upper East Side, so this was a new place to explore and call my own.

The woman who lived next door was a classical violinist; she would often have a few friends over, and the most ethereal, gorgeous string music would come wafting through the walls. I had occasionally encountered the woman in the hall. I had told her that I was a composer, and if my playing the piano bothered her, she should just tell me. She, a petite elegant Asian woman, assured me that she never had a problem with the apartment's usual tenant playing his piano, so it should all be fine.

At this time, I was working on a country-western musical that I'd been commissioned to write. There was a sort of Jerry Lee Lewis number that I was writing - banging away on the keys and wailing in a country twang.

In the midst of one pounding-and-hollering session, there was a knock at the door. I rushed to answer it; it was my neighbor, her eyes almost closed, quivering as though she were in pain. She spoke only one word, whispered, pleading:


I was immediately mortified. I was clearly driving her to the edge of sanity with my caterwauling. I immediately stuffed a rug behind the piano and played at one-quarter volume.

The story of my encounter with the Trembling Violinist was one that I told Reality Man; he actually tells it better than I do, although he changes it around a bit so that he's there in the story. He's good at souping up anecdotes to make them really funny - so looking back, he already had all the natural qualifications for doing what he's doing in television now.

It's amazing how my musical self confidence eroded after that one visit from my neighbor. Clearly, I was a boorish hooligan destroying her sensitive musical soul with my heavy-handed mauling of the piano. Every time I played in that apartment after that, I imagined her next door, stuffing in ear plugs, perhaps cocooning herself under the bedcovers or in layers of bubblewrap, trying to escape the pounding, pounding, pounding from next door.

Too bad I didn't have the out-of-tune player piano with the cast-iron sound board; a couple of times through the piano roll "I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am" would have finished her off in no time.


Blogger Zenchick said...

you simply MUST publish these.
Then I can come see you at the Lyric :-)

7:37 AM  
Blogger Licketysplit said...

The man upstairs from me plays piano with several local groups, and I've just been through three renditions of "You maaaake me feeeel....like a natURAL WOman" courtesy of the worst female singer in the world. I am planning revenge, but it involves flooding his kitchen.

10:18 AM  

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