A Day at the Ballet
"What do you feel like doing today?” Jim smiles, bright and sunny, as I stagger through breakfast.
"I don't know.”
"I was thinking the City Ballet at 2:00 o'clock. We drive in, we’ll be there in no time.”
"Sure, sounds cool…”
I don’t love driving in New York, but for my brother it’s like a competitive sport; he comes alive behind the wheel.
"Let's get going” he says, helping himself to my last piece of bacon.
And we are off.
We chat easily through local streets and hop on the Long Island Expressway, headed into Manhattan. The traffic ratchets up a notch.
Jim has three catch phrases that explain every traveling possibility: a complete circus, a total zoo, and a complete catastrophe.
Today, the choice is between the total zoo and the complete catastrophe.
As we approach the exit, he coaches me.
“When I say now, grab the wheel. We only have about ten seconds where I can see the traffic on the bridge and to the tunnel at the same time… Ready?”
I'm never ready, and I wonder why I’m grabbing the wheel, but it hardly matters.
“OK, now!” he shouts, and keeping his right foot planted on the accelerator, he half leans, half stands out the window, careening his neck over the car roof, peering at the traffic in both directions.
"It's the tunnel!” he shouts, "make a right. The bridge is a complete catastrophe!” he adds, as he comes hurtling back into the car, grabs the wheel with both hands and makes a hard right, just in time to catch the exit.
Jim settles back in his seat.
"If you go the wrong way, you can get stuck for hours. The tunnel doesn't look too bad.”
I’m already shaking, and we haven’t left Queens yet.
As we approach the Midtown tunnel, the city looks grand - the UN buildings along the water, the Chrysler Building with its fan shaped façade gleaming in the sun, the twin towers far off in the distance.
Out of the tunnel, we pull a hard right and a left and go careening onto 1st Ave.
Jim scatters horn blasts as we fly past the cross streets, hurtling up the Ave., grumbling and cursing and laughing.
Along about 48th St, we sideswipe a cab.
Jim and the cab driver are out at once. All around us, 1st Ave. traffic is whizzing by.
"Jeez, you pulled out right in front of me,” Jim says. “Didn't you see me coming?”
The cab driver’s eyes dart around nervously. We can tell right away; he can't speak much English.
As grandchildren of immigrants, this is not a problem for us, but Jim also sees an opportunity to make short order of the situation.
No one says anything, while Jim eyes his side door and glances at the man.
"It looks OK from my end,” he offers the man a shrug.
"OK, OK,” the man stutters. Jim smiles, closes with another shrug and a slight wave, and he's back behind the wheel.
“These things are like tanks” he grins, patting the dashboard of his 12-year-old Dodge Dart. Solid steel.”
“In the hands of a maniac,” I think. “I didn’t realize we needed a tank flying down 1st Ave, to get to the City Ballet.”
Jim is back full throttle, cutting off delivery trucks, scattering his trademark horn shots, pedestrians scrambling for their lives. We hang a left on 59th St, speeding past the luxury hotels across from Central Park. The upper echelon goes by in a blur; I barely see the well-appointed doormen, the gold fixtures and the carriages waiting to give monied tourists a ride. We fly around Columbus Circle, headed up the West Side.
“I know a good parking spot” Jim says as he steers with one hand and reaches across to check the glove compartment.
“But you've got to be careful. The last time I parked on Amsterdam Avenue, they stole the car.”
The car sputters and collapses in a heap, exhausted by the ride. I take a deep breath.
“Make sure we lock the doors” Jim says, as if it will make a difference.
We enter Lincoln Center Plaza from the West Side. In front of us, the central fountain is spraying great gasps of water that cut the sunlight on this beautiful summery day. The hiss is quietly reassuring-single people are having lunch, couples meandering, holding hands, a stray pigeon flaps up from the sidewalk. We turn and face the great glass façade of the Metropolitan Opera. Through the cathedral-like windows, we can see the two Mark Chagall murals.
"Chagall,” Jim smiles in satisfaction. “Beautiful. What a genius.”
He eyes the gathering crowd, and spots his man- mid 30s, short blonde hair, crooked glasses, looking uneasy. Jim smiles, motioning with a flick of his eyebrows.
"Looking for two tickets” he calls, just loud enough to be heard.
"I have two tickets” the man answers, a nervous tremor in his voice. "They are very good seats.”
Jim takes the tickets and holds them up to the sunlight, like he's inspecting them for a watermark.
"I don't know. How much do you want for them?”
"I bought them for thirty-five dollars a ticket. I would sell them for thirty.”
"Each?” Jim exclaims incredulously.
It's like watching Picasso paint.
"I don't know” the man says. "I guess I could go a little lower.”
Jim checks his watch -ten minutes to showtime.
The man looks around nervously.
“Thirty a ticket, that's way too much.”
Jim makes eye contact for the first time.
“You're not going to be able to sell these tickets. These seats are not that great.”
The man looks away, like he's been staring into the sun too long and singed his pupils.His face twitches, his eyelids flutter like a frightened bird, his breathing is shallow and hurried. He scans the crowd.
“Looking for another customer,” I think.
But Jim still has the tickets. He glances at his watch again - five minutes to two. This time, he lets the man notice.
Now we are in a bit of a spot. If we miss the opening curtain, we'll miss half the performance. The snooty ushers will never let us in once the show starts.
But our adversary is no fool. Nervous, yes, outgunned, certainly, but foolish, no. He knows when the house lights go down, the value of his tickets plummets to nothing.
"I'll give you fifteen bucks for the pair,” Jim says.
"Gosh, fifteen dollars. That's not much.”
As Jim reaches for his wallet, the doors of the concert hall swing open and the reflecting sun off the glass catches our attention.
“Do you boys want two tickets for today's show?” a noblesse oblige woman asks. She is dressed in the understated style of the Upper East Side- pearls and simple earrings, a powder blue top over an athletic body, pocketbook and shoes discreetly matched. Her goal is to provide a rich cultural experience for those less fortunate than herself.
That would be us.
Jim hands our first friend his tickets and doesn't look back.
"Yeah, gee, we'd love to see the ballet!” he exclaims.
The woman smiles kindly at us, and we return her smile, and it is all genuine.
"You better hurry” she hands us the tickets like the nicest elementary school teacher you ever had. “They are about to start.”
"Gee, Thanks,” Jim says, as we race to the door like we're trying to catch the first inning of a baseball game.
The ballet was amazing, like nothing I had ever seen - Jerome Robbins dancing to neoclassical Stravinsky.
On the ride home, we congratulated ourselves on our good fortune.
It was about dinnertime when we pulled in front of the house in Queens.
"Well, you're back” my mother said. “I was just starting to wonder. How did you do in the city?”
We told her our tale, as my father listened in; she, proud and accepting of her educated, artistic sons, he, delighted that we got such a bargain.
As my mother served dinner, my brother asked, “what do you feel like doing tonight?”
Here we go again.
"I don't know.”
"Well”…. he drags out the first word for effect. “I've got this place in Brooklyn. It's a little late, but Stevie Wonder’s piano player is supposed to be showing up…”
I thought Stevie Wonder was a piano player.
"How late?” I ask.
"Well, they probably start about 2:00 AM. It's an after-hours place. But you've got to be careful. Last time I was there, somebody tried to sneak in with a gun and set the metal detector off. All hell broke loose.”
My mother's lip starts to quiver; my father is squeezing his one furrowed eyebrow.
"I don't know, I'm feeling a little tired tonight,” I yawn. "Maybe I'll just hang here.”
My mother instantly brightens and my father stares, watching us impassively.
Jim glances at the paper. “Let’s see who's in town.”
Suddenly compared to an after-hours joint in Brooklyn, the idea of hanging out in a jazz club in the city till 4:00 AM, sounds like the safest place in the world.
“There's a bunch of people around. Let’s take a little break and head in.”
We sit with our parents, until they look sleepy.
“Time to go” my brother announces.
I slip on my faded black corduroy jacket, hip enough to hang out in a New York jazz club.
“Don't be too late” my mother calls, as we slam the door and lock the house in triplicate.
It's 10:30, we're back on the road and this time the ride is quick and easy.
We zip down Queens Blvd., over the 59th Street Bridge, and head south to the Village. Billy Taylor is playing at Knickerbockers.
"He’s so tasteful and musical,” Jim says as he locks the car. “You gotta check him out.”
As a fledging piano player, I'm ready to take in every note. For modern jazz, this is the root and branch of the world.
We slip past the door-no cover on a Tuesday night-and head over to the bar.
Knickerbockers has an unwritten agreement with musicians. On off nights, if you buy a drink, you can stand for a set and look over the brass rail and the cafe curtains into the restaurant, where the musicians play.
The place is full of sophisticated folks and fine dining; linen tablecloths and crystal china, tableside chefs tossing Caesar Salads in the air and setting Baked Alaska ablaze, but even the Uptown crowd listens respectfully and speaks in undertones, when Billy Taylor plays.
Jim and I hang over the curtains and watch every note, the interplay of piano, bass, and drums drawing us in, the flights of fancy, always spontaneous and new. Billy Taylor is everything Jim said he would be; elegant jazz piano, played with ease, grace and style.
The bartender tries to catch our eye; he would love to sell us another drink. We look away, turn our backs and stare more intently at the music. We know eventually he’ll get busy or give up, and we’ll be able to ride the music in peace, at least until the end of the set.
In half an hour, the band takes a break. Like clockwork, the bartender is back.
"What’ll it be boys?” he shouts over the suddenly noisy crowd.
I swill my half-empty beer glass and we talk past him. I know Jim. He is calculating; how much for two more beers, how long will the band be on break, how persistent is the bartender, who else is in town.
He checks his watch.
"What do you feel like doing? We could hang here, but Bill Evans is playing at the Vanguard. We might be able to catch his last set.”
The last set is the best time in a jazz club. The middle of the night is the peak; the crowd, the liveliest, noisy and energized, the band, charging straight ahead, ripping up the floorboards, almost out of control, sparks flying, lighting up the room, the entire place on overdrive.
But it’s the afterglow of the last set, when the crowd has thinned, and the musicians have finished all they set out to play, when the unexpected sometimes happens. New ideas and mysterious things come bubbling up, and the music, no longer competing with the crowd or feeding off it, fills the half empty house with some other worldly spirit. Hands start to move without knowing where they’re going. The artist is as surprised as everyone else.
They say only Chopin’s closest friends, who heard him play in his flat in Paris, knew the deepness of the artist, and Bill Evans is like that tonight.
When we arrive Jim bargains with the maître-d’ as I look past, in awe of what's happening.
"It's a $20 cover and two drinks at the table. The kitchen is still open.”
"How about one drink at the table, no food, no cover, near the piano.”
"You gotta be kidding.”
"Come on pal” Jim says, as his hand sweeps the room. “This place is empty. We’re musicians. My brother is a piano student. Give us a break. He's got to hear Bill Evans play solo.”
The maître-d' looks at me. I maintain my concentration, focusing past him on the music. We all know the longer we stand there, the more likely we are to get in.
"Okay,” he smirks. "But don't tell nobody.”
He leads us to a table and chats with the waiter, who nods. We are inches from the piano, an arm’s length from the great Bill Evans. We order in a whisper.
There are only a dozen people in the place and everyone, even the bartender polishing glasses for the next day’s lunch, is in rapt attention.
Bill Evans is like an alchemist, hunching over the keys, conjuring up visions of pure, sparkling, beauty, his cigarette dangling from his lips like smoke rising from an ancient altar, trailing up to the gods. He is alone, transfixed, the music pouring through him, and we are all with him. No one breathes and when he finishes, no one dares clap. Finally, after several tunes, there are a few scattered applauses, which he acknowledges with a nod, and the music comes pouring through him again. It's 3:30 in the morning, the place will close soon, but no one has any intention of leaving.
From here on, it is one long stream of consciousness, all of us catching our second wind, clear eyed and alert, like the room is filled with the freshest flowers, the air washed by some cleansing mountain steam. Even the tables breath with new life.
A dozen lucky people are in the midst of genius.
At 4:00 AM the house lights come up. Bill Evans, in his beige trench coat, holding a black umbrella like a rapier, walks towards the door. He nods shyly to the waiter, the maître-d' and a few hangers on at the bar. We follow him as heads into the Manhattan morning, a light mist beginning to fall, and watch as he turns at the next corner and disappears.
Driving down 7th Ave South, no blaring horns disturb the night, no double-parked cars, or darting pedestrians, impede our journey.
There is no total zoo or complete catastrophe lurking, just an endless stream of traffic lights blinking from red to green, reflecting like jewels in the mist-covered streets, that carry us all the way to the bridge.
Queens is quiet, peaceful, and uneventful; the streets deserted, except for a few delivery trucks starting their day.
We park in front of the house and sit a long while, watching the rain, like pellets against the windshield. It is not a night we want to end. Finally, my brother heads to his apartment around the corner.
“See you tomorrow,” we agree.
I undo the triple locks with the nimble hands of a jewel thief, tip toe past my sleeping parents, and as dawn peeks through the venetian blinds, fall asleep, Bill Evans still conjuring visions of cascading waterfalls and sparkling beauty, and singing in my ear.