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A Day at the Ballett

It always starts with a simple question.

"What do you feel like doing today?” Jim smiles, bright and sunny, as I stagger through breakfast in my parent’s kitchen.

"I don't know.”

I know he has a plan.

"I was thinking the New York City Ballet is performing at 2:00 o'clock. Maybe we'll take a ride in. If we leave soon, we'll have plenty of time.”

"You want to take the car? What about the subway?”

"Nah, it'll take too much time… It’s past the rush…We drive in, we’ll be there in no time.”

"Sure, that sounds cool.”

I don’t love driving in New York, but for Jim it’s like a  competitive sport; it quickens his blood and makes his heart race.

"Let's get going” he says, helping himself  to a last bit of my English muffin.

I make short order of breakfast and we are off.

We chat easily, as we ride through the local streets. I am home for a summer visit and Jim is off from his teaching job, struggling to put together his music career.

We hop on the Long Island Expressway, headed into Manhattan and the traffic rachets up a notch.

Jim has three catch phrases that explain every traveling possibility: a complete zoo, a total circus, and a complete catastrophe.

Which way should we go?

Somewhere along the line, Jim has already eliminated the complete zoo, without me knowing it. Now the choice is between the total circus and the complete catastrophe.

As we approach an exit on the Expressway, Jim coaches me.

"When I say now, grab the wheel with one hand, I'll hold it with the other. We only have about ten seconds where I can see the traffic on the bridge and to the tunnel, at the same time."



I'm never ready, and I wonder why I’m grabbing the wheel, but it hardly matters.

"OK, grab the wheel” he shouts, and  keeping his right foot firmly planted on the accelerator, he half leans, half stands with his torso out the window, careening his neck over the roof of the car, peering out at 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.”

"What does he do when he's driving alone ?” I wonder.

I’m already shaking, and we haven’t left Queens yet.

We are soon approaching the Queens -Midtown tunnel and the city looks grand and exciting- the UN building along the water, the Empire State, the Chrysler Building with its beautifully fan shaped façade gleaming in the sun, the twin towers, off in the distance.

As we come out of the tunnel, Jim pulls two hard rights and a left and we 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. I try to remain calm, ready to brace myself on the dashboard at any minute.

Along about 48th St, we sideswipe a cab.

Jim and the cab driver are out at once. I come around from the passenger side to provide reinforcements, if necessary. 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 looks a little helpless, his eyes dart around nervously; it is probably not his rig, he's rented it or borrowed it from one of his buddies. We can tell right away; he can't speak much English.

As the grandchildren of immigrants, this is not a problem for us; we have no particular prejudice against the foreign born and we can hear through accents pretty well, but Jim also sees it as an opportunity to make short order of the situation.

There is a ten second pause. 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.

The man fidgets with his hands, glancing around, looking like he's standing on ice skates, while Jim waits for a response, feet firmly planted on the ground.

"OK, OK,” the man stutters. Jim smiles, in the spirit of international brotherhood, closes with  another shrug and a slight wave, and he's back behind the wheel.

"These things are like tanks” he grins as we take off,  patting the dashboard of his 12 year old Dodge Dart. “Slant six engine. Solid steel.”

"In the hands of a maniac,” I think. "I didn’t realize we were at war and needed  a tank flying down 1st Ave at the speed of a race car, to get to the City Ballet.”

Jim is back full throttle, cutting off delivery trucks, scattering his trademark horn shots across the side streets, pedestrians scrambling for their lives. I feel like I'm hanging on to the back of a bucking bronco driven by a madman. 

We hang a left on 59th St, we are in the fancy end of town, speeding past the luxury hotels on our left, 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 resting by the park, waiting to give monied tourists a ride. We fly around Columbus Circle, and we are headed up the West Side.

"I know a good parking spot” Jim says with confidence, as he steers with one hand and reaches across me to check the glove compartment.

"But you've got to be careful. The last time I parked on Amsterdam Ave., they stole the car. But it was night time. And I might have left the back doors open.”

"They” as my brother calls the criminal element in the city, are always stealing his cars- three, four -I've lost count.

We easily find a spot on Amsterdam. The car sputters and collapses to a halt, exhausted by the ride. I take a deep breath.

"Make sure we lock the doors” Jim says, as if it will make a difference. If the car and Jim's worldly possessions were worth a little more, the situation would be ripe for hanging a sign in the window: Car unlocked. Nothing in glove compartment.

I want to add -Value of the car in negative numbers.

We walk the block from Amsterdam Ave to Lincoln Center and come into the square from the West Side. In front of us, the central fountain is spraying great gasps of water that cut the sunlight, on this beautiful sunny day. The hiss is quietly reassuring-single people are having lunch, couples are strolling, holding hands and a stray pigeon flaps up from the sidewalk.


We turn and face the great glass façade of the Metropolitan Opera House. Through the cathedral like windows, we can see the two Mark Chagall murals.

"Chagall,” Jim smiles in satisfaction. “Beautiful. What a genius.”

Now the hunt is on for tickets. We've got about 20 minutes.

Jim eyes the gathering crowd, as they begin to line up and enter into the concert hall on our left. Then he spots his man- mid 30s, short blonde hair, crooked glasses, too many buttons on his shirt, with a pen in his pocket. He is scanning the crowd beyond the lines, looking alarmed,  like he's about to do something wrong.

Jim smiles at me, motioning with his eyebrows and the flick of his eyes in the man's direction.

"Looking for two tickets” Jim calls, just loud enough to be heard without calling too much attention. It’s best to deal one on one in these situations.

"I have two tickets” the man answers unsteadily. "They are very good seats.”


Jim takes the tickets and holds them up to the sunlight, as if he's inspecting them for a watermark.

"I don't know. How much do you want for them?”

"I bought them for $35 per tickets. I would sell them for $30.”

"These are beyond rookie mistakes,” I think to myself. "Too close to the asking price, the timing and the patter all wrong.”

"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. They are very good seats” he repeats.

Jim checks his watch-10 minutes to showtime.

The man looks around nervously.

I'm sure the New York City police have bigger fish to fry. Is he afraid the ballet will send out the dancers and confiscate his tickets? His inability to understand a simple street transaction, spells trouble for his end of the bargain.

"$30 a ticket, we can't afford that, that's way too much money.”

Now, Jim makes eye contact with the man for the first time.

"You're not going to be able to use these tickets and you're not going to be able to sell them. Everyone here already has a ticket, and 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 eyelids beat  rapidly, his breathing is shallow and hurried, and he scans the crowd; “looking for another customer,” I think.

But Jim still has the tickets. He glances at his watch again. It's coming up on five minutes to two. This time, he lets the man notice.

Now we are in a bit of a spot ourselves. If we wait too long and miss the opening curtain, we'll miss almost half the performance. The snooty ushers at Lincoln Center will never let us in once the show starts.

At the same time, our adversary is not a foolish man, you can tell right away. Nervous, yes, outgunned, certainly, but foolish, no. He also knows when the house lights go down, the value of his tickets plummet to almost nothing.

"I'll give you fifteen bucks for the pair,” Jim says.

"Gosh, fifteen bucks. That's not much.”

Just as we are about to clinch the deal- Jim is even reaching for his wallet to display some hard cold cash, 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. Whether she has been tasked or  taken it upon herself, her goal is to provide a rich cultural experience for those less fortunate than herself.

That would be us.

Jim hands our first friend back his tickets, pressing them against his shirt pocket 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.

Her blue sweater outlines a trim body, decorated with an understated string of pearls. Her earrings are simple, her makeup not too much, her shoes and her pocket book discreet.

“Do you want anything for them?” Jim asks.

"Nice shift in phrasing,” I think, although we all know, they are a gift.

"No, I just want someone to enjoy the performance,” she says.


Like you two ragamuffins, she neglects to add.

But the air is full of good feeling. She senses we are interested, and we sense that she is well meaning and kind.

"{You better hurry” she says as she hands us the tickets, with the barest hint of the nicest elementary school teacher you ever had. “They are about to start.”

"Gee, Thanks again,” Jim says.

"Yeah thanks. that's really kind of you” I add, 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 before- Jerome Robbins and company all in white, dancing to neoclassical Stravinsky.

Our seats were fairly high up, but it didn't matter. As soon as the lights dropped, everyone moved twenty rows down and filled in the house.

On the ride home we congratulated ourselves on our good fortune and the great performance we witnessed.

"Ballet dancers” Jim said. “They don't hear music like us. They move after the beat. Once I got that, it all fell in place.”

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 when you two would show up. I've made a pot roast. I thought we could have a nice family dinner together. How did you do in the city?”

We told her our tale, as my father listened on; she, proud and accepting of her educated, artistic sons, he, delighted that we got such a bargain, neither of them quite understanding why, on a bright summer day, when she was stuck inside the mortgage office of a bank, and he was stuck in a sporting goods store on 42nd St., dealing with irate customers, we spent our afternoon driving to Manhattan to go to the ballet and watch people jump around in tights to classical music.

We sit and have  dinner. As my mother serves, my brother asks, “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 afterhours place. But you've got to be careful. When I went last time, somebody tried to sneak in with a gun and set the metal detector off and all hell broke loose.”

I glance over. My mother's lip is starting to quiver, my father already has his glasses off and he's squeezing his one furrowed eyebrow, shaking his head in bemusement and disbelief.

"I don't know, I'm feeling a little tired tonight,” I say. "Maybe I'll just hang here.”

My mother instantly brightens and my father stares, watching each one of us impassively, not tipping his hand.

"Well maybe we can see who's in town” Jim says. "Let's look at the Times.”

Suddenly the idea of hanging out in a jazz club in Manhattan till 3:00 AM, sounds like the safest thing in the world.

"Oh, there's a bunch of people around. We can take a little break, have some dessert and head in.”

After dessert, we sit and talk with our parents for a while, until they start to look sleepy.

"Time to head out” my brother announces, as I slip into my old faded black corduroy suit jacket, just hip enough to hang out in a jazz club in New York.

"Don't be too late” my mother calls, as we slam the door and lock it with the key. Everything is triple locked. Hopefully they will remember not to put the chain on tonight.

It's 10:30 and we're back on the road, headed for action.

This time the ride is quick and easy. Streets are relatively empty or maybe I've just gotten accustomed to the  maniacal pace that my brother holds so dear.

We zip down Queens Blvd. and get over the 59th Street bridge in no time. Then we head south to the Village. Billy Taylor is playing at Knickerbockers, one of Jim's favorites.

"He's so tasteful and musical,” Jim declares as we lock the car. You gotta check him out.”

As a fledging jazz piano player, I'm ready to absorb 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 at the bar and look over the brass rail and the curtains into the restaurant, where the musicians play.

The place is full of fine dining, sophisticated folks; crystal and linen, and elegant place settings, but even the Uptown crowd listens respectfully and speaks in undertones while Billy Taylor plays piano.

We are mesmerized, hanging on each note, the interplay of the piano, bass and drums spontaneous and fresh and uplifting. Billy Taylor is everything Jim said he would be; elegant jazz piano, in the best sense of the word.

The bartender tries to catch our eye; he would love to sell us another drink. We ignore him. We know eventually he’ll give up and we’ll be able to ride the music, at least until the end of the set.

A half a dozen tunes later, the band takes a break. Like clockwork, the bartender is back.

"What’ll be boys ?”

 We talk past him. I know Jim is calculating it all out: how much for another beer, how long the band will be on break, how persistent the bartender will be, who else is playing in town.

"What do you feel like doing?” Jim says, checking his watch. "Bill Evans is playing at the Vanguard. We might be able to catch his last set.”

The last set is always an interesting time in jazz. The middle of the night is the peak, when the crowd is the liveliest and the band is charging full speed ahead. But there's something about the afterglow of the last set, when the crowd has thinned, and the musicians have played what they had planned. Sometimes new ideas and mysterious things come bubbling to the surface and the music, instead of competing with the crowd or mixing and energizing it, fills the half empty house, so there is nothing else. It's like hearing a master in their living room.

They say only Chopin’s friends, who heard him play in his flat in Paris, knew the man, 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 are musicians. My brother is a 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 anybody.”

He leads us to a table and chats with the waiter, who nods. We are inches from the piano and order in a whisper.

There are only a dozen people in the place and everyone, even the bartender polishing the glasses for the next day’s lunch, is in rapt attention.

Bill Evans is like a medieval alchemist, hunching over the keys, conjuring up visions of pure, sparkling, beauty, 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. Nobody breathes and when he finishes no one dare clap, to not disturb the alchemist and his magic. 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 and the place will close soon, but no one has any intention of leaving.

The rest of the night is one long stream of consciousness, and what a consciousness it is. All of us have caught our second or even our third wind. The very room itself feels awake and alive, like it’s filled with the freshest of flowers. There are no yawns or nods, just clear eyed intelligence, and deft defying, beautiful music.

As we leave at 4:00 AM, we see Bill Evans in is beige trench coat, walking in front of us. He nods shyly to the waiter, the maître-d' and the last few customers at the bar and heads out into the Manhattan morning.

Driving down 7th Ave South, there are no horns, no double parked cars, no darting pedestrians.

The ride back to Queens is quiet, peaceful, and uneventful; even the Manhattan streets are deserted except for a few delivery trucks starting their day.

We park the car in front of the house and my brother goes home to his apartment around the corner.

I undo the triple lock, tip toe past my sleeping parents, and fall asleep about dawn, Bill Evans still singing in my ear.

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