“it’s Hava Nagila, but don’t play it like that. It shouldn’t sound like the Hava Nagila until the last solo.”
“It’s Funky Nagila.”
“It’s Hava Nagila meets Shaft. Oh, fuck, it’s just Shaft.”
The bass player — double bass player, mind — starts whacking the strings in a surprisingly convincing imitation of the opening guitar riff.
Solo two goes to the sax player. Solo three is my friend S, who invited me to sit in with her band, playing fiddle. “More bluegrass.”
I’m sitting this one out, listening as they work out the details.
“The fiddle should take the second solo,” says the keyboardist/harmonica-player/singer. The accordion player nodded in agreement.”The sax sounds too much like a clarinet. It’s too recognizable. It should be last. It’s a better reveal.”
And it is. And so it went until nearly midnight, when I finally caught the subway home, just one stop from the other side of the park.
I’m playing a wedding with the band this weekend, schlepping my fiddle and mando down to Red Hook on a Saturday afternoon. I got called in for a single song, a tune that was a big hit back in 1919 at the Ziegfeld Follies. But as the evening wore on, I joined in on other tunes too. A couple of Argentine waltzes. A moody, tremolo-heavy House of the Rising Sun. A Parisian cafe rendition of the theme from Charade. Except for the Funky Nagila and a tune the groom has written as a surprise for the bride — a concession to the occasion — every tune is in three. This is the group’s schtick. And while it sounds at first like it might be limiting, it actually provides enough consistency to allow them to perform in a million different styles. In a few short hours we’ve covered jazz, bluegrass, old time, blues, klezmer, cajun, and, yes, funk. I’ve never had so much fun. Or done so much improvising. The beautiful thing about playing second fiddle on waltzes, though, is that it’s easy to fake it. Find your inner tuba and you’re golden.
Home alone last night, I put on my headphones and practice my mando tremolo. I sketched countermelodies and tapped my feet. And then I played through a couple of baroque sonatas for good measure. Playing folk/improvisatory styles makes the rest of the playing better. It loosens up both arms and brain, giving you a new perspective on the architecture and a more nuanced rhythm. It’s more fun. And isn’t that the point?
I am sitting outside on a mountaintop and the only thing that I can hear (besides the sound of my fingers on the keyboard, that is) is the wind. Living in New York City, there are a number of things about this that are remarkable.
1. I am sitting outside. I am wearing neither shoes nor a jacket. I am not cold. It hasn’t been like this the whole trip. It did snow one night and we woke to this.
2. Quiet is something I’ve nearly forgotten.
3. This patio has more little rooms than my apartment. I am on the sunniest part, at the far right. To my left, still under the roof, is a fireplace surrounded by adobe benches. Next is an outdoor dining area and off of that, outside the roof, a stone paved desert garden with a fountain. There are more rooms, but I cannot see them from here.
4. Mountains. Mountains. More mountains.
We have been here since Sunday night (or Monday morning, depending on whether you’re counting in the time zone we left or the time zone where we are now). Two days ago, it snowed. Now it is in the sixties. Tomorrow we return to the deep freeze on the East Coast.
I get up and look at these mountains every morning. I look at them again after lunch and once more as the sun is going down. After dark, I look at the sky full of stars I can’t see in the city. They twinkle more brightly in the thin air here well over a mile above sea level.
We’ve done more than sit. We’ve hiked. We hiked Sierra del Norte
We hiked the Santa Fe National Forest
We climbed up to pay our respects to the Cross of the Martyrs (or as their signs read, “Cross of the Martyr’s” — apostrophes are cheap in New Mexico)
Did I mention the skies are incredible?
And we hiked a high ridge at Bandolier National Monument overlooking the remains of a 12th century pueblo
We resisted temptation.
We looked up.
And now, we pack.
I seem to have constructed a city in my brain that when I need some kind of dream urban landscape, I revisit. The city is mapped and populated. But I can never seem to remember it when awake. Lately, there’s a band I run into there. The band is basically a duo, although they usually have an impressive array of backing instruments and occasionally a trio of girl singers. I first encountered them in posters on a wall, probably when I was running away from someone chasing me, you know, like you do. I didn’t notice it much then, as I was a little busy trying not to die. But on a later visit, I turned on the radio and heard them playing a song I liked. And once they were playing in a large concert in a park by the huge body of water that runs along one side of the city that sometimes looks like a lake and others like an ocean or a river, the one the flooded highway runs across, where you sometimes have to float in your car out beyond the road.
Last night, I got onto the (dream) subway with my headphones on and heard singing. I switched off my tunes, but left my headphones in so they wouldn’t know I was listening. I realized it was the two fronts for the band, a man with spiked hair bleached white and a stud through his lower lip, wearing leather pants and a red T-shirt that said “I Love Rocky” in big black letters. The woman was Asian, slightly overweight, wearing a short plaid skirt and platform shoes, her hair tied back haphazardly. They sang, up close and personal, and it was great, but it sounded totally different than the full band. And then the man announced loudly and to no one in particular that they were going to be doing a musical and everyone should come. Then they exited the train and I kept going.
The weird thing about dreams like this is that you can’t control what you remember, and sometimes when you look at things they disappear. You can only notice the things in your peripheral vision, which is why I can remember what the t-shirt says and looks like but I can never, ever remember the name of this band or what any of their songs sound like. I just have to wait for the next time I run into them in my sleep and try to remember a little more.
I ran into a real band yesterday too, or part of one. I have an old friend from Chicago, someone I used to sing with, who has been living in New York for 20 years – which is probably as long as it’s been since I last saw her. She also plays violin – in fact, we had the same teacher for a while when we were both living in Massachusetts, but we didn’t know each other until later. She invited me over to play yesterday. She has a band that plays …I don’t know how to describe it. It’s kind of like the band in my dream. I know what it is when I hear it but if I look directly at it, it’s hard to pin down.
It was a bit of a production to get there. She lives quite close to me, but they were filming a movie across the street from my house, so I had to dodge all the interns on their cell phones while I walked down the street, lugging a violin, a mandolin, a music stand and a bag of music. But I made it eventually.
We played a lot, but we talked some too, about our jobs, about how we both ended up in New York and how we both put our violins away for a while before coming back to them and trying our collective hands at fiddling, how we love it more now, how we feel like we’re better at it even though we’re not as good. It was easy and fun and I hope we do it again.
On my way back, I walked into the film shoot again as I came up from the subway. They were setting up at the entrance as I came out, skidding on the icy sidewalk. But any day where music is played is a good day. And maybe tonight’s the night that I’ll finally remember the name of the band.
I am fighting a battle at the Toy Factory that I am going to lose. I know I am going to lose it. I also know that losing it is not a big deal. I know I am taking something personally that is not personal. I know that I am overreacting. I am trying not to fight it, but there are some kinds of battles that I am compelled to fight, almost like a force takes me over. They tend to be battles about the mundane, the repetitious. I am very protective of my time and I hate feeling like it’s being wasted. I also hate injustice. So when the two things come together (in my head, only, I fear – – see aforementioned overreacting) I fight. It is not in my best interest. It is probably not in anyone’s best interest, although I know there are others who agree with me, which is some small comfort.
And now, if I actually told you what this is about, it would seem petty. But I will not tell you what this is about. I will just reiterate that some things put me in a fighting mood. And nothing more so than having the scales fall from my eyes. It’s taken three and a half years and I’ve finally discovered my job isn’t perfect. But it’s still pretty damn good, so I know I should keep my mouth shut. Or at the very least, think before I shoot my mouth off.
Don’t be stupid, Harriet.
On 35th street, I pass a man on the sidewalk. He is standing against the wall facing the street and saying over and over again, “I am a completely changed man! I am a completely changed man! I am a completely changed man.” The irony of it is not lost on me. What change? But there is comfort in repetition. And sometimes in repeating things you discover that things are not as the same as you thought they were. Sometimes in repeating things change happens.
I think back to the time when I visited the Rothko Chapel in Houston. You walk in and you think, “Wow, that’s a lot of black paintings.” And then you sit there in the beautiful space, a quiet circle of paintings. And as you look at them, you realize you were completely wrong. The paintings aren’t black at all. They are full of innumerable colors that jump out at you one at a time in your peripheral vision — when you look at them they disappear. A riot of color. How did you not see them all along? Were you blind?
A few months before, in a graduate school classroom, my 20th century music professor is talking about Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel.”
She has said the same thing, how Feldman is getting at the experience of seeing something that is at once black and notblack. I didn’t understand it at the time. I didn’t understand it until I saw it for myself. I am a completely changed woman.
Tomorrow, like every day, I will get on the subway. I will get off the subway. I will walk down 35th street. I will ride the elevator to my office. I will put my bag and phone on my desk. I will put my hat and gloves on the top of the bookshelf and hang my coat on the hook on the back of my door. I will turn on my computer and take my coffee cup to the kitchen where I will fill it, take one sip, and carry it back to my office. I do this every day. I do not always notice what it is that I am doing, until I stare into my cup of coffee. I do this over and over again, every day. These things do not bother me. They give me some comfort. They help me do my work. So why are other repetitions disturbing? Why do I sometimes see colors and other times black? Strange loops, looking one way in this light and another in that one.
Tomorrow I will look for colors where I see black and black where I see colors. I will fight different battles.
I will be a changed woman.
I will be a changed woman.
I will be a changed woman.
[fade to black]
We haven’t been spending very much time at Spy Headquarters.
On Monday, I washed ALL the things. My house is still pretty clean as a result. I have been on a purge binge. It’s important to do that regularly when you live in a tiny apartment.
On Tuesday after work, I went to see a colleague give a reading on the occasion of the publication of his first novel. He was awesome and the book is great and I find it amazing that anyone can write a book that I want to read in just their off hours. It was standing room only. I’d guess close to half in attendance were from the Toy Factory, which should tell you something about why I love working there.
On Wednesday after work, I met one of my cousins, whom I hadn’t seen in close to 20 years, at a restaurant near Times Square that Cranky had recommended. We had a great time and wondered why it had been so long since we’d seen each other.
On Thursday night, we went out to the end of Brooklyn for a dinner for scholarship awardees at one of the schools AJ is considering. We got to sit with one of his buddies from school. The food was delicious but the school didn’t feel like us. I think AJ liked it though. It’s still in the running.
On Friday night, I collapsed. We watched Land Ho!, which reminded me an awful lot of Sideways and The Trip (there are only so many movies about aging male friends going on road trips that I can keep straight), but was worth seeing for the incredible scenery in Iceland.
Today we all stayed in bed late and watched the snow fall. Then we headed to Manhattan for an open house at another of the high schools that gave AJ a scholarship. We’d been there before but hadn’t had a real tour. It was more impressive than we realized on several fronts. On the way home, a crazy woman threw a can of Coke at my head. She singled me out of all the people on a crowded subway car and spat in my face, got off the train, and beaned me. The weird thing was, about six months ago, the same woman was at a different subway stop and did something similar. She’d seemed a little whacky but not violent, but then suddenly turned on me and started screaming at me from about an inch from my face, threatening to push me on the tracks. In both cases I was just standing there. Something about me seems to piss her off, for some reason. In both cases, we had no idea how to report the incident and then didn’t. Hope she doesn’t do it to someone else. Also hope not to run into her again any time soon.
Hope your week was calmer. What’s keeping you busy?
I can’t really talk about this anywhere else because everyone I know is still crossing fingers and checking mailboxes, but since a lot of you have watched AJ grow up in this space and its predecessor — I started blogging a few weeks before AJ started his first day of preschool at age 2 — I thought you’d like to know that AJ just got into high school. Two of them, in fact, so far. Not only did he get in, he earned six figures of scholarship money — one four-year free ride, one mostly covered. Both are honors awarded very few kids. I couldn’t be prouder for him and happier for him. And while I’m positively horrified to realize he’s already headed to high school, I couldn’t be more excited for him. And I can’t wait to see what comes next. So congratulations, AJ Spy. You are an amazing kid and I can’t wait to see the amazing adult you’re going to become.
Much of being a New Yorker means pretending that half of the people you see every day don’t really exist. It’s not narcissism or rudeness, although that’s what it often looks like from the outside. It’s just survival. If you actually had to process every person who walks through your life every day, you might lose it. For a lot of people, it means imagining rules for yourself to get where you need to go. Walk this way not that way, tune out the noise with headphones, look at the ground, don’t ever make eye contact, lose yourself in a book. It can help. But the problem with this approach is that after a while, you start to think other people should be following the rules too and you get annoyed or even downright irate when they don’t. But how could they know what the rules are? Well, except for the rule about walking on the right hand side of the sidewalk. Everybody should follow that rule, New Yorkers. It would make all of our lives better.
I am not by nature a dogmatic rule follower (I think I can hear my mother snickering right now). It’s both my downfall and my saving grace. So I’m not quite sure how I came to be one of these people who will choose the rule (walk on the right) over the practical solution (step left to avoid someone who is walking toward you). But I find myself playing chicken on the sidewalk more and more. I am not proud of myself.I’m not exactly sure why I’m telling you this story except to say that trying to figure out how to walk through the streets of New York without going crazy takes up a lot of my mental space. Which is why, at the age of 47, I tend to pretend I’m staring in a movie of my own devising while I do it. Jim White for the walk to the subway and a Southern Gothic pic; The Pixies or Fatboy Slim for an end-of-the-world action pic on the walk to my office. Home is easier. When it’s dark, Manhattan is film noir and anything moody will do. I pass a long string of neon-lit Korean karaoke bars on my way to the train. Even my 19th century Brooklyn neighborhood is noired after dark, porch lights striping the sidewalks through wrought-iron. Puddled streets coldly reflecting lingering Christmas lights. A car horn. A siren. A door slam. A bell. And if you’re lucky, a foghorn echoing up from the river.
Coping mechanisms have served me well this week. Nothing too terrible. A little under the weather. A little drama at the office. The nerves of waiting for the imminent results of high school applications. Sometimes it’s just easier to declare and defend your boundaries or just pretend you’re someone else for a while. What about you? How do you cope with the things that make you lose your cool?