Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Sound of It

Many years ago, I was in the control room of a small recording studio supervising the making of a “demo” record for a song I had written. Seated next to me was a close friend, an arranger who had told the handful of musicians what he wanted them to play rather than given them anything to read. That’s how we did things in those days. (And we thought we were sophisticated!)

In the middle of one take (a play-through of the song), a cumbersome set of metal earphones, “pots,” slipped from a violinist’s head, striking the edge of his violin before hitting the ground. Musicians routinely brought second rate instruments to sessions, so I was stunned by his reaction, which was panic. He raised his violin and started anxiously examining it from every possible angle.

“Why is he so upset?” I asked my friend. “Because it’s a Guarnerius,” he answered. “What the hell is he doing bringing a Guarnerius (a rare, precious instrument) to a recording session?” I asked. My friend answered, “He likes the sound of it.”

Months ago, in anticipation of moving from our apartment, I prepared to dispense with my large collection of LPs. To my surprise, my daughter Lauren expressed interest and began making selections for herself, first for the artwork, then for the sound. “They have more ‘pop,’” I believe she contended. In order to listen to them at her apartment, she had to buy a 33
rpm record player. Now she’s buying more LPs. I held one up and asked why. Her answer was she likes the sound of it.

I started thinking about what I like the sound of. At an impasse as I sat in silence, it struck me how much I enjoyed sitting in silence. I’ve heard some of the most beautiful strings in some of the greatest concert halls in the world. Practically swooned to Pavarotti and Ella, Chet Baker a cappella. Pounding waves and heavy breathing come to mind. The sweet cadences of Robert Frost. The sublime music of “Obama is the winner!” I still have the first cry of a baby and the angelic laughter of two little girls in my ears. But I covet silence.

Our new apartment is on a courtyard. I haven’t heard a car alarm in the five weeks we’ve been here. Like the sound of that? I feel like the dog in the old RCA logo, sitting in front of the gramophone’s horn listening for his master’s voice. I sit in front of an arched window, writing as other windows go dark. I listen for silence.

In truth, I have sounds I irresistibly cotton to—rough voices that for my ears are like the grain of sand in the oyster that produces the pearl. The extravagant seductions of Leonard Cohen and Satchmo. The melodic assault of Kurt Weill. The growling intellect of Barney Frank. The appreciative roar of Yankee fans.

An actor calls his agent’s office. The agent’s assistant says, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your agent is dead.” The actor asks again to speak to his agent. The assistant says, “Look, I know it’s a shock, but your agent is dead.” Once again, the actor asks for his agent. The exasperated assistant says, “Will you it through your head? Your agent is dead!” The actor says, “I know. I just like the sound of it.”

Sunday, November 22, 2009

There Oughta Be A Law

When comic books were comic, a syndicated two-panel cartoon strip, There Oughta Be a Law, gave voice and vent to Americans’ frustrations with just about anything they thought was unfair and should be redressed by a law. Between the 1940s and the 80s, Broadway’s biggest musical, Oklahoma!—with its significant exclamation point—ran for an unprecedented five years; the Mad Ave-hyped Ford Edsel lasted for only three; but There Oughta Be a Law stayed popularly in print for four decades.

I wish “Oughta Be” were around today. I would write cartoonist-creator Harry Shorten to say there oughta be a law in New York City that states anything that isn’t good for the city is unlawful. What has me fuming right now is—brace yourself—a bedbug billboard in Times Square. That’s right, a bedbug. On a billboard. If you haven’t seen it, avert your eyes if you come to it… cover the eyes of your children (and pets)… and, by all means, do not let a visitor to New York see it. Detour, sidle past, walk backwards, but take that tourist dearest to you and to the New York economy and jay-walk the hell out of there.

A bedbug on Broadway! Mayor Bloomberg, where are you? A big, ugly, crawly bug is straddling skyscrapers half its size across a billboard sprawling above a pizza parlor! You eat pizza! The villain is an ad—a tawdry, tacky scare ad for a company called Protect-A-Bed, a crass merchant telling us, “Protect Yourself.” But who’s going to protect Broadway theaters and Manhattan hotels and city restaurants from Protect-A-Bed?

Protect-A-Bed claims its same mattress covers protect against bedwetting. Will people come from all over the world to be sobered by a display of a man pissing on a New York skyline? Above a salad bar?

I don’t believe in curtailing free speech, Mayor B., but this isn’t speech, this is visual assault. There oughta be a law! It isn’t free enterprise, it is economic depravity. Why not a bill-boarded illustration of a bedbug taking a juicy bite out of The Big Apple?!

You spent 69 million dollars—and changed a law a lot of New Yorkers thought oughta be—just to keep your job. Let your affluence do the talking. Why not buy the billboard and change it to something all New Yorkers inherently take pride in?

Curious to know what you, the reader, think there oughta be a law about. That’s what the “Comments” section below is for.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Once a New Yorker, Always...

I tell those new to New York there is a point at which you become a New Yorker. It happens either in the fifth or sixth year. Until then, you tell yourself, and try to convince others, you’re visiting or exploring the options, you’re going to school or “just taking in the scene.” According to every self-spun scenario, you’re here until you can go elsewhere.

I tell them, if you’re still here after six years you’re not going anywhere. You’re here because you belong here. Waiters, students, writers, interns—lanky women, eager tyros and wannabes—you’re stuck here. Give up the ghost of coming and going or e-mailing it in. Your adopted city has adopted you, sure as by fiat. You are no longer from anywhere else. You’re a New Yorker.

In New York, you are what you do. In Boston, you are where you went to school. In D.C., you are who you know. In LA, you are what you drive or where you live.

We live fast. It follows that we have to cut through the quick and initially get to know each other in shorthand—in a New York minute. Pass that test and likely as not you’ve made a friend for life, or at least for the life of the party, even if you never see that person again.

No one gives a damn where, or even if, you went to school—you are rigorously schooled daily and nightly by cab drivers, store clerks, waiters and doorman (from all over the world) in this city. Everybody knows someone well enough to suggest making anyone who makes trouble for him regret he did. No one who lives in Manhattan is foolish enough to maintain a car: if you drive and aren’t driven, if you use a car for any other reason than getting to the Hamptons, you’re probably a schmuck.

Once a New Yorker, you can say anything you want in the most public of places, and say it more colorfully, with a sprinkling of New York vernacular. Incomparable entertainer Mark Nadler used to hold court for fans and fellow performers Thursday nights at Sardi’s. Between songs, tinkling on the ivory keys he otherwise tickled or pounded, he would conduct running commentaries on whatever came to mind. One evening, after using a Yiddishism, Mark, originally from Waterloo, Iowa, said, “I’ve started to notice myself using more and more Yiddish words recently. I began to wonder—am I becoming more Jewish? And then it occurred to me. No, I was becoming more of a New Yorker.”

During my sixth year in New York, I was enlisted to write the lyrics for a Broadway show, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.” The more I grasped who Sidney was, the more I realized how similar we were, culturally and politically. The audience discovers before Sidney does (if he ever does) that, fantasize as he may about leaving the city of steel and glass, New York, for the serenity of the countryside, he’s not going anywhere. During rehearsals, I discovered that while I had indulged in a similar fantasy, neither was I. Sidney and I were exactly where we belonged. For me, it’s been a love affair with the city ever since.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

This Was A Happy Home

The morning we were moving from the apartment we’d lived in for 37 years, the glass beaker of our Bodum Chambord French Press—the same glass beaker that had served me for two decades of freshly brewed tea—cracked as I poured boiling water onto the Keemun tea leaves in it. That afternoon, as our cleaning lady prepared the apartment for the buyer, the vacuum quit. Inanimate things know.

I lived in my apartment long enough. Long enough to see the trees in Central Park grow so tall with 37 springs that their leafy tops threatened to obscure my view east to Fifth Avenue. Will its new residents gaze at what I looked forward to daily?— the reflection, at sundown, of the sun setting in the west, producing a transitory bronze blaze in the panes of the windows facing us from across the park.

I lived in my apartment long enough to identify and associate the nicks in the woodwork and walls with my two daughters’ growing-up years. The ever-so-slight indentation in a baseboard from Haley’s three-wheeled bike. The brief trail of indentations in the parquet floor from Lauren’s stiletto heels (a phase that passed quickly, thank God). A faint, blunt impression in wallpaper from the impact of a ball after several schoolboy chums were unable to resist using a spacious bedroom as a playing field and played catch across it.

Lived there long enough for my mind’s eye still to be able to see the scorch under the wallpaper—from the night Lauren declared she was old enough to live on her own… but not before starting a fire in the mini-oven.

Long enough to see our children become adults. And our two grandchildren make it their own and romp through on foot, bike and scooter as if it were their park.

I lived in my apartment long enough to see the parade passing by—the Thanksgiving Day Parade, 37 times. For Jean and me to host rooms full of children and their parents at our windows. To wipe little hand prints and nose prints from the glass at the end of day.

We lived in that apartment long enough to start seeing it through other people’s eyes. It was home, our home, but its impression on other people eventually brought home to me how fortunate we were. Composer Cy Coleman, who moved around in fancier circles than any man I knew, would only live on the East Side of Manhattan. “I could never live on the West Side,” I’m told he would say—then add, with a glint in his eye, “Unless it was in Ray Fox’s apartment.” For me, that was like receiving the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Our daughters insisted on a farewell bash. Their friends, many of whom felt they grew up in our apartment, were the most sentimental. Lauren and Haley made speeches. By consensus, they pronounced, “It’s not the apartment, it’s the environment the people in it created.”

As the days wound down, Lauren would drop by daily to take “one more last” lingering view of Central Park in all its glory. Haley would visit and revisit the rooms. Heartwarming to witness what I already knew—theirs was such a happy childhood.

When the apartment was completely vacant, each made it a point to take a last-look, father-daughter tour with me, and each left a few tears on my shoulder. The park’s leaves turning bright with autumn didn’t make leaving easier. On the other hand, the glaringly bare walls, stripped of their art and framed family photos, and the damned echo in every room, made it time for me to go; I’d lived in the apartment long enough. Haley joined me bright and early that last morning to see the last large item, our irreplaceable piano, crated and moved.

Many, many years ago, when Jean and I were apartment hunting, I came across a small blackboard in one of the kitchens. On it, scrawled in chalk, were words that impressed and stayed with me: This was a happy home.

This was a happy home. And now we’ve left it, with no regrets, for good. My 6-year-old grandson Maddan was the wisest about it. He said, “It’s not sad, because we take the love with us.”