Monday, October 12, 2015

7284. BELOW THE WATER LINE, pt. 41

(pt. 41)
My mother started me, at age 6, on piano lessons. I pretty 
 much hated it, at first, but she always said I'd be the 'most 
popular boy' if I knew how to play tunes at parties and such. 
Whatever fantasy was woven in her head, I knew I was 
powerless to do anything about it  -  in my mind she was 
suffering from having seen one too many of those old, stupid 
1930's black and white movies she'd watch  -  all that romance 
and lucky boy/happy girl junk. I knew the only way I'd ever
be 'popular' in that sense was if I gave every person in the room
someone else's five-hundred dollars and just left. But, I went.
I would be driven, each week, to Miss Frank's home, on Claire
Ave., Woodbridge. It was a white, concrete street, instead of the
usual black macadam. Anne Frank, to be exact (oddly enough). 
I was not then aware of any of the gravitas associated now with
that name  -  that all came later, and here I sensed nothing.
She was a single woman, perhaps 35, living alone there with her 
mother. Offering piano studio lessons. A very severe and ordered 
house, with a similar format and process of learning. In the house, 
white doilies everywhere, total neatness and a starkness
unimaginable. For years that was my only exposure to a piano. 
During the rest of the week I would practice on a painted 
wooden-board facsimile of a four-octave, silent piano my father 
had painted up for me, on a flat piece of wood, perhaps three
feet long. I'd practice what I'd been given as lessons, etc., but I
never heard a sound until I got to the next lesson and sat on the 
piano bench next to the teacher. Listening. Scolding. Correcting.
In some ways it's a very distressing concept for me to have to think
about now  -  how, for all that time, I pushed blindly forward,
approaching a 'music' lesson without a semblance of music being
heard. It just very incorrect, but at the same time, perhaps,it's
insightfully cerebral and may account for a lot more, later on. I 
really don't remember much of that, and it was actually boring as 
hell. But I'm sure it was odd. All I ever wanted to do was be a boy,
run off a little. The last thing I cared about  -  quite frankly  -  was
the line and figure configurations of music notation and the linear
marks of fingering and chord and time. All those scales and chords
and the endless repetition. I often just sat there, dumbfounded.
Over time, I became good enough at it all, and even today I still play,
remembering the lead-up to it all; but I still can't find a feel much
for staying within the confines and configurations of the music as
written  -  that's all someone's else's idea of their tune. I have my own.
I always break down whatever's presented to me and put it back
together in my way -  rhythmically offbeat and usually syncopated
in some way quite differently. For a little kid from Avenel, all this
high-falutin' music stuff was getting a little too much. But, I did
hear the sounds within my head, and could make some decent
representation of what I heard on the keys when I had them.
So, maybe it wasn't all that bad or for nothing.

 Miss Frank later ended the lessons and moved herself to Atlantic 
City, to pursue some sort of music-teaching there. I never knew  
what became of her mother; but the house still stands. I liked Miss 
Frank  -  their household was very staid, run in the old, almost 
European, Jewish fashion  -  holidays and candles and all that. Her 
mother would be around, stern, almost angry in fact, otherwise 
short and squat, always cleaning while we worked : doilies on the
chairs, dusting, moving throw rugs, things like that. I only ever 
saw the one room; not even the bathroom. I well remember one time
I farted, (excuse me, 'passed gas'), while on the piano bench, doing a
drill, running through a piece. (Yeah, like Chopin never farted). It was
more nerves than anything else. I tried holding it in in embarrassment,
but no dice. No one said a word, I never looked around to see what 
was up, just mumbled a 'scuse me' and kept playing, or struggling, 
through to play. As my mother used to say in those situations : 'better 
out than in, I always say.' I have no idea what these people must have 
thought of me, but I wasn't the one who told her to teach such a
 brat-kid as me. You get what you get.
None of my friends, or the other kids, apparently noticed or seemed 
to care that I was 'doing' music. We never talked about it  -  nothing 
like those old cliched movies where the kid is pining to be playing ball 
across the lot with his friends while he's forced into practicing his 
'lessons' on piano. In truth, I pretty much ignored it, and was a 
crummy student. You want to think I'd have gotten all precious about 
myself and started worrying about not smashing my fingers, or 
getting banged up, or any of that  -  'preserving myself' for the piano  -  
but that wasn't even on my radar. Later on, about sixth grade, after 
all this piano-lesson grief and crap, a music-teacher guy came to the 
school to judge us on musical talent and musical precocity, as to 
perhaps what instruments we should play, and our latent musical 
talent, if any. I figured I'd ace all that and the guy would say I was a 
wonder for the piano. Not to be; after some weird battery of tests, he 
drolly proclaimed to me that I'd probably be very good on drums. 
Drums? Did you say drums? You mean the things you bang on, like a 
monkey bangs? Are you kidding me? Four years already of piano  
lessons, and a trauma connected with it, and this guy tells 
me I'd be good on drums!
In late February, 1958, like the 27th  -  or maybe if it was a leap year,
the 28th  -  returning from those Miss Frank piano lessons, being 
driven along Rahway Avenue entering Avenel  -  in a car driven by 
my mother (they would drop me off and the pick me up after an
hour and a half, or so) we were struck at the Rahway Avenue,
Avenel Coal and Oil (then) railroad crossing, by a diesel
locomotive, of the then Reading Railroad  -  soon later gone
bankrupt and dissolved into Pennsylvania RR, then Conrail, after 
the American rail-freight industry had pretty much gone bottoms-up.
The car was split in half, the long way, after being spun around. My
mother's half stayed in place, right there, and she got 4 stitches in her
scalp, and not much more. My half was dragged some 250 feet, and I
was taken for dead  -  all crumpled and mangled beneath the metal
dashboard of a '53 Ford. That ended my Miss Frank piano lessons.
A few years later, after a lengthy recovery, they were taken up again,
this time with a small-time local dance band leader, a Mr. Frank
Novak, of Lockwood Avenue, Woodbridge. He had a wonderful brick
home, at the top of Lockwood Avenue, and a matching red-garage
cottage in his yard, once converted from a garage some time back, 
in which he'd give piano lessons, and do people's taxes. In the
interim of my recovery, my father did eventually get an old $25 
bar-room piano delivered to our house, and it was placed in the
basement. It became my possession  -  I could finally hear my own
playing, and work at and practice at it during the week.  For a while,
Mr. Novak came to the house weekly, and later I began bicycling
myself, along Rahway Ave.  -  and, strangely over the very tracks
where I'd been hit  -  for the lessons in the cottage. It was up the top
of a steep-for-bicycle hill off of and up from Rahway Ave. I huffed and
I puffed it heartily, in all weathers. There was, after a time, one house
about midway up that hill, at which, for whatever reasons, there were
always some older teens there, kids hanging out in the side yard, 
who'd begin pelting me with stones and pebbles from a distance, as 
I struggled past the house -   usually well out of steam by that time. 
I don't know why or what was up with that, and I never really got 
hurt, just bothered and perplexed each time. But I persevered.
Mt. Novak constantly smoked a cigar-  big, stinky stogies. Everything
stank in there, and even the piano keys were yellowed from the
exposure. No white ivories there. I put up with it. He would sit
down, first, and play me some wilded-up one of his show tunes
from the dance-band list, proclaiming that I should watch his
technique and his limber fingers, and learn tempo and emphasis
and flow. Once he was done (so boring) I'd have to sit in his
stinky place and play the one or two lesson-pieces I'd had for the 
week  -  his previous assignment  -  which he'd then critique and, once
again sitting in my place, proceed to play for me 'correctly'. Then he'd
play the next week's pieces, and we'd be done. In the Winter, my father
drove me (this was a 'guy' trip), and most of the remainder of the
time was taken up with the two of them bullshitting around while I
sat there or played or feigned an interest. One time, my father (who'd 
had five kids, and a sixth one miscarried) and he spent the entire
time talking birth-control methods, quite graphically. Diaphragms and 
IUD's and coils. I hadn't a clue. On the ride home my father asked
if I'd understood everything they'd been talking about. I faked a
knowledge, and said 'yes'.  End of conversation, forever. That was
my sex-education totality, from parental guidance anyway.

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