Players

by

09/12/2004

Beaver Street; ny 10038

Neighborhood: Financial District

The young musician met the older musician after a concert. It was in a building just south of Wall Street, a part of the city that morphs into a ghost town on late weekend nights. The concert space was run by an organization dedicated solely to the arts and therefore was unheated despite the brutal January cold snap. Audience members had kept their coats on as they sat for hours on frigid metal chairs. Band members kept blowing on their hands. The young musician wore a poncho made of alpaca fur, which kept him warm and gave him freedom to move his arms as he played. The older musician had simply gotten a bit drunk.

He approached the younger musician after the concert to compliment the way he played. Tall and imposing in a puffy down jacket, the older musician kept one hand warm in his coat pocket and with the other, used his plastic cup to emphasize his remarks. After their names were introduced, the young musician realized who the older man was. His cousin had studied with him.

“George?” The older musician considered the cousin’s name. Then he said loudly, “Oh, yes, George. George is very depressed. He never should have married that woman.”

The small crowd around us laughed.

The young musician agreed about the woman. Then he tried again, “He’s a good musician, though. Don’t you think?”

The older musician shrugged. “He was good. But he didn’t listen to me. I told him, ‘Don’t marry that woman.’”

It was late. The concert had gone on too long for an experimental thing. Beneath the high white walls and exposed support beams, the scene had taken on that surreal big sky feeling that often happens in arty warehouse settings, all of us milling about in a performance piece no one was directing. Practically speaking, there were drums and chairs to put away; the remains of a makeshift cash bar spread across a folding table needed clearing. Trash was piled high against the inactive furnace. To avoid working, people started line dancing to the recorded music. I was getting a ride with the young musician and hoped he’d gather his belongings together and finish speaking with his remaining admirers before I was assigned a task. He’d already packed his instrument in its battered silver case. The thick chain that substituted for a handle that had broken off years ago was wrapped around his wrist.

When we were finally walking out, the older musician caught the young musician’s attention again. He couldn’t leave the subject of cousin George alone. George who had fallen in love. George who had actually gone off and married a woman. “I’m telling you,” the older musician began again. “It never works.” Men standing close by laughed in commiseration. Soon, the musicians from the evening were all there with the exception of the drummer who was preoccupied in a corner with his wife pulling sleepy children from the warm down sleeping bags they’d been hibernating in for hours.

Laughter erupted from the men who’d formed a huddle around the older musician. He wasn’t laughing. The other looked up to him and expected him to make bold declarations.

The young musician’s voice emerged from the conversation. “I’m married to my music,” he said.

“Listen to me,” the older musician said. He stared intently at the younger musician.

“I’m married to my music,” the young musician insisted again.

But the old musician wasn’t satisfied. Drawing the men closer together, he spoke more quietly.

As I stood outside the circle and leaned against a folding chair, a jittery, dark-haired girl touched my arm. She wanted me to introduce her to the young musician. She said she was interested in him for professional reasons.

“I’ve lived in his country,” she said, excitedly. She was beautiful. And young. She loved how he played in the concert. “Incredible,” she said. I nodded.

When she saw that I wasn’t going to provide her with an introduction, she tried to go at it alone. I watched the girl inch around the outside of their circle, trying unsuccessfully to get their attention. Backs turned, all of the men kept laughing as the older musician rumbled on about that impossible mix of loyalties: music and women.

Finally, the young musician and I made our way down to the street and toward his enormous silver pickup truck that matched his old instrument case. Wind cut through the tall buildings on Beaver Street where he’d parked. He slid the chain off his wrist and carefully secured the case behind the driver’s seat as I opened the door on the passenger side and climbed inside. He turned the heater on at full force and we sat enjoying the first bit of warmth we’d felt that night. We stared out at Bowling Green Park. Locked for the night behind iron gates, the old-fashioned lamps made the snow glisten on the trees and park benches arranged neatly in a circle. It could have been romantic sitting there, looking out, but it wasn’t.

Though he rarely listens to music when I ride in his truck, it’s all we ever talk about: composers, style, other musicians and dancers we know, gigs. We’ve had arguments about the conflicting values (in his mind) between entertainment and religion. That night, as we made our way toward the eclectic bustle of the Lower East Side, we discussed the private downfall of his cousin George who’d up in jail, musicless, entangled in a strange mess for the love of a woman.

“Terrible,” the young musician said, shaking his head.

We circled around Houston and Orchard looking for a parking spot near Bereket, the all-night Turkish café. He asked me how well I knew the older musician. I told him I had a couple of great recordings. He built his own instruments. I’d met him a few times and always liked talking to him.

“But,” the young musician hesitated. “Isn’t he a womanizer or something?”

“A womanizer?” It was a word I’d only heard my father use. I wasn’t even sure what it meant. “I don’t think so,” I said.

“He told me he never sleeps with a woman more than three times.”

“That was the advice he was giving all of you?” I laughed. It sounded like him.

“Did he hit on you?” the young musician asked.

“No,” I said, though the older musician had put his arm around the back of my chair for a song. Maybe two. I hadn’t moved away, not even when he leaned in toward me with that sarcastic grin on his face. “He just wanted to see what I would do,” I said.

“You know what?” the young musician began. “He just hasn’t met the right girl yet.”

“Come on!” I said. “He’s a musician. He meets plenty of girls.”

“But he hasn’t met the right one,” the young musician explained. I was silent, uncomfortable. His optimism and sincerity often baffled me. I was never sure which one of was naive.

“You know,” he kept going. “He hasn’t met the girl who makes him dizzy.”

“Dizzy?” I said. “You get dizzy?”

“Sure,” he said and pulled into the perfect parking spot that had just magically opened up in front of the Cairo Café. He leapt out of his truck and grabbed his silver instrument case, the chain wrapped around his wrist. Newly aware of the utter lack of dizziness in my life, I opened my door and stepped knee deep into a crusty snow bank pushed up onto the sidewalk.

Inside Bereket, one of the guys behind the counter recognized the young musician standing in line with his instrument case. He shouted to the others in Turkish. To the dismay of the other midnight meat eaters, the other men behind the counter abandoned their prep stations and the enormous rack of grilled meat. They crowded behind the register, talking at once, excited to see the young musician. They wanted to know where he’d most recently performed in Turkey. They begged him to take out his instrument, but he refused. He’d been playing all night, he explained. He was hungry. One of the men behind the register started singing. The guys all joined in, singing a few phrases from a song the musician knew.

When they got to working on our order, he told me about a time he’d come late at night with another musician, a guitar player, and two belly dancers, and they’d opened their cases and started playing Turkish music between the tables. That’s why the guys always remembered him.

“We were right there,” he said, pointing to a small, littered table in the corner of the unassuming seating area.

As they had played, passers by from Delancey Street came in and started dancing. The guys behind the counter danced too, in their white hats and red aprons. They kept playing and singing and the belly dancers had to dance on the tables because the room was so crowded.

“Everyone was so into it,” the musician said. Though he’d played for crowds of thousands around the world and in upscale concert halls, he’d never described playing with such enthusiasm as that impromptu moment after hours on Houston Street.

“Who were the girls?” I asked, thinking I might know them.

“What girls?” he said, absentmindedly, still remembering the evening. “The dancers,” I said. “On the tables.”

He shrugged his shoulders. He couldn’t remember. “What a night,” he said again.

Carrying his instrument case and the bag filled with our sandwiches and the complimentary deserts the guys from Bereket had thrown in especially for him, we stopped in front of the Cairo Café. The sliding glass doors were shut tight against the cold, but we heard live music, drums and finger cymbals. The scent of apple tobacco exhaled from the shisha pipes, the only legal smoke left in Manhattan, drifted onto the sidewalk. We tried to see who was playing, but all we could make out inside the room lit with Christmas tree lights were the diners cramped inside the narrow restaurant. Beneath an artist’s rendition of neon bright pyramids and a sorrowful Tut, friends shared pipes. Lovers huddled together. The music was tucked safely in the background as everyone concentrated on each other.

“I’m starving,” the young musician reminded me.

At my nearby apartment, we listened to one of the older musician’s recordings. I ate my sandwich in silence and, when I got bored, started in on the remains of his. The young musician only spoke when he wanted me to repeat a track we both liked, a quiet piece that began with a solo introduction. Pensively, the older musician’s fingers pulled at the strings. It was as if he was there and we were all listening, each one of us dedicated, alone.

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