by Morley Torgov
eBook release: January 2012
A Good Place to Come From was adapted for four dramas telecast by CBC TV and was the basis for three full length stage plays by Israel Horovitz which have been performed in New York City and throughout the US.
The boy in the New Yorker advertisement is about nine or ten. Well-scrubbed and neatly attired, he’s the kind of kid you see on a Saturday at F.A.O. Schwarz’s being presented with an expensive birthday toy by an adoring grandmother from Scarsdale. He stands with one hand boyishly tucked in his trousers pocket, the other resting casually on a piano bench, all poise and self-assurance, a typical young Manhattanite who divides his time between penthouse and private academy. The copy beneath the picture glows with high hope: “He’ll be playing a Steinway, the piano played by most professional pianists, which should add some incentive to his practice hours.” The writer of this bit of prose may know a great deal about pianos and piano virtuosi. What he knows about boys, on the other hand, doesn’t amount to a hemidemisemiquaver.
I stare at the advertisement and suddenly I am the boy in the picture. It is October, 1935. Voices are speaking to me, at me, over me, and around me.
“What do you mean you don’t want to learn to play the piano?”
“Everybody nowadays plays piano—”
“Show me one house in this town that doesn’t have a piano?”
The voices, rising in pitch and intensity with each delivery, are those of my mother and father. It is Saturday, lunchtime. The table bears leftovers from last night’s traditional Friday night supper, reheated except for the remainder of a chicken which we eat cold with H.P. Sauce. A traditional Saturday lunch. It will soon be time for my parents to return downstairs to the store to make the final push for the week. (“If you don’t make .a dollar on Saturdays, you might as well close up altogether.”) More important to me, the Saturday matinee at the Algoma Theatre begins in less than an hour. Burgess, my redheaded freckled friend will soon be knocking at the door. There will be a dime for the movie, a nickel for a chocolate bar, and a couple of hours of re-enacting with Burgess that day’s episode of the Tarzan serial after the show is over and we are let out blinking in the late afternoon sun. Why can’t they just let me eat my cold chicken and H.P. Sauce and leave me in peace?
This is the fourth or fifth meal in a row during which I’ve been forced to sit through these persuasions. I look anxiously at the kitchen clock. One thirty. A half-hour to go before the lights go out in the Algoma and that marvellously menacing M.G.M. lion flashes onto the screen, its impatient roar drowned out by cheering and whistling and stamping feet. The voices continue, pressing, reasoning, unreasoning.
“Remember Top Hat? The minute you came out of the movie you knew every song by heart, some even with the words! Fred Astaire didn’t even sing them so good. I’m telling you you got a brilliant ear. It’s a shame not to use it.”
“And it’ll be fun. Your father’ll play his violin and you’ll play the piano and the two of you can perform at parties sometimes.”
Compared to glorious freedom in the streets of Sault Ste. Marie, the idea of musical togetherness at home is hardly a temptation. Even less tempting is the prospect of a fatherand-son act. I see my father looking benignly down at me over the bow of his instrument, and I see myself in a velvet suit (like Freddy Bartholomew but even less appealing be cause I wear eyeglasses) playing dainty little trills and being hugged by bosomy old women and cheek-pinched by their paunchy old husbands. I’m the darling of the Sunday after noon tea-and-spongecake set. What will my boyfriends say? It is almost too horrible to think of. Indeed, so overcome am I by the horror of it that tears form, collect around the lower rims of my glasses, and roll down my cheeks dropping one by one into my soup. My mother prudently slides the soupbowl out of range. “It’s salty enough already,” she says.
Now they are reminding me that Irving Cohen, who lives a couple of blocks away, is only a year or two older than I and already he is in Grade Eight of the Toronto Conservatory piano course. The comparison infuriates me. Why must I always be compared to kids who are totally abnormal, kids who will engage willingly in the most unnatural activities just to ingratiate themselves with their elders? Irving Cohen, whom I have by turns scorned or ignored in our chance meetings, is now Private Enemy Number One on my list. Angrily I cry out, “I don’t care what Irving Cohen does! I hate Irving Cohen!”
Finally comes that last-resort word—please. “Please,” my father urges, “just take one lesson and see how you like it.”
“But we haven’t even got a piano,” I argue back, hopelessly, my voice choking into a pitiful squeak.
“We’ll get one. I’ll look in the paper. Somebody always has a piano for sale.”
Burgess stands in the doorway slapping his tweed cap against his thigh. It is late and he is impatient. I rush past him, my glasses tear-stained, and he turns, bewildered, to run after me. In my hand I clutch a dime for the movie, a nickel for the chocolate bar, and an extra dime—ten whole cents!—to spend as I please.
I have given up, caved in, knuckled under. I will be a piano player.
It is one week later. I have come home from school to find a piano standing in the hallway outside our apartment, like some strange timid monster waiting to be invited inside to become part of the family. Once the struggle to squeeze the piano through the front door is over, my parents stand back, appraising their latest acquisition.
“I think we got a bargain at thirty-five dollars,” my father says.
“Yes, but don’t forget you had to pay the movers on top of that,” my mother says, a strong hint of disapproval in her tone.
My father defends himself. “I couldn’t help it. The old lady said she needed thirty-five dollars clear to bail her son out of jail.” But my mother is unconvinced. “I still think you could’ve made a deal for twenty-five. We’re not millionaires, you know.”
Not millionaires indeed. Still, in these arid penny-pinching times, when it is often difficult to find a chicken in every Jewish pot, how customary it has become to find a piano in every Jewish living-room! Our home will follow this pound-foolish custom, except that the huge ugly-brown instrument—after being denied lodging in the living-room (too cramped), in my parents’ bedroom (too private), in the kitchen (too cluttered)—finally ends up in my bedroom at the rear of the apartment.
That room—windowless, sharing a frosted-glass skylight with the adjoining kitchen—exists in a state of half-darkness even on the brightest days. It is an area that begs for more sun and a bit of breeze. Instead it now receives within its four walls this gloomy monolith, keys yellowed and chipped, innards thickly coated with dust, and a middle A that probably hasn’t vibrated four hundred and forty times per second since the day it was first struck at the factory.
“Where did the old lady keep it?” my mother asks, screwing up her nose. “The whole piano smells like bacon grease.”
“I’ll fix that soon enough,” my father assures her, and promptly dumps a bag of mothballs through the top of the piano. I can hear them cascading through the strings and springs and hammers.
My mother screws up her nose again. “Now it smells like bacon grease and mothballs,” she says.
What can this hideous piece of furniture possibly add to my life that I should be forced to cohabit with it? I think about the old lady’s son and how lucky he’d been in jail. Imagine, a cell without a piano.
My father hisses obscenities in six Eastern European languages as he scrapes and rubs and polishes the instrument. The piano-tuner (who swears in English only) seizes one tool, hurls down another, mutters angry orders to himself, pounds middle A with his right index finger until both finger and note are exhausted. Finally, the strings have been tamed and the tuner puts down his pliers, seats himself at the keyboard, clears his throat, and plays at full volume one chorus of “I Love Coffee, I Love Tea.” My mother laughs with amusement, and my father urges the tuner to play another chorus. I stay well in the background, praying that this toolbag Paderewski will fracture his fingers.
Now there is a man seated next to me on the piano bench. His hands, bony and bluish (he has walked over a mile in the raw November night to give me my first lesson) rest on the keys and he explains in a cultured English accent that I must pretend I am holding an orange in each of my hands. I can smell Sen-Sen on his breath as he examines my outstreched fingers the way a gourmet examines fresh beef to see if it’s properly marbled. “We’ll have to get rid of that webbing between your fingers,” he says, looking solemn, like a surgeon about to cut. “At the moment your hands look like duck’s feet.”
“The Cohens told us that their Irving had the same trouble with his hands at first,” my father says.
“Lots and lots of good solid practice, that’s what does the trick,” the teacher says. Father and teacher nod solemnly. The rapport between them, established only minutes ago, is now centuries old.
“Irving Cohen does a half-hour in the morning before, school, fifteen minutes at lunch, and a whole hour at night. And on Saturdays and Sundays he sometimes plays two hours straight without a stop.” As he recites these statistics my father looks grimly at me, I look grimly at the teacher who in turn looks grimly at my father. We are, the three of us,
a new phenomenon in the world of music—The Grim Trio.
I am miserable, but presently misery gives way to hatred. I hate Irving Cohen even more now. And I realize that he and I are now destined to become rivals. My father is al ready burnishing the family armour. “Don’t worry,” he tells the piano teacher, “just give this kid of mine a year and he’ll be up to Irving Cohen. The whole town’ll be talking about him.”
It is two years later. We are in the Foresters Hall, a large, draughty room which ordinarily serves the Jewish com munity as a place of worship, but which tonight has been transformed into a theatre with a low, hastily-constructed stage, a curtain consisting of several white bedsheets, and some blue and white paper streamers draped in a limp and unimaginative fashion from the light fixtures on the ceiling. The final curtain has been drawn on the annual Purim play, the last curtain calls have been taken by the child stars, and the proud parents in the audience are busily trading compliments. There follows a short, musical concert. One untalented child after another steps sheepishly to centre-stage. Some sing songs, two young violinists scrape together a duet, the melody of which begins uncertainly and disappears entirely by the third or fourth bar. A trumpet player threatens to blast down the walls of Jericho for a second time in history. Everyone is off-key.
Now the master-of-ceremonies stands at centre-stage, beaming back at the roomful of beaming parents. “The time has come to hear from Ahasuerus and Haman,” he announces. This introduction greatly amuses the audience, and the master-of-ceremonies is very pleased with his little joke. I, too, feel satisfaction for in my role as King Ahasuerus I have had the pleasure on this night of condemning the evil villain, Raman-played by Irving Cohen-to hang. The sight of Irving being dragged off to the gallows has pro vided me with spiritual uplift, and I recall praying that he would stumble from the stage and crash-land right on his web-free fingers.
Haman, having suffered a humiliating death in the play, is invited to play the piano first, a courtesy which I welcome in the belief that he who plays last, plays best. Irving is seated at the piano. He is too shy to turn and face his audience, and merely mumbles over his shoulder the title of the piece he will play. No one quite catches the title, and I manage only to catch the words “by Johann Sebastian Bach.” (I learn later by peeking at his music book that it is a prelude and fugue.) His fingers are swift and accurate. And the voices in the fugue mesh with the precision of well tooled gears, the whole piece building strongly to a stirring, concluding major chord. There is a moment of silence. Rising from the piano bench, Irving turns and bows stiffly. The audience is cold; this has been cerebral music, music that is not of the heart. The applause, therefore, is merely polite and dies quickly. Irving moves awkwardly across the stage before the silent crowd and returns to his seat.
“His teacher’s that German fellow,” someone whispers.
“Goddam Germans. They’re all alike. Everything comes out like from a machine,” another responds.
“And now King Ahasuerus, please,” the master-of-ceremonies calls, milking the situation for one more laugh.
I begin to play the opening phrases of Johann Strauss’ “Tales of the Vienna Woods,” and as I pass into the main theme, an “ah!” of recognition rises from the crowd. I have chosen wisely and I play the piece reasonably well, schmaltzing up my performance by playing the waltz rhythm of the left hand “rubato” in the shameless style of a band of gypsy restaurant musicians. Rustling leaves and chirping birds flow from my right hand. We are so deeply immersed in the Viennese woods that one or two people in the room are moved to hum or whistle along with me. I cannot spot my father and mother among the patrons, but vanity tells me they must be exploding with pleasure. The last grand chords bring down the house.
But I do not stop to accept the accolade; instead I rush off the stage and out of the room, making straight for the privacy of a nearby lavatory. There I fling “Tales of the Vienna Woods” into a waste basket.
Later, at home, my father is triumphant. “Didn’t I tell you someday he’d be ahead of Irving Cohen? Didn’t I say the whole town would be talking about him?”‘
“Stop saying those rotten things about Irving,” I shout. “He’s better than the whole bunch of you put together!”
My father and mother exchange bewildered glances.
“All of a sudden Irving Cohen is your hero?” my father asks.
I make no reply. My father and mother will never under stand what has happened to me on this night. They will never understand that I have come face to face with my own cheapness, and the cheap tastes of the well-meaning audience. In shoddiness, we have been joined together, the audience and I, and I am ashamed of the union.
I exhibit my contempt for Johann Strauss, and for his devotees, and for myself, by deliberately playing “The Blue Danube Waltz” with my left hand in the key of C and my right hand in C-sharp. The dissonance is wall-crumbling.
My father is furious. “You’re ruining a good piano,” he cries.
“Then stop making me play this lousy Jewish music,” I yell back. (“Jewish” music, according to my father, is any kind of music that has heart and soul, and into this broad category he has lumped Tchaikowsky, Chopin, Schumann, Rubinstein and practically anybody else who has written an easily hummable tune or a melody in a minor key.)
“I suppose that German anti-semite knows what’s good music, eh?” my father says derisively.
In the end I win. At my next lesson, my piano teacher shows up with two new volumes which he places ceremoniously before me at the piano—Bach’s two-part inventions, and a book of Mozart’s sonatas.
The days of toy music are over.
On the following Saturday, Burgess is at the door.
“I won’t be going to the Algoma today,” I say to him. “I’m going to Irving Cohen’s house. Maybe I’ll see you after the show gets out.”
Burgess is off like a shot, a happy redhead bound for an afternoon with Hopalong Cassidy and Buck Rogers.
I am bound for an afternoon salon with Irving Cohen, and two composers whom I have never heard of-Debussy and George Gershwin. I have become a twelve-year-old snob.
It is 1943 and Irving Cohen and I are now two of the leading lights in the local musical world—a world that consists largely of Tony Dionisi’s Dance Band (“the band that makes dyin’ easy”), the Canadian Legion Fife and Drum Corps, an assortment of teachers and musicians who frequent Anderson’s Music Store to play records on Saturdays, and another assortment of teen-age zoot-suited music lovers who feed the nickelodeon at Capy’s Grill on Saturday nights. It is a world very much alone in space; there are no other musical planets nearby, no stars out there in the bleak universe. The town has yet to be visited by a string quartet, let alone a symphony orchestra. Solo artists—those few who dare to perform for the folks who live at the end of the railway line—are usually second-rate, on their way up to, or well on their way down from, virtuosity. The local radio station carries the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons and the New York Philharmonic concerts on Sundays; apart from those two programs most of the air time is taken up with country-and-western and, of course, the big bands of the time—Miller, Shaw, Dorsey.
Irving is the painstaking technician, given to spending a whole afternoon at the keyboard working on a single passage until each bit of fingering has become second-nature to him. Though he remains shy and awkward in front of an audience, his technique is awesome. Under his fingers, Chopin’s “Black-Keys Etude” emerges from the pianoforte like bullets from a machinegun-rapid, precise, forceful. I, on the other hand, rely on charm, plus massive applications of the loud pedal, to see me through the trickier spots. I have a kind of romantic bedside manner that lulls audiences into overlooking careless octave runs and blurred trills.
I have also become a war hero. I am one of the performers at a public concert to boost the sale of war bonds, and am in the midst of pounding out a passionate rendition of Sibelius’ “Romance” when a gooseneck lamp perched atop the vibrating upright piano begins to edge forward. The lamp is irreversibly bound to a collision course with the keyboard, but I nevertheless continue playing. Precisely at the sound of the next loud base-note, the lamp plunges down coming to rest just a few inches above the keys where it dangles by its cord, like Damocles’ sword. The audience gasps but, without missing so much as a grace note, I carry right on (those war bonds must be sold!), finishing the Romance with a dramatic flourish. Following which I rise and calmly restore the lamp to the top of the piano. The next day I am hailed in the local press as “a courageous young artist.” Like Aladdin and Florence Nightingale, I have established my reputation with the aid of a lamp.
“Play us a little tune” has become a standing inside joke with Irving and me. No matter where we are, if there is a piano in the room, someone will pipe up with “Play us a little tune” and we are expected to be gracious and without further urging seat ourselves at the keyboard. There is no end to this shotgun concertizing. Furriers from Toronto, pants manufacturers from Winnipeg, dress salesmen from Montreal—it makes no difference. Each and every one is assumed to be a devotee of “good music.” Singly or in groups they are corralled into the living-room (“I don’t care how busy you are, you must hear my son play the piano … “) where they are obliged to sit through all three movements of a Mozart or Beethoven sonata before they can write so much as a dollar’s worth of business. To a commercial traveller, whose only genuine aim is to sell his merchandise and get the hell out of Sault Ste. Marie on the next train, this mandatory musical interlude must be sheer agony. Irving and I compose special numbers for these occasions: “Prelude To The Sale of a Pair of Pants,” “Overture to Overalls,” “Fanfare for Furriers.” There is more than a tinge of malice in this, for we are shrewd enough to sense the traveller’s agony and perceptive enough to realize that he doesn’t care a hoot about Mozart or Beethoven.
Given such a thin cultural atmosphere, what sustains us and helps us to flourish? It is something we have developed which I call “The Gershwin Game.” Thanks to Irving’s initial discovery, Irving and I have become Gersh—win addicts, totally caught up in the music, the lifestyle, the wit, the lore and the legend flowing from and created around that composer. For hours at a time we play recordings of the Rhapsody in Blue, the Second Rhapsody, Cuban Overture, American in Paris, the Three Piano Preludes, the orchestral suite from Porgy and Bess, the popular show songs, and above all, the Concerto in F. We read and reread aloud passages from Oscar Levant’s book, A Smattering of Ignorance, until we have memorized whole pages of dialogue between Gershwin and his friend-confidant-exponent-and-biographer. Irving takes to wearing a bar-pin through his shirt collar in the style of Gershwin and I buy my first double-breasted suit to give myself that snappy New Yorkin-the-thirties look. Since Sault Ste. Marie has no Broadway, we imagine that the lights that line the canals and locks on the Michigan side of the St. Mary’s River are the bright lights of the theatre district. A booth at the back of Capy’s Grill becomes our Algonquin Round Table, occupied exclusively by two pseudo-sophisticates. From the other booths the uninitiated view this make-believe with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. When the waitress brings Irving’s chocolate sundae and mine, Irving points to his—which has extra whipped cream—and, borrowing a Gershwin line, says, “You see, that’s the difference between genius and talent.” At the end of an evening during which Irving has monopolized the keyboard at my house, I borrow a Levant line, “An evening with Irving Cohen is an Irving Cohen evening.” It goes on and on and our parents and friends begin to wonder when it will end.
It ends in June, 1944. “Gershwin,” who is now of draft age, joins the United States Navy. “Levant,” who is not yet old enough for military service, stays behind in Sault Ste. Marie. The passion for Gershwin’s music goes on. But The Gershwin Game is over. One person alone cannot play.
Twenty years have gone by. Irving Cohen has helped to win World War II off the coast of China, has finished a fine arts course at a university in Michigan, and has married. His family has left Sault Ste. Marie and I have lost track of his whereabouts and career. I am married, have two small children, and reside in the· middle of a carefully planned network of cui-de-sacs and dead-end streets in a suburb of Toronto. One day the telephone rings: “Hello, it’s Irving . . . Irving Cohen . . . I happen to be passing through Toronto …” We meet and for a few minutes The Gershwin Game is on again, revived with great enthusiasm and laughter.
At last the conversation turns to the present.
“What’re you doing with yourself these days?” Irving asks. “I’m a lawyer. What’s your line?”
“Hospital linens. Sheets, pillow cases, towels. Best line in the trade. Competition can’t touch our stuff for quality. We’ve got this new line on the market now-real soft finish, launders like a dream. A lot easier on the patients, you know; cuts down on bedsores and nuisances like that. How about you, are you specializing in anything?”
“Business law. You know—real estate, mortgages, corporate deals of various sorts. Do you still play a little piano once in a while?”
“No, not much,” Irving replies. “I’ve changed my whole lifestyle over the years.” From his jacket he withdraws a slim leather case and offers me a cigar. “Jamaican. I like ‘em better than Cuban. Go ahead, take one, they’re great.”
Full-cheeked and thick-lipped, like two contented bull frogs, we sit blowing thick clouds of cigar smoke ·into the air. “Did you read recently that George Gershwin suffered from chronic constipation all during his adult life, and that he visited brothels from time to time?” I ask.
“You’re kidding?” Irving responds, smiling incredulously.
“Too bad about Levant,” he says, snapping his gold cigar clipper open and shut. “He sure turned into a wreck. I saw him try to play part of the slow movement of Gershwin’s Concerto in F one night on Jack Paar’s show. What a disaster!”
“I guess you and I were smart to stay out of the music business.”
We nod in agreement. Two men who made the right decisions years ago, each at his own point somewhere along the path that leads from genius to talent, and from talent to reality.
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“This collection of short stories is for anyone who ever left a hometown behind… As much as Torgov’s stories define a time and place, they define a relationship between a boy and his father.” – Los Angeles Times Book Review
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