This Thing Called Courage

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Most Beauitiful Night of the Year

WHEN I WAS A LITTLE BOY, many people would come door-to-door, selling their wares: encyclopedias, baked goods, shoes (yes!) hairbrushes, vacuum cleaners, etc-- Here in the Boston area, it is said that the fear of the Boston Strangler actually put many many door-to-door salesmen and businesses out of work-- people, especially single people, were afraid to open the door. 'Night Schools,' too, and Adult Education Centers, saw huge drops in enrollment. Which reminds me of one of the more compelling accounts of that terror time: one day, when the Boston Strangler was still very much at large, a single older woman, 60 or so, who lived alone in an apartment building in Brighton, heard a knock upon her door. Before opening the door, she asked who it was; the man on the other side replied that he was the painter the super had sent up to do a small job in her apartment (this was a line the Boston Strangler used quite a bit, apparently). As fate would have it, this woman was, in fact, expecting a painter to come up and do some work on her apartment 'sometime.' So she opened the door and let him in. Unfortunately it was the Boston Strangler. Once inside, he shut the door behind him-- and then he made some kind of untoward remark of a sexual nature. The woman immediately knew she had made a horrible, probably fatal, mistake; but she was a quick thinker.

"Shhh!" she admonished, raising a finger to her lips.

"What do you mean? Don't you do that to me!" the man replied angrily.
"My husband's sleeping in the other room," the woman whispered, hiking her thumb behind her.

The man left immediately, without another word. Creepy, huh?

But I digress. I was speaking about door-to-door salespeople. Anyway one evening this very large person came to our door. He was selling piano lessons, of all things-- isn't that wonderful? One thing this world needs more of is piano lessons, and, of course, the sellers of piano lessons. Anyway, poor as we were, and living in the projects, my mother was always a sucker for 'cul'cha,' and really sought to expose us to these kinds of things (which my father had no use for). So she signed my brother Bob and I up for piano lessons. On the appointed night we went to the music studio, much to our chagrin. An even larger person, with an Italian accent, was the only one there-- the salesman's brother, maybe. It was a small place. "Oh yes, yes, you've come for your first lessons," he said, rubbing his hands together. "Stay right here. I'll go into the back room and bring out your instruments." I turned to my brother 9I was a little fresh) and said, "Jesus Christ, what's he gonna bring two pianos out on his shoulders?" The thought of this gave us the giggles and we couldn't stop laughing. Anyway out he came a minute later-- carrying two accordians. One of them fell open as he carried it and it vomited out this crazy, funny WAAAAAAAA as it did, which made us laugh even harder.

"My mother's gonna kill you," I said. "We're supposed to be having piano lessons."

"No no, she's a'the same t'ing!' he said. "The keys! The keys!"

"Don't tell me," I said. "Tell her, she's the one springing for them."

Well, so we had our first accordian lesson. My mother was in fact quite unhappy when we got home and told her, and she called them up right away. But someone the guy talked her into it, and back we went the next week for our second accordian lesson. I had indifferent results, but Bobby took to it marvelously, and stayed with it for the next few years. My God, he could make that thing talk. But he dropped it, of course, when adolescence struck, realizing how nerdy accordians were adjudged in those days. I had bailed out long before that.

At any rate the whole point of this is that one of the songs we had to learn-- I don't remember many of them but 'Lady of Spain' was among these-- was, 'The Most Beautiful Night of the Year.' And that's all I could think of tonight, as my friend Carol and I walked Fionn for a few miles, into Happy Land and back. It's always at this time of year that the first chilly night comes calling, a harbinger of things to come, whisked into New England on gushy northwest winds out of the woods of Canada. And while very few around these parts welcome the cold, myself included-- there is something so exhilirating in the first chilly, star-flung night of late summer. As if the night has been dashed with a drop of two or something from a silver cruet, to crystallize the air. It's currently 58 as I write, with a magnificent waning moon on the rise-- a temp we haven't seen since April probably. The very air is an elixir, and of course I've flung wide every door and window. And, sitting on the back steps after the walk-- the stars!!!! Surely if there's an example of something going undervalued, ignored, and unappreciated, it must be the stars. As time goes on, and each generation becomes more and more removed from nature, do most of us even notice them? Do we even notice when there are none, or few, above us? Truly a crime, for I can't think of anything more wondrous. The most far-fetched traveler's tale of wonder ("A Tadgh's Tale," they call it in Ireland) seems banal and narcotic in comparison to the miracle of sitting on one's back stairs and being able to look up at stars. Most amazing of all: what we're seeing isn't even there at all. It's true-- some of the stars we see every night don't even exist anymore. How wild is that? The explanation is simple-- if a star is two million light years away, for example, and 100,000 years ago it burned out-- we won't see that for another 1.9 million years. Amazing. It's like looking down a vast, swirling time tunnel. If there were a tower one could climb, and it was so high one could see all the way back into yesterday, or the time of the building of the Taj Mahal, from the top of that tower-- most of us would be pretty impressed.

"Hey Jimmy! What are you doing?"

"Nothing, what are you doing?"

"Nothing. I'm gonna go up to my attic and climb the tower and watch that Monet guy painting in the fields of Provence, 120 years ago."

"Okay cool, I'll be right over."

But when we merely tilt our heads back at night-- we can actually see millions of years into the past.

Knowing this-- and, as they say, the more one knows, the less one needs-- one doesn't need much on a night like this-- an open meadow, a blanket to lie back on, a thick sweatshirt, and perhaps a warm body to share it with. Now that's living.


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