My Dependency and Me…Back Together

30 January 2019

Not a terribly keen observation, but iPhones have become ubiquitous, intrusive, demanding…and necessary. We’d like to think we’re not dependent on them but, truth is, we are. No more vivid proof is needed than this…my phone over months, slid into impotence. I’d plug it in to recharge it, come back hours later to find it had only a small charge. I knocked with a knuckle on the front panel of the phone, hoping to wake it up, hoping it would come to life. I shook it, as if two loose wires would touch and the magical elixir of electronic life would course again through its digital brain. But nothing. An hour of recharging yielded but a 5% charge. A week later it was 3%. A week after that 1%. Then nothing…no calls, no Times, no Amazon.

When my car didn’t work (before cars had computer brains) I tinkered with the carburetor, changed the spark plugs…got it to work. But this nanotech system can’t be tinkered with. It’s as complex as DNA. It needs…my tinkering self says in defeat…a techie at the Apple store to work some voodoo magic or to declare it’s beyond repair.

The nearest Apple store in White Plains was getting a facelift and was closed for months. In desperation, now that I was dealing with a phone in constant slumber, I went further afield to a mall in Yonkers…on a cloudless Saturday…from whence a call to the consuming public must have gone out, since a sea of humanity had converged…a hadj of the shopping faithful, convinced that accumulating more stuff would secure a place in heaven. Seeing a World Series crowd, I knew I wouldn’t find a parking space and fled. My ailing iPhone’s destiny imperiled by a closed store and crowds. But all was not lost, since we were New York City-bound, where we parked uptown and took the subway to the Apple store on 66th Street.

Four steps into the store an Apple greeter, solicitous as a candidate, asked if he could help. I told him my iPhone wouldn’t charge. Resuscitation seemed unlikely to me, I speculated, hoping to get a new phone out of the deal. Nothing I don’t see everyday, he said. Usually some lint in the opening, where you plug in the recharging chord. Can’t be, I said...it’s been getting more feeble in the last few months. I jiggle the plug and it connects for a second or two, like static on a ham radio, but can’t lock on. Now it’s totally unresponsive, no contact at all…useless as an empty fraternity beer keg..

Well, said the greeter, I had someone here not five minutes ago with the same problem. He took a small screwdriver-like tool on his Apple keychain and probed the opening a couple of times, magically loosening some lint. Three, four, five more times he went back in…each time, more lint. He blew into the opening, handed me the phone and said, triumphantly, it’s cured. That’s it? I asked incredulously. That’s it.

Sensing my suspicion that a fix should more resemble the complexity of the phone itself, he told me to check it with a recharger chord on a display table of iPhones. Sure enough the lightning symbol lit up and a charge started coursing through the phone…a quick 1, 2, 3 percent. Unbelievable. I’m now pleased to be back to my dependency. Amazon and I are very happy.

Just Another Weekend in the Life…

8 January 2019

Of course, there’s a story about why we found ourselves sitting in the second row orchestra at a Broadway theater in New York last Sunday. The headwaters of the story started with a trickle, naturally, and the trickle grew in to a stream of coincidence as many stories in New York do, simple because in the shoulder-tight crowds you come across here, there are more folks to find a connection to and, sometimes, coincidence flows from that. Here’s the trickle that started it.

Three weeks ago Roberta and I went to see The Other Josh Cohen, a very enjoyable off-Broadway show. Roberta managed to get second row seats (no connection to the above second row seats) and her seat was next to a young woman. They both looked at each other commiseratingly, since a woman sitting in the first row in front of them had a hat the size of a pheasant’s full fan of tail feathers. They smiled and wondered how they’d handle l’affaire du chapeau. But they didn’t have to. The woman, aware of her hat, removed it.

Roberta and the young woman continued to chat, though, about shows they had seen. The woman glowed about just recently having seen Hamilton. Roberta asked how far in advance she had to buy tickets. She didn’t buy them, she said, she won them in a Hamilton lottery…a lottery run by the theater. And her lottery-won ticket…if you’re going to gasp, gasp now…was ten bucks. Roberta put down her knitting (she doesn’t knit, she just got real interested) and started to ask questions in earnest. Somewhere on the Hamilton web site, the woman told her, there are instructions to a lottery check box. Just check and that’s it. Each entry lasts the one day, so each day you enter anew.

So part of Roberta’s routine each morning upon waking was to check the Hamilton lottery box. And last Friday, after a mere three weeks, hardly a burdensome labor, Hamilton delivered a bouncing twosome of tickets to her for Sunday’s performance. First time I ever won anything, she grinned. If it wasn’t for the coincidence of sitting next to that young woman…well, you get the idea.

So yesterday on a line for the royalty of lottery winners, we were ushered to seats in the first two rows. The sightline was just about at stage floor level, which, I guess, the high priests of the theater didn’t think was suitable for the king’s ransom pricing for the rest of the house. But we sat on our jackets, straightened up and saw just fine. And the people sitting next to us…they had checked the lottery box every day for three years before they won. And, you don’t need me to say it, the show is sensational.

As if that wasn’t tour de force enough for one weekend, Roberta, before winning the Hamilton lottery, had found a bit of exotica for Saturday night at the 14th Street Y in New York. It was Samuel Becket’s play, Waiting for Godot…in Yiddish with an English translation on a screen…from French to Yiddish with nary a blink. Waiting for the theater to open, I asked a fellow playgoer…why Yiddish? Well, he said, I’ve read it and seen it a few times and considering how irrational and foolish life can be…why not Yiddish? He caught up to me after the show and asked what I thought. I told him he was right, it did work well in Yiddish. As a metaphor for Jewish life in Europe with its precariousness and uncertainty. it had more meaning than for most others…like a fiddler on the roof, which we also saw in Yiddish. But that’s a story for another day.

The Tomato Can Packed a Punch

5 Dec 2018

Holy Krause is a boxer whose name came about because of his mother’s quandary about picking a name. So, she said, look, the first word I hear after the baby’s born…that’s what’s going to be his name. And that word managed to emanate from her husband’s table-banging shout of joy, Holy____, it’s a boy! True to her word, Holy became his name.

Holy, now a journeyman boxer, lives third floor in a boxy, tan-brick, six-story opposite the station on 125th Street and Broadway near where the subway rolls out from underground and noses up to become the elevated. Actually, he lives on the downtown side, so he sees riders getting on, before they disappear into tunnel darkness.

After his morning run, Holy works at his stovetop on the window wall…so he can scramble his morning eggs and watch commuters peering down the tracks trying to see the next train coming. And they can see him in satin boxing trunks and a red hoodie with a spatula making eggs. Same faces each morning look at him as he looks back at them. Soon, recognizing each other, they were hand-waving greetings across Broadway.

Holy had a three-year boxing career…a quick rise because he lucky-punched a middle-weight contender, when he was a last-minute fill-in for the scheduled opponent who was on a subway going to the fight, when his train got rear-ended. Nothing serious, but for three hours the electricity was off and the opponent was trapped on a dark train in a dark tunnel because equipment had to be rolled in to separate the trains and lift two of the cars back on the track. And that was right after he got stuck between floors for an hour in an old Otis Elevator in a factory building  after his shift, sewing flags. Hey, Chucky, he said to the elevator operator, you gotta get me down. Two things I can’t stand…needles and being stuck in elevators. Besides, I got a fight at the Garden tonight and I need the payday. As usual someone’s bad luck is someone else’s good luck, because now a warm body was needed to fill in for the main event bout.

Fortunately, the fight’s promoter knew a boxing trainer, Jesse Nuvitz. whose fighters trained at a basement boxing gym, named appropriately, Cavalcade of Spars, but whose stable of no-names was long on courage, but short on skill. And that happened to be the promoter’s sweet spot…a no-surprise pinch-hitter, more pinch than hitter. I don’t want to have to chew on Xanax, he told Nuvitz, The most promising of his fighters was Holy Krause, a boxer of reliable mediocrity.. As luck would have it, Holy was available and now Nuvitz had to get to him, before he had dinner.  Don’t worry he told the promoter, he’s always in great shape, not an ounce of fat, has a good chin. And I just got him a new satin robe, still in the box. I told him, hey, good things are going to happen…who knew?

Look, said the promoter, I’m not looking for some high octane fight here. Just 4 or 5 decent rounds will do. This is a tune-up for a title fight for my boy. If this goes well, your boy will have more fights than he’ll know what to do with. What’s to worry, said Nuvitz, I’m bringing a tomato can to the fight, you’re bringing a sledge hammer. What could go wrong?

So the fight started and the anointed contender flicked a couple of jabs to get respect and then, arms down, danced around, sticking his chin out, daring Holy to hit him and, likely, deciding when he was going to deliver the hearts and flowers. So he danced and darted and flicked, but Holy decided, if he could help it, he wasn’t going to bleed for this showboat. So third round he jabbed weakly. It was flicked away contemptuously. But Holy found the anointed’s chin with a right that knocked him into Pleasantville. His knees buckled, he pitched forward and stayed respectfully unconscious until he was counted out.

On Monday morning, back to his routine…and his stovetop… Holy made eggs, waved across Broadway to his subway friends and pretended it was a normal Monday morning. Except one subway friend, who was at the Garden shouted, ‘Hey, Champ.’

Forget Your Name, What’s in Your Sandwich

20 November 2018

(note: Any resemblance to anyone, living or not, in this blog is purely coincidental)

“So tell me,” I said to a fellow standee at a bar during happy hour, “what kind of sandwich did you just get?” Leaning in a little too close to me, he said, “what do you have to know for? What concern is it of yours what kind of sandwich it is?” There were a couple of empty pints of beer in front of him, so I figured it was lager room talk and nothing I should take seriously.

“Tell me or not?, I said, “it doesn’t make a difference.” “Then why do you need to know?” “I don’t need to know…just a friendly gesture, trying to start a conversation…but I’d say we’re done here.” “Well, I’m not ready to be done,” he said. “Okay, then,” letting a few seconds elapse, “let me ask, is your name Dave?”

‘What are you, a magician?”

“Well once I asked someone in this same bar what was in his sandwich and he said, like you, what difference does it make?” I told him it looked good and maybe I’d like to have the same.” Well, okay,” he said, “My name’s Dave”…but still he didn’t tell me what was in his sandwich. So now I see, when I ask you what’s in your sandwich, you’ll probably tell me your name. It’s an odd way to start a conversation, but maybe, it’s the local custom. And maybe, once you get comfortable telling me your name, you’ll tell me what’s in your sandwich.”

“Well, some things we here just like to hold back.” “But why,” I asked, getting a little pesky, “is your sandwich such a closely-held secret that you can’t just tell me what it is, but your name isn’t?” So I asked him again, “what’s in your sandwich?”, thinking, perhaps, the second time would break through this local peculiarity, but making a note to avoid drinking the local tap water. Anyway, as if on cue, he said, “My name is Burt. But asking what’s in my sandwich…that’s uncomfortably intrusive.” He smiled slightly, letting on that he too was operating ironically.

“Just in case you hadn’t noticed, folks around here have an odd habit of telling you their names in response to what’s in their sandwiches.,” he said, relishing a little irony of his own. “It occurred to me,” I said. “Somehow I thought that what’s in a sandwich is a little easier to divulge than a name. But maybe that’s true only where I come from. If that’s the major local oddity, it’s not so bad.”

Now, I’m speculating, but if things are consistent, gender-wise, and you ask a woman what’s in her sandwich in this town…does she tell you her name? If true, it would save a lot of men a lot of time not having to circle around, trying to find out a girl’s name. “Hey, can I ask you what’s in your sandwich?” What difference does it make, what’s in my sandwich,” she’d likely say, following the town’s script. “Just trying to be friendly. Looks good…no offense meant.” “Well, okay, then…my name’s Carol.”

And just like that, I’d have broken the Enigma Code.

Explain This One to Me

6 November 2018

The when, the where and the who…out of the blue,..events that align themselves, when most of life is so decidedly arbitrary that there is no other way to explain it, except that it’s a coincidence…a how can that happen head scratcher. It’s fascinating that disparate elements have to line up perfectly to enter into a Twilight Zone, when a few seconds either way, a few feet more or less and there would be nothing to see…no titillating what are you doing here moment. Amazingly, coincidence abounds, everyone runs into a friend when and where it’s not expected, though some seem more providential than others.

Many years ago, I was in Rome, sitting at a café near the Trevi Fountain, when I saw a family of five in the distance walking toward me, delightedly and distractedly enjoying themselves, licking cones of gelato. I called out to them…who expects to hear their names in a foreign city…and they stopped, ashen at the surprise, since they lived three blocks from me in Larchmont. How could it happen… a force of fate, putting us in that exact spot? The when, the where and the who…out of the blue.

Roberta, years ago, ran into a friend from her six years spent in West Virginia at a restaurant in New York, a friend she hadn’t seen in ten years. Nothing strange, so far. But the friend lived in Wisconsin and was visiting the city…a bit coincidental. But to make it a real full-blown weird moment, Roberta at that time lived in California and was visiting, too. Things unknowable brought them to the same place, as if supernaturally…to the same city, at the same time, at the same restaurant. What are the odds?

Which brings us to last Saturday night in the city. We took a subway downtown to see a movie… Working Woman, which is a must-see, if you have the chance and had dinner afterwards. A satisfying evening all by itself. We walked to the subway at about 10 o’clock. It was packed, as if it were rush hour and we stood for a couple of stops until we finally got seats. At the next stop a man got on. The seat next to us was empty and he asked a woman, if she’d like it. She declined, so he sat. There was a young man standing in front of us. The stage was now set for the coincidence to begin.

The man seated next to us was wearing a baseball cap with a logo that we couldn’t see. But the young man standing could and asked him…Did you see it…the show…The Band’s Visit? The man nodded. Great wasn’t it, the young man said. A friend of mine is the musical director, showing pride at having a connection to the show. It is great, said the man with the hat…I’ve seen it 26 times…I keep taking friends and relatives to it…my son produced it, after he got the idea to turn the movie into a Broadway musical. He went to Israel and bought the rights to stage it as a musical…and then won the Tony for Best Musical. There’s no coincidence so far, only a nice conversation, but Roberta and I were flabbergasted.

A friend of mine, going all the way back to junior high school, whom we had just been with two days before, celebrating an honor he received that day, also had won a Tony, also for The Band’s Visit…because he, too, was a producer of the show. Here we were, four people with no connection to each other, brought within four square feet of each other on a random subway car at a random time. There was no what are you doing here moment, since we didn’t know each other. We only had the when and the where, strands of a coincidence, so the hat became the who…out of the blue. If not for the young man, starting a conversation, there would have been no coincidence. The moment would have slipped by and no one would have been the wiser…or the more astonished by it.

The Steely Resolve of Ladies Parking

25  August  2018

There’s a war going on out there. Innumerable skirmishes every day, never reported in the news. But, like plaque, they build up a hard coating around the area of the brain that should exude fairness and friendliness. What was a gusher of gemultlikeit is now a dried, cracked river bed of qualm and doubt. It’s led to a rise in our overall On-Edge Quotient.

To wit, a lady pulled her car behind mine, as I prepared to pull ahead and back into a parking space. I had my blinker on which was an indication of intention to take the space. By the vagaries of luck, I got there a few seconds before she did, but she didn’t go around me, conceding my rights to it. She obviously thought the space was still in play. There’s little arms-length dealing in love, war and parking spaces in New York. So I figured that when I pulled forward to back in, she’d slyly slide front first into the space…and tell me she thought I was double parked and it’s too late to leave now, she’s already in.

So as nature dictated, I dug in my heels. I sat and waited for her to go around me. But she sat, too. She honked. I sat. She honked again. Finally, lacking the patience for a protracted battle, I backed up two or three feet to her bumper and pulled into the space front first, like she, no doubt, was planning to do. It made parking more difficult, but I worked into the space. Then she pulled up to me, opened the window and asked if I couldn’t move up a couple of feet to the car in front of me. There’s enough space for another car behind you, she said. Ma’am, I said, there isn’t room for a rickshaw in that space. She drove off.

Such is the competition for parking spaces in New York. Even elderly ladies, scheming like the pickpockets in Rome…are wily and tenacious and tactical as Sun Tzu…and hard as nails. Why, sir, she’d likely say, sweet as syrup, when you pulled up, supposedly to back in, I scooted in front first, so no one else could take the space. Then, of course, she’d trot out the old canard about thinking I was double parked and she thought I pulled up to let her have the space. So to avoid the unpleasantness, (including a smirk on her face as she locked her car and walked away), I did what I had to do..

Such are the feral thoughts one needs to survive in the big city. Wouldn’t it be somewhat embarrassing to be aced out by a grandma who’d likely have dismissed my complaining by telling me curtly…too bad, sonny, this is New York, grow up. Life is all about avoidance of humiliation and keeping one’s psyche in tact.

After all, nobody’s going to smack an old lady over a parking space, are they?

Nothing Says Hydration Like Vitamin Water

10 August 2018

A girl stomped out of Pret a Manger, obviously annoyed, talking into her cell phone. “Doesn’t anybody have any goddamn Vitamin Water? Three stores and I can’t find one lousy bottle. I don’t even care what flavor. I just need some hydration. I’ve been walking around this city all day. My Skechers are worn out and I’m tired as a pony at a kids’ party. (Now there’s an analogy I didn’t expect.)

And out she walked onto Broadway and 45th on a mild Friday night in June, as the theaters let out, to be engulfed by a flash flood of humanity that pushed her into me, as we were caught in a pedestrian flow toward Times Square…everyone trying to find the next good time on their night out in New York. With a number of desperate “Excuse mes” and scowls, she did maneuver to the storefront side of the surge, looking for the next store that might offer the hope of Vitamin Water.

She slipped into a pizza parlor that had a refrigerated drink case. No Vitamin Water. “What’s going on with no Vitamin Water? ” One of the pizza crew said they only carry Pepsi and Vitamin Water’s not made by Pepsi. We can provide you with other vitamin-infused beverages, he said loftily, seeing her irritation. But she was having none of it. She wasn’t going to be snookered into a substitute. It was now the quest for the holy grail, well beyond reason. It was only water, but now the search for Vitamin Water had morphed into obsession. She had the cockeyed resolve of a Crusader, wandering with great personal discomfort in the holy land, knowing her cause was just.

Thirst was no problem. Weariness would be no impediment. Walking, that rubbed her feet into blisters at the Metropolitan Museum earlier, didn’t matter. Her banner was Vitamin Water and she’d find it or die trying. A block below 42nd she found a QuikMart. No Vitamin Water…but other brands…just the same…the manager said. “Like hell”, she said on the way out. The crowd had thinned. She turned on 41st Street. There was a halal food cart on the corner. “You got Vitamin Water? Oh, yes, miss and handed her a bottle of Diet Coke. “You must be kidding…you imbecile”, the latter said under her breath.

At Eighth Avenue, great hope…the bus terminal. In its vastness there must be Vitamin Water. Sure enough in a small refrigerator, she spotted a bottle of Kiwi Strawberry Vitamin Water. “Not my favorite flavor, but, hey, victory at last”. She found a bench, uncapped and drank deeply and closed her eyes for a brief nap…a nap of satisfaction. She awoke, however, bottle in hand, but with her wallet and cell phone missing.

Sometimes obsession comes at a high price.

Sometimes Free Is Free…Sometimes It Isn’t

13 July 2018

A friend of mine, Oscar Rumba, a Cuban Czech, who’s been living and working here with a green card for years, related some good news that befell him last year. I’m not sure why it took him a year to unburden himself of good news, but it did. I asked why the wait? Why am I the last to know? Oh, no, he said, you’re the first. This, I said, must have been really good news. He grasped me by the elbow. guided me to a nearby saloon, ordered up a couple of lagers and sat us down on high bar stools and with a furrowed brow began telling me of his kismet.

I don’t know about you, he said, but I have never won a thing in my life…raffles, silent auctions, lotteries, slot machines…nothing. You’d think, once in a while, I’d get some combination of bells or plums at a casino and get a payoff…nothing big, but something. Closest I got was an email from a Nigerian prince, sitting on millions in oil revenue that he’d love to share with me, if I only would provide him with a bank account number for transfer of said millions…and, oh, a few measly thousands for transfer expenses, title fees, a plane ticket to come here to sign the documents and his dry cleaning…a small price to pay for wealth.

Well, a year ago my luck changed. I got a call from on an organization I give money to and found that my name was automatically entered in a contest and through some heavenly provenance, I won. Pop the champagne, they told me, you’re going to Paris for a week. You’ve won two…get this…two first-class airline tickets to Paris. No kidding?, I asked. I don’t know the appropriate response to such news. Should I jump up and down, cry, shriek or shout endlessly, “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it”, like I see Publishers Clearing House winners do. I did get excited when, a few days later, the tickets arrived. Well, clear the calendar, hon, we’re off to Paris, with a champagne and pate reception at the airport when we leave and a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant our first night there and a discount coupon for a petite gem of a left-bank hotel. My stars had aligned.

Expenses while we were there, of course, were ours, but we’d eat cheap, have a hotel discount and do a lot of walking. Well, in Paris you don’t eat cheap, which we found the first morning, when we forked over 15 bucks to have croissants and lattes, standing up at a breakfast bar. Evidently word had not been Morse-coded to the French that many American hotels have the grace to provide free morning fare. Then there were scrawny lunches at about 15 bucks a pop and 30 dollar dinners with house wine. With a splurge or two, food was about $125 a day. It’s okay, we’re on vacation and the airline tickets were free.

We conquered our acrophobia and booked an elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower…how many times will we be in Paris? Stomachs churned, but we survived…about 30 dollars each. The Louvre was about 15 each and the Musee d’Orsay was about 15 as well. Monet, how could we leave without a print…and a Cezanne and a Renoir. We didn’t play favorites. I don’t even want to mention the cost of a Hermes scarf. But, hey, we’re on vacation and the airline tickets were free..

Came down to the last day and the hotel bill was presented on a silver tray…not a good sign. Our petite gem was $300 a night with the benefit of the discount coupon from the group that provided the airline tickets. I now know the appropriate response for winning the contest…weeping.

But worse was on tap. We went to the airport for the return flight and the clerk at check-in, looked at my documents, glanced at me, turned her back and made a call, shielding the call with her hand. A supervisor showed up, perused my papers and, grimacing like a judge at the Inquisition, announced with a wisp of a grin that my green card had wandered into expiration. I couldn’t get back into the US. After I disgorged a few grand in legal penance and spent a few extra days in Paris, I was deemed acceptable once more. And with an au revoir, I was ushered past immigration control to fly to the land of the free.

The moral: Sometimes free is free…sometimes it isn’t.

Shun That Man…He Talks Too Much

4 July 2018

Plausibly enough, I get annoyed with people who aren’t mindful enough when they launch into singular conversation with strangers in the vicinity. There’s something to be said for self-awareness and not talking aloud when others might want privacy. I say this, perhaps, because I incline to be introverted (more or less successfully) and more cautious than I need to be. The sword of capriciousness and never dubbed me “intrusive”.

Certainly there are some folks desperate for an audience. But in the confines of a men’s room with multiple urinals…that usually makes most of us more discreet, less chatty…like talking in an elevator. Almost everyone will shut down conversation for the few seconds on the way up or down. We become…eyes down…mute. Everyone’s self-conscious silence has a multiplier effect on everyone else…usually.

But not always. Just when I think. I’m being unavailable and protected from random conversation, someone nearby starts in, out of the blue, dispensing information about personal stuff he should be sharing discreetly with his doctor in a soundproof office. It was a stranger at a urinal next to me who put my invisibility to the test. He started rambling aloud like I had a researcher’s interest in his urologic history.

It’s tough getting older, he said. Takes me a while to get started, even though I gotta go like a son of a gun. So now I got a prescription for Myrbetriq, which means I only get up to pee three times a night instead of six. But it costs me a fortune…360 bucks a month…for 30 pills. Can you believe that? I used to pee twice a day tops. Now I gotta make sure I know where there’s a can, when I walk around the block.

I keep telling myself, maybe, it’s the Bud Light. But, hey, I’m not giving up beer just to pee a little less. That’s like giving up golf, because you can’t break a hundred. Right?

Why he thinks I’m hanging on every word, I don’t know, because we’re both looking straight ahead at the wall and he can’t get a read on whether I’m listening or not. And I’m not encouraging him…not a peep from me. But he keeps going.

I’m in the car a few days ago, he said, going 60 on a highway and I’m dying…no place to stop…

Listen, I’d love to hear more, I said, but my girl friend is outside waiting for me.
Well okay then, he said. Nice talking to you. And, really, I hope it never happens to you.

How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

2 June 2018

I’d like to address the matter of talent not being distributed evenly…and its corollary…thankfulness for not having to make a living as a musician. It’s a fact that became indelibly clear to me at a long-ago concert at Bard College to commemorate the opening of a new performance center designed by Frank Gehry.

But first, what jogged my memory was a concert Roberta and I heard on Memorial Day this past Monday in Brooklyn performed by the Interschool Orchestra, an audition-only assemblage made up of New York City school students. To my relatively untrained ear, they were terrific, even tucking one of the most challenging pieces…the overture to Bernstein’s comic opera Candide…into their repertoire. Lilting Mozart it is not. What it is, is a raucous, fun bit of musical thunder with a lot of moving parts that have to be in sync to work. I wondered about its degree of difficulty compared to other pieces and asked, Answers.com, to see if it’s as hard to play as I suspected. Someone explained it in diving terms…it’s like a reverse four and a half somersault piked from a three meter board.* Yes, very difficult…and these were kids.

A string orchestra from a high school in Virginia played two opening selections and they, too, were impressive. And then it began to dawn on me that the amount of musical talent out there is incredible. Most of the millions who start with instruments get peeled away early on the way up the musical ladder. By the time anyone gets through junior high, high school, college and conservatory, they are good and music is what they want to do. And then the hard part begins. They’ve got to find an orchestra to audition for. I was peeled off in junior high, lasting two shrieking weeks on the violin and about a year on the clarinet. Ready to move on I was not. It’s the same daunting odds of making it to the top in anything, like baseball. Putting in the time and the practice is no guarantee that you’ll get past playing slow-pitch in the local rec league. (It’s the old lament about Ph.Ds driving cabs.)

Now back to the inaugural concert at Bard College and talent not being distributed evenly, proved by those who do ascend from the lucky gene pool. The soloist that night was a young man, late 20s, named Melvin Chen. His curriculum vitae made Nobel Laureates seem like shift workers at an auto plant. He graduated from Yale with two Bachelor of Science degrees…one in chemistry and the other in physics…then added a Harvard Ph.D in chemistry. Sounds promising, no?

Yes, but then he decided that there’s more to life that tinkering with theoretical chemistry and was lured by the siren call of the music hall. So, of course, his path led to Julliard for a couple of master’s degrees…one in violin and the other in piano. That evening at Bard, he played the piano. Probably could have sung Falstaff, if asked…or played the xylophone, standing on his head.

*Not info I carry around in my head. The Internet is wonderful.