Monday, January 5, 2009

The Last Night at the Village Vanguard

This time last night instead of sitting in front of the telly watching The Late George Apley and dunking celery and carrot sticks in bought crab dip (the girl has expensive tastes) I was in Manhattan at the Village Vanguard sipping from a glass of dry white wine while waiting for The Bad Plus to come onstage.

The club is bright red. A Christmas wreath of bold colored lights hung onstage where the piano awaited Ethan, a set of drums sat quietly until Dave King got out there and a man-size bass lay in wait for Reid Anderson, the boys from Minneapolis known as The Bad Plus.

Wanna hear a story? I said to Guillermo (do scroll down for his manly photo) who sat next to me. I waited until his girlfriend Julie and my daughter Sarah looked at me. We'd been talking about losing things, namely winter accessories such as my navy beret which I left back home in Philadelphia at a movie theater. Julie, a dancer with the Mark Morris Dance Company told about finding a $20 bill in the lining of her coat.

Well, I said, I have this really nice red coat and the shoulder pads started loosening so I figgered I'd just cut them out entirely. I cut them with a scissors and then noticed that one of the puffy pads was heavier than the other. In fact, upon further examination, it was filled with some objects.

My god, I thought. This coat was probably made in Kuala Lumpur or Vietnam and was intended to smuggle out some quality hashish or other contraband, maybe diamonds. Now is my chance: I'll become a millionaire.

Furtively, I cut open the shoulder pad and out popped a piece of used Kleenex, a business card, and my car keys.

What the heck? I'd inadvertently removed my front pocket.

The waitress came by and Sarah ordered a bottle of dry wine which arrived in a silver bucket. It was delicious. The lights dimmed and out strode the boys across the length of the room and onto the stage. This was their last of 5 nights at the Village Vanguard, all sold-out. Sarah told me that upon occasion Ethan has come home from big gigs like this with twenty thousand dollars cash.

Sarah and I watched both sets that night. Between shows you just kind of stroll around and if you're me you strike up a conversation.

Hi guys, I said, leaning over a table of three young beer drinkers. So, where are you from?

South Africa, they said proudly.

South Africa! I enthused. Wow, that's really far away. I did not say, South Africa: The Land of Apartheid! The land of organized racial discrimination possibly worse than post-slavery USA. I did not mention the nobility of Nelson Mendela or even blink, How COULD you? I do know how to keep my mouth shut. But not for long, as you'll read later.

The South African fellows were big followers of The Bad Plus who have played in many lands, most recently in Moscow, but never Transvaal.

Hey, I said, looking at Ethan, the pianist, at the nearby table. Let me introduce you to Ethan. He's my son-in-law.

So I did and they were thrilled. TBP are known to be very gracious to their fans.

When they were about to begin their second set, I sat next to Guillermo and looked at his big biceps. His long dreadlocks fell below his shoulders. He's an uncommonly handsome man. As the boys filed onstage I whispered "Here we test our powers of observation," quoting the title of one of their tunes & also stating how we were all getting a good look at the boys.

I wished I was sitting next to Sarah so I could smell her perfume and look at her beautiful body and houndstooth checked dress but she wanted to sit near Julie. I didn't feel all that comfortable mumbling little comments into Guillermo's ear so I basically kept my mouth shut. Darn! Saving my comments for later such as: Ethan, when you play it seems like you command your fingers to play, that they seem almost not connected to your mind but possess their own brains. (He liked that comment.)

When they played Song X by Ornette Coleman, who's now 78, I was riveted by Reid's bass playing. I told him, "I felt the sorrow of slavery, and then Dave came in with his drumming and that little toy he shakes and the sound changed from sorrow to surrealism."

Guillermo was dancing to the music with his head. He also cupped his ear to bring the piano sound forward away from the drums. Drummer Dave is a great crowd pleaser. He plays with an ecstatic saint-like grin on his face as if he's seen Christ Almighty descend the grand stairway at the Vanguard and seat himself over by the wall of photos of the greats. Dave is the only non-inscrutable one among them. Ethan keeps a straight face at all times, Reid looks like he's about to burst into tears, but David King is the visible emotion of the group.

We all left the club around 1 in the a.m. Ethan summoned a cab. He sat in the front next to a bullet-proof shield while Sarah and I sat in the back. Behind a bullet-proof shield, of course. One rule I'm obliged to follow when I ride with Sarah & Ethan is Do not talk to the cabdriver. They don't like me to interact with strangers.

On the cab radio was an Arabic-American program about the Israeli attacks in Gaza. They're trying to bomb the hell out of Hamas once and for all. As if it's possible. I checked the name of the cabbie and saw he was an Arab. Ruthie, I said to myself, keep your mouth shut.

But, dear, I said to myself. It's such a long ride to Brooklyn. We'd just driven over the Manhattan Bridge and saw the lights of the city twinkling in the darkness. The waxing gibbous moon shone over the millions in the city.

I leaned forward toward the bullet-proof shield. Where are you from, sir? I asked.

Egypt, he said.

Sarah and Ethan said nothing. I hoped they weren't angry with me. I had violated the rules. I was certain though this would be a fruitful discussion where we would learn some fascinating tidbits about the cabbie as always happens!

He began to blast President-Elect Obama charging that Obama was a Muslim.

I cut in quickly. Obama has never been a Muslim, I said in my firm voice. Never. He's always been a Christian.

I knew it does no good to try to dislodge the firmly held opinion of an ignoramus.

He IS a Muslim, said the driver. I saw it on TV.

You were being lied to, I said. Not everything you hear on television is true.

You're Jewish, aren't you? said the cabbie.

Well, I said, me and Sarah are Jewish, but Ethan's not. Ethan was wearing a new black fedora Sarah bought him for Christmas that made him look like a Hasidic Jew.

Here's where the cabbie began to play his trump card. He asked,

Jews appeared in Egypt in the Old Testament. Who were they?

Steely silence from Sarah and Ethan.

Jews in Egypt? I mumbled. Oh! What's his name. Joseph!

Right, said the cabbie under his breath. WHO ELSE?

Oh god, I thought to myself, there's more? How many friggin Jews werre there in Egypt? I was sitting in the back of the cab with my warmest coat wrapped around me and my newly purchased black beret warming the top of my head. I was looking forward to going home and lying on the air mattress in their middle room and falling asleep to my Clive Cussler thriller Scott lent me.

The last thing I wanted to do was be interrogated in the backseat by an angry Egyptian who had total control of the car.

Give me a hint, I said.

No hints, he said.

Oy veh, I thought. I was under the influence, I must tell you, of a well-made documentary on PBS about the illegal capture and torture of so-called suspicious persons at Guantanemo Bay. A two-hour special, I sat riveted to my television while I watched these horrors perpetrated in living color. Instead of stopping the program, I would change the channel for a few minutes and then return to it.

For two or three days thereafter I had mild PTSD thinking that while I lead my ordinary, devil-may-care existence these men are subjected to unspeakable horrors.

Next day I gave a small donation to some Human Rights Organization asking them to reassure me it goes directly to this cause. The lethargic young man on the phone who had the charm of a stagnant pond perked up a bit when I told him about the TV show that led me to make the donation.

Joshua! I shouted out triumphantly.

Sarah tried to change the subject by saying she'd been to Egypt. The driver didn't care. He wanted to stomp us out with his superior knowledge of the Bible. He was a Christian, he said.

One other time I'd met an asshole like this. I was in Colorado driving with Carolyn and her then husband Bob. The contest Bob proposed was Whoever can read the most street signs wins the game.

I explained to Bob that when I get nervous & try to read street signs, my contact lenses fog up. I was 22 at the time and this was the truth. I lost the game 40 to zero. It wasn't fair. You can't just make up a contest you know you're good at & then challenge the other person.

We're almost there, said Sarah. You can stay on the left. Ethan had his head down and wasn't saying much. Occasionally he'd offer what he thought was a helpful comment. But in actuality there were no helpful comments. This guy was in his glory. We were trapped in his cab.

How many more hours do you have to drive tonite, I asked showing my immense personal concern and humanity for this man.

Seven more hours. My shift just started.

Make a left here, said Sarah.

I love you all, said the cabbie. It's been a pleasure driving you home.

Jesus, I thought to myself as I descended from the cab.

I LOVE YOU ALL, he shouted out the window as we walked up the steps of the Brooklyn brownstone apartment with Christmas trees on the curb for garbage pick-up.