A travel diary, if you will.
Kathy convinces me to accompany her, chumming me with proven bait: “You can eat some great food; you can drink as much as you want, whenever I’m not with you.”
I take the hook.
The result: I find myself an untethered observer at the National Conference of Keyboard Pedagogy, an every-two-year gathering of pianists and piano instructors.
The conference participants are certified dorks, so holding the event in an interesting place is out of the question. The site is a hotel in Lombard, Illinois, a suburb 40 minutes from downtown Chicago, by train. The organizers of the conference use the word “pedagogy” in the event title in order to plaster an intellectual veneer on the proceedings. Dorks like to think they’re smarter than disordered and disheveled folk like me. In truth, they generally are.
I have survived greater challenges, so I am unintimidated. For example, I’ve endured intense assaults at Association of Writers and Writing Programs confabs, where the dork factor is amplified exponentially by the “I’m a creative genius, with postmodern sensibilities” get-ups donned by many of the participants. Piano teachers aren’t compelled by deep insecurities to wear costumes; theirs is a subdued affair.
We schedule our arrival two days prior to the conference, anticipating layovers en route since we fly on United employee family passes, a hit-or-miss situation that transports us in high-altitude steerage. We experience no problems, however, so we have time to kill before the convention begins. You cannot kill time in a pleasurable manner in, or anywhere near, Lombard, Illinois, so trips into the city on the Metra line are in order.
Kathy accompanies me on the first two jaunts. On each occasion, we enjoy “some great food” at the same restaurant, discovered after I misjudge a walk from the Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park to the Museum at the Art Institute of Chicago.
As we lollygag at the pavilion, having by fortune stumbled on to the Grant Orchestra’s free-of-charge rehearsal of Mozart’s Linz Symphony, I announce to strangers seated next to me that I once attended a dinner party with Bill Zahner, whose company fabricates the stainless steel elements for Gehry-designed structures like the Pavilion. I add that my pal, Steve Huey, grilled two butterflied pork loins for the dinner, the meaty wonders stuffed with truffle-perfumed sausage—ingredients obtained during a calorie-rich visit to The Local Pig in Kansas City, one of the great butcher shop/sandwich vendors in the United States, if not the known universe. No one is interested, even when I detail the charcuterie offered for sale at the joint, and describe the porchetta sandwiches Steve and I devoured. I am dismayed: I find few things more interesting than master manipulators of flesh, and their downline creations.
Kathy is obsessed with shorelines so, buttressed by the rationality of the Mozart symphony, I accompany her to the edge of Lake Michigan to observe waves, testosterone-fueled idiots riding jet skis, and birds. When it comes time to stroll to the museum, I take charge. Kathy expresses concern as I assess the terrain and plot our course, but I quickly silence her, reminding her I was once an Eagle Scout.
What should be a three-block journey turns into a monumental trek — at least sixty miles, by my reckoning — south to the Field Museum and back. By the time we return to Millennium Park, Kathy snarls like a wounded Anatolian leopard, makes unduly vicious remarks about my pioneering skills, and wonders aloud if I might be suffering a touch of dementia. My eroded hip generates mind-numbing agony. It is time to sit, eat, and drink.
We have enough energy left to cross Michigan Avenue, where we find The Gage. The restaurant is packed with an upper-echelon management dinner crowd, and we’re seated at a small table next to the bar. The room is noisy, the food fine enough to suggest a return visit. The prime reason to schedule a return: we see the hamburger. Ordinarily, a burger in a quality dining establishment goes hardly noticed, and unwanted. Not so the burger at The Gage.
I’m gnawing on one of five massive bison ribs graced with a balsamic-loaded sauce and cracklings, when I see a masterpiece burger delivered to a fellow sitting at an adjoining table. The recipient looks like a sugar-stoked 5-year-old, as the big gift from grandma arrives at the birthday party.
Kathy is wolfing down an order of fish and chips, and chasing it with ale, when she, too, spies the beef on a bun. Her eyes widen as she locks on to the large cone of double-cooked fries that accompanies the creation.
I snort when she orders fish and chips — a prole favorite located near the top of my list of abhorrent menu items, the worst of the genre once experienced at a shabby outlet near the Portobello Market in London: an unskinned slab of haddock barely touched by heat, the skin on the fish impenetrable, batter a spotty sponge clotted with foul, yellow grease, chips cold and limp, a puddle of ancient mushy peas leaking pale green liquid for extra effect. The fish arrived wrapped in newspaper, the lead-based ink on the broadsheet proven to cause madness in stable Anglican clerics. It put me off, with no amount of alcohol able to buffer my disgust, and colored my opinion of the combo from that point on. The Gage, however, offers a version that proves a restorative exception, the type of fish selected daily according to freshness, a Guinness batter, malt tarter sauce, a couple wedges of lemon on the side, just in case. I sample the fish and fries, and deduce the station cook knows to us well-tempered fryer oil, the hot fat boosted by the faint flavors of a multitude of savory products previously crisped in the basket.
The next day, Metra grind and a visit to the American Writers Museum behind us, an informative architecture-themed trip on a boat on the Chicago River complete, we slump again to The Gage. We were correct in our assessments: the burger merits our return. A brioche bun cradles a thick, gently formed wad of meat, grilled and topped with a slab of melted cheddar, the lot accompanied by sliced ripe tomato and red onion, Bibb lettuce, a Kosher dill spear draped beside the cone of hot fries. My burger is cooked a perfect medium rare. Kathy asks to have her burger incinerated, “very well done.” No animal should die to provide for a well-done burger, steak, or chop, but after decades of effort I have given up on my mate’s conversion. A mid-grade Malbec suits the meat well.
If I lived nearby, I would patronize The Gage on a regular basis. If I had a job, and money.
We lumber from the restaurant and Uber our way to the OTC to catch a train. The driver, Vihaan, is a chatty and frightfully thin fellow originally from Nagpur City, a burg of a mere 4.5 million residents, adjacent to Mumbai.
Vihaan is a member of the Society for Krishna Consciousness, and he is thrilled when I inform him I once visited the cult’s temple on 14th Street in Denver. Devotees offered a free, vegetarian meal at the temple, and I heard that the eggplant curry served on Wednesdays was exceptional. The eggplant was great, but I had to sit through a barely comprehensible, hour-long “join us and experience bliss, or else” pitch prior to lunch. It was worse than a timeshare sales tour in Pondicherry. The naan was some of the best I’ve eaten.
Vihaan allows as how he rises each morning at 4 a.m. in order to get the chants and prayers out of the way. I tell Vihaan that I find the Maha Mantra overly simple. He replies by recounting his pilgrimage to Mount Govardhan, which Krishna is said to have balanced aloft on the tip of a finger. The mountain, says Vihaan, is still there, can you believe it? Yep, I reply, drawing on my rudimentary knowledge of geology, but I add that my attraction to his sect evaporated once bands of adherents could no longer invade airport concourses, there to whirl ecstatically, saffron and scarlet gear aflutter, bludgeoning weary passengers with the 16-word chant hammer while fellow believers pounded out primitive rhythms on small drums and repurposed gallon cans. The two of us agree the TSA has fucked up many things, chanting and whirling among them, and Vihaan gives Kathy a complimentary, four-color Society promotional booklet as we exit the car. She deposits the booklet in a recycling bin at the train station.
The next day, the dorks assemble for piano time, and I make the Metra ride to the city alone, on my way to the Art Institute museum. I happily endure 80 minutes of total track time to enjoy several Vuillards, a prime Bonnard, Beckmann’s great self-portrait, and a couple of Grecos (his grisaille intrigues me). The Renoirs remain weak, even as I age and weaken (most oldsters tape Renoir reproductions to the walls of their rooms at the assisted living center), but Gauguin’s Arlésiennes (Mistral) and Munch’s The Girl by the Window elevate my mood. Two marginal Soutines do nothing to subvert my allegiance. Cezanne’s Basket of Apples, Kandinsky’s Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons), and Matisse’s sublime Bathers by a River rocket me to the aesthetic stratosphere.
My hip sends warning shots floorward, but I continue to the contemporary galleries. A young woman perches on a bench in front of a Warhol self portrait, sketching the piece. I tell her that, should the subject of women’s shoes be off the table, she is a much better draftsman than the dull, Factory Catholic. I am tempted to offer up stories from the days when I played gigs at a club Warhol once operated on the Lower East Side, but the woman is a budding artiste, and I’m loathe to distract her. Lacking money and viable career options, gullibility and sincere intensity are an art student’s only assets.
The weakness in this wing of the museum is the overabundance of Warhol’s watery gruel. I stifle a yawn, and move from the dunce to a decent Twombly and a Marden, then linger in front of a wonderful, late Guston, listening to a fool clad in a University of Wisconsin Badgers football T-shirt tell his wife and kids that “crap” like Guston’s has no place on a museum wall.
I leave the museum and Uber my way to the OTC in the company of my driver, Latronda. I compliment her on her spectacular neck tattoos, and Latronda returns the gesture, noting she doesn’t see many decent Hawaiian shirts these days. I allow as how I purchased my shirt in Lahaina, following a quarter hour of haggling with a mean-spirited Filipino vendor. Latronda nods knowingly.
A television newscast the next evening displays a mug shot of a woman arrested for a series of armed robberies during which she impersonated a ride share driver, pulled to stops in dark alleyways, slid a Glock from beneath her considerable thigh, and relieved terrified passengers of whatever cash and cards they carried. The woman was arrested after what the newsgal calls “a shootout and scuffle” with police. The suspect in the mug shot looks a lot like Latronda. If it’s her, I hope there is someone to care for her five kids. During my ride, she tells me Jesus is always at her shoulder to provide help, but I doubt he was available, given the arrest took place on Friday night, and Shabbos began just before sunset. Plus, there’s no way he’d have the cash to post bond.
The next day, I choose to remain at the hotel to rest my hip, and spend time in the bar preparing notes for essays, a memoir, novellas, novels, short stories, plays, and the like. Failing to complete any work after downing a cocktail or two, I amble down the hallway next to the Westin Lombard’s Grand Ballroom, in which an aged university troll slumps over a lectern, boring several hundred piano teachers with tidbits about Van Cliburn.
Most members of the audience are in for a shock, cloistered as piano teachers tend to be. At the end of his seemingly endless monotone ramble, the academic drone will perk up and suggest that the Texas key tickler was not only a fan of pharmaceuticals, but gay, as well. It will ruin the day for many of those in attendance, perhaps taint the entire conference for the Baptists in the crowd.
It would have no effect on me. I learned long ago as part of an ongoing study of the seamy aspects of celebrity lives that Harvey Lavan was frequently trashed on painkillers, and spent a considerable amount of time banging a handsome mortician. I treasure delicious facts and/or rumors about the rich and/or famous.
As I wander, I come upon a small room with a grand piano placed at one end, a row of chairs extending from near the instrument to the back of the space. I have no conference pass, complete with nametag and gaudy lanyard, so I am not welcome to enter, but I don’t care, I’m going in. Kathy lured me to this miserable suburb and left me to shift for myself, so I’ll do what I want. Moreover, there’s no one in this crowd of nerds with the muscle needed to eject me. In the time it takes for local police to respond, I can flee to my room on the 13th floor, and hide in the closet.
A few people mill about as I enter the room, and I collapse in a chair, my hip (injured more than five decades ago by a brutal defenseman from Michigan) firing pain bolts down my femur. Since I skipped a day of shuffling through galleries in Chicago, and avoided the certain rage that would ensue, why not get a taste of what folks at this event experience? I’m a writer, and I’m told that writers need to experience things.
Being a fan of accident as well, one who eagerly awaits its surprises, I’m thrilled as chance delivers a miracle.
A tall and spindly fellow crowned with bowl-cut black hair is escorted into the room by his handlers.
A guy in a suit introduces the kid, but not before he introduces himself, and makes it clear he, and he alone, is responsible for the best presentations at the conference. He three times reminds me that he is professor emeritus of tonal wizardry at what is either a conservatory or a community college in New Jersey, then he intros the headliner. There are several wet spots at the front of the prof’s trousers. I estimate he is at least 70 years old, so his prostate must be the size of a cantaloupe. If that’s the case, he can stand at the urinal and shake his dick for an hour without fully clearing the system. Gravity will finish the job, later, in front of an audience.
The headliner will remain unidentified here, out of fear of legal retaliation. I will refer to him as Lad 1. He is a onetime whiz kid, featured on national news programs, playing Beethoven at age 5, now a noted concert pianist and composer, renowned for his ability to improvise, 28 years old and clawing his way up the final incline to mastery, money, and a place in the pantheon.
According to a conference handout, Lad 1 has been hailed as “among the finest musicians of his generation” (Washington Post) with “jaw-dropping technique and virtuosity meshed with a distinctive musicality throughout,” (New York Times). A graduate of Harvard College, the New England Conservatory, and the Juilliard School, Lad 1 tours regularly, home and abroad, and performs with numerous, gee-whiz luminaries and orchestras.
Using these clues, anyone who employs a smidge of investigative skill can easily discover the kid’s identity.
In accord with his bio, Lad 1 is a superdork — commanding the adoration of the hundreds of dork serfs who’ve traveled to Illinois to encounter the latest in piano “pedagogy.” My wife, a professional pianist, piano teacher, and card-carrying dork, loves the word “pedagogy.” She and many others at the gathering take great delight in often, and loudly, noting how few of the uninitiated know what the word means. I Google the definition before I leave Siberia With a View, to be ready should someone challenge me.
Lad 1 stands next to the piano and explains what is ahead. It is obvious he is incredibly intelligent and articulate. It is also obvious he is deeply neurotic, with the social skills of a child. He makes this clear when he compares his much-touted improvisational method to constructing little houses with Legos.
According to Dr. Dribble, the session will deal with the intersection of classical and improvisational modes, touching on ways to encourage improvisation in young students of piano. The plan goes off the tracks immediately when Lad 1 notifies the twenty or so folks in the room that he is “basically, just going to play” for 90 minutes or so.
As he lowers himself to the bench, the lanky goof turns and announces he will perform “a lot of” Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, op. 24.
In a matter of two minutes, my mouth hangs open, my mind is clear of clutter.
This dork is possessed by genius. Prior to the first note, I’m thinking about a porn video I watched that features a swarm of diminutive circus performers and three middle-aged German housewives, and suddenly I’m rushed from the recollection by incredible sounds —an emotional puppet, with Lad 1 pulling my strings. No video featuring sagging hausfraus and small folks wearing clown shoes could resist this erasure! Not usually, anyway.
The kid is amazing; he plays with eyes closed, ectomorph’s frame bending and swaying with the flow of the piece. When he finishes, and the applause ceases, he turns, smiles, and says, “I like that.”
The first notion that seeps from my brain goo: I suspect I was dropped on my head as a baby. This idea dovetails neatly with speculation concerning the damage done to my frontal lobe when Danny Freeman clobbered me with a baseball bat as we played in his parents’ yard. Following that developmental turn, my “musical training” involved drums, and my talent peaked as I percussed a set of red sparkle Ludwigs on a stage at a club on St. Mark’s Place, Manhattan, June 20, 1967. Two days later, the locks were changed on the door to my lodgings, brutal capitalists confiscated the drums in order to cover past-due rent, and my career was complete.
Lad 1, on the other hand, accomplished great things as a child, performing with orchestras when he was eight.
Why him, and not me?
Did his parents strap a shock collar around his infant neck and periodically juice him, forcing the tot to play into the early morning hours, until his fragile fingertips bled? My mom and dad encouraged me to practice my slap shot on the backyard patio at 10 p.m., in sub-zero temperatures. This could be significant.
Perhaps his tyrannical parents employed technologically enhanced negative reinforcement to spur Lad 1 to mastery or, maybe, he emerged from a stressed birth canal delivered as an unusually well fashioned genetic package. Or both. Whatever the case, his nature/nurture journey resulted in far greater expertise and success than did mine.
As he performs, I study this youngster with the intensity of an extraterrestrial scientist examining an abducted Iowa farm wife as she lies splayed on the exam table in the Mother Ship, her ports readied for the probe.
Piano players have long intrigued me, in particular the rare musicians of Lad 1’s caliber. Not only are ten fingers and a foot simultaneously doing different things, but these bozos have the scores memorized — some of the scores more than a page in length! They do this, and I can’t remember my phone number. Danny dented my right temple with his bat, and I’m convinced that part of my skull is directly adjacent to the area of the brain in which phone numbers and complex musical scores are stored. The explanation is good enough for me.
As Lad 1 announces his next selection, I wonder if the kid has ever had sexual relations with another human being. I’m sure he blows loads on his own whenever he tires of Legos, perhaps thrice nightly at his age, but has he exchanged bodily fluids with another person? I also wonder if he ever staggered down a sidewalk, near blind and, addled by a bourbon and amphetamine overload, stopped to barf through the open window of a parked Honda? Has he been in a brawl, the kind in which hyper-aggressive brutes batter and bite indiscriminately until the police and EMTs arrive? Has he awakened next to a bi-polar divorcee in a singlewide in Barstow, California, as she repeatedly screams the name “Eddie” and attempts to set fire to the mattress with a butane brulee torch?
No, probably not. He likely returns to a hotel room after a concert, puts on his shock collar, and practices until 3 a.m
Next, Lad 1 makes me weep as he plays a short piece, a Chopin etude – the “Aeolian Harp” — Étude Op. 25, No. 1. It was one of my maternal grandmother’s favorites and, as Lad 1 plays, I recall sitting as a boy in the front room of my grandmother’s house in Central City, spinning an empty Beefeater bottle on the carpet, listening to a scratchy recording of the etude as I gaze out the front window at the sparsely populated town below and the desolate mine-scarred mountainside across the narrow valley, catching the scent of a batch of potato cookies with currants my Aunt Hazel pulls from the oven.
I surrender damply to sentiment as Chopin tugs me through the archives in my Pastovault.
Lad 1 turns to introduce his next selection, and I wonder about his relationship to food. The boy is perilously thin, a trait I find suspicious in anyone not suffering a wasting disease or extreme deprivation (see Vihaan, above). As far as I’m concerned, a cool relationship to food and drink is an aberration equal to evangelical fervor or service on the local Republican Central Committee.
Would this kid suck béarnaise through a straw, slather it on a savory waffle? Would he order a second bowl of menudo to counter the ferocious hangover that follows in the wake of five gin rickeys and two bottles of Sang de Cailloux? Has he had a ferocious hangover? Does a superdork ever drink enough to find himself tumbling into an abyss as he rolls from his undulating bed with a headache that mimics meningitis, and a mouth that tastes and feels like a platoon of Russian Army conscripts bunked there overnight? Would he boil a pig’s head in the backyard, or demand a third helping of sweetbreads vol-au-vent? Has he ever downed several major pours of Vieux Télégraphe and experienced a pleasure known to few mortals?
No, probably not.
Lad 1 chatters on, and mentions Kapustin. I recognize the name, but know nothing of the man’s music. Lad 1 notes that Nicolai Kapustin is a Russian composer, providing said information because he rightly assumes there are idiots lurking nearby. He informs me that Kapustin is “no typical Russian composer” — certainly no Hulak-Artimovsky — and says his mentor at Juilliard urged him to work up Kapustin’s Variations, op. 41, in order to avoid becoming tangled in tradition. That admonition soon makes sense.
He plays. It ain’t “Russian,” and it ain’t traditional, rather it is a stunning amalgam of jazz-like riffs, rigged on a classical superstructure, complex, wild, intense, delightful, smart.
The piece over, I feel as if Lad 1 has beaten me with a ball peen hammer, or like Dr. Dribble no doubt feels after a 30-minute struggle in the men’s room
The kid applies a coup de grace with the Volodos transcription of Mozart’s Turkish March.
By the end of the performance, Lad 1 has birthed a flock of avid groupies, led by the prof and several matrons, the skin at the women’s clavicles flushed a mottled, deep red, much like that of the Germans in the video. I consider waiting my turn to speak to the star in order to ask him several of the above-mentioned questions, but I decide to move on.
I retreat to my hotel room and watch an episode of Cops (Bad Girls, Part 2) in an attempt to return to a flat-line condition, but I am still excited an hour later as I regale Kathy with the details of my experience. She is perturbed; she opted to endure the Van Cliburn sleepover, then took extensive notes on her iPad at a session concerning effective management of young piano students with mild cases of Asperger’s.
“After all, you might have to deal with one of these kids. There’s plenty of them out there, and more all the time, what with all the pollutants in the air and drinking water. That reminds me: I need to buy a new filter cartridge for the Brita pitcher.”
I blabber through dinner at a mediocre Italian restaurant located near the hotel. Common red sauce, a five-inch diameter meatball, and clam-flavored greasy breadcrumbs fail to dampen my enthusiasm.
The food-as-fuel interlude affords me a chance to turn to my particular, and some would say peculiar, auspicia — an array of signs that allows me to discern the will of the gods. In this case, I examine the entrails of the meatball, and notify Kathy that, dismayed though she is, things will soon turn to the better for her, and for me.
And turn they do, as musical wonder is jacked to the max.
The jacking is the work of another young superdork, this one 23 years old. He will remain unidentified here, out of fear of legal blowback. I will refer to him as Lad 2.
Lad 2 is the featured performer at the big event that caps the convention, the winner of the 2017 American Pianists Awards, and a prizewinner in the Leeds International Piano Competition. He’s performed solo and concert recitals in Europe and the United States, won prizes in the Hilton Head International Piano Competition, Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin Competition, and the New York Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition.
He, like Lad 1, graduated from Harvard, in his case at 19, which means he first enrolled at Harvard at 15, the same age at which I became a hero to members of my peer group by chugging an entire bottle of crème de menthe.
So, what’s he got on me?
As I watch Lad 2 mount the stage, turn to the large audience, and execute a stiff bow, I realize the fundamental difference between me and him, as between me and Lad 1, is the radically different character of our educations. These people leave an Ivy League school with a degree, enroll at Juilliard, and successfully complete conservatory courses that result in perfected and productive dorkiness! I spend years pretending to read Ulysses and Being and Nothingness, lingering stupefied over a description of a frying kidney and an incomprehensible explanation of the en soi, while guys like Lads 1 and 2 are acquiring profound skills. Their personae are carefully fashioned in temples of higher learning; mine is casually assembled on hockey rinks, and in dank nightclubs. Also, Lads 1 and 2 don’t suffer from ADD. As students, they concentrated for long periods of time, memorizing the works of the masters. I watched cats fuck in the schoolyard outside the classroom window, repeatedly dropped my pencil in order to peek up Judy Beasley’s dress, and plotted ways to get to the front of the lunch line.
Lad 2 begins with J.S. Bach’s Toccata in F# Minor and, for a second time in the day, my mouth falls open, my brain is wiped clear.
He segues to Chopin’s Three Waltzes op. 34, then to the Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, op. 52. He stands, and bows, an odd smile on his face, then leaves the stage. I wonder if he has a mild touch of Asperger’s, like the polluted urchins Kathy expects to turn up for lessons? I know there is no chance in his case that an exchange of fluids has occurred with another member of the species but, at least, he does not appear to have an eating disorder. I picture him tying into a Porterhouse, then taking the leftovers home to mom and dad’s house. I doubt, on the other hand, he ever shoveled Peruvian flake from a Mason jar with a teaspoon and shared the fun with a large Navajo woman, nude but for a pair of mismatched cowboy boots. Given the opportunity, I would tell him this is well worth the effort, at least once.
But, wait, there’s a second half to the recital.
It begins with the entrance, the bow, the smile. Lad 2 then does an interesting thing before he begins to play: his eyes close, his right hand extends slowly to the keyboard, and the tips of his fingers move back along the keys in what is clearly a pensive, erotic caress. Or, as close to an erotic gesture as a superdork can manage. Seeing this, I think highly of the guy. If you can’t use a finger to trace the soft course of the hamstring in a woman’s thigh, a piano key is a commendable target.
He begins with a stunning departure from the program featured in the first part of the recital as he performs Elliot Carter’s Piano Sonata, Maestoso, and Andante. The work buffets a listener with atonality, disconnections and power, abruptly offering up confusing, tender, somewhat remorseful interludes. Emotional highs and lows follow in a dizzying succession of rhythmic transitions, on and on.
The piano teachers in the crowd begin to fidget, the tonal comforts they cherish ignored, battered by this contemporary onslaught. I don’t fidget and bruise, I vibrate harmoniously.
There is a brief silence at the end of the Carter piece, prompted by pervasive unease, and the fact few people in the audience know the performance has ended until the pianist finally relaxes, and sits back, his eyes open. As polite dorks do, the piano teachers applaud. I’m tempted to leap to my feet and shout bravos at the top of my lungs, but I’m suffering a cramp in the arch of my left foot thanks to the diuretic effects of alcohol.
Two magnificent pieces by Liszt follow the jangle and disconnections: La leggierzza from Three Concert Etudes, S.144, no. 2 (I have no idea what the abbreviations and numbers mean, but, in noting them here, I hope to appear enlightened) and the Transcendental Etude No. 4 in D Minor “Mazeppa,” S.139/4 (more abbreviations and numbers). I discern echoes of Lizst in Carter’s music, a foreshadowing by the Romantic heartthrob, the ghost of an instructive ancestor. Then again, I’ve flirted with drugs and alcohol for decades, and there was that episode featuring the baseball bat.
Lad 2 massages an agitated audience with an encore featuring a gentle, superficial offering — Gershwin — before a final stiff bow, wooden smile, and exit stage right. I wonder if he will dash to the hotel penthouse to join Lad I for a rousing Lego marathon, and a glass or two of Sprite?
In one day’s time, after skipping a trip on a commuter train, I ascend to the pristine pinnacle of Nerd Mountain, and experience joy. Krishna’s fingertip is nowhere to be found.
There is one task left, with a final day remaining before our journey back to Siberia With a View: hop the train into Chicago, eat and drink.
It is Saturday, the Metra schedule abbreviated, the train cars packed full. I hear six languages spoken as the train rolls to the city, phones ring, teens squeal, I imagine I am sophisticated, Kathy is annoyed by the racket.
A thought occurs an hour into a search for a restaurant: Who is the halfwit who first called a sandwich a “Sammie?” This moron must be identified, hunted down, and executed.
A Sammie? Someone thinks this is cute, or clever? Alas, quite a few pinheads seem to — many of them restaurant owners enamored of cosplay, televised cooking contests and craft cocktails, all of them sporting suspenders and hipster beards (males and females alike).
I refuse to patronize a restaurant that uses the term “Sammie” in place of “sandwich.” It was the Earl of Sandwich, not the Earl of Sammie! The sandwich was not created for a toddler clad in drool-crusted pajamas, it was made for a debauched nobleman who gambled and drank heavily, and had but one hand free when he was not fondling himself during a win streak. Call his favorite snack a “sammie” and the good Earl skewers you with his rapier.
I am reminded of my revulsion as Kathy and I read a menu posted outside a restaurant located on Illinois Street. Things look inviting, until I collide with that word: Sammie.
“Oooh,” says Kathy, pointing at the menu, “this place looks good. We’ve been searching for a place to eat for an hour, my feet hurt, and I’m starving. That caramel corn I bought at the train station didn’t do the trick.”
“Well, sister,” I reply, “tighten your shoelaces, and stiffen your upper lip, because there’s no way in hell I’m crossing this threshold.”
“Why? Look, they have fish and chips.”
“Sammie. Let’s move on.”
It’s a good thing we do. We make it to Michigan Avenue, and there it is: The Purple Pig. A subheading on the menu says it all: “Cheese, Swine and Wine.”
Not a sammie in the mix.
This is one of those small-plate palaces to which you can return ten, fifteen times, and never have the same meal, never put together the same combination. The food is made for sharing, and share we do.
The staff serves each of us a hit of Grenacha as we sit in chairs on the veranda waiting for a table, listening to fire trucks with sirens and horns blaring as they motor up Michigan Avenue to a blaze or medical emergency. Considering what we’re about to eat, it’s good to know skilled responders and defibrillators are close at hand.
The Pig is packed, the din at the max, the situation near perfect. We order one selection at a time, and the food arrives hot, when need be. Chubby torpedo jambon croquettes, the cheesy, hammy interiors runny, exteriors crisp, with saffron and red pepper aioli, pickled spring onions and fermented tomatoes. Grilled artichoke hearts with cucumber, mixed greens, and lime/caper vinaigrette. Chorizo stuffed olives, breaded and fried, matched with roasted garlic and Greek yogurt. Chicken thigh kebobs with tzaziki, and fried, smashed potatoes. And more Grenacha, of course. To end the evening on a light note: panna cotta — caramelized white chocolate, with a mango sphere and macadamia nuts.
It’s a fine way to bid farewell to Chicago.
We jump the Metra to the Lombard station, then hook a shuttle to our hotel. Most of the dorks have departed, and the few who remain linger in the lobby, toting luggage, ready to leave. No music is heard in the lobby and hallways. The curtain has fallen, the Legos are stowed.
As we jet to Denver, a pinhead about my age sits directly behind me, his dome topped with a “Make America Great Again” ball cap. He wears a large, aluminum cross on a chain draped around his wrinkled neck, and holds a battered shoebox on his lap. Shortly after takeoff, he embarks on an hour-long rant about “the liberals” who have destroyed our once proud and beautiful nation, and informs his shell-shocked seatmates that the only solution is to look to a super hero from his home state of Alaska: Sarah Palin.
I start to unfasten my seat belt, despite a warning from the pilot concerning severe turbulence, ready to jump up and unleash a torrent of obscenities on the feeble fuck behind me. I figure I’ll follow my tirade with the details of my fantasy involving Sarah Palin, a damp crawlspace, a 4×8 sheet of marine plywood, several rolls of duct tape, and heated pliers. Kathy grabs my hand as I fumble with the belt, shakes her head, furrows her brow, and silently, dramatically mouths, “Noooo. Pleeeeze, nooooo.”
The demented septuagenarian exhausts his store of Palin blather and, thumping the shoebox, informs no one in particular, but everyone in the first half of the economy section, that he’s attended the “world master modeler convention and expo,” and has won the award for “scratch-made, camo Humvee” for a third year in a row. He then expresses untempered disgust with the fact that “Model of the Year” went to a 1/10th-scale replica of a Morgan 3-Wheeler created by “some goddamned Arab.” At this point, he begins to cough violently, wheeze, and groan. I mentally review my CPR training, preparing for action, but reconsider: If everything is as awful as he claims, death is his best option.
It seems, though, that new adventures await. I’m a writer, and I’m told writers crave adventure.
When I return home, I discover on the Internet that the next modeler’s convention and expo is set for Enid, Oklahoma. Trip Adviser indicates a superb chicken fried steak is on the menu at the Grand Avenue Café, an establishment within walking distance of the Enid Event Center and Convention Hall. Chicken fried steak, avec cream gravy, is far from haute cuisine, but when prepared well, and eaten in the company of a flood of Cholula hot sauce, it can be a gem. In particular if the restaurant features a well-stocked bar.
I’ll check airline schedules and hotel options come the first of the year.
And chum Kathy with the promise of fish and chips.