The shoulders and arms move, the butts are immobile; no quivers shiver from mid-spines earthward.
I hear Rimsky-Korsakov’s Overture to May Night, and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, with pianist Helene Grimaud; after an intermission, I listen to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64, performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
And I watch butts.
I have no idea what the numbers and letters in the title of the final work in the program mean, other than 5 seems to indicate it’s the fifth symphony Pyotr wrote.
I do know, from years as a newspaper hack, with considerable time spent in police stations and courtrooms, that “minor” is a term often associated with trouble. I read on the Internet that a surprising number of Russians, especially those named Pyotr, regularly find themselves in trouble involving minors. I also read on the Internet that alcohol and drug use lead inexorably to confusion and mental decline. Some things you read on the Internet are to be believed, others are not.
Where was I?
Oh, yeah. So, I conclude I am listening to a symphony composed by a Russian who experienced difficulties involving an underage person (male, female, both, who knows?), and I’m waiting for a butt to move, any one in an array of butts.
I’m seated in the fourth row in the Gerald Ford Amphitheater in Vail, Colorado, with Kathy, and grandson Banzai. At first mention, this might seem a great spot from which to enjoy a concert.
Not in the sense that “great” means that a spectator sees the entire orchestra, and is exposed to its full sound.
Our fourth row is, for all intents and purposes, located behind the orchestra.
Kathy purchased the tickets online. “Wow, did I get a bargain!”
Yes, you did.
The moving shoulders and motionless butts are in front of, and just above us. We sit directly behind the cello section. If I look to the right of the unmoving butts in the cello section, I see the faces and full figures of three trombone players, the two guys standing in the last row of bass players, and the grizzled, OCD-plagued percussionists who complete their infrequent but essential duties at the rear of the stage.
These few musicians consigned to the aft section of the orchestra are unsmiling, ancient relics, no doubt once among the best at what they do, each now wearing an ill-fitting white orchestra jacket, and looking like he needs a double bourbon, a friend, and/or a service animal.
The sounds plucked and bowed by the bassists, every crash of a cymbal, each tap of a triangle, the occasional blows to the tympani — all these I hear, clearly.
The rest of the orchestra — the violin section, the violas, the first three rows of cellists, the woodwinds?
Not so much.
When all is done, Banzai stands, applauds wildly, and claims it is the best concert yet. We carted him to Vail’s Bravo Festival the previous two seasons, and heard works performed by the New York Philharmonic, and by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields — both events enjoyed from more expensive roosts in the amphitheater. Bonz, however, judges this concert, experienced from behind the orchestra, to be tops thus far, his opinion boosted by two trips to the refreshment stand, and massive infusions of high fructose corn syrup.
I spot one violinist across the stage during the performance of Pyotr’s 5, her face and shoulders visible through an opening between the backs of two cellists. She is transported by the music, prompted by the passion of the piece (and there’s plenty of that, since it was composed by a Russian who had an ill-advised run-in with a minor). The sight of this violinist, rendered oblivious to any sonic shortcomings, captures me; I cease to fret about what I am missing. The woman’s total absorption, her swaying upper body, her close-eyed connection to the work, compensate for absent texture and timbre. I wonder if she lubricates as she plays, if she’s divorced, lives with two cats (Cuddles and Peekaboo?) in a one-bedroom condo in the Dallas suburbs, and satisfies herself as she reclines alone in a dark bedroom, her favorite work by Satie playing on her iPod.
And, I watch the butts of the cellists, two of which would be worthy of close examination, were the opportunity to arrive.
They don’t move. I know they can, but they don’t.
Better than the music, however, is the crowd.
Most of our fellow concertgoers are confident assholes, their qualities amplified by loads of money. This is Vail, and it affords me an opportunity to spout off as an enraged member of the underclass, a fair weather revolutionary who spends most of his waking hours secluded in a basement in Siberia with a View. I flare when exposed to people who take wealth and good fortune for granted, and posture while doing so. I’m pretentious in my own way, and unafraid to be so.
To sum up, I quote Dorothy Parker: “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”
Bonz and I sit on the edge of a rock planter during intermission, prior to Pyotr … and we look.
“Watch the people who walk past,” I say. “Tell me what you notice.”
“A lot of them are old, like you,” he replies.
“True, but check closer. Begin with the men’s shoes.”
He considers footwear for a minute or so.
“A lot of the shoes are shiny and new,” he reports, “and have doodads on them.”
“Yep, doodads — straps, buckles, little fringy, floppy things. Expensive dress loafers usually have snazzy buckles or tassels attached. Doodads function for elderly members of the privileged class much as garish tattoos do for millennials.”
“Why would you put those things on your shoes?,” he asks.
“Because poor people can’t.”
“Some of the guys wear boat shoes.” I say. “They’re the fellows who can still bend over and tie their shoes. And, when the guy is super old…”
“Older yet, lad. When a guy is really old, he’ll own footwear that fastens with Velcro. He’ll make a point of noting that Prince Phillip wears the same brand and style of shoe (with special sole, so as not to raise an undue ruckus in the palace hallway), and that a pair costs nine-hundred dollars at a shop on Savile Row.”
“There’s a lot of old men here with sweaters tied around their necks.”
“Well observed, Bonz: the cashmere drape of honor, sleeves knotted boldly at the clavicle, probably tied by Ximena the cleaning lady. In the case of a whimsical wearer, the sweater might accompany a snappy bow tie or, in extreme instances of studied eccentricity, something resembling an ascot.”
“I see a lot of men with fancy jackets,” notes Bonz. “Not like you, with your high school wrestling shirt. Bubbe says you never wash that shirt.”
“Indeed I don’t — it would be like botching the restoration of a Bronzino.”
In order to refocus our study, I make a sweeping gesture toward the swarm of 1-percenters. “I’ve noticed a couple Attolinis here and there tonight — usually on the oldest guys — a surprising number of Kitons, the requisite number of Armanis.”
“Do you have a coat like those?”
“Kind of,” I reply. “Got a jacket while waiting for your grandmother at Nordstrom Rack — seventy-percent off regular price. Nothing top-of-the-line, mind you: J.crew linen for a fat guy. It envelops, then visually distributes my considerable bulk. I wear it to funerals.”
“Do these people have a lot of money?”
“Compared to me, for example? Yes, they do. Not as much as folks who can afford to buy a place in Aspen, but enough to impress the proles, and secure a reservation when necessary.”
“How come you never made a lot of money?”
“Several reasons,” I say. “I didn’t inherit a lot of money to start with, like so many ‘successful’ people do, and what I did inherit I squandered on things we’ll discuss once you have a driver’s license. Second, and early on, I chose to be a writer and an artist, and that’ll knock you out of the running for sure. Third, I got booted out of prep school. Had I played the game, sucked it up and stuck it out, made friends of the insipid drones in my class, I’d be a retired Goldman Sachs VP, here tonight without you, wearing topsiders and a Boglioli jacket, sipping warm Grüner Veltliner from a plastic cup, and watching my much younger mate cozy up to one of the college boys who monitor the recycling bins.
“That reminds me: I need to scan the crowd to see if I recognize any of these reprehensible coots; I might have sat at a desk next to one of them fifty-five years ago, while I flunked physics and refused to tie a full Windsor. My bet is that a sizable number of these pricks had salaries three or four hundred times those of regular employees of the corporation, were awarded bonuses at banks and investment firms, or floated to earth here in Vail on golden parachutes. They bought their extravagant Vail residences with money pinched from the pockets of working people, and all they fucking care about is not shelling out so the children of the illegal immigrants who clean the mansions and hotel rooms can have better schools. That, and they care about a successful fight against inheritance taxes, so they can ensure their kids are ‘successful’ as well.”
We continue to examine the entitled clods who wobble past.
“Now,” I say, “every time I spot one of the types of feeb I went to school with, I’m going to squeeze your knee as they walk by. When I do, examine the bozos closely and, when the concert’s over, we’ll come back to this planter, sit down, and I’ll administer a test. Incidentally, when I squeeze your knee, the person who’s walking past is probably named Chats, Bentley, Binks, Andrews, Cecily, or Bitsy.”
By the time we return to our seats behind the orchestra, Banzai’s knee is bruised.
Post Pyotr, we take to our perches on the planter, and scope the departing, affluent music lovers.
“Here’s your test,” I tell Bonz. “Squeeze my knee each time you spot a geek.”
He squeezes me ten or so times per minute, and he’s on the money with each squeeze.
“A lot of the old ladies look weird,” he says. “Their faces look really strange — like plastic, or a face in a cartoon.”
“Waterloo teeth,” I reply.
“The contemporary version of Waterloo teeth: changes made to an advantaged structure, at someone else’s expense.”
“The overindulged twits with the bizarre faces…they’ve had face lifts and they’ve undergone other drastic cosmetic procedures. The surgeries and whatnot transform these gals into odd-looking creatures, but their desperation and capacity for delusion are such that they think they look great. I’ve seen some of them sporting lips like a baboon’s ass, their faces looking like they stood in the jet blast of an F-18 with its afterburner lit. They’re convinced they look like Elizabeth Taylor.”
“They let doctors cut up their faces?”
“Yep. That’s money for you: if you can pay, they’ll slice.
“Plus, these women let doctors and nail salon employees shoot shit into their cheeks and lips. I hear from reliable sources that the material is removed with powerful vacuum pump syringes from the abdomens of incapacitated Bulgarian orphans who have been force-fed enormous amounts of butter and unpasteurized cheeses, as well as a mind-boggling number of polymers delivered in the guise of cheap candies.”
“But, they look weird,” says Bonz, employing his baby-tastes-vinegar-for-the-first-time expression for emphasis. “Why doesn’t anybody tell them?”
“Anyone they ask tells them they look wonderful, because they purchase the opinions; slip enough cash into someone’s wallet, give them gifts, take them to lunch, make a big show of liking someone you would otherwise ignore, and they’ll tell you what you want to hear. As for the husbands: they’ll say anything, so long as they get to spend fifteen minutes with their mistresses after the Cialis kicks in, and are able to play golf five days a week, where they fake their scores. They cheat at sport, they take pharma shortcuts and cheat with their boners. In fact, most of them cheat in order to make the money that finances their wife’s face mangling, and to rent the pied-a-terre for assignations.”
“I’ll explain it once you’re old enough to get your driver’s license.”
“But, you said something about their teeth.”
“Oh, yeah, Waterloo teeth. All this aesthetic modification reminds me of Waterloo teeth. There’s no need for the actual things these days, what with implants, veneers, and whatever other hyper-expensive, mouth-centered moneymakers the dentists invent in order to milk their patients. ”
“No need for dead people’s teeth, repurposed as dentures,” I say. “Teeth, from the Battle of Waterloo. I doubt you’ll learn about the Battle of Waterloo in your history classes at school, since attention to such a matter is deemed unacceptably Eurocentric these days. There’s a chance it’s still mentioned in high school classes in Texas, what with the outdated texts, and the absence of a call to discuss gays, or people of color, but here in Colorado you won’t get much beyond the gross injustices of colonialism and a brief mention of two world wars before it’s time to take a month’s worth of standardized exams. There’ll be no Waterloo for you.”
“Loo. Anytime you have a ‘loo’ at the end of a name, it’s some place in Belgium or Holland. People call this the “Low Country.” It’s land that will be underwater by the time you start shaving, due to the global warming Republicans blame on body heat produced by poor people having too much sex. Any time ‘loo’ is used as a noun, it’s a Eurocentric term for toilet; so if you go to college, never use the word. On the rare occasion you hear someone say ‘loo’ with no reference to a place or thing, you’re dealing with a junkie, or a theater major. I recommend you avoid both. This loo — Waterloo —is a place in Belgium where a big battle was fought.”
“What does that have to do with teeth?”
“At the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815, a bunch of countries attempting to boost their economies sent troops to fight Napoleon’s French army and, by battle’s end, there were nearly 50,000 dead and wounded. In the dark of night, amidst the carnage, oblivious to the suffering of soldiers gravely wounded but alive, ghouls took to the field to rob the dead and dying of valuables, to steal weapons, and to use homemade pliers to remove the front teeth of the victims, for sale to denture makers.
“Waterloo teeth, as the dentures were known, went into the mouths of the members of the privileged class – vain dipshits who read about the battle from afar while they destroyed their central incisors with sweets, sold war goods, and puffed out their chests in theatrical displays of fake patriotism— a cheap puffery practiced to this day by oligarchs and other profiteers who thrive on the misery and death of others, as well as by the lower-class dimwits they dupe with simplistic nationalist propaganda, cynical declarations of solidarity, and promises of gain and security that never materialize.
“There were so many teeth ripped from jaws and sold after that battle that a glut of dentures resulted, and it persisted: there were teeth on the market for at least a decade.”
“Yep, just like all the surplus Bulgarian orphan goo that’s packed in jars, stored on a doctor’s shelf, or kept in the mini fridge at a nail salon. Back then, once the rich people got their new teeth, there was no one left to buy the surplus. The rich people with new choppers had all the money, and the poor people remained toothless, sucking on damp, week-old, maggot- and mold-infested bread for sustenance. Teeth were available, the cash wasn’t. Just like now: rich people can afford to purchase a new face, with puffy lips reinflated every six months or so, courtesy little Nikolaj, in Plovdiv. Poor people — and, believe me, that’s nearly everyone you know — avoid their mirrors once gravity begins to take its toll, and eat soft, body-temp foods as dental decay becomes the order of the day.”
“Talking about teeth and kids who eat cheese and candy makes me hungry,” says Bonz.
“Sugar buzz wearing off?”
“Yeah. What are we gonna have for dinner?”
“Well, we can trail behind some of these indulged fuckwads as they stroll unsteadily back to the center of the village, teetering toward a restaurant for a late supper. Of course, we’ll have to stand outside the restaurant, look through the window, and watch them eat, since there’s no way I can come up with the money needed to patronize the place.”
“You have a credit card, don’t you?”
“Yeah, but I got an e-mail from the bank yesterday. I didn’t read the entire message, but I think it was some sort of warning.
“I’m pretty sure the retired president of the bank just passed us on his way to a restaurant — the guy with tassels and the royal purple cashmere sweater, followed by the wife with her plastic face and college boy toy. The old man will shuffle home once he’s drained a glass of Barolo. Bitsy and young Tad will make sure the geezer takes his blood thinners, then tuck him in before they scoot down to the rec room, where they’ll knock back a major load of certified shard Molly, manufactured by a cult-hero Hasidic chemist in Philadelphia. Once the lovebirds are blitzed and suffused with the warm glow of love, Bitsy’ll coerce Tad into wearing a Marine dress uniform, sans zipper; she’ll tune to the Marvin Gaye playlist on Spotify, plug in the Sybian with the Johnny Wadd attachment and patented fluid-proof coverlet, dial it to the Max setting, and … well, I’ll fill in the details when you get your driver’s license.
“Right now, it’s enough to know that injections of Bulgarian kiddie goo do not arrive absent profound, and sometimes lurid side effects.”
“Oh, look, here comes your grandmother…finally. Boy, the line at a women’s restroom moves slowly, doesn’t it? And slower yet in a place like Vail, where a lot of gals are wolfing down diuretics by the pound.”
As we stroll back to the village, Bonz furrows his brow and asks, “Are all rich people bad?”
“Of course they’re not,” says Kathy, glaring at me.
“That’s true,” I say. “Not all of them, for sure — just most of them. Too many don’t ask themselves, ‘When is enough, enough? When do I own enough houses and condos and cars? When do I take enough ski vacations, enough trips to Ibiza? When do I give up trying to get more and more and more? How much lobster and caviar and Cristal are too much lobster and caviar and Cristal? Do I really need to book first class passage to Copenhagen so I can eat at Noma, when I can order out for lukewarm Hunan beef instead? Should I help people? When should I help other people? How can I help people?’ A few ask, most don’t. It’s too comfy being a rich, parsimonious moron, now that one of the most rabid members of the club has been elected president.”
Bonz pulls to a stop at one of the shaded spots that overlook the creek, and he ponders as he watches the water. A Starbucks cup floats by.
After a minute or two, he declares, “I think I want to be rich. If I’m a famous professional soccer player, I’ll make a lot of money, like Ronaldo or Messi. Then, I’ll be rich enough to buy a Lamborghini. I really want a Lamborghini.”
“Never a bad idea to make plans,” I say. “I once made a plan to become a principal at the New York City Ballet, but I lost the plan, gained weight, and ended up playing the drums at Andy Warhol’s club on St. Mark’s Place. I blame it on tainted psychedelics, and a mother who returned to work a week after I was born.”
“You’ll be a great soccer player,” adds Kathy, rubbing Bonz’s head, “but you need to continue practicing piano, at least an hour each day. More on weekends. You have a lesson Tuesday. And, don’t be like your grandfather: change your underwear every morning.”
“If, one day, you get that Lamborghini,” I say, “now and then give a hitchhiker a ride, and provide a 12-inch Subway sandwich with all the fixins’ and a couple bucks as parting gifts. And, remember: no one needs two Lamborghinis. In the meantime, how about pizza?,” I ask.
“OK,” he says. “Double pepperoni?”
“That, I can afford. Let’s follow that old buzzard with the ascot and tassels. The goof is on his way to Chez Magnifique, and he’ll stagger past the pizza joint where the poor people eat.
“I hope he remembered to bring his teeth.”