There was a middle aged black musician who came to the school where I worked in Morningside Depths years ago. He was there to teach the kids the fundamentals of music. He spent most of the time teaching them to count and to read music. I don’t recall much music being made by the group, but I do remember him bringing the group to attention for each exercise by smartly announcing “four for nothing”. This meant four bars of some kind of intro before the actual piece would start. You can hear examples of this all the time, I could sing you five of them now, these “four for nothing” bits.
Four for nothing.
At seventeen I saw “Enter the Dragon”, the only Hollywood film starring the immortal Bruce Lee. I saw it with a group of friends in a Jerusalem movie theatre. It was intoxicating. My friends and I left the cinema flooded with youthful strength and with the amazing possibilities contained in the human body and spirit. We walked the streets imitating Bruce Lee, doing his graceful, stealthy walk from the scene where he spies on Han’s evil operations. We did Lee’s catlike war cry, stopping to take heroic poses from various scenes in the movie. I remember feeling like I could lift up or overturn cars. We were all devastated to find out later that Bruce Lee had died, just before his greatest movie was released, just as he was about to become an international superstar. He was already a superstar all over Asia, we learned. I have seen Enter the Dragon perhaps six or seven times since, and I am never disappointed.
A few years later, at City College, I enrolled in a gymnastics class, hoping to learn to do the amazing handspring Bruce Lee had done, bounding into the air off his powerful arms and doing two or three flips in the air before landing with catlike nonchalance to bow to the judges. There was a sign in the City College gym I remember. It said: practice good hand stands every where. This was excellent advice if you wanted to develop the strength and balance to do a handspring. I was never able to do a good hand stand anywhere, the version I did required a wall nearby to brace my feet.
I was too naive to realize that one does not enroll in a course that meets once or twice a week and expect to master something that people who do it have been doing every day since early childhood. It is not enough to be young and fit to learn to do a backflip or handspring. One thing needed for doing flips in the air is fearlessness. Another is complete confidence.
I have the image of Simba Perkins, a Harlem nine year-old, balanced on a metal hand rail above a cement courtyard. Simba was in my third grade class. When he saw me getting to my car outside the school he called out my name and told me to watch. Before I could get the words “Simba, don’t!” out of my mouth, the kid launched himself into the air, flipped upside down in the air high above the bar and landed lightly on the cement, smiling like Bruce Lee.
You could have taken a photo of the fearless boy, with a very fast shutter, and caught him upside down, his back straight, his head pointing directly to the deadly cement six or eight feet below his head. The still image would be of a boy about to spend his life in a wheelchair with a spinal injury, if he survived the shattering trauma to his skull. Simba, of course, had done countless back flips. He never had any fear or hesitation.
I had both and could not overcome the instinct to tuck my head when I went into any position where I might land on my spine. This is exactly the opposite of what one needs to do to perform a handspring. It was only by an act of mercy that the teacher passed me after I did my version of a floor routine, in the middle of a gym full of leaping, hand standing, back flipping gymnasts who were good enough sports not to laugh or otherwise show their pity for my game but sad attempts.
My uncle, a meticulous man, bought a blood pressure monitor. It was a good one, top of the line, automatic, with a computer interface to keep track of your blood pressure and pulse readings. He placed a post-it on the monitor where he wrote the date of the purchase. All this soon became very ironic, and poignant, when, two or three days later, he had a massive stroke. He spent the remaining time he had on this planet in a wheel chair. Every time he had to urinate someone needed to hold a jar for him to pee in, the other hand guiding his penis. The only time this wasn’t done was during his several trips to the hospital for intensive care, when, presumably, they inserted a catheter into the slowly dying man’s urinary tract.
I acquired the brand new blood pressure monitor, which he had no further use for, and took readings of my own borderline high blood pressure for a year or two. Eventually a doctor friend convinced me to take the drug she and another friend of ours take to control elevated blood pressure. She informed me that, after a certain age, when the blood pressure is elevated on a regular basis, diet and exercise will no longer have much effect. I told her I wasn’t worried about having a stroke and she told me to worry about the permanent damage to my heart and liver the high blood pressure was already causing. I got a prescription soon after and, although on half the dose she takes, my blood pressure has been in a healthy range ever since.
“116 over 74,” said my former doctor, impressed.
“White coat syndrome,” I told him.
One summer afternoon about thirty years ago, in the early days of a romance with a pretty young woman ten years younger than me, we went shopping in Jackson Heights for every kind of ripe fruit we could find. We borrowed my parents’ house in Queens where we made an enormous fruit salad in the kitchen, with mangos, melons, cherries, pineapple, oranges, strawberries, peaches, plums. My parents were away for a few days, I don’t recall where, but there was no chance of their returning home. It was a warm day, but not hot, and we stripped off our t-shirts and shorts as we made the fruit salad. Then, as the sun began to set we took the huge bowl of fruit salad out into the backyard and sat naked in the grass to eat it.
As we started to eat the fruit salad darkness fell. Next door the flood light in my neighbor’s driveway cast enough light to see us clearly by, especially once it got dark. Long stripes of shadow from the picket fence fell across the grass, halfway to where we were. Beyond the shadows, just light. I remember being slightly paranoid that my long-time neighbors, a young widow and her two beautiful daughters, could come outside or drive up at any moment, and there would be no way to hide, but the memory of that delicious fruit salad in the grass stirs me to this day.
Schoolyard, Bronx, 1972 or 1973. I’d been playing guitar a year or two by then, and there was a genius at the school I went to, a school for science nerds. Neither me nor this genius were science nerds, in fact, he had almost no interest in any of his classes, even the English and History classes that sometimes engaged me. He was only interested in playing the guitar. So disinterested was he in his scholastic studies that he had failed sophomore English. I passed him once as his young English teacher was detaining him at the classroom door to implore him to give her some way to pass him, a Junior, failing sophomore English for the second time. He motioned for me to wait for him, so I heard her plea.
“Frank, you’re obviously very bright, and verbal, and you can write very well, but you have turned in absolutely no work this term and I cannot pass you. I also don’t want to fail you….” she was clearly at a loss. My friend shrugged and indicated that he and I were about to have an important conversation and that he needed to be excused.
“What do you do all the time?” she finally asked him, “clearly you don’t spend any time doing my assignments. What do you do?”
“I play guitar,” he said.
“You must be good,” she said.
“I am,” he said, with great understatement.
She thought for a moment and came up with an idea only a young English teacher at that moment in history could have thought of. “OK, bring in your guitar and play for the class and I’ll write it up and maybe I can pass you for that.” He agreed quickly and we walked off to have lunch.
Let’s say it was during lunch that same day, in the school yard. I showed him my version of the intro to Stairway to Heaven, a delicate bit long passed into cliche, now banned in all music stores. He took the guitar, strummed the heroic variations on the D chord that presage the heavy electric guitar solo, and launched into Jimmy Page’s unforgettable solo. He played it again when I asked, and I soon mastered that cool little intro and the opening of Page’s solo. It was a great thrill.
A few days later I cut my fourth period class to be on hand during his guitar recital for the idealistic young English teacher. To her credit, the teacher did not even ask who I was or what I was doing there. I could have been the guy’s agent, for all she knew. The desks were all pulled to the sides of the room and the chairs were arranged in a circle. Frank sat in the middle, with a guy named Allen Saul on backing guitar. I’d never seen Frank play with Allen, but Allen turned out to be a fine accompanist. Frank began to play. The English teacher looked on as though falling in love. With tears in her eyes, and not looking away from Frank, she scrawled a note and sent a kid out into the hall with it.
A few minutes later the chairman of the music department and both music teachers were standing by the door of the room, listening to Frank, clearly moved by his playing. When he was done the chairman announced they’d had no idea they had a student of his caliber at the school and gave Frank basically the keys to the city. “Come by when you get a chance and we’ll give you the key to a practice room. Our resources are at your disposal, whatever we can do for you, whatever you need, we will be happy to do our best to provide it for you.”
Then it was the English teacher’s turn, and words were clearly failing her as she attempted to tell Frank how moved she was by his playing, how, she too, would do anything Frank needed her to do. Frank was clearly embarrassed by all this adulation and so, when a friend of his gave him, literally, a Bronx cheer, Frank leaped over the chairs and got his friend by the neck and they tumbled to the ground in a clatter of desks, playfully fake fighting.
“Frank!!!” called the English teacher, like Dave Saville calling “Alvin!!!” when the cartoon chipmunk got out of control. Perfect bit of real-life imitating art, Hollywood style.
A few days later, having absented myself from a trigonometry or physics class, I ran into Frank in the hall. He asked if I had a minute. I did. He took me up a narrow stairway I’d never seen into a bank of rooms I’d never seen. Using a key he opened a door and we went into a room just a little bigger than an upright piano.
We sat on the piano bench and he played a line on the guitar. It was a lightning fast bit of a solo from John McLaughlin’s wonderful acoustic album My Goal’s Beyond. It was an extremely complicated bit of improvisation that Frank had easily copped from the record. He played it on guitar, then took his right hand and played it perfectly on the piano.
My eyes popped wide open. “How long have you been playing the piano?” I asked him.
He told me it had been a few days, and counted off the days since they’d given him the key to a practice room. “About a week,” he said.
“How the hell can you do that?” I asked the sixteen year-old genius.
“I have no idea,” he said, “and I can’t explain it, but, it’s exactly like playing the guitar, if that makes any sense.”