There are piano bars everywhere where you can pay the players to play a song that you feel so strongly about that you’d like to pay for it. I know that now. But back in Boston, in 2001-ish, the piano bar was a new thing to me. It was cold outside, I was new in town, and I was missing California.
I threw $10 into the hat and wrote California Dreamin’ onto the note attached to the bill.
20 minutes passed.
Hey, I asked the main pianist, can you play my song because I’m wishing for some sun and for my family right about now and I gave you $10 to play it?
Another 20 minutes passed.
“Hey!” I asked the main pianist, “can you play my song now because I’m wishing for some sun and for my family right about now?! I gave you $10 already!!”
Another 5 minutes passed.
I slapped another $10 onto his Baby Grand, looked at him hard, raised an eyebrow: “Now!”, my right index finger tapping the cash like a school teacher.
Sho nuff, one minute later:
All the leaves are brown
And the sky is gray
I been for a walk …
All it took was $20, a meaningful eyebrow lift, and some finger-tapping. I got four-ish minutes of 70s nostalgia pounced out onto a piano at a Boston bar about an hour after I really needed it. But, what I got worked.
Also? I learned that being bossy in Boston was par for the course and that cash always works. Boston was the perfect place for me to be. Everyone who knows me knows that I’ve always been bossy as shit. And that I’ve always really liked to wear black, casually.
I have a memory from way back in my Early Days Bank of Memory that I keep wanting to remember but has forever seemed so far away from me. I keep trying to articulate it. I get these little bits of it that come to me in random Autumn smells, with the changing of the seasons, and that wander in with the fluttering of orange leaves and with the tiptoeing-in of the occasional really great guitar riff. It goes something like this:
I wake up from a daytime nap and I smell a fireplace firing. It might be our fireplace, it might be the neighbor’s. I don’t remember who actually has a fireplace because I’m really young. I don’t know if we had a fireplace then, but I feel like we may have. We live up on Mesa Avenue in Eagle Rock and I’m probably 4 or 5 years old. I’m not sure. All of the windows in the house are open because they always are because my dad likes the wind, air, and so do I, and it’s a little bit chilly. Brisk. Which, in California-speak, means it’s probably in the 50s or 60s outside. I’m very small now and I won’t know real cold until much later. Still, it’s chilly. And it smells like a fireplace firing. I come out of my nap, crawl out of my bed, hazy in my new awakeness and I see orange leaves outside and I smell the fireplace fire and I hear music. Loud music. Maybe the loud music woke me up. My dad is home and he’s really happy, a glass in one hand and a burn-y cigarette in the other. He’s not home much and when he is, I love it. He goes to school and reads lots of books all of the time. I don’t get to see him a lot. I don’t know where my mom is right now, but here’s my dad. And it’s chilly and fire-y in the air and I love the music. My dad is happy and I’m happy with him, just out of my nap, and I look at the place where the music comes from. I see a big cover that looks like a book and it says The Mamas and Papas on it–I know those words–and my dad is dancing. He puts his burn-y cigarette in the hand with his drink, has me grab his empty hand and twirls me around. All the leaves are brown. And the sky is gray. I been for a walk. And I twirl and twirl and smile. I don’t know where my mom is. I dance with my dad and I get a cuddle and a sweater. The sky turns a gray-orange, smells like a fireplace fire, and I am so happy.
My mom was at work, I know that now. It was a weekend and my dad was home from work and from Law school and my mom was at work. It was a fall weekend in Southern California and I had just woken up from a nap. My dad was home. My mom was working. ‘California Dreaming’ by The Mamas and The Papas was spinning on the turntable and I danced with my dad. This is my first memory of my dad being really happy and of us daning.
For my 39th birthday, I asked my mom to just bring me some records:
“The Guy and I listen to records all the time! Can you please just bring me my firsts?” I ask her before she gets on a plane from Los Angeles to Seattle, “Please, Mom?! Please!”
And so she did.
She’s So Unusual. True Colors. Like a Virgin. Top Gun. Seven the Hard Way. She brought me all of my firsts. She also brought me The Mamas and The Papas. She snuck it into the package. And when I saw it, I paused.
I’m dancing with my dad. All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray I been for a walk. I’m dancing with my dad and twirling around and smiling and wondering where my mom is and when she will come back home.
She knew. She remembered, somehow.
And she gave me the one record that spoke to me the most, masked it into the package of those other records.
She missed me wiping the sleep out of my young eyes that day. She missed the dancing and the fireplace smell and the looking out of the window at the orange leaves because she was working.
But she gave me back that moment when I held that record in my hands again, more than thirty years later. She gave me back a little bit of that memory in all of its vinyl grit.
She, somehow, knew. She had held onto it, giving it back to me on my 39th birthday.