Spanish Guitar

It’s after 10:00 p.m. I let the dog out briefly and noticed how quiet it is outside. The recent frost likely silenced the crickets for good. I heard them slowly winding down only a few nights ago and marveled about how they were able to survive into early November. Climate change, perhaps?

Joni Mitchell wrote a song, “Hissing of Summer Lawns” in 1975. I was fascinated by the imagery of that title. I now know what the sound refers to. Our little parcel of land has a certain sound to it on summer evenings as the accumulated heat seems to make the ground exhale and the night creatures emerge from it: Ssszzsssshhh. Yeah, something like that.

The summer sounds have now disappeared with the falling leaves. Instead, this evening, I hear the baseboard heater switch on, making its own type of hiss, and the dog is snoring softly. I am sitting at my computer and I catch Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Tipico Brasiliera” playing on a YouTube music channel I recently discovered. It’s a digitized version of an old recording by Julian Bream, one of my father’s favorite classical guitar performers.

The hours after dinner in my childhood home were rather ritualized. We kids would settle in with our homework. Our father would write speeches. He often wrote way into the night, banging away at his big, black Royal typewriter, page after page being flung off into a pile, words that would be put into some bureaucrat’s mouth the next day.

His office smelled like used typewriter ribbons, an odor I can recall instantly. He had a rack of cassette recordings and many of them were of classical Spanish guitar. I can picture him typing away, music playing quietly in the background. The tape with the Villa-Lobos piece was a frequent selection. He had probably discovered what we now know to be true: music helps people concentrate better.

In his later years, he had switched to a computer and a collection of DVDs, but the habit of writing after dinner, sometimes late into the night, stayed with him. In the months after my mother died, I’d get to work, open my inbox, and find emails he’d written at 2:00 a.m., when he was too lonely and agitated to sleep, the guitar music his only companion. He once told me that he had imagined my mother standing in his office doorway, telling him it was time to go to bed.

Now, when I write late at night, it’s not speeches or essays. It’s committee correspondence or cold email inquiries or maybe a Facebook posting. When my husband pops into my office doorway and announces he’s going to bed, I turn off the computer and join him and the dog, grateful not to be left alone with only music to drown out the awful silence.

The Remedy

We had finished dinner early, lost patience with finding something to watch on television, and the endless rain had dampened our spirits a bit. As a remedy, my husband located a treasure trove of Jean Shepherd recordings on the internet and downloaded one to play for us. He did this using his cell phone connected to our Bluetooth speaker. The reason I specifically mention this technology should become evident in a moment.

As the theme music from Jean Shepherd’s show, the Bahn Frei Polka, faded in, accompanied by kazoos and the added sound effects of horse’s hooves clop-clop-clopping, I began silent giggling that soon overtook my body so completely that I could no longer contain it, and I let out a huge guffaw. My husband smiled. The spell was broken.

That theme music transported me back to childhood, when our local public radio station rebroadcast Jean Shepherd’s shows. They were originally broadcast by WOR in New York. Even one silly variety of the station’s call-sign jingle was enough to bring on a chuckle or two: W-W-W-W–Somebody-Stop-Me!–O-R!

My parents had given me a bedside radio when I was young. It was sky blue on the front with sections for the clock, the speaker, and the radio dial. The slats protecting the speaker were white plastic, as was the casing. No doubt it was a cheaply made radio, but it was one of the most valuable things I ever owned.

That radio was my constant friend throughout childhood and into adolescence, seeing me through many quiet evenings and weekends when all I did was read or write or daydream; it entertained me, inspired me, and kept me company when I was alone. I listened to WPGC, WEAM, and “The Young Sound,” which was a novelty at the time but paved the way for commercial-free blocks of contemporary pop music.

We lived in a three-story townhouse. The dining room, kitchen, and living room were on the first floor, our parents’ bedroom and the study/guestroom were on the second floor. My kid brother (an appellation I would never bestow on him, except that it’s perfect for this story) and I had bedrooms on the third floor, which were separated by a short hallway and a bathroom. Sometimes we’d shut our doors at the end of the day and just go to sleep; sometimes we’d keep the doors open and slide toys and other stuff back and forth across the smooth wooden floor of the hallway until our parents got annoyed and chased us back to bed.

We were known to quarrel sometimes or call each other names, but we usually got along in our castle in the sky at the top of the townhouse. We usually minded our parents, but on Sunday evenings, we conspired to disobey them because that is when WETA played Jean Shepherd’s show. We’d dutifully wash up and dress in our pajamas. Then we’d leave the bedroom doors open and get into our beds, shut off our lights, and turn on our bedside radios.

The polka music would start and then the show would be on. It was usually 45 minutes of a stream-of-consciousness narrative—a combination of childhood reminiscences and social commentary—frequently punctuated by silly music and even sillier kazoos or nose whistles. The nose whistles were guaranteed to incite hysterical laughter.

But here is my fondest memory of those evenings: At some point I’d hear my brother chuckle or snort, which made me laugh, which then unleashed a nosier-than-expected fit of cackling between the two of us, and that is what would filter down to the lowest level of the townhouse. Next, we’d hear our father shout up the stairs at us, “Turn off those darned radios and go to bed!”

We’d ignore him and sometimes he’d yell upstairs again, but I think he knew we just had to listen to the whole thing. After all, he was the one who had introduced us to Jean Shepherd’s show, and he knew we couldn’t turn it off in the middle of one of his crazy stories. That would just be cruel!

When I met my husband, we got to talking about listening to the radio late at night. At the time, I was the only other person he’d ever met who had also listened to Jean Shepherd. The match was meant to be! So, on that recent evening after a trying day, he knew exactly what would bring some silliness and cheer into an otherwise gloomy evening.

We’ve come a long way from old plastic clock radios. However, Jean Shepherd’s timeless and familiar humor is a soothing balm. He’s been gone a long time now and his show even longer, but thanks to the internet, he can still provide belly laughs whenever we need them.

Adam Theodore Elizabeth Cron 1966

 

Time Travelling with Chopin

This morning, I am sitting at my desk trying to clear out my email file. As usual, I have WETA on the radio. Chopin’s Scherzo #4 in E Major is playing, and I am transported back to Boston in 1979.

Although I was a student at Northeastern University, I lived closer to Boston University and used their library almost every weekend. It was quiet and there was a large selection of geology journals and reference texts to use. In the process of finding a good place to settle in and write papers or memorize paleontological species, I stumbled upon the best place for deep thinking, ever.

BU’s library had heavy wooden desks and tall windows overlooking Commonwealth Avenue through which the sunlight streamed, making it a delightful place on a cold winter day. The desks had headphone jacks embedded in them because BU also had a large selection of vinyl LP records (that I even have to qualify the type of media makes me laugh) to listen to while there. One could browse the records, hand them to the student DJ, and hear them through the headphones plugged into the desk. My study atmosphere was complete.

Being a former music major, I was delighted to discover plenty of favorite music there, but I also discovered composers that were new to me. The music of Ravel, Debussy, Satie, and others, all part of the Impressionist Movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s, was as emotion-evoking as the paintings of Monet and Cassat. Their pieces instilled a deep yearning for home and sense of nostalgia in me, but none more than Chabrier’s “Pièces Pittoresques.”  I was perplexed that I enjoyed them because they were not the orderly pieces of Mozart or the Rose’s Etudes that I’d played as a teenager.

Almost every weekend I checked out the same album to start my afternoon of studying, and it started off with Chopin’s Etude #4 in E Major. Whenever I hear it on the radio now, one of two things always seem to happen: I am transported back to those simpler days of studying at the library before computers and cell phones, and I am called to attention to get back to the tasks at hand and quit procrastinating.

 

April 5, 1968

Fifty years have passed since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was young, but the anxiety and upset of that time have been seared into memory, influencing me in so many ways. My father remembered 1968 as a time of near anarchy when society was splitting apart over the coming election, the Vietnam War, racial issues, and civil rights.

Let me set the stage. We moved to Washington, D.C., because my father was offered a job as part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. We lived in the Southwest quadrant of the city, then called “New Southwest.” Before the 1960s, this part of town had become rundown and impoverished, thus making it a target for urban renewal. The mainly black residents were displaced to other parts of the city, homes and buildings razed, and thus began a great experiment.

The new brutalist concrete, glass, and aluminum-trimmed apartments and townhomes became populated by mostly white, young professionals and families who had also moved to Washington, either as part of the government or in support of the growing government-centric economy.  Delaware Avenue separated us from the remaining housing projects, a world very different from mine.

There were three elementary schools within only a mile or so of each other. Syphax and Bowen served the children in the projects to the east of us. Amidon served New Southwest. The racial divides between the three were starkly obvious. Recognizing the need to remedy this inequity, my father and some others convinced the school board to pool resources and Tri-School was born: 1st and 2nd grade in Syphax, 3rd and 4th grade in Amidon, and 5th and 6th in Bowen.

The plan was for black and white children to learn together and for black and white teachers to learn from each other. Some white parents, however, soon pulled their children out of public school or moved away. By the time I was in 4th grade, I was one of only a few white children in my classroom.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on the evening of April 4th. On April 5th, we went to school as usual, but then the city erupted in violence and fire. At some point during the day, our teacher, Evelyn Smith, pulled us all into a close circle around her and told us that Dr. King had been killed. She then gently told us that school was closing and we were to go home for our safety because people were angry. There were tears and nervous chattering.

She then said that all the white students were going to be driven home by the teachers because blacks were very angry at whites. My friend Malcolm, the wisecracking goofball of the class and a resident of the neighboring projects, swaggered over and said, “That’s all right, Mrs. Smith, I’ll walk ‘Lizabeth home–I gotta knife!” after which he quickly whipped it out of his pocket. Not missing a beat, Mrs. Smith replied, “Umm, that’s OK, Malcolm, we’ll take her home.” It was not a time for admonishment.

At home, my brother and I watched the city burn from his third-floor bedroom. It was fascinating and frightening all at once. Our family did not own a car back then, but later that day we were whisked out of the house by a friend who drove us to his home in Bowie. As we traveled out of the city eastward to the suburbs, we could see the fires and smoke rising to the west.

Thinking back to that time, it occurred to me that the lives of the black children were in just as much danger as those of the white kids on that awful day, if not more so. Some had to walk several blocks toward burning neighborhoods, by themselves. Some probably had no parent at home waiting for them. Being that young, they were not prepared to protect themselves from the rioting.

The following month, the Poor People’s Campaign set up Resurrection City, populated by thousands of poor Southern blacks who came to Washington to lobby for their economic rights–better jobs, higher wages, safer communities. It rained constantly for weeks that spring, and the encampment became flooded and mired in mud. Despite the conditions, my father insisted that we go and visit with the poor; it was important to him that I witnessed this moment in history.

In the years that followed, we white kids endured backlashes from the project kids. I was mugged once and had my glasses stolen, a gang of boys threw rocks at our house one evening, and one afternoon I was chased home by a large group of kids who began screaming at me “Hey, white girl!” after I was caught walking home alone. I learned to run fast that year.

We had a tall peach tree in the back patio. Every spring, the project kids would raid it in plain sight, climbing the tree and stealing almost all of the ripe fruit. “Forget about it,” my father said, “they need it more than we do.” After four years, we, too, moved away.

I’ve wondered about my classmates over the years, hoping they survived being poor and black and going on to much better lives than the ones they endured as children. The Black Lives Matter and Showing Up For Racial Justice movements have brought my past experience into even sharper focus. Despite my upbringing in a household where fighting for social justice was modeled every day while I was a child, I still have never understood what it is like to be black. Despite the hard work of the civil rights movement, some things have not changed.

I have taken my whiteness for granted. I have never had to worry about how to act in the presence of police. I’ve never been watched carefully as I browse for items in a store. I’ve never been ignored while trying to order a meal. I can’t imagine moving about in the world ever mindful that someone might decide that I looked suspicious or that I didn’t belong there–isn’t that what living under an authoritarian regime is like?