“You Can’t Take My Bones”

Last Thursday evening, I had an hour to kill before I met a good friend and colleague for dinner in Bay View.  Dressed in my “Pfister casual,” as I’m calling it–dark denim and an almost black-blue and silver short-sleeved shirt–I settled into one of the sofas in the lobby, ordered an Old Fashioned from Ellie, and pulled out my notebook.  

Two men at one end of the bar, two at the other, two women in front of me, a man and a woman at the far end to my right–all deep in conversation, or glasses of post-work wine, or, in one case,  a pile of wings.  How to approach them?  I’ll admit, the hardest part of my job as Narrator so far is making the first move.  In my dating days, I used to be a wallflower who waited for people to approach me, but here I was, hanging out in the lobby of an elegant hotel, navigating the gray area between friendly and intrusive.  

I passed a little time by roughly (I say roughly because . . . well, I’m sorry!) sketching the two women while I waited for my drink (expertly made by Jeff, by the way), continuing to scan the room for a potential story.  What was their story, I wondered.  Why were they there tonight?  What would they be willing to share with me?

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Enter: a deus ex machina!  Piano music from the sound system.  

No, it seemed live.  From the cafe?  That would be odd.  From Mason Street Grill?  Too far away.  No, it was coming from inside the lobby.  

I peered past the two women I had sketched and the god who was not really in a machine materialized: Dan Albrechtson, playing a rendition of “Stand By Me.”  From where I was sitting across the lobby, he appeared to be in his 70s, his black jacket curved over the keys, his wispy white hair and wire glasses hanging low.  I was amazed, even from as far away as I was, by the effortlessness and grace with which he played, his hands sliding back and forth across the keys.  When I sat down with Dan a little bit later, I would get to see how youthful his hands look and how wide his fingers can stretch from key to key.  He would play for me a regular 1-3-5 major chord, call it “ugly,” then play it with the 3 in the next higher octave.  He would tell me how he used to sit in school, writing with his right hand and stretching his left fingers against the table edge.  “Like a gymnast learning how to do the splits,” I would muse.  He would also share (though I’m not sure how it came up!) that he used to run half and full marathons, and he would wow me with his mile times when he was my age (let’s just say he was faster).  While Dan’s running is now all on a treadmill, I’m impressed and inspired: I hope that in thirty years I’m still running and doing my own version of Dan’s 10-key finger span with something I’m good at–perhaps writing or teaching or something new.

Which brings me to why Dan was my deus ex machina, that element of classical Greek theater in which a god or goddess would suddenly show up just at the right moment–which was usually at the end of the play when all was chaos and confusion.  When I realized he was playing, then, I added him to my quick sketch and leisurely sipped my drink, still wondering how I was going to approach any of the people in the room, none of whom seemed “in the right spot” for a conversation with me. I wrote down in my notebook, however, the question I’d like to ask them if I could, inspired by Dan’s piano playing: What do you hope to still have when you’re 70, 80, 90 years old?  What do you hope to still possess?  

And then–here’s the Greek moment–one of the men from the bar walked up to Dan to tip him and thank him for playing.  He seemed pretty approachable, so as he returned to his friend, I approached.  They both agreed with smiles that Dan’s music was beautiful.

It turns out that DeMarco, now living and working in New York City, was visiting his old pal Justin.  When they were younger, they had shared a healthy rivalry as news reporters and anchors in Milwaukee.  Tonight, they are all compliments for each other, especially Justin, who is convinced DeMarco is headed for the big seat at the network.  But that’s not what we talk about.  We talk about growing old and being tenacious.  What do they want to hold onto into their older years?

DeMarco: I want to still have rhythm.  I want to be able to still keep a beat.

Me: What do you mean?

DeMarco: Rhythm isn’t just something physical, like being able to walk straight.  It’s that sweet cadence that you possess.  It’s music, which you get to interpret.  It’s really everything.  

Me: I think I know what you mean.

DeMarco: It’s like this: imagine your favorite band, your favorite song . . . without rhythm.  

Me: I can’t even hear what that would sound like!  What was your favorite song as a child?

DeMarco: This is going to sound silly, because I was really young and didn’t understand what the song was really about, but it was Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”  My father would play that song all the time.  It was good.

Me: Ha!  That’s like the kids in my neighborhood years ago lip syncing to “Baby Got Back”!

DeMarco: Yes.  Well, my father John died when I was ten years old, on Father’s Day.  But he used to say, “You can’t take my bones.  You can take away anything else, but you can’t take my bones.”

Me: That fits in perfectly with my first impression of Dan on the piano.  His fingers are still gliding across those keys like nothing at all.

DeMarco: Rhythm (snaps his fingers three times) connects everything.  Everything.  You know how when people say “My rhythm’s off”?  That means something’s not right.  Some kind of connection.  (smiling) It aligns with the universe.  It keeps everything in sync.

During my conversation with DeMarco, Justin chimed in intermittently, in between devouring a plate of wings.  With three left on the plate, he offers me the rest, informing me that they are excellent.  Not usually a wings man, and headed to dinner soon, I defer, but he insists that they are that good.  I only eat one, but they are.  “Grilled, not fried.  That’s the secret.”  I’ve never tasted wings that meaty and tasty.  I’ll be back.

But back to Justin.  

Me: What was your favorite song?

Justin: (without skipping a beat) Prince’s “Adore.”  Not many people seem to know that one.

Me: I don’t recognize it.  But I’m bad with artists and titles and stuff.

Justin: I must’ve been about 12 years old, and there was this line where he says, “You could burn up my clothes, / smash up my ride.  Well, maybe not the ride”–and he’d say it in his Prince voice. (voice gets higher) ”Well, maybe not the ride.  But I got to have your face / all up in the place.”

(When I got home, I listened to “Adore.”  What a sexy tune, especially as blog-writing background music.)

Me: And what do you still hope to have when you’re older?

Justin: I want to still be in touch with my spirit, my soul.  There are so many people who are disconnected from their spirit–or become disconnected.

Me: “Spirit” and “soul” can both mean dozens of things to dozens of people.  What do they mean to you?

Justin: My connection to humanity.  I still want to be able to relate to people all over the world.  I want to be cognizant of my connection with everyone and everything.

I am certainly glad I got the chance to connect with the two compassionate, kind, and heartfelt spirits of Justin and DeMarco, with Ellie and Jeff (I’ll be seeing more of you soon!), and most of all with Dan, whose music set the evening’s wheels and ideas and memories into motion.  Thank you!

Beethoven Meets Gershwin Meets Albrechtson

Maestro

Dan Albrechtson is slight of stature, stooped as though permanently shaped to sit on a bench and let his shoulders lead dancing fingers across a black and white striped musical floor.  A retired math and computer teacher, his spectacles echo the days of computer programming gone by: large, square rims made of thick wire, but his tux and Scots-plaid vest are high class.

“Do you know what request I receive the most?”  He takes a sip of his coffee (“one sugar, one splenda, got to make it equal,” Dan quips) as he sits next to me on his break.  I shake my head, no.

“Frank Sinatra.”

I love Ol’ Blue Eyes’ music and when I express this, he brightens, “I saw Frank Sinatra in 1982 at the U.S. Cellular Arena, though of course it wasn’t called that, then.”

Chatting about crooners of music past, Dan tells me about his recent trip to San Francisco where he saw Tony Bennett perform for a packed house at Davies Symphony Hall.  I tell him I’m from San Francisco and ask him where he stays.

“Usually the Fairmont, but this time my wife and I were at the Mark Hopkins.”

Dan tells me about how he plays at the Top of the Mark whenever he visits the City by the Bay, where he goes at least twice a year. His very first visit to San Francisco was in 1949 with his family.  He was seven at the time.

“The piano at the Mark is exquisite.  It’s got some of the best sound of any piano I’ve played.  Did you know the one here,” he gestures to the Pfister’s lobby piano, “is at least 90 years old?  The brass plate on it says ‘Apollo’ and Apollo was sold to Wurlitzer in 1929.  Pianos show wear from their players and this one must have been played by a woman with long nails at some point in its history.  Come see.”

We go to the piano, he lifts the lid.  The first thing I notice are the burn marks on the keys at the far right: cigarettes, Dan tells me.  He points to the center of the piano – just above the keys are long scratches in the wood, gouges that span several inches, all layered on top of each other.

“How did that even happen?” I ask Dan.

He demonstrates, playing the start of a tune, leading to the right, then, with a flourish, brings his right hand back to meet the left.  As his hands float above the center keys on their journey leftwards, his fingers nearly graze the center wood, exactly where the gouges are.

“See that? When someone is playing, if they have long nails, the tips will scratch the paint or finish right off the wood here.”

He trails his fingers along a few keys.  “Do you know what the second most common request I get is?  Something from Phantom,” and he launches into a medley of his own design, replete with his own original arrangements of transitions between the title track, Music of the Night and All I Ask of You, through Masquerade and finishing up with Music of the Night again.  It’s beautiful.

A story follows, one about Beethoven and Gershwin meeting in heaven.  Beethoven challenges Gershwin to a piano duel.  Gershwin agrees, on the condition that they take turns at the same piano and each begin and end their turn with the same note: F# – Beethoven agrees.  It’s on.  Dan begins.  It’s Moonlight Sonata, which eventually drifts into Summertime, all the while Dan continues to narrate the story of these two great composers sharing time at some perfect piano in the sky.  Another trade-off, and then a third, with the triumphant Fifth Symphony leading into the finish: the final chords of It Ain’t Necessarily So.

He finishes, takes a sip of coffee.  “Pick any three notes.”  Dan sits back and waits, a slight grin tugging up one corner of his mouth.  “Original compositions are like writing.  You just need the right words to get started, and the rest will follow.  So, pick three notes,” he gestures to the center keys, “somewhere in here, black or white.”  I tentatively reach over and press three keys.

Dan pauses, thinking, taps the keys for confirmation, says “Alright, then” and begins to play.  What comes out is sounds like it could be the theme song from some delightfully charming, long-running, BBC romantic comedy sitcom like Last of the Summer Wine.  I can’t stop smiling, the tune is irresistible.  And it’s all mine.