STARTING A MUSIC CAREER
In the spring of 1993, I had about thirty standard jazz tunes which I could play and sing at the same time. All they needed was a little smoothing-down, a little polishing. Playing in the street seemed to be a good way to work out the glitches while earning a living. I had read in the Daily News that a musician had earned $500 in one day playing in Soho. But he was shooting a video and if people gave him money it may have been only because they wanted to be on camera.
I told about it to the landlord, without speaking about a video being shot, and saying that I could use that money. But when I found myself traveling outside or in the subway with my guitar and my amp someone was always following me or waiting for me.
DANNY AT COLUMBUS CIRCLE
The first time I went out it was the middle of June 93. I had told of my intention to go there to Glen, the sanitation man of our building.
I set up under a tree near the entrance of the park. I hadn't played one note when a middle age couple with their twentyish daughter arrived and walked straight towards me. The man had a video camera in hand so I gave him something to put in his box and started to play "I'm just a lucky so and so". They applauded. I knew they were French and spoke to them in French. They said they were from Marseilles although they didn't have the unmistakable accent. We spoke about the sorry state of French music, I showed them my song list, I played Desafinado at their request. The man was enjoying himself and singing along. The woman said I was very brave. And then the man tossed a few coins into my bag, including some pennies, excusing himself, saying he had only a $100 bill on him. I said that would do. They laughed, we shook hands and they left. The father and daughter had unusually big square heads and short, square hands.
A man had been waiting to approach me. As soon as the French had left he came up to me, took the microphone from me and started to sing with me accompanying him. I let him do it because I assumed that being black he must have had a better sense of the Blues than I did. And he did. But he was drunk and I felt him a little overbearing. It took some convincing for him to let me sing. Some other times he would sing a duet with me, and then we were face to face very close to each other to sing into the mike. Some people were watching from a distance.
After one hour playing, I wanted to take a break. He left hurriedly saying he would be back soon. While he was away I decided to stop playing and I packed up my gear. He returned 10mn later with a bottle of wine and invited me to his place, which was under a tree nearby. I sat down in the grass near a bush under which a shopping cart and other homeless belongings were assembled. A young woman was lying down on a blanket. The black man, Danny, called her and introduced us in a rather formal way that contrasted with the setting. Then he handed me a lemon. I asked "Why a lemon?" After some hesitation he said it was good for a singer's voice, and that it tasted good with the wine he had bought. Then he sat down in front of me and handed me a large knife which I used to properly peel the lemon. After I had bitten into a slice of the fruit, he handed me the bottle of wine. It was a kind of sweet Irish wine tasting like Muscat, with a twist off cap. I had a swig and handed him the bottle. He was talking to me but I felt bothered to have the big open knife between us. I picked it up and asked him to close it. He told me to do it myself and showed me the spot where I should press to close the knife. I did and handed it to him, saying "There, nice and easy." And I added in a friendly voice, speaking directly from the subconscious: "You understand, I have money, you want my money, you stick your knife in me" to explain why I wanted his knife put away. He was pressing me with questions and making me talk. Then he left me and a young black man came and sat himself on a lawn chair under the tree and occupied my attention. I turned around to see what Danny was doing and saw him, 30 feet away, sitting down on the grass in conversation with a young white woman. I felt a little drunk. I felt it was time to leave. I got up and moved toward my carriage but the young man insisted that I wait. Finally Danny returned. I said that I was leaving but would return in the evening. Later in the afternoon I realized it was too chancy for me to go at night and risk that Danny would invite me again to his place, and make me enter the park in the dark.
However I returned the next day at 12:30pm, after having psyched myself up with the "Self-Talk Solution" mantras and dismissed my misgivings on account of the fear of performing.
I set up against a stone bench and I hardly played one number when the young black man arrived. A young man had taken off his roller blades was sunning himself next to me. Danny arrived and soon enough he was singing while I accompanied him. He sure could sing the Blues, and God Bless the Child, and Autumn Leaves. But before getting into music he asked the man with the Roller Blades if he could do him a favor and go get some wine for him. The man put his blades back on and darted across Columbus Circle. He returned promplty with the same wine as I had drunk the day before. I took a few swigs, then Danny said I wasn't well positioned and we moved center stage, where the fountain is. People were sitting and lounging on the stone stairs, grabbing some rays during their lunch break. Danny introduced me, emcee style, as a French singer guitarist who had the guts to challenge the male establisment of the music business. I felt he wanted to flatter me. Then I played some more, he listened to me play a few numbers by myself, then I handed him the mike and he ranted for a while, taking advantage of the opportunity to address the crowd and tell jokes.
Then I got tired of it and started to pack up. He returned the mike to me and invited me to his house under the tree. Some people had given me two dollars, others one dollar, others had given me coins, but a lot of people hadn't given me anything. I felt I would have to find a better spot and he suggested I play at Lincoln Center.
This time there was no lemon to go with the wine, but I drank quite a bit, telling myself it was ok to drink a little once in a while, if I were careful not to get too tipsy. The sweet and the heat made the wine all the more potent. Danny was speaking of the near future as if we were going to be together. I asked his age, he said he was 66 years old. Little by little he was bringing me to commit myself to a friendship with him. I told him to take it easy. I wasn't a spring chicken desperate to make friends and if he wanted me to trust him he would have to earn it.
He went to his shopping cart under the tree and returned with three cassettes which he handed to me. They were cassettes of Christmas songs by Duke Ellington and others famous musicians. I thanked him and said there were a few I wanted to learn, and I had plenty of time to do it before next Christmas.
Abruptly he said I seemed to be having problems with my mother. I said "That's true! How do you know?" and without waiting for an answer I started to say that my mother was a vampire who was sucking the life out of me. I showed him my neck where scars are visible. Not bite scars, but scars of skin eruption which I had picked relentlessly until they left a mark. In both events, the anguish had been the same. I said that my mother was paying off everybody around me to prevent me from living my life the way I intended and keep me dependent of her.
I said that the core of the problem was that my mother, having herself renouced a career as a classical singer to marry my father, resented me for wanting a musical career instead of sacrifying myself to the altar of the sacro-sanct family. She could not tolerate the thought that her daughter would make a choice different than she had, that her daughter would have a mind of her own, and not follow her mother's example. I was breaking the unwritten law. I was showing contempt for my mother's choice, I thought I deserved better. I showed that I had some self-esteem and ambition when a woman was supposed, at least on the surface, to be humble and self-sacrificing. I said democracy was an empty word if parents could not respect their children's choices regarding career and reproductive life, if the decisions children made in their adult lives were influenced by the concern about their parent's approval. I said that my mother was cruel and evil. She had taken me to the dentist several times when I was two years old and had him drill my teeth for the sole purpose of torturing me into submission.
We were still living in Annecy at the time and walked from the apartment to the dentist's office, my mother holding me by the hand. I knew there was nothing wrong with my teeth but I dared say nothing. I knew it was some kind of other necessity that required me to suffer, but it would have been impertinent for me to talk about it and a big black cloud of terror obscured my sky permanently during the whole treatment which took about five visits.
In the dentist chair, I would put my hand in my mother's but when the pain was too much I would lean my elbows on the arm rests and arch my body away from the chair. When this happenend the dentist would make fun of me and call me "the electric battery" like those my father was selling at his appliance store. So I was ashamed to be chicken and would try to be braver. The dentist used a fast drill and a slow drill. The fast drill didn't hurt very much. I was watching from the corner of my eye, hoping that this time he wouldn't use the slow one, dangling from an articulated arm where you could see the belt, but invariably my heart would sink when I saw him reach for it. I saw the belt strart moving in the long arm of the drill machine and then I felt the drill on my tooth. It was sheer torture. It was not that he was touching a nerve, it was the vibrations which spread to my entire 2 year old skull With my skull abuzz, I heard a giant and prolonged roar like a brutal and blind giant monster machine was passing through my head, which filled me with total terror. I was overcome by the sensation and felt totally alone in my agony while the dentist and my mother exchanged a few words in a detached tone. "So who can blame me for not loving my mother? Who can tell me that she loves me and that she's a good woman after what she did to me? She's a sadistic woman, like those nazi doctors." "I see what you mean, Danny said, the medical experiments etc., Joseph Mengele". When I heard my mother compared to Mengele tears started to roll down my cheeks. He saw I was crying but didn't say anything. I felt he wasn't moved, he didn't feel any compassion. He had said these last words in a cold voice. He was an enemy furthering his hidden agenda, collecting intelligence. He had been planted there to wait for me, get me drunk and loose lipped, and was connected to Glenn, the garbage man in the building, since earlier in the week I had told Glenn, that I intended to play at Columbus Circle. I got up and left without a word. I felt drunk but not too much. I felt crushed by the weight of Danny's betrayal on top of my mother's, but at the same time relieved to have got this horrible childhood memory off my chest and to be able to cry about it.
THE MAN IN THE SUBWAY
I decided to try the subway. Once I was leaving the A train at Columbus Circle and almost bumped into a Hispanic man. Our eyes met. I climbed the stairs to get away from the crowd and lit a cigarette while looking and thinking. Then I decided to see the platform of the Uptown 1 train. Several minutes had elapsed. Certainly long enough for a train to have arrived. However the man I had almost bumped into was there. He was wearing black pants and a summer shirt with a big black and yellow paisley print. A feeling of unease prevented me from setting up. I was standing close to the edge of the platform while the man was standing about thirty feet away,in the area where the people arrived from other trains. He was a little behind me. I wanted to make sure whether he was following me or whether I was being paranoid. If I stepped back and stood against the wall I would be out of his field of vision. So I stepped back and as soon as I did he stepped forward and I was again in his sight. Then a train arrived. It seemed to be full and with my equipment, unwilling to incomodate riders, I decided that I would wait for the next one. When the man realized that it was becoming obvious that he was following me, he rushed to a phone, probably to ask for advice from whoever had sent him after me. Then he bought the New York Times and hid behind it, without opening it up. A second train arrived. I let it go. He didn't board it. I decided to return home and, lifting my carriage to climb downstairs, I took the Uptown A. This time the man didn't follow me.
I went to the police to report the incident. To me it was clear that the man was not acting alone, since he had rushed to the phone after I failed to board the first train, and then, as advised, had bought a newspaper to hide behind it. So he got the advice on the phone to buy a newspaper and hide behind it. I thought I was holding at last a solid piece of evidence but the the officer interpreted the facts differently.
He said that the man didn't take the train because it was too packed, although I said it wasn't really, only for me and my bulky equipment, and that he made a call to his job to say he would be late. Had the man approached me? Talked to me? Said anything threatening? I didn't have a case and he would not make a report.
I talked to Bonarti about that man. He had a ready answer. "You know, he said, some people don't know how to make themselves interesting..." I broke in "No, that's not what it's about. Someone is having me followed to scare me out of playing. I know my mother is behind it. She has a long arm that stretches across the Atlantic. She pays people to mess up with me." He looked serious as I said that. Then he looked up and said "Talk to you later." as if we had just been talking about the weather.
A PROFESSIONAL DRUMMER
I wa trying to meet other musicians with whom to play. I would first look for a drummer. I saw an ad on Broadway around 110th street from a drummer who was offering classes. He called himself a professional, a session musician with experience in all kinds of rhythms. I explained what I wanted and we agreed to meet at the Manhattan School of Music. I didn't ask questions about his credentials. I thought that if he could play and was interested in my music that would be good enough. In the elevator, he said that he was very busy with school work. I noted pleasantly that some famous musicians had dropped out of that school. When he sat down before the drums, he asked if I didn't mind if he put some cotton in his ears since he was getting a little hearing impaired. Why, no, suit yourself. I asked him to play with the brushes. We played and it wasn't great. I expected the drums to give me a feeling of safety about keeping time, as a musician playing solo tends to shift tempos. I didn't get this feeling from his playing. I selected numbers in a variety of rhythms: Bossa, Waltz, and of course Swing and Blues. He seemed to know only one trick and that all he could change was the tempo. I explained what I was doing, and that I would be seeking work among the French rest-aurants in New York, and depending on their budget, play as a solo act or with one, two or more musicians. He said he was very busy and wouldn't want to rehearse unless there was a firm gig. I said I would maybe contact him at the end of the summer.
I tried the subway again. Once there was a man from my building, nicknamed Cuba, on the platform at 42nd street and I didn't play.
He had introduced himself shortly after I had moved to 103rd street saying we had met some years before at a Cuban New Year's party. I didn't remember him but thought it was possible. He was always hanging out in front of the building selling crack. Occasionally he asked me about my family and I had gone into details about how I'm being ripped off of my inheritance. He had a way to make me talk. He would repeat the end of my last sentence when I paused and that prompted me to keep talking, all the more since I didn't have anybody to talk to.
After this incident, every time I came in or out of the building, he would come to me and hug me, saying "You're my friend" with such emphasis that it was embarrassing. I asked him to stop and I stopped saying hello to him. I haven't seen him around for a while since then.
Another time I was on the Uptown 1 platform at Columbus Circle, pondering whether I would play or not, sitting on a wooden bench with my guitar between my legs when a black man sat himself next to me and instantly asked my if I was a guitarist. It seemed obvious but I said yes. He said he was a drummer, he played with a band, he played such and such music (none of the names he dropped was known to me). Then I said I was trying to meet musicians with whom to play, and asked him if he saw a possibility for me and, somehow knowing that I was doing the wrong thing, I gave him my phone number. He said he would call me at the end of the week, that his name was Leon, that he was living on 113th street and 7th avenue, and he took the train that was arriving.
He called me on Saturday of the same week and told me excitedly that there was a jam session at a place on 125th and 5th avenue. I asked the name of the place. I had to make him repeat twice because he couldn't pronounce the name of the place. Finally he spelled it out. It was La Famille. He spoke in a hurried tone, as if to communicate to me the feeling of hurry. "I'm going to my apartment on 113th to change and I'll be there in less than one hour." At the suggestion of the landlord, to whom I had complained of being followed, I had been trying to sell my summer berets, with terry cloth lining, and was busy cutting new ones when he called. I felt tempted to go with my mind split between making berets and playing music. But I was not in the mood to rush to anything and told him I had other plans for the night. He said that there would be another jam session the next wednesday. I said that I would go to that one. And then I realized it was another set up. If he knew the place, how came he couldn't pronounce its name? Besides the name of the place couldn't be a coincidence: La Famille. What was waiting for me there? Some musicians who would pretend to be glad to meet me, and would play in a way to disorient me and make me play bad? Besides, after all, I'm a single white female with bee-stung lips, and French to boot. I always forget that it's the way people perceive me first. Going alone to Harlem at night wouldn't be a smart move. I have to protect my white ass.