Read an Excerpt
My name is Jonah Ellington Basie Hines Eldridge Wilson Hampton Armstrong Kirk. From as young as I can remember, I loved the city. Mine is a story of love reciprocated. It is the story of loss and hope, and of the strangeness that lies just beneath the surface tension of daily life, a strangeness infinite fathoms in depth.
The streets of the city weren’t paved with gold, as some immigrants were told before they traveled half the world to come there. Not all the young singers or actors, or authors, became stars soon after leaving their small towns for the bright lights, as perhaps they thought they would. Death dwelt in the metropolis, as it dwelt everywhere, and there were more murders there than in a quiet hamlet, much tragedy, and moments of terror. But the city was as well a place of wonder, of magic dark and light, magic of which in my eventful life I had much experience, including one night when I died and woke and lived again.
When I was eight, I would meet the woman who claimed she was the city, though she wouldn’t make that assertion for two more years. She said that more than anything, cities are people. Sure, you need to have the office buildings and the parks and the nightclubs and the museums and all the rest of it, but in the end it’s the people—and the kind of people they are—who make a city great or not. And if a city is great, it has a soul of its own, one spun up from the threads of the millions of souls who have lived there in the past and live there now.
The woman said this city had an especially sensitive soul and that for a long time it had wondered what life must be like for the people who lived in it. The city worried that in spite of all it had to offer its citizens, it might be failing too many of them. The city knew itself better than any person could know himself, knew all of its sights and smells and sounds and textures and secrets, but it didn’t know what it felt like to be human and live in those thousands of miles of streets. And so, the woman said, the soul of the city took human form to live among its people, and the form it took was her.
The woman who was the city changed my life and showed me that the world is a more mysterious place than you would imagine if your understanding of it was formed only or even largely by newspapers and magazines and TV—or now the Internet. I need to tell you about her and some terrible things and wonderful things and amazing things that happened, related to her, and how I am still haunted by them.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I tend to do that. Any life isn’t just one story; it’s thousands of them. So when I try to tell one of my own, I sometimes go down an alleyway when I should take the main street, or if the story is fourteen blocks long, I sometimes start on block four and have to backtrack to make sense.
Also, I’m not tapping this out on a keyboard, and I tend to ramble when I talk, like now into this recorder. My friend Malcolm says not to call it rambling, to call it oral history. That sounds pretentious, as though I’m as certain as certain can be that I’ve achieved things that ensure I’ll go down in history. Nevertheless, maybe that’s the best term. Oral history. As long as you understand it just means I’m sitting here shooting off my mouth. When someone types it out from the tapes, then I’ll edit to spare the reader all the you-knows and uhs and dead-end sentences, also to make myself sound smarter than I really am. Anyway, I must talk instead of type, because I have the start of arthritis in my fingers, nothing serious yet, but since I’m a piano man and nothing else, I have to save my knuckles for music.
Malcolm says I must be a closet pessimist, the way I so often say, “Nothing serious yet.” If I feel a phantom pain in one leg or the other and Malcolm asks why I keep massaging my calf, I’ll say, “Just this weird thing, nothing serious yet.” He thinks I’m convinced it’s a deep-vein blood clot that’ll break loose and blow out my lungs or brain later in the day, though that never crossed my mind. I just say those three words to reassure my friends, those people I worry about when they have the flu or a dizzy spell or a pain in the calf, because I’d feel relieved if they reassured me by saying, “Nothing serious yet.”
The last thing I am is a closet pessimist. I’m an optimist and always have been. Life’s given me no reason to expect the worst. As long as I’ve loved the city, which is as long as I can remember, I have been an optimist.
I was already an optimist when all this happened that I’m telling you about. Although I’ll reverse myself now and then to give you some background, this particular story really starts rolling in 1967, when I was ten, the year the woman said she was the city. By June of that year, I had moved with my mom into Grandpa’s house. My mother, whose name was Sylvia, was a singer. Grandpa’s name was Teddy Bledsoe, never just Ted, rarely Theodore. Grandpa Teddy was a piano man, my inspiration.
The house was a good place, with four rooms downstairs and four up, one and three-quarter baths. The piano stood in the big front room, and Grandpa played it every day, even though he performed four nights a week at the hotel and did background music three afternoons at the department store, in their fanciest couture department, where a dress might cost as much as he earned in a month at both jobs and a fur coat might be priced as much as a new Chevy. He said he always took pleasure in playing, but when he played at home, it was only for pleasure.
“If you’re going to keep the music in you, Jonah, you’ve got to play a little bit every day purely for pleasure. Otherwise, you’ll lose the joy of it, and if you lose the joy, you won’t sound good to those who know piano—or to yourself.”
Outside, behind the house, a concrete patio bordered a small yard, and in the front, a porch overlooked a smaller yard, where this enormous maple tree turned as red as fire in the autumn. And when the leaves fell, they were like enormous glowing embers on the grass. You might say it was a lower-middle-class neighborhood, I guess, although I never thought in such terms back then and still don’t. Grandpa Teddy didn’t believe in categorizing, in labeling, in dividing people with words, and neither do I.
The world was changing in 1967, though of course it always does. Once the neighborhood was Jewish, and then it went Polish Catholic. Mr. and Mrs. Stein, who had moved from the house but still owned it, rented to my grandparents in 1963, when I was six, and sold it to them two years later. They were the first black people to live in that neighborhood. He said there were problems at the start, of the kind you might expect, but it never got so bad they wanted to move.
Grandpa attributed their staying power to three things. First, they kept to themselves unless invited. Second, he played piano free for some events at Saint Stanislaus Hall, next to the church where many in the neighborhood attended Mass. Third, my grandma, Anita, was secretary to Monsignor McCarthy.
Grandpa was modest, but I won’t be modest on his behalf. He and Grandma didn’t have much trouble also because they had about them an air of royalty. She was tall, and he was taller, and they carried themselves with quiet pride. I used to like to watch them, how they walked, how they moved with such grace, how he helped her into her coat and opened doors for her and how she always thanked him. They dressed well, too. Even at home, Grandpa wore suit pants and a white shirt and suspenders, and when he played the piano or sat down for dinner, he always wore a tie. When I was with them, they were as warm and amusing and loving as any grandparents ever, but I was at all times aware, with each of them, that I was in a Presence.
In April 1967, my grandma fell dead at work from a cerebral embolism. She was just fifty-two. She was so vibrant, I never imagined that she could die. I don’t think anyone else did, either. When she passed away suddenly, those who knew her were grief-stricken but also shocked. They harbored unexpressed anxiety, as if the sun had risen in the west and set in the east, suggesting a potential apocalypse if anyone dared to make reference to that development, as if the world would go on safely turning only if everyone conspired not to remark upon its revolutionary change.
At the time, my mom and I were living in an apartment downtown, a fourth-floor walk-up with two street-facing windows in the living room; in the kitchen and my little bedroom, there were views only of the sooty brick wall of the adjacent building, crowding close. She had a gig singing three nights a week in a blues club and worked the lunch counter at Woolworth’s five days, waiting for her big break. I was almost ten and not without some street smarts, but I must admit that for a time, I thought that she would be equally happy if things broke either way—a gig singing in bigger and better joints or a job as a waitress in a high-end steakhouse, whichever came first.
We went to stay with Grandpa for the funeral and a few days after, so he wouldn’t be alone. Until then, I’d never seen him cry. He took off work for a week, and he kept mostly to his bedroom. But I sometimes found him sitting in the window seat at the end of the second-floor hallway, just staring out at the street, or in his armchair in the living room, an unread newspaper folded on the lamp table beside him.
When I tried to talk to him, he would lift me into his lap and say, “Let’s just be quiet now, Jonah. We’ll have years to talk over everything.”
I was small for my age and thin, and he was a big man, but I felt greatly gentled in those moments. The quiet was different from other silences, deep and sweet and peaceful even if sad. A few times, with my head resting against his broad chest, listening to his heart, I fell asleep, though I was past the age for regular naps.
He wept that week only when he played the piano in the front room. He didn’t make any sounds in his weeping; I guess he was too dignified for sobbing, but the tears started with the first notes and kept coming as long as he played, whether ten minutes or an hour.
While I’m still giving you background here, I should tell you about his musicianship. He played with good taste and distinction, and he had a tremendous left hand, the best I’ve ever heard. In the hotel where he worked, there were two dining rooms. One was French and formal and featured a harpist, and the décor either made you feel elegant or made you ill. The second was an Art Deco jewel in shades of blue and silver with lots of glossy-black granite and black lacquer, more of a supper club, where the food was solidly American. Grandpa played the Deco room, providing background piano between seven and nine o’clock, mostly American-standard ballads and some friskier Cole Porter numbers; between nine and midnight, three sidemen joined him, and the combo pumped it up to dance music from the 1930s and ’40s. Grandpa Teddy sure could swing the keyboard.
Those days right after his Anita died, he played music I’d never heard before, and to this day I don’t know the names of any of those numbers. They made me cry, and I went to other rooms and tried not to listen, but you couldn’t stop listening because those melodies were so mesmerizing, melancholy but irresistible.
After a week, Grandpa returned to work, and my mom and I went home to the downtown walk-up. Two months later, in June, when my mom’s life blew up, we went to live with Grandpa Teddy full-time.
Sylvia Kirk, my mother, was twenty-nine when her life blew up, and it wasn’t the first time. Back then, I could see that she was pretty, but I didn’t realize how young she was. Only ten myself, I felt anyone over twenty must be ancient, I guess, or I just didn’t think about it at all. To have your life blow up four times before you’re thirty would take something out of anyone, and I think it drained from my mom just enough hope that she never quite built her confidence back to what it once had been.
When it happened, school had been out for weeks. Sunday was the only day that the community center didn’t have summer programs for kids, and I was staying with Mrs. Lorenzo that late afternoon and evening. Mrs. Lorenzo, once thin, was now a merry tub of a woman and a fabulous cook. She lived on the second floor and accepted a little money to look after me when there were no other options, primarily when my mom sang at Slinky’s, the blues joint, three nights a week. Sunday wasn’t one of those three, but Mom had gone to a big-money neighborhood for a celebration dinner, where she was going to sign a contract to sing five nights a week at what she described as “a major venue,” a swanky nightclub that no one would ever have called a joint. The club owner, William Murkett, had contacts in the recording industry, too, and there was talk about putting together a three-girl backup group to work with her on some numbers at the club and to cut a demo or two at a studio. It looked like the big break wouldn’t be a steakhouse waitress job.
We expected her to come for me after eleven o’clock, but it was only seven when she rang Mrs. Lorenzo’s bell. I could tell right off that something must be wrong, and Mrs. Lorenzo could, too. But my mom always said she didn’t wash her laundry in public, and she was dead serious about that. When I was little, I didn’t understand what she meant, because she did, too, wash her laundry in the communal laundry room in the basement, which had to be as public as you could wash it, except maybe right out in the street. That night, she said a migraine had just about knocked her flat, though I’d never heard of her having one before. She said that she hadn’t been able to stay for the dinner with her new boss. While she paid Mrs. Lorenzo, her lips were pressed tight, and there was an intensity, a power, in her eyes, so that I thought she might set anything ablaze just by staring at it too long.