For the MN Orchestra’s Showcase magazine, December 2006.
Saturday, December 13 1997 I’d written “black jacket” in my calendar but stepping through the polished mahogany double doors and into the Presidential Suite at the top of the Hilton hotel I got that sinking feeling she’d probably said black tie.
“They’d like you for 90 minutes after dinner, but come an hour early and be prepared to stay late if they want you to.” At least I’d shown up on time, and lucky too since the grand piano required some fussing over with a stack of wadded bar napkins before it sounded, well, good enough for the Pillsbury Board of Directors and Spouses who were at this moment drifting through the presidential doors. Regal in their holiday finery they glided past the doughboy ice sculpture, past the piano (vague nods in my direction), past the glittering skyline view and toward the bar and the culmination of the evening’s festivities: cordials, flambé desserts, fine cigars, tasteful live piano music.
“Be ready for anything,” she’d told me earlier, but from my deserted corner the warning seemed hardly necessary. Another night of wallpaper piano, I thought, settling with a sigh into autopilot renditions of holiday favorites, a yawning no-man’s land of leather furniture between me and the shimmering mirage at the bar. My mind wandered down to my rusting subcompact car parked at an expired meter, the festive red and white envelope surely flapping on the windshield by now.
I hated these wallpaper gigs, squandered singalong opportunities as far as I was concerned. Every so often I lobbed mild musical provocations in the direction of the bar and waited for a response. “Jingle Bell Rock.” Nothing. “Merry Christmas (War Is Over).” Distant merriment cont’d. “Blue Christmas.” “Melekelikimaka…”
Eventually a tartan plaid cummerbund and bow tie crossed over to the piano. “Paul over there’s wondering of you do any Buddy Holly.” Paul sauntered over and we got through “Peggy Sue” and “Every Day” with help from another tux or two. Then on to Wilson Pickett. And the Beatles. By the time we got to the “Big Chill” soundtrack the entire shimmering mirage had coalesced around the piano, drinks in hand.
The next couple hours are a blur. I remember someone asked my name. I remember someone swapped my club soda for a (verrry smooth) scotch or two. I remember we didn’t stop talking and singing til nearly midnight, mostly pop tunes from the 1960’s and 70’s with the occasional holiday song at someone’s insistence, all with the same full-throated gusto. I remember how tuxes and gowns gradually took on faces, faces assumed voices and names and stories. And I remember a deep solidarity like we’d all been friends a long, long time. Not much earlier I’d thought them such a remote and uncaring bunch, but one by one they’d crossed over to the piano and proved me wrong. For two brief shining hours we were a single noisy clan, the Wailing Doughboys.
Walking out to my car, smiling and looking up past the 25th floor and into the winter sky I mused about our shared lot on this earth and about our craving for certain universal and utterly ordinary comforts. The company of loved ones at the end of the day. The songs you know by heart and aren’t afraid to sing in front of your friends. The old familiar stories with the old familiar embellishments. Simple, timeless comforts. May we practice them often. And may they be as familiar as winter’s snow to our children’s children.