Early each morning the professor emerged from his Upper Westside apartment. Wearing a white lab
coat and clip-on black bow tie, he locked the door and took the elevator down to the lobby. From here,
he proceeded past the polished brass mailbox, over gray and white tile, and out the door of the
Cragsmoor Arms. A six-story building of aged beige brick, it had a fire escape of ironwork climbing the
front, cast in graceful arabesques. Columns with Doric capitals flanked the gray stone entrance. An oval
window. Black wooden door. Crisp white curtains on long brass rods. At one end of the block, was
Amsterdam Avenue. Across the street, stood Women’s Hospital. And at the far end, on the edge of
Morningside Heights, was a tiny park with a tall spiked fence. Through its bars one glimpsed the green
and brown, or gray tenements of Harlem. The professor, his son and their housekeeper, Ruby, lived in
Descending the steps, he continued past the fence, beyond the chained and padlocked gate, leading
down to the basement. At the corner, he glanced at his wristwatch. Then walked down Amsterdam and
crossed the street onto the campus of Columbia University. Increasing his pace, he passed through the
gates, down a red brick path to the huge central square. Before him rose Columbia Library, which he
circled to arrive at the psychology laboratory. Nodding to the dozing security guard seated at the
entrance, he took the stairway to the basement and his private lab. As he unlocked the door, he was
greeted by coos, barks and screeches, with their respective bestial odors.
Switching on the lights, he placed his briefcase on his desk. And, after synchronizing his watch with the
clock on the wall, he continued past the cages – filled with pigeons, monkeys, dogs – to check their
schedules and serve the morning meal. Moving down the aisles of the spotless lab, he scratched a pooch
behind the ear, paused to smile before the chimps. Tickling one beneath the chin, he continued on his
Seated behind his desk, he emptied his briefcase. Lab reports. Tables. Charts to scan. A stack of student
papers to be graded. As he sat immersed in his various tasks, a lamp lit up his features. Cowlick at the
crown. Broad, pale brow. Thin lips and a blade of a nose, from which his specs slipped down from the
bridge. With a shake of the head, he pushed them back, pressing forward with his labors.
A man devoted to his work. Each day planned with precision. Its contents recorded in a microscopic
hand. Each hour of the day, each day of the week: everything according to schedule. Till his precious
Sunday finally arrived. On that day, alone, would he put aside his labors. And, as others went to church,
or watched football on TV, he would worship at the altar of Art.
Riding the bus to West 81st Street, he took a brisk walk across Central Park. Then he climbed the steps
into the marble lobby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since his parents had brought him here as a
child, he loved nothing so much as the Masters. But of all the galleries, there were two he loved best.
One contained the art of Degas.
Before a late pastel, he lost himself in color. Velvet strokes of “The Bather”, in purple, green and orange,
her form caressed by shadow over the white oval tub. “Nude Combing Her Hair”, in lines, flecks,
patches, her curving flanks brushed gently by zigzags of brown. From Degas, he continued to another
gallery. Pearl gray walls. Parquet floors. On its walls hung the paintings of Rembrandt.
In carved baroque frames of fading gold, were a pair of priceless portraits. In a chapel of darkness, sat
“Woman with a Pink”, preoccupied by thoughts unknown. In “Man with the Magnifying Glass”, its
companion piece, his thoughts were revealed in the knotting muscles of his brow. All detail reduced to
character: at its core, the human face. He never tired of Rembrandt; never ceased to find new riches in
On Sunday, there were concerts, ballet and opera, or repertory theater in the village, downtown. And,
after a bite to eat at the neighborhood deli, he retired into his study. Here, he spent the remaining hours
with Beethoven, Bach and Brahms.
Selecting a record, he removed it from its jacket; placed it on the turntable. Closing his eyes, he sank
back into the cushions of his worn leather armchair. Fatigue overcame him; his body disappeared. He
was carried away by the music.
A dim light shone on the walls of his study. Lined with bookshelves to the ceiling, it had a ladder on
casters to reach the uppermost shelves. Opposite the shelves, between windows hung with drapes,
stood his large oak antique desk. Papers, journals and lab reports were piled neatly on its surface. In the
corner was a pipe rack filled with meerschaums and briars, in a variety of sizes and shapes. Beside the
pipes, was a large tobacco jar, containing his custom blend. Its aroma was woven into the thick pile
carpet, into the walnut panels and the leather-bound books.
Scientific treatises lined one wall. On another, were philosophy and the arts. Prominent among these
was the Varorium Edition of Shakespeare, and the New York Edition of the works of Henry James.
In this culture-lined retreat, during the remainder of his Sunday, Professor Isaacs would at last doze off.
Such were the rites and rituals of his private religion of art. For early the next morning, he would return
to this lab: to the never-ending experiments; the pressures of publication; the lectures and seminars and
grading of exams. Science was his life, after all. But his true love had always been art. The seeds were
sown by his parents.
Immigrant Jews, they had lived in a flat, above their corner grocery. Year after year, they skimped and
saved, so their son could have cello lessons and hear the greats at Carnegie Hall. At eight, he first
performed on the cello.
Uncles, aunts and cousins had gathered around, as he scraped and sawed his way through his solo. At
the end, they’d applauded; he was hugged and kissed and patted on the head. Tea and cake were
served on his mother’s best china. In the background, his parents stood beaming.
As a kid, he devoted hours to the daily toil of practice. He played in student recitals, orchestras and
string quartets. He lugged that big black case back and forth across the city. Each year, he prepared for
competitions, hoping to win a scholarship, trophy, plaque or prize. Behind it lay a dream, a secret wish.
Some day to graduate from the Juilliard School: to make his parents proud.
But he failed to gain admission to a music school. Time after time, he blew the audition, before he finally
relinquished his wish. Months had passed. His practicing ceased. He mourned his lost vocation. The
mere presence of his cello (standing there accusingly in the corner of the room), had so depressed him,
that he forced his parents to sell it. The wooden embodiment of his dream.
Despite this, he was driven by the Will to Art, and attempted to switch from music to painting. Enrolling
in an art school, he took a load of classes. He spent the days drawing, visiting museums and private
galleries. But, after three years of study, his work failed to progress. He cut expenses, dropped his part-
time job, spent everything on canvas, brush and oils. Desperately, he sought a style; worked day and
night. He completed the entire curriculum, until it was time to obtain his degree.
He submitted his work to a faculty jury. And their damning critique on that unforgettable morning, had
convinced him he would never succeed. The will-o’-the-wisp of Art would forever elude him.
As he was now approaching thirty, his parents’ patience was fast running out. So he wished to make
amends. In accordance with their wishes that he chose a profession, he enrolled in the graduate
program in experimental psychology at C.C.N.Y. In record time, he completed his masters degree; went
directly on for his Phd. Three years later, he finished his dissertation: “On the Behavioral Psychology of
Artistic Creation”. He now began his path-breaking experiments in the programming of laboratory
The first of his subjects were carrier pigeons. Each pecked at a target and was rewarded with pellets of
food. The schedule of reinforcement grew more complex, as the targets were replaced with a miniature
keyboard. Electric shocks were added, so they pecked on cue. And, after a year and a half, a brown and
white pigeon had pecked out a short Bach chorale.
Rhebus monkeys were the subjects of his next experiment. A set of stimuli was designed to elicit
squeals, and these were transformed into more varied chains of behavior. After hundreds of hours,
these vocal chains began to resemble musical phrases. After many hours more, these phrases were
transformed into a piercing Gesualdo madrigal.
After nearly a decade of research, his results were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Drawing praise from the leaders in his field, he was given a full professorship at Columbia University;
gave a series of lectures at C.C.N.Y. An admiring graduate student now became his wife, and the future
mother of his child. Now a lifetime of work would find its final consummation in the ultimate
experiment: the programming of his son for genius.
He sought complete control of the infant’s environment. His research design contained hundreds of
pages: computer print-out, developmental charts, statistical graphs and tables. Everything was
quantified, scheduled with the utmost precision. Even the prenatal condition of the foetus had its place
within his scheme.
Exercise, rest and diet were prescribed during the mother’s confinement. Weekly examinations
monitored the infant’s growth; natural childbirth was selected for his delivery. Even the delivery room
was prepared with the infant in mind: temperature; lighting; visual field; music playing softly in the
Complications had developed, however; his wife had died in childbirth. As the infant had entered this
world, his mother had left for the next, leaving his rearing in the hands of the grief-stricken father. He
threw himself completely into the rearing of his son. With his characteristic thoroughness, he marshaled
The immaculate nursery was hermetically sealed. The walls were sound-proofed. The air was filtered. An
artificial skylight was installed, overhead. His crib was engineered for the maximum in safety and
comfort. And, on the walls around it, were hung reproductions of the paintings of Miro and Paul Klee.
Finally, music was piped in around the clock, beginning with the Mozart Piano Sonatas.
As the professor left for the lab each morning, Ruby took charge of his son. She was their maid and
housekeeper – a black woman, powerful, forty, nearly six feet tall. She wore a gray starched uniform,
crisp white apron, ankle-length socks with sturdy oxfords. Her hair was brushed straight back from her
forehead, held in place with hairpins behind the ears. Her eyes were brown – set in aged ivory, marbled
with Indian red.
First, she attended to his care and feeding. Next, came the apartment. She dusted, cleaned and swept.
The wash was carried downstairs, to the laundry room in the basement. After drying, it was brought
upstairs, ironed on a board, folded out from the wall. She prepared their meals; did all the shopping.
And, when the weather permitted, she would take him to the park.
They took the same route his father had taken earlier that morning. Leaving the great square of
Columbia University, they passed through its gold-crowned gates. Here, she took his hand; together they
crossed West Broadway. Continuing down the sloping hill, they arrived at Riverside Park.
Along its lofty aisles of poplars and oaks, the neighborhood residents strolled. Youngsters jogged, road
ten-speed bikes. Elderly ladies walked their dogs. Old men dozed on green park benches, with
newspapers fluttering in their laps.
As they passed through the entrance, a thick stone wall, she picked him up and carried him down the
long winding path. Past black iron rails, old-fashioned street lamps; till they finally reached the level
ground, where she set him down. Finding herself a seat on a green wooden bench, she removed the
needles and yarn from her big green plastic purse. Here, she knitted in the warmth of the sun, as he
played on the grass before her.
On that vast expanse of lawn – with its leaves and twigs and chestnuts – he lost himself in play. It was
here he first heard birdsong, blending with the rumbling traffic, and the airplanes passing overhead. The
stone walls they had passed had grown gigantic! They towered above him, covered with huge moldy
flagstones. The park’s inner wall stretched out below it, with the Westside highway and the Hudson
River, beyond. And, on the far side of the river, was industrial New Jersey, with its patchwork of ugly
factories and warehouses.
He chose a chestnut from the lawn. Held it in his hand. Peeling away its spiky skin, he saw the polished
wooden seeds at its center. A burst of chatter from the branches overhead, as the silver squirrels
dashed down from the trees! Graceful dancers, they could stop and start on a dime; dodge in and out of
the bushes. He met their eyes, as the squirrels crept forward toward bits of bread that Ruby flung in
their path. From the squirrels, his eyes were drawn to her cruel needles: flashing silvery in the sun. Her
skeins of wool were slowly transformed into colorful sweaters and scarves. With a patient smile, she put
down her needles and eased herself up off the bench. Taking him by the hand, they now took a tour of
She taught him their names. The pinwheel suns of daisies. The coxcomb’s jagged red plumes. The hot
pink tulips like flames on slender wicks. She knew the names of the birds, as well. The firey-headed
cardinals. Sheeny blue-black ravens. And his favorites, the swift brown sparrows. He was entranced by
their flight – like blurred torpedoes, as they rose and dipped and tunneled through the air! He marveled
at their landing, like tightly-coiled springs, skipping lightly over the surface of the ground.
His world was fixed by Ruby’s love. In her presence, the world was transformed. The universe was a
riddle, overwhelming him with mystery. An infinite series of Chinese boxes, just waiting to be opened!
Each thing was seen for the very first time; each day was the dawn of an age. He was all-absorbing eyes,
a teeming mind, pouring out question after question.
Where did the mushrooms come from? Overnight, they appeared out of nowhere, made of a completely
different stuff from plants. Ruby picked one; placed it between his fingers. He squeezed it, with a laugh;
it crumbled between his fingers! It seemed like a plant of flesh. And there was the cocoon that – but for
the passage of time – held an ugly brown caterpillar or released a brilliant butterfly. His father called it
‘metamorphosis’. He whispered the magic word, repeated it to himself. Then he imagined himself Time
– the Sorceror Supreme – transforming the world with his wand.
He plagued them all with questions. Why does change occur? Why are we born? What came first? And
where did it come from? His father grew bewildered, threw his hands up in despair. But Ruby always
listened; tried her best to explain. And when their answers failed to satisfy him, she’d lift him like a
feather and lower him into her lap. She held him close in her strong brown arms, stroked his hair and
laid his head against her bosom, saying:
“Cry it out, chile. Let the hurt run down your cheeks. Tears are God’s gift to cleanse us of our sorrows.”
As she hummed to him, she rocked him in her arms. Till he wept himself to sleep in her lap.
The questions kept coming. Each answer triggered more. With his curiosity at its peak, his lessons in the
Each Sunday, he joined his father at the Metropolitan Museum. As they passed through its galleries,
they played a guessing game. Standing before a painting, his father described it in terms that he could
grasp. El Greco’s space was sticky pulled taffy; Seurat and Pissarro, a world of jelly beans. He learned to
recognize an artist by subject, brushstroke, technique. Blue and green – Cezanne. Dancers and jockeys –
Degas. Sinuous line – Matisse. And when he’d pleased his father, they would go for donuts. Through the
window, they watched the baker prepare the dough.
Placing flour on his fingers, he kneaded the dough into a mountain. Flattening it with a wooden rolling
pin, he punched out crescents and circles, with his silver cookie cutters. As a tray was filled, they were
tossed into a vat of oil. Up and down they bobbed and bubbled! When golden brown, he fished them
out, placed them in the slats of the flour-spattered tables. Some were brushed pink, chocolate or vanilla;
others injected with jelly or custard. Burying a dozen, they gobbled them up on their bus ride home.
On weekends, they visited the Museum of Natural History. Here, in hundreds of glass cases, were
animals and minerals. Deer antlers like branches in their brains. Eland, whose horns resembled twisting
black drills. And the condors, suspended by invisible wires. Crooked back. Tumor face. Talons to tear you
In the next room the blue whale swam through the air! A great gray blimp, he hung above their heads,
surrounded by monsters of the deep. The manta ray – a wing with a whip-like tail. And the fearful black
sea devil. Eyes on the ends of stalks. Razer-like wings. Jaws crammed with teeth, just waiting to devour
And there were the denizens of the mineral world: grape clusters of amethyst; malachite – green, like
fingers of felt. And the hundred-fold variety of mollusk shells: sea spirals; typhoons; pearl hurricanes.
After touring the museum, they would visit the neighborhood’s churches. The world’s largest gothic
cathedral, St. John the Divine, was only three blocks from their apartment. Here, he heard Bach on its
mighty organ, the Passacaglia in C minor. The earth shook with its pedal notes, shooting down through
his body to his toes!
The manual of the organ, in the choir of carven wood, stood at one end of the vast cathedral. At the far
end – a distance of nearly three football fields – was its broad arch of bright metal pipes. A bridge of
silver cylinders, it was mounted over the door, beneath the awesome blue Rose Window. Shafts of
mote-filtered light poured down through the dark, while, high above, was a tracery of stars. One great
wheel of light!
A solemn theme was announced in the bass on the organ’s rumbling pedals. With glacial momentum, it
slowly dissolved in arpeggio figuration. One by one, the double-fugue’s episodes were developed,
ending in the capstone of the coda. A river had flowed through the cavernous cathedral, down its aisles
of stone, past its gem-like windows, filling the universe with the majesty of Bach. A cathedral of sound
and sight had merged in his memory. Now his lessons on the piano had begun.
The first took place in his father’s study, in which an old brown upright stood beside the desk. On its lid
was a metronome and a marble bust of Mozart. He was placed before the keyboard, on a thick stack of
books; then the pyramid on its lid began to tick. His lessons began with scales, arpeggios, trills. Czerny
Etudes came next, followed by the Sonatinas of Clementi. He proceeded by the methods used by all
beginners: except that he accomplished in months, what others took years to learn. And the more he
learned, the more he acquired the taste for learning; as his mastery of the keyboard grew by leaps and
After that first year of study, he plunged into the basic repertoire; and through lessons in harmony,
began to analyze scores. Suddenly, he saw on the staff-ruled page what before he could only hear! He
named complex chords, as his father struck them off on the piano. And, at the end of his second year, he
received his reward: his first trip to Carnegie Hall. They would hear a recital by the great Soviet violinist,
Their seats were on the keyboard side, so close he could see beads of sweat on the artist’s massive
brow. Beneath his great jowl, he held the precious Stradivarius: it was balanced on his fingertips, cradled
in his powerful arm. And what a wealth of sound he drew from it. From the rich vibrato of its gypsy
lower register, to the bird-like trills at the top. And what matchless sostenuto: his bow seemed like it
never left the strings!
When intermission arrived, his father spoke to an elderly lady seated beside them. Dressed in lace and
black velvet – wearing sparkling diamond jewels – she listened to his father with a knowing air. Having
spent himself in homage to Oistrakh’s art, he paused to await her reply.
“He’s a consummate artist, surely.” She said in her shimmering contralto. “But you should have heard
Ysaye. Now there was a fiddler!” Pausing, she bent forward to explain to him.
“Oh, that was so so many years ago, my child. Indeed, I once heard Ysaye play the very same fiddle
Oistrakh is playing tonight. He performed Debussy’s final sonata. Ah, that was ages ago, when I was a
mere green girl in Paris. And the maestro himself had been seated in a box about our heads. He had but
a few more months to live, the poor man. He was slowly dying of cancer. But, once upon a time I was, as
you, my dear, are now: an initiate into the timeless world of art.”
She squeezed his hand. Brushed the hair off his shiny brow. Then gazed at him with her hazel eyes,
surrounded by their fine mesh of wrinkles. And while the adults had reminisced, he fantasized to
himself. The precious Strad was handed down, form one great artist to another. That brown and orange
violin. Those pairs of hands, in an endless chain. Thus, music history was embodied in that slender
wooden torso. “
After intermission, the program continued. Till they finally arrived at the last selection, the “Kreutzer”
Sonata of Beethoven. But, half-way through, they were startled by the snap of a wire! The artist had
broken a string. Undaunted, he proceeded off the stage. A few minutes later, he returned. On his face
was a smile; in his hand, another Strad. After tuning, he began where the music had been rudely
At the end of the thrilling finale, came a standing ovation. He could feel the applause wash over him,
break in waves at the great artist’s feet. But what left the deepest impression of all, was the change he
beheld in his father.
He leapt to his feet, shouting “Bravo, bravo!” he clapped and cried. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
Following three brilliant encores, they had streamed out the exits, carried by the crowd, down West 57th
Street, to the northbound Broadway bus. Soon the coach had arrived. They were on their way home.
The color remained in his father’s cheeks, as they sat pressed together on the warm, crowded bus. His
father placed his arm around his shoulders: held him close, in the hollow of his side. On that long ride
home, he made himself a promise.
Someday, he would make his father cry. Make him proud; make him feel such joy. Someday, this would
happen. And since that night – since their trip to Carnegie Hall, he had strived for nothing but this. It was
the force that drove him on and on: toward mastery; achievement; toward greatness.
He began public school; and having completed grades one through four with his father, enrolled in the
fifth-grade class at Morningside Elementary. Having never been left with strangers before, he dreaded
his first day of class. His very dreams were peopled with fantasies and fears. Then the morning of the
first day arrived.
Ruby laid out his stiff new clothes. She packed his lunch in a brown paper bag. After one more attempt
at pretending he was ill, they began the journey north on Amsterdam Avenue. They passed through the
neighborhood, and beyond, into uncharted regions. Then they turned at the corner, as the Morningside
School appeared before them.
Clinging to Ruby’s hand, he paused before the entrance. A ghastly fortress of gray concrete, it swarmed
with red and black graffiti. The ground-floor windows had metal grills. The broken upper windows had
long been boarded up. A brown iron obelisk stood out front, with the letters of the alphabet stamped
deep into its sides. On the far side of the building at the bottom of the hill, lay a fenced-in asphalt
playground and Harlem.
As he watched the children abandoned by their mothers, he was suddenly seized with fear. He buried
his face in Ruby’s skirts, clung fast to her leg. He peeped out for a moment: felt the big kid’s eyes. The
gazed at him with malice; cut deep with their mocking looks. Shamed by them, he released his grip on
her. Then the rasping alarm went off! Now she led him down the hall to the classroom door. As she
hugged him, he panicked: pissing in his pants!
Trying to hide the stain—spreading quickly down his pants – he turned away, crossed his legs, shielded
himself behind her. But despite this, they witnessed the deed. They tightened their circle. Pointed and
laughed. Now she took his hand, led him away; out the entrance and homeward, down the street. After
an hour, and a change of pants, he was back again: standing before the classroom door.
Turning the knob, he entered. His teeth were clenched; his hands, gripped in fists. After taking a seat, he
glanced around: he was a midget compared to the rest of his classmates. And there, in front, towering
above them all, was their teacher, Miss Vera Flynn.
She was a spinsterish creature, with rhinestone-encrusted eyeglasses; they leant a sinister slant to her
dark-penciled brows. Her voice was metallic. Her tone, dictatorial. Her facial muscles rigid, beneath the
pale ashen skin. An artificial smile was permanently painted on her dark red-painted lips. Everything was
a routine for Vera Flynn; everything was always done Her Way. It was mindless repetition from nine till
three, beginning with “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.”
It was hate at first sight. She made ‘school’ a dirty word. It resembled a prison with Miss Flynn, the
prison warden. And his sentence must be served. Yet he knew there was a difference between school
and education: his father’s lessons were another thing entirely. It was at this time that his private
curriculum was enhanced by the study of literature.
They began with Grimm and Anderson; read Graves’ The Greek Myths. The Odyssey, and finally arrived
at the King James Version of The Bible. He never forgot the day his father first read from Genesis:
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and
darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And
God said, ‘Let there be light’…”
“Where did the light come from?” he asked his father.
His father paused, annoyed. He tried to describe the god of Genesis. He was all-knowing, all-present, all-
powerful. He could even perform miracles: bring a universe out of the void. He spoke of the Jews and
monotheism; produced the prints of Blake and the frescoes of Michelangelo. But, despite his father’s
efforts, he refused to believe in miracles.
“But how can something come from nothing?” he asked, as his face lit up with a grin, adding, “And
where did God come from, in the first place?”
“God had always existed,” his father replied, “throughout all time and eternity.”
“But what came before that – before time and eternity?” he asked
Now his father tried another approach. “The Bible was literature, a piece of fiction. It was a story made
up ages ago, not the truth, not history, itself.”
“But it doesn’t make sense. It could never happen that way!”
His father reminded him of the fairy tales they’d read a few months earlier.
“But those are just for kids!” he replied.
His father paused. Creases marked his brow. His lips pressed tight in a line. Now he closed the Bible;
returned it to the shelf.
He must try to be patient. He couldn’t learn it all at once. They must take one thing at a time. When they
got to philosophy, he’d learn whatever he wished. But, today, they were studying literature. Couldn’t he
try to be patient and listen?
But he had no patience. Refused to listen. He wanted the answers now. When his father left for the
afternoon, he searched them out for himself.
Later that day, he tiptoed into the study. After going through the shelves, he found the section on
philosophy. Grabbing works by Descartes, Hume, Leibniz and Spinoza, he brought them back to his
bedroom, and locked the door. And as the months went by, he worked his way through the classics of
First, there was Descartes. Doubt this, doubt that, doubt everything – even your own existence!
Skepticism went to his head; he became a fanatic. Truth, no matter what the price. Reason, applied
without mercy. Occam’s Razor flowed with the blood of his victims. All heads rolled before the blade of
With the Meditations on his knees, he daydreamed about philosophy. In one, he engaged in dialogue
with the demon of Descartes. Curiously enough, he assumed the features of Paganini. A dark, lean,
sneering Frenchman, he wore lace on his collar and on the cuffs of his satin sleeves. He trotted out
arguments form premise to conclusion. Leapt from thesis to antithesis in the twinkling of an eye! He
dazzled him with dialectic, prodded him with paradox, bafled him with his diabolic proofs.
Now he plunged headlong into Hume, into Leibniz and Spinoza: the devastation of the Miraculous; the
refutation of free will; the denial of the reality of Space and Time. Why, even the material world was
obliterated by the wicked Bishop Berkeley! Then he finally arrived at his namesake, Immanuel Kant, and
his knock-down arguments against the existence of God. Herecy coursed through his veins, sending him
reeling with the power of thought. Thus, the fuse of rebellion was lit. It first flared up in Miss Vera
It was his turn, that morning, to deliver a book report. Amid snickers and whispering, he expounded on
Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The arguments for God’s existence were demolished, one by one. Until
the nature of his remarks finally dawned on their teacher. Good God, what was he saying? It was
scandalous! Blushing, she interrupted in her strident voice:
“Immanuel, return to your seat immediately!”
As another pupil gave her book report, he returned to his seat. He passed by rows of eyes and small,
murmuring lips. Then she marched up to his desk, took him firmly by the wrist, and led him from the
classroom down the long hall, into the office of the principal, Mr. Bookstein. The principal delivered a
speech. On and on, he droned, describing what a child of his age should read. Then he was handed an
envelope containing a letter to his father. It demanded a conference between principal, parent and
After returning from a conference, the following week, his father took him into his study. He could read
whatever he pleased at home, he said. He was proud of his curiosity, his independent spirit. But, at
school, he must obey his teachers. He must obey them, even when they were wrong. For, although he
might be ready to deny God and the miraculous, his classmates were another story. Their parents
wouldn’t want them exposed to such things. It was up to them to decide what they did and didn’t learn.
He listened to his father. Tried to take it all in. But he couldn’t understand what harm he’d done. Why
not tell kids the truth? Wasn’t that what school was for?
Even truth, his father replied, might sometimes be inappropriate. At the wrong time or place, it might
even do harm.
He couldn’t understand this line of argument. Were they afraid to tell kids the truth? Were they hiding
something from them?
So, at school, he dished out whatever his teachers asked for; got straight A’s on all his report cards. But
he knew his teachers were wrong; made fun of them, behind their backs. And this daily duplicity started
him thinking. What was school really for? Why that pledge of allegiance? Who chose the books they
read? Soon the skeptical spirit was brought to bear on everything they taught him.
After three years study in piano and music theory, his father had taught him all that he knew. So he now
sought the services of Dr. Otto Hauer, a retired concert pianist, and student of the late, Artur Schnabel.
But, because Dr. Hauer accepted only a handful of pupils, Immanuel had to audition for him on a Friday
afternoon. He and Ruby walked to his apartment on West End Avenue. After giving him a big hug for
luck, she left him in the lobby. From there, he took the elevator to the seventh-floor apartment, where
he was warmly greeted by the gentle Dr. Hauer.
He welcomed him with a handshake, and an encouraging pat on the back. Then they passed through a
series of old dark rooms – past faded carpets, dusty drapes, heavy walnut furniture – and into his private
study, in the rear. The study had a musty smell. It was just barely big enough for the two Beckstein baby
grands. On the wall, behind them, were autographed photos of the century’s great musicians. Opposite
these were shelves of books, piles of music, and a library of scores. But the piece de resistance was a
cabinet in the corner, beneath a gold-framed portrait of Bach. In it were the treasures of a lifetime’s
devotion to art: letters from artists of yesteryear; crumbling programs from his many concert reviews.
And, on top, preserved under glass, was a wrinkled yellow letter of Mozart’s.
He was invited to take a seat at one of the marvelous old Becksteins. On the lid was a picture in a
tarnished frame of a pianist with a bushy gray moustache. (He would later learn that this was Artur
Schnabel, his teacher’s own world-renowned master.) His audition consisted of two selections he
already knew (one that he loved and one that he hated). He was to keep his preference secret.
Afterwards, there was sight-reading.
The old musician sat beside him at the piano, stooping slightly forward, as he listened. Out of the corner
of his eye, he watched him. He was a kindly old man – nearly eighty years old, with an aureole of fine
white hair. He wore three-piece suits, of a long-outmoded fashion; had an antique watch on a silver
chain, in the pocket of his vest. And a gold pince-nez rested on his pink bulbous nose.
He picked up a pencil, which he used as a baton. As he played, his teacher hummed along, in a faint,
breathy voice. And, at his favorite passages, he cupped his hand beneath his heart, and shook it with an
At the end of the audition, Dr. Hauer accepted him as his pupil. He commended him on a sound
technique, and a natural grasp of the music’s structure. Then he retired to the kitchen, to celebrate,
with cookies and fragrant tea. It was here, in his cozy kitchen, with its copper pans on the red brick wall,
that he launched into tales of his musical youth in Berlin, during the nineteen-twenties.
A faded light shone in his eyes. He spoke of Schnabel’s Beethoven, Furtwangler’s Tristan, the Brahms’
Concerto played by Kreisler, Busch and Ysaye. He wove him tales of the great virtuosi. There was
Paganini’s stunt of breaking a string – completing a recital on the remaining ones. And the many amours
of the Adonis-like Franz Liszt, in the good doctor’s expurgated versions. Finally, there were the legends
of the prodigies: the Mendelsohns, Mozarts, Menuhins; the one-armed pianists; the prima donnas who
broke crystals with their piercing high C’s.
And when he was especially pleased with his young pupil’s progress, he would treat him to a pastry at
the neighborhood pastry shop. Later, they paid a visit to the doctor’s musical shrine. In the cabinet in
the corner were his treasures; his precious momentoes from the past.
Then one fine day he got the highest praise of all. That faded yellow letter was placed between his
fingers. And, as his teacher interpreted Mozart’s childish scrawl, he sat there trembling: holding history
in his hands.
Before he left, on that first afternoon, however, Dr. Hauer had spoken of what it meant to devote one’s
life to music.
His audition had been decided after five minutes playing. Surely, he had the makings of a concert artist;
the talent was there in abundance. But it took more than talent to make a musician. It took years of
hard work and patience. Above all, he must have patience. Hard work and patience. And place his trust
in his teacher and the ripening of time. For, from the opening bars of his Liszt selection, he could tell
that his heart wasn’t in it. The notes were there, sure, but the approach was superficial. Such an attitude
toward art was beneath contempt; it would never be allowed in his studio. An artist never
compromised. If he couldn’t do his best, he simply didn’t play. That was the only kind that he taught: the
only real kind.
Furthermore, concerts and competitions were out. If a pupil concertized or competed without his
permission, he would drop him on the spot. He had seen too many pushed – to far, too fast: sacrificed
on the altar of a parent’s or teacher’s ambition. Surely, insufficient talent was fatal. But there was also a
danger in having too much.
Taking a picture from the piano, and wiping it with his sleeve, he imparted to him what his master, Artur
Schnabel, had once told him. A musician, unlike a prodigy, took many years to make. Years of practice,
years of listening, years of study and re-study, of the classic repertoire. Yet ,once he was made, he
would last forever. But a prodigy was merely a five-legged calf in a circus: when the creature matured
and lost its odd leg, the crowds and the applause disappeared.
In honor of his acceptance as a pupil of Dr. Hauer, his father bought him a bull terrier pup, christened,
Bruckner. He was a muscular little beast, with a stump-like tail. He had tiny pink eyes, sharp-pointed
ears, and a broad toothy grin. And no matter how hard they scrubbed his white, short-haired coat, he
always looked unclean.
On weekends, he and Ruby would walk him. They strolled down Broadway, or down the tree-shaded
paths of Morningside Park. When people first saw Bruckner, they stopped to stair; some did a double-
take when spotting the homely pup. Then one afternoon they met a tall skinny kid who – stopping dead
in his tracks, declared: “That’s the biggest white rat I’ve ever seen!”
That smart-Alec kid, Willy, became his closest friend. Willy was nearly twelve; and because of his
precocious height, appeared even older than his age. But, despite the difference in years, they hit it off
at once. He dubbed Willy, “the Weed”, because of his lanky frame, sprouting hair, prodigious rate of
growth. Willy played cicerone to this younger chum on their many explorations.
On weekends, they met at the entrance to the subway, where they descended into the depths of the
IRT. There, at the bottom of that long flight of stairs, lay a crumpled old man in a heap. His shoes were
shards of cardboard and leather, held by dirty, twisted string in a myriad of clumsy knots. Soot and
stubble covered his face. Dirt lined his broken nails. And there, beside ankles with exposed scabby sores,
were his possessions in two bulging bags.
He paused before the bag man, arrested by his eyes. Then Willy led him on, to a small glass booth,
where they cued up in line with the others. After purchasing tokens, they popped them in the slots, and
passed with a snap through the turnstiles. Taking one more flight down, they waited with the crowd for
The Columbia Station had blue and white tiles, painted wooden benches and posters with adds on the
walls. The tracks beside the platform were strewn with trash, the steel rails receding into pitch-black
holes. Most of all, it was the noise that impressed him. The thunderous din, the clickety-clack, the
grinding of steel as the trains screeched to a halt. And the rasping speakers – announcing every stop –
ending with an ear-splitting squeal! Their train arrived, as they now squeezed in; barely getting in before
the doors slammed shut behind them.
In this bullet charged with people they shot through the dark. Every type, race and nation stood or sat
there before them, staring at the ads above the seats, avoiding each other’s eyes. The graffiti illumined
by livid neon light. And together with graffiti and rows of ads over their heads, there were pop cans and
newspapers that rolled and lapped at their heels.
Moving down the aisle was a blind old woman. Out of her accordion wheezed “Raindrops Keep Falling
on My Head”. She wore a faded print dress, a moth-eaten sweater. Her skull was visible beneath her
lose, chalky skin. Most looked away, avoided her sunken sockets. But a few took change from their
pocket or purse, dropping coins in her battered tin cup. He slipped a quarter in, as she passed down the
After a roller-coaster ride through the bowels of the city, they arrived at the Times Square Station. Here,
they shoved their way through the bustling crowd to emerge at the Broadway corner. Times Square lay
before them: the Big Apple’s hard, rotten core.
Six stories up strutted a billboard cowboy puffing smoke rings from a giant white Marlboro! On the
street’s far side, on another giant billboard, was a red-haired, freckled brat, eating a Colonel Sander’s
drumstick as big as a horse! Running parallel down the street, were the movie marquees. “Chainsaw
Massacre”. “Women in a Cage”. “The Secret Sex Life of the Savage”. There were souvenir shops, peep
shows, dude boutiques. Odors of pizza by the slice and gyros.
As they pressed through the crowd toward seedy 8th Avenue, the song of pushers was whispered in their
“Loose joints, my man. THC and uppers. Loose joints – get ‘em while they’re hot!”
“Nickel bags, dime bags. Acapulco gold. Get your joints in bags right here!”
They turned the corner, passed a shoeshine stand. Beside it were hookers with foot-high, beehive
hairdos. These careworn sirens eyed the swarms of men, saying:
“Going out, babe?”
“Wanna party, hon?”
He spied a teenage hooker. Her t-shirt read “I Love New York”. She brushed past Willy, saying:
“How about it, baby? Suck or fuck?”
On the far side of 8th Avenue, before an X-rated show, marched an elderly black man haranguing the
crowd. Sandwich boards covered him – front and back – with phrases from Isaiah in fiery red script.
Snow-white hair. Skin like leather. He preached with tears in his bloodshot eyes, with the sweeping
gestures of his gnarled, black hands.
From 8th Avenue, they headed north to Central Park. Here, they bought hotdogs and cans of Nehi pop.
Then they sat in the shade, on a bench near the fountain, as the city paraded before them.
Some took leisurely strolls. Others picnicked on the lawn, beneath the trees. Wolfhounds, setters,
pampered white poodles. Cyclists on ten-speed bikes. Joggers in sweat suits by Christian Dior.
Youngsters tossed frisbies, flew colorful kites, weaved in and out of the crowd on their skateboards. And
there were Central Park’s usual cast of characters.
Hari Krishnas – with prickly pale heads, wearing yellow robes and jewels puncturing their nostrils. They
befowled the air with incense, with their tambourines and chants, as they danced in a circle, round and
round, mindless young machines.
Next came Moonies – with brush cuts, ponytails, conservative dress, whose leafleting battalions pursued
you through the streets. They were followers of the Reverend Moon – a convicted felon, fascist and
Korean millionaire. They wore permanent smiles on their round, rosy faces, as they accosted you with
pamphlets, forced a trinket or flower into your hand.
Finally, came the hippies – with long hair, beads and sandals. The graceful mimes, in make-up and tights.
And the sidewalk musicians who played for the crowd – for coins tossed into a battered black hat, or an
instrument case at their feet.
As time passed, he and Willy grew inseparable. And from their explorations of the outer world, they
plunged into the inner world of sex. Willy was his guide to this wondrous realm: with its phallic god;
hedonist creed; primal rites and rituals. He remembered the occasion, years before, when he had
entered the nursery where his newborn cousin lay.
In the basinet was a naked baby girl. His eyes were fixed on the cleft between her thighs. His father and
aunt paused for a moment to watch him. A look was exchanged between them; a smile appeared on
their lips. Feeling the force of their eyes, he quickly left the room.
Later, he asked his father about the thing he’d seen. When he grew up, he was told, he would learn all
about that. As his father failed him, he now turned to Ruby. But all she told him were legends. About the
birds and the bees. About seeds in the ground. About proverbial storks on rooftops. As his elders failed
him in his earliest quest to know, he now turned to Willy for the answers. Not that Willy simply told him
in so many words. But from what he said and the things he’d seen for himself, the Riddle of the Universe
was resolved. A piece of the puzzle fell into place on the night he slept over at Willy’s.
They had pepperoni pizza delivered to their door. Then stayed up late and watched “The Bride of
Frankenstein”. At the end they retired. After getting undressed, Willy opened the door of his bedroom
closet. There, beneath the underwear and socks, lay his secret stash of “Playboys”.
He removed his favorite centerfold from the bottom of the pile, then turned off the overhead light. He
placed the paper goddess on the floor beneath his lamp, as Immanuel gaped, astonished. Kneeling
before their icon, they worshiped with their eyes. Then a mattress creaked from Willy’s parents’
Willy switched off the lamp. Hid the pictures under his pillow. Then they leapt into bed, pulling the
covers over their heads. And as Willy fell asleep – freshly primed for wet dreams – he layed awake,
During the following weeks, they began a serious study of girls. After surveying the field, they found a
number of posts to observe from. One was the garden of the Barnard cafeteria.
Here, they sat with a book in their laps, as the coeds streamed past. Neither said a word to these “older
women”. All they managed was worship from afar. Another of their favorite spots was the
Bloomingdale’s cosmetic’s department.
They observed the pretty salesgirls, fauna indigenous to the brightly-lit displays. Surrounding each was
the colorful flora: lipsticks, ruge, nail polish, powder – in countless scents and shades. From here, they
strolled down the Avenue of the Americas. And as they walked among the women – on their break for
lunch – they were brushed by hands and curving hips, made drunk by their sweet perfumes.
Now they passed before the Time-Life Building, munching on a pretzel with mustard. As they sat girl-
watching, he raised his eyes. High above, behind millions of windows, the city’s business was being
transacted. Great walls of glass receded down the street. A Grand Canyon of stone and steel.
Then the day dawned when sex awakened within him.
He was sitting at his desk, reading, when he felt something caused by the crossing of his legs. He tried to
continue reading, but was side-tracked by that feeling. Then memories began to stir. He finally gave up,
closed the book with a bang. Crossing his legs, he let his mind drift. Before he knew it, his hand had
journeyed down, as he remembered the day he’d barged into the bathroom.
Opening the door, he was startled to see Ruby naked. His gaze fixed on her nipples: the eyes of her huge
“I’m sorry” he had said in a choked-off voice. Then he closed the door behind him and fled.
His thoughts now drifted to the school cafeteria, where each day at lunch a tall girl rose to leave the
table. They were packed together on the bench beneath the table, so she was forced to lift her tight-
fitting skirt. Stepping over awkwardly, she pulled it down, smoothing it into place with a blush. He
couldn’t help staring at her long white legs. He tried to look without being seen, but she always caught
him in the act. Her withering look pierced him; made him turn away with shame.
Now the image of Ruby’s breasts once again appeared, reminding him of his father’s study. When his
father left the room, he would flip through his National Geographics: searching for photos of African
girls in nothing but beads and long grass skirts. When his father returned, he flipped back to the text,
pretending to read an article.
After school, one day, he took a copy into the bathroom. Locking the door, he turned on the faucet. The
sound of water was his disguise; they would think he was taking a bath. Seated on the toilet, he fell into
a trance. As he gazed at the picture of his Nubian Queen, he was transported to the heart of a tropical
forest. To the strains of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre, an age-old ritual unfolded.
The secret rites continued till Judgment Day: the day his father burst through the bathroom door.
He was caught in the act. Their eyes had met. He would never forget that look on his face. His father
turned and stormed out of the bathroom, slamming the door behind him. But the force of nature was
too strong. So he continued to wrestle with the Angel of Onan: he resisted for a while; but succumbed
again and again. Then the day of enlightenment finally arrived. He was tossing a frisby that afternoon on
the steps of the Columbia Library.
At the feet of the statue of Alma Mater – with a pigeon perched on her head – they hurled the frisby
back and forth. Bruckner rushed beneath the whirring disk. And when it neared the ground, he leapt up
to catch it – fastening on the frisby with his shark-like teeth. Panting and wagging his stumpy tail, he
retrieved his plastic prize.
Willy wiped his slaver off, and flung it back. Then he began to sing a song:
”Ta ra ra boom de ay
Have you had yours today
I have had mine today
From a girl across the way
She laid me on a couch
And all I said was ouch
Won’t her mommy be surprised
To see her tummy rise.”
Over and over, he sang this odd song. Till the clues and hints and apocryphal tales had suddenly snapped
into place. Eureka! – the riddle was solved.
“So that’s how you do it!” he shouted, hurling the frisby skyward.
Willy ran toward him, with Bruckner hot at his heels. Now he lifted him off the ground, crying:
“So you finally figured it out!”
They cavorted about, laughing and shouting: while Bruckner did a dervish dance, barking and wagging
Now everywhere he looked, Sex reared its horny head. In pairs of flies, riding piggyback in the air. In
mounting dogs in Riverside Park. On magazine covers, in coed’s crotches, in the sandpaper swishing of
hose. Why, everything seemed saturated with sex! He could hardly wait to tell his father he’d plucked
out the heart of the mystery.
Late that night his father returned from an aggravating day at the lab. As he slammed the door,
Immanuel threw his arms around him: blurting out the facts of life in Willy’s own four-letter words. A
stern look appeared on his face.
“Who in god’s name told you that?” he said, as he took him severely by the wrist.
“Who told you that, Immanuel? Where did you hear such language?”
Caught off guard, he said he’d read it in a book. But his father saw through him, saying:
“What book – tell me. You’re lying, Immanuel. Where could you have possibly gotten such a book?”
If he mentioned Willy, then he would surely be in trouble, too. So he stood there, not saying another
“Tell me this instant. I’m waiting for an answer.” his father said.
Tears came into his eyes, as his father squeezed his wrist. But he continued to stand there; refused to
speak. So he was led into the bedroom. His father took a bar of soap and stuck it into his face, saying:
“I’ll ask you one more time…Well?...Don’t say I didn’t warn you. This is what happens to boys that lie,
who use dirty words, who refuse to answer their fathers.”
He was forced to bite that bar of soap. It was the worst thing he’d ever tasted. He gagged; became
nauseous; then puked all over the floor. Weeping, he was sent to his bedroom without dinner.
At seven, he began to prepare for his first public performance. The time had come for the scrutiny of an
audience, who, unlike his father, Ruby or Dr. Hauer, would judge him with the detachment of strangers.
His debut took place at a party given by the chairman of his father’s department. So, fearing to look bad
before his father’s colleagues, he practiced away with a vengeance. But, as the day drew near, his
anxiety grew immense. His dread revealed itself in a terrible craving for sweets. It was his only means of
escape from the awful pressure. And the only place where this craving could be cured was at the
neighborhood Hungarian Pastry Shop. Here, he met Willy each afternoon after his daily bout at the
It was filled with the aroma of freshly-roasted beans, exotic teas and the bakery’s odors. Students sat at
its long wooden tables, beneath posters in gleaming chrome frames, talking art or politics, doing
homework, while munching on a roll. The waitresses squeezed through them, loaded with trays of
platters and cups. Taking orders, they served and cleared tables, refilled empty cups with a fresh pot of
coffee. But his favorite spot was the display case at the front of the shop.
On doily-covered trays, behind the polished glass, lay the sweets in all their glory. Golden-brown
horseshoes flaked with slivered almonds. Sugar cookies inlaid with blackberry jam. Multi-layered tortes
topped with whipped cream and a cherry. Beside them were his favorites – plump chocolate éclairs –
bursting with creamy yellow custard! And on the shelves behind them, were mountains of croissants
and brioches, heaps of apple and cherry turnovers.
They sampled them all in those weeks before his debut. He and Willy engaged in feeding frenzies, like
sharks at the whiff of blood. But, however many Willy ate, he always remained skinny as a rail. Unlike his
friend, he grew a large pot belly (a permanent feature of his rather skinny physique). When the day of
his performance finally arrived, he could barely fit into his tuxedo.
His debut took place on a warm summer night, at the chairman’s elegant Riverside Drive apartment.
Ruby helped him button his stiff white collar. She tied the bow of his tight black bow tie. He squeezed
into his black woolen tux (the material itched like crazy). Then he and his father had taken a cab to the
entrance of the Riverside Drive apartment.
They were ushered into the living room by their distinguished, white-haired host. It was filled with
guests, in gowns and tuxedoes, gathered around the bar and the banquet table. At the far side of the
room, were curtained French windows. They opened on a fairyland view. He stepped outside, leaned
over the rail, gazed out at the isle of Manhattan. In the distance was the Hudson: a thread through
After numerous introductions, he was led to the banquet table. Greedily, he loaded his large white
plate. He barely finished wolfing it down, when he was informed it was time to begin.
As their host introduced him, he approached the black baby grand. A thick book was placed on the piano
bench to help him reach the keys. But, as a result, he couldn’t reach the pedals. With his father’s help
this was corrected; then he bowed his head. He grew weary waiting for the end of the chairman’s
speech. He scratched his itchy pants, yanked at his tight bow tie. Them – amidst the clinking of ice
cubes, the tinkling of forks against china, and the cigarette smoke gathering in a cloud above his head –
he finally struck the opening chords of the 14th Sonata of Mozart.
Nervous, he rushed through the stormy first movement. As he neared the end, he heard his audience
begin to desert him. They whispered, chattered, moved back and forth for food. Disturbed, he attacked
the final chords. Now he paused, attempting to concentrate. Before the beginning of the great Adagio,
he dared to glance up. Now he saw her standing at the end of the piano.
She had arrived at the party only moments before, but witnessed her colleagues rude behavior. Seeing
the distress in his eyes, she left her seat to stand beside the piano. And from the moment he beheld her,
all his hurt had disappeared. Now he played for her alone. Together they shard Mozart, as he gazed into
Deep green, framed by a black mane of curls, falling down her broad bare shoulders. Below, between
her breasts, was an African charm, necklace of black beads and brass. She displaced the space around
her like a tribal queen: imperious; resplendent; wresting dominion over them all.
Pouncing on the final chords, he made them roar with a bit much pedal. Now he fell back, exhausted, in
his sweat-soaked tux. A smattering of applause was heard. Then, with fear and trembling, he raised his
eyes to hers. Her green eyes brimmed with tears. Whispering “Bravo, bravo!” in her deep rich voice, she
reached her hands out to his. Taking his fingers, she raised them to her lips, kissing Immanuel’s hands.
Dr. Magda LaMartin was a visiting scholar from France. Columbia University had invited her to deliver a
series of lectures on her newly published book, Psychoanalysis and the Artist. At the end of his
performance, they were introduced. And, while she and his father had spoken about their work, he
munched on chocolates and devoured her with his eyes. Her lectures were scheduled for the late
afternoon, so both he and his father could attend. The opening lecture was entitled, “Mozart’s Family
The lecture hall was packed, due to the critical success of her book. In a tight cashmere sweater, jeans,
and tall black boots, she stood at the lecturn before them. When the applause died down, she began to
address them, describing the conditions that had fostered Mozart’s genius. She began with the contrast
between his parents.
His father, Leopold Mozart, was himself, an accomplished musician. He was well educated, determined,
and above all, ambitious. Compared to his son, however, his gifts were modest. But he recognized his
son’s talent from the age of three, and began his training in earnest. Both Wolfgang and his sister were
exposed to music: were encouraged to emulate their father and his musician friends. Next came
Anna Maria was of an entirely different nature. A typical German hausfrau, she lacked her husband’s
advanced education, but possessed the traditional values of her sex. She was a loyal wife, an excellent
cook and housekeeper, and a warm and nurturing mother.
It was this parental combination – the severe, demanding father, and the soft, supportive mother – that
provided Mozart with the ideal environment for the growth of his genius. Even his unusual dependence
– well into his twenties, possessed a rare creative benefit. It helped him to preserve a state of what she
called “perpetual childhood”. He was in constant touch with his infantile roots, while at the same time,
wide open to the sensory world around him.
Professor LaMartine concluded her lecture with the story of Mozart’s mother’s death.
She focused on this scene in the young boy’s life. The mother and son in the strange, foreign land of
Paris. The cramped, foetid quarters, in which they were forced to stay. The sweltering summer heat,
that drained her of her strength. Then illness had taken hold.
He desperately sought help. Sought the service of one doctor, who never arrived. Found another, who
had arrived too late. And, as the weeks dragged on, he watched his mother die. She had wasted away
The lecture had ended on a speculative note. His mother’s death might well have been the root
experience that gave rise to his greatest tragic works. The 14th Sonata, the 24th Piano Concerto, the
“Kyrie” and “Qui Tollis” from his C-Minor Mass. Perhaps the sonata’s “Adagio” was a memory of his
love; the awesome “Qui Tollis”, his grief for her, unleashed. His music had been her epitaph.
In the following weeks, her lectures had continued. Each concerned the relationship between an artist’s
life and his work. There was “Baudelaire and His Mother”, “The Brothers Van Gogh”, “Beethoven and His
Nephew”, as well as others. After the final one, he and his father had attended a reception in her honor.
She asked him to play for her, once again, and had invited him to lunch the following day.
She was staying in an apartment on the Upper West Side (it belonged to a wealthy art dealer, who was
spending the year in Europe). He arrived by taxi; was cleared by the doorman (in red, with golden braid).
Then he took the elevator to the penthouse on the seventeenth floor.
She met him at the door, in sleeveless blouse and jeans, welcoming him with a kiss on the cheek. Taking
him by the hand, she had led him into the apartment’s gallery. On its bare white walls hung a series of
paintings, the owner’s shrine to the greats of American art of the mid-century. He had yet to appreciate
these artists. Magda would be his instructress in Modernism.
Motherwell. Rothko. Newman. Gottlieb. Louis. Then they came to a Franz Kline. The others were
comparatively static; Kline was dynamic. In raw black slashes force was contained. Violence fixed in
Seeing he was tired, she gave him a hug. He mustn’t be discouraged, she said. We all must learn to see.
It had taken her many years. It would take time, for him, as well.
It was late that afternoon, before they had finished their lunch. He had told her all about himself.
Trusting her instantly, he had fallen in love.
After lunch, they retired to the study. Here, he sank into the soft white cushions of the sofa, as she put
on Boulez’s recording of Debussy’s La Mer. On the cover was Hokusai’s “The Great Wave”.
They listened to Debussy’s masterpiece. As he began to nod off, she drew him close to her. Curling up in
her lap, he put his head between her breasts and listened to her heart beat, within. And, as he lay in her
arms, her pulse became the seas’. Her warmth, the warmth of the waves. Now he dreamt of “the Great
Wave”, in the distance, bearing down upon him.
Towering above him, the Wave had approached. He was scooped up – in an instant! – by its big blue
hand, carried away from the shore. Hurled like a ball and caught, tossed through wind and wave and
curling tongues of foam. Till the shore disappeared, sea and sky mixed, and he finally became one with
In the weeks that followed, they went everywhere together. And he began to compose as he never had
done before. He had written the usual student stuff – minuets, chorales, simple canons and fugues. But
it was only now that his real works began. Out they poured; it seemed to write itself. And everything he
wrote, he wrote for Magda. His first composition had come to him while sitting on the beach.
They visited the beach together. But by the time they had arrived, it was already jam-packed, wall-to-
wall bodies and blankets. Wending their way through the bathers, they had found a patch of sand.
Spreading their blankets out, they peeled off their clothes. Then he took his pail and shovel, and sat by
the edge of the sea.
Here, he sat for hours on end, lost in the sunlight and rhythm of the waves. He built sand castles—with
parapets, motes and towers – filled with water from his red tin pail. And when his palace was complete,
he watched the tide destroy it. Faults appeared. Walls had shifted, as the foundations were slowly
undermined. Then, with one last shove, it had crumbled at his feet. Glancing backward, he now saw
Magda rise, as she ran to play tag with the waves.
Up and down she ran, just a step ahead of the surf. It doubled back to catch her, with a sweep of its
darkening sand. Back and forth she was chased by the tide, leaping in and out of its bubbling foam. Then
she tired, turned around. Now she ran, sprang upward and plunged headlong into the sea!
Then out she came, foam at her feet, light streaming down her sides. Black hair, green eyes – like the
sea, itself. Now a thread of music unwound in his mind: the theme of his Opus 1, for the piano. On
another day they had visited the Cloisters.
The bus dropped them off on its black cobblestones, before the walls of this mediaeval structure.
Shrubbery, green trees and ivy hugged its walls. Inside, were buildings of sand-colored stone, with
Romanesque windows and orange-colored rooves. Rising out of their midst was an ominous tower.
Above, a cloud whale had passed, blotting out the sun.
They entered through its oaken doors, studded with black wrought iron. At the center of each was a
great metal knocker, woven of strands of steel. They proceeded down the hall of thick stone blocks, till
they finally arrived at the Unicorn Tapestries.
In the dimly-lit gallery of stone and oak, the Unicorn cast its spell upon them. He saw himself in this
horse with its tapering horn. He followed its legend – from one scene to another. And as he became
immersed in its woven world, a trumpet theme sounded in his mind. With each successive tapestry, the
theme had grown, as other voices joined with the first. Each of his Variations, Opus 2, for trumpet and
organ, would be based on a panel in the series.
On their bus ride home, he put his head in Magda’s lap. And, as he dreamt of his “Hunt of the Unicorn”,
the music began to weave in his head…Finally, there was the Sunday they had spent at the zoo.
As they arrived, they were greeted by the honking of the Canada geese. He watched their squadron
approach from the distant sky. As the gradually flew closer, their ghostly V’s assumed the solidity of
birds! With necks snaked forward, curving wings, and pink pointed tongues – they slid onto the surface
of the pond with a “Shhh…”, that diminished slowly into silence. Over brown rippling water they calmly
sailed, as their visitors moved on, toward an artificial cliff, nearby.
An elderly lion slept upon the cliff, dreaming of his long lost kingdom. His once proud robe was torn and
matted. A scowl spread across his white-whiskered jaws. In his dream he growled; raised a paw to swat
his prey. Then he was suddenly awakened by the geese! A groan emerged from deep within his chest, as
he stared at his mean and paltry realm. Resting his chin on his paws, he frowned in despair. They left
him, to walk to the House of Birds, where they came upon an eagle on a dead tree trunk.
The great general’s wings were split and frayed; his tallons, dull and cracked. Now he sprang into the air
in the sweeps and assaults of battle! But all he could manage was to circle his cage, bruising his wings
against the fenced-in sky.
They strolled through the park, passing cages and enclosures. In each was a captive animal. The great
grandfather elephant, in his wrinkled bag of skin. The graceful gazelles, who leapt like a corps de ballet.
Then they finally arrived at the Monkey House.
The grandma baboon, with neon-pink teats. Nibbling on a fruit with her toothless gums, she belched –
as her teats leapt upward! Beside her was a langur, with tiny Negro hands and face, framed by silver
hair. He sprinted about nervously, baring his pointed teeth. Then he suddenly turned on them: mooning
the crowd with his ass! As they left, they were serenaded by a chorus of chimps and howlers.
Now they came to a buffalo herd, lying in an arc, around a cow in labor. From the center of the group,
the bull looked on: a black-bearded prophet watching over his people. A skullcap of fur covered his
head, with ivory crescents of horn.
Immanuel’s attention now shifted to the cow in their midst. Shudders coursed over her sweat-soaked
hide: as a bag slipped out on to the grass! A filmy-white, it had red and blue lines, and was attached to
the mother by a thick white rope. Inside, something dark moved.
By now, a crowd had gathered. All gasped as the strange bag appeared. The cow chewed nonchalantly
through the thick white cord. She severed it; began to lick the bag. Soon, an awkward creature had
The calf stretched itself. Then, nudged by his mother, began a series of attempts to rise to his feet. Again
and again, he tried to mount his wobbly legs. But each time they had failed to support him. At last, he
vaulted upward! – balanced for a moment on his thin, scrawny legs. Then he collapsed, gasping and
A burst of applause from the audience greeted him: the little buffalo had triumphed! Magda threw her
arms around him, and lifted him high into the air! Together, they had witnessed birth, saw the victory of
mother and child.
Then his father had snatched him away from her. At the beginning of July, he had taken his well-earned
sabbatical. With the remainder of the summer free, it was the perfect opportunity for he and his son to
Europe, according to his father, was one vast museum. And, over the course of their tour, they would
see it all: every painting, sculpture, church and ruin of the slightest significance. To say the least, their
schedule was demanding. Catch this train. Check into that hotel. So many days per city, so many hours
per gallery. Sometimes it drove him to tears. So, by the end of August, with its heat and tourist hordes,
he could hardly tell one place from another! Because of his tender age, they were together all the time.
Tension-charged was the atmosphere; the smallest disagreement led to an argument between them.
And, as the weeks had passed (and they fell further and further behind schedule), a struggle began
between them in which the personal and aesthetic were one. Art became their battleground; his
rebellion, one of taste.
And how he longed for Magda! Her memory was the thing that sustained him. Each night (after a
grueling day of touring and museums), he would write to her of what he’d seen; and of the strife
between he and his father. And, as she answered him faithfully, he began to compose songs. It was she
who had introduced him to the poems of Baudelaire. He dedicated his songs to her.
With luggage, portable keyboard, and briefcase full of books – they arrived at Heathrow Airport. After
leaving their bags at the Russell Square Hotel, they caught a bus to the Tate Gallery to see the Turner
bequest. As his father read from Ruskin, they passed through endless galleries. He grew weary of Ruskin
and Turner both, until they finally arrived at the gallery containing the artist’s late works. Faces, figures
and history disappeared. All that remained were the forces of nature unleashed.
He was sucked into “Snowstorm”, swept into chaos of wind and wave. Across the room was “Yacht
Approaching the Coast”, in which the white sail’s velocity was caught in glistening vectors. Finally, they
came to the late watercolors, in which the whole world was dissolved into light: cliffs, into blue veils;
mountains, into luminous clouds. Later, as they passed through the Alps or Venice, he would see them
through Turner’s eyes.
As the weeks unrolled and their tour rushed by, his father read to him from book after book. He quoted
this on the Renaissance, that on the Nude, another on the Gothic cathedral. If only he permitted him to
see things for himself, instead of force-feeding him with a million critics! He was too young to decide for
himself, his father told him; the critics would do it for him. But he didn’t give a damn what the critics
thought. His father considered him arrogant; so he concealed his real thoughts.
From London, they flew to Amsterdam, where he defied his sleeping father. In the company of a college
kid, he met at their hotel; where he visited the notorious Red Light District. Near the hotel – not far from
the train station – it was a dozen square blocks – edged by tree-lined canals. Above them arched
bridges, mirrored in the sparkling river. On its banks were trees from which birdsong was heard
(between snatches of rock from the many bars and clubs). There were red brick buildings with baroque
stone gables. And between them ran the twisting streets – so narrow, even the foreign cars had trouble
In slow-motion men passed down these narrow streets, their eyes transfixed on the illuminated doors
and windows. Under red and green neon (like Van Gogh’s “The Night Café”), a gallery of sirens stood.
Some were framed in windows, or leaned against a doorpost, beckoning. Others strolled along the
canal, or stood with folded arms in a streetlamp’s glare.
Down the winding streets the men had moved, entranced by this vision of Eros. Libido electrified the
warm summer night, sent flashing tongues of fire through their limbs and loins. Now the boys halted
before a window. Surely, she was a masterpiece! As he waited downstairs, one of the older boys
ascended. Went slowly up those winding stairs…
On his first day in Paris, he peered out their hotel window; their room was located high above the
Boulevard St. Michel. In the distance were the gargoyles of Notre Dame, the Palais du Justice, the
bridges over the Seine. There were grand baroque structures of crème-colored stone, with black iron
rails and tall peaked gray-slate roofs. On the first morning, they visited the Louvre.
They arrived early, waiting in the block-long line. When it finally opened, they purchased tickets; then
made a mad rush for the Leonardo Gallery. Here, they stood before his “Virgin of the Rocks”.
A vision framed by a cavern of rock. The heavenly light; distant blue mountains. An angel kneeled beside
the mother and child: a youth with the wings of a bird. As his father read from Vassari’s Lives, he
remembered Magda and their trip to the House of Birds. Later, when he grew lonely (taxed by their
grueling schedule), it was the sparrows who always comforted him. They seemed to appear wherever
they went: in the flowerbeds of Russell Square; on the broken columns of the Parthenon; and on the
steps of the Duomo, in Florence. There, the little masked bandits stole crumbs from the pigeons, darting
away to perch upon the head of a sculptured saint.
In Paris, they visited the Musee Rodin. As his father read to him from Rilke, he circled the head of
Baudelaire. So this was the face of the poet of his songs! The face of a child with his eyes burnt out:
melted from gazing into the sun,
And there was the “Circle Window”, at Saint Chapelle. A gothic arch of violet and red: it was like seeing a
jewel from within! From Paris, they went to Colmar, and the Isenheim Alterpiece.
Upward they had gazed at the form on the cross. From swollen feet to thorn-torn legs. From knotted
knees to the gash in his breast, and the crown of needles on his head. Then the climax in the shrieking,
In the “Resurrection”, he rises in a golden flash of light, brightening the heavens and blinding the
soldiers below. But it was the “Temptation of St. Anthony” that he loved above all.
He had a name for each of this nightmarish cast. There was Turnipman, with his belly like a leprous sore.
Leechmouth, whose lips were lined with sharp-pointed teeth. Hawkhead. Flowerface. Weaselwoman.
And, in the midst of this hell broth, was the saint, himself, in flowing robes of blue and scarlet.
From their pensione’s balcony, he looked out over Florence: the cypresses and olives of its rich, Tuscan
soil; the sun-baked stucco and orange-tiled roofs; and rising there above them, Giotto’s Campanile, in
marble, green, white and rose. Florence was his favorite. It was small enough so you could walk almost
everywhere; and everywhere you walked, there was art.
From Italy, they sailed to Athens; and all the way across they were followed by great white seagulls. At
last, he had escaped from those huge dusty museums! For hours he leaned over the ship’s white rail.
Their wake was churned into bubbling foam; sizzling and hissing, as it met the assure waves. Seagulls
hung above, floating on black-tipped wings. They hovered on the wind; swept back and forth in arcs.
Then, suddenly spying a silver glint, one shot upward, compressed into a blade, and dropped. His
trajectory pierced the waves.
They passed isles of blue-gray mountains, recumbent in the midst. Till they finally docked at Piraeus.
Here, they were met by starlings, whose wings sliced the air. Their cries were like the sharpening of
blades, a visceral scrape of steel against steel.
Having fallen behind schedule, his father now stepped up the pace. Through blazing heat they marched
up to the Acropolis. Trudging up its sacred hill, they passed pale-green bushes, spiny-thorned shrubs,
cacti and the dark fingers of cypress. Bathed in sweat, they arrived at the Parthenon. There it stood, on
the base of the Acropolis, blue sky between its slender columns.
Behind it was a museum, with the Temple of Athena Nike. He marveled at these women with wings: the
female nude with the pinions of an eagle. And the miraculous drapery of these powerful pagan angels. A
shoulder, breast, the navel’s hollow – all heightened by the clinging cloth.
Through Greece they went, from one dusty ruin to another. Then they returned by boat to Italy, and
took the train to Rome. His father saved the Sistine Chapel for last.
When they entered this – the greatest room on earth – his father, for once, was speechless. In awe they
had gazed, as the chapel filled up with tourists. But before they left, his father’s eyes met his. Smiling
through his tears, he held him fast…He had such hopes for his son…In him, he’d invested his all…
He saw that look on his father’s face, as they pondered the “Last Judgment”…How could he ever live up
to such hopes? How could he ever please such a father?...
As they left, and he felt his father’s hand grasp his, he knew that he must try. For, despite his
unreasonable demands, despite his unreachable dreams – despite it all – his father loved him
It was at a party Magda gave them, to welcome them home from their tour, that he first heard his own
music played. The affair took place in the Soho loft of the painter, Richard Silverman. This big bearish
fellow, with beady eyes and a dour expression, was Magda’s current lover.
The loft had been converted from an old warehouse. It had two-story walls of white-washed brick, with
a grid of factory windows. At one end was the studio, where drop cloths were spread before paintings in
progress. In the corner was a rack of canvasses, untreated linen and stretchers. Beside it was a table,
cluttered with bottles of turpentine and linseed oil. Brushes, rollers and pallet knives, were arranged on
a shelf above the table. And beneath it were giant burlap sacks, filled with red and yellow and blue.
At the far end of the loft, were Magda’s guests. There were Columbia faculty, Richard’s painter friends,
various musicians and writers. A group of them met at Magda’s every week, where she hosted her own
salon. He would soon attend their cultural evenings; became a regular performer at the Sunday
musicales. A number of the people he met that evening would play a role in his future career.
After he and his father had been introduced, the conversation turned to their European tour. Primed
with champagne, his father spoke about their trip, and of the part it played in his son’s education.
Immanuel remembered a rather different version of their tour, as he sampled the chocolates from a
plate on the table. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Magda’s shoulder encompassed by Richard’s
Richard wore overalls and a faded flannel shirt; the shirt was unbuttoned to reveal his deep, hairy chest.
His loathing for Richard grew with every liberty he took with Magda, with each squeeze and stroke of
her beautiful arms. Until he finally interrupted Richard with a withering critique of one of his paintings.
Richard accepted it gracefully; then continued his reminiscences bout Jackson Pollack. But Immanuel
persisted, claimed that Pollack was over-rated, comparing him unfavorably with Motherwell, Rothko,
Newman and Kline. Richard had just about enough from this smart-alec kid, when Magda had changed
the subject. It was now that he was introduced to Aaron Yashinsky, his future impresario. Aaron, who
had arrived only a few minutes earlier, was a vivacious little man in his sixties. A retired entrepreneur,
he had a flare for clothes – wore bold cravats, custom-made shirts, and a red beret on his bare, bald
head. With a waggish grin, he winked at Immanuel, saying:
“Art is all well and good, my little man. But what about the ladies? What about the fair sex, the supreme
He spoke of Paris – of the ladies in particular, the femmes fatales, artists, the left-wing intellectuals. And
there were the celebrities he’d rubbed shoulders with; the openings, world premiers, the successes de
scandals of the avant-garde. Finally, he turned to its nightlife, comparing it with Amsterdam, London,
Berlin. Then, winking at the others, he once again addressed Immanuel, saying:
“And you, my little man – between your Rembrandts and Vermeers – did you happen to take an evening
off to visit the Sailor’s District? Did you spend any guilder on that sort of art, perchance?”
Tired of being the butt of his “my little man” remarks, Immanuel replied:
“Sure I did. That’s where Iost my virginity!”
They snickered and oohed at his clever retort. But, as the music was about to begin, Magda took him by
the hand to sit in the place of honor, beside her. Richard stood across from them – downing his third
scotch and soda, and lighting another filthy cigar. He would always picture him with that stinking turd
between his lips, poisoning the very air that he breathed.
Magda announced they were in for a world premier. To his dismay, he now discovered she was now
speaking of his Baudelaire Songs. She had shown them to a friend on the Columbia Music Faculty, who
prepared three of them, with accompaniment, for this evening. He felt an eerie sensation, as he heard
his own music performed. His thoughts assumed an independent life, standing there, accusingly, before
With each wrong note, he squirmed; he should have never let her see them! The final song, “La
Giantesse”, alone, had sounded as it should. Gazing up, he saw tears in her eyes. For a moment, he was
alone with Magda and the music. He imagined himself the cat – of which the poet speaks – nestled at
the feet of her, his queen.
The songs were applauded. Then the guest rose to congratulate him. Stan Hoffman, a young composer,
warmly shook his hand. Later, he spoke of his own compositions, and his work at the Columbia-
Princeton Electronic Music Studio. Finally, Aaron apologized for his earlier teasing remarks. Proclaiming
a toast to Immanuel, he said:
“To the genius in our midst! You mark my words, the kid’s another Mozart!”
It was the first time anyone had seriously called him a genius. In time, he would learn to hate that word.
After returning home from the party, his father had taken him into his study. He didn’t entirely approve
of Magda and her crowd, he said. Frankly, he feared their influence on Immanuel; feared they might
interfere with his plans. Nor did he care for Immanuel’s non-tonal music: he simply couldn’t hear it. He
had listened, studied the scores, read all about Schoenberg and his school. And it was the same with the
Abstract Expressionist painters he had come to admire. Magda had been the one who had introduce
him to these modernist trends.
He insisted that Immanuel have the freedom to write as he wished; he would always be free to choose
for himself. But, if he persisted in this manner – he warned him – only a handful would ever appreciate
his music. What was the point – if you didn’t communicate? If only experts could decipher your private
A gap began to widen between he and his father. As his music became more advanced, that gap soon
became unbridgeable. Magda had become his father’s rival. She might drive him even further away from
him, toward the dreaded avant-garde.
He performed often on the piano that year – both at Dr. Hauer’s student recitals, and at Magda’s
musicales. At Magda’s, he became acquainted with the latest in the arts – music from Stan, painting
from Richard, and theater, from Avril Johns.
Stan would bring a batch of the latest scores to analyze. They were printed in colored inks, written on
circular staffs, featured improvisation or magnetic tapes. They would put screws, pieces of wood or felt,
between the strings of the piano. For a harpsichord effect, they would stick thumbtacks in the hammers
of an old upright in the lab.
Stan took him to visit the Colmbia-Princeton Studio. Inside, was the Mark II Synthesizer, in a room like
the cockpit of a jet! He sat in front of the instrument panel – with its knobs, gages, reels of tape and
wires plugged into the bright silver sockets. He would make use of the studio later, in his incidental
music for Avril’s production of MacBeth.
Stan took him to hear Boulez conduct the New York Philharmonic. La Mer, Le Sacre, Daphnis and Chloe;
as well as new music at the Rug Concerts at Alice Tully Hall. Boulez was the universal musician –
composer, conductor, and theorist – all in one! He bought all his recordings, read his books, poured over
his intricate scores. And he was exposed to the latest painting and sculpture, as well.
He drank champagne and ate hors d’oeuvres at Soho gallery openings. Attended retrospectives at the
Whitney, Guggenheim and MOMA. His experience of the theater was provided by Avril Johns, whose
Off-Broadway company performed in a gothic church in the heart of Greenwich Village.
They passed through the church’s gray stone gate, by the sign announcing the current production and
the sermon of the week. In the lobby was a ticket booth, refreshment stand and photographs of the
players on a corkboard wall. From the lobby, they entered the church, itself. Its vault, wooden pews and
stained-glass windows, leant a supernatural air to their MacBeth.
On stage before him was Avril, putting his players through their paces. He was a wiry little man, with a
quick, driving rhythm. He had a nose like a beak, between twinkling, gray eyes. His hands appeared like
hummingbirds – zipping through the air – in an arabesque, karate chop, the punch of a fist or the stab of
a finger. Like a prize fighter, he bounced on the balls of his feet – sparing, shifting, springing back and
forth in a crouch. Through tempo, pitch, stress and pause, he made Shakespearean verse sound just like
an aria! He assumed and shed a character, played all the parts himself – always one step ahead of his
actors. As the rehearsal continued, Magda took him backstage.
Behind the curtains, at the rear of the stage, was a room filled with the company’s costumes, stored on
hangers on long metal racks. On shelves, above, were hats and masks, staffs and wicked sabers. Magda
gave him a private fashion show, dressed in velvet capes, silk brocade, jewels and powdered wigs. Then
he placed a rhinestone crown on her head: imagining her, his queen; and he, her knight in armor.
Avril showed him the switchboard that controlled the sounds and lights and wind machine. Like the
witches, he rose through clouds of dry ice, from a trapdoor beneath the stage. Like Tarzan, he swung
from an overhead rope – swooping down from the sky!
Avril’s love of the bard was contagious. He read the Varorium Edition, from the shelves of his father’s
study. Saw the Orson Welles and Kurosawa films at the Carnegie Hall Cinema. And, as Magda was
currently lecturing on “Shakespeare and Freud”, they often read scenes together on the Staten Isle
As the rehearsals progressed, so did his score. He borrowed a set of wheezing bagpipes, to add to the
alarums and flourishes of hautboys, drums and brass. In addition to these traditional sounds, he taped
the cries of crickets, wolves and owls. He mixed them electronically, with eerie echo-chamber effects.
Poor reviews greeted their production of MacBeth, but his incidental music received praise. Stan
suggested he submit a piece for the Composer’s Forum Concert. So he now began his Woodwind
Quintet. The idea for the composition had occurred to him while soaking in the bathtub.
He was lying in the tub, when his attention was drawn to the dripping of the faucet. The “plip plop”
emerged as a series of rhythmic combinations, as the radiator played an aria of stem and clanging pipes.
He tried to tap along on the side of the tub, but he could never quite anticipate the beat. But he jotted
something down: the germ of his Woodwind Quintet. Stan, a clarinet player, helped him arrange it. And,
as the deadline for the competition approached, he re-doubled his efforts to finish it. After completing
the composition, he had the score and parts copied. Then he sent them off in a yellow envelope, settling
back to chew on his fingernails.
As the months had passed, he became irritable, moody. He kept to himself, returning home from school,
alone, each day. He entered his bedroom and turned off the lights. With a set of earphones clamped
onto his head, he had listened to Gesualdo madrigals or the “Late Quartets”. And, when he finally
emerged from his solitude, he couldn’t help but take it out on Willy.
All the attention he had gotten had gone to head; he’d become a little prick. The mask of irony he’d
worn – to protect himself against his elders – now was turned upon his peers. It helped him combat the
bullies at school, and those who made fun of the “little genius”. But it was Willy, his best friend, who
bore the brunt of it.
Having started trumpet lessons earlier that fall, Willy’s rather modest ability was an irresistible target for
Immanuel’s caustic wit. There was no stopping the flow of invective inspired by the odd noises Willy
made. And, as the date of the committee’s decision drew near, their friendship felt the strain.
They met one day in Riverside Park. Here, Willy, “the Weed”, presented his calling card: a crumpled
white finger of marijuana. Immanuel nearly coughed his lungs out: before he knew it, he was blown sky
high! Then, suddenly, his mouth had taken over.
He let fly a string of howlers about Willy’s trumpet playing, till Willy blew up and shoved him off the
bench! But this only provoked him more. Willy grabbed him by the arm, and twisted it behind his back.
But, when he finally released him, he started all over again. Finally, Willy hauled off and punched him in
He felt nauseous; began to cry. Then he launched into a catalogue of Willy’s most intimate faults. When
he finally stopped and wiped away the tears, Willy stood there speechless, a hurt look on his face. Then
he turned, and walked away.
After that day in the park, they seldom saw each other. Willy would never again trust him: feared he was
laughing behind his back. His big mouth had cost him his closest friend. But, at the end of that week, he
finally got word from the committee: his Woodwind Quintet would be performed! He forgot about
Willy. Their friendship seemed expendable. Then the day of the performance arrived.
That afternoon, he appeared for a rehearsal. He sat in the theater audience, his father by his side, when
they began to rehearse his quintet. The tempo dragged; the oboe was sharp; there were wrong notes
every dozen measures! He squirmed in his seat; sighed and shook his head. His music was being
After ten minutes rehearsal, the young conductor paused. He turned to Immanuel to ask about a
difficult rhythmic passage. Immanuel rose from his seat, marched up to the stage, and beat the rhythm
with a pencil on the stand. Then he listed the many errors they had made so far. The conductor and
instrumentalists listened; exchanged smiles and knowing looks. But, after five more minutes playing, the
conductor screwed up again!
He returned to the podium, where he sub-divided the bars. But, by this time, the conductor was miffed.
To be criticized before his colleagues – and by this fat little kid, at that! But he continued to make the
same mistakes. Now the conductor dared him to conduct it. Inviting him up, he handed him the baton.
Then stepped down and left him alone.
After correcting the rhythm, there were problems in a passage for flute. He stopped and asked them to
tune. The oboe was sharp, so he whistled the pitch, pointing down with his thumb till she’s finally
matched the note. Disdainful looks were exchanged between the flute and oboe. They were appalled
that this fat little kid had dared help them tune their instruments. As he returned to his seat, he heard
them whispering to one another.
The rehearsal finally ended. The musicians left in a huff. Given such a reception, he could only dread the
He dined with his father, Magda and Stan, at Aaron’s luxurious apartment. Aaron attempted to cheer
him up – told him his favorite quips and elephant jokes. They were given a tour of his collection of Pre-
Columbian art. Then he presented him with a gift to honor the occasion: a small stone Mayan figurine.
He would prize the little statue; became fascinated with all things Mayan; hoped one day to visit Uxmal.
But that night his mind was focused on the premiere.
After dinner, they took a taxi to MacMillan Auditorium. Here, he left his companions, to stand in the
wings by himself. From behind the curtains, he observed the auditorium. The audience wandered in, and
took their seats. The musicians on the stage warmed up. They tuned, played scales, took last-minute
looks at their parts. Soon the auditorium and stage were filled to capacity. The first selection was for
piano and orchestra. The concertmistress struck an A on the piano; the oboe answered. Then the other
orchestra members tuned their instruments. Finally, the conductor and soloist entered to applause. The
downbeat was given, as the concerto now began.
He listened from off stage. He hated each selection. After a short intermission, they played his
After a few minutes, the audience grew restless. They whispered, grimaced, gritted their teeth. But they
managed to sit it out. At the end, they seemed relieved: the vile thing was finally over. The young
conductor tried to find him – to join them for a bow. But, by this time, he’d fled; he was seated outside
on the auditorium steps, crying his eyes out.
The reviews the next morning were the coup de grace. “Infernal dissonance and needless complexity…”
Little did they know that the dissonance was mistakes; the complexity, due to an incompetent
conductor. But even if the piece had been played note-perfect, the result might well have been the
Where the critics, musicians, conductor and audience mistaken? Could he be right against them all?
Perhaps, like Ives, he had his ears on wrong.
Following the premiere, he learned of Magda’s engagement to Richard, who was having his first one-
man show. All the critics raved. His instant transformation from Abstract Expressionist to Pop Art
seemed the sheerest opportunism to Immanuel. And what about Magda? It was she who’d introduced
him to the New York School; she who’d taught him to see them. Could she really have understood? She
tried to explain, but he simply wouldn’t buy it. They’d both sold out, as far as he was concerned. It was
on that day they’d visited the aquarium that she broke the news.
They peered into the tanks though eerie blue light. There was an octopus, with its plungers attached to
the glass. At the end of its arms was a scrotum-like sack. It changed color instantly: grew red with anger,
gray with boredom; or suddenly, sensing danger, turned a ghostly white! Zipping away like a giant
sperm, it left a smokescreen of black behind it.
There were polyps, urchins and sea anemonies – like transparent fingers, miniature palms and pulsing
flowery mouths. A Brain Coral lay in the rear of the tank, its rocky lobes covered with green, curling
moss. Crustacheans, like giant insects, moved slowly over the bottom. Pink and orange lobsters – their
eyes on the ends of stalks – and hideous Spider Crabs. Then finally they came to the Red-bellied Pyranha
– just in time for their feeding.
He watched chunks of meat descend into their vicious blur of teeth. Then they broke rank to return to
their private corners. Now he pressed his face against the glass.
A bulldog’s jaw of bulging teeth, the remnant of nostrils, like a leper’s. Their backs were speckled silver;
their bellies, the color of their victim’s curdled blood. And, as his loathing for Richard took form in his
mind, he stared into their beady eyes. He imagined hurling the painter, screaming, into the tank of
flashing jaws: watched him razored into nothing as the sea ran red.
After their visit to the aquarium, he stopped composing. And, during the following year, began to
prepare for his Carnegie Hall debut.
He first heard the Mozart Sonatas as an infant in his cradle. Later, he studied them with his teacher, Dr.
Hauer, and was introduced to Glenn Gould’s complete recordings. Glenn Gould became his idol. So
when, one night at dinner, Aaron proposed it was high time someone played the completes sonatas live
– Imannuel leapt at the bate! Having heard him play them at Magda’s musicales, Aaron considered him
the ideal attraction with which to launch his career as impresario. Since retiring, he began to grow
wrestless. He adored the arts; supported them with his considerable wealth. But suddenly he had an
itching to do more. The time seemed ripe to strike out on his own; the boy, the perfect vehicle. And, as
his grandparents were dead, and Aaron’s own children grown up, he would assume the role of
Immanuel’s surrogate grandpa.
Aaron had tickets to everything. They went to opening nights at the New York City Ballet; saw the Met,
the Philharmonic, the latest Broadway plays. Afterwards, they went to the Russian Tea Room, or
Wolfie’s for egg creams and pastrami sandwiches. He bought him costly art books, and records by the
dozens. But his favorite was his purple baseball cap: on its crown was MOZART, in a silver ellipse, its
letters stitched in powder-blue thread. He wore the cap everywhere, especially on his trips with Aaron.
Aaron was a real clothes horse, the spiffiest of dressers. His wardrobe was created by his custom tailor,
a little Jew named Mr. Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman’s skill was legend – the Heifitz of needle and
thread. In virtue of that skill, he had saved his family’s lives.
During World War II, in Auschwitz, he was challenged by a Nazi colonel. He was to make him a full-dress
uniform – after only glimpsing him from afar, across the room. Overnight, he made one that fit him like
a glove. A “stitch in time” had saved his family’s life.
Aaron wined and dined him, before making the concert proposal. “At last my shot at the big time!” he
thought. But his father was harder to convince. And what would Dr. Hauer have to say? He would never
approve; had said as much, on many occasions. But the notion was too hard to resist. This time, he’d
show them – the critics, the public, and Magda, most of all. She would pay for having deserted him.
Finally, there was his father; this would cinch it with his dad. So, as much as he dreaded the break with
Dr. Hauer, he refused to let his teacher hold him back.
It took some time for his father to finally come round. But Aaron was mighty convincing; the man was a
born salesman. Even so, his father laid down conditions: that he continue to get good grades in school;
get to bed at a reasonable hour; and there would be no more concerts after this one. It was a one-shot
deal, or nothing, he insisted. And once Aaron got into his father’s good graces, he quickly emerged as a
second C.P. Barnum. His genius for publicity was unique.
After hearing him first play Mozart, they had talked about the composer. There was the period piano,
his skill at improvisation, his thoughts on rhythm, rubato and technique. Why, if people would fly all the
way to Bayreuth for a summer of Wagnerian opera, then they would surely devote a single day to
Mozart’s pianistic gems. And, aside from the music, itself, there was the project’s scope for theatrics. In
Aaron’s bald head danced a vision rococo. Immanuel would be outfitted by Mr. Zimmerman – in blue-
satin suit, with powdered wig, lace at the throat and silver-buckles on his shoes. Thusly, he pictured him
– behind a giant gilded harpsichord – with Poussin’s angels winging their way over the great stage of
Once the publicity campaign got underway, his father vetoed Aaron’s more extravagant notions. And
before it even began, there was his last lesson with Dr. Hauer.
He dreaded having to tell him; it would break the old man’s heart. They had come such a long way
together. At that final lesson, he played Bach chorales; he’d prepared them with loving care.
Meeting Dr. Hauer at the door, he avoided his kindly eyes. He tried to keep the news until the end of the
lesson, but he broke down in tears with “Ich Ruf’ Zu Dir”. Now he finally revealed their bold venture.
Dr. Hauer was appalled. The complete Mozart Sonatas in a single afternoon, and played by a mere
child?...He pleaded with him to cancel. What was the god damn hurry? He was certain to succeed; but
all in good time. Besides, if they chose to go ahead with this hair-brain scheme, it could ruin his chances
for a real career, later!
“But it’s just one performance!” he replied. “Then everything will be as before.”
“Oh no, my boy, nothing will be as before. Such instant celebrity – especially at your age – is far more
heady stuff than you can possibly imagine. I’ve known it, myself. Have seen its effects on others. You’re
far too young to handle it.”
But, in his effort to dissuade him Dr. Hauer had the opposite effect. The challenge seemed all the
greater; the prize, more splendid than before. And his firm belief in his future success made him
wonder: is he holding me back? Dr. Hauer had had his day. He’s all played out. Now it’s my turn to grab
the gold. Like Willy, the previous year, Dr. Hauer became expendable. He must push him aside and move
True to his word, Dr. Hauer dropped him. He lost his teacher for good. But he was kept so busy, during
the rest of the year, that he hardly gave him a second thought. Now his time was devoted to a program
of training that rivaled an Olympic athlete’s.
He awoke each morning at 5 A.M., for two hours practice on his silent piano keyboard. In this way, he
avoided disturbing the neighbors, and re-worked his careless fingering into an iron-clad technique. So
that, ten months later – when he played that Steinway grand – the effortlessness of its action was like
the piano playing itself! There were hundreds of hours of octaves and trills, till his forearms ached and
the pain gripped his shoulders. Twice a week – like his ringside trainer – Aaron provided a soothing back
massage. Then he returned to the piano for more.
Each and every passage was methodically worked out. Then he increased the tempi; mastered the
ornaments and turns. After working through the entire series, he began from the beginning once again:
building his powers of concentration till he could envision the entire Sonatas as a whole.
Ruby took charge of his diet and health. She supplemented meals with extra vitamins; insisted he get his
full eight hours of sleep each night. He sometimes over-ate, due to the stress and strain. But his daily
bouts at the keyboard would burn off these calories. So, by the end of the year, he was in the best shape
of his life!
The publicity began with a series of short performances. He played Mozart bits and pieces at every
opportunity: for private parties; ladies’ clubs; at public school assemblies for hundreds of captive kids.
He played through all the Sonatas; played them a couple of times a piece. So, by the time the day of the
concert had arrived, he was accustomed to playing in public.
As word spread, interviews were arranged. He was a guest on FM radio; was featured in the local
newspapers. They ran non-stop through his head; accompanied him down the street. He fantasized and
even dreamed of Mozart! Then, a month before the performance, they visited Steinway and Sons’.
He had often passed their showroom, on West 57th, peering through the window from the pavement,
outside. But now he was inside, standing beneath its muralled dome, with its busts of Paderewski and
Rachmaninoff. In the distance he heard many pianos being tested and tuned. And above him hung an
enormous crystal chandelier: a giant octopus with diamond tentacles! Now they took the elevator to the
A dozen concert grands had been prepared for his inspection. He was introduced to Mr. Brandt, their
Chief Technician. The tools of his trade – hammer, pliers, wrenches in a dozen sized and shapes – hung
in rows on the wall, near the latest electronic instruments. As he examined the first piano, Mr. Brandt
explained its construction.
It was built of rare woods, gathered from all around the world. Each of its keys was separately voiced;
each hammer shaped and wrapped in buckskin, fitted with costly felt pads. The action was honed; the
sounding board fine-tuned. Then Mr. Brandt customized these hotrods for the pearly tone of Rubinstein,
or the sonority and touch of Horowitz.
Though identical to the eye, each piano had its own personality. He looked beneath the lid: red felt
pads; a harp of pegs; screws and strings galore! And, as he played each one, he tried to imagine the
Mozart sound, describing it to Mr. Brandt. Because of the length of the program and his unusually quick
tempi, he required an instrument with the lightest touch, the least expenditure of energy. By tightening
the bearings and linkages and reducing the draft, Mr. Brandt achieved a sound that was small, compact
(a modern version of the original Mozart clavier). And, as he fine-tuned the instrument to Immanuel’s
specifications, the final phase of the publicity campaign began.
Those who had already heard him were approached to purchase tickets. Free seats were provided for
students; boxes reserved for the critics. Posters were plastered up all over the city – in subways, on
buses, on the roofs of taxicabs. On each was the famous portrait of Mozart at the age of six, in silver,
blue and purple, a la Warhol. Written at the bottom was “Isaacs Plays Mozart”. Everywhere he went, he
saw this image of the task before him.
So many last-minute details filled those final hectic weeks, that – before he knew it – the day of the
recital arrived. He dragged himself out of bed (dogged by the recurring dream of a memory lapse), and
began his daily warm-up at the keyboard. Ruby prepared a brunch of his favorites; but his stomach was
so jumpy that he hardly touched a thing. Returning to the keyboard, he went through the most difficult
passages. Then he showered, dressed and took a taxicab downtown. Spying one of his posters on the
side of a bus, he nearly shit his pants! But it was too late to turn back now.
He entered the small stage door, heading straight for the piano. He proceeded through the wings of the
stage, itself, over its golden boards to the huge black grand piano. Before sitting down, however, he
paused to look around. Darkness. Silence. The immensity of the hall. Soon it would be filled with
countless pairs of eyes and ears. The great piano, beside him, a sacrificial altar. He, the hapless victim on
whom all those eyes and ears would rest. Just waiting for him to slip...
Slowly, he got used to the instrument’s action, and the sound it made in the huge, empty hall. A full
house would damp its luxurious tone, so he experimented with projecting the sound. But, after an hour
of playing, he began to grow careless. It was too late to practice now. So he rose from the piano to take
a leisurely stroll. While wandering up and down the aisles, he remembered the greats he had heard here
in the past.
There was his first tip with his father to hear Oistrakh. He recalled the snap of the string of his brown
Stradivarius in the middle of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata”. The following year, they had heard
Rubinstein and Serkin. Each had played Schuman’s “Carnival”, each had his own way of doing it. There
was Fischer-Dieskau’s Wintereise, Victoria De Los Angeles’ Songs of the Auvergne, and the dramatic
recital by the young Soviet violinst, Vladimir Spivakov.
Outside the auditorium was a demonstration; the Jewish Defense League was protesting the treatment
of Soviet Jews. Later, they attempted to disrupt the performance. Two of them had rushed the stage
with a large red banner. They threw a can of red paint at the violinist’s feet – in the middle of the great
Bach “Chaconne”. But Spivakov hadn’t dropped a beat. A Soviet Jew himself, he had concluded the 3rd
Partita to a standing ovation.
Now he climbed the balcony’s many flights, clutching the steel handrail. And when he reached the top,
he peered out over the edge: past red velvet seats, over gold-rimmed tiers, beyond the arching
proscenium to the concert stage, itself. In the center was the tiny black piano. An hour from now, he
would be seated behind it, as thousands sat in judgment upon him.
Descending from the balcony, climbing the steps of the stage, he couldn’t resist the temptation to play a
few more notes. Then he walked backstage to this dressing room and flopped down on the couch. He
stared at the tuxes – standing guard at the door, as the Mozart Sonatas shot through his head at
supersonic speed! Trying to relax, he waited for the others to arrive.
Due to its prodigious length, the recital would begin at noon. To further reduce the performance time, a
note had been printed in the program. It requested that the audience refrain from applause until the
end of each quarter of the concert. Outside, in the lobby – during the three intermissions – Mozart t-
shirts, baseball caps, records and scores were for sale.
Soon his father, Aaron and Ruby had arrived. After a pep talk from Aaron, they all cleared out – except
for Ruby, who had helped him dress. As she knotted his bow tie, he heard the distant buzz of the
audience. The legendary concert hall began to come alive.
After dressing, he modeled his outfit for Ruby. Then he paced about the room, wondering: “When will
the damn thing begin?” He yanked at his collar, scratched at his woolen trousers, until Ruby took his
hand. She picked him up and put him on her lap. She held him; rocked him; lay his head against her
bosom. Then there was a knock on the door, as a head popped in, saying, “Sorry, it’s time to begin.”
Hand in hand with Ruby, he passed through the wings of the stage. Aaron shook his hand. Then, greeted
by polite applause, he marched out onto the stage.
He sat down immediately; he’d forgotten to bow! So he rose, bowed swiftly and was once more seated.
He adjusted the knobs on the piano bench. Rubbed his hands together. Then he attacked the keyboard,
plunging into the First Sonata.
The music’s momentum carried him along, till he arrived at the “Adagio” of the Second Sonata. He
suddenly felt how small he was: behind the huge concert grand; beneath the looming wall of listeners.
Drenched in perspiration, he felt the wall closing in. But he fought off the feeling and continued.
He bulldozed his way through the endless recital (between movements, there was hardly a pause), Then
the first intermission arrived, with its break in tension and the soothing sound of applause.
He rushed offstage – past Aaron and his father – into the dressing room and Ruby’s waiting arms. She
helped him remove his sweat-soaked clothes; replaced them with a fresh, dry set of shirt, tie and tux.
After gulping down a glass of orange juice, he collapsed on the couch. Before he could relax, it was once
again time to begin. So he marched through the wings and back on stage to be seated at the piano. The
second part ended, as the audience had diminished. Back to the dressing room. Dry clothes. And he was
once again back on the stage. It seemed all too easy, till he came to the great A-Major Sonata.
He played the Rondo: Alla Turca’s final chord, when the audience broke out in applause! The same thing
happened later, despite the note in their programs. But it was the shock of hearing it for the very first
time that snapped his concentration. In his preparations for the concert he had thought of every detail.
He’d thought of everything, that is, except the visceral jolt of applause.
Suddenly, he was in the eye of the storm. Never had he felt such a surge: felt the power of having an
audience in the palm of his hand.
He was forced to acknowledge them, rising to take a bow. Then, as he launched into the next sonata, he
slipped in the opening bars! Just in time, he caught himself: all that practice had paid off, as his fingers
now took over. An instant shift of gears, and he was back on track.
After the intermission, he played the great C-Minor Sonata. And when he finally completed the
program, the few who remained greeted him with shouts and applause. Willy, Stan and Magda had
leapt to their feet to cheer. Exhausted, he stood before them, feeling the applause wash over him.
Then he saw his father, standing in the wings; heard his voice cry “Bravo! Bravo!” As he left the piano
and walked off the stage, his father had lifted him up and clasped him in his arms. Together, they shared
his triumph. All else faded in a blur…
The critics had a field day. “Why, the entire conception is absurd!” His “breakneck tempi”, his “cut of
repeats”, his “cavalier attitude” toward trills and turns. An “unfeeling pianistic machine”, said one.
Another claimed the concert a stunt, a veritable “Mozart Extravaganza”. Others attacked his
deportment, noting his awkward gestures, grimaces and groans.
Both Aaron and his father made light of it all. Each wrote letters to the editors. But, despite their words,
he was crushed by the reviews. He grew despondent. Withdrew into his own little world. So, when the
following week, Ruby failed to appear, he hardly noticed her absence. Not for two more weeks had he
learnt that she was ill: she had been admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital, two blocks away from their
On his first visit he brought her long-stemmed white roses. He nearly dropped them, however, as he
entered the ward: shocked by all the tubes they had stuck in her. They flowed from an armature above
her bed, from which lozenges of glucose and plasma hung. Beside it was an instrument panel that
measured her weakened heart.
She had grown so thin; layed so still. But what struck him hardest was the pain in her eyes. She masked
it with a smile, as he entered the room. But her eyes had lost their luster. Her voice, its rich dark core.
After ten minutes the nurse intervened. “We must be careful not to tire her.” Avoiding the many tubes,
he hugged her tight. Then he left the hospital ward.
As he passed down the halls, he smelled the tang of disinfectant; saw sick people everywhere he looked.
Seated in wheelchairs. Laying on their backs. Moving slowly down the hallway with nurses and
attendants at their sides.
On each visit she grew more gaunt. The lines deepened at the corners of her eyes. Her voice was
reduced to a whisper. Then, one morning at breakfast, his father broke the news: Ruby had died the
previous night. And he had never even said goodbye!
She had always been there when he needed her, since the day he was born. She had fed him, bathed
him, held him when he cried. He had taken her for granted: had taken her, his real mother, for granted.
Now she’d died and left him alone.
He wept himself to sleep that night. And, the following morning, dragged himself out of bed. They took a
taxi to the funeral home. On their way, they passed that liquor store, where he and Ruby had once
Assembling at Broadway and 110th Street, they’d marched in a circle with their hand-painted signs. She
had learned of the United Farmworkers’ Gallo Wine boycott through the pastor of her church. Having
spoken to Immanuel about it, she convinced him to join her that day.
They marched for an hour, chanting and waving their signs, when a three-hundred pounder – smelling
of booze – suddenly emerged from the liquor store. He barged through their circle, shouting and waving
his arms! They tried to show him their leaflet; tried to reason with the man. But he balled it up and
threw it in their faces. Standing in their path, he forced them to go around him.
But, as they continued to march, the big ape grew impatient. Tearing a sign from their hands, he ripped
it in half. Then he threw it on the ground and stamped on it. Now he tried to pick a fight with one of
them, as their picket leader intervened. “Non-violence was the key to winning.” She insisted. “If a fight
broke out, the cops would end their march.”
Now the bully took out a book of matches, lit one – and with an ugly grin, began to flick them in their
paths. The managed to dodge them, went around him. Till one of them landed on Immanuel’s coat. As
he brushed it off, Ruby stepped from the line. She stood between Immanuel and the drunken mountain
of a man.
At first, she tried to shame him. He wouldn’t dare do that to a full-grown man. His kind only picked on
kids. She tried to explain their boycott, but he cursed her, cut her off. He called her a slut, a nigger. Then
he tried to grab her arm. But she slapped his hand away. But, as she returned to the circle, he lit another
match. And he was about to flick it at Immanuel, when Ruby wound up with her green plastic purse and
whacked him upside the head! He sunk like lead; sat there stunned on the sidewalk. But this time, the
cops had arrived.
Later, they recalled that stunned look on his face. He sat there wondering: “What on earth had hit him?”
And as Immanuel threw his arms around her, she had smiled, saying: “Anybody tries to hurt my baby
‘mauel, ‘ll have to do it over my dead body.”
Now the cab pulled up before the Harlem Funeral Home. It stood on a block of storefront churches and
markets with padlocked screens. They entered the parlor, passed the threadbare couches and chairs;
then continued on to the chapel in the rear. A varnished wooden pulpit. Rows of metal chairs. In the
center, the open coffin. Hymns were played on the wheezing organ, as the mourners took their seats.
The service now began. The preacher delivered the eulogy. Then they rose to walk past the coffin. It
rested on a platform, lined with ghastly pink silk. Trailing behind the mourners, he finally reached the
spot. Now he saw her one last time.
Hair stiff, plastered down with spray. Skin thick, like plastic. He emaciated face appeared like a mask:
jaw awry; features frigid; eyes and mouth sewn shut. Tears streamed down his face as he turned away,
aghast. Sick to his stomach, he rushed out to the restroom, bent over the toilet, and retched.
After the lid was lowered, six men took hold of the handles. The casket was carried outside to the
hearse. After rolling it in and closing the door behind it, they drove to the cemetery. On their way, they
passed a bag lady in a flimsy cardboard shack. It reminded him of the bag lady Ruby and he once met, on
their walk down Riverside Drive.
She was seated in a doorway, shivering, with a shopping cart by her side. Ruby had asked her if they could help, but she didn’t seem to hear: seemed lost, in another world, entirely. Removing her shawl, Ruby wrapped it around her. Then she telephoned a shelter to come and pick her up. That day she had taught him what it meant to give someone the shirt off your back…
They arrived at the cemetery and proceeded to the grave, where they gathered to watch the lowering of the casket. He listened to the preacher, to the patter of rain on the tent. Then he stepped to the edge and threw a flower into the grave. He remembered the hollow sound of it striking the cover.
They returned to the taxi; the driver pulled away. Now the rain began to pour. Through the rain and tears he watched the cemetery disappear: row after row of headstones; a white tide across the great green lawn…
During the following weeks, he left the piano untouched; neglected his schoolwork, completely. To his father, he appeared to be drifting away. But, try as he might, he couldn’t get through to him. Anxiously, he turned to Aaron. Aaron spoke to Immanuel about his yearly trip to Mexico. He tried to convey his passion for the place, his love for its art and its people. A change of scene would do him good. His father decided they would join him.
The three flew south to Mexico City. After settling in their small hotel, they took a cab to the Museum of Anthropology. As the British Museum had been his prelude to Greece, so this was the place they began their tour of the cultures of ancient America.
Towering above the courtyard was the fountain of Morado: an eternal rain fell from the cap of this mushroom of stone. As it hit the ground, its spray rose, its foam bubbling and sizzling. Here they rested, sheltered from the sun, as they viewed the inner galleries through the fountain’s veils of mist.
In a nearby garden of palms, was a small Mayan temple. A stone façade of “elephant trunks”, it had frightening masks, curves, waves and tongues. It was crowned with a stuccowork comb, carved with row after row of tiny men, balanced on each other’s shoulders. A camelion darted down the temple’s steps. Alighting on the bark of an old tree trunk, its skin blended in, became one with the wood.
In another hall, was the Mexica Calendar Stone. In circles were carved the symbols of their death-centered world. The Tzompantli stood before it: a wall of skulls on stakes. Finally, they came to Coatlicue, the castrating goddess of the people. Two serpent heads. Sharp fangs and claws. On her breat hung severed hearts and hands and a pendant human skull.
On the following day, they took the bus to Teotihuacan. Down the Avenue of the Dead they passed, from the Pyramid of the Moon to the Pyramid of the Sun. The entire stone city – its buildings, ramps, stairs – was made of terraces like the ziggurats of Babylonia. Beyond lay fruits of false pepper trees and chains of gray-blue mountains.
Slowly they climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, stopping to catch their breath on its steep stone steps. Like ants they crawled, beneath the fierce sun’s rays, as Aaron described how it once had appeared, centuries before.
Stretching out before them had been crenelated roofs, drained by monstrous gargoyles. Below had been brilliant murals on which jaguars chased their prey. And in the central square, beyond them, stood the people’s gods. Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent ringed with feathers. Tlaloc, the block-like rain god.
The streets had been lined with worshippers, witnessing the great procession. Down the Avenue of the Dead, its victims in garments embroidered with feathers. One by one, they had climbed those steps: to be sacrificed to their gods upon the Altar of the Sun.
From Mexico City, they flew south to Merida, where he met a group of college kids. They gave him a piece of the magic mushroom, a hallucinogenic drug used by the Indians in their private religious rites. Then they traveled to Chichen Itza – the Carthage of Mesoamerica, a barbaric capital on the grandest scale.
He climbed the steps of the Temple of the Warriors. Descending, he passed through hundreds of stone pillars, at the end of which were huge horned serpents. These Chinese dragons were etched in red; between them lay Chacmool. There, upon its belly, they’d laid the victim’s smoking hearts.
From Chacmool, they walked to the Altar of Skulls. Great warriors and priests were carved on either side. In the middle had stood the high priest, beheading his struggling victims. Beyond the Altar was the Sacred Well. From its platform screaming virgins had been hurled to their deaths.
By now he grew sick of all this cruelty and mass murder. And this, combined with the heat and unusual food, was beginning to get on his nerves. They returned by bus to Merida, and left the following day for Uxmal. Arriving late, they stayed in a small hacienda, which stood in the middle of a tropical forest, just a hundred yards from the ruins.
The hum of crickets and the mating calls of frogs awoke him the following morning. At dawn a chorus of birds began, each chorister performing a song all its own. “Who-it, who-it!” Cackles, chirps. Caws and coos. Coloratura cadenza and flutter-tongued trills. Enchanted by their serenade, he descended the steps to the garden.
High in the trees above, around the surface of the pool, were the blue jays, pepper-shrikes, wrens and melodious blackbirds. Below was a green sea of spikes, fans and ferns, pink bougainvillaea and brilliant red hibiscus. Soon Aaron and his father joined him. Then they walked down the road to the ruins.
Birdsong filled the trees, as they first set foot in Uxmal. In the heart of the jungle was the Mayan Acropolis. To their left, was the Palace of the Governors: the Parthenon of Mesoamerica.
Like her famed Greek sister, she was placed upon a pedestal, a small plateau on the edge of the forest. Her walls were of salmon-colored stone. As the sun rose, they grew a still more radiant pink. Circling her base, they followed a fugue of mosaics: the warp and weft of latticework, of figures and sky-serpent masks.
Beyond the Palace was the Pyramid. From here, they entered the Nunnery Quadrangle. As Aaron and his father remained behind to explore, he walked to the Temple of the Magician. Slowly he climbed its steep, narrow steps, clinging tight to the heavy chain bolted into the stone. At last he reached the top, standing by the entrance, flanked by giant monster masks. Now he sat down on the very spot where the altar had stood centuries before. From his coat pocket he removed the magic mushroom, and began to chew…
Gradually he lost the feel of his body, became a focal point of vision on that cold stone ledge. His heart began to pound; his senses quickened. Then, far off in the distance, he heard them approach. The “Dance Sacrale” of trumpets and drums. The rising smoke of copal incense. The procession itself was finally glimpsed as it entered the city gates.
At its head was a boy prince on the sun’s burnished throne. Hair wreathed in garlands, skin aglitter with gold. Carrying his throne were jaguar priests. Behind them was the high priest with scarlet sleeves of plumes.
The music grew louder, as the procession approached. As it passed through the streets, frenzied dancing began. Small goats were butchered; their blood drunk hot. Now the procession came to a halt, as it reached the central square. With a flourish of trumpets, they lowered the throne. The Shaman and his partner bowed low before the boy. Then all gathered round for the sacred dance: The Dance of the Eagle and the Lamb.
A flute and drum accompanied the dancers. Soon the notes grew shrill; the pulse now quickened. The eagle-headed Shaman danced his flight across the sky. Then the young prince’s throne was lifted – with a fanfare of horns, and carried to the temple.
His heart began to race, as the eagle spied its victim; in ever tighter circles he commenced to fall. The lamb fled, as the shadow of death had descended. It panicked, slipped, was paralyzed – gazing up at the sky.
Immanuel’s eyes shifted from the dance to the throne: the Mayan prince had vanished. Now he was seated there!
Powerful hands stretched him across the altar, as the blade now fell with the hush of the crowd. Down plunged the eagle, down the scarlet sleeve – as he stared into the high priest’s eye!...
His heart was hammering. He could hardly catch his breath. But, as he tried to scream to his father, his voice dried up in his throat. An eternity passed before his father finally saw him. He climbed the steps and carried him down, clinging to his back.
They returned to their hotel room, telephoned a doctor. When he arrived, he gave him a powerful sedative…
He stuffed himself, later, at dinner. Was sick – on the toilet – half the night. Nausea, retching, cold sweats and chills. And when he finally collapsed in bed – hoping to fall asleep – his ears were filled with the whine of mosquitoes. They had assembled in a squadron near ceiling.
Down they plunged – through that hot sticky night – strafing his sun burnt skin, bloating themselves on his blood. It was stifling in that small, stuffy room; but if he opened a window, even more would fly it! He could never get to sleep with the light turned on; but if he turned it off, they’d eat him alive. He lay there weeping, wrapped in his damp bloody sheet. Then a scream emerged from deep within him that woke the entire hotel!
Once more they fetched the doctor, who gave him an injection that finally knocked him out. The following morning, they left for Mexico City. From there, they returned to Manhattan and the Upper West Side. The summer was over; his childhood, at an end.
For Irene and Marty,
The best of friends.