A memory and a tribute to healthcare workers in New York City
Today’s Discover Prompts is about “song.” I’m remembering a duet I used to play with my dad on the piano, “Give My Regards to Broadway.” I’m also thinking of the healthcare workers laying their lives on the line during this pandemic. I’m thinking of you and everyone affected and your great city.
I grew up in the quiet suburbs of the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles during the late 60s and 70s. Thus, I rooted against New York and was actually afraid of New York, the crime, the brashness, the ballsiness of it shown on television. We were more laid back in sunny Southern California back in those days.
My how things have changed. I moved away from Los Angeles before the big population explosion and the deterioration due to crime and freeway traffic. And I finally got my first opportunity to visit New York in 1999. I was terrified. But what I didn’t know was that as Los Angeles was falling into disrepair, New York was cleaning up its act.
I had planned a birthday trip for a surprise to see Phantom of the Opera. Once I bought the show tickets, I had to figure out how to get there from Kansas, where to stay, and how to travel between airport and city and within the city, all without a credit card. But once I arrived, I was completely caught off guard by how nice and helpful everyone was, how the city truly does never sleep, and how much I missed city life. Of course, I still have my home grown allegiances to the L.A. Dodgers, but as I was a bit older, I could understand the appeal of a cosmopolitan city like New York. Oh we saw our Broadway show, but we also did plenty of touristy things in the short 3 days we were there, like visit Washington Square park and go to the top of the Empire State Building and walk around Times Square.
I now live in the East and I’ve been to New York city several times and enjoy it more and more each time. When this blog grows up and I’m a famous writer, I’m sure I’ll look back at this time when I’m sucking up to New York as the pivotal moment when I made it.
As the youngest in my family, by the time I was 10, my brother and sisters had all moved out to get married, start families, and/or go to college. My sister Lisa was the last to leave, which left me with my mom and dad to myself. I spent a great deal of time playing the piano without having to fight for it with my sister. My dad played often, especially when he got home from work. He’d sit down and relax, smoking his cigarettes and playing songs he knew by heart on the 1/4 grand cherry wood Chickering piano we had at the time. So in our bonding time, we started playing duets from our piano books.
He could play anything that he heard once, with a riveting “oom-pah” bass and a deft right-handed melody. He had his own style, a cross between 40s and 50s standards and 70s lounge player. I could pick out melodies but had a tougher time with bass progressions. So he usually played the bass and I played the melody. We settled on the song “Give My Regards to Broadway” that we found in one of the piano books.
I think we chose that song because it was familiar to me, mostly from hearing my sister Lisa play it with my dad. The bass was easy and he kept speeding up, especially at some key points where I fumbled to learn the notes. At first, as we were learning it, I was aware that we played ploddingly, like a child learning to read his first books. At 10 years old, I could play piano better than that, but I wasn’t that skilled in the art of duets.
But what I lacked in skill, I made up for with perseverance. One day, everything clicked. My forearms relaxed, I knew the notes, and I could keep pace with dad’s rhythmic bass. He even began to improvise here and there and I’d stay on track with the melody. And then one day, we just let it go. I set the metronome to see what the projected speed was according to the music, and it was much faster than we had been practicing. But we tried and we persevered. Before too long, we had mastered this song. We could play it slowly, with feeling, or we could rip through it loudly and animatedly. And fast. We kept time with each other and could follow each other’s lead. It was truly music in the making every time we sat to play “Give My Regards to Broadway.”
When Lisa returned home from school during break, I was glad to have someone to talk to nad fight over the piano with. But dad and I had cooked up a scheme for her. Lisa always had a bit of a competitive streak with me, and she had several years head start on me in playing the piano and was 7 years of age older. So while I was always baby brother and the kid, she was the grown-up teenager and then college student. Which is to say, she often didn’t take me seriously. But dad and I would surprise her.
I said, “Lisa! Lisa! you have to listen. Dad and I have been practicing, and we can now play “Give My Regards to Broadway.” So we sat down to show her. We played just as painfully ploddingly as one can. One note (pause) one note (pause) one note (pause) Give (pause) My (pause) Re (pause) guard (pause)…….. we played extra slow, and we didn’t miss a note, as if I were a 2 or 3 year old proudly reciting for the first time his ABCs for his big sister. She kinda giggled nervously and said, “Oh, that’s good Lee,” in that big sisterly patronizing way she had.
And then we did it. I looked at Dad and said, “Hit it!” And then we really played it. We played it to tempo and added every flourish we knew and sped off to a grand finale. By this time, we didn’t even need to look at the music. It was all in our heads and in our fingers. I saw Lisa laugh again, nervously in a different way. When we were done she said, “Oh you two!” and stomped off.
We got her, Dad. Yes, we got her.
I’ve had a lot of tragic events in my life. And during times like this unprecedented pandemic, there are a lot of people suffering but also a lot of people helping others, which reinforces my belief that people are ultimately good. It’s hard to see that through the daily partisan fighting in this country, but I’m glad to see so many people come together to battle this horrible pandemic. I’m fortunate to have memories like this one about a key song in my life, about family, about gentle sibling rivalries and good relationships with parents. And I miss my dad greatly every time I think of the piano and of Broadway.
Now in my 50s, I’ve had the opportunity to see shows on Broadway and walk the famous street under the bright marquees. And once our world has found a way to combat this disease, I look forward to once more visiting to “Give My Regards to Broadway.”