(a memory from the summer 1955, just after I had turned 8years old. Written sometime around 1997.)
I’m lying on the daybed in the den, halfway between sleep and wakefulness, in that liminal state where the boundary between dream and reality is blurred.
It’s late at night, but still so hot that the sheet beneath me is damp from my sweat. Our 7th floor apartment is not air-conditioned: the purchase of our first window unit is still years in the future, so I’m allowed to sleep in the den where, according to my mother, the windows allow more cross-ventilation than do the ones in my bedroom. Well, it’s not really “my” bedroom because I share it with my mother, who hasn’t shared a room with my father for as long as I can remember, but I’m too young yet to find this puzzling.
The den is my father’s de facto bedroom, where he sleeps and where he spends all of his time when he’s not at work. The windows in the den are wide open but the air is still and carries only sounds from the street below. I hear muffled traffic along Riverside Drive, a street that we can afford to live on only because my wealthy aunt and uncle own the building. My aunt, my father’s sister, married a banker. But even with our lowered cost of living we still have to supplement my father’s income as a Western Union telegraph operator by renting out two of the bedrooms to a series of young, single working women.
(Now, years later, I still remember the name of one woman in particular because she worked in the clothing industry and used to bring me kits containing little beads, sequins, and some sort of plastic stapler so that I could attach these embellishments to my own clothes. This made me feel very sophisticated and she became my favorite renter!)
Other sounds come up from the street below - the laughter and bits of conversation of people walking seven stories below us, voices from radio programs drifting out of open windows from other sweltering apartments, blaring horns from passing cars, and the staccato tapping of shoes on cobblestones.
As I lie in bed, my father sits in a reclining chair nearby, watching, on our recently acquired television (a gift from the wealthy uncle to his poor-relation brother-in-law) the weekly fights broadcast from a smoke-filled downtown arena. He’s lowered the sound so as not to disturb me as I try to go to sleep, but when the nasal voice of sports announcer, Johnny Addie, introduces the boxers in the ring, our small miniature pincer, Duke, begins to howl. He does this every time he hears Addie’s voice on the TV.
I come out of my half-sleep and smell the cloying mixture of heavy cigarette smoke in the air. Both of my parents smoke, although my mother puts her cigarette down in the ashtray, walks off, and forgets about it. Then lights another cigarette and puts it down in another ashtray, so the room is smoky in spite of the open windows.
A tall, icy glass of limeade sits on a table between my father’s chair and the bed on which I recline. The glass is one of those trendy thin metal glasses that were sold in the 1950’s in sets of shimmery colors, and I watch drops of condensation work their way down to the coaster underneath the glass.
All summer he drinks limeade in copious quantities, and he’s extremely particular about how it’s made: just so many squeezes of the lime on a metal hand-held juicer (the mass production of plastic was relatively new and I don’t remember having any in our kitchen yet), precisely so much sugar, and most important, ice crushed to a particular size by turning the crank on a small white ice-crusher.
Due to my father’s thirst (I’m not yet aware that he’s an alcoholic) this ice-crusher creates more work for my mother because if the ice isn’t crushed to his specifications she will have to do it over again until no more ice cubes remain in our refrigerator’s small freezer.
“Sugar,” I hear him say to her, the term of endearment they each use to address the other, although in fact there remains very little endearment between them. “Sugar, my drink is warm, make me another one.” His tone of voice isn’t unkind, but it is peremptory. But this, too, is years before I consciously realize that in addition to being an alcoholic my father is also a tyrant, so I take for granted that of course my other will rise, put down whichever cigarette she’s currently smoking, go to the kitchen, and crank out more crushed ice and limeade.
I turn over in the bed and feel drops of sweat run down my neck from my damp, matted hair. The bed feels hot and I can’t get comfortable.
What makes this totally insignificant moment memorable, so that it has stayed with me for fifty years, is the magnificent, sultry sound of a saxophone being played by a jazz musician who lives in the building across the street from us, apparently also on or near the 7th floor because the sound from his open window comes to me in clear haunting, unmuffled tones. He doesn’t seem to be playing any particular piece of music, I think he improvises as he goes along and there are many interruptions, a lot of starlings-over, and occasional blasts of just pure noise.
At 8 years old I’m too young to think seriously about things like beauty and sorrow, but none the less this is what I unconsciously experience as I listen to his music. All other sounds recede to the background and I listen, now wide-eyed, to a sound that captivates me!
For the sake of this sound I can ignore the heat, the mugginess of the high urban humidity, Johnny Addie’s voice, and the cigarette smoke in the den. “My musician” plays nearly every night, and I dread the onset of autumn when we will go to bed with windows closed.
I will be reminded of this moment, and others like it, when as an adult I attend a lecture by the Jungian analyst Robert Johnson. Speaking of The Grail Legend, he refers to an experience of beauty that is so intense it is painful, not able to be endured for long.
I can’t put into words what he means by that, but I know instinctively that THIS was what I experienced in that sweltering Manhattan apartment listening to the saxophone: beauty that is uplifting yet painful, far beyond poignant.
Perhaps this is what was meant by the ancient Greek admonition to avoid looking directly at Zeus in all his glory lest the vision of his grandeur burn your eyes, as looking directly at the sun can blind you. Sublime beauty can break your heart! And fill your soul.