Recovering from disaster, thanks to my heroes
The Column: 06.03.22
I’ve been writing nagging hectoring columns about malfeasance in high places lately, and now it’s time to admit I left the water running in the shower three weeks ago and it leaked down to two apartments below us and caused water damage and now insurance adjustors are working out a settlement and I am required to wear a hazard-orange vest with IN THE EVENT OF ERRATIC BEHAVIOR, CALL — and my wife’s phone number written on the back. I distinctly remember turning the water off, but plaster damage below us says otherwise. So I’m not going to write about the federal judge who threw out the mask mandate that led to the steep rise in COVID cases. I have my own problems.
My wife is a forgiving person. She has not filed for guardianship. She kicks my butt at Scrabble but she’s gracious about it. She rations my bacon cheeseburgers. She tells me if I look bedraggled so I don’t walk down the street and people hand me spare change. And she turns out the light at night and rolls over and puts her arms around me. This is better than a Pulitzer Prize. So I don’t wake up in the morning with an aching in my head and the blues all around my bed and the water tastes like turpentine because my good gal left me here cryin’. She didn’t. She has made coffee and she has read the morning paper so that I don’t need to. When you skip the news, life is a lot more like Anne of Green Gables or The House at Pooh Corner.
I shall take a break from high dudgeon. A man who leaves the shower running needs to give outrage a rest. So I find myself in a sort of second childhood. People are friendly to me because they sense that I’m harmless. The young woman in the coffee shop smiles and says, “What can I get you, my friend,” and this makes my day. As Tennessee Williams said, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
I don’t comprehend the anger you see out there in America. The truckers’ convoy, yes; driving big trucks is a miserable hard life, but the biker brigades who come roaring through town louder than a 757, bulky men with graying ponytails wearing leather, flying the flag and bearing vulgar right-wing bumper stickers, these are suburban sociopaths who just want to be noticed — but to what end? These are expensive bikes, the riders are well-fed, what’s their beef? Just because you’ve wasted forty years on adolescence, it’s not too late to get a life.
A man needs heroes to light the way. One of mine is the cardiologist who performed a heart catheterization on me recently in an OR with a team of men and women and the powerful sense of competence in that room was impressive to me, the man who left the water running. Another hero is my editor Roger Angell who died at the age of 101, the graciousness of his life, his classiness, the joy he took in his old age right up to the end, the happiness of his writing.
Another is Duke Ellington — long gone from the world but you can go on YouTube and he’s there in force, “Take the A Train” and “Mood Indigo,” his Sacred Concerts and “Caravan” — who toured the country with his 15-piece orchestra, playing ballrooms packed with his fans, a dance floor where people could jitterbug swing. This was back when segregation was still in force and the band never knew if they could get a hotel room or a meal in a restaurant. They were all Black, but Juan Tizol, the trombonist, was fairly light-skinned and had to wear blackface so nobody would think the band was integrated.
Ellington was elegant and cool and he didn’t deign to address bigotry — he just played right through it. He’s famous for his band compositions but I love his solo stuff, the man was a great pianist.
Not all that much has changed in the fifty years since Duke died. There’s rampant craziness in the country still, but Duke’s example is worth copying: ignore the hatred and create something great. The old Southern segregationist senators are gone and forgotten and Duke lives on, an American treasure. Anger dies; genius endures. He came out of ragtime and into swing and was unaffected by rock ’n’ roll and is flying along still.