For a time I believed what set me apart from others was a nuanced awareness to my surroundings, to see the shifts in the landscape and understand my relationship to those shifts. This confidence ran into a reinterpretation when I started working with a musician by the name of Dale. Dale was blind. One would think the word limiting, but I found Dale’s world not so much limited by sight, but different, even multi-tiered. One tier that set him apart from others: He had pitch-perfect hearing, meaning members of the band used Dale’s ears to tune their instruments.
Peony Park, an amusement park in Omaha, Nebraska, hired Dale to play the electric piano for a song and dance revue. I was hired to stand behind a mixing board and pretend I knew how it worked. My daily routine involved running the sound and lights for a half-hour theater show at 1:00, 3:00 and 5:00 with an abbreviated outdoor gazebo show at 2:00 and 4:00.
In between shows I liked to walk through the amusement park. Sometimes Dale joined me. When we sauntered through the midway, he would tell me which arcade we passed based solely on the sloping elevation of the walking path. When we neared the concession stands, Dale knew where the picnic tables were located by the shade of the courtyard trees. When we headed back to the next show, Dale knew when we were near the theater as the flat vibrations of the park’s cacophony started to bounce off the dull concrete walls.
Dale continually asked questions about where we were and what was happening because in his world every detail was a revelation. Where I could slum through the world by sight, Dale had to gather as many clues along the way. And as Dale asked question after question, I found myself being introduced to different parts of the world.
If I had time, I liked to play music between shows. Once while paging through a magazine, I was listening to the movie soundtrack The Sting. The ragtime sound not only filled the booth where I sat. It also streamed through the main speakers in the theater below.
At the moment all the seats in the theater were empty except for one, Dale, sitting in the back row reading a Stephen King novel.
If you think an 800 page Stephen King novel is daunting in paperback, you should see the same novel in Braille. Dale’s borrowed novel came through the mail from lending library in tomes that were twice the size of ornate church bibles.
Dale was reading about a St. Bernard who was unwilling to live up to its name. In fact, “Cujo” did not help serve mass or rescue stranded skiers. Instead, he terrorized a mother and her son on a rural family farm.
At that moment every idle moment was set aside to finish the canine horror. Dale’s fingers quickly glided over the perforated dots on the sturdy yellow pages like he was playing the keys of his electric piano. He had immersed himself so much in the story of the satanic pet he even started calling his guide dog “Cu-Joey.” And as his fingers dashed to the next chapter, he shouted over the music.
I leaned my head out the second story window.
“Can you play track three again?”
“Just the one?”
“Yeah, number three!”
I played the third track again, then started sound-check for the next show.
To supplement my summer income I picked up odd jobs around the park. I hauled kegs into the beer garden. I catered food in the picnic grounds. I even ran tech support for ballroom events.
Dale also picked up the occasional gig. Sometimes he sat in with visiting bands. He also played the ballrooms’ grand piano for high school reunions, corporate meet and greets or any kind of soirées that needed a little background music as the liquor flowed.
I liked it when our gigs met: Dale quietly plucking away at the ivories while I kept a lazy eye on the sound level. It was an easy gig for I didn’t need to simultaneously blend twelve different levels as Donna screamed through microphone #4 and Don crashed the cymbals from the drum pit. It was just Dale playing the piano, working on an arrangement to songs we all know. But he never played them like A…B…C. Instead, he would take a gospel hymn, a Broadway hit or a theme from a blockbuster movie, and shape it with his own sentiment. With a pitch-perfect hearing and an extensive musical knowledge, he would tinker with the black and white keys throughout the evening like they were the inner-workings of an antique watch or the small branches of a bonsai tree. A song played a week or two before was never quite the same at the next event, like the arrangement was dependent on the mood, the crowd and the shifting landscape.
The piano is my favorite musical instrument. What’s not to love? It’s the only instrument that can sound like a full symphony. How may emotions can you plum from its strings? After all, Duke Ellington did not compose “Mood Fine” or “Mood Okay.” When he sat down at the piano “Mood Indigo” came from those keys.
It was always dream of mine to raise a couple of kids for the sole purpose of listening to them play the piano for free except for costs of lessons, lodging and eternal need to be fed. But if I was wealthy, perhaps a land owner who lived in a stately manor, I would have liked to spend my evenings in the front parlor listening to Mary Lou and Oscar practice their scales before moving onto to Chopin or Monk while I sat in a leather high-back with two fingers of Johnnie Walker and my trusted Black Lab, Brubeck, lounging at my feet…
Dale played through his usual list of suspects, then my ears perked when he moved into a new song. It was from The Sting, but it wasn’t the toe-tapping theme song. It was the more plaintive and subdued “Solace” and Dale made it even more introspective and wistful. In fact, if music can transport us, I was no longer in a 300 person ballroom with a bunch of drunk life insurance reps. Instead, I was by myself in a depression-era saloon, midday, with no hope of seeing the sun, studying the afternoon racing program in the dark recesses of a leather booth with a desperate plea that Mercy Mile will show in the fifth so I can get another drink…
“That was great,” I said to Dale, gathering up the mic cords after the set.
“That song you played from “The Sting…”
“When did you learn to play it?”
“The day I heard it.”
Then it hit me. The whole summer, through all the shows and side gigs, the only sheets of paper I saw in front of Dale were the yellow perforated pages of the novels he read.
“You learned to play a song by listening to it?”
“After two listens?”
“For good measure.”
How cool is that?