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. For a time I thought I was part cat, part ninja, part all-knowing sage. That’s what I felt and that’s how I moved.
This confidence ran into 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 was his pitch-perfect hearing, meaning members of the band used Dale’s ears to tune their instruments.
That’s where we met: Peony Park, an amusement center in Omaha, Nebraska, contracted with Dale to play the electric piano for a song and dance revue called “Dance to the Music.” I was hired to stand behind a mixing board and pretend I knew how it worked. And like most jobs where you have no idea how to execute your core responsibility, I thought it was a blast.
What was not to love? My daily work routine involved running sound and lights for the 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 walked through the amusement park, lounged by the neighboring pool, listened to music in the theater or pretended to read a classic American novel about a kid rafting down the Mississippi or another playing catch in a field of grain.
Sometimes Dale joined me in my walks. When we sauntered through the midway, he would tell me which arcade we passed not by the call of the teenage barker, but by the slight grade in elevation of the walking path. When we neared the concession stands, Dale knew where the picnic tables were located, not by the smell of the fresh popcorn and mini donuts, but by the shade afforded by the courtyard trees. When we headed back to the next show, Dale knew the location of the theater based on the flat vibrations of the park’s cacophony bouncing off the theater’s concrete walls.
Dale continually asked me questions about where we were and what was happening because in Dale’s world every sense was a revelation to be catalogued for his next visit. Where I could slum through the world by sight, Dale had to gather as many clues along the way. And as Dale asked me question after question, I found myself being introduced to a different part of the world.
During one of those lazy summer days at Peony Park, while paging through a magazine, I yawned and pressed play on theater’s CD player. The Compact disc was from the movie “The Sting.” The music not only filled the sound booth above but also streamed through the main speakers of the vacant theater below. All the seats were empty except for one: Dale was 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 novel came through the mail in multiple tomes twice the size of an ornate church bible. Dale’s read was about a St. Bernard who was unwilling to live up to the breed’s name. In fact, “Cujo” did not help serve mass or rescue stranded skiers. Instead, he terrorized a mother and her son on their rural family farm.
Between shows, Dale’s fingers moved from the piano keys to the perforated dots on the sturdy yellow pages. Dale immersed himself in the story so much he started calling his guide dog “Cu-Joey.” And as his fingers poured over the green book, he shouted from the empty seats.
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 and started sound-check for the next show.
To supplement my lazy summer income I picked up odd jobs around the park. I sometimes backed the bartenders in the ballroom or helped cater food in the picnic grounds. Sometimes I ran tech support if an event needed a spotlight or a mixing board. Dale also picked up odd jobs. Sometimes he sat in with visiting bands, but mostly he played the ballrooms’ grand piano for high school reunions or corporate events or what have you…
It was during one of those alcohol-infused soirees that Dale quietly plucked 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 while Donna screamed through microphone #4 and Don crashed the cymbals from his drum pit. It was just Dale playing the piano, working on his own musical arrangements.
That’s what he did. Dale didn’t play a song like A…B…C. He took a song we had all heard before whether it was a gospel hymn, a Broadway hit or the theme from a movie and shaped it with his own sentiment. With a pitch-perfect hearing and an extensive musical knowledge, he would tinker and cultivate the songs like they were antique watches or living bonsai trees.
Besides a woman’s voice or a John Coltrane saxophone solo, the piano is my favorite musical instrument to listen to. What’s not to love? It’s the only instrument that can sound like a full symphony or a single voice. How may emotions can you plum from its keys? After all, Duke Ellington did not compose “Mood Fine” or “Mood Okay.” When Duke sat down at the piano “Mood Indigo” came from those keys.
I always thought a perfectly good reason to have children is for them to learn the piano so I could listen to them play for free, except for costs of their lessons, lodging, education and eternal desire to be clothed. So, if I was wealthy and owned a manor, I would spend my evenings in the front parlor where I would listen to little 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 the Wall Street Journal, while my trusted Black Lab, Brubeck, lounged at my feet…
I really enjoyed those moments sitting behind the mixing board and listening to Dale play the grand piano. Even among the clinking of glasses and murmurs of gossip, the music is all I heard. Even if he played the same song a week before, it was never the same, like the song was dependent on the mood, the crowd or the shifting landscape, like it was a living thing full of breath and today was not tomorrow and it certainly didn’t sound like last week.
That night Dale played the usual suspects; then my ears perked as he started a new arrangement.
It was a song from “The Sting” but not the ragtime “The Entertainer.” It was the more plaintive “Solace” and Dale’s arrangement made it even more introspective and wistful. Even among a crowded room of guffaws and unwelcome groping, Dale painted a picture that I doubt anybody in the room heard, but that didn’t make the arrangement any less poignant.
Listening to the song I was no longer in ballroom with 300 revelers on a Friday night, but in an empty speakeasy on a Thursday afternoon with no place to go and nobody to call, nursing a cheap bourbon while listening to the third race at Belmont, hoping that Six Easy Pieces would at least show…
“That was great,” I said to Dale as I gathered up the cords after the set.
“That song you played from “The Sting…”
“When did you learn it?”
“The day you played it.”
Then it hit me. The whole summer, through all the shows and gigs, the only sheets of paper I saw in front of Dale were the yellow pages of “Cujo.” Never once did I see him with sheet music. When he showed up with the rest of the band, I assumed the music was already memorized and not something to pick up on the fly.
“You learned how to play a song by listening to it?”
“After two listens?”
“For good measure.”
How cool is that?