Bach and the Power of Friendship
New York City. Early fall. 1969.
The sound of calliope music tells me I’m approaching The Carrousel, one of the most visited sights in Manhattan’s Central Park. The wooden horses, all in bright colors, carry someone on their backs. Some are adults. Most are children whose smiling faces tell me they are having fun. The horse’s mouths are open in a grin that matches the children’s joy—the teeth so white, they look like they’ve been recently painted.
The music slows down, and while the merry-go-around comes to a stop, the mellifluous sound of a foreign accent makes me turn around. “Are you planning to ride?” The blond, young man who just spoke introduces himself as Yves. His pastel blue eyes glimmer. His skin sparkles. His smile mesmerizes.
We stroll through the park without a predetermined route. At one point we sit on a wooden bench, the type that makes your behind sore after a while. Who’s this alluring stranger?
He’ from Switzerland, and I learn he’s a steward for Swiss Air on a two-day stop-over in New York.
Passersby acknowledge us with a smile, probably a reflection of our own contentment. Who could have predicted that what had started as another mundane Saturday morning would turn into a charmed encounter?
As a Master student majoring in piano at the Manhattan School Music, I keep to a daily practice schedule. Weekends and holidays included.
On weekends though I wait until at least eleven o’clock to start practicing. This saves me from my next-door neighbor’s banging on our adjoining wall asking me to stop the “insufferable noise.” The wicked witch!
She uses a broom to convey her message. She’s new in the building and we haven’t met yet. I’ve no desire to face the growly voice behind the broom. Who would?
The day started with my usual weekend routine: sitting in my studio apartment—a place so tiny some might confuse it for a walk-in closet—waiting for the golden hour of 11:00 o’clock.
A bright glow cascaded through the window. The sun’s way of letting me know it was an unusually warm Fall day. Its allure tempted me.
Though at first, I resisted, its magnetic pull was too strong to ignore. An hour before touching the keyboard, I decided that mastering a Bach Partita seemed unimportant next to the music of the outdoors.
Leaving my coffee unfinished and with a bounce in my steps, I ventured out.
In minutes I was among a crowd ambling through Central Park’s luscious greenery, passing statues and familiar bridges to The Carrousel where I met Yves.
We walk to Victor’s Café, known for its Cuban cuisine— a tiny coffee shop on Columbus Avenue, which later expanded and eventually moved to a mid-town location that became popular with tourists.
Yves tells me that before working for the airline he was a professional skater and had participated in several competitions in the pair-dancing category. His athletic build is proof enough. I can easily imagine his gliding through the ice, jumping, spinning, and lifting his partner above his head and performing difficult acrobatic moves.
At Victor’s I order a Cuban sandwich. Yves settles for the same. “Switzerland is best for chocolates, but when it comes to sandwiches America is number one.” In Switzerland and most of Europe, “they serve a thin slice of meat on a roll with nothing else,” he adds. “It’s so naked!”
Though far from American, this Victor’s special, overflows with ham, pork, Swiss cheese, and pickles. All served on Cuban bread smeared in mustard and pressed ‘till it’s almost flat.
This former skater is fluent not only in English, but also German, Swiss-German—I didn’t know there was such a thing—French, Italian, and Spanish, which he uses with the waiters at Victor’s. “Agua por favor? Water, please?” “Enseguida. Con hielo o sin hielo? With or without ice?” “Without. Sin, sin.” When God distributed language skills, he must have forgotten the rest of us simple mortals. Hey, God, didn’t you see me raising my hand?
What makes Yves most special to me, however, is his knowledge of music. He took piano lessons as a child and attends concerts as often as he can.
We talk about his favorite composers: Beethoven, Chopin, Bach—an eclectic group.
He refers to Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as “a jewel as precious and precise as a Swiss watch.” I agree. Although written for the harpsichord, this work is now days usually performed on the piano; however, few pianists tackle the piece, considered by most as a pianistic marathon because of its length and technical intricacy.
Yves and I don’t tire of discussing the piece in detail, and his presence elates me so that I feel I can touch the sky with my fingers. Who needs a keyboard?
Neither of us wants to let go of the day ‘s spell.
We spend the night at the Essex House, a hotel on Central Park South where he stays when in New York. Our Art Deco room with its geometric and angular decorative patterns on the wall overlooks the park. We point to the various routes we took together that day.
“Can you see the bench where we sat?” he says.
“I can’t either,” he says and smiles. “Can you see the carousel? The music flows through pipes. Yes?”
I nod. “It’s either gas or steam. It’s called calliope.”
“Sounds like a Handel opera.”
When I ask why the Essex House, his face adopts a boyish grin. “Don’t’ you know Igor Stravinsky lived here from 1969 until his death in 1971?”
“The very same.”
“Probably not. I’m sure he shared his bed. With men. Where do you think his inspiration for Rite of Spring came from?
“You think he was . . . “
“Don’t you think?”
We stifle our giggles like two little kids who’ve heard a dirty joke for the first time.
That exchange could have easily come from The Boys in the Band, a play that Yves and I attended on one of his trips. Written by Mart Crowley and premiered Off-Broadway in 1968, the work revolves around a group of gay men who gather for a birthday party in New York City.
The reason for the gathering is a celebration. Yet, the relentless teasing that takes place among the friends is hardly festive. Often it crosses the line into total meanness—a thinly disguised self-loathing that reflects a society that has deeply hurt these men.
Although written as a comedy, the play deals with serious issues concerning the gay community: monogamy, true love, religion and homosexuality, and blacks who struggle to be accepted by their gay white friends.
When the curtains come down, Yves and I are stunned yet elated at a play that for the first time openly discusses sex among men. We don’t debate it in depth, though. It’s like we’re afraid to acknowledge we’re part of that community. A community that loathes itself.
Stonewall and the AIDS epidemic are years away.
Yves knows his schedule a month in advance and shares with me the dates of his New York stay. I get tickets to different shows—that’s how we ended up attending The Boys in the Band— and he brings me the finest Swiss chocolates. He has an aversion to anyone eating such sweets from anywhere other than Switzerland. “Such a sin. American chocolates taste like chocolate-flavored dirt.”
Besides Boys in the Band, we attended a few Broadway shows. Our favorite was Hello Dolly with Pearl Bailey heading an all-black cast. She turned the end of the second act into a one-woman tour-de-force, improvising and talking to the audience. Her performance won her a Tony award. The sad reality of the self-hatred expressed by the characters in Boys in the Band was obliterated in our minds by the joy-de vivre Ms. Bailey brought to the stage.
We fed our love for serious music with an all-Chopin recital by pianist Maurizio Pollini, technically flawless but a bit dry for my taste, and one by Arturo Rubinstein, called by The New York Times “one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century.” Besides his sublime interpretations, as close to heaven as one can get, there was something I remember vividly from that night. Rubinstein would not shake hands with any of the fans waiting for him at the end of the concert. His way of protecting his precious instrument.
We also attended performances by the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, City Opera, and the Met.
My friends accepted Yves readily and often invited him to dinner. No Boys in the Band scene at of those times. When he comes to my apartment, he plays the piano. His interpretation of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata moves me for its musicality. The singing line flows like liquid gold. I can visualize that piece underscoring one of his performances on the ice.
When I give my graduating masters recital, he’s in the audience. “Your Barcarolle was superb!” he tells me afterwards. “Rubinstein couldn’t play it better.”
What is the greater gift, that he likes my performance or that he is in the audience for such a significant moment? Both!
Although my relationship with him has lasted two years, I know there’s no future in it. He has no intention to move to America, and I have no plans to live in Switzerland. Besides, I believe there are others when we’re not together. When I ask about it, I inject a touch of humor because I don’t want to sound jealous—although I am. “Have you been good?” I ask. His reply never varies. “Just a little human.”
Monogamy does not interest him. This concept is as challenging to the gay community as “coming out” to one’s parents. So many young people, boys in particularly, have been thrown out of the house and disowned for being gay. “I don’t want a fag living in my house,” some of them are told. I, on the other hand, have everything I want: a special friend with whom I spend precious time together. No demands. No expectations. Just the bliss of the moment. Besides, my parents accepted my sexual orientation when I came out to them.
How long will my fairy-tale with Yves last?