Autumn In New York
Milton Sayers lived alone in a second floor apartment in the East Village of Manhattan, before everything became high-rise. As I climbed the stairs I could hear Billie Holiday emanating from the other side of the wooden door. Autumn in New York. She sang over a piano that was only there because you had to have something there – I mean she couldn’t sing on her own, now could she? Whatever it was there for, it wasn’t to be noticed. The song finished, and I heard Milton take the three steps from the chair to the turntable. Not bothering to turn the record over, he simply started the song again.
– Ahh, Lady Day, I said as I opened the door. Doesn’t get much better, does it?
– Yeah, he said, fishing in the pockets of his orange plaid dressing gown for cigarettes. This is the life. Invalid, cancer-ridden… shitty apartment. Can’t play, can’t work, no money, asshole landlord… listening to the same goddamned song again and again at ten o-clock in the morning – this is the life alright.
He often said cheery things like that.
– They’re on the counter, I said, as he bent down to examine the stylus for signs of his cigarettes. You shouldn’t smoke, I added. Not when your lungs aren’t well.
– Mind your own fucking business, he said to me. They’re my lungs.
I was going through my regular period of re-adjustment, having just come from the College. It made me realise the extent to which our paths had differed, mine and Milton’s. Milton had spent his entire life drinking with gangsters, arguing with club owners (read gangsters), flaunting Jim Crowe laws, riling racists, making stupid bets with dangerous people and generally having fun. I, on the other hand, had retreated into the sheltered world of academia. At the time, it seemed the only sensible option.
It was the depression, twenty years ago now, give or take. The world had been taken to the cleaners by one war, and was warming up for another. There was little work for the best of musicians, and I was by no stretch of the imagination the best. So, when I heard that the post was available, I called in as many favours as I could, and flaunted the moderate wealth and standing that my family possessed to the best of my ability. Milton, being the colour he is, had no such option available to him. He probably wouldn’t have taken it anyway. Now, after two decades of numbing immersion in the banalities of the music have robbed me of the cream of my passion for playing it, I have trouble deciding who got the rawest deal.
– Have you been playing? I ventured. This was always a touchy topic, though both of us treated it with a forced casualness.
He shook his head and grunted in the negative, pretending to be absorbed in the Times.
– Macy’s are having a sale, he said, in a dead voice that was doing more than make conversation. Twenty percent off mahogany drawers. Didn’t your girl used to wear them? He asked, by way of a joke to diffuse the situation. I couldn’t laugh.
We sat in uncomfortable silence for a few seconds.
– Been anywhere? I asked. Music, its players, its Gods, its clubs and its memories are the only topics on which Milton can be induced into an involved conversation these days.
– Last time was Birdland with you. And you know what that was like, he adds. Milton’s opinions on music have darkened to match his general demeanour recently, though I suspect that this has been happening internally ever since he stopped playing. However, his bleak assessments are always tempered by a nostalgic longing for the way things (and he) used to be.
– It wasn’t so bad… It was just bop. It might not be what we did, but it’s what’s happening now. We’ve had our time.
Milton stared into space and smoked his cigarette. This was what he had been consigned to – some old nigger in an apartment, who’s time it no longer was, invisible to the city that had made so much of him. I sensed this in him more often, and looking at him smoke and stare, I wondered if he, like myself, had considered (before he started to fade) the possibility of becoming one of the ghosts of jazz. Had he glanced sideways into the shadows at Minton’s, at the Apollo, The Savoy, Birdland, at Café Society – at just about any damn club you could find – and seen the broken patrons and players of yesteryear? Had he noticed their number dwindle, and felt a half-reasonable fear that soon – or at least one day in the foreseeable future – he would be called on the take their places? To warm the eternal seat? Of course not. Those half buried in the shadows were unlike Milton is one vital way. At the majority of clubs, if Milton was not making wonderful noises on the stage, or being inconspicuous between sets, then he was being thrown out.
He wasn’t like Lady Day, he didn’t have the immortal glamour and conviction, nor the barrier of femaleness, to throw chairs at bigots, to go wild at doormen. This was a fact only brought to his attention by his recent illness, which deprived him of the opium of his existence, and the badge of his usefulness to white people – the ability to make a nice noise.
– It’s not the fact that its bop that worries me, he continued, unable to stop himself as always. It’s the whole scene. He took a drag of cigarette, and started coughing violently. This would have worried me, but it was just a part of his daily routine by now.
– Half the motherfuckers there were only looking to score. I mean, I remember when the blowing came first man. We’d play for maybe five, six hours.
– C’mon, I said in a tone of forced joviality that I immediately regret, half of us would’a been out of our goddamned minds too.
– But it was still about the playing! He wasn’t yelling, but there was a conviction in his voice that silenced me. I felt the back of my neck redden. Look at the shit we have now, he continued. A club opens one week, closes the next. Sure, there are guys who are good, real good. They can say things the way you or me never could. But imagine what they would be like if they didn’t twelve outa twenty-four useable hours into their arms. You think this shit I got’s cancer? That out there, he pointed out the window toward fifty-second street, that’s a fucking cancer!
He started to cough, more violently this time. I fetched him a glass of water, and put it next to him without a word. I was a little pleased that I had at least gotten him talking passionately about something. This was a new development in Milton’s personality. While I knew that he didn’t like junk, and the things that it had been doing to black neighbourhoods, he rarely went on rants like this. His usual method was one of escape. He hid in the half-lit clubs that had provided the backdrop for a more happier, youthful time. He hid in the mythology that had grown up around the Jazz world, all of the apocryphal anecdotes and colourful turns of phrase that his mind had patchworked together to create a thick, heady blanket of nostalgia for him to hide under.
Even as he was coughing, Milton struggled to continue his condemnation of all the world had done to him and his beloved music. The coughing became so strong that he could not force any more words out, though he did not stop trying. Small flecks of spit came of his mouth. These were followed by larger pieces, yellow flecked with the red of Milton’s blood. If he were white, his face would have been bright red by now, as the coughing fit and the frustration welling up inside him fed off of one another, and conspired to bring him to his knees. He picked up the glass I had placed next to him and threw it hard into the opposite wall. Shards ricoched in all directions, and the jagged base of the glass fell to the ground, looking like a broken crown.
– Milt, calm down. Look, it’s not that bad.
– Like hell it aint. He coughed a few more times, and then took some deep breaths. Look, I’ll be cool. You’ve got places to be, I imagine, he said, not without bitterness. Go about your business, while it still wants you.
– I’ll bring you some groceries tomorrow.
My embarrassing exit followed me down the stairs and out into the street. Walking home from Milton’s was normally an enjoyable activity. I would leave his apartment somehow transformed, re-enlivened. Usually, seeing Milton reminded some almost forgotten part of me that there was passion to be had in the creation of music, in short, that the sum of the parts was greater than the whole. I believed if only for six or eight blocks, that if I didn’t think about it too much, and just let my hands do what years of hammering away at black and white keys had taught them to, everything would sort itself out, and I would once again be able to just play without care.
This time, I knew it was a lie. I left the house embarrassed, feeling as though I had condescended to Milton. It wasn’t the condescension of a well-off white professor to a semi-impoverished coloured ex-musician. It had nothing to do with money or skin or anything else. Neither Milt nor myself had really ever paid them much mind. What bothered me was that I had refused to acknowledge one thing. Milton and I were the same. We were both dead in the musical sense, and we both knew it. I was strangled by my consciousness, my years of thinking too hard, and my decision at the beginning of it all to sell my musical soul for the comfort of myself and my family. Milton was strangled by a deadly disease, the arbiter of man’s existence.
The world we came from was dead, and (I had to agree with Milton here) the one that had superseded it looked very much like dying. Where as I may have massaged the pain with the methadone of a loving wife, nice house and respectable post among the academia, he had hid from it until it was too hard to hide. You can’t hide from something that is being sold under your window, that floats out of every club that used to come alive with your sound.
As I walked the distance home I heard the song again, Autumn in New York spilling from an upstairs window that might as well have been Milton’s. How many others were there, who like me and like Milton, had spent their time in the summer sun, and were waiting for the winter?