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George Gershwin Part 1: Laundromat

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011: Characters, Stories.

“You a musician?”

I looked up. I’d been drumming on the table, in time with the churning washing machines, as I read yesterday’s paper. Across from me I saw an older man, slim and rugged in a denim shirt and faded jeans.

“Yeah, I guess. Among other things.”

“Look at these hands.” The man spoke quickly in a gruff urban accent. His eyes were large and bright, his features chiseled. I saw that his hands were huge. “An octave and a half. I play piano. Live right up the hill. What about you?”

“I write mostly, play whatever. Sing. I guess guitar’s my main thing.”

“Play by ear, huh? We’re the lucky ones. First thing I teach is to listen. That’s what Duchamp taught me. Marcel? My name’s Gershwin. George.”

I shook his hand, took him in. Big nose, big ears. Looked early-to-mid fifties.

“No way. Gershwin’s dead.”

George smiled. “Fact is, he came to me in a dream. Ten years ago. Said I should take up the name. A vocation. Before that I was CIA. Strictly underground. You wouldn’t believe it, but to this day I pass them on the street all the time, here in the city. KGB, British Intelligence, hand signals, winks, just like gradeschool.”

I felt stumped. My dryerload had stopped and I began to fold.

“How old do you think I am?”

“Fifty,” I said.

“Sixty-eight. My wife’s twenty-four. Met her at a march in LA. You should meet her some time. Sings those old labor songs.”

Gershwin heard his own dryer stop and went to empty it into a patched canvas bag. The other denizens of the laundromat, Latino women and their daughters, looked up shyly from the benches along the window. George passed me on his way to the door. “Here’s my card. Call me.” And he was gone.

I stood puzzling over a neat, elegantly embossed business card bearing the name John Christy, Piano: Concerts & Lessons.

From Loft of Dreams: True Stories by Max Carmichael


George Gershwin Part 2: Dog Food

Thursday, December 29th, 2011: Characters, Stories.

The whole band was there around the kitchen table, dressed in our thriftshop suits. Bottles of decent wine waiting to be poured.

The buzzer shrieked just as the clock hit the hour. My eyebrows arched in surprise. “I’ll get it,” said Fenton.

We all turned to face the top of the stairs. Mrs. Gershwin’s head rose first above the railing. She was a giant. But then George himself was quite a man. “Swell place,” he enthused, looking enviously around at the stereo and recording equipment.

I pulled a huge stuffed catfish out of the oven. Mrs. Gershwin was a vegetarian. George didn’t drink. The Bike Messenger sat up, his hands clenched on the table in front of him. His eyes practically bugged out. “So, how did you two meet, Mrs. Gershwin.”

“Oh, George and I met on a march,” she replied, in a thick, sweet drawl. George himself threw his hands out over the table.

“It was a labor march, for civil servants. They were advancing on City Hall, and Tessie was belting out these old labor songs, old Wobbly songs, you know? I just happened to be there, waiting for a bus.”

Tessie was staring at George in rapture. “So I went up to her afterwards, and asked her to sing with me. We’re going to do a concert at the Bank of America next Wednesday, aren’t we, Tessie.” She nodded mightily. “My friend Bob is the program director for the local classical station, he sets these things up. I’d like you all to come.”

“What kind of stuff do you play?” said the Singer.

“Something for everyone,” George whispered, tucking his chin and grinning mischievously.

“Rhapsody in Blue?” I asked.

“Naturally.” George turned to Tessie and fell to smiling at her. After a while he turned back and looked straight at me.

“I had no place to live, but I had a toy piano. Tessie let me move in with her and her mother. A suffering soul. Have you ever eaten dog food?”

In the silence they could hear Fenton chewing food he’d grabbed off somebody else’s plate.

“It’s not bad, you know.” George smiled comfortably. “Got everything you need.”

From Loft of Dreams: True Stories by Max Carmichael

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George Gershwin Part 3: Rhapsody in Blue

Friday, December 30th, 2011: Characters, Stories.

The auditorium in the heart of downtown San Francisco is packed at noon on Wednesday. A noisy crowd. Without any introduction, George strides across the stage wearing a tuxedo, at just the appointed time, dropping his butt on the bench before the grand piano and aggressively attacking it, his feet dancing and his butt scooting around on the bench. He beats out a ragtime, looking up at the audience and nodding with that Popeye grin. It’s loud and technically bewildering, it’s over quickly, and he jumps up and grabs the microphone.

“Some of you may know the name Marcel Duchamp,” he suggests hoarsely. “An artist of some renown. He devised this next piece to settle a bet.”

Mrs. Gershwin advances onstage, carefully pushing a cart stacked with what appear to be crystal wine glasses, brandy snifters, filled to different depths. George is theatrically rolling up his sleeves, revealing his muscular arms. He wets the tips of his fingers in a glass of water, and begins to play a tune by caressing the rims of the glasses. It’s “Chopsticks.” The crowd explodes with laughter and applause.

When he’s done Tessie looms at the microphone and George launches into her accompaniment, this time fixing his hunched concentration on the piano. She sings stridently off-key. Old labor songs.

“And now, I will do something no one has ever attempted,” says George as the hour approaches one. Tessie’s returning onstage with a little red toy piano.

“I will play Rhapsody In Blue on two pianos, the grand and the toy, at the same time.”

And he does, brilliantly.

From Loft of Dreams: True Stories by Max Carmichael

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