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The First Time I Met the Blues: Taken From the Memoirs of a Piano Player

nonfiction by Tracy Polakovsky

We sat in the lobby, beneath a ceiling that extended beyond the fifth and sixth floors, never seeming to end or reach a point where the roof and sky were separate. I sat lost in an oversized couch, my feet never touching the ground even as I comfortably slumped down, and we were drunk, or as Ernest Hemingway often preferred to say in his novels, we were rather "tight." Staged above on the second floor balcony was a band playing, and the ensemble consisted of men and women formally dressed in tuxedos and black evening gowns. They seemed to hum a calming whisper beyond the melodies they were creating, making it very soothing to sit and bask in the glow of the corner fireplace.

I closed my eyes, and listened. Dropping my head back, I swished rich subtle flavors of a spiced island rum and coke on my palate, making my tongue silky smooth. The melodies they performed were soft and jazzy. Harmonious tones, sliding and twisting through the acoustics of a hardwood floor and skyscraper pillars found their way into my breath, and as I breathed in, the mood of the room became dramatically different.

Not from the same affect my numbing nose and lips were being attacked, but instead, I was intoxicated by that single, naive moment which would ultimately discover me out of the existence of being lost among other musicians. I realized at that casual moment that I had tolerated a course of study without ever acknowledging that I did not really belong there. I was indeed a musician in my own right, but my role was not defined according to what everyone else was safely doing. As I watched them above me playing their program, they felt safe, but I knew I wanted to stick my neck out, I needed to compose and play something more than music.


A shy little girl, trying to act discreetly, walking through the dimly lit street, I was in awe of the goings-on around me. I had expected only traditional Dixieland, Creole, and jazz music, but I soon found that I knew very little about the Bourbon Street of today. The mixture of modern music and sex brought a feeling of invasion to the French Quarter I had not anticipated, and my rose colored glasses began to crumple.

I soon realized my appetite for the sophisticated side of life, which honestly meant I was just being a naive snob. This atmosphere was part of the history of New Orleans, and I was just about to get a crude lesson about the "real world" everyone had always spoken sarcastically about. Stopping off at many bars throughout the night, I enjoyed that each one had its own live band. I waited a long while and had a slow drink in this place where there was a blues quartet moaning and swaying. Their faces sagged as they played with closed eyes. Listening, in this world where everyone was supposed to mellow down easy, I believe they were more vital with each music progression.

I noticed a gentleman in the doorway, who was very generous with his cigarettes. He sang along a phrase here and there with the band. I watched him for a long time, trying to imagine him standing in the doorway of my bar; what would the doorway even look like? And would he sing along with the band?

I found myself walking over toward him, he wasn't tall or dark nor even what I would consider handsome, but he filled out his clothes in a way that I could see muscle definition through his white t-shirt. I don't smoke, but I asked him for a cigarette and we started to talk about the band. I was interested in what he might say because I thought he was a local. He mentioned the reason he loved coming to Bourbon Street was purely for the music. I was actually impressed with the conversation at first, right up until he asked me back to his hotel. For the rest of the night and on into the next morning I walked through the streets soaking up the experience. A block away from Bourbon Street at the St.Loius hotel, I sat on a third floor balcony, my dehydrated lips sipping water. Listening to the people below me, I envisioned a large room, perhaps in an old house or basement, with aging brick walls and dirty hardwood floors. People sitting at a mahogany bar with wooden stools could feel the hand finished craftsmanship beneath them. Tables and chairs with supple brown leather seats sat in a dimly lit room filled with smoke. And a man stood in the doorway where red tapestry hung around the frame. Then I went to sleep, disappointed in myself for falling under the spell of the trend du jour idea.


We were close, but culturally distant. Here we enjoyed palm trees; white sandy beaches and we fell in love with and snorkeled in clear waters. But there is more to mention here than the obvious enjoyment of tropical land. We made laughs about the business men in black socks and low cut dress shorts, explored the island on little scooters while "giving way" to the other traffic as it squeezed by the narrow winding roads and we had too many close calls while briefly forgetting to go around the left to make a right hand turn.

It was here that I briefly lost thought to jazz and blues. A particular dining experience, a pleasure for kings and queens, one night was so generously bestowed upon me. I was made to feel very beautiful by the admiring stares of my dinner companion and I wanted to "strut my stuff "after the five star dinner. We ordered our cognacs respectfully and I tactfully nursed my Grand Marnier. Once again, a couch and I became fast friends.

A piano player joined us in the parlor, which was housed in a turn of the century home. The pianist asked that we make a request, so I asked for "La vie en Rose." The waiters, tall and dark skinned wore white dinner coats. They spoke with an English brogue and I asked silly redundant questions to captivate the moments with their voices for as long as I could. I started to envision a piano and wine bar as a gentleman strolled over to me, struck a long match, shielded the flame behind his cupped palm and extended toward me to light my Cuban cigar.


This night had been too wonderful. This whole trip, too perfect. I remember thinking that as the doorman opened the cab and I stepped down to get in. We were feeling more than just happy; we were content as well. Nothing could have been more pleasant than that night by the shore where we had lobster for dinner and listened to the soft sounds of the ocean behind the music of a string quartet. I remember talking non-stop in the back of the cab, excited about my travels and the many ideas they had inspired for my dream of owning my own restaurant and musical theme bar. I couldn't get my words out fast enough. As I was in the middle of describing the savoring idea of a cognac bar, we were struck; out of the darkness came a pickup truck. He never even tried to stop.


He didn't see us, although I saw him from the corner of my eye, just as the words began flowing so gracefully from my lips. But then, only blood began to flow from my mouth. It was amazing that I only suffered minor injuries. My friend had been flown to a trauma center where he later died, and all that I had left of that night, besides the memories, was an Italian tie that I had picked out for him to wear from a shop in our hotel. It was stained with blood, and now I wish I had gotten it cleaned and kept it. The designer was killed this past summer. The blood on the tie somehow seems both ironic and symbolic now. I promised him that I would someday truly design and build my dream. I 'm still not sure what kind of musical theme I like best. But I would like to honor the memories of my friend and the many places we went together. I can not yet describe them all, but that night was still an inspiration. It was the first time I met the blues.

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