Leontyne and Me

I met Joseph when I was 25 and he was 52, eight years younger than I am now. I shared my one-bedroom apartment on the Lower East Side in New York City with night-crawling cockroaches while Joseph, a successful writer, lived some blocks away in urban grandeur, including security gates that crisscrossed his windows. I said it was like living in a prison, and not for me.

Then came my first burglary.

"Immediately replace everything stolen," he advised. "Or everyday you'll feel like you've been robbed again."

In the years before I moved and got my own security gates, I lost bikes, television sets, my college ring, and several stereo systems. Amid the ongoing pillage, my record albums (with little value on the street or to pawnbrokers) remained untouched. After the second raid, Joseph handed me the RCA recording of Samuel Barber's Knoxville Summer: 1915.

"This is for you," he said.

Out of its jacket and removed from the white paper sleeve, the long-playing disc was the size of a dinner plate. It smelled of solvent; its face of perfect grooves gleamed. I fit the record on my new turntable. The needle dropped onto the record's edge and slid inward. Static, a brief interlude of woodwinds, then the lush soprano of Leontyne Price.

It has become that time of evening

when people sit on their porches, rocking gently, and talking gently...

People go by; things go by.

I grew up deep in the middle of the American Century in San Diego with its gold skies and endless summers, but James Agee's words sent me south to one summer night in 1915.

On the rough wet grass of the back yard

my father and mother have spread quilts.

We all lie there,

my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt,

and I too am lying there...

I threw a surprise birthday party for Joseph. With just two chairs and no table, his friends stood while others ate on my bed with plates on their laps. The electricity went off and I lit candles for light. There was no heat so I poured extra cayenne in the chili, thinking to solve the problem.

They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet,

of nothing in particular,

of nothing at all in particular,

of nothing at all.

I was a small-town kid -- dumb, even innocent. But to fully take in the music, an experience of artistry and intention that was studied and complex, was to transform the listener. Who knows where change may lead?

All my people are larger bodies than mine,

quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless

like the voices of sleeping birds.

  1. It is ten years later and I am at graduation ceremonies at Yale. Leontyne Price sits on the dais, 20 feet straight ahead. She awaits her honorary doctorate in music. I am here to collect my third graduate degree, now own a condominium, and have won a postdoctoral year at Oxford -- all this while holding down a full-time tenured post. But there is a cost. I am so wrecked on drugs this afternoon that I am a human yo-yo, up and down. The diva notices and shoots me the same look my mother used to nail me with. Instantly I remain put.

I'm sure my record album is around someplace. Joseph, long ago, went missing.

One is an artist, he is living at home.

One is a musician, she is living at home.

One is my mother who is good to me.

One is my father who is good to me.

My father has turned 90. My mother suffers from Alzheimer's disease. They reside in San Diego. I live not far away. I neither drink nor do drugs. I live alone with a small dog and no security gates. One year ago, I wrote Joseph. He did not write back.

After a little I am taken in and put to bed.

Sleep, softly smiling, draws me unto her;

and those receive me, who quietly treat me

as one familiar and well-beloved in that home:

but will not, oh will not

not now, not ever,

but will never tell me who I am.

The RCA recording Knoxville Summer: 1915 with Leontyne Price is out of print. But recently a snatch of melody heard drifting off the radio and I am walking Manhattan's streets, warmed under San Diego skies, and 90 years before, am again beloved one summer evening.

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