Notes, when I was a pianist long ago in Hollywood
A balmy September evening in Hollywood. A deeply-shadowed Spanish courtyard, my apartment courtyard. A stone fountain and the subtle sound of splashing water. A rusted iron gate. The air heavy with the intoxicating scent of gardenias mingled with the gentle moistness of a Southern California night. This spellbinding atmosphere fills me with unholy urges, thoughts of delicious romantic possibilities......
.......but the night has other reasons for me to venture out. I pass through the creaking gate, walk several blocks west along Hollywood Boulevard, turn left onto Fairfax. Walk several more blocks until I arrive at my nocturnal sanctuary, Cafe Rendezvous.
As I enter the cafe, the lingering memory of gardenias quickly vanishes and is replaced by pungent stale smoke and the suffocating indoor air of too many crowded hours. I automatically make my way to the old white grand piano, lingering in a shadowed corner like a forgotten soiree. I take my seat on the hard bench, loosen my collar, wipe my damp palms on my trousers.
The intriguing Arabian waiter with the captivating smile brings my usual glass of Sangria. He is originally from Jeddah, but he's seductively wise in West Hollywood ways.....
I'm never drunk when I play the piano, but a glass of wine or a gin and tonic - consumed in very slow sips - enables me to mellow and eventually succumb to the music, the atmosphere, the enchantment of the night.
Cigarette smoke and shaded amber lamps, potted palms, anonymous shadows, lazy ceiling fans, a sweet-scented combination of faded perfumes, spicy after shaves, and summer sweat.
I feel as though I'm smothered between the pages of a Raymond Chandler novel.
I inconspicuously watch the people. I know the regulars, who linger for hours over drinks and cigarettes, casual conversation, and melancholy thoughts. I scan the new faces, secretly connecting with the most appealing or the most interesting. I never flirt. I try to remain slightly aloof, nearly disconnected, concentrating on chords and arpeggios.
Occasionally (but not often) I break a cardinal rule by smoking while I play. Not because I enjoy it. Not because it enhances my music. But merely for effect. If vanity has a part in this indulgence, I'm reluctant to apologize.
The Sangria boosts my confidence and enhances my repertoire. I play old songs, standards, some new songs. And just for the hell of it, I occasionally improvise. Soft, beautiful, romantic sentiments.
A second glass of Sangria makes the waiter's smile seem temptingly personal and alluringly dangerous. He's adept at the art of captivation.
I never accept tips. I never play requests. I ignore the occasional slip of paper left on the piano with a phone number and an intimate suggestion. Work and pleasure never mix. Although the attention always feeds my starving ego.
Now and then a lady (or sometimes a man), plied with too much cheap wine, will sit on the piano bench unnervingly close to me, feigning an interest in my roaming fingers. I can feel the heat and sense the suggestion of more than a musical encounter. This intimate closeness usually annoys me and diminishes my concentration. I'm always polite, but I never encourage.
Sometime after midnight, when the hours are weary and the crowd begins to dissipate, the Ancient Gardenia (as I call her) will enter the room and make a pilgrimage to my piano. It's an almost nightly ritual. She was once a renowned actress, who has drifted into the agonizing purgatory of age and obscurity.....but grand theatricality has never abandoned her.
Draped in hopelessly outdated operatic attire and a profusion of tawdry rhinestones, drenched in toxic fusion of French talcum and perfume, she leans heavily on the piano - - intently watching my fingers, inhaling every note. She stays until I get up and close the lid over the keyboard.
At closing time my hands are sore, my back and butt hurt, I'm permeated with unwanted smoke, suffocating from lack of air. I'm tired but restless. Always restless. There are still several delicious hours left before dawn. I have a final quick drink. A stronger drink than Sangria. Maybe whiskey. Perhaps Tequila.
Stepping outside into the fresh, moist, balmy night air I feel revived and invigorated. I slowly retrace my steps - - back along Fairfax and up to Hollywood Boulevard. I pass through the old rusted iron gate and enter the Spanish apartment courtyard with the splashing stone fountain.
I linger for a long while, in the intoxicating midst of sweetly scented gardenias and deep indigo shadows. I'm hardly surprised when a figure clad in white enters the gate. He looks darkly exotic, strongly reminiscent of Arabian descent. He slowly and seductively draws a half-smoked cigarette from a familiar, captivating smile.
I take the cigarette from his fingers and finish smoking it. In sweet secret moments such as these, my existence assumes the delicious proportions of a film noir.