Fiction: Dreamers

Prologue

 

“May all your dreams come true” is a wonderful wish. But we also know that all good things must end.  The prom king and queen do not get to reign forever.

As the narrator of this story, I must confess that I did not know these dreamers. Much of what I did know, I had heard secondhand. So please accept my apologies for any inaccuracies.

Many years later, I would finally encounter the two protagonists. By then they had both awakened to a harsh reality. They could no longer go on believing that “Life is but a dream.”

 

 

1

No Americans were greater dreamers than the generation that grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and came of age after the close of the Second World War. Having lived through those extremely trying times, they gave a great deal of thought to the future lives that they hoped to live.

Johanna was fortunate enough to have escaped the worst of it because her mother, a public-school secretary, brought home a regular paycheck. Her father, who had been a musician, had been able to find odd jobs through the thirties.  Then, drafted in 1941, he was given a clerical job at Fort Hamilton -- not far from what later became the Brooklyn end of the Verrazano Bridge.

An only child, Johanna was often subjected to the same tired message, especially from her mother: “Make sure you get a secure job with a good pension.” Most women graduating from college in the late 1940s got jobs as public school teachers – not that they had many other choices. Then they hoped to catch a good husband who also had a secure job, and the two of them would be set for life.

Johanna started taking piano lessons when she was six. The family soon had a collection of photos of her at the piano, happily playing away. There were also shots of Johanna playing duets with her mother.

By the time she entered Erasmus Hall High School, she had begun giving piano lessons to neighborhood children for thirty-five cents an hour – and even free lessons to children whose parents could not afford to pay. Brought up by her leftist parents to believe that every child should be given the same opportunities, Johanna was very proud to do this.

Although a school that drew students from just the surrounding neighborhoods, Erasmus was arguably the best high school in Brooklyn. Brooklyn Tech and Madison would have disputed that contention. Still, as a fourteen-year-old freshman, Johanna’s skills as a pianist were quickly recognized.

She was the accompanist at school musicals, and would play the Star Spangled Banner at the weekly assemblies. After each rendition, her playing would be roundly cheered.

Some of her teachers wondered why she had not applied to Music and Art High School, or even the newly opened High School of Performing Arts. But Johanna and her parents had agreed that the daily commute into “the City” -- at least an hour each way -- would be too much of a burden.

Not only could she walk to Erasmus, but when she graduated and then attended Brooklyn College, she could walk there too. And still better, it was actually free.

Many of the young men in her classes were World War II veterans. She quickly learned that to be admitted to the school, girls needed a considerably higher grade-point average than boys. The reasoning was that Brooklyn College’s administrators wanted to attract more veterans – not only as a show of patriotism -- but also because their educations were being handsomely subsidized by the newly passed GI Bill of Rights.

Even at Brooklyn College, Johanna’s reputation had preceded her, and she was warmly received by the professors of the Music Department. By now, she was charging a dollar an hour for piano lessons and had even gotten an offer to play at the Club Elegante on Ocean Parkway, a sizeable night spot, which provided a great showcase for rising musical talent. In fact, ten years after her debut, Johnny Mathis headlined at the club.

The professors in Brooklyn’s Music Department agreed that she had the makings of a concert pianist, but Johanna demurred. She knew all about the joyless hours she would need to spend practicing each day -- and for what? For maybe an extremely longshot chance to one day perform at Carnegie Hall?

She knew the limitations of her patience – not to mention her talents. Playing the piano was still fun to her, teaching piano was satisfying, and she would be quite content to become a music teacher in a public school – or maybe one day -- a professor of music. Of course, when she learned there were no women in Brooklyn College’s music department, she realized the impracticality of that dream.

 

2

Unlike Johana -- a Brooklyn girl-- Phil was a proud Bronx boy, having grown up there during the idyllic days before Robert Moses managed to largely destroy the predominately working-class borough. Creating a convenient bypass between New Jersey and New England,. the Cross Bronx Expressway converted a wide swath of the Bronx into a huge slum.

Phil’s life was not directly affected by the construction of the expressway because he lived on Jerome Avenue in the West Bronx, about two miles north of the that swath of urban blight. He and his sister, Arlene, lived with their parents in the back of the family’s antique store, under the tracks of the elevated trains that clattered by every few minutes, day and night.

Phil had three goals in life: to earn a decent living as a musician, to marry an interesting and beautiful woman who was also a musician, and to live in a nice home in Riverdale, by far the best neighborhood in the Bronx.

None of these wee an unreasonable goals once you heard Phil play the trumpet. While everyone in the neighborhood knew how good he was, his talents were not fully appreciated until, at age twelve, he attended his first Boy Scout summer camp. Within days, he was asked to play reveille and taps every morning and evening.

Years later, some of the Scouts – and even the Scout Master – would recall how much they enjoyed his playing, which had branched out into impromptu miniconcerts. His Boy Scout musical exploits were soon reported in The Bronx Home News, and when he came home from camp, he had become somewhat of a neighborhood celebrity.

At his bar mitzvah party, which was held exactly on his thirteenth birthday, he played the trumpet to entertain his guests. Soon he was invited to  join a band of neighborhood teenagers who played at bar mitzvahs, weddings, and dances – sometimes for as much as $15 a session – which was very good money for the early 1940s.

When it was time to enter high school, he was torn between the vaunted Bronx High School of Science, just a short bus ride away, and the more appropriate High School of Music and Art, which was a somewhat longer subway ride into Manhattan. Phil decided to leave his fate to a coin flip. One evening, his parents and his sister joined him around the kitchen table. He asked Arlene to take a coin out of her purse and flip it. The next day he applied to Music and Art.

When he reported for the interview, Phil patiently answered each question the three music teachers asked, and then picked up his trumpet. After they heard the first bars of triple-tongued notes of his rendition of John Phillip Sousa’s march, Under the Double Eagle, the three panelists smiled at each other. When Phil finished, they stood up and shook hands with him.  

Music and Art High School was on the campus of City College in Harlem. At the time, it was known as City Uptown, in contradistinction to City Downtown, which was the business school, that was to be renamed Baruch College decades later. City Uptown became City College.

Phil’s trumpet virtuosity quickly became well-known not just throughout Music and Art, but also among the music faculty at City College. Soon Phil was being called “the Jewish Satchmo” or “Louie” as in Louis Armstrong. Extremely flattered at the comparison, Phil joked that while he enjoyed being compared to his idol, he doubted that he was nearly as good a singer as Satchmo, whose unique gravelly singing voice was almost comical.

By his junior year at Music and Art, Phil had become known as something of a “ladies’ man.” He explained to friends that his exploits were greatly exaggerated. Indeed, he was in great fear of getting a girl pregnant, so even though a few opportunities presented themselves, he never went “all the way.” Perhaps it also helped that soon after he began college, the sexually repressive 1950s had arrived.

In his senior year, Phil was asked to join a new band that had been formed by three guys from City College and another senior at Music and Art. They soon were making pretty good money playing at dances, bar mitzvahs and occasional weddings.

A year later, Phil enrolled at City and received a warm reception from the Music Department, some of whose professors already knew him. One of their suggestions, which he was not that crazy about, was learning another brass instrument, preferably the trombone.

“Why?” asked Phil.

“You never know when that skill might come in handy. Besides, it’s the same embouchure – in other words, you mouth the instrument the same way, but the mouthpiece is twice as large.

And, of course, you’ll be using seven slide positions instead of three pistons.”

“And that’s it?”

“Well OK Phil. You’ll be playing tenor instead of treble.”

“Hey, that sounds like a lot to learn!”

“You’d be surprised. A slide is much easier than pistons. Trust me: I went from trombone to trumpet. Going from trumpet to trombone will be much easier.”

“I sure hope you’re right.”

Phil was not too thrilled about learning a new instrument, but once he heard his sound on the trombone, he quickly embraced his new project. Perhaps most important, being able to play and teach two instruments would probably come in handy.

Six months before he would graduate, he got a phone call from the Music Chairman at Music and Art. “Phil, I just wanted to let you know that if you decide to teach music, we’ve got a position waiting for you.”

Although not much of a planner, Phil knew this was an offer he needed to take very seriously. “Mr. Schultz, it would be an honor!”

Phil figured, if a better offer came along, he could always grab it. In the meanwhile, he might as well accept this one, while it was still on the table.

 

3

By her senior year, Johanna definitely knew she would be teaching music at a high school or junior high school somewhere in Brooklyn. She had kept up her contacts in Erasmus, and they were very encouraging. It would be nice to go back there to teach, and of course she would continue to be able to walk to school.

Then, she heard that Music and Art would be holding auditions in a couple of months. She would play a selection of her choice for a panel that would decide whether she would be seriously considered for a job. Only a very small fraction of those invited to audition received a call-back, let alone --  were ultimately hired. There were still more hoops to jump through before a decision was made.

If she did get a job offer, she would have considered whether she would be willing to commute all the way up to Harlem. Probably not. Still, why not give it a shot? She knew the competition would be exceedingly stiff, but her competitive juices would give her the incentive to at least show up.

Two months later, as she walked into the interview, she saw four women and a man seated near a grand piano. They were the gatekeepers.

Before she sat on the piano bench, Johanna announced that she would be playing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto number 2, opus 18. The members of the panel glanced at each other. Johanna was not carrying the score.

She sat, took a deep breath, raised her hands and began to play. Concentrating, Johanna could not gauge the reaction of her audience. She was so transported, she might have been playing at home on a much more familiar -- and modest -- piano.

When she finished, she stood, bowing her head slightly. Then she looked at the members of the panel. Some were grasping tissues. One of the women was openly crying.

Another woman walked over to Johanna and hugged her while whispering, “Thank you! Thank you!”

A few months later, Johanna boarded the Brighton Express and was on her way to her first day on the job. It was the only fulltime job she would ever hold.

 

4

The entire day was devoted to orienting new faculty members into the customs and mores of the school. Johanna quickly observed that she was, by far, the youngest of the group. A middle-aged woman sitting next to her explained that she and virtually all of the others – musicians and artists – had been applying to the school every year, and had finally gotten lucky.

“So, you must be one hotshot musician to be hired right out of college.”

“Thank you, Brenda. As it happens, I have never before been referred to as a hotshot anything.”

“You must be the girl who aced the Rachmaninoff concerto! Well, I guess one can say that you certainly started off here on a high note.”

They both chuckled.

“How about you, Brenda? Are you a musician or an artist?”

“Actually, neither. I’m the new school nurse. So, I get to go to orientation along with the new faculty members.”

Meetings filled up the next day for the entire faculty. As Johanna glanced around, she tried to guess who were musicians and who were artists. She smiled, wondering how she would have been singled out. In this crowd, maybe a student.

Of course, Phil noticed her immediately. Not only was Johanna the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, but perhaps the most enchanting as well. He was tempted to walk across the room, get down on one knee, and propose to her. He had to laugh at  himself while acknowledging that might be rushing things just a bit.

Johanna, of course, noticed his interest. He was tall, fairly good looking, and certainly seemed quite sure of himself. And likely, he was a fellow musician. He did not look like the artistic type, and he was obviously not a homosexual.

When the meeting finally ended, she was pretty sure he would approach her. When he did, she smiled, extended her hand and said, “Johanna Bernstein.” He took her hand, shook it, and announced, “Phil Horowitz, at your service.”

She chuckled. “That must have been some time ago. The only time I’m ever in Shul is on the High Holy Days.”

They both smiled.

“Then she asked, “Isn’t there some kind of rule against fraternizing?”

“I don’t know, Johanna. I’m not in any fraternity.”

“Well, as you might have surmised, this is my first day on the job. I don’t want to get into any trouble.”

“OK, I’ll be careful. And by the way, I’ve already heard that you’re in a very serious relationship.”

She looked at him quizzically.

“I know all about you and Rachmaninoff.”

She burst out laughing. “And all this time, I thought he and I had kept it a secret.”

“Hey, you’re a celebrity here! They’re still talking about your audition.”

“Really?”

“Really!”

Just then, a nice-looking middle-aged man joined them. Phil made the introductions.

“Johanna, I just came over to congratulate you on your Rachmaninoff selection.”

”Thank you!”

“Now I need to tell you something about Phil. Just in case he hasn’t told you, do you know where he lives?”

“No.”’

“The Bronx.”

“Thanks for sharing that,” replied Johanna.

“And where are you from?” asked the man.

“Brooklyn.”

The man chuckled, said it was good meeting her, and walked away.

“What was that all about?” asked Johanna.

“Jim has a rather warped sense of humor.”

“I didn’t get the joke he was trying to make.”

“He was trying to let both of us know that we live pretty far from each other.”

“Now why would he do that?”

 

5

It’s a well-known fact that boys from the Bronx never get involved with girls from Brooklyn. Why? “Because the commute will kill them.”  That also holds if the commute is in the opposite direction.

Back in 1898, when the five future boroughs united to form New York City, the term, “geographically undesirable” was inscribed in the city charter. So, if the girl lived more than an hour away, you had to really ask yourself if she were worth all that trouble.

No one seems to know who might have coined the term, “geographically undesirable,” but it clearly indicates the time and distance beyond which a boy or man is unwilling to travel to date a girl or woman. Perhaps the prime example is the unwillingness of a Brooklyn male to date a Bronx female. Or, for that matter, the unwillingness of a Bronx male to date a Brooklyn female.

Such was the love of Phil for Johanna that he was willing to make this arduous trek. Still, being very practical, they arranged most of their dates on weekday afternoons and early evenings. Then, by eight o’clock, they would head off alone back to Brooklyn and the Bronx, respectively.

Still, Phil happily made numerous dates with Johanna on weekends, and Johanna even trekked to the Bronx three or four times. On each of these latter occasions, Phil sent her home in a cab.

After five months, Phil suddenly popped the big question. As much as Johanna had been hoping to hear it, she sat there in stunned silence.

He waited expectantly, smiling. Soon Johanna was smiling too. Finally, he asked, “Was that a ‘yes?’”

Still, no answer. Suddenly, she lurched forward, throwing her arms around him, hugging him very hard. Then she kissed him deeply. Neither of them would break it off.

Finally, she asked, “Was that a satisfactory answer?”

Phil cupped his ear.

They kissed again. And again. And then, again.

 

6

Johanna’s parents were very happy that she was marrying Phil. First and foremost, he and their daughter were in love. Romantics themselves, Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein believed that you should marry for love After all, without love, what have you got?

Phil was clearly a very fine boy -- smart, respectful, tall, and good looking. He and their daughter were both wonderful musicians. Although neither Johanna’s nor Phil’s families were religious, it was much better that they shared the same background.

And then too, it went without saying that since they both had secure jobs with very good pensions, they had a bright future even if there were God forbid, another depression.

Phil’s family would definitely agree with the Bernsteins. Johanna had made a very good impression on them, and she was so pretty! Johanna and Phil’s sister Arlene had also hit it off immediately, and the two looked forward to becoming more like sisters than sisters-in-law.

 

7

From the time Phil had begun teaching at Music and Art, Joshua Williams, a sophomore trumpeter was his prize student. The kid was clearly a prodigy, and Phil was almost in awe of his God-given talent.

Joshua grew up in the nearby St Nicholias Houses, a low-income project. His parents, who recognized his talent, bought him a secondhand trumpet for his tenth birthday. After taking a couple of dozen lessons, Joshua was surprised when his teacher told him that he had learned everything that she could teach him. She could pass Joshua on to a more advanced teacher, but the lessons would cost double what she charged.

With his parents’ permission, Joshua stood on the crowded sidewalks of 125th Street and played the hit songs on the soul top ten list. He earned enough for more advanced lessons, and even began to contribute to the household. When his parents suggested that he buy a brand-new trumpet, Joshua pointed out that that would make him a target for thieves. But as a neighborhood kid playing what appeared to be a beat-up old horn, he was perceived as a street beggar rather than a virtuoso like Louie Armstrong.

Joshua was good enough to occasionally pinch hit for Phil, playing in his band. The money was a lot better than what he had made playing on 125th Street. He had a new trumpet, on which Phil paid the insurance. Probably more than any other instrument, the trumpet was the target of thieves, but now Joshua was now more relaxed about carrying it around.

 

8

But first things first. And the first of these would be the wedding. Johanna, Phil, and both sets of parents agreed on three key things: There would be a spring wedding; it would take place in Upper Manhattan; and the couple would find an affordable apartment in Manhattan while they saved for a down payment on a house.

When Phil and Johanna began searching for a wedding hall – or even a sizeable restaurant – they began to detect a buzz in the school itself. Often, conversations would stop when either of them appeared.

“Something is definitely going on around here,” whispered Phil to his bride-to-be. She nodded.

“Do you think it has anything to do with some couple’s upcoming wedding?” asked Phil.

“Could be.”

But they went on pretending to be clueless. Finally, the principal asked them to come to his office that afternoon. When they got there, they found the two academic deans and the principal waiting for them.

After pleasantries were exchanged, the principal let the cat out of the bag. “Would the two of you like to have your wedding in the school?”

Johanna and Phil looked at each other in complete astonishment. While they were quite aware that everyone was gossiping about their upcoming wedding, they were utterly dumbfounded by this generous offer.

They looked at each other for several seconds, nodded imperceptibly, and answered, “Yes!”

The other three applauded. Then the principal said, “I’ve done a bit of research and found that you may be the first married couple to have actually met at our school in at least the last ten years.

Then, one of the deans added, “That may be because most of our new faculty members arrive here at relatively advanced ages.” Everyone laughed.

“Well,” observed the other dean, “in our collective memory, the two of you are, by far, the youngest faculty members we have ever hired.”

 

9

With the selection of the wedding locale now out of the way, Johanna and Phil devoted much of their time to apartment hunting. It was a no-brainer that they would live close to the school, preferably within walking distance. After all, until she had gotten the job at Music and Art, Johanna had walked to school every day of her life.

Phil, who had commuted to high school, college, and to work for the last ten years, observed that living within walking distance from work would markedly raise the quality of their lives. So, they agreed to begin their apartment hunting as close as possible to the school, and then take it from there.

But there were, of course, a few other considerations. First, the apartment needed to be in a good building – clean, safe, and preferably with an elevator. It also needed to be on a quiet block and have plenty of sunlight. And then too, the apartment had to be spacious – preferably four rooms. It went without saying that it was affordable – no more than $200 a month, which was slightly more than a quarter of their combined monthly salaries.

After looking at dozens of apartments, they finally found just what they were looking for – a four-room apartment on Riverside Drive and West 137th Street – less than a ten-minute walk from work. And best of all, it had a great view of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades.

 

10

The wedding was held in the school cafeteria on a Sunday afternoon in early May. There were almost 300 guests. One of the bonuses of having it at Music and Art was that the bulk of the gifts – and some were indeed quite bulky – could be stored indefinitely at the school.

In addition, many of the guests not only brought food and liquor, but they stayed afterwards to help clean up. In his short speech, the principal joked that since everything had gone so well, the cafeteria ought to double as a catering hall.

Predictably, more than three dozen gifts were paintings, collages, and sculptures done by the art faculty. They were on display for all the guests to see. Phil’s dad joked with a few relatives that maybe the happy couple could sell some of their gifts right then and there.

But of all of the pieces in the exhibition, one painting stood out. Nearly everyone stopped to gaze at it.

Johanna was seated at a grand piano, her fingers on the keys. She had a faraway look and seemed oblivious of her surroundings. The five people in her audience appeared to be listening intently. One of them was dabbing her eyes with a tissue, and two of the others were clutching tissues.   

Everyone who worked at the school recognized Johanna’s audition. The artist, Cora Jones, had somehow managed to depict the audition perfectly, although she had not been in the room.

Later, when guests asked Cora how she was able to capture this scene without having been there, she had a ready answer. “I didn’t have to be in the room..”

Did she imagine it?

“No.”

Did someone take a snapshot?

“No.”

Finally, she provided an analogy. “Remember when General George Washington was being rowed across the Delaware to spring a surprise attack on the Hessian mercenaries in Trenton on Christmas Eve? Was an artist sitting in a nearby boat, painting a picture?

The painter may not have even gone on the raid. But for months afterward, everybody was still talking about it. Sometimes, just listening is almost the same as seeing something through other people’s eyes.”

Mrs. Cora Jones, the longest tenured member of the faculty, was a fairly well-known artist. The prevailing opinion among her friends and colleagues was that she should have been hired long ago by Columbia or some other Ivy League university. When asked  what she considered to be the greatest barrier to her career advancement, she was expected to say that it was being a Negro.

Instead, she answered, “Being a woman!

Hey, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is if you’re a woman! The whole art scene in this country is a white boy’s preserve. To be more specific, they’re almost all rich old white boys!”

The dance music was provided by Phil’s band, with Joshua sitting in for him. There were other musical highlights, including a medley of popular songs with Johanna at the piano. But the one which the guests would talk about for years was what was referred to in the program as “the closing number.”

This had been kept a top secret. Even the principal didn’t have a clue what it would be, although he and many others suspected it might be quite spectacular.

When the great moment arrived, microphone in hand, Phil assumed the role of emcee.

“Ladies and gentlemen: I’d like to introduce one of my students, Joshua Williams. We all know that every student at our school is great, so I’ll leave it at that.

As you may know, Joshua and I are both trumpet players. But he is actually named for a biblical character who happened to know several people who played this instrument.”

Most of the guests nodded knowingly.

“I’m sure that many of you know the words of at least the first three lines of an old Negro spiritual that describes Joshua’s visit to a certain city. Can you guess which spiritual I’m referring to?”

There were murmurs from the crowd, and many people were nodding. “OK, your singing the first three lines will be our warm-up.” Raising both hands and calling out, “On four:  one, two, three, four:”

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho,

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho,

And the walls came tumbling down.

“Now we come to the interesting part. How did he bring the walls down?”

A few people shouted out, “By making a lot of noise!”

“That’s right! And what musical instrument did he employ?”

“Trumpets!”

“That’s correct! Everybody can go to the head of the class. And now, with no further ado, Joshua and I will play our own rendition of “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho.”

This was Joshua’s and Phil’s first duet in public. Soon the guests were tapping their feet, banging on table tops, and raising such a ruckus that it seemed they might actually bring the walls tumbling down.

 

11

A couple of days after their one-week honeymoon, Phil heard a knock on the door of his office, which he shared with eight other faculty members. He opened the door and saw Joshua jumping up and down. He was grinning and holding a piece of paper over his head.

“Looks like good news,” observed Phil.

“Not good! Great!”

He handed Phil a very official looking letter. It was from Julliard. Joshua had won a full scholarship!

“So?” Phil deadpanned. “You weren’t expecting to be admitted and offered a full scholarship?”

“No! I mean, I was hoping. But come on, man! Wishing don’t make it so.”

“Maybe not, but if they didn’t admit you -- let alone give you a full scholarship -- then there would be no justice in the world. They are lucky to get you!”

“You really think so?”

“I know so! And I know you do too.”

Then he reached out and hugged his prize student.

Two evenings later, Phil and Johanna joined his prize student, along with his parents and his ten-year-old sister, Marian, for a celebratory dinner at a local Chinese Restaurant. Joshua’s parents, who were high school sweethearts in Augusta, Georgia, had migrated to the Promised Land during the depths of the Great Depression.

“Pulling into Penn Station, we quickly realized that we were in not just another country, but even another world. We never saw such a beautiful building – with the sunlight shining in through the roof! But even stranger, there were no white and colored restrooms. Then, on the A train, Whites and Negroes were sitting next to each other as if it was the most natural thing in the world,” said Esther.

“And I said,” added Bill, “We sure ain’t in Augusta no more!”

Everyone laughed.

Esther and Bill talked about the jobs they had held, their ups and downs, and their growing realization that New York – and certainly no other Northern city – was truly the Promised Land. But it sure beat the Jim Crow South!

“Anyway,” said Bill, “we’re not here to discuss ancient history. This is to celebrate our son’s amazing accomplishments. I do believe he may be the first member of our immediate family to get admitted to Julliard.”

“So far!” piped up Marian.

“Are you named after Marian Anderson? asked Johanna.

“Who else?” she shot back.

Everyone was laughing. Then Esther added, “We really named her after Marian Anderson for political reasons. As you could guess, we’re no friends of the Daughters of the American Revolution. So, when they banned her from singing in that concert in Constitution Hall in D.C., we admired how she just turned the other cheek.”

“Regardless,” said Marian, “I want to be a great singer.”

“Hey baby, you already are!” declared Joshua. Then he added, “You know, she could be the shortest person ever admitted to Music and Art.

When they stopped laughing, Esther reminded everyone that a ten-year old girl who was four foot eight was certainly not short for her age.

“I would love to hear you sing,” said Johanna.

“Here? Right here?” asked Esther.

“Why not?” asked her daughter.

“OK, let me check with the owner,” said Esther.

Two minutes later she returned, giving her daughter the thumbs up.

Marian stood and delivered a beautiful rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” When she finished, there was complete silence for several seconds, and then the diners at the other tables began to applaud.

Johanna looked around and saw that some of the patrons were actually crying. She flashed back to her own audition. Then she stood and hugged Marian.

 

12

Soon after the wedding, a reporter from the neighborhood Newspaper, The Amsterdam News, called Johanna at school to see if she would be available for an interview.

“What about?”

“Rachmaninoff.”

“Oh.”

“Could we do it at your school? I‘ll bring along a photographer.”

“I’ll need to check with the principal, and also with my department chairman.”

“I already did.”

“You certainly move fast.”

“I ran the quarter mile at City Uptown.”

“OK, give me your number and I’ll call you back in a day or so.”

When she told Phil about the call he observed, “You’ve made Rach famous around here. And now you’re going to be famous!”

“I hardly think so.”

When Johanna got back to the reporter, she asked him to include her husband, along with the principal and her chairman. “

“Why not?” he replied. “The more, the merrier!”

On the day of the interview Phil was more nervous than Johanna.

“Phil, after my Rachmaninoff recital, almost nothing can make me nervous.”

“I didn’t realize when I married you that I was getting a woman with nerves of steel.”

“Right! Superwoman. Wanna see me fly?”

“Sure!”

Instead, she gave him a playful jab in the ribs.

“Wow! You don’t know your own strength!”

“Yeah! Tell me another one.”

When they thought about it – now six months into their marriage – they were still on their honeymoon.

When the reporter and the photographer arrived, Johanna knew how smart she had been to share the limelight. Everyone would have a speaking part – though most of what was said would never make it into the paper.

She even sat down and played the first two minutes of the concerto, and the reporter was given a 45 rpm recording. He expressed his satisfaction with the way things had gone, and promised to send them tear sheets when the article was published.

Three days later, when The Amsterdam News hit the newsstands, there was the article on page one just below the fold. Minutes later, the phone began ringing nonstop, driving the school’s three switchboard operators completely crazy.

Weeks later, after things had finally calmed down, Johanna and Phil wondered what the interview actually accomplished – if anything at all. Then they found out.

Johanna got a phone call from a small record company. Would she be interested in playing her rendition of the Rachmaninoff concerto to be part of a three-record album?

Would she? Just try to stop her!

He explained that his company was quite small, so they could afford to pay her just five hundred dollars.

Five hundred dollars? That was more than she earned in six weeks!

Johanna was ready with two other very popular concertos in case the record company made another offer. There was really no need to memorize either concerto since she would be playing in a recording studio, rather than before a live audience.

In the meanwhile, she had been building a new clientele of neighborhood children whose parents sent them for piano lessons. Now charging two dollars a lesson, she would be rich in no time at all.  

Phil had continued to pick up work doing weddings, bar mitzvahs, and dances almost entirely in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Both sets of parents were quite proud. Their children not only held secure jobs, but they were even saving for the down payment on a house.

The plan was to list Johanna’s dad, as one of the buyers. A Second World War veteran, he could easily secure a low interest Veteran’s Administration mortgage loan. Then, with Johanna and Phil listed as co-owners, the three could show a very impressive combined annual income.

 

13

When Johanna found out for sure that she was pregnant, she decided to break the news to her husband without actually saying anything. She just began smiling a lot. Suddenly, in the middle of dinner Phil yelled, “Holy shit!”

She came around to his side of the table and hugged him. They stayed like that for minutes.

“We really did it!”

“We sure did, Phil. We sure did!”

They told their parents, and within a few days, everyone at school had heard the great news. The principal jokingly suggested that they hold a baby shower in the cafeteria. And if it’s a boy, we can have his bris (Yiddish for infant male circumcision) in the cafeteria.”

Luckily, since they had a four-room apartment, they would not have to move to larger quarters. In the meanwhile, they wanted to keep saving for their down payment on a house.

Their immediate plan was to have Johanna go on maternity leave a few weeks before she was due, and remain on leave until she could go back to work. She probably could continue giving piano lessons, and even “cut” additional records.

Smiling, she remembered the advice her parents had dispensed since she had hit puberty: “Get a secure job and you’ll never have to worry.” Well, she had done them one better. Not only did she have a secure job, but so did her husband. Just as two can live as cheaply as one, two secure jobs are twice as good as one.

 

14

Hours after Sophie was born, it became apparent that Johanna’s hospital room would quickly become very overcrowded. Luckily, Rosemary O’Connor, an assistant principal at Music and Art, was a born organizer. She posted a visiting schedule for the next two days. Those with last initials from A-G could come mornings from nine to noon. The H’s to P’s got the one-to-four shift, while the Q’s through the Z’s could visit from five to eight.

More than one visitor described Johanna’s room as even more crowded than the oceanliner stateroom scene in the Marx Brother’s hit movie, A Night At The Opera. Still, most of the time there was a line out in the hall.

Other friends and family arrived all day long, and depending on their relationship with Johanna and Phil, they were either sent right in or asked to get to the back of the line. “Maybe we need to promote Rosemary to hall monitor,” quipped Johanna.

Several visitors commented on the significance of Sophie’s name, which meant “wisdom” in Greek. “Well,” observed Phil, “If she exhibits Rosemary’s organizational skills, she’ll keep all of us on our toes for the rest of our lives.”

“From your mouth into God’s ears,” his wife replied.

Sophie was indeed a beautiful baby. “Now, not only am I married to the most beautiful woman in the world, but I’m the father of the cutest baby as well,” said Phil. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

“Who would have thought just a couple of years ago that we would be here with our daughter in this room?” she asked.

“I think maybe I did, when I saw you at that first faculty meeting.”

Yes! I asked myself, I wonder how long it’ll take him to come over and introduce himself?”

“Would you have come over to me?”

“Never!”

“Never?” he teased.

“Well, maybe after I made you wait a while.”

“You knew I couldn’t wait!”

“Of course, I did.”

 

15

They say that time flies when you’re having fun. Two and a half years later, when Gary was born, he broke all of his big sister’s hospital attendance records. 

Sophie, now a very mature two and a half, wondered when Gary would be able to eat ice cream. “Maybe we could have ice cream parties every night!”

“Sophie, we might have to wait awhile until Gary is ready to eat ice cream.”

“Mommy, he could watch us eat ice cream, so maybe he’ll learn faster.”

 

 

As important as the topic of ice cream parties was, the arrival of their new family member raised even more important issues. But for now, everyone was far too busy celebrating the birth of the young prince to even begin to think of anything else.

Still, with a growing family, Johanna and Phil found their spacious four-room apartment appeared to have grown markedly smaller. But neither Phil nor Johanna brought up the subject of moving to larger quarters for months after Gary came home from the hospital.

It was almost as if each of them was carefully avoiding the subject. Finally, Johanna decided to bring it up indirectly. “Phil, I want you to know something.”

At first, he grew alarmed, thinking that she was going to give him some terrible news. Maybe she was sick. Or one of the children was sick. But she was smiling.

He breathed a sigh of relief. Then he smiled too. “Am I right to surmise that you have some good news?”

“Phil, I want to tell you that you are on the threshold of attaining your ultimate dream.”

Au contraire, my dear. You are my ultimate dream!”

“Flattery will get you anywhere, except to the ultimate truth.”

“Which is?”

“Don’t you want to guess?”

“Despite my super-human intelligence, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Now she was grinning. “Riverdale!”

“Riverdale?”

“I’ve always known -- I mean, since the day I met you!”

“You’ve always known what, Johanna?”

“That since you were a little boy lying in bed at night as the trains rumbled over your head, you dreamed of one day living in your own home in Riverdale.”

“Well, now that you put it that way…” They were both laughing.

 

15

A week later, Johanna, her father and Phil, were seated around the desk of a loan officer at Chase Manhattan Bank. They waited patiently while the man went over their application.

Finally, he looked up and smiled. Then he said that he had some good news and some bad news.

“Let’s hear the bad news first,” said Mr. Bernstein. “Having lived through the depression, I’m quite experienced at hearing bad news.”

“Very well. On the application, your daughter’s income is listed.” Turning to Johanna, he observed that Music and Art was a fine high school, and even he had once had ambitions of applying there.

Then he went on to say that while he didn’t make bank policy, he had to follow it. The three of them were not sure where this was going, but clearly it would indeed be very bad news.

“Anyway, our bank’s policy is to not consider a woman’s income on mortgage applications.”

“But why?” asked Johanna. “You count my husband’s income and we teach at the same school.”

“That’s a good question! Now I don’t necessarily agree with our bank’s policy on this, but the reasoning is that a woman’s primary job is taking care of her children. Even a woman who has no children could get pregnant. In any case, a woman’s income stream could be cut off at any time. But a man, as the traditional breadwinner, would almost always go on working. I mean, how many house husbands do you know?”

Phil and Johanna’s father stood up, and were ready to walk out.

“Please, Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Bernstein: please sit down. I haven’t told you the good news.”

Reluctantly, they sat.

“You see, your combined incomes – even without Mrs. Horowitz’s -- easily meets our bank’s income requirements. So please accept my congratulations: we are approving your mortgage.”

Now, the three of them stood up. “Thank you for your time,” said Johanna. Your policy is not only blatantly insulting, but it’s stupid. Suppose I had had my tubes tied, or I was sixty years old. You still would not count my income.”

After they left the bank, they were still very angry. But the loan officer was right in pointing out that the loan policies of Chase Manhattan were no different from those of every other New York bank – and no different from any other banks outside the city. So, they’d get the same lousy treatment no matter where they applied.

Very reluctantly, they turned around and walked back into the bank. The loan officer was waiting for them. He had a big smile.

 

16

 

It saddened Phil that his parents and sister continued living in the back of their store. To make matters worse, the neighborhood was deteriorating, and he began to fear for their safety. Then, to further complicate the situation, Arlene married an artist, and he moved in with the family. Arlene quipped that since Phil had left his spot behind, why not put it to good use?

Her husband, Big Mike, was a really nice guy, and often very funny. He wasn’t much of a painter, but his real joy in life was going to estate sales and acquiring paintings with rock-low prices. Still, Arlene loved him, and even claimed that one day Big Mike would be a tremendous success. Phil would respond that Mike was well on his way to succeeding in breaking the 300-pound mark.

Before Gary could even hold a crayon, Mike would show him infant’s picture books. Gary enjoyed these sessions, and would smile encouragingly as Mike read to him.

Soon Mike was predicting that rather than become a musician, Gary would one day be another Rembrandt. “I just hope he will give us a family discount on his work.”

Arlene and Big Mike, and sometimes Phil’s parents joined the search for the perfect Riverdale home. They drove up and down the neighborhood’s beautiful, well-kept streets, making a list of homes for sale. These homes needed to be esthetically pleasing and within a certain size and price range.

Ideally, they would be in convenient locations, and there would be children playing nearby. In fact, if there were people sitting outside, it would show that it was a real neighborhood.

One day every other weekend, Johanna and Phil joined in the search, checking out the best possibilities.  Eight months later, they had found the best home in Riverdale that they could afford, plunked down a deposit, secured a mortgage, and scheduled a closing.

Their spacious four-bedroom home was just a couple of blocks from Van Cortlandt Park and the last stop of the Broadway elevated line. Johanna teased her husband for wanting to stay close to his childhood home.

Arguably, the nicest neighborhood in the Bronx, it was just a twenty-minute drive to work, and only a half-hour by train. It was even less than an hour away for Johanna’s parents, who had finally invested in a car.

Just two miles from where Phil grew up, the new home was easily accessible to Phil’s family as well. By now, Johanna and Arlene, Phil’s sister, had grown as close as twin sisters. Best yet was the “We’ll be right over” 24/7 babysitting service now available.

Days after Phil and Johanna and their children moved into their new home, they received even more good news! Big Mike had suddenly gone from rags to riches.

Mike, who owned six paintings by a completely unknown artist, made a huge killing when that artist was finally “discovered.” Big Mike then moved his wife and in-laws into a nice home just a few blocks from Phil and Johanna.

 

17

While Phil and Joshua had long been very close friends, Phil had come to fully accept that his former student had surpassed his own considerable musical talents. Still, he was not prepared for what would soon entwine their lives forever. In 1955, their band came out of nowhere to hit the top ten on the pop music charts.

One of the most popular songs that year – one that seemed to enchant nearly every living trumpet player – was Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White. Backed by their band, Joshua and Phil brought down the house with their trumpet duet. To this day, some fans still claim to remember the duo hitting the highest notes ever reached on a trumpet.

If you were to google this song, you would come across grainy old films of the two of them actually having as much fun as they had had at the wedding playing Joshua fought the battle of Jericho.

Although they remained very close, Joshua’s career really took off, while his mentor contentedly remained at Music and Art, where he had recently been promoted to Chairman of the Music Department.

Joshua had graduated from Julliard summa cum laude, and appeared to have a limitless future. In fact, just a year later, he became the youngest person to ever play third trumpet in the New York Philharmonic.

Phil and Johanna attended the concert along with Joshua’s family, the four other guys from the band, as well as several of Joshua’s other teachers from Music and Art and Julliard. Afterwards, they got to go backstage.

Everyone looked around in awe, standing among all these great musicians. Phil asked Joshua if it could ever get any better than this? Then Joshua hugged Phil, while telling him that he could never have gotten here without all his help and encouragement. When they left, Joshua needed help carrying out all the bouquets he received.   

A couple of years later, Phil was still at Music and Art, and Joshua was playing second trumpet in the New York Philharmonic. But a bright new star had appeared on the musical horizon.

 

18

Gathered in the auditorium of Music and Art was the entire faculty and the members of the school’s administration, as well as a few hundred alumni. They were there for the annual singing auditions for places in the incoming freshman class. The occasion had to be highly auspicious for Cora Jones to be sitting in the first row, her sketchpad at the ready.

These thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds were the finalists, the cream of the cream. Some sang arias from well-known operas or Broadway show tunes, while others sang popular songs from the forties and fifties.

But one of these young people was not just a shoo-in, but already a budding star in her own right, having appeared on several popular radio and TV shows.  Many in the audience had come mainly to hear her sing.

After bringing down the house with her renditions of Unchained Melody and You send me, she smiled, basking in the crowd’s adulation. Then the principal was on his feet chanting, “Encore! Encore!” Soon everyone in the audience picked up on his chant.

Then, the tall slim singer raised her hands, palms held outward to audience. Finally, they quieted down.

Then she turned to the pianist and asked, “Mrs. Horowitz, could you please play my favorite song?” After nodding, Johanna began to play “Over the Rainbow.”

 

Epilogue 

It is often said that all good things must come to an end.  It is also said that nobody’s perfect. Johanna and Phil may not have had the perfect marriage, but for those first few years they came pretty damn close. Still, time takes its toll. Like all the rest of us, even the king and queen of the prom get older. He’s lost his hair and she’s put on a few pounds. Their children, now teenagers, playfully call them “old fogeys.” Young children may never lie, but teenagers, like baseball umpires, call ‘em as they sees ‘em.

Phil’s eye began to wander, while Johanna worried more and more about her family’s financial security. For her, the fifties and sixties were a mere pleasant interlude before another depression set in.

True, she would always have her pension when she retired, but Phil had quit teaching after eighteen years in the system. He now ran a barely profitable business buying used musical instruments, refurbishing them, and then reselling them.

But at least they had each other. Or so she thought. Then, completely out of nowhere, Phil dropped the bomb. “You know, Johanna, you’ve been the only woman I was ever with.”

“And your point is?” she thought to herself. She took a good look at him. Yes, she would always love him, but he was barely still the man she had fallen for. Yeah, it had definitely been love at first sight, but look at the two of them now. He was looking more and more like the Mister Clean, and she was fast becoming a dumpy middle-aged woman.

Face it: They had fallen out of love. The children were almost completely grown. What was keeping them together?

When he confessed to her that he had started seeing other women, she was surprised at her reaction. She just didn’t give a shit.

And that’s where I come in.

Although I had been somewhat friendly with Phil’s sister, Arlene, and his brother-in-law Big Mike, I had never met either Phil or Johanna. One evening, at a Mensa party, Arlene introduced me to a very beautiful woman about ten years older than me. Her name was Johanna.

We immediately started making out and quickly got into a relationship of sorts. She had recently separated from her husband, and was, as it is sometimes put, ‘hot to trot.’

Our dates consisted of her coming to my apartment and our having great sex. But for me, pervert that I am, I loved lying in bed with her, listening to how her long marriage had unraveled, and what a shmuck her husband had turned out to be. But after a few weeks, Johanna had a great epiphany: “You know, in some ways, you’re a younger version of my soon-to-be ex-husband.

“Right,” I thought to myself. “I too am a schmuck.

A couple of months later, I was sitting by myself at a crowded “singles party”, and overheard what sounded like an interesting discussion between a couple that had evidently just met.

“So, you were a music teacher?”

“Actually, I was the chairman of the department.”

“And now, you own a store in the Bronx?”

“Yes, I buy musical instruments, refurbish them, and then resell them.”

“And from that you make a living?”

Holy shit! There I was sitting back-to-back with Johanna’s soon-to-be ex-husband. And she was right: He is a schmuck!

The next day I called Arlene. When I told her about the overheard conversation, she chuckled. Then she said “Would you believe Phil was actually at one of your parties?”

“Un-f**king-believable!”

Now Arlene was laughing.

“Did Phil know who I was?”

“Of course!”

What did he say about being in the home of the guy who had been f**king his estranged wife?”

“Phil told me, “This is a very good place to meet girls.”

Now I was laughing too.

Then I asked Arlene how Johanna was doing.

“Would you believe that she’s talking about remarrying?”

“Really?”

“Yes. She met a guy a few months ago.”

“Another musician?”

“Actually, he a violinist with the Philharmonic.”

 ***


BIO: A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books. He has published five short story collections over the last seven years, but he expects the pace to slow somewhat over the next seven years.


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