Category Archives: personal reminiscences of Roger W. Smith

Sixth Avenue on a rainy afternoon; Herman Melville

 

 

 

Sixth Avenue 4-23 a.m. 11-30-2018

Sixth Avenue, New York City; Friday afternoon, November 30, 2018

 

 

I took this photo of Sixth Avenue on my way home on Friday afternoon.

It’s been raining a lot in the City this week.

Rain can be a slight inconvenience, like other weather phenomena, but I never really minded it. It can be “nice.”

When I was very young, my mother took me once to my eye doctor, Dr. Johnson, in Boston on a weekday. We went by subway.

The appointment lasted a long time. Going home in the late afternoon, it was dark and rainy. I didn’t mind. I loved having my mother all to myself. When we got home, she put me to bed. She was so kind. She kept saying that I was cold and wet and that I must be very tired: it had been such a long day and we got home late.

Re this photo of Sixth Avenue, this street scene, it reminds me of Herman Melville’s words (in Moby-Dick): “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.”

Thanks to the Good Lord that it came upon me once when I was first living in NYC to read Moby-Dick, in a library copy. What a book!

THE Great American Novel.

 

 

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Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; CHAPTER 1. “Loomings.”

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

when knowledge (and learning) can prove to be useful; the pleasures of pedantry

 

 

“We all know that as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (an address delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837 before the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society)

 

 

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I am reading Henry David Thoreau’s essay on walking.

From a recent exhibit at the Morgan Library, I learned that Thoreau, who some moderns may think of as a sort of proto hippie, was very studious and had a very good education in classical and modern languages.

In his walking essay, Thoreau uses the Latin phrase ambulator nascitur, non fit.

After a moment’s hesitation, the meaning came to me: the walker is born, not made.

A curious person as he goes through life acquires all sorts of knowledge. Someone once remarked to me that it is very pleasurable to be able every now and then to USE those scraps of learning.

It was pleasurable to me to think I have retained a little bit of my high school Latin from over 50 years ago, including present passive verb endings.

Back in my high school days I was in a bus station in Boston once, using the men’s room. Some French sailors wearing funny hats with tassels were there too. They were in high spirits. They were teasing one another, joking and laughing. They couldn’t stop laughing. One jest led to another.

They noticed me and seemed friendly. We exchanged glances. I thought, I’m taking French. I can come up with something to say to them. I said, “Vous êtes de la marine française?” They nodded with smiles and seemed to be pleasantly surprised that an American teenager was speaking French to them.

It was very edifying to actually be using the French I had been learning out of a textbook.

 


–Roger W. Smith

September 30, 2017

 

 

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AN UPDATE

 

On Friday, March 2, riding on the subway, I saw the following advertisement:

 

“LE SALVÉ LA VIDA A MI AMIGA”

Encontré a mi amiga desplomada en la cama. Se estaba poniendo azul y no podía respirar. Corrí a buscar mi naloxana y se la dí. Creí que estaba muerta. Cuando volvió en si, no sabía lo que había pasado ni por qué yo estaba llorando. Me alegro de haber tenido naloxona; le dio una segunda oportunidad.

La NALOXONA es un medicamento de emergencia que evita la muerte por sobredosis de analgésicos recetadas y heroína.

 

 

imageedit_1_2395197600

 

I was very pleased with myself in that I understood it completely, every word, in Spanish.

It seemed to me again that a little learning can be a good thing.

 

 

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I have been reading the charming novel Good-bye Mr. Chips (1934) by James Hilton. The following passage struck me:

A pleasant, placid life, at Mrs. Wickett’s. He had no worries; his pension was adequate, and there was a little money saved up besides. He could afford everything and anything he wanted. His room was furnished simply and with school­masterly taste: a few bookshelves and sporting trophies; a mantelpiece crowded with fixture cards and signed photographs of boys and men; a worn Turkey carpet; big easy-chairs; pictures on the wall of the Acropolis and the Forum. Nearly everything had come out of his old house­master’s room in School House. The books were chiefly classical, the classics having been his subject; there was, however, a seasoning of history and belles-lettres. There was also a bottom shelf piled up with cheap editions of detective novels. Chips enjoyed these. Sometimes he took down Virgil or Xenophon and read for a few moments, but he was soon back again with Doctor Thorndyke or Inspector French. He was not, despite his long years of assiduous teaching, a very profound classical scholar; indeed, he thought of Latin and Greek far more as dead languages from which English gentlemen ought to know a few quotations than as living tongues that had ever been spoken by living people. He liked those short leading articles in the Times that introduced a few tags that he recognized. To be among the dwindling number of people who understood such things was to him a kind of secret and valued freemasonry [italics added]; it represented, he felt, one of the chief benefits to be derived from a classical education.

Reminded me of the pleasure I have always taken — when boning up on literature or classical music, doing research, traveling watching films, etc. — in the knowledge I have obtained of several foreign languages, without having mastered any of them.

Know what I mean?

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 5, 2018

a February concert

 

 

 

Last night I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall.

The program:

Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550; Orchestra of St. Luke’s; Robert Spano, conductor

Bryce Dessner, “Voy a dormir”; Kelley O’Connor, Mezzo-Soprano

Beethoven, Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (“Emperor”); Jeremy Denk, piano

I jotted down some notes and impressions as well as personal thoughts on my way home.

 

 

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Mozart symphony no 40

have known and loved the first movement from a very young age

but, to my surprise, I think I enjoyed the second movement (Andante) even more tonight … it is a musical conversation between the instruments … Mozart THINKS musically (as I noted in a previous post)

The second piece, “Voy a dormir,” was the world premiere of a work by a young composer … beautiful soprano voice (the composer collaborated with her on the work) … Spanish text, based on poetry by Alfonsina Storni (Argentinian)

It is pleasurable to hear Spanish and to be able to follow the lyrics, since I know the language. It sounded so beautiful, as are all the Romance languages. All kind of the same — in a way — and at the same time each unique with its own “melody.” En el fondo del mar / hay una casa / de cristal.

Listening to the Emperor Concerto performed live. What an experience. There is such a range of emotions in Beethoven — e.g., from the first to the second movement.

One can HEAR such a difference in and evolution of styles between and from Mozart to Beethoven. From classical to romantic. But, to me, Haydn is the clearest exemplar of the classical style — not Mozart (not to detract from Mozart; it’s just a question of musical styles).

I had unusually good seats. It was great to watch the conductor, Robert Spano, and the piano soloist close up.

There must be such an incredible feeling of power to be the soloist in a piano concerto.

 

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I thought of my father, a pianist who conducted occasionally

and of my family’s experience with music as performers

my father, who graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in music and who was a professional musician and piano teacher

my mother, who was in the Radcliffe College chorus and played the piano

my three siblings, all of whom are gifted musicians, notably on the piano, and each of whom achieved proficiency in more than one instrument

my maternal grandmother, who — I never knew this during her lifetime — is said to have played the piano well

my paternal grandmother, who was a church organist and choir director … and my father the same

my paternal grandmother’s mother (my great-grandmother), who, I was told by an aunt, played the piano and sang in a Methodist Church in the nineteenth century

 

 

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I have hazy memories of my father conducting once or twice … I see him striding down the aisle proudly with his usual good posture, perhaps a bit more serious of mien than usual, but not overly so; assuming an appropriate air of dignity … being applauded … the performance commencing

where did he learn to conduct? … guess it’s not difficult if you have performed in orchestras … he did not, to my knowledge, conduct classical works

 

 

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when one is growing up, one takes one’s parents and nuclear family largely for granted … they are a given, like your front yard or neighborhood

your parents’ unique or distinctive attributes are something you are not likely to think about until much later in life

watching this particular concert, I felt a twinge of sadness, loss, and regret for my father and mother — occasioned by thoughts of what such a concert would have meant to them; how we could have talked about it (and would have enjoyed doing so); and how their existence and persons not only made mine possible, but endowed me with musical and aesthetic sensitivity

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 16, 2018

 

 

program

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Mozart. Symphony No. 40

second movement (Andante)

 

good neighbors (in a metropolis)

 

 

 

 

 

Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

— Matthew 22:31

 

 

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I have lived in New York City since early adulthood.

New Yorkers cold and impersonal? Too busy to be Good Samaritans?

I have often experienced instances of just the opposite.

 

 

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On Wednesday afternoon, January 3, a bitterly cold day, I was headed home and was waiting for a bus.

No one at the bus stop. I guessed that I probably had just missed a bus and that another one wouldn’t arrive for at least ten to fifteen minutes.

It’s a bleak neighborhood, but there was a “gourmet deli” right there.

I entered and ordered a large cappuccino. There was one customer in front of me. Two young women were behind the counter. I paid $3.95 for the cappuccino.

Through a window, I saw my bus, the Q39, pulling up at the bus stop.

“How long does it take to make a cappuccino?” I said to the woman who had taken my order. “My bus is here.”

I left without a cappuccino or the $3.95. The bus was at the curb, about to leave.

I got on. There were only a couple of other passengers. The driver shut the door.

Then he opened the door again for a “last minute passenger.” A young woman boarded (whom I realized after the fact was the cashier) with cash in hand, arms extended. She dashed to my seat and said, breathlessly, “here’s your $3.95”; handed me the money with a big smile. Then she darted off the bus before it left.

New Yorkers are NICE.

 

 

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When I first moved to New York (to take a job) after graduating from college, I was overwhelmed by the immensity and seeming impersonality of the place. The anonymity was refreshing and liberating, in its own way. But, the City seemed like an awfully cold place. (And, besides its sheer size, all those high rise buildings intimidated me.)

I went to Eighth Street in Greenwich Village once, when interviewing for the job, and asked a couple of young people if there were any like minded types hanging out there, as I had experienced on Boston Common. “If you walk over to St. Mark’s Place, you will find some,” they said kindly.

On Sundays, I would hang out in Central Park, where Sixties types would congregate, perhaps listening to a guitar player singing folk songs, hoping that I would vicariously feel a sense of belonging or companionship.

One day in a subway station, I asked someone a question of some sort. They answered politely and helpfully. I told a friend of mine from college, Sam Silberstein (son of concentration camp survivors), who had grown up in Flushing, Queens, about this. “Someone was actually nice to me in the subway,” I said.

“New Yorkers are people, too,” Sam replied.

 

 

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Yes, New Yorkers are nice. I wonder if it’s the same way in Paris. I don’t think so. Parisians seem to be cold and abrupt. But, I can’t really say, having been to Paris only briefly a few times.

“Even with that sprawl of humanity, New York can be lived as a small town, familiar and compact,” in the words of New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer.

What accounts for this? I am thinking particularly of the way New Yorkers treat one another.

I think there are several factors. People like myself live in a metropolis like New York because they like being amidst other people. They don’t want to live in an ivory tower or, God forbid, a gated community.

The diversity of New York’s population acts as an elixir, a tonic. Immigrants in particular bring vitality and a palpable sense of community to the City. One might think it could be otherwise, that perhaps immigrants would cloister themselves in ethnic enclaves. Perhaps to an extent in the outlying boroughs, but, for the most part, I have found that it’s the opposite: The newcomers, and the recently arrived, or those who have not always lived in New York (which includes a large segment of the population) are full of enthusiasm for everything (and an inherent ingenuousness), including getting to know other people. And the tourists have the same attitude.

 

 

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When I go into retail establishments, restaurants, and the like, the staff seems to be for the most part friendly, eager to relate with you, the customer. (Perhaps a bit less so in chain stores.) I seem to get a welcoming reception and a friendly hello or goodbye over half the time.

If you are in distress, incommoded, or someone perceives they can help you, it’s quite remarkable how often people are ready and eager to do so. When I tripped and fell flat on my face crossing Third Avenue a couple of months ago and within seconds several people were clustered around me, helping me to get up, asking if I was okay, and (one woman) offering to call for medical assistance.

When I was taking photographs on Fifth Avenue near 59th Street last summer and someone with a foreign accident, a man who seemed to be Hispanic with several children, noticed that I had dropped my wallet on the pavement and alerted me to the fact. (I was already walking away and was halfway down the block). Same thing if one drops something or gets up and leaves one’s hat or gloves or one’s MetroCard on their seat on a bus. People including myself swiping their MetroCard for someone who needs a fare, and frequently giving handouts.

And so on. I could cite numerous examples.

 

 

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Re niceness. Of people in general, that is. And Good Samaritan-ship (aka altruism). I prefer to encounter it “in the raw,” so to speak, spontaneously, from average people whom one encounters ad libitum. To witness it bubbling up from the ebullience of good hearted types. Prefer this to organized charity and welfare, to do goodership of the institutional form.

 

 

– Roger W. Smith

   January 5, 2018

the effervescent (sometimes typographically challenged) pedant

 

 

I am blessed to come from a family that is very verbal, that delights in oral and written exchanges and expression and in word play. It seems as if they always put things just right, and often they amuse or provide a pleasant surprise with verbal ingenuity.

When I was in college, my brother and his wife gave me a book as a Christmas gift: Samuel Eliot Morison’s The Oxford History of the American People. On the flyleaf, my brother wrote an inscription: “To the effervescent pedant / With love”

I thought of this because of an email exchange I had with my brother this morning.

In the email to my brother, I quoted from my post

 

“her” instead of “him”; Ms.; and what else?

https://rogersgleanings.com/2017/12/20/her-instead-of-him-ms-and-what-else/

 

as follows: “The PC types are all for conversation (of the wilderness and the natural environment). Why do they want to tear asunder our language? Like nature, it should be conserved, which does mean embalmed or ossified.”

 

and, in the email, said:

See any problem with this?

The PC crowd does tend to be loquacious.

 

 

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My brother responded as follows:

Cute typo.

Reminds me when you confused “martial relations” with “marital relations,” an apt malaprop that sent Mom into gales of laughter — loving laughter because in part she was enjoying your early advanced vocabulary.

 

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I wrote back:

All very true, Pete.

Aptly described.

Your memory is impressive.

I had forgotten how I used to get “martial” and “marital” mixed up.

Sometimes, I would make words up, which amused Mom … I used to say, “It’s just the INTRACITIES of life.”

Once I wrote Mom a letter using several big words I had just learned. I said that if she had no objection, I would DESCANT upon a few things. (To descant means to talk tediously or at length.)

She wrote back a letter beginning with, “So, cant me no descants.” She loved word play.

 

 

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This was brilliant usage by my mother. The intransitive verb cant (the meaning of which I did not know) is defined thusly:

1: to talk or beg in a whining or singsong manner

2: to speak in cant or jargon

3: to talk hypocritically

I’m trying to remember in which work of literature I first encountered the word descant.  I usually don’t forget such things.

It will come to me.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 22, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

can the sun “grin”?

 

I learned in yesterday’s New York Times about the passing of my former journalism professor Maurice (Mickey) Carroll, who died on December 6th.

 

“Maurice Carroll, Political Reporter and Pollster, Dies at 86”

By Sam Roberts

The New York Times, December 6, 2017

 

 

 

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Mickey Carroll was a tough, dapper Irish guy and an outstanding reporter on the Times’s city desk for many years. He taught me far more about writing than any of my other journalism profs; it wasn’t even close.

It’s a truism that the best way to learn any skill is to do it. Well, besides lecturing, Carroll meticulously critiqued our writing (stories we had to report and write as class assignments).

I would hand in a story to him. I remember one was when he let the class interview him press conference style and we were assigned to write a profile of him. “This is very good,” he said to me, handing back the paper a day or two later, “but it’s too long.”

I kept tightening up my work. I began to appreciate how important space limitations are in a newspaper. For a feature article, it’s usually six hundred words. Six hundred words meant just that: six hundred words. If you wrote, say, 615 words, your editor would be unhappy, having to do the work himself of excising a “graf” from your story.

I would hand in papers that I thought were as carefully and tightly constructed as I could make them, with no superfluous words. They would come back with red lines drawn though maybe ten or fifteen words or phrases that I had never realized were superfluous. A “that,” say, where it could be dispensed with.

 

 

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Professor (and seasoned reporter) Carroll told us a funny story in class one day which illustrates the frustrations he himself had experienced as a writer. He finally left the Times for another paper. He said the final straw was when he once assigned to cover the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Manhattan.

The lead sentence in the story he turned in was “The sun grinned on the Irish yesterday.”

“Grinned” was too colorful a word for the copy editor at the Times, which was known for bloodless prose. (It still is, but efforts have made over recent years to make the writing more lively.) For “grinned,” the copy editor substituted some more generic verb.

“That did it,” Mickey said.

I could identify with the frustrations he felt with pettifogging editors.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

  December 7, 2017

 

 

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Addendum: Sam Roberts, one of the Times’s best obituary writers, and an outstanding writer in general, wrote the obituary. He notes: “Known to be cranky but easily amused, Mr. Carroll would often pepper his reporting with wry and iconoclastic asides.” That’s how he was in class: the teacher/editor who applied principles of “tough love” to improving the writing of his students, while doing it with wit and grace. And, he showed us how, while adhering to strict standards of newspaper writing, you could also have fun and work in a quip or an amusing detail or two. Shoehorn it in, that is, word length permitting.

“He never lost his reporter’s perspective, though, advising would-be journalists never to take themselves too seriously, no matter how important the news they’re covering may be,” Sam Roberts writes.

I found this to be true. He was a complete professional, and, as such, he was never out of character in class, yet he himself was a character.

He stressed that his vocation was that of REPORTER, and he once told a story to illustrate what that meant.

Early in Carroll’s career, a reporter on the Times’s arts desk, a cultural critic, was somewhere in Manhattan at some event or performance one evening. As he was leaving, he observed that a big fire had broken out in a building across the street. He telephoned the Times from a pay phone, shouting, “Get a reporter here immediately! There’s a fire!”

He was a reporter,” observed Carroll, who happened to be at Dallas Police Headquarters on one of his first reporting assignments when Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by Jack Ruby. “He was there. He should have covered the fire.”

Roger W. Smith, piano lover; Rudolf Serkin; my stereo; the Oak Crest Inn

 

 

 

On November 22, I saw a solo piano concert by Sachiko Furuhata-Kersting at Carnegie Hall. Her program consisted of:

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (“Moonlight”)

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21 in C Major Op. 53 (“Waldstein”)

Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17

Chopin’s famous Scherzo No. 2 in B Minor, Op. 31

 

I have a particular fondness for the first two pieces, especially the “Moonlight” sonata (though I love the “Waldstein” sonata too, especially the third movement).

 

 

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The “Moonlight” sonata has a unique structure, as is explained in a Wikipedia entry:

Although no direct testimony exists as to the specific reasons why Beethoven decided to title both the Op. 27 works as Sonata quasi una fantasia, it may be significant that the layout of the present work does not follow the traditional movement arrangement in the Classical period of fast–slow–[fast]–fast. Instead, the sonata possesses an end-weighted trajectory, with the rapid music held off until the third movement. In his analysis, German critic Paul Bekker states: “The opening sonata-allegro movement gave the work a definite character from the beginning… which succeeding movements could supplement but not change. Beethoven rebelled against this determinative quality in the first movement. He wanted a prelude, an introduction, not a proposition.”’

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_Sonata_No._14_(Beethoven)#Form

 

 

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I thought it was a splendid performance, though it seemed to me that Ms. Furuhata-Kersting could have played the second movement of the “Moonlight” sonata (marked Allegretto) a tad more softly.

I was hoping there might be a review of the performance. I was dazzled by her keyboard technique, but I am no expert when it comes to performance mechanics and performance styles. I only know, insofar as I know anything, what I experience as a listener.

Nevertheless, I was thinking about the piano as an instrument, why I love it, what seems to make it so compelling and powerful as a solo instrument. I was thinking about the following:

— it is played with TWO HANDS, which can play off against one other. This is key. It must be incredibly difficult for a pianist to develop the ability to do this;

— it’s a percussive instrument. The keys make the hammer strike with such force. You get hammering sounds, banging sounds. You also get soft, tinkling sounds. It’s hard to fall asleep!

There is such richness and variety of sound in one instrument, such emotional range. (I am speaking simply as a non-specialist listener.)

To hear such things, you almost have to hear a live performance. I was reminded of this when hearing what was Ms. Furuhata-Kersting’s debut Carnegie Hall performance.

 

 

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I couldn’t help but think — as is the case with me and everyone else when it comes to music ranging from classical to pop, it seems — of the circumstances under which I first heard the “Moonlight” sonata. I had just begun to become a full-fledged classical musical lover.

It was the summer of 1964. My parents had bought me a portable stereo as a present upon my high school graduation. It seemed like such wonderful gift. I took the stereo with me to Cape Cod, where I had gotten my first ever paid employment, a summer job as a night watchman and night clerk at the Oak Crest Inn in Falmouth Heights, Massachusetts, a ramshackle summer hotel of sorts that was beginning to show its age. Rooms, if I recall correctly, were priced at four or five dollars a night. The owner, one Paul Wassseth, was a would be Donald Trump. There were a couple of guests who took a room for the entire summer and got special treatment.

My hours were 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. seven days a week, at a salary of thirty-five dollars a week, plus room and board. The food was barely edible, but who was complaining? What does a teenager know about diet or cuisine? I actually liked the job. In the morning, I would eat breakfast, cooked by the crusty old cook Leo (who used to delight in making off color remarks and dirty jokes at the waitresses’ expense), with the hotel staff (all female, other than myself and Leo, consisting of waitresses and chambermaids) just reporting for work. Then I would go upstairs to my “bedchamber,” a tiny little room of sorts in an attic that you could barely fit into to. I would crawl into bed and sleep for only a few hours, then get up and go to the beach.

I would fall asleep in the early morning (post breakfast) listening to my precious new stereo. Often, I would play an LP with a performance by Rudolf Serkin of Beethoven’s “Moonlight,” “Pathétique,” and “Appasionata” sonatas.’

I have never forgotten Serkin’s performances, and still prefer them to all others.

 

 

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A final note that may seem trivial. When Ms. Furuhata-Kersting came out to play a second encore, someone approached the stage and handed her a bouquet. She put the bouquet at her feet, sat down at the piano bench, and began to play. I would have probably have done more or less the same thing, and have done sillier things often in similar situations. People have called me inattentive, so that I will forget (or neglect) to tie my shoes or put something down in an odd place in public and forget that I put it there — as if I seem at times to be at sea. I plead guilty. To her, the important thing was the music. Who knew what to do with the bouquet?

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   November 2017