Friday, August 22, 2008

Stravinsky's Tavern

It was a dark and stormy night but then almost every night was dark and stormy in this godforsaken little mining town, stuck in the coal region of Eastern Pennsylvania like a wart on the back of an old sow. It was always the economy, stupid - meaning no disrespect, of course. Once the mines had closed and the factories shut down, there was no place to go, nothing to do. The sidewalks, even on weekends, rolled up not long after sundown. The young people moved away as soon as they could, whether or not they finished school, promising to send money back to their families once they struck it rich in the big cities. Either they forgot or they just never struck it rich because once they left, no one ever heard from them again. It was a pity, what was happening to the young people of Coalton - they were just disappearing.

Oh, not that way, not through any violence or anything supernatural – that anyone knew of at any rate. It was the town itself that drove them away, the bleak houses and mangey streets of a town where many thought their problems were the result of some ancient curse. You could feel it in the air. You could taste it in the water. You could also scrape it off the bottom of your shoes, but that was a more modern curse. Still, it stuck to your sole.

Years ago, they had changed the name of the town, thinking it might help. Not even the most nostalgic old-timers really remembered the original name any more, something Indian, probably from the Delaware tribe (or were they from New Jersey), that meant “Land Where Beavers Come From Miles Around to Pee” or was it something about a trailer park? No one was quite sure.

Everything in town was gray. Yes, this was an improvement over earlier decades when everything was basically black from all the coal dust in the air. As the mines gave way, the factories in the region closed and as coal itself became a thing of the past, slowly but surely the grime started to wear off. But the annual spring rains and the occasional flood when Skunk Run overflowed its banks didn’t really help. It took time, and time was what the citizens of Coalton had plenty of.

The Winter Doldrums which usually began in mid-October eventually gave way, with the advent of milder weather, to the Spring Doldrums. By the time summer rolled around, everybody was so numb, nobody cared what season it was until it started getting cooler and darker earlier and earlier, then everybody wondered where the summer went. Half the time, kids were so bored they sat around counting the days until school began. And before long, the snow would start again. It was gray, too.

With names on the map like Coal Street, Slag Avenue and Collier Park connecting neighborhoods called Canary Row, Methane Manor and the relatively posh suburb of Anthracite Circle, the whole town literally lived and breathed coal. Coal dust, they joked, flowed in their veins. The kids might leave, their elders said, but they carried the legacy of the Coalton mines with them, regardless.

One person who did not seem to mind any of this was, by some standards, a relative new-comer, arriving in the midst of World War II, having given up on the fame and fortune in cosmopolitan Europe and on a brilliant musical career, as well. Coalton may be drab compared to Paris with its light or his native St. Petersburg with its pastel colors, but Igor Stravinsky liked the town though he could never really explain why.

In order to make ends meet, he and his wife opened a bar on Coal Street near the center of town. They called it – what else? – “Stravinsky’s Tavern.”

You’d pry open the dilapidated aluminum storm-door with its soot-smeared window, cracked in the one corner from having been slammed too many times, then walk cautiously into its dark and smoky interior. The government’s well-intentioned regulations, only recently enacted after years of discussion and disagreement, sucked the “atmosphere” out of such places but the people who came here for a beer thought tobacco gave the ever-present coal dust a certain flavor they preferred. Signs had been posted but nobody took them seriously. In a short time, they were streaked with soot and almost illegible. Nobody really cared. They had complied with the law: they posted the signs. Who knew they had to be enforced?

Behind the bar stood a short bald-headed guy with round glasses and big ears. “All the better to hear you with, my dear,” he’d say with his big toothy grin, wiping the bar down with a damp rag and humming the old Russian folk song he’d used long ago in the final moments of his first big success, a ballet called "The Firebird.“

He always chatted with the bar’s regulars, people like Darius Milhaud who also had decided to settle in Coalton and had become an accountant. Funny, the others thought: he never seemed to have much business.

“You couldn’t come up with a better name than ‘Stravinsky’s Tavern’?” he chided the proprietor over his beer. He had suggested using “Le bouef sur le toit” but since it was next to the Moose and a block over from the Elks, Stravinsky felt it would only confuse the townspeople. His wife thought translating it as “The Do-Nothing Bar” would be good, but Milhaud had a friend who’d opened his own tavern across the street from the State Capitol building in Harrisburg where, appropriately enough, it became the favorite hang-out of many politicians.

“You bloody French guys are all the bleedin’ same,” complained the mailman with the heavy mustache. It was as much an enigma to him as anybody else how he, Edward Elgar, once Master of the King’s Music, could end up on the other side of the pond delivering mail in an anthracite coal town he’d never even heard of before. He glanced around at some of the other customers and thought they’d make a sorry lot of variations for his next great masterpiece.

For instance, over there, glancing over toward the front of the bar as if to prove his point: Sibelius and Mussorgsky sat at the booth in what passed for a bay window with its rusted aluminum frame and an eerie light barely visible through the cobwebs and tattered blinds. The neon “open” sign flickered like a bug light and another sign flashed its advertisement for some brand of beer that hadn’t been available for over a decade.

The granite-faced Finn was going on about how a symphony had always had a profound logic to it with an innate connection between all its musical motives, blah blah blah. Mussorgsky’s eyes had glazed over long ago. Slapping his fist down on the table and rattling the plate of peanut-shells, Sibelius complained that this guy Mahler told him just the other night that, noooo, the symphony must embrace the world, the whole universe, even! He took a long swig of his beer as if that dismissed the argument.

What did Mussorgsky care about symphonies anyway, he thought as he rolled his eyes again. Vera the waitress came by with her tray.

“Yeah?” she says, “so what’s a symphony, anyway? It can be whatever you want it to be, right? Hey, you want another beer, hon?”

“No, sorry,” Sibelius said as he brushed the peanut shells onto the floor. “Seven’s my limit - oh wait, maybe I will have another... or... no, that's okay, nevermind...”

The new assistant bartender, a kid named Robert Craft, arrived late for his shift. He hurried into the back room, sloughing off his coat and grabbing his apron off the hook as he rushed by.

Everybody called him Bobsky and treated him like he was the tavern’s errand boy. “Nice kid,” Igor often said, “except he’s been hanging out with the wrong crowd, know what I mean?” He nodded his head toward that place down the street, Pierrot’s Old-World Diner, which Schoenberg had been running for over twelve years, now. Everybody knew about it but still it was not very popular, a place that served nothing but breakfast 24-hours a day. “I mean, how much cereal can they eat around here?”

Stravinsky decided it was time to take a break – he had an idea for a new ballet and he wanted to retire to the back room where he kept a rickety old upright piano he’d brought with him from the good old days, back when he was writing “The Rite of Spring.” Very soon, out-of-tune notes plunked out bit by bit unfolded into chords and motives as a piece of music gradually began to take shape.

Vera, his wife, stood at the door, listening for a while. Shaking her head, she went back to waiting on tables. “He works so hard trying to find the right notes,” she muttered.

“Right notes?!” Elgar fumed, “Right notes! They always sound like the wrong notes to me!”

Raising his hand energetically, Bobsky said, “Ooh ooh! I could help Mr. Stravinsky find the right notes. Mr. Schoenberg was telling me all about how he composes with this system he invented using all twelve notes and how...”

But he was interrupted by the entrance of another regular, a tall, lean, serious-looking man who wrote long, serious novels like Doktor Faustus which had a character in it very much like Arnold Schoenberg. Since it was published, the two haven’t spoken to each other, even though they only lived a few blocks apart (though, of course, everyone in Coalton only lived a few blocks apart). But since writing novels didn’t make much money here, Thomas Mann became the town’s best-known psychiatrist. By the end of the day, he usually needed a few beers to help him unwind before heading home. “Yes,” he often muttered, “the well of history is deep,” before taking a long slow swig on his beer. Then he’d say, “I should write that down,” but he never did.

As Mann hung his overcoat over the “No Smoking” sign, Vera started telling him about the telegram Igor had just received from a big Broadway producer who had asked him to write a new ballet for him. “A great success – stop,” she quoted from memory, her hands tracing the line of words across the air, “could be sensational success if you would authorize Robert Russell Bennett to touch up orchestration - stop.” She leaned against the bar and confided to Mann, “so Igor wires him back: ‘Satisfied... with great success’...”

Milhaud shook his head, peering into his empty beer mug, and sighed, “yah, what would a bartender know about orchestration, anyway...”

Minutes later. the door creaked open again, a swirl of leaves blowing in past the patron, a lonely old man they only knew as Peter Grimes who was humming an old folk song, “Old Joe Has Gone Mining.”

Vera called over to Bobsky, “Those trees across the street... their leaves are always piling up in front of our place, and you’ve been very bad with the rake’s progress again this year!” Bobsky just shrugged his shoulders.

Stravinsky appeared from the back room with a big grin on his face. “I’ve just come up with an idea for a new symphony. It will be in three movements and I will call it "Symphony in Three Movements!”

Everybody cheered except Milhaud who thought it was just another bad name – “too abstract,” he complained. Mussorgsky kept rolling his eyes at all this talk of symphonies.

“Tomorrow,” the proprietor announced in his official proprietary voice, “we will have another comedy-night stand-up special here at Stravinsky’s.” Mussorgsky groaned.

“But for now, a special song for you,” he said, looking at the barely visible clock hanging over the back of the bar. He lifted a glass and toasted his friends.

“I call it... Last Call!” And Igor sang out, “Na zd’rovye!”

And everybody cheered. They knew it would still be hours before anyone would leave.

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