I was on the brink of devastation. My colleague, the violist Toby Appel, gave me the worst possible news: my usual Pho joint was closed.
On concert days I insist on regular, predictable food. As if they are mini-birthdays, any departure from my desires, any obstacle, makes me irritable, petulant, a fussy child. I do what I do those days, and woe betide those who tell me otherwise.
In Seattle, every concert day, after dress rehearsal, this is what I do: I cut via backroads, through industrial zones and car repair shops and adult bookstores, and other businesses of dubious aspect, and settle myself in the most dubious of all: Pho of Aurora. From the parking lot, the view through the steamy kitchen's back door is not enticing... it promises nausea, not nutrition... but one day, in the distant past, like Columbus sailing westward, I was brave or hungry enough simply to walk in, and so a compulsion was born.
A compulsion? An addiction. I was hooked, not by the broth, nor by the voluminous fatty tendon, but by the place's unearthly patroness. How can I describe her? Though she presides over the dumpiest Pho joint in Seattle, she dresses each day as if descending, reluctantly, to the ballroom of the Palace of Versailles. White lacy gowns, powder blue dresses, purple velvet: no outfit too outlandish, no makeup too heavy. Radiant, resplendent, she finds it enough to exist: she does (nearly) nothing, she simply talks. But it is not normal speech, it is closer to incantation ... an unearthly voice ... she delivers, I think, sermons from the noodle god. Vietnamese from her mouth is a garden of fascinating, dangerous phonemes, sounds foreign to human cords. She "talks," and I slurp, and since no one responds (several younger people seem to do all the actual work of the place, while watching Vietnamese Idol), I assume she is talking to herself. Or she is very, very frustrated. Or both. How many hours have I spent, speculating as to what she might be saying? Perhaps in my belongings, my heirs will find endless sketches for a (sadly) unfinished novel: Thoughts of Crazy Lady of the Pho. It will be my masterpiece.
A calendar next to her each month presents a different beautiful Asian model (a modest centerfold calendar), and it appears she dresses partly to match the woman on the wall. Though timeless, and anachronistic, she's in cahoots with the calendar! Her acolytes dress in deliberately shabby American garb, torn jeans, faded T-shirts. All business is transacted with them (she is too noble for this menial work, though her nobility is confined to this one dreary room). If I go up to pay, and none of her assistants are there, she will condescend to take my money, but only--get this--after putting on white silk gloves. My fellow noodle-eaters--truck drivers, mechanics, a decidedly blue-collar crowd--seem to accept all this... to accept their queen... they, like I, respect the place's bizarre order; they laugh only on the inside.
So with a heavy heart, I went by to see the place closed up, to bid it goodbye. But imagine my delight. Toby was wrong... it was still open (though in even more disrepair than before). I walked in, joyfully, saw that the personnel were EXACTLY AS I LEFT THEM last year, and ordered my noodles promptly. What do they think of me? I only come for a week or two each summer, show up quite regularly on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (and on no other days), and then depart. I never speak to the help; we never penetrate each other's mysteries. Are they curious about me? Do they wonder why a nerdy fellow with scores and books, and with a taste for really spicy soup, comes in like a token breeze of summer, and spills broth all over chamber music masterpieces? Does my pageturner at this festival ever wonder at the red and brown stains on, say, the Shostakovich Quintet?
For me the lesson (the warning) of the summer festival season is mystery, variety, youthfulness, love. (I have been rereading The Symposium.) What do I mean by that? Though the piece (any piece, whatever) has been played many many times for numerous festivals and often in the same way... all those qualities (mystery, variety, etc.) are still valuable, necessary, even: indispensable. Why would I go into Pho of Aurora? Totally arbitrary. Why would Crazy Lady dress up (at no minimal effort) to sit there, a useless appendage, every single day? In summer festivals, preparing these familiar pieces on short notice, we tend to have scads of "sensible" rehearsals, putting things in place, balancing them out, being mature... and sometimes as I go through the season of this sort of rehearsal, I find myself wanting to say totally unsensible things, to take unseemly rubati, to be contrary, simply cause the spirit seems to boil up inside of me, something feels too familiar, too confining, too conventional. I could easily, in these situations, become like the Crazy Lady of the Pho... sometimes indeed I do feel like I'm dressed in the wrong outfit, speaking the wrong language to no one, a nutcase babbling to himself at the piano. And perhaps that is when I am happiest.