I dumped my bag, my music, my concert clothes in my hotel room and, with everything piled prosaically on the bed, took quick stock. There were empty hours ahead and I could make no comprehensive plan.
I went to Blue Bottle. This is a little coffee kiosk on Gough and Linden that I discovered, walking one morning, saw people waiting outside of it, fell in with the herd, and when I tasted my first sip of their filter coffee and bit into a chocolate macaroon, the sunshine itself seemed to be jealous. How is it that anyone can drink other, crap coffee? Every cup of Starbucks, for instance, I had ever drunk seemed a terrible, terrible mistake, even an amoral act. When something beautiful happens to you you sit still and work to appreciate it, you don’t mess around. I sat on a bench basking and sipping and when the coffee was finished I was not sad. I did not suck at the empty cup like the addict I am, but moved on to other enjoyable things.
So, I went to Blue Bottle, to get an afternoon cup. Their motto:
In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I was standing in line and the time and the little alley seemed drifting, out of the way, a corner. My day had blown itself into this strange, bluish, dusky bend. As I ordered my filter coffee, a girl and her friend who seemed intriguing came up behind me, and the girl sort of caught my eye and I did the awkward thing of seeing her and not seeing her at the same time. But then she made a move, and asked “Do you live in the neighborhood?” and I said, no, I was visiting, and it turns out she’s a student though I didn’t ask what she was studying, but now she knows I’m a pianist. Then I fled without wanting to. I strode off with my coffee wishing entirely I had kept talking to her and to her intriguing friend.
But I had left my wallet in my hotel room and I needed to retrieve it.
So I began to walk back with this cup of coffee and there was a certain late-afternoon breeze. It blew just a little. 4:45 pm, color of bluish sky, temperature of breeze, semi-quiet though the street was busy. The coffee didn’t throw me, didn’t jostle the string which was inside me and was allowed to vibrate. I kept walking, feeling, listening. A certain temperature of breeze was which maybe exactly precisely the same temperature of some other afternoon, an afternoon I am sure, though I do not remember the exact date or person at all (to say the least), an afternoon in which I was in love with someone.
A feeling took hold. A quiet and focus, despite busy streets, and despite the caffeine ringing inside of me, and I could pay a great deal of attention that I don’t normally pay. I would live continually like this if I could. I had no desire to stop or alter the flow of the moment. (Totally irrelevant phrases to me right now: waiter bring the check; why don’t we grab a drink; what should we do next?) Proust, man, I thought, I know exactly where you’re coming from, I am so happy right now and I could feel two moments, now and some distant time, rubbing shoulders in their breezes, because the earlier afternoon, which had been totally forgotten, was not “remembered” so much as made totally alive within me: but only the essentials, and none of the facts. I felt still capable of whatever it was.
The Inn at the Opera has a very silly (quaint?) old elevator which plays all sorts of canards from the classical repertoire, including a very vexing, limp, waddling version of the Mozart Flute Concerto, which makes the endless process of waiting for the elevator to get to my floor, at times, a complete misery. That morning at 7 am, bag of laundry in hand, jetlaggy and confused, I stood and descended through a merciless and mediocre tutti, which made the morning seem unnecessarily cruel. In my mind I scolded the strings, no, I thought, don’t you get harmony AT ALL? I glowered at the concierge, as if he were responsible.
But just then, coffee in hand, the last movement of Tchaik 6 was on, while I was headed up to my room to grab my wallet and head back out, those few moments of music were thrilling. Tchaikovsky! I sympathized with him. It was that moment over a timpani pedal point. That was his world; yes, I thought, that’s yours. The strings played yearning phrases (I thought, grooving: this is really really yearning, he got that) and my soul or my stomach tidally went back and forth with them, I moved without moving. Obviously I was feeling receptive, in a mockable way, but I couldn’t laugh at myself, loving Tchaikovsky, because it was too good for laughter. The melancholy all-in-the-throatness of it, the heart well past the sleeve, pure cry and wish.
A momentary digression. This post really has no plot or point whatsoever, so digressions should be fine. We (me and Josh) had many wonderful audiences on our most recent tour, but my favorite was in Madison, Wisconsin. This is because when Josh announced our (perpetual) encore, “None But The Lonely Heart,” as usual some portion of the audience sighed and swooned and gasped with delight. Another portion, however, after a telltale moment—and I imagine this was the younger, more studentish portion of the crowd—found this gasping ridiculous and overwrought (and probably don’t really know “None But The Lonely Heart” anyway): they laughed. This second tide of laughter was the antidote to the gasping cliché. Oh, Tchaikovsky! How Romantic! Get over it, you’re a sucker. I enjoyed this, a lot. Perhaps too much. I laughed an evil laugh inside. Perhaps somewhere deep down I had some resentment towards “None But The Lonely Heart” stored up and I was letting the audience work it out. I enjoyed imagining the two elements of the audience at war, something like the war between the lyrical and the cynical within myself. What a ridiculous title, “None but the Lonely Heart;” doubtless some mangled original Russian, some stilted bit of fey easily-sold Romantical drivel. Yick. Clearly I have issues.
And then I was back out on the street in the same breeze and still in love with someone irrelevantly in the past. Which caused me no regret, to feel the love again, disembodied. I walked a few blocks with absolutely no plan except not to imprison myself in any situation. I looked down the alley for the same girl and her intriguing friend who had talked to me, and now they were gone. No matter, they might have been a distraction. I was in a humming, happy solitude and every sight was fresh. But all I could do was walk.
I drifted into a used bookstore and bought a couple wonderful books entirely on a whim, I didn’t want to think about them. I considered getting depressed by all the old musty books and all the lives they represented but I didn’t. But there in the history section, the Brahms Horn Trio came back to me, which I had just performed (for some reason I almost just typed “deformed”): particularly the Trio of the Scherzo, the truly most melancholy moment. (Other pole to jolly E-flat.) It reverberated from the Tchaikovsky? The phrases were similar, gluey, wanting.
When music manages to feel achingly physical. When the simplest interval is back, baby, when you know it is just that wide. When all the voices of the chords seem to be resolving like intertwining hands. Some fourth resolves to the major third and there, your lover puts a hand on yours and skin touches skin; and the touch is so not about just the place you are touched, but radiates in internal channels and carries secret messages all around your body. And that is how those phrases seemed to me, of Brahms, and of Tchaikovsky, and I think some sort of pubescent naive bodily-ness came to me all of a piece with the Tchaikovsky which I had not ardently listened to since I was 15. Message carriers, profound touches. Same with every sight, every grimy street corner, every glimpsed couple in a restaurant across the street, every small whispered word, the aggregate world of every person’s ridiculous gesture all the way down Market Street to Noe and back.
And so, in conclusion, I suggest you go to the Blue Bottle coffee kiosk in Hayes Valley, San Francisco, as soon as possible, and order a filter coffee, nothing more complicated than that, and keep ordering one a day, at least, for the rest of your life.