This was thirty years ago. I hadn’t been to New York. I hadn’t been anywhere. We stayed at the Abbey Victoria on Seventh Avenue, which I had found from the travel agent who had a booth in the dry cleaner’s next door. Our room at the Abbey was small, faced a brick wall, and the bed had a hump down the middle as if there were a body in it already. If you wanted to use the bathroom, you had to traverse the bed. What did we care? We were lovers.
I’d moved to Detroit, having quit my new job in Seattle to be with him. This is how in with both feet I was. I’d arrived suddenly, without a coat, and it was February.
He lent me his fur. A thrift-shop sealskin. Thirty years ago, nobody turned a hair. It was like a breakaway movie coat. If you tugged the sleeve, the coat came off in your hands. As for clothes, I wore what I wore always.
Day One of the pickup teaching job I got at Wayne State (my first; Comp 101), the wind blew me into a trashcan in front of Johnnie’s Coffee Shop across from the campus, so I was glad for his coat.
The rest I forget. How the class was. The feel of it only. Panic. Ringing in the ears and a tingling also in my leg, which went asleep because I sat on the edge of the table so my knees wouldn’t shake. And that I was the only white face in the room. Other things. Snoozing in the lounge under the sealskin coat until a woman wakened me to say, I know you! That I was the one who had broken up his marriage and his wife had cried all weekend at her consciousness raising group.
This was true. I want to say how horrible I felt, but then, I was sound asleep so how bad could I be feeling?
We rented a place in Royal Oak (Twelve Mile Road). Below us lived Les, whom we called Les-not-more. Outside was snow and wind.
He talked for weeks about New York City, so when his birthday came, I surprised him with the tickets. He ran around outside, whooping in his boxers until Les opened the window to say, What is it with you people?
That’s how we came to be unpacking in the Abbey Victoria while on the TV, Fats Waller rolled his eyes and girls draped themselves on his piano.
After we’d unloaded our clothes from the guitar case, he said, Get out your best red dress. We’re about to go on the town.
I didn’t bring a red dress. I didn’t own a red dress. I had my peasant dress of tiered patchwork. I liked how it seemed randomly made by loopy nuns. And of course, my bright blue clogs with the blue tights.
I didn’t change into anything. He didn’t comment.
The coat had had some bad moments and the stitching in the sleeve showed. Pink thread. Who does that?
The clubs. I’m not sure what I expected, maybe something like the Blue Moon or the Rainbow, two taverns back home. Pool tables, blasting jukebox, blues bands on Live Night. Some moments you might wish later you hadn’t had.
These New York clubs were packed, but there the similarities ended, because a hush came over the room once the music started. At certain points, applause like soft rain. Our drink orders taken in whispers.
Another’s person’s world is very disorienting, and that’s where I was. No sooner would we order our drinks (beer, usually, nobody had any money) than he’d hear the bass player or he’d notice a horn and we were out of there.
The bass player was lousy, and horns drown out guitars. This wasn’t done smoothly, gulping down beer, waiter rattled, and then there was the guitar in its hard case, like a third person. In tight little clubs, people shot us looks, me apologizing, definitely West Coast, as he led the way out, the man with a plan.
His plan was about me and my lyrics to “Blue Bossa.” “Blue Bossa” was an oldie. One day I’d written lyrics for it which he thought were really good. So far as anyone knew, the song came with no lyrics. I had just begun publishing poetry in the little magazines. So that’s where we were at.
I personally didn’t think the words I’d written were any good. My parents played the music of their time, so I grew up with the standards. Standards are not poems. They’re a whole other animal.
But he had caught fire the way people do, that quixotic thing you see in their eyes. I told him I thought the lyrics were too, well, poetic. He said that’s what made them different. And so it went. I didn’t really care that they weren’t very good. Everyone I knew, mostly other poets publishing in little magazines, wanted to write like Roethke or Bishop.
The man with a plan led us in and out of Bradley’s and the Knickerbocker and Sweet Basils. I felt invisible. Nobody looked remotely like me in my bright blue clogs. A lot of black, which of course everybody knew about New York City, but I still found the reality so very black. Shoes, coats, even black mittens. I saw one woman with thigh-high black stockings, which I’d never seen in either Seattle, or Vancouver, my hometown.
It was now nearing midnight, and the street was still a river of cabs and lots of people out. I thought, Well we’re probably winding down now, but then when I turned around, he was halfway down the block, waiting for me.
We were going to a hotel uptown called the Pierre to hear a man named Bucky Pizzarelli. He said Bucky, a legend in the guitar world, would be the one to hear my lyrics to “Blue Bossa.”
Café Pierre was the most intimidating yet, and when we sat at the bar, he stopped me before I could order a beer and ordered two glasses of Cabernet. This was very strange, this trip, his leading and me following. Most of our time together, he’d come to me in Seattle, where I was obviously tour guide and boss, my friends, my poet-in-the-schools gigs, my bookstore, readings, movie houses, waterfront, Mount Rainier.
It was wonderful, though, in a way. To let everything just go like the breakaway sleeve. So I followed and drank the red wine, sour to my taste, and then tried to slip off my coat in a shrug, definitely New York City.
The coat came off, but the sleeve remained. The bartender could not hide his smile.
Like a lady with a glove, I tugged the sleeve off and rested it across my lap. I remembered Audrey Hepburn doing this in a movie.
The trio of piano, guitar, and bass was playing tasteful standards with a lot of improvising. He pointed out Bucky and his seven-string guitar. Bucky looked like he was playing in his own living room. They traded fours and all those things I’d learned in the past months.
So we sat, me invisible, himself glued to the band, almost not breathing. Oh, and we also smoked. How enjoyable that was. All the parts of it. Matches, thank you. The smell of sulphur, the scratching, the flare, the romance. We smoked and drank and he listened in a way I’d never seen anyone do before, with every part of his body, even his feet.
I thought how crazy I was about him, which thrilled me even as I thought it. I thought of poetry and wondered if I wrote with every part of me or if poetry was just part of loving books and standards. I thought of Seattle and was briefly homesick because an imaginary wave of salt air swept over me, and I smelled the fish on Pike Street. I thought of how my Oceanography class last spring got to tour Jacques Cousteau’s boat, the Calypso, moored right down in the Montlake cut, and how cute the French sailors were in their little uniforms. I thought of Detroit and of how his friends all disapproved and his brother-in-law kept fishing for information about my family. I thought about my family and how we would never pass muster with his, my father having been a bookie with a record and my mother a switchboard operator. Not to mention atheists.
I wasn’t paying attention, and all at once he was on his feet, saying something. Then he was gone. Mouth open, I watched as he crossed the floor and approached the band. They’d stopped playing and were on a break now.
I really admired him, putting himself right out there. I watched as he talked to the guitar player. Bucky had his head bent and looked polite. Then they both turned. He was pointing to me.
The guitar was at my knee. That was comforting. It seemed like nothing much would happen if the guitar were here.
But now they were crossing the floor. Both of them. I stood and my coat, all of it, including the sleeve, slumped to the floor. It really did look like a dead bear and when I saw the back of it, it had bald spots, so an old dead bear.
I held out my hand to shake because somewhere I read that a woman should do that first. But no one noticed, so I let my hand drop to the bar and I smiled, remembering reading that women smile too much. This was a time when we thought about things like that.
Also, this town made me self-conscious. Farm girlish, though my family hadn’t been near a farm, not even generations back. I don’t know what they did but it wasn’t farming. Something to do with a boarding house, or so I gathered when, at holidays, they referred to passing food as “a boarding-house reach.”
Then the wine spilled. I didn’t do it but it looked like I did since it was my wine. The bartender came over, smiling again, wiped it up, then he winked at me. He probably thinks . . . I thought, but then couldn’t imagine what he thought.
Introductions were made. Bucky definitely looked like he was from here. Compact and fast-moving, graceful, really, which seems to happen when people live in tight spaces.
All this time they were talking, and I wasn’t keeping up when suddenly he bent and unclasped his guitar case. Bucky waved his hands and said, No, man, and then something else. He spoke very fast and nodded as people waved or called his name. Asked us where we’d been. We looked at each other, and I said I was originally from Vancouver. No, he said; he meant, where’d we been tonight.
So after he’d been filled in with the names of clubs and players and even their instruments, Bucky perched on a bar stool and we stood—we were at the very end of the bar, near the olives and lemons—and before I could excuse myself to the Ladies, he began to sing low and clear, my lyrics to “Blue Bossa” for Bucky.
He has a really nice voice, as does his entire family. I winced and closed my eyes at the lyrics, which perfectly fit the notes but weren’t, were not, right. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” has lyrics. My words to “Blue Bossa” were not lyrics.
Lady, all I have are words for you
Words of beggar’s clothes
So worn and crude . . .
Bucky listened through all the way, down to the last arch, poetic phrase. And then he looked up at us and he said, in a voice like a growl but not unfriendly, It needs a hook.
And then he was diverted by his fans and friends.
We finished our wine and went back to the hotel of the hunchback mice. He noodled on his guitar while I turned hook over in my mind. Thinking of how I was hooked, but was he? If the really, really good poems had hooks, and what were they? Hook-and-eye, hook-and-ladder, Captain Hook.
Pick in mouth, he hunched over his guitar and played All The Things You Are over and over, which he said guitarists call, All The Chords You Know. Beyond him, the window, and beyond that the city just made for a girl and boy.
Next day, our last day, we went to a famous saloon called McSorleys, sawdust floors and cigars and a lot of men of the kind I grew up around in Canada, who called girls girlie. Across the street was a Ukrainian church with the bluest dome I’d ever seen.
The thing about this, I thought as he stood waiting at the bar for our drinks; is you’re either with the plan or you’re not. I felt completely still in all the noise and action and smoke. As certain, my mother used to say, as a dime.
We stepped out into a perfect day, blue sky torn from the Ukrainian dome, just like the New York in all the songs about April and autumn. Only this was winter. Cold and clear.
So what, he said about “Blue Bossa” not working for Bucky Pizzarelli, and then he whistled a tune I didn’t know called So What. Which, the legend has it, Miles Davis had composed for Dennis Hopper because Hopper said that about everything.
We walked back to the Abbey Victoria and by the time we reached now-familiar landmarks, he was telling me about a little club called Baker’s Keyboard Lounge he’d take me to back home in Detroit.
If you haven’t heard Betty Carter, he said, you haven’t lived.