Monday, January 23, 2012

Red Diaper Memories: Karl's Saxophone

Karl, my half-brother, was named for Karl Marx, but he certainly did not grow up to embrace his father’s plans. In the height of the Depression, Dad left Karl’s mother to become a full-time Communist Party organizer. This precipitated a crisis, and she wound up putting her son into an orphanage, where he stayed (quite unhappily) until his mother remarried and took him back home.

As Karl tells it, from the moment he got home, he knew he wanted to make music. Fingers in mouth did more than pacify – they became fleshy reeds: middle fingers, blown against, moist with baby spittle, thumb and pinky waving to some unheard tune. He loved to dance to jazz records, and would often wander in to neighbor’s yards, up on their stoops, and into their doorways, in pre-World War Two Brighton Beach Brooklyn, to get closer to the radio music he heard coming from inside their living rooms. He played the kazoo, the wax-papered comb, the recorder, anything that would make a sound!

One evening, returning home from a walk on the beach with his mother and brother, they passed the open door of a restaurant. Inside, the music was coming from a live combo, and he heard and then saw, bright brass catching the pink spotlight’s beam, for the first time, the instrument that would be his life partner. “I want that,” he said with a certainty that would be repeated every morning for over two years: “I want a sax-phone.” Until, at age nine, he got his wish – not a beaten-up, pawn-shopped, instrument, but an expensive professional “King” saxophone, paid for by his stepfather on a long installment plan.

Brother Karl played the saxophone way into his seventies; until his front teeth fell out from all the years of holding the mouthpiece, until his lungs could no longer vibrate the reed. He held many different jobs, trained and practiced as a chiropractor, dreamed of hosting a jazz show on the radio despite his awful Brooklyn accent, but the constant throughout his life was making music. He played the beatnik clubs on Venice Beach, was in a combo traveling the “silver dollar circuit” from LA to Reno and Las Vegas, playing in second-tier casinos, he buskered every weekend at the San Francisco Ferry Terminal (his wife on the tambourine and drum, his daughter passing the hat), and later in life took almost any gig, from hotel weddings and bar mitzvahs, to free concerts at senior centers and nursing homes, that would allow him to make music.

Our father never made peace with Karl’s love for the saxophone. To Dad, Karl’s was a wasted life. The thought that his first-born son was choosing Dionysus over Marx, the pleasure principle over class struggle, was truly a moral failure of the highest order. And, sadly, he regularly let him know it. This, despite Karl’s bringing his music to every family gathering, and in my Dad’s later years, to almost every “coffee and cookies” Sunday afternoon sing-along at the nursing home he was living in.

In fact, Dad’s even being accepted as a patient in this home was partially due to Karl’s years of volunteer service there. Dad could look out from his room and see Karl bringing smiles to his neighbors, and later chastise him for “not making more of his life,” even as Karl was on his knees clipping the old man’s toenails!

It would have been nice to report a deathbed conversion: a final acceptance or “thank you.” But even at the end, fading in and out of consciousness, his parched lips being swapped with ice by the hospice nurse, my stepmother at his side, and Karl holding his hand, no blessing came forth, only the same whispered words of judgment and reproach for “not doing enough” with his life.

I like to think that when Dad got to heaven, in that life-review space between incarnations, he saw his parents dancing, turning and bowing to the sounds of Karl’s saxophone wafting up from this world down below. And, in that brief moment, gave him the blessing Karl so long deserved.

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