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The Beach Responds on 9/11

I hadn’t the faintest idea of how much I would learn on this day about the value of what I do (or try to do). What a reluctant, resistant student I was when the lesson came later that evening! For a change, the “stars and celebs” in this story are not famous. You and I wouldn’t recognize names or faces. But they are exactly like people we know, in our everyday struggles. And nobody I will ever mention in my future posted encounters will be more important, treasured or respected. Forever.

I was living on Venice Beach, not in Venice Beach, more like on Venice Beach. I had a room in the first onshore building coming off the sand, a turn of the century hotel at the foot of the Boardwalk. I had moved there early in 2001 because I was deeply smitten with everything Venice Beach, its culture, but particularly with rollerblading, and had planned on living a boardwalk-blading, free-wheeling sea-salt spray lifestyle. I succeeded for two years before moving inland again. Many of the people who actually lived on the beach out in the open, in cardboard casitas and blanket fort enclosures, at constant conflict with wind and nature, were wise and decent people. I got to know some of them. 9/11 was about to bring out their best.

9/11 morning came beautifully and bright, but I had woken up totally out of coffee in the cupboard, so immediate action was required. I rolled on over to the market a few doors down the boardwalk, picked up a can and rolled back. I hadn’t turned on any radio or TV yet. But on my way to and from the little store, all of the homeless residents were talking in agitated tones about Afghanistan, and retaliation, and “we got to get in there fast“, and all kinds of strange vengeful-sounding stuff. They had such an air of resolute action, I didn’t know what was up. They were also trying to reassure the walking passers-by, instead of the usual other way around, as they were making presentations and calling for calm, it was all so bizarre. I rolled past the line of tents and chairs at the edge of the path, and the subject seemed to be the same. But it was still pre-coffee time for me so I didn’t try hard to understand further, it was just too "early" in my morning thaw.

Only after I got back and started to brew the Java did I snap on the TV, and all my questions were answered. What a clash to watch the gruesome peril in the heart of New York City, all the way from my perch on the lazy, fragrant West Coast Riviera. I felt like a self-indulgent sloth. I was sickened. By the way, don’t ever let anybody tell you that the homeless are not informed. They seem to be the first to know when stuff happens. Now everything about this morning was making perfect sense. They probably knew what had happened since about 5:10am Pacific time, which is close to when most of them wake up down on the beach. They had been wide awake and reacting for hours.

That evening, driving in to the Beverly Wishire gig after a whole day of terrible news and uncertainty, I wondered if they were even going to have me play. Walking in, the scene was filled with weeping eyes, bitter dejection, and what seemed like three times as many occupants as legally allowed. These were all of the stranded travelers who were grounded and unable to travel back home to New York or anywhere in the country till the no-fly order was lifted. They would all be here another night and maybe longer. Not since its creation in the 1920’s had the bar ever handled so large a group with so heavy a collective heart. Despite the big-screen TV showing nothing but the planes hitting the towers again and again, to my surprise, the management insisted I play immediately. Although I was afraid to trivialize or dismiss the gravity of the situation by making music in front of all these shocked and grieving people, I sheepishly sat down and started.

Almost immediately I saw a shift in body language come over the place. It wasn’t anything special I was doing in particular, it was just serving as a comfort blanket in the background at first, and it actually made people feel better about talking to one another. The sound was turned off on the bar TV and anyone who wanted to actually hear the same bad news again and again was informed of a TV room set up next door. So Tony and the Steinway were the sound.

When someone came up and asked for the state song of Pennsylvania, I had my first clue that I was going to be truly valuable tonight after all. I remembered my old “50 States 50 Songs” book which I had stuffed in the bench along with a ton of other music on my very first night of employment here. I had wanted to be over-prepared and to have all the support necessary in case I received an oddball request from some high-roller on my first-ever show. Kind of like packing your old sewing machine in your suitcase for your first trip to Europe. The lady who requested the song was not a high-roller, but to me she was infinitely more important, given the context. I’d almost forgotten about the book, which was a gift from my piano teacher on my 11th birthday. And here I was now, 30 years after receiving it, about to use it to rescue the spirit of a soul. Would I have known the state song of Pennsylvania? Hello?? But now, well…’s your state song of Pennsylvania! Then Minnesota. Florida too. People were coming up, after word of mouth got around that they could get their state song. Already there was hope. I made friends who would never have engaged me. It made me choke up to play a requested state’s song in the face of these burning buildings on TV, knowing that someone near me was resonating with it and being cradled with love. I loved them all—all the people, all the songs. Suddenly I was a resistant student no more! I was battle-proven. I cherished the sheer luck of where I was on Earth, on my timeline, and what I could do for these people. I also felt as though I was playing for my pianist colleagues back east who, for the time being, at least in that city, had been savagely muted. I felt like I’d been trotted through a dozen airports and capitals in just a few minutes’ time, but everything was going to be alright. Music had not been vaporized, it was alive and kicking.

So, the lesson? It’s far more than being able to play the state song of Utah. Or Hawaii. The lesson is: Even though music has a different meaning to each person, its power is huge, and that power is what everyone has in common on earth.

It would be a long time to go before I could return to my seductive, gentle, midnight lapping waves of Venice Beach. There was about to be a whole new level of my calling unveiled tonight. For, soon, a regular in the bar, a polite Middle-Eastern gentleman, came up and asked me to do a custom song trashing Al Qaida.


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