I have this thing about the Menlo Park Chorus, vacillating between feelings of guilt over my infrequent voice practice and feelings of terror each time a concert approaches. One is approaching now, creeping on little cat’s feet, and frightening me, except that I have other terrifying fish to fry, if one wants to drown in aquatic metaphors. Summertime, and the living is easy…yes, the real Gershwin, figures in this concert…and I actually love this song, but it embarrasses me, my inability to remember the bass line. And so I wrack and torture myself with self recrimination. Why do I not practice more often? Why can’t I learn to read a little music? Why can’t I sing? I’m sure, the living isn’t easy. And the concert is Friday. And the cotton is high.
Fish are swimming toward the Veterans Administration hospital in Menlo Park this afternoon. We seem to do this every year, the Chorus and I, giving a little performance to the former military. The word ‘little’ is not unimportant here. An abbreviated concert, just a few of the songs. Which in this case comes at a most convenient moment, in advance of the actual concert, timed like a warning shot over the bow. Drop anchor, weigh anchor, furl your sails or lower your midships. You are not ready, this is the point. Don’t go on stage. Don’t go off base. Stay right here in the Menlo Park Veterans Administration Hospital, because in musical terms, you are fucked.
The Veterans Administration is like a parallel universe in these United States. If one has served in the military, the VA serves you. Doubtless there are complications, restrictions and so on. But in general, this seems to be true. My mother, for example, 60 years after hanging up her WW-II Army nurse’s cap, obtained prescription drugs through the VA. Which means that social services that should, and in fact used to, exist throughout society still make an appearance for veterans.
Who are these people, I ask myself, as the Chorus assembles. We have gathered in the foyer of a modern hospital building, single-story in the California suburban tradition. It is a strange encampment, this place, sprawling over acres, with empty lawns, and on this Sunday, very empty carparks. April has arrived rather pleasantly, the month, that is. The course director is also named April, and she has arrived too. Jane and I are late. I plead guilty. Summertime, and the living’….
A VA social worker leads us down a very typical hospital corridor to an equally typical junction where halls lead in several directions and nurses sit in a sort of clerical fortress, overlooking a counter with clear sight lines. At this linoleum crossroads, there is also what probably functions as a lounge. There is a piano. Which on this particular day Jane has volunteered to play. An astonishing fact when one considers that she is fresh from the morning pulpit. Sort of like playing a weekend matinee, then another matinee, without break. April advises us that ‘Summertime’ is not on today’s program. Why, I am not sure, although this probably has something to do with honoring the memory of the Gershwins. We rough up the brothers’ harmonies rather badly in the bass section, I confess. But, not to worry. Here comes the audience.
Perhaps I missed the introductory talk by the social worker, or maybe there were program notes, but most likely, there was nothing. We have just been ushered into this place with no introduction or explanation. Yet some setting of the scene would be most helpful. Who are these people? They are so old that military service must be a faint memory, no more. Does this hospital represent care for the elderly? Care for those with dementia? Or neither? I would like to know a little something.
No one seems younger than 80. Most are in wheelchairs. A couple are asleep. One man in a wheelchair clears his throat more loudly than our most piercing soprano can sing. He does this at odd intervals, perhaps unaware of his own decibels. Never mind, for we are making our stumbling way through the program. ‘Embraceable You,’ a lighter and more sentimental Gershwin piece, opens the show. And I either open my mouth too early or too late throughout. Which is too bad. For I more or less know this piece. Good thing, this VA concert, I can’t help thinking. Opening out of town. Playing the provinces before we hit the capital.
If we start off on the wrong musical foot, we compound the error quickly. The men sing a fairly straightforward round from an obscure bit of Leonard Bernstein. And what happens here defies explanation. The second basses start singing over the first basses, which thoroughly alarms me. And what is there to do but keep going? But going where? I am now badly confused, having come to the end of the musical road, as indicated by the score, but finding that all the men around me are measures ahead. What has happened?
More to the point, why did I wake up at 4 AM, this very morning? Why am I so irritated today? I keep thinking about my soon-to-the-released book, all the things I have not done to promote it, the talks I haven’t prepared, and how vile it’s all going to be. And now it is vile, this concert, given before a live…if this is not overstating it…audience. The latter do not applaud after each piece. Possible explanations including both cognitive and motor impairments. The fact that no one claps does unnerve me, ever so slightly, but things are going so wrong, and getting worse at every moment, that I have other concerns. I am so glad that we ditched the ‘Summertime,’ for somehow the thing has become way beyond our vocal capabilities. We are now having enough trouble with ‘There Is Nothing like a Dame,’ a very straightforward piece with an easy-to-read score. But ‘suppose a bass ain’t right,’ and is determined to make a fool of himself…well, even Oscar Hammerstein affords opportunities. With this botched job, concert 1 terminates. We head down the hall for concert 2.
But not without noting one man, who apparently knew the words to many of these old showtunes. He even sang along quietly. This experience seems to have touched him. Maybe this is all worth it, reaching this one old guy in a wheelchair. For what separates us is not all that much, just a few years, really. And I am already in the chair.
Another ward, and in this one the audience is already moved. Not voluntarily, one must note, and not without a lot of discussion among the bass section. For there is an old man in a push wheelchair parked in that portion of the lounge that we have decreed stage. He must be moved, and bass section is trying to move him, but it’s hard to tell which of the many brakes on this wheelchair will release his wheels. Finally, someone sorts it out, and he rolls backward, still asleep, his bald pate shiny, the ring of remaining hair curly.
Here, one of the men in the audience is quite articulate, voicing appreciation for several songs. Even lending a contemporaneous perspective to ‘Bring Him Home,’ which has a quite different contextual meaning in Les Miserables…to him it means, bring them home from Afghanistan. Now we are getting somewhere. I notice most prominently the old Filipina woman. She is very slight, sitting in her wheelchair with great dignity, wearing what might be called Chinese slacks. Perhaps she recognizes some of
the songs too. ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ certainly moves her.
the songs too. ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ certainly moves her.
Moving her later is the daughter of one of the chorus members. Her mother is Danish, and she looks quite Scandinavian herself, this girl of five years old, I would guess. She holds the back of the wheelchair of the old Filipina woman, proudly helping in the task of pushing her back to her room. She is quite natural at this, quite at home. As little kids seem to be with the elderly. Death either isn’t conscious, or isn’t feared.
They liked our singing, this crowd. Which one cannot hold against them. I liked that they liked us. And I will certainly have a go at public speaking, which I have not done in some time, and really never about myself. But it’s about time. However much I have left. And like this afternoon’s small choral disasters, what is there to do but enjoy what can be enjoyed, note what can be fixed, and above all, keep moving.