Friday, June 6, 2014


What an interesting class drama is the western symphony. The art students from the local college at the ticket window, waiting for the slightest hint that a patron doesn't know about the time Hayden slipped in the bathtub while writing the Creation Mass, for surely the story merits another telling, and the third violin sometimes goes on vacation during the busy season, so the conductor could use someone to fill in that seat; someone who understands Hayden, who understands the demands business makes upon the organization; someone who can approach things realistically, build some professional performance and experience; someone who listens to Lindsey Stirling in her spare time and who knows the way the Foundation needs to modernize and develop if it is to survive and keep her from having to manage at Walmart after school.

As we enter, just shutting the door at the far end of the lobby, the short Hispanic guy with the shaved head, the mustache, and the silver cross. He's putting away the heavy-duty floor cleaner for six bucks an hour as an independent contractor, and wondering for the hundredth time why the hell it's worth thirty bucks to hear something you can get twelve versions of on youtube for free, and why's Beethoven or whatever still so popular while so many kids nowadays can't get no one to care about their school band, so all they think about is the rap shit and electric guitars. Everyone's got nice clothes except him, his blue striped shirt with the nametag from the auto-shop. He steers clear of the first to come in, hustling out of the way without appearing to hustle. He tries not to meet anyone's eyes as he heads across the lobby to the boiler room to turn that one blinking light off so Fran thinks the crisis is averted, at least for one more day.

And then there's Fran, coming out of her closet-sized office near the front. It has a golden door, that office, and some of the paint still seems fresh on the jamb, where a series of recent openings and closings have left a gummy golden outline, like freeze-dried cake frosting, that threatens to become permanent and make the door start sticking again. She narrows her eyes at Manny; the kid's supposed to be out of here before doors open, not hauling his filthy blue low-riding-panted self around by the front doors.

So Fran swoops in like a superhero, doing her duty, welcoming the first three guests, and the Mayor's cousin and his date, and that guy from Germany who's supposed to be important somehow even though she accidentally deleted the e-mail where the director told her who he was and what he was going to be looking at. Fran has a pinched face, a long face, with an air of severity, endurance, and cigarettes. She holds her chin high, squints always, and the skin on the front of her neck droops like an old man's testicles, puddling against her front shirt collar. It's a Vegas-casino shirt, loud and with a hundred bright colors. She owns three shirts and they're all that same shirt. Her symphony shirt. She wears it every night and several people have told her how much they like it, so she knows it's really a winner. Why get something in flat colors? Those look so severe.

And in come the patrons. The shuffling elders, in nice clothes from twenty years ago, so happy to be out and about. Several stop to exchange words with Fran; others stop the young couple with children to exclaim over how cute little Billy is in his miniature suit and tie, while Billy just wants the music to start and where's the bathroom and why's he gotta be so quiet when all these people are so loud?

The younger couple out on a date, scared as hell they're going to spill someone's champagne, even though no one's drinking champagne. It's just a matter of time, after all. The guy's sure, after this, they're gonna have incredible sex, and the girl is taking pictures of the Mayor's cousin in the lobby to put up on her page, and she's wondering as she takes ten just to make sure one's good--she's wondering, if she went up and introduced herself, would he let her get a picture with her in it? This is so exciting, all these people who are so important and cultured, dressed in their best. The movers and shakers of the world, she thinks, looking upon all the cosmopolitan area retirees, like Jake, who sold his laundromat after thirty-five years, and Frances, who carries her oxygen pack in a discreet black messenger (she's always allowed to wear Barb's old pearls when she comes to the symphony). Retirees like Bill and Deb, who are just so upset that they had to elect that his benefits would be $437 a month or else get cut off entirely when his liver goes in a couple years, leaving Deb with nothing. Frank and Jane, who are just passing through here like they do every year, dressed in their musty tuxedo and evening dress set from the overhead compartment, which they always get down for only two things: the symphony here, and for the charitable dinner south of Yellowstone.

And then there come the gays, all twelve of them, talking loudly about the new conductor's gesticulations and didn't you know Poles are often like that, and he's brilliant, of course he's brilliant, but how brilliant, Jason, how brilliant, that's my point. Other than the three terrified families with children and the two couples out on dates, they're the only ones shy of sixty, and other than Manuel, they're the only ones dressed comfortably.

The gays seem to know so much, marching right toward the main theater entrance, that Sally's sure they're important. Movers and shakers, you know, maybe a State senator's son and his friends, or the owners of competing car dealerships. She whips her tablet out for a picture.

But then there goes Mrs. Finklestein's seventh-grade class, ruining her shot. They cross the lobby like a train of unwilling lemmings, excited by circumstance and trying not to spill anything on their rented pink candy-paper dresses or overstarched tuxedos. Just when they've almost gotten to the doors where things get dark, Mrs. Finklestein stops the whole group to talk to Fran, whose neck-skin is flapping in the air vent. They remark about the last time this happened, and study the children; Mrs. Finklestein says that she loves Fran's shirt, and Fran says that this bunch looks pretty sharp, and they separate pretty happy with themselves.

The young couple out on a date hurries toward their seats and gets promptly lost, but no worry: another elder is there, breaking away from the usher's section. There are the ushers, all old, all with plenty in the bank, but not like the normal cast of elders in the audience. No, they know the value of everything they've earned, so they ush the symphony for free in exchange for possessing mastery of the theater layout, to help the less frugal elders find the right bathroom. Years ago, the Foundation used to have to pay a bunch of people like Manny to ush, to do cleaning and security, but whoever came up with the idea of volunteering was brilliant.

Now, for just the price of Fran's piecemeal salary, she controls an army of boomers with 401s, which is happy to serve as unpaid interns, celebrated scabs of the theater circuit, getting free tickets to culture in exchange for saving the Foundation from having to pay all those damn employees to keep the show running. Fran likes to help, likes to give something back; she's in show business, a supporter of the theater and the arts. With a good quarter of her bridge club on the ushing team, her control over behind-the-scene lobby politics is absolute. Every December, like clockwork, the Foundation gives her a gift certificate to The Olive Garden. And every April, like clockwork, she donates a thousand dollars to the Foundation. If she makes it to seventy-seven, she'll have accumulated enough to get a brass plaque in the hallway across from the men's restrooms.

None of this can get done without the orchestra, of course. All those little artists, sitting in there nine, ten hours a day, practicing to get the Third so very perfect, so that it can be compared favorably to the regional symphony, which was once compared favorably to something in LA or New York. Lonely trumpeters, a few years away from coming out, wondering why they chose this instead of IT--who knew it was all about business and repetition? Impoverished, beautiful Czech flutists, bitter realists about their work, earning their citizenship through long years of recycling Beethoven, until they're granted permission to retire as elementary school teachers, giving preprinted quizzes about woodwinds to a bunch of kids who couldn't care less.

The rows of hyperachieving violinists, waiting for their parents to die so they can grab their six mil and retire to adjunct university music education, congratulating themselves on their choice to be different, daring, and choose the artistic path, and how stupid it is of so many people to think that you can't live just fine on a thirty-two-k nonprofit salary, giving something back to the community while learning to express yourself. I mean, Dad wasted all those years in the financial sector, and look at all his health problems; Vicki, though, she's feeling great, practicing every day, giving kids lessons sometimes in the summer, and there's a little college next to Dad's land upstate that would be perfect to teach in when they need Vicki's help and she has to move up there. Mom always said she should own her own studio, and maybe if they revitalized that commercial strip Dad rents to that gas station and those thrift shops on the east side, that would be a good place to take over one of the units and turn it into a little early childhood education thing. It's nice to be able to give something back, you know; to choose the artistic lifestyle instead of being obsessed with money and status.

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