Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Bus Ride (Ch.7)

Saturdays were busy, busy, busy at the Juilliard School Pre-College Division. Private one-hour lessons with Sally Thomas were followed by concert orchestra with Isaiah Jackson, chamber music, solfege, recitals, string ensemble with Wesley Sontag, and music theory with the cantankerous, chain-smoking Frances Goldstein.  
At  five o'clock sharp, I met my mother in the lobby for the long commute back to Boston. She waited by the elevators, eager to hear a report about my classes.

"Tell me about your day," she said, as we left Lincoln Center to walk down to Port Authority.
"It was fine."
"Fine? That's all you have to tell me?"
I didn't want my mother to know that I flunked Goldstein's music theory exam; Sally Thomas had again made me reach out for Kleenex; and my sight-reading skills in orchestra were so deficient that I was placed in the back of the second violins.
"Hungry?" She asked, as we passed a Sabrett Hot Dog stand in Times Square. The aroma of fresh pretzels wafted into my nostrils. "Fresh salted pretzels, plump, juicy hot-dogs," yelled the vendor. A hot dog dropped onto the pavement. He stooped to pick it up with his fat fingers, and tossed the flying wiener back into the cart.
"Ugh. Gross me out," I said.  
"New Yorkers," said my mother.

At Port Authority, my mother pointed to a sign at the Terminal Deli. Whole Broasted Chicken for $2.99
"Now that's a deal," she said. "Let's get that for our supper on the bus. It'll be like a picnic."
After buying chicken and beverages at the Terminal Deli we stopped at a magazine stall. 
"Nothing beats The New York Times," she said, reaching into her coin purse. "How about you, my dolly? What would you like to read on the bus?"
The front page of The National Enquirer featured: Baby born with two heads and a tail.
"Mummy, can I have that?"
"I suppose, but what an odd headline. You think it's true?"

We rushed to Gate 14 with bags, violin case, and broasted chicken. My mother gave the bus driver the tickets. She plopped our belongings onto two seats behind the driver.  
The aroma of  chicken had all ready begun to permeate the bus. A woman across the aisle plugged her nose, and the man seated behind us pulled his coat over his face.
My mother sat down and slowly released the chicken from the paper bag. The aroma intensified. "Here, precious." She split the bird with her fingers. "Your half."
Noisily, greedily, like a woman half-starved in the wild, she ripped the drumstick from the thigh, gnawed voraciously, cracked into the bone, and sucked the marrow.
"This chicken is out-of-this world," she said, waving the remains of drumstick. "I was so busy comparing notes with the other Juilliard mothers that I forgot to eat anything all day. You better dig in, before there's nothing left."
I bit into a tender, succulent thigh and then moved on to a wing. By the time we hit Yonkers Stadium, there was nothing left but a pile of bones.
"Now, what to do with this mess?"  
"Dunno." I wiped my hands on a Towelette and unfolded The National Enquirer.
"Feh," she said. "Let's get rid of it. I'll put it by the toilet. Good idea?"

I popped open a can of Diet 7 Up and read the tabloid with complete absorption. How could a baby with two heads and a tail survive? What about the real-life mermaid?  I flipped to the next  page. 
Twelve year old violinist hailed as Paganini Incarnate! 
It can't be, I thought. I read with wide-eyed amazement about Dylana Jenson, a girl from Los Angeles who displayed such technical prowess that the renowned conductor of Seattle Symphony, Milton Katims, believed her to be the reincarnation of Niccolo Paganini.
Niccolo Paganini, the greatest violinist who ever lived! 
My mother returned to her seat after depositing the chicken bones by the toilet.
"Mummy, read this," I said. "This girl concertizes all over the world. She's appeared on the Tonight Show and soloed with New York Philharmonic under Maestro Andre Kostelanetz."
My mother skimmed the article.
"Well, how about that," she said. "There's so much competition out there. It's a good thing that we have Mr. Muller. He'll see to it that you get concerts, too. And you know, at age eleven, it's not a day too soon."

My mother, Frances Kransberg, loved bus rides. The motion and monotony soothed and comforted her. She'd fall asleep with a faint smile on her lips, awaken for brief spells, babble in hushed tones, and drift back to sleep with her head slumped forward. It was on Greyhound bus trips that my mother shared her innermost thoughts. During an awakening, she had words for my three older sisters, Judy, Susan and Karen, who were now busy with children of their own. 

"I sense that deep down your sisters are envious of you. But if they'd think back, they'd realize I wanted the same opportunities for them. I gave them all music lessons, plus ballet and drama classes, but they didn't take the studies seriously. All in all, I think they might have been spoiled. I wanted Judy, Sue, and Karen to have everything. But through trial and error, I realized that it's not how much you do, but what you do, and how well you do it, that counts. The more energy you pour into one thing, the more you get out of it. Farshteyst?"

To prod my mother on, I'd bate her with questions. I adored being the favored daughter.
"Mummy, what sort of pianist was Judy?"
My mother shook her head. "Your eldest sister Judy was musical, no question about it. That girl had talent. But whatever she played, I couldn't recognize the piece. Counting mystified her, and every composer came out sounding—well, like Judith Ellen. Funny, but true."
"How about in school? Was she a good student?"
My mother tilted her head back and closed her eyes. "A scholar my Judith Ellen was not—but everyone loved her. What a sense of humor she has—such a character. My parents, may they rest in peace, were crazy about her. When Judy was born, she looked just like my Bubbe Chashe. The resemblance was uncanny. Your grandmother took one look at Judy as an infant, broke down and cried. She was convinced that her mother had been reborn. Jewish people are crazy that way. We believe in such things as reincarnation."

"How about Susan?" I unwrapped a piece of Dentyne. A bus ride without gum was unthinkable.
My mother emitted a long, painful sigh. It was the sort of sigh that echoed throughout the entire bus.
"Susan was, what's the word? Combative. Maybe because she was the middle child. I don't know. She wasn't pliable, like you."
"What do you mean?"
"When Susie took violin lessons, she battled not only with me, but with her teachers. She's always had such a temper. I remember she'd get angry out of the blue. One time, when your sisters were rehearsing piano trios, she took her violin bow and thwacked it over poor Judy's head causing it to split into pieces."
"Judy's head?"
"No! The bow, silly."
"What did Daddy do?"
"Your father? You know what a short fuse he has. He threatened, 'I'm not buying another goddamn violin bow! That's the end of the music lessons.'"

"Tell me about Karen, Mummy."
Eleven years my senior, Karen was closest in age to me, and I felt the most tenderness for her.
My mother gazed longingly out the window at the rolling hills and meadows.
"Karen could have become a professional cellist, I think. Beautiful tone and vibrato came naturally to her. But I couldn't get that girl to practice or study for anything. Karen was obsessed with boys. Such a waste of talent and intellect. When God gives you a gift, you should use it."
"Oh yes, Mummy. You're right." I reached out for her warm hand. I took delight in knowing that I pleased my mother more than any of my sisters.
"Oh look, my wonderful daughter, we're just outside Boston. The ride went so quickly—"

The bus driver tapped the microphone and cleared his throat. His deep voice boomed over a loud hiss.
"Sss-Someone's left a pile o' chicken bones by the toilet in the WC. Would whoever left them bag o' bones in the bathroom, kindly refrain from doin' that next time? Please, folks. No more food scraps or bones in the bathroom. Thank you. And remember, go Greyhound."
in photo left to right: Karen, Susan and Judith Kransberg in 1950s