When I lived in New York in the early ’70s, no one in my circle ever knew each other’s names. Nor did we call before visiting one another. We just kind of dropped in. That’s the way we met: People just sort of arrived in your life then departed as destiny dictated.
It was a time when everything was new: I was new to New York, New York was new to me, and everything seemed to be coming and going at a very rapid pace. I was 21 years old.
I don’t recall how James Ursee came to be in my life, only that he was a large presence in it and one of the people who mattered to me—out of many others who did not. His apartment was a place where I could go at all hours of the night and day and count on a cup of bitter, strong coffee; a glass of good, cheap red wine; and always interesting conversation.
James lived in a basement apartment on 89th and Amsterdam where it always seemed to be late at night. I liked that. Inside it was magic. There were beautifully framed pictures of dead composers—Chopin, Beethoven, Bach—that sat on top of a grand piano that dwarfed the room. Arrangements of dried flowers were placed around the room. James usually sat on an overstuffed chair while I invariably sat across from him on the ragged burgundy couch by the window. I almost always fell asleep there after a night of drinking red wine, talking out the meaning (or lack of meaning) in life, and listening to music as varied as Schütz, Jethro Tull, Etta James, and Gregorian chants.
James himself was a very romantic figure with his mane of brown hair that fell over one eye and his red satin smoking jackets with a crisp handkerchief tucked in the pocket. We drank, we smoked cigarettes, and James would sometimes—if I pressed him hard enough—play for me. He played beautifully. I seem to remember that he always played Chopin, but this may or may not be true. It’s just that his apartment contained within it the atmosphere of autumn and the melancholy and holy beauty that I associate with Chopin’s Études and his Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor.
James was brilliant and good-looking and interesting, and I would have fallen in love with him were it not for the fact that I was only able to fall in love with people who were certain not to love me back. At the time I was in the midst of a three-year obsession with a classical conductor who pretended to like me only when he wanted me to type for him, which was sometimes 12 hours a day.
“Why won’t you tell me who it is?” James often asked me. Inexplicably, I would never expose the person who was poisoning my life with his demands and ruthless behavior. Certainly, James would have known who he was, for this conductor was well respected all over the world.
“I just can’t tell you,” I repeated each time my friend asked me. Though I wouldn’t reveal the man’s name, I talked about him incessantly—what he had said that day, how he said it, and so on—until James must have wanted to strangle me.
One evening in early November, James handed me an envelope around which he had wrapped a silver ribbon. Inside were two tickets to Carnegie Hall. Arthur Rubinstein was playing an entire program of Chopin, which included the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F-minor. I was too moved to speak. James had an ill-paying job at a classical music station and I knew he had had to save his money for a long time to buy these tickets.
On Nov. 12, I dressed carefully. I knew what people wore to these concerts for I often sneaked into shows during intermission at Lincoln Center with the ticket stubs I had picked up off the ground. To Carnegie Hall, I wore an ankle-length crimson satin skirt, a cream-colored vintage blouse, and black shoes that sparkled under the street lights. James wore a black vintage tuxedo jacket with a starched white shirt underneath, black trousers, and black patent leather shoes. Quite the pair, we took the bus to the Russian Tea Room, another surprise James had in store for me.
We were young, we were in love with life, and we were almost in love with each other.
At the concert, James took out his score of Chopin’s concerto and followed it intently as Rubinstein played. During the exquisite second movement I touched James’ arm ever so lightly in thanks and placed a kiss on his forehead with the tips of my fingers. Surprised, he looked at me, then back at his score.
I didn’t see him for a few days after that, but one Friday evening I decided to treat him to a bottle of Dom Perignon, which I had filched from the wine closet of my slave-driver boss. I figured I had earned it, since I had worked so many hours without getting paid. As I tripped along Amsterdam Avenue, I imagined my friend’s delight when he realized what I had brought for him. Arriving at his apartment, I put the bottle behind my back so I could surprise him and tapped in the door. No answer. When I looked through the bars of his door, I was aghast. For gone was the grand piano. Gone were the photographs and the antique couch. The room had been completely white-washed and was bare of anything at all.
What to do after such a shock? I walked the few blocks to Central Park, popped the cork of the champagne, and drank it straight out of the bottle.
I saw James only once after this, at a concert of Le Sacre du Printemps where he sat with a pretty girl, as always following the score with his pencil. He looked up and saw me just before I vanished into the crowd to find my seat.
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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