Names have been changed to protect privacy.
“Hey, you can sleep on Karen’s bed, she’s gone home for the weekend…again,” Laura told me when I’d sheepishly admitted that I had nowhere to sleep…again…this weekend. I hadn’t really expected that my first foray into adulthood would be all about being homeless, but that’s the reality I found myself in. During the summer after I graduated high school, my parents had moved to the new ranch house nearer my dad’s job, the one that didn’t have a bed for me in it. There was a Naugahyde sofa next to the pool table in the basement. That would be my bed if I ever decided to visit. During the summer, I had lived on the third floor of an old Victorian inn in a tourist town up north in Door County, working as a maid and table clearer, but that job and my shared room on the third floor had ended with the start of college.
My roommate Audrey in the dorm at UW-Madison, was attending college against her will. She wanted to get married to her gas jockey high school boyfriend, Jimmy, but her parents insisted she get a nursing degree first. (She never did marry Jimmy and later became a very successful oncologist, so I guess her parents had been right to insist she make something of herself.) My roommate not only made it very clear she didn’t want to be in college, she also invited Jimmy to visit most weekends. That meant I either had to sleep a couple of feet away from two people having very energetic and noisy sex, or I had to find somewhere else to sleep. After the first such weekend, I was on the hunt for a weekend bed.
Fortunately, Karen, a large girl who seemed to be constantly crying, lived in a room down the hall. She hated Madison and went home every weekend her parents would allow. I spent many weekends using her bed.
Homelessness had its virtues because of Laura. Although in short order, she would cause me to drop out from a hesitantly declared music major, she was a fun-loving imp and a very talented musician.
I first noticed Laura at the grand piano in the blue carpeted student lounge on the first floor of Chadbourne Hall. She had waltzed into the room where I had been sitting in a semi-comfortable, semi-stained mid-century modern aqua-colored armchair working my way through Plato’s Republic. She glanced around at the half-dozen students in the room, flipped her waist-length, straight dark hair over her shoulders and took her place confidently on the piano bench. Laura began to play and sing a heartfelt jazz standard: Ella Fitzgerald’s Cry Me a River. She followed that number with Nina Simone’s Since I Fell for You, a song Laura later claimed as her signature song, not just for her music but for her life. I found out the names of these jazz classics later, of course, after I realized that Laura lived on my floor, three doors down from me, after I got to know her enough to feel okay about asking about her music. I doubt I had ever heard a jazz classic in my life before that moment.
She had an alluring voice, husky and low; her touch on the piano was masterful. She was beautiful in a dark, mysterious kind of way, with brown eyes that sparkled with life and belied her impassively chiseled nose and cheekbones. “I’m part Seneca Injun,” she’d tell me later, with a wink and a self-deprecating grin, “that’s why I like whisky so much.” Later, she’d admit that her beloved grandfather had died of alcoholism when she was ten and how scared she was that she’d follow in his footsteps. But in those first heady, frightening weeks of college, Laura was the picture of confidence, in vast contrast to my terrified self. And she was going to be a professional jazz musician, she told me, because she liked staying up until 3 a.m., she liked dimly lit, smoked-filled jazz bars with intimate couples, talking, drinking, and listening at a scatter of cocktail tables. She knew what she was talking about. While I had changed sheets and carted away dirty dishes the summer between high school and Madison, Laura had worked as a singer and pianist at a small jazz club in Milwaukee!
The first Friday night I spent using her homesick roommate’s bed while Audrey and Jimmy romanced down the hall, she said, “Cindy, look what I have!” And unfurled her palm to reveal two joints, perfectly rolled in lavender paper. “Let’s get stoned and order a pizza and talk about everything in the world!” she suggested with that merry twinkle her eyes, her eyebrows flexing up and down like Groucho Marx. I was pretty sure already at 17 that I didn’t much like to get stoned — it made me morbidly introspective, mostly. But I did like Laura a whole lot and I did want to talk about “everything in the world.” Wasn’t that what one did in college? So, I said, “Sure, let’s!” and we did get stoned on those lavender paper joints. We did order pizza that was delivered to our room in what was in those days a delightful luxury only made possible because UW-Madison had finally thrown over in loco parentis and all the control over our woman-only dorm that had necessitated. Now we could have men in our rooms (thus, Jimmy). Now we could have the pizza delivery boy deliver to our room.
The “everything” we talked about that night was mostly about how Laura had become a jazz musician and the terrible thing she had done to her older sister and the reason her song was “Since I Fell for You.” Her college-aged sister had been dating a saxophone player in the very jazz ensemble that Laura had played in during the summer. One time in April, when Dave had come over to pick up Laura’s sister Ellen for a date, Laura had been playing and singing at the piano. Dave had asked to hear more and before leaving with Ellen, had promised her an audition with his band. The band needed a female vocalist — and if she could play jazz piano like that too, well…
Laura was offered a summer job with the band. She was also offered a spot in Dave’s bed, which she’d accepted. “After all, I didn’t want to come to college still a virgin!” she exclaimed, as if it was a prerequisite for life at the university, like geometry. Now her sister hated her. Dave had told her at the end of the summer in no uncertain terms that for him, it had just been a summer fling, a fling that was over now that she was leaving town for college. Thus, “Since I Fell for You” which she sang with a heartfelt poignancy.
I was silently shocked at this revelation, at the easy way she had confided in me, at how grown-up she was, sleeping with her sister’s boyfriend and singing in nightclubs, even though she was only a year older than me. I felt morbidly inexperienced in the ways of the world and the ways of music as well. I wanted to ask her what it was like, being with a man, not being a virgin.
“Where did you learn to play and sing like that?” I asked instead, suddenly also self-conscious about my own singing and playing as I recognized what an amateur I was compared to her. I had been my piano teacher’s best student, but that was in a town with 2,000 people in it. I had been in the elementary school choir, the church choir and even in the large and wonderfully talented choir in the high school I had attended the year before. (We had recorded two vinyl albums back in the era when that was hard and expensive.) But I had never had an individual voice lesson in my life. Nor could I begin to improvise around a theme as Laura so easily did on the piano.
“Well, once I hear a song, I can remember it,” she said. “My dad listened to a lot of jazz when I was a kid.” Further questioning revealed that her dad was an accomplished musician himself. He was self-taught on the stand-up bass and had played smaller jazz clubs in New York himself in his youth. Mostly, though, he was a doctor in suburban Milwaukee, a doctor who had married a beautiful Seneca alto he’d met when she was singing jazz at a New York club in the early 1950’s. “It was love at first sight, they always told me, and looking at mom, you could imagine lots of guys falling for her.”
“They passed for Italian,” recounted Laura. “My dad is one of those Jews whose family changed their name when they got to Ellis Island. My mom was so beautiful that nobody much cared where she came from — everyone just wanted to look at her and hear her sing. But if it ever came up, they taught us to say we’re Italian. Dad grew up in New York, just when the three “M’s” as Dad called them, were making their mark. By which he meant Mingus, Monk, and Miles Davis. As a teenager, he got a job stocking the bar and washing dishes at The Five Spot. That’s where he heard all the greats and learned to love jazz. That’s where he heard of the smaller clubs. He eventually got a job playing bass for practically nothing at one of them. That’s where he met my mom, who’d just run away from the reservation and met this jazz piano player in Buffalo. When the guy realized my mom could sing, he taught her the standards and they made their way to New York City. They wound up playing at this place my dad frequented. As soon as he heard my mom sing, it was all over between her and that other guy because Dad knew right away that the two of them belonged together. Romantic, huh?” she finished.
“My dad’s parents were not happy about it, as you can imagine — they had some nice Jewish girl in mind for my dad.” Laura continued. “They sent him to Madison to college, hoping he’d get over it and come to his senses. Instead, she came here and they eloped. I think,” she whispered, as even in 1973 these things were whispered about, “Mom got pregnant with Ellen and that’s why they got married.”
Mingus, Monk, and Miles Davis, I repeated silently to myself — all the names being completely new to me. I wanted to remember them so I could look them up later at the library and not feel so stupid. And Seneca, I’d have to look that up too.
Laura had opened my mind to worlds I’d never thought about before — what it meant to pass as someone other than who you were, what a life in music could mean, the exciting, terrifying potential of big city life.
My own story seemed so flat by comparison, my own interest in music so trite and unschooled. My talent so mediocre. And then there were the Grinnells, the always-out-of-tune practice pianos in stifling, acoustically sealed rooms in the basement of the Humanities building across the street. There were better practice instruments, I’d been told, but they were reserved for juniors and seniors. If I did have one musical gift and therefore maybe one conceit, it was a painfully acute sense of pitch. So, it was torturous to play these hideous instruments. Unlike Laura, I had neither enough nerve, nor, I concluded, enough talent, to do my practicing in public as Laura had chosen to do, using the grand piano in the lounge in the wee hours of the night to play her arpeggios and other exercises and practice her Chopin. I dropped my music major.
By the end of October of my first year of college, I had neither a room to call my own nor an academic home in a major. I had Laura, though she was already making a life for herself among the late-night musicians in Madison. I had a woman philosophy teacher who looked like Pipi Longstocking and was wonderfully wry, clear, and challenging and I had lost my virginity, rather painfully and quickly but otherwise uneventfully, in the aftermath of a party at a dorm down the street. His name was Sam, I recall, but we never saw each other again. Those weren’t a lot of accomplishments compared to the paradisiacal life I had imagined for myself on campus. My first semester at college grades had been non-optimal, pretty much for the first time in my life, which was a bit of a shock. The OPEC oil embargo happened, doubling the price of a bus ticket home overnight, and anyway, it didn’t look like I had much of a home to go back to, even if that’s what I wanted.
I was drifting, directionless, disappointed that college hadn’t proven to be the absorbing, saving space I had hoped it would be. And then it got worse.