My Umbrella

My umbrella needs no Viagra. It jumps at every chance. It attempts to come open under tables, in drawers, as I am passing through doors; it is coiled kinetic energy; it is a teenage umbrella in heat and I have considered buying it Judy Blume books just to calm it down. I am nervous it will embarrass me at any moment. If it is possible to screw up the purchase of an umbrella, in every imaginable way, I have done so. Attention to detail, even in failure, is my strong point. Fed up with the evil person who stole my last magnificent green domed colossus from the locker room at New York Sports Club in the middle of a tremendous downpour (bad, bad karma, whoever you are!), and no longer willing to humor its substitute, a tattered, paisley, hopeful but pathetic remnant of cloth, its frame poking crazily askew like a squashed metal spider, I finally strutted into Duane Reade on a rainy morning with a mad, to-do-list-checking, umbrella acquisition urge. But every New Yorker knows, you should NEVER buy an umbrella in a store: you should only buy them on the street, from suspicious vendors, in the middle of a precipitation event. Only then do urgency, need, opportunity, and economy-of-scale meet in a flash of cash-only swiftness which makes one glad to be alive. Haste makes waste, and bad taste; my foolish desire and unusual simplicity-of-action bade me ignore the sign reading “The I Love New York Umbrella,” with its typical, disgusting, rebus-substitution, and I bought what appeared to be a black normal umbrella (is that so much to ask?), but which turned out horribly to be a TOURIST umbrella, broadcasting on two of its panes “I [heart] New York,” a sentiment which this magnificent city, in all its industrial bespattered grimy cynical splendor, can only regard with utter distaste. Yes, we [heart] you too, all you people from Iowa, or Minnesota, and let us express our love with refrigerator magnets.

Wow. Kinda lost it there. Apologies to all from Iowa/Minnesota. That burst of Manhattanism was really just an emotional reaction to the stress of walking down Broadway in the rain, suffering all the trials of a New York resident, living in what other people would consider a cupboard, but still having to appear to all the world like a tourist. And moreover that Duane Reade, the ultimate depressing New York City drugstore, would betray me thus! Et tu, Duane?

Speaking of losing it, and Minnesota. A week ago, I was slated to do a rather ridiculous thing, i.e. fly altogether too late to a concert, fly the morning of a concert out to Bemidji, MN.

Now, it is a journey out to Bemidji, and I had played it semi-safe by booking, through my manager, the earliest possible flight. My schmancy alarm clock thus buzzed most unwelcomely at 5:30 AM, in the palatial West Wing of my apartment, and there ensued that daze and misery of the sudden urgency and the socks that won’t go on properly and the assembly of clothes and the impatient phone call of the waiting limo driver and the scurrying of my various butlers, all of which I survived to find myself at JFK’s Terminal 4, at a respectable 6:35.

But my hubris of timeliness was ill-rewarded. There was no reservation under my name, or under any of my many aliases (all very sexy and mysterious), and I ended up with a quivering cell phone under my ear, learning from a very sweet lady that I would have to buy a fantastically expensive ticket then and there to get to my destination, and, there was nothing available on the 8 o-clock flight, and, so I’d have to leave at 11:30, and pretty much barely make it.

Please understand! I am already in a very vulnerable emotional state in those early-airport moments, something like a baby that emerges from the womb only to face a firing squad.

Nonetheless I am a proud frequent traveler, averse to exhibit the base emotionalism of all the “amateur travelers” who get all cranky when their rental car is not the color they requested. I was the soul of politeness to the Northwest Airlines staff, whose fault this situation was not, and did not let the depth of my distress leak to them … except for occasional aphorisms such as “life is a vale of tears.” But once I had my ticket, and I found myself adrift in the food court for several hours, with just not quite enough time to get home and back again, a whole new existential situation began to present itself. I began to think the saddest thought I have ever had: my bed, lying empty, without me in it.

Bed. And again bed. Rustle of sheets; sensual whisper of pillow. The glow of the pre-sleep moments, the soft sinking of consciousness, the surrender to rest and relief. I imagined myself in a fetal position, clutching Marcella Cucina, my favorite cookbook, as I sank into dreams of Risotto. Meanwhile, the fluorescent light of the food court bounced horrendously off the yellow formica of my table, and I squirmed painfully on my concrete bench, and sipped another in a series of recurring coffees which did not wake or calm me, but exacerbated my neither/nor-ness (not a word). Ranting cell phone calls were placed, and many weekend minutes were tossed casually into the vault of wasted time. My rage spun slowly around its object: whatever had happened to my reservation. And then I paced, Rilke’s panther in the cage, paced again and again past Sbarro and McDonalds and Sharper Image, the bars behind which no world appeared, and when I unwrapped my Egg McMuffin I dropped the egg upon the floor (indignity of the imprisoned man!). I sought relief in the world of ideas, i.e. the bookstore, and unbelievably! the first book that presented itself on the first shelf I came to was William Hazlitt’s On the Pleasure of Hating:

In private life do we not see hypocrisy, servility, selfishness, folly, and impudence succeed, while modesty shrinks from the encounter, and merit is trodden under foot? How often is “the rose plucked from the forehead of a virtuous love to plant a blister there!” What chance is there of the success of real passion? What certainty of its continuance? Seeing all this as I do, and unravelling the web of human life into its various threads of meanness, spite, cowardice, want of feeling, and want of understanding, of indifference towards others, and ignorance of ourselves, – seeing custom prevail over all excellence, itself giving way to infamy – mistaken as I have been in my public and private hopes, calculating others from myself, and calculating wrong; always disappointed where I placed most reliance; the dupe of friendship, and the fool of love; – have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.

How comforting.

That evening, exhausted, I played two Bach Partitas and the Liszt Sonata. Moments after I finished, a woman about 50 years of age came by my dressing room and told me in a Midwestern rhythm that she felt it was a once in a lifetime experience and that many of her friends felt the same way and she thanked me for coming and making the long journey and her face was as plain as a blue sky. She let her eyes sit with me for a while and I could see that while many New Yorkers’ faces seem to be a miracle of added-on layers, of wrinkles of experience and cultural accretions, her face over the many harsh winters seemed instead to have been whittled down; things had been removed with time and what was left seemed very honest. She politely excused herself and, as I heard her steps going down the corridor, something snapped and finally I felt myself let go of the held breath of the morning’s frustration. I was still exhausted but now in a good way, in a real way which could be solved with sleep. I sat in front of the dressing room mirror and recognized myself. I was happy. I remembered a few phrases I liked in the concert and knew why I was doing what I was doing. And just then the Spirit of New York City came into the dressing room; it was pretty pissed off, yelling at me for getting “all CBS After-School-Special,” and threatened to beat me senseless with my [expletive] tourist umbrella if I didn’t pull myself together and get good and miserable for the long return flight home.

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  1. Erin
    Posted October 30, 2006 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    oh Jeremy! Such a lovely entry, even with the hating and the Sharper Image and the terrible horrible no-good very bad umbrella!

    I do wish I could hear you play sometime, because if you put the same emphasis and feeling into the playing that you get across in your writing it must be just marvellous.

  2. hari
    Posted October 30, 2006 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    wow….that’s quite an umbrella…a whole book could be written about that one.

    don’t fret, at least in new york it’s ok to be miserable or anything else you feel like being and people will understand.

    my friends and i saw your lincoln center concert at the penthouse and it was wonderful. your hands are magical and no sheet music; it’s amazing.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted October 30, 2006 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    I heard you play several times and you’re a genius. Yes, the emphasis and feelings are there right in front of you. Person of any age understand and enjoy what music is really about. Hope to get the same experience listening your recording soon.

  4. Anonymous
    Posted October 31, 2006 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    great post Jeremy; love the first sentence! “My umbrella needs no Viagra” is right up there with “Yes, I confess, to my eternal chagrin I am indeed a chip man.” Another hilarious Denkism!

  5. Emily
    Posted October 31, 2006 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Nothing beats a sturdy, no nonsense cane umbrella. Nothing. It rarely turns inside out, even in the most tempestuous conditions and it can double pretty nicely as a weapon (in a pinch). I had an incident a few years ago where my crappy, ultralight, ultracompact, aluminum, telescoping pathetic-excuse-for-an-umbrella betrayed me in the midst of a Manhattan squall. The thing actually severed mid-shaft after enduring a particularly violent gust and I promptly stuffed it into the nearest waste bin whilst mumbling a few choice expletives. Ironically, I was also strolling down Broadway while this happened. Perhaps there is some predisposition to umbrella self-destruction on the Upper West Side? If so, I’ll bet good money that it’s a conspiracy on the part of Duane Reade.

    Skulking sheepishly around Manhattan with an “I heart NYC” umbrella reminds me a little bit of San Francisco tourists in July. You can spot ’em a mile away as they are the only poor souls wearing those lame-o fleece pullovers emblazoned with an embroidered Golden Gate Bridge—forced to buy them in a hypothermic moment of weakness after grossly underestimating the SF summer and attempting to parade around our cold, fog-laden city in shorts and a tank top. D’oh! Every city has its own special badge of shame.

  6. Guy Barry
    Posted October 31, 2006 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Nice visiting your blog

  7. Lane Savant
    Posted October 31, 2006 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    What’s an “umbrella”?

  8. Howard
    Posted October 31, 2006 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    Bad karma for stealing your “colossus”? Perhaps it is bad karma to carry one of those things, or bad manners if nothing else. Why don’t you just carry a golf umbrella and the rest of us will step into the gutter to get out of your way. So maybe you are better off. A little wetter, perhaps, but much more loved by your fellow New Yorkers. Loved your Bach performance last week. Luminous and life-affirming. The D-major Partita has really stayed with me. Now that I think about it, forget what I said about your umbrella; I will gladly step in the gutter for someone who can bring J.S. to life like that. Thanks.

  9. Anonymous
    Posted November 3, 2006 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Just because you play the piano doesn’t mean you can write well.

  10. Jeremy Denk
    Posted November 3, 2006 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    ouch. somebody’s cranky.

  11. Anonymous
    Posted November 3, 2006 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    I waited a few days hoping something really witty would develop inside me that I could post in response to this entry. . it didn’t. That’s OK, sometimes straightforward is best. Jeremy,I think some of your entries are on a par with your piano playing, this one of them,and I mean that in every positive way. I enjoyed hearing you and Joshua Bell on Performance Today this week.

  12. Anonymous
    Posted November 3, 2006 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    I believe good writing is rather subjective, unlike a good umbrella…

  13. Anonymous
    Posted November 5, 2006 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    Jeremy, I just left your SLSO performance of Beethoven’s 1st Piano. I’m one of those 50ish Midwestern ladies. I suppose time has eroded some layers off my face. I hope that has left me with an honest, if not blank, look. My first choice would have been an All Denk program tonight. Even so, as brilliant as the Beethoven was, the icing on the cake was indeed the JSB [thank you!]. It was a real treat to hear you–especially in St. Louis.

  14. Anonymous
    Posted November 12, 2006 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    jeremy, you performed beautifully on thurs night with the sf symphony – ur love for music really shines thru ur playing, and it was such a joy to watch. it was a pleasure meeting u as well! best of luck – will definitely be looking forward to ur next performance.

  15. Ludwig
    Posted November 12, 2006 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    Hi Jeremy
    Saw your performance tonight in SF. My friend Emily and I actually went backstage and met you afterwards. Keep up the good work! And keep on blogging! We’re forming a two person Jeremy Denk fan club in SF:) (Well, actually, with all of these great comments, perhaps we need to broaden the membership)

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