Back in the early 90s, there was a long stretch – almost a year and a half – when I didn’t date anyone. Sure, I went on a date here and there, but I just couldn’t find a girl I really liked. I still went to bars and nightclubs with friends, but I was kind of tired of that scene. I wanted something new to do.
One random day, I noticed that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Creative Loafing had lengthy lists of free classical music concerts held throughout the city. There were tons of the things every week, from something like “the choir of St. Luke’s Episcopal sings Bach’s oratorios” to the “Emory University Chamber Orchestra plays Haydn’s quartets”. Having grown up listening to a lot of classical music, I started going to these things almost every Sunday.
At around the same time, the Atlanta Symphony made headlines by hiring a 23 year-old named Christina Smith to be principal flautist. She wasn’t especially pretty, but she was around my age and in a major symphony orchestra, so she had a lot of “nerd appeal” (and if you click the link to see her picture, remember that she was much cuter eighteen years ago). As you might guess, I developed a minor crush on her.
One Sunday I pulled into a church parking lot for a show. I was sitting in my car, finishing a cigarette… when, to my great surprise, a car with Christina Smith inside pulled in to the space next to me! I quickly put out my smoke and followed her inside. And during the walk to the church, I gave up any notion of ever having a relationship with her. Not that I ever expected to have one anyway. I was still in college and living at home. But the brand new Mercedes her older, elegantly-dressed boyfriend drove and the way she snuggled up to him was an unwelcome “she’s out of your league” punch to the gut.
Nevertheless, I kept an eye out for her at future shows. And I did see her from time to time. But what I really noticed was a handful of the same people at these shows. The tall, skinny bald man who always looked so sad and lonely, even though he wore a wedding ring. The older couple who reminded me of the “frozen grandparents” from Weird Science, always dressed to the nines and looking like they were having a blast at every show. Then there was the chubby, unattractive girl who was probably an enthusiastic member of her university’s “Young Methodists Club” and still collected stickers or pogs, but whose face expressively seemed to follow every note of the music.
After a while, I started wondering what it might be like if we were all friends. I imagined us gathering for lunch at a Buckhead or Emory-area restaurant after the show to eat, discuss the performance, and make plans for next week’s concert.
In time, these thoughts morphed into an idea for a novel. The Sunday Afternoon Lunch Club was the tentative title of the book I never started writing.
One thing I decided was that instead of these folks, the “friends” in my book would actually just be different parts of my own personality. There’d be “me”, the main character of the story, who was basically just… well, me. Sort of a fuck-up, but generally a decent guy. There’d be “Mike”, who would be brash and confident, just like his namesake from The Young Ones. He’d represent the tiny part of me that isn’t shy and withdrawn. There was “Unnamed Character 1”, funny and flamboyant as I can sometimes be after a couple of drinks. There were a couple of other guys with various traits, and an as yet unnamed girl, who would be the perfect, unattainable ideal.
The problem with the book is that I had nothing for these people to do outside the concerts and after-show lunches. I was a big fan of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City, and even though I knew he was writing satire, I thought I could somehow mimic the settings of the book, with little bits here and there from work (or, in my case, college) and restaurants or bars, while most of the actual action would take place at concerts.
I also knew that “I” would chase the girl, but would never get her. To what extent and when I’d figure that out presented a problem. Does he figure it out early on? If so, what’s the point of the rest of the book? If not, how do I prevent it from turning into your standard romantic comedy? And what about these other characters? I imagined going to dinner or bars with them in the book… but what? Do I do five separate plotlines? Do I weave them all together? Or what?
I don’t know how real writers write. Do they make “mental movies” of these things? Because that’s what I did, and it not only didn’t help, it actually made things worse. That’s because when I made a mental movie of my story, I became bogged down in minutiae.
For example, the “me” character, like myself, would have a bad habit of oversleeping. I imagined him waking up late the day of a big exam at Georgia State University (my actual downtown Atlanta alma mater). He’d haul ass out of his apartment (a real apartment on 4th Street I almost rented, but was 20 minutes too late to get). A voiceover of a DJ from Album 88, the school’s radio station, would play. The DJ would make a couple of quips about traffic, then kick into Magnapop’s “Merry”. Cue a montage of traffic and downtown Atlanta while viewers hear:
Space and time creep across the line
And try to slow down the fires where the fires hide
But it hits the spot when it gets too hot
And it costs too much if it costs a lot
You’d then see a nifty shot of me hauling ass through GSU’s giant, 10 storey parking deck, and recklessly pulling into a parking space. Magnapop would still play as I ran down the stairwell where homeless people used to sleep in the off hours, then across Piedmont Avenue, then through the labyrinth that is the school’s General Classroom Building. I’d finally make it to a classroom, and flop into a chair. I’d ask the girl next to me what I’d missed so far… and that girl would be Linda Hopper (lead singer of Magnapop). Neat, but pointless. Could I talk Kevn Kinney of Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ to sit in the desk on the other side of me? Could I get Linda to wear a t-shirt of The Jam? Why was I wondering about these things when I didn’t even have a freakin’ story to tell?
* * *
I did, however, want to share a couple of real-life stories with you from my time on the free classical music circuit.
First of all, one of the best venues for free music was the Ahavath Achim Synagogue on Peachtree Battle Road. The synagogue has a small chapel in the back where the free concerts are (were?) held. And the chapel is renowned for having incredible acoustics. It really does sound like a recording studio in there. So the sound is awesome.
But another plus is that a large number of classical musicians are Jewish, so when a big-name Jewish artist was in town, it was almost guaranteed that they’d play a free show at the synagogue on Sunday. So why pay $45 a ticket to see them with the Atlanta Symphony in giant, impersonal Symphony Hall when you could see them in an intimate venue for free?
So… one Sunday afternoon, a cellist in town to play with the ASO did a free show at the synagogue. I can’t remember his name off the top of my head, but he was popular – no Anner Bylsma or Yo Yo Ma, but very popular with the classical crowd. What I didn’t know until I got there was that the cellist was doing the Schindler’s List Suite – an actual classical composition written by John Williams for the movie.
The music started. It was slow, haunting and sad, not unlike the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. At one point during a quiet passage in a quiet movement, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t heard any type of ambient noise throughout the performance. No coughing, no dress shoes scraping the wooden floor, no fidgeting with cough drop wrappers, no doors opening or closing, no sounds of paper crinkling as programs were used as fans. Nothing.
I cautiously looked around… and saw that almost everyone in the heavily Jewish crowd was crying. Women were quietly sobbing as men in yarmulkes stared at the floor while single tears rolled down their cheeks. I discreetly looked in one direction, and then another, and everywhere people were crying. It was so sad, and so moving… I certainly noticed the Jewish themes in the music, but they obviously didn’t have the impact on me that it did on the rest of the crowd. Those of us who weren’t Jewish sat up straight in our seats, almost uncomfortably so. It was almost like when you’re 17 and your girlfriend bursts into tears for no apparent reason and you didn’t know what to do. Still, seeing all those people so moved by the music left a lasting impression on me.
* * *
On a happier note, the biggest event of the “free classical music” circuit came in September every year, when St. Philip’s Cathedral did Mozart’s Requiem, complete with a full orchestra and choir. Tickets were free, but they were in big demand; although the concert wasn’t until 6pm, people started lining up almost as soon as services ended that Sunday afternoon.
I knew the concert would be popular, but had no idea it would be that popular. So when I showed up at 3pm, I was already waaaay at the back of the line. As the line slowly snaked through the cathedral, rumors started that those of us behind a certain point would be cut off. I looked ahead at the line and did some quick math and decided that they were probably right. And besides, the tickets were strictly limited to one person per ticket, and my friend Stacey hadn’t shown up yet. So even if I were magically able to get a ticket, she wouldn’t be able to get in.
So I decided to give up.
After standing in a darkened hallway in the cathedral for nearly three hours, I approached the giant wooden back door and pushed it open… to see one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. The sun was behind her, and as I’d been standing in a dark hallway for so long, it created this brilliant, almost overwhelming halo effect around her. She was wearing a thin, flowery sundress… and the sun shining through it revealed one of the most perfect bodies God ever created. I was, for a brief and shining moment, completely and utterly speechless. It really was like the cliche moment in the movies where the girl flips her hair around in slow motion. Only it was real, and it was happening to me.
And then she opened her mouth.
In an incredibly thick French (“Frahnch”) accent, she asked if I would help her find her friends. Now I was completely useless. A girl with Iga Wyrwal’s body, Rachel McAdams’ face and Audrey Tautou’s voice was talking to me! I managed to stammer that I would.
The crowd at the cathedral was such that the line of hopeful concertgoers came out the side of the building, so Dreamwoman and I had to walk all the way around the cathedral. During that time, I managed to engage her in idiotic smalltalk that would make Eddie Izzard proud. I didn’t use his “do you like… bread?” line, but I believe I actually did say “you have on sunglasses. I like sunglasses!” What a moron.
The thing was, though, that my friend Stacey was due at any moment. Stacey and I were only friends, and our relationship was completely platonic in every way. But even then I knew it would be tacky for me to be chatting up some incredibly hot French girl when Stacey walked up… plus, I figured that French girl would think Stacey was my girlfriend anyway. This, combined with the fact that I was so completely out of my league, lifted a weight off my shoulders. As amazingly beautiful as French girl was, it wasn’t meant to happen. So instead of being sad and bitter about it, I kind of stepped back and just enjoyed the moment.
To this day, it’s still a happy memory, like a perfect moment frozen in time. There’s no sadness that I didn’t “get” her, but yet, there’s no sadness that she shot me down, either. I don’t have any memories of a painful breakup, or less than ideal memories of us dating for so long that I could fart in front of her while she wore a ratty old t-shirt and watched Cops on a Saturday night.
No, there’s just that one moment when I opened a door… and saw a beauty that I didn’t even know existed.