As I climbed up Broad Street, which was wider and straighter than most streets around here, a trolley stopped by and a thin, tall man with a slight stoop hopped out. Holding a clarinet case under his arm, he adjusted his Fedora hat, which was made of light woven straws with a center crease that was angled to the back. Taking one glance at me under its brim, he set the case down, tapped his feet, and threw his arms wide apart.
“Lenny?” he cried. “What a surprise! Is it really you? Boy, you’ve grown so much since I saw you last! Coming to visit your old Uncle Shmeel, are you now? Why didn’t you tell me you’re coming?”
“Well, I,” I mumbled, as he gathered me into his arms. “I really didn’t, I mean, I didn’t know—”
“Ah,” said Uncle Shmeel. His smile revealed a glint in his gold tooth, which was devilishly matched by the glint in his eye. “I see: too many years have passed! You’ve forgotten all about me!”
“What d’you mean? No, you didn’t know—or no, you did forget? I used to play my clarinet for you, one song after another, when you were ten years old, remember that?”
I did, but only vaguely. With a notoriety as a ladies man, he was not really my uncle but a distant relative, the great grandson of my father’s great grandfather on his mother’s side, or something like that.
“Good to see you,” I said. “I hope all’s well?”
“Now that,” he said, “is a long story.”
And without stopping for a breath he proceeded to complain that the introduction of talkies—which had started with The Jazz Singer in 1927, and had been followed, wouldn’t you know it, by the Great Depression—that introduction had been devastating to many musicians, including him, why? Because he had come to rely on earning a living at the cinema houses, where silent films would be featured to the sound of live music, which would not only contribute to the atmosphere but also give the audience vital emotional cues, without which they could make no sense of the action.
So now if not for old Pearl, his girlfriend for the last ten years or so, who was incredibly generous to him on account of waiting for a marriage proposal, he would find himself living out on the streets, God forbid, or else having to play in Jewish weddings as a Kleismer, which in Yiddish meant the instrument of song, but thank God she adored him, which she did for no better reason than his improvisational flourishes, which in the past he had used to great advantage, earning not only his pay but also his reputation for virtuosity, which expressed itself in his manner of embellishing the drama onscreen, especially during scenes of horseback chases, so that even when special effects had not been indicated in the score, he would find a way to add galloping horses, which was not an easy sound effect to achieve, especially with a clarinet.
Lenny in The Music of Us
I love breaking the rules, and in the last two paragraphs are basically one long sentence, which was great fun to create and even greater to anticipate how my narrator, Don Warrick, would handle the challenge. I wrote a little note to him:
About the pace of these two paragraphs. They are basically a single long sentence, showing off how verbose Uncle Shmeel is, piling on one thought on top of another until you forget what the original thought has been. This is a bit like Moliere’s characters: the idea of using a period to punctuate his speech never occurs to him. In the first take, you read this passage at a comfortable pace, allowing yourself to take a breath to be able to continue—but... What if you didn’t? What if you read it faster, nearly stumbling over yourself with this overwhelming flow of words, allowing Uncle Shmeel to lose his breath by the time he reaches the end of the second paragraph? Or more precisely, allowing Lenny to mimic him losing his breath...
And Don wrote back:
Now granted, I haven't been doing this audio book thing for very long, but I have a few hundred hours under my belt. After re-recording Lenny doing Shmeel, I gave it a listen. This is the first time I have laughed out loud at my own recording.
I am still laughing. It is HYSTERICAL! - Give a listen, but don't drink milk when you do.
"Music Man"--my watercolor on yupo paper painting
Ever since he worked on this passage, Don says he's discovered "an inner Uncle Shmeel" in him. Surprisingly, Uncle Shmeel is also here, at my end: looking at my watercolor painting from several years back, "Music Man", I can see a Shmeelish glint in the corner of his eye.
Creating it, I was so taken by the model, who came to the art studio with his instrument and played for us students between one pose and another, that I transformed his body into a myriad of musical instruments, and extended them into a convoluted red aura overhead, which represents his inspiration.