July 19 …
A red letter day in my life. Here I am, on the shore of one of NY State’s Finger Lakes, jamming with Maurice Rosenzweig. Back in 1973-74, we both lived in the same place in Cambridge, MA. We both drove cabs. He was an amazingly creative musician and I was trying to find my way as a writer. I often jammed with him on my trombone. But all things come to an end. One cold late autumn day, I rode out of town on a motorcycle. Ever since, for 43 years, I had been wondering whether I would ever find him again.
Heaven knows, in recent years I tried. I kept Googling his name, and when I could find no trace I simply assumed he had to be dead. I’m such an optimist. Then late in 2015, I finally unearthed him on Facebook. His profile listed a location in the Corning, NY area, but his account was inactive. My attempts to friend him went unanswered.
Then, while on the road, a fluke search revealed a street address that matched the Corning-area location. Coincidentally, it was right along the route where I would be making a beeline west. Hell, I would have driven 200 miles out of my way to investigate this lead.
I lie. I wake up in my tent at my Sugar Hill location, way out in the middle of nowhere, simply wanting to put miles on the road. The pessimist in me tells me that the lead is a bum one, and besides he won’t be home or he won’t remember me.
Zen moment interlude …
While peeing in the trees behind my tent, I look up to find this view literally in front of my nose. Way too often, we lose sight of the present, of the beauty that routinely embraces us and lovingly nurtures us – if we have the presence of mind to get out of our own crap and allow it to happen. Earlier, I woke up to this scene from inside my tent …
It was the first time in ages I hadn’t had to put up the fly. And a location shot …
Finally, a ground-view of the look-out tower I had climbed the evening before …
I pack up my car and drive to the site’s restroom and sink facilities, do my chores, fill up some empty water bottles, and punch in my address on my navigation system. A knock on the door won’t hurt, I decide.
My year in Cambridge was a transitional one in my life, but also a frustrating one. Two years before, I committed myself to becoming a writer. I had one unpublished novel under my belt, and was looking forward to notching up another. Maybe, after three novels, I might develop some serious writing chops. Writing is a lonely occupation, particularly when you are starting out, with no one to encourage you. But as a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, I was built for this. I would divide my time between writing and cab-driving. Back in those days, hippie-dippies could make their rent by driving a cab a few nights a week.
But then my writing dried up. There was nothing in the tank. My life was going nowhere. At age 23-24, I was washed up. Failure, total failure.
Maurice, in the meantime, was enjoying a golden age. The songs literally flew out of him and his guitar, and he had no shortage of admirers. Off he would go to Harvard Square, his dog Gypsy in tow, for a few hours of busking. He would return home with his rent money, together with a new admirer or two. Often, this would be an accomplished musician. Maurice was like a sponge, soaking up the styles of other musicians and the instruments they played.
He was genuinely interested in my trombone and how it could blend with his compositions. He was the initiator, egging me into jamming with him, sharing his vision of where he wanted a particular song to go, and suggesting some possibilities on my trombone. This in turn encouraged me to further explore my instrument. On one song, for instance, I came up with using my trombone to mimic a french horn, placing my hand over the bell and letting out gentle long blasts.
One of Maurice’s personal friends and musician buddies was Dave. Between them, two plus two equaled five. Alas – and to the great detriment of humanity – they never recorded together. Dave’s music was more commercially oriented and predictable. With Maurice, you never knew where his songs would take you, which made him infinitely more interesting. “Socrates, where have you gone?” he would query out of seemingly nowhere. Or, “They ate him for breakfast.”
Over the decades, bits and pieces of his songs remained in my head, haunting me, reminding me of a lost presence in my life. But I’m jumping ahead. One day, late in the summer of ’74, while lying in bed, it suddenly entered my head to buy a motorcycle. But winter would be approaching soon, so nix that bright idea.
Then another thought intruded: Why don’t I buy a motorcycle … and ride it to California?
Suddenly, I was animated. Suddenly, my life had purpose. It was simply a matter of driving a cab full-time, and in a month or two I would be on my way.
Then, we were hit by a bad recession. Cabbies feel it first and hardest. Steady fares now opt for carpooling or public transport. Cabs pile up on cab stands. To make up for severe earning shortfalls, cabbies work longer hours, which has the effect of even more cabs on the streets competing for the fewer fares. To even get behind the wheel of a cab, I now had to show up an hour or two early. Too many part-timers now working full time, too many of us waiting for the first of the morning shift to come in. Too many of them staying out late, hoping to grab an extra fare.
It was as if I were being tested. How bad did I want it? How much did I really want to start my life afresh in California? A no-brainer: I felt it in my bones. No way I was staying in Cambridge. So it was that I found myself pulling all-nighters, keeping my cab out to early morning, taking fares in bad neighborhoods.
Little by little, I was able to save money. Meanwhile, of all things, the extra effort made me feel focused and engaged, happy, even. I also found myself turning into an initiator, making new friends and getting people together. The turning point for me came when I dropped off a fellow cabbie at his place. “You’re getting a motorcycle and going to California?” he exclaimed. “Man, I envy you!”
It was the first time in my life that someone had ever expressed envy over me. It was a revelation, an epiphany. Something was shifting in me, turning me into a new person.
At last, with the autumn leaves hitting the ground, I was able to buy my motorcycle – a Honda 450. Learning to ride it was an adventure, but then on a bitter cold morning in the middle of November, I was ready to head out of town. I popped into an address where I understood Maurice had relocated, only to learn from mutual friends he had taken up residence elsewhere.
So no goodbyes, no fond farewells.
Just before Christmas, I arrived in San Francisco. I settled in and performed odd jobs to get by, with the vague notion of eventually pointing my bike to Mexico. Then, in the spring, I met the woman who would become my first wife. She was a Kiwi living in Vancouver. By the fall, we were sharing an apartment together, there. A year after that, the two of us were in New Zealand, building a new life together.
Physically, Maurice was as far out of my life as geography and Newtonian physics would allow. Psychically, he had taken up residence inside my head, such was the power of his songs. Over the years, those bits and pieces of his compositions echoed through my conscious, streamed in perpetual neural loops. Where was he? I wondered. He either had to be famous or dead. Probably dead, I decided.
Really, I need to write a book on the power of negative thinking.
More years passed, decades …
I pull off the interstate in the town he might be in. I pop into a McDonald’s to settle myself. A burger and a smoothie. My navigation system indicates he is less than two miles away, that is, if I have the right address, if he is home.
I find the address, a house in the suburbs. “This couldn’t possibly be Maurice,” is my first thought. Think negative – that way I won’t be disappointed. I park on the street and head up the driveway. I hear dogs barking inside. I spot an upstairs window opening and a vaguely familiar head poking out. Maurice?
“I’ll come down,” says the owner of the head.
I wait. A guy in his sixties appears. The recognition in me dawns. Holy fucking shit! It’s him! “Maurice!”
To be continued …