(One can try to escape birthday festivities by crossing an ocean — only to find fate waiting on the far shore.)
It’s that time of the year again when I mark my original arrival on the planet with sincere thanks, of course, to my mother. But, I prefer not to make a big deal about birthdays and honestly do not mind growing older — especially now that I get to ride the subway at half-fare. Besides, my matinee-idol looks washed out to sea decades ago. And, I already did that ‘bucket list’ thing even though I did not know what that meant back in 2008.
As my body’s odometer was about to click into its seventh decade, I informed my wife that I could not stomach a surprise 60th party. But I suspected that she could be left out of the loop of covert plans by family and friends, conveniently giving her what in spy circles is known as plausible deniability. To escape such a scenario, I informed people that I was going to spend my birthday in Paris. I would share a champagne toast at the Hotel Ritz Paris with my mate, who could be lured to the City of Light and into the renowned Bar Vendome with any excuse. “And then what?” was the comeback of persistent interrogators. My nonchalant reply only heightened their skepticism: “I will play the Steinway Grand for 15 minutes.”
My words were spoken with bravado but with a twinge of self-doubt, since my piano technique was hardly of a professional caliber. Still, I always had wondered how it would feel to play in such an intimate venue on such an exquisite instrument. Years earlier, I had found a patient instructor to teach me improvisation of Broadway standards on an electronic keyboard that barely squeezed into our snug city apartment. My talent was passable enough to volunteer on out-of-tune clunkers collecting dust in homeless shelters. These stints were hardly bravura performances – just musical distractions over the clatter of dishes and the sometimes-raised voices of hungry folk standing in a cafeteria line. Despite a few flat notes and broken chords, the diners seemed to appreciate a nostalgic, sometimes bumpy ride down memory lane. Of course, I discounted the fact that they were a captive audience.
Like a vulture, the 10th day of October was circling closer. When I suggested to my wife that I was squeamish about the trip to Paris, she immediately booked a flight and made reservations at a hotel in the Latin Quarter. Once her navigational system was locked on target, there was no dislodging her from a concert at the Cluny or stroll through the Marais. Goaded by a college roommate, who detected my effort to weasel out of the long-awaited debut, I finally contacted the Ritz. In a tentative e-mail to the chief concierge, I was polite and obsequious. Secretly I panicked: What if they said “non,” or worse, what if they said “oui”?
The reply from the night manager arrived on the morning of our departure: “We will allow you to play our piano after 10 p.m. and for 15 minutes. Please confirm this reservation.” For an absurd moment, I complained to my wife that we should skip dinner to economize and settle on the champagne toast. She rolled her eyes: “When will you be 60 again and perform at the Ritz?”
Our plane touched down on French soil one day before my birthday. Jet lagged and nervous with anticipation, I counted down the hours even as we strolled along the Seine in flawless fall weather. As an amateur musician, I had brought along fake sheets with chords and simple melody lines. For cocktail music, professional pianists usually play by heart, but I feared that a bout of the jitters would disturb my concentration. I was not about to risk a meltdown on a Steinway.
My ears were tingling and I felt a bit revved when we sashayed into the elegance and glow of the Ritz lobby. I informed a hostess in my best high school French that we had reserved a table for two. “Oh, yes! We have been expecting you. But there is someone waiting to see you out there.” I thought that I was about to have the pleasure of thanking the night manager in person for giving an aging fellow 15 minutes of fame. I turned, and there she was in fashionable dress – my kid sister, along with her husband, all the way from Portland, Maine. “Hello, Tommaso. Happy birthday!” Clutching my chest, I froze on the spot as if zapped by a stun gun. It was a wild, extravagant act of sibling loyalty. My wife wore the Cheshire cat’s smile as I composed myself before taking a seat.
Of course, you want to know if I played. Yes, but not until finishing a four-course repast. (I have no recollection of the food items spooned on my plate since I was still recovering from the initial shock of my sister’s appearance.) The pianist, who played nonstop for almost two hours without coming up for air, needed some “encouragement” from staff to relinquish the ivories. If he was a bit miffed, I could not blame him. Some kid with a learner’s permit was asking for the keys to the Ferrari. By the time I approached the keyboard, I was completely relaxed. Drained of adrenalin and fortified by champagne toasts, I jettisoned my stage fright. I whispered to my wife that there should be no applause if I made it through the performance alive.
With the damper pedal down, I began slowly with “At Last” and eased into a four-tune medley ending with “Piano Man,” which I can play blindfolded. The candlelight on the lacquered surface of the piano and the dark ambience of the room cast a spell. I experienced a kind of musical ecstasy that even now still moves me. I see the reflections on the Steinway. I hear the applause of diners. And ankle deep into ‘the golden years, pounding out the chords to “La Vie en Rose” at suppertime in a noisy shelter, I recall that warm autumn evening in Paris. My little boat may never put sail again beyond the blue horizon, but now I know for certain that, musically speaking, my world’s not flat.
(From Boston’s North End, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living. This column is an adaptation of an online posting for Princeton Alumni Weekly.)