Why don’t your jazz band directors appear to be conducting the jazz bands?
The summer after freshman year, I shared a basement sublet with my bat-shit crazy Resident Advisor and worked three jobs to pay for spending the summer in Washington, DC. One job was driving a bus, the gig I loved all four years of college. The second was babysitting a research assistantship for a friend who was away that summer, working under a journalism ethics professor; it was a job for which I was hugely unprepared and under-qualified. The third was perhaps the most normal job I’ve ever held—I worked at Affairs of the Heart in Georgetown Park mall.
If you were around in the mid-eighties, you likely encountered a heart store, a store where literally everything on the shelves was emblazoned with one or a hundred hearts. We sold heart tee shirts and heart sweatshirts and heart stickers and pencils whose ends swirled into a heart. We sold heart-shaped erasers and mugs that bore hearts and mugs in the shape of a heart. The shop wasn’t large, but it was bright and smelled all the time of chocolate chip cookies that baked next door at the cookie store. Those were new delights in the eighties too.
Although for the most part I clocked in, worked my shift, folded tee shirts, made change for tourists, clocked out and left again, three utterly memorable things happened to me in my tenure at the heart store.
- One Sunday, the other young woman working and I completed the entire New York Times crossword puzzle, the only time in my life I’ve ever succeeded in that particular endeavor.
- One afternoon when I was at work by myself, a young man from Yugoslavia named Zoran came and lingered all afternoon talking to me about America. At the end of my shift we went to the zoo together because he had not yet been and it was one of my favorite DC experiences. We would be pen pals for the next several years until his letters, written in sloping hand on thin airmail stationery, eventually stopped coming.
- One day my supervisor handed me a brand new stack of one-dollar bills, still banded, and invited me to crumple them up so they wouldn’t stick together. I sat on the floor behind the cash-wrap station (admittedly, we didn’t actually wrap anything, but we put things in red tissue and stuck the flaps closed with heart stickers), scrunched the bills in my fist and dropped them in the cross of my legs. Fifty brand-new dollars crumpled up make quite a pile and I moved my legs under the bills like I was covered in crisp fall leaves. When I was done playing, I straightened the bills back into a stack and handed them to my boss. She was co-owner of the shop.
These three things sprung to my mind in rapid-fire order sitting next to my mother who was at a routine cardiac appointment where it takes longer to put the electrodes on sticky pads onto her chest than it does for the EKG to record her rhythms. They were a loose association for me to the first thought I had when the nurse purred to my mother, “it takes longer to hook you up and take the electrodes back off than it does to get the reading, so much better than it used to be …” which is: Yeah, there’s nothing like the sight of your seven-day old son hooked up to a color EKG machine.
Whenever I tell the story out loud, the story of my infant wailing in nothing but a diaper, electrodes all over his body, the test taking much too long, I inevitably get glassy-eyed, because as hard as it was learning that my brand new baby had a heart issue (two, actually), there’s no way I could make this next part up. I was sitting there in that kind cardiologist’s office, watching the pulsing of my son’s heart and hearing about ASDs and PDAs and things it would take me some time to fully comprehend, and in the pocket between heartbeats I realized that right at that precise moment my father was undergoing open heart surgery 1100 miles away. To the alarm of the doctor, the nurse, and my son’s father, I burst into a torrent of tears.
Fifteen years later I sit across from my teenager, headphones in his ears, intently typing on his laptop. I think about the things that we’ve talked about in only the last twenty-four hours, the things that he has taught me and the very-nearly snarky pseudo-compliment he handed me the morning I was urging him and his sister to get moving for their last day of school before Thanksgiving Break: I complained that they only had two days that week; that I had a full week as usual. He said, before his eyes had fully blinked open, “Well, you’re already a much more fully competent human being than we are. We need more sleep.”
In the moments when he and I were putting on our shoes and coats to head out an hour later, we were speculating about theme songs for our cats and decided that they could each have a part of “The Rhythm of Life,” one theme song, three cats. Done. And just the night before it was he who explained to me why his jazz band directors, so conductor-ish when the concert bands play, don’t have as much to do when the jazz band is playing. It’s the rhythm section that keep everyone together—the bass plays at the beginning of the downbeat, the drummer plays at the end, and the wind section is supposed to play in the pocket.
A lot can happen, I think, in the pocket of a heartbeat. The heart fills with blood, the heart moves the blood on, and we thrive on its rhythm and we remember all manner of moments and we learn new things and we grow.
When you see the full moon on Saturday, I’ll be looking up at the very same moon—my absolutely favorite rock—and thinking of you, too. Rxo