Music and Sex #4: West End Follies

Music and Sex: Scenes from a life - A novel in progress (first chapter here).

The bar across Broadway between 113th and 114th Streets, the West End, was supposedly famous. Or at least the orientation materials had seemed to consider it an important part of Columbia history because it had been a hangout for literary figures, some of them Columbia men, though he had not yet read anything by any of them. Of more interest to Walter, there was jazz there. In passing by one Saturday afternoon on the way to Citibank, he'd seen a sign boasting that the Louis Armstrong All Stars were playing.

That night, he walked the half block south from his dorm to the West End. Inside there was a huge semi-oval bar in the center of the room. Following the sound of music, he found another room off to the left, paid the man sitting at the door $10, and took a seat near the back of the half-empty room.

There was a tenor saxophonist soloing on a ballad. A waitress came over to Walter and handed him a menu. "Would you like to order dinner?" she asked.

"No thank you, just a beer," he said.

She turned the menu over, and he saw it listed more beer brands than he even knew existed. He looked for something cheap. "I'll have a Tuborg, please."

The waitress scribbled on her pad and walked away.

A woman walked up to Walter, smiled at him, and pertly inquired, "May I sit here?" She didn't look student-age. Before Walter could answer her, she was already pulling out the chair next to him. She was about 5'8", wearing a thin floral-print dress and white high heels. Curly black hair stopped slightly short of her broad shoulders. As she sat, the dress tightened around her buttocks. Walter hadn't seen an ass that big on a non-fat woman before. It didn't look bad, just…new to him.

The saxophone solo had ended. Now it was the piano player's turn. He sounded like a cross between Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson. Or, at least, those were the only two reference points Walter had heard by that time that seemed applicable. His parents' record collection was only about 2% jazz.

The waitress returned, holding Walter's Tuborg, already open. "Two-fifty," she said flatly. Walter pulled three ones from his wallet and handed them to her. "Thanks," she said, sticking the bills in a little apron and pulling two quarters from another pocket. Walter waved it away. She smiled at him and asked, "And for the lady?"

Tonight was apparently his night to be smiled at by women. His new tablemate was looking at him again. Walter guessed that the look was an inquiry as to whether he'd be paying. Simultaneously thrilled and nervous as hell, he nodded. She turned to the waitress and said, "I'll have a Grolsch, please."

Once the waitress had left, Walter introduced himself and learned that her name was Martha. When the Grolsch arrived, it was poured into a glass from a bottle which was bigger, green, and had a cap hanging from its neck on a metal contraption.

"Cheers," she pronounced, raising her glass. Walter clicked his bottle against her glass and took a sip. Having gotten out from under the disapproving gaze of his mother, he had been free to drink on a more regular basis, but still hadn't acquired a taste for the flavor of beer. At least this Tuborg wasn't nauseating like the Genesee Cream Ale he'd choked down when the high school debate team partied in Albany the night before the state finals.

Walter had no idea what to say to Martha, so he just smiled dumbly across the table while the bassist droned and thrummed through a solo. Martha broke the ice. "Which one is Louis Armstrong?"

"He died eight years ago."

"But the sign outside says Louis Armstrong All Stars."

"I think these guys were his band."

"I don't think it's fair that they use his name if he's not actually in the band," the woman insisted in a loud whisper. "It's deceptive."

"How can it be deceptive when everybody knows he's dead?"

"Well, I didn't know. Am I nobody?" she huffed. And with that, Martha removed herself and her beer from the table and walked into the other room.

Walter gamely stuck it out for the rest of the set, hoping another woman would sit at his table, but no such luck. His disappointment impeded his enjoyment of the music. On his way out, he saw Martha sitting at the bar talking to another man.

Though her rejection -- for that was how he classified her leaving his table -- rankled within him, he also found it hard to care about being rejected by her specifically. She was ignorant and obviously not his type, and with luck he would never see her again anyway.

Walter returned to the West End the next Friday, not to hear music, just to see if another woman would accost him. He was feeling confident. He had no acne that day, his hair was behaving, and if last weekend had been any indication, at least some women found him attractive. He remembered that on the campus tour during orientation, the guide had stopped at the statue of Athena (who somehow was also Alma Mater) in the middle of the steps leading up to Low Library and informed them that there was an owl hidden in the statue and legend had it that if a freshman could find the owl, he would score before the end of the year. Was that calendar year or school year? Walter had found the owl, so he had hopes, regardless of the chronology. So he would go back to the West End, and he would wait.

He ordered a Tuborg and sat at the bar, sipping and waiting. After about an hour, just having started on his second beer, his patience was rewarded when a tall, thin blonde sat next to him and said hello. He immediately offered to buy her a drink. She asked for a rum and Coke and introduced herself as Charisma. Her skin was so pale that it seemed almost alien. He also noticed that she had an odd hairdo -- and she noticed him noticing.

"You like my hair?" she asked, flipping her head so that her hair all moved to the right. The left side of her head was shaved.

"Cool," he responded. "Do you like punk?"

"No, I just wanted to freak out my friends in Oklahoma." She smiled, and Walter was instantly smitten. "I mean, yeah, I like some punk, but that's not why my hair's like this. Are you a musician?"


"What band are you in?"

"Well, I just got here, so I'm not in a band yet, but I'm talking about it with some friends," he half-lied, mentally deciding that he'd make the vague intentions he and a few of his friends had into something more concrete the next day so that it would be true.

"What do you play?"

"Keyboards, mostly." He saw her look less interested. "A little guitar. And I sing." Her face brightened again.

"So you're at Columbia?"

"Yup. Are you at Barnard?"

"No, I'm at FIT." She saw his questioning expression. "Fashion Institute, it's downtown. What does your music sound like?"

Walter intuited that describing his classical compositions wouldn't interest her. So if he had a band, what would it sound like?

"Like a funky but punky Captain Beefheart," he proclaimed.

"Who's that?"

"He's this weird, wild guy who makes off-kilter psych-rock, sort of. He's woked with Frank Zappa, who's another influence on me."

Charisma seemed satisfied by the mention of Zappa, and responded, "Far out."

He noticed the music the bar's jukebox was playing: Sly and the Family Stone's "You Can Make It If You Try." "This music now, Sly Stone, this is how I think about music. All the parts are simple, but" -- he interlocked his fingers -- "the way those parts fit together is complex."

"Do you ever just listen to music and just enjoy it without analyzing it?"

"All the time."

"How can you say that? You were just analyzing it."

"Yeah, but the way our brains work is that one side is analytic and the other side is, um, sensual. So one side of my brain is always just enjoying it without analyzing."

"Who says that? That doesn't make sense!"

"I saw an article somewhere.  Maybe Scientific American."

Look, either you're doing something or you're not doing something. You can't be doing it and not doing it at the same time."

"I don't trust dichotomous thinking."


"Not everything is divided up into opposites. There's this thing called false dichotomy, when you divide things like that whether it's true or not." Walter felt incredibly smart and impressive explaining these things.

"So you're Mister Logical. I don't think like that. I trust my intuition."

"Intuitive people don't like dichotomy either. Do you know about Zen?"

"You mean Buddhism? Yeah, my roommate last year chanted. It was pretty annoying."

"Zen is a kind of Buddhism, yes. The chanting kind is a different style of Buddhism. Zen focuses on getting people to not think how they've been taught to think. So Zen has these things called koans to make you think differently. One of them goes, 'A student came to a master and said, "I have a question, Master. I have raised a goose inside a jug since it was little. Now it is almost too big for the jug, so I want to let it out, but the jug is useful, so I don't want to waste it by breaking it. Please tell me, Master, how can I remove the goose from the jug without harming either the jug or the goose?" The master clapped his hands together and said, "Now the goose is out of the jug."'"

"What the fuck does that mean?"

"I think it means that false dichotomy creates unnecessary complications. But it could mean other things as well. Zen is really simple, but kind of complicated too."

"Talking to you makes my head hurt!" Charisma stood up and walked away.

That had not gone well. Walter stayed to finish his beer, though it had gotten warm. From all his hot air, he thought. Maybe he shouldn't talk so much. Maybe he should be less of a nerd. There wasn't much he could do about the latter, though. So talk less it was. But not there and then. He blushed from embarrassment just thinking about whether any other women had witnessed the exchange with its final, crushing blow: "Talking to you makes my head hurt." Ouch.

While slowly sipping the no-longer-attractive beer he nonetheless couldn't bring himself to let go to waste, he pondered the interaction in detail. Band. Yes, he absolutely had to start a band. Zen. Maybe he should investigate it in greater depth than the couple of days expended on it in the Comparative Religion class Mrs. Ponzi had taught in high school, which he had mostly taken because she was his favorite teacher. He was unsure that he'd interpreted that koan correctly in the context in which he forced it.

More painful to contemplate was why, when she'd asked whether he ever listed to music without analyzing it, he hadn't just said, "Yes." Where did  "all the time" come from? And why, when called on it, had he argued? He'd made what he thought had been a fairly entertaining defense of an off-the-cuff remark, but first of all, she clearly had not been entertained, and secondly, was that really a time to be stubborn, or a point worth being stubborn on? Obviously not, to both points. Sigh. He remembered being told in high school that his insistence on restarting arguments -- so he could, a day later, present a new permutation of his case -- was annoying. This was a character trait he needed to work on.

Next installment here.

Roman AkLeff says of  Music and Sex, his third attempt at a novel: "Lots of the events to be depicted in this book happened, to varying degrees. Some of it should have happened but didn't until now. Though it's mostly set in the 20th century, Music and Sex aspires to be a Bildungsroman for 21st century sensibilities, in that the main character doesn't finish coming of age until he is several decades into adulthood."