Café Grumpy

Café Grumpy, sat in the middle of West 20th Street in Chelsea, is a bit of a scene on weekday mornings. Most coffee shops in the city have a distinctive clientele: Blue Bottle in Williamsburg is half tech industry robots and half hipsters pretending not to work in the tech industry; Joe on Columbus and 68th is primarily moms and musicians. La Colombe on Vandam is solid early-30s professional types on break from advertising and general social media whoring.

This coffee haunt is not so dissimilar in that all the customers are in desperate need of coffee, but there’s a gentler vibe. One door down is Harmony House, a publicly subsidized building for low income and homeless people living with HIV and AIDS. Two doors down is the local police precinct. Gay bars and chic restaurants line 8th Avenue just once you get to the end of the block. You get the idea – West 20th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues is a strange intersection in the heart of Chelsea. As with most Thursday mornings, there are a number of bleary eyed queens recovering from Wednesday nights at Gym or the Eagle. But you also have cops, citizens waiting on friends to get out of the precinct, families and friends of Harmony House residents, as well as the slew of standard professionals who live in newer luxury buildings on 7th Avenue.

Another variety of customer is the pet owner, grabbing a cup of coffee prior to heading to the vet’s office on 18th Street. There’s always a dog owner there with a small breed dog, purchased at CitiPups and spayed or neutered at Heart of Chelsea across the street. Owners like me, often too overwhelmed by the prospect of finding a new vet, stick with the vet that first knew the dog, though the office may be 25 minutes away by train and extremely overpriced. But if the long and expensive trip to the vet were not enough, other matters have caused relations with my pooch to be a bit frayed in the last few days. On Tuesday, I had to head to the Juilliard Store to buy a new copy of Handel’s Harp Concerto, as my own copy had turned up someplace I had not expected: my dog’s anus.

I’ll be the first to admit that videos and photos of dogs surrounded by destroyed pieces of paper taken by good-natured owners are hilarious. But what they don’t tell you is that dogs don’t necessarily digest the pieces of paper they swallow. Indeed, one can certainly fathom my surprise when I went to pick up Lunchmeat (my dog) after a walk last week, only to find a dingle of feces trailing from her rear end, attached to her sphinctre by a thin piece of paper. Though disgusted, I spared my Corgi any further embarrassment and dutifully removed the turd and accompanying bit of paper. Indeed, it was only a sliver of paper, but its provenance was unmistakeable. I looked down and saw F-G-A-B-flat, the famous first four notes of the piece. Upon returning home, I looked under the kitchen table to find the remnants of my Andrew Lawrence King edition, missing the cover, preface and first page.

This is not the first time this has happened with Lunchmeat. It’s of course natural that her literary interests would range beyond music, and into current affairs. Her normal paper diet consists of Richard’s law papers emitting from his bag left unzipped in the kitchen, copies of Foreign Affairs from the living room, back issues of the New York Review, and even last month’s issue of Harper’s (which I never got to read). Indeed her tastes have advanced from her initial forays into paper consumption just 4 weeks ago, when she would eat her soiled pee pads when she got bored (I should like to add that these are even less digestible than Breitkopf editions of Handel concerti).

Ironically, the vet’s visit this morning had nothing to do with her bowels (or my sheet music) but with a certain build up of green gunk in her eyes due to rolling around in each and every dirt hole she can find on the west side of Central Park. As usual, Dr. Nguyen was fantastic with Lunchmeat. He’s an animal whisperer of sorts, able to get animals to stave off wiggling long enough to check their ears, look at their teeth and shove a thermometer up where the rest of my Handel resides (yes, I’m still annoyed).

Scores are replaceable, but markings aren’t. Fingerings are one thing, but some instructions about where to ornament, change octaves and how to dress up the piece were embedded even on the first page. But for this score there was some sentimental value too, as different teachers from New York, Paris and London had written comments over the course of my education. Fortunately the rest of the score was salvageable and I could transfer some markings, but the thought of losing this score entirely – as with many scores – is heartbreaking. After all, it’s the first “concerto” that we harpists learn. It’s a rite of passage, a milestone and something that we in return make our own as there’s significant room in the score to embellish.

After checking Lunchmeat’s weight and only gently fat-shaming her (she’d grown 25% in three weeks), he took out an orange paper strip and touched both of her eyes with it. Immediately, they were filled with bright orange dye. But before looking into her eyes, he took a bottle of saline solution and washed it all out of her eyes. I admit I was slightly puzzled. The vet saw the look on my face and smiled. “It’s counterintuitive, I know. Put the dye in, only to wash it out, right?” I laughed, and asked why. “You have to wash it out to see where an injury might be. If there’s a slice in the eye, the dye will seep in. But you can’t see it unless you clear out the rest of the eye first.” He proceeded to turn the light out and take a UV lamp to Lunchmeat’s eyes. Again, she remained totally still as he held her and looked into her corneas, somehow put at utter ease by either his voice or his touch.

In trying to practice the Handel over the weekend without the score and my markings, I felt a level of exposure I hadn’t felt before. There’s a clarity that comes when you rely on only one or two of your senses – in absence of seeing my score, I had only my ears and my fingers. Whether or not certain embellishments were necessary or constructive occupied the majority of my practicing on Monday, as I came to terms with what every musician fears the most: that one might actually be doing injury to the music one has spent so much time interpreting. After a while, I decided that getting a replacement score had been put off long enough, and so I grabbed one from the Juilliard Store, just down the street from my office. I was fortunate that they had the right publisher, editor etc. But in looking at a blank score, there was a sensation that I was looking at a new piece of music entirely. Devoid of my scrawls and my teachers’ markings, this pristine, sterile urtext edition challenged me on some gratuitous liberties I had become accustomed to taking since I learned the piece some 10 or 11 years ago.

Starting from scratch is often synonymous with inefficiency, right? When we musicians have a problem, we’re supposed to isolate it immediately in order to save precious time and energy. But one problem may be symptomatic of a larger issue. There are times when taking the extra step back to clean everything out takes care of the problem more quickly than we might think. There are times when the train to Chelsea is worth every minute.

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