I have not always been this way – living alone in this smallest of apartments at the top of an old building. And though I have lost nearly everything, I can share words with you. It’s the girl, the one who moved into the apartment next to mine, who has helped me remember what is important. Because of her I am writing these words now. I hope you will understand.
At first when she came into my life, I was upset. You see, she is a music teacher, and her students are all beginners. She tries to teach them to play the cello. The sounds come through my kitchen wall, starting early in the morning and not stopping until the afternoon. I tried to ignore it, but how? So finally I knocked.
She answered the door – months ago, back in the fall – and I explained my problem, that I was her neighbor and that all day long I could hear the students attempts at making music. I explained all this while I stood in the hallway and while she stood in her doorway. When I finished she looked quietly at me – I waited – and then she invited me inside. “Please come in,” she said, “I was having tea. Please come.” So what could I do? I had to go in.
Her apartment was even smaller than mine. A stairway on one side of it, my apartment on the other, so I was the only one who shared a wall with her, and I was the only one who could hear the sounds. She brought me through the living room which had two plain wooden chairs and two music stands, and into her kitchen. We sat down there at the table and she poured me a cup of tea. The she said, “Mr. Saroff, I am sorry about the music, but there is nothing I can do.”
I stared at my hands. Her pronunciation was bad, so I asked her which country she had come from, and she told me, and I nodded and said, “Brooklyn has many immigrants from your country.” Then I asked her, “Can you afford a studio or some other place to teach from?”
She shook her head and then said, “No, no I can not afford another place.”
And I asked her, “When you can afford a place, will you stop teaching here?”
She said, “Yes, I have always planned on have place to teach.” And then we were both quiet and both of us looked at our hands, at the table top, at the tea cups. Outside the noise from the traffic suddenly seemed very loud. Seventh avenue, a Friday night. Even at the top of the building, the 5th floor, there was noise of horns, police sirens, car alarms. Then she said “I thought that as long as I was quieter than the road it would be all right.”
I nodded and said, “It is funny how I don’t notice that noise anymore.” Then, maybe because I have always been a bit of the fool, or because it has been years since anyone had been calm enough to sit quietly and share a cup of tea with me, I said something foolish, “I guess I will get used to the sound of your students.” And being a bit of a fool has its rewards, because she suddenly smiled and all the sadness in her face was gone. She then reached across the table and took my hands, held my hands, held my hands that had not been held in so long, and said, “Mr. Saroff, thank you for your sacrifice.” And her funny way of choosing words, ‘sacrifice’ made me laugh and smile, and that is how we met, and that is how my life changed.
It didn’t change immediately. At first everything was at it had been. The day after talking to Lin – that is her name – was Saturday, a weekend, but instead of being a day off from her work, Lin had more student’s than normal. I could hear them knocking on her door, and then I would hear all the sour, broken and sad notes, the notes that were far away from any music.
I love string music. Violins and violas, and yes, cello. Cello is the instrument that tries to sing like the soul and the heart. When I was a boy, before I lost my country and my family, before the wars, I had wanted to learn to play a string instrument. But that was like wishing for all the borders to open and all the soldiers to leave us alone – good wishes, but wishes that were not answered.
So that Saturday I sat for a while trying not to listen, and when that didn’t work I paced in my kitchen and thought that I would have to tell her that the teaching of music could not be done from her apartment. But I thought of how she had quietly accepted my complaint and how I had then agreed to get used to the sound. As I paced I realized I could not face her again to complain. So I walked out of my apartment, to the stairs, and started down to the second floor where the building superintendent lives. I would explain to him, and then he could say that it was not me who was complaining. This was my plan as I went down the steps, but I did not do it. It has taken strength to live as long as I have, and the opposite of strength is to be a coward. And me, of all people, I could not hide behind any authority to have a bad message delivered from any voice but my own. Half way down the stairs I knew that I could not turn Lin in, I had given her permission – true, in a moment when her politeness and tea and taken advantage of me – but I had to live with what I had done to myself. So I walked out of the building and walked up the avenue, cussing myself and this young girl and my bit of peace which I had willingly given away for a cup of tea.
As I walked though, I calmed down. It was a perfect October day. Crisp and blue. The sidewalks were filled with loud, laughing children. Brooklyn is a good place to live. Everyone is different but everyone is the same. I hear Yiddish and Hebrew on the corners. Also Korean, Russian, Spanish and Chinese. But mostly I hear Brooklyn. The “Yo, Man,” and the swearing that is not swearing. So I walked and I stopped muttering to myself, and I walked and I felt happy that I could still walk so well. I also felt happy that I can still see clearly the color of the sky and the sharp lines of the buildings. And I felt happy that I can still hear well enough to know the difference between noise and music, that I can still hear and feel things that are not just silent.
I turned up 6th street and went to Prospect Park, found a bench and sat – slowly and still – for maybe an hour. My thoughts were as good there in the park as they were in my kitchen. “Ok,” I said to myself, “It is late afternoon now,” so I got up and walked back to my building, hoping that her daily lessons would be over.
At my door there was a small package hanging from the knob. I took it inside and opened it. There was a note card which said, “Thank you,” and a small, perfectly folded origami cello. I put both of these on my table, cooked a diner for myself and went to sleep early.
The next day, Sunday, I was prepared to leave again to walk and sit, but there was no noise. No lessons. I sat in my kitchen and read, but I was restless. Then there was a knock on my door and when I opened it, there was Lin. “I have prepared food,” she said, “would you be pleased to have an early lunch?”
I have lived in this building for twenty years and no one has ever invited me to eat with them. Inviting neighbors to share meals is not a thing that New Yorkers do, and maybe it is not a thing Americans do, but it is something that refuges do – and even as long as I have been a New Yorker, an American, I have somehow always stayed a refuge – so I understood. Once you have run and hid and run again you will always remember. And if you have been turned in, hurt and cheated, you also learn to both be careful and, at the same time the opposite, you learn to recognize honesty. Two days before, it is true, perhaps I was taken advantage of, but this day, the Sunday of no lessons, I could not see any risk. “Yes,” I answered, “I would enjoy to eat with you.”
She had cooked food that is eaten in her country. She explained how she made it, what it was called. It was good food, and neither of us talked as we ate. Then she poured cups of tea again, and I asked, “No lessons today?”
“No lesson,” she said, “I only teach four days. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday.”
I smiled and said, “Good.”
She laughed then, and said, “Yes, my students are most terrible, but they will improve quickly. You will hear. I promise.”
“And your other days?” I asked, “What do you do then?” And she told me she worked in a restaurant but not Sundays. “Family?” I asked, “Do you have family here?”
She shook her head, “No, no, I come alone.”
“Your cello,” I asked, “How long have you had it?” And she looked down, her face went sad, and she explained that the cello was not hers, that she had sold her cello to get to America, and that this one was rented from a store.
“It does not play well,” she said, “Someday though, someday soon I will have a place to teach my students and a cello of my own again.”
She said this and I looked out the window at the bright sky, the few clouds, and as sometimes happens to all of us – not just old men – I was suddenly someplace else, someplace I had been a long time ago. I was at sea, on the water, and the war was over. I was 30 years old. We had rounded past Gibraltar and were heading towards Haifa. The Mediterranean was blue and flat like perfect glass. Our Italian ship, “El Loritasde,” sliced the water like a morning swimmer, swimming alone in a sun-warmed pool. I was part of the human cargo of two thousand war refuges, most of us Jews. The upper decks of the ship were crowded with us, all of us facing the bow, east towards Palestine. There was much talking, many conversations about what to expect, and all of the conversations were hopeful; all of us had escaped some kind of horror, and no one wanted to talk about what they were running from or what they had lost. Instead, the talk was about what we were expecting, the talk was about our dreams. Our dreams were our talk.
There was a man about ten years older than me and he and I began talking with each other. His dream was to open a restaurant, an Italian restaurant in this new country of Arabs and displaced Jews. We were talking in Italian, so I asked if he was a Jew. No, he said, he wasn’t. I did not ask him how he came to be on the boat of refuges, and he did not ask me. Instead, I asked him how he was going to start his restaurant. Did he know people in Palestine? No, no one. Did he have money? No, like myself, he had no money. Perhaps he had brought pots and pans and other cooking supplies and could start by having a street stand? No, he had nothing with him except a few books and his clothing. I laughed, saying I too only had a few books and my clothing. So, I asked, how will you start a business with nothing? He looked carefully at me before he answered, then he spoke slowly so I could understand and know that he was not making a joke. He said, “I shall not be starting with nothing. I shall be starting my business with you. Two people with a few books, and we will learn together how to do things in this new country.” We were both quiet for a while, standing there, leaning on the rail over the bow of the boat. I knew he was serious, and I knew, somehow, that the nonsense of such an idea meant that it made better sense than anything else. Better sense than the war, better sense than the miles and miles of burnt fields and houses, better sense than all the politicians and their empty words.
So finally I said, “Yes, I will start a restaurant with you.” And we shook hands there. I told Primo – that was his name, that was the name of my friend, my friend – that I would first start by teaching him Hebrew and in a few days we would be in this new land where we would learn everything else. And we did.
We learned and we worked and we had a restaurant… but that is another story, another lifetime almost, a long time ago… and I blink and I am no longer dreaming and remembering working with Primo, instead I am sitting next to Lin, in a small kitchen in her Brooklyn apartment, and she is quiet, looking at me in the way store clerks sometimes do after I have waited in line to buy my groceries but have not reached fast enough for my wallet, being with my thoughts more than I am being with the trivial matters of living. “I am sorry,” I said, “I was thinking of another time.”
But Lin was no store clerk, and unlike the way the clerks make me feel stupid and slow, she smiled and said, “I am often thinking of other times in this new country. Like today,” she continued, “I went outside and thought I was dreaming. I could smell the ocean, and it reminded me of my home.” She pointed up in the air then and went on, “I looked up, and at that second there was a big sea bird in the bit of sky by the buildings. When it was gone still I looked.” Then she laughed and held both her hands over her suddenly smiling face, and said, “Boys on the sidewalk came by and said, ‘You ok?’ I was standing with no movement, looking up. You see, I was dreaming. I had forgotten where I was.” She then said, “Here, let me play for you. I can explain better.”
She stood up and got her cello and sat down with it, with the instrument that she had told me was no good. She played, and without expecting or trying, I saw. I saw where she had traveled, across the water. I could see the ocean and hear the waves. I felt the distance she had come alone, and I could almost feel the wind, the wind that carries birds, their wings held still and firm. Even for me, a man who has outlived all of my friends and most of my dreams, to suddenly be taken to another world by four strings and a bow – a rented cello – is a bit frightening. Lin finished playing and for a while I kept my eyes closed. When I opened them, Lin was smiling at me, and she said, “I hope you enjoyed. I tried to play my story. It is not song.”
“Your students are fortunate,” I answered, and then I added, “I just wish that they could play as well as you,” and we both laughed.
We talked a little bit more, but I was awkward, shy even, sitting there, so I stood up and thanked her for inviting me to lunch, and left.
I went out to the avenue then and walked. This time I was not muttering nor swearing. Instead Lin’s playing was with me. It was with me as I saw traffic go by. It was in the rhythm of my feet moving. It was in the constant beating of my heart, it was in the longing that I carry. I will tell you something now – living many years does not take away longing, the longing for simple happiness, be that happiness from the quiet sitting and remembering, or the simple happiness of building a good life.
So I walked that Sunday afternoon and the memory of wanting to play music as a child came back to me. How and why made no sense. After the war, in Israel and then in other places, many times it should have been easy to have started to learn. I have listened to music always, stopped when there have been street musicians, listened to it on the radios, and have been to concerts where sitting quietly in the dark I have also closed my eyes and sometimes felt stirrings that I could not understand.
This girl who – because of her students, and because of the shared wall – had taken away my peace but was now giving me back something better. It was like my time with Primo, in a land of dust and salt, him saying to me, “They will love our pasta, they will drink our wine,” and making me smile and forget the troubles I had come through. How we worked together then, carrying pallets of bricks and sleeping outside, working laborer jobs together and saving our money. And how, against the odds, we made impossible things happen. How, sometimes, Primo would stop whatever he was doing, put down his work, grab my hands and say, “We must dance. We must dance now or we will die,” and not caring who was looking at us, he would make me dance with him as he sang loudly.
Now I know Lin and some of her story. A person with talent, who was in a place of hardship. She escaped and brought her gifts with her. There are people like her all about us, but most times no one sees. Some will share with us if we are careful and patient. Lin will soon be renting a studio to teach from. She becomes happy when she talks with me about her plans. She also smiles when she tells me about her friends that she has made these past few months, and this life she has already started to build among these new people. She tells me about these things and we have tea, each of us holding our cups in two hands, sipping slowly. Then she says, “Let me hear what you have learned.”
You, having read these words, having now spent time with me, you have guessed what happened. You know that I went to Lin and asked her if she could teach me as a beginning student. You must also know that she did not hesitate. It, too, seemed impossible. First I had to find a way to rent a cello. Then my hands that had been idle for years had to begin to move again. These were small things though. Harder was the difficulty of listening to my own attempts at playing, and knowing how much work it would still be to turn noise to music. You know, because you have followed these words to here, that I have not given up. I have not given up, I repeat this because I am an old man and I can repeat myself. Already there are moments when my right hand, which moves the bow, and my left hand, which touches the strings, work together. Then I am reminded of all I have lost, all I have loved, and all the beauty that still is my life. And the sounds through my thin kitchen wall? The noise has started becoming music, all of us students are learning. For a short while we are traveling with her, our teacher, over the water, sharing her distance, no longer alone.
(c) 2014, Steve S. Saroff