New York City was a mess. It was glum and depressing and every drop of rain that hit the bonnet of the car scratched against the surface of my hangover. 'Tall, blonde, I don't give a damn!' this was Ken, two hours ago. 'She has to know the fucking songs'. God, New York City could do those five o'clock hangovers like no other place in the world, and mine was compounded by the fact that I was driving through the splashy streets of East Village looking for a girl.
Time was flirting with me in a cruel, cold manner. Each time I looked at the watch, it showed eight o'clock. Which of course it didn't. Because if it had, I would not have been driving that car looking for a girl. I would have been out in the streets and without a job.
The pavements of East Village were buzzing, despite the rain. Flutes, keyboards, guitars, all muffled by the dreary, dreadful percussion of rain. I had to find a violin. I had to find a good one, too, in the sea of scarves and rain and noise and general ineptitude. I had to find a Scarlet Rivera who could do the "Hurricane" of her life. I had to find a girl the Town Hall could not resist, but all I could see were seamless silhouettes of daydreamers unfit for a pub in Manhattan.
I got the car window lowered to the point where rain hit me full on the face. Maybe it was for the best. Maybe this could cure my hangover.
Six-fifteen, and Ken wanted to know who I'd picked. 'What do you mean no girl? Are you fucking kidding me? Do you know what Sam is going to do with you? And me?' I switched off and wondered how in God’s name it had come to this. Of all the drunken whims that Sam had thrown on our heads (a group of cyclists performing stunts on the stage, sea bass forty minutes before a show in Paris, water which had to be served in carafes only, etc.), this was by far the most inexplicable. And it was all my fault. Last night, as I was about to play him a couple of my songs for the first time, he waved me to stop. I knew the gesture, I had to listen. 'We need someone like you. An amateur. Maybe a girl from the street. East Village or something. I want a violin in the Town Hall tomorrow'.
Perhaps I should have let it lie. After all, it was a very late party and six hours later, after a strong cup of Blue Mountain, Sam was supposed to feel like the millionaire in that Chaplin movie. But I was still a few months in the job, and I was naive. I mentioned the conversation to Ken, and Ken said we had no choice. In fact, he was foolish enough to mention the whole thing to Sam who either remembered or just said he did. So that now, several hours later, East Village was flying past me at the speed of my watch.
The girl was in the middle of 14th Street, you could not miss the girl. She was standing on one leg, like some legendary English flautist. And she wasn't just playing the violin, she was teasing it with her chin, her arms and her gently quivering lips. There was a white scarf. There was a blue dress. There was confidence. And there was a small crowd of people in front of her, transfixed by her playing, tucked in beneath the umbrellas. I jumped out of the car and ran all the way to the girl. She was in the middle of something, possibly Dylan or Clifford.
'Excuse me!' I screamed, much to the annoyance of everyone in that part of the street. 'This is exceptional! Can you please come with me?'
She must have thought I was another madman hollering abuse, New York City had millions of those walking the streets, but then she stopped. Everyone stopped – including the rain. Or else, everyone moved on with their shopping and their homecoming and their dating. But the girl stopped. The girl and some faceless guy who was quietly fingerpicking next to her. The guy was invisible, like someone lost in a daydream. He was inaudible, too.
'Let me explain', I was breathing heavily. Oh she was pretty, she would fit right in. 'I work for Sam Clifford'.
'Sam Clifford? Is this some kind of a sick joke?'
'It isn't. And we have no time. What’s your name? Joni? Okay, Joni, can you please come with me? My car is over there'.
'Sam Clifford? Tom, you hear that?' she turned to the guy, who chuckled nervously.
I searched myself, trying to find something, anything, that would prove I worked for Sam Clifford. But all I had was an expensive Dreyfuss & Co watch that Sam had given me back in Stockholm, during one of those drunken hotel parties, and never asked back. A super-sized monstrosity with a million tiny faces that showed you the latitude and measured your pulse. The watch showed seven o'clock.
'Look, I have his posters in the car. Come, please'.
'But why?' The girl looked bemused, which I thought was a good sign.
'Sam is playing Town Hall tonight, and he would like you to be his violinist. You can play his stuff, right?'
'Are you joking?’ She looked at the guy who was either drugged or drowsy. ‘Can Tom come along?'
'I'm afraid not'.
'Let me think'.
'You've got about five seconds'.
Minutes later, Joni was in my car, wondering if her torn, frayed blue dress would look good in one of New York's most celebrated venues. Her disbelief was gone now that she could see I really did work for Sam Clifford and the poster I gave her did say there was a show tonight. Suddenly, she looked vulnerable and insecure, which I found moving following the confidence of her playing that kept reverberating in my mind. Still, there is not a problem in the world you could not solve with a gesture, as Sam liked to say, and I put my hand on her shoulder.
Joni smiled, and told me about how she had been stuck in 14th Street for years and this was the lucky break that would make it all happen. I mentioned Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden and Joni mentioned Tom and how he was the reason she was stuck in 14th Street in the middle of nowhere. ‘He can write a song’, she said, ’but that doesn’t make you a songwriter’. At which point I got a phone call from Ken who told me that Sam was getting 'concerned' about the whole arrangement and threatened canceling the concert if the girl wasn't there in ten minutes.
'Why do you do this job?' she asked, noticing my frustration.
'Oh I hate it. This is about my career. I've got songs, you see. Dozens of songs. I want to make it big, and I hope Sam would notice me'.
'Oh. Good luck with that. Do you think it was silly of me to agree so quickly?'
'It was the best decision you've ever made', I said, and she smiled again.
As the concert was about to start, I was standing at the back of the stage, unable to sit still and hoping she would not crumble under pressure like so many great musicians did on the same stage with the great Sam Clifford. Ken told me that Sam had praised my work and I wondered if that was actually true. ‘Of course, we will have to see how this goes’. I was nervous, and felt the grip of a different hangover fingering my mouth and my throat. After all, they barely had any time to rehearse and spent most of the time compiling the setlist and looking for a different dress.
But once on stage, Joni was full of confidence again. She even smiled back at me as the band was about to break into the first song. I knew how much of my future, her future, our future, depended on this performance, and closed my eyes the moment I heard the music. I kept them shut until the moment the first song ended and the audience clapped fiercely. Then I opened my eyes.
I saw New York City in the rain. I saw a small crowd of people, cheering. And I saw her, my beautiful Joni, playing next to me. In East Village, in 14th Street. It was a glum, depressing day, and it felt like all we ever needed was a stroke of luck coming our way.
from ‘Stories for Modern Lovers’