Monday, January 04, 2010

Waltz #2 @ Starbucks

Last Monday, I camped out at the Starbucks on Broadway and West 75th Street, working on my laptop for hours.

My perch near the window -- a round table small enough for no one else to consider joining me -- was perfect.
Well, it would have been perfect if not for the woman seated inches away from me who was also camped out for hours, variously sleeping, muttering to herself, eating candy bars, refusing to allow elderly people to sit in her extra chair, watching cat videos on her laptop and laughing hysterically, rolling cigarettes and then ambling outside to smoke them just outside my window so that it appeared as if she were deliberately blowing smoke into my face, then returning inside to settle back into her chair, groaning, while feeble senior citizens stared covetously at her chair, piled high with her stuff, and she complained that my power cord was touching her shoe and that the spoiled babies of Upper West Side yuppies were crying too loudly, and that it was frikkin’ freezing outside and that life in general just sucked.

As experienced laptop road warriors know, once you snag a good table near an electrical outlet at Starbucks, you are not moving except in the event of an actual emergency. And once you snag a window seat at a solo table, you are basically prepared to work doggedly sans bathroom visits AND coffee if your absence will imperil your hold on the table.

Fearing that my scary Starbucks neighbor might smash my laptop should I leave my post to order a coffee while sprinting to the potty, I worked in a state of dire discomfort for nearly an entire hour, trying to concentrate on my work and not the candy bar wrappers accumulating on her table or my increasing need to run to the bathroom which seemed paradoxical given my now-unbearable thirst.

At the brink of near-collapse, I finally made a run for it, scoring a restroom with the beautiful word VACANT on the door without as much as a minute's wait, ordering not just coffee but a bottle of that ridiculously overpriced eco-friendly water, a pack of buttery, ridiculously caloric madeleines and a cheese and fruit platter on my way if I were about to hunker down in an underground bunker for the rest of the afternoon.

I practically sacrificed a goat in gratitude when I returned to my table with my loot and everything was just as I left it.

Thus relieved and fortified with sugar, water, caffeine and protein, I was able to work for the next two hours, willing myself to almost ignore crazy lady who must have gone through six candy bars and smoked about as many cigarettes when she was not having crazy conversations on her cellphone, which I suspected of being a toy.

Checking the time, I realized I needed to leave and started shutting down my laptop.

And that's when the unmistakable intro to Elliott Smith's “Waltz #2” began over the Starbucks sound system, the slow rat-a-tat drum beat, the guitar strumming in three-quarter time, the piano joining the party, the crooning John Lennon-like voice finally filling the air with the song’s opening lyrics:

First the mike
Then a half cigarette
Singing "Cathy's Clown,"
That's the man
She's married to now
That's the girl that he takes around town

I sat up straight in my chair, ears straining toward the music. Omigod, I thought. That song. I haven't heard it in such a long time!

I'm never gonna know you now
But I'm gonna love you anyhow

Where had "Waltz #2"gone for so many years? Or was it there all along, living in the musicsphere and I simply didn't have the ears to hear it? Elliott Smith's stubborn sorrow resides in that song, all his pain and longing, his well of loneliness, his broken heart... and I had actually forgotten about it.
Yet now, at this very moment, it came back into my life and demanded that attention be paid. So I did... and the crazy lady, my laptop, my coffee, the other customers, the fact of Monday and my work simply evaporated. For a moment I couldn't even remember where I was headed once I left Starbucks. It was just me and the music, me and Elliott Smith, locked in a courtly embrace, waltzing through time and space. And, was it my imagination or had someone raised the volume on this song? It sounded loud, good loud but much louder than the previous songs, which I barely even heard. Perhaps one of the baristas also loved "Waltz #2" and pumped up the volume. The effect was holistic. I was surrounded by mournful melody, carried in a bubble of sadness that was oddly comforting.

A week has passed since that magical moment and I must have listened to "Waltz #2" seventy or eighty times. I have brooded over the candid disclosure: “Tell mister man with impossible plans/to just leave me alone/in the place where I make no mistakes/in the place where I have what it takes,” and wondered who was being addressed. His famously abusive stepfather? The world at large?

During this time, I also re-read all the newspaper accounts of Elliott Smith’s suicide and the theories behind it. I contemplated his cosmic despair. I wept over his photograph and the statement released by his family. I downloaded "Waltz #2" from Middle Babe's iTunes library, thereby freaking her out. ("What? That's MY favorite Elliott Smith song! You can't have it! You're a grown-up!") I have run on the elliptical trainer to it on an endless loop for 40 minutes, several times. My BlackBerry ring tone is now its chorus. I purchased the sheet music from and will be singing it this week with Mary Rodgers. And I am learning how to play it on the piano.

Am I obsessed with "Waltz #2?"

No doubt.

Have I indulged in an adolescent-like fixation regarding the artist, his music and its message?


But if "Waltz #2," or any song, can make crazy people disappear, can transport a fortysomething woman from the mundane reality of a Manhattan Monday into a magical realm of transcendent beauty, it is the truest kind of art and will live on forever.


Sandy said...

just purchased waltz #2 from itunes. love it. never heard of it before. very well-written post. loved the humor, could picture the crazy smokin lady in starbucks...

She-Ra, Princess of Power said...

thanks for writing!!! Emma thinks I'm having a second adolescence because of this!