The Stripper and Fur Elise
O’Neil, Nebraska is a pretty dull place. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting it down or anything. I mean, I think Valley Hope was probably put there by design. See, if you’re getting a bunch of alcoholics and addicts in one place to dry out, what better place to do it than the middle of nowhere? I used to say about it that there’s no place better to sit and think about all the people you screwed over during your drinking and using days because there ain’t nothing else to do there. The town’s motto was “The Irish Capital of Nebraska”, which, I suppose if you’re talking about county Mayo where there is nothing to do but watch the potatoes grow (or in this case, corn), is probably about right. There was one AA meeting at a small space in “downtown” O’Neil (about three blocks of businesses with the feed store right next to the hair salon), but even that had a certain poetic appeal to it, being literally around the corner from a bar.
“Why don’t you try piano again?” Mark was my personal counselor and a pretty great guy. There was a ratio they adhered to when staffing Valley Hope. 3 recovering alcoholics/addicts turned counselors to every “normy.” Mark was the former and I would meet with him once or twice a week to discuss how I was handling rehab, how I was doing with the other folks there, and how I was spending my time. At some point I let slip that I had taken piano lessons for 7 years, then revisited it in college. That is actually a funny story in itself because for an assignment in my Classical Piano for Beginners class at Loyola, we had to learn how to play two lines of sheet music, then write the last two measures ourselves. Maybe subconsciously, but mostly consciously, I wrote two pretty impressive measures for the end of the assignment and after class, the nun who taught the class (I know, I didn’t know that the Catholics still let nuns teach classes either. I thought they had been banned and banished from the classroom) as I was leaving the classroom said “So Andy, how many years did you take piano lessons?” But anyway, when Mark heard that, he said I might try playing the piano in the cafeteria, just for fun. I found myself saying I would try it and that night, after dinner when the cafeteria was empty, I approached the old upright and snd the hard wooden bench. Instantly, all those years of lumbering through scales came rushing back. I could hear the voice of Mrs. Fogarty reaming me out for not practicing enough. She taught piano out of her house a block away from the house where I grew up, so there was never, ever the possibility of shirking that little engagement. To my astonishment, the piano was pretty well tuned and there was a huge stack of sheet music, loose pieces and books and Christmas carols and nursery rhyme songs and on and on. I chose one of the songbooks of old-timey songs everyone grew up with (May had a Little Lamb, He’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain, etc.) And starting plunking away. And, I am not kidding about this, it really was like riding a bike again. A very rusty bike with a chain that was about to fall off and two bent wheels and handlebars that steered just as long as you didn’t pull them up and out of the frame. After only a few times through a song, I would be able to play it, kind of. And I still remembered, kind of, a lot of the technical markings in the music: Time signatures and Allegro and Stinnata (a lot of music terms are Italian because old-timey Italian music is very often so beautiful. I think Mozart even wrote Marriage of Figaro in Italian and he didn’t speak Italian a day in his life.) But I did get it. One by one, I petered my way through 4 or 5 of those songs and I even knew the half rests and whole rests and eighth-notes and the whole thing. I did that for about 4 days. Just sat down and pulled out some of the sheet music and started playing. And y’know what? I didn’t sound much different from a rustier version of the 13 year-old who quit playing so he could play Freshman football in high school (one of the three biggest mistakes I’ve have ever made and the other two rotate constantly).
It was round about the fifth day that I came into the cafeteria and found the piano bench was taken. And sitting on it was a stripper playing Fur Elise.
The Stripper and Fur Elise