THE BEAT GOES ON
By Lavinia M. Hughes
Reed zipped up his wool coat to his neck to keep out the arctic winds blowing off of Boylston Street. His insulated gloves were at least doing the trick, keeping his hands warm. He always took good care of his hands, since he was a drummer and played several other instruments. He raced into his school, the Berklee College of Music, in downtown Boston and just made it to class before the professor started.
The Ear Training class was helpful in his percussion study, but today he wasn’t paying much attention. The freshman performance major just wanted to get out of class. It was the last day of class before Christmas vacation and for months he hadn’t seen any of his friends or family back home on Cape Cod. He was on full scholarship because he didn’t “come from money” and was the pride of his family. The professor finally stopped yapping about melodies and the class was over. He wished everyone happy holidays and they were free.
Reed was planning to head home that night, but he wouldn’t have minded getting invited to the annual Christmas party at the esteemed Professor Dingle’s home on Beacon Hill. Beacon Hill townhouses were the cream of the crop as far as old money. It was said in Boston that if your family earned their fortune after 1870, you were NOT old money, you were nouveau riche. This type of traditional thinking was reflected in the classic townhouses, which were furnished beautifully, but reminiscent of 1870. Few working-class people ever saw the inside of one of these homes.
One of Reed’s friends, Ron, waylaid him in the hallway.
“Hey, Reed. What’re you doing tonight?”
“I was planning to leave for home pretty soon. I just have to pack.” He narrowed his eyes at Ron. “What’s a senior want with me, anyway? Ya got something going on?”
“Yeah. You’ll love this. Professor Dingle has invited a bunch of us to his Christmas party tonight. Don’t tell anyone, because only a few freshmen are invited. Can you come?”
Reed thought that this was great for his future, rubbing elbows with one of the most loved professors, who had many connections in the entertainment industry. Reed figured he could always go home the next day.
“Yes, I’d love to! What time?”
“Get there about 7:30. There will be all kinds of food and drink. Dress is black tie. I’d take a taxi if I were you. The parking is horrendous on Charles Street.”
So Reed rushed back to his dorm, packed up his things for the trip home, and took his tux, mandatory for all musicians, out of the closet. He brushed it down and determined that it was in good shape. It was such an honor to be invited to this party, as Ron said. Only a few select students were invited. Reed wondered just what the criteria were to garner an invitation, but he assumed it was that his grades were high in this challenging program.
Dressed in his tux, a long formal winter coat, and a white scarf, he flagged down a taxi around 7:00 p.m. and gave the address. There was little traffic that night and he arrived 15 minutes early. The taxi driver waited on the narrow street for him to pay, causing the typical Boston driver behind him to lay on the horn. The taxi driver told the guy behind him what he thought of him using traditional hand gestures. Reed disembarked onto the red brick sidewalk covered with a light snowfall and approached the townhouse with both excitement and trepidation, hoping he wouldn’t say something stupid to this professor or his friends, who might be instrumental in helping him in his career.
The red brick 3-story townhouse had black shutters and a lipstick red front door with a brass pineapple door knocker. A giant evergreen wreath adorned the front door. There were decorative ironwork railings around the perimeter of the tiny front yard and across the base of the windows; window boxes were filled for the season with real evergreen boughs accented with red holly berries. The vintage gas street lamps—now electric, of course—flanked the street, and if one squinted, it looked like 1830.
Reed skipped up the steps and rapped the door knocker lightly, inhaling the pleasant scent of the wreath. The door was immediately opened by a butler. Reed was intimidated, as he never actually knew anyone who had servants. The butler invited him in, took his coat, and ushered him into a small front parlor, decorated in the Victorian style with ivory brocade swag draperies, camelback love seats, prim satin covered chairs, and a faded oriental rug which was, ironically, one of the signs of old money. There was a roaring fire in the fireplace.
A server came in and asked him what he would like to drink to which he answered a glass of wine. He sipped the wine, which was presented in an inordinately small glass. He thought of it later as a “thimbleful” of wine impossible to get drunk on, and he wondered why it was so quiet.
A few minutes later he was relieved to hear the sound of others coming in the front door. After the hustle and bustle of stamping feet to get the snow off, and dealing with the coats, his tuxedo-clad friends entered the parlor. Reed was feeling pretty good about himself, thinking “Look at me, a poor kid from the sticks, hobnobbing with my college friends, being entertained at the home of a wealthy and influential professor. I must be going places.”
He and his friends—all 10 were freshmen—were then invited to the dining room, where there was laid out a sumptuous buffet of tiny quiches, cucumber slices with goat cheese, Scottish salmon roll-up sandwiches, crabmeat puffs, stuffed mushrooms, meatballs, and myriad other delights. They filled up their plates as they considered themselves “growing boys.” Finding seats in yet another parlor on another floor, they tucked in. After just a few bites, the host, Professor Dingle, found them, greeted them warmly, and asked,
“Say, guys, would you mind playing a bit for us? I’ve told my wife how talented this year’s class is and she said she’d be honored if you’d favor us with a song.”
One of Reed’s friends, the pianist, said with a mouth half-full of Scottish salmon, managed to get out,
“Of course, sir. We’ll be right up. And you know it’s lucky we’re all here. We have among this small group here, a vocalist, a drummer, two saxophonists, one piccolo player, two flutists, two trumpet players, and of course myself. I play piano as I’m sure you know.”
“Yes, yes, so I’ve heard,” beamed the professor in a ‘hail-fellow-well-met’ tone.
The freshmen musicians left their unfinished food on the plates and followed Professor Dingle upstairs. On the way to the 2nd floor, they noticed a giant Christmas tree, elaborately decorated in all white and gold ornaments, which reached the ceiling of a huge ballroom in the front of the house; they were led to the back room, which was the music room. There was a Steinway grand piano off to the side, a drum kit, and various instruments were set up as if waiting for them. They should have found this odd, but instead found it considerate. Imagine that, the professor knows what instruments we play and has it all set up for us. Reed made himself comfortable at the high-quality drum kit and was raring to go.
They asked the Professor what he wanted to hear, had a small discussion about the song amongst themselves, and took their places. The acoustics were just what they should be and the lads played quite happily in these elegant surroundings.
After the first song, they noticed that other guests started to arrive and “mill about smartly” as Reed’s Annapolis-trained brother used to say. The freshmen musicians whispered amongst themselves that they didn’t see anyone they knew, as they all appeared to be middle-aged friends of their host. The women were in cocktail dresses, but none of the other male guests were wearing tuxes, just slacks and blazers.
The professor went to the music room and asked them to play another song, which they did. Older guests trickled in, looking at them as if they were “animals in a zoo” as Reed later remembered it. Requests started coming in, which the freshmen accommodated quite readily. Request after request after request.
Finally, three hours later, Reed’s friend Ron arrived.
“Great work, guys. The professor is so pleased. Well, Merry Christmas!” He waved a cheery good-bye and headed out. They frowned at each other but no one said anything.
The townhouse grew quiet. The freshmen musicians, deeming it was okay to get up, went downstairs. They were hungry and thirsty by now, having aborted their carefully curated plates of buffet deliciousness. Entering the dining room, they were greeted with a buffet table that looked like wild animals had stampeded over it. There was one lone mushroom left and an abandoned half bottle of beer. The servants were starting to clean up. The clank of dishes being herded and the filling of trash bags abounded.
It suddenly occurred to them. They weren’t invited guests. They were the entertainment, who had just worked for free.
# END #