Practice, My Girl, Practice

My swords.

I had an interview with the Lech.

My phone rang off the hook the day the New York Times proclaimed   me “Not One of the Elect, But One of the Happy.” I was fleshly rejected from the Van Cliburn competition, though I’d competed in the one four years earlier. The Cliburn management had been so confident that I’d be a contender for a big prize that they’d encouraged the New York Times to fly their critic to San Francisco just to interview me and observe me throughout the competition process. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it past the video round that year. 

Not wanting to have completely wasted the trip to California, The Times critic wrote about me anyway.

“She is thirty years old — the upper enlistment age for most competition wars — so that avenue to stardom appears cut off for good. If the music business runs true to form, her chances of ever recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, playing recitals in Carnegie Hall or being lionized in the international press have been dimmed, if not extinguished altogether. But Miss Hidy’s small, steady performing career — riding on a track slightly to the south of fame and fortune — is rich.”

The Times had even sprung for a picture of me. We shot it at the Julia Morgan mansion of one of my students.We pretended it was my house – this living room that seated 34 without adding extra chairs. (At the time, I lived in a studio apartment and slept on the sofa-bed I’d won on a game show. The picture of me, hair fleshly permed and fingers casually turning the pages of music on the piano, attracted a wide variety of callers. They included a swimmer/astrophysicist searching for lunch and a walk on the beach, a composer who wanted me to perform all his latest works, prospective new piano students (all suspiciously male and in their late thirties) and lots of long-lost friends. The Lech’s call was the latest and by far the strangest.

It was 2:00 a.m. New York time when he tracked me down in San Francisco. He called and said: while he didn’t have any connections with the Berlin Philharmonic, he could get me a recital at Carnegie Hall. He went on at length about who he was, who he knew, and why he was positioned to be making such an offer. There was something about the way he dropped names that made me think there was a tiny chance he might be legitimate. I listened as politely as I could (to someone who I  thought might be insane) and ended the conversation an hour later, at midnight, wondering if there was any chance he was for real. That night I dreamed of Carnegie Hall.

Early the next morning l called Anna, the most well-connected person I knew in the music business, to check up on the midnight caller. She said she knew exactly who he was. He had cornered her in a convention hotel room the year before, and it had taken every ounce of her physical strength to fight him off. Since she was one of the savviest, most capable women I know, I was worried and angry. She told me under no circumstances to be alone with him. He was exactly who he said he was, but whether or not he gave me the chance to play in Carnegie Hall was probably going to have little to do with my piano-playing. 

Men like this were nothing new to me. I’d already dealt with a conductor who spent an entire dinner trying to get me to turn my lace-backed dress around — he was sure it would look “ever so much nicer that way.” And another who, like a mother of a young child in the days before seatbelts, had flung his arm out to protect me when he slammed on his brakes. Except that I was wearing my seatbelt, and what he grabbed was my crotch.

A few months after the midnight phone call, the Lech called again. He was going to be in town on business; he insisted we meet in person. I suggested that I bring my manager along but he refused, saying he didn’t want anyone else involved. He was belligerent. I would have to meet him alone.

He suggested dinner. I told him that unfortunately I happened to be busy every night he was in town. Dinner would be dangerous. Dinners happen at night. In his mind it would be followed by drinks and dancing and that’s if I were lucky. My object was to get him to agree to the recital, get it in writing, and get out quick.

Tea was my solution. I wanted to meet when I knew the restaurant would be empty: I needed my choice of tables. He reluctantly agreed but insisted on his choice of restaurants. The one he picked was downstairs in the hotel where he was staying. I suspected he wanted to make it easy to get me into his room. I accepted it because it was well-lit and near Union Square, a busy downtown shopping area. I wanted to be able to make a quick escape into a sea of people.

I arrived thirty minutes early so that I could be physically established when he arrived. I picked out a comer table for two in the middle of the restaurant. The expression “having your back to the wall” took on new meaning for me that day. I wanted him to be the one to experience that powerless state. Because-the table was next to the stairs, I could pin him in the corner. 

I wasn’t taking any chances. I was already seated in the other chair when he arrived. We shook hands and he said, “Wouldn’t you really rather sit by the wall?” I smiled pleasantly and said, “No, thank you.” I didn’t offer any excuses.

Knowing this was the closest I had ever come to hand-to-hand combat, I came prepared. I had armed myself with two #2 pencils sharpened to vicious points, a large, thin hardback notebook, a yellow pad of paper, my notes, my biography, and some extra publicity photographs: plenty of things to shuffle through in case I needed time to think. The notebook was my shield and a pencil my sword.

I had dressed for battle. Thinking that chain mail might have been too obvious, I relied on shoulder pads which were fortunately in style. My lavender linen blazer had the biggest ones I owned. In case I had to take it off, I wore a beige sweater with its own deltoid substitutes. I looked like a linebacker.

Before I left my apartment I spent time in front of the mirror. I wasn’t primping. I was practicing glaring while smiling. I figured that if I could master just the right combination of beautiful grin and wide-eyed glare, maybe I could intimidate the Lech. I had a chance to try it out right away.

He went straight to what really interested him. “Your picture is beautiful, but in person you’re even more ravishing.” I said, “Thank you, I’ve had great success with these photographs.” I smiled and glared. He tried a slightly different approach.

“You know, I know a lot of fashion models in New York City, and you are more attractive and photogenic than any of them.” I replied, “Thank you. I’ve had great success with these photographs.” I found it hard to believe that he kept company with gorgeous fashion models on a regular basis, but I bit my tongue. I smiled and glared.

We talked about my biography, possible programs for the recital, the financial arrangements for the concert, where I would stay in New York, and what it was like to live in San Francisco. But he made each subject more lecherous than the last. Every time I felt particularly uncomfortable I would lift my shield and point my pencil at him. It felt like dueling with palm-tree fronds as a child, but it worked. He looked threatened, when all I was doing was pointing a pencil at him. It was almost fun until I remembered what was on the line. I was furious about what he’s done to Anna, and even angrier that he had something I wanted enough to make me put up with his ridiculous, sickening behavior. He looked up at me meaningfully. “I was recently in London at an auction and bid on two manuscripts, one by Beethoven and one by Mozart. As I stood there holding them in my hands I literally had an orgasm. The only thing which could possibly be better would be to hold you in one hand and your friend Anna in the other.”

I gasped for air. “I, too, enjoy the works of Mozart and Beethoven.”

I couldn’t insult him because I would lose the concert. I couldn’t say, “I’d like to stick with business,” because he would say, “So would I, but I can’t because you’re so distractingly beautiful.” What I really wanted to do was throw the hot tea in his face.

Instead of saying that I wanted to stick to business, I just stuck to it. I answered each of his offensive comments with a businesslike answer, as if no other kind had occurred to me. I didn’t let on that I found him loathsome.

One of the hardest things for me was to look directly into his eyes. I didn’t dare look down first because he would have taken that as a flirtation. Instead, I forced him to be the first to look away. I met his eyes, smiled, glared, and poked my pencil out. He was back on track in a flash.

The thorniest logistical challenge was finding a way to say goodbye without getting groped. Artists tend to be affectionate, and even first-time meetings often end with a hug. This was not going to be one of those meetings, and he was not going to get his hands on me. I gathered up my things carefully, hoping that my sword and shield wouldn’t let me down. I picked up both my notebook and pencil in my left hand and kept my right hand free for a quick handshake. The pencil was aimed straight at his heart. If he hugged me, he would impale himself. His hand shot out so fast he looked like a marionette. I graciously extended mine, savoring the moment. For the first time all afternoon, my smile was sincere.

My dream of playing in Carnegie Hall came true. It’s been many years now since I made my debut there.

There’s an old story about a boy who is looking for Carnegie Hall. He stops a stranger on the street and asks for directions. The man answers, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, my boy, practice.”

For me, that part was easy. It was tea with the Lech that was the real feat.