I have been listening to a lot of classical music on the radio lately. I think it has to do with my being in a church choir. I want to hear what professional bass-baritones sound like. I even went to hear one: Paolo Bordogna, who likes to play buffo or clown roles like Figaro in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). I’ve also started wearing fedoras like Caruso, who wasn’t a bass-baritone, but I figure it’s close enough.
A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a live broadcast from Carnegie Hall of Jan Lisiecki playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. Lisiecki is twenty-one years old and made his professional debut at the age of nine. He is a prodigy. To understand what that means, you have to picture a life turned upside down; that is, you start out as an adult and gradually become young. When you die, you will be about two.
Imagine a life filled with rehearsals, concert halls, dinners, plane trips, limo pick-ups and drop-offs, hotels with uniformed doormen blowing into golden whistles, deferential treatment from everyone, and amorous attention from a few. Still, you have to love it, as Lisiecki wisely observed in the follow-up interview during which the two broadcasters tried to outdo themselves complimenting the performance. One of them even compared Lisiecki’s “lithe body” to the middle-aged conductor’s. I think he used the word “hulk.” It got a little strange.
Then I remembered the time I was a prodigy. It’s true. For the length of a haircut, I was a chemical engineering prodigy. I even had Lisiecki’s long hair and bemused smirk, which has gotten me into more trouble over the years than I care to remember. Perhaps I should warn him.
It was the summer of 1975 and my father let me drive his Checker cab for my summer job. It was a great way to gain experience as well as save money for college. Being nineteen, I didn’t give it a second thought, but now I recognize the sacrifice he had made. My father was a firefighter and worked as a cab driver on his days off. We relied on the extra income in ways I did not appreciate.
I was a smartass. I enjoyed teasing people and playing practical jokes. At the end of a shift one hot, August day, I stopped for a haircut. I had never been in the place before, which was a converted house with two women stylists. They were in their mid to late twenties. When it was my turn, I got in the chair and told her what I wanted. The banter started almost immediately. Note: this does not happen in barber shops, unless the guy is on meth, which happened to me once.
“So, what do you do?” she asked. This was the disco heyday, and she looked like a dancing queen.
“Oh, I’m a chemical engineer,” I said innocently.
She paused, scissors in hand, and looked over at her partner. She asked some probing questions but fell for it after I described my work at a lab in New Jersey developing a new vulcanization process for rubber. I had taken an inorganic chemistry class the previous semester and explained the process in my best molecular dialect.
Of course, I had to explain the cab. I told her my father thought it would be good for me to be around normal people and not lab nerds all the time. She nodded.
I didn’t experience the perks listed above, although I thought I detected romantic interest on her part. After all, who wouldn’t want to date a young stud with a big backseat and a doctorate in sulfur? Still, she was deferential even if unsure what to make of the freak in the chair.
I recommend that everyone become a prodigy, even if only for a day. You feel special and get to see how the other one-half percent lives. And don’t worry about deceiving other people.
You may be on the receiving end some day.