By Frank Melcori
It's been a rough few weeks, with the loss of Princess Di, Mother Theresa, Georg Solti, and my trumpet.
The trumpet was stolen from my car on South Halsted in Pilsen, where I live. I'm not a particularly good trumpet player. I doubt I'll ever do jam sessions at the Velvet Lounge or the Bop Shop. But that's OK. I practice every day and have learned a great deal about music. My aspirations don't include becoming a dazzling technician.
I've played music in some form or another for most of my life, but I only started playing the trumpet six, seven years ago. I was in the process of getting divorced, and a friend of mine, an ex-trombone player, saw me clowning around on a rusty old cornet. He thought I ought to fix the cornet up, maybe even learn a little trumpet technique. So I went downtown to a music shop, got the instrument repaired, and asked the proprietor if he could show me the fingering for the basic C scale. One thing led to another, and I started taking regular lessons from him. Eventually, by making monthly payments, I purchased a pretty good trumpet.
I don't know why I took up the trumpet. I never had a desire to play one. Somehow, I guess, it provided my only emotional attachment during those first few years after my divorce. Like they say: Go figure.
So there I was, standing on Halsted, when I realized that both my trumpet and my car keys had been stolen. I'd left the keys in the door. This was something I'd done off and on over the years, and it was only a matter of time before I'd pay. The loss of that trumpet threw me for a loop. I felt wretched. I walked over to my girlfriend's car. She was out of town for the weekend, and I had her keys in my pocket. Another car pulled up, and the driver waved me over.
"Hey," she asked, "that your gray car?"
"I think I seen the man who took...um...your trumpet. That what it was...a trumpet?"
"Yeah," I said, suddenly full of hope. "Did you see him? Do you know where?"
"He's down the street a few blocks. Says he could use some gas money."
I stared at the woman. Her eyes were red, and she had no front teeth. She looked as if she were on her way to a Halloween party. Then it hit me. I was being set up.
"Oh I get it," I said. "He wants me to buy back my trumpet and keys. How much does he want?"
"I don't know. What you got?"
"I got a better idea. Why don't I call the cops and we can all go down and get him, you son of a bitch. You got the nerve to stand there and ask me to buy something you just stole."
She got a little nervous. "Well, what you think the police going to say when they hear you left your keys in the car door?"
"Oh, so you stole it. You stole the trumpet."
Then she was off. I saw a man's head bob up in the back seat as she peeled away.
I was stupid, of course. I should have given them what I had--50 or 60 bucks--and been done with it. That's life in the big city, right? Instead I lectured some junkie on stealing.
When I got home, I sat in my kitchen, dejected and empty. My music stand was set up, complete with the Clark exercises. Sunlight touched the lowest corner of the sheet music. Particles of dust rioted in the moving rays. I watched until the light faded.
I went upstairs and took out the old cornet from its leather case, a gift from my ex-brother-in-law. I blew a few notes. It sounded pretty awful. I guess I'm a cornet player now.
A few days later, my girlfriend and I had to put her cat to sleep. The cat's name was Miss Otis, but I called her Kittybutt. Though she wasn't mine, I grew to love her in my own way. I only threw my most interesting books at her when she yowled at three in the morning. She had become quite ill over a short period of time, and we finally put her down at an animal hospital on North Avenue. Afterward we stood outside, held one another, and cried a bit. The evening traffic whirred and honked. I knew my girlfriend loved Miss Otis and always treated her in the most gentle fashion. Suddenly I thought about my lost trumpet. More tears came. I couldn't believe I was crying over my trumpet. Then I started to think about the junkie woman with her red eyes and no teeth. Images of the cat, the woman, and the trumpet swirled in my head. The tears kept rolling. In the car coming home, I was tempted to say something but didn't.
My friends were remarkably sympathetic about the loss of my trumpet. I was touched, though who knows? They may have been breathing a sigh of relief. Other musicians told me they had the same feelings about losing an instrument that was important to them. Many of their first instruments were stolen too. One even confessed that he was still bothered by the loss.
I told some friends who berated me for my stupidity--it was my own fault for leaving the keys in the car door, they said. Get a new trumpet and move on.
"Why didn't you just buy the trumpet back?"
"You'd have it now. You could be practicing, and when you got good enough I might--I say I might--let you play sixth or seventh trumpet in my band."
Sixth or seventh trumpet is when you wait by the phone.
They'd laugh. I'd leave.
When we got home from the vet, we opened the door and the place seemed empty. We ate a piece of pie and took a nap to console ourselves. Later my girlfriend woke me.
"Honey, I went down to get a glass of water and I saw this black thing on the floor and thought it was Miss Otis."
"What was it?"
"It was your cornet case."
"Oh, did you pet it?"
I felt the water trickle on my back. I went downstairs to towel off, and it was true--without your glasses on, you could mistake the black cornet case for Kittybutt. I picked it up, took the cornet out, and began to play a little tune. It was a tune for the Kittybutt.
"That's nice, honey. Are you playing something for Miss Otis?"
"Can you play 'Far, Far Away'?"
Over the next week I halfheartedly made the rounds to some pawn shops. One was on Roosevelt, another by the Metropolitan Correctional Center. It was like investigating a seedy murder. All those things in the pawn shops...all pieces of lives that hadn't worked out.
The clerks would shove these awful trumpets at me, talking about how good they were, asking anywhere from $35 to $100.
"Dis one plays like a beauty," one told me.
"That, my friend, is a piece of crap," I replied. "I play that anywhere respectable, they'll throw me out."
"Oh, Mr. Knowitall!"
"No, I just know that trumpet is no good. If you're...ah, never mind. Thanks anyway."
I looked around. There were lots of flutes and clarinets. Good prices too. A well-dressed guy in a Panama hat and shades said, "My man, you looking for a trumpet?"
"Yeah. Why, you selling?"
"No, I'm looking for a trumpet player. You been playing long?"
"Sort of," I said. "What kind of music do you play?"
"I play the only music there is--the blues. You want to audition for my band? I'm--how should I say it--assembling? Yes, that's right. I'm assembling a blues band. I'd like to hear you play."
"Well I don't know if I can play the blues. I don't know if I have the right chops."
"You mean you don't think you can play the blues because you're white?"
"No, it's not that. I have the blues now even as we speak. My trumpet got stolen, and our cat died. I'm plenty blue."
He laughed. "Well I can see getting the blues over your horn, but a cat? 'Fraid that's not my thing. Look here, this is my card. Call me and come over and play. I like the way you told off that fool over there. Him and his Cracker Jack horns. But don't wait too long. Some other trumpet player might come along, and you'll miss the opportunity of a lifetime."
We shook hands as he gave me his card. I'm staring at it now.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): trumpet photo by Randy Tunnell.