The Beautiful Music of the Other

In the Cathedral of Learning on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, a young boy skulks among the closed stacks of the library. The boy’s mother works for a woman who has some influence at the university, and that woman has seen to it that the young boy was given a job at the library. The skulking the young man is doing is a by-product of curiosity and a leaping imagination, for he is seeing people in dress unfamiliar to him, communicating in languages unknown to him. The young boy’s family has a musical background: His father managed his uncle’s jazz band, and the boy grew up listening to the jazz musicians who toured and visited the Hill District of Pittsburgh. But it would take some time before the boy understood that what he was seeing and hearing through the shelves of the stacks was music.
The neighborhoods of my youth were populated by people who were predominately African-American, though my schools — most notably, my high school — were integrated. The language was all the same, but on occasion, I would hear an accented phasing that someone told me was Yiddish. It wasn’t until I was immersed in the multicultural environment of the University of Pittsburgh that I heard more than just the French and Spanish available to me in my high school classes.
By the time I put Pittsburgh in my rear-view mirror and set off for California, I had become more accustomed to seeing the dress and hearing the language of a diverse group of people. My first apartment in Los Angeles was rented to me by Mrs. Smerjian. (I’m uncertain about the spelling.) I don’t remember — if I ever knew — her country of origin, but she delighted in fixing me “a little ‘sneck’ (snack)” of baklava, or mounds of rice sprinkled with raisins. My next-door neighbor was a Cuban woman, and the couple downstairs was Hispanic. The neighbors would fire off Spanish at each other, and I would listen for the few words I knew. My fluency grew considerably as I listened and asked questions, and I knew a lot more by the time I moved to Indiana.
In 1986, the merger of two department stores brought me to Indianapolis. Stewart’s, the store I worked for in Louisville, Ky., had their operations transferred to L.S. Ayres, and I was one of the lucky few offered a job at the new location. My responsibilities changed, and one of the joys of the new job was the requirement to travel to photography studios in New York City, to oversee fashion photo-shoots. For some, the attraction was working with the models (one of whom was Bridget Moynahan, the current star of the TV series, “Blue Bloods”), or watching Meryl Streep run up Hudson Street while the movie, “The Devil Wears Prada” was being shot. For me, it was walking onto the sidewalks of Manhattan and listening to the songs, calls and cries — the communications — of the spectacularly diverse groups of people on the sidewalks and in the cars of the city. It fascinated me to hear the musical ways that people spoke to each other.
Here in what has become known as “the heartland” of the country, I have often heard the comment, “I don’t want to ‘press one’ for English.” I find no offense in inclusion and that attitude unfortunate; we miss much when we huddle inside ourselves. As we come to the end of Black History Month I think it appropriate to note that the music of the other is beautiful and worth hearing, even when we cannot understand the words.