OK, I shouldn’t have lied to those nice people at Julliard.
But I was very broke.
And when an old friend called to ask if I’d accept a hundred dollars to teach harmonica to some grad acting students I said I’d do it before she could ask me if I actually knew how.
I did not.
But a hundred dollars buys a lot of ramen.
The day before I was supposed to appear I made a trip to Sam Ash on 34th street to buy something to practice on. Every business venture requires an outlay of capital and I spent six dollars on a bright plastic instrument from the bottom of the line.
Back at home it was a few, moist hours later before I finally conceded that I was not in point of fact going to be able to teach myself how to play the harmonica in time. I thought about canceling the lesson but I really did need the money, so instead I did the next best thing: I dressed the part — dark turtleneck sweater, gray slacks, brown loafers — and hoped the rest would take care of itself. I thought about buying a pair of thick-rimmed acetate fashion glasses to complete the look, but I’d already spent six dollars on the harmonica.
A short train ride brought me to the glassed-in foyer on 66th street. I rode up in an oak-paneled elevator with my fellow pedagogues (to whom I smiled collegially) and finally arrived at a large rehearsal hall hung in perforated hardboard in an ancient shade of yellowing white.
I shook hands with the director, a small graying woman with a body like a tomato vine.
She seemed like someone I shouldn’t be lying to.
The hands of the clock on the wall purred and then clicked the hour. While students filtered into the room the stage-manager took me aside to introduce me to a tall actor with kind, trusting eyes. Producing two chromatic harmonicas, she marched us through a maze of doors to a little practice room on the other side of the building.
As we turned to go in I spied a string quartet sitting on couches in a little cul-de-sac at the end of the hallway, practicing something mournful under a wide, glowing sky-light.
The room had a stack of serious-looking black concert chairs and a grizzled, old Steinway spinet in the corner. Another clock whirred demurely above a clean whiteboard with staff lines printed in permanent ink.
We were alone.
My student looked at me expectantly.
I removed my coat and hung it on a hook by the door. Taking one of the chairs, I sat down in a languid, reclining posture, as if to indicate that I was so accomplished in my field that bringing myself to relate the basics of the instrument’s operation was an effort I was easing myself into.
My student started off by telling me how the character he was to play was a soldier in the French Foreign Legion, languishing in a quiet outpost during the war in Algiers. The show would open with him playing a contemplative version of the “Marseillaises” on the harmonica. That’s why I had been brought in to give him this lesson. I nodded sagely, as if I had been there myself and well knew the quiet solace of hearing the national hymn on my trusty mouth harp. Marchons, marchons.
I started to explain everything (everything I’d googled the night before): how to curl the lip, how to do the hand waggly thing (“…it’s a kind of – artificial vibrato, you see…”).
He took notes.
Things seemed to be going well actually. I was starting to get more comfortable now. Turning the second harmonica in my hand ideally.
But then I saw it: the look in his eyes. That perfectly reasonable question on the tip of his tongue: “maybe you could show me how to — ”
A knock — the stage-manager had come back to tell us that our time was up.
We walked back down the hall to the big studio. Some students were putting away props. A lanky girl in a long, blue rehearsal skirt was dabbing her eyes with a Chipotle napkin. Another actor with a dog-eared copy of the play in his back pocket was leaning against the wall, shuffling on a pair of expensively scuffed motorcycle boots.
The director turned towards us.
“So. How did it go?”
“Ah — ” I began, but my student saved me:
“You know, I think I’m getting the hang of it. I’ll make sure to practice every night. I’ve already told my roommates to expect it.”
“Excellent. Alright, Harrison, can you do the same time next week?”
Oh. I should have said no. I should have excused myself. I should have come clean. The bank robber always says “one more big score, THEN I’ll retire.”
But another hundred dollars? I imagined replacing some of those ramen meals with something more luxurious. Maybe an Annie’s Mac-n-Cheese?
I adjusted my tie.
“I think I can squeeze you in.”
— Harrison M. Beck
Harrison M. Beck is a writer and composer based in New York City. His comedy songs have been featured on ABC’s “The Gong Show,” and recent works include the new stage adaptation of Bill Osco’s 1976 cult-classic movie-musical, “Alice in Wonderland: An X-rated Musical Fantasy,” and the chamber musical, “Too Naked Too Soon.” He is passionate about cozy sweaters and a dish he invented called “Tuna-Potato Surprise,” which has ended most of his serious relationships.