I wanted to be a musician.
When I was 13 years old, I saw Earth, Wind, and Fire at Madison Square Garden and thought, “I can do that.”
I had the full afro that was stylish for the times. I took percussion lessons, was teaching myself how to play piano, and had been accepted into the High School of Music and Art.
How hard could this be?
One day, I saw an advertisement in the Village Voice from a record producer looking for new talent. I called, made an appointment, and the next day, I sat in front of an aging out-of-tune upright piano and played a song I had written.
Now, calling it a “song” would be charitable at best. I used the only two chords I knew at the time — C major 7 and D minor — played them repeatedly while singing a screeching melody that would make wolves howl in pain.
The producer, though, saw something different. He said I had talent and for the small sum of $250, he could make me a star.
I rode the No. 6 train back to the projects and entered my cramped Bronx apartment with disdain. I’m going to be a star. No more government food handouts each month. No more working at such a young age. No more roaches scurrying at night when the lights come on.
I told my mother about the producer with the excitement of a child getting his first puppy. She stood over the white, four burner stove, cooking a pot of ham hocks and beans, and gently said:
“Ray, that man’s trying to take money we don’t have.”
I protested, but she kept stirring. Angry and frustrated, I returned to his office the next day. I asked him if I could work off the money while he started me on the road to stardom. It would take me a while to save the $250 because I only received a $25-a-week stipend from the Dance Theater of Harlem for helping with various tasks, including playing the conga for their dance classes.
The producer said, “This ain’t charity, kid.”
My mother was right. More importantly, she knew how to gently break the news that this hair-brained scheme played on my hopes of finding a way out of the Bronx. She let me down gently without crushing my dreams, a delicate balance that’s hard to pull off, but moms seems to handle with aplomb.
The experience changed me. I became suspicious of people and decided I wouldn’t trust anyone. I was leery anytime anyone said I was good at anything because, I figured, they would expect something in return for the compliment.
But it made me more determined. I learned music theory and chord progressions and became passable enough to play in bands and take the occasional solo gig. I still do that in the Dayton area.
I sold one song I wrote a long time ago (1986, I think; I still have the letter somewhere) and write music to this day because it’s fun.
A snicker, smirk, or anything that would have destroyed my confidence would have led to — who knows what. Instead of hanging out in the streets after midnight (OK, that did happen more often than I like to admit), I stayed in my apartment wearing headphones and learning about the keyboard.
The determination helped me well later in life because you have to be relentlessly aggressive to succeed in journalism, a career that’s served me well. (I would have preferred to be on a stage someplace or playing shortstop for the New York Yankees, but there’s a reason we call aspirations out of our reach ‘dreams.’ It’s nice to dream and then come back to Earth).
My path would have been impossible without my mother.
If your mom is still here, tell her, specifically, what she did that had a direct impact on your life. If she’s not, tell someone who’s a mom-like figure to you.
That’s the best Mother’s Day gift she’ll get.
Ray Marcano’s column appears on these pages each Sunday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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