Verdi, an excerpt from Crossing the Plains with Bruno

Monday, July 15, 2013

I have crossed into southwest Minnesota on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Highway 14 and feel the Midwest like rheumatism in my bones. The land changes from plains at Volga to rolling croplands pocked by lakes and ponds and patches of hardwood forests. I am charmed by tidy farms and leafy streets, the whitewashed towns, a yeoman’s green kingdom. Whoa, I tell my sentimental self. You’re a century too late. This sparsely populated farm country is all that remains of Jeffersonian paradise. Once it was the nation’s heartland, now the young and restless have moved to cities or suburbs and paying jobs. The culture I would find here is closer to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon or a senior citizen’s Tea Party meeting or, more direly, Methland.

I’d like to detour to Verdi, a few miles off on a side road, a town even smaller than Volga. I assume it was named by an opera buff like my father, Steve Deutch. I try to imagine him striding across the plains as an immigrant settler, but can’t. Mom was the strider. My dad was a seer, a listener—a wiry, dark-haired, attentive fellow with a prominent nose, brooding brown eyes, and a sensuous mouth. He was likely to lurk in an alley with his camera, or position himself on a bench in the square where he could watch for the perfect lonely bench-sitter. More often than not, he’d make friends with his subjects: the turbaned holy man in India, or the old Greek woman leading her donkey, or the bleached blonde at the Beanie Weenie in Chicago.

Pista, as he was called (a nickname for Istvan, which translates to Stephen), was all his life a street kid: pugnacious, curious, hot-blooded. I knew his character, but not much of his personal history because he told us very little about his childhood in Budapest. Like many Jewish immigrants from central Europe, he wanted to be born again as an American—which meant leaving family stories of hard times and persecution back in the Old Country.

Having little factual history, I made up a story, imagining my father in a Hungarian version of Warsaw’s ghetto, a crowded quarter of pogroms and segregation. When he read my interpretation of his early life in one of my first published essays, my father laughed. Pest, he said, had a Jewish neighborhood but it did not have a ghetto. (Except the ghetto set up by German occupying troops near the end of World War II when my father was long gone.)

“You’ve got it wrong. All wrong. I grew up in the heart of the city. On the main street. It was like living on the Champs-Élysées—or Michigan Avenue.”

Michigan Avenue? I could hardly believe that story. But I found it was true when I traveled to Budapest after my father died. The apartment building on Andrassy where he had grown up in a crowded janitor’s apartment with his father, mother, and two older brothers was located in the swinging center of Hungarian culture at its fin-de-siècle apex. The State Opera House was a block away and the theater district two blocks up the avenue. Also the State Dance Academy, Liszt’s piano studio, and fashionable restaurants and cafés. The Jewish quarter’s narrow streets ran helter-skelter on one side of the avenue, merging at the ornate Dohany Synagogue. The other side led to the city’s mammoth Catholic basilica. And chugging under the middle of the extra-wide avenue was the world’s first subway.

I imagine my father and his brothers roaming the neighborhoods from Heroes Square to Museum Street and the old university quarter by the Danube. They loiter outside cafés where intellectuals congregate, swipe oranges from outdoor markets, play pickup soccer, and gape at the theater crowds. In an era when street life was a main source of communication, these three sons of a Jewish janitor picked up ideas and fashions and visions of the arts that would incite each in turn to escape blue- or white-collar futures and become an artist.

Pista, my mother tells me in one of her favorite stories, loved to stand outside the opera catching drifts of melody that wafted through open side doors on warm evenings. “Once, your daddy threw out his shoulder, he was conducting so hard.” She laughs.

Mom’s stories are tinged with her sense of the ridiculous, the comic, the frivolous. Dad was more serious. Even his jokes had an edge of bitterness or irony. Snapshots in our family album show him as a skinny kid with shaved head and protruding ears. His posture is rebellious. A spark of mischief gleams in his eyes. I imagine that child standing alongside the Opera House. He has escaped his father’s strict eye, his mother’s chores, and the odious duty of going to synagogue. He is enraptured by the singing, the spectacle. People stare at the odd kid who is humming and waving his arms. Pista doesn’t notice. He is a conductor. This is Verdi!

My father never grew out of his conductor phase. I see him in our living room in Chicago, and later in our house in Wilmette, at ease on a Sunday morning. The stereo is turned up loud to a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart concerto or a Bach string quartet. Pista is wearing a worn checkered flannel shirt. He has not shaved. His eyes are closed. He is humming or whistling or singing bits of melody. His arms move vigorously to the music.

When I was eleven, my father took me and Kathy to see Aida at the Chicago Lyric Opera. I cannot remember what impressed me more, the live camels or the heroine’s Egyptian headdresses. Certainly not Verdi. My parents made me take piano lessons. Their good friend Margit Varro had been a star pupil of Bartok’s in Hungary, but even she could not turn my awkward hands and tin ear toward musical accomplishment. Although I loved Bach and Mozart and Irving Berlin and Fats Waller, I would never master the piano. My father was equally inept. He began to take lessons from Mme. Varro in his forties, determined to realize his dream of making music with his own hands. I remember him practicing on our upright Steinway every evening when he came home from his photographic studio. But his fingers were stiff and clumsy, coarsened by the chemicals he used to develop negatives and prints in his darkroom, and he gave up in frustration.

As I drive between Volga and Balaton, I flip through my CDs and find Verdi’s Requiem, composed to honor Italy’s poet Alessandro Manzoni and Verdi’s mentor Rossini. The music begins. The requiem soars. My father’s face appears in my mind. His eyes are shut tight and there are no lines of age or experience to mar the white mask of his visage—a vision of deathlike rapture that duplicates exactly the plaster mask he made of himself as a young sculptor in Paris.

Song fills the Toyota. I roll down the window to let some of the sound out. I turn the volume up. Here comes the Dies Irae: The day of wrath, that day shall / Dissolve the world in ash. I push the repeat button. Lacrimosa dies illa—That day is one of weeping on which / Shall rise again from the ashes the guilty man, to be judged.

Lacrimosa. Tears. My father’s face dissolves in tears. He was a man not ashamed to weep. Music could move him to tears at home, but also in a crowded concert hall. I would sit next to him in Orchestra Hall at a piano recital or string quartet and observe the tears coursing down his cheeks. Self-conscious and inhibited by social norms, I cringed at his display of pure emotion, wondering why I was not moved to such extremes. Pista. Stripped naked before me and the entire world.

I can think of no syllables more suitable as tribute and lament for my father than Verdi’s Requiem. Spare then this one, O God . . . But his longtime friend and leftie fellow traveler Studs Terkel offered a different kind of tribute. Studs spoke at my father’s memorial service in 1996 in the chapel at the University of Chicago where I had married Dave Smith in 1955. Master of the bon mot, fluent and needing no notes, he characterized my father precisely.

Well, this is Steve Deutch. It’s no accident he was a close and dear friend of Nelson Algren, because both of them were pursuing that world beyond the billboards, that lone person on that park bench, the anonymous out there. . . . There was Budapest, there was Paris, but Chicago . . . I quote Nelson [Algren], Steve’s closest friend, “[Being part of] Chicago is like being married to a woman with a broken nose, there may be lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” And that’s Steve's gift, catching the realness, the truth, no matter what.

Monday, July 1, 2013