by Christopher Bacas
Every wedding merges rivers. In that confluence, ancient rites, family histories and baked-stuffed chicken breasts tumble in eddies and whirling spouts. As a hired hand, I looked for calm water, the safety of land and superior canapés.
Under crystalline light, I sailed the blacktop channel called I-95. My port, a giant shul in suburban Baltimore. The job was booked extra-long: pre-ceremony, ceremony, then marathon dance sets. In the parking lot, buses poured out throngs of dark-clothed men, women and scampering elves, some with bouncing side locks. Inside, I met my colleagues, mostly goyim, veterans of Orthodox gigs. In a dim storage closet, I put on my tux and fancy shoes. Three feet away, an ectomorphic man davened violently, as oblivious to my rituals as I was to his.
Our leader, the Rockin Rabbi, a Long Island kid. As a young guitar picker, he played along with Hendrix, T-Bone Walker and Les Paul, memorizing their brilliant commentaries on scripture. After Rabbinical school in Israel, he returned stateside; selling copiers by day, raising a family and playing weddings. In his yarmulke and frum black suit, he remained a virtuoso garage band rocker; undisciplined and selfish. Unwittingly, his repertoire a Downtown artist's conceit: Melodies by the Baal Shem Tov, yoked to a slamming backbeat, careening into grandstanding solos, a blur of blinding pick work and bent strings. Tunes couldn't end or segue; their exit strategy spinning out under bluesy hail. The horn section yelling to each other, searching for a cue or a bus gate, hopelessly lost.
Wisely, he employed an organized musican to lead important jobs. Michael played keyboard and sang. His voice, equal to any famous cantor, carried melody after melody with idiomatic microtonal soul. He brought the library; overstuffed binders, three tunes to a page. One book in d-minor, the other, c-minor; hundreds and hundreds of tunes. Mid-melisma, he would raise a hand to give three digits with fingers and wrist twists, a minor-key third base coach.
The horn players' first task, accompany men to the betrothal. In a classroom, learned and serious, they completed the Ketubah. We waited outside, along a far wall.
"Stay outta their way. These people will run you over and never look back." said the drummer, a secular Jew and veteran gigster. Someone handed me the required tune, printed on a single sheet and gave performance instructions:
"The more ornaments you use,the better. When in doubt, trill everything."
On a signal, the men ran. Their bodies, like dolls whose segmented limbs connect with string, blew through the halls, propelled by a leaf-blower. We started the special tune, "Od Yishonah", and followed at a trot. Slowing, the men placed their hands on the sacrums of those in front, bracing any stumble. When the groom reached his bride, a palpitating heap surrounding him, he identified her to the officiants and launched the next ritual.
Three horn players took music libraries and stands, then headed to the B'decken. Guests gathered in a basement room, its institutional dimensions softened by balloons and pastel bunting. They enjoyed snacks and drinks around the bride's wicker throne. We played happy tunes. The bride shifted in her chair as well-wishers approached. One man leaned over, whispering in her ear at length. Her eyes searched the room while he spoke. She whispered back to him. The exchange continued until the bride quickly stood. Her bouquet hit the floor and hair adornments flipped backwards. She shouted, words masked by the horn section, then ran from the room, double doors careening apart as she disappeared.
We played on.
Above us, roseate sun from high windows and fluorescent glare; a bluish vapor.
Quiescence seeped past the jangling doors. It spread under guests' shoes; blotting rhythmically as they shifted their feet. Our music gurgled to a halt. The liquid rose, flooding the room. It carried guests like flotsam; their lazy rotations intersecting and multiplying. Currents buffeted our legs, swirling and tugging, pant cuffs flapping. Curiously, we stayed put. Submerged feet moored in linoleum.
The musican's first thought: "am I gonna get paid?"
One of my colleagues went to find the Rockin' Rabbi.
A elderly man paced the hall outside; hands clasped behind his back. When he passed the door, in profile, head down, jaw working, his beard trembled. More people appeared in the doorway; scanned the room, saw the empty wicker throne, then turned away.
The guests questioned us:
"What's the name of your band?"
"Where are you from?"
"Are they going to get married now?"
My colleague returned. On orders, we made for the lobby. The cocktail hour was starting early, no guarantee when,or even if,the ceremony would follow. On plush carpet, musicians set up opposite buffet tables; horns and music stands in front, drummer and Michael behind. The crowd, restive and hungry, surged against our artificial boundary. Trays high, staff stocked the tables with hummus, raw vegetables, salads, bread, crackers and fruit. The huge platters of chicken liver pate, troweled into tire-size lozenges and flecked with parsley, arrived like movie stars. Guests swarmed the food; cramming it in their mouths while they piled plates. Michael called numbers. We played instrumentals; happy music. With all the uncertainty, guests stayed close to the buffet; backing and filling until they could rest their plates against our stands. Heavy perfumes swung at our faces and conversations were audible above the music:
"The Schacters had a GOOD band from New Yawwk, remember?"
"They were very good"
"Very sad, what happened"
"What was their name?"
"Did you have hummus ?"
"So sad. The parents, you know…."
We'd been on the job three and a half hours. During rests and even while reading parts, I kept thinking about getting paid. Playing saved us from random questions and rising frustration, not from our own worries. Rockin Rabbi huddled with two men outside the ballroom. They were in constant motion: palms up, arms widening, then closing, heads nodding. We turned their direction whenever possible, trying to divine our future through their gestures. When I turned next, they were gone. The ballroom doors stayed shut.
Under a dense, noshing crowd, heads bobbing above their plates, the river Lethe surged. Dark swells lapped against ballroom doors. Guests wheeled in constellations, arms akimbo. Dozens of plates, embossed cocktail napkins and lipstick-bussed cups bobbed, chest-high. Michael's voice began in muck,then emerged from a whirlpool.
"Pack up. Be careful, guys. Be careful! It's crazy in here. Can someone grab my amp, please?"
We waded through, heading for the shallows…. and the Huppah. Our drummer pulled a flute and half-dozen crinkled manuscript sheets from his trap case.
"We'll play these. I numbered them. You play melody. Repeat everything. Watch me for cutoffs. Sometimes they go long…."
Michael set up his rig and I raised a wire music stand holding six faded pages, their Hebrew titles partially cutoff. In folding chairs, guests reconstituted themselves; men on one side, women the other, children everywhere. When officiants appeared, Michael checked in and we waited. He noodled a long time, faux Baroque-style, until the Chief Rabbi nodded gravely. After a quick cadence, the flutes started, our drummer playing harmony. The melodies, solemn and centripetal, bound the human to the divine, sewing infinite ache at each breath. Playing them for the first time, another river swamped me. I dug in my feet and tried not to let tears glue my eyelids. The Chatan and Kallah walked their steps behind a smoky scrim. Melismatic prayers found an earthly target. I was far, far from any known world. The broken glass brought me back to the current century. We played them out of the room, stomping and cheering.
In the reception hall, Rockin' Rabbi conducted a sound check while stemware rattled.
Save a few puddles, the narcoleptic waters receded. The room was split lengthwise by a row of wheeled dividers and potted trees. The stage faced the men's side. Children bolted the gaps and circled the room like a racetrack, stopping once to gawk, long and hard, at the horn player's clean shaven faces.
Our oom-pah sets, with countless segues, ran to forty continuous minutes or more. On a separate sheet in each binder, dozens of Motown, James Brown and Stax horn lines were transposed and numbered; ready for interpolation. Our trumpet player, a musican of Catholic tastes and delicious wit, grafted them in at will.
The bride was a tiny woman, the groom, well-over six feet and broad-shouldered. No hint of her ferocious run. Both their faces read: it's SHOWTIME! The dancing that surrounded them; ecstatic and long-winded. Soon, black suits showed darker stains spreading from armpits. A hat caught fire inside a circle of stomping scarecrows.
The Rockin' Rabbi was shredding. On the dance floor, a middle-aged man, portly and heavily bearded, stood in front of a PA main. His face, eighteen inches from the upper horn. Palms tightly clamped over ears, he rocked his torso side to side. Maybe we were too loud.
There were two or three hours left on this job. Michael had an idea: a couple guys could leave early. He quoted a price for my six hours work. I agreed. Next break, he wrote me a check. Ten minutes later, I was outside. After the flood and forgetting, the Old World vanished; wood smoke and chamber-pot stench swept clean. Ten idling buses polluted the parking lot. Budding trees bent afternoon sun like prisms. I got in the car and changed clothes.
We ferry a delta built on ancestors' bones. On the water's surface, our reflection dances, always decomposed by ripples and shifting light. Beneath its waves, their past and our future.