The Boy with a Torn Hat is a coming of age tale in an ageless city, and salvages a story of love and youthful camaraderie that would have been lost forever were it not for a chance discovery years later and a continent away.
A surprise ﬁnd in a Manhattan pawnshop transports us back to the year 1974 and the old Jewish quarter of Heidelberg, Germany. In the shadow of the ancient castle there thrives a warren of bohemian misﬁts, painters, poets and prostitutes, street minstrels and mimes, and a clutch of university students eager to demonstrate to the world at large that they are not the goose-steppers that their parents were.
Skipping across the pond and stumbling into their midst is Morgan, an American rolling stone determined to earn his place among them as a portrait painter.
Morgan encounters the gifted but troubled artist Renate one spring morning selling her paintings to passersby along the Neckar River. He is enchanted by the genius and beauty of her work, and falls in love with her before he even sees her face. He is at once aware that her talent far exceeds his own, and that notion humbles his desire for her, and, besides, she seems to be under the dangerous spell of a nefarious street musician whose calculated indifference makes him irresistible to her.
All summer long, as his fellow vagabonds animate the streets of the Old City with music and art and intrigue on every corner, Morgan conceals his longing for Renate, and resigns himself to his role as her best friend. Love on a thermostat. When he squanders his one opportunity to turn up the heat, and break the spell that keeps her on the leash of his rival, he hungers for a second chance. But it had better come quickly—the Heidelberg city council has decreed that all those free-spirited artists and troubadours who pull in a living from the streets must ofﬁcially register, the ﬁrst step to curbing their hedonistic ways. Their dance is about to become a march. Morgan must ﬁnd the courage to take what he wants, before it is too late. But there are obstacles…
There is music in the air! Come.
Have a listen!
Excerpt (Chapter One)
“Are you sure? I’m just around the corner.”
“Thanks. I’ll pass.”
I can’t help but smile. Convenience and a discount. We exchange apologies as strangers do for bumping into each other, but I decline her generous offer. I regain my stride after our little sidewalk samba, and I reach intuitively to check the breast pocket inside my overcoat. Still there.
I really should have been watching my step, and yet, how can I not have my head in the clouds? Though the air is crisp my chest is still warm from a superb cappuccino that left me daydreaming of the cafes of Europe. I could book out of JFK tonight, if I liked. My agent tells me he’s firmed up another West Coast show and is asking me for inventory. I’m bulletproof in the age of Uzi economics. (Did I really let him call my stuff inventory? I make a note to be offended the next time I see him.)
And oh, my god. Money in my pocket. Enough to insulate me from just about everything unpleasant, and enough to self-medicate with just about any vice I choose. A half a dozen American wars have been fought, won and lost since I first walked these Lower East Side streets. There have been more presidents than I have enemies, and I can’t recall, except with effort, who their vice-presidents were. Women have come and gone (mostly gone—irreconcilable similarities), and perhaps they were never really there at all. My children are old enough to adore me once more, after the obligatory rage of extended adolescence. We’re still in touch. I am oblivious to the beggars and indifferent to the hookers who are positioned on the sidewalk like random stones in a stream, but I’m as unperturbed as water as I flow by them. Life is good.
Some of the shops are only now rolling open their awnings. The smoke shop on one corner is aflame with anticipation of the return of Cuban cigars now that Fidel is retiring and moving to Florida. On the opposite corner, smoked ham sways on meat hooks at mortifying eye level in the window of a less-than-kosher deli, while next door Einstein Bagels retaliates with a schmear campaign. And lest there be any doubt that life has been neutered here, Kinko’s and McDonald’s each offer facsimiles on the same side of the street. I stroll past them.
Like many people who have no intention of buying anything at all, I linger by the fruit and vegetable stand that seems so out of place. Fresh fruit in this city seems as improbable as a tree that has been spared the dog on a leash. I fight the temptation to fondle an apple. This Manhattan mix of stores and stands includes bars that never close, and banks, it seems, that are never open. Except of course, for the poor man’s bank, the neon-windowed pawn shop, like the one adjacent to the grocer. Always an intrigue, and all those presidents in my pocket are talking to me. I peer through the glass. Something on the far wall catches my attention. I can’t resist. I never could.
I am immediately charmed as I enter. There are actually little brass bells disturbed by the sway of the door to announce my entry. How quaint! I smile for the surveillance camera—Rod Steiger is preoccupied behind the glass counter. He gives me only a furtive glance to assess if I am lethal. I remove my doe-skin gloves and prod them into my overcoat. My glasses have steamed up, and I loosen my flannel scarf to dry them off, but that does nothing more than chase the moisture around the lenses. I have a paper napkin from the coffee shop that I used to jot down something vitally important, which I now come to realize is not quite so vital or as important as drying my lenses, and it is sacrificed to the cause. I position the glasses back on my face, and then, as the world comes back into focus, the small miracle begins to unfold.
The proprietor cocks his head.
“May I have a look?”
“It’s not available.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s not available. The owner still has three days to redeem it.”
Nobody ever redeems things, once they’ve passed through portals such as these. I never did. This is the funeral home of abandoned heirlooms and Makita power tools. We are negotiating, and he’s telling me the fruit is forbidden. He has, of course, whet my appetite. The game is on.
“Would there be any harm in taking a closer look?”
He has yet to look back over his shoulder, where the guitar hangs on a hook on the pegboard, with a tag wired to its big toe. The proprietor pretends indifference very well, and I admire and respect him for it. A credit to his profession. He closes whatever catalog or ledger he was studying (or pretending to study), and turns to the wall behind him and removes the guitar. He hands it over the counter, and just when I think I have possession he tightens his grip to remind me it’s still his. “It’s a Martin, you know.” And then, with equal showmanship, he releases his hold, having cautioned me that this is expensive, or delicate, or both.
“Really?” Of course I know it’s a Martin. I, too, feign indifference. If I decide to make him an offer I’ll need to appear less knowledgeable than I am—(Stradivarius? What’s that? I thought it was a fiddle!). But I’ve already sighted the neck, seeing how close the spacing is from the strings to the frets. Rookies don’t do that. He’s taking all this in. I momentarily hand it back and remove my bulky overcoat and scarf, draping them over the counter. I look for someplace to sit. There is none, but the guitar has a strap. There was a time when I always stood when I played, but now that seems awkward. No matter. I tune the guitar.
I give the lower and upper strings a squeeze, to see how long they resonate, and to see if equal pressure gives each string an equal life-span, or if one drowns out the other. Clearly, they’ve been singing together for a while. By the end of eight counts, the dust in the sunlight is swirling in cyclones, and something I don’t quite understand is happening. The guitar feels warm, and has a pulse. My hands and my heart thaw quickly after thirty-five years of winter. Blood surges through me like the D train, rattling windows and plates on the shelf. The manly, baritone voice of this guitar starts filling up the room like a genie let out of a lamp, and memories that I thought I had neatly manicured begin clawing through the lining of my heart. I can see it in the old man’s face, but I just don’t care. And I don’t care if he knows about all those founding fathers in my breast pocket. I can afford whatever ransom he demands, which will be exorbitant, and more so now that he knows he has me. This becomes dead serious, even before I know why.
The vigor in my fingers has returned, but I restrain myself and pluck only a few, simple chords, not even a riff for my audience of one. The two or three chords that I have strummed are luscious, erotic and cerebral—the triad of seduction, and I’m swallowed up by this unexpected find. I feel my whole body resonate, as if the guitar were a tuning fork. A seasoned Martin guitar can do that. I close my eyes—this is a private affair. In the dark, my rambling fingers stumble upon the trail of an old Irish ballad. They’ve got the scent, and when they run with it, I can’t rein them in. The words come back as well. I have a first cousin, named Arthur McBride. He and I took a stroll on down by the seas-side… Jimmy taught me that song. It’s the one he usually opened with. He never liked playing alone either on stage or busking on the street, so one day he just started referring to his guitar as Arthur when he would banter with the crowd between sets.
And suddenly, my eyes flash open. The tone that rises from the Martin is not only irrepressible, but familiar, and stinks of Guinness. My fingers get tangled in the strings and can’t recover.
I worm out of the strap, and hold the guitar at arms length, to confirm with my very own eyes what my heart already knows. The remarkable sunburst pattern, the deep mahogany color and deeper, richer sound. I know this guitar, this guitar, from half, no, more than half my life ago, and a continent away, when youth was not an embellished memory but a lily-white neck into which I sank a full set of fangs, before passion turned to pabulum, wine to water. My god. Renate predicted this, all those years ago. “It’s gonna find its way to a pawn shop,” she said, when all of us hunkered down that night to console Jimmy with theories of how to recover it, and what we were going to do to that thieving I.R.A. bastard who betrayed us, if we ever caught him. The guitar—this guitar—it’s Arthur McBride, himself.