Starbucks / 1996
The Starbucks in which I worked during summer 1996 had once been a bank. Paulie, the manager, a pimply troglodyte ten years my junior, had been clawing his way up the Coffee Ladder since graduating high school. I had just been denied tenure at Bard, had just quit my teaching job at the Curtis Institute, and had finished a temporary appointment at City College of New York, filling in for David Del Tredici. I didn't have any commissions. I was broke. I needed a job.
"Listen, Hagen," he said, intentionally mispronouncing my name to rhyme with Reagan, "Maybe you think that you're better than me, but that doesn't change the fact that you pack the espresso too tightly when you make lattes."
Lincoln Center, forty blocks south on Broadway—it had only been four years since Philharmonia's premiere by the New York Philharmonic—had never seemed so distant. "Sorry, Paulie," I said, tamping down coffee into the barrel, attaching it to the espresso machine, and twisting it tightly to the right. "Mister Kelly," he corrected me. He was enjoying this. "Are you serious?" I asked. "Dead," he replied.
"You need to act like you understand that I'm the manager and you're the junior associate," he said. My "coffee comrades" included a brilliant, painfully shy PhD in philosophy from Columbia nearly twice Paulie's age and an alcoholic writer with three widely praised published novels behind him. We didn't think we were "better" than Paulie was—just smarter, talented, and better educated. Nevertheless, he was our boss; we were the ones jerking coffee to cell phone-wielding teenagers. I dreaded most when former Juilliard classmates stopped in; I didn't hate their surprise, I hated their embarrassment and pity.
Paul Sperry called one morning, offering a commission, surprised that I'd landed behind an espresso machine. "Paulie," I said, "I'm going to need to take tomorrow's shift off." He sighed theatrically. "Why's that?" he asked. "I need to meet with a friend to read through some music," I said, not seeing the point of lying. "I can't let you out to pursue your hobby, Hagen," he said, amused.
Instead of heading north to Starbucks the next morning, I headed south to Paul Sperry's apartment. I described to Paul the piece that I had in mind for him: Songs of Madness and Sorrow, a "dramatic cantata" for tenor and chamber orchestra based on a treatment written by Mother for me in 1982. Mother's words would serve as the emotional apotheosis of the piece, which would otherwise consist of texts assembled from turn of the century Wisconsin newspapers, diaries, and literature. (We ultimately recorded the work for the Arsis label with the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, Paul singing, Victoria Bond conducting.)
William Weaver, after a delicious dinner at his apartment in the Village, had a few years earlier, asked me to write on a piece of paper what I would like to compose Merrill Songs and simply wrote me a check for double the amount and slid it back across the table. Paul wrote me a check to commission the piece on the spot. I'll never forget the grace or generosity of either gesture.I quit the Starbucks job. Still feeling shattered and ginger, but with a few dollars in the bank, I began the very long process of pulling myself together.
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