Quodlibet: Bach’s Liberty, and Ours

by David Oates

Before leaving Santa Fe I spent (yet another) morning at a coffeehouse. It’s an urban sort of behavior, and a Bachian one too – you might know about Zimmerman’s in Leipzig, the coffeehouse where Bach brought ensembles large and small to perform once a week. It seems to have been a chance to make some non-liturgical music, a relief from Bach’s otherwise very churchy employment.

I sat in a corner where I could see but hardly be seen. My book on this day was Jeremy Denk’s recent memoir Every Good Boy Does Fine. My what a writer. And what a pianist!  I was having a lot of fun, in my bookish way.

It led to a surprising interaction, a brief conversation about art and music with the young woman clearing and wiping the little café table next to mine. Pretty, with long dark hair. Friendly and open – “What are you reading,” she surprised me, but in a good way. I showed her the cover, explained about my amateur piano-playing, Denk’s twofold talent. She responded with an anecdote about Salvador Dali. And that, with smiles, was our interaction. Two humans, two minutes.

I spend a lot of time on my own, and I’m happy that way. But sometimes I really feel kindness when it is offered. A smile, a word. And it surprises me how much warmth that can create.

Then she cleared the wee table two over from me, where two possibly homeless gray-haired people had been sitting. A man and a woman, some kind of couple; they were given breakfast plates involving big waffles. I wondered if these were “comped” by the staff. No way to know, and I shouldn’t guess. They were so alike, this couple, they could have been twins: both diminutive, with neat active bodies and excellent long hair woven under practical caps or hair-bands above weathered faces. Impossible to age: Forty? Seventy? A few hundred?

But the man soon ramped up into a loud ranting voice, declaiming violently to or at his apparent partner. She sat motionlessly, strategically I thought: as if she knew which words would come to nothing, which to blows. Read more »