A Strange Encounter
Monday, September 24, 2018 9:25 AM
By Charlotte White
He took the stool next to me. This old man, dirty, with hair tangled, totally disheveled, sneakers stained and torn - he was badly in need of a shave.
I was 15 and had come down to 57th Street to take my piano lesson at Steinway Hall with my renowned teacher, Josef Lhevinne . I had come much too early, hoping to have time to wander along my favorite street, to window shop at all the glamorous boutiques, the art galleries, even to just watch the parade of people . The mixed varieties of dramatic looking, colorful characters, foreign languages floating on the air; one bearded man in his sweeping black cape; a woman leading a baby leopard on a leash.
57th street was my most favorite street and always provided a great show! Since after my wanderings I still had some time before my lesson, I decided to stop and have an ice-cream soda at the drugstore on the corner of 6th Avenue and 57th Street, just adjacent to Steinway. This drugstore was famous for its sodas. They were really yummy, filled with lots of ice cream and topped with mountains of delicious tongue-tingling whipped cream. Obviously, the old man seated near me enjoyed his soda so much that he ordered a second one. I was surprised - I had the impression that he was a penniless pauper and could barely pay for even one! I drank my soda leisurely and spent a few moments looking through my briefcase to check on whether I had remembered to bring all the piano scores I needed for my lesson.
I knew that after my lesson, as a special treat, my teacher Mr. Lhevinne would take me across the street to the huge Horn & Hardart Automat, where he loved to eat their special coddled egg, which he would buy by the dozen and, just like a kid, get a kick out of putting the proper coins into the slots for each serving and watch for the window to automatically pop open and – presto - present each dish! He then would cover his table with all the plates of coddled eggs and gobble them down, one by one.
At my lessons he often scolded me and asked, “Did you eat lunch?? You sound weak, you need more strength,” and often would stop the lesson and take me out to eat something, then go back to the piano again, and say, “Now do you hear the difference?”
He loved to eat, and so did the other great artists who were generally at the Automat, after their rehearsals just up the street at Carnegie Hall. Seated around the little tables were other international legends such as Josef Hoffman, Rodzinski, Metropolous, sometimes even Heifetz. What a thrill it was for me to watch them in enthusiastic conversation, while they enjoyed the Automat delicacies, such as their baked beans, creamed spinach and other simple well prepared foods! They seemed to prefer this to the glamorous Russian Tea Room much closer to Carnegie Hall (even though, after a concert, the Tea Room was the place to be in order to hear the immediate opinions of critics and audience regarding the performance).
I barely needed any further nourishment after the thrill of being surrounded by these great artists who I so admired, but I would generally join my teacher with an apple pie and a glass of milk.
Now to get back to the old man, having his second ice-cream soda, staring and staring at me. I thought, who is he? Do I know him? I sometimes didn’t recognize people I had met briefly, and I was embarrassed. In my young eyes he seemed ancient and seemed to be gobbling me up with his eyes as he relished his soda.
He said, “You’re a very pretty little girl. What are you doing on 57th Street?”
I was very uncomfortable and quickly finished my soda, and replied, ”I’m a little late and must rush for my lesson with Josef Lhevinne at his studio at Steinway.”
He smiled and told me that he was also going to Steinway to rehearse with a quartet. He said, ”I play the violin with the quartet only for my own pleasure, I am not a professional.”
As we both left the drugstore, he said, ”Please give my regards to Mr. Lhevinne, tell him that ALBERT EINSTEIN said hello!”