Steam whistles!

January 1st, 2014, 12am

It was -2.2°C. The breeze was gentle.

As the year ends, so it begins.

The day before New Year’s Eve - a point in the season when any day of the week might be a holiday - I had a message from a friend I had not seen in years. He was driving into the city, had tickets to a show, if my dance card wasn’t filled…I realized my past was going to carry me into the new year.

When we lived in the same university town and shared an addled dissertation director, there was music every night in small venues. I drank beers next to Will Oldham one time and David Berman another only because there was a bar next to the ballroom where they were playing those particular nights. We all drank there and then we all went to the show, the lack of options shoring up our cohort bent on living the life of the mind. Or some approximation of that. The shows always went long because the groups played what they wanted. We were really listening. No one had great light systems, really, it was about the sound. Sometimes they would play part of a song again to get the acoustics right in the room.

My friend still lives there, racking up good karma as the high school teacher that changes your life, and as part of that role, he knows a silly amount about music. I relaxed into my chair and lifted my beer as he told anecdotes about the band and the scene between songs. It felt like those shows years ago as the bluegrass musicians in front of us forgot about the audience, indulgently playing a long piece from an old concept album after something by a French Impressionist, then Bach for an encore, and closing with a blithe cover of Gillian Welch’s “Wayside/Back in Time.” The band leader slung his mandolin the way classic rock legends hit power chords with their electric guitars, and all five members were cleaned up nice in the way indie fans appreciate right now, with suspenders and slicked side parts, groomed like they know their way around a razor as well as their intricate harmonies. It was a great show.

The following night, I left a dressy party at the beautiful city apartment of a sculptor, a designer, and their dog named after a philosopher for a late dinner with friends near a design school that once trained engineers. Current graduates go on to form their own design firms and install their ideas on unsuspecting public parklets, but once a year for the past half a century the school quad is filled with antique steam whistles from the private collection of the Institute’s chief engineer, still of great interest to students and to those who live in the area. There is string for the whistles (there is also a calliope) to vent the steam and for the better part of the first hour of every year, the sounds of an ocean liner whistle and a railroad call reverberate through the Brooklyn neighborhood.

The whistle steam forms massive clouds and the sky feels full with the different timbres of the dozen instruments, a strange and weird experience on a night when most in attendance are wearing puffy coats that obscure their faces and passing bottles of champagne. My group was separated for a time, and I made new friends by giving out my extra pairs of ear plugs (though I had to stop someone from eating the smooshy little aqua foam pieces, indicating ‘ear’ instead of ‘mouth’ placement to her over the incredible noise).

My favorite of all traditions at the start of the new year is brunch to set up the days ahead. In every way, it is an invitation to come as you are. Last year was one those closest to me were delighted to wave out, and on Wednesday my apartment filled with close friends rallying to make good on intentions for a year that will count. We began with concoctions of tomato juice, then recounted stories through four bottles of champagne among the five of us over six hours spent around my dining table. I served traditional Hoppin’ John with peas and collards, and we crumbled in cornbread for more luck and prosperity, ate roasted brussel sprouts with our fingers during the cadences of learned conversation.

Five years ago I left that small town full of songs, trusting I would find more in the wider world and that the friendships would travel with me. At the other end of the table this week, I toasted my old friend who, like me, left a small group for a bigger and ever-expanding one, convinced it was possible to lead a secular life of the mind outside Academia. The audacity! But we shall have music where’er we go.

Lia, Allan and Cassie said thanks.

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Kristen Taylor

drinker of raw milk, founder/editor of @saucymag, call me @kthread

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