My Debut

Robert Cataldo

from Songs in a Minor Key, a Memoir

When I was in my sixteenth year, a friend of my father’s, who worked for the state, came by my father’s store and had mentioned that the state psychiatric hospital in Waltham was looking for a piano player, a musician, to entertain their patients, one night a week, midweek. My father, of course, immediately thought of me.

“You weren’t really doing anything on Wednesday nights” – except four hours of homework, I thought – “and I didn’t think that you would mind. I’ll take you the first few times to see what it is like.”

Having spent so much on accordion lessons, he figured I wasn’t in a position really to object.

“It’ll start at six-thirty or seven, you’ll play for an hour, and we should be home by nine. I’ll get Mort to work for me for the first few weeks.”

“In a mental hospital?” my mother interrupted, in disbelief. “He’s just a kid.”

“Gus said it should only be for an hour. He knows their activities director; they’ll be well-supervised. I didn’t think Robert would mind.”

Dread, resentment, the usual stage fright: all yes. Mind? – no. It was too late for that. I didn’t think it would do any good. My father couldn’t back out without making me look worse than I felt. Another argument I couldn’t afford.

The first time my father drove us, it was late autumn, dark, and as we pulled into the empty hospital parking lot – visiting hours were over – I had ample opportunity to consider how really scared I was. I never had to play in public before (relatives notwithstanding). I was mortified. With absolutely no stage presence, I had ample music sheets, at least, to hide behind. The grass below our headlights was a lurid green. The lights went dark. My father pulled the accordion case out of our trunk, and we walked inside.

At sixteen, I had never met a psychiatric patient before, at least none in a hospital, and I didn’t know what to expect. We had one middle-aged man walking around our neighborhood, who talked to himself, who couldn’t hold down a job, still living with his folks; peculiar, yes, but harmless, and we kids all greeted him by his first name. He was kind, soft-spoken, and seemed to appreciate a friendly word; he’d mumble something in reply.

I was a mortification of adolescent doubt and anxiety, stage fright, and dread. Playing for others was a far different animal than playing in the cellar all by myself. The activities director came over to shake my father’s hand, a young attractive lady, tall, thin,, wearing a simple white cardigan, the top button left undone.

“Thank you for coming,” she said. “This is the young man who’s going to play?” she asked, looking straight at me. “Welcome.”

“My name’s Robert,” I said, and we shook hands.

“I’m Mrs. Trainor, but you can call me Joanne. Our friends here,” she said, looking around the room, “have been talking about nothing else since supper. We all love music. It’s not often we have the opportunity to be entertained. I see you’ve brought your accordion… You can set up wherever you please. Let me know if you need anything.”

So anxious, so conscious of my stage fright and musical limitations, I could barely glance around the room: large and square, with pale green walls, freshly painted – just off the parking lot, I reckoned – and any number of folding wooden chairs scattered about. On every chair, I saw someone staring at me, inpatient to get the show on, but I could barely look beyond my nose. The seating arrangement was very informal, I soon discovered; my audience, white and black, Chinese (in 1965, no one said Asian), old and young, most smiling but a few definitely not, had ample opportunity to reposition themselves around the room, which they did as soon as I set up. My father, pleased, sat on the opposite side, talking with one of the older male security guards or patients (everyone dressed in street clothes, I wasn’t sure which). As the far wall had a few less people to sit between, I sat there, music stand squarely positioned in front of me, a little lower than eye level, so as not to be rude, and my accordion case, open, velvet drape thrown out, in case I needed to make a hasty retreat. I soon discovered, though, I had little to fear. I played something rousing – not my usual (morbid) bill of fare – “Lady of Spain”, a polka (I had any number to choose from), but almost from the very first chord, they decided I wasn’t half bad, or they couldn’t hear me – I was playing as loudly as I could – they moved in, a little gradually at first, but more boldly as the night wore on. To my surprise, a few, even, were quite friendly. One lady in her mid-thirties sat next to me and turned pages whether I needed to or not.

“If anyone annoys you,” one of the nurses whispered in my ear, “please let us know.”

I smiled, reassuring her. “They’ll be okay.”

We plowed through polkas, rumbas and fox-trots, a rousing chorus of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”, a few tunes from West Side Story to “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof. My father, particularly, was having a great time, tapping his foot to the music, smiling. Finally, all that money on accordion lessons had paid off. One night a few weeks later, one of the nurses actually mistook my father for one of the patients and tried to escort him out.

“Oh no, I’m Robert’s dad. I’m here to drive him home.”

“My apologies,” she said, laughing. “You were having such a good time…”

The first night I barely had the courage to look up. Unable to play by ear, I had to rely on my music sheets and for the first few minutes, I wasn’t sure if they were friend or foe. In my own anxiety, in the pale green of the walls, none of them looked particularly normal to me: too fidgety or sullen, too much medication or not enough, or like myself, quietly disturbed. In my ignorance, a middle-aged black couple – they sat together – seemed extremely reserved, and I, simply infatuated with R & B singers, Gladys and Ella, Aretha, looked up every so often to see: polite but unmoved. At least they didn’t walk out. Everyone else, though, had warmed up quite nicely to a shy, sixteen-year-old boy.

“Can you play ‘Danny Boy’?”

“Do you know ‘Moon River’? I love that song.”

No sooner did I finish playing one – I had albums of sheet music – then more requests came in.

“I suppose you don’t know ‘Let’s Fall in Love’, the one by Nat King Cole?”

In addition to their own favorites, I could slip in a few of my own: “Midnight in Moscow”, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)”. I might have played “A Cottage for Sale”, but I was afraid I’d be the only one to recognize it. I played Beatles’ songs by the score.

I noticed one boy about my own age had gotten up to talk to someone. In a crisp, pale yellow shirt and neatly pressed chinos, he was thin and cute. If I hadn’t been so busy, reading music, I might have had a little crush on him. So sensitive and pale, he had little circles of red around his eyes.

It wasn’t long, though, before they were being escorted out: lined up on the opposite side of the room, in twos, alone, a few stragglers who took their time, including the lady sitting next to me, turning pages.

“Thank you,” I said. “You were a big help.”

She smiled. “Thank you,” and skipped off to her friends.

The door finally opened, and they all marched out. No one looked over to me, all intent in getting back to their rooms.

I lowered the straps of my accordion, with some relief, and slid the instrument into its case. As I put away my books and retracted the music stand, my father came over to help me pack up.

“You did a good job,” he said. “I think they enjoyed it.”

“Thanks,” I said, a little fatigued, the first bit of praise from him I ever received.

As we were walking out, Joanne, the activities director, once again came over to us.

“Robert, thank you so much,” she said, warmly, and shook my hand. “As your father most likely mentioned to you, we were hoping to make it every week, if that would be good for you. I know you must have schoolwork and all…”

I had heard and I can’t say I was terribly pleased.

“They’re a great bunch. Very enthusiastic!” I laughed.

“Wednesday nights will be okay? I’ll tell them yes then?”

I nodded.

“I think they really had a good time. A few asked if you’d be coming back,” she winked.

I played there for almost a year, in good weather or bad, in rain or snow, in the long twilight nights of summer. At least in the warmer months I didn’t have to go home to study. For the first few weeks, my father drove, showing me the route, most of which was a long, straight, (hilly) drive, uphill and down, to Waltham, on Trapelo Road. As usual, we had little to say, but he seemed to enjoy the trip, knew all the shortcuts, and hadn’t lost his temper, with other drivers, more than once. When all else failed, we listened to his “easy listening” radio stations, which set the mood. At the hospital, he led the way, always had a friendly word for the activities director or a nurse, a few patients, and attentive as always – he loved music maybe even more than I – never failed to smile, to keep time with his foot, my number one fan.

One night, as we got back into our car, it was quite dark, several stories of the hospital were poorly lit: balconies and fire escapes, a little ominous against the yellow brick. Almost from the first, we heard a voice moan, deep and low. I thought it must have been in some anguish as it lasted for several seconds. My father looked over to me but he didn’t say a word.

After those first few weeks, my father had to return to work after supper, and I drove alone. By then, I knew the way, which was long and lonely, almost a direct line from Medford; by the time I got to Waltham, it was dark. And like my dad, I played music all the way: top forty, with the Beatles, Four Tops, Dusty Springfield, Marvin Gaye, the list went on and on. It was fair company on a dark night. I had hours of homework to do once I got back.

Aretha, Marvin Gaye, Paul and John couldn’t disguise, however, my increasing anxiety: once again, I’d have to set up (this time alone). If I had stage fright, I’d grip the steering wheel a little harder and try to concentrate on something else (a few tunes on the radio I had no patience with and stabbed the radio station dial at the first bar). I never overcame my nervousness, but by the fifth or sixth week, I knew better what to expect. They were genuinely enthusiastic, and I had little to fear. The African-American couple came week after week (I thought that was a good sign, even if they only sat there and held hands); Lois, my page turner, never failed to greet me and sit as close to me as she could get, an arm tossed behind my back. The young man my age only came once or twice in nice shirt and trousers, clothes his mother must have picked out. With a great deal of difficulty, stuttering, louder than he should have, he finally managed to express himself. I was speechless with doubt. I never knew what they were in for: a severe case of depression, several could barely talk. I played lively tunes, show tunes, old tunes to cheer them up. Others fidgeted a great deal (they seemed unnaturally quiet and self-conscious). The woman who sat next to me? all I could tell was that she liked to touch. She was quite excitable and anxious, and I didn’t mind. The old people suffered from dementia and had nowhere to go. From the corner of my eye, I could see each, alone, was talking to himself. But once the music started to play, they’d snap out of it. I couldn’t imagine a more diverse group – singing a chorus or two to “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”, with the nurse leading them in song – or where they could have picked up the words. They all seemed to find some humor in it, too. On a rainy night, it might be “Autumn Leaves”, “Twilight Time”, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”; nothing was sweeter than a sad song. Our hearts grieved. My only regret was that I couldn’t walk around the room: the accordion was heavy, I could only play a few songs by heart (all of which in a minor key), and so shy, I needed the security of my music sheets to hide behind. Occasionally, I made eye contact – we Cataldos always smile – “He has a smile just like his father’s,” I heard someone near home remark one day (I’m not sure if I was entirely delighted), but so I did.

After almost a year, I was replaced by a movie night, and that was that. So shy, so burdened by self-doubt, I can’t say I entirely regretted their choice.

Featured Artwork:
Karl Schwarz, “Steirische Harmonika 4reihig”, Kaerntnerland, 19 October 2006,