13. Musical Chairs
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Thirteen Musical Chairs I was sitting in Danny’s garage at the regular Wednesday night jam session, trying my best to stay out of everyone’s way. Dennis, our old friend from Chicago, sat to the right, playing my accordion with exuberance. Every time he opened the bellows, I got jabbed in the side. I tried to shuffle my chair to the left, but I ran into Maureen, leader of a popular local Cajun band—perched on a high stool, looking good in her short dress and pastel tights. She sounded good, too, on her latest instrument, a fiddle, while she waited for her turn on the accordion. I tried to back up a little, but felt something pressing into my back. It was impossible to widen the circle. Such hard work, trying not to take up too much space. I tried to compress myself—easier with a triangle in my hands, more of a challenge when I switched to guitar. Space was always at a premium in the garage, even with the Poullard family cars permanently banished to the driveway. Usually, the only vehicles parked inside were Danny’s motorcycle, along with the ride-on toy car belonging to the little girl of the house. But on this night, even the Harley had been moved outside, because Danny was anticipating a bigger crowd than usual. When Steve and I first stepped inside the garage that evening, with our three Chicago friends close behind, we could see Danny had made some serious preparations. He had cleared a large area of the floor and had arranged a dozen chairs in a neat circle. The usual assortment of plastic glasses, along with a few bottles of red wine, sat on the wooden accordion case positioned in the center of the circle—Danny’s version of a coffee table, jam-style. Creating a clearing in Danny’s garage was like pushing back the vegetation in a tropical rainforest. An optimistic act, but the effect would be temporary. Outside the perimeter of the circle, the obstacle course remained, threatening to engulf anyone who entered: Racks of clothing, in storage for some unknown purpose. Piles of 150 Musical Chairs 151 clothing, in transit to somewhere.A couple of working refrigerators. Kids’ toys. Tack from horses long since sold. When Danny invited someone to the garage, he’d often say: “Don’t worry about bringing an instrument. I have whatever you need.” That was the truth. They were everywhere—on the floor, in boxes, on storage selves, on overhead racks. You never knew what might materialize from Danny’s collection. Accordions predominated. Most were single-row Cajun accordions , in a range of keys. But Danny had a few others: the triple-row and piano accordions, in case he wanted to venture into zydeco and Tex-Mex. Even a tiny child’s toy Cajun accordion, made in China, like the one we’d bought at a gas station in Louisiana. He owned several guitars—acoustic and electric, a few fiddles, a bass or two, several triangles. Probably a few other instruments I hadn’t yet seen. Finding a place in Danny’s garage was never a simple matter. Late arrivals might end up wedged into an uncomfortable spot or perched on some awkward surface—like an accordion case, pressed into service when the available chairs were filled. I sometimes found myself sitting on the periphery of the circle, feeling uncomfortable. And very peripheral. Finding a place musically could be even more complicated. The chairs were visible, at least—unlike the complex set of rules, roles, personal relationships, and conflicting expectations that determined what happened at a jam.After exploring this hidden terrain for close to three years, I was still finding my way. Finding a place used to feel easier. We had moved to California at a time when jam attendance had fallen off. Sometimes no more than the three of us—Steve, myself, and Danny—holed up in the garage. Most nights, a fiddler named Mark, a gentle soul who lived nearby, joined us. Ed, a warm, sturdy man with a long red pony tail—leader of the zydeco band Danny had urged us to see when we first visited Berkeley—sometimes stopped in to visit or maybe play a little accordion . He and Mark were both seasoned musicians, adept at multiple instruments and many styles of music. But they were also tolerant and accepting, and we couldn’t help but feel at ease...