The first Christmas Scott and I were married, I gave him an electric guitar. Now, this may seem like a ridiculously impractical present to give a guy who lived in a small apartment above elderly, amiable-but-strict landlords. But I knew he’d always wanted to play the guitar (he was already a fantastic drummer), and it was our first Christmas as man and wife, and we were expecting our first baby, and I wanted to give him something really, really special. But an electric guitar, you’re saying. Ah, but the thing is: you don’t always have to plug it in. And from my exhaustive research (which consisted of a phone call to Scott’s buddy Chris, the guy who’d played lead guitar in Scott’s college band), I knew that an electric guitar is both easier to learn on (you don’t have to press down on the strings as hard) and—when not plugged into the amplifier—actually quieter than an acoustic.
So I had my plan. An electric guitar. Ah, but what kind? Kids’ books, I knew something about. Houseplants, I knew. If you needed to know what kind of gesneriad would thrive best in your kitchen, I was your girl. But what I knew about electric guitars could fit on the leaf of an Aeschynanthus lobbianus. A bit of sleuthing was in order. Fortunately I had that expert knowledge of children’s literature to call upon. What would Nancy Drew have done? Aha, she’d catch Ned reading a Musician magazine and casually pump him for information. Gee, that’s a swell one! Which one do you like? From this brilliantly excuted detective work I discovered three important things: 1) any self-respecting would-be guitarist would want the kind of guitar favored by Eric Clapton; 2) Eric Clapton’s favorite guitar was a black Fender Stratocaster with a white pick guard (whatever a pick guard was); and 3) a real Stratocaster was stratospherically out of my price range.
What to do, what to do. When flummoxed, Nancy would hash it out with George. Aha! Another call to Chris-the-supercool-guitar-player was in order. Unlike George, Chris actually had some useful information for me. I could buy a far-less-expensive Stratocaster knockoff (also made by Fender, of course) called a Squire. He even told me, bless him, exactly where in Manhattan to go for the right model and the best deal. The reasonable price included an amplifier with which Scott could annoy his mother by plugging in and cranking up to 11 on our next visit to his parents’ home. I’m such a good wife.
So one hellishly frigid December evening I trekked downtown to the Big Intimidating Manhattan Music Store and marched my pregnant self to the counter to ask for a black Squire with amplifier please. Chris (bless him!!) had even called ahead to ensure that the proper color combo was in stock. The manager had told him, and I quote (almost): “Yeah, we got a freakin’ million of ’em.” Perfect. But oh no! The nice if slightly condescending sales clerk informed me that they only had all-white Squires. The black model was sold out. “But, but,” I stammered, and then I remembered that Nancy Drew would never stumble timidly over her words in a situation like this. “But,” I said in a firm, forceful, never-been-intimidated-a-day-in-my-life tone, “the guy on the phone this afternoon said you had a freakin’ million of them.”
Condescending Sales Clerk Guy’s eyebrows raised. “Hold on, ma’am,” he murmured, picking up a phone. “I’ll check with the stockroom.” Ma’am! He’d called me ma’am!! Victory was mine! At age just-turned-twenty-five, I looked all of sixteen—and not exactly an imposing sixteen, either. (I was beginning to look like an undeniably pregnant sixteen at that point, and I was growing accustomed to seeing people on the subway make a little triangle of glances when they looked my way: belly to face to left hand. Well, at least the boy had the decency to marry her, their slight head-nods seemed to say before they studiously looked anywhere but at me for the rest of the trip. They never offered me a seat, either. I guess they figured I’d made my bed and could darn well stand in it. I toyed with the idea of making myself a maternity top that said, “I’m 25, married, and I have a master’s degree!” but that notion seemed to shoot its own proclamation of maturity in the foot, so I never followed up on it.)
Anyway, back to No-Longer-Condescending Sales Clerk Guy. His phone call to the stock room brought bad news. They had had a bunch in stock, but a sale ad in the paper that morning had wiped them out. Only the all-white ones left. No more black ones in stock before Christmas, but if the guy I was giving it to wanted to bring it back in January and exchange it, no problem.
Ah well, it would have to do. I bought the white guitar (with free amp) and stood at the door of the shop with my two very very large parcels, wondering for the first time how I was going to get this equipment home to Queens. During rush hour. In the—oh no, it couldn’t be true—slight rain that had begun to fall. Make that sleet. Of course. The odds of my getting a cab were about as great as the odds of my being able to wrap this guitar in the leaves of the afore-mentioned Aeschynanthus lobbianus. Neither was there the remotest possibility of my spaghetti-arms having the fortitude to lug these giant boxes home from the subway—assuming I could even MAKE it to the subway, which, major wimp that I was (and remain) appeared doubtful. What now? It was at this crucial moment that I discovered Nancy Drew had deserted me. I have never forgiven her for it.
Nothing to be done but stand on a streetcorner and pray, then. It took me ten excruciating minutes to drag myself and my packages to an uptown street, where the cabs would be heading in the right direction to get me home. And then I stood there and prayed with all my might. And watched cab after cab zoom by. Finally, finally, about the time frostbite was settling into the tip of my nose, I spotted a cab whose rooftop sign indicated it was not carrying a passenger. Recklessly I left my giant boxes sitting on the curb and I stepped into the street, waving a frozen arm. The cab pulled over. I exhausted the last of my feeble strength in shoving the guitar and amp boxes into the backseat, and wearily, gratefully, I climbed in.
“Astoria,” I told the driver as he pulled away from the curb. Abruptly he pulled back over to the curb and stopped the car.
“Sorry, miss,” he told me (the imposing Ma’am having abandoned me along with that traitor, Nancy Drew). “I don’t go to Queens.”
“What do you mean, you don’t go to Queens? It’s part of New York City! New York City cabs go anywhere in New York City!”
“Sorry, miss. If I go to Queens, I’ll never get a fare back. I lose too much work that way, you see?” His voice was kind, his eyes gentle and apologetic, conveying his deep regret at having to put the needs of his family above my own.
On a warmer night, I might have been swayed by sympathy. It was, after all, only my second year in New York. I wasn’t a hardened city girl yet. And frankly, with a wimpy constitution like mine, there wasn’t much chance of my becoming one.
The forceful Ma’am-voice had worked to good effect on Sales Clerk Guy (sort of). Summoning it once more, I said sternly, “I’m sorry, but you have to take me to Queens. It’s the law.” At least, I was pretty sure it might be the law. Maybe.
The cabbie shrugged. “No, miss. I’m very sorry.”
Miss? Miss??? That was MA’AM talking to you, buster, and don’t you forget it! Um, except he appeared not to have noticed Ma’am in the first place. Drat it, and I’d had such high hopes for her. Another disappointment, just like that fair-weather friend, Nancy Drew.
Fine. If he wanted a Miss, he’d get a Miss. Miss, in fact, came very naturally to me. Miss was tired and hungry and cold and also beginning to worry that it was getting pretty late and her beloved would be heading home from the office soon, and what if he got there first and she didn’t have time to hide the presents? At this critical point, Miss did the only thing she could do. She burst into tears.
“You have to take me,” I sobbed. “I’m pregnant!”
There. I admit it. I played the pregnancy card—AND I cried—and I’m not proud of it, but it did get me home. The cabbie even carried my boxes to the front stoop for me, bless him.
Triumphantly (though still sniffling a bit) I stashed the packages in our neighbor’s apartment—utterly unaware that they were already hiding Scott’s present to me.
Which turned out to be, believe it or not, an electric keyboard. Because he knew I’d always wanted to play piano. Yes, it was our own little everything-but-the-pathos O. Henry-style Christmas, and it was beautiful. He was surprised, I was surprised, we were both thrilled with our gifts and quite proud of our spousal astuteness. In the months that followed, each of us devoted hours to the pursuit of our respective instruments. Then spring came, and I had the baby, and that was pretty much the end of my piano career. I play a mean “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” though.
Scott, on the other hand, continued to hunker down with that guitar (we did indeed exchange the blah white one for the ultra-cool black model) every night for the next, oh, what’s it been now, eleven years? And he got good. Really really good. One guitarist I know told me Scott is “the rhythm guitarist of his dreams.” It’s that drummer training, you know. Once in a very great while he even plugs into the amp. I can’t tell you how he sounds when plugged in, because I head for the hills at the mere on-click of the amplifier. Not a girl for loud noise am I. I mean loud MUSIC. Not noise.
Definitely not noise. When he plays for us of an evening while I’m feeding the kids or, say, nursing a baby, or resting my pregnant-once-again bones beside the fire and pretending I know how to knit, I know without a doubt that I am the luckiest woman alive. I thought I was giving him this great present all those years ago. I didn’t know I was giving myself a much bigger gift. A man who fills his home with music is a treasure worth far, far more than even a real Fender Stratocaster—worth more than Eric Clapton’s old “Blackie,” autographed and everything. Wonderboy stands at his daddy’s knee, staring up in open-mouthed delight at sounds that even he can hear. Our three girls dance, whirling like winged maple seeds on the wind. He plays the songs I love to sing and never winces when I butcher the lyrics.
I had no idea, all those years ago, that what I struggled to carry to that Manhattan streetcorner wasn’t just a pretty cool gift for my husband—it was the soundtrack of our marriage, the timbre of our lives to come.
From the Archives: Life on the Trail
Photos now, commentary later
Things We’ve Done This Week
It’s All Goo(d)