Meeting Louie Armstrong

 

I’ve always loved jazz and the blues. I could say it’s because I grew up in the mountain country of Appalachia, a ‘made to order’ environment for singing the blues. But that would be a lie.  Probably, it was from listening to my dad’s mix of 78 rpm records: 40’s big band music, country songs from folks like Loretta Lynn and Jeannie C. Riley, the Ink Spots, and the incomparable Louis Armstrong.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the 60’s rock ‘n roll, but the rhythm and the words of jazz, the soul-touching emotion of it, ignited something within me. Still, it was the rockers who inspired me to wander . . . far from my roots.

Mid-semester of my junior year at Marshall University, I left school. Soon I had plans to audition for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

When my feet hit that New York City street for the first time, luggage firm in my hands, I was grinning like the Cheshire cat, my heart thumping louder than the surrounding din. I was just 20. Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, and Neiman Marcus had replaced the mom and pop storefronts that dotted the narrow streets of my hometown. The contrast between West Virginia’s fertile mountains streaked by two lane roads and this hulking concrete and glass jungle surrounding me was stunning.

I took to New York. My radar effortlessly tuned to the world-class shopping, bars, restaurants, entertainment, and music that was just blocks from my new home. Within a week, I’d passed my talent audition at the American Academy, and soon found a job at NBC. Honking taxis, skyscrapers, and pushy pedestrians now seemed as familiar as the aging brick buildings, manicured lawns, and bell-bottomed students of my alma mater.

On summer weekends, New York’s charm began early, sometimes awaking me to the vibrant sounds of a parade: drummers beating rhythm as trumpets, trombones, clarinets, and flutes, banners and majorettes, and all the glitter, color, and magic of a marching band would swing its way down Fifth Avenue. Laughter. Confetti. Contagion. The freedom and pomp of this glorious city made me feel like I could do anything.

I don’t remember how I met Bobby, but we became fast friends. A Queens, New York, native, he loved the city’s enchantment as much as me. He wasn’t dating anyone and when he needed a date, he’d sometimes call. I’d gladly oblige. Having followed his father into the entertainment industry, he always told fascinating stories and had interesting friends. But when he phoned to ask if I’d like to meet Louis Armstrong, I nearly split his eardrum.

It was Armstrong’s birthday party—black tie. Bobby had two invitations. He would rent a tuxedo, but I had to find a dress. The black velvet number I chose cost more than a week’s salary—scoop neck, short, and sexy, with colorful satin trim. Very sixtyish and stylish.

A few hundred people must have attended the lavish affair, most of them black, so we stood out. Bobby shook hands and introduced me, as we made our way through the crowd. When we got to Catherine Basie, one of the organizers and Count Basie’s wife, she pointed Bobby to the guest of honor. Because of his ill health, many thought this might be Armstrong’s last birthday.

The legendary cornet player faced forward, his back to a table. People approached him to pay respect and to gawk at a legend, but there wasn’t a line. Bobby knew Armstrong through his father and nudged me toward him. “Go speak to him.”

What do you say to an icon, a trail-blazing black man, whose talent and charisma had broken down racial barriers, but whom many now said was washed up and possibly dying? With my eyes fixed on the man I’d admired from Ed Sullivan, local juke boxes, and my dad’s records, I edged my way to his table. His white-toothed smile was as legendary as his cornet, and seeing it almost made me speechless. Still, I smiled as I approached his table. “Mr. Armstrong,” I said, finally next to him, “I’m Karyn Cantees. I just want to tell you I’m honored to celebrate your birthday here tonight.”

His eyes fixed on me. “You having a good time?”

The raspy familiarity of his celebrated voice, made me pause, but I finally managed a “yes, sir.”

He looked around the lavish room and sincerely stated, “Someone went to a lot of trouble.”

“You deserve this. It’s very glamorous.”

He laughed! Louie Armstrong laughed his famous, great laugh for me. Or perhaps at me. “I suppose it is,” he said grinning.

“Someone yelled from the next table. “Pops!” That’s what his friends called him. He turned and waved, but immediately turned back. Someone pushed in behind me. He winked—at me I think—and he took my ready hand. It felt warm around mine. “I’m so happy to have met you. I really love your music.” He nodded and said “I’m glad you could come” as my hand slipped away.

Others stepped in and Bobby was again at my side. “Nice man.”

“Y . . . yes,” I stammered. “Very nice.”

We stayed for a couple of hours, amid the music, the dancing, and the laughter, moving slowly through the beautiful crowd. When we left, the party was still ablaze.

Had the evening ended, my heart would have been full, yet in the spirit of the night, we stopped at a jazz and blues bar in lower Manhattan. People dotted the room like ants on a ditched picnic hamburger, but Bobby knew the bartender, and we quickly had drinks.

As I stirred my Golden Cadillac, an attractive gypsy girl across the room, wearing scruffy jeans and a colorful bandana, drew my eye. I know her! An entourage of young men carrying instruments, surrounded her. The familiarity of her face, made me think of Louis Armstrong. That same kind of knowing, but not knowing.

Was she famous? I couldn’t quit staring. Finally, my mind cleared.

Three years earlier, after high school graduation and during the summer, I’d lived with my Aunt LoRayne in Richmond, Virginia; I’d landed a job at an upscale women’s dress shop. Unbelievably, the woman standing before me had also worked there, and she had been my best pal in Richmond—Susan! (Not her real name) We’d double dated and hung out that summer. She’d worked bridal, I’d worked sportswear. What were the odds of seeing her in a New York City club?

She looked unlike her southern self, when we had worked and played in Richmond. The hair was blonder I think, longer, and certainly the clothing had changed. When she recognized me with the dapper Bobby, her gaze seemed to perceive a tall tale: I’d moved on up with the tuxedo prince and she’d moved on down with the musical pauper. No question, Bobby’s and my attire stood out amongst the blue-jeaned club goers. I wanted to tell her I was probably more broke than anyone after having to spring for my dress. We hugged, but spoke sparingly in the noisy club as their entourage waded through the crowd, toward the door.

Did she say the saxophone player . . . or the drummer, was her husband? No time to explain my outfit and the evening—that Bobby wasn’t my guy. Before they walked outside, we exchanged phone numbers.

That night I went home dazzled. A good friend had taken me to meet a legend, and I’d run into a friend I thought I’d never again see.

Louis Armstrong died the next year, before his birthday. I’d attended his last birthday party. Not surprisingly, I never saw or heard from Susan again. And, well, Bobby . . . he remained one of my closest friends, but after I left New York, we lost touch.

Life is ever-changing as people naturally come and go. It’s the soul and rhythm of life. Some fly by so quickly we scarcely notice, others dash by, maybe not as fast, but leave an indelible mark. Some stroll. And some thankfully stay.

Every time I hear Louis sing, “I see skies of blue and clouds of white, the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night . . . ”

I realize the magic and mystery of life isn’t meant just for heaven, but exists in the here and now. Where each life affects others. Where the music in your soul touches me and I touch you.

St. Paul promises us that for those who know Christ, our encounters will always work toward good. And they will have purpose. In a world where people skitter in and out of our life, where face-to-face encounters are less frequent, we can be heartened that our prose, the simple disjointed words of our hand, can “reach out and touch” more people than St. Paul could have imagined. Filling the globe with music.

Please finish the song, Mr. Armstrong.

“ . . . and I think to myself, what a wonderful world. Yeah.”

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My Dark City Night

     I didn’t know about the drugs. But I saw the girls, beautiful and fawned over, who used to sit in the big roomy booths. Once they left, I never saw them again. 2nd story in a NY series.

New York, New York, what a wonderful town! Theatres, museums, skyscrapers, financial centers, night life. . . The city itself is a celebrity. The song says, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” And I wanted to make it. Everything in New York seemed bigger and brighter—skyscrapers lighting up the sky, soaring toward the gleam of heaven.

But night comes fast in a city of towers, and bright lights slowly flicker out. When darkness descends, the city’s nocturnal life can turn to shadows of foreboding.

Especially when you get blindsided.

The National Broadcasting Company, (NBC), New York’s premier television station in the 1960s, had been my employer for about a year and a half. It wasn’t my dream job, just a starting position with first-class appeal and location—30 Rockefeller Center. I had an easy bus ride to work, and from work, on to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts where I attended acting school. Celebrity sightings were common at NBC, and really, that’s the reason this country bumpkin originally chose to work there.

However, restlessness and a desire to advance had steered me toward a possible career as an assistant casting director at a talent agency. In case the acting thing didn’t work out. Surprisingly, I was hired, but with a three week hiatus between jobs.

To celebrate, a friend took me to New York’s hottest, most trendy new restaurant and club where his father knew the owner. Immediately, I wanted to work there. I’d waitressed the summer before, my junior year at Marshall University, with a group of sorority sisters in Wildwood, New Jersey. So I had experience. My intent was simple: make some quick cash between jobs.

Aquarius, I’ll call the club, had gotten a smashing review in the New York Times and as luck would have it, the owner came to our table. When I brazenly asked him about a three-week job, he hired me on the spot. Unknown to me, and I hope to my friend, the owner was a half-crazed cocaine addict.

Aquarius was a great place to work: fast paced and lively. New York’s socialites and a few celebrities came and went. I received special treatment from the beginning: free drinks and no weekend schedule. I never gave it a thought since I had a connection to the owner, the other girls wanted to work weekends, and I would soon be leaving. The friend who had taken me there and introduced me, however, had gone back to Georgia, to finish an MBA program.

One night I was the closing waitress and the only person there except for the owner addict. I will never forget his name. He called me to his basement office in the dazzling four-level club, and when I got there, he walked behind me, slamming and locking the door. Wide, frightened eyes gave away my emotions. “Don’t even think about screaming,” he said in his thick guttural accent. “No one will hear you down here.”

He took off his belt and I thought . . . well, you know what I thought. But, then he said, “I’m going to beat you until no one recognizes you.” A mantra he kept repeating, like he wanted me to grasp the enormity of the words. “I’m going to beat you until . . .”

He held out his belt buckle, making sure my eyes met the heavy, reflective metal. “. . . no one will recognize you.” I had never been hit in my life. Dazed and terrified, a prayer went through my head fast. “Jesus! Please help!” Something like that.

Instantly, I was no longer horror-struck. Fearful perhaps, but strangely reassured. Sitting down, I patted the seat beside me. “Come sit by me,” I heard myself say.

Glassy eyes glared down on me. My knees felt as brittle as dead, fallen tree branches, but somehow I got up and took his face in my hands, running them down his arms. “Let’s get out of here,” I said, “This basement gives me the creeps.” He was totally stoned, his pupils scarily dilated.

I turned around fast—acting—the reason I’d come to New York in the first place. “Did you hear that?” Meanwhile, I would have welcomed Ali Baba and the forty thieves.

“I hear nothing,” he said.

“Please, I’m frightened,” I grabbed his arm tenderly. “Will you check it out?”

Several appeals later, he succumbed, “If you move while I’m gone, you’re dead.” He gave me an executioner’s look, unlocked the door, and walked out.

Don’t run. Don’t run!

The well-appointed room was small and softly lit compared to the bright, opulent surroundings outside the freedom door. I went back to the sofa and sat on my hands. They naturally trembled and they trembled now. Praying some more, I stared at the opened door, but stayed put.

No place to run.

When he returned, a lethal half-smile crossed his face, no doubt surprised I was there. “It was nothing, I told you.”

“Please, let’s go to my place or your place,” I said. “Anywhere but here.”

My ceaseless requests seemed not to register, until surprisingly, he agreed. It was late—at least 4 AM. He held my wrists tight, hurtful, as we made our way through the huge club. What I would do on an empty New York street, I couldn’t say, but that sense of calm streamed through me.

At the front of the building, he held only one of my arms while jerkily opening the wooden door with the keys in his right hand. But, the outside metal gate required both of his hands. Slit, moist eyes looked down on me, black and foreboding, as he released me to open the gate. I stood calmly. Waiting. When that metal clanked back, I shimmied through the opening and sprinted down that street like an Olympian! Even stoned he knew he had to lock the doors.

Unbelievably, at that early hour, at the end of the street, a cab was pulled to the curb. A beautiful black cabbie was cleaning ice cream out of the back seat. “Please, please, get out of here!” I screamed, jumping into the seat beside him, “Now!”

He looked at me as calm as the summer air, and with a lilting island accent, I swear he said something similar to this. “Lot of anxiety for this hour of the mornin’.” And he kept cleaning.

“Please! A man, he’s coming after me! Hurry!”

He put down his rag and got behind the wheel, his head shaking. Crazy woman. He didn’t need to say it.

As he pulled away, I heard my boss cursing, curbside.

Days later, and with little effort, a lawyer friend, David, found that my former employer was connected to a crime syndicate that enslaved girls. At the time, this naïve country girl thought that particular notion ridiculous. Today, I know human slavery is an all too real horror.

I did all the right things that night, too many to say it was luck. While I had strayed from my spiritual upbringing, my family always prayed. Today I see their dozens of answered prayers. I also see a guardian angel, not in the bedside chair of my youth, but next to my shoulder, telling me what to do and say.

And there was that child-like prayer, “Jesus, please help.” Simple words that produced supernatural composure and delivered me from a nightmare.

To be old and wise, the saying goes, you first must be young and foolish. And I was young and foolish. At the time, I didn’t see the signs or the depth of depravity that could have been. I did not make it in New York, but I made it out of New York. Because if we belong to Christ, while the world gets out of hand, we are always in the Master’s hand. In today’s insane world, it is the safest place, the only place to be.

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Visiting New York, circa 1981

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Winter at Rockefeller Center

NY 2

The Gift

New York City was like a drug and I was a junkie.

In the late 1960’s, I left the mountains and valleys of West Virginia for the sprawl and vigor of New York City. The air is different there. It stimulates your senses and you’re always in motion. The City is like a drug and I was a junkie.

Even before New York, and really for most of my life, I felt different. As a child I was terrified of the dark, fearing the demons that lined my room when the lights went out, creepy eyes always watching. I begged to sleep with Mom and Dad.

It sounds bizarre—demons. Well, that’s what I call them now. I’m not sure what I thought they were then. But there was something—I believe that. They weren’t in my head. And neither was the small angel who sat in the room’s lone chair.

Mostly, I was normal growing up, but sometimes I knew things there was no possible way I could know. It happened rarely, but it happened enough that I noticed. However, when I went to New York, that city air hit my brain and triggered something.

Strange things began to happen. For starters, New Yorkers don’t notice much, but they noticed me—on the street, in elevators, on buses—they spoke, stopped me, or struck up a conversation—invited me to dinner, to parties, to become famous. Sometimes it was a pure con brought on by my naiveté, but mostly it was just natives, curious about one of the city’s imports. Regardless, I felt like a yellow pointer sign flashed over my head, like a mountaineer hippie version of Marlo Thomas in ‘That Girl.”

My first New York address was the Phoebe Warren Hotel for Girls on East 68th Street. The Phoebe, as we called it, was a foreboding brownstone sitting amidst other better kept brownstones and high-brow embassies on a swanky limousine-lined, litter-free street, a half block from Central Park.

I met a few residents, including Christina, my future roommate, and now lifelong friend, a beautiful native with a great laugh who was constantly steering me from psychos, weirdos, and con artists. A demanding task, since they also saw my flashing yellow sign.

That revelatory ‘knowing’, energy, whatever it was—the lukewarm phenomenon that had ‘shown’ me things in my past—was now set on “go,” and because of it, occasionally I’d tell fortunes. One afternoon a woman I’d seen in The Phoebe’s dining room grabbed my arm in the tiny hotel elevator. She eyed me like someone who had latched onto the Holy Grail.

“You know something,” she said to me, her voice shaky. “You have to tell me! Please. Tell me now.”

I was alone and startled, but naïve woman/child that I was, I went to her room. Why? Well, I did sense something.

When we got there, I asked for a deck of cards. I didn’t really need them; mostly they were a prop, a way to share my ‘gift’ that people could understand.

After flipping through the cards, I unveiled a strange saga: two men were following a younger man they intended to harm. And the younger man needed to contact her. I don’t remember the details—they went on and on—however, I do remember her tears. You see, I confirmed her fears; the young man was her son. This happened at least twice at The Phoebe.

Religion wasn’t something I embraced at this life juncture, but I still prayed. And I believed. Mostly, I believed I had a terrifying gift from the dark side, and I prayed God would take it away.

One night, Christina and I went out to dinner. After we’d returned and gone to our rooms, she ran to my room because a large black bird had flown through her window and into her mirror. Not long after, she and I moved into an apartment on East 74th Street.

Months had passed without much ‘psychic’ nonsense when out of the blue I told Christina my ex-boyfriend was going to call. We hadn’t been in touch in over a year, maybe two. Unbelievably, he phoned that very night. She answered, and after he told her who he was, she screamed, “Karyn, you freak me out!” and handed me the receiver.

“What was that all about?” he asked when I answered.

“I told her you were going to call,” I said.

“How did you know that?” he sounded incredulous. “I didn’t even know it.” My life was about to take a huge turn.

The next few months were hectic. I was enduring the strain of a new job and a renewed long distance relationship with my ex. The first of November seemed to come early and was much too cold. I was out window shopping, on the way to an afternoon matinee with three friends. Suddenly, an attack of anxiety, complete with heart palpitations, swept over me. I spun around, reversing directions, like a drug addict sniffing out a fix. “I have to get back to the apartment!” I yelled back to my startled friends. They chased after me as my feet clapped the pavement. “What’s going on?” my friend Bobby asked as he hustled alongside me.

“I’m not sure.” I kept moving. “But something awful has happened and I have to get home.”

Bobby motioned for the others to follow and they were all there when I opened my apartment door to a ringing telephone.

It was my ex, who was now my boyfriend, and he was visiting in our hometown. “Karyn,” he spoke softly into the receiver, “your Dad died early this morning. Your Mom’s at the hospital. They think he had a heart attack.”

Just like that. Cullen Cantees, my 47 year old father was dead.

I had come to New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and, truthfully, to escape my father’s watchful eyes. The irony didn’t hit me for years: Dad died when I was living in the one place I felt hidden from his control. To further the irony, I immediately moved home. Five months later, I married my ex, who is, once again, my ex.

Thankfully, while I was in New York, I had a heavenly Father who sent both heavenly and earthly angels—friends like Christina and Bobby—who steered me. And though I wasn’t religious, two things I believed: Satan and evil existed as surely as God and good. And in the 1960’s of my youth, evil was often lurking. Today I believe the prayers of my family and my own simple prayers sustained me.

One of those prayers, the appeal I made from fright, I still sometimes ponder: “God, please take this psychic power, this “knowing,” whatever it is, away from me.” It was a prayer that for the most part was answered. At least for a time.

My ‘gift’ prepared me for certain events during this brief two-year, New York stint, and probably saved my life at least once (stay tuned). Yet knowing the unknown was frightening. Here’s what I’ve come to believe: For whatever reason, God gave me a prophetic gift, which, in my youth, I abused with cards and fortune tellers, not knowing what it was or how to use it.

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The left side view from our hotel room overlooking Central Park two years ago. The above, main photo is the right side view, the gorgeous NYC skyline, looking more like a painting than a photo.

Still, God was faithful! Because, while my “gift” was sidelined, it wasn’t eliminated. Today, I sometimes know things I have no way of knowing, other than the divine. It’s rare, but when it happens, I am reassured of His unending grace. And I am reminded that when darkness falls, the wondrous light of Christ is always shining.

The orchestra pit at Phantom of the Opera. Part of my dowry when Alan and I married was a yearly trip to NYC. It doesn't always happen anymore.

Orchestra pit, Phantom of the Opera. My marriage dowry *giggle* included yearly trips to NYC. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen.