Friday, August 12, 2005

Musicians on Call

Your humble GuitarGirl reporting from the plane, en route to Italy. Go get your coffee, gang. I’m running long today.

Guitar backpack strapped on tight, I am walking along Sixth Avenue on my way downtown. It is a very pleasant afternoon. I hear Hebrew, Italian and Greek spoken in the street. It’s the day before our cruise to Italy, Croatia and Greece with the Israel holiday add-on. I am going to places where I will probably hear nothing but English in the street since apparently all of the locals are here in New York on holiday.

I arrive at the Foundling Hospital. It’s exactly as my friend Lisa Ludwig the rock star says it will be. I have come as a volunteer to perform music for three floors of kids, infants through teens. Most of them are too sick to be home and there are a too many palliative, non-responsive kids.

This is my first gig for Musicians on Call, a non-profit organization that arranges bedside visits by musicians to hospitals and homes. I learned about it from my first chance meeting with Michael Solomon, its founder, who also manages the fabulously gifted singer songwriter John Mayer.

Michael and I met when I attended a fund raiser for the Kristen Ann Carr Foundation, which labours tirelessly in its pursuit of a cure for sarcoma. When we first arrived, a wonderfully energetic and dashing young turk came by to say hello. In no time I learned that Michael had been the fiancé of Kristen Ann Carr, who was stricken with the disease which tragically robbed her of her life. Having lost a young love myself, I connected with Michael. Although you can never really recover from such loss, Michael was a true leader who took tragedy and made from it something positive and hopeful.

Kristen’s parents, Dave Marsh and Barbara Carr, were at the event and were surrounded by many of Kristen’s friends who now participate in the foundation’s events. They also get a lot of support from Bruce Springsteen and the E Streeters. Barbara is Bruce’s manager, and Kristen had basically grown up in the music business around these people. Dave is “That” Dave Marsh, the prominent rock journalist from Rolling Stone.

As we spoke, Michael mentioned that his father was a prominent Jewish communal professional. It turned out that his father was a longtime colleague of my husband. Furthermore, he and his wife had given us a lovely wedding gift, which adorns our house to this day. In fact, we had socialized with them and had been to their home for dinner. His parents were on the board of Musicians on Call.

Michael really inspired me. We kept up. The day came that I would be meeting him at his management office on the Upper West Side. I will never forget that day. It was gorgeous out. I figured I’d go for a walk in the park before the meeting. I even remember what I listened to that day: a reggae compilation.

I got to the house, feeling mightily righteous and ready to start my day. I called Michael on my way out the door at 9 a.m. The phone was out of order. There was only one other problem.

It was Sept. 11, 2001.

So now it’s four years later and I’m walking down to the Foundling Hospital, ready to do my thing.

It’s an amazing little hospital in what must be a historic building, filled with fabulous staff, all smiling and friendly. The kids are everywhere. I am being led around by a host from Musicians on Call who is also training a new volunteer host. We make our rounds together. They guide me and I go in there and do my thing.

Lisa Ludwig, who has a killer band called Black Flamingo and is a New York City icon, is a tough act to follow, but I do my best. I am the maverick cowgirl with funky jewelry to her black/leopardskin/sparkles rockstar. It’s a good match. The kids are thrilled to hear that we are connected. So it’s like a visit from a favorite relative. That makes me feel good and I am in top form, working the room, learning the names, improvising and playing with the kids as though I were one of them.

There are many rooms that are sealed off because there is a bug going around the wards and the kids are very susceptible. Or because some of the kids are very excitable or can’t handle the stimulation. Reasons for everything and signs up to let you know if you absolutely can’t enter a room.

I do manage a few smiles down on the third floor, where most kids are on respirators and are not responsive, other than eye contact. Yet, a few tiny kids in wheelchairs reach out to strum my guitar when I come around. I let ‘em. I sing. I talk to them. Sometimes we even laugh. Mostly their smiles made me laugh and that made them smile more.

Up on the fourth floor my first encounter is with Lisa’s “boyfriend.” He is in his single digits, wheelchair bound. And at the computer station, playing a game. He has no time for music today.

“Uh-uh, not today,” he says, and I get brushed off, as does another kid. But he’s funny about it and I’m actually kind of flattered when he is told, “This is Lisa’s friend.” Even so, I am shooed away in favour of the game.

A West African kid with a gorgeous smile is flirting with me. I say to him, “Here’s a song your parents know for sure,” and launch into My Girl. He is excited and very appreciative. Doesn’t want me to go.

I turn to walk away for a moment and then I turn back to him.

“Parles-tu francais? I ask him.

He vehemently shakes his head no and laughs. I ask again. Of course he does. Note to myself: Next time, a French song.

I’ve loosened up now, in a room filled with three girls who are my teenage daughter’s age. I’m now singing in Hebrew if I sense that the child is Jewish. And I throw in a French song, too. These girls transcended their bodies and were just being girls.

I sang Stand By Me. I hadn’t done that song since the Passover seder at my mum’s, which was the Seder To Remember: her last one. My longtime musical partner, the wildly talented Ardene Shapiro, joined me in a little concert of all my mum’s favourites from our old band days. It was the last time I saw my mum smile and really interact with her friends and loved ones.

In this room, with these girls, I felt the presence of my mother for the very first time since she died. She was with me, and she was happy.

Before I know it, two hours have passed and it’s time to go.

A quick debrief with the music therapist. I mention to her that I sort of ethnicated my song list and tried to play to the crowd. We talked about certain kids’ responses. She was thrilled to hear that some kids actually sat up (or really tried to) and participated.

On the way home, I walk with the new volunteer and we talk about our experience. Uplifting. Profoundly sad. A little piece of Gd on Sixth Avenue.

You can really learn a lot from these kids, like how precious every second is. I was fortunate to be able to serve them a little piece of quality time. I hope I did a good job.

Great news. Musicians On Call asked me back. I’d love to take my girls next time. Maybe I will.

Huge shout out to Michael Solomon and to Lisa Ludwig. We need more people like that.

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