The grande bold slicks down my throat. I wrap myself around it like a cat at the fireplace and when the heat of it reaches my toes, I feel warm for the first time in two hours. The bus had its A/C cranked, beating back the heat of a sun on the other side of the planet and, coupled with the lack of a pillow and the seat-adjustment lever in my thigh, I felt like a hunk of meat swaying in the freezer, waiting for the butcher’s block.
Now I’m in downtown Pittsburgh without a car at 5:36 AM, flip-flops on my feet, looking like I should be pushing a shopping cart.
I left DC at 12:15 in the morning on the first leg of my second ragtime odyssey of the year, and all I’m dreaming about as I wander the streets is a hot cup of coffee and a warm blueberry scone. Chances of me finding something with its sign lit up, however, let alone open for a cup of joe, are infinitesimal. Unlike New York, Pittsburgh is the city that never wakes.
At least it feels that way at 5:36 AM when the sun isn’t up yet and even the 7-Eleven – the 7-Eleven – is closed. But I’m from this city. I bleed this city. And I have a sixth sense about its strengths, its hopes, which is how I found the Starbucks I’m sitting in; first rule of Pittsburgh: when in doubt, walk to Heinz Hall.
Starbucks before 6 AM is an entertaining place to be. The half-aproned, half-perky people behind the counter, in between serving vats of coffee to the shocking number of people already in line when I arrive, are going through the shelves writing down what they need more of. “We’re out of tons of stuff: dark coffee beans, Rice Krispies, brownies, vanilla, strawberry, whipped cream…” The list reads like the digestive tract of the AM urban effete. At this point though, any feelings about Starbucks and their “grande” instead of “medium” aside, I’m just happy to be counted among them, the Camel-draughting construction worker and plaid pantalooned boy toy alike.
My intimate ‘burgh knowledge rewards me with a comfy space to sit and sip, waiting for Bryan and Yuko to come pick me up. We’re driving nine hours to Peoria, IL today, the site of the World Old-time Piano Playing Championship.
This event is unique in the world, the only long-running old-time piano contest in existence. I’ve competed in it twice, in 2007 and 2010, and placed fourth both times. For someone who bills himself as “face-melting,” fourth place was pretty ego-bruising, to be honest. Spitznagels not named “Mark” are, by nature, not very competitive beasts, but I do have one very big competitive bone that, when roused, roars like a hungry mountain lion and demands to rule the world. Maybe that’s why I’m returning to Peoria one more time – a chance at a bigger piece of meat.
The main event this sunny Friday is the composition contest, held in the ballroom of the Hotel Pere-Marquette. I won the composition contest in 2007 for my “Red Elephant Rag” – very cool – but got my ass pounded in it last year by Jacob Adams and Bill McNally, each of whom wrote lovely rags that had a lot more colors and variety than my contender, “The Seagull Shuffle,” did. (I got the last laugh, though – teen idol and man-throb Brian Holland now plays “Seagull Shuffle,” which kind of makes my life).
Indecisive as I am, I spend the car ride to Peoria fretting over what piece I should enter. My entry needs to have more than one mood, a strong melody, and a great flow. Bryan and I debate it, weighing the strengths of my pieces. The “Newbie Eubie” is grand and impressive, but it might get docked points for being evocative of another composer. “Marty’s Blues” is my most harmonically advanced piece, but I can’t bear the thought of swinging it around like some kind of ragtime sword and risk it getting dinged and scratched.
We do this for each eligible composition, and I don’t select a contender until right beforehand, finally deciding to enter “The Smoky Rose,” my latest composition, as the one with the best chance of wooing the judges.
It proves to be a good choice, as this first-place trophy attests 😀 Okay, I think, this is off to a good start. Little did I know just how good the next ten days would turn out to be…