I was in 9th grade and sitting in the band room during lunch- because that’s what band geeks do- when I heard the most perfect piano rendition of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue coming from one of the practice rooms.
I recognized Gershwin anywhere. My father, being a piano player himself, loved Gershwin, therefore I loved Gershwin in attempt to bridge the three-state gap between us.
I didn’t know that anyone in my school loved Gershwin as much as I, let alone play his 32-page composition perfectly.
I peered in through the tiny window of the practice room and like a caged animal, I see a flurry of arms and hands running up and down the keyboard. I didn’t recognize the kid, he looked a few years younger than me, but I knew I had to meet him.
I waited outside the room like an eager fan and introduced myself before he could even collect his sheet music.
His name was Josh and he was in 7th grade and playing that “little old sheet music” was no big deal to him.
But it was a big deal to me.
What brought Josh and I together was music, but what made us close was the camaraderie that only a small town can bring (and Frank Zappa).
When I was old enough to work, Josh’s family invited me to work at their Italian restaurant in the larger city 30 miles outside of my hometown. The restaurant has been in the family for seven decades and spanned three generations. It was a staple in Ithaca, NY and everyone knew Centini’s.
I could not have asked for a better first gig. The first gig turned into my college gig and Centini’s turned into my second home. At the end of the night, we would all sit around and eat mounds of spaghetti and meatballs and talk about the characters that came in an out of the restaurant that day. Josh’s mother and uncle would never let me leave without cartons of spaghetti to bring to my dorm and they had a fit when I told them that I was happy eating the salad bar that evening.
I was part of a big, genuine Italian family that loved me like their own and my last day at Centini’s to move onto LA was a sad one.
Every time I came back to visit NY, Centini’s was the first place I went until one day it was no longer there.
Sometimes I dream that it is still there.
I saw Josh last week. He was in Austin visiting from Ithaca. His musical talents bring him all over the country and he was performing at the University of Texas. I told him to wait for me to pick him up on the street corner and like typical nervous Josh, he decided to run to the opposite side of the street that I was pulling over to. I threw up my hands like, “What the f are you doing!?” and he quickly ran back and jumped in my car as a line of traffic built up behind us.
“So, I’m going to take you to a bar on the east side where some of my friends are. That ok?”
“Yeah, but I just warn you, I’m not good with meeting large crowds of people.”
I laughed. Josh is always good with large groups of people, he has over 1585 Facebook friends for cyring out loud- everyone loves the kid- but I knew what he meant. I didn’t feel like dealing with a crowd either.
We sat and caught up and drank Bloody Mary’s with pickled okra and he gave me his pickled okra because he didn’t like it and he told me how happy he was with his life and how I should move back to Ithaca because when “the world is coming to an end, Ithaca will be a safe place to hide out” and how his Dad, who has been sick with MS for many years, is in an adult daycare center and can’t really talk, and how his Mom, the most selfless, hard-working woman you will ever meet, just quit smoking and after all of that talk, he turned to me and said, “Lauren, where have you been my whole life?”
When I dropped him off at his hotel room that night, before he shut the door, he winked and said, “So, want to come up to my hotel room? There’s a kitchen”. I fained excitement and then punched him in the arm along with my typical response of, “Josh, you’re like my little brother. Get lost, goober.”
Josh flew back on Saturday.
Monday, I noticed everyone was writing about him on Facebook.
My heart sank.
I quickly went to his profile and saw a barrage of “we’re praying for you” messages. It took me a long time to comb through the messages that his loving friends had left for him to find an answer.
He was in a serious car accident and in critical condition. Bits and pieces of info from Facebook said that he had to be revived twice on the way to the hospital, that he has head trauma, and was going to need multiple surgeries including reconstructing his arm and tending to his stomach and lungs.
Josh is in a coma right now and that’s all I know.
I keep thinking about when Josh told me last week how happy he was with life and I am left with so many questions and hopes.
If you’re in the Ithaca area or elsewhere and would like to help, you can follow updates here.