Short memoirs by Peter Cherches

Doris Day, “The Very Thought of You” from Young Man with a Horn (1950)

            The film Young Man with a Horn often showed on TV when I was a kid. I think the first time I saw it, or part of it, my mother was sitting on the couch in the foyer, which rhymes with lawyer (the living room was rarely used, and it didn’t have a TV), watching it (maybe on “The Early Show,” maybe on “The Million Dollar Movie” ) on our RCA console. “What are you watching?” I asked her.

            “Young Man with a Horn,” she said. “It’s based on Bix Beiderbecke.”

            I hadn’t yet heard of Bix Beiderbecke, so I thought she said, “It’s based on Big Spider Back.”

            I knew Doris Day was a singer because my brother Bart had all her albums. But I knew her mainly from those romantic comedies with Rock Hudson and Tony Randall. I don’t know if I had yet heard the schoolyard rumors that Rock Hudson was gay, but I remember thinking that Tony Randall was probably gay, though this may have been a tad before the word “gay” had gained any currency.

            I probably started paying more attention to the film when I was a teenager and had started seriously listening to jazz. In it Kirk Douglas plays a “tormented” trumpet player based, yes, on Bix Beiderbecke as fictionalized by Dorothy Baker in her novel of the same name; just as when he played a boxer in Champion the year before, he gets to grit his teeth and growl a bunch. The brilliant actor Juano Hernandez plays trumpeter Art Hazzard, likely based on King Oliver, the young man’s mentor. Hoagy Carmichael, who was part of Bix Beiderbecke’s crowd, plays piano and pal, and Doris Day, who may not yet have achieved full virginity, is the love interest.

            Besides Douglas’ scenery-chewing descent into alcoholism, the thing I always remembered most was Doris Day singing “The Very Thought of You.” It was the first time I really listened to her singing, and it was beautiful, so smooth and natural, sexy at a simmer. Behind the scenes, the ghost trumpet for Kirk Douglas was Harry James, whom I remember doing commercials for Kleenex Man-Size Tissues, where he’d put a tissue at on the bell of his horn, blow a high note, and miracle of miracles, the tissue wouldn’t break.

            I fell in love with the 1950 version of Doris Day and I fell in love with the song. A great melody, and a great lyric, written in the 1930s by the British bandleader Ray Noble. “The mere idea of you, the longing here for you…”—that’s what I call a lyric. “Mere idea”: Don’t you just love it when two words that were meant for each other meet like that?

Joe Cuba Sextet, “Bang Bang” (1966)

            I remember incinerators. Until I was a teenager, we threw all our garbage down the incinerator chute. All our garbage. Food scraps, papers, tin cans, dead turtles, broken radios and alarm clocks. There was no recycling in the sixties, and it was not until around 1970 and the advent of the Clean Air Act, the Resource Recovery Act, and the EPA that compactors replaced incinerators. So every afternoon, or every other afternoon, I can’t remember, all that trash would go up in flames, with ominous black smoke billowing from the chimneys of the apartment buildings, a choking smell in the air, and cinders raining down on us, sometimes charred scraps of paper large enough to still make out some of the type. I associate the burning trash with warm weather, I suppose because that’s when we’d have been outdoors in the late afternoon, playing punch ball or shooting the shit.

            I associate Joe Cuba’s record “Bang Bang” with warm weather and burning trash, though I don’t think it was even a summer hit. But it feels like one. In my mind I hear it blaring, tinny and distorted, from a small transistor radio for all the assembled kids to hear, “beep beep, ahh beep beep,” a quintessential sixties city summer song, an open-the-fire-hydrants song, a real New York sound, where even if you didn’t live among Latinos there was always Latin music in the air.

            I also remember fireflies on Brooklyn summer nights, and trying to capture them in glass jars.

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