Vicki Weiqi Yang

A Bad Accountant


ISSUE 47 | NOCTURNE | DEC 2014

These liminal rituals always begin allegretto semplice, with a child skipping out of a well-lighted place.

One evening in late June after the move, I crossed the river Main for want of compatriots, for I was already tired of expatriates and their (my) selfsame illuminations. It was cold for summer. Low underpasses, growling throatily when cars came by, made me jumpy as hell. I alternated between sprinting and walking to make up for a thin jacket. At nine the jazz club, located in what looked to be a residential neighborhood in the dark, was empty save for an old man sitting by himself on the wall-mounted bench, and a couple in their mid-thirties. The old man’s weizen glass was full and frothy. I sat down at the table next to his. At ten past a mustachioed man entered, scanning the place from the doorway. The couple got up.

“Larry!” the woman said, moving towards him. Her accent was vaguely New York but her hug was at least Midwestern, if not Deep South Matriarch.

The band, cheerful but a touch domesticated, took stage not long after I ordered my Weissbier (one of the few things I could intuit from the menu). At half past, the buzz kicked in like a hand softly laid across my forehead. There was a peaceful transition of power as the saxophonist made room for the singer, who had been loitering by the bar as her band ran through their instrumental repertoire. Now she joined them on the stage for “Summertime.”

This cover of the song was nothing special—a static imitation of the best recordings I would listen to after the fact. Sidney Bechet’s clarinet cover is a slow march in bad weather, a wistful noir theme in autumn. Artie Shaw, ever the cruel lover, switched between languid pillow talk and piercing rejection.

What was attractive to me about “Summertime” was its plasticity. It was an anthem of the world’s Holly Golightlies at double-time or, sung lounge-style, a yearning for bygone freebird days. It was a swing standard or it was undanceable. It was rush hour traffic jams, it was a cool cat strutting; it was probably the dirge backing somebody’s ailing marriage. That sort of openness to interpretation made it a veritable sandbox for the musician, and in fact the song is one of the most widely covered in music history. For me the Frankfurt singer stalled too much—showed off and flared her voice like a sparkler when she really didn’t have the strong sound to back it up. But just as one would become best friends with any tolerable casual acquaintance when removed from familiar surroundings, so I sat and gulped down my beer, smiling at Fish are jum-piiinnnnn’!

The Americanness of it, however fabricated, swirled about my ears.

When the song was over I had drained my weizen glass. The old man was only halfway through with his. Neon lights in orchid and cyan and orange played about the interiors, which were vaguely Bauhaus, maybe. The contrasting colors exaggerated that channel between the sensitive and the oversensitive.

I slipped out during the intermission. The ritual advances.


Illustration by Fontaine Capel

*

A few words about the rituals.

The rituals started years ago as a summer thing between bouts of school. I called them “voluntary all-nighters”, so as to distinguish them from the frenzied flagellation that all bad student-accountants must engage in sometimes. The night before I leave a city, I pack up and go somewhere quiet (subway stations, stairwells, and cafés each have their drawbacks and advantages) with the intention of reading for seven or eight hours—straight into the morning.

Over time, three rules have emerged to consecrate the rituals: 1) I must be alone; 2) I must not go back to whatever semi-permanent residence I had been keeping until that point; 3) I must not fall asleep. One of the ritual’s functional aims, I think, must be something too little too late, like “to imprint upon oneself the essence of a city when stripped of its diurnal hum.” Another is something like “to extend learning after formal learning”, or even “to subvert the work-play divide.” These are cheap explanations made more probable after the fact, of course. From the growing list of books I’ve finished via such rituals (Eichmann in Jerusalem, for example, on an apartment stoop; the graphic novel Chinatown by the Sun brothers; a collection of Dostoevsky’s short stories, including “White Nights”), it is possible to interpret the ritual as fruitful, even pleasurable.

But I am a bad accountant. What I never account for is how slowly the hours drip by in the absence of sound. By accident, then, owing to their abundance in Chicago, jazz clubs became a staple of these rituals while I was still a student. It was during one such liminal period that I first heard a lyrical rendition of “Summertime.” Unacquainted with its operatic origin, I thought the picture behind Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s classic was that of a mistress wagging a finger at her whiny, rich lover.

This notion was seeded by an instrumental version that I had discovered as a teen, played by the great and terrible violinist Jascha Heifetz. Clear, deceptively cold, glistening like the blue part of a flame, the 1945 recording sent the young me—at the time, a barely pubescent community orchestra player—into a tremor. Later when I had heard the lounge version for the first time, I imagined a woman speaking in a hard silvery voice:

So hush, little baby
Don’t you cry

She had stringy hair and was a painter or a prostitute, or both. He, the temporarily wayward scion of a Boston Brahmin family. Their rapport was understood differently. One of these mornings, she says.

One of these mornings
You’re going to rise up singing
Then you’ll spread your wings
And you’ll take to the sky

When I hear the song this way, I am acting as guarantor of the author-composer’s death: I am standing by the grave with a thick-handled shovel. Stay down, stay down, stay down! It must be no accident that both mothers and lovers croon.

You see, when I’m in a jazz club what I really want to do is dance. But during the course of a ritual, I never have anybody to watch my stuff. The desire—of wanting to dance, wanting to go into convulsions—pools. I cross my legs, pushing towards the asymptotic middle where the blue jeans are twice as stiff. It is then that I would have to leave for eggs and coffee.

At this hour all that’s open are diners and McDonalds and donut joints. I want to read again, and for another three or four hours I do, until waiters grow tired of watching me out of one eye or I grow tired of watching them. Shifts change, aprons furl and unfurl, workers grow restless. Bottomless coffee (“too much of a good thing”) widens that frayed nerve of a channel between the sensitive and the oversensitive. The ritual advances like a passage filled with slurred staccatos, sliding forward feline-like before lurching.

I am in a stairwell, which stinks of urine—which is fine.

But it is unusually cold for June and in that space I am an unmoving target. Now I am in a heated subway station. Now, a train car. I am decoupled, untrained, what have you, waiting for signal clearance and expect to be moving shortly.

The ritual is a two-player game of Chinese checkers, my wits (so I believe) versus the inevitability of sleep.

The prize for winning is immortality.

Or maybe the ritual is more like street craps, shedding light on my poor accounting in the traditional sense—not just in terms of time, but also of currency. An honest assessment of bank statements exposes me: neither Brahmin nor Bohemian, weaned on Bach’s partitas, the daughter of an (actual) accountant. Suppose that jazz clubs appeal to those searching for an easy subversion of four-four time.

Or not.

A man I am sitting next to in a McDonalds did not move for hours. It is cold for summer, but the exchange students are loud and sleeveless. The man has on a down jacket over an army green parka over a hoodie. The smell of acidic piss simmers in an olfactory stew of oil, beef, and teenage pheromones.

I’m wearing a sweater. I’m close to finishing my book and a second pack of fries.

The man is not reading because he’s trying to sleep.


Illustration by Fontaine Capel

*

At dusk one August weekend I bought a clay figurine the size of my tongue (when flattened) and braced myself for a reencounter with THE BIGGEST / MUSIC / CLUB / IN CENTRAL EUROPE, which leered at tourists on the Charles Bridge. It was like bumping shoulders with a bully. The place had the name of one too, Karlovy, though I only thought so because of the hard façade of that letter K.

The clerk wrapped the figurine in brown paper, put the package into a plastic bag with the fridge magnets for my mother, and handed me the receipt. He was delighted by my choice. (“You know the story of the Golem?”) I had thought the figurine cute, with its stubby arms and potato head, and wanted it for a friend. The trinket reminded me of something we had seen at LACMA, something tiny and moonfaced and skewered at the end of a stick.

I studiously avoided Karlovy and wound up reading on a park bench for most of the night. Two boys from Brno with meth mouths or cavities wanted to know if I’d like to split a joint, and, well—einmal ist keinmal.

*

I returned to the States, where I was swaddled in paychecks, then suffocated.

I have been rambling about “Summertime” for sometime now without quoting the lyrics in whole. It is with some trepidation that I do so now. American readers have likely heard the song at one time or another but will disagree about almost everything surrounding it, from the key to the tempo, to which stanzas are repeated and whether it is “really” jazz. Wars have sprung from shakier pretexts. I quote now from the original 1935 Heyward score, which is broken into four distinct, non-repeating stanzas:

A
Summer time
an’ the liv-in’ is easy,
Fish are jumpin’,
an’ the cot-ton is high.

B
Oh, yo’ daddy’s rich,
An’ yo’ ma is good-lookin’
So hush, little baby,
don’ you cry.

C
One of these mornin’s
you goin’ to rise up singin’,
Then you’ll spread yo’ wings
an’ you’ll take the sky.

D
But till that mornin’
there’s a nothin’ can harm you
With Daddy an’ Mammy standin’ by.

The music historian Ted Gioia singles out two notable vocal renditions of “Summertime” in his book of jazz standards: Billie Holiday’s 1936 recording, and the Louis Armstrong-Ella Fitzgerald duet of 1957.

The two versions have distinctly different feels. The Holiday version is assured; listeners are immediately brought into the folds by the call of Bunny Berigan’s muted trumpet and Cozy Cole’s tom-tom drums. When Holiday’s voice joins the mix—and she wastes no time in doing so, taking a brief eight measures to let her band set the pace—she is like a woman who takes the whole world to be her runway, now establishing the backdrop of a bountiful season, now pushing the privileged station of her charge (Onnne—of—these—mornin’s…!) into the sunlight. He is blinded, shielding himself from the swimming dust motes with a forearm. Of the most famous covers singled out by jazz aficionados, hers most closely resembles my feverish love affair: a world-weary woman, an impetuous young man. But hers is a redemptive ballad in which people don’t belong to people, and Holly does not run out into the rain after Paul. For one thing, my artist-prostitute would have never tossed out the cat.

As for the duet, the conception is a slow swing, perhaps a lullaby in tune with the original. Gershwin himself said that he never knew how good his songs were until Ella Fitzgerald sang them. The strings are dreamy. Fitzgerald takes her time, smoothly pouring her voice into the orchestra like a tequila sunrise. Armstrong comes in two verses later, first delivering his solo before accompanying Fitzgerald in some tender scatting. The trumpet that precedes them looms much larger, a herald rather than an escort. I discovered the other day, while listening to both the duet and the Holiday cover on repeat, that the two renditions also have slightly differently song structures.

The secret lay in the codas. Holiday’s version runs A-B-C-D-C-D, with emphasis falling on Daddy an’ Mammy standin’ by. In the Armstrong-Fitzgerald cover, however, the song is reinterpreted A-B-C-D-A-B. The duet ends with Armstrong, a father chiding his bloody-kneed son, entwining his voice with Fitzgerald’s to form a nuclear whole: [softly] Ohhh don’ you cry, [slightly louder] oh, don’t you cry, oh, don’t you cry.

Aw, don’t you cry!

Is Summertime the end of an era, then, or the birth of flight?

*

It is getting late, or early—and cold. A golem is an unformed thing. A baby grows up when it no longer doubts its own mortality.

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