I know exactly when my love of audio began ̶ maybe not the day, date, or hour, but the man who gave me the priceless gift. It wasn’t a salesman, friend, or parent, but an unsuspecting mentor. Little did that person know he would create an audiophile just by playing a few tracks.
I was once sent off for a week to stay with an aunt and uncle out in New Jersey, somewhere in middle-class suburbia not too far from the George Washington Bridge. They weren’t my real aunt and uncle, but friends of the family ̶ Russians not Yugoslavians like us. They lived in a two-story white house in a cul-de-sac complete with a tidy front yard and spacious backyard with a creek running through it. Militza (MEE-lee-tsa), once a music teacher, stayed home to care for the house, her mother, grandmother, and a toddler.
John was a nine-to-fiver who worked at one of the countless office buildings in Manhattan where he did some vague office job. He got up when it was dark, put on a suit, and returned home when it was dark. We always waited for him to have dinner together. During my stay, Militza made linguine and white clam sauce a few times, my new favorite meal. While slurping up garlic, clam bits, and greasy noodles, I couldn’t help but notice John’s choice of evening libations: water with his meals and a watery yogurt drink for dessert. In my limited experience at age ten, that was odd. I’d never seen a grown man drink anything weaker than a beer.
Dinner was a sedate affair, even with Sasha drooling his homemade vegetable juice all over the place. He was a good baby though, and was very happy to have a fellow only-child stay in his room. Afterward, John cuddled with Sasha, watched some news, and prepared for bed, only for the whole routine to start over the next day. These people were dull, but I grew to appreciate their predictability.
In addition to pasta with clam sauce, Militza also introduced me to schmeared bagels and sweet black tea, thus flipping nearly every inherited addiction-switch in my fourth-grade brain. Caffeine, sugar, casein, and chewy crunchy glutinous bread all in one sitting? Yes, please, I’ll have lots more of everything. She had to limit my tea intake after I started brewing it myself: the dose increased to two bags of Tetley (one was not doing the trick) with two big heaping spoons of the white stuff. After she moved my junk to higher shelves in the kitchen, Sasha showed me the step stool to get tea bags for me and cookies for him to keep his mouth shut while Militza attended to the babas upstairs.
During the week, I ran errands with Militza and played with Sasha so she could get her work done. Otherwise, there were plenty of naps and snacks but no TV during the day, only free piano lessons courtesy of Militza. When Friday came, John was home earlier than usual. I must admit I was a little jealous that I no longer had Militza to myself, and, at the same time, a bit fearful of John – not because he did anything to me, but because he was the man of the house, and, well, you never know what mood they can be in. Sometimes they’re really happy, sometimes they’re really sad, and sometimes they’re really mad.
Before changing into weekend clothes, John told me to meet him in the front living room, which was restricted to Sasha and me. All the meals were eaten in the kitchen and lounging was done in a sitting room behind the kitchen – perhaps servant quarters at one time. That’s where the only television was too. This arrangement was familiar to me. Everyone in my ethnic sphere observed this rule: the living room was reserved for special guests. Kids, pets, close friends, and family had the basement, kitchen, or yard. No housewife wanted to double her cleaning.
My stomach was churning and tingling over my meeting with John. Perhaps he was done boozing in the city and was ready to have a meandering, slurry conversation with me. I couldn’t figure out why he was home early to be with us kids and the old women on his night off! My own father often left on Friday afternoon and sometimes didn’t return till Sunday after brunch.
An overgrown 1970s Manhattan club kid and all-round bon vivant and charmer when he wasn’t at home, my father hated boring people and would often tease straight folks for not partaking. A drunk hates nothing more than drinking alone in a crowd, so he liked nothing more than talking people into “just a little something” in hopes of finding simpatico souls. It didn’t matter if it was a confirmed teetotaler, a senior citizen on medication, driver, or newly minted drinking-age teen, he loved getting the party started. John would rarely take a glass of wine or beer, despite the peer pressure, let alone a convivial shot of slivovitz or vodka. To the drinking crowd at our family gatherings, John was a snob who just sat there without gossiping or weighing in on near bloody political arguments.
It turned out that John called me into the living room for no other reason than to share the hobby he held dear: his music. John opened an armoire containing a turntable, what I know now as an integrated amplifier, and his classical record collection – think of those box sets displaying severe old men on the label with unpronounceable Slavic names. Not really my thing, but he looked as thrilled to be showing off his ebony vinyl as if it were Romanov china, handling it just as carefully.
The needle went down and POW!! The music sprang out of the two cabinets at each end of the room. And I use the term “cabinet,” not in the technical sense. The front speaker panels were as tall as any kid in middle school, and the tops were draped with hand-crocheted lace doilies. Fooled by a clear marital compromise of an heirloom samovar on one and white porcelain elephants on the other, I assumed the speakers were cabinets containing the good silverware and crystal.
I don’t recall the composers, conductors, or the symphonies that he played. I don’t remember the equipment other than the speakers, but none of that matters. What stayed with me was the alternating tranquility and excitement of listening to John’s beloved gear as the behemoths filled the space with music. He explained what he had just played and what was up next. I didn’t care for opera or soloists but loved the big orchestral sound with its sweeping drama, and so he would flip through what was probably a bunch of Deutsche Grammophon and RCA Victor for other pieces I would enjoy. Like any audiophile, he loved showing me what his system could do and alerted me to notable passages with upraised index fingers as if conducting.
With Militza and Sasha nowhere in sight, this time was just ours, and I soaked it up. This much individual attention was a rarity. Who was I to have John sharing his afternoon with me? Perhaps an inconsequential few hours for John, but for me, it was the foundation for a lifelong hobby given to me by a quiet, thoughtful man.
I have not seen John, Militza, or Sasha more than once or twice since that week. Why that is, I don’t know. Perhaps it was because I wouldn’t stop showering compliments on Militza. “How come you don’t buy bagels? Militza’s house is so nice! John is home at night. I need tea! John taught me all about records.” After having heard enough, my mother told me I could live with Militza if I loved her so much. Had I known better, I would have taken advantage of the offer.
A few years later, I would subscribe to stereo magazines, and there they were, those cabinets at John’s house! They were the Klipschorns. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a pair in person, but a mere photo brings back memories of classical records, black tea with sugar, the mysterious workings of stereo equipment, and the concept of quality time.
Is that what a hobby is for most of us, just a reenactment of frozen moments we still treasure? I suppose that’s why some people make lures, build cars, amass collections, or fetishize tubes, vinyl, and horns.
If I ever have the budget and space for the Klipschorns, I would get them immediately ̶ regardless of the crowded field at that price range and quality level. But until I can procure the latest version of Paul Klipsch’s seventy-three-year-old design, I try to connect with John – forty years later – by delving into the deep black discs of Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, and Stravinsky. I handle them like Romanov china.