Image Source: New York Times
1:17 AM: The percolator finished bubbling and Kevin Walton pulled himself away from the window to pour a cup. He had the cushiest day-job ever, working a four-hour shift schlepping credit cards, so he was free to keep whatever hours he wanted. And he was fortunate enough to have found an apartment in the back of a building, offering quiet and seclusion. It wouldn’t last, but it was perfect for the time. He often stayed up all night, listening to jazz, playing his piano and staring out the window at the action, or lack thereof, across the air shaft.
Hot night, windows open, Ellington on the stereo. “Harlem Air Shaft.” Kevin remembered a quote from The Duke that he read for an assignment in Jazz History class at U Maine Augusta. He still had it in a notebook. He found the notebook in a steamer trunk and flipped through to the page:
“Take ‘Harlem Air Shaft,’” Duke said. “So much goes on in a Harlem airshaft. You get the full essence of Harlem in an air shaft. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love. You hear intimate gossip floating down. You hear the radio. An air shaft is one great big loudspeaker. You see your neighbor’s laundry. You hear the janitor’s dogs. The man upstairs’ aerial falls down and breaks your window. You smell coffee. A wonderful thing is that smell. An air shaft has got every contrast. One guy is cooking dried fish with rice and another guy’s got a great big turkey. Guy-with-fish’s wife is a terrific cooker but the guy’s wife with the turkey is doing a sad job.” Duke laughed. “You hear people praying, fighting, snoring. Jitterbugs are jumping up and down always over you, never below you. That’s a funny thing about jitterbugs. They’re always over you. I tried to put all that in ‘Harlem Air Shaft.’”
The New Yorker, July 01, 1944, Pg. 26
Kevin read that quote several times, staring out the window at his own air shaft, listening to the song that inspired it all, amazed to be living that dream. He thought of all those times walking across the campus at UMA, with the wind tossing up cyclones of crystalline snow, heading for another warm classroom filled with music. He thought of reading that Ellington quote and how much it resonated back then, and the feeling of sitting in class and thinking of maybe having an apartment that faced an air shaft one day. And here I am…
He looked out the window at the warm summer air shaft. He heard the guy in 6B yelling at family in San Juan. He got a whiff of curry – maybe a bowl of Mulligatawny from the Indian joint down the block. Somebody was playing salsa music somewhere. The night was alive in the air shaft, as alive as the Duke had made it. And here I am…
He thought of the amazing and unknown that is serendipity, and how some things just present themselves at precisely the right time. No known reason, other than perfection. And he thought of all the moments of serendipity in his life, from far past to near, that had aligned so perfectly. And here I am…
It was one of those moments when everything solidifies, when every thought and notion and dream and plan that had come and gone before suddenly is realized and makes sense. Nothing revolutionary, but still monumental. The lonely night wore on and Kevin kept the moment close, savoring the feeling of being the most content son-of-a-bitch in the building.
Read the article that inspired this post here:
And listen to the Duke: