It’s just about 7:30, with no reservations on the books this Tuesday night at Tartufo, the restaurant I play in five nights a week. I normally sit down to play at about 6:30pm and continue, with a ten-minute break somewhere in between, until 9pm. But tonight, I sit in the empty bar sipping a big bottle of Pellegrino, taking in the low hum of the fridges, the Italian cooking music channel on Pandora overhead, and the muffled, agitated musings of the chefs in the kitchen nearby. They got here at 1pm this afternoon to slice the prosciutto, and prep the vegetables; As soon as 9pm rolls around, if we still have no one, they’ll probably tear down the sandcastle they built up for tonight, and trudge home, heads hanging, pails in hand.
We were picking up for awhile this winter, especially the week of Valentine’s Day, when we were fully booked nearly every night. But we advertised for that, and people came. That’s the thing about telling people your restaurant is open: people tend to show up. When you stop, they do as well. Our manager, an energetic, otherwise unflinching woman named Carla, was hit hard by the flu season this year. When she refused to stop working as she was bedridden with that, she developed pneumonia, and has been out of the restaurant for nearly all of the past two months. I heard she stopped by this afternoon to talk with the staff about getting the word out.
I feel conflicted about the spot in which I find myself currently. On one hand, I know how lucky I am to have this gig. I sat here 30 minutes ago eating a steaming hot bowl of freshly cooked calamari, in a Marsala sauce with crusty French bread. I have food this good every single night, and then proceed to sit down at a grand piano I tune myself, and play literally any song I desire, even my own. And yet, my ears remain perked for the ever-looming possibility of a walk-in—perhaps my one regular that comes to see me every week—and I’ll need to jump up and play rather than sit here enjoying the white noise.
Does this mean I’ve lost the fire, the life-and-death calling to perform that I remember having at 15? Could it also be that I’ve been heckled, glared at, told I was awful, and every manner of rejected over the past 12 years musically and have developed a coward’s callused heart? Or, lastly (following the rule of threes), could it simply be that I would love to have a moment to breathe, write, and practice some new songs (especially originals), siphoning some fresh juice into my set? You probably beat me to it, but I'm guessing it's a mix of all three.
Hesitation is such an odd, interesting, yet terrifying thing. It can save your life or ruin your chances in a split second. If you didn’t have it, you could wind up dead, or famous faster than everyone else just by taking the daredevil shots while another might gulp and give themselves the hiccups. I feel that when I’m ever faced with a decision that presents itself so clearly as an opportunity right in front of my nose, I do jump for it. If someone came through the door, I would play. My laziness would lose. When I may not know a song well enough to play it all the way through without some major chasms in between, yet I know that this song stands in between my customer having a good and a great night, I play the damn song. Warts and all, as my Texans would say.
Someone did end up coming, it turns out, and I did play. Jeff, a friend and longtime listener of my music became our only patron for the evening when I heard the old door creak open and slam closed at around 8pm. He comes nearly every week, and has been a big reason for my re-growth of confidence over the past two years. Tonight was an especially needed visit; with the utter silence of the restaurant otherwise, Jeff gave me the freedom to try out some new songs I’d never played before, not judging me one bit. Remember that breath of fresh air I said I needed? This was it.
I passed him my iPad containing my more than 100-song set list, and he quickly scrolled through. Then, like a human jukebox over the next hour, he called out numbers and I played them, happily.
Listening to my set earlier this morning (Wednesday), I could hear the joy and freedom in my voice; I was doing the best I could to just tell each song’s story in my own way. For as fun as sitting on by butt doing nothing can be, there aren't many feelings greater than when I’m up against the wall, and have no other choice but to sing my heart out.