For the first two years in Madison, I live in Susan Bradford Hall. It’s on Greek Row. Once a dorm for women of some Greek alphabetic conglomeration, it’s been downgraded to merely a residence for anyone who chooses to live there.
It’s an old building. Well-constructed as all buildings were in the olden days, it’s completely soundproof. I can hear neighbors neither above nor below me, not on either side. The only noise I do hear, if I have my windows open, is the sound of the chronic sneezer and wheezer who lives on the top floor, just above me, who comes out on the fire escape to suffer through his near-daily allergy attacks from mid-spring to late summer. If I find his noisy discomfort too much to bear, I’ll turn on the AC. The sound of that unit could block out a nuclear explosion.
The Bradford is a six-story building. Every other floor is comprised either of one-bedroom apartments – floors 1, 3, and 5, or efficiency units – floors 2, 4, and 6. I live in a one-bedroom on the 5th floor. My view is of Lake Mendota, straight ahead, and the Memorial Library, the Wisconsin Historical Society, the red-brick Armory Building, the Memorial Student Union, and farthest away, although not far at all, really, the Helen C. White Hall, home to my department, the English Department. It’s a fifteen-minute walk for me to most of my classes.
In the evenings, I often return my neighbor’s allergic outbursts by sitting on the fire escape playing guitar. I’ve been practicing hard while I should be studying, and my playing has improved by leaps and bounds.
Every Friday night at Der Rathskeller, the most popular bar on campus, housed on the bottom floor of the student union, is open-mic night. I often listen to the offerings and wonder if I might try my hand at a performance.
One Friday, much to my surprise, my landlady goes up and plays guitar. She has a beautiful voice, covers favorites such as Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris. She enthralls me.
After she’s done, she sits down with a tableful of her college friends. They drink a lot of beer and have laughs a plenty. When she gets up to leave, I get up, too, follow her out as she lugs her guitar up Langdon Street toward our building.
Catching up with her, I say hello and offer to carry her guitar for her. She recognizes me, even though I only see her once a month when I drop off my rent check, and gladly accepts my offer.
I tell her how much I admired her playing and singing, and she thanks me, a very humble thank you. I tell her that I play guitar as well and am thinking about going up on stage one of these Fridays.
“You play beautifully,” she says.
This catches me off guard. Given the expression on my face, I suppose, she laughs and says, “I hear you sometimes at night when I’m sitting out on the front steps. I really like those Hawaiian songs.”
We’ve reached our building. She opens the door, ushers me in, and we make the abrupt left turn to her apartment door.
“Would you like a beer?” she asks.
Would I like a beer? You bet your bottom dollar I’d like a beer. My heart is beating like Buddy Rich and Ed Shaughnessy exploding on the Tonight Show.
“Well, yes, that would be great,” I say, feeling that my heart is visibly pumping my shirt up and down.
She brings me a beer. “Can you play me some of those Hawaiian songs?” she asks.
Opening her case, she hands me her Martin guitar. It must be worth a couple thousand dollars. For a moment I forget how to play, my mind swirling with all kinds of thoughts.
After another couple of beers, I launch into a set that includes gems such as “Honolulu City Lights,” “Ku‘u Home o Kahalu‘u,” and “Hawaiian Lullaby,” also known as “Where I Live There Are Rainbows.”
When I finish, she compliments me more than I deserve. I was so shaky, I could hardly play my best. She brings me another beer.
“You know, if you’re too nervous to play for just me, open mic is going to be a killer.”
It strikes me that I’ve never played in front of anyone before. Smooth-mover that I am, I say, “Well, could I practice more with you so I get used to playing in front of people?”
She laughs. “Hey, yeah, that’s a good idea. How about we play together a couple nights a week?”
“Oh yeah,” I say, trying not to sound too excited, “that’s an excellent idea.”
I leave it at that, get up to go. She follows me to the door, leans against the jamb. “How about tomorrow night?” she says. “Eight o’clock?”
I nod. “Sounds good.” I want to kiss her, but I’m not that smooth a mover, and I’m too sober anyway.
The next night is the beginning of many nights together. Eventually, we move beyond music and start studying together. Eventually, we move even beyond that.
You know, I’m proud to say that all the women I’ve dated either are or were good students.
My landlady is such a good student she announces to me near the end of spring semester that she’s been accepted to the MBA program at the UPenn Wharton School of Business.
I congratulate her, but I immediately see the end of our relationship approaching like a runaway freight train. We play through the early summer when she takes off for Pennsylvania. Our goodbyes are tearful, especially on my side.
A few weeks later, our new landlady makes the rounds, introducing herself to all of us. She’s the younger sister of my old landlady. When I open the door to her knock, I take a deep breath. If it’s possible, she’s even more beautiful than her sister.
We exchange pleasantries. I mention that I’ve enjoyed playing guitar with her sister. “Oh yes,” she says, “it’s you. My sister talked a lot about you.”
Her smile knocks me out, but a couple of weeks later I move to an apartment complex way down Park Street, close to the Beltline, Madison’s equivalent of an interstate highway.
At night I hear the neighbors above, below, and on both sides of me. The ones below come up several times to complain about my guitar playing. I stop altogether, the joy sucked out of me.
Late at night, when everybody finally shuts the hell up, I lie in bed and listen to the sound of trucks as they roll down out on the Beltline. I miss making music. The following year I move to a place on University Avenue with thicker walls. Begin to play again. It’s been so long since I’ve touched my guitar, I feel like I’m learning from the beginning all over again.