A senatorial lifer, &c.


This lil’ Impromptus will be mainly politics-free — but I wanted to tell you this. I went home to Michigan recently. And there at the airport in Detroit was Senator Levin. He has been in the Senate virtually my entire life, or so it seems. And he always looks the same, year after year: rumpled, professorial, vaguely genial. He is almost as unchanging as Dick Clark was, legendarily.

This liberal Democrat is up again in 2014. And I remember something that Jack Germond said on The McLaughlin Group, years ago. He said, “Levin always looks easy” — always looks beatable. But he turns out not to be. Maybe if he’d had to face the public this year?

At the airport, I shuttled to a rental-car agency. I was the only one in the shuttle. The driver said, “Where’re you from?” I said, “Ann Arbor. Where are you from?” He said, “Dearborn.” I said, “Dad work at Ford Motor?” The man smiled: “He sure did.” And then he started to talk.

His grandfather was born in Hungary: and left on the monastery steps. A priest took him in. This boy learned the art of blacksmithing. Eventually got his own wagon. He also got married. Then he made the gutsy decision to go to America. He sold the wagon for six dollars. And he very nearly — very, very nearly — sailed on the Titanic.

In America, he did some more blacksmithing, and pretty successfully. “He could make anything out of steel,” said his grandson. The blacksmith’s son worked for Ford for 43 years — fairly dangerous work, too. And he was very grateful to the company. “You could never badmouth Ford around him,” said his son.

This fellow, the Ford man, was pretty shrewd about politics too — or you might call him cynical. He voted against FDR after two terms, saying, “If a politician can’t steal enough in two terms, he doesn’t deserve to be there.” He was also highly distrustful of the Social Security fund. He had a saying: “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”

An interesting man, he must have been. He also did some catching for the Toledo Mud Hens (a farm club of the Detroit Tigers). People lead interesting lives, and not just famous people either. In fact, some famous people lead lives that are pretty plain. Which is just fine. Plain can be good, you know?

I’m sure that many people say that they almost sailed on the Titanic (or once said that). Some of them must have been right. I have a feeling this Hungarian American was.

A matter of pronunciation, just so you know: People from Dearborn, Mich., say “Dearbern.” Just a habit, generations-long.

I have written my usual “chronicle,” for the next New Criterion — a chronicle of musical happenings in New York. And I tell a story, which I would also like to tell you here. It is a moment from a concert of the American Composers Orchestra in Zankel Hall (which is part of Carnegie Hall). (I could explain, but we need not take the time now.)

One of the pieces was by Wang Jie, a Chinese American, born in 1980. Before her piece was played — performed, I should say, for it’s a little chamber opera — there was a video. On this video, the composer was interviewed.

She was sent to a music school, far from her home, when she was eleven (if I heard her correctly). This was in China. She was alone and miserable in her dormitory. “Nobody liked me,” she said. For company, she had two cassettes, which she listened to over and over. They contained three pieces of music: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

Now, when Wang named these pieces, the audience — a New York new-music audience — laughed. Or at least they chortled. It was a chortling that said, “What sugary, silly, hackneyed pieces, poor girl. She would have been better off in laogai.”

Then, on the video, Wang said, “It kept me alive.” Listening to this music was what “kept me alive.” That shut the hall up real, real quick. And it was one of the most remarkable and moving experiences I have ever had in a concert hall, or in any public forum.

I thought of two other incidents, which I would like to talk about here — I’ve mentioned them in Impromptus before, I know. Many years ago — early ’90s? — an actor named John Lone was a presenter at the Oscars. He was Chinese-born. And he said something about how nice it was to be in America, where you had the freedom to say what you wanted and to make the kinds of films you wanted.

The audience laughed. Either they were laughing at his naivety (as they saw it) or they thought he was being ironic. Of course, he was dead serious.