Wilfrid Sheed

Wilfrid Sheed

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 15 2001 9:00 PM

Wilfrid Sheed

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There must be days when even Cal Ripken doesn't feel like playing baseball and when Payton Manning never wants to see another football, and that's how I feel today about paper. Usually, there is nothing prettier than a sheet of the blank white stuff to play around on. But right now, it seems more like being buried alive in snow. Isn't there anything else to look at around here?

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Which I suppose is why writers keep diaries: to squeeze a few more words out of the empty tube and then, while we're slinging metaphors around, to remove the frown lines and the circles around the eyes of one's prose. It just isn't fair to inflict your minor moods on the reader, and besides you probably won't get away with it. And writers always write for readers, even when said writers happen to be stuck on a desert island with absolutely no hope of discovery.

But first, a little moaning and groaning can do wonders for the circulation, and I feel better already. Last night we did not go to B.O.'s Fish Wagon, because B.O.'s tends to take it out of you a bit. Picture the jolliest of outdoor taverns at rush hour, and picture with your ears the sound of a manic sort of chap doing everything but jump up and down on his keyboard from two feet away—and anyway, we have music of our own to make tonight and will need our strength.

The occasion, to crown this most improbable of weeks, is yet another sing-along given by yet another writer. William Wright is actually a year-round presence in our lives, courtesy of his quirky e-mails and a tendency to show up anywhere, anytime without warning. Bill could be described as an easygoing live wire who has written knowingly about such diverse subjects as Lillian Hellman, Pavarotti, and the latest genetics. But his subject tonight, and ours, will be show-tunes, specifically those of Cole Porter and the team of Rodgers and Hart, which he loves passionately and will be playing some of himself on a real piano, as opposed to the usual Key West keyboard which is presumably easier to tune in the damp air and takes up less space on our standing-room-only island.

Although much of tonight's guest list is familiar, every winter party seems to feature at least one New York face that you're surprised and tickled to see down here, and another that you've always wanted to meet, this year's belonging to the endlessly surprising playwright Terrance McNally and last year's, same time same place, to the essayist Russell Baker. And the mood tonight is quite different from Wednesday's, quieter and more reflective as befits the 9 p.m. starting time and the strictly uptown quality of the music. Several key members of the dancing community can't make it either (perhaps they're still in traction), and of those who can, the author Judy Blume actually manages to capture the night's motif better than anyone by bringing along a pair of taps and executing some elegant, dreamlike steps in that mode which adds the gentlest of percussion to the super-classy songs.

Meanwhile another writer, Irving Weinman, who was last seen and heard pounding a homemade contraption of cymbals and drums two nights ago, takes several turns at the piano to play clusters of ruminative, experimental chords that remind one that jazz is always a work in progress. Tonight's menu happens to suit me just fine because many years ago I had tried to teach myself the piano at the expense of the Rodgers and Hart songbook, and by reading fast and playing slow I had managed to learn at least Larry Hart's lyrics forwards, backwards, and in Pig Latin. So the legend that I know all the words to everything makes it through the evening unchallenged by everyone but me.

Incidentally, such a reputation is easy enough to acquire, if you really want one. Whenever the man plays a song you don't know, just eat something. Vigorously. And if you're still stuck when the food runs out, fake it. Nobody will know. Tonight our lead singer, Seward Johnson, confesses that he fakes it too, and he had me, the alleged expert, fooled all the way. As with so many other kinds of reputation, confidence seems to be everything.

To add to the pleasures of the evening, Miriam also knows a bunch of the old songs, and we drive home singing snatches of this and that to end this mellowest of evenings.

So perhaps a little deflation this morning is inevitable. We have undoubtedly been guilty of irrational exuberance, and Alan Greenspan would probably suggest that we cool off this evening with a little chamber music, if not downright conversation. We shall see.