January 10th, 2003

caillebotte_man at his window

Listening to Debussy on a Rainy Night

In spite of the extreme cold Thursday morning, the day brought no snow, but only more rain. As the clouds last night were so thick as to totally block the moonlight, I decided that, although I couldn't see it, I could at least listen to it, as portrayed by Beethoven and Debussy. Oddly, while the Beethoven always sounds much the same to me, from season to season, the Debussy seems to change with the weather. It always picks up the temperature of the night on which it is played. That's probably just something happening in my head, of course. Most likely, very few people have that reaction.

Listening to the Debussy brought back an old memory I hadn't recalled in years. The very first copy of Claire de Lunge I ever owned was on a vinyl LP I bought at the Discount Record Center store on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, when I was about 17 or 18. After listening tonight to one of the versions I now have on CD, I took off the headphones and heard the rain falling, and I had a vision of that rainy evening when I bought that first copy. I had lingered in the store for too long, losing track of the time. Glancing at the clock, I saw that it was almost eight, and the last bus would soon be leaving. There were only a few more albums in the bin through which I had been riffling, so I decided to finish looking at them and then leave. The very next album was the Debussy.

I had long wanted a copy of that piece, so I impulsively bought it. For some reason, though I can clearly see many details of that night, I can't remember the cover of that album, or what other selections were on it, or even who the pianist was-- I think it may have been Rubenstein. But I do remember leaving the store, the windows of which were blocked by displays, and being surprised to find that rain was falling. The rain-slicked pavement reflected the streetlights, the headlights and taillights of the evening traffic, the red and green and yellow of the traffic signals, and the rainbow of lights from shop signs. Holding the package under my jacket to keep it dry, I hurried to the nearby intersection and crossed the streets, listening to the sound of windshield wipers thunking on the cars waiting for the light to change. The smell of coffee and frying hamburger and the faint scent of perfume drifted from the drugstore and fountain on the corner. In the distance, I saw my bus approaching, and I rushed down the side street to join the crowd waiting under the restaurant awning next to the bus stop. Spray glittered behind the wheels of passing cars. Crossing an alley, a gust of wind sent sheets of rain flying into my face, and caused the fronds of the short, slender queen palms lining the street to wave wildly. When I reached the bus stop, I looked back to see the bus just turning the corner from the boulevard. Its headlights raked the wall of the buildings on the east side of the street, illuminating the hunched forms of pedestrians hurrying through the rain, some with umbrellas tilted against the wind. The bus pulled up to the curb, the doors opening with a pshhh of compressed air that could be heard even above the throaty rumble of the diesel engine. The sulfurous scent of its exhaust mingled with the aroma of smoke from a cigar lit by a man just exiting the restaurant.

On board the bus, in a window seat, I looked out at the restaurant. Its windows were slightly fogged at the edges, making a vignette of the interior. There, in the large, bright room, at booths and tables, the animated crowd was eating and talking, and waitresses bustled back and forth with trays and plates. The scene shifted as the bus moved away from the curb, and it seemed for a moment as though the buildings were floating back on the flood, and the rain was washing the city away.

Blocks of shops and apartments passed and were replaced by blocks of old houses behind dark, oak-shaded lawns. All the while, the rain fell harder and harder, and the windows of the bus began to fog with breath and moisture evaporating from rain-soaked clothing. At the front of the bus, the windshield wipers sluiced sheets of water out into the night, and through the rippling water-and-glass, I could see wind-driven drapes of rain falling through the headlight beams. Now and then, the bus would stop to let off some reluctant passenger, or to pick up a grateful one. Then, we could hear the rain pounding against the windows and the metal roof and sides. Then the bus would move again, and the rumble of the engines would all but drown the sounds of the storm as we rode through the obscure and mysterious night, past the flashing fragments of the drenched city.

At last, as we drew farther from the mountains, the rain relented a bit. By the time we reached my stop, the rain had slowed to a soft drizzle. I transferred to the eastbound bus that took me to my street, and I walked the last few blocks in that soft and quiet rain, in that mild southern California winter night. The streetlights were slightly haloed with glittering raindrops, and the wet camphor trees gave off a pungent scent. At home, I took the album from its bag, and saw that a few drops of rain had managed to get onto the record jacket, raising slight welts on it. I lit candles, and played the record several times that night. I remember the soft notes of the piano mingling with the soft sound of the continuing rain outside my open window.

There was no visible moon that night, of course, but I could envision it in Debussy's tones. That vision must have displaced the memory of the night's earlier events. I don't remember recalling them since, until tonight. How strange and wonderful is the way the memory turns back on itself, folding and unfolding the past, mixing bits and pieces, concealing them and the revealing them again, unexpectedly. like a sudden shower, or the moon emerging from clouds.

It has been a long time since I listened to that record I bought in Pasadena that night. I'm not sure I have it anymore, so many of my records have been misplaced over the years. Perhaps it is one of those, or perhaps it is sitting in a box out in the garage. If it is there, I wonder if the jacket still has the welts raised by the raindrops which fell on it that night, and which now the last evidence of that long-ago storm, a story in an embossed code only I can read.
caillebotte_man at his window


At dusk, the rain which had fallen all day failed with the light, and the forest was wrapped in fog. I walked up a street which was transformed to shadows falling on frosted glass. My house vanished behind me, and I stood in gathering dark to listen to the pines shed drops of water onto the ground. I thought I heard birds calling somewhere in the grey where once was sky, but all above the treetops was lost in fog.