[This is a story I wrote sometime around 1995. The radio background doesn’t come entirely from my own experience, but mostly from that of people I knew who had been in radio work.]

Going to Work

For the past five years, I’ve been working at a job most people find very glamorous. I’ve been a disc jockey at a jazz radio station in New York. The pay is only fair by New York standards, around $65,000 a year, and the benefits are nothing special. But the recognition, ah, that’s been the best part. We have a saying in radio, that a fellow is an “FM celebrity.” It’s a joke; it means that if you walk down the street, nobody recognizes you. But when I get up on stage at a jazz concert to introduce the musicians and say, “Good evening, I’m Dave Brooks, and I’d like to welcome you…” I sometimes get more applause than the musicians.

My schedule gets me into the life of nearly every jazz lover in the metropolitan area. I’m on the afternoon drive shift, three to seven, which means I have a lot of afternoon home and office listeners and everybody driving home from work. I also do a special show devoted to jazz esoterica, Saturday nights from ten to one, for the real hard-core fans. It’s usually recorded, but sometimes when I’m free, I do it live.

That Saturday night show is where I really live. Otherwise, I’m just doing a job most of the time. Saturday nights, when the management figures nobody is listening, I get to play the music I love: early Armstrong, Cecil Taylor’s wild piano, Mingus’s band wailing live for half an hour on one tune, Jelly Roll Morton talking about the history of jazz while playing the piano and tapping his foot. Things like that. They’re not commercial enough for drive time. I don’t even get to program my daytime shows, except for a few fillers, and I have to be careful about those. The rest is done by some consultant and a computer program. They even call listeners at random and ask what music they like best. Armstrong might score, but not as high as the Yellowjackets, Weather Report, Spyro Gyra, all this fusion stuff that people like me hardly even consider jazz.

Still, like I say, it’s a glamour gig, the pay’s not bad, and it beats working behind a counter. I did that for a while, until someone noticed my voice and set me to work doing voice overs at an ad agency. I got to meet some radio people through that work, which led to a tryout at the station, and I’ve been there ever since.

You meet a lot of people working in radio. I get musicians coming in for interviews, although I don’t always like doing that. Most of them are from the commercial groups, and we don’t get to anything in much depth when it has to be three minutes of talk and on to their latest record. But the music lovers, well, they’re something else. By now I have a standard rap to fend off the hipsters who want to know why I play all that white bread music. The Saturday night listeners, though, they come up to me at concerts and want to talk about Dodo Marmarosa or Herbie Nichols. They’re friendly, appreciative, interesting. A few of them have become friends.

I met Gail that way, after a concert. You get women coming on to you just to fulfill the fantasies they’ve had listening to you, and I’m used to that. She was different. She liked Herbie Nichols, and she really knew his work. She had every Monk album I’d ever heard of, and a few more. She wasn’t flaky, kind of cool and intelligent. She had a good job at an advertising agency. She was tall and slender and very attractive. She asked me out for a drink, and then she took me back to her apartment in the East 60’s between First and York and she kept me awake all night. We were lucky it was a Saturday night.

I was still living in Hoboken then, just a few minutes’ commute through the Tubes but in some respects a world away. Gail just loved my neighborhood, and we spent most weekends there, if we didn’t go out of town altogether. I spent many week nights at her place. We liked to cook for each other. We rented old Bunuel and Kurasawa films to watch at night, and sometimes I bought them so we could watch them over and over. We didn’t make any plans, never even thought about them. We just relaxed and smiled and had a lot of fun.

The one thing that bothered her about me was my body. I wasn’t fat, but I never did any exercise I could avoid. Gail had a club she went to three times a week to work out, and a Nordic Exercise Chair for when she didn’t go to the club. Sometimes she would needle me about my condition. “Gail,” I told her, “look, I’m forty years old and I’ve never worked out in my life. I can’t start now.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “It’s never too late to start. I knew a fat guy, a concert pianist. He slimmed down and became a marathon runner in his fifties.” Actually, the idea began to intrigue me, but I didn’t want to do it when I felt like my mother was nagging me.
One morning, I stayed at Gail’s apartment after she went to work. I found the folder explaining how to use the exercise chair and tried it out. Some of the things were difficult, but the machine adjusted automatically to the effort I put into it, so I didn’t get worn out too fast. There was something about the feeling that I liked, and I decided to give it a try. I stayed late at Gail’s every day I was there for several weeks, using the chair after she left. Then I took the plunge and joined a health club myself. Aerobics classes didn’t interest me, but I started doing the Nautilus circuit three times a week.

I remember a night, less than a month later, when Gail and I made love. She never failed to turn me on, but she was being particularly provocative that night and I just about went crazy. I felt I had her under my power and she couldn’t get enough of me. Afterwards, she gave me a strange look and said, “Jesus, Dave, you feel like Superman. Even your body feels different.” I told her I’d been working out, and she grinned and started kissing me all over again.

I can’t explain why Gail and I broke up. I don’t understand it myself.. The phrase people usually use is, “they drifted apart,” and that was what it seemed like. I felt as though we were floating away from each other on two rafts without poles, and although I didn’t want it to happen, it didn’t seem I could do anything about it. I was never much for what they call “working on relationships,” and I didn’t know how to talk to her. There were never any fights, any confrontations, but the breaking point came one afternoon when she called me at work and said she’d rather stay alone that night, and I didn’t even mind very much. There was nobody else I had my eye on, and I don’t think she had either. I still felt very affectionate towards her, but it didn’t seem to matter. A couple of months later, we both realized the time had come. We met at a restaurant, toasted each other with expensive champagne, kissed goodbye and went our separate ways. We spoke on the phone occasionally, but it wasn’t really comfortable and after a while we stopped even that. I haven’t seen her in a couple of years.

But what she had started in me wouldn’t stop. Once I had some strength in my body, I started going for endurance as well. The aerobics classes that once bored me now excited me, and I bought aerobics videos to use when I couldn’t get to the club.

After I got a pay raise, I moved to a modest apartment in the Village, closer to the jazz scene, and started hanging out more in jazz clubs just to enjoy the music. It’s a late night pursuit, so I never became an early riser like most exercise fanatics. But the club got a treadmill, and after using it for a couple of months I decided to see some scenery and I started running.

At first you have to work really hard just to keep going. Then, after you’ve done it a while and your body gets used to the effort, something kicks in and it begins to be more pleasure than pain. I had heard about runners’ high, that wonderful feeling of float and thrill mixed, and I started to feel it. Within a month, I was hooked like one of the junkies I sometimes hung out with at night, only this feeling was good for you.

Running even changed my sound on the air. With stronger lungs, I could project a firmer sound when I spoke. A couple of management people told me I was sounding even better these days, but I had already heard it listening to my airchecks. I even met a new woman, Martine, a runner and a jazz fan. She was no Gail, and we didn’t get that close, usually just seeing each other on weekends. But we could run together and go to the clubs, and she kept me from feeling lonely.

When I found I could get my running up to ten miles, I started thinking about marathons. I talked with some of the experienced runners at the health club, and they told me about preparing for them. You don’t run 26 miles to train for running 26 miles. It tires you out too much. In fact, some of them thought you have only so many marathons in your body, and once you run them, you’re finished. But there were more sensible training methods I started using, and pretty soon I was thinking seriously about it. I learned about a small marathon race in Pennsylvania, and started getting ready for it about three months before it took place.

A psychologist friend of mine used to tell me that differences in your body made your feelings different, too. I began to notice that when I started slipping my own choice in music into my programs. When I had a little space in between the Yellowjackets and Hiroshima, I would stick in a Monk piano solo or some Ellington. Sweeney, the program director and a nasty piece of work, stuck his head into the studio one afternoon and yelled at me, “Hey, Dave, get rid of this moldy fig crap. What are you trying to do, make people think we’re public radio?”

I blew up. “Listen, asshole,” I shouted. “Are you saying I can’t play good music because some fucking computer doesn’t like it?”

Fortunately, the general manager, Jerry, a halfway decent guy, came along and heard the rumpus. He took my side against Sweeney, on the reasonable grounds that you don’t give a guy heat in the middle of his airshift. But Sweeney got Jerry’s ear, and I started getting occasional memos from both of them about suitable programming. I just ignored them.

I was really excited, the week of my first marathon. Martine drove me to Pennsylvania on Saturday night, and we spent the night in a Holiday Inn. We were both worried about tiring me out, so we made love very cautiously, which proved to be curiously exciting. In fact, it was probably the most exciting night we ever spent together.

The run itself was not so successful. Being told about how to pace yourself isn’t the same as learning it by experience, and I was carried away by fantasies of a good showing as I passed one runner after another. Most of them passed me at the 20 mile line, where I just gave out. I had to wait for the bus to get a ride to the finish line, and I was feeling mighty blue and embarrassed when Martine saw me. She was swell, though, and by the time we got back to New York, I was convinced that running twice my normal distance was nothing to be ashamed of, although I was still walking funny when I got to work the next day.

I finished my second marathon, and my third. By the fourth, Martine wasn’t with me any more, so I arranged to get Monday off from work and drove myself to Massachusetts on Saturday. This one was a real thrill. I started strong, paced myself very well, and finished with a little energy left in reserve, almost halfway up the pack. I started thinking about the New York Marathon, four months ahead.

I was still catching flak at work. I hadn’t eased up on my programming in spite of several notes. On one of my Saturday night shows I’d had an avant-garde group in to play live and they really tore up the joint. We got a few calls from excited listeners, but Jerry heard the show. He called me into his office on Monday and told me I just wasn’t to do that again, even on Saturday nights. I told him all his taste was in his mouth, and we parted on very sour terms.

Three months later, after lucking into a slot in the New York Marathon, I was getting into my final training when I got a note from Jerry about a concert series the station was co-sponsoring. There was a date that was in trouble, a couple of weeks ahead. Advance sales had been poor, and we needed to do everything possible to boost them. He wanted me to emcee. I felt sick as I checked the calendar. It was the night before the Marathon.

I went straight to Jerry’s office. “Look,” I said, “I can’t do that date. I’d love to cooperate but I’m running Sunday afternoon. Why don’t you get Alvira to do it? You know she’d love it?” Alvira was our morning drive person; she loved to emcee shows because she got to wiggle her ass and see how many guys she could get to follow her home after the show.

“Alvira won’t draw as well with the serious crowd,” he said. “That’s what we need you for.”

“Look, Jerry,” I answered, “it sounds as though you want people to think I like this music so they’ll like it too. Well, I don’t like it, and I don’t want to fool my people. I’ve got a reputation too, you know. And that running is very important to me. It isn’t easy to get a slot in the New York Marathon, and I don’t want to pass it up.”

“Dave, Dave, Dave. What is there about you that makes you so eager to blow your career? You know we don’t pay you here for your taste, we pay you for your voice. I don’t give a damn if you run or you don’t run, I need to deliver bodies to those concerts to keep the sales staff happy. You’re getting a little shaky around here, Dave, and if I were you I wouldn’t push it.”

I left without another word. So that was the story. My job was on the line if I didn’t help out with the concert.

After my shift, I checked by Jerry’s office and he wasn’t there. So I left him a note: “Sorry, I won’t be available for the emcee gig. I’m running.” That was it. I didn’t hear another word about it, and two days later I saw that Alvira was listed as emcee in the concert ads.

The Friday before the Marathon, Alvira caught me as I came in to work. She took me into her office and said, “Hey, Dave, what’s all this crap I hear about you and management. There’s some powerful rumbling going on about them not being happy with you.”

“They’re not,” I said. “They don’t like Monk and they don’t like me running.”

“Well, shit, man, that’s ridiculous. Everybody knows you’re the best we have.”

“Thanks, Alvira, but that might not be enough. I really don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’ll tell you this. I’m not up to kissing any more ass around here.”

“Dig it. Good luck, man. And good luck with the run.”

If Alvira had heard, I knew things must be really serious. But I didn’t think about it any more. Once I got off work, I was into my marathon routine, only this time, it was easier. I didn’t have to drive anywhere, so I got to relax all day Saturday. I spent most of the day at home watching Betty Boop cartoons and college football. There was a story about the Marathon on the 10 o’clock news; I was asleep before the 11 o’clock report came on.

From the starting gun, the race was one enormous high. I could hardly remember when I’d ever been so happy in my life, except maybe some of the times with Gail. Once I got into the rhythm of the run, it was almost automatic. My experience kept me from pushing too hard, and it was almost like I was flying the course. I remember when we crossed the Verrazano Bridge, watching the birds sail by. I was thinking about my job, and what my life would be like without it. I thought about my friend Joe at the public radio station, telling me all the time about how much they’d love to have me there, how I could play whatever music I liked if I was ready to settle for two thirds the pay. I thought about doing more voice overs, and maybe even moving back to Hoboken. Hell, it hadn’t been so bad there. Gail sure liked it. Gail, Gail, I kept thinking about Gail. How I wanted to hear her voice again, find out how she was, maybe even get together for a drink and see her again. I kept saying her phone number. As I flew across the finish line, I thought I saw her in the crowd, smiling at me.

Leslie Gerber

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