Tuesday, January 20, 2009


My first real-live writing gig came from Hank Nuwer, then editor at "Arts Indiana" magazine. Hank agreed to let this beginning writer do a piece on four Indiana artists and the person each considered to be their most important mentor. The headliner in Hank's quartet was Maestro Raymond Leppard, conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Eras can be labeled "BC", Before Christ, or "AD" for Anno Domini. This particular point in the sweep of time might have been called "BG," as in "Before Google." 

I was a noob, the Web was not in common use, and it hadn't occurred to me to do even the most basic of background preparation. I suppose I thought I'd go in cold, maybe charm him with something like: "Hi, Maestro. Well, then. Did you have a mentor? So, who was that?" We can safely assume that Bill Moyers was not fearing for his job.

Two days before my scheduled interview with Maestro Leppard, I was invited to a dinner party and I was feeling out of my league. My liberal arts degree was growing moss, I had a year of sobriety in my pocket, and I was working a low-paying job at a local hospital. The other guests by contrast were accomplished and successful. A partner at an accounting firm. A real-estate developer. A lawyer. And me.

The conversation made its way around the table. People were talking about the deals they were in. The case they just tried. The strip-mall they were building. Their vacations.

It came around to me. "So, Joe... what do you do?" Eyes pivoted in my direction.

What was I supposed to say?  Nice of you to ask, counselor. I, in fact, am working a shit job and letting a bachelor’s go to waste. I live in a one-bedroom apartment and drive a banged-up hooptie. I’m trying not to drink. That's what I do.

But by the grace of Hank Nuwer and this little arts magazine, I felt I had a card to play. I felt the right to claim: "I am a writer."

"Why, how interesting!" the hostess said. "What are you working on now?"

I told them about Leppard and my magazine assignment and tried to act cool and casual, hoping they'd ask enough questions to help me help myself avoid looking like a poser, but not so many questions as to reveal that this was not the most recent thing I’d written, it was the only thing.

"Maestro Leppard?" the hostess said. "He happens to be a good friend of mine. Have you read his book?"

"Book? Yeah. No. Right, of course. His book.” Careful now. Try not to look like a dilettante. “Would you mind if I see it? I mean, I... um... have it reserved at the library.  But if you have a copy."

The hostess went to her office and returned with a 668-page hard-bound volume entitled, Raymond Leppard on Music: An Anthology of Critical and Autobiographical Writings. 

She handed me the book and I felt its heft. "Would you mind if I borrowed this for the weekend? It would save me time... going to the library. I'm talking with him on Monday and I'm supposed to ask him about 'his most significant mentor.'"

"Mentor? Oh, it's in there," the hostess said.

I looked down at this heavy thing in my hands and cracked it open to a random page out of 668 pages. I didn't scan the index for "mentor."  Didn't browse the table of contents.  Didn't leaf through the pages.  I opened it to where it fell open. At random, I thought.

I looked down to the page. My eyes fell to a sentence. The sentence was even underlined in pencil:

"My mentor was a man named Hubert Middleton; he never produced anything of significance... except people."

I felt a tingle and disorientation and awe. I imagined I heard a voice:

"You want to do this? To write? We will help you."


Hank Nuwer said...

Loved revisiting this piece of Joe's.

Joe said...

Thanks, Hanker. You helped get me started.

Hank Nuwer said...

It's such a great story with details that put me in awe, Josef!