‘I glanced curiously at the stranger. He looked old and frail. The sky outside the window seemed darker with his figure in profile. Though he was sitting next to us, he appeared to be somewhere else entirely.’
My father emailed me an obituary while I was at work the other day. There was no subject line, just a hyperlink to the Times. It was late September, almost the end of the fiscal year, and the workload at my accounting firm had become unbearable. We clocked 14-hour days, which often left me emotionally bankrupt. So it took a while for the news to sink in.
“Alexandr Abramovich, preeminent violinist and outspoken critic of the Russian government under Boris Yeltsin, died this morning at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx…”
I didn’t need to read on. I clicked out of the window and pushed back from my chair. So Alex was dead. A few moments later, my coworker came by to ask if I was okay. “Allergies,” I said, that old standby.
I first met Alex when I was eight years old. I had only been playing violin for two years, about the same amount of time I had been speaking English and living in the Bronx, where my family had moved to from Shanghai. I didn’t really enjoy playing the violin though, it was just something I was forced to do, like homework or shoveling snow.
“Hello, sir, are you the great Aleksandr Abramovich?” my father said to the man sitting next to us on the Bx12 bus going down Pelham Parkway South. It was a winter day, and we were returning home from my afterschool day care at the Bronx House community center.
“Excuse me?” said the man.
“You are! You are Aleksandr Abramovich. I saw you perform with the USSR State Symphony in 1985. What a brilliant show,” said my father. He took the man’s hand and shook it enthusiastically.
“Thank you,” said the man, who looked surprised and somewhat nervous to be recognized. He wore a fedora, with a gray scarf knotted underneath his white beard. His glasses slid down his nose. “I go by Alex now,” he said. “Just call me Alex.”
“This man, Aleksandr Abramovich, is the greatest violin player in the world,” my father said to me. “He is a legend in Russia and in China.”
I glanced curiously at the stranger. He looked old and frail. The sky outside the window seemed darker with his figure in profile. Though he was sitting next to us, he appeared to be somewhere else entirely.
“So what are you up to these days, Aleksandr Abramovich?” my father said, with a playful glint in his eyes. The bus pulled onto our stop on Rhinelander Avenue, then pulled away. I stared despondently at our house as we left it behind—a generic single-story white building with a triangular roof and a small yard, the kind my classmates would draw with a stick figure family in their art class. I had been looking forward to watching cartoons, which I’d now realized was not going to happen.
“I am retired,” said Abramovich. “I stay home and write essays about Russian politics.”
My father appeared not to hear him. “Do you still practice six hours every day?” he said. “I read that in the newspapers.”
“Bah, the violin?” said Abramovich. “I don’t play anymore. Terrible arthritis,” he said, pointing to his left wrist. He looked despairingly at it for a few moments, as if his pained joints were a black hole that sucked in his thoughts.
“But you are depriving the world of your gift. Surely you must be conducting an orchestra.”
The man shook his head.
“Well, then you must be teaching. You must have many students.”
The man buttoned up his shirt and tugged on his beard. “It’s been five years since I engaged with music. Excuse me, this is my stop.” The bus rolled into Co-op City, and the man limped out the door. The wind outside was howling.
My father tapped me on the shoulder, and we scampered after him. I had never been to this neighborhood before. The streets were wider and busier, and crowds of people swarmed the sidewalks.
“Aleksandr Abramovich,” my father called out. “What do you say about teaching my son, Peter? I will pay you well. Thirty dollars per lesson.”
Abramovich stumbled over a mound of snow and stamped his shoes off on the sidewalk. “I’m sorry, I don’t teach anymore,” he said, and continued walking.
“Fifty dollars per lesson. Final offer,” said my father, as we caught up to him again.
Abramovich stopped. He took a deep breath. He turned around and studied us. His hands were shaking. He reached into his pocket, fumbled with his cigarettes, and dropped them on the ground. My father offered one of his and struck a match.
“You say his name is Peter?” said the man.
“Yes, he’s named after the great Russian Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky,” said my father, though I was pretty sure this wasn’t true. “Peter’s other teachers, they’re nonsense. He needs a professional, like you.”
Abramovich nodded slowly. “Here is where I live,” he said, pointing to a colossal brick building, the tallest I had ever seen. There were hundreds of windows, half of them dark, the other filled with yellow light. Most had their curtains drawn. You could make out the shadows: men and women in front of television sets, heads around a dining table, etc.
“Apartment 20A. Bring a music stand,” said Abramovich.
My father took the man’s hand with both of his. “Thank you, Aleksandr Abramovich. Thank you!”
“Please. My name is Alex. Alex Abrams,” said the man.
“Okay, we’ll work on it.”
I’d always known my father to be a tough barterer, whether in the shops of Chinatown or on the streets of Shanghai. But that was the first time I saw him turn a man completely around. I was surprised it worked.
The sun had set fully over the horizon, and the buses had stopped running. My father and I hiked 45 minutes in the dark and through the snow back to our missed stop. Eventually, Abramovich’s high-rise disappeared, replaced by the concrete factories and asphalt parking lots with barbed fences that constituted my own neighborhood. I complained the whole way back, about how tired and cold I was, about how I had lost my gloves that morning, and about missing my cartoons that afternoon. But nothing could sully my father’s mood. At every intersection, he would shake his head, grin, and say, “Wow. Aleksandr Abramovich.”
We arrived home at 6 p.m. I opened the door, and the scent of my mother’s cooking swept over us: string beans fried with garlic, curried chicken and potatoes, and fresh rice. I put my violin down, tossed my jacket onto the couch.
“Kuai dian, wan fan leng le,” said my mother, admonishing us for letting dinner get cold. Few things bothered my mother, but one thing she couldn’t stand was serving a cold meal. She continued in Mandarin. “Where did you go? Why are you so late?” she said.
“Dad chased a man home,” I said. “He plays the violin. He’s going to be my new teacher.”
“What?” said my mother. She turned to my father. “What’s Peter talking about?”
“Guess who we met today,” my father said loudly and nervously. “The great Aleksandr Abramovich of the USSR State Symphony. He’s agreed to give Peter lessons. 50 dollars a week.”
My mother turned off the faucet and dried her hands on a towel. “Who?” she said.
“Aleksandr Abramovich,” said my father. “You should know him. We saw him perform the Paganini concerto when we went to that concert in St. Petersburg during our honeymoon.”
“Aleksandr Abramovich,” repeated my mother. “Wasn’t Aleksandr Abramovich imprisoned in Russia? Wasn’t he the man who set a tree on fire in the middle of Moscow?”
“He prefers to be called Alex. And I’m sure that tree story is a rumor,” said my father.
“No way!” said my mother. “He sounds dangerous.”
“We just met him, he’s not dangerous,” said my father. “He’s old, and I don’t think he’s healthy. But don’t you remember how beautiful his concerto was?”
My mother stood there and reflected for a moment. She nodded her head. She seemed to calm down. “But I doubt we can afford him,” she said. “And what’s wrong with Mr. Huang’s lessons at Bronx House?”
“Mr. Huang… are you kidding me?” said my father. “If you want Peter to grow up playing violin for the Chinese Presbyterian Choir in Pelham Parkway, then okay, let’s keep taking lessons from ‘the great’ Mr. Huang.”
My mother sighed. She took off her apron. She didn’t say anything as she brought the dishes to the dinner table and laid out the plates and chopsticks. I could tell she was deep in thought. She cared a lot about my music education. Both my parents were doctors doing their residency, but they had met while touring with the Shanghai Youth Symphony many years ago (my mother was a flautist, my father a cellist). We had already cycled through four or five teachers who, in my mother’s opinion, were incompetent. My father hummed the Paganini concerto loud enough so she could hear it.
We ate in silence that evening, and I was glad for it. I didn’t want to tell my parents about the fight I got into at recess, about how I lost my new gloves and ripped my shirtsleeve in the process. Instead, I wondered why the man on the bus would ever set a tree on fire. After I finished, I excused myself from the table early so I could do homework.
There were only a few rooms in the house: the dining room, the living room, and my parents’ bedroom. I had my own desk and bed in the corner of the living room, and a music stand nearby. My section was separated by two bookshelves, which I stocked with comic books and science fiction novels. I had Batman and Iron Man action figures on the windowsill, as well as a lava lamp that I would stare at when I had trouble sleeping. We also hung a Blade Runner poster on the wall, since it was both my and my father’s favorite movie.
Later that evening, I heard my parents arguing about Aleksandr Abramovich in their bedroom. I overheard many of these conversations, in which my parents talked about the people they’d met that day and decided whether to let them into our lives.
“How can we afford $50 per week? We only pay Mr. Huang $20, and that’s already difficult. Maybe you can take that delivery job we heard about. You know, with The Yeshiva Weekly.”
“I’m a surgeon. I can’t be expected to deliver newspapers!”
“If we can’t afford it, then what?”
“Okay, you’re right. I’ll take the job.”
If I hadn’t heard this conversation, I would have been confused when I saw the stack of newspapers piled outside the doorway after I arrived home from school the following Monday. My father had devised a system to deliver the papers in the most efficient way possible. He stacked the unsorted pages in tall columns next to each other, before grabbing one of each, folding them together, and dropping them through plastic bags that he hung on the coat rack. He would then pile these packages into his car, an old Chevrolet Corsica, and drive around the neighborhoods, tossing them out the passenger side window. I wondered how the paperboys I saw in movies could possibly do all this on their bicycle.
Some weeks, when my mother worked the late shift, I’d go with my father on his paper route. These were three hour journeys, starting with the neighborhoods immediately bordering Stillwell Avenue. We covered the treeless areas where tire factories, towing companies, and auto repair shops stood. From there, we spiraled outward, to the university towns and leafy residential enclaves, and eventually to the larger, more densely populated streets. By the end of the evening, we’d reach Co-op City, where I made it a habit to find Aleksandr Abramovich’s apartment complex, one of many in the skyline.
The high-rises were solemn structures that towered over us. There must have been thousands of families living in them. I wondered what Abramovich’s life consisted of, and how it had changed from his grander days performing in Russia. And I wondered what it’d be like to finally take lessons with the man. I’d often fall asleep on a pile of newspapers in the backseat with these thoughts, only to be woken when my father pulled a package out from underneath me.
After work, my father and I would pick up pizza or Chinese food from a nearby restaurant. We would eat in front of the TV, watching the basketball game or the entertainment wrestling match. After dinner, I would practice my violin for an hour, and spend another hour doing homework or reading my favorite books before bed. Many days, I’d be asleep already when my mother got home.
My first lesson with Abramovich was the Saturday after Christmas in 1995, the year Michael Jordan returned from retirement and led the Bulls to a championship. We arrived at his apartment building at 1 p.m. and rung the bell from the lobby.
“Who is it?” said a woman through the teleprompter.
“We’re here to see Aleksandr Abramovich,” said my father. We stood there for a long time. There was just silence from the other end. My father added, “We’re here for violin lessons.”
This time Abramovich responded himself. “Come in,” he said, and buzzed us through. “We’re on the 20th floor. Use the stairs. The elevator is broken. Sorry.”
We said hello to the concierge in the lobby and made our way up, stopping twice to catch our breath. When we got to the top, we walked to the end of the hallway to where there was a door already opened, with Russian voices emanating from inside.
The studio apartment was small and bare, with only a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. There were no decorations, just stacks of books and papers in the corners. A television set stood against the back wall, a few feet in front of a couch. The bed sat on the far side under three large windows. The windows showed a panorama of the borough. I’d never seen the Bronx from so high up before. From there, the grey rooftops stretched into the horizon, all the way to Manhattan. I felt like we were standing on the set of a sci-fi film, and I almost expected hovercrafts to dart by.
There were no instruments, nor were there any music stands, songbooks or metronomes. For a moment, I wondered if we were even in the right place. I wondered if this was the right man, the maestro my father was thinking of—or if it was just some stranger.
Abramovich was sitting on one of two chairs that he had placed in the middle of the room. He was wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap and puffing on a pipe with tobacco that smelled of cherries.
“This is my girlfriend,” he said, introducing the lady standing outside the kitchen. She was much younger than Abramovich. My father went over to chat with her.
“Let’s get started.”
I set up the music stand, and took out the instrument and rosined the bow. Then I stood in playing position and waited for instructions.
I felt Abramovich’s eyes studying me. He lifted himself up from the seat and walked over. I felt his hand gently nudge my left elbow in and lift up my right wrist. He then straightened my posture and tilted my head more to the side. I wasn’t used to holding the violin this way, and my arms started hurting. Then Abramovich sat back down without a word. After what felt like 10 minutes, he got up and adjusted my posture again. He did this a few more times until I got the point. Then he said, “Good, good, let’s take a break. Shake out your arms.”
I lowered my violin. All the muscles in my arms were sore, including muscles I never felt before. I hadn’t said anything all lesson, but finally I said, “Excuse me, Alex, where is your violin?”
Abramovich chuckled and patted his lap. “It’s in Russia, I left it in Russia, I left everything in Russia. Okay, Peter, back to work. Let’s hear you play the C scale.”
I drew the bow across the string. Before I could play the second note, Abramovich said, “Stop. You’re flat. Try again.” After a few more tries, I finally played the opening note in tune. But then I had trouble finding the spot for the second note, and so on. Meanwhile, Abramovich had to periodically readjust my posture. It took us the rest of the lesson to play four notes in total. At the end of the hour, my father handed Abramovich $50 dollars in cash, the entire amount we were paid delivering newspapers that week.
The second lesson was similar to the first, except that we got through the C scale in its entirety, as well as the D scale. By the third lesson, we started on a song, a Schubert sonata that Abramovich had transcribed onto a piece of paper and given to me. We approached this piece much like we approached my scales: one note at a time. Instead of a metronome, Abramovich would beat the desk with his ruler. He would use that same ruler to poke my arm, lift my wrists, or tuck in my elbow. I started to cry in the middle of the lesson, frustrated by our slow progress.
“You have to unlearn all the wrong stuff, before you can learn the right stuff,” said Abramovich. It was as if he had been expecting tears. “Now let’s try this one more time,” he said, and in this fashion we continued our lessons.
There was notable improvement in my violin playing by the end of the first month. Both my parents commented on my increasingly precise intonation, on the solid sounds I was able to draw from the bow, and on the methodological practice routines I’d developed. So we kept going with the lessons and newspaper routes, every week for the next three years.
Shortly after starting my lessons, I joined a string quartet with the children of my parents’ friends. My parents took turns coaching during rehearsals, and eventually we landed gigs around the city. We performed in local churches during Christmas and Easter, and at the annual Chinese New Year celebration at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. We performed at relatives’ weddings and graduations. We even entered and won a few local youth competitions. During this time, my attitude toward the violin changed. I enjoyed the attention that came with the performances, and I became more engaged with Abramovich’s lessons.
In the summer before fifth grade, I got onto the internet in my father’s office and looked up Aleksandr Abramovich’s name. I had always been curious about his past, and this curiosity grew the more I got to know him. He had loosened up from those initial lessons. He would make jokes that weren’t really funny but that put me at ease. He even started asking me about my friends and about school.
It didn’t take long to find Abramovich’s name on the web. There were a series of headlines from the New York Times: “Concertmaster of USSR orchestra retires”; “Russian violin virtuoso puts down bow, takes up pen”; “Russian essayist leads protest against media crackdown in Bolotnaya Square”; “Russian dissident lights tree on fire, sentenced to prison”; “Russian dissident and asylum seeker escapes to U.S.”
I read these articles with some excitement and pride. I felt like I was taking lessons from a celebrity, a pioneer of justice, a hero who had escaped his oppressors.
After my 11th birthday, I was allowed to walk to Abramovich’s house alone. Few of my friends had such independence to wander the city. I would stop at the deli for chips and soda, sit on the swings by the playground, and read comic books until it was time for my lesson. Other days, I would dangle my feet over the Hutchinson River and look at the tree-lined golf course on the other side.
The city opened up to me that summer. Perhaps my heightened sensitivity to musical notes had also made me more sensitive to the sights and sounds of my immediate environment. I noticed for the first time the cicadas in the afternoon and the fireflies in the evenings. I enjoyed how the skyline and architecture would slowly transform, as I made my way from my sparse neighborhood to the tall, brutalist avenues of Co-op City. The trash, the traffic, the vagrants—I accepted these blights into my landscape; they ceased to bother me and instead had become signals of what I considered home.
One day I saw a girl with pink hair, wearing a white dress and riding a light blue bicycle with a straw basket. She passed through as quickly as the breeze. Her course was not to be altered by any urban obstacle. Our eyes had met, and that was the first time I felt a pang in my chest. She looked so out of place in this mangled city, yet I could imagine her nowhere else.
“Why, you must be in love,” said Alexandr Abramovich on that summer afternoon, after I finished playing a Rimsky-Korsakov arrangement. To my surprise, the surge of emotion I felt when seeing the girl on the bicycle had been injected into my violin performance. For the first time, I had lost myself in the music; I had felt that the instrument was an extension of my body, an extra limb whose sole purpose was to emote. “Go ahead, play it one more time,” said Abramovich. He leaned back on his chair, put his hands over his head, puffed his pipe, and closed his eyes.
By 1999, both my parents had finished their residencies. They each found a job at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey. We spent that year traveling back and forth to the suburbs, looking at houses. By mid-August, they finally bought a place in Winslow, one of the last stops on the Morristown Line. It was an American colonial house, with four bedrooms, three offices, a sunroom, and a large backyard. I would have a bedroom, a bathroom and an office to myself. It was much larger than our old home, though I was bitter about leaving the city.
Both my parents went with me to my last violin lesson, bringing with them a bottle of wine, homemade baozi, and a package of Zhong Hua cigarettes from China.
Abramovich’s place looked different that day. His grandson was there, having just returned from ballet rehearsal at Lincoln Center; he was performing in the Nutcracker. But that wasn’t all: Abramovich had bought a keyboard—nothing fancy, just a five-octave Yamaha. He also had two music stands and a new hand-wound metronome.
There was sheet music on each stand, displaying an old Russian folk song that Abramovich had transposed for two violins. To my surprise, Abramovich was holding a violin of his own, an old one made of spruce and red maple.
Abramovich said, “I thought Peter and I could play a duet.”
I had never heard Abramovich play the violin before, only stories about his virtuosity told by my parents. I rosined up my bow and tuned my violin. Abramovich gave the cue, and we jumped right into the song, which I had been committing to memory for the past three weeks.
Abramovich played the song very modestly at first, not trying to overshadow my part, but instead trying to complement it. I stumbled through a few dozen measures, messing up where I usually did not. Other lessons, we would stop playing and start over to address my mistakes, but that time, we just played on. Near the end, Abramovich closed his eyes, picked up the tempo and emphasized the pianissimo to forte swells that were written into the piece. I felt as if we were swept into the heart of the song. My fingers flew and my body swayed without conscious thought. I experienced joy and power that I had never felt before. When it was all over, our families stood up and clapped. Abramovich patted me on the shoulder, and said, “Good job.”
We put away our instruments, and Abramovich’s girlfriend passed around the bottle of wine. Abramovich and my father lit cigarettes, and Abramovich’s grandson brought me a glass of Coca-Cola from the kitchen. My mother heated up her dish in the microwave, and we held a small feast to celebrate.
Eventually I had to pack my violin and put on my coat. We said our goodbyes and exchanged handshakes. My family headed out the door and down the hallway. At that moment, two boys and a woman emerged from the stairwell. They were all out of breath. The boys looked to be brothers, and each was holding a violin. The mother brushed her hair out of her face and said, “Do you know where Alex lives? We’re here for lessons.”
My father looked the family up and down and blinked his eyes a few times. A smile settled over his face. He cleared his throat and gestured down the hallway toward the open door. “The great Aleksandr Abramovich lives over there,” he said.
The family thanked us, turned and walked away. I strained my neck and watched them disappear into the room. The gray door closed behind them, and the white hallway became eerily silent. You could not differentiate one unit from the next. I shuffled my feet on the carpet. My parents were already descending the stairs. “Hurry up, Peter,” they said, but I lingered there for as long as I could.