A Memorable Encounter with a Musical Legend
In 2010, I found myself at the Morrison Center in Union Square. The office boasted high ceilings and abundant natural light. Its IV room was adorned with potted ferns and recliners. On that particular day, luck was on my side as I managed to secure a corner chair. Seeking relief from Lyme disease, I had come for a heavy-metal detox. Usually plagued by brain fog, I was pleasantly surprised when paragraphs effortlessly flowed through my mind after receiving an EDTA drip. As a teacher struggling to make ends meet, I couldn’t afford the treatment and resorted to putting it on credit cards, hoping that rejuvenating my brain would yield positive results.
The center catered to patients with various conditions, such as Lyme disease, chronic fatigue, lupus, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, ALS, and cancer. Regardless of our ailments, we all followed the directives of Dr. M.: strict avoidance of sugar, grains, gluten, dairy, alcohol, fruit, and overstimulation. While the infusions weren’t pleasant, we held onto hope. Whether it was the joy of having your favorite nurse administer the treatment or the satisfaction of sipping Dr. M.’s special genmaicha tea, these small pleasures brightened our experiences.
Denise, the kind-hearted staff member, brought over my IV stand. A man named Hector, a middle-aged screenwriter, approached Denise with a question: “Is Roberta coming today?”
Denise simply shrugged, leaving Hector curious and intrigued.
Hector explained that he had brought his guitar, hoping to have a jam session with someone named Roberta. Denise gently broke the news to him—Roberta was both unwell and in her seventies. If she were to come in, it was crucial for Hector to allow her to receive her medicine without interruption.
Hector, who was underweight and had numerous food allergies, seemed to harbor an audacious request. Jamming with Roberta Flack, possibly the greatest living singer—especially performing her iconic song “Killing Me Softly”—was an outlandish notion.
Meanwhile, my simple request for two packets of genmaicha tea led to a whispered explanation from Denise—those were exclusively reserved for Roberta.
The room gradually filled up with regulars engaging in conversations about politics, war, and the benefits of activated-oxygen therapy. A long-distance runner mentioned that Roberta had become somewhat aloof, despite her extensive involvement in charity concerts for children. The runner questioned why she prioritized helping kids over her own social circle.
Occasionally, Lou Reed would casually enter the room, but no one seemed to bat an eye.
Denise carefully adjusted the runner’s tubing, ensuring their comfort. Moments later, Roberta herself walked in, relying on a cane for support, and took a seat next to me. Another patient made a remark about Michelle Obama’s extravagant trip to Spain. They claimed that she should have chosen a more humble and cost-effective option to show solidarity with the working class.
Roberta calmly placed her genmaicha tea on the side table and countered the narrative. She declared that Michelle hadn’t seen her best friend in a decade and emphasized that the Obamas paid for personal expenses themselves.
Her hand trembled slightly, betraying the difficulties of being well-known. Roberta pondered aloud about strangers criticizing her for looking plain when she wore sweatpants to the local store. This led her to wonder about the struggles faced by the President, who couldn’t simply travel on commercial flights.
People in the room shrugged nonchalantly, acknowledging her perspective on the matter. Nonetheless, they couldn’t help but express their curiosity about the President’s golfing habits.
Slightly irritated by the topic, Roberta turned to me and started asking questions. Why was I at the center? Was Lyme disease the reason for my prolonged recovery?
Feeling somewhat sheepish, I shrugged and replied, “I don’t really know. Is it because of a weakened immune system? Maybe a difficult childhood?”
Her brow furrowed as she sought further clarification. “Difficult? In what way?”
Struggling to find the right words amidst the brain fog caused by Lyme disease, I muttered, “I guess it was the lack of proper nutrition. My mother never bought juice, only Kool-Aid.”
Roberta’s mesmerizing voice interjected, “Kool-Aid? That was traumatic for you?” She went on to share her own childhood experience. Growing up, the girls in her neighborhood played together in an empty lot. One day, her mother sent her out without a top while the other girls wore shirts. When she confronted her mother about this disparity, all she received was a dismissive response: “They have their shirts, and you have yours.” On another occasion, she needed a new church dress, but her mother bought her a used one that dragged on the ground. When she protested, her mother’s harsh retort was, “Shut up and wear the dress.”
Roberta also mentioned that at the age of ten, she stopped growing and doctors discovered a pituitary tumor. However, no action was taken to address it. Despite these challenges, she managed to graduate from school early and secured a full college scholarship through her exceptional piano skills. Yet, she paused her education to support her mother. Fate led her to play the piano in a church where a stranger advised her to pursue pop music at a local bar. Initially taken aback since she was a classically trained pianist, she eventually relented and embraced the opportunity. To her surprise, one day she noticed a long line outside the bar. When she inquired about it, the manager informed her that the crowd had gathered to hear her sing.
Having shared her story, Roberta turned her attention back to me. She curiously inquired about my own journey. Was I married? Why not? And how old was I?
Feeling somewhat nervous, I blushed and admitted, “I’m thirty-six.”
Roberta paused for a moment, carefully observing me. “Well,” she said, taking a sip of her tea, “you’re not young.” Peering directly into my eyes, she continued, “But you’re not ugly either. It’s about time you put yourself out there.”
Denise began to unhook Roberta’s IV, signaling that it was time for her to rest. Slowly, Roberta walked away, visibly enduring pain. Denise informed us that she had a performance scheduled for that evening, raising funds for charity. It was crucial for her to conserve her energy.
Shortly after this unforgettable encounter, the Live Morrison JamFest took place. Hector showcased his guitar skills while Roberta, along with other attendees, lent their voices to the joyous occasion. The event encompassed an array of music genres, ranging from hymns and Krishna Das to Bob Dylan. In a carefree atmosphere, forbidden beverages were enjoyed, and the celebration continued late into the night. ♦