Today is the birthday of Al Capone, one of the most notorious gangsters in American history. The lower east side of Lake Michigan, where I grew up, is lined with huge sand dunes, some of them so large they have names, like Mount Tom. And the rumor I grew up hearing is that Capone's hideout was a secret spot in those dunes. I never saw it, but I do have a connection to the Chicago mafia.
When I was six, and my sister was twelve, my mother started taking us to piano lessons with Mrs. Graw. Mrs. Graw was an older woman who lived in a little house in the next town, and she taught piano lessons in her living room.
Once a week, we went to see her. I would sit on the couch with my mother while my sister had her 30-minute lesson, and then we would switch places, and I would play Turkey In the Straw and Three Blind Mice with two hands. Mrs. Graw had a black dog of some kind that liked to lay under the piano bench and lick himself, so that during the rests you would hear that sloppy, wet licking, licking, lapping sound of a dog getting clean, and it made us cringe.
Sometimes Mrs. Graw would sit on the bench with you and smoke a cigarette. Sometimes she would talk on the phone. Sometimes she would do her ironing. But regardless of what she might be puttering at, she would talk you through your playing with the raspy voice of someone who has smoked for decades, with the cigarette poised between two fingers or dangling from her bright red sticky lips.
Her face was pale and powdery from makeup, and her hair was white and thin. If you were to see her on the street, you might be a little frightened, but sitting next to her on the piano bench was always a treat. In her youth, Mrs. Graw was a flapper. She played in all the best speak easies in Chicago, and her story was that she was Pretty Boy Floyd's favorite piano player. When ever he was in town, he would request her. She was hot.
Sometimes after a lesson, she would scoot us off the bench and sit down to demonstrate how a piano should really be played--she could rip through a honky-tonk rag like no one else, and she could stomp and swing with the best of them. The tacky lip stick, pencil stick legs, and sagging breasts were a ruse, or a maybe a badge--Mrs. Graw was a babe with spunk and moxy. And she taught me how to read music, for which I will always be grateful.