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A Night On Top of the World

by Jack Wilkins

Jack Wilkins - Circa 1977

It was one of those typical tourist nights in The Big Apple. Viewed from the top of the World Trade Center's restaurant "Windows on the World", New York City looked positively breathtaking. Anyone who ever visited this landmark site would tell you the same. One winter night in 1977, however, I was viewing it from a very different perspective- as a guitarist in a trio with piano and bass. It was a grueling kind of gig. The hours were long, the music was in a commercial vein, and no one seemed to listen. I was okay accepting the job, as January is usually a pretty lean earnings month. Because of the weather, not many people go out but most of us were feeling the pinch since the Christmas and New Year's festivities.

I was only an occasional substitute for my friend Carl Barry who played the gig six nights a week. Now and then he would take a night off to do a better-paying job and hire me. Carl would always pay me a little more than the gig paid to make it worth my while. Since I was able to play the gig "on autopilot", I got in the habit of watching couples as they danced and catching conversations from nearby tables. You can't imagine what an objective observer notices in a place like that. You could witness a young man trying to impress a date, an elderly couple unabashedly dancing a 1920s dance step, or tourists from the Midwest being intimidated by a waiter. You had to be prepared for anything there.

The job started at 7:30 which was too early for me to eat, but by 12:30 when we closed up shop I'd be pretty hungry, especially since the restaurant served only the best and exotic aromas drifted my way all evening. The policy at the restaurant was "No free food or drink for the musicians", one of the more quaint customs in the music business. To buy something would have cost as much as I was earning, so I decided to wait till 12:30 when I finished playing.

Around 12:15 when most of the patrons where on their way out, I sensed a bit of commotion at the entrance. Several waiters went scampering about and a table was set up in a remote part of the club. I noticed an entourage of about eight people. The men, all dressed in tuxedos, seemed very protective and attentive to the needs of a well-dressed woman. One of the men appeared to accompany the woman, while the others seemed to be present in an official capacity. After the couple was seated, the official-looking men seemed accustomed to just standing to the side and observing.

By this time I wasn't too interested in observing as I was experiencing hunger pangs. I kept praying for the magic hour of 12:30 to arrive so I could leave and get something to eat. The pianist was the bandleader and at about 12:15 someone came over and whispered something to him. He seemed impressed and nodded to the man. When the pianist leaned over towards the bassist and me and said, "We have to play a little longer," I just stared in disbelief!

As I didn't want to create a scene, I said nothing. We continued to play some conventional dance music- you know, very stiff with no feeling. The couple got up to dance. They looked familiar to me, especially him. He was very lean and tall with kinky hair. Meticulously dressed in a tailored evening suit and black tie, he had a cultured international air and seemed very much at home in this situation. I particularly noticed his hands, which had long expressive fingers. "Who is this guy?" I thought. I knew I'd seen him somewhere, not in movies or on TV, but in some major media event. He danced pretty badly so I couldn't help thinking he must be a musician. The woman was dark, elegant, and very beautiful. Her hands were adorned with large shiny stones that were no doubt, real gems. She could have been some kind of queen, obviously very wealthy. After working at the World Trade Center for a while, you get to the point where you can tell who is really wealthy and who is just trying to make an impression.

The minutes dragged on as the couple danced. It was all very respectable. He was a bit younger than she, but it wasn't a mother-son kind of thing. They really seemed to enjoy each other's company. I still couldn't figure out who they were, so I tried to catch the pianist's eye to mouth the words, "Who are they?" He purposely ignored me and just kept smiling. The bass player laughed because he had recognized them and was amused at my perplexed state. After a while I forgot about them and started thinking, "Just wait 'til I get hold of Carl and blast him for giving me this job and causing me to play overtime in all this confusion- and on an empty stomach as well!

Eventually the intriguing couple stopped dancing and returned to their table to drink $500 bottles of champagne and consume $800 jars of caviar. "How gross!" I thought. It wasn't envy; I just wouldn't be ostentatious like that, even if I could afford it. I yearned to be home getting something quite normal to eat.

Finally, the leader said, "Okay, that's it for tonight." It was 1:30 a.m., one hour over. I was a bit annoyed because I assumed there wouldn't be any extra money; everyone seemed so intimidated. I asked again who these people were. The bandleader said, "Shhhhh!" and told me to wait a second. As I was putting my guitar in its case, someone from the couple's entourage come over and shook our hands and thanked us, handing each of us an elegant white envelope. I thanked him and put the envelope in my pocket, not thinking much about it as I was so absorbed in trying to discover the identity of the stylish couple.

When the couple had left I said to the leader, "Ok, what goes here? Who are they?" He said, "Didn't you recognize them? That was Mrs. Marcos of the Philippines and Van Cliburn the pianist." "What?" I said, "Well no wonder he couldn't dance!" We all had a good laugh and talked about the money they must have spent that night- close to $8,000 we figured. I dashed home, forgetting about the envelope until I took off my jacket and it fell to the floor. "Oh how nice," I thought, "a tip, maybe $20.00." When I opened it up, I wasn't prepared for what I found inside- five crisp new $100 bills! They had paid me $500 for an hour of overtime!

Suddenly, I began to reflect on the whole evening- the $500 bottles of champagne, the $800 jars of caviar, the salaries for the entourage of bodyguards, the small amount of "extra" money Carl was making at his other gig, and the relatively small amount I had expected by filling in for him at this one. What was wrong with this picture? Carl was struggling to make a little more for his family, and I was playing for what seemed like hours on end while Mrs. Marcos and Van Cliburn were spending $8,000 or so for an hour of fun. Sure, I was glad to get the money. I was delighted! Who wouldn't be?

But still, I began to think about the dire situation in the Philippines and many other parts of the world, with people starving to death and pockets of poverty almost everywhere.

Oh well, just another night in New York City. I think I'll buy a $500 bottle of champagne.

Best wishes,
Jack Wilkins

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