Ben Chastain and the Lobby
The hotel lobby smelled like a memory …
The collision of perfumes, soaps and colognes traveling in on white skin and black skin and brown skin, mixed with the continually wafting exhaust ghosting in from the portico, created an ocean of residue; the remnants of places been and miles traveled. Even though smoking isn’t allowed in public buildings anymore, somehow cigarette smoke still found its way into the aromatic amalgam. And that was the ingredient; the trigger; that bite of a freshly smoked cigarette that brought on those strange sensations that whisper, “I’ve been here before.”
Settling like a cloud over the entire scent-scape, was always the faint suggestion of chicken ala something, emanating from one of the ball rooms. Food was the ever present reminder of the now and immediate.
The pungent whiskey and vodka drinks migrating from the bar, brought with them a sharpness that cut through the olfactory cornucopia, creating a strange brew of fragrances that could make you feel surrounded and alone all at the same time. It was that flash of memory so intense you can almost feel a different time and place, and yet the details escape you. It’s the dream you can’t remember …but wakes you up crying.
Ben Chastain played this odorous room five nights a week. He was familiar with every stick of furniture, every crease in every dark velvet curtain cascading from the ornate, arched vaults, every design pattern on every square inch of imported, designer print carpet. Ben had studied the marbling in the columns and stairs leading up to his perch, just inside the veranda. There was nothing about any seven to eleven set he didn’t know like the back of his piano hardened hands. But the smells …the smells sometimes took him somewhere; somewhere mournful and longingly melancholy, making his heart ache and his mind wander. And now, December twenty-third, they were pulling him back again to someplace he couldn’t quite remember …but couldn’t quite forget.
The memories of his mother coming in from Christmas shopping, with that sly smile on her face, washed over him. The warm remembrances of aunts and uncles and grandparents and fireplaces and sweet potato pie floated through his mind like the fog on the distant Tennessee mountains, rising across the river from his piano seat view. The smells of Christmas transported him to happier times …and sadder times. The bright, decorative, plastic representations of holiday cheer were easy enough to dismiss. But the smells …the smells affected him in ways he couldn’t explain.
Ben was hired to be musically ubiquitous at Christmas time. He was to be classic yet forgettable. Brilliant yet corporate. He was there to make the guests feel at ease and vaguely happy, but not quite compelled enough to linger. All his years of practice and perfectionism were now focussed on the singular goal of not allowing uncomfortable silences in a hotel lobby. He was to be interesting enough to make them want to listen, but not so interesting that they would stop talking or laughing …or drinking. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for Ben, he was particularly adept at just this sort of thing. This time of year was festive. The music would have to reflect it. Ben could do it.
All of the usual Christmas standards were always on the playlist. But every so often Ben would sneak in a Chastain original, especially if the other two in his three-piece combo, were available. His self-penned, should’ve-been classic, “When I See A Christmas Tree” was reminiscent enough of other true classics, that it could sort of fit in between Baby It’s Cold Outside and Sleigh Ride without sounding too awkward. He had recorded it once, in hopes that it would catch on. But after enough time, it was clear that it would remain relegated to his playlist only.
When his drummer, Shawn Filmer, and upright bassist Matt Williams were playing along, the song sounded downright magical. But tonight it was just Ben. The management didn’t care as long as the room sounded like Christmas …whatever that sounded like. As much as Ben preferred having the band around him, he knew enough about major sevenths and augmented fifths to make almost anything “sound” like Christmas.
So, Ben Chastain’s fingers and voice kept the spirit of the season in the air, in the lobby of the Jacksonian Hotel, in Nashville, Tennessee. His 9 foot, black baby grand set against the reds and greens and holly arrangements and the oversized Christmas tree in the center of the grand entrance, made the place feel like a Christmas wonderland to all weary travelers, visiting grandmas and grandpas and sisters and cousins. The music would make them (and him) feel happy for a moment. But the song would end and his happiness would fade. Sometimes, the reality a musician faces in the silences between songs is what makes them get to the next one quickly. Ben Chastain was no exception and he was colliding with those realities more and more as every day passed.
Ben had turned 49 in October and was starting to feel the years in his hands. The constant beating of the ivories was taking its toll on a couple of arthritic fingers. Ben had never been a virtuoso in the truest sense, but he was always referred to as “soulful” or “interesting.” These days, he wasn’t as nimble on the keyboard as he’d been in younger days; the days when he was being touted as the next big thing. His effortless dexterity from a different decade was giving way to more settled and deliberate plodding. He took no chances. He broke no new ground. He played the chords and sang the melodies, collected his tips …and went home.
Christmas season gigs hadn’t always put food on the table for Ben Chastain. His mind would occasionally drift, on his breaks, to the good times. Nights filled with arenas and green rooms and catered meals were once on the horizon for him. He was close to touching it once in his twenties. But the birth of his daughter brought him back to reality and he took a job teaching middle school band students while he watched his friends move on to limos and luxury.
He could still vaguely remember what his tight, fresh face felt like when it smiled at audiences from the main stage. He could still hear the roar of the crowds. But now, the head full of thick, jet black hair, waving and bouncing and slightly caressing his collar, was almost all grey and thinning. The dashing gait of a young rock star was now a slower, more delicate saunter. But he remembered.
After this gig, Ben wasn’t sure what would pay the bills next. He had nothing lined up. No prospects. The phone wasn’t ringing. There were no bright horizons for almost 50-year-olds in the music business.
Ben stood in front of the men’s room mirror, preparing to go back out to cover tunes and disinterest, straightening his bow tie and tux jacket and tending to his out of place locks. His eyes were still the same …but almost nothing else was. Years take a toll. His once prominent cheek bones were now slightly plump. The square jaw that had once cut a striking silhouette was now the mere frame work for a softly sagging chin. The tight belly of his glory days was fuller and rounder and heavier.
Ben wasn’t a man who’d let himself go. His newfound physical traits didn’t belong to a man who had given up, they belonged to a man who was simply aging. And that bothered him the most. He was running out of time and it showed in his body. But he stared and remembered …and wondered where all the time had gone.
Most of all Ben thought about Christmas and where the magic of it had gone. At one time, it had been his favorite time of year. Now it was just another gig; just a different playlist. He pined for the days when it meant something special to him. But those days were long gone. Ben stared into the mirror and wished for them.
Tonight, his stare into the past was interrupted by the incessant nose blowing from the stall next to him. It had to be Jimmy Hackmon, the shift supervisor. Jimmy was a type A personality and a generally good natured jerk. He laughed too loud at his own jokes and lingered too long in your face to make sure you were laughing too. He was 30-something, physically fit yet mentally awash in managed chaos. His high-strung personality was enhanced only by his constant barrage of bad ideas. Everyone tolerated it but no one talked about it, hoping it would just go away. Ben looked down in disappointment as Jimmy emerged from the stall, wiping his nose.
“Can you believe allergies are killing me AT CHRISTMAS TIME, Bennie Chastain?! Thanks a lot Nashvegas. Bennie, Bennie, Bennie Chastain!!!” Jimmy shouted, a little too loudly, while shaking Ben’s shoulders as if to say, “way to go, man!”
Jimmy stood next to Ben and checked himself in the mirror. He was fidgety and restless and it made Ben a little uncomfortable standing next to a man who had so much pent up energy. So, he stepped slightly further to the right as if to avoid any bodily contact. Just then, Jimmy started in rapid-fire fashion …
“Bennie …we gotta get you doing shows for the conferences, man! You’re killer, dude! Seriously, can you do like Sinatra, Tony Bennet kinda stuff? I saw Michael Buble with mom last month …he was A.M.A.Z.I.N.G! Do you know Buble? Ever met him? You should try out for his band. You ever play in Denver? I saw Metallica there once. Totally different thing …but …DUDE! What if you did a whole show of Metallica songs Buble style?!?! DUDE! That would be saweeet! You could tour it WITH Buble himself!” Jimmy grabbed Ben’s shoulders again and shook them, then as he exited, he yelled back …”You gotta believe in miracles, man! Now Go do YO thang Bennie Chastain! Bennie and the Jetsssss!”
Ben stood for a moment and collected himself from the onslaught of ignorant incoherence. First of all, he hated being called “Bennie.” Ever since that infernal song had become a hit in 1974, he couldn’t remember a day when his name wasn’t followed by “the Jetssssss” by someone, somewhere. Ben had originally loved the song. After all, it was the reason he got interested in the piano in the first place. But now it was just a pavlovian nightmare hardwired into the brain of anyone who heard the name “Bennie.”
It might not have been so annoying if literally every single person who did it didn’t think they were the very first person to think of it. That, coupled with the abject lack of respect for what it would take to actually achieve anything that had just passed over Jimmy’s lips, was so off putting to Ben that he was stunned silent for a few seconds.
He splashed a bit of water on his face, re-adjusted his suit and hair and said to the mirror, “miracles don’t exist.” The obligatory politician smile he’d donned for Jimmy returned to his default expression of total indifference. Ben was now ready to go play his last 45-minute set of the night before Christmas Eve.