October 4, 2023
I met Arnie Black shortly after moving to New York City in 1964, and we quickly became friends.
Arnie was a musician who wore many musical hats. He was a fine violinist, holding positions such as assistant concertmaster of the National Symphony Orchestra and concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony. He was composer in residence in the early 1950’s at the Circle in the Square Theatre in Manhattan. Among his concert works, he wrote a children’s opera based on The Phantom Toll Booth, a novel by Norton Juster, and My Country, a piece commissioned by the St. Petersburg String Quartet. And he wrote in many different genres, among them music for PBS and for leading folk singers of the era.
Arnie was born with cerebral palsy, which affected mobility on his right side. It was impossible not to notice his extreme limp and his somewhat withered right arm as he played the violin. And yet, you might conclude that in condemning Arnie to the grim effects of the disease, nature had decided to reward him as a counterbalance with something valuable in return. Arnie was endowed with a sunny disposition, a joyful embrace of the creative process, and an irresistible sense of humor.
My friendship with Arnie grew through not only music but also proximity. I had recently moved into a large, one-room apartment on Riverside Drive literally around the corner from where Arnie, his wife Ruth, and their children lived on West End Avenue. Arnie would invite me over for bagels and lox, and sometimes we’d simply bump into each other on the street. At one such encounter, I complained about waking up each morning looking out at my barren, still-unfurnished room. “It’s not much smaller than a tennis court, Arnie. What on earth should I do with it?” Arnie responded without hesitation, “Have you thought of growing wheat?”.
In 1969, Arnie helped found the The Mohawk Trail Concerts in Charlemont, Massachusetts, not far from his summer home. In the over thirty years that he was its director, Arnie often invited me to perform there. During lunch in nearby Shelburne Falls before one of those concerts, our conversation began seriously, but with Arnie’s light touch. His cardiologist had told him he needed a heart replacement valve that would come from either a cow or a pig. Arnie insisted with a straight face that since he was Jewish, and consuming pork was forbidden, a pig’s valve would be out of the question.
But then our conversation took an unexpected turn. For the first time that I could recall, Arnie began to talk about being born with cerebral palsy. Rather than explaining his struggle to cope with the disease, he said something that took my breath away: Arnie told me that the greatest gift he had ever received in life was the disability given to him at birth. Seeing the look of incomprehension on my face, Arnie took me into one of the town’s book stores, and presented me with a book that had great meaning for him: Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi.
Stones from the River is a novel about a dwarf, Trudi, who grows up in the fictional town of Burgdorf, Germany. As a dwarf, Trudi is first rejected by her mother, and then faces withering verbal abuse in school from both her classmates and her teachers. At age thirteen, Trudi attends a carnival and meets a well-dressed and proud dwarf woman. Their conversation gives Trudi the feeling that she is not alone, and creates in her a sense of pride and identity.
When the Nazis come to power in 1933, the town’s ever-present anti-Semitism breaks out into the open. As violence against Jews increases, the town’s non-Nazi people remain silent and fearful. Not Trudi and her father, however. They begin to smuggle Jews into the basement of their home. Trudi’s outsider status has given her a deeply felt connection to the persecuted Jews. As the horrors of war play out, she wrestles with despair and the longing for friendship and love. The book offers no happy ending but, eventually, Trudi does find meaningful love and a deep sense of her own worth.
I must have told Arnie how moved I was by Stones in the River, but we never spoke further about why the book had meant so much to him. Arnie was not a dwarf. He did not suffer as a Jew growing up in Nazi Germany. By what mysterious process did Arnie’s affliction turn into an invaluable gift, and a guiding light? Arnie did not tell me, and he might not have even been able to clearly articulate how and why the miraculous transformation occurred. Perhaps Trudi’s story was his way of conveying the isolating feeling of “otherness”, and the struggle to reinvent it as a vibrant and positive life force.
Arnie Black died in 2000. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend his memorial service, but at the ceremony a friend of his told the following story:
Arnie and I regularly had dinner together in New York City’s Chinatown. One night, Arnie called me.
“How about dinner at our favorite restaurant? If you’re free, I’ll pick you up with my car in fifteen minutes.”
“Arnie, I’m free, but you’re crazy,” I told him. “It’s Saturday night, and our restaurant is the most popular one in all of Chinatown. I know you’re good with parking places, but we’ll never find one. Let me pick you up in a taxi.”
“Out of the question,” he said. “I’ll see you in fifteen minutes.”
And so, Arnie picked me up with his car and, as usual, a parking place opened up, this time directly in front of the restaurant. As we got out of the car, I shook my head in wonder.
“Arnie, no matter how crowded it is, you always manage to find a parking place. How do you do it? ”
“You know,” Arnie said with just a hint of a smile, “one day I was innocently walking down the street when suddenly out of the blue God spoke to me. “Arnie,” he said, “wherever you go, I’ll see to it that you always find a place to park. Only, you’re going to limp a little.”
Sign up to receive new stories straight to your inbox!