When I was eight, I sang alone in restaurants and got paid for it. My mother stood me on one of those faux leather black restaurant chairs, with the spongiform yellow stuffing inside, and my little black penny loafers (with pennies in them — the right shinier than the left; my dad had painstakingly wrestled them in place the night before) dug into the seat while I sweated and phonated. Italian restaurants. Supercilious ones, without menus. And I always performed after the gargantuan men in tuxedos who didn’t have to stand on chairs and didn’t wear penny loafers and sounded like humanoid brass bands. Phlegm like a timpani, nasal resonance like trumpets, and the rest a conglomeration of tubas and grumbling trombones. I ate my stuffed shells and did not talk but kept my eyes wide and innocent.
In the men’s room, I spoke to my mother. The men’s room was white and reflective, and I felt like I was sitting on a toilet bowl inside a man-sized dice. Everything sounded seven times more stentorian. It was cold in there. My mother bit her painted lip and smiled maniacally as I took too long to pee.
“C’mon, c’mon. Antonio already said he’s gonna give you a cannoli, right, love? C’mon.” C’mon, c’mon, c’mon. Make sure your zipper’s done. You okay?
Well, c’mon. (Another smile, a more decidedly painted smile after leaving the cold die.)
And we drank wine and ate cannolis and smiled innocently at each other in our neckties and baubles, for free.
Thirteen years later, at the end of a particularly frenetic summer of airplanes and talking to myself, you might have been able to find me alone in a Beijing hútòng hurling an iPod against cold pavement. I don’t think you saw me, though, unless you regularly look at people via satellite when they’re on the other side of the world. The only people who did see me, I’m almost sure, were the Chinese boy and the Chinese girl who were French kissing behind a telephone pole. I didn’t feel guilty that way.
The iPod was a piece of Chinese crap. I’d bought it for twenty yuan from an ostensible audiophile in the basement of a pearl market at which I’d also purchased four black pearl necklaces for my mother. She paid, from across the Pacific. The aggressive audiophile made selfish small talk with all the white people. The skinny iPod played a cloying Far Eastern version of “Take Me To Your Heart,” sung by an anemic Taiwanese tenor. That was all it did.
I tried to make it do more, sing more, but it wouldn’t. After standing on top of it and bouncing for a few minutes, I brought it to my room and removed its PCB and crinkled the flimsy thing, and rolled the sticky glass screen into something that looked like a stale tootsie roll and left the whole business in a trash full of toilet paper. So many parts in such a soulless little amiable thing. I took it apart and felt powerful, and full, and like I was finally avenging whatever I’d been wanting to avenge since C’mon, C’mon, eat a cannoli.
Song is lazy. Instinctive and cerebellar rather than cerebral. It’s in your larynx, a kind of no man’s land between your heart and head, and it’s basically unalterable. Singers are born with a singing-shaped larynx just like you and I are born with a head and a brain. And they can sing whenever they want. Since birth. Not much prep time, not much sweat. Not much intellect or effort or anything equally respectable. Mariah Carey can roll out of bed and go shake her vocal folds in front of your face and you’ll pay seventy-eight dollars. And it’s because of this eternal corporeality — like a lamb’s involuntary bleat — that singing has always seemed, at least to me, somewhat animalistic. It’s inhuman. Natural to the point of becoming pornographic. Like taking out a part of your body that everyone has, splaying it on top of a tablecloth in an Italian restaurant, and expecting everyone to clap. As natural as pooping. When I was eight, I got paid to stand on chairs in restaurants and poop.
I mutilated that iPod because I was mad at it, and thought of its imitative nothingness the way I perhaps thought of me in those penny loafers with the shiny pennies inside peering out like two nervous eyes from their leather cages. What would I give to liberate those cents, to own those cents, and to jump off that dinner chair and work for my cannoli rather than defecate for it? And does Placido Domingo ever feel like a porn star? And what would happen if I were knifed in the throat in London and my voice fell at my feet?
When I was eight I sang alone in restaurants and got paid for it.