Tuesday, January 1, 2008

How I met cousin Morley, and how the saxophone saved my life

About five years ago I went to a conference on alcohol in Brussels with two objectives. The first was to meet a researcher from Finland, with a strange theory that the yeast and bacteria in our mouths help cause cancer when we drink alcohol. The second was to meet the television team that was due to film a program on bad breath (they later came to Israel, and went on to produce a film that won international acclaim, called "Breath from Hell"). Of course I also brought my tenor saxophone with the hope that I would get to jam somewhere in the land where the saxophone was invented.

I arrived the first evening of the meeting to a cocktail room full of scientists attending the conference. I looked over the list of participants, and one name immediately caught my eye. Dr. Morley Hollenberg, from Calgary. I had never heard of this person, but I sensed immediately that he was my cousin. Weird? Not at all. Hollenberg is a rare name, and many Canadians with that name are related to my Dad's family through his late Mom (my Bobi Bayla). One Hollenberg family had five sons who were all physicians in Canada. So I thought it was worth a try.
After asking the conference organizers to point out Dr. Hollenberg, I went over to him, and said "You never heard of me, and I never heard of you, but you are my cousin."
"How is that?" he asked. "Well, I said, just let me ask you two questions. Do you have a cousin in Boston named Dr. Norman Hollenberg (a famous physician and researcher)?" He answered affirmatively. "Were Uncle Irving and Auntie Sonya Hollenberg from Winnipeg your uncle and aunt as well?" Sure enough. One short cellphone call to my father clarified everything. Morley was a physician son of one of the five physician brothers who were Dad's cousins.
It's a small world when you are (i) named Hollenberg (ii) from western Canada and (iii) a physician to boot. But here's what makes it super special. Morley loves jazz, his son is a saxophonist, and the first thing we did together was go to a jam session.

I returned solo the same evening to the same joint, sax in hand, and got to jam with a guy who had played with Chet Baker. I stayed till about 2 a.m. and then asked the proprietors to order me a cab. A cab? they asked, the hotel is only four minutes walk – just go out the door, turn right, left, right again and then the hotel is just down the street.
Even in a town with a street grid like Washington I can get lost in a second. Here, it's downtown Brussels, two in the morning, and the streets are from the middle ages. They twist turn and bend like a Coltrane solo. Within two minutes, I am lost, with no hope of finding either the hotel, nor the jazz joint. I am heading into a lousy neighbourhood, down a small street. I am wearing a good suit, carrying lots of money and holding a rectangular case with my 1941 Holton silver-plated tenor sax. I pass two menacing figures and after about a hundred yards I realize that I have gone the wrong way. I head back up the alley only to see the two menacing figures standing at either side, waiting for my approach. I wonder whether I am going to get away with (i) my wallet; (ii) my saxophone; (iii) my life. I decide to "play it cool as can be" and just walk the walk. But inside I am quivering. As I approach they say something in French, and then take a look at me and somehow back off. I pass between them at a normal clip and somehow find my way back to the hotel. When I get back, I start to shake and savor my good fortune at not being stripped of my wealth and health. What caused those two Goliaths to back off and let me pass? I get to my hotel room and go to the bathroom to pee and wash my face. When I look in the mirror, I suddenly see how my saxophone has saved my life.

I was wearing a horizontal sax halter (instead of my usual vertical strap) that bears uncanny resemblance to a gun halter. They probably thought I had packed a piece beneath my suit jacket.

Morley and I maintained contact until recently. He is also a very talented artist who does Japanese brush work and has illustrated several of my wife's poems. And downtown Brussels? I steer clear.

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