Blake Thomas was an attractive young man. He was not especially handsome, but his amiable demeanor and easy smile produced an endearing personality to which people were naturally drawn. Consistently even-tempered, unstintingly accommodating, and relentlessly upbeat, Blake made friends wherever he went. People enjoyed his company, and he theirs. If there was a single quality people appreciated in Blake more than any other—even without their realizing it—it may have been his non-threatening nature. When you were with Blake, gone were any fears of being criticized or judged, challenged or upstaged, assailed or abused in any way. With Blake, you felt utterly at ease and completely safe.
Blake never cultivated a great many interests, but when something did take his fancy it became the object of a surging passion and an almost desperate, single-minded dedication. As a child who liked to draw, he once completed detailed and skillfully rendered portraits in pencil of each of the thirty some odd children in his class. When infatuated with basketball, he would stand for many hours in the driveway shooting free throws, pausing only to record—with a dogged and systematic scrupulousness—the number of hits and misses from his many hundreds of shots. Accompanied and encouraged by his father, Blake completed dozens of 5K foot races before the age of ten, often running in bitter cold, freezing rain, and once completing a steep 8K dash down the side of a mountain that left his toenails bruised and blackened for months.
When he was quite young, Blake’s parents placed a violin in his hands. It didn’t stick. Shortly thereafter, a trumpet did. He began playing at the age of eleven and ten years later was still playing. Strictly speaking, his first horn had been a cornet. A couple of years later, he graduated to a B flat trumpet, and for his 18th birthday his parents bought him a C trumpet. On the eve of his 21st birthday, Blake himself purchased an item he had long been coveting: a flugelhorn. Nothing else in his life came close to rivaling the excitement produced by this acquisition.
Preparing to enter University, Blake came to a musical crossroads of classical and jazz and chose to follow the latter. He had cultivated his talent in a variety of forums, in school ensembles and extra-curricular groups. He played with the Greater Metropolitan Youth Symphony in concerts on the majestic stage of Orchestra Hall. At school, he played in the symphonic band, wind ensemble, orchestra, jazz band, and even in the annual Battle of the Bands during his brief fling with a rock and roll group. In the end, jazz won him over, and he never looked back.
By the time he reached his junior year at the University, where he’d been welcomed on a full music scholarship, Blake had become both a skilled trumpet player and a knowledgeable and discriminating jazz musician. Arriving home shortly before midnight from his waitering job, mornings often found him—wide-eyed and trumpet in hand—hunched over the sheets of original compositions. He attended the sessions of local jam forums nearly every weekend and occasionally sat in on sets at popular jazz clubs. He knew all the jazz standards. He knew the legendary performers from the birth of jazz onward, and the distinctive styles they had pioneered. Naturally, he knew the trumpet players best of all, and felt a stronger bond with Louis, Miles and Dizzy than with his classmates, a closer kinship to Clifford, Lee and Freddie than to the three roommates he lived with.
And yet, despite this preoccupation with his ruling passion, Blake retained the charisma he had always exuded, and remained well liked by all. He had grown no less deferential to others over time, and had a natural facility for subordinating his own concerns to those of whichever person he was with. When not in a musical setting, he seldom was the one to introduce the topic. In fact, few of his fellow waiters and waitresses even knew of his musical side. To have such a personality was undoubtedly a blessing, both for Blake in preventing his passion from veering into obsession, as well as for those with whom he interacted, who generally didn’t mind talking about themselves.
In addition to being a waiter, Blake held a second job manning the counter of a small, family-owned ice cream parlor. Some three weeks before his 21st birthday, flushed with the joy of his newly acquired flugelhorn, Blake stood behind the counter stacking chocolate-dipped waffle cones when a very pretty girl entered the shop. Blake had served her before, a number of times, in fact, and had found her more and more enchanting each time. She wore a black beret and had on a bright pink sweater with a classy looking burgundy scarf coiled round the collar of her smart leather jacket. She looked quite young but Blake knew she was a University student. He had seen her on campus once, and a couple of times hanging around the Plaza with a backpack. She had the most wonderful smile.
Blake greeted her with a big smile, hoping to elicit the same. It worked. They had the shop entirely to themselves.
“It is,” she whined, with a giggle, hugging herself with a show of shivering. “I don’t know why I’m getting ice cream,” she said, as if truly puzzled.
“Probably because it tastes so good,” Blake said.
She giggled again and Blake’s fondness for her spiked as he silently prayed no other customers would appear. His prayer was answered—it was a cold night for ice cream, after all. Flirtatious banter ensued and Blake was sufficiently encouraged to overstep the bounds of professional propriety.
“You know, that cone’s not going to make you any warmer,” he said, while she sat at a little round table near the counter, hunched over her chocolate mocha cone in a posture emphatically gelid.
“I get off here in a half hour. If you don’t mind waiting, I’d be happy to buy you a cup of something hot over at Starbucks.”
“You know,” she said, “that sounds like a real good idea.” Giggle.
They walked away from the shop together after Blake had pulled the gate down over the facade and locked it, a duty that seemed to impress her. After about half a block, she linked her arm through his and huddled against him as they walked, saying only “it’s so cold” in that lovely plaintive voice. Blake swelled with pride and contentment. All was right with the world. He had money in his pocket, a flugelhorn nestled in its fur-lined case at home, and a beautiful girl on his arm.
They crossed the broad central thoroughfare into the very heart of the Plaza, a strip frequented by street musicians. A rude wind blundered down the avenue, stinging their exposed parts, and the girl pulled her scarf up over her cheeks as together they inveighed against the elements in shrill, playful voices, laughing all the while.
Blake realized he didn’t even know her name. In fact, they had hardly spoken at all, and really knew absolutely nothing about one another. Yet they knew how they felt at this moment and where they were going and both were eager to face each other in a warm place, over hot drinks, and together work out their relation to one another. Seldom were young people ever deterred by the circumstances that brought them together. All that really mattered was that they were together, free to do and be whatever they wished. Sometimes the single exchange of a glance or a smile was all it took to set something wonderful in motion.
“We’re almost there,” Blake said, as though there were a chance the cold might wear down her resolve, that she might suddenly abandon him and the crazy impulse.
“Bur-r-r-r!” she whined, this time with no trace of a giggle. Her scarf had slipped down and her dainty nose peeked out, shining pink as a cat’s.
“I can already smell the coffee,” he said. And in fact, Starbucks lay just half a block farther, on the next corner. Blake’s mind began racing to the future, what he would say, what she might say, an irresistible proposal for their second date. And beyond that, he pictured her sitting in a club, at a table near the stage, watching him play with the band, smiling with pride, waiting for the set to end so he could take her home and make sweet love to her.
Certainly, he was getting a bit carried away. But who could blame him? His feelings perfectly suited his time of life.
“Is this guy kidding or what?” she said, jarring Blake from his reveries.
A bearded man in a long overcoat stood on the sidewalk in front of Starbucks playing a trumpet. He wore a blue woolen cap with a large white pom-pom on top, and black gloves with the fingers cut off. Blake instantly recognized the melody of the classic Summertime, and the performer as well. He was an older guy who often played around the Plaza. Blake had chatted with him on more than one occasion, and now the man, while continuing to play, raised his eyes to Blake in a subtle nod which Blake returned over his companion’s head. The man’s trumpet case was open on the sidewalk, displaying a smattering of bills and change, and the man’s fingers looked white from the cold, although he was a black skinned man. Nevertheless, the man played with feeling, his body mimicking the notes he played, throwing his head back and looking skyward on the high notes, bowing on the low ones, grooving to the tune.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Blake said, as he held the door to Starbucks open for his companion. “My fingers would be frozen solid.”
She paused on her way in, turning to Blake with eyes rolled up high in her head.
“I don’t know which is worse,” she said, “not knowing enough to come in out of the cold, or playing the world’s most obnoxious instrument.”