Having a broken ankle has changed my morning routine. The boot is heavy and uncomfortable enough to make the crowded morning subway too difficult to negotiate. When I can build in an hour of travel time, I take 3 buses. Otherwise, I take a taxi. It’s wildly outside of the budget, but I’m not going to Europe in the near future, and so it’s my travel money that I see quickly ticking away on that meter.
I don’t like taxis. Too many drivers aren’t very good at their job, the stop and go traffic is maddening, and I end up at work rattled before the first morning fire.
Then every once in a while . . . .
The other morning I had a lot on my mind. I got into a cab, and the first good sign was that the driver knew that the all-around best way to get from the Upper Upper West Side to dead midtown is to take the South Drive through Central Park. Many drivers think it’s just a scenic route, but the smart ones know it’s the way to go. So when my guy turned left on 100th street to head into the park, I knew I was in good hands.
He had the radio on low, playing some sort of Swing music. It was happy and engrossing, and I asked him to turn it up. The tune filled the cab and was heating up as we merged into the South Drive.
The Northern part of Central Park is very terraced and the road winds into the terrain beautifully. On this overcast December morning, the air looked slightly silvery, with the last of the late autumn gold and russet leaves punctuating the grey scenery as we grooved along.
This guy was a great driver, and I was actually enjoying the whole experience, when the song ended and the next sound was THE downbeat.
There are just a few songs that I can name in one note. “Thunder Road” is one, and Bunny Berigan’s “Can’t Get Started” is another.
The downbeat of "Can’t Get Started" makes my spine tingle. Written by Vernon Duke, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, it belongs to Berigan. I know every note of that piece, every breath place and embellishment of the solo. I love the words; they makes me feel connected to every thought about man/woman there has ever been. I love Berigan’s casual, easy voice; I love his diction.
I've flown around the world in a plane
I've settled revolutions in Spain
And the North Pole I have charted
still I can't get started with you
It makes me think of my father, who first introduced me to the song when I was very little, and who warned me against Sinatra’s updated lyrics.
On the golf course, I'm under par
Metro-Goldwyn have asked me to star
I've got a house, a show place
Still I can't get no place with you
Cause you're so supreme
Lyrics I write of you
I dream, dream day and night of you
and I scheme just for the sight of you
baby what good does it do
I've been consulted by Franklin D
Greta Garbo has had me to tea
Still I'm broken hearted
Cause I can't get started with you
I’m always swept away by the time Berigan starts the last verse runs. And it was no different in this cab, driving through the woods of Central Park in the middle of our neurotic concrete, at the beginning of a day that was going to have a lot of headaches, absolutely none of them important. It was a comforting moment because it was random. I could carry an iPod and program the song for any ride, but I like to let the universe be the cosmic DJ.
Berigan died in 1942 when he was 33 from alcoholism, straight cirrhosis of the liver. That’s a lot of pain. But 65 years later, he’s giving a lift to two New Yorkers just trying to make it through the day. These musicians, man, they are no mere mortals.
Please listen. And enjoy J.B. Handelsman's New Yorker take on the classic.
The West Drive of Central Park at West 70th Street. (Photo: Susan Farley for The New York Times)