After my mom split up with her third husband, we could no longer afford the comfortable two-bedroom apartment that overlooked Echo Park, so we moved into a one-room apartment near Santa Monica Blvd. and Vermont Ave., on the southeast fringe of Hollywood. Not far from us there was another small apartment that had a sign in front advertising "Singing Lessons & Piano Lessons." Well, I had always wanted to learn to play the piano, so I asked my mom if we could inquire about the cost of lessons.
She assured me we couldn't afford it, and besides, we didn't have a piano—so where would I practice?
But I stopped to inquire, anyway.
Mrs. Martinson, a woman who appeared to be in her mid-seventies, was both the singing and the piano teacher. When I asked about piano lessons she said they were a dollar an hour, and that I could use her piano to practice on whenever it wasn't being used. Even my mother agreed that that was a bargain, so she let me sign up for lessons.
However, I quickly discovered that Mrs. Martinson really wasn't interested in giving me piano lessons—what she actually wanted to do was give me singing lessons. She suggested that I forget about the piano and start taking voice lessons—or the same price. (Also, I think I may have let it slip at some point that I had once sung in an opera.)
Thanks, I told her, but I have a lousy voice and, besides, I really wanted to learn the piano.
But she wasn't going to take no for an answer. She went on to tell me about one of her students, a young lady of about my age (14) who needed someone to sing duets with and about how I would be just right as her partner. Well, the young lady turned out to be quite charming and very pretty, and it was hard to say no when our teacher introduced us and said she wanted us to practice together.
But it was a duet destined for disaster. The girl had a beautiful bell-like voice that filled the room with glorious sound, while I croaked along like I had a mouth full of moldy mush. It was awful. I felt ridiculous, and the girl was too embarrassed to say anything.
But Mrs. Martinson just smiled and assured us both that my voice would quickly improve under her guidance. I later came to learn that Mrs. Martinson didn't have any other teenage male voice students, and was desperate for someone—anyone, apparently—to learn to sing duets with her talented young protégé.
Well, after unmercifully murdering a chorus of One Alone, I couldn't wait to get out of there and go home. And I never went back for any more lessons of any kind.
But I still wish I had learned to play the piano.
Mrs. Martinson's Multi-Talented Son
In the meantime, however, my mom had gotten to know Mrs. Martinson's son, who lived with his mom in their small studio apartment. He was a very nice gentleman of about 40 and his name was Veré. However, he was nice in a "Liberace" sort of way.
My mother had quite a few friends of his particular persuasion (although, in Veré's case, I think there may have been a lack of any persuasion at all). Anyway, she used to tell me that these friends were very interesting and generally quite intellectual and how she liked knowing that whenever she was with them she'd never have to worry about warding off any unwanted advances. Well, I was pretty sure there was no danger of Veré ever making a move on my mom.
Veré, like his mother, was a musician. He played piano in a night club in downtown Los Angeles, but said he didn't really like the job too well. He said he'd rather be playing a better class of music somewhere else. But, he explained, those kinds of jobs were hard to find.
In any case, the thing about Veré that really caught my mom's attention was that he did fortune telling on the side—although he hated the term "fortune teller," preferring "psychic" or "medium" instead.
Anyway, while his mom gave music lessons in one room, Veré would give "readings" in the other room.
My Mom's Musical Mystic
But since his mother had her Piano and Singing Lessons sign on their front door, I couldn't help but wonder why there was no sign advertising Veré's soothsaying services.
Well, I was told that selling psychic services was considered illegal in Los Angeles, and that putting a sign out front would surely have invited a visit from the city constabulary.
In any case, Veré seemed to have a sizeable clientele, and was kept quite busy by some devoted believers who enthusiastically spread the news of his marvelous metaphysical capabilities fom person to person. Well, my mom just loved having her fortune told. And Veré was a man of all fortunes. He read palms, did numerology, worked out horoscopes, read tarot cards, and—most entertaining of all—did Egyptian sand reading.
What—you've never heard of Egyptian sand reading? I think it was Veré's answer to the crystal ball—which I sort of expected to find among his paraphernalia, but never did.
In a semi-darkened room you would sit opposite Veré at a small table that had a round brass tray at its center. The tray was about 18 inches in diameter, and had a glass bottom with a light of some kind beneath it. There was also a small lamp clamped to one edge of the tray. Finally, there was a layer of fine white sand about half an inch deep smoothed out across the glass bottom of the tray.
Now Veré would open a wooden case about the size of a cigar box to reveal its contents of a dozen or so stones of various sizes and shapes. They looked like ordinary backyard rocks to me, but I was assured that these were precious stones from Egypt, from whence he also claimed the fine white sand had come.