May 13, 2010

Song of Solomon

Posted in Profile Writing at 9:59 pm by shhville

Class: Profile Writing

Instructors: Karen Weintraub and Billy Baker

Song of Solomon

By Elke Blackstone

In his cramped office at the Harvard Chemistry Department, Lenny Solomon is wearing a turquoise and leather bolo tie, his chunky silver and turquoise rings, a button down shirt, and blue jeans. His leather cowboy hat hangs on a hook behind the door. On a side desk are stacks of Lenny Solomon Band CD’s and a collection of raggedy cacti.

A mechanical engineer by training, Solomon has worked as lab director for Professor James Anderson in the Atmospheric Sciences Division for 31 years. Now, at sixty-four, he has accepted an early retirement package that Harvard offered to long-time employees in 2009 in an attempt to mitigate layoffs after the economic downturn. Some half-hearted excavation of his office, with its three decades of accumulated history, has begun. Every day he tries to take a few things home, but he still hasn’t made much of a dent.

Smoothing a hand over his long silver hair and then over his mustache-less silver goatee, he pauses over a pastrami sandwich to ruminate.

“Why do people wear matching shoes? I’ve been thinking about this lately. What’s the reasoning behind that?”

Some theories are offered: the human attraction to symmetry, a general antipathy toward clown fashion, but Solomon is unconvinced.

“People shouldn’t limit themselves that way, you know?” he says with a smile, tearing into a mustard packet.

A few weeks later, Solomon is in T.J. Maxx with Barbara, his wife of nearly 40 years. With them are their grandchildren (Nicholas, thirteen and Victoria, eleven), and their two toy poodles. The poodles, Tatanka and Hopi Kachina, both sport giant, comical afros.

In the lingerie section, Barbara, who suffers from post-polio disorder and walks with two canes, fearlessly lectures a pack of teenage boys on what sort of pajamas to buy their girlfriends (“No frills, no lace! Women want to be comfortable!”). She is wearing an extravagant green velvet hat high on her head, a matching green coat, and a sparkly brooch. Her wide, penetrating gaze is so intense, it almost feels like a physical weight and the teenagers treat her with deference, thanking her for her advice. Elsewhere in the store, Solomon holds Hopi Kachina in his arms. She is seventeen, arthritic, blind in one eye, and needs the rest.

A few weeks later still and Solomon is now officially retired. He sits at his dining room table at home, backlit by a sunny window. The house has a clean, bright earthiness to it. In the living room, an enormous moose antler sits on the floor next to an old grinding wheel. In the hallway is a fold-up traveling organ. On the walls hang intricate masks and paintings from the American southwest. He explains that many of them are from high-end craft shows that he and Barbara frequent. They are both “artsy” people, he says. The studio where Solomon writes his music is the only messy room, filled with instruments and loose-leaf papers. It looks like his old office.

Tatanka sits in Solomon’s lap, his milk chocolate afro bobbing around crazily. Solomon seems serene, unwound, as he talks about his abrupt change of pace.

“My wife needs a lot more care and attention as the years go by, so I’ve been here more with the things she does. Before she was physically impaired she did pottery and stone sculpture but she can’t do that kind of stuff anymore, so what she’s been doing is watercolors and collages.” He explains that he uses his computer to turn Barbara’s creations into reproducible works of art.

“I’m basically filling my time with everything I used to do except working, and it’s less frenetic. I’ve been frustrated the past couple of years that I didn’t have time for music. I didn’t write any songs, didn’t play out much. It takes time to write. You need focused quiet time where you can just sit down and write and play. When I’m writing, time goes faster and I can be screwing around and two hours go by. I’m just not aware of the time, which is nice. It’s a great feeling, it’s a rush. I don’t have to cram into weekends all the stuff I used to have to cram into weekends.”

A few days later, Solomon has a show with his band at a small cafe called Sarah’s Market. He plays guitar and harmonica while his band mates play slide guitar and stand-up bass. In his bolo tie and matching boots, he grins his way through a song he wrote called “Exercise Sucks” and then points out the cash hat. “I thought maybe we could pass the hat around. Be generous. Remember, musicians work hard.”

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