My Night With Ray Charles
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Taking the road less taken is always worth taking.
I moved to New York City in pursuit of a dream. It’s a city where worlds are created, images shattered and the strangest things can happen. In this instance? Me waking up from an afterwork nap and reaching for the phone to order in Chinese. I looked at my dance clothing hanging on the back of my chair. They were for trying out for a belly dancing class.
I guessed Chinese food wasn’t the best thing to eat if you wanted to look good at belly dancing class.
So I canceled my order and headed to my neighborhood grocery store, Fairway. I walked down West 75th Street toward Broadway. A man was waving tickets on the corner. I heard him say, “Ray Charles. Tenth row for 100 bucks. I got two tickets! Who wants them?”
I did, but I needed to focus: My stomach was growling. I breathed in the sweet scents from the fruit and veggie aisles and, 20 minutes later, my basket was full of healthy fare. But then I walked past the aisle with candy. I happily decided to lose the battle of no junk and picked up a bag of dark-chocolate-covered pretzels; they would make for excellent, um, appetizers on the walk home.
Moments later, armed with two bags of groceries pushed high up on my arms, I started stuffing my face with chocolate-covered pretzels. I looked up before crossing the street. RAY CHARLES was flashing in bold bright white lights on the Beacon Theater marquee.
Ray Charles. He was smiling and chatting with people. Someone so extraordinary, doing something so ordinary.
“Wish I could go.” I thought again, popping another pretzel in my mouth while I walked past the back entrance.
“Hey, can I have one?” The voice came out of the dimly lit stage door.
“Sure, have some.” I held out the bag of chocolate-covered pretzels.
A tall, dark and handsome man looked shocked as he stepped forward and reached into the bag.
“No problem. Do any of your friends want any?” I was happy to share and figured it’d be better for belly dancing class if I didn’t devour the entire bag. He was startled and replied, “No, I think they’re good. Hey, do you want to see the show tonight?”
“I’m one of Ray Charles’ managers. Do you want to see the show?”
“I’d love to, but …” I held up my grocery bags.
“Where do you live?”
“Two blocks away.”
“Come back in 45 minutes. What’s your name? I’m Damion.”
“Masada, nice to meet you. I’ll be back!”
Forty-five minutes later, I arrived at the side entrance. “I’m looking for Damion, please,” I asked the man at the door. Damion then appeared and said, “I’m so glad you came back! Come on.” I followed him through windy alleys and doors, until we reached backstage and … Ray Charles. He was smiling and chatting with people. Someone so extraordinary, doing something so ordinary.
Damion pulled up a chair on the stage itself, behind the curtain. “Have a seat here for now. Don’t go anywhere; I have to check on a few things.”
I watched the band tune up on the stage. A few minutes later, I turned and Ray Charles was right next to me. Two inches away from me. I could feel his energy as he walked by. Magnetic and electrifying. My brain went into overdrive. This was freaking out of control, unbelievable, amazing. I was pinching myself. Tense people rushed by, organizing the show.
Damion reappeared with a ticket in his hand. “Masada, your seat is eighth row center. You’ll be sitting next to the drummer’s niece. Come backstage after the show.”
“Sweet, thanks.” I walked to my seat in sheer disbelief. Moments later, Ray walked out on the stage and the audience roared. The moment his fingers touched the piano, the room rocked with a wild energy. The rhythm, the movement, the sheer joy of the crowd. The songs ranged from soulful to upbeat, each piece of music more glorious than the preceding one. The lights sparkled across the stage as his fingers danced across the keyboard and his voice put the audience into a trance. I wiped away tears.
The show ended, people started piling out. I walked over to the stage and was asked, “Where’s your backstage pass?” Then the man did a double take, “Oh wait, you are Damion’s friend. Go right ahead. I think he’s in the back.”
I giggled, loving my newfound status as “Damion’s friend.” I wandered back and saw family members and friends mingling with Ray Charles.
Damion saw me. “Hey! Did you like the show?”
“Thank you so much, you can’t even imagine.”
We walked back center stage and Damion showed me Ray’s piano. On the piano itself was a list in Braille of the order of the songs that were preformed that night. Damion explained that’s how Ray knew the musical order for his performance. Smiling, I rubbed my fingers over the Braille stickers stuck to the piano and marveled at the man, his talent and the magic of the night.
Damion then popped the question: “Do you want to meet Ray?”
“Um …” and it felt like an eternity. “That’s OK. I’m so grateful for just being here …”
The truth was, I didn’t know what to say to Ray other than the typical “That was amazing. I love your music!” lame stuff that I think they all hear. Terrible time to feel shy and one of the very few times in my life that I’ve gotten that way. But could great have gotten much greater anyway?