Music and the Mentor: An unlikely friendship

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It’s funny how certain things can trigger vivid memories of people and places from your past.

The scent of the same perfume worn by my first grade teacher can instantly place me back into Mrs. Felt’s classroom at Flower Hill Elementary School. Listening to Sirius Radio’s 80’s channel transports me back to college. Taking the back roads to Walt Whitman Mall, the same roads that led us to the home of Eugene Selesner, always remind me of our too short, but, important time with him.

Eugene (Gene) Selesner was a retired music teacher who taught for 20 years at Simpson and Finley Junior High Schools in Huntington, and before that, in Newark, New Jersey, until he relocated his family to Melville in 1968. But to us, during his last years, he became our daughter Kristina’s piano teacher and mentor, and dear family friend.

This is a story of an unlikely friendship between a reticent high school sophomore, and a fast-on-his-feet octogenarian who left an indelible imprint on her psyche. To do it justice, I will tell the story in a literary duet of both mine and Kristina’s voices – hers extracted from a college application essay she wrote to describe a memorable person. Kristina’s words appear in italics.

And so the story begins.

My mind raced.  I had waited eagerly for the start of my piano lessons, but never anticipated being instructed by some “geezer” who, from my own assessment, looked as if he had been out of touch with the world for the last decade. Seeing this wizened man standing in the threshold had taken me by complete surprise, but not the kind of surprise one looks forward to. I glanced back at my mother in the car, fighting off the urge to run back to her and vent. However, my next steps were through the doorway and into his depressing abode.

In observing this scene from my car, I remember applying a Kung Fu grip on the steering wheel after catching a glimpse of Mr. Selesner’s stern-looking face peering at Kristina from behind his storm door. We selected Mr. Selesner by word of mouth, and therefore had never actually met him. I watched my daughter take a few anxious steps backward. Her teen instinct had her poised to bolt on a moment’s notice. Picking up on her subtle hesitation with a well-honed radar for typical teen behavior, Mr. Selesner waved at me in my car and quickly escorted Kristina into the house. As the door closed behind them, I crossed my fingers and headed to the mall to kill one hour.

We were both silent for a few moments. As he tidied up his living room, I was able to stand back and fully take in my surroundings. The house was eternally dark, despite the 65 and sunny forecast for the day. It was furnished with orange colors and styles dating back to the 1970s and the smell of cigarettes was potent, all but knocking me off my feet. We walked into what I assumed was the living room-turned-music-room that housed an impressive grand piano and vast collection of CDs and musical compositions. Two black shelves stood tall at the back of the room, sheet music spilling out from every angle.

Mr. Selesner sat down in front of the piano and called me over to him. As we sat side by side, I still questioned whether I would be able to stick it out with this man for the next hour, let alone any future lessons. “Play me something,” he said coolly. All I knew at the time were a few songs from memory which I began to play as best I could. From my peripheral, I saw him studying the movement of my hands across the keys and hoped he wasn’t doing so disapprovingly. When I finished, I looked up at him, bracing myself for the anticipated criticism. To my surprise, my new piano teacher complimented me on my ear for music and said he saw immense potential. I could feel myself slowly relaxing in his presence as we dove head-on into our first lesson. 

Maybe I would give this guy a shot after all.

Walking the mall, I kept a close watch on time. It felt like one of the longest hours of my life and I wondered if Mr. Selesner would be successful in getting Kristina to utter more than her usual one to two-word sentences.

Our talks ventured from music, to literature, to geography, and then, to just everyday life. I was amazed at what a conversationalist this old guy was. He was opinionated, had razor-sharp wit, and could talk the paint off the walls. Most importantly, he was someone with whom I could somehow relate. I no longer felt intimidated by the years he had on me, and if I closed my eyes, it was almost as if I was talking to one of my peers. I left Mr. Selesner’s house feeling completely proven wrong, but I was oddly okay with it. 

That first piano lesson was the beginning of an important learning experience and friendship for Kristina, who up until that point had never spent time alone with anyone above the age of 65 other than her grandparents. These were uncharted waters for a kid who at that time barely wanted to be within ten feet of her parents for an hour’s time, let alone an elderly stranger.

But before our eyes, the unexpected occurred.

With each lesson, I gained a better understanding of the piano and of Mr. Selesner himself. He was brilliant, and it didn’t take me long to realize that there was a lot I could learn from him. He had so many stories to tell about his own experiences as a performing pianist, and later, as a junior high school music teacher. I could tell he was dying to share them with the world, or whoever would listen anyway. Our lessons would go by in one, colorful flash of an hour.

We all could not seem to get enough of Gene. Following Kristina’s lessons my husband Greg and I enjoyed hearing him tell stories of his experiences playing the Borscht Belt circuit in the Catskills with stars like Harry Belafonte, Barbra Streisand and Alan King. Gene was big on “name that tune” and would keep us on our musical toes by drilling us with a vengeance until we summoned the correct answers. He took delicious glee in stumping us.

My weekly lessons with Mr. Selesner became a routine part of my life and were just about necessary to my sanity. They were my escape from the stresses and anxieties of high school, college preparation and everyday life. During this time, the soothing sounds of the piano would transport me to a place where my troubles were nonexistent. After the lesson, Mr. Selesner and I would shoot the breeze and talk about current affairs and books. If there was one thing he loved more than music, it was the written word.  He wanted to know what and who I was reading. Mr. Selesner enjoyed a good read almost as much as a melodic sonata by Mozart.

Indeed, Gene was a true character, full of life and enthusiasm in his love of music, art, books, politics and good food. He had a wonderful, dry sense of humor. In a note to Kristina, Gene wrote: Dear Kris,  Saw the article on your winning squeeze bunt. Congratulations! And you’ll always be a winner. Hope you’re settling on your college of choice. By the way, can you still tell the difference between the black and the white keys?  Love to your parents and as much to you.  -Gene Selesner. Soon Greg and I were trading books and recipes with Gene, and were introduced to his lovely lady friend, Honey, herself an artist whose paintings adorned Gene’s music room.

On Saturday nights our family would head to Cooke’s Inn for dinner and to listen to Gene entertain diners on a small white piano like a seasoned lounge performer, where he also enjoyed playing “name that tune” to test our music IQs. It wasn’t enough that we could name the title of songs, we also had to name their composers. Gene’s playing would, without fail, lift people from their seats and onto the floor singing and dancing like Broadway performers. Gene knew exactly which tunes would elicit these Broadway moments, and quite skillfully, slipped them in between dinner and dessert. Afterwards, Cooke’s Inn guests raised to their feet to cheer and applaud Gene and all those who spontaneously joined him to share their own talents.

It became evident to me that Mr. Selesner’s main passion in life was music. His face would light up every time he heard the word “concerto” or spoke about the brilliant, yet troubled composers of ages past. Mr. Selesner once told me that music was more of a feeling than a sound. The more time I spent with him, the more I understood what he meant by that. Through his stories, I realized that the piano had become a vehicle he used to transport himself through a gateway to opportunity and adventure. The piano had taken him so many places he never expected to go. 

One place Kristina never expected to go was on the bench in front of the little white piano at Cooke’s Inn, when one Saturday night Gene took great delight in introducing his student, and invited her to play a piece they had been working on together that week. Greg and I braced ourselves for Kristina to decline the invitation, but instead, she approached the piano with complete confidence and played beautifully for the crowd. Nobody was more proud of Kristina than her mentor, who basked in the resulting applause with an almost fatherly pride and joy.

One day it all became clear to me. From all outward appearances, Mr. Selesner’s dim, smoky house seemed unappealing and gloomy, but to him it was paradise. There in that unassuming music room he created a sanctuary to do what he loved most in the world – playing the piano. During that moment of clarity, I put all my superficial judgments aside, and instead reveled in how he was able to achieve so much self-fulfillment. It made me aspire to find the same kind of passion and peace in my own world.

Gene Selesner enjoyed a life long love affair with music. Upon his retirement from School District 3, he continued to teach music privately to both students and adults, and also directed the Choir at West Hills Methodist Church. In addition to his weekend gig at Cooke’s Inn, he wrote and performed original scores for silent films shown at the Huntington Cinema Arts Centre.

Knowing Mr. Selesner not only gave me a deeper appreciation and connection with music, but also gave me something even more valuable.  Our friendship showed me that outward appearances and the judgments we pass on people mean absolutely nothing. I now look back foolishly to the first day we met, only to realize how narrow my view of people and the world was. 

On October 23, 2008, just before Kristina was able to put the finishing touches on her college application essay about Gene Selesner, Honey called us to share the sad news that he had suddenly passed away. Some time later Cooke’s Inn closed, ending an era marked by the fabulous food of Juanita Cooke, combined with the lively piano entertainment of Eugene Selesner enjoyed by so many on Saturday nights.

 As I sat at his funeral service and watched people get up one after another to speak their piece about this marvelous man, I thought about the countless lives he had touched during his eighty two years. Many people, like me, had the blessing of having been taught by, or having simply known, Mr. Selesner. With both tears and a smile, I entertained images of him in heaven shooting the breeze with Cole Porter, Chopin, and many other great pianists in history. 

While countless junior high school students, private students, music colleagues and friends alike have discovered through Gene Selesner the power and magic of music in connecting and celebrating humanity, Kristina especially learned a profound life lesson. I think Gene would be proud to know that she is now forging her own path in college to enter the arts and entertainment world as a filmmaker, in part, fueled by his own passion for the arts, his friendship, and last but not least, the confidence he bestowed in this once reticent teenager.

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  • Joan Cergol
    published this page in When I Write 2020-12-11 21:03:15 -0500