The Toots of Love
The second-floor balcony of the central entryway of Grays Hall—in the best of times a thin, barely navigable strip of floor and balustrade—is crowded with students in crimson blazers, pom-pommed caps, and thick gloves.
Saxophones, trumpets, and mellophones rub up against drums suspended from their players’ backs by complex harnesses. There’s no space to move, hardly room to breathe, and yet the band is playing, the festive strains of “All I Want for Christmas is You” roaring like a tempest in the chockablock air.
Disgruntled freshmen tear open their doors and look about dumbfounded, mouthing words that no one can hear, rubbing their eyes and raising their brows and looking like they’ll never nap soundly again.
Between the hours of 3:00 and 4:30 p.m. on February 14, members of the Harvard University Band scurried about, from the Yard to the river, to serenade five couples, all of whom had signed up for the honor. This was only the second year the gratis service has been offered, but drill master Greg Scalise ’18, partly in charge of organizing the event, hopes to make it a tradition. If codified, he promised more band members would be in attendance; there would be more balance among the instruments present; and some sort of order would be apparent.
For now, the event is a dimly organized panic, held together mainly by the manic energy of the 20 or so players who show up. As we exited Grays, leaving behind a pleasantly shocked girl and her swaggering beau (the most common outcome), no one I asked seemed to be sure where we were headed next. But eventually, as if ceding to some note of intuition in the air, the band members began to stream toward the Science Center.
Obstacles abounded. As the players milled about inside the Science Center, we were informed by a riled debate coach—declaiming with that voluble vituperation it seems only riled debate coaches can summon—that the forty-second annual Harvard National Forensics Tournament was being held there. There were students in the rooms all about us, nervous as field mice; their dreams, so he said, were on the line. Should the band decide to play, the coach promised to “scream like hell.”
Somehow, and fortunately, the serenading was rescheduled, and we began to tramp across the Yard to Lamont café. The temperature was in the low single digits, and the wind blew harshly; many of the players wore gloves, but some clutched their instruments with bare hands. There was the danger of instruments freezing, of valves sticking, of mouthpieces going cold and dead.
On the way to Lamont we gained a tuba player who’d been delayed by an inopportune section. He seemed to personify the struggles of the day. Later I would see him, variously catching the great white bell of his tuba on a traffic sign; frantically pumping the tuba’s valves as drops of condensation formed on the bell; hunched over in the basement of Leverett House, cradling his instrument and blowing into it, trying to warm it up.
We reached Lamont and filed in, one by one. As I helped to sign in a band member who’d forgotten his ID, the security guard looked at me, gesturing toward the armada of brass glinting in the harsh lobby light, and in a whisper asked: “They’re not going to play, are they?” I told him I wasn’t really sure, and this response allayed his fear so much that he picked up his telephone and started making calls.
A supervisor strolled up to the band. Things were negotiated, the end result being the band could play in the café, so long as they kept it short. So the band moved in, and assembled, and began their rendition of “My Life Would Suck Without You.”
I looked back. The supervisor was holding the glass doors of the café shut, against the sound. I looked down. He was tapping his foot.